Why is Work Making Us Miserable?

FT Podcast Feed – Editor’s note: The feed is behind a paywall now.

Lucy Kellaway‘s podcast episode Why is Work Making Us Miserable? made me wax nostalgic for my working days of yore.

I had (still have) a love of architecture, a desire to understand a process and to make it work seamlessly. This made drawing architecture doubly or triply interesting. Generally I was dealing with at least two processes; how to use the tools I had effectively and quickly, and how to draw so as to produce the most insight into the finished design the leadership of the design team wanted. On the best projects I was also learning about the process the architecture would enable. Public speaking or sales or manufacturing. Even parking garages had unique traffic flows.

But all of that doesn’t add up to loving drawing, which is ultimately what my job was. I haven’t drawn a thing since struck with the epiphany that I really hated producing illustration. That I am unapologetically bad at drawing by hand, and that I really wanted to be doing anything else.

I learned to crib graphics as a method of timesaving. I would type or have someone else type notes and affix those transparencies to my drawings. I would draw details in such a way that I could duplicate them easily using a Xerox machine, or wholesale duplication of sheets of work. The whole industry of architecture was undergoing a change as I underwent these changes, but it was the echos of “you’re slow, Anthony” in my own head that made it imperative that I cut every corner I could in order to turn drawings out as quickly as possible.

Coping With Dysgraphia

Is it weird then that I would still go back to architectural drawing in a heartbeat? I would. I would loathe drawing elevations and stairs again. Details and plans. But I would be a part of that process again. I would feel that my existence was  meaningful again, contributing to something larger than I am.

Facebook status backdated to the blog. I loved Lucy Kellaway‘s podcast for the Financial Times. She always made me laugh with her dry wit. I hope she is enjoying her new teaching job.

NPR – Happiness at Work: A Myth to Be Punctured?

Coping With Dysgraphia

For Gregory


When I was a senior in high school I had a friend who would borrow one of the novels I carried everywhere with me and casually doodle the most amazing cartoons on the flyleaf. His cartoons were better than the things published in MAD or Cracked. My memory of that time may be a bit hazy now, but they were better to me then. Funnier. I marveled at the effortless way the pictures just came out of his hands, at his ability to draw, to write. It struck me as such a wonderful gift, to be able to take a pen and have it just make the lines you wanted to make and to make only those lines in the ways you saw them in your head.  Freehand artwork, freehand writing, is almost magic in my eyes.

They didn’t have a word for my disability when I was in school. I was never quite like the other children. Teased frequently, I hid in books and stared at my desk, afraid of catching anyone’s eye lest I be subjected to more derision. I didn’t know what made me different, but I knew that I was different all the same. The teasing I was subjected to originated with my second grade teacher who thought it would be a good idea to have the other kids torment me to make me write faster.

In my mind the first and second years of elementary school seem to blur together. It’s hard to separate one form of abuse from another. One of my teachers thought that teasing me was the ticket to getting me to perform. The other one thought that daily corporal punishment was it. Both were dissuaded from their delusions by my parents. The corporal punishment stopped, but the teasing continued until I moved away from that town. I wasn’t to be free of the hangups that this teacher’s cruel methods of instruction inflicted on me until well into adulthood. To this day I remain a public school skeptic largely because of my experiences in school at the hands of the children and this particular teacher, evidence of just how much damage one wrong idea can inflict.

My problems in school were bad enough that the school insisted my parents take me to see a specialist. We went to see the same diagnosticians in Denver two times; once in second grade and again in 5th grade. The school insisted that there was something wrong with me; it wasn’t the teacher, it wasn’t the other children. There was something wrong with me. So my parents paid for the doctors and paid for the travel, and off we went on what was a grand adventure from the perspective of my seven year old self.

I remember the experience because it was such a rare occurrence to be in another place. The Rocky Mountains around Denver were about as different from the grassy plains of Kansas as you can get. It was the first airplane flight I could remember, and it made me love flying. I have a great love of Colorado largely because of the experiences I went through in Denver on those two visits.

The doctors were nice. They gave me various tests. Handwriting tests, drawing tests. Clearly they were looking at motor control in the manner after the time (late 60’s early 70’s) trying to figure out why I couldn’t write well. Writing really hurt. It still hurts. The stupid pencils never went where I wanted them to go. Lines were never straight. Letters were never legible. Cursive? Cursive was a practice in slow torture. Every assignment in school made me suffer in silence; unable to write and yet required to write. Homework went undone. Not because I didn’t want to do it, but because I literally would grow tired from the constant pain of writing and simply pass out on my homework.

My mother doesn’t remember the word dysgraphia being used at the time, but what I was suffering through was distinctly dysgraphic in nature.

I loved to read. Reading and writing are two completely different exercises in the mind. The words would sometimes get tangled up in my head, but the places I could go while reading were so much better than the reality I was facing that I just soldiered on through the occasional confusion. But writing? I flunked a semester of english my sophomore year in high school because half of my grade would be based on a term paper I would be required to write long-hand. The subject of the paper that was selected for me was of no interest to me. I asked the instructor for a different subject more than once, only to be told I would write the paper and to stop arguing about it. In one of my first acts of rebellion I flunked the class rather than spend a week or more in agony only to have the paper rejected because it couldn’t be read.

