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Showing posts from May, 2009

Population Density and Baseball

In my planning a trip to New York City for later this summer, I researched the prices for Major League Baseball tickets and found (not surprisingly) that both Yankees and Mets tickets seem a bit more pricey than tickets for my favorite Cleveland Indians. Why is it this way?

There are potentially dozens of variables that factor into an MLB team's average ticket price.. Winning teams can probably ask for more money than losing teams. Teams that were successful in the previous season probably can get away with charging more for tickets in the current season. Some ballparks have fewer seats than others, so basic supply and demand would dictate that ballparks with seat shortages should sell tickets for more money than ballparks with seat surpluses. Some teams are infamous for having horribly fair-weather fans and others will garner fan support no matter how awful the team is playing.

When I lived in Dallas I attended a handful of Texas Rangers games. There were plenty of fans who attende…

Gambling Freedom

Barney Frank recently introduced another piece of legislation to overturn the government's internet gambling ban; something I've said before should be done. I was a little baffled (though not particularly surprised) when I saw this Fox News piece:
Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and Peter King, R-N.Y., unveiled legislation Wednesday that would enable Americans to legally gamble online... But the legislation grants the Treasury Department far-reaching power over online gambling.

The bill would allow the Treasury secretary to license and revoke licenses of Internet gambling Web sites under the guise of protection Americans' personal freedoms to gamble and consumer protection concerns.
Under the guise of personal freedom? Really? The current law does its best to prohibit Americans from gambling online entirely - a clear infringement of government in our lives. The alternative would be complete government hands-off in the internet …

Say Yes to Traffic

Transportation for America’s new satire about traffic is pretty entertaining. Of course, eliminating "free" roads could drastically reduce congestion, but most people, like the main character in the video, don't seem to want any of that.

American Ethnic Food

Jackie Simone has an interesting post up at Campus Progress about the Americanization of different types of ethnic food. Her argument is that this process forces immigrants to surrender their cultures and traditions. Depending on the interpretation, I would be cautions about suggesting that anyone is forced to give up anything when it comes to selling food.

When I lived in Texas, there were basically three options if you were craving a burrito. There were San Francisco burrito places (Chipotle, Qdoba, etc.), Tex-Mex places, and Mex-Mex (authentic Mexican) places. I personally have a fondness for San Francisco burritos, but many of my co-workers loved Tex-Mex. I lived in a largely Hispanic neighborhood and had plenty of opportunities to visit Mex-Mex restaurants; but when I ate at them I noticed that most of the customers were.. Mexican. When it came to the food, I just didn't think Mex-Mex was very tasty. Authentic Mexican is simple and bland compared to its Americanized counterpar…

The Science of Irrationality

Dan Ariely's new TED talk was released last week.

His book, Predictably Irrational, is one of my favorites and the research Ariely does is some really interesting stuff. I also just finished reading Tim Harford's new book, which is a defense of rationality - I was a little disappointed. I typically think Harford's columns are good and The Undercover Economist was entertaining. Of course, I think people are rational most of the time. It's what drives me nuts about policy that incentivizes things like sprawl because people respond to those incentives. But we do occasionally make mistakes in reasoning. They might not be life-altering mistakes, but then again, if we're unaware we're making them, how do we even know?

Road to the Future

If you haven't checked out PBS's Road to the Future documentary yet, watch it here (I would embed the video, but it doesn't seem to be available for embed). Overall I think they do a good job of providing an overview of the three cities in question (Denver, New York and Portland).

I'm still a little confused about why Denver is used as the poster child for suburban sprawl. While I can't deny that sprawl is happening there, it is happening in a lot of other places too. Denver's light rail system opened fifteen years ago, has six lines and about 70,000 daily ridership. That's pretty impressive for a city that is supposed to be all about sprawl. I wonder, for instance, why PBS didn't choose a city like Kansas City, which has more freeway lane miles per person than any other city and recently saw voters reject a proposal for light rail in the city.

