The Stupidest Modern Floor Plan Innovation Yet

Published at 09:23 on 18 February 2014

Yes, even stupider than the famously stupid “open floor plan” that means you have insufficient wall space for bookcases and artwork and get to live in your kitchen. Dirty dishes and cooking smells: the perfect living room accents. Not!

Try the two-bedroom house with each bedroom being a master suite. Let’s make it impossible for either me or my prospective roommate to host a visitor on the living room couch without compelling said visitor to trudge through someone’s private bedroom in order to take a shower. Let’s pump up the cost per square foot (and compel we waste heated square feet) by adding a third bathroom (to a two-bedroom house!) for guests to use. And since it’s only a half-bath, overnight guests still have to trudge through a private bedroom once per day.

Why is it that virtually no innovations in domestic architecture later than about 1940 seem to have any merits whatsoever? About the only two exceptions I can think of are better insulation and hookups for clothes dryers. If you’re in a hot climate (I’m not), air conditioning can be added, making it a list of three.

Aside from that, seemingly every other new idea has been a variation on the theme of stupid: removing trim (goodbye picture rails, hello drilling holes in your walls and searching for studs), wall-to-wall carpeting (a floor treatment that’s impossible to keep clean, the perfect innovation for people who like to live with lots of dirt), dishwashers (let’s take up cabinet space for a device which only gets your dishes clean if you spend 95% of the effort of just washing them yourself on pre-rinsing them), soffits (let’s deliberately reduce the amount of storage in your kitchen, so that we can then compel you to devote more square feet to it than you really need), formica counters (why use tile when you can use something easily scorched and burnt instead), sinks that are no longer recessed in the countertop (that stray water belongs dripping down your cabinet faces and onto the floor, not back in the sink), the list goes on and on and on.

John King Gets It

Published at 12:36 on 14 February 2014

A hatchet-job of a modernization is being proposed for a 1989 Postmodern office building in San Francisco, and John King is objecting.

Rightly so. Sure, it looks dated. Guess what? Buildings of that age have always looked “dated,” throughout history. A building that’s about 25 to 50 years old (maybe 20 to 40 is a better range) is old enough to be considered “dated” yet not old enough to be considered “historic”.

It’s not an unsafe structure, or an obviously bad design. It’s just a bit “dated” looking, nothing more. That’s a really bad reason for altering its appearance.

The desire to modernize “dated” buildings is one of the reasons that intact, historically correct period buildings tend to be so rare. This tends to particularly be a problem in the USA, a relatively new country with little sense of history.

There’s lots of Beaux Arts and Victorian buildings which are beloved today but which were at one time considered dated embarrassments. There’s far more that we regret having torn down or butchered with hatchet-job modernizations.

I’ve now lived long enough for mid-century modernism to have gone from being “dated” (in the 1980s, at about the same era this building was built) to being considered a classic, historical style of its own. Most of the “tasteful modernizations” of the 1980s are now seen as the hatched jobs I always knew them to be.

Such regrets should be taken as lessons to be cautious about embarking on modernizing. I’m not saying “never do it”, just “think twice”.

Unfortunately, Us Tunnel Critics Told You So

Published at 10:49 on 12 February 2014

This is absolutely not a surprise.

Mark my words, the tunnel part of this project will end up costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 billion, i.e. about 2.5 times the official estimate. I’ve never committed this number to writing before, but it’s what I’ve long expected, based on the historical record of tunnel megaprojects going way over budget.

San Francisco Housing Prices: A Perfect Storm of Unaffordability

Published at 19:51 on 11 February 2014

None of the talking heads seem to get it with regards to why the Bay Area in general and San Francisco in particular is so expensive. Most focus on one or two reasons which very conveniently dovetail with their pet political beliefs and preconceptions, but almost nobody gets the big picture.

A robust local economy that creates ample amounts of well-paying jobs, ensuring a continual supply of new residents who are able to bid up housing prices should the need arise.

Regulations make it very hard to expand housing supply, but easy to expand the supply of business offices. Commercial areas tend not to have homeowners and long-time tenants who get upset about new neighbors.*

Politics determined largely by narrow self-interest. There’s lots of self-professed liberal and even leftist sentiment in San Francisco, but the politics is often very shallow. If it doesn’t affect them personally, many simply do not care if the policies they advocate hurt others.

