Monday, January 31, 2011

Gluten-free January Participants: Take the Survey!

Matt Lentzner, Janine Jagger and I have designed a survey for participants of Gluten-free January, using the online application StatCrunch. Janine is an epidemiologist who studies healthcare worker safety at the University of Virginia; she has experience designing surveys for data collection so we're glad to have her on board. The survey will allow us to systematically gather and analyze data on the results of Gluten-free January. It will be 100 percent anonymous-- none of your answers will be connected to your identity in any way.

This survey has the potential to be really informative, but it will only work if you respond! The more people who take the survey, the more informative it will be, even if you didn't avoid gluten for a single day. If not very many people respond, it will be highly susceptible to "selection bias", where perhaps the only people who responded are people who improved the most, skewing the results.

Matt will be sending the survey out to everyone on his mailing list. Please complete it, even if you didn't end up avoiding gluten at all! There's no shame in it. The survey has responses built in for people who didn't avoid gluten. Your survey will still be useful!

We have potential data from over 500 people. After we crunch the numbers, I'll share them on the blog.

Homeownership and Social Justice

I am reading and enjoying Simon Johnson and James Kwak's 13 Bankers. Like a lot of recent stuff (including an OECD report), it takes a swipe, if a mild one, at the virtues of homeownership.   If people think homeownershipp is overrated, I can live with that (even if I disagree with it. Where I do have a problem is when people argue that government "pushes" homeownership on people, whether they really want it or not.

I am not sure that the pushing matters that much--it is entirely possible that people, for reasons beyond financial reasons, want to own houses in particular and real estate in general.  Two things stick with me:

(1) I was talking yesterday with a developer here in India who is trying to building market-rate affordable housing.  He faces a number of hurdles, one of which, he said, is "Indians' obsession with homeownership."

(2) Years ago, when I was in Madison, the guy who cut my hair loved to talk about the rental property he owned in Florida.  It would, he said, be the source of his retirement income.  I asked him why he was so undiversified--why he didn't sell his place and put the money in an index fund.  His reply was that he didn't trust Wall Street, and that he needed an investment that he could "touch" as well as control.  I told him his mistrust of Wall Street was misplaced--shows what I knew at the time.

The point is that there is something about real estate that reduces agency problems,  One may not be able to control markets, but one can control the management of real estate that one owns.  I do remember when I left the rental market for the owner market, I was very happy, not because I thought I would make out financially (house prices in Madison had been stagnant for years), but because I disliked my landlord, and was relieved that I would no longer have to write a check to him. 

This is not to say putting people in houses they cannot afford is a good idea, and I have long been dubious of very low downpayment schemes (I do think homeowners who put no equity into their houses are not really owners).  But it is a little too easy for people who own houses (or have the choice to do so) to say it is not important to make the option available to others.  Freedom to some extent means the ability to take control of one's own life, and to avoid agency issues as much as possible. 

I freely confess that this is all supposition based on informal observation.  Some work has been done on how ownership solves some agency issues, but I think it is an understudied phenomenon.  If anyone wants to help me think about how to model such things formally, I would welcome the assistance.

2011 DC Design House

After almost completely convincing myself that I wouldn't make it in the Washington DC Design House, (I tend to do that when it gets down to the wire & I get really nervous) I got a call today from one of the Design House Committee members letting me know I'd been accepted.  I was kind of in shock and just so insanely happy when I listened to her voicemail.
I can't even express how truly honored & grateful I am to be able to participate in the Design House.  Here's a photo from the DC Design House facbooke page of the outside of the 2011 home:

The DC Design House benefites The Childrens National Medical Center which is "the largest non-governmental provider of pediatric care in the District of Columbia and treats all patients regardless of their families' ability to pay. Each year Children's provides more than $50 million in uncompensated care.   As a nonprofit hospital, Children's National relies on the generous support of individuals, corporations, and foundations to meet the health needs of children..."

I'll keep you posted as the date nears, but it's set to run April 9th - May8th.
The address is 3134 Ellicott St, NW

 Do you remember this succulent that had me all excited a while back?

It was growing in the garden room of the design house. 
It completely embodies the feeling I'm after for the space I have (an upstair bedroom/ sitting room) and I just love how fresh and luminous it is.  I'll definitely keep you posted on everything and if you're in the area, hopefully you'll be able to make it to see for yourself!  I'm teaming up with some amazing people including local artist John Matthew Moore

I'm thrilled & honored to be joining a super-talented group of designers for this year's Design House: 

James Rill (Rill Architects), Liz Levin, Patrick Sutton, Erin Paige Pitts, Nadia Subaran (Aidan Design), Whitney Stewart, Gary Lovejoy, Nancy Colbert, Camille Saum, Denise Willard, Barbara Franceski, Samantha Friedman, Jason Hodges, Cindy McClure, David Mitchell and Iantha Carley

A huge congratulations to the other designers selected and cheers to the 2011 House!

xoxo, Lauren

If you'd like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.


{new cubbies in my office studio...  "studio" sounds so much better, doesn't it?}

Just enjoying the last spec of the loooong snow-filled weekend before bed. Last week was such a nutty week that I totally forgot to post that I was a guest blogger/ designer over at Room Remix! PK's going a great series on paint with some of my favorite blog friends so check it out if you have a minute:


Many of you asked about the driftwood hanging above the cubbies.  My dad found it 20 or so years ago while fishing in Georgia.  It's a cypress tree root.  There used to be bass mounted on it but he gave it to me  so they're gone :)  It used to be in the shape of a star but a piece of it fell off over the years.  He's wants me to reattach it but then I wouldn't have room for my cubbies!

