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 BLOG >> November 2016

Victor Papanek Designs ! [Eco-Green
Posted on November 23, 2016 @ 11:53:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Victor Papanek wrote 6 books on design for everyday people and everyday uses. Today I browsed the last book he wrote, The Green Imperative (1995). I loaned it out so I could share an interesting design from the book.

The design comes from chapter 9 "Sharing Not Buying". It started as a design for a playground that evolved into including a greenhouse laundromat in order to get kids to play there. The laundromat was in a low income neighborhood and included 4 used washing machines and 1 used dryer.

Victor elaborates upon what happened to the playground after they installed the greenhouse-laundry:

From here on the playground was in constant use, serving the neighborhood in several socially valuable ways. The greenhouse became a natural center where the mothers would gather, exchange community gossip, do their laundry, and at the same time be able to supervise their children at play. There were two further positive spin-offs: a neighborhood bulletin board soon made its appearance in the greenhouse-laundry, listing things to be swapped, shared rides needed to another town, services, baby-sitters and things for sale. The use of a nearby commercial laundromat (demanding exorbitant prices from this captive audience of slum dwellers) declined until it was finally forced out of business. ~ p. 194

It should be noted that this design was still a focal point of the community in 1995, 20 years after it was put in place. The "business model" was for the community to own the space and to do community fund raising to build, purchase and sustain it. Coin operation is an alternative or ancillary explanation.

There are lots of aspects to this design that are interesting. I like the mashup/fusion aspect of it, how it serves real needs, how it exemplies what the "sharing economy" also means (i.e., to own things as a group and share the cost of building/maintaining in order to be more sustainable).

Victor Papanek and his students produced many interesting designs some of which we probably see around us everyday. He collaborated with designer James Hennessey in 1974 on a book called Nomadic Furniture. This was a set of furniture designs that were low cost, recyclable, made from easy to get stuff, easy to move, and do-it-yourself. These were designs that James used in his own life when he was starting out and didn't have alot of money. For example, he and his wife slept on door beds as did their child. Below is one Nomadic Furniture design that became a kit business. IKEA incorporates elements of Nomadic Furniture design in its approach.

Victor was also involved in designing the two-sided chair that is similiar to the design above. In one orientation it can be used to lounge, in another orientation it can be used to sit at a table. The design above was intended to be a Do It Yourself design and Nomadic Furniture helped to pioneer the DIY movement in furniture design although it had always been around in "vernacular" or "primitive" furniture.

There is not much footage of Victor Papanek except this 1992 Presentation at Apple Computer. You can see the scope of the designs that Victor was involved in when he gets into his slideshow (might want to fast foward to that point although I recommend watching the whole vintage presentation).

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Do It Yourself Organizing [Making
Posted on November 22, 2016 @ 11:18:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Getting organized is hard to do. It seems that the rate of collecting stuff exceeds the rate at which I can find a home for it. I did, however, find a couple of DIY videos on getting organized by April Wilkerson that might help.

I found April's youtube videos when I was looking for more information on the French Cleat System. She provided an impressive demonstration on how to build a large number of custom cleat holders for her wide array of sponsored power tools.

The advantage of the French Cleat System is that it is very adaptable and you can build new cleat holders to accommodate your evolving storage needs. The Family Handyman editor, Travis Larson, has a video promoting the French Cleat System for Garage Storage in which he offers up some further cleat holder ideas.

I also watched a second DIY organizing video by Kendra where she tackles some harder to organize bits and pieces that accumulated in her shop. In this video Kendra discusses her organizational philosophy of "building homes for stuff".

As we approach the xmas season I'm hoping to do some DIY projects as gifts. A small cleat system with a few cleat holders is one DIY gift-giving idea. The gift of adaptive organization and storage.

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Residential Housing Valuation [Causal Inference
Posted on November 21, 2016 @ 09:37:00 AM by Paul Meagher

This is a follow up to my last blog on causal valuation. I played around with draw.io this morning with the intentions of specifying a causal model of residential housing valuation. This is all very preliminary and is based on very little research on the indicators of real estate valuation. I stumbled upon a few related to housing demand and stuck them in the hacked up model below. The point is not to argue for the truth of this model, just that it is not rocket science to create a causal model of real estate valuation. Whether it is true or useful is a different question.