I have never taken notes in class. When told to take notes I would write a few lines and stop (a trick I learned early. If the page is blank the teacher will notice and scold you) Notes were pointless. By the time I had written down the first sentence I’d have missed the next three sentences. What I learned to do was listen and absorb so that I could repeat what was said almost verbatim, at least briefly. Eventually I learned to synthesize the information internally and was able to rapidly apply it to new problems without ever having to write anything on paper.

I only recently learned that the ability to synthesize data internally is itself a special skill. Most people cannot remember things, cannot apply knowledge, without writing these things down.

Few of my teachers believed that I could do this, that I could absorb and apply knowledge without first committing it to paper. They especially didn’t believe it because I failed so frequently to do anything demonstrative in front of the class. I was afraid to write poorly and so would take far too long at the blackboard to be able to demonstrate anything to anybody.

Even though the specialists who tested me in fifth grade issued written instructions, specific to each teacher about the challenges I was facing learning in a classroom environment, the instructions were discarded as lending favoritism to a child that the school teachers and administration frankly thought was the problem in the first place. My mother was livid at the time and still gets angry talking about the subject. Did they know how much all of this testing cost? Paid for twice over out of my parent’s own pockets? At the insistence of the school? Testing and findings to be discarded as too much trouble to institute, too much trouble to turn into a different teaching model?

What they did instead was slap a label on me. They called me slow.

I carried that label with me from second grade through seventh grade. The label and the torment only stopped at that point because I moved away from my hometown in Western Kansas for a few years; and when I came back to Kansas for my sophomore year of high school it was to a different town, Garden City, and to a different school. I never did spend any significant time in Leoti from that point forward. My nostalgia for the place I long considered home is leavened with ambivalence and rebellion. Rebellion against the label slow.

My sophomore and junior years of rebellion in Kansas under the custody of my father got me sent back to Texas and my mother. The all too familiar plight of children caught up in divorce. Shuttle diplomacy and holidays with the other parent. Custody battles and missed child support payments. From Leoti, Kansas and slow to Stinnett, Texas and rebellion. Garden City, Kansas and missed opportunities to Sweetwater, Texas and make the best of what you have left.

My senior year of high school in the late, hot Texas summer of 1980. My friend and his artwork were also transplants to the town and the school. Since we were both new, we decided to navigate the terrain together. Watch each other’s backs. The counselor lined out the required classes we would need to finish the year and graduate. He and I would be in organic chemistry together. A class we both found so boring that I would read and he would doodle on my books. We also had a few other classes together.

This is small town rural Texas, education isn’t something they spend a lot of money on. In the Kansas high school I had attended the previous year I had automotive mechanics and welding and a virtual smorgasbord of other classes I could have picked through if I had wanted to test my abilities in other areas. In small town Texas I essentially had two elective choices; metal shop and woodshop. Home economics would not be offered to boys. There was an FFA group, but animal husbandry was not my thing even if we had a farm to raise animals on, which we didn’t. When we were unimpressed with the first two options, the counselor did admit that they also had a typing class and technical drafting. These were clearly choices she didn’t think anyone should be interested in. When we went around to talk to the various instructors to see what we might be interested in, I had an epiphany.

An epiphany in the example drawings from the drafting class. Drawings that illustrated how to build things. I had been a model builder for years by that point, but it had never occurred to me that someone had to draw those assembly instructions. It was the drafting equipment. The drafting machines, boards, lead holders, straight-edges and triangles. The realization dawned on me. I didn’t need fine motor control as long as I had an edge to guide the pencil. I could focus on pressure and distance and not worry about direction. Writing? Slow, painful, tedious work; but block lettering gave me the ability to finally be able to communicate what I wanted to say clearly. Leroy lettering guides kept the hands moving, forming the correct shapes.

My mother could not believe I wanted to draw when I came home from school that first day. After everything I had been through, the problems I had writing and communicating all my life. Writing, she told me, was something I always wanted to do. I wanted to tell stories. She would write things down that I asked her to, and then I would meticulously copy each character onto another page. But drawing? She couldn’t figure out what the attraction was. If that was what I wanted to do, she wouldn’t stop me from doing it.

It was another senior class that finally showed me how to write painlessly. Typing. I knew touch typing would be a useful skill because I had already seen my first computer keyboard.

My uncle, Kenneth Zonge, was a genius. No two ways about it, the guy was hands down the smartest man I’d ever met by several orders of magnitude. Smarter than I am by about the same distance. He did early research into electronic mapping of rock strata, using computers to analyze the data and produce results that would tell miners where to dig for various minerals. His company Zonge Engineering and Research still does work in various fields in countries all over the globe. Back in the mid-seventies we went to visit him on a family trip, and he wanted to show off his portable computer.

Still looking for an image of the “Red Baron”

The computer was built into a suburban; as in, it filled the entire inside of the vehicle aside from the driver and passenger seats. You had to open the side doors to get access to the input and output terminals, sitting outside the vehicle in the Arizona heat. As kids, the science went right over our heads, but I do remember that he could type on a keyboard and the computer would print the clearest, most precise letters I had ever seen. It talked back to him. He played a text game for us and we were completely blown away by it.

