Blogging Outliers

I normally don't write book reviews here on Extraordinary Observations, and I won't post a comprehensive review now, but I just finished Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, and I think some of his analysis can be connected to the world of blogging. Outliers is a solid book that I would recommend to anyone. I'm not sure I enjoyed it quite as much as his other works, Tipping Point and Blink, but for a quick and easy read, Gladwell's new book is worth your time. (The rest of this post contains some teasers, so if you are serious about going into the book fresh, you might want to check this post out once you're finished with the book).

The description of Outliers reads:
Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of "outliers" - the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different? His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.
One question that Gladwell doesn't address, but is highly relevant given his thesis, is: how did all-star bloggers get to where they are today?

Gladwell argues that success is a function of intelligence, hard-work, and, more or less, being in the right place at the right time. In Chapter two of Outliers he highlights the 75 wealthiest individuals in world human history. 14 of them (nearly 20% of the total), share something interesting in common. These men and woman, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Frederick Weyerhaeuser, Jay Gould, Marshall Field, George F. Baker, Hetty Green, James G. Fair, Henry Rogers, J.P. Morgan, Oliver H. Payne, George Pullman, Peter Arrell Brown Widener, and Philip Danforth Armour, were all born in the United States between 1830 and 1840. The rationale, according to Gladwell, is that these businesspeople were the perfect age to capitalize on newly built railroads, the creation of Wall Street, and the beginning of industrial manufacturing when the rules by which the economy had functioned were broken and remade. Had they been born after 1940, they would have been too young to take advantage of the moment; had they been born before 1830, they might have had to pass up entrepreneurial ambitions for family and other responsibilities.

The same can be argued during the computer era. When the first personal computer hit the market in 1975, someone who was between 20 and 25 years old would have been at the perfect moment in life to capitalize on the technological revolution. Perhaps it isn't surprising that Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, Vinod Khosla, and Andy Bechtolsheim were all born between 1953 and 1956. Had they been born too early, they would have missed out on the opportunity to learn primitive computer programming while still in high school and college; had they been born too late, others would have already beaten them to the punch. This isn't meant to underscore the intelligence or determination of these individuals, but is meant to point out that they also were incredibly lucky to be born when they were.

So back to the blogosphere. A recent piece in the Economist identifies a rising group of public intellectuals blogging their way to the top. Among these elite are Ezra Klein, Megan McArdle, Will Wilkinson, and Matthew Yglesias. The age thesis doesn't fit quite so nicely here, as McArdle and Wilkinson were born in 1973, eleven years before Klein came into the world in 1984. They do share a very specific trait, however, and Yglesias has it partially figured out:
I think it would be strange if the main qualification for becoming a high-profile public intellectual in the future is that you had to start a personal blog in 2002 or 2003.
Starting a blog in 2002 or 2003 might not be a requirement for becoming a high-profile intellectual, but it would help explain why the bloggers mentioned above are acknowledged by the Economist and others aren't. Think about it, Blogger.com launched in 2000, but really took off in 2003 when it was acquired by Google. Early adopters had to be people who were willing to give a primitive technology a shot, but they also had to be mature writers with something worthwhile to say. Had they been too young, they wouldn't have had the skill or intelligence to write about anything interesting (take me, for instance. I was only 15 years old in 2002; when Extraordinary Observations launched in 2004, I still lacked solid writing skills and a perspective on the world beyond my high school's walls). On the other hand, had they been older, they might have been skeptical of the new online medium, or perhaps unwilling to be among the first to switch from dead-tree journalism to blogging.

2002 and 2003 are key years because they represent the very beginnings of the blogosphere. The best bloggers during that time period adopted a small but loyal following that encouraged them to continue blogging. As they blogged, they got better, they gained respect, and they picked up even more followers along the way. This isn't to suggest that these bloggers aren't incredibly intelligent or don't deserve the respect they get; but the fact that they all started blogging in 2002 and 2003 may turn out to be more than a coincidence, and it may not be as strange as Yglesias originally thought.

End Black Friday

It wouldn't be the day after Thanksgiving if I didn't have something to say about the institution of consumerism in America. In 2006 I pointed out the irony of how we act on Thanksgiving verses how we act only hours later on Black Friday; last year I blogged about some minor injuries that people endured, some fistfights, and scuffles with police over the purchases of trivial items.. This year, I was planning to find some footage of people acting like animals and poking fun of it here on Extraordinary Observations. When I logged on to YouTube this morning, however, I found something more sad and disturbing than I have ever seen before.



What happened this morning on Long Island is tragic, and it should never happen again. 364 days of the year we can function as a society without this type of violence and savage behavior at retail stores. Only on Black Friday are we not only given the opportunity, but also in some ways expected, to act this way. Why do retail stores need to open at 4am? Why do they encourage people to line up outside all night to run through the store like rats when the doors open? Does this tradition really boost a store's profits by that much?

We don't need this. Black Friday needs to end. The holiday retail season can still exist without the need to encourage people to push and shove to be the first through the doors on the day after Thanksgiving. Out of respect for Jesus Christ (who is the reason we even have Christmas) let's abandon this terrible tradition.

Update (3:50pm) - Over on the west coast, two people are dead after a shooting inside a Toys R Us in Palm Desert, California; bringing 2008's Black Friday casualties up to 3. Honestly, what is the value of saving a few bucks?
Penelope Trunk thinks that young people ought to be grateful this Thanksgiving for their immunity to turmoil in the job market:
I know that we have a bad economy, so bad that we have a not-yet-President who is running the country from the Chicago Hilton so that the markets don't implode while Bush gives pardons for cronies. But can we just take a minute for a reality check? It's not really bad for people who are young. It's a part of the world you don't hear much about in mainstream media. Think about it. Most media is in NYC, and you don't make a lot of money as a writer, so most people who are writing in the tri-State area are married to bankers. Yes, this is a huge generalization, but it is a stereotype because it's true. Two neighborhoods—Montclair, NJ, and Park Slope, NY—are the bastions of media elite married to banker elite. And it's a combustible moment there, demonstrated by how we get a lot of reporting about how sad it is for the bankers right now. Who are mostly middle aged. And we get a lot of reporting about how sad it is for older people in the workforce because those are the people getting laid off. The baby boomers love to report about how much discrimination there is against them. And they have huge pulpits to report that from.
Aside from the fact that the media elite is comprised of disconnected writers married to struggling bankers, Trunk extrapolates on three distinct reasons why young people are doing just fine in the current market. I would be inclined to believe her analysis had another article not appeared in the Washington Post last August:
The numbers aren't pretty. Unemployment among 20- to 24-year-olds, the typical post-undergraduate age group, is sharply higher than the overall population. In the second quarter of this year, joblessness among this group reached 9.8 percent, according to the Labor Department. That is up from 7.7 percent last year at this time and 8.1 percent in the second quarter of 2001, about the time the last recession hit. Overall, unemployment rose to 5.7 percent in July from 5.5 percent the previous month, and the economy lost 51,000 payroll jobs.
Aside from the fact that official unemployment numbers are nearly twice as high for young people as they are for the general population, the Post article is full of anecdotes about recent college graduates who literally cannot get a job, examples of career fairs with fewer companies offering fewer jobs, and interviews with recruiters and hiring managers confirming the story behind the numbers.