New York is certainly the ideal when it comes to urban living, but I'm not sure it is the best example of wh…

An Atypical Look at Las Vegas

As promised, here are a few observations from my four days in Las Vegas. Keeping in the tradition of this blog, I'll focus on aspects of urbanism, transportation, and otherwise obscure economics. I can't really comment on how the region as a whole of doing, because I simply didn't see any of it.

The strip is a very urban place.
The strip itself is a surprisingly urban place. There are tens of thousands (maybe more) hotel rooms, condo units and timeshares in only a few square miles. Skyscrapers dominate the area. Most rooms are within walking distance of restaurants, entertainment, gambling, stores, bars and clubs. There is public transportation and cabs available for getting around (but more on transportation later). The strip seems safe and has plenty of pedestrians at just about every time of day. Of course, Las Vegas also has a reputation as being one of the worst sprawled out places in America. If you have a window seat on your flight you can easily see the subdivisions …

Goodbye to Airline Miles?

In light of Obama's credit card reform legislation, credit card companies are arguing that the glory days may be coming to a close for their most responsible customers. That could mean an end to airline miles, cash back and possibly even annual fees.

I wonder how much of this is a PR stunt simply designed to generate opposition to the credit card reform bill. I have one credit card and have never carried a balance on it. It seems like these threats of fees and reduced bonuses are being marketed to people like me. Further, I'm supposed to be upset that I can't get as much cash back because some other irresponsible borrowers won't be able to flood the banks with profitable interest payments and fees.

From where I'm sitting, it seems like my credit card has already made major cutbacks. I used to be pleasantly surprised to see how much cash back I would get at the end of each month. I recently made a few big travel purchases and barely got enough cash back to get a Big M…

Props to Ray LaHood

The expectations were never particularly high for the Republican from Illinois. I liked Rep. Earl Blumenauer for the position. Many in the urbanist community were hoping for someone truly progressive, or at least a Democrat... perhaps someone not connected to an evil corporation like Caterpillar.

It's hard to complain about much of what LaHood has done (or not done) so far. He pitched a vehicle miles traveled tax that even the president thought was too liberal. He's behind high speed rail proposals and increased fuel efficiency standards. LaHood might not be as big a proponent of bicycling as someone like Jim Oberstar, but he has extended a few olive branches.

The biggest disappointment so far has probably been the decision not to reform New York City's airports, but no one is perfect.

My props to LaHood for exceeding expectations.

M&Ms in a Jar

I recently found myself at a break-room style work gathering that featured a popular party game: guess the number of objects in a clear container. There are many variations of this game, perhaps the most common is to guess the number of M&Ms in a jar.

I'm the type of person that likes to know how games are played and whether there are any optimal strategies. I submitted my guess. I lost. I wanted to know what I could have done to improve my chance of winning.

M&Ms in a jar is such a frustrating game because it seems too simple, and yet the ability to guess accurately is incredibly difficult. With enough players, the range of guesses can be pretty extreme. When I played this game I saw people attempt to utilize a few interesting strategies. One person counted the number of candy pieces on the edge of the jar and used the equation for the volume of a cylinder to calculate the total M&Ms. But that doesn't really work if you don't know the dimensions of the jar or if…

George Will is Out of Control

When I was in high school, George Will visited as part of a professional speaker series. He probably got overpaid to come talk about baseball for an hour, but at least he knew his audience, I guess. Will hasn't been having a great year. First he got himself into trouble for using dubious facts to pen a rant against global warming. Then he went a tirade against jeans that was just, well, a little weird... Now he's taking on Ray LaHood, bicycling, progressive transportation, Portland, and anything else that's loosely related.

So far, the response to Will's newest column has been tremendous.

Yglesias notes that Will's premise relies on statistics that aren't just misleading, they're blatantly false. He also wonders if the editor(s) who let the mistake slide is going to do anything about it. The Overhead Wire points out that the Great Society Subway has created real wealth in the Washington, DC area. Amanda Marcotte takes down a number of Will's arguments. Le…

Viva Lost Vegas

Current recently aired an eye-opening and pretty disheartening episode of Vanguard that looks at the impact of the economic recession on Las Vegas.

