Friday, March 30, 2007

Executive Decision

A personal parallel to the presidency.

When asked his reason for refusing to allow his aides to testify under oath, the President has invoked "executive privilege." The idea that his aides can't speak freely if they think they'll be forced to testify about their advice and discussions. This idea is often ridiculed. It isn't mentioned in the Constitution, but many Presidents have insisted it is a necessity to maintain a coequal branch of government.

I've always thought if had the whiff of BS about it. Why would you want to keep something a secret if it was legal, or part of a reasonable discussion of how to govern? Sunlight is the greatest disinfectant and all that - opacity only benefits the corrupt. Transparent government will always be just, and rule best.

In a happy coincidence, though, a very similar situation has developed at work. I cannot go into too much detail, but I can generalize some. We are the government's agent, acting in the interest of the Navy. In this role, we pursue the Navy's interests dealing with the shipyards. We review the detail designs provided by the yard at a series of milestones, sending comments back to the yards. At a recent informal, collaborative review session, one of our Navy team members said "this model is crap, it is not adequate for this 90% Complete Milestone." Or words to that effect.

This Navy team member got written up. His comments percolated back to the shipyard, and up to some VP-type, Inner-inner Circle Executive. And his comments were not well recieved, apparently. So now we've recieved direction that our informal, collaborative meetings will be GOVERNMENT ONLY so this kind of thing won't happen again.

This annoys and disappoints me in a few different ways. First, and not to be self-aggrandizing, I invented these meetings. I suggested them, I came up with the scheduling and the basic format. It bugs me that now the folks On High are telling me how to run something I run and is entirely my creation. More importanly, it betrays one of the basic guidelines for this process. These reviews were supposed to be a collaborative process, where the government, contractors, and shipbuilders worked together to improve the design and make the best possible ship for the price, for the schedule, and for the mission. Now we have to begin cutting some people off our invite list, to avoid saying the wrong thing in front of them. That means less eyes on the design, acting as a team. It promotes the kind of antagonism that seems to poison so many contracts. It means the shipyard is now our enemy, instead of our partner.

All of this leads me to a few conclusions. First, I see more clearly why an Administration would fight for Executive Privilege. Not just to cover up illegal or unscrupulous acts (though that may be a major factor) or to win a intragovernmental pissing match. But to actually keep doing the job. If we don't restrict the working sessions to the Navy personnel, they won't happen, and that hurts the quality of the work. And if the Administration was completely transparent, they couldn't say some things without stepping on some political toes. It may not be that the ideas are illegal or immoral - they would just piss off powerful representatives and senators, bogging down debate and snarling the already molasses-slow process of democratic government. Second, though, this reaffirms my belief that everyone's job - on this program, in government, maybe everyhere - would be easier if we could just check our egos at the door. The engineer who got written up hadn't done anything - he merely stated an opinion. How is that a problem for the yard? I'm convinced the VP-type was just offended personally, when the engineer was just offering a (bluntly phrased) assesment of the design from the yard. If you train people not to give their honest assessment and rubber-stamp things, you get spectacular engineering failures (Tacoma Narrows, Challenger, Kansas City Hyatt, etc).

For a great book on those incidents and the subject of failure due to lack of good advice and analysis, see To Err is Human by Henry Petroski.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


This morning, I read about the passing of one of the last 6 American veterans of the Great War at age 109. A long, hearty life. It is an interesting time, as the last firsthand witnesses to a great historical event leave us, and we are left only with artifacts and records. This is a loss, but may also herald a new era of scholarship on the subject. I, for one, welcome that. In all of my formal education, I was never taught about World War I. I was told that it happened, the approximate dates. Of course, my history classes covered World War II, and World War I would be mentioned as part of the prologue. Name-checked, with the Treaty of Versailles occasionally cited as a cause of the second great conflict.

In my own reading, I've come to recognize this as a terrible oversight. The world was changed so profoundly by World War I. It sounded the death knell of the Victorian Age, sped the decline of the British Empire, gave rise to the Soviet Union. So many changes that shaped the century to come. I've ranted before about how each historical event is informed by those that came before, so there's little point in ranking them or prioritizing them. And I maintain that arguing about the ranking of events is foolish and pointless. That is not to say that some historical eras and events aren't particularly important and demand study. The Great War is one that, in my education at least, fell through the cracks. Perhaps it's passage from Living History to only recorded history will promote study and education.

