Abandoning the Blogosphere?

Leah McLaren recently wrote an interesting article, titled “Logging out of the blogosphere” where she describes the reasoning behind her decision to stop reading blogs. I must admit I find myself agreeing with her in many respects. Even correcting for the volumes of garbage from spam and search engine placement games, the signal to noise ratio — the ratio of useful, accurate, or meaningful content to incoherent, unoriginal and redundant content is disturbingly low. This is a problem with ideas that get picked up en masse on the net. Universal accessibility implies average results. For this a favourite phrase comes to mind: It’s almost like half the people have below average intelligence.

When Advertiser Integration Goes Terribly Terribly Wrong

I caught an episode of HGTV’s "Designer Superstar Challenge" last night. It’s a pretty hokey pseudo-reality show where a bunch of hopeful "designer host" candidates compete in hopes of landing a job hosting a show on HGTV. Sound like a premise for bad programming? You bet it does. You keep on thinking that the winner will wind up hosting the next challenge, and they’ll just keep on endlessly searching for a new host until they find one that’s good. It’s the perfection of cannibalistic programming, each new season consuming the previous winner.

What takes this from merely cheesy to "bad movie bad" — as in so bad it’s funny — is Home Depot’s sponsorship. More accurately, it’s the gymnastics the show goes through in an attempt to integrate Home Depot that took this episode from bad to laugh-out-loud awful.

Distractions, Architectural and Other

It’s been a while since my last post. In part, this has been due to the demands of various projects I’ve been working on, and in part it’s been because I took some time out to design a tall building. Pause. You read correctly, but there’s two qualifiers to that last claim. First, it was more a case of refining another design, and really it’s a concept sketch rather than a design. The difference between the two is vast.

Here’s the story on the building. There’s something called the "Absolute Design Ideas Competition" underway. It’s a competition to build a tall residential tower in Mississauga, a city that’s part of the Greater Toronto Area. One of the finalists is a design submitted by Quadrangle Architects. It’s a pretty nice, fairly conservative design, with "full-sized living trees" exposed on its elevations. The trees are an interesting idea, but typical of something that always irks me about these sorts of conceptual exercises: the ability to suspend reality. A closer look at these full-sized trees in the design sketch reveals that none of them have roots. Any roots. These "living" trees just sit on a balcony with open space directly below them. Give me a break, please.

In the parameters of the Quadrangle design, accommodating a tree’s root structures would require a rather unappealing bin that would be exposed on the building’s elevation. What better way to deal with this "minor challenge" than to simply eliminate the roots?

The frustrating thing is that the other elements of the design were really very good. One could see the apartments in this building as very livable spaces. In particular the fragmented balconies not only give the building visual interest, but they enliven the balcony space itself. Too frequently balconies are drab, uniform, shadowed spaces that serve as a place to store junk while making the interior of the building a darker, less pleasant space. The Quadrangle design addresses these problems in a very elegant way.

So what else to do but see if there was a way to modify the concept? What you see here are the results of some thinking on the matter and a some work with Pov-Ray, an aging but powerful open source rendering program. Click on the thumbnails for full sized images.

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There’s some basic refinements to the source design. First, the cylindrical core has been changed to a square with rounded corners. This retains the core concept without creating a building where the balcony area exceeds that enclosed by the curtain wall. Maybe the Quadrangle equation works in Florida, but in our climate, that outdoor space is unusable for at least four months of the year (Quadrangle is based in Toronto, so they have no excuse here). Second, the trees have been moved to levels dedicated to environment and community — and yes, there’s room for the roots. One theme that interests me in high-rise structures is the loss of a sense of a cohesive community. For the most part, high-rise residents have little reason or opportunity to interact short of exchanging pleasantries on the elevator. Another is the disconnection between the land and high rise living. Some local condominium projects have a limited number of outdoor garden plots, but for most people the connection to plant life is little more than a bed of flowers.

This design attempts to deal with these issues. Not only are there indoor trees, but they’re located in a common area. Rather than append recreational space as a footnote in order to allow for a bullet on some marketing brochure, this building dedicates considerable resources to community space. In addition to the trees, there’s provision for solarium-enclosed garden plots for year-round gardening. The core of these spaces can contain recreational facilities, cafes, meeting rooms, support for home offices, and maybe even retailers dedicated to the community. In the admittedly idealistic world of design, these spaces become hubs of a vibrant community that brings the residents together in meaningful ways.

I have to close by giving credit to an architectural writer who I admire a great deal. Once a week, John Bentley Mays writes an article for the Globe and Mail that never fails to inform and entertain. Here’s a link to his article on the Absolute competition. He has some interesting observations on the competition and the choices of finalists.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a Waste of Time

I read a blog post today by Simon Phipps (DRM and the Death of a Culture) which was a well reasoned complaint about the constraints that DRM can place on use of content. Yet no matter how well reasoned, nor argued from which position, these arguments on DRM don’t matter. They don’t matter because DRM will never work on static content. This is so basic, so obvious that I’m not sure why anyone ever thought it would. In fact, let’s make it more general: all copy protection technologies, past, present, and future do not and will not prevent copying of non-interactive media. In fact they’re a colossal waste of time, effort, and money that only serve to inconvenience legitimate users (and as Phipps points out, kill culture).

Terrorism as Economic Warfare

I did a quick search for the title of this post and mostly found references to "asymmetric warfare", meaning warfare where there’s a large difference between each side’s military capability or methods of engagement. It’s a term frequently used to refer to terrorism. Then there’s economic warfare, which can be part of a military effort or completely non-military in nature.

It’s interesting to note that Osama Bin Laden’s version of terrorism makes for some pretty fine economic warfare in and of itself. One wonders what Bin Laden’s total investment has been in his adventures to date. Probably nothing over a few hundred million dollars or so, including labour, materials, equipment, etc.

But what has the rest of the world invested in fighting him? The U.S. tab is probably well over a hundred billion dollars. Add the efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus in investments by other "coalition partners" like the U.K. and it’s not unreasonable to double that.

So that’s a thousand to one return on investment, conservatively. Worse yet, given a reasonably well established and autonomous organization, Bin Laden’s cost of ongoing operations is a fraction of his investment to date. Yet the cost of overthrowing governments, replacing infrastructure, improving economic opportunities and installing a resilient democracy remain astronomical. Moreover one can be cerain that the U.S. has invested a mere fraction of its final cost in Iraq so far. What’s that take the terrorist return on investment to? One to 100,000?

As far as I’m concerned the USSR collapsed under the economic weight of the cold war. With a far less efficient economy, it was only a matter of time before the West won. Now we find ourselves in a similar situation. All terrorists have to do is motivate the world’s larger military powers to mobilize their resources a few times and then wait. We’ll fall under the weight of being dramatically less economically efficient at the game. Asymmetrical economic warfare indeed.