American Public Media also recently did a piece on Las Vegas (or Foreclosure City, as they've come to calling it). Definitely worth a listen.

I'm leaving for Las Vegas tomorrow afternoon. I don't plan on traveling off the strip, but it nevertheless should be interesting to see what attitudes in general are like.

Hot Cities are Still Hot

You'd think that cities with high unemployment would be the last places where new college graduates would be flocking, right? Not necessarily, according to Conor Dougherty's Wall Street Journal piece:
The worst recession in a generation is disrupting migration patterns and overturning lives across the country. Yet, cities like Portland, along with Austin, Texas, Seattle and others, continue to be draws for the young, educated workers that communities and employers covet. What these cities share is a hard-to-quantify blend of climate, natural beauty, universities and -- more than anything else -- a reputation as a cool place to live. For now, an excess of young workers is adding to the ranks of the unemployed. But holding on to these people through the downturn will help cities turn around once the economy recovers...

Portland's bleak job market might seem like a reason to stay away, but some of the newcomers say the pull of a different city is greater than the fear of unempl…

History of the American Dream

American Public Media has produced an awesome audio documentary on the tradition of "the American dream". An interesting takeaway is that "the American dream" has been defined over time by circumstances that once made perfect sense. For example:
The GI Bill made is possible for millions of young veterans to attend college for free. At the time, the relative scarcity of people with college degrees made the cost/benefit analysis a highly valuable proposition for many veterans.

Suburbanization came about as a result of a housing shortage crisis. When vets got back from WW2, there simply wasn't anywhere for them to live. The government scrambled to provide adequate housing for its veterans and thus came the suburbs.

In the 1970s, racking up huge amounts of personal debt was merely a way to hedge against inflation. You weren't "smart" if you weren't borrowing and spending as much as anyone would lend you. Only fools weren't piling up debt.Habits s…

My New Favorite Magazines

I recently bought the spring issue of two magazines for the first time: GOOD and Next American City. If you are interested in urbanism, sustainability, transportation, or related topics, these are two awesome publications.

In fairness, they can be a bit hard to find without a subscription. I found GOOD at Whole Foods and Next American City at a Joseph Beth; but if you can get your hands on a copy, definitely check them out.

Delaware's Sports Bet

ESPN's E:60 program recently did an interesting segment on Delaware's interest in bringing sportsbooks to the state.

The NFL and NCAA's public relations departments really need to get some fresh arguments if they want to continue opposing legalized sports wagering. The idea that putting sportsbooks in Delaware or New Jersey or on the internet would instantly lead to rampant cheating is silly. Why? Because if players want to wager on their own games, it is as simple as calling their confederate in Southern Nevada and having her walk into the Las Vegas Hilton and make the bet.

What High Speed Rail in Cleveland Might Look Like

I haven't yet commented on Obama's "Vision for High Speed Rail" because my feelings are mixed. I do think that big inter-city transit projects can be beneficial, but I'm fearful that if we don't do them correctly, they will wind up as major boondoggles. As you can see, the Vision calls for big rail expansion in the Midwest, including an alignment from Cleveland to Cincinnati via Columbus (also called the 3-C corridor).

According to this article from The Plain Dealer, Governor Ted Strickland is already pushing for an Amtrak passenger rail service on the 3-C corridor, including a joint station near i71 and West 150th that would connect the 3-C corridor to RTA's Red Line. The route would continue to an "expanded" version of Amtrak's existing station on Lake Erie. This map shows the likely 3-C alignment in blue and the RTA Red Line in red.

(Click to Enlarge)

This map is a zoomed in version showing the downtown Cleveland Amtrak alignment, again in b…

Can David Succeed in Cross-X Debate?