Price controls that help shield the narrowly self-interested from the consequences of the hurtful policies they advocate. Both rent control and Proposition 13 play big roles here (funny that those so willing to rake rent control over the coals are silent about Proposition 13).

Regulations elsewhere in the Western USA that make it impossible to build a city like San Francisco, which is pretty much unique in the West in consisting entirely of low- and mid-rise attached housing. If you want a home of your own, but you dislike yard work and don’t like condos, and you don’t want to live on the East Coast, there is basically only one city in the USA that satisfies your requirements.

Worldwide popularity which ensures that the many see San Francisco as a highly desirable place to live.

A mild climate without extremes of either hot or cold. So mild that I personally find it monotonous, but many find it completely to their liking.

Scenic beauty, another geographic attribute that people are willing to pay a premium for.

Just a couple of the above could doom a place to housing affordability problems, yet all of them apply to SF. Worse, some of them are entirely out of the City and County of San Francisco’s ability to fix. (Or are desirable attributes that nobody would want to fix.)

* Much ink is spilled about how rent control supposedly “causes” the problem. Rent control does play an role, but it’s hardly the prime driver of the situation. First, rent control in California by state law exempts new construction, so its supposed baleful effect of discouraging new rental construction simply does not exist. Second, if rent control primarily was the problem, you’d expect a disconnect in prices between rents and ownership costs; SF would be an expensive place to rent in but not all that expensive a spot to buy a home in. The real issue is supply restrictions in the face of robust demand.

Back to Normal

Published at 19:14 on 11 February 2014

Actually, it was back to normal by yesterday afternoon. A day of temperatures in the forties and mild sea breezes made quick work of almost all the snow.

The suddenness with how these winter arctic cold waves could both begin and end was one of the things that surprised me when I first moved to this region. It’s like a switch is being thrown, engaging and disengaging Cold Mode surprisingly fast. Before I moved to this region, I visited once a few days after an episode of cold and snow, expecting to find lingering piles everywhere. Instead, there was almost no snow to be seen; I had to search to find the rapidly-melting remains of what had been significant piles of shoveled snow only a few days before.

At this stage, it’s something I expect, and when it happens it’s a sign that all is still right and as it should be, and that this winter wasn’t a disappointing repeat of last winter, snow-wise.

An Unexpected Birthday Present

Published at 19:19 on 9 February 2014

It’s been a mostly disappointing winter due to a general lack of storms and a near-complete lack of snow. On the subject of the latter, I’m glad I don’t live someplace like New England or the Northern Rockies where the snow can drag on for months and there’s a near-interminable season of lingering and very slowly melting dirty snow which often takes up a good chunk of the spring. But I do like to see at least some fall every winter (so I’m glad I don’t live in coastal California).

This past week has been particularly frustrating because it’s been cold enough to snow but storm after storm has gone south and missed us. Portland and Eugene have been getting dumped on, but nothing more than a flurry or two here. Yesterday the forecast was for another chance of flurries with this time maybe a half-inch managing to dust the ground by the next morning in the most favored spots. Portland, of course, was forecast to get yet another big snow-and-ice storm.

So I assumed it was going to be another bust, bundled up, and took my dry-weather bike on the ferry for a long day in the city (first coffee with friends then a meeting). The latter dragged on past dark, and it started to look as if the leaves on the laurel hedge out the window were turning whitish. Hmmm… yup, everything was dusted in white already, and it was only 6:30PM. A few hours later, it looked like this:

night_snowNope, not going to ride a bike in that, particularly my dry-weather bike without knobby tires or fenders, and with a bottle generator prone to slip and cause the light to go out if the tire sidewall gets wet or icy.

By today, my birthday, it was all over, but the morning did dawn with a nice snowy scene:

morning_snowNot an epic snowstorm by any means, but far better than last winter’s disappointing performance, and the fact that it was only a few inches (and that the temperature is starting to moderate) let the arterial streets melt clear by mid-afternoon.

Soldering? Brazing? Welding? What?