Who should we believe? They say that you know the economy is in a recession when your neighbor loses her home, and a depression when you lose yours. I suppose the same could be true here. A graduate with a job lined up is probably more likely to believe Penelope Trunk; someone who sends out 60 resumes and gets nowhere is probably more inclined to agree with the Post.
Part Two: How Desirable is Home Ownership?

On Saturday I described the strange way that home ownership is marketed in America, as a type of investment vehicle and an equity-building tool. I suggested that homes are only (sometimes) profitable investments because we are allowed to buy them at incredible leverage ratios; these huge leverage ratios have also forced a lot of unsuspecting people into painfully difficult circumstances thanks to the recent housing crisis. Now that the myth that home prices will never decline has been shattered, and as thousands of Americans lose hard-earned wealth in the decline of their homes, another question to be asked is: how personally desirable is home ownership?

When I graduate from college next year, the first order of business will be to launch my career, and finding a place to live will be a close second. There is no doubt that I will be moving into a rental property. After graduation I will have a pile of student debt waiting to be paid off. In an optimistic scenario, I might be able to pay off most of the debt by my mid twenties and save up enough for a small down-payment on a home. Even so, I probably still wouldn’t want to do it.

Neighborhoods are constantly changing. Local newspapers are frequently littered with interviews of people who reminisce about the memories they have of their neighborhood. “Back in 1970s,” the stereotypical quotation begins, “this was a close-knit, working class block. Now, a lot of homes are abandoned, there are shady characters on the street corners, and my wife is afraid to go outside at night anymore.” Not every neighborhood goes from good to bad, of course. In August, Alan Ehrenhalt wrote a piece in The New Republic describing the incredible demographic change taking place in big cities across America. Neighborhoods like Lincoln Park in Chicago; the U Street Corridor in Washington DC; and Coventry Road in Cleveland, all transformed from being among the worst, most rundown, and dangerous parts of the city to the hippest, wealthiest, and fun places to live and spend time.

Cashing in on these demographic and neighborhood shifts requires forward thinking, intelligence and the willingness to purchase a home in a neighborhood that is still fairly dicey and lacks some of the amenities that the hotter neighborhoods have to offer. People tell me that Petworth is set to become the next hot neighborhood in Washington, DC; Wicker Park and Bucktown are up and coming in Chicago; and the Knox-Henderson neighborhood in Dallas should be fully developed in 5-10 years. Of course, this means dealing with some residual crime, limited amenities, and rolling the dice on neighbors. For a young home buyer, it also means spending the best years of their 20s in a neighborhood that won't fully develop until years into the future.

Home ownership marketing commonly refers to renting as a "money pit" - meaning that whatever you pay in rent is money you'll never get back. Paying off your mortgage, on the other hand, gets you that much closers to being a proud owner of your own home; a home that can later be sold for cold hard cash. There are, of course, costs associated with home ownership that don't apply to renters: property taxes, interest payments on debt, and inevitable maintenance and repairs all add up. Not being a homeowner doesn't mean you can't build equity, it just means you have to do it using different assets (stock index funds and bonds are the most obvious examples).

Renting also provides options for mobility. If you get a new job in a different part of town, want to live closer to friends, or just want to live in a more exciting neighborhood, a renter has the ability to easily do it. Breaking a lease can be annoying and sometimes costly, but the process of selling a home is probably even harder and just as expensive. Moving from one part of the city is one thing, moving to a new city or state entirely is even more challenging.

I'm not suggesting that home ownership isn't desireable for some. I am suggesting that it isn't as simple as calling it the American dream or telling anyone and everyone that they ought to aspire to own their own home. This attitude is at least partially responsible for creating the housing crisis we are frantically trying to deal with today, and it impacts both those who prefer to own their home and those who don't. It creates social stigmas that don't make much sense, and convinces individuals that they want to do something that isn't necessarily in their best interest. Believers in free markets will say that people choose where to live and whether to buy or rent based on their individual preferences. Based on what these same individuals often give as their reasons for purchasing a home... it makes me wonder whether clever marketing and social pressure can convince a person to make a decision as big as purchasing a home without fully understanding whether is for them or not.

See Also:
Part One: How Did We Get Here?
Part Three: What the Academic Research Shows
Part Four: Costs and Benefits to Society
Part One: How Did We Get Here?

If there is anything as American as baseball and apple pie, it is probably the idea of owning your own home. Whatever their intentions, government has provided disproportionate incentives to lure people into purchasing homes, and in light of the financial and housing crisis, a lot of people are starting to question how we got to this point and whether home ownership is even something we should aspire to in the future.

Home ownership is typically pitched as a means to invest and build personal equity, and for whatever reason, it is marketed as one of the safest assets in existence. For investing purposes, however, homes may not be all they are cracked up to be. One takeaway from Jim Cramer’s book Real Money (I can’t say with confidence there were other valuable takeaways) is that for any given period in time, stocks have outperformed all other asset classes, including real estate.

So why take out huge mortgages to buy homes when we could just rent our housing and invest all of our money in the stock market? The answer: leverage. The Securities and Exchanges Commission regulates that a person cannot buy stocks using more than 50% of borrowed funds. In other words, if I have $10,000 in cash, I can, by law, purchase no more than $15,000 in stocks. Fair enough. But now consider what the same $10,000 can buy you in a housing investment. During the past few years, people could put down $10,000 to buy a $100,000, $200,000 or $300,000 home. In some cases, lenders didn’t even require a down payment at all. Imagine if a stockbroker let you buy $100,000 worth of stocks without putting down a dime!

Not only does the stock market provide historically better returns than real estate, but also is a liquid market with extremely low transaction costs. If I wanted to liquidate an entire stock portfolio on Monday morning, I could do it with no more than a few clicks of a mouse. The full trade (buying and selling) would cost me about ten bucks per stock (hedge funds, and other big investors have a more difficult time liquidating huge positions, but for individuals with less than $1 million invested, I highly doubt they would experience a problem). Real estate, on the other hand, is a very illiquid market. If I wanted to sell a house, I would have to pay a broker (or endure the cost of selling it myself), show the house to prospective buyers, and wait. A house could potentially sit on the market for months or more, especially given the supply of housing stock that exists on the market today.

When I opened a stock and option trading account in 2007, I had to fill out what seemed like endless paperwork. I had to document what I did for a living, what my annual income was, how I earned my income, etc. I had to sign page after page of legal jargon indicating that I fully understood the risks associated with trading leveraged products. When my application was initially denied, I called the broker and got a 15-minute lecture about the risks of trading leveraged products, before my account was finally opened.

This amazes me in light of the fact that in the housing market, lenders were literally giving money away, to the point where people didn’t even understand why they were getting money or at what terms. The story about what happened to Addie Polk in Akron, Ohio, is a quintessential example of how easy it was to borrow money and how aggressive predatory lenders were in pushing credit onto people who were completely unqualified for it.