Also, you might have noticed a few changes around here. My blog's been getting a few tweaks including a some new buttons on the sidebar. I haven't linked everything up yet but as soon as I do, I'll be sure to give you a little tour.

Is anyone going to the design bloggers' conference in LA? I'm all signed up so let me know if you're in!

And... I find out tomorrow yes or no for the design house. Am so nervous and can't wait for the pit in my stomach to leave. ( it has to go away whether we get it or not, right?? ;). I might be in need of virtual hugs so I'll keep you posted. Finger crossed.

xoxo, Lauren
If you'd like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

According to an informal vote of Indian School of Business MBAs...

...the cities with the most potential for real estate investment in India are Pune and Ahmedabad. 

The Diabetes Epidemic

The CDC just released its latest estimate of diabetes prevalence in the US (1):
Diabetes affects 8.3 percent of Americans of all ages, and 11.3 percent of adults aged 20 and older, according to the National Diabetes Fact Sheet for 2011. About 27 percent of those with diabetes—7 million Americans—do not know they have the disease. Prediabetes affects 35 percent of adults aged 20 and older.
Wow-- this is a massive problem. The prevalence of diabetes has been increasing over time, due to more people developing the disorder, improvements in diabetes care leading to longer survival time, and changes in the way diabetes is diagnosed. Here's a graph I put together based on CDC data, showing the trend of diabetes prevalence (percent) from 1980 to 2008 in different age categories (2):

These data are self-reported, and do not correct for differences in diagnosis methods, so they should be viewed with caution-- but they still serve to illustrate the trend. There was an increase in diabetes incidence that began in the early 1990s. More than 90 percent of cases are type 2 diabetics. Disturbingly, the trend does not show any signs of slowing.

The diabetes epidemic has followed on the heels of the obesity epidemic with 10-20 years of lag time. Excess body fat is the number one risk factor for diabetes*. As far as I can tell, type 2 diabetes is caused by insulin resistance, which is probably due to energy intake exceeding energy needs (overnutrition), causing a state of cellular insulin resistance as a defense mechanism to protect against the damaging effects of too much glucose and fatty acids (3). In addition, type 2 diabetes requires a predisposition that prevents the pancreatic beta cells from keeping up with the greatly increased insulin needs of an insulin resistant person**. Both factors are required, and not all insulin resistant people will develop diabetes as some people's beta cells are able to compensate by hypersecreting insulin.

Why does energy intake exceed energy needs in modern America and in most affluent countries? Why has the typical person's calorie intake increased by 250 calories per day since 1970 (4)? I believe it's because the fat mass "setpoint" has been increased, typically but not always by industrial food. I've been developing some new thoughts on this lately, and potentially new solutions, which I'll reveal when they're ready.

* In other words, it's the best predictor of future diabetes risk.

** Most of the common gene variants (of known function) linked with type 2 diabetes are thought to impact beta cell function (5).

More Dry Lake Racer Studies

Ken Lindley (Lancers) modified 1946
Water Colour Study on Bristol Board

Ken Lindley (Lancers) modified 1946. Earned 4th Place in the SCTA Individual Points Championship while recording a 128.93mph. The Racecar grill is from a 1936 Pontaic.

Esau Thun's (Albata) 1932 pre war roadster in 1941
Water Colour Study on Bristol Board

Esau Thun's (Albata) 1932 pre war roadster in 1941. A Good example of the pre war roadster stance.

Both studies are based upon original photos from Don Montgomery's "Old Hot Rods Scrapbook"

Two Wheat Challenge Ideas from Commenters

Some people have remarked that the blinded challenge method I posted is cumbersome.

Reader "Me" suggested:
You can buy wheat gluten in a grocery store. Why not simply have your friend add some wheat gluten to your normal protein shake.
Reader David suggested:
They sell empty gelatin capsules with carob content to opacify them. Why not fill a few capsules with whole wheat flour, and then a whole bunch with rice starch or other placebo. For two weeks take a set of, say, three capsules every day, with the set of wheat capsules in line to be taken on a random day selected by your friend. This would further reduce the chances that you would see through the blind, and it prevent the risk of not being able to choke the "smoothie" down. It would also keep it to wheat and nothing but wheat (except for the placebo starch).
The reason I chose the method in the last post is that it directly tests wheat in a form that a person would be likely to eat: bread. The limitation of the gluten shake method is that it would miss a sensitivity to components in wheat other than gluten. The limitation of the pill method is that raw flour is difficult to digest, so it would be difficult to extrapolate a sensitivity to cooked flour foods. You might be able to get around that by filling the pills with powdered bread crumbs. Those are two alternative ideas to consider if the one I posted seems too involved.

My Office & a Snow Day

We've been snowed in today with no electricity and I'm really glad we kept our wood-burning stove:

The power went out last night & we sleep in a pretty cool house so we didn't really notice it until this morning.  We got a fire going in the wood-burning stove and it toasted up our entire lower level, where the family-room-combination-office is.  We had breakfast (cereal with MILK! ;) at my work table and got all cozy by the fire.  I took the pic above with my cell phone & thought I could beat the power outage and post from my ipad but I couldn't figure out how to get the pic up from the ipad!  ah vell.

