Greasy hands, always.
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Megan has Left the Magazine

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One of my favorite bas-a#% people.

You might have heard: Megan Fitzpatrick is no longer the editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine.

While readers might be wringing their hands or wondering how the magazine will fare without her (hint: it will be just fine), I am personally and selfishly pleased at the news.

Megan was, hands down, the best employee I ever had (followed closely behind by Kara Gebhart). As my managing editor, Megan worked her butt off. She was both passionate and professional. Intensely curious about the craft. Willing to do whatever it took to get the magazine to the printer while refusing to sacrifice quality.

And now, with her days free, she can work for Lost Art Press even more – both editing and writing. As many of you know, nearly every book at Lost Art Press has benefitted from Megan’s careful eye and deadly red pen. And, if I get my way, she’ll allow us to publish a book of hers that’s been percolating for many years.

The community of woodworking editors is small – maybe 30 or 40 people at most. And when someone leaves a publication, one of two things happen. Most editors disappear. They return to their lives as commercial woodworkers or move on to edit a magazine about drones or hospital hand sanitizers. A few (and I can name them on one hand) refuse to leave the world of woodworking and carve out their own place. On their own terms. And they improve the craft (and their own lives).

The smart money says that Megan will do the latter.

So please welcome Megan to the ranks of the Woodworking Editorial Hobo Society (of which I am lifetime member). There’s a warm chair and a cold beverage waiting for you at our next meeting.

— Christopher Schwarz

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4 days ago
Brooklyn, NY
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Psychological Safety in Operation Teams

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Psychological Safety in Operation Teams:

Think of a team you work with closely. How strongly do you agree with these five statements?

  1. If I take a chance and screw up, it will be held against me.
  2. Our team has a strong sense of culture that can be hard for new people to join.
  3. My team is slow to offer help to people who are struggling.
  4. Using my unique skills and talents comes second to the objectives of the team.
  5. It’s uncomfortable to have open, honest conversations about our team’s sensitive issues.

Teams that score high on questions like these can be deemed to be “unsafe.”

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4 days ago
Linked paper well worth a read
Brooklyn, NY
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Tax Bill 3: Don’t Mess With Taxes

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Thanks to everyone who commented on my last two posts, especially the many people who disagreed with me. Two things I will admit I got mostly wrong:

1. I was wrong to say there was “no case” for the tax bill. Aside from all of the minor provisions which can be good or bad, the case for slashing corporate rates is that they’re more distortionary and less efficient than other forms of taxation. Thanks to everyone who pointed this out to me.

2. Several people brought up problems with the article saying CEOs say they will just give the money back to shareholders, most notably that giving money back to shareholders may stimulate the economy in other ways.

But two things I still think are true:

1. Seriously, guys, I admit I don’t know as much about economics as some of you, but I am working off of a poll of the country’s best economists who came down pretty heavily on the side of this not significantly increasing growth. If you want to tell me that it would, your job isn’t to explain Economics 101 theories to me even louder, it’s to explain how the country’s best economists are getting it wrong. You may find this book review relevant.

2. I stand by my claim that I care less about economic growth than about where the money goes. That includes caring less about distortionary taxation, deadweight loss, and all those other concepts.

Suppose Alice is an effective altruist who supports whatever charity you think is most important and does a really good job of it. Every dollar she spends saves multiple lives. She lives in a town of 1000 people where nobody else is an effective altruist and everyone else just lives a pretty decent life and spends their extra money on, I don’t know, breeding virtual cats or something.

A demon places a curse on Alice’s neighbor Bob. Every time Bob pays a dollar in taxes, it destroys a random two dollars’ worth of wealth somewhere in the town.

The town elders meet and decide that for some reason they have to lower taxes either on Alice or Bob. The economic case for Bob is overwhelming – taxes on him are especially inefficient because of the extra wealth they destroy.