I’m not suggesting that we ought to go out and apply hyper-leverage to stock investing; but the whole situation raises interesting questions about why we are so emotionally attached to homes. Presumably, since homes are real, physical assets, people feel more comfortable in the idea that they will be worth something at any given point in time. Stocks, on the other hand, are just pieces of paper (or electronic text), you can’t touch them or feel them. Granted, it is true that stocks often go into “bear market” periods; but housing, as we have seen, can suffer from the same phenomenon. Stocks are often considered risky because companies can fail, and short of a house burning to the ground, it will always hold some value. While it is true that some companies will fail, investing in an S&P 500 fund, for example, would be a reasonable long-term stock strategy. The entire economy would essentially have to fail for the S&P 500 index to approach zero.

In the end, home ownership isn’t all about investing and building equity. We seek out homes primarily for living. In the second part of this series, I question whether home ownership makes sense for individuals in today’s fast-paced world. What should be clear, at this point, is that whether or not a particular investment is objectively ‘risky’ or not, how we present risk to the public has a huge impact on their behavior.

See Also:
Part Two: How Desirable is Home Ownership?
Part Three: What the Academic Research Shows
Part Four: Costs and Benefits to Society

The Value of Transit

You'd have to be a pretty big transit dork to anxiously read through Reconnecting America's new 34 page report, prepared for the Federal Transit Administration, providing detailed background information and outlining policy recommendations for creating and capturing value from transit systems in America. Having just finished looking at the report, I must recommend it to anyone who is interested in the intricacies and economics of transit systems and subsequent transit-oriented development. With President-elect Obama at least verbally committed to promoting transit, now is a unique window of opportunity to push a lot of good ideas into reality.
Christine Borne is sick and tired of all the negativity and ignorance in the comments section of Cleveland.com articles. I certainly can't disagree. A few weeks ago I blogged about some despicable comments left on an article about young people who had taken a passion for politics this past election season. Unfortunately, I'm not as optimistic as Christine that we can "take back" the Cleveland.com comments section, no matter how hard we try.

This is, of course, not a new discussion. In July, Sheila McClear made the case over at Gawker that newspapers shouldn't allow comment sections on their websites:
Comments are thought to be an added value to a newspaper's site—providing another reason to read. You come for the article, and stay for the interesting discussion. The only problem is, there is no interesting discussion. Almost never. Not even from the mythical supersmart New York Times readers.
The obvious solution would be to have newspapers control all user submitted content. In a previous post I argued that if a blog has a troll problem, the quickest way to fix it is to delete the bad comments. McClear thinks otherwise:
You could argue that newspapers should rigorously vet and moderate their comments, or at least require them to use their full names. I'd argue that this is a silly misuse of their time; I'm not suggesting that newspapers should actively patrol their comments, like this and some other websites do. (We're a blog; comments are in our blood.) I'm suggesting they get rid of them altogether. (This doesn't include the blog sections of various papers, which the NYT and Washington Post are stuffed full of.)
Honestly though, would it work? Newspapers certainly fear that eliminating comments would drive away readers. Is there a case study we can look to for help on this question? Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish, is one of the most popular and frequently referenced blogs on the internet; and unlike most, it does not allow comments. Last March, Sullivan asked his readers to vote on whether or not to add a comment section to the posts. Overwhelmingly, readers voted against comments. As it turns out, they actually appreciate the fact that readers don't have the opportunity to clog his well written pieces with ignorant drivel. They also trust Sullivan to engage in editorial control that still allows for the most intelligent and thought provoking to get published at Sullivan's discretion.

I've always believed that one of the biggest downfalls of the internet is the ability to hide behind a wall of anonymity. Back before blogs and Web 2.0 became the norm, message boards and forums suffered from many of the same problems that blog comment sections now face. Those message boards that were heavily patrolled and censored, that deleted inappropriate users, banned trolls' IP addresses, and stuck to extremely strict posing policies were the only ones worth reading. Message boards that were unmoderated were magnets for spam and ignorance. It seems that without a "big brother", message boards, and now comments sections, will always resort back to the lowest common denominator.

While I give Christine Borne props for calling on the blogosphere to clean up Cleveland.com, I am afraid that it is a job that simply can't be solved from the grassroots. The problem, of course, is that even posting rational, well written comments will do little to spur intelligent discussion. Intelligent posts are mocked and attacked ad-hominem. At the end of the day, the exercise is mentally and emotionally draining for those of us who care about injecting reason into a cesspool of ingorance. The only way to truly fix the problem is to let the trolls know that they aren't welcome. Unfortunately, I do not think Cleveland.com is even willing to consider such an option.
The Plain Dealer publishes my letter to its Letters Unlimited blog:
The credit crunch could not have hit Cleveland at a worse time. Michelle Jarboe's recent front-page feature, reporting that Cleveland's commercial development projects may come to a grinding halt, given the current economic conditions, is extremely disheartening to those who have been holding out hope that Cleveland's urban renewal may soon move from a dream to a reality.

The credit crunch is a nationwide phenomenon that may affect every city across America; but it puts some, including Cleveland, in an especially precarious situation. Cities that got ahead of the curve, and have already made great progress renewing their core urban areas and gentrifying previously decaying neighborhoods, will become relatively stronger and more attractive compared to cities that have not. Unfortunately, a crippling of development may confirm Cleveland as a less-than-desirable city for many who are seeking exciting and walkable urban communities.
Since I submitted the letter about a month ago, some of the fears have already been realized. Two weeks ago the Plain Dealer reported that Wolstein's Flats East Bank Project is being put on hold as credit is unavailable to finance the development. Today, news broke that Bob Stark is pulling out of his proposed Warehouse District development, leaving disgusting surface lots to dominate some of Cleveland's most valuable downtown real-estate. How many more projects the credit crunch will topple like dominoes is still to be determined, but we certainly are not off to a good start.

Cleveland's urban renewal efforts, most of which were scheduled to begin coming to life around 2011, may now be delayed for years, if not canceled altogether. People like me, who might have been willing to wait it out for Cleveland's long-anticipated urban renewal, are losing patience and confidence.

The credit crunch, combined with Cleveland's lackluster leadership, is making the city increasingly less attractive relative to its competitors. To begin, the city of Cleveland has been acting, more or less, very anti-business over the past years and decades, and the impact has more than caught up to them. As companies move to suburbs like Beachwood and Independence, more and more people lose the incentive to live in the urban core. Even if people prefer the city to the suburbs, reverse commuting is absolutely not what urban living is all about. On top of that, developments like the Flats East Bank and the Warehouse District were meant to bring new residents and businesses into the city - without them, Cleveland will probably gain few of either.

Members of my generation aren't spending their seniors years of college dreaming about graduating and launching their careers in places like White Plains, NY, Northbrook, IL, or McLean, VA. Similarly, I'd be hard-pressed to find many who can't wait to start the next stage of their life in Beachwood or Westlake, OH. The difference, of course, is that New York City, Chicago, and Washington, among other cities, are already well along the process of urban renewal, and it isn't surprising that they are attracting young people at healthy rates, while leadership in Northeast Ohio sits around scratching their heads and wondering why brain drain has become such a problem.

