“The Saddest Office Cubicles”

Wired has a collection of “The Saddest Office Cubicles.”

In 2007, WIRED.com (then known as “Wired News”) asked readers with particularly depressing office cubicles to submit photos of their plight. People hated their cubicles—and rightly so. They didn’t offer any real privacy, but were incredibly effective at communicating office hierarchy. The hatred of this terrible design was clear: Our gallery of “winners” of the saddest-cubicle contest still holds the record for WIRED’s most popular post ever…

The winner — if you can call it winning — of the Wired News saddest-cubicles contest is David Gunnells, an IT guy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His desk is penned in by heavily used filing cabinets in a windowless conference room, near a poorly ventilated bathroom and a microwave. The overhead light doesn’t work — his mother-in-law was so saddened by his cube that she gave him a lamp — and the other side of the wall is a parking garage. Gunnells recalls a day when one co-worker reheated catfish in the microwave, while another used the bathroom and covered the smell with a stinky air freshener. Lovely.

Quite depressing. It is interesting, though, that several of these seem to be the product of what was once a temporary adaptation: because of rearranging or some odd situation, the company threw something together. Perhaps the big problems then come in when these temporary solutions become permanent. I do have to wonder how much these individual workers complained and what responses they heard.

These are the sorts of pictures that probably helped the motivate the writing of Cubed regarding the history and development of modern office settings. Of course, most offices don’t look like this. But, these pictures tend to be popular (the most popular Wired post ever?!?) and it is easy for many workers to see hints of their own workplaces (certain lighting, bland furniture, close quarters, lots of noise, etc.).


Is the Biltmore Estate “the original McMansion”? No

One TripAdvisor reviewer suggests the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Caroline was “the original McMansion”:

At first we were a little surprised at the price of admission but after all was said and done, definitely worth it. It is really an all day project. The tour through the house itself is kind of a slow line through but you do get to see a significant portion of the house, actually you see rooms on all 4 floors. It took us about 90 minutes to go through. Then there are the gardens which are very extensive. There were other tours one could take like a ‘behind the scenes tour’ which seemed really interesting but alas we had run out of time. Our lunch at the Stable Cafe was superb. At the height of the lunch rush we had a 45 minute wait so we went off to some of the nearer gardens for a half hour or so. The setting is literally what used to be the stable and the old horse stalls are booths now. The rotisserie chicken that I ordered is about the best chicken I can ever remember. Juicy, flavorful, cooked to perfection. Sometimes simple is best. And served quickly no less. We commented on that to the waiter who said, We know you have better things to do.

Visited October 2014

From all accounts, this sounds like a flashy and impressive house. Here is the opening description from Wikipedia:

Biltmore Estate is a large private estate and tourist attraction in Asheville, North Carolina. Biltmore House, the main house on the estate, is a Châteauesque-styled mansion built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895 and is the largest privately owned house in the United States, at 178,926 square feet (16,622.8 m2) of floor space (135,280 square feet (12,568 m2) of living area) and featuring 250 rooms. Still owned by one of Vanderbilt’s descendants, it stands today as one of the most prominent remaining examples of the Gilded Age, and of significant gardens in the jardin à la française and English Landscape garden styles in the United States. In 2007, it was ranked eighth in America’s Favorite Architecture by the American Institute of Architects.

This sounds like a classic case of (1) an anachronistic application of the term McMansion as well as (2) an instance where this is clearly a mansion. When it was built or today, the home is simply large – McMansions are often roughly 3,000 to 8,000 square feet and this home has 135,000 square feet of living space – and this wasn’t just some new money but real big money from the Vanderbilt family.

Perhaps the home’s most McMansion like feature is its borrowing of architectural styles with French and English gardens alongside French architecture. Here is Wikipedia’s brief description of the estate’s architecture:

Vanderbilt’s idea was to replicate the working estates of Europe. He commissioned prominent New York architect Richard Morris Hunt, who had previously designed houses for various Vanderbilt family members, to design the house in the Châteauesque style, using several Loire Valley French Renaissance architecture chateaux, including the Chateau de Blois, as models. The estate included its own village, today named Biltmore Village, and a church, today known as the Cathedral of All Souls.