I don't want to come off as overly didactic, stuffy, or preachy. I've always felt at ease tackling historical topics, absorbing facts and forming opinions, sometimes even learning the historical lessons. And that is not the case for everyone, and you can get along fine without being familiar with the causes of the War of 1812. I know there are topics I want to learn about, but still struggle with. Probably the foremost was also brought home to me today: philosophy. Slate ran a piece on Sartre, so in the spirit of exploration, I decided to tackle existentialism... on my coffee break. It was like clawing at meringue - I simply could not get any purchase on it. Which was frustrating, since I have no difficulty with the closely related moral and ethical theories. It just seemed so pointless, so much ivory tower-building and foam.

But I'm going to stick at it. I was talking with Sarah this morning, with regards to her rowing crew again. It sounds like she is doing quite well, though she said "my muscles doth protesteth." I replied "if it was easy, everyone would do it." The difficulty is what makes it worthwhile. I'm going to follow my own prescription, then - my mind doth protesteth, but I'll keep trying. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead

In the newspaper today I read about the US Navy's exercises in the Persian Gulf. Military exercises like that, in a areas where tensions are already high, is historically dangerous. Students of the Cold War will recall ABLE ARCHER 83, when the Soviet Union mistook a particularly large NATO exercise for the prelude to a nuclear first strike. Playing war games in troubled regions is playing with fire.

Of course, the exercises seem to be a response to the recent arrest/kidnapping of British sailors by Iranian forces. This incident recalls two historical parallels: the Perdicaris Incident and the Japanese kidnappings by North Korea. Neither are perfect parallels - Perdicaris was kidnapped by a Moroccan rebel in an attempt to blackmail concessions from the Sultan. And while the North Korean kidnappings were state-sponsored, they did not involve members of the military. But there are enough similarities that some lessons can be learned.

It appears that the UK is applying a solution along the lines of Teddy Roosevelt's. Some saber rattling, some increasingly tough talk. But behind the scenes, the senior partners in the alliance (Britain and France then, the US now) applies pressure for a more diplomatic solution. At least, I hope that parallel is valid. It is popular for many wags and pundits to speculate that the Bush Administration is spoiling for war with Iran, and this is a gift-wrapped excuse. I sincerely hope that is just that, speculation. One of the few ways to worsen the state of affairs, with one war stalled and another rapidly spiraling downwards, would be to add a third. Though I guess it would geographically unify our trouble spots - turn 3 medium wars into one big war! It's always smart to buy wholesale instead of retail.

To be honest, I am somewhat surprised by the restrained response to the abductions. In days past, capturing sailors of the Royal Navy during peacetime would have met with swift, direct reprisal. Remember the cover of Newsweek in 1982, as the Falklands War was beginning. Granted, that was an invasion, not a merely abductions, but the pugnacity of it, the real feeling in Britain that "this will not stand, and we will fight." I don't get that sense, possibly because most everyone understands the precariousness of the situation. Another Iranian hostage crisis, but now Iran is nearly nuclear; with wars to the East and West. It's just a hot bottle of trouble. Perhaps the Blair government can do what the Carter Administration did during the last hostage crisis. "Do a diplomatic deal with us while you can, because the guy taking over in a few weeks is crazy, and will bomb you into the stone age without hesitation. It's Morning in America!"

A more (darkly) humorous take on the incident here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


I've written about this before, but it is still striking. I had occasion to take a walk down M Street today, going to the Navy Yard. This was the exact same walk I once took daily 6 summers ago, when I was an intern at NAVSEA. I've remarked before on how much this part of DC has changed. Once, it was nothing but abandoned row houses, muffler shops, and empty lots. But since NAVSEA moved in, office towers have been springing up. There's a hotel and condos now. An excellent website, Near Southeast, catalogs these developments.

Probably most symbolic of the changes is the new ballpark. I can see it going up from my office window. Just last week, a new portion of the upper deck blocked off my view of Coast Guard Headquarters forever. There is a lot of talk of how the stadium will anchor development, a "ballpark village." I'm not so sure - I think it will be fairly lively... 81 days a year. Down the street, the Nationals' owner is putting up an office tower, which is where the webcamera that took the above picture is installed. On the roof, the national ensign is flanked by the District flag and a banner bearing the curled W of the Nationals. It is distracting - right outside my window, flapping in the breeze, reminding me that baseball season is so close.