Still, I would want a tax cut for Alice. It seems like the only important thing that happens at all in this town is Alice’s charitable donations. The amount I care about this town’s utility focuses pretty much entirely on that. We could give the break to Bob, and have a nominally better economy, but it would just lead to more people buying virtual cats. It could be that the extra two dollars’ of wealth destroyed by Bob’s taxes was some sort of useful machinery, and so taxing Bob harms economic growth. Again, it is hard to care, except insofar as that hurts Alice, the only person in town whose wealth matters much for anyone’s utility.

I can imagine a world in which Bob’s curse was stronger, and every dollar Bob was taxed destroyed a million dollars in value, and soon any tax on Bob meant the citizens of the town were starving to death and all of them including Alice went bankrupt. But right now the tax on Bob isn’t big enough to be worse for Alice than a tax on Alice, and since Alice is the only important person in this situation, I don’t care.

I can also imagine a world where a wise economist comes to town. She says “Alice’s work is the most important thing in this town, but taxing Bob destroys wealth for no reason. Some of the town elders support tax breaks for Bob, and others support tax breaks for Alice. But we can give the tax break to Bob, and then all the people who saved $2 each from the curse not being activated can give $1.50 to Alice. That way Bob is better off, Alice is better off, and potential curse victims are better off.”

This is the best argument in favor of wealth creation instead of redistribution. But right now we’re not doing that. We just create the wealth and then don’t redistribute it, except through charity, which is a rounding error, and taxes, which everyone agrees this bill causes there to be less of. If we actually had Pareto-optimal wealth redistribution, then of course, create as much wealth as possible and redistribute it Pareto-optimally. Since we don’t, we’re kind of stuck.

My takeaway from this story is that in societies with a lot of marginal-value-of-money inequality, economic growth is potentially less useful than working to keep the money with people who can spend it on higher-marginal-value things. Consider three variables:

1. How low is the marginal utility of money for the person holding the average dollar, if no efforts are made to redistribute it?

2. How much economic growth are we sacrificing by choosing redistribution?

3. How high a marginal utility of money do we get by redistributing it?

Point 1 is why I stress the research showing increasing inequality eg most money going to people rich enough not to really have much use for it.

Point 2 is why I stress the economists saying that the gains from cutting corporate taxes really won’t have that much effect on growth.

Point 3 is the one I’m least sure about. If the government were a perfect effective altruist, it would be no contest – them having the money would be thousands of times more effective than random corporations (or even random middle-class people) having it. Even if the government were to give the money as a tax break to the working classes, it still seems really obvious to me that the increased utility swamps any effect from higher economic growth. In reality, the tax cut is being funded by increasing the deficit. I don’t know whether that means we need to compare it to whatever is bad about having a higher deficit, or else take as a given that the deficit has a certain amount of slack, and then compare it to other things we could do with the same money.

Imagine the government went $100 billion into debt to build a giant bronze statue of George Washington. Should we be debating whether running up the deficit is really that bad? Should we be debating the artistic merit of giant bronze statues of Washington, and whether it’s actually a pretty good statue that boosts tourism in the area? Or should we be comparing it to the best possible use for that money?

(added: I would be 100% happy with a bill that cut corporate taxes exactly this much, then raised taxes somewhere else in an equally progressive way, causing there to be the same amount of taxes with less distortion)


The fairest thing I can think of is to compare this use of $100 billion to just spreading $100 billion evenly among all the government’s existing priorities.

Suppose that this tax cut was vastly better at stimulating economic growth than any reasonable person expects, and it increased growth by 1% per year. Then it would create $200 billion in value. With extreme good luck, 3% of that might go to the poorest quintile, giving them an extra $6 billion.

Or suppose the government keeps the $100 billion and distributes it evenly according to its existing priorities. Half of the budget is entitlement programs, and 32% of those go to the poorest quintile, so they would get an extra $16 billion.

I’m sure these numbers are wildly off. But it’s hard to come up with remotely plausible numbers in which the poor and working-class are better off with the tax bill than without it. I think the assumptions I plugged in were overly generous: the bill won’t really increase growth 1%, and although poor people have 3% of income they get much less than 3% of economic gains. Still, even under these generous assumptions, this bill gives poor people less money than the default case of not doing it.

