The Moral Philosophy of Kicking Ass

[tl;dr: Virtue Ethics is a moral philosophy focused on character and habits, rather than rules and actions. Instead of asking “Did Tyler do the right thing?”, virtue ethics asks “Does Tyler kick ass?”]

An Introduction to Virtue Ethics

(Quick clarification: I here use the phrase “kick ass” not in the physical “I’m gonna beat your ass” sense but in the be fucking awesome sense.)

Virtue Ethics as a theory is not new. It was the dominant way that the ancient Greeks thought about morality. The thought leaders of Western civilization (Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, Socrates, etc) argued about the specifics, but their discourse was couched in the language of virtue ethics.

Speaking of language, it’s difficult to talk about virtue ethics without using some words that aren’t in everyday language. Let’s define a few terms quickly.

A virtue is a character trait or disposition that helps one to flourish. More on this in a moment.

Telos can be thought of as an aim, goal, purpose, or end. One’s telos might be said to be their purpose in life. Note that telos can apply to more than just people. The telos of a knife is to cut things. The telos of a pen is to transfer ink to paper. The telos of a chef is to prepare food.

Arete means excellence, perhaps fulfillment.

Eudaimonia is a state of being that can best be described as human flourishing, althought lifelong happiness is another way to say it.

These words allow one to begin to grok virtue ethics. The Greeks understood eudaimonia (human flourishing) to be the ultimate purpose of life (i.e. the telos). Every person inhabits certain roles in life. Father, daughter, politician, electrician, soldier, doctor.

The means to eudaimonia is to fulfill one’s roles excellently, to execute them with arete. To kick ass. Those habits and character traits that lead people to consistently and daily fulfill their roles with arete can be thought of as virtues. Any habits or personality traits that block or hamper one from fulfilling one’s role excellently are vices.

In pure English: Discover your roles in life. Develop habits and character traits that enable you to kick ass in the fulfillment of your roles. These habits and practices of kicking ass result in a lifelong flourishing. This is what it means to live the good life, the moral life.

Okay, But How Do I Know What My Roles Are?

The challenge is to figure out what your roles actually are. This was a more obvious task to the Greeks, because their society was very explicit about this sort of thing. We moderns are a bit more angsty about roles and purpose. One way to start thinking about your roles is to apply the four-fold test:

Are you well qualified/skilled/competent for the role? Don’t volunteer for roles you suck at.

Is the role socially valuable? In other words, does it also contribute to the flourishing of society?

Is the role socially valued? Will society permit or reward you for performing the role?

Do you enjoy being in this role?

Notice the emphasis on society. To the Greeks, morality outside of the context of society – the polis was impossible. Morality, telos, eudaimonia, were meaningful only in their relationship to society. They would have thought of Robinson Crusoe as a dead man walking. Citizenship was everything.

Fine, But How to Determine Moral Acts?

No group of people have ever agreed on a definitive list of virtues. That’s actually good; societies and cultures change, and the way in which people inhabit their roles change along with the cultures.

The following four methods allow one to begin to grapple with the virtues:

Use the 4-fold test to determine one’s proper roles, and then figure out how to fulfill them excellently.

Ask yourself “What sort of person would I become by doing this if I made it a habit?”

Ask what your role model would do? Virtue ethics gives a new meaning to “role model”, doesn’t it?

Ask where the act lies on the Golden Mean. This was Aristotle’s theory that virtues could always be found to be the mean between two vices of excess and deficiency. Courage is the Golden Mean between rashness and cowardice; generousness is the Golden Mean between spendthriftness and miserliness.

What About All The Other Theories?

Most recent Western ethical theories out there revolve around rules. They’re focused on actions (this kind of action is good, this kind of action is bad). There are complicated systems of evaluating the actions based on different rules. But it becomes impossible to find a finite set of rules that cover every circumstance. Those systems that attempt to wind up begging the question.

Maybe searching for the right set of rules is the wrong way to think about ethics.

Maybe ethics should be agent-centered rather than act-centered.

Maybe instead of asking the question, “What rules should I follow?”, I should ask “What sort of person should I be?”

Whatever roles are yours to fulfill, remember:

Kick ass.

Creative Maladjustment

“This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. Our planet teeters on the brink of annihilation; dangerous passions of pride, hatred, and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; and men do reverence before false gods of nationalism and materialism. The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.

-Martin Luther King, Jr

Evolving Engineering Culture and Morality

[tl;dr: While engineering does have a background of moral criticism of the profession, it is stuck in the early 20th century. It needs to quickly expand the context of engineering moral discourse to match the crises facing the planet.]

I’ve had this idea for a while. I’m going to try to flesh it out in a few posts. Bear with me here, and please weigh in your thoughts in the comments section!

Why Moral Philosophy is Important

I’m of the school of thought that the philosophical underpinnings of any person or community is fantastically important to the well-being and functioning of that community. Few people besides perhaps philosophy professors are critically aware of their philosophical perspectives on a daily basis (“What shall I do this afternoon? Hmmm… let me consult my ethical theory…”), but people’s daily actions are guided by moral principles whether they realize it or not.

These moral principles don’t come out of a vacuum: they come from philosophers, moral leaders, cultural icons. They flow from the intellectual work of thousands of humans throughout history, perpetuating themselves in written work, mythologies, memes, cliche phrases, etc.

Being unaware of one’s specific moral perspective doesn’t mean your actions aren’t guided by a moral perspective. It means your actions are guided by a moral perspective that you are unaware of. It could be a contradictory mash-up of any number of mutually inconsistent ethical philosophies, although if you grew up in the Western world in the past hundred years or so, Kant probably has a lot to do with it. Think a clashy youtube remix video except with moral ideas.

With this in mind, the choice that individuals and communities face is this:

Be aware of, reflect upon, discuss, and critically engage moral philosophy in order to act in congruence with one’s moral perspective.

Or, be unaware of any particular moral philosophy, or at least refrain from critical engagement; soak up “moral feeling” via osmosis from the cultural environment; and act in accordance with this vague, unreflective moral feeling.

Of those two choices, the engineering community has clearly and unsurprisingly chosen the former. An search for “engineering ethics” results in 2,697 hits. Most of the things engineers design and build can kill people. We build cars, bridges, buildings, dams, sanitation infrastructure, fresh water infrastructure, the basic technological systems that allow civilization to flourish, and the software systems to control all of the above. Failure, or even misapplication, of any of these systems can have an enormous impact on the welfare of the public these systems are intended to serve.

The canon on engineering ethics is large and established. The incredible drive and commitment to the safety of the public on the part of the engineering community has been vastly successful in the West. We now build buildings that ride out earthquakes that used to flatten entire regions. Our vehicles are incredibly safe, considering that they are steel-and-glass cages being hurtled along roads at breakneck speeds and are operated by an uncomfortably large number of pituitary stressed-out basket cases with a minimum of training. We almost never get sick due to contaminated water supplies any more (by “we”, I of course am referring to that privileged class of people who live in the first world).

Engineering professionals have by no means been negligent or lackadaisical in their approach to upholding the safety, health, and welfare of the public. In fact, they’ve overall been stunning.


I think that there are moral considerations of the engineer’s work that as of yet have not received proper critical engagement. I’m talking about the moral context of global climate destabilization; freshwater availability; rainforest destruction; peak oil/soil/phosphorous/everything; ecologically catastrophic resource extraction; biotic collapse; socially unjust development projects; and the infrastructures that are intimately entwined with and enable global economic and social inequity. The projects engineers work on directly impact all of the above.

If we can foster a clear discussion about the moral obligation of engineers to these issues and understand that they are no less relevant than e.g. seismic safety, we can unleash our profession’s abilities to tackle these issues head on. It’s time for us to step up and courageously engage every dimension of these problems in the fulfillment of our professional obligation to the public.

The State of Engineering Ethics

Some work is being done on these broader issues – the elephant in the room is being exploratively poked at – but not enough work, not fast enough, not critically enough. Most of the ethical discourse doesn’t appear to have changed significantly since the middle of the 20th century. Some texts attempt to lump a few of these issues into a chapter titled “Environmental Issues”, which is a fundamental failure right off the bat.

One of the signs of ethical discourse in the rank-and-file of engineering is in the ethical verbiage that is codified in various professional engineering oaths, statements, and declarations.

As an example, this is an Oath that engineers inducted into the Order of the Engineer must swear to:

I am an engineer, in my profession I take deep pride.

To it I owe solemn obligations.

Since the stone age, human progress has been spurred by the engineering genius.

Engineers have made usable nature’s vast resources of material and energy for humanity’s benefit.

Engineers have vitalized and turned to practical use the principles of science and the means of technology.

Were it not for this heritage of accumulated experience, my efforts would be feeble.

As an engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance, and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of Earth’s precious wealth.

As an engineer, I shall participate in none but honest enterprises.

When needed, my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good.

In the performance of duty and in fidelity to my profession, I shall give the utmost.

~The Obligation of the Engineer

How strictly relevant an Oath drafted in the ’70’s is to the modern state of engineering ethics is is questionable, but I think it’s an at least interesting reflection of what the moral/philosophical position on engineering was and, to a certain extent, is.

Public Welfare: Engineering’s Prime Directive

The following statement in one form or another is found in the ethical canon of professional engineering societies the world over:

Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

~National Society of Professional Engineers

The paramount obligation of the engineer is to the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Nothing trumps this. Not profit, competitive edge, technological exuberance, patriotic ideals, ideology — if an action is contrary to the welfare of the public, it is against the engineer’s moral obligation. No engineer will contest this.

(Quick note: in this context, “welfare” has nothing to do with charity or handouts. It has to do with well-being, proper functioning, wellness, etc.)

Don’t Hurt People, Make Stuff Better

There are two morally relevant ways to interact with the safety, health, and welfare of the public. The first and most obvious mode of interaction is to directly cause harm the public, either through negligence, error, or malevolence. An unsafe bridge that falls down, or a sewer system that fails and spews cholera into the water supply are ways that engineering projects might actively harm the safety and health of the public. It is said that the engineer has a moral obligation to not harm the public.

The second mode of interaction is to create systems that actively increase the welfare of the public over the status quo. Designs that make people’s lives better than they were before. Like how washer machines made domestic labor less taxing, prosthetics make amputee’s lives better, wheelchairs and ADA-compliant buildings make handicapped folk’s lives better, borax processing makes glass safer in buildings and vehicles, etc.

