The Search for Silence: design vs regulation


comment submitted 3pm Thurs on “The Search of Silence” by Allison Arieff, The New York Times Opinion, 20 March. 

great piece, and welcome attention to a crucial issue which, as ARUP’s Cushner aptly (and punningly?) notes, is “often overlooked.”

Sound concerns are still often dismissed as intolerance or efforts at cultural/class suppression — which they might sometimes be in part, but not generally. As you observe, sound issues are highly complex and intermingled with other factors, such as lighting and people’s sense of control over their environment. There is huge opportunity for ahead-of-the-curve companies such as ARUP who understand this and develop leading expertise.

Of particular interest to me is the great potential for “sound interfaces” to devices and information systems. This may be a key to addressing the crucial problem of managing our attention for better health, productivity, and engagement.

I found especially interesting the contrast between ARUP’s Sound Labs/prototyping approach, versus the “highly regulated spaces like hospitals or airports [which] the worst noise offenders.” We might infer a more general lesson there: complex human environments like cityscapes need iterative and adaptive design, evaluated on the total outcome; and conventional regulatory control may prevent this, not work, or even backfire. Many areas such as traffic control, building code, zoning, and parking might benefit from such rethinking, as the “Lean Urbanism” movement, most recently, advocates.

Tim McCormick
Palo Alto, California

Lean Urbanism for Silicon Valley housing affordability

SVBJ-article-screenshotI was invited to write this piece by Greg Baumann, editor at Silicon Valley Business Journal, in connection with their ongoing features on housing affordability issues in Silicon Valley. It ran as “Guest Commentary” on their Viewpoints section, with the title “Housing fix? Think small,” in the print edition and subscribers-only section online. PDF version of article as published

Let’s imagine a Silicon Valley that tackled housing affordability as boldly and inventively as it does products and software. What might it look like?

I imagine it would consider all possibilities, experiment with the unproven, and learn fast. It might well look to the pioneers worldwide exploring how to live well — and maybe better — in small, mobile, shared, and/or off-grid housing.

Frontiers are opening up due to technological advances — think solar power, prefabrication, and online sharing platforms like Uber. And social changes such as more solo households, higher job mobility, and preference for more walkable places are making change inevitable. What can we make of this?

We might, in our mobile cities of tomorrow, compete to attract tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and citizens with the most innovative and affordable housing — rather than letting our cities be shackled and divided by rapidly rising prices.

In particular, we might do this cost-effectively by adapting some of the vast area currently used for streets and parking. Much of this is already disused — for example, the edges of most surface lots — and is likely to become more so as car use declines. In the meantime, car-sharing, biking (and someday perhaps driverless car use) will spread.

Imagine allowing new, tiny houses and modular housing to be built on the area of a few parking spaces on a surface parking lot, at a corporate campus, or through a residential garage conversion. These tiny houses might be movable, to be relocated as longer-term redevelopment occurs on a site, or as market needs change, or as residents move. They might be owned by their occupants, or rented out by a city, developer, or employer.
These “houslets” could be partly or fully off-grid, using solar power, water tanks, and composting toilets. They might be ordered as kits, ready-made from many current suppliers, or be designed by local architects.

This may sound improbable, compared to current building practices. But I believe it’s not only possible. It’s a sensible way to respond quickly to our housing affordability crisis and engage the region’s greatest strength, a culture of creative innovation. If Silicon Valley wants to live up to its rhetoric of dealing with big problems, here’s a handy one to start with.

Such innovation might begin with demonstration projects sponsored by cities, non-profits, or companies. Flexibility in regulations, such as those that govern structures that are mobile or below 120 square feet can facilitate experimentation. To draw on a nearby example, San Francisco is considering allowing new “in-law units” within buildings.

In the longer term, broader change can occur by reforming building and planning codes towards what urbanist pioneer Andres Duany calls “Lean Urbanism” (analogous to the “Lean Startup” religion practiced by technologists). That means allowing us to organize around values and goals, continually learn, and act expeditiously to discover solutions — rather than being captured by received practices.

In a region where rents are skyrocketing, forcing talent out of the market, all options should be on the table.

Tim McCormick is a designer and product developer in Palo Alto, and lives in a 200-square-foot converted one-car garage. @tmccormick /  

Social data is not transparent

comment posed on Southern Fried Science (David Shiffman) post 10 March, 2014, “5 things we discussed in my #scio14 “social media as a scientific research tool” session.”

> it can be inexpensive (even free) and simple to get the data you need.

It may not be as simple as it appears. To take the example of Twitter — probably the most-used and most-studied social data source — most collection tools are used with either Twitter Search API or Streaming API, both of which have known incompleteness and sample bias. So for example, a collection of “all” tweets employing a given hashag, made with those tools, will likely not include all tweets actually sent with that hashtag. Also, it is hard to know what portion of, or in what pattern, tweets may have been missed.

The only data source Twitter even claims any completeness for is full “firehose” data, available only by arrangement with them or one of their data partners like Gnip. Even with this data, there are questions about how its completeness or neutrality might be assessed or verified. The scrupulous path, I think, is to assume there isn’t really any “raw” or self-evidently neutral data, from any source so complex and mediated as Twitter; there are just data artifacts, which have to be critically interpreted.

Tim McCormick
Conversary, Palo Alto

Note: posting the comment here because, as quite often happens, I wrote comment, submitted it (after logging in, with Twitter account in this case), nothing appeared, and there was no information to say if or how it might be posted. Site-specific comment systems are almost all broken, from a commenter’s standpoint.