Do you want a “McMansion of Micro-Houses”?

A new 900-square foot home in New Haven, Connecticut drew some conflicting reviews:

A micro-home debuted in town, a possible solution to New Haven’s pressing absence of affordable housing.

The three-floor, 900-square-foot ski chalet-looking home on a fine elegantly landscaped setback on Scranton Street in West River received generally rave reviews at the debut Thursday afternoon. It also drew a critique: That it’s still too large, too expensive, not a cool enough interior or replicable enough, yet a fine experiment and first step.

That critique came from the guy whose idea the house was. He called it the “McMansion of micro-houses.”…

The house was designed and built by first-year Yale School of Architecture students such as Katie Stege (pictured with her teacher Avi Forman) as part of their required coursework. The work is done under the Jim Vlock First-Year Building Project.

The home – which features some interesting design – is going for $155,000.

The general idea of the new house makes sense: the goal is to build relatively cheap new housing in New Haven yet this home is a bit too big and expensive to fit that bill. But, pairing the negative term McMansion with ideas that are generally lauded – affordable housing and micro-homes – is an odd approach, particularly coming from the funder of the project. It is like saying, “Thank you to the professors and students for the efforts but this home is like the poorly-constructed, overly-large mass produced suburban tract homes built across America.” If you are trying to build good affordable housing that the public will accept, it would behoove you to not apply the McMansion label to it.

Using social media data to predict traits about users

Here is a summary of research that uses algorithms and “concepts from psychology and sociology” to uncover traits of social media users through what they make available:

One study in this space, published in 2013 by researchers at the University of Cambridge and their colleagues, gathered data from 60,000 Facebook users and, with their Facebook “likes” alone, predicted a wide range of personal traits. The researchers could predict attributes like a person’s gender, religion, sexual orientation, and substance use (drugs, alcohol, smoking)…

How could liking curly fries be predictive? The reasoning relies on a few insights from sociology. Imagine one of the first people to like the page happened to be smart. Once she liked it, her friends saw it. A social science concept called homophily tells us that people tend to be friends with people like themselves. Smart people tend to be friends with smart people. Liberals are friends with other liberals. Rich people hang out with other rich people…

On the first site, YouAreWhatYouLike, the algorithms will tell you about your personality. This includes openness to new ideas, extraversion and introversion, your emotional stability, your warmth or competitiveness, and your organizational levels.

The second site, Apply Magic Sauce, predicts your politics, relationship status, sexual orientation, gender, and more. You can try it on yourself, but be forewarned that the data is in a machine-readable format. You’ll be able to figure it out, but it’s not as pretty as YouAreWhatYouLike.

These aren’t the only tools that do this. AnalyzeWords leverages linguistics to discover the personality you portray on Twitter. It does not look at the topics you discuss in your tweets, but rather at things like how often you say “I” vs. “we,” how frequently you curse, and how many anxiety-related words you use. The interesting thing about this tool is that you can analyze anyone, not just yourself.

The author then goes on to say that she purges her social media accounts to not include much old content so third parties can’t use the information against them. That is one response. However, before I go do this, I would want to know a few things:

1. Just how good are these predictions? It is one thing to suggest they are 60% accurate but another to say they are 90% accurate.

2. How much data do these algorithms need to make good predictions?

3. How are social media companies responding to such moves? While I’m sure they are doing some of this themselves, what are they planning to do if someone wants to use this data in a harmful way (say, affecting people’s credit score)? Why not set limits for this now rather than after the fact?

More cities consider tearing down highways

A recent article highlights efforts in Syracuse and other cities to tear down highways in dense urban areas:

“It seems like it’s gaining popularity,” said Ted Shelton, a professor of architecture at the University of Tennessee who studies urban highway removal. “For so long, we’ve thought when a highway gets to capacity, we need to add a lane. But what we’ve learned is there’s no way you can build enough capacity.”More cities — including Long Beach, Dallas, New Orleans, Nashville and Hartford, Conn. — are debating the idea of tearing down highways and creating something designed to keep people in the city, not send people out. In Seattle, a double-decker highway is slated to come down, although a giant machine called Big Bertha has run into trouble excavating the 2-mile-long tunnel for the new roadway.

