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It’s been a busy week – four days in Boston for the APA Conference, then home just in time for a short bout with stomach flu and off again for HPP (Historic Preservation and Planning program) Work Weekend!  Two out of the three of those were a great time.

South Boston

South Boston

For Work Weekend, our caravan of cars headed up to Medina Stone Farm, a 19th-century farmhouse and barn property now managed as a B&B and performance venue.  While we only had limited time and a semi-skilled crew, we were tasked with 1) stripping, re-glazing, and painting several historic windows purchased in Ithaca and brought up to be installed in the small barn; 2) preparing to repair an old stone-and-mortar fence by putting rocks into piles by size; 3) painting the exterior of the small barn; and 4) documenting the site through drawings, description, and photos.

Medina Stone Farm

Medina Stone Farm

We weren’t able to do the exterior painting because it rained all day on Saturday, but we did good work with the other three jobs, and met some interesting animals along the way (an orange cat, some horses, a couple mules, a couple goats, some sheep, several chickens, and two dogs).

My favorite job, and the one that really made me think, was the several-step process of restoring the old windows.  They came in various conditions, from ready to repaint and install, to missing panes and with significant wood damage.  Most had original glass, but needed to be re-glazed and repainted – meaning the lines of putty which hold each pane in the wooden frame needed to be scraped out, the frame re-sanded, and the glazing putty re-applied.  There wasn’t time to complete all the windows and install them in the barn, but we at least put new glazing in (I think I’m using the correct terms) and primed them for painting.

In addition to feeling great for doing some actual tangible work – in contrast to the mile-high stack of words I’ve been reading for the last two years – I really enjoyed learning more about how old windows work, and why taking the time and care to repair the elements of an old building is a good thing.

Windows are a critical part of any building:  they provide natural light and interesting views for the interior, if they open they help cool and circulate air in the rooms, and can be a major site of decorative detail.  While contemporary windows (not counting large glass-wall style windows like those in office buildings) are generally designed as one big energy-saving unit, but old windows are complex, multi-part technological systems in themselves.  Windows are often one of the big projects of building preservation because, unlike modern windows, they are a versatile and fully-repairable piece of building technology, whether damaged during bad weather or simply aging over prolonged exposure.

A modern, manufactured window must be replaced wholesale if any part of it is broken, its insulating vacuum seal infiltrated, or if it  or the frame eventually warps.  An historic wood window, however, can be taken apart and reconstructed by hand.  The wooden frame can be rebuilt, including the small dividers between window panes; the glass panes can be removed, cleaned, or replaced if broken; and the glazing can be pried out, sanded down, and reapplied.  This makes the window more versatile, generally longer-lasting, and over the span of several decades less costly than replacing it with a new one.  Because the windows in a wood-frame structure were also designed specifically for that building, historic preservationists also argue that it is better to keep original windows because they will fit better, shifting with the rest of the structure and providing a better seal against the elements than a retrofitted contemporary window of different materials.  Well-maintained older buildings tend to be energy efficient and structurally sound if their constituent elements are preserved, as they collectively represent a technological system which is meant to function in a certain way.

Working on Windows

Working on Windows

Working with these windows, some of which had their original panes and glazing from probably before 1900, made me really appreciate preservation as a means of saving technologies and putting it back to work.  When the average person thinks of preservation, the reason for saving something tends to be along the lines of historic sites like battlefields, or for aesthetic and architectural purposes, the classic phrase “an excellent example of early/mid/late ___ style.”  Where preservation is meant to keep a building functioning, however, the technological aspects of preservation come into play as well.  This view of preservation doesn’t seem to have much recognition outside the field, but as interest in sustainability and energy efficiency grows in the public discourse (including a session on the value of historic buildings at the APA conference), it seems important to highlight this aspect of preservation as part of why historic buildings (and other structures) should be kept.  Not only are they valuable from a real estate and economic development standpoint (in terms of maintaining land values and sense of place), they are also valuable technological systems which were designed by people wise enough to know about energy efficiency and recycling long before the “sustainability” buzzword came along.

Windows are a good thing!

Windows are a good thing!

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A short thought-detour out of the city.

I was signing up for office-hours meetings today, that sheet on the professor’s door.  It’s never easy to write vertically with a standard office pen, and everyone’s name looks uneven and scrawled across the time slot line.  Even so, each person’s handwriting was distinct in size, shape, angle of inflection, and all those points and curves a writing analyst might study.  Then I realized – I don’t really know anyone’s handwriting!

