Archive for the ‘architecture’ Category

Via Airminded, find your local V2 rocket strike. London, Antwerp, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Riyadh, and Tehran have what in common? That’s right, it’s the list of cities that have been subjected to attack from space.

Then, why not go here and look up how big a hole it made? Someone’s photographed and flickr’d a whole set of London County Council damage assessment maps.

My local strike is now a small, never-used park on one side of the street and a pretty grim council estate on the other. But damage in this corner of London was limited compared to further down the Holloway Road. Oddly, there seems to be a correlation between the degree of damage and the London Profiler crime rate; the area south of Torrington Way, which has a sky-high crime rate, was pretty much flattened. (Sadly, the LCC maps aren’t geotagged, so making up a KML overlay would be annoyingly difficult.)

Question – is it that these areas were rebuilt as council housing and filled with the poor, or that the architecture caused the crime? After all, they were hardly peachy suburbia before being destroyed. Strange, though, to think that Wernher von Braun partly decided where tonight’s post-pub kebab stabbing is likely to happen.

So I reviewed the rebuilt St Pancras Station about this time last year. So, in the best Stewart Brand tradition, let’s revisit it; this time of year tends to give you opportunities to revisit major railway stations.

The first good news; the square footage of blue plywood and Tyvek has fallen, and is now close to zero. However, blue plywood extermination is still not quite complete – there is a little patch of the stuff behind Betjeman’s Bar on the upper deck. Perhaps they should keep it, as a shrine to the temporary, flexible and living nature of all buildings.

Further, the station is now functioning without needing to secrete too much temporary signage; overall, the signage has improved, although there was no way anyone was going to read the waist-high portable sign holding an amended timetable for the Thameslink service, forlornly placed between two streams of people, at 90 degrees to their eyeline. But, if you visit Betjeman’s to check out that plywood, you’d better be careful you don’t miss your train – there are no indicator boards in this part of the station, and the nearest is the one outside Eurostar arrivals. (However, their selection of real ales has increased.)

Out the back, where the path from the car park leads into the station, it’s still necessary to have perma-temporary railings marking the accessible ramp; the signs haven’t quite caught up. The Tube station is improving, slowly and painfully, and the ticket hall isn’t as poorly signed as it was last year. Further, the exit from Eurostar arrivals is as bad as ever; presumably, hordes of disoriented travellers packed into the shopping centre are a feature not a bug for someone.

The grand front entrances are still bunged by construction work on the hotel; until this is finished a lot of things will remain temporary, as the original architecture makes the whole thing a single unit. And, of course, there’s a lot of other stuff going on with the tube station, the Great Northern Hotel, changes to King’s Cross station and the like. But it’s running-in reasonably well, and how many building projects of its scale can say that?

However, occasionally you run into something terrible. Check out the Midland (sorry, “East Midlands Trains”) ticket hall, which has the odd property of looking painfully bare but not austerely functional, and also has this horrible image:

People, places...anomie and CCTV

People, places...anomie and CCTV


It’s the combination of the on-the-cheap shiny, the motivational-speaker bollocks, and the CCTV cam the size of God pointing at…what? that does it for me…

Well, very cool. Yahoo has an API that’s meant to let you do database-like read operations on anything web – you just pass your SELECT… statement and the URL and a few other arguments, and it chucks back a JSON document with your information. I haven’t managed to make it do anything interesting yet, but then, my requirements may be strange. And it doesn’t do SELECT COUNT… or GROUP BY… statements, so there are some fairly strict limits on its usefulness. It’s true, however, that had it existed a while ago it would have rendered part of the Viktorfeed much easier. But, y’know, it’s mine.

I’m tempted, once I manage to make it do something useful, to build a sort of Web 2.0 turducken – after all, the query could be applied to a Google search URL, or better, to the Google archive of USENET.