The damage may already be done. If the credit crunch successfully freezes development across the nation, then it won't matter if Cleveland's leadership suddenly "gets it" because the ability to make things happen will already be out of their hands.
Streetsblog is hyping Steven Litt's piece in the Plain Dealer as a mark of success for Bus Rapid Transit. Having spent years watching Cleveland's transit project come to life, just as long thinking about the impact the RTA Healthline will have on the city, and having heard the initial reactions to the Healthline, I have a few thoughts of my own to add.



The RTA Healthline is undoubtedly an improvement over the overcrowded and chronically unreliable #6 bus that used to provide service up and down Euclid Avenue. The corridor project is also a major improvement over the pothole infested and crumbling street that connects Downtown to University Circle. Additionally, the bike lanes down Euclid Avenue are a major step forward for bicycle commuting in Cleveland. With frequent and 24/7 service, the Healthline makes moving between Public Square, Cleveland State University, the Cleveland Clinic and University Circle simple and convenient.

At a $400 $200 million price tag, some have criticized the project for being overly expensive and a waste of taxpayer money. Some have blamed the project for cuts elsewhere in Cleveland's RTA system. Much of the confusion comes from a misunderstanding of who financed the project, with most of the funding coming from the state of Ohio and the Federal Transit Administration. Even so, $200 million is peanuts compared to other transit projects around the world. Outside Washington DC, the city of Alexandria, Virginia wants to build 2 new MetroRail stations on an existing heavy rail line, but at $100 million a piece, the cost would come out to nearly the entire cost of the Euclid Corridor project.

The biggest disappointment of the RTA Healthline is the missed opportunities. The alignment of the BRT system serves its purpose between Downtown and University Circle, but does little good in East Cleveland.



Few Clevelanders would deny that East Cleveland is the most rundown, politically corrupt, and unsalvagable parts of the area. East Cleveland is one of the most crime-ridden, poverty-stricken, and underdeveloped cities in Cuyahoga County. Even though the Healthline provides numerous opportunities for development along Euclid Avenue, it is hard to imagine a private developer wanting to develop any part of East Cleveland into walkable, upscale neighborhoods. Few hospital workers or university employees who could afford luxury condos along the Healthline would ever choose to live in East Cleveland in its current state.

Additionally, East Cleveland is already served by RTA's heavy rail (Red Line). As the map above shows, the Red Line runs parallel to Euclid Avenue between East 120th Street and Doan Avenue, which also serves as the terminus of the Healthline. If private developers were interested in engaging in transit-oriented development in East Cleveland, the two existing Red Line stations would have been appropriate places to begin. Given the heavy transit presence in East Cleveland, an outsider might come to think of it as a popular or up-and-coming neighborhood; little could be further from the truth.

There are a number of east-side neighborhoods that would have been well served by the BRT project and would have been ripe for transit-oriented development. A intelligently-aligned transit line could have provided additional access to neighborhoods in Cleveland Heights and University Heights; areas like Little Italy, Coventry Road, Severance Town Center, and possibly even Cedar Center and John Carroll University. There are plenty of parts of Cleveland Heights and University Heights that are undergoing slow urban decay, but would be excellent locations for new urban development. These are neighborhoods where students, hospital workers, univesity employees, and downtown office workers are already living; developing their neighborhoods would make them more desirable to those currently residing in car-oriented exurbs.

While some will debate the benefits of BRT vs. light rail vs. heavy rail, the real question to be asked when it comes to transit development is whether the project serves neighborhoods that are desirable and developable, and then actually following through on the development. One of the reasons RTA's Red Line is mostly useless to those in Cleveland is because it was built, in order to cut costs, along an existing freight rail right-of-way; but the real damage was done when most of the stations were underdeveloped or left undeveloped completely. Over the decades, neighborhoods along the Red Line slipped into decay until development no longer made any sense.

Ultimately, the RTA Healthline should be praised for what it accomplishes, but Clevelanders are justified in being disappointed by what it doesn't. Cities considering BRT should use Cleveland's system as a model, but should recognize that the Healthline is nothing close to the greatness that it could be, and such is truly a shame.
A week ago today was an exciting day for many, including myself, who voted for the 44th president of the United States. Now I sit at home, on Veterans Day, and wonder why I get today off of work but not last Tuesday? Really, what I find curious is why we can't merge voting day with Veterans Day to make it easier for people to get out and vote? Would it be so much to ask for congress to at least debate the merits of merging voting day with Veterans Day? Certainly there is nothing more patriotic than celebrating our right to vote. I can't imagine that many veterans would object. It does, of course, seem a little too easy, which makes me skeptical of the whole idea.

Hypocrisy of Joe the Plumber

When the McCain campaign decided to use Joe "the plumber" Wurzelbacher as the spokesperson for average, hard-working, entrepreneurial Americans, they actually demonstrated that success in America isn't all about being dedicated and hard-working; that major success comes from being in the right place at the right time, and that sometimes you don't even need to work hard to get there. Joe the plumber could have theoretically been anybody: Sam the barber, Emily the nurse, Kevin the gas man, Carl the construction worker, or Rob the blogger. If Joe the plumber is supposed to be the quintessential representation of all these individuals, he stopped at the moment that his name was dragged into the campaign.

You see, Sam, Emily, Kevin, Carl, and Rob are all still regular, average people whose lives continue on as they did a month ago. They aren't holding press conferences or appearing on major news shows to share opinions; they aren't getting offers for book deals and they aren't clients of major public relations firms; certainly they certainly don't have Wikipedia pages longer than some actual politicians.

Unless the symbolic "everyman" is supposed to represent a celebrity, then Joe the plumber no longer exemplifies average people. The hypocrisy, of course, is that Joe is supposed to stand for a very specific ideal: that government shouldn't reward or punish people based on anything other than their hard work. If anything, Joe has become the target of his own criticism: someone who receives something unfairly, as a result of someone else's hard work! And of course, this all leaves Sam, Emily, Kevin, Carl and Rob wondering where their share of the fame and fortune is? What if Joe had gotten sick the day he asked Obama that questions? What if he had gotten a flat tire on the way over? What if Sam the barber had pushed Joe aside and asked the question first? We'll never know the answers to any of these questions; we can only watch to see how far Joe can ride his unearned glory.

Man Behind the Curtain

When people find something they really enjoy reading, an author whose work they really admire - it's natural to want to know about that person and their life. This is especially true for blogs, as the very nature of blogging makes the style more personal, more intimate, and less edited than just about any other form of writing. Bloggers are passionate and dedicated to the topics they write about. They work hard to earn the trust of their readers; and readers want to believe they know all about their favorite bloggers.

Unfortunately, what a blogger reveals on a blog doesn't necessarily indicate who he or she is deep down. Yes, blogging is a part of the person's life, and the topics he or she writes about are obviously something they care about; but it doesn't always tell the whole story. You don't always know who these people eat lunch with every day, where or with who they spend their Friday and Saturday nights, and what they think about before they fall asleep each night. You don't always know how these people behave around family, friends, and significant others, or whether they even have them at all. You don't know whether they are cheerful or depressed, fulfilled or lonely, content or miserable. And yet these are all things that make a person essentially who they are.