This isn’t a problem of not being observant.  Being left-handed, I tend to glance around and take note of who’s holding their pen in the “wrong” hand – there are never that many.  Most of my classmates still take their class notes on paper, so opportunities are there when you tend to have the same neighbors.  Yet at times I’m a little struck and surprised when confronted with a handwritten item from someone I know, realizing that this ingrained and distinct expression of that person is something totally banal, yet someone I rarely (if ever) see and even less often consciously think about.  Whose handwriting can you recognize?  Family?  Friends?  Co-workers?

Computers must be to blame. So much of what we communicate is text, but specifically electronic text – E-mails, Word documents, instant messages and texts.  Our digital writing may begin to more closely resemble our speech patterns as we type our conversations.  Our finished documents all look alike because they use the same fonts – even the most distinctive font cannot easily be “owned” by a particular individual.  We even give “digital signatures” in lieu of inked ones, consisting only of our name and perhaps a second piece of personal data.  The act and form of the written signature, itself a piece of personal data, becomes lost.

While handwriting is a commonplace and unconscious production of self-expression, it is not really commonplace anymore.  While so much of my day-to-day communication is done through the written word, almost none of it is written out by hand.  The distinctive handwriting of my most frequent associates or closest chat-buddies, rather than being the easiest to recognize, becomes strangely hidden and surprisingly intimate when revealed in a casual note or scrap of paper or on a professor’s office-hours schedule.  Whereas handwriting was perhaps once the most widely-distributed form of one’s self-expression, it is now reserved for closest connections (notes to roommates on the refrigerator, cards and letters, project collaborators trading drafts) but also the most mundane, throwaway items (grocery lists, signatures on credit card receipts, administrative forms).  Recognizing someone else’s handwriting therefore becomes a significant act.

What strikes me most about this thought is not that recognizing someone’s handwriting is somehow a mark of friendship or privilege – certainly there was no point in time where that ability was a perfect measure of a degree of relationship.  It is the increasing disconnect between communication and handwriting – that it is possible, indeed the norm, to communicate (in writing) with someone regularly, perhaps every day, and have no idea how they would actually write the same words with pen and paper.  That a small piece of ourselves remains so mundane yet so hidden from those around us makes the discovery of that small piece all the more interesting.

Geometric Showdown
or,
How to Make Your Brand-New 3D Printer Cry

Stereolithography
v.

Klein Bottle

GO!!!

I had to write a short memo summing of this week’s readings in my Transportation Planning (really Economics) class … and I thought the result was a couple of pretty good points and questions about how to look at driving in the U.S.  So I decided to recycle it here.

The readings are only casually cited (though I added footnotes), but they aren’t the main focus anyway.  I also added live links for the freely-available online content.

Memo:  Does the Car Pay Its Way?
February 19, 2010

Driving is too cheap, and the current system externalizes many of its costs.  New technology and pricing policies may help quantify these costs, making drivers more aware of their decisions’ economic impacts.  New strategies are being tested in London and other cities, but it remains to be seen whether they make feasible or effective transportation improvements.

Overview

Car ownership is ultimately a consumer choice, not a right.  This fact remains, despite growing indications that our land use choices have made the car a necessity for most American households.  Because it is a choice, we may think of it as a commodity, purchased and consumed at certain costs [1].  It is difficult, however, for either a transportation expert or the average driver to accurately calculate those costs.  Cars require an extensive infrastructure network to function:  roads, parking, gas stations, and repair shops.  Some costs, such as fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, are directly related to per-mile usage.  Others, most notably congestion, are generated by intensity of use in certain places at certain times.  Time lost sitting in traffic is a problem to which every driver on the road contributes.

These costs are generally externalized, not paid upfront for each trip.  This encourages over-usage of the commodity and leaves many social, environmental, and other costs unpaid.  Transportation policymakers therefore face the difficult task of quantifying external costs, then allocating the burden accurately and fairly on those responsible.  As Kenneth Small suggests, pricing would make drivers more aware of and accountable for their behavior, which may in turn reduce driving and perhaps channel some people toward other modes of transportation [2].  Having fewer cars on the road, it is argued, has environmental benefits (less pollution), economic benefits (less congestion and lost time), and social benefits (more leisure time, less car traffic on city streets, and more trips made by walking or public transit).  All of these factors may improve quality of life in a community, as noted in the PlaNYC Transportation section, by lessening the car’s dominance in the everyday lives of drivers and non-drivers alike [3].

