Willpower - Ain't Nobody Got Time

My friend Kevin sent me an article, written by a fellow tech entrepreneur, that describes his difficulty deciding how to divide his limited time and attention. His thesis is that we often tell ourselves and others that we don't have time for something when what we actually mean, even though we may not acknowledge it, is that we don't have the attention to give. And I agree - it's a common sentiment.

Attention is just another way of saying our ability to focus cognitive resources on a task, and doing so is a matter of willpower. The last decade has seen the birth of research concerning this - a.k.a. ego depletion (APA 1APA 2WiredYou Are Not So Smart / Podcast). The gist of said research is that willpower is both finite and variable. Finite meaning that our willpower is limited and variable in that the amount of willpower we possess can be altered by behavior.

As to "having time," in research surveys people report having less leisure time than ever, but in fact the opposite is true (thanks washing machine!). So what's going on? All else equal, earning higher wages makes us feel more anxious about our free time and we feel we have less of it even though the opposite is true. Researchers have termed this effect time poverty.

To bring this back to the original article - the author mentions not wanting to take on another responsibility that divides his attention which reminded me of a reddit AMA (ask me anything) from earlier this year with Elon Musk. He replied to a comment asking how he managed to become proficient in so many technical areas:

I do kinda feel like my head is full! My context switching penalty is high and my process isolation is not what it used to be.

What Elon is saying is that changing mental tasks takes time. So much so that he can't focus on a given task as singularly as he was once able to, and when he does he spends a lot of time readjusting to said task.

This leads us to a TED talk about how those in creative fields need large chunks of uninterrupted time to be productive and how it conflicts with managers schedules which are typically broken into 15 minute increments. 

This is a nearly endless subject. I think a lot of it is driven by the fact that most other aspects of our lives are being completely altered, made faster, more efficient, etc. while time and its management has hard to move boundaries which all of us are increasingly bumping up against.

The Means of Production in Architecture: A Macro Explanation

As a follow-up to my last post, I just read "How software is changing the architecture industry." I don't agree with its conclusions (survivorship bias) but I thought it was interesting that others are noticing the same trends, so I'd like to attempt a macro explanation:

This is what pure competition predicts of successful technological innovations. When first invented a new technology offers a comparative advantage to early adopters, but over time the technology's adoption becomes ubiquitous and comparative advantage disappears. The technological innovation becomes necessary just to compete in the industry. Economic profit approaches zero, and if all goes well normal profit remains.

Architecture is either in the early or late part of this cycle. My bet is that we're in the second part - that is, there isn't much if any additional profit to be made off of adopting BIM. Clients and contractors already know this capability is out there and they expect it. Lawyers even more so. The margin of acceptable error in drawings has been much reduced in recent years. Basically, if you're still using CAD you're in a John Deere world with a horse and plow.

The Means of Production in Architecture

There seems to be a natural career arc in many fields whereby in your first few years you focus on production - in architecture this means drafting and becoming familiar with the current software which manifests itself as drawing copious amounts of bathrooms and stairs. The longer you're in the industry the more you're involved with clients and you tend to spend less time on actual production. At some point you're almost entirely disconnected from the means of production - and it makes sense. As you become more valuable you shouldn't do work that lesser compensated people can do, but abandoning what made you valuable in the first place poses issues. You're setting the stage for your own obsolescence. This isn't unique to architecture, but within architecture it leads to those above me not understanding how the software I'm using works. It sounds innocuous but it leads to things like hiring consultants that can't deliver what I need to design complex buildings. It's like asking for steel to make a car and being given wood. I'm really talented but I'm not a magician.

Regarding the means of production there are two types of advancement:  incremental change like updated software and faster computers, and are structural shifts such as moving from a hand drafting based practice to CAD. Again, this isn't unique to architecture, but our structural shifts have unfurled as follows:

Hand drafting: antiquity - late 1980's early 1990's.

CAD: 1980's - present, but in decline.

BIM: clear successor to CAD as of about 2008.

The frustrating part of living through this period of transition is the lag in adoption. Revit (a software made by Autodesk, BIM is the type of software) is to CAD what email is to hand written letters. I can literally do the work of several people using BIM yet almost a decade in and schools aren't teaching it with any rigor and firms are resisting its full adoption. BIMs use is a common topic of debate in both firms and schools, but this isn't an incremental change. This is a structural shift. Much like climate change, If you think there's a debate there's a good chance you have no idea what you're talking about.

Podcasts

I'm a terrible multitasker. Granted, research shows that almost no one is. None the less, my job entails some brute force drafting tasks that allow me to zone out, so I've been consuming a wide variety of podcasts. These are my favorites:

99% Invisible - stories about architecture and design.