Designs that increase the welfare of the public aren’t an obligation. It’s great if you make something that makes the status quo better, but no one is going to call you immoral for making some trivial doo-dad. Besides, sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between trivial doo-dads and artifacts that actually positively impact society (ahem, Twitter).

However, this aspirational and idealistic approach to engineering, this desire to make the world a better place, often gets shorted when it comes to ethical discussions (or, even, discussions in general). A lot of time is focused on disaster cases and failures. The popular narrative of the engineer using her skills to make the world better is weaker than it should be.

So the first mode is a required negative act (don’t harm people) while the second is an optional positive act (increase the quality of life of people). Don’t hurt people, make stuff better.

Easy, right?

It’s Not That Simple

My contention is that the concept of public welfare clearly isn’t being understood broadly or critically enough, in terms of the obligation to not hurt people. The majority of ethical discourse in engineering revolves around the standard topics: bridges, buildings, and other structures failing and killing people; machines blowing up and killing people; engineered systems failures that kill people or make them sick. The rest of the issues discussed are things like corruption, whisteblowing vs. responsibility to the employer, intellectual property, etc.

But the threats to public welfare are becoming increasingly complex and wide-ranging. We know more things about the relationship between human constructed systems and the public welfare than we used to. There is now, in 2012, a large and increasing body of critical work discovering the relationships between our artifactual civilization and the well-being of communities. Hazard is abundant in our world, and the relationships between cause and hazardous effect, while oftentimes not as obviously clear as a faulty truss design leading to a fatal bridge collapse, are no less real or morally relevant.

It’s not enough anymore to merely consider whether the bridge will fall down and kill people. There are more questions that must be asked:

Where does the steel for the bridge come from? How much carbon is being dumped into the atmosphere by the processing and transportation of the steel to the construction site? How many mountaintops were blown into oblivion to mine the coal required to manufacture the materials?

Even more telling, what is the purpose of the bridge? Is its primary function to provide a way for commuters to more easily move between a new sprawling suburban tract development and their distant places of work? Is it just another piece of infrastructure of an insane development system that is poisoning the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the stability of the planet on which we live while isolating us as individuals, weakening community, and further commodifying humanity?

If the bridge is part of a fundamentally doomed and destructive form of “progress” that is doing real, measurable damage to the well-being and flourishing of human communities, what can we say about it in relation to the engineer’s obligation to the public’s welfare?

Seventh Generation Engineering

It is also no longer enough to consider the immediate, obvious, and intended effects of engineering projects. The welfare of the public has a new temporal dimension that has never in the history of Western industrial civilization been considered: the generational dimension. Sure, a bridge might improve the lifestyles of an exclave of upper-middle class debt-ridden white-collar workers right now. But what about the lifestyles of all of the laborers scattered over the globe required to bring those materials into that bridge? What about the quality of life of future generations who will pay the consequences of a world with a catastrophically unstable climate system that the bridge helped cause?

We know that mountaintop removal devastates swaths of ecosystems and turns gorgeous country into a hellscape. We know that outdoor air pollution causes ~3,500 deaths a day. We know that carbon emissions are pushing our climate off a cliff from which there is no return. We know that offshore oil rigs will fail and effect massive destruction. We know nuclear plants kill people when they fail. We know agribusiness is destroying our topsoil and making us unhealthy and poor. We know our buildings are full of carcinogens and toxins. We know our development strategies destroy vibrant communities and oppress those least able to defend themselves.

All of these things directly and adversely impact the safety, health, and welfare of the public. And we know it. And yet it’s almost all we’re doing.

I’m not trying to be preachy, or wag my finger and moralize at people. I’m not saying we need to do xyz because it’s the “right” thing to do. (Besides being an incredibly presumptuous stance to take, it never works anyways. Ever.) I’m saying that the language of moral reflection may offer a useful conceptual lens with which to engage in and discuss these issues, with the hopeful outcome of effecting change in engineering culture.

We need to talk about this, openly, everywhere. We need calls to actions. We need new ethical codes, new Oaths (well, maybe), new standards by which to judge our actions, new memes and cultural modes.

We need to stop making things that hurt people.

And we need a more robust vision of how to Make Stuff Better, and then we need to do it.

More to come on this topic soon….

Why Engineers Ought to Make Good Dissidents

Dissident: adj: disagreeing especially with an established religious or political system, organization, or belief; A person who actively challenges an established doctrine, policy, or institution.

[tl;dr: A skill fundamental to the art of engineering is questioning assumptions. All human systems (mechanical, economic, political, social) are built on assumptions: ferreting out and critiquing assumptions is a skill native to the engineer, a skill that is now more than ever relevant to the task of remaking civilization.]

First Things First: Engineers = Assholes

Have you ever been telling a story or sharing your opinion on a topic in a social setting, when out of the blue you are interrupted by some asshole who attacks the validity and/or logic of the basis of your arguments? Chances are that asshole is an engineer doing one of the things engineers do best: questioning assumptions.

One of the reasons why engineers can be one of the most annoying types of people to have conversations with is the same reason why I think they have the potential to make terrific dissidents and critical thought leaders. Good engineers are good at questioning assumptions. It is one of the core skills that separate the elite problem solvers and innovators from interchangeable spreadsheet jockeys.

Questioning assumptions is fundamental to the art of engineering. This isn’t to say that assumptions are bad. Quite the opposite, in fact: assumptions are a necessary cognitive mechanism that allow problems to be solved. It is the quality of assumption that engineers are concerned with. Is the assumption a good one or a bad one? Are the set of assumptions complete and relevant to the context of the problem?

Good vs. Bad Assumptions

Good assumptions set up the approach to a problem and allow the engineer to focus thought in an effective manner. They cut away distracting and irrelevant information and allow core issues to be dealt with efficiently.

Bad assumptions do one of two things: they either lead to wasted effort on inconsequential analysis, or they cause an engineer to skip over critical issues that result in design errors and omissions. Depending on the project, the consequences of poor assumptions range from getting stuck in analysis paralysis, to catastrophic — potentially fatal — design flaws.

[The St. Francis dam collapse killed 450+ people in 1928.]

[The St. Francis dam collapse killed 450+ people in 1928.]

Forget that saying about assumptions making an ass out of you and me: assumptions are critical components of design and analysis. Thinking about, analyzing, and being hyper-aware of assumptions is hard-coded into the engineer’s brain through both training and hard-won experience. This is why engineers will interrupt people at dinner parties and attack the presuppositions implicit in their statements; they really can’t help themselves, and in fact letting a poor assumption slide is anathema to an engineer’s core ethos. It would be like a doctor sauntering past a wounded man on the side of the road.

The difference is that people will (rightly) hail the doctor a hero for saving the man’s life; the engineer calling people out on their bogus intellectual shortcuts is often described as “an asshole”. (Rightly.)

What does this have to do with dissidence? Is that even a word?

The social mannerisms of engineers is a subject that will have to wait for a later post. Being labeled a bunch of arrogant assholes is a burden we engineers will likely have to bear for some time to come.

Regardless, we engineers need to step up. There are enormous problems facing our world and a huge amount of work that needs to be done in a short amount of time. Most people are aware of these problems, but there are a lot of really crappy assumptions embedded in the public discourse. The following are generalizations, but they are telling:

The renewable energy camp appears to assume that wind+solar+tide+etc will be able to replace the density and quality of energy provided by fossil fuels.

The hybrid/electric car camp appears to assume that ubiquitous automobile ownership can and will play a predominate role in a sustainable future.

Capitalists appear to assume that an economic system based on limitless growth on a finite planet can somehow reach a sustainable resource consumption level.

A majority of first-worlders appear to assume that mild lifestyle changes and green consumerism can lead to a sustainable world.

Many U.S. politicians appear to assume that a patriarchal approach to foreign policy is a responsible means of leading a country and caring for a citizenship.

Many developers appear to assume that tall, all-glass buildings with no consideration of location or orientation is a reasonable method of constructing buildings.

Tons of people within the architecture and engineering profession appear to assume that less bad is the same as sustainable.

These are all assumptions that need some hard-core questioning. These aren’t going unchallenged currently — there are a lot of really smart people out there doing great critical work on these issues, in particular Tom Murphy over at Do the Math — but engineers as a group aren’t pulling their weight. Scoffing privately at the assumptions we read about in the papers and hear on the news isn’t good enough.

Our civilization is hurtling towards the brink and anyone who can level sound critical thought at the insane, deeply flawed strategies being proposed as solutions needs to do so. We engineers need to channel our inner asshole, for the sake of humanity.

So Why Aren’t Engineers More Active?

Engineers appear to have the ability to be good dissidents, activists, and critical thought leaders, and there is clearly a vast body of work that we could jump in on. So why aren’t we? The majority of us engineers are just doing our thing, advancing our careers, living our lives. Apolitical, more or less.

The reason we’re not agitating for change is pretty obvious: we’re historically well-off. We’re employed. The system takes good care of us. We can get jobs. If we don’t like the job we have, we can go get another one somewhere else. We have no skin in the game. Why would we agitate for change? Things are going pretty well for us.

Engineering unemployment is on the rise, however it’s a recent trend. Most engineers are employed and doing all right. Those engineers unable to stay in industry are retiring or drifting off into other means of income generation. The situation is thought to be temporary, a simple economic downturn that will reverse eventually. There has been no sense that the system is dysfunctional for engineers, no mass dawning awareness or real anger that we engineers are getting screwed over by the system. Because, by and large, we aren’t.

[I’ll say it if no one else has the balls: We are the borg.]

[I’ll say it if no one else has the balls: We are the borg.]

We’ve become assimilated. We’re part of the system. We’re cogs in the machine of industrial resource extraction and consumerism. We need to break out. I expect that engineers will start to radicalize as their comfortable position in industrial society begins to erode, but I don’t think we have time to wait for that to happen. Besides, now is the time for action, not reaction.

Towards a New Engineering Ethos

I want us as a group to evolve a new engineering ethos, one based within an understanding of the social, economic, political, and most importantly ecological context we find ourselves in. We can no longer concern ourselves only with the narrow technical fields in which we find ourselves; our understanding of reality needs to broaden, and our actions need to reflect our understanding.

You can’t keep a rapacious industrial civilization running without engineers. I suspect that you can’t build or maintain an ecotechnic, resilient, and sustainable civilization without engineers, either. I am certain that engineers will play no role whatsoever on a world where the air can no longer be breathed by humans.

We need to understand that we’re faced with a choice, that the time is short, and that there is no such thing as not making a decision.