The new version of IBM Many Eyes lets you provide various kinds of URLs as data sources in a visualisation, and I could embed that in the blog, and if only WordPress.com would let you do that, the initial request would be initiated by something running on a WordPress website, using an IBM backend, to slurp data from a Yahoo! URL, that points at an SQL emulator somewhere in there, that gets data from an HTML parser in there, that operates on query results from Google, results which originate from some bored and kinky academic shooting the breeze over an underutilised departmental T-1 in 1992. Perhaps I could work in updates on Twitter, too.

But doesn’t this remind you of something – specifically the joke about the convoluted program which involves a document being printed out, placed on a brown table, photographed, and scanned? Think of all those layers of caching servers, app servers, Web frameworks, standard libraries, bureaucracy, operating systems, virtualisation, before you get to an actual computer. No wonder Richard Stallman don’t like it.

This tension has always defined the culture of IT; the Big Database, the mainframe, the semiconductor fab on one side, the Lone Hacker and the Garage Startup on the other. Like all good myths, it’s highly flexible in practice; a lot of people started off as the second and made the ancient march to the right as they got old and rich and conservative, and the very origins of the second are in huge state-run research labs.

It’s also highly ambiguous – people who at least think they are on the side of the second are often the archetypal Internet libertarians and the warbloggers yelling for torture, and doesn’t the ordered, white concrete Arthur C. Clarke world of the first sound good now?

In an out of the way corner of Oregon, Amazon is joining Google and Microsoft in building a really enormous data centre, to take advantage of cheap hydroelectricity and water cooling. The power comes from the New Deal. At the end of the 1930s, the US Federal Government built a string of big dams there; their first customer for the power was the aluminium industry as it geared up first to supply the RAF and then to create the USAAF. As a result, Boeing would build the 707, B-47, B-52, 727, 747, 737, 757, 767, and 777 in Seattle.

Today, it’s still the Bonneville Power Administration which Amazon will be paying for the electricity and cool water its IT factory needs. You can’t get around the infrastructure. Decisions we take now will last as long; will there one day be an IT equivalent of the Lochaber smelter, somewhere with fibre in the ground and wind in the sky?

This looks like being the ultimate TYR event. Via Ballardian, yer man from BLDGBLOG is going to be speaking at UCL on the 26th November on Feral Cities and the Scientific Way of Warfare. Quote:

At the very least, you’ll get an early preview of Antoine’s forthcoming book – in which he introduces the term chaoplexic warfare in a survey of everything from ant “swarms” and the use of 18th-century battlefield metaphors to the distributed geographies of the Russian mafia, the Medellín drug cartel, and Al-Qaeda – and that’s already quite a lot right there.

It’s being organised by the Complex Terrain Lab. And it’s going to be held in the J.Z. Young Lecture Theatre – yes, that’s J.Z. Young as in the squid expert. Surely I can’t miss that? We could make this into a little rantercon, perhaps.

I can’t help feeling that a Dadaist response is appropriate somehow.

Is anyone else disturbed by the fact Ed Balls appears to have been replaced by Chris Dillow?

Ed Balls, the schools secretary and only member of the Co-operative party in the cabinet, will today propose that 100 schools over the next two years become co-operative trust schools owned and controlled by the local community. He will tell the annual conference of Labour’s sister party that he is putting up an extra £500,000 so trust schools have extra financial help to become co-operatives. The move comes as Michael Stephenson, the new general secretary of the Co-operative party and a former political officer at Downing Street, claims co-ops could be on the brink of a revival in Britain. “Co-ops are an idea whose time has come back.”

He is looking at how to persuade Labour to bring the co-operative model into railways, schools, housing and other public services, arguing that Labour, searching for new ideas, can find intellectual renewal in those behind co-operatives. The Co-operative party has already succeeded in persuading Network Rail to review its governance structures to see how it can make rail users part of its board.