I think that office tower, and all the others like it, will have more impact on the neighborhood. Probably the biggest change to the area, after NAVSEA, is the new Department of Transportation Headquarters. Seven thousand people are moving in soon, and they will be here 5 days a week. That means more food services, more traffic, crowded Metro trains, more everything. The District is creating a second downtown.

Washington is surrounded by the infamous Beltway, but it is divided by the less well known Southeast Expressway. This highway runs from the old Long Bridge Potomac crossing near the Pentagon, then east across the city, just south of Capital Hill, terminating at Pennsylvania Avenue where it crosses the Anacostia. Almost the entireity of SE and SW Washington are walled off from the rest of the city by a raised expressway, similar to the erstwhile Central Artery in Boston. The central business district of the District is K Street. But for a number of reasons, another is slowly growing here in Southeast. In a few years, everything that exists in Downtown will exist here on M Street SE, in miniature. Numerous office and condominium high-rises, cultural centers, major federal headquarters, etc. It is a novel experience, watching as a new neighborhood is created, essentially from whole cloth.

I have to wonder if there is a better way, though. Not that there is anything glaringly wrong with the new Southeast, or even the existing Downtown. But it is being done in a fairly piecemeal fashion, each owner developing their plot as they see fit. Though I don't necessarily think a centrally plan would be any better, a scheme, a guide, an aesthetic, might be helpful. DC is more than just its monumental core. In addition to it's massive public spaces and institutions, it must have all the parts of a modern, working city. But with so much space given over to government facilities, the Mall, Rock Creek Park, the Smithsonian (all on prime, central real estate), and prohibited from building skywards, the city must be especially efficient with its design and use of space. Otherwise, more people will move out to Rockville and Manassas, and work in Bethesda or Tyson's Corner. The challenge is to grow as a livable, working city without losing the character that makes Washington completely unique. And with its heightened pace of change, the M Street Corridor exemplifies that struggle. I think it would be wise for citizens of other growing cities to watch what happens in DC very carefully.

If Washingtonians want to look for an example to follow, I don't think they need look much farther than across the river. Arlington has been very successful in creating a core around the corridor from Rosslyn to Ballston, along the Orange Line. Towers rose near the metro stations, surrounded by restaurants, shops, and services, trailing off into the residential single family homes. I think M street from the Waterfront to the Navy Yard has similar potential, and the District should move now to encourage that, regulating enough to maintain a "sloping" neighborhood from towers to townhouses.

I can't say why I find this interesting - I don't actually live in DC, and once this assignment is over, I won't work here either. But complete makeovers of entire sections of major American cities are unusual events - the only larger recent occurrences I'm aware of are the Big Dig, the reclamation of Stapleton Airport in Denver, and Ground Zero. Each has taken a different approach, so the comparison should be valuable to the next generation of city planners. But its value to me, and most readers, will be as an intellectual exercise. How do you redesign a city?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Dirty Trick Bomb

The above "ad" has been making the virtual rounds via YouTube and the like recently. Leaving aside the merits of the ad itself, I'd like to take a look at the response. Specifically, the quote at the end of this article.

"It's not perfect," Sifry said. "It would be better if the person who made this was open about who they are so we can judge fully whether it is genuinely a piece of voter-generated content or a dirty trick."

I find that distinction very interesting. Why is the ad more important if it is "voter-generated" vice a dirty trick? The ad, in its fashion, articulates an argument. Where the argument originates doesn't affect the validity of the argument. This is a classic case of confusing the message with the medium. Like refusing to buy Volkswagens because the original was a product of Nazi engineers. The cars have value, regardless of their designers.

It is conventional wisdom that partisan dirty tricks are undesirable. Now, depending on your definition of dirty tricks, you may agree or disagree with that position. But every idea can be evaluated on its own merits. If you inform yourself, most dirty tricks are quite transparent. Nevertheless, what if a "trick" contains a valid point? Is it invalidated simply because it was articulated by a partisan source? I submit that it would not.


Is just as valid whether it was first posited by the enlightened Pythagoras or one history's worst villains. The Illiad and The Odyssey are great works, whether they were truly written by a blind man named Homer or are actually the accumulated work of generations of poets. And this little film can have a argument with merit, regardless of who made it. We should give all ideas the same benefit.