We took the kids out in the snow & Justin (above, 1) loooved it.   He was watching a snowball fight between Daddy & Christian:

{Yes, that's a snowball pelted at my 3 year-old's head.  My husband's a bit like Dumb & Dumber in the snow.  He hit me with one and it was seriously like a baseball...  I guess it makes us tough??? }

Anyway, onto the office.  I've been needing more storage and we have the room for it so on a whim we decided to go for these shelves (from Target) last night.  (We've beein toying with the idea of built-ins but want to keep the room open for alternate arrangements)  Dave made it home just before things got really crazy around here snow-traffic-wise. I'm thrilled with the results:

I haven't really organized it yet and I still have some empty cubbies.    Much of my gear is in our laundry room & Dave's work-out room so I'm going to bring out only the most-used items. 

(empty cubby hiding behind Schumacher bag ;)

I put my ink pads & stamps in this old hammered ice bucket and I know I'm just begging for little Justin to come explore.  (He loves to carry things with handles.) 

I've never really shown you what all is in my office so I thought I'd share some peeks.  Inside this little closet (which is next to the new cubby shelves) I keep some of my smaller fabric samples in color-coded clear plastic bins.  I prefer to pull my fabric swatches from their books unless it's a book of solids like linens or velvets:

{The printer & a bunch of other junk also lives in here.}

Larger fabric samples go in the hallway (most of them are Schumacher in case anyone spies anything they have to have in the pic;)  and are grommeted and attached with shower rings to curtain rods we hung: 

looooove my pretties...

...And just to keep it real, here's the view I never show:

I'm working on this spot.  I want to add more shelving up to the top and turn the whole area into the spot for my active client boxes, which store swatches & samples for each invidual client.  Completed job boxes go in a less-accessible area.  And that poor thing hanging on the wall is one big mess.  For now it houses all of the miscellaneous pads & notebooks I've accumulated so that I remember to use them...  but there's definitely a better way to use this space.   I'm getting there ;)

..Okay, and because I like to end positively, here's one last look at my new cubbies:

{Do you spy our candle collection??  Leftover from the power outage}

This little addition gave us some much-needed breathing room and I just love that feeling. 
I think I'll leave a couple cubbies empty for quick "mess stashes.." 
And I'm going to go now because I'm doing more organizing.  ahhhhh so happy.


xoxo, Lauren

If you'd like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

How much freedom to choose?

Ed Glaeser argues that the "moral heart of economics" is "freedom" and in particular the "freedom to choose:"

Improvements in welfare occur when there are improvements in utility, and those occur only when an individual gets an option that wasn’t previously available. We typically prove that someone’s welfare has increased when the person has an increased set of choices.
When we make that assumption (which is hotly contested by some people, especially psychologists), we essentially assume that the fundamental objective of public policy is to increase freedom of choice.

I will leave it to others to dispute the notion that more choices are always better than fewer.  But I can't help but think that it is to easy for those of us who are tenured professors to extoll the virtue of free choice, for the simple reason that we get so many, well, choices.  We get to choose what we write, we to a large extent get to choose what we teach inside our classes, and we can piss our deans off and pay fairly little in the way of consequences.  We might not get a raise or we might have to teach a class that we would rather not, but this is all small beer.  We can make an awful lot of choices and still be economically secure.

Now consider the administrative assistant at a corporation who has a boorish boss and a sick kid.   The company she (he) works for has a good health insurance plan, but if she were to leave, she would find herself unable to get coverage at a reasonable price.  Does she really have choice?

Consider the West Virginia coal miner who goes into a dangerous mine every day, and whose life expectancy is shortened with each hour worked underground.  Now consider the fact that the miner grew up in a West Virginia town with a poor school in an environment where going to college was a rare phenomenon.  Does that miner have a choice?

I could go on, but I think the point is fairly clear.  There are times when government intervention could expand the choice set up a large number of people.

Ed does point out how government can improve choice sets, and for that he deserves credit.  But the more fundamental problem is that market economies produce large institutions that have limited markets inside of them, and therefore sometimes have hierarchies that can be as inhospitable to personal liberty as government bureaucracies.  Elinor Ostrom's Nobel win in 2009 shows that the economics profession is beginning to recognize this problem,  but I am not sure Ph.D. students are broadly encouraged to study it.    


I met with a large developer here in India.  He told me that "rent models," (i.e., discounted cash flow models) don;t work in India--that everyone wants to own property in India, and so India is different.  I remember a Japanese real estate guy telling me the same thing about Japan in the late 1980s.

At least there isn't a lot of leverage here, so the systemic risk of a collapse in prices is lower.  But still....

Google loosing its Midas touch?

Google will have to add another failure to its list – the company has just announced withdrawal of Real Estate listing service from Google Maps. It is partly the result of discontinuation of Google Base API but the primary cause quoted in the announcement is “low usage”. I appears that “economic reality” prevailed over somehow philanthropic ambitions of Google to provide “free services for all” – at stake was a huge revenue flow from advertising from subscription based real estate portals – and that is the main game for Google.

Real estate listings on Google Maps and via Google Base API service were available for US, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Japan. Many anticipated far reaching changes in real estate online listing market as the result of Google’s entry, including the author of this blog, but we were all proven wrong. No hard feelings on my part as it opens up new opportunities since Google left a big niche ready to be explored but it begs a question, what went wrong for Google? I believe that the main cause was the service was just an add-on layer to Google Map and, to my best knowledge, listings were never promoted in online search. Google lacked clear vision for the service and was never committed to push it in any big way, not to upset its largest advertising clients. Otherwise who knows what might have happened…

Google is indeed struggling with creating thematic content for its main map platform so it is no surprise the company decided in the end to leave real estate listings to third party developers. Is Google starting to loose its Midas touch? Initially it looked that they cannot make any wrong move – search engine dominance, online advertising platform dominance, online video dominance… But more recent explorations and experimentations seem not to deliver the expected results.