The actual policy is fairly milksopful, but still; it can hardly blow up too badly. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown announced an insulation push, but for some reason, not an air-source heat pump in sight. It’s been badly received; there could be more, although that’s hardly an insight, but I’m not impressed by Tony Woodley trying to make “lag the loft” a smear analogous to McCain’s tyre gauges.

If this is officially policy amateur hour, I’d point out that my own pet scheme on this issue deals with the problem of what if this winter’s really bad and WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN CODGERS? rather well. To recap, I propose to fund it out of the existing bill for fuel subsidies capitalised over several years, and make it subject to individual choice, and voluntary-but-automatic. Those who don’t want to or can’t take advantage of it can just continue to receive cash. Full implementation of it would eventually reach one-third of UK households, and the bill is £1.98bn, all of which is existing spending. So we could chuck in the £910m from the gas pushers to fund an extra payment for the opters out.

Oh yes, and there’s this. I’m beginning to picture some sort of awful inquiry commission wanting to know just what I was thinking, and how I can claim I didn’t know cooperatively-owned prefabricated guerrilla hospitals linked to some sort of leftwing cross of Facebook and CVSTrac were going to grow to enormous size and attack our cities.

This story; from China is predictably horrible:

Chinese authorities have sentenced two women in their 70s to a year’s “re-education through labour” following their application to hold a protest demonstration during the Beijing games, a relative said yesterday.

Officials said this week they had not approved a single permit for a demonstration, despite designating three parks as protest zones.

The International Olympic Committee’s communications director said she would look at the women’s case, but stressed the games were “not a panacea for all ills”.

Wu Dianyuan, 79, and her neighbour Wang Xiuying, 77, sought to protest about their forced eviction from their homes in 2001. They went to the Beijing Public Security Bureau (PSB) four times this month to request permission to demonstrate in the zones – created for the Olympics to counter criticism about restrictions on political expression in China…

But that isn’t my point. My point is that it’s all oddly familiar. For a start, they have been placed under an “order” which restricts their movements, subjects them to the scrutiny of a neighbourhood committee, and isn’t subject to a court hearing or to an appellant jurisdiction of any kind. Why not? Because, of course, it’s not actually punishment. Only breaking; the order would be a crime, and would result in your being sent to a labour camp.

Yes; they’ve reinvented the ASBO. Meanwhile, 77 applications to demonstrate have been made and absolutely none granted. 74, apparently, were “resolved through consultations”, another two turned down because the form wasn’t properly filled in, and another rejected on the grounds it involved a child. (Won’t somebody think of the children?) And I was fascinated by this quote from Sir Mucho Pomposo Wang Wei of the Organising Committee:

Wang Wei, vice-president of the Beijing organising committee, told reporters they should be “satisfied” with the protest zones. “The idea of demonstration is that you are hoping to resolve issues, not to demonstrate for the sake of demonstrating. We are pleased that issues have been resolved through dialogue and communication – this is how we do it in Chinese culture,” he told a press conference.

He added: “We want everyone to express their opinion. Everyone has the right to speak; this is not the same as demonstrating.

It’s so familiar; the insistence that anyone who disagrees is doing so out of spite, that only acquiescence is “serious” or “helpful”. I’m surprised he didn’t offer them a Big Conversation, but in fact, with the right mistranslation he might have done. Similarly, the re-education through labour order for disturbing the public is just a translator’s caprice away from an anti-social behaviour order.

Perhaps there’s a wider truth here; this sort of events/urban regeneration politics seems to follow the same grammar all over the world. It’s conceived of as a project; which implies there are only participants, or else obstructions. Despite the money and the bulldozers, it respects class boundaries; veering around the villas of the rich. It needs special security arrangements which always turn out to involve some sort of summary justice based on vague and unchallengeable notions of appropriateness, propriety, or order; similarly, these are always temporary but are never revoked. The state authorities and private interests involved are indistinguishable. (Interestingly, the legislative foundation tends to be very hard to get rid of; the Act on the Great Exhibition of 1851 is still in force and still a major headache for anyone planning to build on or near the original site.)