By the same token, we must take care not to conflate people we like with their bad ideas. That is to say, hold everyone accountable for their ideas, but don't give the idea credence just because you have a positive impression of the person. Ideas, especially debated ideas, need to be evaluated dispassionately. If an argument is sound, it will hold up to scrutiny, no matter who makes it.

Monday, March 19, 2007


(from The New York Times, Brian May 14 March 2007)

(from The New York Times, Brian May 14 March 2007)

I think these two images may be two of the most extraordinary I've ever seen. They are home-made "Magic Eye" shots. Relax and stare through them, and you will see the Sun in 3D. The frequency is ultraviolet. The second image is the more remarkable. Recently, there was a lunar eclipse. On the surface of the earth, the Sun and Moon appear almost exactly the same size (an amazing coincidence). However, the two pictures necessary to make these 3D images were taken by STEREO, a new NASA satellite. The two STEREO satellites are in the same orbit as Earth around the sun, one just ahead, one just behind. So the Moon appears much smaller than the sun from those positions. The black circle is the Moon transiting the disk of the Sun. In Thrilling Three Dimensions.

A quick aside: the 3D images were made by Brian May. Brian May was the lead guitarist for Queen. He wrote "We Will Rock You" for pete's sake. Now he is getting his doctorate in Astrophysics. It's like he's Buckaroo Banzai or something.

Every now and then, science transcends figures and formulas, and our researches produce something objectively beautiful. Now, I would submit that all good science has beauty, but that is a subjective opinion. But these images are art. Ok, maybe you think the 3D is gimmicky. Take a look at this. Or these.

I have always loved little tidbits like this that good science shakes free every now and again. I love sharing them with others, especially those who aren't as scientifically literate as myself. This is not to say I'm at all well versed - I'm an accomplished amateur, at best. It's only that studies have shown again and again the the vast majority of laypeople are unfamiliar with science (and history, and geography, and...). So I share these arresting moments that we've found in nature. My hope is always that it will become a gateway drug. What are those swirling shapes on the surface of the Sun? Why do they move the way they do? How are they created? How do they dissipate? And the next thing you know, someone decides to become an astrophysicist.

The reason this is important to me is because it happened to me once. In 4th grade, my friend Pete went with me to the middle school book sale. He loaned me a nickel to buy Seven Miles Down. It was about the submarine that dove to the deepest point in the ocean, in 1960. It changed my life. It inspired a love of the ocean and everything in it, that has never abated. Because of that, I joined the Coast Guard, and became a Naval Architect. Those two facts have determined many of the details of my life - who I know, where I live, the places I've seen. All because of one book. Reading it was a revelation. The world was suddenly fascinating - if this was interesting, it followed that if I looked carefully, everything was interesting, and I could see it all.

I never paid Peter his nickel back.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Ancient Greek Klingons Vs. Orc Ninjas

I went out last Friday and saw 300 at the Uptown in DC. Before I get into the larger topics, it bears repeating: the Uptown is a fantastic place to see a movie. Huge old movie palace, balcony and all. The screen is enormous, curving around the front of the auditorium. If you sit close enough, it feels like the screen is surrounding you, to take it all in you must swivel your head. I don't recommend sitting too close. Friday was the opening of the movie, so the house was full. I sometimes forget how enjoyable seeing movies with a large, enthusiastic audience can be. This was a fairly brutal, violent movie. The crowd cheered at the particularly spectacular deaths. This crowd was involved, and that made it all the more enjoyable.

The movie itself was very interesting. If you've read many of the reviews, you'll see a lot of critics don't care for it. Some of the main indictments against it is that is historically inaccurate, militaristic, racist, and fails to offer any current cultural commentary or resonance. While it may be, I disagree with the overall critique of the film. I think these critics are judging it on what they might have wanted it to be, rather than what it is.

History: The movie is fairly close to historically accurate. More so than, say, Gladiator, which was pretty much spun from whole cloth. Three hundred Spartans, accompanied by a few thousand more other Greeks, did fight a vast Persian army at Thermopylae and were defeated. Spartans were trained from childhood to be warriors, unfit children were abandoned to die, and youths were sent out into the wild as a right of passage. The 300 fought off assaults be elite Persian warriors called the Immortals, and were betrayed by a man named Ephialtes and encircled on the third day after their Phocian allies retreated from the goat path that led to their rear. The movie gets all of these details right. Others are quite incorrect - Spartan hoplites wore about 50 pounds of armor, not just capes and leather thongs. Ephors were not inbred priests - they were politicians, elected for a single term and shared power with the two hereditary Kings. And the Persian army was not made up of mutants, giants, and orcs.