Ultimately, I am not suggesting that bloggers don't reveal things about themselves in their writing, but it might be a stretch to believe you truly know your favorite bloggers. The only way to do that would be to, of course, get to know them; otherwise, you may never know who the man behind the curtain really is.
The United States Secretary of Transportation technically isn't even one of the 10 most important positions in the executive branch of the Federal Government; but in my book it is one of the most important jobs out there right now. The United States is at a transportation cross-road, where we will have to decide whether to continue propping up "car culture" or whether to make progress toward building a society and economy less dependent on a very limited number of options for transportation. Barack Obama ran a campaign promising change, and if he is serious about bringing change to the Department of Transportation, he should offer the position to Earl Blumenauer.


Politico (via Yglesias) reports that Blumenauer is already one of the contenders for the appointment. He is the House Rep from Oregon's 3rd congressional district, and perhaps one of the biggest advocates for alternatives to car culture. Unless you live in Oregon, you, like me, have probably never heard of the guy. Who is he? The Portland alternative newspaper Willamette Week gives a brief introduction:
Ideologically and temperamentally, Blumenauer is an almost perfect reflection of his Portland seat, as safe a Democratic stronghold as any in the nation. He's championed light rail and the streetcar. He's the biggest bike advocate on Capitol Hill.
Last winter, the Wall Street Journal prominently featured Blumenauer on its front page; describing exactly what he stands for in Congress:
Some members of Congress come to Washington and get in the fast lane. The 59-year-old Mr. Blumenauer came to Washington and got in the bike lane. Few members of Congress care more than he does about cranks and sprockets.

Mr. Blumenauer’s “obsession with bicycling borders on the interesting,” sniffed TV satirist Stephen Colbert.

“Bikeman,” a House colleague from Oregon calls him. Mr. Blumenauer owns seven bikes. His congressional office is one of the few — if not the only one — that didn’t even apply for a parking permit. On occasion, Mr. Blumenauer has cycled to the White House. On Mr. Blumenauer’s first visit, the Secret Service, more accustomed to limousines, was flummoxed at the sight of his bike.

“I leaned it up against the portico,” Mr. Blumenauer says.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon is a cycling fanatic who rides one of his seven bikes to his Capitol Hill office everyday. The WSJ’s Greg Hitt reports on the congressmen’s efforts to promote bicycle commuting.

Washington isn’t particularly bicycle friendly. The summers are swampy. The winters are cold. And if you aren’t careful, you could get flattened by a motorcade.

But Mr. Blumenauer has been a pedal pusher since his days on the Portland City Council, when he pressed for more bike lanes and set an example by riding around in his suit and a big bow tie. When Mr. Blumenauer arrived in Washington in 1996, he didn’t bring a car. Soon he was preaching the benefits of pedaling.

He launched the Congressional Bike Caucus, a bipartisan group that promotes public investment in cycling. In his early days, he tracked down Speaker Newt Gingrich in the House gym to pitch transit-fare subsidies for House workers. He got them. As the ranks of the Bicycle Caucus have grown — there are now more than 170 members — money for bike projects has grown, more than doubling during his time in office.
The beauty of Blumenauer is that he isn't just all talk. He has fought hard in congress for alternatives to car culture and he embraces it in his every day life.
On his way out of Rayburn House Office Building, Mr. Blumenauer pushed open the door with one hand and dragged his bike through with the other. He exited among soaring columns and onto a horseshoe-shaped drive, where 11 cars lined up along the curb. Many more were parked tightly on the street beyond.

Mr. Blumenauer swung his leg over the Trek and pedaled off, a blue messenger bag slung around his neck, crumpling the collar of his blazer. A reflector strap was tied around his pant leg. He turned right at the bottom of the drive, avoiding Independence Avenue, choosing instead a more circuitous but less congested route.

As he approached a metal guard gate, a Capitol policeman called out, “Getting your exercise, Sir?”

He passed several Greenpeace activists tromping around in whale suits near the Supreme Court.

A few blocks beyond, he pulled up at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where Democrats were meeting to talk election-year strategy. He was there to give a presentation on online town halls. He looked around for a bike rack. With none in sight, he grabbed the heavy-duty U-lock slung over his handlebars and secured the bike to a street sign: Authorized Permit Parking Only.

With Democrats in the majority for the first time since he came to Washington, Mr. Blumenauer snagged a seat on the Ways and Means Committee, and has had some success peddling a proposal to encourage bike commuting. The tax code already encourages employers to subsidize parking spots for workers who drive or fare cards for those who use mass transit. But it is silent on bikes.

“You can’t provide a benefit for people who burn calories instead of petroleum,” says Mr. Blumenauer, in disbelief. “It just seemed outrageous that somebody who cycles got zip.”
Blumenauer is an advocate for alternatives to car culture; he is a best friend for cyclists and others who are tired of being marginalized for their lifestyle; and most importantly, he is a role model. Blumenauer is someone we can look to in order to show that America can stand for more than just cars, roads, and seemingly endless surface lots. As a representative and local of Portland, he knows better than just about anyone how to implement cal-alternative policy successfully and effectively. For what its worth, Barack Obama should bring change to America by appointing Earl Blumenauer to US Secretary of Transportation.
As a follow-up to yesterday's call on President-elect Obama to launch a "transit space race" - more should be known about the market for transit and transit-oriented development in America. How do we know that people want to live and work near transit? The open market tells us so. Matt Yglesias points out the semi-obvious:
Seriously, these trends show the need to build more and better transit lines and also to allow for greater density near our key transit nodes. These areas are desirable, which is great, but we don’t need to live in a universe where they’re so rare that only rich people can afford to live in them. We need to make the transit services that there’s clearly demand for, and given that building rail lines is expensive we need to make sure that the housing supply in their immediate vicinity grows robustly.
Houses, condos, and apartments near transit lines in America are already selling at a premium because... wait for it... the demand greatly outstrips the supply. There is also empirical evidence that the premiums are continuing to increase, even as home prices across the board tumble. In Denver, for instance:
Margarete Humphrey knows her bungalow near the Louisiana Station light-rail stop is in a hot neighborhood. But she was surprised to learn the value of her home has increased over the past two years as much of the metro Denver housing market has declined. Homes near light-rail stations along the southeast line, which opened in November 2006, have increased by an average of nearly 4 percent over the past two years, according to an analysis by Your Castle Real Estate. But the rest of the Denver market declined an average of 7.5 percent. "I know that it's always been a good neighborhood, but I didn't think it was like that," said Humphrey, who doesn't drive and frequently uses public transportation. The closer a home is to the station, the more its value increases, according to the Your Castle analysis. Homes less than a half-mile from a station increased an average of 17.6 percent, while those 1 1/2 to 2 miles away increased just 0.1 percent on average.
It isn't surprising that some of the biggest housing bubbles in America occurred in states like California, Arizona and Florida, in distant, car-oriented, low-density suburbs of Los Angeles and Miami, where transit is virtually non-existant. It also isn't surprising that some of America's hottest neighborhoods are located on or near the few existing transit lines. We know a neighborhood is truly hot when those with enough money to live virtually anywhere choose to live in one particular place or another. Imagine the cities of the future we can build, with highly-dense mixed use developments clustered around transit stations and connected to each other by those lines. The potential is both huge and exciting.
I would like to be among the first to call on President-elect Obama to launch what Reconnecting America calls the "transit space-race". We gave car culture a chance in America, and we ended up with sprawl, pollution, traffic, and as I recently noted, a loss of individual freedom. The United States is desperate for transit infrastructure, and a recent piece in Salon notes that transit systems across the country are packed to capacity, with interest and ridership at all time highs. The Bush Administration's Federal Transit Administration has made getting funding for individual transit projects difficult and beauracratic - increasing the costs of the few projects that actually do get a stamp of approval.