More deeply, it seems to include a sort of quasi-medical view of society, or more specifically of the city. It, and we, need to be made better. Not only the method of this treatment, but the definition of better, is reversed for the doctors; but we are responsible if it doesn’t work, because we didn’t comply sufficiently. The nudgers’ cognitive biases are not examined; it’s our fault if we don’t press the right coloured shape in response. Equally, no-one suggests subjecting the Home Office to compulsory psychotherapy in order to get rid of its hysterical anxiety, but it seems to want to make everyone happy.

I’m about to propose something to make Daniel Davies cry. Specifically, it’s a solution to a problem we currently deal with by a cash transfer through the tax and benefit system. But I think I’ve made a good case that trying to deal with high energy prices by paying the poor to burn more energy is not sensible, except perhaps as temporary relief of the symptoms. Instead, I suggested, why don’t we pay them to insulate, or to install £1,895 air-source heat pumps, and get rid of the problem; after all, we subsidise the rich to do these things to their property. And I suggested that, if we’re too stingy or the government is short of cash, we could use the money now paid out as winter fuel payments.

Terrifyingly, there’s a chance someone might pick up on the idea – because it turns out they’ve got one like it in exciting America. Surely it’s got to be good. The Californian municipality in question is offering loans to carry out energy-saving improvements, to be paid back through property tax. I’m not quite sure how it works, although here are more details; but it seems to be restricted to homeowners, and I’m far from sure if the repayments are additional to the property tax you’d already pay or not.

My brilliant scheme has the distinction that, rather than the user repaying it, it’s repaid from the benefits they would otherwise claim. In a sense, it capitalises the stream of WFP cheques over ten years. Government gets to save on the benefit payments over and above the amortisation period of the heat pumps or insulation; the recipient gets to save hugely on heating; and society saves three to four units of energy from gas for every unit of electricity the heat pump uses. (The technology is wonderful.) And it hits the cheapest way of saving bulk CO2.

Here are some numbers. The two main groups of WFP recipients get £200 and £300 respectively; this is currently planned to go up quite sharply. (Another reason for my brilliant scheme is that tying bits of the government budget to prices that might rise without apparent bounds is stupid.) To be conservative, and also because I could have tried harder, here are some data from 2006. £1.98bn was spent. Elsewhere, it looks like 11,407,000 individuals received money, but the relevant number is a number of buildings not people. It seems 8 million households received WFP, which is a fair enough proxy. That gives us an annual payout per premises of £247.50; with a full-heating ASHP at £1,895, that’s a bit over seven and a half years to pay it off.

We’ve already got a list of recipients, and we write to them every autumn. Obviously there are people who don’t want to be bothered, and probably they are right, so we’ll give them the choice of fuel payments or [whatever silly name our friendly local special advisor comes up with]. Given the usual take-up rate for optional benefits, I’d reckon the pressure every year should be manageable enough; but if we felt militant enough we could make it voluntary-but-automatic.

One question I’d raise against myself is why this pensioner obsession. Don’t a lot of them own their homes? What about children? Well, for some reason they are the only group in our society we find it necessary to give special help with their energy requirements. Minister, I am a mere technocrat. I don’t bother my head with these things…but you might want to look at the numbers for some of the in-work benefit schemes.

Recently, our dear duckspeaker Philip Hammond MP had his local talking points cache refreshed. He’s now constantly saying that the Government is causing “uncertainty” in the housing market because they haven’t decided whether or not to cut stamp duty, and that this is a problem. Both statements are of course completely vacuous at best, and actively misleading at worst. For a start, the housing market is tanking. We’re in the worst property crash since 1983, says the Halifax; that’s another way of saying that the Halifax started computing an index of real estate prices in 1983. It’s not impossible that it’s the worst since the Great Depression. The price of property is dropping with the almost supernatural swiftness of an economic imbalance that finally clears; at the moment, anyone who wants to buy a house would be literally insane to do so, as it is as certain as anything in economics ever is that it will be much cheaper in a year’s time.