Presented with the chance to learn how to touch-type as a senior, I took advantage of it. IBM Selectric III’s seem clunky and slow now, and error correction was a pain in the ass. But in the 80’s, for me, it was like being given access to electric light for the first time. I could type whatever I wanted on the keyboard and it would produce exactly what I wanted it to say almost as fast as I could think it. I had never had access to anything like it before. I asked to be able to do my homework in the typing lab, it was so much easier to just type it than it was to write it. I knew I’d never be able to afford a machine of my own, but if I could just be able to work in an office, there would be machines in the office I could use.

The pieces of my future were falling into place before me, whether I knew it or not. My intense interest in architecture could be accessed through drafting for architecture. My inability to write could be bypassed by access to a typewriter. After a year of drafting in high school, and a twelve month technical course at the local campus of TSTI, a twelve-month course that I spent eighteen months completing.

Eighteen months where I was badgered by my advisers. They told me I was a slacker. Told me that I was never going to be able to work in the drafting industry. they tried every way they could think of to get me to quit the course, because all of them knew that I couldn’t draw well enough to make it in the business world. Couldn’t apply myself with enough diligence to produce the work required of a draftsman.

But the instructors at the TSTI campus had taken delivery of a CAD system during my time at the school. And I knew, even if they didn’t, that the computer revolution was on its way. The world that they thought I would have to conform to, to exist in, wasn’t going to be a permanent fixture in my life.

I finally graduated and got my certificate and I went out in the world with my label of slow and my newfound tools, went out to discover the land of design and construction for myself. I went out into the business world and was almost immediately flummoxed by the fact you have to sit still in an office. 

Sitting still drives me absolutely nuts. Give me some decent shoes and rugged clothes, and I’ll spend all day for weeks exploring every inch of ground around me for whatever can be found. I never really thought about it; but I imagine being cooped up inside revisited the torment of school, being asked to engage in rituals I found painful and to gauge facial expressions I found confusing at best, incomprehensible at worst. Maybe I need the physical stimulation to make the mind work.

In any case, the first barrier to office work wasn’t actually the writing and drawing. No, the first barrier was getting over my own internal loathing of sitting still. That took years, longer than it took me to learn to type or to draw with precision. Eventually I learned to tap into what is commonly termed as flow now; and I could draw essentially effortlessly for hours at a time, longer and better than my peers. I had to be more dogged, more persistent. I had to be because I was slower than they were. That is an unpleasant, unavoidable fact.

My hand drawing production rate was much slower. However, because I had to take time to make sure the lines were exactly right, my drawings were also generally of better quality. This is not bragging, this is me relating the feedback that I got from dozens of years of work in the field. Yes, Anthony. Your drawings are beautiful. Can you turn them out faster? The same old label of slow coming back to haunt me.

“You are slow, Anthony.” Sounds like stupid in my ears, and it is meant to sound that way. Yes, I take longer to get there, but it will be worth the trip unlike some draftsmen I won’t mention. That is the line that ran in my head in response. I had to bite that retort back more times than I can count.

I learned to crib graphics as a method of timesaving. I would type or have someone else type notes and affix those transparencies to my drawings. I would draw details in such a way that I could duplicate them easily using a Xerox machine, or wholesale duplication of sheets of work. The whole industry of architecture was undergoing a change as I underwent these changes, but it was the echos  of “you’re slow, Anthony” in my own head that made it imperative that I cut every corner I could in order to turn drawings out as quickly as possible.

In the end, I did it.

Not because I got faster at hand drawing than anybody else. No, all of my peers can sketch rings around me. They always have been and probably always will be able to draw rings around me. The few times I’ve ever had to draw anything by hand in the field I was embarrassed to do so. My contractor friends, men who trusted my drawings implicitly, were always careful to assure me it would be fine, but I know just how childish my scribbles looked.

They were bad, and it was a barrier that kept me from advancing in the field of architecture. More than once I was offered promotion to supervisor or manager and I always balked at it. Why? Because supervisors and managers draw freehand right on the paper, and the draftsman just takes what they draw and cleans it up. I was really good at the clean up part of the process after years of practice. I was never going to be good at the freehand part. That was not something I would be able to do, and deep down in my heart I knew it was a barrier that I could not cross.

What changed things for me was the early exposure to computing at the shoulder of my beloved uncle. The exposure that made me understand the power of computers.

When you draw something in the computer, it can be duplicated endlessly without degrading the copy. The digital world allows you to be able to replicate whatever work you’d done previously by simply copying and pasting. Drawing guides are built in, so shaky handwork is irrelevant. The initial precision was the determining factor of replicability, and I had honed precision to a fine art already. It was just a matter of mastering the new tools.

Since I couldn’t get my employers to see the vision of my uncle’s suburban filled with computer gear, I took it upon myself to enroll in courses at Austin Community College so that I could gain access to contemporary PC’s of the time (386‘s probably) while the motor control problem makes me a klutz with hardware, software is just a matter of understanding the logic of the system in a way that allows you to utilize shortcuts built into it. Classes in programming were more than I wanted to deal with at the time, and programming itself means little to me still, but breaking security barriers on the simple GUI’s the school used at the time was child’s play, and I spent a year learning how not to get caught doing things with the computer that weren’t allowed, while learning the reasonably simple (for an experienced draftsman like myself) drawing exercises that I had to produce in order to pass the class.