What happens when the engineers take to the streets? What happens when the engineers mobilize and ruthlessly question assumptions and apply systems thinking to a nightmarishly dysfunctional system? When we join in solidarity with the rest of the populations of the earth already agitating for a better world?

How Not to Model an Appropriate Technology Project us

[tl;dr: When modeling a complex project, let the sketchup model stand alone and speak for itself during the design process. Wait until the design is very well gelled before getting into drawing and construction process drawings.]

The open source lathe project I’ve been doing modeling for recently launched the first version of the build manual. I’m writing this post to collect my thoughts on the process and communicate some extremely valuable lessons I learned.


When I signed on for this project, I honestly thought it’d be a commitment of 2-4 weeks. Six weeks, maybe, if I got ornate.

(Heh. It’s now month 8?)

How I Thought the Project Would Go:

Model the lathe in two weeks > set up cool drawings > write the manual and format > publish in a couple weeks > woohoo done!

How the Project Actually Went:

Model the lathe > set up a couple cool drawings > design change > tweak the model > cool drawings now outdated, so redo > design change > remodel > design change > remodel > get halfway done doing cool drawings > major design change, scrap the entire model and start a new one > start new dra– > design change > design change > remodel > hey, guys, c’mon, just let me– > design change > seriously guys not funny > design change > drawings > etc etc…

This isn’t a dig on Pat or anyone else, it’s my mistake for not acknowledging the true nature of projects like these and adapting quicker to the stage of design I found myself in. My error was in thinking that the design was more or less done. The reality was that the project was still going through conceptual design.

Sketchup is a super simple, quick tool for modeling design ideas and it actually handles complexity well. It’s suited for projects like this where a lot of changes need to be made and explored and the design is dynamic.

The drawing creation program paired with Sketchup, Layout, is supposedly a two-way street. That is, you can set up a drawing in Layout (say, a longitudinal section through the model, or an exploded view of a component), go back and change the model in Sketchup, and the drawing in Layout will update.

[It took me about 3 minutes to cut and dimension this section within Sketchup.]

[It took me about 3 minutes to cut and dimension this section within Sketchup.]

Will this is technically true, it didn’t work out that seamlessly. Part of this has to do with my skill level: if I was better at organizing complex models using the Outliner, Layers, and Scenes, it would definitely have gone smoother.

But I maintain that even if I was a master of the outliner, drawings set up to communicate the progression of construction of a complex machine would not have survived the couple major and numerous minor design changes. At the very least, it would have required a lot of maintenance work for not a lot of payoff.

The real issue is that I was doing things out of sequence. I spent a lot of time setting up both technical drawings and construction process drawings, and then redoing them, over and over. In retrospect, my time would have been better spent just doing modeling work.

The beauty of Sketchup is that you can transfer the Sketchup file itself and the program is intuitive enough to operate that anyone can quickly open it up and see what’s going on: for design review and collaboration, no 2D drawings needed. Just upload the model! I was wasting time trying to produce communicative 2D drawings when the 3D model spoke for itself far better.

How I Should Have Approached the Project:

Model the lathe > review > design change > remodel > design change > remodel > design change > remodel > [etc etc] > remodel > wait for it…. wait for it…. > make drawings and insert into manual

The way the manual is coming together now, where Pat is cutting in screenshots from the living model file itself, and I’m adding other shots here and there, while not the most polished, might be the most appropriate way to put together the start of this manual – especially since there’s so much back and forth going on. It’s relatively simple for me to play with the model, try something new, snap a few screenshots off or even transfer the sketchup model.

[About a minute to dimension and export this image, no Layout required.]

[About a minute to dimension and export this image, no Layout required.]

In retrospect, the next time I jump into a big modeling/design project, I’ll be sure to spend most if not all of my time just with the model, and not play around with setting up polished images at inappropriate stages of the project.

Incrementalism is Suicide

Any task, if its benefit to changing the status quo is only incremental, is a waste of time.

And there is no more time.

“The world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be “lost for ever”, according to the most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure.”

The only reasonable actions remaining to us are decisive, effective, and broad changes to business as usual. Symbolic victories or actions are idle wankery. They won’t mean a thing when the world is going through severe destabilization. There is a tipping point beyond which everything we’re working on now will get erased; we don’t know exactly where this tipping point is but we’re pretty sure it’s really, really close.

There is no time left to “nudge” the industry (whatever industry we mean), or policy, or popular opinion. No time left to wheedle people or attempt to win hearts and minds. There is no time left for individual change, or education, or any of that to make an impact. They were reasonable actions twenty, thirty, forty years ago; now they mean nothing.

The only realistic options remaining to us are those that scale widely, are huge in scope, and can be implemented now.

If an action is not absolutely, completely radical in nature and conception there is no hope for it. The trajectory of civilization is insane: we’re sucking down a Big Gulp of cyanide and just sucking harder and harder. We need radical, terrifying, horrible, blinding, outrageous action now.

Anything else is suicide.

What are you doing?


What am I doing?

Why am I just sitting here? Why am I staring at this stupid screen typing away when I could be out there doi

Occupy Design: Or, Why I Joined the General Strike in Oakland

Last Wednesday, November 2nd, I joined the Oakland city-wide General Strike initiated by the Occupy Oakland movement. Among us out there were several of my engineer colleagues as well as a couple architects. We marched under this banner that we made the night before:


[We stole the design and name from, which is an awesome project.]

All throughout the day we had architects, engineers, planners, and just random people coming up to us and asking us what we were all about.

The common question we got asked was – “What does Occupy Design mean? Why are you out here?”

I can only speak for myself – the occupy movement is, after all, the mashup of a million different voices and opinions – but at least some of my sentiments were shared by others out there. Friends – please chime in with your thoughts & perspectives!

Why I Joined the General Strike

I’m an engineer and, to be honest, have a pretty cushy deal going on. I like my job. I like my work. I’ll have my student debt paid off in a short while. I don’t consider my company to be “the man” (it’s a small locally owned firm) or exploitative. I wasn’t out on the streets on Wednesday because I have a problem with my workplace or personal situation. Part of why I was out there was in solidarity with those who are getting screwed over by exploitative companies and financial institutions, but that doesn’t explain the banner.

I joined the strike because I have a problem with the system as a whole, particularly the industrial system that has to do with the design and construction of the built environment.

Take a common modern building. It is an energy (and, thus, carbon) hog. It is ugly. It is car-centric, it is built to car-scale not human-scale. It is filled with carpets and pipes made from PVC, slathered in paints and epoxies that emit VOCs. It is built from materials mined on another continent, assembled on yet another continent in oppressive work conditions, shipped to the site via polluting tankers and trucks, and assembled by workers employed by a firm that put in the low-bid and needs the cheapest shit available to make some money on the project. The design of the building was cut-and-paste, including the HVAC system, which uses dirty refrigerants which will eventually get into the atmosphere and add to the greenhouse gas effect.

The standard way of building isn’t about appropriate, beautiful, useful spaces for human beings. It’s about making a profit off of construction. It’s the commodification of the built environment. We see this in the big-box stores, the tract houses, the cheap construction of our living spaces that damage and destroy our ecosystems because money can be made for the developers.

One of the things we were marching for on Wednesday was a recognition that the design professionals of the built environment are a part of this process. We want to call attention to this fact, to recognize that although almost all of us are the 99%, we’re part of a system that conveys money up the stream to the 1% at the expense of the 99% — draining our quality of life, our dignity, stripping the earth of its natural resources, filling our living spaces with carcinogenic materials, and destroying the human scale of our communities which isolates us from each other.

So that’s the problem. That’s why I’m pissed enough to take to the streets. But I’m an engineer so of course I’m thinking about solutions to this problem. What does Occupy Design mean, in this context? “Occupy” is a verb, so what’s the action?

Man I don’t know. What if we all, as professionals, refused to specify any materials (carpeting, sealants, et cetera) that have PVC in them? How hard is it, morally, to stand up and say “I will not design cancer into any buildings anymore.”?

What if we carte blanch said, no more refrigerants? No more exotic hardwoods that contribute to the destruction of rainforests? No more south-facing all-glass facades that require enormous amounts of energy to keep cool? No more ultra-luxurious McMansions for the uber-rich which no 99%’er will ever be able to afford? What if we refused to work on projects that called for the bulldozing of any greenfields, forests, or riparian corridors?

Beyond what we won’t do, what about what we will do? We will design buildings that are low-energy, use passive solar design principles, and are built at a human scale. We’ll specify local materials. We’ll only build on brown- or grey-fields, never on greenfields. We’ll design in rainwater harvesting and on-site stormwater retention systems, to increase the resilience of our buildings and communities.

The list goes on. This is all highly idealistic stuff; if professionals started refusing to do work, or designing rain barrels into apple stores, they’ll just get fired and then they can go join the local Occupy tent city. But what if we all stood up, said no more, and started agitating for real change in our industry? What would that look like?

What if in our free time (a mythical concept for some, to be sure) we organized people to come together and beautify dull in-between spaces, legality of ownership be damned? How many vacant unused lots are out there that we could transform into an urban gardens, pocket parks, stormwater infiltration basins, greywater treatment infrastructures, plazas, play areas for neighborhood kids? Guerrilla landscape architecture. Hit and run ecological infrastructure revitalization. The Green Bloc. Hostile takeover building renovations. I’m just throwing out ideas here.

This goes beyond so-called “green buildings” or checking off a few points on a LEED template. The built environment plays a huge role in issues of social and economic justice, and it’s been corrupted by hyper-capitalists as just another method for accumulating wealth.

This vision drives me. The vision of what architects and engineers do in a world that isn’t driven by the interests of Wall Street. The vision of the projects out there that make the world better.

Visions 1

[This is a series of posts focused on visions of a hopeful, intentional future. See this post for why developing compelling visions of the future we want is important.]

[Future: The Myst Aesthetic]

I have a confession to make. I love just about every single thing associated with the Myst mythos. Heaven for me would be to die and wake up in this world:

[All these images from Myst IV: Revelation. Via MYSTerium.]

A lot of the buildings appear to grow out of the landscape. At the least, the styles are clearly vernacular and the materials are contextual to the local environment. There is a balance between what one imagines as the pre-development environment and what the characters built for their uses.

The existing landscape wasn’t bulldozed and razed to make way for the buildings and machines, yet neither are the human environments built aloofly separate. The natural and man-made environments and systems are integrated, defying the establishment of clear devising lines between them.

These worlds are at once world-made-by-hand, technological, artful, spiritual, and ecological.