President-elect Obama has the opportunity not only to provide cities across America with the resources they desperately need to jumpstart transit projects; he also has the opportunity to stabilize what is becoming an increasingly shaky economy. Other countries get it. With the world economy slipping into a potential global recession, China recently pledged to begin a massive rail project:
China will invest nearly 300 billion dollars in its overburdened rail system as a stimulus measure aimed at blunting the impact of the global financial crisis, state press said on Saturday. The investment is part of plans to extend the country's railway network from the current roughly 78,000 miles to nearly 100,000 miles by 2010, Shanghai's Oriental Morning Post reported. The Beijing News quoted a rail official as saying that, while the network needed extending, the massive investment of 292 billion dollars was also intended to help lift the nation's economy as it suffers amid the global woes. "New rail investment will become a shining light in efforts to push forward economic growth," railway ministry spokesman Wang Yongping was quoted saying.
The UK seems to get it as well:
Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon said he would not rule out any option - even levitating Maglev trains... In a statement to MPs, Mr Hoon, who took over the transport brief earlier this month, said: "In order to stimulate Britain's economic growth and support our position as a leading world economy it is essential that we make the right long-term investments in our transport infrastructure and that we plan for future growth, in a way which is consistent with reducing greenhouse gas emissions overall."
Can President-elect Obama get it done? David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington thinks Obama & Biden might be the "train ticket"; Matt Yglesias says that "Obama is about as big a rail and transit proponent as we’ve seen in presidential politics for decades." Matt over at Track Twenty-Nine indicates that Obama "wants to reshape federal policy so that our communities can be made more walkable, livable, and transit-friendly." He goes on to note, "Obama's pick for Vice President also earns him a gold star in my book for good transportation decision making."

I have always been more of a skeptic of Obama's stance on these issues. Having listened to dozens of Obama speeches, I almost never heard him explicitly mention transit, urbanism, or any other alternatives to car culture. I have heard Obama talk about "cars of the future" that we are going to build "right here at home". The Obama "infomercial" featured a sob story about some Ford employees losing their jobs and a typical suburban family, the kind with 2 kids, big house, green lawn, and 2 SUVs in the driveway. Is this mere pandering? Are Obama's true priorities buried deeper under the surface?

The new administration has a truly unique opportunity to move the country in a new direction when it comes to transportation policy. It will require putting the right people in the right places and allocating resources incredibly intelligently - but it can be done; and hopefully, will get done.
I was already out the door of the polling place and on my way to work Tuesday morning when I realized I didn't receive an "I voted" sticker. After arriving at work and noticing various individuals walking around with red stickers on their shirts, I logged onto my Twitter account and jokingly posted about my disappointment for not getting one of those stickers. A follower quickly tweeted back, saying: no free Starbucks for you today. I immediately remembered an article I had read the previous day about freebies that companies were giving out on election day:
Several national food chains with Northeast Ohio locations will offer free treats today to celebrate democracy.

Ben & Jerry's, which has a store on North Park Boulevard in University Heights, will give away cones from 5 to 8 p.m., no proof of voting required.

Krispy Kreme, which has stores on Pearl Road in Middleburg Heights and on Maple Street in Akron, will award you a star-shaped, blue-and-red-sprinkled doughnut. But first, they want to see your "I voted" sticker.

Eat'n Park, which has restaurants throughout the region, will give away free coffee for an "I voted" sticker. And Starbucks, which has stores everywhere, wants you to tell baristas you voted.
At first I didn't think anything of it, nor did I take advantage of any of these "celebrations of democracy", but I started thinking... why are these companies doing this? What do they have to gain? If you believe in the power of PR, then perhaps these companies are doing this to generate some sort of corporate goodwill. What better way to show you care about democracy and America than to give out free coffee and donuts to people who vote? If you believe in the power of the almighty dollar, then perhaps these companies are giving away freebies to get you in the door, expecting to sell you plenty of stuff you wouldn't have otherwise bought? But if you are a true cynic, you might believe that the election-day giveaways are a statement about the consumer driven society we live in. When America was attacked on 9/11, George Bush told us to go shopping at the mall; earlier this year when the US economy was on the edge of recession, government cut everyone a $600 check and told them to buy a big-screen TV; now, on election day, we are rewarded for exercising our civic right and priceless responsibility by getting "stuff" in return.

It turns out the universe was in equilibrium on election day, as one of my co-workers received two stickers after voting, and gave the extra one to me.

Yes We Did!

Tonight is undoubtedly an exciting and electrifying evening for progressives, liberals, moderates, and even some conservatives. After nearly eight years, many of us finally have something to celebrate. I could talk about all the potential the new administration has and the huge number of opportunities available. I imagine there will be plenty of that in the blogosphere; and there are, nevertheless, a few more abstract victories where I want to draw attention.

First, tonight is a victory for hope over fear. We have been told for years that the world is a scary place, that we are all in danger, and that if we don't put our full unconditional trust in America's leaders that there will be hell to pay. We were convinced, out of fear, to go to war, to give up many of our civil liberties, and to re-elect the leadership that put us in that situation. John McCain's campaign, as an extension, was packed with fear-inducing depictions of Barack Obama and other congressional Democrats. America, regardless, has demonstrated its ability to look beyond fear and see hope and optimism in the world.

Second, tonight is a victory for substance over nonsense. Barack Obama and John McCain ran two very distinct campaigns. Obama focused on issues at hand: the economy, healthcare, education, and energy. John McCain focused on smearing Obama, drawing weak links to people from his past, and parading Joe "the Plumber" all over the campaign trail. There has been a great deal of frustration in the past over candidates who utilized "fringe issues" and personal appeal to motivate voters - but this election proved that elections can be won by focusing on the issues that directly affect peoples' lives.

Finally, Barack Obama's victory is a big step forward for racial equality in America. Although the McCain campaign did not officially endorse it, Republicans relied on the power of racism to motivate voters to reject Obama. The chanting of phrases like "vote McCain not Huessein", and the insinuation that Obama is a Muslim or an Arab (and that being Muslim or Arab automatically makes you a worse person) was used throughout the campaign. Obama's victory shows that there are enough in America who see beyond colors and believe America is the place we so often hear about; where dreams come true, and anyone can be what they want.
Jason volunteered to be a poll watcher in Akron, OH, but the campaign already had it more than covered.
I actually went door to door on the south side of Akron. Obama had sooo many volunteers in the area that every identified Obama door in the area got knocked on 3 times in the last 48 hours. The organization of the Obama ground game was far to good for McCain to overcome.
Bubba and his friends cast their first presidential ballots at a polling place near the University of Dayton...
I awoke at 5:30am in order to ensure I did not wait in the projected long lines. After meeting with two friends, we walked 3 minutes to our voting location. We reached the church at 5:50am, and there were already four other people waiting: two volunteers and two voters. A few groggy University of Dayton students stumbled over to the church, still in their pajamas, also attempting to cast their vote as early as possible.