When the classes were done and I felt prepared for what I saw as the inevitable future, my employers threw me a curveball and bought into a CAD program other than the one I had trained for. While I had spent a year learning AutoCAD, other CAD programs had made inroads in the architecture field and my employers purchased a program called CADvance and hired an operator from outside the firm to run the system.

Side note. It’s nice to know I was actually behind the times when I started my evangelizing for CAD and computers in the architecture sphere. I found this article over at Reanimation Library on Boyd Auger’s 1972 book, The Architect and the Computer quite interesting.  Quite interesting that in 1972 the trend towards digitization was this apparent to anyone, even if they were really only promoting the products they had created to digitize documents.  I really do hate to think that something that I thought was apparent was invisible to everyone else. Clearly, not everyone. /sidenote

Undaunted, I simply learned the far more straightforward command parameters for CADvance. The process took all of three days and I was already (unbeknownst to me) as fast or faster than the outside help my employers had hired. I mastered his system and improved on it before realizing I wasn’t going to be going anywhere in that firm and made the move to another firm. A larger firm that used both systems I already knew.

It was about the time that my new employers adopted a third system Microstation and I mastered that program (with the help of the Wife’s student software discounts, her then ongoing pursuit of an MLIS and her still invaluable proofreading skills. Love you too, dear) and then started helping my co-workers become proficient with this new third system that I began to realize that I wasn’t the slowest person on the floor. In the middle of a monologue of self-criticism about streamlining some process or other, the coworker I was talking to stopped me cold to inform me that you know you are the fastest draftsman on the floor, right? No, I hadn’t known it until he pointed it out.

Liberation from false constraints, from labels you never wanted, never accepted, is a feeling that is hard to describe. Hard to fathom. I will be eternally grateful to my friend and coworker who pointed this fact out to me. It was years of additional work understanding just what it meant to not be seen as slow and stupid. To not have to push back against a negative view, a constraint you internalized and never let go of until long after everyone around you had stopped holding the view and instead were puzzled by what continues to drive you to be faster.

A recurring argument that I had with a few of my supervisors and fellow architects (back when I had a license, back when I was one of them) was the common belief that people aren’t in nature when they aren’t working on a 2D paper surface. The misguided notion that the synthesis of ideas requires a fixed medium (paper) and a writing implement (pencil) to engage the creative brain.

Future architects are explicitly told by some college professors that they “cannot design in a computer environment.” This false limitation being taught to so many students appals me to my core. It invalidates everything about me, my experiences, my pain and trials and eventual triumph. Is it a good thing that I never went to college to learn architecture? Had I followed the traditional route, embarked on a master’s degree in Architecture, I might have had this additional bad information to wrestle with and put behind me. Computer design is wholly artificial and so it can’t be a place to design in.

Hogwash. 

If I accepted this falsehood as truth I would never have embarked on my journey in the first place. I’d be just as disabled and just as hopeless, but with no belief that I could ever be more than that. Paper and pencil are natural to the people who find them natural. If the characters will not flow from you hands using them, find some other medium to express yourself in. All of them are natural. Do what you can do and never apologize for having to take a different road than everybody else. None of them know what experiences you have, what disabilities you will have to cope with. What gifts you might have hiding inside.

This is the end of the story of Coping With Dysgraphia. It only gets me to the middle of my architecture story, a story I still haven’t told fully; beginning, middle or end. That story will have to wait for another muse, another time. My parting thought on the subject of dysgraphia is, I wish I could remember what the subject of that term paper was that I refused to write way back when. When I was a sophomore in Garden City in 1978 flunking out of english class. I could write a whole book on the subject now with the tools we have today. I wonder what kind of story that would have been then if I could have simply been able to do what I do now?

Listening to The Hero’s Journey on the TED radio hour inspired me to put this story into words. Specifically it was the story of Ismael Nazario who was convicted of a crime and sent to Rikers as a teen. There but for grace go I. The difference that the color of your skin can make.

Tumescent Architecture

When you point to a glass cylinder and say proudly, hey my office designed that, I giggle and say it looks like a bong. You turn your head in disgust and shame. You think, obviously she does not understand. What does she know? She is just a writer. She is no architect. She respects vowels, not glass cocks. And then you say now I am designing a lifestyle center, and I ask what is that, and you say it is a place that offers goods and services and retail opportunities and I say you mean like a mall and you say no. It is a lifestyle center. I say it sounds like a mall. I am from the Valley, bitch. I know malls.

Architects, I will not lie, you confuse me. You work sixty, eighty hours a week and yet you are always poor. Why aren’t you buying me a drink? Where is your bounty of riches? Maybe you spent it on merlot. Maybe you spent it on hookers and blow. I cannot be sure. It is a mystery. I will leave that to the scientists to figure out.

Annie Choi – Dear Architects, I am sick of your shit Sept. 3, 2010

I have a few thoughts on this article. One of them is that architects are special people. They are devoted to the constructed environment to unhealthy levels. They obsess over the most minute details that you can imagine (If they don’t, they really aren’t architects) As for the why we never sleep thing, it is a product of automation and the notion that building things can be done without thinking about those things. This is a story I know well as I outline on my page, An Architecture Story.