Not only do I want to make art that approaches this style and vision, I want to make the world approach this style and vision.

Visions of the Future

[I wrote a blog over at from 2011 till about 2014. I’m shutting that site down, and moving some of the content over here.]

What is your vision of the future?


There are a lot of visions of the future out there in popular culture that we’re exposed to, mostly in movies, graphic novels, and books. The vast majority of these visions are dark, dystopic, melancholy, depressive, oppressive, hopeless. They depict worlds completely broken and trashed.

[The Road]

[Book of Eli]

It’s not surprising that these depictions of the future are common. It’s not exactly an act of extraordinary mental gymnastics to look at present conditions and trends in the real world and extrapolate out a few years. A lot of our built environments are starting to look like the scenes you’d see in Running Man, say, or The Walking Dead.

[via Flickr by Bob Jagendorf]

Some of the landscapes we’ve created are downright hellish.

[Asbestos dump – Superfund site]

We’re bombarded with negativity.

We talk a lot about how screwed up everything is. Yes, it’s important, we need to know what’s wrong with something before we can fix it.

But for the love of god, fashion has gone post-apocalyptic.

Everyone has a crystal clear idea (several ideas, actually: a whole slew of tailored options) of what the post-apocalyptic future is going to look like. Lots of leather and fingerless gloves and sawed-off shotguns and all that.

What about a future we actually want to live in?

But when we talk about how we need to fix things, I feel like we only have a sort of vague, hand-wavy idea of what the future we want actually looks like. I realize that the future will be emergent and in many ways is not designable, but if we don’t have any sort of clear image of what we want, how can we build it? How can we get others to help us? How can we get large masses of people behind our ideas and see them to fruition?

It’s not a vacuum. We have some architectural visualizations here and there, some conceptual art of “green” developments. A good number of them look a bit like this:

[Concept design for green city in Korea by MVRDV]

Honestly I don’t even want to get into what’s wrong with this because I’m trying to keep this post short. It looks nice and all, but building brand-new giant green dildos in the middle of what looks like wetlands strikes me vaguely as a Pruitt-Igoe redux – except with green stuff attached! I’m not an expert but color me skeptical. How many top-down, hierarchically organized, starchitect-branded intentional metropolis projects have turned out to be great communities for real people?

I’m getting off the point here.

The point is that we don’t have enough focused, critical visions of what a sustainable future looks like. We maybe think that we’d drive an electric car, have lots of sun in our office, and wear hemp or something. There’s a disconnect between how our lives work now, how we think they might work in the future, and the realities of a post-peak oil civilization in the throes of climate destabilization working through the implications of its advanced state of infrastructural complexity, interconnectedness, and interdependence.

I want to see more speculation and vision about how a non-doomsday future might look. In any and all media. Some stuff is out there but it’s scattered and it’s not enough in our collective consciousness. If all we focus on are these dystopian nightmares, that’s where we’ll end up. It’s like mountain biking… if you look over the cliff at the side of the trail, you’ll fall off it for sure. Keep your eyes on the trail, on the goal, and you’ll make it through.

In one of my next posts I’m going to start exploring how to critically engage with a personal vision of the future, and how that can inform day-to-day work in the real world. Stay tuned!


[Update: This article by Julien Smith is related to the above, and excellent: ]

We're On To You

[I wrote a blog over at from 2011 till about 2014. I’m shutting that site down, and moving some of the content over here.]

Dear You Know Who You Are,

We’re on to you.

We’re getting wise to the fact that possessions and debt are slavery, and that experiences and relationships are liberation. More and more and more people are understanding that consumptive lifestyles

  • make us poorer, both financially and spiritually,

  • make the rich few richer, and

  • are rapidly depleting the world’s resources.

To a lot of us, these facts are so obvious that we’re tired of talking about it and we’re moving the conversation past it.

But the point is that we’re on to you. After 50-60 years of this, we’ve figured out that behind the white-picket-fence facade there’s a mountain of debt, workaholism,  and hours and hours of our precious short lives spent watching a beautiful rich person on the TV telling us to buy some product, beautiful rich people telling us what we care about, ugly rich people telling us how to think about our money and the economy. Slow, desparate, un-communicated dissatisfaction and unhappiness, vented through sports obsessions and media binges. Half of the media we consume explicitly tells us to consume more; the other half serves to distract us from the fact that our consumption makes us feel hollow inside.

It used to seem, and it can sometimes seem, that there is no other way. This is the way things are; it’s the way they’ll always be. We’ve no choice. But we now know that’s not true. We know we’ve got options – we know that we can do amazing things with our cognitive surplus.

[Image via David McCandless at   ]

[Image via David McCandless at]

We’re learning that there is more value in experiences than in possessions. That a better value for our money and time is to spend with people we love having adventures, whatever that means to us. We’re figuring out that “downsizing” our lives – getting rid of our storage unit, moving into a smaller house, selling some or all of our cars, chopping our wardrobes by 80%, donating all the crap in our garages to second-hand stores – vastly improves the quality of our lives. It’s the low-hanging fruit of self improvement.

We’re learning that the joy of Making Stuff – of craft – far outweighs the sugar high of buying a new gadget on credit. That we feel better about ourselves as people and as members of our communities when we produce more value than we consume and set it free in the world. We’re making business models out of producing more value than we capture.

We’re learning that we can make livelihoods out of our passions and support our families, outside of the paradigm of the 9-5 sit-still-and-do-as-your-told-till-you’re-65 lifestyle.

We’re realizing that Western public education is a mechanism for producing maneagable factory workers who instinctively hop in line and wait and this is not acceptable to us. We’re encouraging our kids to resist, we cheer all of the young generations succeeding in spite of the machine they’re in, and we’re discovering and inventing new ways to teach them to be creative, independent, self-directed individuals who add value to their communities.

We’re learning that our civilization functions in a manner such that we can’t escape harming ourselves, our communities, and our world, and we are not okay with this. Many of us try to eliminate our harmful impact, but there’s only so far that will take us; we realize that the way our human artifices work – how our technology provides services by using resources, how our economic system distributes wealth around, how our political systems value specific demographics – need revamping. We don’t want to buy a packet of apples packaged in thick toxic plastic grown on clear-cut land in a faraway country where the poorest people are oppressed so that we can buy produce for pennies on the pound, but some of us live in food deserts or are being lied to about the merits of the product backstory. We don’t want to buy things that were produced with slave labor. We don’t want these options: they are odious to our sensibilities as human beings.

We’re learning things that you have known for a long time, but accepted as a reasonable route to profitability. We’re not okay with this. Let me say this again.

We’re not okay with this.

As we understand more about the corruption and greed that runs through every sector of our lives, we’re starting to contemplate your business practices within a moral and social framework. We’ll no longer give you the benefit of the doubt of stupidity or ignorance: we’ll consider you criminal. Evil, perhaps.

We’re learning that it isn’t that our leaders are incompetant: it’s that they aren’t even trying to make things better for us. They’ve been sucked into the maelstrom of clusterfucked complexity of our beaurocratic system that grinds good people into corrupt drones or well-meaning but ineffectual patsies.

We understand that the sovereignty of states is hollowing out and laws are becoming farcical, as enforcement agencies overzealously come down on the poorest majority fighting for justice while giving a helping hand to the richest minority turning a profit on the oppression of the rest. We recognize a higher law, mostly related to common sense and a universal sense of justice and humanity.

We’re picking up on the fact that the return on investment (ROI) of open-source violence has exploded with the advent of fourth generational warfare. Violence is odious to us – it is not something we consider using ourselves as we contemplate future actions – but we know others will, and we know this force is capable of stripping central states from their power to enforce order and maintain basic services. This doesn’t cheer us but it is a fact of the new ecosystem of violence and power in the world. Our faith in the ability of our states to protect us, maintain order, and continue the level of social and infrastructural services explicit in the social contract between governments and the governed is rapidly failing.

Some of us will actively fight you, and some of us will realize that you are imploding under your own ponzi schemes, lies, and injustices. We’ll leave you to your own devices and we’ll work to build something better. We dont’ want to replace you; in the vernacular of open source software, we want to fork you. We don’t need any more hierarchical concentrations of power: that paradigm of social organization is obsolete and we know it. We want to evolve new ways of organizing humanity.

And no, we don’t have the end result well defined, or a governing document, or a “plan”. If we had any of those things we’d have already failed, because that’s more of the same. No one has any clear idea of what that’ll look like, precisely; whatever socially just, ecologically sustainable, one-earth civilization emerges will be exactly that: emergent. Non-determinant. It’ll be a product of millions of voices, minds, actions, and intentions. It’ll be constantly changing and shifting. No one will ever be able to hold an understanding of its shape and organization in their minds at one time. It’ll be a networked, distributed, nodal, organic form of social organization.

It’ll also suck, in its own way. It’ll have it’s own sorts of disaffected people groups and injustices. No one’s talking about utopia here. But it’ll be better than this.

We’re learning that cynicism is obediance. Our future is to brilliantly, cheerfully, open-mindedly rip you apart and utterly destroy you through our hope, love, and passion. We’re the bright burning center of the universe.

[I got this image in the flurry of Occupy media in 2011. I don’t know the attribution.]

[I got this image in the flurry of Occupy media in 2011. I don’t know the attribution.]

We already are building a new future without you. This is network culture; Maker/DIY culture; a culture of community, radical transparency, aware of physical limits of the earth. When you tell us that we can’t succeed because we don’t have a plan you out yourself as a 20th century thinker, someone who does not “get it”. If we had a plan we’d fail. Plans don’t work anymore. Our future will be emergent from aggregate actions, intentions, and events. Our society is a path, not a destination, and as it meanders through history it will reveal itself.

We know that we won’t solve our problems with the same type of thinking that produced them. That’s why we’re not organizing traditionally, why we don’t have clearly defined goals and an agenda. We’ve no guiding document, no declaration, no manifesto: our manifesto is a consciousness emergent from the networked systems and conversations we’re steeped in. Our intentions and actions are on the scale of the noosphere.

We’ve got an inkling that we’ve got a chance. There’s this idea that we’ll be able to work through the extraordinary looming crises of ecological, political, economic, and social catastrophes and avoid calamitous consequences. It’ll hurt for sure. Most of us think it’ll get worse before it gets better, but we think that we’ve got a shot. This glimmer of hope combined with a supreme sense of urgency is what drives us and compels us to burn through the night and the day testing our ideas, talking to each other, dreaming, building, fighting, collaborating, screaming, marching, raging.