News and Fairfax, and their associated real estate portals and, stood their grounds and did not want to participate in Google’s experiments. REA Group ( share price more than doubled since Google entered the market in July 2009 and despite growing dissatisfaction with the service from real estate agents. Fairfax shares are only slightly up. If one had “blinked”, the outcome could have been totally different… So, for now, back to status quo - it will have to be someone else, not Google, who will shake the things up for them. Telstra was not so lucky and in the end it opted for tighter cooperation with Google (now not only providing listings for Google's local search from its Yellow Pages but also map data for Google Map).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mark Thoma passes on terrible news about Maxine Udall, girl economist

To all Maxine Udall Girl Economist Readers

I didn't know who she was, but I felt like I knew her.  She was smart and wise.

Umm yeah...

...That's cereal with water.

When we opened the fridge for breakfast this morning, I realized we were out of milk. 
It happens. 
But it happened after we'd poured the puffins in the bowl. 
And his heart was set on that bowl of puffins. 
I told him it wouldn't be good, but he had to try the water in the cereal. 

You only try this once. 
I remember when I did.

It's really not the end of the world, but it's really not good.

... But thanks to Gramma for showing up an hour or so later & fixing things:

love you mom.

xoxo, Lauren

If you'd like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Land use regulation and the cost of housing, Indian style

Mumbai is among the densest cities in the world: as a metropolitan area, it is roughly ten times denser than New York (h/t Alain Bertaud).  Yet residential zoning codes typically have FSIs (the equivalent of a floor-area ratio) of between 1 and 1.33.  This compares with typical central business district FSIs of between 5 and 15 in other cities around the world, and there are places in Hong Kong, which is a very attractive city, where it reaches 20.  

So what happens when the most crowded large city in the world forbids intense development?  Prices get very high.  The most expensive parts of Mumbai are more expensive than Manhattan; the least expensive are comparable to the American Midwest, but people's "middle-class" incomes are perhaps 1/8 as large in Mumbai.

A developer I spoke with last night told me that if FSIs were raised to 4 (still low by world standards), prices would fall by about 50 percent.  While this is not an econometrically determined elasticity, it does make a certain amount of sense.  It would be worth at least doing the policy experiment of raising FSI uniformly.

As for services, well, there are already plenty of people using services.  The average person in Mumbai consumes about 30 square meet of residential floor space, so allowing more vertical development might, if anything, alleviate crowding, both inside and out.  

Blinded Wheat Challenge

Self-experimentation can be an effective way to improve one's health*. One of the problems with diet self-experimentation is that it's difficult to know which changes are the direct result of eating a food, and which are the result of preconceived ideas about a food. For example, are you more likely to notice the fact that you're grumpy after drinking milk if you think milk makes people grumpy? Maybe you're grumpy every other day regardless of diet? Placebo effects and conscious/unconscious bias can lead us to erroneous conclusions.

The beauty of the scientific method is that it offers us effective tools to minimize this kind of bias. This is probably its main advantage over more subjective forms of inquiry**. One of the most effective tools in the scientific method's toolbox is a control. This is a measurement that's used to establish a baseline for comparison with the intervention, which is what you're interested in. Without a control measurement, the intervention measurement is typically meaningless. For example, if we give 100 people pills that cure belly button lint, we have to give a different group placebo (sugar) pills. Only the comparison between drug and placebo groups can tell us if the drug worked, because maybe the changing seasons, regular doctor's visits, or having your belly button examined once a week affects the likelihood of lint.

Another tool is called blinding. This is where the patient, and often the doctor and investigators, don't know which pills are placebo and which are drug. This minimizes bias on the part of the patient, and sometimes the doctor and investigators. If the patient knew he were receiving drug rather than placebo, that could influence the outcome. Likewise, investigators who aren't blinded while they're collecting data can unconsciously (or consciously) influence it.

Back to diet. I want to know if I react to wheat. I've been gluten-free for about a month. But if I eat a slice of bread, how can I be sure I'm not experiencing symptoms because I think I should? How about blinding and a non-gluten control?

Procedure for a Blinded Wheat Challenge

1. Find a friend who can help you.

2. Buy a loaf of wheat bread and a loaf of gluten-free bread.

3. Have your friend choose one of the loaves without telling you which he/she chose.

4. Have your friend take 1-3 slices, blend them with water in a blender until smooth. This is to eliminate differences in consistency that could allow you to determine what you're eating. Don't watch your friend do this-- you might recognize the loaf.

5. Pinch your nose and drink the "bread smoothie" (yum!). This is so that you can't identify the bread by taste. Rinse your mouth with water before releasing your nose. Record how you feel in the next few hours and days.

6. Wait a week. This is called a "washout period". Repeat the experiment with the second loaf, attempting to keep everything else about the experiment as similar as possible.

7. Compare how you felt each time. Have your friend "unblind" you by telling you which bread you ate on each day. If you experienced symptoms during the wheat challenge but not the control challenge, you may be sensitive to wheat.

If you want to take this to the next level of scientific rigor, repeat the procedure several times to see if the result is consistent. The larger the effect, the fewer times you need to repeat it to be confident in the result.

* Although it can also be disastrous. People who get into the most trouble are "extreme thinkers" who have a tendency to take an idea too far, e.g., avoid all animal foods, avoid all carbohydrate, avoid all fat, run two marathons a week, etc.

