Crappy Feng Shui

I’ve noticed a troubling design trend of late. In a distressing and it seems growing number of bathrooms, there are mirrors on the wall or door directly opposite the toilet. I get it, bathrooms are small, mirrors make small spaces look and feel larger, but who really thinks this placement is a good idea?

Who thought this was a good idea??

As it turns out, Feng Shui practitioners do, at least some of them. According to Sally Painter, you can mitigate the negative effect of a poorly placed bathroom (for example, too close to the front door, typical in hotel rooms and small apartments) with these steps:

Hang a full length mirror on the inside of the bathroom door.

Place a mirror directly opposite the toilet.

Minimize the powerful negative effects of a toilet – Place fresh flowers or a bowl of pebbles on the tank lid. If this isn’t possible, hang a shelf over the tank lid to hold the flowers or bowl.

I wouldn’t want to underestimate the “powerful negative effects of a toilet,” but it’s also hard to overstate the powerful negative effect of looking yourself in the eye in the mirror while you’re on the throne.

Hoteliers, designers, apartment therapists: can we please agree not to put mirrors opposite the toilet? Feng shui be damned, nobody needs to watch themself poop.

Come on feel the knob

It’s become fashionable in the last few years to focus on User Experience, trendily abbreviated UX, and a considerable upgrade in status from UI (User Interface) Design from which it descends. I hope nobody thinks that’s actually new, but if it takes a name to make a thing important, I’m ok with that. The desired experience we want users to have is typically something like “delight” which sounds, well, delightful.

When it comes to delight, no detail is too small. My case in point: knob feel. If you make stuff with physical interfaces, you might be making knobs. If you make only digital interfaces, stick with me, the ideas apply.  Knobs are common in cars, especially but not exclusively on the radios, and they’re in all sorts of audio gear, and home appliances from toasters to air conditioners. You might think a knob is a knob, but you’d be wrong. is a website devoted to the feel of knobs, generally on high end audio equipment.  This is not a joke, though the site has a sense of humor about itself. Details matter, even ones that appear to be incidental to the function of the product. Human interface matters, tactile feedback matters, materials and precision matter.

I don’t know why knobfeel hasn’t reviewed my own favorite knob, that of the Tivoli Model One, a radio that also happens to have a wooden cabinet. Whatever the reason for that terrible omission, I’m still glad that knob feel is out here for us all. If you find yourself not sweating the small stuff, consider that there might not actually be any small stuff.

Word of the day: Disclude

I was minding my own business, trying to sleep during a presentation at a marketing conference, and was abruptly awakened when the presenter said something like, “to prevent those people from receiving this email, you would disclude them on this screen.” The meaning was pretty clear by the context, but it was a word I’d never heard before, and one that just didn’t sound quite right. I tried to look it up to confirm.

Disclude denied Nope. Apple’s dictionary app? Nope. Urbandictionary? Yes, but not so helpful (and more than a bit rude) Wictionary? Bingo. Disclude, as you might guess, means “exclude” and also, as you might not guess, “disclose, make known.” Both are listed as “nonstandard” with no “standard” definitions available.

Maybe it was a typo or random error. Maybe I witnessed the birth of a new word or at least of a new meaning. Such is the beauty of English, the language that gives us pairs of synonyms like flammable and inflammable. Feel free to disclude your thoughts in the comments below.

Assembling the price of a happy city

How long does it take to go from one of Boston’s newest hip neighborhoods, the Innovation District, to one of Somerville’s even newer, actually not quite finished, ones, Assembly Row by public transit? During evening rush hour on a weekday, this trip of about 4.5 road miles took me almost an hour as I traversed the Silver, Red and Orange lines and the #90 bus. Somebody determined enough and in decent enough shape could have run this in about half an hour or walked it it not much more than an hour. Cutting Assembly Row a bit of slack, there will be an Orange line station there later this year.

Still Assembling the Orange line

But why, you ask, would I undertake such an errand? Well, oddly enough, I was headed to a lecture on urbanism set up by the virtual and estimable Design Museum Boston. Christine McLaren, lead researcher of the book, Happy City, was giving a talk at Assembly Row’s outdoor amphitheater (!) overlooking the Mystic River. Well, that’s my second favorite local river and I do love a good amphitheater, so naturally I had to attend. Plus, I wanted to check out Assembly Row.

McLaren served up what I have to describe as the usual New Urbanist kool-aid - of which I heartily partook – but she brought a key insight I hadn’t been paying attention to. Cities, she says, are machines for happiness. The objective function of a city is not efficiency, environmental impact, or GDP, it’s happiness. The key determinant of happiness, according to McLaren’s research, is social connectedness, so urban designs that increase such connectedness are the ones that make people happier and the ones we should build.