Of course, this only matters if you can raise the money. At the moment, the banks have practically stopped lending, so whatever happens to stamp duty is risibly irrelevant. Further, all these statements go double the smaller the deal; nobody who owns a house is ever likely to struggle to raise mortgage money if they want to buy another, but without new entrants, who can they sell to? What mortgage lending is going on is actually very good business for the banks, because it’s practically all to people with lots of existing equity, and at higher interest rates too.

Supposedly, according to Hammond and the real-estate lobby, reducing stamp duty would help people raise a deposit in order to pass the new and more astringent lending criteria. But this is obviously drivel. The large majority of new entrants are either zero-rated or in the first, 1% band, so their stamp duty bill will be at the very most a couple of grand. If they have to raise a 20% deposit, well. It’s not going to work. If you’ve got £18,000 to plunk down as a deposit, and the stamp duty at 1% is a dealbreaker, shouldn’t you either be waiting a few months, looking for somewhere cheaper, or getting a better mortgage broker?

Further, there’s the marginal issue. The Tories seem to be collectively blind to the existence of marginal effects, as if their love of classical economics had carried them back past Hayek and von Mises and Bohm Bawerk all the way to the 19th century. For example, they want to “encourage marriage” by offering a tax break to the married; but the only extra marriages this will result in are the ones where the spouses wouldn’t stay together but for the tax break. And those aren’t likely to be gems, are they? Similarly, the only additional house sales a cut in stamp duty will cause are ones where that sum of money is enough to make the difference; not very many, as we’ve just seen. But we’re having an epic financial crisis precisely because the banks lent so much money to people who couldn’t pay it back. Do we really want more crappy loans?

So; it’s completely ridiculous to suggest that cutting stamp duty will do any good, it’s frankly irresponsible, and it’s even sillier to imagine that buyers are holding off wondering if they’ll have to pay 1 per cent more or less, when they can be certain they will pay 10 per cent less in a few months’ time and perhaps 30 per cent less in a year or two. So why is Hammond so obsessed? (And he is. Check out the 14,400 Google results, including a veritable barrage of official Tory press statements.)

The first point is pure clientelism. What stupid Tory giveaways have in common is that although their marginal effects usually defeat the stated point of the exercise, they usually succeed in showering one or other campaign demographic with cash. A tax break for married couples won’t actually do any good, but it will provide a payoff for several key voter groups who don’t even have to do anything; the money just comes. Similarly, the people who are dealing in houses at the moment by definition have lots of equity and cash; who else can get a mortgage? They would get the tax break as much as anyone else. Kerching! Another group who would benefit either way would be the real estate lobby itself; and the sheer number of property millionaires who have quartered themselves on London since Boris Johnson’s election should explain this reasonably well.

The second is Philip Hammond’s own personal financial interest. Here’s something he added to the register of interests in June, his shareholding in Castlemead Ltd, a company whose main interest is….property development, of houses through its stake in Castlemead Homes Ltd and of NHS primary care centres through Castlemead Developments Ltd. (I reckon the Tory position on PCTs wants watching, no?)

This must be no small holding, either; he managed to forget to declare a £3m dividend from the firm. That’s enough to make him the the second richest man in the Shadow Cabinet with net wealth (I refuse to describe it as “worth”) of £9m. No wonder he spends so much time howling for the propertied interest. He is talking his own book. But surely even he can’t be worrying about the stamp duty on his £1.5m pad in Belgravia? Even at the 4% higher rate?

Jamie Zawinski links to a campaign to have a Californian sewage works renamed after George W. Bush. I disagree, strongly. Who on earth would associate something as civic, egalitarian, and useful as sewage treatment with the Commander Guy? Not just that, but it’s a publicly-owned sewage plant, part of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Hunter S. Thompson thought Richard Nixon should have been flushed into the Pacific through the sewers; he didn’t confuse the sewer with the shit. As he so wisely said, politics is the art of controlling your environment.