Militarism: Some critics have decried the portrayal of the Spartans as sociopathic warmongers, while still being presented as the heroes. But the Spartans were very nearly sociopaths - men were compelled to serve in the army from ages 21 to 30, and trained from age 7. Men only received headstones if they died in battle - otherwise, they were buried in unmarked graves. The Spartan state owned its citizens from birth to age 60, essentially, and unless they were elected ephor, they were in the army. That is the most perfect example of a militaristic state in all of human history. Of course they were obsessed with military glory and combat - their whole society was structured around it. We can abhor it, but it is intellectually dishonest to criticize the movie for historical inaccuracy, then again for the historically accurate portrayal of Spartan culture.

Racism: The movie does seem a bit racist in its casting choices. The Greeks are all white (King Leonidas is played by a Scotsman, for instance). The Persians who aren't dressed up as goblins are black, Indian, or Arabic. This is partially accurate - the Achaemid Persian Empire covered what is now parts of Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Armenia, Greece, and Egypt. The casting for the Persian army is fairly accurate. But the Greeks should not look be Scotsmen. I am tempted to give the movie a pass, here, since Hollywood has a long history of this. Edward G. Robinson as Dathan? Really? But by the same token, if I defend the movie for its correct details, I have to point out the shortcomings. And this movie uses racial stereotypes as a kind of shorthand for many characters.

Cultural Relevance: The movie is about a founding Western Civilization going to war with Persia. The heart of the Persian Empire was Iran. The current political parallels are obvious, but the movie declines to make use of them. Admittedly, the parallels are not perfect. And incorporating some them into the script might have been a bit clunky - some talk about how the Persian war elephants present a clear and present danger to the security of the Greek City-states? I think this objection is more about how at a time when relations between western nations and Iran are strained, the movie glories in the idea of westerners fighting invading Persians. But any nod to pacifism, diplomacy, or more modern ideas would have been unfaithful to the true history. There is a legitimate argument that now might not be the best time for a movie like this. But that doesn't change that Xerxes did invade Greece 2500 years ago. There are lessons to be learned from that historical truth, perhaps. But maybe this movie is not the vehicle best suited for that.

This bring me to a more interesting point. So far removed from the battle, why do we still choose sides? The Spartans are the good guys, the Persians are the villains. Is it a cultural thing - the movie was made in a western society that can trace many of its roots to Ancient Greece, so it naturally takes the side of its cultural forebears? Maybe it is just rooting for the underdog? Doesn't choosing sides prevent us from objectively learning history's lessons? The parallel may be that the United States are the Persians.

That kind of historical "study" has never appealed to me. It doesn't matter who was good or bad, or even right and wrong. It happened, and their bones have long turned to dust. It smacks of the kind of pop history where "experts" rank the presidents or pick the Most Decisive Turning Points in History. Who the hell cares? What does that teach us about anything? We can learn important historical lessons from the tenure of the worst president (that S.O.B. Franklin Pierce?), and history never turns on a point, since each moment is informed by all that came before it. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," so learn as much of it as you can. Really learn it - don't waste your time picking favorites. If it takes a frankly dumb (but awesomely fun) movie like 300 to get you interested, then so be it.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


No, not that trainspotting. For a while now, since I've been riding train to work regularly, I've been taking notes on the Metro cars. Metro cars all clearly display their registry number, so they are fairly easy to track. And there a number of differences between cars. Some are quite obvious - the plastic walls and outfitting in older cars is slightly yellowish, while newer cars are all white. Other details take a more attentive eye - the type of LED message boards installed, the arrangement of handrails, the emergency door handle covers.

To engage my mind while I sit in the cars for about 40 minutes every day, I've been drawing sketches of the arrangements and noting many of the details. It's true, I could probably find all the information about Metro cars by writing the WMATA, or doing some research at the library or perhaps even right here on the internet. But I'm enjoying the puzzle.

So far, I've been able to find 7 different series. Unsurprisingly, the registry numbers clearly reflect this division. I admit, I'm not cracking the Enigma code here.

1000s: Appear to be the oldest, the paleo-Metro cars. Yellowish plastic walls and details. No LEDs. Smooth metal handrails, one central overhead rail above aisle. Lots of steel handhold columns. Plexiglass dividers on both sides of all doors. The only type I've observed with single-seat benches (besides fore and aft doors). Orange carpets, orange seats.