I once proposed a satirical look at architecture that I thought I might write. I was thinking I would title it Tumescent Architecture. The only feedback that I got on the proposal was from one of the architects that I’m pretty sure liked glass cocks cluttering the landscape. He thought it was a stupid idea. Way, way too obvious. In hindsight, I am quite happy to read that glass cocks are more widely recognized than I thought. This fact saves me the time it would take to write about this problem for myself. Thank you.

Expanded blog comment.

An Architecture Story

One of the things I always wanted to do from the time I was a small child was write an autobiography. I’m not sure why this was, maybe it was my fascination with reading and my exposure to the autobiographies of Winston Churchill & Bertrand Russell at a young age, but it was something I always wanted to do myself and never managed to do.

Writing an autobiography in longhand was never even a consideration. Dysgraphia saw to that long before I even knew I had it. Writing in a computer interface is magnatudes easier for me, something I utilized to increase my production on the job in earlier years. But being able to work more at architectural design was the other reason that writing an autobiography never materialized until recently.

I was many things before I was afflicted with Meniere’s.  A father.  A husband.  One of a number of siblings; the oldest after our brother was killed in a motorcycle crash at the age of 21. Four of us grew up together, with a fifth who was raised almost as an only child because of the complexities of modern marriage.

I was also an architect for a brief time.

It’s what I knew I wanted to do from when I was a child. I would explore construction sites every time I stumbled across them (still do if I have someone with me to watch my back) built structures with wooden blocks to test them, then carefully disassemble the failed structures to see what caused the failure. Dreamed of being an archaeologist long before the name Indiana Jones was a thing.  All things constructed by humans fascinated me. I would disassemble broken electronics just so I could see what secrets were inside them.  I wanted to know how everything worked.

It was a drafting class I took in high school as a senior that gave me an avenue into my chosen profession. It had never occurred to me that everything man built had to be documented first. This is true even today, especially today, with the ease of design using computer assisted drafting. Even simple projects benefit from time spent designing in advance of construction or fabrication. Every piece of furniture purchased at IKEA has a set of documents to illustrate it’s assemblage; and every page of those documents has to be created by somebody.  The illustrations have to be crafted by somebody with an eye for what perspective will best show how the assembly occurs.

Motorola MOS13

I was one of those people.  I took great pride in my documents. While my name isn’t on any assembly documents for furniture, I did do a stint in a cabinet shop. I worked for a civil engineer for a brief period.  I learned how to pace out yards with reasonable accuracy while carrying a large load of sensitive equipment. But my love was for buildings first and foremost, so the majority of the work I took on was for home designers, builders and architects.  I had a hand in the renovation of the main building for Zilker Gardens here in Austin (my favorite project) I worked on several school buildings. I designed several parking garages. I researched and documented every door in the Motorola MOS 13 building project.  Fifty-four(ish) details in all, just for the doors, including a faraday cage isolation room and an explosion-proof door for hazardous storage.

It takes a college degree to become an architect these days.  If you want to be a structural engineer it takes a degree and 10 years of apprenticeship.  I couldn’t afford college without work, so I took classes for drafting from a local trade school, and eventually ended up moving my family to Austin to be near a university with an architecture program.

When the Wife got pregnant, I gave up the idea of college and taught myself enough architecture to pass the exam, then worked for architecture firms long enough to qualify to take the exam. This was the apprenticeship approach to earning a professional license, a common practice in years gone by.  For centuries apprenticeship was the only way to earn the right to call yourself an engineer or an architect, and  Texas was one of the last states to allow this form of professional training.

I just made it in under the wire, having to retake the only portion of the exam I failed after the new rules went into effect.  Funny thing was, I figured out that I had failed that portion of the exam while reviewing my work walking to the car after the exam ended.  It took 6 months for the state to inform me of this fact, and by the time I went back in to retake the exam the next year it was given on computers instead of requiring applicants to draw everything by hand.

That was how fast computer assisted drawing (CAD) took over the architecture field. I was being told “we’ll never have computers drawing for us” by architects in the field one year, and knowing not one but three different CAD programs within the next 3 to 5 years, and the test to become an architect only offered on the computer shortly after that.

Architecture is a high-pressure field. Lots of time stress. Computers being introduced to the design process increased the time pressure by an order of magnitude, at least.  I always worked long days (10 hours at the shortest) but with CAD the effort to produce drawings became something that could not be easily substantiated until the end of the process and all of the drawings were printed for approval.

Before CAD every drawing was physical and took up space in a drawer somewhere. Every floor plan comprised of multiple sheets of Mylar or vellum, vacuum compressed and reproduced before being sent on for printing.  Drawing production was an expensive process that you didn’t embark on before getting the design of the building pretty thoroughly mapped out.  You wanted as few changes as possible to show up after you started the production documents phase of process.

After CAD, the design phase began to merge with the production phase.  With CAD, construction-like documents could be produced (given setup time to produce templates) in a matter of minutes, not months. You want to increase the size of the building?  No problem. Redesign the entire exterior while the building is under construction? Can do (did do) design began to be something that was almost an afterthought, not a deliberative phase that could take longer than construction itself.

There was an insiders joke about scope-creep that was almost meaningless by the time I left the business; scope-creep being the tendency to keep piling new things into a project, without ever admitting that you are increasing the work performed by the design professional and the construction firm.  With CAD, scope-creep becomes almost impossible to document, since no record of a change exists beyond the date-stamp on the drawing files or taking the time to compare documents line by line to catch changes. With thousands of pages to look over in larger document sets, this is a process that almost never catches all the changes.