** More subjective forms of inquiry have their own advantages.

Textiles Shmextiles

My textile line is finally coming together and it's been a crazy past couple of weeks.  I've been meeting with various artists to go over the designs for screenprinting.  They're insanely talented and I feel so lucky to be able to work with them.  We're starting with 10 or so designs and will hopefully expand the line from there.  The designs are all over the map and the connecting thread is that they're all somehow personal to me.  (as fabrics tend to be.)

It's been an interesting process.  In my head, I know exactly what I want but I have to communicate that to the artists through my seriously rough sketches and various photos.  I can't imagine how awesome it would feel to be able to draw what's in your brain on paper.  I'm jealous. :)  

Since fabric's on the brain, I've been drawn to it even more than usual.  I just found & bought this beautiful robe on etsy from Pretty Plumb Sugar whose things I loooooove:

I also picked up this antique thistle print (hint! hint! ;) from Bananastrudel:

...Like I've mentioned before, I have a little obsession with weeds & wildflowers so they will definitely be making appearances in the line. 

The one design I actually drew myself is this overscale wild chicory blockprint-esque print:

It will be available in several colorways, one of them being a "true" colorway with the flowers in periwinkle blue. 

I'll keep you posted on our progress but as of right now the line is set to come out this Spring around the same time as my furniture line.  Then of course I'll have to photograph the textiles in use so that'll take a little longer.  I'm definitely going to be lining my closet in one of them (They'll be sold as fabric or wallcoverings) and I can't wait to not mind when our closet door is open.

Nothing is set in stone right now so I'd love any thoughts and/or ideas you have to share.  Anything you're dying to see? 

xoxo, Lauren

If you'd like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Column Love

I've always loved this photo of my mom with my paternal grandparents, Grandma Maestranzi and Nanoo.  (I know I'm not spelling "Nanoo" the correct way, but it's how I've spelled it my entire life & I'm not changing it now ;)  I'm not sure where they are but I can't get over the columns & all the intricate stone & metalwork.  I think my mom looks so beautiful and her pale yellow dress always reminded me a bit of the lady in Annie.  (the movie)

There's something so awe-inspiring about big white columns.  Do you remember learning the 3 types of columns in art class?  They used to drill it into our heads:

{image via}

How beautiful???  I've never visited Greece but am dying to...

{Temple of Zeus photo by DeClan McCullagh Photography}

This is my dream:

{by Bobby McAlpine...  if you haven't read his book, The Home Within Us, get to the bookstore now.  It's probably the one of the best I've ever read.  It was so good & so true, I got teary; no joke.  I have been wanting to write a post since I read it last Spring but I really need to do it justice and it'll require a lot of thinking.  It will change your outlook and/or totally verbalize all those stray thoughts you had running around in your head that you couldn't make sense of.  It's done perfectly.}

I love drawings of columns & architectural details and could fill my walls & home with a collection of them.   Check out this ancient book:

I'm considering this drawing originally by Sir William Chambers for a client:
One of my favorite paintings is by artist & friend John Matthew Moore

{I love the glimpse of ruins on the mountain in the background.  }

And...  getting funny, is this drawing by Marc Johns:

{Drawing by Marc Johns}

Speaking of columns I don't own, below is a photo of my dad's house in Barrington Hills, Illinois when I was growing up.  He designed it & learned a ton in the process.  I spent summers, every other holiday and random vacations there.  (My parents divorced when I was 2 years old and my mom & I moved to Virginia when I was 4 to be near my grandparents and my dad stayed in Illinois.)  My dad remarried a woman who had two kids near my age (whom I absolutely adored) when I was 7 and built the house for us all.  Without getting all into the crazy very sad details, my dad & my stepmom divorced seven years later and my dad eventually sold the property when I was in college.   But I've always loved this house.  Seeing it built from the ground up, watching my stepmom decorate it and doing my bedroom (eek- spongepainting!! :)  all made me love the design process. My dad built us the best 3-story treehouse in the world and I still dream about it.  I could go on & on so I'll save it for another day.  (I have video tours I made when I was a kid so I'm going to try to upload them if I can.)  But anyway, I remember playing on the front porch, marching around and around the big white columns singing songs with my stepsister.
{This house is like my Tara hahah...  I really do miss it.}

Anyway, I'm off to start the day but have a great weekend!  Stay warm!!!

xoxo, Lauren

If you'd like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The present value relationship still doesn't work in India

I had students here in Hyderabad gather data on rents, and then we put together a valuation pro forma.  We determined that the present discounted value of flats here is roughly 40 percent of their sale price.

I have been doing this sort of exercise since I first visited south Asia seven years ago, and I get about the same outcome every time.  It is not credit that is driving this market--many people buy property with cash.  People tell stories about "black money" financing property--this is untraceable, and therefore untaxed, money.    But our calculations imply an implicit tax rate of 60 percent--taxes in India are not that high (in fact, other than an eight percent transfer tax, they are fairly similar to the US).

So the story must be about expectations, and indeed, that is the story I hear.  But current yields are well under 3 percent, and if values rise faster than rents, those yields will get even lower.  Something has got to give.  I just have no idea when.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Eating Wheat Gluten Causes Symptoms in Some People Who Don't Have Celiac Disease

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition characterized by the frequent occurrence of abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, bloating and/or gas. If that sounds like an extremely broad description, that's because it is. The word "syndrome" is medicalese for "we don't know what causes it." IBS seems to be a catch-all for various persistent digestive problems that aren't defined as separate disorders, and it has a very high prevalence: as high as 14 percent of people in the US, although the estimates depend on what diagnostic criteria are used (1). It can be brought on or exacerbated by several different types of stressors, including emotional stress and infection.