Technology Isn't Magical

[I wrote a blog over at from 2011 till about 2014. I’m shutting that site down, and moving some of the content over here.]

Technology isn’t the problem.

Our ideas about technology are the problem. The stories we tell each other and ourselves about technology are the problem.

We started this whole Enlightenment project with the thought that we’d be able to conquer and subjugate nature, eliminate poverty, and transcend the crude labor of physicality through the wonders of science and technology. And, man, we made it to the moon. We’ve got robots on Mars. It’s almost easy to think that we’re succeeding, that the vision is possible.

But we’re not.

The vision is empty. It turns out that this narrative – this mythology – is based in false assumptions. It turns out that nature is way more complex than those Enlightenment era fellows thought. Nature isn’t a passive cornucopia, and when you mess it with it messes right back with a vengeance.

The ironic thing is that the narrative of the power of science has had a corrupting effect on understanding science and technology itself. People think that clean technology X will replace dirty technology Y and we’ll keep on our merry way, but they don’t understand the numbers behind X and Y. They don’t get that X and Y are not interchangeable.  We can do better, but we can’t do the same things we’ve been doing better. We need to do different things.

The Story of Science is blind to what the science is actually saying that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing, we’re running into hard limits, and our understanding of natural systems was wrong. In short, the science is saying that the way our civilization is fundamentally structured doesn’t work.

Understanding this is the first step. Everything else follows.

Tim Ferriss, the Long Now, and how the Meta-Skill of Learning will help us Save the World

[I wrote a blog over at from 2011 till about 2014. I’m shutting that site down, and moving some of the content over here.]

[tl;dr][Preamble][Tim’s Talk][The Rub][Wherein I Read Between the Lines][In Summary…]


Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-hr workweek, gave a talk through the Long Now Foundation titled “Accelerated Learning in Accelerated Times”. He walked through a process on how to learn new skills quickly.

He didn’t really tell anyone why we should care or what his talk had to do with long-term thinking or building value in the world beyond ourselves as individuals. After the talk, people I talked to were asking each other “So what? What value will this help me produce? How will this help me make the world a better place?”

Tim didn’t speak to this (at least not to a lot of people’s satisfaction), but below I read between the lines and propose a connection between Tim’s talk and creating value in the world in the context of deep time.


A little background first:

Tim Ferriss is the New York Times bestselling author of The Four-Hour Workweek and The Four-Hour Body, and he’s working on a book now called The Four-Hour Chef. The common themes in his books are challenging conventional wisdom about how to get things done, set unrealistic expectations for yourself, and accomplish extraordinary things. Tim is an optimizer. He figures out how to do things radically better and quicker.

The Long Now Foundation, an organization that I’m a member of, is a

private organization that seeks to become the seed of a very long-term cultural institution. It aims to provide a counterpoint to what it views as today’s “faster/cheaper” mindset and to promote “slower/better” thinking. The Long Now Foundation hopes to “creatively foster responsibility” in the framework of the next 10,000 years…

One of the things the Long Now Foundation does is host a series of talks by influential thinkers on topics related to long term thinking. Here’s a list of prior and upcoming seminar topics to give you the idea:

  • Ten Millennia of California Ecology | Laura Cunningham

  • Universal Access to All Knowledge | Brewster Kahle

  • Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster | Geoffrey B. West

  • Why the West Rules – For Now | Ian Morris

  • Live Longer, Think Longer | Mary Catherine Bateson

The title of Tim’s talk last Wednesday was Accelerated Learning in Accelerated Times.

If you’re asking yourself what that has to do with long term thinking, join the club. I think a few of us were at a loss.

[Tim’s Talk]

The talk was about the meta-skill of acquiring skills. Tim presented an unconventional process for approaching subjects, which included

Challenging conventional wisdom on how to do something (ask: What if I do the opposite of common knowledge?)

Look for extremes: people who excel at a certain skill but shouldn’t (he gave the example of a 135 lb normal-looking high school girl who can deadlift in the 400’s) and figure out what they do

Figure out the application of Prado’s Law to the subject (what 20% of work gives 80% of the results? e.g. eating 30g of protein in the morning within 30 minutes of waking up produces great fitness results1)

There were a lot of tips and tricks like memorization techniques, compressing the essential structure of a language into 8 lines of text, and mnemonic devices.

Tim walked through a methodology for approaching a new topic and effectively learning it in an impossibly short amount of time. It was interesting, informative, Tim brought a lot of enthusiasm and energy to the stage, and managed to get me excited about my potential for learning new things quickly. You can listen to the talk.

[The Rub]

As a stand-alone talk, it was fine. But Tim totally failed to address his audience. People who attend Long Now talks are people who care deeply about the arc of civilization, and work daily on producing things of value for society. Tim failed to tell us why we should care about “the meta-skill of learning” in the context of the work we’re engaged in. Tim’s examples were primarily language learning and physical fitness achievements. At the end of the talk, the attitude among a number of people I talked to was… well, so what? What’s the point of jumping around from topic to topic, learning things and then dropping them? 

My friends and peers work in creative, productive fields: we are engineers, architects, software developers, scientists, carpenters, writers, graphic designers, and social organizers. We care deeply about producing value through our work, in changing the world for the better. We’re either idealists or just scared out of our minds, and we want to make the world suck less. We don’t care about rapidly learning a language on a plane ride or putting 300 lbs on our deadlifts in 8 weeks. We care about saving the world.

So this was not a crowd looking for self-help advice. This was a crowd of people who daily create value in the world and seek ways to do so better. Tim didn’t tell us how this meta-skill of learning addressed these drives. All of his examples of learning topics seem like little more than the idle wankery of a mildly OCD workaholic rich guy. He didn’t really talk about the nature of the so-called Accelerated times, or how rapid learning would help anyone do anything of any particular value.2

None of the examples Tim mentioned had anything to do with, shall we say, the “hard” sciences: science, math, technology, biology, etc. Will Tim’s method work for rapidly learning, say, thermodynamics, or the calculus, or a new software language? (I think so, but Tim didn’t address this question)

In summary Tim really only talked about learning or doing random new things as quickly as possible. And maybe that’s fine: maybe we don’t really want Tim Ferriss to tell us how this applies to creating real value in the world.

Maybe that’s our job to fill in the blanks.

[Wherein I Read Between the Lines]

Look, here’s what designers in this brave new world of ours needs: we need to understand everything. That’s our challenge. We’ve got to the point that we’ve messed with Gaia so hard that we need to help fix her. If we don’t know enough, we’ll just keep hurting her. We need to be able to hold a multitude of different perspectives, from several formerly-unrelated spheres of knowledge, in our heads simultaneously to forge intelligent solutions to the technic-social-political problems our civilization is faced with.

We need to understand basic ecology, thermodynamics, energy systems, biology, climatology, psychology, history, statistics, math, politics, and a myriad of other disciplines just to be able to design solutions that don’t drive society further into the hole it’s dug for itself. We need to be aware of the philosophical nuances of man’s mental models of his environment, and how they dictate the work he does.

Yes we need interdisciplinary teams, because no one will be able to master enough topics to be a one-person holistic designer. But we can no longer exist in our own silos of professional knowledge; our knowledge needs to reach out, overlap, & interlace with the knowledge of other disciplines.

The designers of the past few hundred years weren’t aware of the damage being done because they didn’t know: the sciences thought that the earth’s systems were functionally infinite. We know better know, and we know enough to stop the destruction. The knowledge exists – it’s out there, in nodes and pockets accross humanity, connected by the internet and our rapidly evolving networked and collaborative culture.

The pieces are there: the knowledge of what we can no longer do, the knowledge that ways exist to do things in a manner that will be regenerative for humanity and for the earth; the knowledge that we have to be extremely careful to not induce unintended consequences (e.g. the idea that geoengineering schemes are suicidally myopic and probably being promoted by profit-motivated hacks anyway); the knowledge that we have to act fast, now, to keep the earth from rejecting our species like the body rejecting an implant.

In other words, we need to be able to learn new things quickly and well. The future of our species depends on it.

For a mechanical engineer, for example, to be a valuable member of a design team for a completely passive building, he has to speak the design language of spatial/human psychological relationships and be able to introduce thermodynamic, heat transfer, and fluid dynamic concepts into that design language, that architectural vernacular.

This is the value of rapid learning to a fairly deep level at competence: the ever-changing requirement for design projects to integrate multiple disciplines, skills, processes, and work flows. We need to be able to rapidly pick up the important concepts of a field of study new to us, to a depth of understanding that will allow us to make design decisions or at least interact effectively with the experts in that field.

[In Summary…]

So that’s the take-away from Ferriss’ talk, I think. A clear methodology for rapid skills and knowledge learning is an extremely critical meta-skill for anyone trying to sort through the mega-issues of our generation. We don’t have an excuse for not knowing, for not understanding, and time is of an essence. We can no longer hunker down in the comforting bubble of our respective disciplines, shrug our shoulders at any design considerations that don’t fall within our scope, saying “I’ve not studied that particular science in school; who am I to consider it?” 

Because we must consider it. It is not acceptable to be ignorant of the breadth of physical and psychological reality around us.

So with that, I’m off to learn how to perform annual energy models on buildings. Later I’m going to try to dig into the design language of architecture. Then I’m going to learn the fundamentals of ecology. 

What are you going to learn?3


1 I can’t remember if that result was weight loss or strength gains or lean muscle mass increase at the moment. Not important.

2 And, look, to be totally clear, I’m not hating on Tim here (that is ground well covered); I’m taking what he presented, reading between the lines, extracting a useful take-away for me and like-minded people, and leaving the rest. I don’t care if you think he’s just a marketing hack; I’m not jumping on that bandwagon. 

3 That’s not a rhetorical question: I actually really want to know what you are interesting in learning. Let me know in a comment below!

The Shape of the Future

[I wrote a blog over at from 2011 till about 2014. I’m shutting that site down, and moving some of the content over here.]

I recently read the book “The End of the Long Summer” by Dianne Dumanoski. It pulled together a lot of concepts I’ve been thinking about recently – climate history, human cultural evolution, globalization, the Myth of Progress, resilience, and the arc of civilization complexity.