In social sciences research they are used to dealing with big factors like net migration, economic growth, and wage levels so one could consult some of this literature to try to verify if the model might be correct in regards to the macro determinants of housing demand. We might find in our research that the net migration factor needs to be imploded into more nodes and edges to better represent the impact of this factor upon housing valuation.

Similarly, the "Intrinsic Features" node would need to be unpacked into things like square footage, age and other important "intrinsic" determinants of the price of the house. At the bottom we have the causal factor of how the price of the house compares to the price of similar houses.

In this model, residential house prices are determined by more that one valuation approach. We are not just using relative pricing (e.g., prices of similar homes) to value the home, we are also using intrinsic pricing (e.g., square footage, age and other intrinsic determinants of house prices). The causal part comes in when we start to embed the pricing model into the larger picture of housing demand.

The take home from this blog is that causal modelling can probably be worked into residential housing valuation and that housing valuation probably involves using more than one valuation approach. The options pricing approach (see video in last blog) is not included as a causal factor but can be an important factor in hot real estate markets.

What differentiates a causal graph from a nice diagram is that there is alot of math you can potentially throw at determining if your causal graph is statistically valid and corresponds with observations. Each node in the graph implies a certain relationship between variables that can be tested for in the data (e.g., d-sep tests) to determine if the causal pathways correspond to what you would expect in the data.

The geneticist Sewall Wright pioneered the use of path analysis in a 1921 paper called Correlation and Causation (PDF link). Path analysis has been incorporated into the broader field of causal graph theory with many advances in the field since then. This paper is still worth browsing through to see how Sewall approached doing path analysis. It should be noted that this paper had no immediate effect on research practice for a long time as people didn't know what he was up to and were also suspicious of the term "cause" as a holdover from some medieval metaphysics. The "modern view" of causation in 1911 was with the leading statistician Karl Person who suggested that a cause was nothing more than a limiting form of correlation and not really that relevant to the concerns of a statistician:

The newer, and I think truer, view of the universe that all all existences are associated with a corresponding variation among the existences in a second class. Science has to measure the degree of stringency, or looseness, of these concomitant variations. Absolute independence is the conceptual limit at one end to the looseness of the link, absolute dependence is the conceptual limit at the other end of the stringency of the link. The old view of cause and effect tried to subsume the universe under these two conceptual limits of experience - and it could only fail; things are not in our experience either independent or causative. All classes of phenomena are linked together and the problem in each case is how close is the degree of association. ~ Karl Pearson A Grammar of Science, 3rd Edition (1911) , p. 166.

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Causal Valuation [Causal Inference
Posted on November 18, 2016 @ 08:13:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I'm doing some research on real estate valuation and came across Aswath Damodaran, professor at NYU Stern School of Business. He is a prolific author of books and youtube videos on valuation. Today I checked out his entertaining and informative "Introduction to Valuation":

He mentions that there are three, and only three, approaches to valuation: Intrinsic, Relative, and Options Pricing valuation.

The idea that I am toying with is that there might be another one called Causal Valuation.

Causal valuation is an approach that tries to take advantage of some recent mathematical and conceptual work on causal graphs by Judea Pearl. See his Engines of Evidence conversation for a taste. That research is starting to emerge into the mainstream but it is not trivial to master the tools or the ideas associated with causal graph theory.

To give you a flavor of what causal valuation might look like I'll show you what a simple causal graph looks like for a non-controversial case. Below is a causal graph depicting the relationship between smoking cigarettes, lung cancer, and yellow fingers.

We might contrast this causal graph with an associative graph between the Cigarette Smoking and Yellow Finger factors and the Lung Cancer outcome.

Note that there probably is an association between yellow fingers and lung cancer but it is not a causal one, it is an associative relationship.

Most of our statistical models are associative, not causal. They might tell you to clean your fingers more often if you want to avoid lung cancer. A causal model, on the other hand, explicitly tells you there is no causal relationship between yellow fingers and lung cancer because there is no connecting line between them. Causal models also provide more guidance on where you need to intervene in order to affect an outcome.