Maelán Fontes Villalba at Lund University recently forwarded me an interesting new paper in the American Journal of Gastroenterology (2). Dr. Jessica R. Biesiekierski and colleagues recruited 34 IBS patients who did not have celiac disease, but who felt they had benefited from going gluten-free in their daily lives*. All patients continued on their pre-study gluten-free diet, however, all participants were provided with two slices of gluten-free bread and one gluten-free muffin per day. The investigators added isolated wheat gluten to the bread and muffins of half the study group.

During the six weeks of the intervention, patients receiving the gluten-free food fared considerably better on nearly every symptom of IBS measured. The most striking difference was in tiredness-- the gluten-free group was much less tired on average than the gluten group. Interestingly, they found that a negative reaction to gluten was not necessarily accompanied by the presence of anti-gluten antibodies in the blood, which is a test often used to diagnose gluten sensitivity.

Here's what I take away from this study:
  1. Wheat gluten can cause symptoms in susceptible people who do not have celiac disease.
  2. A lack of circulating antibodies against gluten does not necessarily indicate a lack of gluten sensitivity.
  3. People with mysterious digestive problems may want to try avoiding gluten for a while to see if it improves their symptoms**.
  4. People with mysterious fatigue may want to try avoiding gluten.
A previous study in 1981 showed that feeding volunteers a large dose of gluten every day for 6 weeks caused adverse gastrointestinal effects, including inflammatory changes, in relatives of people with celiac disease, who did not themselves have celiac (3). Together, these two studies are the most solid evidence that gluten can be damaging in people without celiac disease, a topic that has not received much interest in the biomedical research community.

I don't expect everyone to benefit from avoiding gluten. But for those who are really sensitive, it can make a huge difference. Digestive, autoimmune and neurological disorders associate most strongly with gluten sensitivity. Avoiding gluten can be a fruitful thing to try in cases of mysterious chronic illness. We're two-thirds of the way through Gluten-Free January. I've been fastidiously avoiding gluten, as annoying as it's been at times***. Has anyone noticed a change in their health?

* 56% of volunteers carried HLA-DQ2 or DQ8 alleles, which is slightly higher than the general population. Nearly all people with celiac disease carry one of these two alleles. 28% of volunteers were positive for anti-gliadin IgA, which is higher than the general population.

** Some people feel they are reacting to the fructans in wheat, rather than the gluten. If a modest amount of onion causes the same symptoms as eating wheat, then that may be true. If not, then it's probably the gluten.

*** I'm usually about 95% gluten-free anyway. But when I want a real beer, I want one brewed with barley. And when I want Thai food or sushi, I don't worry about a little bit of wheat in the soy sauce. If a friend makes me food with gluten in it, I'll eat it and enjoy it. This month I'm 100% gluten-free though, because I can't in good conscience encourage my blog readership to try it if I'm not doing it myself. At the end of the month, I'm going to do a blinded gluten challenge (with a gluten-free control challenge) to see once and for all if I react to it. Stay tuned for more on that.

Snuggle up

It's almost Friday!!!  Get excited.

xoxo, Lauren

If you'd like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.

The OECD says imputed rent should be taxed

When homeowners own their property with equity, they get a tax benefit as important as the mortgage interest deduction: the imputed rent they pay to themselves goes untaxed.  To think about how this works, consider two nieghbors who own their houses free and clear.  Suppose the houses are identical, and that the nieghbors swap houses, paying rent to each other.  They now have a tax liability that they would not have had they remained in their houses.  Avoiding this liability is tantamount to a tax expenditure--a benefit to those who own their houses without debt.  The OECD is correct that countries rarely tax imputed rent, and argues that this lack of taxation has tilted investment toward housing to the detriment of more productive uses.  It also argues that the benefits to homeownership are overstated.  I am not sure that this is true (see here and here), but I will leave that for another time.

The question is how does one go about taxing imputed rent?  It is not easy.  One could start by imposing an ad valorem tax on property values (such as a local property tax), but that doesn't tax imputed rent per se, because it does not take into account expected inflation (if one person expects her house to go up in value, and another does not, the rent the first person pays is lower than the second).  Alternatively, one could find comparables in the rental market and attribute rents found there to the owner market.  But owner and rental markets are so segmented that this would be difficult to do.

This has implications for fairness; if we don't know what we are taxing, it is hard to know how much to tax it. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Amy Chua and the Reflection Problem

I saw Amy Chua speak some years ago (at the World Bank, I think) about her book, World on Fire. She was an excellent, witty and provocative speaker, so much so that I read the book as a result. And while the book was indeed thought-provoking, it was not convincing. Her basic point was that democracies can produce instability: minorities in democracies can amass economic wealth, which in turn leads to resentment, which in turn leads to political scapegoating and instability and all other kinds of bad things. The problem is she never presented to me a convincing counterfactual; she never showed me how a world devoid of democracy would also be devoid of resentment and instability.

As a result of reading World on Fire, I will not read Battle Hymn beyond the excerpt in the Wall Street Journal (although I understand that the excerpt is not representative of the book). If the book is only a memoir, then it is almost certainly fine, but this is not how it is being represented. Instead, it is being characterized as a comparison between "Chinese parenting" and its results and "Western parenting" and its results. Again, this may be unfair to Ms. Chua, but the book has spurred myriad commentary about the virtues and deficiencies of various parenting styles.

