On Wooden Skyscrapers

This Economist article talks about the many benefits of modern wooden skyscrapers.


…the construction site would be a lot quieter without the heavy plant required to pound deep foundations, pump concrete and install steel supports.


…for every lorry delivering timber for a wooden building, five lorries would be needed to deliver concrete and steel. All these things may mean that once the total construction costs are calculated, a wooden building can work out cheaper.

Carbon emissions:

Using wood could reduce their carbon footprint by 60-75%, according to some studies.

The biggest concerns are strength, fire, and rot, but with current technology these are overcome:


A wooden building is about a quarter of the weight of an equivalent reinforced-concrete structure, which means foundations can be smaller…In much the same way that aligning carbon-fibre composites creates stronger racing cars, aircraft and golf clubs, CLT [Cross-Laminated Timber] imparts greater rigidity and strength to wooden structures.

Fire resistance:

In general, a large mass of wood, such as a CLT floor, is difficult to burn without a sustained heat source—for the same reason that it is hard to light a camp fire when all you have is logs…with other fire-resistant layers and modern sprinkler systems, tall wooden buildings can exceed existing fire standards.

There is also a method that combines small concrete layers on top of a wooden foundation between floors to help reduce floor-to-floor noise and further improve fire resistance.


What about woodworm and rot? “If you don’t look after it, steel and concrete will fail just as quickly as timber,” says Michael Ramage, head of the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at the University of Cambridge in Britain.

Ryan Avent Interview

This Derek Thompson interview with Ryan Avent is interesting throughout. Here is one bit:

It is ironic that liberals, who in the abstract support more inclusive immigration and shared wealth, often live in coastal metros areas that are exclusive by design—they are built around water, limit housing height, and declare certain zones out-of-bounds for further construction. As you point out in the book, one of the tallest buildings in New York City is a residential tower on Park Avenue that is home to a stack of billionaires who, although they could live in any ZIP code on the planet, have chosen to live on top of each other, like candies in a Pez dispenser.

And this (on life after automation):

The very rich will still want people, their own personal shoppers and assistants. Being able to retain human labor would be a sign that you’re wealthy. So even in a future city that had a lot of laborers replaced with technology, you might still have artisanal service sector workers.

Public Feelings on Nuclear Power Make Me Sad :(

I sometimes get frustrated with the mass opposition to Nuclear power in favor of green energy.


Nuclear power is the greenest type of energy. 

Nuclear power is the safest type of energy (yes, even including indirect deaths of Chernobyl and Fukushima).

There are even possible innovations that would make it very difficult to use the fissile material to make bombs.

Nuclear power can be economical if given a level playing field.

Nuclear power does not have the intermediacy problems of wind and solar.

Nuclear is good all around.

Driverless Cars Available in Pittsburgh

As early as next month Uber will begin experimenting with commercially available driverless cars in Pittsburgh. Passengers will not know ahead of time whether they have summoned a driverless car and Uber has not revealed what percentage of the Pittsburgh fleet is driverless.

In fact, the term “driverless” is a bit of a misnomer because an Uber staff member will also be in the car to act as co-pilot should the car need assistance. While this is an endorsement of the technology it is perhaps a bigger step forward in regulatory allowances for self-driving cars (even if they’re technically only semi-self-driving). If things go well more cities may follow suit, but if things go poorly it seems regulation of self-driving cars could be stymied, at least until new generations of technology help assuage fears.

There is more here.

Surprisingly, the most interesting part of the article to me wasn’t about self-driving cars, but rather this paragraph:

Rajkumar says the Uber cars will have a lot to learn about local roads and quirky customs like the so-called Pittsburgh left turn: When cars are at a traffic light, the light turns green, and you are the first car in line that wants to turn left, he explains, “you basically get to [go] first, before vehicles going straight from the opposite direction.” It’s only the first left-turning car — not the others, just the first. [Emphasis added]

This practice is apparently common throughout the northeast. How have I not heard of this before?

The Mundanity of Excellence

That is the title of a 1989 article in Sociological Theory by Daniel Chambliss (which I found through this blog post titled “Does one have to be a genius to do maths?” written by the famous mathematician Terence Tao).

The paper is excellent and inspiring. Chambliss follows swimmers of various levels and finds that what sets Olympic-caliber swimmers apart is not that they do more of something, but that they concentrate on very small and very specific parts of their swim over months and often years. They don’t swim, say, two times longer than club-level swimmers, but instead might spend several months concentrating on the mechanics of a flip-turn and all its components, whereas a lower level swimmer may focus only passingly on the flip turn, or not focus enough on all its individual elements. The paper has many examples both in swimming and in other endeavors.

The paper concludes with this:

…there is no secret; there is only the doing of all those little things, each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of one’s everyday life.

See also this Michael Phelps commercial:

See also Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and David Epstein’s The Sports Gene, which add points of view. There is also of course my recent post on athletic performance.

Judith Butler on Gangsta Rap

Judith Butler’s thoughts on gangsta rap from a June, 1995 letter to the editor in the NYT:

To the Editor:

William J. Bennett and C. DeLores Tucker are unwise to cite Plato to support their case against gangsta rappers (Op-Ed, June 2). Whereas they object to the lyrics of such artists as “offensive and obscene,” Plato, in the passage they cite, is concerned only with the power of “rhythm and harmony” to “fasten on” the soul: he makes no reference to the verbal communication of ideas.

Surely, Mr. Bennett and Ms. Tucker do not mean to oppose the musical aspects of harmony and rhythm on the basis of their putative influence on the soul. If they do, are they arguing that music ought not to have the power to move us as it does?

Where Plato does concern himself with the debasing power of the lyric, the culprit is Greek tragedy. Surely, Mr. Bennett, who elsewhere calls for a return to a restricted view of the Western canon as the bedrock of education, would be hard pressed to accept Plato’s questionable condemnation of classical Greek poetry for its disordering effect on the soul.

Whether it’s Sophocles or Snoop Doggy Dogg, the social distress they represent will not be eliminated by condemning the representation. If gangsta rappers represent a disturbing image of who we have become, more important than condemning or censoring the representation is the jarring chance it presents to address the conditions of that disturbance.

Unfortunately, as a nation we are defunding many of the programs that seek to address those conditions and targeting instead those artists who make the distress of violence most vivid to us.