View of the Mystic river over the amphitheater

Here’s where I partially part company with the happy city people. They say the research shows that the far-flung suburbs are isolating and so are the densest apartment towers. The happy medium – attached townhouses, for example – is where you get peak happy. That may be so (I have my doubts but my sample size is small) but how can we get all the people who want to live in a city housed if we can’t go higher than townhouses? Like Matt Yglesias, I’m partial to density and don’t think it has to reduce happiness. A well-designed apartment building of any height is just a stack of floors, each one being a group of homes sharing some common space, not unlike a townhouse or courtyard.

Back to Assembly Row. It seems to meet many (though not all, watch those unprotected bike lanes!) the criteria of Happy City, at least it will once the Orange line station opens and the rest of the development is finished. So far as I can tell, there are 195 housing units from studio to 3 bedrooms in the 5-story Avalon development. I’m already thinking this isn’t enough.  As of Bastille Day, they’ve pre-leased 2/3 of the units, including all the 3BR. Mostly studios remain, starting 451 square feet or so for $1.,985/mo. Cheaper and no doubt more modern and well-appointed than downtown Boston but not so different from many existing mixed-use neighborhoods also a few T stops from downtown.

I don’t know how much taller the apartment building could have been by law, but I have to believe that the marginal cost of the 6th floor would be less than the average cost of the first five, and would have provided a 20% increase in housing units for less than 20% more cost. Repeat this logic as high as you care to go, and eventually the supply starts to reduce the price, and equilibrium tells you where to stop.

The median household income in the Boston metro area was a bit less than $72k in 2012. If you spent 1/3 of your gross income on housing, that would be about $2,000/mo, the price of the smallest studios at Assembly Row. If the average household is more than one person (looks like it’s about 2 and a quarter) the studio won’t work so well. One bedroom units start at $2,380, and 2BR at $2,835. It looks like the rent is too damn high and happy new urbanism at Assembly Row is out of reach to the average Boston family. To be fair, the developers have no particular obligation to serve the average family but I do think the new urbanists should strive to do so. It wouldn’t hurt if lawmakers lined up better incentives for developers to do so, too.

How did I get home from Assembly Row after 8pm? The Orange line would be of no use for going to Cambridge and the buses had largely gone to bed for the night. I took Uber, 3.5 miles in 16 minutes for $10.

Man bites Trolley

Well, not exactly, but in the old saying about man bites dog being news, last Friday the estimable RunKeeper team put on a PR stunt / stupid human trick / arch critique of Boston public transit in which some guys raced a Green line trolley for four miles or so. Spoiler alert: the B line trolley came in 4th.

Screen Shot 2014-07-27 at 1.10.58 PM

Thoughts on what this says about the T

  • It’s easy to say that RunKeeper picked an easy target, but the finish was close and the trolley held the lead much of the time. I expect the longer the course the better the odds for the T.
  • Public transit that competes with other modes, like buses and the surface green line, and obeys the traffic laws is always at a disadvantage to modes that have exclusive ways, like subways, and modes that don’t obey the laws, like jaywalking pedestrians, red light running cyclists, and massholes. I don’t expect that the runkeepers stopped at red lights unless they absolutely had to.
  • The T frequently gets no respect, but it seems there’d be no harm in them participating in this event. Maybe putting their best operator at the head of the trolley in question or having Beverly Scott live tweeting from the Trolley? The T operators could use some positive PR, and It’s not like people who think the Green line is slow are going to change their mind because it beat some runners, or people who think it’s just fine will switch to running because it lost.

Thoughts on the marketing value of this event

  • Runkeeper got a ton of attention showcasing the key functions of its app with a good humored challenge to an easy target. (see above on that point)
  • It’s a win even if Runkeeper loses, though the odds of that are slim since they chose the battle field and the terms.
  • Live coverage made it an event, and that only further highlighted Runkeeper’s real time features.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this is repeated annually or sooner vs other targets in other cities. And if any other fitness app tries it, everybody will know Runkeeper did it first.

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 1.27.25 PM

Could the event have been even better? Probably, I’d certainly want to see the T get in on the act and be more than an anonymous bugaboo target. Maybe making the event a charity race would make that more palatable to the T, or at least embarrass it into making a comment of some kind. A charity run (with a partner like FirstGiving maybe?) would generate even more PR and maybe open the field to more runners, Runkeeper membership required, of course.