What is lost in all of this is how difficult it is to actually draw inferences about the effects of parenting styles on outcomes. Charles Manski calls this "the reflection problem." Here is Manski:

Here is an identification problem from everyday life: Suppose that you observe the almost simultaneous movements of a person and of his image in a mirror. Does the mirror image cause the person's movements, does the image reflect the person's movements, or do the person and image move together in response to a common external stimulus? Empirical observations alone cannot answer this question. Even if you were able to observe innumerable instances in which persons and their mirror images move together, you would not be able to logically deduce the process at work. To reach a conclusion requires that you understand something of optics and of human behavior.

A like inferential problem, which I have called the reflection problem (Manski 1993a), arises if you try to interpret the common observation that individuals belonging to the same group tend to behave similarly. Two hypotheses often advanced to explain this phenomenon are endogenous effects, wherein the propensity of an individual to behave in some way varies with the prevalence of that behavior in the group; and correlated effects, wherein individuals in the same group tend to behave similarly because they face similar environments and have similar individual characteristics.

Similar behavior within groups could stem from endogenous effects (e.g., group members could experience pressure to conform to group norms) or group similarities might reflect correlated effects (e.g., persons with similar characteristics might choose to associate with one another). Empirical observations of the behavior of individuals in groups, even innumerable such observations, cannot per se distinguish between these hypotheses. To draw conclusions requires that empirical evidence be combined with sufficiently strong maintained assumptions about the nature of individual behavior and social interactions.

Why might you care whether observed patterns of behavior are generated by endogenous effects, by correlated effects, or in some other way? A good practical reason is that different processes have differing implications for public policy. For example, understanding how students interact in classrooms is critical to the evaluation of many aspects of educational policy, from ability tracking to class size standards to racial integration programs.

Suppose that, unable to interpret observed patterns of behavior, you seek the expert advice of two social scientists. One, perhaps a sociologist, asserts that pressure to conform to group norms makes the individuals in a group tend to behave similarly. The other, perhaps an economist, asserts that persons with similar characteristics choose to associate with one another. Both assertions are consistent with the empirical evidence. The data alone cannot reveal whether one assertion or the other is correct. Perhaps both are. This is an identification problem.

Whatever one thinks about Ms. Chua's parenting, we have no firm evidence whether her kids' outcomes are a function of Chinese parenting, Chua-specific parenting, or just her kids' endemic talents. It is a serious problem when we forget that.

Trust Me

I'm one of those people who goes through food cravings and I'll eat the same thing for days or weeks in a row because I'm so obsessed with it.  (Even things like salami or soup for breakfast. )  I've been making this chickpea salad lately and I love it so much I wanted to share.  It's so easy.

Just mix these ingredients together:
- Canned chickpeas
-Diced tomatoes
-diced onions
-chopped fresh pasley
-olive oil
-lemon juice
-fresh garlic (if you know your family & friends love you know matter what)
-salt & pepper & garlic salt to taste
-Finally , weird as it sounds, add capers & parmesan cheese. I swear it's good.

...It's so easy & even better if you can make it a few hours before you eat it so it has time to marinate.  looove it on day 2.   We've been having it with warm pitas & feta...  mm mm goodness

ps- I promise I'll post pics of my laundry room as soon as I can get it clean enough to photograph!!  (I found the fabric for the curtains at Lewis & Sharon)

xoxo, Lauren

If you'd like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Get excited

When designing a room- whether it's for myself or for someone else- I've realized that I need to be excited about it to do it well.  That's just how it is.  I might not be excited about all projects at the get-go (ie my laundry room) but once I find something to do to the room or put in the room that I feel a strong emotion about, I get really excited and into it...  And then it all just sort of seems to flow together into a full idea.

{my laundry room... I didn't like it until I gto a handle on the vibe I wanted.}

If I don't find that "spark," that catlyst that excites me (whether it's because I think it's beautiful, highly personal, new to me, or fun or odd or whatever) then working on the room can feel like homework & drudgery. 

In this industry, when what you're doing is helping people create a home they will love, it's easy to get into a groove.  You form opinions about what you like and don't like in a room and even though your homes for different clients should all be different and personal to your clients' tastes, you begin to carry these views with you.  You know what works and doesn't work/  what you agree with and what you disagree with.  For example, how you generally like your rugs sized, proportions concerning items like chandeliers, lamps, furnishings, etc.  You kind of form "rules" in your head for yourself, realizing it's okay to break them when need be.  For me though, if I follow all of my "rules," it can get dull.  It can feel like clockwork or connecting the dots.  Things have to feel fresh to me or it feels as if we're following directions instead of creating.  The juices that flow are totally different in those two tasks.

I used to wonder why artists would go through "periods."   Picasso comes to mind here:


{The Blue Period}

{The Rose Period}


It seemed to me that he'd achieved perfection so early on;  Why go through these periods? 

...I think it's because if he'd continued on where he'd started (with realism/ perfection) it would have felt like following a formula.  He'd mastered it and needed to move on to master something else. 

I think many of us in creative fields do this.  I think we have to or we get bored.  I go through periods of loving bright, white and neutral rooms with little clutter and then I get into moods of loving cozy, warm, richly colorful rooms with lots of things in them.  Of course every project is most influenced by the client, but it's also influenced by what I'm working out in my head at the time.  (Many times a client's personal style drives me to research & I learn to appreciate yet a new perspective.) 

{My client Malinda's dining room was extremely traditional & we needed something fresh & exciting in there to get it to where Malinda wanted it and to keep it from feeling typical.  The framed ikat fabric panels did this for us.}

Personally, I need to be constantly broadening my perspective & my appreciation for alternative viewpoints or things start to feel static and elementary.   I think it's why I've been branching out into furniture & fabric design.  I need to keep things fresh for myself.