WYSIWYG in the flesh

A consequence of this increased workload is that the days for production staff, people like me, got longer.  I went from working 50 hours a week to routinely working in the neighborhood of 80 hours a week.  Sometimes much more in one week (114 I think is my record) if that week contained a deadline near the end of it. Pulling an all-nighter became a thing outside of college, as some of my college educated co-workers noted.  The stress becomes more intense, as the pressure to produce mounts.

That’s when the symptoms started. The loss of hearing came first, long before the other symptoms. Every Spring and every Fall since 1987, I’d suffer migraines and feel pressure in my ears that I couldn’t get rid of. In the late 90’s I started getting feelings of dizziness and disorientation to go with the ear pressure. The tinnitus started to be an everyday thing, not just a Spring/Fall thing.  In 2001 the vertigo and the resultant days of brain fogginess started to be a regular occurance.  I was so blindsided by this betrayal by my own body that I probably even started hallucinating external causes for my problems. The menieres was so bad at my last job that there was not a single week where I wasn’t out for at least a day with vertigo. Sometimes two or three days.  I was able to be commended for producing an entire project’s documents in a single day and get fired for being sick too much all within the same eight month period.  That was the functional end of my architectural working life.

Because my internal balance mechanisms were misfiring so often my body re-circuited my brain, bypassing those faulty balance indicators. There is no other way to describe what has happened to me. I trained myself consciously and subconsciously to ignore certain sensory inputs. I no longer suffer from motion sickness while traveling in a car; when, before, I could not read or even close my eyes in a vehicle without getting queasy. Now I don’t even notice I’m moving if I’m not looking out the window to see it.

I lost a key portion of my architectural talent in that process. I lost my ability to map space internally. This was a skill I developed from coping with dysgraphia, an ability to retain and synthesize data without having to write it down first. Most people cannot do this but I could and I demonstrated it repeatedly. This skill was how I managed to design things entirely in my head and on the computer. I could picture all of a construction project in my head just by studying design sketches and assembling the pieces that would go into creating each and every detail of the project. I could even tell you exactly what tool in which CAD package that you would need to use to achieve the drawing you wanted to create.

Gone now. All gone now. I can’t find my way across town without a map these days, much less be able to effortlessly visualize a construction project. I doubt that the talent I need to create construction drawings will ever come back. I’m starting to accept this, although I don’t know what I will do now that I’m not a CAD guru any longer.

Being out of work, my daily routine since 2005, has been a mixed bag of experiences. I’ve been able to watch my son grow up, something I missed when my daughter was a child.  I was almost never at home when she was awake and spent most of my time with her rocking her back to sleep in the middle of the night.  The major reduction in stress levels means I can go an entire month without a vertigo attack, which is a huge blessing from where I’m sitting.  Treating the remaining symptoms is more about establishing healthy behavioral patterns than it is about anything else.  Eating, sleeping and exercising all in their appropriate quantities.

Having time to fill and not much ability to do more than type on a keyboard has afforded me a chance to at least approximate one of the other lifelong goals of mine.  You are reading a portion of it. I hope it was enjoyable.

Twin Towers Alliance Video

Busy day for causes today. Here’s one I haven’t heard from in awhile, but I’m still 100% behind the effort. A video tribute to the World Trade Center as it was.

Tribute to the Twin Towers

Including plans to rebuild them as they should be. The Restoration Alternative Shows the latest conceptual models of what a rebuilding project on the site might look like.

The surest way to show that we will not be terrorized by terrorists, is to put back what they took from us, to the fullest extent possible.

What about the Losers?

Originally titled Austin, the Portland wannabe, this entry has morphed into an In Related News type column (with a tip of the hat to Dan Carlin) because Common Sense 113, What about the Losers asks the same questions that were being asked by Jeff Ward when he interviewed Austin Mayor Will Wynn (only took me 11 years to notice I spelled his name wrong unfortunately I can’t find that interview online anymore – editor) on Our Little Show a few months ago.

At the time, I was screaming at the radio “It’s because Austin desperately wants to be Portland!” but I think the answer will take more explaining than that. Probably quite a bit more.

First, let’s deal with Dan’s assertion that we live in a capitalist system. This is important because Dan’s point is quite valid; in a capitalist system the growth of the markets should be robust enough that even the least ambitious, least able to compete amongst us can be provided for charitably from the fat left on the table. The problem is, we don’t live in that system.

Ask any economist and they’ll hem and haw and finally explain that we live in a managed market system, a hybrid market managed from the top down with central controls placed there by government to ostensibly protect the investors/users/general population from the dangers of an uncontrolled market.

What those dangers are is anyones guess, because hindsight has shown that the failures of the stock market can generally be traced back to interference in the market by the Federal government, or by it’s monetary arm, the Federal Reserve (before the Federal Reserve the fluctuations in markets were probably an offshoot of the legalized theft that is Fractional Reserve Banking. I’m leaving that discussion for another time because this thing is almost a book already) Most of the other markets haven’t so much failed, as they were never allowed to fully bloom before being stifled by state and local controls placed on whatever resource or talent the market formed around.