Yer man knows better: like this.

Whilst we’re on the subject of public works, by the way, may I point out that hitting up Centrica with a windfall excess-profits tax would be completely stupid if the intention is to fund a pre-election sweetie special winter fuel payment. The causes of high natural gas prices are well known – we used the North Sea gas to screw the miners and get Lord Wakeham a seat on the Enron board, and now we’re stuck with a lot of gas-fired power stations and noninsulated Victorian buildings, while the import infrastructure consists of three pipes, two of which pass through about six middlemen before getting to the big tap next to Vladimir Putin.

Even if Chris Dillow’s perfect power ponies plan had a chance of being put in effect, it still wouldn’t actually solve the problem. Just giving people more money to spend on expensive fuel doesn’t actually get us any more fuel or any more heating; in fact, in so far as the recipients spent the money on fuel, it would go right back to the gas merchants.

What would help would be to use the money to, ah, fix the problem. I therefore refer everyone to my proposal to upgrade every home in the kingdom as close to passivhaus standard as possible, starting with the poorest (say, current fuel payment recipients as a kickoff). Of course, there are a lot of buildings around that you can’t do much to (see above), so instead we could fit air-source heat pumps. Strangely enough, there is actually a small government project that already does this in the Yorkshire ex-coalfield, which has a lot of houses built on the assumption coal would always be very cheap, with poor people in them. And here’s a bloke in Sheffield who makes them.

Well, actually he doesn’t; in fact he imports cheap ones from China. But this does mean that he can supply one big enough to provide your space heating as well as hot water for £1,895 + VAT; which is less than the government’s existing Low Carbon Buildings Programme grant. So yes, we are already giving away enough money per LCBP grant to buy one outright. The only problem is that LCBP grants are directed at people who own their homes and care about selling them in the future. This excludes, of course, precisely those people who can’t afford their gas bill and usually live in houses with the insulating qualities of a mankini. Further, the price is now in the rough area where the existing value of winter fuel payments could be capitalised over a reasonable period of time – so it could be close to budget-neutral.

You want a workable, egalitarian, green policy for this autumn, Gord? One that actually combines wonkosity with bashing? Or you, Nick? It’s become almost routine to read about the search for ways to combine bottom-up development and environmental protection in Africa, say – but perhaps we should apply some of the same thinking here. It is, after all, very much the case that society offers solutions to the problems of the rich but only relief from the problems of the poor.

First: the Ethiopian army claims to have killed a Canadian colonel fighting with Somali insurgents. I assume they mean a Canadian who claims to be a colonel in the insurgency, rather than a Canadian colonel who joined, but who can tell these days?

Secondly, here’s a special one – Jewish settler caught firing improvised rockets into his Palestinian neighbours’ land. If you’ve got a grievance these days, improvised rocket artillery is the way to go, clearly. Maybe I should dust off that article I wrote back in the autumn of 2006, widely rejected by a cross-section of the national and international press?

I’m especially amused by the Danish design collective that published details of a rocket “intended to help the citizen express his or her protest at events such as the G8”; sometimes, 2001 seems as far away as the 1960s. I suspect anyone doing so now would be shot, which among other things is why I am mostly encrypting my stuff today.

(BTW, Jim Henley is wrong about this. Improvised multiple-launch rigs with RPGs on the back of a Toyota are a tactic that served the Afghan mujahedin very well, as a quick way to bring down a volley of explosions an shrapnel an stuff on targets some distance off. Further, don’t forget the rocketing of the Palestine Hotel in 2003, which nicely capsized the CPA’s decision loops and scared the living shits out of Paul Wolfowitz. Further, the Viet Cong were past masters at arranging for a barrage of mortars or rockets to happen, and then vanishing. Steve Gilliard did a very good post on this stuff years ago.)