For me, the starting point is the (mis)understanding that modern Western civilization has of Nature. The advent of Industrialization is based on the idea that Nature is an entity separate from Mankind, and is a passive, docile entity that is available for Man to control and dominate. From the book (emphases mine):

“Even though his [Francis Bacon’s] scientific utopia proposed an essentially mechanistic approach to solving problems by breaking them down into parts, Bacon’s writings are full of violent, vivid, sexually charged metaphors in which he often personified Nature as a recalcitrant woman. Promising that the new science would bring about “the masculine birth of time,” he declares, “I am… leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.” Guided by this overweening ambition, moderns have pursued an extreme, aggressive, grandiose notion of dominion–Dominion with a capital D.”

An interesting development is that the exploration of scientific and engineering knowledge, kicked off by Bacon’s mechanistic philosophies, is discovering that reality is decidedly non-linear – that it is impossible to predict, control, and dominate Nature in the way that Bacon and others envisioned. The very institutions that were supposed to enable humans to transcend mortality and dominate Nature are discovering that we are, in fact, very much a part of Nature. Furthermore, our idea that nature is a stable and docile entity of benevolent nature is turning out to be somewhat misguided.

Looking back on climate history, it turns out that the current period of climatic stability going back 11,700 years is unprecedented for the time that humans have been on the Earth. For the vast majority of human evolution, the environment has actually been prone to dramatic fluctuations:

In 2008, the ongoing investigation of Greenland ice cores yielded new, detailed, and, indeed, astonishing evidence about the past that might finally begin to explain how and why climate can change in leaps. The reason, researchers now propose, lies in findamental reorganization in the circulation of the atmosphere that can occur in one to three years–a switch so sudden, noted the leader of the North Greenland Ice Core Project, Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, that it is “as if someone has pushed a button.”

This new analysis indicated that the Ice Age ended abruptly 14,700 years ago “within a remarkable three years,”, initiating a rapid warming of 18 degress F that happened in two major spurts over fifty years. The return to the deep cold of the Younger Dryas 1,800 years later took place over two centuries. Then, after more than a millenium, the deep freeze ended about 11,700 years ago with another rapid shift, this time over the span of sixty years, and a temperature rebound of 18 degrees F.

In sharp contrast, the last eleven millennia have been very stable:

Despite devastating floods that have wiped out communities and catastrophic droughts that have brought down civilizations, the past 11,700 years since the end of the Younger Dryas nevertheless rank as a time of extremely low climate variability. Before this calm period, our ancestors faced a far more erratic and demanding climate marked by fluctuations from decade to decade that were ten times greater than current climate extremes. … Living with such extremes would be “immeasurably more demanding” and would require “an extraordinarily adaptable, flexible, and migratory lifestyle to adjust to changing environmental conditions.”

In other words, it is the relative climatic stability that we are currently living in that has enabled civilizations to flourish, that has enabled societies to abandon the extreme flexibility required to survive in a variable environment.

It seems unlikely that human societies could have evolved to their impressive level of today in interglacials of 6,000 years or less…” observes James White, who studies the Earth’s climate history at the University of Colorado. “We have needed this long period of stable and warm climate to develop modern, complex societies.

The interconnected, interdependant systems of resource extraction, manipulation and proliferation that enable our civilization are dependant on a stable environment.

“Our corporations have built the most efficient system of production the world has ever seen, perfectly calibrated to a world where nothing bad ever happens. But this is not the world we live in.” Says Barry Lynn.

Our civilization is now at the point where it has dumped so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and are continuing to do so, that the chance that the climate is going to continue to remain stable – or even that its changes will be gradual, giving us time to respond and adapt leisurely – is doubtful. It’s no longer a question of whether we’ll hit tipping points, it’s when, and what precisely the severity of the consequences for doing so are going to be.

All this leads to some extremely interesting questions (I think):

What does a modern civilization look like in a world with a fluctuating climate?

What kind of infrastructures can withstand the system shocks that will come?

What will be the failure modes and effects of existing systems (the ones not adaptable to rapidly changing climate)?

What’s the critical path from where we are today to a future where humans are no longer driving climate systems, and have adapted to whatever climate we wind up with?

We talk about sustainability, which to my mind implies in some sense a steady state type of balance with nature. What is sustainability if nature itself isn’t in any sort of steady state? What if a fully sustainable community in California’s Central Valley in 2020 becomes unsustainable in 2030 due to changing local weather patterns?

In summary, what I think these facts about climate variability imply is that any discussion of green, sustainable solutions is irrelevant unless it considers the shape of our possible climate futures. They also imply that the future is going to look nothing like the present, and not in the way that the Golden Age of Science Fiction painted a picture of humans ascending to the stars in an upward arc of technological advancement.

What do you think it’ll look like?


Update: Just saw Alex Steffen’s post Future-Ready Cities: Why the capacity and willingness to change trump everything. Very related to this post.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that readiness to act matters more than any of these. Places that invest boldly in the next decades in ruggedizing their systems, growing civic resilience and building up the local capacity for innovation, adaptation and rapid cultural change… these are the places that will be most prepared for the storms on the horizon.

His book Worldchanging 2.0 is full of the type of solutions that a future resilient city might have; highly recommended reading.

Atemporal Engineering

[I wrote a blog over at from 2011 till about 2014. I’m shutting that site down, and moving some of the content over here.]

The Idea of Progress, the idea that advances in science, technology, and social organization produce linear improvements in the human condition, has been the dominant social narrative of Western Civilization since the Enlightenment.

Technical design – engineering – has been enslaved to the narrative of Progress for over 200 years. Science and technology, driven by rationality and the promise that man will one day fully dominate and control nature, has been a tool of capitalist industrialization, powering limitless growth and ever-increasing productivity.

But the narrative is crumbling, and everyone knows it.

“The psychology of the American Zeitgeist has been shattered by the failure of all of our national narratives.

“A diminishing of the relevance of the sovereign nation state, revealed in the insecure efforts to reinforce its very existence with the fantasy of border walls, the inability of governments large and small to service their own debt, and the dubious viability of governance by a monolithic “sovereign” in a world that is really run by networks.” 1

The claim of improved human condition is rendered grotesque in the face of emergent inequity between the very few and the very many.

The assumptions of limitless growth are running up against the physical limits of a finite world; an impending ecological self-correction is putting the fiscal economy in its place in the primary-secondary-tertiary hierarchy of reality. The assumptions and operations of the economic system are nakedly insane.

The ability of nation-states to fulfill their social contracts is hollowing out in the face of diffuse and distributed enemies. Strength is weakness. Over a trillion dollars and a decade of nation-building can’t secure peace, but $50 and five men can without personal consequence blow up a water pipeline that shuts down a natural gas refinery for a week that powers a power plant that supplies electricity to oil export pumps, resulting in a few billion dollars worth of lost exports. The ROI of violence in an online networked open source world is enormous.[2]

The dominant ideology of our civilization is irrelevant, ruined.

We know what industrial-era engineering and technological endeavors look like. The ruins of the unsustainable surround us. The interesting question is this:

What does post-industrial, network culture, atemporal engineering look like?

The idea that history ended, and that the market sorts that out, and that the Pentagon bombs it if that doesn’t work – it’s gone. The situation now is one of growing disorder. A failed state, a potentially failed globe, a collapsed WTO, a collapsed Copenhagen, financial collapses, lifeboat economics, transition to nowhere. Historical narrative, it is simply no longer mapped onto the objective facts of the decade. The maps in our hands don’t match the territory, and that’s why we are upset.”

“What we are facing over a decade is a decade of emergency rescue, of resiliency, of attempts at sustainability, rather than some kind of clear march toward advanced heights of civilization. We are into an era of decay and repurposing of broken structures, of new social inventions within networks, a world of ‘Gothic High-Tech’ and ‘Favela Chic’ (as I’ve called it), a crooked networked bazaar of history and futurity, rather than a cathedral of history, and a utopia of futurity.”3

Bruce Sterling is talking about Atemporality for the Creative Artist. I suspect that Atemporality for the Engineer will be similar.

Technical design and engineering in particular has been a pawn in the narrative of human ascendancy.

The question is: what are we now? As progress, the nation-state, capitalism, and our economic systems are hollowing out and becoming their own punch lines, what is the role and relevancy of engineering? What does engineering look like that isn’t just one more rusty gear in the crumbling machine of the ruins of the enlightenment?


[1] The Day the Narrative Died.

[2] Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization. By John Robb.

[3] Atemporality for the Creative Artist.

Redefining Engineering Vernacular

[I wrote a blog over at from 2011 till about 2014. I’m shutting that site down, and moving some of the content over here.]

I’ve been using the word “engineer” a lot lately, and I really need to clarify what I mean by that.

It would be fair for you to assume I mean engineer in the traditional sense: an individual with an engineering degree who works in industry. Electrical engineers, civil engineers, even mechanical engineers like myself.

First lets take a look at the definition of engineering. From Wikipedia:

Engineering is the discipline, art, skill and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design and build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes that safely realize improvements to the lives of people.

So when I apply my scientific knowledge of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics to design systems that heat, cool, and ventilate a building that people live in, I’m clearly practicing engineering. In my hometown, engineers apply their scientific knowledge of chemical engineering and physics to design and operate a facility that extracts chemicals from a dry lake bed, producing soda ash, sodium sulfate, and borax that are used to make glass, soap, and a lot more. Again, a clear cut case of engineering.

What about landscape architecture, a profession not typically associated with engineering?

Well, landscape architects apply scientific knowledge of ecology, biology, geology, hydrology, and climatology to design landscape systems that control the flows of water and wind in the built environment, impact (negatively or positively, depending on the design) wildlife habitat and migration patterns, are aesthetically pleasing, and guide the social behavior and psychological well-being of the humans interacting with the designed landscape. Landscape architects do engineering too!

It turns out that there are a lot of professions and practices that fulfill the definition of engineering: architecture, farming, forestry, et cetera. Anywhere you have people applying a knowledge of [some scientific field(s)] to [some design/system/solution to a problem] that [helps people in some way], you have engineering taking place.

At this point you may be asking yourself: “So what?”

I’m not interested in just talking to traditional engineers about traditional engineering. This is not an “engineering” blog. My last post about visual communication was obviously aimed at the more traditional engineering community, but my intended audience is broader than that.

Explaining that more people do engineering than are aware of it is one way of pushing the boundaries of the scope of traditional engineering practice, thought, and, ultimately, criticism. It’s why engineering criticism should apply to a broad range of projects and not just bridges, dams, and internal combustion engines (although those are certainly important projects to critique!).

The traditional cognitive divisions of professions – “engineer”, “architect”, “CG artist”, “educator”, “surveyor”, “carpenter”, “machinist” – are constraining. They put a box around what people think they can do, should do, are allowed to do, or are capable of doing.