One could argue that poor people are better off with $6 billion in actual money than $16 billion in government programs purporting to help them. But although I agree there’s a multiplier, I don’t know if it’s this big. And government programs would also disproportionately help the poorest of the poor, compared to economic gains which would disproportionately help the richest of the poor.

I think the marginal utility from an extra dollar to the poor (and the working class, etc) is orders of magnitude higher than the same dollar going to something else. So if you want to get me to support the tax bill, don’t tell me yet another reason why you think it would make the economy more efficient. Tell me why I’m wrong about this.

[EDIT: Commenters point out I was mistaken about the speed at which this would compound. See here. If the real growth from the bill was as high as 1%, it would probably be better for the poor than the lost government spending; if it were lower, it would take several decades to break even. So the best way to convince me to support this bill would be to find a plausible estimate of what level of growth is expected. My best guess from the economist poll is still “approximately zero”. ]

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5 days ago
A utilitarian talks taxes
Brooklyn, NY
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Dear Colleagues, Please Explain Your Letter to Steven Mnuchin

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Jason Furman and Larry Summers:

Dear colleagues, please explain your letter to Steven Mnuchin: Dear Colleagues:
You recently wrote an open letter to Treasury Secretary Steven  Mnuchin quantifying the economic impact of tax reform. We are interested in and surprised by your analysis.  We share your commitment to the idea that well-designed tax reform can make the economy stronger and that careful economic analysis is essential. And we know that you all share our belief that such careful analysis is well served by discussion and debate of these issues that is at least as frank and vigorous as what we are all accustomed to in the average economics seminar. To that end, we think it would be useful to lay out some of the questions we have about your analysis...
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14 days ago
Brooklyn, NY
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The destruction of graduate education in the United States


If and when you emerged from your happiness bubble to read the news, you’ll have seen (at least if you live in the US) that the cruel and reckless tax bill has passed the House of Representatives, and remains only to be reconciled with an equally-vicious Senate bill and then voted on by the Republican-controlled Senate.  The bill will add about $1.7 trillion to the national debt and raise taxes for about 47.5 million people, all in order to deliver a massive windfall to corporations, and to wealthy estates that already pay some of the lowest taxes in the developed world.

In a still-functioning democracy, those of us against such a policy would have an intellectual obligation to seek out the strongest arguments in favor of the policy and try to refute them.  By now, though, it seems to me that the Republicans hold the public in such contempt, and are so sure of the power of gerrymandering and voter restrictions to protect themselves from consequences, that they didn’t even bother to bring anything to the debate more substantive than the schoolyard bully’s “stop punching yourself.”  I guess some of them still repeat the fairytale about the purpose of tax cuts for the super-rich being to trickle down and help everyone else—but can even they advance that “theory” anymore without stifling giggles?  Mostly, as far as I can tell, they just brazenly deny that they’re doing what they obviously are doing: i.e., gleefully setting on fire anything that anyone, regardless of their ideology, could recognize as the national interest, in order to enrich a small core of supporters.

But none of that is what interests me in this post—because it’s “merely” as bad as, and no worse than, what one knew to expect when a coalition of thugs, kleptocrats, and white-nationalist demagogues seized control of Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s experiment.  My concern here is only with the “kill shot” that the Republicans have now aimed, with terrifying precision, at the system that’s kept American academic science the envy of the world in spite of the growing dysfunction all around it.

As you’ve probably heard, one of the ways Republicans intend to pay for their tax giveaway, is to change the tax code so that graduate students will now need to pay taxes on “tuition”—a large sum of money (as much as $50,000/year) that PhD students never actually see, that can easily exceed the stipends they do see, and that’s basically just an accounting trick that serves the internal needs of universities and granting agencies.  Again, to eliminate any chance of misunderstanding: PhD students, who are effectively low-wage employees, already pay taxes on their actual stipends.  The new proposal is that they’ll also have to pay taxes on a whopping, make-believe “X” on their payroll sheet that’s always exactly balanced out by “-X.”