At 6:20am, I became concerned when I saw no volunteers and no signs of life within the church. At 6:21am, a man appeared from behind the church and grumbled, "you enter back here!" An elderly couple told our group of voters that "this is where we have always entered to vote."

After being lead into the church's basement, also serving as a makeshift indoor playground for children, the group of voters, now 25 strong, were required to sit in three rows of chairs while the volunteers attempted to organize themselves. The elderly people, waiting to vote, were ornery, and were accusing every new individual entering the room of "cutting them in line." It was 6:36am before the polls officially opened.

By this point, there were close to 45 people in the room, all trying to sign-in at one table. After waiting approximately 10 minutes (because people did actually cut me), I signed my name and then waited at a separate table for my electronic card for the ballot machine. At this time, I was observing the inefficient operations of the volunteers. They were sending people to different queues, people were cutting lines, and they seemed very unorganized. I can possibly attribute this to the fact that the polls just opened, and this set of volunteers was inexperienced since it was so early in the morning. I spoke with a friend who voted in the same location later in the day, and he did not experience the same problems I did.

I entered my card into the electronic ballot machine and used the touchscreen to make my decisions. The touchscreen ballot was very easy to read and operate. Upon completion, I returned my electronic card and received my extremely important sticker. There was probably a 45 minute to 1 hour wait when I left at 7am.

Overall, I felt the process was somewhat inefficient and unorganized, but this inefficiency may be common when the polls first open.
Tree cast her first presidential ballot this morning in University Heights, OH...
Honestly, it was nothing out-of-the ordinary. Small gradeschool gymnasium (at Gearity Elementary), senior citizen volunteers who had already lost any semblance of patience by 7:00AM, and a thin veneer of order backed up by a commanding presence of nobody-really-knows-exactly-what-all-the-rules-are: like what happens if your ballot rips and the machine doesn't take it, or what to do in case of large, angry men who are late for work and ready to argue about the generally-accepted norm of standing in line.

Not that the lines were all that long anyway -- ten minutes at most -- and the whole process went pretty quickly. I felt almost as if I was voting in the fifties, especially with the paper ballots, the cafeteria tables set up with cardboard dividers in the middle, and the genial gradeschool gym setting, complete with yellowed posters of stretching tips on the wall. I was brusquely brought back to the present, however, by the irritated hurriedness of the man behind me who urged me to put my ballot in correctly so that he could get on with his day. I couldn't. It had been ripped.

But long story short: I got a new ballot, a sweet old lady with an American flag name tag assured me that my vote will end up being counted (although I may have wreaked some small-scale havoc on their record-keeping system), and the man behind me has presumably continued with his life, although I'm guessing that the voting process knocked at least a week off of it.
David submits his first presidential ballot in Hiram, OH...
I waited 45 minutes to vote in Hiram (which sucked). We had 4 electronic and 1 paper voting station for a village of ~1000 people. Besides the long wait, I didn't have any trouble--though I watched some people get denied after 45 minutes of waiting because their driver's license was out of state, and they don't accept passports.

Granted, this is the fault of the voter..

I voted on a machine, and I did think it was a bit shady that McCain's name did not appear on the first page, and the voter needed to hit "Next" in order to access the page where his name appeared. It took me a full 45 seconds or so to figure out how I would have voted McCain (if I would have wanted to). I can only imagine how an older person would have struggled with this. (Admittedly, I may have skipped the directions, but it was still less than intuitive).
McCain's name is hard to find on the Hiram voting machines? By the McCain/Palin standard, Hiram is one of the most pro-America parts of the country. They can't be too happy about this...
With a lot of first-time presidential voters living out of town or at college, not everyone got to visit the polls today.

Nick voted last Saturday in Lake County, OH...
I voted early at the lake county board of elections in Painesville, OH. I had to wait in line for 2 and a half hours to get a ballot; which i was allowed to fill out at home and bring back if i wanted. How does that make any sense?

When asked how many people voted on that day one of the organizers responded with, "about 700." It hardly makes waiting in that line on a Saturday, and early voting in general, seem like a valuable use of time. According to the organizer's numbers there are 150,000 registered voters in Lake County, enough to make a few hundred overly patient people a lack of concern.
Phil submitted his ballot a few weeks ago at the Cuyahoga BOE...
I voted at the BOE in Cuyahoga. I voted before registration closed, and they actually found a problem with my registration. They had no problem fixing it and they made it very easy. The bubble in ballots are nice, I just wish that there was no restriction on how many tries you get to fill them out because I feel that may in fact disenfranchise some people who suck at filling in scantrons.
Perhaps the optical scan ballots aren't all they are cracked up to be?
Today was the big day - my first opportunity to vote in a presidential election. After weeks of anticipation the day I had finally come. I was temped to vote early, as early voting was getting hyped to the sky by the Obama campaign, and I was getting emails nearly every day telling me to vote before today. Nevertheless, having heard stories of the long-lines at the early-voting locations themselves, I decided to wait it out until election day.

I live in Cuyahoga County, OH: Euclid, ward 6, precinct A, and my polling place is the Lake Shore Christian Church, about a half mile from my house.



Having seen pictures on TV of early-voting lines stretching for miles, and having heard anecdotes of people in Cuyahoga county who waited for hours outside the board of elections, I was prepared for the worst. On the other hand, I have voted at this particular location twice in the past, during the general elections in 2006 and 2007 and never experienced anything even resembling a line. I arrived at the front door at 7:10am and found the experience to be entirely anti-climactic.



If it wasn't for the "Vote Here" sign behind me, few passers-by would have even known an election was taking place at Lake Shore Christian Church this morning. Upon entering the building a high-school aged volunteer asked for my last name and directed me to the poll worker with last names N - Z. She quickly found my name on the registration sheet, I signed, and was handed a ballot. I stood at one of about 5 voting booths. A dozen or so voters had clipboards and sat in the church pews to fill them out. Overall I found the optical scan ballot to be much quicker, much easier to understand, and much less confusing than the horrific Diebold electronic machines that Cuyahoga County has used in the past. I slid my ballot into the machine and it registered as vote number 62.

Given the horror stories from 2004 about disastrous polling experiences in Cuyahoga County, if every polling places is running as smoothly as mine, I may regain some faith in America's ability to conduct a proper election.

Four Years Ago Today

Twas the night before the election and the air was cold in Cleveland, OH. John Kerry and George Bush had gone to war in the buckeye state and the victor was soon to be decided. There are not many days that I remember with great clarity, but November 1st, 2004 seems to be one of them. I was 17 years old at the time - not even old enough to vote; but they didn't discriminate at the John Kerry rally that night in Cleveland. I headed over to the Mall in downtown Cleveland around sun down. There were already tens of thousands walking the streets and the city was alive with excitement over the possibility of soon having new leadership in the White House.