Proposed Strategies

Solutions to the problem of underpriced automobile usage may be grouped into two general categories:  (1) better pricing of individual drivers’ trips, and (2) new technologies which make vehicles more fuel-efficient, more accurately tracks car usage, and creates intelligent road infrastructure to manage traffic demand and performance [4].  These strategies notably intersect in getting accurate micro-level data about each driver in order to quantify the cost of individual trips.  While neither can be pursued in isolation, we may briefly consider the demonstrated and proposed effects of each strategy, and whether it furthers the goal of improving our collective quality of life.

Strategy 1:  Better Pricing

As technology (see below) makes driving behavior easier to measure and road access easier to control, it is increasingly possible to implement sophisticated pricing policies.  These may include:  automatic tolling, peak-demand fees in city centers, insurance fees based on VMT, or fee structures based on vehicle type and efficiency [1].  London is a prominent example of congestion pricing, using cameras and an easy payment system to enforce charging a daily fee for most vehicles that enter the city’s central zone [5].  Based on the success of this program, New York City proposed a similar policy for vehicle commuters into central Manhattan, arguing that this fee would help fund public transit improvements and provide a disincentive to drive, reducing congestion for those who still choose to do so [3].  Political opposition defeated the proposal, and the program was not implemented.

Pros:

  • Per-car or per-trip pricing internalizes the cost of driving for individual drivers.
  • If the price of driving increases to approach its real cost, people will re-calculate the cost of their behavior and, in theory, may choose other modes or forgo discretionary trips.
  • Reducing congestion through pricing will improve the experience for drivers who remain on the road, accruing further benefits of re-gained time and fuel efficiency.

Cons:

  • The technology investment required to enforce this system offsets some of its revenue.
  • Depending on the price structure, the new fees may unfairly burden some drivers—those who must drive from home to work, and those whose income barely meets cost of living.
  • If not implemented properly, people may shift to non-priced routes and create new congestion problems elsewhere.

Strategy 2:  Better Technology

Time and again, we repeat the mantra that “technology will save the world,” with optimism evident in two articles entitled “Highway of the Future,” published in 1938 [6] and 2006 [7]. Self-driving cars, for example, would increase road capacity by allowing cars to travel closer together, and would have quicker reaction times in avoiding accidents.  The repetition of ideas in both articles, however, clearly indicates that the availability of these technologies, if and when they are ever available, is not enough to induce real change.  Widespread investment, adoption, and collaboration with transportation policy are required for these technologies to be useful.

Pros:

  • Innovative uses of GPS tracking systems and “smart” highway and street grids will help policymakers better quantify drivers’ behavior and fine-tune pricing structures.
  • More efficient engines and cleaner fuel can reduce vehicles’ environmental impact.
  • Improving technology that reinforces consumer preferences may produce more immediate, politically feasible, and effective results than attempts to change behavior.

Cons:

  • Relying on technological improvements to vehicles reinforces the existing separation in drivers’ consciousness between the price and actual cost of their choices.
  • New technology requires significant investment, both in innovation and adoption, by private firms and individuals.  It cannot simply be mandated by policymakers.
  • Technology alone has never been sufficient to make large-scale improvements; it is only successful in the context of cultural adoption and change.

Further Questions

1) Can we pay and/or innovate our way toward more a sustainable transportation system?

2) Automobile usage is an underpriced commodity, but many of its costs are difficult to determine per driver.  How can we ensure that drivers pay the true price of their choice to drive?

References

[1] Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, “Not So Free Ride,” Freakonomics blog.  New York Times, April 20, 2008.

[2] Kenneth A. Small, “The Real Costs of Transportation and Influence of Pricing Policies.”  UCTC Working Paper, No. 187.

[3] PlaNYC, “Transportation.”  City of New York Planning Department, April 2007.

[4] Susan Hanson and Genevieve Giuliano, eds., The Geography of Urban Transportation, 3rd ed.  Guildford Press, 2004.

[5] Todd Litman, “London Congestion Pricing:  Implications for Other Cities.”  Victoria Transport Policy Institute, January 2006.

[6] E.W. Murtfeldt, “Highways of the Future.”  Popular Science, May 1938.  Reprinted on Modern Mechanix Blog.

[7] Jonathan Gromer and Logan Ward, “Highway of the Future:  Interstate Intelligence.”  Popular Mechanics, July 2006.

I have to admit, I actually like the orange glow of high-pressure sodium lighting (the most common street and highway lighting in American cities).  Flying over the country at night, you can see large cities and small towns from above, glowing like orange circuit boards.  As LEDs become cheaper and easier to install, our cities may become whiter and brighter at night.

But won’t we miss this, just a little bit?

Our old orange-lit world

Our old orange-lit world