2000s: Rarest on my routes on Yellow and Green lines. White plastic. LEDs installed at ends. Similar to arrangement of 1000s, with deletion of plexiglass dividers closest to midbody at fore and aft doors, and side benches removed from locations near the same. I suspect the ones I've seen have been remodeled updates of older cars.

3000s: Yellow plastic, no LED, otherwise identical to 2000s.

Remodeled 3000s: Identical to 3000s, now with LEDS, white interiors. Essentially the same as 2000s, but I've noted a plate noting "Remanufactured by Allstom."

4000s: Built by Breda Costruzioni Ferroviare. Yellow plastic. Same arrangements as 3000s. While the handhold poles and overhead rails are smooth steel, the handrails on the seats are coated with some kind of texturing, and are brown. The least aesthetically pleasing of the Metro cars.

5000s: Identical to 2000s. I suspect this was the new baseline the older 2000s and most 3000s were modified to match.

6000s: Brand new. Rather than plexiglass dividers at the midbody doors, there are two half-height opaque plastic divider with a diagonal top, one on each side of the car catty-corner from each other. There are no dividers at the fore and aft doors, and no side benches there either. The single handrail over the aisle is replaced by two in parallel. There are also two parallel overhead rails running athwartships at the doors. Vertical and horizontal handrails on walls near doors. All of the freestanding handhold poles are eliminated, though all the seats now have one (except the double benches halfway between each door set). LEDs fore, aft, and center. Radically different from any other series, clearly designed to increase standing room.

I mention this today because someone actually asked me about it this evening as I rode home. I sat next to a woman on the Yellow line, and she looked at my chicken-scratch diagrams and asked "Is that a language?" She thought it might be Sanskrit or Arabic. So I started to explain what I was doing. Pretty soon, I was talking about it to 3 or 4 people around me, and a few other guys were standing above looking at the notes. Since they were strangers, I had no reservation about completely geeking out. I was able to demonstrate my knowledge by telling them, without seeing the number, that it was a remodeled 3000 series car, probably in the low 3000s somewhere. It was car 3056. It was by far the most enjoyable conversation I've ever had with strangers.

Now, I understand that this is all severely dorky. But I think the world is an interesting place. Everything in it is interesting, and if you don't engage your mind with it, you are missing out. It doesn't matter what you investigate - just think about something. It won't make my life any more meaningful if I figure out what types of cars Metro owns, and why they are the way they are. But it makes my life richer. Everyone understands the importance of exercise to stay healthy. You should also walk out into the world and work out your mind.

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Get Medieval on your ass

I received two late, but fantastic birthday gifts this year. First, from Jane, a model trebuchet kit. With just a utility knife and some glue, it went together in a little over an hour. It is a lot of fun. It doesn't always work really well - many missiles end up firing straight down, stay in the sling, or slip off right at the start. I may have to modify the sling, since that seems to be where the trouble is. But that gives me an interesting project. And it is a great demonstration of physics. Energy is conserved - the potential of the counterweight is almost entirely converted into kinetic energy in the missile. I may use it as a starting point for building my own, larger trebuchet at some point. Though, I confess, I'm more interested in building a Floating Arm Trebuchet, a modern update of the concept that is even more efficient. It combines my interest in physics with my childish love of weaponry. Boom boom boom.

The second gift arrived today all the way from Mike over in the sandbox. I'm almost embarrased by this. It's a beautiful carved stone chess set. I'm no geologist, but I think parts of it are marble. Hell, even if it's just rock pulled out of some dirt farmer's field, it's gorgeous. I feel like I should be studying old Kasparov games to be good enough to play on this board. For the record, I suck at chess. I'll have to visit the library for "The Beginners Guide to Chess: The Horsey Moves Up 3, Over 1."

Many thanks to my two very generous friends.

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It's a Celebration

Slate recently had a very interesting piece on the planned town of Seaside, Florida. If you saw The Truman Show, you've seen Seaside - most of the movie was filmed there. I've never been to the town, so I my opinions are only based on photos and the descriptions of others. But I have a somewhat mixed reaction. I like how it looks, I like the plan to make a walkable town, the attempt to roll back the trend of building around automobiles. On the other hand, it's only made possible by very strong regulation, controlling what owners can and can't do with their property. The libertarian in me intensely dislikes that aspect.