For detailed analyses of the impacts, see, e.g. Luca Trevisan’s post or Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle of Higher Ed or Vox or NPR.  Briefly, though, the proposal would raise taxes by a few thousand dollars per year, or in some cases as much as $10,000 per year (!), on PhD students who already live hand-to-mouth-to-ramen-bowl, with the largest impact falling on students in STEM fields.  For many students who aren’t independently wealthy, this could push a PhD beyond the realm of affordability, and cause them to leave academia or to do their graduate work in other countries.

“But isn’t there some workaround?”  Indeed, financial ignoramus that I am, my first reaction was to ask: if PhD tuition is basically an accounting fiction anyway, then why can’t the universities just declare that the tuition in question no longer exists, or is now zero dollars?  Feel free to explain further in the comments if you understand this stuff, but as far as I can tell, the answer is: because PhD tuition is used to calculate how much “tax” the universities can take from professors’ grant money.  If universities could no longer take that tax, and they had no other way to make up for it, then except for the richest few universities, they’d have to scale back research and teaching pretty drastically.  To avoid that outcome, the universities would be relying on the granting agencies to let them keep taking the overhead they needed to operate, even though the “PhD tuition” no longer existed.  But the granting agencies aren’t set up for this: you just can’t throw a bomb into one part of a complicated bureaucratic machine built up over decades, and expect the machine to continue working with no disruption to science.

But more ominously: as my friend Daniel Harlow and many others pointed out, it’s hard to look at the indefensible, laser-specific meanness of this policy, without suspecting that for many in Congress, the destruction of American higher education isn’t a regrettable byproduct, but the goal—just another piece of red meat to throw to the base.  If so, then we’d expect Congress to direct federal granting agencies not to loosen their rules about overhead, thereby forcing the students to pay the tax, and achieving the desired destruction.  (Note that the Trump administration has already made tightening overhead rules—i.e., doing the exact opposite of what would be needed to counteract the new tax—a central focus of its attempt to cut federal research funding.)

OK, two concluding thoughts:

  1. When Republicans in Congress defended Trump’s travel ban, they at least had the craven excuse that they were only following the lead of the populist strongman who’d taken over their party.  Here they don’t even have that.  As far as I know, this targeted destruction of American higher education was Congress’s initiative, not Trump’s—which to me, underscores again the feather-thinness of any moral distinction between the Vichy GOP leadership and the administration with which it collaborates.  Trump didn’t emerge from nowhere.  It took decades of effort—George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, Mitch McConnell, and all the rest—to transform the GOP into the pure seething cauldron of anti-intellectual resentment and hatred that we know today.
  2. Given the existential risk to American higher education, why didn’t I blog about this earlier?  The answer is embarrassing to admit, and reflects no credit on me.  It’s simply that I didn’t believe it—even given all the other stuff that could “never happen in the US,” until it happened this past year.  I didn’t believe it, not because it was too far from me but because it was too close—because if true, it would mean the crippling of the research world in which I’ve spent most of my life since age 15, so therefore it couldn’t be true.  Surely even the House Republicans would realize they’d screwed up this time, and would take out this crazy provision before the full bill was voted on?  Or surely there’s some workaround that makes the whole thing less awful than it sounds?  There has to be … right?

Anyway, what else is there to say, except to call your representative, if you’re American and still have the faith in the system that such an act implies.

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17 days ago
19 days ago
Brooklyn, NY
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The Tuckahoe Cabin Geometry

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 This is the double slave cabin at Tuckahoe Plantation, Thomas Jefferson's childhood home in Virginia.
I have written about it before:

The simplicity of the cabin and its HABS drawing make it an easy building to use when I teach hands-on Practical Geometry.

The beautiful hand drawn lines and details of HABS drawings fascinate students. And they get a little history.
Here the elaborate paneled front door for the plantation house, its ceiling pattern, and columns are shown with the little, uncomplicated cabin.
Craft, wealth, slavery c, 1750,  are visible side by side.

Remember that you can click the drawings to enlarge them.

The cabin illustrates the Rule of Thirds.
Students unused to geometry can grasp the basics quickly as they discover the design simplicity of the floor plan.They explore the geometry of the elevations with curiosity, not in trepidation.