Published at 21:27 on 4 February 2014

Just to confuse neophytes, different trades use different words for the same process as well as the same word for different processes.

Soldering as the electronics and plumbing fields calls it is using a metal that melts at under 500 °F and which is relatively thick and capable of filling gaps when it melts, but which bonds relatively weakly with the metals being joined.

Soldering as the jewelry field calls it uses a metal that melts at over 1,000 °F and which is thin, runny, and not capable of filling large gaps when it melts, but which bonds very strongly with the metals being joined. Provided you can have the necessary tight fit, it can make a bond as strong as a weld.

Brazing as the plumbing field calls it is the same thing as what jewelers call soldering.

Brazing as welders call it is using brass or bronze to join parent metals which are typically not brass or bronze and which melt at higher melting points than brass or bronze. It has the advantages of both brazing (as plumbers call it) and soldering (as plumbers and electricians call it): it both bonds very strongly and is good at filling gaps. The disadvantage is that it doesn’t melt easily; you need an oxy/acetylene torch to do brazing in the welder’s sense.

Welding is melting the two pieces of similar parent metal together, and often adding additional similar metal as filler. It makes a joint almost indistinguishable from the parent metal, is every bit as strong as the parent metal, and fills gaps well. But it takes the most heat of all, either an oxy/acetylene flame or an electric arc.

This all confused me to no end for a long time. I wondered how jewelers could get away with hammering on soldered butt joints; I had soldered things many times in working with electronics and knew soldered joints were nowhere near strong enough to stand such treatment. And what was the deal with those “brazing rods” for sale near the propane torches? I knew a mere propane torch couldn’t braze; you needed oxy/acetylene for that!

Copper-Phosphorus Brazing Rod: Great Stuff

Published at 21:06 on 4 February 2014

I ran across this page a couple weeks ago. The rub is that jewelry-supply places only sell copper solder in insane quantities (basically, a near-lifetime supply for a mere hobbyist). I would have already ordered a small amount of it, anyhow.

Then I got to thinking. I’ve noticed this item at my local hardware store, in the torch section. Its ingredients list is basically the same as the copper jewelers’ solder. That it’s called “brazing rod” is no big deal: what jewelers call “soldering” is the same operation that plumbers call “brazing”. The per-unit price is a bit steep for those small retail packs, but it’s a good way for me to see if the stuff works well for me without having to buy a lifetime supply.

And indeed it does work well. The color doesn’t match copper wire exactly, but it’s a lot closer match than bright white silver solder. It flows well without flux, too… provided you heat it sufficiently. (You need to get things to 1400°F/760°C or so, i.e. cherry-red-hot, for it to flow readily, but with a little patience a propane torch can do this.) Those hardware store rods are at the upper end of thickness for jewelry use, but usable they are.

And it turns out that if you look around a little, you can find packages of such rods at about half the cost per pound of the jeweler’s solder. So I’ll probably order some. It’s still a lifetime supply, but one purchased at less cost to me.

If you’re tempted to do the same thing, be sure you’re ordering the 1/16″ rods. Even those are a tad on the thick end for jewelry use (and really may be too much for fine jewelry; I’m using them on largish pendants where I don’t mind a little excess). The typical size is 1/8″ diameter, which is simply way too big for any jewelry use.

A Big Deal… for Some, Not for Me

Published at 08:04 on 2 February 2014

There is a football game this afternoon. Living in the Seattle area, it is hard not to be aware of it. And because this region does not have a history of winning sports teams, that makes for a very big deal for those who follow such things.

Myself, I’ve never gotten it. My earliest memories about football were probably around age five or so, observing my father sitting utterly transfixed and engrossed by a flickering screen displaying images of men in uniforms arranging themselves in formations and charging back and forth across a rectangular field. It was a mystery to me how such a thing could prove interesting or entertaining. It still is.

So if the weather is good, I plan to take advantage of how I live on an island that still has its wild spaces by going on a walk in one of them. If it’s the expected raw, cold rain transitioning to a wet snow as an arctic front comes in, I’ll spend the day making copper jewelry.

I will either hear the celebrating or the silence and know the outcome, but it won’t seriously affect me either way. Sorry, sports fans. Just the way it is.