Vanderbilt borrowed the imposing and monied architecture of Europe to convey similar ideas in the United States. Yet, over a century later, the home’s architecture is celebrated.

My conclusion? The Biltmore Estate is nowhere close to being a McMansion.

Bringing sociology and understanding culture to Wall Street

A sociologist argues for the value of bringing a sociological perspective to Wall Street after noting how the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently used the term culture repeatedly and defined the term:

“Culture relates to the implicit norms that guide behavior in the absence of regulations or compliance rules—and sometimes despite those explicit restraints. … Culture reflects the prevailing attitudes and behaviors within a firm.  It is how people react not only to black and white, but to all of the shades of grey. Like a gentle breeze, culture may be hard to see, but you can feel it. Culture relates to what “should” I do, and not to what “can” I do.”

Dudley has a doctorate in economics, and spent a decade as chief economist at Goldman Sachs. But in his remarks he sounded more like a sociologist than an economist. His many mentions of “culture” could be significant. I’m hoping they mark the beginning of a change in how regulators think about reining in law-breaking and excessive risk-taking at banks. I’m also hoping that I had something to do with them…

So I studied sociology, and for my doctoral dissertation focused on the organizational culture of Goldman Sachs. The dissertation became a book, titled What Happened to Goldman Sachs: An Insider’s Story of Organizational Drift and Its Unintended Consequences (HBR Press, 2013). One of the changes I document in the book is how Goldman drifted from a focus on ethical standards of behavior to legal ones — from what one “should” do to what one “can” do.

After the book was published, Dudley got in touch. I met with him and his people, and discussed what I had learned in my study of sociology and, in particular, my in-depth study of Goldman. I made recommendations on how to improve regulation. Also, I sent him two pieces I wrote for HBR.org, one on the importance of focusing on organizational behavior and not just individuals, the other asserting that culture had more to do with the financial crisis than leverage ratios did.

One of the key conclusions I drew from my study was that to achieve sustained success and avoid firm-endangering risks, a firm like Goldman has to cultivate financial interdependence among its top employees.

Employees that can make big financial decisions on their own means that many will take big risks and a lot of money could be lost. This reminds me of some of the arguments of Nassim Taleb who suggests losses should not be shared, especially in unpredictable areas like the stock market or with innovative and cutting-edge financial instruments. Instead, there could be organizational cultures that promote more prudent financial decisions that may still be innovative and profitable but limit the possibility of major black swan losses.

When American protestors take to the highway

Americans like their highways free of obstructions. So, what happened recently when a group of protestors blocked one of Atlanta’s main highways at rush hour?

That was what made the images of last week’s protest on the road known as the Atlanta Downtown Connector so jarring. A few dozen individuals, including members of the group Southerners on New Ground, walked out onto that roadway and laid down a banner reading “#BlackLivesMatter.” This was one of several actions around the country protesting police violence and mass incarceration, and expressing solidarity with those who have been demonstrating in Ferguson, Missouri, over the killing of black teenager Michael Brown by white policeman Darren Wilson…

The protesters blocked traffic on I-75/85, one of Atlanta’s major commuter routes, for only a short time, but they managed to get the attention of the drivers who rely on that route before the police cleared them from the roadway without making any arrests…

Reaction to the protest was decidedly mixed among Atlantans, with some people going on Twitter to criticize the action with comments such as, “I support the protests in #Ferguson, but why are they shutting down a highway in Atlanta so that BLACK folks can’t get home from work?” and “Look, I get standing in solidarity w/ #Ferguson, but #Atlanta traffic is already bad. So yeah, if you’re stuck in that, I’m POd w/ you.”

Blocking city streets has been an urban protest tactic since there were urban protests…

Blocking major roads in the United States, however, is much more rare. Most notably, the Selma to Montgomery marches that were pivotal in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s used U.S. Route 80, a move that was upheld in a ruling by Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. His opinion was deeply controversial at the time: “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups,” said the judge, “and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.”

While this summary doesn’t give many details, I would be really interested to hear how the police handled this. Any pedestrian activity, let alone an intentional protest, on a major highway would often be viewed as a concern. At the same time, this is a good way to get the attention of a lot of people for the unusual location of the protest.