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting new piece in The New Yorker about how the Davids of the world can successfully defeat the Goliaths. The key, according to Gladwell, is that the Davids cannot win if the concede to playing the game by Goliath's terms. He gives a few examples of how and when David has proven successful:
Vivek Ranadivé coached a twelve-year old girls basketball team to national success by using full-court pressure against teams that were otherwise bigger, faster and stronger than his.

T. E. Lawrence's band of warriors killed or captured twelve hundred Turks without suffering any major casualties themselves. They accomplished this by coming at the Turks from the unprotected desert, rather than attacking Medina directly.

Doug Lenat, a computer scientist with no military experience, won a virtual war-game by employing a goofy strategy of using a fleet of defenseless, immobile ships and sinking his own ships after they were attacked.If Gladwell's thinking is corr…

Why are Beer Companies so Green?

If someone were to ask me which local company I think is the "greenest" in town, I would probably say the Great Lakes Brewing Company. They do everything from recycling to producing alternative fuels to investing in energy efficiency. They sponsor a major sustainability event every summer. I first learned about the triple bottom line concept because of them.

Last week the Center for American Progress highlighted a number of breweries that have embraced eco-friendly ethics. What I find curious is: of all the businesses and all the industries, why have beer companies taken the lead on sustainability?

Does the brewing process somehow make environmental friendliness easier to accomplish? Do beer executives share an outlook that most other executives do not? Is sustainability a marketing ploy designed to sell more beer? Are they doing it out of guilt because they produce a product that has caused so much pain to so many families?

I honestly do not know what the connection is, but I …

Mathematical Evidence and Car Culture

Nate Silver crunches the numbers:
I built a regression model that accounts for both gas prices and the unemployment rate in a given month and attempts to predict from this data how much the typical American will drive. The model also accounts for the gradual increase in driving over time, as well as the seasonality of driving levels, which are much higher during the summer than during the winter...The model predicts that given a somewhat higher unemployment rate but much lower gas prices, the lower gas prices should have won out: Americans should have driven slightly more in January 2009 than they had a year earlier. But instead, as we've described, they drove somewhat less. In fact, they drove about 8 percent less than the model predicted.If you got caught up in the mathematical jargon, it's as simple as this: gasoline prices became so cheap after last summer that we should have taken advantage of them and driven more than ever. The fact that we didn't tells us something i…

Public Service Announcement

This week Newsweek launched a new online project called Generation O (for Obama, of course). I will be a contributing blogger over there for the next three months.

Meet the bloggers here and add the feed to your reader. Don't worry, Extraordinary Observations isn't going anywhere, so you'll be able to keep up with my thoughts on urbanism, economics, and everything else over the summer.

Stress is Relative

It's the time of year when college students across the country are freaking out about exams, term papers, and everything else. You can see it on Facebook, where people post statuses about being "crazy-busy" and "ridiculously stressed". You can overhear it at the library, where people talk about pulling all-nighters studying for some exam or pouring their heart into a ten minute PowerPoint presentation.

I vaguely remember those days of pure anxiety. But I don't think I've felt truly stressed out about a class since my sophomore year. I haven't pulled any all-nighters in over two years. I get just about everything finished on time, and the quality of the work (at least papers and presentations) is noticeably better. What's the secret? I have a (not very scientific) theory...

When all I was doing was going to school, getting perfect grades seemed like the only thing I had going for my future. When I started working part-time, it became much more obvi…

The New College Divide

The economic crisis has claimed a lot of victims. Companies have failed. Jobs have been lost. Health insurance taken away. Now it looks like the next victim will be underprivileged college students.

When I was in high school, applying to college was all about getting into the "best" school. Money was on the back burner. If you were smart enough, you could get scholarships. If you weren't, there was this wonderful thing called "financial aid". Loans could cover the rest, and since we would all graduate and make more money than we could possibly imagine, it hardly mattered how much we borrowed.

The tides have turned. The possibility of graduating into unemployment is extremely real. The risk of having financial aid yanked during the toughest times is something that needs to be considered. In a story that started floating around the blogosphere last week, NYU's administration started calling future students and telling them that if they can't afford the $50k…