But the controls do serve the purpose of keeping the markets in check (whether the controls are professional licensing, health inspection, zoning and planning, or just the good old Securities and Exchange Commission) Keeping the markets in check being indistinguishable from slowing growth.

So we don’t really live in a capitalist system, and it’s been getting less and less so for more than a hundred years now. We do still live in what is largely a meritocracy (which is better than the alternatives) but it’s a far cry from the kind of capitalism that most laissez-faire capitalists dream about, and the profit margins are getting leaner all the time.

If there’s limited profit (what it means to be lean) then there’s limited fat to provide for those marginal types on the fringe of society. And no amount of exhortation to buckle down and provide for them from outside is ever going to result in their getting more of what they need. Like a parent telling a child to be good and share, if there’s only one toy, the toy’s owner gets to play with it.

Globalization (Dan’s second point) was occurring whether we drafted and joined GATT, NAFTA, CAFTA, et al, or not. I would actually offer up the observation that the agreements appear to have been drafted to favor the staid multi-national corporations after the wilderness had been tracked by more nimble entrepreneurs.

[much like the stock tech bubble was burst just in time for established corporations to wade in and take over newly created tech industries. But it would be very black helicopter of me to say that, wouldn’t it?]

So blaming the state of affairs on these agreements suits me just fine. I just wouldn’t waste time kicking the scapegoat of Globalization (whatever that means) for the fact that you can’t make $30 bucks an hour doing tech support for (insert giant corporation’s name here) anymore. As Dan rightly points out “they have smart people in India too” and they’ll work for much less. Any corporation bent on reducing costs is going to outsource work in those sorts of circumstances, globalization incentives in place or not.

It’s not globalization’s fault, because that’s only part of the big picture. There’s also the consistent devaluation of the dollar (generally referred to as inflation) by spend-happy congressmen bent on buying their way into re-election at the top end of the government chain (not to mention crusading Presidents with Foreign Dragons to Slay) These actions reduce the purchasing power of the dollars you have left after your job was outsourced to India.

On the other end of the government chain, you have cities (like Austin) that have activist governments bent on achieving various goals, either for the enrichment of the powerful within the city, or to satisfy the security/comfort demands of the citizens, or both. In Austin, the government has used zoning, licensing, and control of the water/wastewater and road system, as well as what’s known as an Extra Territorial Jurisdiction (ETJ) to limit growth and prevent what city planners refer to with distaste as sprawl. The predictable results have been growth outside of city controlled areas (leading to congestion and a mad dash to toll all roads that lead into Austin) and a steep climb in real estate values within city boundaries.

I say predictable, because this is the same formula that Portland and other cities modeled after Portland have used to limit growth and encourage compact city centers. The problems with this model have been documented in CATO studies, which I have perused often enough that I end up in a screaming match with my radio when the Mayor is interviewed.

Traffic congestion, homelessness and poverty. All of these are attributable side effects of limiting road construction, driving up the cost of housing, and diverting public funds to programs (such as light rail and subsidized housing) that do not produce the benefits promised. When you couple that with multi-national corporations outsourcing employment to countries where three generations of a family live under the same (small) roof; and the devaluation of the wages that remain, you have the recipe for the near unavoidable disaster which looms on the horizon.

Hello, interesting times. The ancient Chinese guy I was just talking to mentioned you.


So, what about the losers? What’s the solution? A lot less government, and a lot less government interference. It’s what will occur whether we head that way voluntarily or not. We might as well plan for it.

On the local end it’s going to mean relaxing building restrictions at the city level and perhaps relying upon the licensed professionals to do their job without the city looking over their shoulder (an architect can dream, can’t he?) it means privatizing road ownership (road construction, contrary to popular belief, is already mostly private) so that real maintenance costs can be established and funded. Privatized mass transit systems (London’s seems to work just fine)

On the Federal end, who knows? Can Washington be reasoned with? Considering the battle in California over medical Marijuana (a clear states rights issue if I’ve ever seen one) I’d have to say it looks like no. Can the out of control bureaucracy be brought to heal? That remains to be seen, but also doubtful.

[I’d be interested to see what would happen if the states insisted on payment of federal debts in Constitutional money; precious metal coinage. I think the Fed would have a hard time winning that battle in court]

So the real question is “will the Federal government survive the collapse of the dollar?” (which appears to be underway right now. It’s been slow so far, let’s see how long that lasts. And yes, I’m being serious. When have you ever seen the USD trade at parity with CAD? I’ve never seen it, till now) I don’t think it can be avoided. If, by some machination of events beyond the average persons comprehension collapse is avoided, and the federal government continues, there’s no telling what it will look like. Better to not worry about events beyond our control.

As for the plight of the losers, I’ve been rolling this idea around in my head for years now. Since we don’t use real money anyway these days, and since the banks can create money out of thin air when they need it, why can’t we do the same thing for that portion of society that would do without necessities if they aren’t extended the equivalent of credit.

There would need to be a standardization or nationalization of accounts, so that each person would have one account (and only one account) into which his electronic funds are transferred when he works, and from which funds are drawn when purchases are made. But rather than having a lower point at which no more funds are available, as in today’s bank accounts, the loser hits the point where the cash card becomes a charity card. Businesses would be given direct tax write offs for extending charity, and charity would be limited to strictly defined necessities (such as utilities, food, etc.) If you want a large screen TV, sorry you’ll have to do without. If you became productive again, then after a set period of time your charity card would once again convert to a cash card, and you could purchase whatever you wanted with it.