The article ends on a note that such protests help make highways less removed from normal life. This is due to a long American history of generally wanting their roads to be for automobile travel. This means bicycling, walking on nearby sidewalks, slow vehicles, and any other impediments (including natural ones) are often scorned. Such thoughts and policies helped lawmakers and politicians ram highways through major cities and urban neighborhoods in the mid-1900s. In contrast, our cities don’t have as many public pedestrian spaces like many European or other global cities which are full of plazas, parks, and wide sidewalks.


Fortysomethings have more influence on sluggish housing than millennials

While millennials currently have lower homeownership rates than in the early 2000s, Derek Thompson suggests fortysomethings are the bigger issue for the sluggish housing market:

The economy has a Gen-X problem. It’s a small cohort with a much-smaller-than-usual homeownership rate. And people wonder why the housing market is sluggish.

Update: Read Trulia’s Jed Kolko on why the middle-aged are the true lost generation of homeowners. In short: They bore the brunt of the foreclosure crisis:

In 2005, the year when the true homeownership rate peaked for most age groups, 25-to-29 year-olds were the age group for which homeownership was highest relative to the demographic baseline, followed by 30-to-34 year-olds. These were first-time home-buyers getting easy credit for overpriced homes; then, they bore the brunt of the foreclosure crisis, losing their homes and wrecking their credit history…

The millennial generation was still in their early 20s or younger in the mid-2000s–too young to have bought during the bubble and then to have suffered a foreclosure: Only the oldest among the 18-to-34 year-old group in 2013 would have been of home-buying age during the bubble.

Interesting data. Generation X had bought into the American Dream and the importance it places on owning a home but they were badly burned by the housing collapse. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: eager to buy homes, able enough to overpay based on decent jobs, and particularly indebted when their housing values tanked.

There is another issue at play here: while millennials may not have been very involved in the economic crisis, they are the generation that could continue the homeownership ideal among Americans. If they choose otherwise – and perhaps they are watching those older than them – then there may not be much of an upward tick compared to Generation X.

Side note: a funny quote from earlier in the article.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a journalist in possession of a negative statistic must find a way to blame Millennials for it.

Generational blame is alive and well even in our advanced rational and enlightened age. Talking about generations is an easy shorthand for analyzing social trends. Whether such talk holds water compared to other age breakdowns or other data may be another matter…

When a few people generate most of the complaints about a public nuisance

The newest runway at O’Hare Airport has generated more noise complaints than ever. However, a good portion of the complaints come from a small number of people.

She now ranks among the area’s most prolific complainers and is one of 11 people responsible for 44 percent of the noise complaints leveled in August, according to the city’s Department of Aviation.

The city, which operates the airport, pokes at her serial reporting in its monthly report by isolating the number of complaints from a single address in various towns. It’s a move meant to downplay the significant surge in noise complaints since the airport’s fourth east-west runway opened last fall, but it only seems to energize Morong…

Chicago tallied 138,106 complaints during the first eight months of the year, according to the Department of Aviation. That figure surpassed the total number of noise complaints from 2007 to 2013.

The city, however, literally puts an asterisk next to this year’s numbers in monthly reports and notes that a few addresses are responsible for thousands of complaints. The August report, for example, states that 11 addresses were responsible for more than 13,000 complaints during that 31-day period…

But even excluding the serial reporters, the city still logged about 16,000 complaints in August, about eight times the number it received in August 2013.

There are two trends going on here:

1. The overall number of complaints is still up, even without the more serial complainers. This could mean several things: there are more people now affected by noise, a wider range of people are complaining, and/or this system of filing complaints online has caught on.

2. A lot of the complaints are generated by outliers, including the main woman in the story who peaked one day at 600 complaints. It is interesting that the City of Chicago has taken to pointing this out, probably in an attempt to

This is not an easy issue to solve. The runway issues and O’Hare’s path to being the world’s busiest airport again mean that there is more flight traffic and more noise. This is not desirable for some residents who feel like they are not heard. Yet, it is probably good for the whole region as Chicago tries to build on its transportation advantages. What might the residents accept as “being heard”? Changing whole traffic patterns or efforts at limiting the sound? Balancing local and regional interests is often very difficult but I don’t see how this is going to get much better for the residents.