Real estate valuation often uses the "Relative" method of valuation, or what similar homes are selling for in the neighborhood. There may, however, be factors such as net migration, wage levels, and business growth or decline in the area that are actually driving real estate valuation levels. Instead of using associative metrics to arrive at a valuation, perhaps a causal approach would lead to better valuations. That is the big idea that I have started to explore.

If you want to play around with making causal graphs, a tool I would recommend is the free and powerful online drawing tool draw.io. I used it to make the graphs above.

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Multi-Dimensional Zonation [Permaculture
Posted on November 10, 2016 @ 02:37:00 PM by Paul Meagher

Today I was thinking about the Permaculture concept of zonation. In the most simplistic terms, zonation would advise that you place an element in the landscape according to how frequently you need to visit it. Elements that you need to visit frequently, such as your main garden, should be within zone 1 of your home. Other elements, like apple trees, in zone 3 and wild forest in zone 5. That is the general idea.

This concept of zonation arguably implies the use of single minimum heuristic that involves computing some distance metric between a landscape element, and your zone 0 reference point, and deciding if it satisfies some minimum distance metric for that landscape element. I call this Single Dimension Zonation and it is a powerful Permaculture idea. But it can be extended as follows.

Let H be your Home and G be a Garden element that you want to place in your landscape. Given this, we can compute the distance D between H and G where G is located at some specified landscape coordinate.

Let W be a second important constraint, Water, whose location we will denote with the letter W.

Where I want to place the garden G is not simply determined by how close it is to my home, e.g., min(G-H). An equally important consideration is how close it is to the water source I might want to use to irrigate it, e.g., min(G-W). The use of two constraints to compute a minimum might be called the Dual Zonation Heuristic for locating landscape elements.

So here is how it works.

If I place my garden G at location 1, the dual minimum is computed by first estimating the distance between my home H and garden location 1 (G1 - H), then estimating the distance between my water source W and garden location 1 (G1 - W). My estimate today was 20 feet from H to G and 30 feet from W to G for the garden at its' existing location. I then weight the importance of each dimension by multiplying each distance by a number beween 0 and 1. Using the value.5 for both dimensions expresses the idea of equal importance. I then add up each factor to get the average distance A.

A = (.5 * 20) + (.5 * 30)
A = 10 + 15
A = 25

So the average distance for location 1 is 25. I can pick other locations and see what their average distance is (say 26, 27, 28, etc...). Ultimately, I want to pick a garden location that is the minimum average score given my equal preference for the home nearness and water nearness constraints.

I'm in the situation, however, where I already have a garden in location 1 so I need to think in reverse to analyze the zonation that is being used. What are the weights I am assigning to the importance of the water source distance versus the house distance? I'm actually very satisfied with the location of the garden so computing these weights formalizes the degree of importance I am assigning to each constraint in this dual zonation analysis.

The use of dual zonation analysis allows me to finally understand why this old farm that we took over 6 years ago is laid out the way it is. Proximity to the house is only one factor, proximity to the main water source (a dug or spring source located in the garden shed that is no longer being used) was probably a more important consideration in determining the layout of the main barn, house, outbuildings and gardens. So we might regard dual zonation as a "landscape reading" technique that might help you to better understand why the built or natural landscape is organized as it is. You can visually triangulate distances between two landmarks (e.g., house and water source) and your garden and visually sense the weight structure that location selection expresses.

An application of triple zonation would be for the location of a "GetAway Cabin" on my farm property that would involve the selection of three reference points (zero points) from which distances would be computed:

F - Proximity to a forested/wild area
W - Proximity to a water source
R - Proximity to a road

Given these three types of constraints/zones, I can search for a location that is a minimum distance accross these three constraints. That location is where I would locate the "GetAway Cabin". Here is where I think it might be: At the end of a road through my field (road source), near a marsh that turns into a creek (water source), nestled besides a green belt of woods (wilderness source). Here is the future site of a "GetAway Cabin".

One more factor that was extremely important in my selection but which is still not included as a constraint is "privacy". I wanted a location where people can't see me and I can run naked in the woods if I want to :-) How should "privacy" be factored into a zonation analysis? Do we convert it into a distance or do we invoke the Permaculture concept of "sectors" and say that the selection must also satisfy a sector analysis for privacy as well? I think the latter is how I would proceed and not try to incorporate privacy as a spatial dimension. On the other hand, physical privacy does have spatial properties so don't hold me to that.