You Are Not So Smart - a discussion of cognitive biases and heuristics.

Planet Money - economic reporting and storytelling.

Freakonomics - storytelling about counterintuitive research.

Dan Carlin's Hardcore History (Common Sense by him is pretty good too) - long, well researched historical content that focuses on wars.

The Truth - short fictional stories.

This American Life - investigative storytelling?

 

Willful Amnesia - Part I: Gasoline

One of the most tired utterances I often hear sounds something like 'well of course the cost of energy will be greater in the future' and everyone in attendance nods in agreement. But the sentiment doesn't align with reality, and in fact the price of energy has remained remarkably constant (more sources) over the last century or so, so why do people feel this way, especially in regards to gasoline?

First, people have difficulty implementing the concept of inflation, a.k.a. money illusion, into their day to day lives and instead tend to focus on numbers instead of purchasing power. That is, what their money can actually buy. It's one of those truly boring problems with large effects. Gas was $2.50 when I started driving in 2000 but I'd need to spend $3.40 in 2015 dollars to equal $2.50 in 2000 dollars. If prices were $3.40 today my knee jerk reaction is to say that prices went up and it's tempting to do so, but it's just not true. The most common example of this I hear is home prices 'we bought it for $70,000 30 years ago'. 

To those who are suspicious of inflation you'll hear that the price of energy isn't counted in the CPI (the consumer price index, the measure used to track inflation), and that's true. The reason it isn't included in the data is because the price of energy is volatile. Basically, the CPI would cease to be a useful measure. Krugman has a great explanation of this, and if we look at a graph over time we see that the price of energy really just oscillates around the general trend line.

Last up is loss aversion (seminal study from Khaneman). To offset the feeling we get from losing/spending something we need about 1.5-3 times the gain to make up for it, so if you drop $20 on the ground you'd need to find $30-$50 to cancel out the feeling you get from losing the $20. The fact that we purchase gasoline more regularly than some larger expenses also doesn't help. Spending $40/week is more painful mentally than spending large sums of money more infrequently. This could be a whole post on its own but suffice it to say for now that this insight explains a vast array of irrational human behavior.

The reason I writing about this now is because gasoline prices are almost half of what I'm used to at roughly $2.50/gallon (€0.58/liter) here in Chicago. While people like cheap prices it doesn't, in human minds, make up for when gasoline is $4.50/gallon. Next time gasoline prices spike people are going to complain about how energy prices are always going up and we'll have a sense of collective amnesia all over again, so while prices are low I'd like to point it out because as previously discussed, we tend to discount these periods.

The real question here, which I'd like to talk about soon, is qualitative. Are low gas prices net positive or net negative for society? I'd wager that many individuals are making some poor long term decisions during this windfall, and of course SUV and auto sales are up.

Why Does Attendance at Some CPS Schools Go Up At the End of Every Month?

Recently the public schools in Chicago were closed because of a cold spell. My wife works for CPS (Chicago Public Schools) so she had a few days off, but not so for all CPS workers. The cafeteria staff have to show up since so many of the children depend on the breakfast and lunch served at school for their meals - if you can call it that. As I asked more about this she told me that at one school (she travels to multiple schools because she's a speech pathologist) the principal has noticed and started tracking data on a surge in attendance that occurs on the last week of every month. Odd, why would that be?

Ostensibly, the families of her students are running out of food at the end of every month. If their children don't come to school they don't have enough to eat. In 2009 SNAP benefits, more commonly know as food stamps, were temporarily increased by about 13% as part of the ARRA (American Recovery Reinvestment Act). Those benefits expired at the end of 2013. Food is such an issue for many of these families that most of the kids aren't allowed to have play dates because the host family can't afford to feed a visiting child.

I don't want to make this too political - if you can call feeding people political - but what the hell? We produce more food per capita than any other country on the planet. What's the point of everything else we do if people's basic needs aren't met? There's a plethora of studies linking food insecurity to poor school performance, increased crime, decreased health, etc. This is literally step one of preventing citizens from falling through the cracks, and instead of stepping up our efforts we're cutting benefits.

  • The average gross income (pre-tax money) for a family on food stamps is $731 per month (how do people, let alone families, survive on that?).
  • About 3/4 of households on food stamps have children in them.
  • Food stamps cost about $29 billion in 2005. That cost increased to over $76 billion (2.5% of the federal budget) in 2013 due to the Great Recession.
  • 48 million Americans, about 1 in 6, are on food stamps.
  • The average benefit is about $133 per month per person or $1.40 per person per meal.
  • Food stamps benefits have been cut repeatedly since 2013
  • As measured by economic multiplier (the ability of spending money to generate more economic activity), food stamps are the most effective of any social program. $1 spent on food stamps generates about $1.80 worth of economic activity.