Not a libertarian solution, but a solution all the same.


I can see several of my AnCap acquaintances bristling from all the way over here. So, why should I care if the losers do without necessities? If I don’t want to give them charity, I don’t have to. And that’s true, as far as it goes. This post is already too long, but I thought I’d touch on the issue of haves and have-nots (or winners and losers) because it’s the have-not / have quotient (and the correlative societal highs and lows of money and status) that defines whether a society can continue to function peacefully or not.

Too high a number and the have-nots are emboldened to take what they want from the haves; and not all of us are or want to be Joe Horn. Too low a number, and human nature takes over correcting the trend turning haves into have-nots through natural laziness.

So obviously, it’s in the haves best interest to act in advance of the outset of violence, by not allowing the number to get too high; and the easiest way to do this is to keep the low end of the have-nots from falling too low. Put whatever conditions you want on the charity that makes you happy (after all, this is an exercise in “what if?”) Sterilization of the lowest portions of society so as to prevent a blossoming of their ranks through reproduction, in the event that they go on charity status. Repayment of charity before cash status is returned. Whatever.

Just remember that the more draconian the penalties, the less effective the charity will be at mediating violence. Which is the point of offering it in the first place, if human decency isn’t enough of an appeal to move you.


Editor’s note 2019. So much bullshit, so little time. Be thankful I took the time to correct the former mayor’s name. The rest of this? Mostly smoke blown up my own ass. But, it was amusing writing it at the time. I will point out that my naivete concerning the motivations of the wealthy are on full display here. I fully expected them to be cognizant of the fact that there aren’t enough bullets in the world, even if you could speed load them all, to be able to kill every hungry, poor person lurking outside your window before they get you, when the payback time arrives. Apparently they think action movies are real just like everybody else does.

The Best Laid Plans: Transportation

Another CATO daily podcast episode featuring Randal O’Toole; I think I may have to buy his book. Sort of a follow-up to Zoning’s Best Laid Plans this one discusses the shell game of mass transit vs highway funding. Very informative.

The Best Laid Plans: Transportation

There’s also Debunking Portland: The City That Doesn’t Work for those Austinites curious to know what your city planning department wants to subject you to.

Free Talk Live: IP and Disney

Listening to the Wednesday edition of Free Talk Live on my Treo 650 today; listening to Ian pound Mark over the head for his support for Intellectual Property rights. (third day in a row, I might add…)

Generally, I agree with Mark on this issue. As an architect, I know that the thought that goes into design is a valuable commodity that needs to be protected. Otherwise the less scrupulous out there will simply wait for someone else to do the hard work of invention so that they can then profit from it at the inventor’s expense. Contrary to Ian’s assertions, I’ve not seen any evidence that people will do the months and years of work required to bring something to market unless they have reasonable confidence that they will make a profit from it. If anybody can copy a design and be free to sell it the day after it hits the market (or as in the case of the Chinese clothing ‘pirates’, even before it hits the market) then the chances for profit are greatly reduced. I don’t know of any business that stays in business without making a profit.

On the other hand, I don’t really believe that corporations (like Disney) should be allowed to hold rights to intellectual property. Those rights should be limited to real people, not legal entities that will continue to expect a profit long past the lifespan of the original author. Disney is a prime example of this, since their lobbying was instrumental in getting the latest extension to copyright terms passed.

There is a phrase that applies to the subject of Disney characters and the school mural that was the subject of rather heated discussion on Wednesday’s show. That phrase is “work of art”. A work of art is generally exempt from claims of copyright infringement. That doesn’t stop the corporations with lawyers and money at their disposal threatening people with legal action if their demands aren’t met. The truth is that the school blinked when Disney decided to play hard ball. If push had come to shove, Disney would probably have dropped the case.

Copyright terms expiring was the real reason for Disney going after public displays of their copyrighted works. Like Coke being synonymous with cola and Kleenex with facial tissue, Disney was fighting the battle of keeping their property from passing into the public domain; and they won that battle by passing new legislation. If corporations were excluded from owning these types of property, the entire battle could have been avoided.

[On the question from a listener concerning the objectivist opinion on the subject; as an objectivist myself, I think I can vouch for the fact that objectivists in general understand the need to protect the “mind’s contribution” to the creative effort]

Oh, and Ian, your disbelief in intellectual property doesn’t equate to the non-existence of intellectual property. But your willingness to steal other peoples ideas speaks volumes to the subject of why the MPAA and the RIAA are willing to go to such lengths to protect their investments.

For what it’s worth, this is one of those arguments that illustrates the very narrow difference between a communist (in the government-less nature of the word ‘commune’) and the little ‘a’ anarchists and the extreme edge of the Libertarian party. They would also tell you that ideas ‘should be free’, but I’m not willing to live in their version of utopia either.

Mcmansions follow-up

I posted on the furor over Mcmansions several months back, and neglected to mention that I was on the wrong side of the issue (surprise!) once again. Yep, the all-knowing city council has handed down the decision that no houses greater than 2000 square feet in size will be approved for construction in central city neighborhoods.

So, all you developers and new property owners can just forget about your property rights. You don’t have any.