A continued rise in megachurches?

Megachurches continue to grow in the United States and around the world:

Even with a growing share of the American population who say they do not identify with any religion, megachurch domination continues to rise. In all, 10% of worshipers attend churches that draw in more than 2,000 people, totaling nearly six million megachurch attendees nationwide each weekend.

And it’s not just the U.S. that catching onto super-sized congregations. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, a single church in Korea says more than 250,000 people attend services there. By comparison, Hartford researchers say America’s largest megachurch has an average of 45,000 attendees…

A major driver behind the rapid expansion are often the leaders themselves. As congregations slowly began to swell in numbers, so too did the star-status of the leaders at the church’s helm. Church leaders and televangelists like Joel Osteen and Pat Robertson paved the path in becoming household names marketing themselves in the big business of bringing faith to the masses…

Churches built a franchise out of the success, setting up satellite branches just to keep up with the demand. In what critics have called the “Wal-Mart effect,” megachurches are expanding in suburban areas, absorbing congregants from small-town churches and running them dry. To keep up with the demand, megachurches lead multiple services held throughout the entire weekend. For church campuses hosting guest speakers or church leaders from out of town, live video monitors bring services to congregations sometimes held hundreds of miles away.

“Clearly the majority of the people who came to a megachurch were coming from a congregation nearby. Then there’s also a sizable number of folks that say they came to that congregation and they hadn’t really gone to any for a long time,” Thumma said. “If you’re moving to a suburb, the megachurch allows you an almost instant community of people who think like you.”

I’m not sure this article says much new about megachurches. It hits some of the key points: lots of Americans attend, it has spread to some other countries, charismatic leaders often lead the way, and they are typically suburban and draw from across a metropolitan region.

Alas, this article could go a lot further to actually discuss megachurches beyond having a catchy headline. For example:

1. The average size of American churches is actually quite smaller. According to the National Congregations Study, the average church was 75 people in 2006-2007. See wave three of the NCS data here.

2. Just how common are megachurches around the world? The article cites one church – a really big one in South Korea – but doesn’t say anything else.

3. It is easy to focus on superstar pastors like Rick Warren or Joel Osteen or T.D. Jakes. But, is this the primary reason people attend megachurches? Are they primarily drawn by the big name or do the churches offer key features?

4. The satellite church phenomenon is relatively new for a lot of big churches. How effective is this model?

Overall, this is the sort of media piece that rehashes information for readers who don’t know much about megachurches but misses an opportunity to go deeper.

Facebook as the new gatekeeper of journalism

Facebook’s algorithms now go a long way in dictating what news users see:

“We try to explicitly view ourselves as not editors,” he said. “We don’t want to have editorial judgment over the content that’s in your feed. You’ve made your friends, you’ve connected to the pages that you want to connect to and you’re the best decider for the things that you care about.”…

Roughly once a week, he and his team of about 16 adjust the complex computer code that decides what to show a user when he or she first logs on to Facebook. The code is based on “thousands and thousands” of metrics, Mr. Marra said, including what device a user is on, how many comments or likes a story has received and how long readers spend on an article…

If Facebook’s algorithm smiles on a publisher, the rewards, in terms of traffic, can be enormous. If Mr. Marra and his team decide that users do not enjoy certain things, such as teaser headlines that lure readers to click through to get all the information, it can mean ruin. When Facebook made changes to its algorithm in December 2013 to emphasize higher-quality content, several so-called viral sites that had thrived there, including Upworthy, Distractify and Elite Daily, saw large declines in their traffic.

Facebook executives frame the company’s relationship with publishers as mutually beneficial: when publishers promote their content on Facebook, its users have more engaging material to read, and the publishers get increased traffic driven to their sites. Numerous publications, including The New York Times, have met with Facebook officials to discuss how to improve their referral traffic.

Is Facebook a better gatekeeper than news outlets, editors, and the large corporations that often run them? I see three key differences:

1. Facebook’s methods are based on social networks and what your friends and others in your feed like. This may be not too much different than checking sites yourselves – especially since people often go to the same sites or go to ones that end to agree with them – but the results are out of your hands.