Seaside, and other planned towns like it, such as Celebration, help frame larger questions. What kind of towns do we want to live in? Is New Urbanism really nostalgia dressed up as a movement? Free market thinking would indicate that the kind of towns people really want are suburbs designed around automobiles. Or is that putting the cart before the horse - is that what everyone is buying because that is the only thing available?

But more interesting to me is the more central question of design. How do we decide what is best in design? In my work, in engineering, this is often a very straightforward question: the ship must meet certain specifications for speed, strength, mission capability, etc. But once those criteria are met, the process becomes much more gray. Is it better if the messroom is forward off the galley, or starboard of it? Questions of arrangements, especially, fall into this category. The challenge is more akin to architecture, and city design. And very few engineers are equal to the task. I know I'm not. Luckily, not my job right now.

The challenges of design impact my city, my neighborhood, quite directly. Many in DC are now questioning the height limit. Unique among modern American cityscapes, Washington hugs the ground, and the skyline is punctuated by a handful of significant buildings - the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Cathedral. I am a big fan of the height limit - it makes DC unique and special. Seeing the Cathedral in the distance from the Metro bridge still amazes me. Others argue that the height limit stunts the growth of the city, and encourages sprawl. But I've also heard about low tenancy rates at many office buildings, and a quick look at sites like Near Southeast show more space is coming. I say keep infilling around existing Metro stations, right up to the height limit, then worry about sprawl.

Closer to home, the Potomac Yard development is going up just a few blocks from my house. The renewal of the the largest undeveloped urban tract on the east coast is at least attempting progressive design. It's not a pocket suburb of cul-de-sacs and curving lanes - it is set up as almost a city-in-miniature, with a downtown commercial area surrounded by a grid of residential streets. As I said above, I'm not sure if I'm necessarily a fan of new urbanism style designs like this, but it is definitely better than another strip mall fronted by massive parking lots. And there is a chance it could lead to an infill Metro station closer to my place. In about 10 years...

So, what kind of place do we want to live? Distant suburbs and exurbs, with plenty of space for yards and garages and playgrounds? Dense urban centers, served by mass transit and only footsteps away from the full range of services and cultural activities? Do you want to own property in the boonies where you can do whatever you want with your land, or live in a condo with a million rules but right next to the Kennedy Center? I say give Burlington, Vermont some thought. Recently cited as the "Best Green Place" in the country, among it's other accolades, it's a fine town. Big enough, but not so big it suffers for it. But don't move there - too many people would ruin it. Go find someplace else like it, though.

Beyond cities and homes, what makes for good design? Is pragmatism the only yardstick, or should we give weight to aesthetics? But if "form follows function," isn't extra credit for aesthetics immaterial, since if it works well, good form will naturally follow? Then we just need to define function. It's easy to decide if a stapler works: it staples or it doesn't. How do you measure measure the functionality of a house? A city? Is a pleasing aesthetic part of the core function of a city? I think so, but taste varies so much, the city might "function" for some and not for others. I think you are starting to see why I'm an engineer, with more straightforward design questions, rather than an architect like Chris.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Spring & Hubris

Spring is ... springing here in Del Ray. I think we've seen the last of the snow, runners and bikers are returning to the paths in force, and I found some flowers blossoming in my front yard. Using my expertise in horticulture, I can tell you that they are yellow (see photo).

This is a good thing, since it means it will soon be warm enough for bike rides. I may even be able to bike into the DC office instead of riding the Metro. As much as I enjoy the convenience of Metro, I like the idea of getting in to work for free while also getting my daily ride at the same time. Efficiency appeals to us engineers.

I noticed the flowers when I left the house to visit St. Elmo's. Really, I was just getting out to get some fresh air. I topped off Stella's tank yesterday, and forgot that she has a minor fuel leak. I think it is in the fill line, since it only happens right after I fill up. No puddles of gasoline or anything, but the smell is quite strong. And having forgotten, I parked her in the basement garage. Under my bedroom. So the house, especially the bedroom, smells like a filling station. It gives me a terrific headache.