For a tutorial on the Rule of Thirds:

BUT -  This is academic.
How did a carpenter actually use this knowledge?

I wasn't there. So, I am guessing? No.

I've read the written documents, 'read' the drawings that have no words - from that period and the more recent era of HABS. I've measured and documented these buildings, participated in repairing and framing them as well as their deconstruction.
I make connections to the old ways of laying out a frame from the way we lay out today using the same tools our ancestors had - a line, a square, a plumb bob, a pencil - and  a compass.

Here is a construction scenario for this cabin.

The carpenter plans to build a 2 room cabin with a loft, 2 doors, 2 windows, back to back fireplaces on this site.
The size is standard, each room about 16' x 16'. He either builds right here, or he uses a framing floor. In either case it is a flat, level surface. His geometry will establish his points and keep his frame square.
 He measures off 16' with twine, using his own handmade rule. He then stretches out his twine another 16-20 ft, pulls it taut.
He now has a straight Line.
Maybe he has chalk and snaps it, making a line.  Maybe he pegs it.
Modern carpenters snap and set lines regularly. We still call them 'lines'.

1 - On his Line he marks his first point (A).

2 - He chooses a radius and draws 2 arcs, one with its center at (B), one with its center at (C).  He now has 2 points where his arcs cross and can draw a line perpendicular to his Line.

3 - He chooses his dimension -  here, 16 ft -  puts his compass - perhaps a string with a knot at 16' -  at (A) and draws a semi-circle (D-E).
Now he has a new point (F). His cabin is now 32' long; its width is 16' (A-F)

4 - Using (F) as his center he draws another semi-circle.

5 - Then he draws 2 quarter circles using (D) and (E) as his centers. Where the arcs cross (G) and (H) are the upper corners of his cabin.

6 - He swings the other arcs, and now has 4 internal points in each room of the cabin. He marks those points.

7 - Just to be sure, he trues up the space by checking that his diagonals are equal (G-A, D-F etc.).

8 - The interior points give him the centers for the doors, windows, and fireplaces. The plan of the cabin is done.

The end elevation, or  the 3 bents of the frame:
 9 - He sets up the 16' square with its arcs.

10 - The interior points give him the location for the 2nd floor joists.

11 - The points also give him the center of his elevation. He can draw his Lines and use the Rule of Thirds to find the upper third of his square (J-K). 

12 - (J) and (K) mark the eaves for the roof. He extends the sides of the square, draws his arcs to find the upper corners ( L) and (M), adds his diagonals  (J-M) and (L-K). Ahh - there's the roof!

 The window in the eaves is placed and sized:

A carpenter before the Industrial Revolution would not need my description. He would have learned the geometry as an apprentice. If he needed a reminder he would practice a bit with his compass. He probably didn't have a drawing for such a simple cabin.

However, books with instructions to builders (not architects) did exist. Here are 2 examples.

Batty Langley in The Builder's Director, London, 1751, draws moldings "Proportioned by Minutes and by Equal Parts".  He writes that his little book is to be available to "Workmen" and "any common Laborer."

These window and door 'Weatherings' are all composed of squares and arcs of circles. Langely lays out the parts; the Workman can read the rest.

 Asher Benjamin in The Country Builder's Assistant, Greenfield, MA, 1797, says his book "will be particularly useful to Country Workmen in general".
 He assumes the Workman knows geometry.
Plate XXIX  says only
 "C, is a roof; divide the width of the building into 4 parts, one of which will be the perpendicular height. Divide Fig. D, into 7 parts,give 2 to the perpendicular height.
Fig. E, is intended for a roof to a Meetinghouse; divide the width of the building into 9 parts; give 2 to the perpendicular height; the ends of the Beams, a, a, are to be supported by columns."

My first post on Tuckahoe Plantation is here:

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20 days ago
Some of this stuff is achievable by modern grid systems (the plan here, for example) and it's easy to be skeptical that carpenters actually used these techniques that seem so foreign today. But then she does something like place the window in the gable with arc intersections... boom, dead on. That's circle math for sure, not module math.
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