Weekend Reading

A redditor explains why they don't think Bill Gates's proclamation that "people don't realize how many jobs will soon be replaced by software bots" is accurate. (reddit/r/technology)

An interview with Chicago photographer Ron Gordon who I TA'd for at IIT. (The Comp Magazine)

What happens when you introduce a child to gaming by only showing the games/consoles as they came out historically? (Medium)

An Uber for experiements. (The Economist)

Pope Francis and the GOP's Bad Science. (The New Yorker)

Salad vending machines in Chicago. (The Atlantic)

19: The True Story of the Yarnell Hill Fire (long). (Outside via Longform)

An interesting story about the world's preeminent psilocybin mycologist (long). (Harpers via Longform)

Steve Albini on the state of the music industry (The Guardian):

Imagine a great hall of fetishes where whatever you felt like fucking or being fucked by, however often your tastes might change, no matter what hardware or harnesses were required, you could open the gates and have at it on a comfy mattress at any time of day. That’s what the internet has become for music fans. Plus bleacher seats for a cheering section.

Dematerialization

While walking around our neighborhood my wife and I noticed a coach house; not an uncommon sight in Chicago. Coach houses no longer provide shelter for horses and carriages and have mostly been renovated into either garages or living spaces, but it brought up an interesting question. What other physical objects or parts of our environment are obsolete but have been repurposed because of their embodied cost, and what other objects do we commonly see today that will be obsolete soon but are expensive or permanent enough that they will need to be repurposed?

Being an (intern) architect the obvious answer is buildings. They're the most expensive thing, very permanent, and get repurposed continually but that's been going on since buildings have been built. The most recent widely adopted answer is smart phones. They have largely replaced calculators, GPS, maps, watches, address books, social interaction, etc. They've also created things that most of us couldn't have imagined just a decade ago, but none of these tangible items are objects of any significant permanence - old GPS units aren't going to be crowding us out of urban centers. My answer is parking lots.

It's always bothered me (oh the things that trouble me) that vast amounts of capital sits idle for much of its useful life. If we could put it to use more often it would raise the quality of life for all of us. The majority of cars sit idle 20-something hours a day, most people's homes are empty while they're at work or on vacation, offices (outside of architecture anyways) are empty at night, my computer doesn't run at full load continuously, most of the tools I own go unused 99% of the time - the list goes on. Cue the sharing economy.

People can rent out parts of their homes, Uber and Lyft make use of idle vehicles, zip car does it with a different business model, and cloud computing places processing burden on machines that run near full capacity continuously. There will always be inefficiencies, but the gain of even a few percentage points can free up billions of dollars worth of wealth to the benefit of all - assuming the powers that be don't hoard it all for themselves; that's another question though.

I think we can safely say that autonomous cars will soon be a reality. Tesla just released a car that has impressive autonomous features and the self driving Google cars keep getting better. This combined with the quick adoption of Uber seems to spell out a clear endgame. I have no idea when, but at some point in the not so distant future few if any of us will own cars. They'll be autonomous; rented, borrowed, or subscribed to; we will get places quicker; car accidents will be greatly reduced; roads will change; traffic will largely cease to exist; car insurance premiums will decline; police departments will have to find a new source of revenue; and parking lots will stop being built because cars won't need to sit idly (sort of, they'll need a place to charge at 3AM).

This will free up valuable real estate in urban areas, but how this could affect the suburbs is less clear. Certain typologies like strip malls and shopping centers rely on parking to create a sort of interstitial border. The mat to the artwork if you will (don't take that analogy too far). You can't just place infill there as it'd obscure the duck (branding of the businesses that occupy the buildings).

The whole situation is a reminder that our built environment is a reflection of our current level of technology. Advances like smart phones and the internet often get dismissed as some novel curiosity, but the reality is that such technology can be transformative. In this case some mostly intangible items like clever programming, sensors, and machine learning (to greatly oversimplify) will replace thousands of square miles of physical asphalt and concrete. It will reduce water runoff caused by hardscapes, the urban heat island effect will be reduced, the load on sewage treatment plants will be reduced in areas with a combined sewer system, urban areas can become more dense which means shorter commutes, and in turn a virtuous cycle of energy reduction will begin as less energy is needed for all the aforementioned activities. That and less parking lots. No one likes parking lots.