In most cases, tearing down freeways would create “rich urban fabric that supports complex cultures and economies in a way that it can’t right now,” Shelton said…

“There’s not been a single city in the world that’s taken a freeway out and things haven’t gotten better for everybody,” said Peter J. Park, who ran the project to tear down the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee several years ago.

Still, in many cities where Americans are accustomed to using their cars to get places quickly and cheaply, urban planners might have a tough road ahead of them. For many Americans, urban highways are as essential to day-to-day life as washing machines or light bulbs.

At the least, getting rid of an urban highway opens up space and eliminates the noise, pollution, and congestion generated by the highways. At the better end, innovative projects can use that space for parks or new projects that help beautify spaces and jumpstart economic development. As noted, this is counterintuitive: building more roads is not the answer and alternative plans of action can actually reduce traffic while enhancing space. This is a reminder that cities don’t have to revolve around providing automobile access.

Planners vote against Illiana Expressway

The proposed Illiana Expressway is in limbo after the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning rejected the project:

However, because the vote, 10-4, was not a sufficient supermajority, it puts the ultimate fate of the project in limbo.

The Illiana is a proposed tollway linking I-55 in the South suburbs with I-65 in Indiana that would be built as a public-private partnership. While Quinn and the Illinois Department of Transportation are backing it as a vital piece of infrastructure, CMAP experts warned in 2013 it will cost Illinois taxpayers up to $1.1 billion with limited benefits…

Today and Thursday is a rematch of sorts. Officials will vote on what should have been a routine decision — approving an update of GO TO 2040, a blueprint for growth in the region. In this go-round with the Nov. 4 election looming, Quinn has been pushing hard in favor of the expressway, claimed leaders of the Environmental Law and Policy Center who warned some CMAP board members might reverse their votes. ELPC officials quoted a toll industry publication describing the project as a “lemon,” and pointed out that CMAP has prioritized other projects over the Illiana. These include the Route 53 extension and Elgin-O’Hare Expressway expansion. The group has sued over the issue, claiming the MPO essentially lacked authority to override CMAP. The Illinois Department of Transportation estimates construction jobs should total about 9,000 and permanent jobs, mostly in freight and manufacturing, would amount to around 28,000.

However, the Metropolitan Planning Council said the project would drain jobs out of Illinois into Indiana, hurting employment in Chicago, Cook and the collar counties excepting Will County. IDOT officials said they stand behind the Illiana project.

A number of interested parties here and it is not clear how this will turn out. It is a classic urban planning issue: one side claiming economic growth, federal money, and jobs while the other side disputes the growth figures and asks who will be left on the hook if the road doesn’t generate the money it is supposed to. Growth is a pretty powerful motivator – particularly in a state that needs positive economic news as well as a Chicago region that is struggling, if not in reality, then perhaps always in its own perceptions – but difficult financial realities make a $1 billion+ project difficult to quickly approve.

UPDATE: The above article wasn’t the clearest on the next steps in the process. Here is some more details from the Chicago Tribune.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning board needed a 12-vote supermajority of its 15 members to remove the Illiana from its comprehensive plan, but opponents of the project could only muster 10 votes.

The spotlight will now fall on members of a companion agency, the Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee, who will meet on the issue Thursday.

And the voting seemed to go along geographic lines:

One of the CMAP board members whose vote could have helped turn the tide against the Illiana failed to show for the meeting.

Andrew Madigan, an appointee of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was absent, as he was last year when the Illiana originally came up for the planning agency’s approval. Emanuel’s other four appointees voted against the Illiana.

Madigan is the son of House Speaker Michael Madigan. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Also casting votes against the Illiana were four of five suburban Cook County representatives; and the representatives from Lake and McHenry counties.

Voting in favor of the Illiana were representatives from Will, DuPage and Kane Counties, and the representative from south Cook County.

Voters closer to the highway seem to have been in favor while those further away – Chicago and the northern counties – voted against it.

“A Behind-the-Scenes Look at How Infographics Are Made”

A new book examines how designers make infographics:

A new book from graphic guru and School of Visual Arts professor Steven Heller and designer Rick Landers looks at that the process of more than 200 designers, from first sketch to final product. The Infographic Designers Sketchbook is almost exactly what it sounds like. The 350-page tome is essentially a deep dive into the minds of data designers. Heller and Landers have chosen more than 50 designers and asked them to fork over their earliest sketches to give us insights into how they turn a complex set of data into coherent, visually stunning data visualizations. “You see a lot more unbridled, unfettered work when you’re looking at a sketchbook,” says Heller. “You might be looking at a lot of junk, but even that junk tells you something about the artist who is doing it.”