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Garage Mini-Winery: Part 4 [Agriculture
Posted on November 8, 2016 @ 09:39:00 AM by Paul Meagher

My Garage Mini-Winery project is now into production so I though I would provide an update on where things stand and what my vinification plans are. For some project background, you can consult part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this series.

My total farm wine production for this year is shown in this video. The video shows the current state of my wine making room and the process I use to "punch down" my red wine during primary fermentation. Some vinters also refer to this activity as "maceration".

Overall I'm quite happy with the harvest-to-fermentation steps so far. I don't think there were any major faults except perhaps that my grapes didn't come in at 22-24 brix, but mostly in the 17-18 brix range. That is to be expected given that I am growing on the northern margins of where you can grow grape vines. While they may not have achieved full brix, I do think they reached physiological maturity and when this happens you get a tasty balanced grape even through it may not be as high a sugar content as they get in California.

A decision could have been made to ferment without adding sugar but I opted to add sugar to bring the wine into normal levels of alcohol content (12-14) for red wines. I also added as small an amount of water as needed to achieve the appropriate volume of wine needed to maximize wine production in each 5 gallon fermenter.

When you decide to standardize on 5 gallon pails then you can refine your protocols for dealing with that specific size batch. You know how many campden tablets to add to each pail, how much pectic enzyme, how much yeast nutrient, how much potassium sorbate, sugar, water and yeast. There is no reason you can't do this process as good as a big winery with more expensive equipment and facilities.

Future vinification plans involve keeping the fermentation room at 23 C / 73 F for another month, then adding potassium sorbate to stop any further fermentation and as a preservative. The room will be kept at this temp for a few more days so the sorbate can coat the yeast with a covering to stop reproduction. The room will then be non-heated and will go into cold stabilization for a couple of months with a racking in between. The cold-stabilization will be used to deacidify the wine which is in my opinion one the most serious wine faults that can happen to wine in this climate. After cold-stabilizaton the wine will be moved to a cellaring area that I will have ready in the spring (basement of our 170 year old farm house). Temperature in the rock cellar will be around 4 C / 39 F all the time without any attempt to use energy to achieve those temperatures or the appropriate humidity levels. The only temperature cost during this process is to keep the winery heated during primary and secondary fermentation.

What guides me in my wine making is not a vision of making a perfect wine, but rather a wine without any serious faults, a wine that is drinkable. I am not going to take any risks in the process, no funky departures from established protocols at my level of knowledge and wine making ability. Solid execution all the way through, and getting stuff built as lean as possible, is what I'm after. This will be an organic wine as far as I'm concerned because the farm the grapes are growing on was organic before I bought it and I've done no spraying or fertilizing or soil tillage to maintain the grape vines. A small glass of this wine would ideally be a sociable health drink.

My vineyard production this year is not that impressive. I expect production from the vineyard to double next year and then double again as the 2 to 4 year old vines mature and become more productive. I will also have apple trees coming online in the next couple of years that can be used to make apple cider. As a licensed farm mini-winery with the required amount of producting vineyard acreage (2 acres), I can then buy local fruit like blueberries from local growers and vinify that. My garage mini-winery is a critical learning step before I build my next winery at the site of the farm. I'm hoping it will also help with the winery/wine certification process which I might start in the next few months (another set of milestones).

It has been a 5 year process to get to the current stage of this venture and there are many more steps required before I have an official mini-winery license and an ability to sell wine at my farm. Lots can still go wrong. What I do know is that my goal seems more doable as I keep achieving new milestones (cost effectively) and the goal closes in.

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Monday Music [Creativity
Posted on November 7, 2016 @ 08:30:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Attended a music festival over the weekend. Had the opportunity to see Classified perform. He performed with Elijah who provides the smooth counter vocals in Classified's new music video that I can't stop listening to.

Classified also collaborates with and is helping to produce another amazing vocal talent, Ria Mae. I enjoyed this studio live video of them playing together.

On a darker note.

Leonard Cohen is a poetic force of nature and his new album does not disappoint. His title track is sensuous and biblical, and the rest of his album is worth exploring.

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