2. Ultimately, Facebook wants to connect you to other people using news, not necessarily give you news for other purposes like being an informed citizen or spurring you to action. This is a different process than seeking out news sites that primarily produce news (even if that is now often a lot of celebrity or entertainment info).

3. The news is interspersed with new pieces of information about the lives of others. This likely catches people’s attention and doesn’t provide an overwhelming amount of news or information that is abstracted from the user/reader.

CHA opens all three housing waiting lists for first time ever, expects over 250,000 applicants

The Chicago Housing Authority opened its three housing lists yesterday and is expecting a lot of people to sign up:

Agency officials expect more than 250,000 families to apply for spots on three waiting lists — one for public housing, one for housing vouchers and one for apartments in privately owned subsidized housing,

“We don’t have a set number of slots available. … We can’t predict how long people will be on the wait list,” said Katie Ludwig, a deputy chief housing officer at the CHA. “We are getting to the end of our (current) wait lists, and we thought it was a great opportunity for people who are in need of housing. We thought we’d open all three lists at the same time. It’s something we’ve never done.”…

Having their name on a list at the agency does not guarantee housing. It is simply one step closer to participating in the agency’s programs. Historically, the CHA has had wait lists that surpass 15,000 families for each of its programs, records show.

Residents can wait years to be called in for housing.

Still, the current move comes as the agency has been under fire for not doing enough to house the city’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. In July, a report from an independent think tank revealed that the agency had banked more than $355 million rather than use the money for housing. Local officials and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have pressed the agency to serve more people.

Two things have not changed:

1. The CHA continues in not providing enough housing.

2. There is a lot of demand in Chicago for affordable housing.

Both of these issues date back decades. The CHA has been either slow or incompetent, or perhaps both. While new housing units may have been built for wealthier residents in trendy neighborhoods or along the lakefront, the city still does not have enough affordable or public housing. You might think these problems might be solved at some point given their long history and the basic need for decent housing but there has not even been much conversation about addressing these concerns.

Patterns in teardowns in Chicago’s inner-ring suburbs

An architecture professor has found some patterns in the teardowns in inner-ring suburbs surrounding Chicago:

Together, the data set Charles studied included 591,101 single-family houses in Cook County suburbs [between 2000 and 2010], and she determined that 4,789 were redeveloped during that 10-year period. That’s less than 1 percent, but that 1 percent was concentrated and not just in the obvious suburbs one might think.

She found that the teardown phenomenon didn’t affect all communities, wasn’t driven just by developers (often a homebuyer was behind the first teardown in a subdivision), and wasn’t confined to tony neighborhoods where the rebuilt homes were expensive McMansions that stretched from one lot line to the other.

In fact, some of the municipalities that saw clusters of teardowns were suburbs with moderately priced houses and families with moderate incomes, and it was those communities that saw the most conspicuous difference in size between the old house and the new one that replaced it. Charles also found that most teardowns occurred in white and non-Hispanic communities, and in areas with highly regarded school districts.

The article continues with the typical arguments for and against teardowns. Her conclusions?

“I’m not entirely convinced this is gentrification,” Charles said. “If you look that the new house is three times as expensive, you’d think the household coming in would have a considerably higher income. By one definition, that’s a form of gentrification. But I’ve heard examples in Norridge of people who grew up in Norridge and wanted to stay there.”

I wonder if this is what is going on: the Chicago suburbs have experienced teardowns for decades but they were much more likely in higher-class suburbs like Elmhurst, Hinsdale, and Naperville. These suburbs had relatively expensive property so only those with a lot of money and who were really interested in the particular status conferred by these suburbs could pursue teardowns. However, now with those with less money or who are looking for “original” neighborhoods have spread out to other suburbs that offer good schools, good deals, and some status. In other words, the locations have become more diffuse as the practice spreads. This won’t necessarily spread to all suburbs – some just don’t have the status or schools or demographics that those with money will want to buy into. Yet, those looking for unique teardown opportunities may continue to seek out new suburbs.