Heller says there are a few through-lines to all good infographics, the first being clarity. The purpose of a data visualization has always been to communicate complex information in a readily digestible way. “You can’t throw curves,” he says. “If you’re going to do something that is complex, like the breakdown of an atomic particle, for example, you have to make it clear.” Clarity is key even in seemingly simple infographics, like Caroline + Young’s Mem:o, an app that visualizes personal data for things like sleep and fitness. The data viz tool uses simple shapes to communicate the various sets of data. This is no coincidence says Heller, adding that our eyes tend to respond to simple geometric forms. “If you start using parallelograms or shapes like that, it may get a little difficult,” he says. “But circle squares and rectangles, those are all forms we adjust our eyes to very quickly.”…

It’s fascinating to go behind the scenes of a designer’s work process, in the way it’s fascinating to flip through another person’s journal or leaf through the papers on their desk. If nothing else, the book is a testament to the sketching process. It shows how designers, and even non-designers, can use a pen and paper to sort through some hairy, complex ideas.

The post has some interesting examples you can look at. This hints at the larger process of interpreting data. If someone just handed you a spreadsheet of data or a few tables with data, it is not an automatic process between that and coming up with the “right” interpretation, whether that be in a written or graphical format. It takes time and skill to present the data in an engaging and informative way.

Odd poll: Rahm Emanuel more negatively rated than Eisenhower traffic

One challenger to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel used some dubious questions to find how the mayor ranks compared to other disliked things:

The poll, with questions tailor-made to grab headlines, was paid for by Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) and conducted Sept. 26-29 by Washington D.C.-based Hamilton Campaigns…

Fioretti’s pollster was apparently looking to put a new twist on the issue by testing the mayor’s unfavorable ratings against some high-profile enemies, including the Bears’ archrival Green Bay Packers.

Of the 500 likely Chicago voters surveyed, 23 percent had a “somewhat unfavorable” opinion of Emanuel and 28 percent had a “very unfavorable” view of the mayor.

That’s an overall negative rating of 51 percent, compared to 49 percent overall for morning traffic on the Eisenhower. Conservative-leaning Fox News Channel had a slightly higher unfavorable rating in Democratic-dominated Chicago while the Packers stood at 59 percent.

Odd comparisons of apples to oranges. As the article notes, it sounds like a publicity stunt – which appears to work because the article then goes on to give Fioretti more space. Giving space to bad statistics is not a good thing in the long run with a public (and media) that suffers from innumeracy.

Two thoughts:

1. I could imagine where this might go if Emanuel or others commission similar polls. How about: “Chicago’s Mayor is more favorably rated than Ebola”?

2. How did the Packers only get a negative rating of 59% in Chicago? Are there that many transplanted Wisconsin residents or are Chicago residents not that adamant about their primary football rival?

Supermarket chains suffering in wealthy countries

Supermarkets in numerous wealthy countries are having a hard time competing with the wide range of choices offered to consumers:

As they scramble to maintain market share, the big four British grocers can take comfort from the fact that at least they are not alone. The global supermarket industry has its share of epic competitive scraps, too. In Europe alone, the discounters that have wrought havoc for Tesco, Morrisons, Asda and Sainsbury’s have an even more powerful grip on the industry. While Aldi and Lidl control around 8% of the UK market, according to figures from market research group Kantar the share controlled by discounters in France is 10% and in Germany – home of Aldi and Lidl – it is 37%. In the UK, two-thirds of the market is controlled by four players; this is the same as in Germany, while in France 56% of the market is controlled by the top four and in Spain just under 50%. A look at these markets, plus some of the biggest outside Europe, shows that every territory poses challenges for big grocers…

As in the UK, discounters and supermarkets in Germany are faced with shoppers who are less and less willing to drive out of town for their weekly shop, and more likely to do small, frequent trips in urban areas. In recent years, the trend has led to a revival in big cities like Hamburg and Berlin of the traditional Tante Emma Läden or corner shops, which have been able to be much more flexible in reacting to trends or food scandals than their bigger rivals…

Between the discount stores, supermarkets and hypermarkets there is a constant battle going on to woo the increasingly cash-strapped consumer. “Supermarkets are really the only sector [in Italy] where competition has worked out,” said Liliana Cantone of Italian consumer association Altroconsumo. “The players are doing their best to offer lower prices, and consumers can really benefit from this.”…

The market is far from impenetrable, however. Walmart, the only “everyday low pricing” operator in Japan, has forced domestic rivals to keep their prices low where it operates stores. Costco, with 20 stores nationwide, has proved a success, offering prices comparable to those found in the US. Tesco’s foray into Japan was frustrated, in part, by consumer idiosyncrasies.