It isn't shocking to see tens of thousands of people gathered in Cleveland, but usually they pack the football stadium, ballpark or arena; and rarely do you find that many people gathered together in a public space. After waiting in a long line, passing through a set of metal detectors and finding spot with a nice view of the stage, we stood for hours, waiting for John Kerry to deliver his final speech of the long and hard-fought campaign. The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, entertained the crowd in the meantime. When he finally arrived, John Kerry delivered a memorable message. He said that it wasn't just our responsibility to go out and vote the next day - but to bring our family and friends with us; and to make sure that in the critical battleground of Ohio, everyone understand exactly how much each and every vote counts.

In the end, Kerry's efforts were not enough. He lost Ohio, and thus the election, by a little less than 120,000 votes. There are still some who believe that had Kerry spent that cold Monday night visiting rural Ohio counties, like Sandusky, Delaware, or Huron, that we would currently be reffering to him as President, rather than Senator. Others contend that there simply were not enough voters in those rural areas to make up Kerry's defecit.

As I left the rally that night, I remember looking at the litter scattered across the Mall, the trampled flowers, and remarking to a friend, "I feel bad for whoever has to clean up this mess." Now, four years later, we are about to begin voting again, selecting the person who will have to clean up the metaphorical mess that the Bush Administration has made of America. Whoever cleaned up the Mall in Cleveland that night did a pretty good job, as it was back to looking green and pretty by the end of the week. Can our next president and congress clean up the mess that we have made of a country? We certainly can hope.
Rachel Maddow is calling long lines at early-voting locations a poll tax.



Maddow is right in noting that time spent in long voting lines is time not spent doing something else; she is also correct that everyone's time has value; and I would add that long lines reflect very poorly on the fact that the world's "greatest democracy" can barely operate an election. I do, however, question, who really loses from long polling lines.

If we make the bold assumption that a person's time is worth their full working wage, then we can calculate how much it costs someone to wait in a 3, 4 or 5 hour line. On one end of the spectrum, someone who is making a very low wage, maybe enough to barely get by, would be highly impacted by long poll lines in the sense that - even though they may only be foregoing 30 or 40 bucks - it might be a meal that they are unable to feed their family or the few hours per week that they do not get to see their family. On the other end of the spectrum, someone making a very high wage theoretically has the most to lose from a long poll line. A lawyer that charges hundreds of dollars per hour could lose thousands by standing in a long line. When Maddow references the hundreds of thousands in Ohio who intended to vote but didn't because they got "tired of waiting", it might be a stretch to assume they couldn't afford to wait because they are too poor. It might also be a stretch to assume they gave up entirely and won't give voting another try on election day.

The debate, of course, is frivolous in the sense that we could avoid it entirely by having an election system that actually works. There are options: centralizing national elections to the federal level of government; establishing a paid holiday for voting, or utilizing technology in a way that isn't horribly vulnerable and hackable in order to move away from the archaic voting systems we use today. The solution requires leadership and cooperation to prevent the typical partisan "cheating" that seems to be holding us back from making this progress.
Election numbers and statistics can easily become overwhelming if you aren't picky about which you follow. Between the half-dozen daily tracking polls, state polls, variations of "likely voter" models, plus everything else out there; and with both sides drawing attention to whichever single outlier poll shows them with a distinct edge, making solid conclusions can be difficult. I have been following three sources this election season: MSNBC's electoral map, FiveThirtyEight.com's electoral map, and the Intrade.com prediction market's winner take all contracts and its electoral map. We will know the next president of the United States in only a few hours, and now is the time to test the accuracy of each source.

The MSNBC map is a standard mainstream media analysis of the election, relying primarily on mainstream polling data.


Nate Silver launched FiveThirtyEight.com in March of this year and uses advanced statistics to draw conclusions about election outcomes.


Intrade.com is a financial market for commodities that aren't normally traded on traditional markets. Intrade's conclusions are based exclusively on where money is flowing, although arguably, polls, news, and other expectations dictate where people want to put their money. The "winner take all" contracts are based on how likely the market believes each candidate is to win the election.



Intrade's state map is the sum of "winner take all" contracts for each individual state.


Each source shows a lock for Obama, with the only question being how many total electoral votes the Democrat will receive. It will be extremely interesting to see how accurate these sources turn out. Traditional polls have existed for a long time, but Nate Silver's advanced models. is very new phenomenon, and prediction markets have mostly been on the fringe of the internet until recently. Much like how the rise of the internet fundamentally altered the way campaigns are organize and executed; if these new models turn out to be highly accurate, it may drastically alter the way campaigns operate and how the media reports on elections in the future.
I am excited to announce that Extraordinary Observations will be liveblogging the election night from WKYC in Cleveland. Tomorrow will be, believe it or not, my first time voting in a presidential race, and I know there are many who are in the same boat. Tomorrow's liveblogging will feature experiences of voters all across the region (and possibly) the country. I am interested in sharing everyone's experiences, but am especially looking forward to those by other young people.

If you voted early or by mail, let me know how it went. If you vote on election day - give a description of your polling place and how the process went. Bonus points will be awarded if you are able to snap any pictures!

You can email me at rpitingolo@gmail anytime or send me an instant message on Google Chat after about 7:00PM on Tuesday night.
Due to an unfortunate injury I experienced a few weeks ago, I haven't gotten to get out much this campaign season. Today, however, I got the opportunity to attend a rally for Barack Obama in downtown Cleveland, OH. The rally was scheduled to begin just as the Cleveland Browns vs. Baltimore Ravens game was ending, and it featured a free show by "the boss" Bruce Springsteen. Below is the recap of my atypical Sunday in Cleveland.

12:15 PM - A friend, who we will call Mr. Hip, arrives at my house and we board an RTA bus destined for downtown.

1:15 PM - With a few hour to spare before the rally, Mr. Hip and I stop for lunch and watch the Browns game at the Winking Lizard.


The bar hosts quite a few Browns fans. We meet up with another friend, Nick, after lunch.

3:17 PM - The three of us enter the line at East 9th and Euclid Ave; quite a distance from the location of the rally.


4:21 PM - While in line we spot a few people selling Obama merchandise and someone hands out "sample ballots" with a list of Democratic candidates running for office in the area.



4:31 PM - Transportation Security Administration officers have been called in to operate the metal detectors at the rally.


A TSA officer later snaps a picture of Nick with a digital camera, saying "since you got a picture of me, now I've got a picture of you."

4:45 PM - Crowds are already filling Malls A, B, and C in Cleveland.



4:59 PM - We notice Secret Service officers (possibly snipers?) keeping an eye on the crowd from the top of two nearby buildings.



5:28 PM - "The boss" takes the stage for a short set.


6:03 PM - Springsteen introduces Obama, who begins his campaign speech.



6:10 PM - A few minutes into the speech rain begins pouring on the crowd. Some decide to flee for cover, but most stay to hear Obama.

6:30 PM - Obama finishes his speech, greets some people, and moves on to his next campaign destination. We stick around to capture a few final shots.





The three of us grab dinner as we wait for crowds to dissipate. After returning home I hear Rachel Madddow mention that the Cleveland rally attracted about 80,000 individuals. Based on my own anecdotes, I would guess the number to be fairly accurate. Overall an exciting and exhausting day. I can only imagine what the campaigns must be going through.