But back to finding that "spark" in each room and getting excited...  Today I believe there's what might be called a general "current" style in mainstream America.  What I've noticed is that while much of the general population does not subscribe to interior design magazines - like Elle Decor or House Beautiful- or blogs, they do receive catalogs from stores like Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, Crate & Barrel, Ballard Designs, Arhaus, Z Galleries, Ikea, West Elm, etc.  I would say that what these stores are selling ends up strongly influencing what people generally view as "in style" and "current."  I know many of the design-obsessed (like me) may be totally "over" something once it's hit the mainstream stores, but we have to realize that it feels "of-the-moment" to the majority of the people out there.   {My dad thinks anything HGTV does is gospel and contantly argues with me when I mention something I want to do to his house if it's not HGTV-approved.}  So while people want something highly personal and created just for them, they are understandably, highly influenced by these popular big box stores catalogues & TV shows.  Many of them fear doing things they haven't seem done before or recently in the "big box" stores or on TV.  (I don't think they think this consciously, but I've noticed it.)

{Ballard Designs}

So, although most people have their own personal styles, they are being influenced by what's for sale in the current marketplace and how it's being displayed, used, etc.  I appreciate so much of what's being done in catalogues like Pottery Barn or Ballard Designs, etc.  I see that they're grabbing ahold of interesting items and displaying them & selling them creatively...  There are talented people behind these companies.  But, I also see it as my job -when I'm hired by someone- to come up with different solutions.  To try something new.  To not just do what's being done.  If my clients wanted exactly what they see in the catalogues, they could simply purchase an entire room and be done.  (Honestly, If someone really loved a catalogue room this much, I'd say go for it.  You just got some of the most talented people in the industry to design a room for you free of charge.)   

{Ballard Designs}

When I'm working on a room, I need to feel that I'm pushing the design a bit or I'm not 100% happy with the results in the end because it never really excited me.  I often mention to clients that I want to push them a little bit outside of their comfort zones because that's where they'll truly be satisfied.  My happiest clients in the end are the ones who were presented with designs that scared them just a teensy bit when presented and went for it.  They often have to sit on the plans for a couple of days before comitting to them.  What may start out as "really???  seriously??" ends up being their favorite part of the room.  I live for this.

{My clients, Aimee & Dave's orange overscaled floral sofa}

EVEN when it's my own home...  In our house, I was really afraid to push the button on our bright green sofa.  When it arrived in the house -prior to anything else- floors, art, chairs, pillows, shades,  etc.) I was "oh my gosh- Oh my gosh- Oh my gosh" nervous.  I was scared.  It suck out like a sore thumb in a sea of white: 

{At this moment I remember thinking eeeeeeeek I need to get to work!  The sofa scared me but excited me.}

{Now it's one of my favorites parts of the room}

When we decided to do a 5x7 Durer print blown up on the entire wall of our dining room...  I sweated the entire time we installed it.  

Then I was psyched.

...When we hung the DaVinci frames "randomly" I debated about hanging them in a grid:

The dark navy nursery & canopy?  Probably one of the rooms people have had the strongest opinions about (lots of love lots of hate) but I loved it even more. 

These are the things that now make me love my home.  They were the "risks," the "sparks of interest" the truly personal statements for me in the rooms.  It was what got me excited about these spaces & what got the juices flowing. 

I have spaces in my home that I don't feel this way about.  Rooms I just sort of tossed together things that we had.  They work okay but I have plans for them:

{In my basement I threw together a bunch of old seascapes I'd collected and mixed it with aquas and warm tones.  I love being in the room and it feels good in there but I don't feel that it's really very appropriate to our home.  I don't live on the coast and it's giving off a kind of inauthentic vibe...  even if only to me.}

I frequently have clients who ask me to recreate my entryway gallery in their home or who want to do a large blown up print or a bright-colored sofa.  It's because they've seen how it can work and they trust what they can see.   Of course, I can't just go around doing the same designs in everyone else's house right?  For my sake and for my clients' sakes, I need to be working on new ideas, keeping their homes fresh & interesting.  Finding those "sparks" in even the most traditional of homes is of utmost importance. 

To truly do a home justice, you need to feel for it.  Be passionate about it.  Have a strong point of view and go for it. 

I need to be excited about something in order to really do it well and the sparks keep me excited.  There are some projects that I'm so excited about the moment I walk through into the room and there are others that take more time.  (Ie my laundry room... over a year.)  I will often sit on projects like these for clients for a couple of weeks, researching, looking through books, the internet, blogs, fabrics, rugs, objects, etc. before finding that piece of excitement & tension.  Sometimes it happens when I'm drifting in & out of sleep and sometimes I'm full awake & consciously searching for it.  But when it happens, I know it and I just love that feeling.  It's like an "ah-ha" moment.  And I get excited.  {When I'm alone, it's not uncommon for me to stand up and dance around or squeel or begin furiously writing my thoughts down when this moment happens.  If I'm in public when it happens, I'll typically just say -more than once, often over & over- "I'm excited." ...  I'm sure the people around me (often clients or showroom reps) are like "ok, we get it.  You're excited." OR, if I was trying to sleep, I finally get to sleep because my brain can turn off.} 

I think this can be applied to almost any creative endeavor: planning a dinner, a party, taking photos, creating art, designing houses, products, etc.
{One of my recent "I'm excited" finds frpm Schumacher}

I often write about things to try to figure them out.  This was one of those things I hadn't really consciously thought about or pinpointed.  I  guess it's good to know.   I need to get excited and although I might sound like a ditzy girl when I proclaim it, that's okay.  I'm fine with it because I know I need it.

xoxo, Lauren

If you'd like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.