Sounds like some contradictory forces at work. On one hand, increased globalization means food can travel all over the world. It might seem that such a global market would be controlled by some major players in the grocery industry who could use their size to their advantage. Yet, that same globalization allows other players to get into the game and gives consumers more low-priced options, usually something seen as a good in free-market economies. Throw in debates about subsidizing food production, getting healthy food to places that need it, and genetically modified food and you have a retail sector that is experiencing a lot of flux.

Just one quick thought: I’ve been in supermarkets in England, France, and Japan and they all seem more similar to each other than to the American version. Even not looking at Walmart or other big box stores with groceries, the American supermarket is an amazing size with tremendous variety. In contrast, stores in the other countries are smaller, something that may be cultural as well as economic due to higher rent and land prices.

Splitting America into equally proportioned states by population; options abound

Here is an interesting yet probably quite absurd set of maps that split the United States into various configurations of states with equal populations. Two of the maps:



I can see the logic behind this – more equal representation. However, the others are implausible. If anything, more equal populations might be accomplished by breaking states into smaller units that might be more equal in population to each other as pieces of the larger state. But, trying to imagine merging into megastates or different configurations of the 50 states is hard to imagine.

Spoiling a waterfront location with an ugly “mini McMansion”

Curbed National does not like a development of “mini McMansions” in Detroit:

We’ve been befuddled by the Shorepointe Village at Grayhaven development before. It has such a nice waterfront location and such terrible home exteriors. But this interior seems to be one of the better ones. This 3,000 square foot home previously asking $479K just sold for $440K. It feels very early aughts but who doesn’t enjoy a little throw back? It has a neighbor still for sale asking $420K.

Even looking at the earlier pictures of the development, I’m not sure why this particular project draws much attention. Sure, the houses have some exterior oddities. But, are they really much worse than the average McMansion, let alone some of the more extreme examples involving turrets, features of castles, multi-gabled roofs, and other garish architectural quirks? The development may be cookie-cutter so are a lot of single-family home developments.

Perhaps the key here is the waterfront location. Such desirable property that tends to prompt higher housing values often feature large houses but often not such bland design.

The dangers of tens of thousands of miles of aging metal gas lines

Big infrastructure failures attract attention but USA Today finds that millions of Americans live near aging gas lines:

About every other day over the past decade, a gas leak in the United States has destroyed property, hurt someone or killed someone, a USA TODAY Network investigation finds. The most destructive blasts have killed at least 135 people, injured 600 and caused $2 billion in damages since 2004…

A review of federal data shows there are tens of thousands of miles of cast-iron and bare-steel gas mains lurking beneath American cities and towns — despite these pipes being a longtime target of National Transportation Safety Board accident investigators, government regulators and safety advocates.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has been pushing gas utilities for more than a decade to replace aging pipes with more resilient materials like plastic, though it’s not required by law. The industry has responded by replacing thousands of miles of pipe, but a daunting amount remains. It can cost $1 million per mile, or more, to replace aging pipe, costs typically passed to customers…

Aging pipes are a high-risk example of the nation’s struggle to replace its crumbling infrastructure, a danger hidden beneath the ground until a pipe fails or is struck by something and a spark ignites a monstrous blast. Natural gas is piped into 67 million homes and at least 5 million businesses, schools and other buildings across the country, with gas distribution and service lines snaking beneath most neighborhoods in American cities.

A long and fascinating look at how gas is delivered to many homes and places underground.

Perhaps the relative lack of outcry regarding this issue is because the events take place at seemingly random times in different places. In other words, a large-scale explosion might draw more attention than the scattered events that do take place. The costs of fixing this are quite high yet given the typical levels of concern about safety, it seems like this will need to happen at some point.