So, I aired out the house and went for a walk to clear my head. If I'm out in the neighborhood on the weekends, I usually go by St. Elmo's for hot chocolate and cookies. They have good chocolate chip cookies. But it is also a great place to people-watch and eavesdrop. Not the most appropriate entertainment, maybe. Today I sat next to three young women who are all engaged to wed soon. I listened to a long conversation about their future children, and possible names. Lot's of "I think Jack is such a cute name! And how about Charles! I would call him Charlie, and dress him up in little short pants and bow ties!" I feel sorry for Charlie. Please, don't pick out your kids' names because they are "cute." Cuteness fades. Choose a name that means something, either from a family connection, or it's own history. Don't name your child "Dakota." What the hell? Why not just name him Indiana Jones?

At any rate, I cleared my head. Maybe part of the headache was from the night before. I had told Ryan about getting the PC version of Halo, so he got it too. He called me up and suggested we set up a game online and play each other. I thought "hell yeah, I would love to spend an hour taking him to school." He. Kicked. My. Ass. Seriously, the dude can bring it. We had some technical problems setting up our own games, and ended up having to join other's already in progress. Nevertheless, we went mano-a-mano a few times, and I went home limping. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make proud. I am psyched for playing again really soon. I'm going to lose, but I'm going to enjoy every minute of it.

Last, a note on the second photo. Walking home from St. Elmo's, I noticed this truck. I remember the converted Hearse-style ambulance from Ghostbusters, but I've never seen a converted truck-style ambulance. It looks like someone might be living in this thing. I don't think it would very comfortable. But I developed a bit of a taste for living on the road from our family camper trip Out West when I was 12, so I definitely see the appeal.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Munchausen by Proxy

It has not been a very busy week for me. But there have been extraordinary events for my friends and family. It would be inappropriate for me to share any details, since a lot of it is private and quite personal.

Keeping with recent reports on how narcissistic young people are nowadays, I'm going to make this all about me. I understand that these events are more significant for my friends and family who experienced them. But they all made a profound impact on me as well. Some on an emotional and psychological level - no change to my life or plans. Others will really alter my day-to-day life. Not necessarily in a negative or positive way. Things will just change for me as a result.

After a fashion, this causes me to think on one of my favorite topics, systems of morals and ethics. I know, it sounds thrilling. Bear with me, though. The fact that these significant events in other people's lives impact me to such a degree is a great illustration of how humans are social animals (And by the by, what is the proper noun of assembly for humans? There's a gaggle of geese, a parliament of owls, a murder of crows. Would it simply be a crowd of people?). The interconnections are so common, so complex and dense, that any human event can send ripples, with unforeseen results.

This begs the question, how can we decided what is right and wrong, when predicting the full impact of our decision is so complex? Kant argued that there is a categorical imperative, that something is only right if it would be acceptable if everyone did it (oversimplifying some there). I've never been a fan of Kant, and here's why: the categorical imperative makes a solid argument against lying. Therefore, by Kant, lying is never right. But take a counter case from real life: if the family that was hiding Anne Frank and her family was asked by the SS "Do you know where any Jews are," Kant's system says the morally right thing to do is to say "Yes, in the attic." That was an example from my Morals and Ethics class in college, and it has stuck with me. I just had a gut level reaction to it, and rejected deontological ethics because of it.

I've always been more of a utilitarian - the greatest good should be the goal of all our moral decisions. But the difficulty of predicting that, the chaos created by the dense social network connecting all people, makes it nearly impossible. I have to satisfy myself with the fact that the perfect application of this moral system is unrealistic, but the moral thing to do is to make the attempt nevertheless.

And that moral system helps me respond to the recent events in the lives of people close to me. For those who have experienced trials and troubles, I can try to lend aid, though it may cost me. For those who have suddenly had incredible new opportunities open up, that may make my life less interesting, I can be excited and supportive. Because while these events impact me, they impact my friends and family more, so what is best for them determines the greatest good. Besides, any drawbacks for me are minimal. I don't want to come off as a martyr here, because I am not. I am genuinely excited for the good things, and truly want to help those who have suffered setbacks.

Which leads to another interesting question: is it a moral right choice if you are doing what you wanted to do anyway? That is to say, who is the better person: the person who wants to do the right thing and does it, or the person who wants to do the wrong thing but does the right? Are those who have morally right desires more or less laudable than those who have base instincts but still make morally correct decisions?

In less intellectually stimulating news, I logged into an online Halo slayer deathmatch for the first time this week. It was fun, but I got my ass handed to me on a platter. I got run over by a jet, again. Clearly, I need to be wasting more time on this, so I can get good at it.