“Communicate? Make artful drawings? Don’t be absurd! I’m an engineer!”

Exploring and poking at these cognitive boundaries, I hope, can help people break through them and discover new opportunities and ways of working and creating.

So when I use the word engineer, I don’t mean exclusively degreed professionals. I also mean garage tinkerers, techspace hackers, Kenyan jau kali workers, bamboo bike makers, illiterate mechanics that fab their own improved parts, poor farmers who innovate rainwater harvesting techniques in drought-stricken Africa, even the people who rig their refrigerators to lob beers towards the couch when they Tweet it. Are you using science to solve a problem, whether you understand the science or not? You’re an engineer. Welcome. You are the fresh future life-blood of the technical design community.

Part of what I’m trying to do here is to make isolated design disciplines more cohesive; I’m trying to mix things up. I don’t think specialization is all it’s cracked up to be. From one end I want to take engineering and mix in equal parts graphic design, narrative theory, ecology, architecture, sociology, philosophy, and DIY culture. I want architects, business people, realty agents, CG artists, and politicians to better understand the science and technology that underlies the world we all live in.

The word “engineer” is too constricting. It throws up too many cognitive restrictions and limited mental models. It’s too 20th century. You know what? This is the 21st century. If you want to create an architectural / interior design design-build studio where you dream up cool shit and have giant robots build it for you, borrowing management and process principles from software development, implement radically open business practices congruent with your deep passion for sustainability… you can just do it.

This is beyond engineering, beyond architecture, beyond any one profession that we grew up thinking we have to mold ourselves into. It’s a multi-interdisciplinary self-led adventure through the potential of human creativity and industry as empowered by the internet age. Maybe it’s the return of the Master Craftsman, version 2.0. Maybe it’s something totally new, Solomon be damned.

So when I use the word “engineer” in the future, keep in mind this post. And when you use the word engineer, or are thinking about different professions, think beyond an individual who can’t communicate except in tables and graphs and doesn’t know how to approach a problem except with a calculator and a spreadsheet. Realize that the practice of engineering is broad and the rank and file of practicing engineers is enormous, and the more we collaborate and share thoughts, skills, processes, and passion, the better we (and our designs) will be.

How to Win Hearts and Minds

[I wrote a blog over at from 2011 till about 2014. I’m shutting that site down, and moving some of the content over here.]

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.

To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

— Richard Buckminster Fuller

I live in Berkeley right now. I’d say something like 80% of all stop signs in the area have been modified to look like this one:


Cute, Right?

I don’t own a car, I bike everywhere… and I think these signs are rubbish[1].

Tell someone that what they’re doing is wrong and they’ll likely get defensive. They might think you’re holier-than-thou or that you’re an arrogant jerk, and they might be right.

No one likes being told that what they’re doing is wrong. Heck, tell me what not to do, and I’ll probably do it more just because I’m stubborn like that, even if I think you have a good point.

But if you come to me and say “Hey I’ve got this idea, it’s really cool: check it out….” and if I can sense your passion and see your vision, and if it’s a compelling one, I’ll want to drop whatever I’m doing and help you make it happen.

As an engineer I’ve been born and bred to see problems, point them out, and think how to fix them. Especially working in energy efficiency it’s easy to get cynical about all the broken inefficient systems and paradigms, and spend my time saying this is wrong, and that should be changed, and they should never have done that different, et cetera.

Railing about the broken systems in the world is just not interesting anymore.

It’s important to understand what things are broken and will never work, but if we’re going to change the world for the better, we need to be moving towards a compelling vision of the future, not just away from a broken one.


[1] To clarify: half of me thinks these signs are awesome and wants to break out stencils of my own; the other half thinks that they are accomplishing more harm than good, and that anyways if the people who do those spend half as much time working on a compelling vision of the future, we’d be better off.

Is Kick-Ass Visual Communication Important for Engineering?

[I wrote a blog over at from 2011 till about 2014. I’m shutting that site down, and moving some of the content over here.]

Scenario A: Francis has a brilliant idea for a technical design solution. It’s cheap, it’s easy to make, and it could change the world for the better. Francis types up some text in Word, makes some awful sketches in Paint, and starts telling people about it. No one has a bloody clue what he’s talking about and they ignore him forever.

Scenario B: Kelly has a mediocre idea for a technical design solution. It’s sort of expensive, it’s a specialty item only the rich will ever buy, and its toxic to the environment from a cradle-to-grave perspective. She makes some project boards in Adobe InDesign, whips up a nifty animation in Maya, gets some VC attention, makes a startup, manufactures her product… somewhere, and manages to get bought by a larger company in a year or two. The product gets incorporated into yet another line of toxic gizmos that fuel the cancerous world economy and make human civilization a little more anemic.

This is a problem.

Having kick-ass visual design skills can

  • Get more people to back your idea

  • Get more people to build/operate/implement your idea properly

  • Increase your understanding of the complexities of the design itself as you design it, leading to a naturally iterative design process that produces a better result.

  • Make people understand the conclusions of your analyses. The strongest example of this is made elegantly by Edward Tufte in Beautiful Evidence, where he examines how the burial of crucial launch analysis information in a PowerPoint deck on the shuttle Columbia contributed to the tragedy.

So, to answer the question “Is kick-ass visual communication important?”: yes. It could be life or death.


[Columbia upon reentry, trailing debris. Image via NASA/USAF. Public domain.]

The stereotype is that engineers are terrible communicators. This is not a false stereotype. But, dammit, it doesn’t have to be. I’m sick of people hiding behind their stereotypes. Be an engineer with an outstanding head for graphic design, an understanding of color theory, and be able to sketch up a compelling perspective of a fresh idea on a napkin. Understand the intrinsic affinity humans have for natural forms, a concept coined by E. O. Wilson, known as biophilia. I don’t even know what we should know, because I’m just a dumb engineer.

Most engineers graduate from college with nearly zero training on how to visually express themselves. The biggest pointer I got in school was to turn off the grid lines on my graphs because they made the data points harder to see. The only engineers I knew who were able to put together a presentation or report that was visually compelling had either switched from an artistic major or had some other background in art, external to their engineering training.

Meanwhile I observed my friends studying architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and the like spend hours upon hours developing beautiful visuals to communicate their ideas to any audience. I understand there is a categorical difference between an engineer’s work and an architect’s, but not so much that completely neglecting the visual education of engineers is acceptable.

I have found no reasonable explanation why engineers shouldn’t be expected to excel at visually communicating their ideas, their designs, and their analyses. Until formal engineering education picks up the slack, we need to take it upon ourselves to educate ourselves. Take art classes, read design books, learn to sketch properly, bug your artistic friends to talk about what they do, learn Photoshop, do whatever you have to do.

The world needs engineers who can compellingly communicate their ideas, designs, and analyses. So change the stereotype. Kick ass.

Green Tech is a Fad

It’s not uncommon to hear people say that the whole “green thing” is a fad, that it’ll go away eventually and things will return to normal.

Well, they’re right: the green thing is a fad.

What they’re wrong about is that things will return to normal. Actually, what they probably don’t understand is that the “green thing” they’re referring to is really the promise that everything will stay the same.

Let’s clarify: the “green thing” they are referring to is what I’ll call green tech. I want to contrast it with green design, also known as bright green design, deep green design, resilient design, etc.

Green Tech Versus Green Design

Green tech means doing the same thing we’re currently doing, but doing it more efficiently, less toxically, with a smaller carbon footprint.

Green design means examining what we’re doing and asking the question “Why are we doing this?” and “Why are we doing this this way?”

Green tech looks at a building and says, “This building needs cooling. We’ll specify the most efficient chiller we can get and use environmentally friendly refrigerants1.”

Green design looks at a building and says, “This building needs cooling, but if we work with the architect to cut down on the amount of windows, orient it a little different, add shading, and beef up the insulation, we can forget the chiller and just use a cooling tower and natural ventilation. We’ll cut the energy use so drastically that we’ll be able to cover electricity consumption with on-site solar.”

Green tech is the philosophy of the swap. It finds nothing wrong with the way the world works; it maintains that we can and should maintain our current standards of living. It says we can still live egregiously consumptive lifestyles, we just need to modify what we consume (consume green things!). Green tech is the ideology of The Swap, which is

 “…the idea that we can change the components of suburban, high-consumption, auto-dependent lives without having to change the nature of those lives … that idea itself is non-reality-based.”

To quote Alex Steffen a bit more, from the same post:

“But the idea we that can swap the parts and keep the form is a necessary fiction: otherwise, business as usual would be seen (correctly) as a series of crimes against the future. Building a new freeway now, with what we know, is crossing the line from stupid to evil, but as long as we believe electric cars will somehow transform the whole system, we can pretend it’s sensible and realistic.”

Green tech says “We’ll build it green!”, where in some cases, green design will say “This should not be built.”

Green tech is a malignant economic system predatorily cashing in on a dawning awareness that all is not right, and exploiting people’s disquiet and genuine desire to positively change the world for the better.

So yeah: green tech is a fad, and the sooner it dies the better. We’ll be able to get to the important work of saving the world better and with less distraction when it’s in the ground.


1There is no such thing as a commercially available environmentally friendly refrigerant. There are refrigerants caustic to the environment, and there are refrigerants that are even more caustic to the environment.

(de)Automation: The Divine is In the Details

[I wrote a blog over at from 2011 till about 2014. I’m shutting that site down, and moving some of the content over here.]

There are a lot of corny, fairly sexist images and magazine articles from the 1950’s or so that depicted how people would live in the “future”.

[“Because everything in her home is waterproof, the housewife of 2000 can do her daily cleaning with a hose.” From    here.   ]

[“Because everything in her home is waterproof, the housewife of 2000 can do her daily cleaning with a hose.” From here.]

Typically they showed how machines or technological advancements would take care of everything for us, from cooking to cleaning to remembering things to raising our kids. One that I can’t find now showed a robot making dinner while the Man of the House sat back and sipped a Gin and Tonic. The promise was that eventually, we’d build better and smarter automaton that would do all our chores for us and we could sit back and do whatever we wanted. We’d be liberated, finally, from mundane day-to-day activities.

These predictions were all wrapped up in the myth of Progress, the upward arch of technological advancement. Technology as the salvation and mechanism for mankind to ascend.

First let me be clear: I’m not anti-technology. First because any true “anti-technologist” who doesn’t reject the simplest artifact (say, a stick fashioned for digging in the dirt) is just drawing arbitrary lines in the sand and declaring this to be technology and that to be… something else. Technology is grand. I like integrated circuits, shoes, penicillin, optical lenses, surgery, radar, and sporks; it’s all neat stuff. I’m not saying technology is bad; tech just is.

A knife is a flat piece of steel ground to an edge. It just exists. A knife in my back is a bad thing, from my perspective at least. A phase-change material that is non-toxic to humans is just some molecules bound to each other in a particular way. A million tons of the stuff dumped into the atmosphere ripping a hole through the ozone layer letting deadly rays from the sun through is far from okay. That’s what I’m getting at: technology is, but how we use it and the stories we tell ourselves about it have value to them.

What I’ve been realizing lately is that the more I use some technology to automate my design work, the more distant from the work I get. I’ve set an insulating barrier between myself and whatever it is I’m doing and I lose touch with it. I’m at the top level and the details of the project are five levels down: I can’t see them.

I catch myself working in broader and broader strokes, until I just sort of wave my hands at the problem, throw some rules of thumb at it, hit the button that makes it go, and call it a day.

This removes all sense of craft from whatever I’m doing, be it a mechanical system design, a drawing, or an event I’m planning.

It’s the difference between working out the flows of energy and matter in a thermodynamic system with pencil and paper, sketching it out, seeing the design, versus throwing some inputs into a calculator someone else built. The result might be the same (although it’s more likely I’ll miss a nuance to the system and mess something up) but I won’t have that intimate connection with the design or analysis.

When I just pull the lever and crank out a result, I feel unfulfilled and bored. I feel like a machine myself. The more automation I use, the more of an automaton I become.

But when I get down into the nitty gritty details of a problem, I just feel good. Scratch that. I feel amazing. I feel fulfilled, vibrant, and alive. It might be 2:34am and I haven’t eaten in 12 hours and I stink and oh damn I’ve needed to pee for a long time without realizing it but I feel like a fucking rock star.

At some level of experience with the details of a particular type of problem, I can start to ease up. When I’ve done something a hundred times and really grok it, I start to figure out how to automate it so I can spend more of my time in the details of something that isn’t old hat to me. The danger lies in skipping straight automating the task: if I never spend the time in the details, I’ll never really understand what I’m doing, and my knowledge will be full of holes. The further I go in that manner, the shakier will my foundation be.

Like everything, there’s nuance and a balance. All automation isn’t bad: in many cases it is extremely appropriate. You will never hear me complain about how computers automate the task of adding and subtracting stuff, or doing statistical analysis on large batches of data. Some automated processes can pull out semantic value from data that a human doing manually would never be able to.

Just… be careful. Critically examine what you are automating. If you start to feel like a lever yourself, take a step back and think it over.

Engineering Criticism

[I wrote a blog over at from 2011 till about 2014. I’m shutting that site down, and moving some of the content over here.]

Background: Architectural Criticism

There is an entire field of writing and thinking that is concerned with analyzing, critiquing, and reviewing works of architecture. Traditionally “architectural criticism” means (from Wikipedia):

“…the act of writing or speaking about a building, usually of historical importance or novel design or built in a notable public space.”

I find Geoff Manaugh’s post on architectural criticism over at BLDGBLOG illuminating. The point he makes is that the scope of architectural concern isn’t limited to what is formerly considered Architecture, the iconic buildings designed by famous architects. I highly recommend you read the entire post (and, well, the entire blog, really), but to quote Geoff:

“Architecture,” for most Americans, means Home Depot – not Mies van der Rohe. You have every right to discuss that architecture. For questions of accessibility, material use, and land policy alone, if you could change the way Home Depots all around the world are designed and constructed, you’d have an impact on built space and the construction industry several orders of magnitude larger than changing just one new high-rise in Manhattan – or San Francisco, or Boston’s Back Bay.

You’d also help people realize that their local Home Depot is an architectural concern, and that everyone has the right to critique – or celebrate – these buildings now popping up on every corner. If critics only choose to write about avant-garde pharmaceutical headquarters in the woods of central New Jersey – citing Le Corbusier – then, of course, architectural criticism will continue to lose its audience. And it is losing its audience…

Put simply, if everyday users of everyday architecture don’t realize that Home Depot, Best Buy, WalMart, even Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose, can be criticized – if people don’t realize that even suburbs and shopping malls and parking garages can be criticized – then you end up with the architectural situation we have today: low-quality, badly situated housing stock, illogically designed and full of uncomfortable amounts of excess closet space.

And no one says a thing.

Everyone, everywhere, is surrounded by the architecture of the built environment, be it city hall, the office building they work in, the highway overpass they drive over every day, the parks they walk their dog in, or the virtual worlds they explore in computer games. The built environment impacts everyone’s daily experience in a way that is so pervasive and all-encompassing that I suspect few people are aware of where the bounds of the built environment actually are. And it is every aspect and part of the built environment that Geoff is saying is open to architectural criticism, not just the blockbuster starchitect projects. As long as everyday architecture continues to be outside the realm of architectural criticism, it will continue to be poorly designed and executed.

Going a little further, I want to pull in the idea that mankind is part of nature, not opposed to or outside of nature. Western civilization has for some time operated under the assumption that humans can control nature and have dominion over it. The reality is that humans are nature, a part of it anyway, and our attempt to subjugate it to our wills is having an odd, unpredictable and recursive series of consequences both on humans and the natural systems of this planet.

Everything is now the built environment. We live in the Anthropocene. The Earth is now the built environment. There are no more boundaries, no Wilderness, no untouched pristine lands. The idea that Man and Nature are separate entities is fallacious, and it blinders critical thought on human impact on the world.

So What Does That Have to Do With Engineering?

In the same way that Home Depots, Half-Life, and the suburbs are a part of architectural space, so too are urban centers, the urban heat island effect, Portal 2, the insane hydrology of the American Southwest, agriculture, The Matrix, climate change legislation, golf courses, transportation infrastructure, the cloud, stormwater mitigation strategies, carbon tax schemes, and rare earth mining operations a part of engineering space (and, thus, open to engineering criticism).

I see two main differences between architectural criticism and current engineering writing; the audience and the scope.

The audience of architectural criticism is (or should be, as I gather architectural critics agree on) wider than the community of architects. They want to engage the wider public in the conversation.

The difference between writing on engineering topics and writing on architectural topics is that in general the only people who read engineering related pieces of writing are themselves engineers.

I want engineering writing that is accessible to people whose first thought when someone says “the first law of thermodynamics” is not


In terms of scope, thoughtful engineers should write about engineering projects, yes. But also architectural projects, landscape projects, urban design projects, novels, film, political situations, and cultural ideologies and narratives (especially cultural ideologies and narratives).

What could thoughtful, critical, engineering writing, in a way that non-engineers will be able to understand and connect with.

What’s the Point?

Ask a random passersby what they think of when they see a tall glass building. I got a “Ooo, shiny!” today.

Ask many architects what they think of when they see a tall glass building. Maybe they’ll say pride, or appreciation for the design and the form of it.

Ask an HVAC engineer into green building design what she thinks about a glass building, and chances are she’ll say “An enormous heat load requiring a huge amount of energy to condition.”1

If a design team set out to design the most energetically consumptive and inefficient building they could, a standard glass building would be the result. Heat bleeds into and out of the skins of glass buildings.The only way to make glass buildings comfortable to inhabit is to expend extraordinary amounts of energy heating and/or2 cooling them, unless the local climate is a steady 20°C year-round. This is fine if cheap, abundant, dense sources of energy are readily available. For most of the 20th century this has been the case, which is one reason why glass buildings became so common.

[ Image via flickr by    CTD 2005   ]

[Image via flickr by CTD 2005]

However, conventional energy sources are harder to come by these days, and becoming more so. Not only are they running out, it turns out that they are poisoning our world and royally monkey-wrenching the world’s climate system; if we don’t stop using fossil fuels, we’ll be toast. Renewables cannot and will not supply the same abundant dense energy to our civilization that oil and coal did. Let me stress the word will not, but leave discussion for later.

Here is the glass building situation broken down:

Dense, abundant, and readily-available energy sources make glass buildings habitable.

If dense, abundant, and readily-available energy sources go away, glass buildings will not be comfortably habitable.

Dense, abundant, and readily-available energy sources are going away.

Dense, abundant, and readily-available energy sources are the biggest contributors to climate change, are threatening the stability of the climate in which humans evolved, and must be phased out immediately if humans wish their future climate to in any way resemble the one in which they evolved.

Conventional glass buildings have no place in a resilient, low-energy built environment.

Now this is the sort of critique that, in my experience, engineers mostly just communicate to each other, grumbling about this or that project over the proverbial water cooler. It gets communicated to the architect when trying to explain to them why the project hasn’t a hope to meet its LEED energy targets due to the southwest-facing all-glass lobby enclosure, but typically not as well as it could be (think lots of graphs and charts and tables and glazed-over expressions and…).

The other issue is that the high loads on a glass building are just the beginning. You can’t critique glass buildings from an energy perspective alone and do it justice without critiquing the entire paradigm of a financial district filled with buildings that only operate between 8am and 6pm, Monday through Friday and empty on nights and weekends, occupied by people who drive dozens of miles every day to get to work, in a city that is completely paved over so all rainwater mixes with pollution on the ground and runs off in concrete tubes to eventually contaminate streams and oceans.

Everything is interconnected. You pull one thread and the entire thing unravels. If all a critic of glass buildings says is that they are inefficient energy hogs, a reader might be tempted to think that a highly insulated, thermally massive building is a fine solution. There, we fixed it, done, slap a LEED plaque on it and call it a day. Without contextual analysis — where is the building located? what is its relationship to the surrounding landscape, plant life, and hydrology? what is the building’s density with respect to it’s neighborhood, annual rainfall, and insolation? what is its relationship to local history, community, and culture? — we will continue to build a fundamentally unsustainable environment for ourselves.

To parallel Geoff’s statement at the end of the quote above, as long as people don’t think that every aspect of our built environment – of our engineered environment – is open to broad, contextual criticism, our systems will continue to be poorly thought out and designed, using too much energy, too much water, ruining too many ecosystems, ruining community, and being too fragile to withstand system shocks.

And no one says a thing.


[1]As with everything, the thermal performance of building envelopes is a complicated and nuanced issue. “All glass buildings suck” is really too simple, but it works for my point today.

[2]Often, these buildings are both cooled and heated at the same time, the trademark of a particularly inefficient air conditioning system design known as Variable Air Volume (VAV) reheat.