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Showing posts from June, 2009

Corporate Public Transportation

Advertising Age has a piece on the phenomenon of corporate naming rights coming to public transit systems across the country:
There's the TECO Line Streetcar System in Tampa, sponsored by Tampa Electric. The HealthLine bus line in Cleveland, sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. And if all goes as planned, there will be a Barclays Center subway stop in Brooklyn by 2012. Municipalities facing shrinking budgets are turning increasingly to the private sector to fund public services, offering up naming rights in exchange for cash.In principal, I can't stand corporate naming rights. I used to really appreciate the fact that all three of Cleveland's major sports venues (Browns Stadium, Gund Arena, and Jacobs Field) had avoided the wrath of giant corporations. But I guess the renaming was inevitable, and now only Browns Stadium retains a unique name.

On the other hand, I'd rather see a public transit system with corporate names on lines and stations than a…

Calculating Fuel Economy

I recently finished reading Nudge, a decent book but not something I would highly recommend. Nevertheless, there is one idea that authors present that I found pretty interesting.

When it comes to fuel efficiency in cars and trucks, just about everyone measures it by the "miles per gallon" metric, even though it turns out to be one of the worst ways to measure fuel economy. GOOD recently had a nice piece about why "gallons per 100 miles" would be a superior metric, but even so, it still doesn't tell people the most important thing they might want to know: how much it is going to cost?

Consider the case for these four 2009-model GM vehicles: Chevy Aveo, Cadillac CTS, Chevy Suburban 1500, GMC Sierra C15. First, we'll look at the MPG (city/highway) ratings:

Aveo: 25/34
CTS: 18/26
Sierra: 15/20
Suburban: 14/20

We can convert this to gallons per 100 miles, and the numbers look like this:

Aveo: 4.0/2.9
CTS: 5.6/3.8
Sierra: 6.7/5.0
Suburban: 7.1/5.0

In this case, it seems a li…

More on Student Loan Scams

NOW did a feature on student loans recently:



In keeping with typical PBS style, the episode isn't overly shocking or off-the-wall (like say, 20/20 might be), but it gets the point across. I still think the best resource on this topic is Alan Michael Collinge's The Student Loan Scam. I wish NOW would have been able to cover a lot more, but I guess there is only so much that can be said in a 25 minute episode.

Transportation Game Theory

2nd Avenue Sagas has a great post about the apathy that some New Yorkers seem to express about their city's subway system.

Nobody likes price inflation on consumable goods and services; so when MTA decided it had to raise fares to avert a financial disaster, some people were understandably ticked off. But what's fascinating are the threatening comments some people have made; saying things like "nobody is going to pay those ridiculous fares" or "I'll start driving instead". Most are surely empty threats, but they demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the tradeoffs between transportation options in a city like New York.

Sure, traditional economic theory suggests that buyers switch freely between similar goods. If the price of Pepsi goes up, more people buy Coke. If the price of ham goes down, fewer people eat turkey. The difference is that there isn't really a fundamental shortage of soft drinks or lunch meets. There is, on the other hand, a ma…

Keep Up With Me

If you only follow me here at Extraordinary Observations, you may be missing out on some of the other fun stuff I have been up to recently. We're now almost two months into Newsweek's Generation O project. Check out my posts here and subscribe to the RSS feed if you haven't already! Ohio locals may be interested in my first post over at Rust Wire about a new study that shows Ohio's college graduates have little interest in sticking around in the state.

Continuing with my tour of urban places that began last month in Las Vegas, I'm planning to visit Philadelphia, Washington DC, New York City and possibly one more city (any suggestions?) by the end of summer (ie. Labor Day). Of course, I will have trip reports to share upon my return.

Celebratory Destruction

LAist has some interesting pictures of the riots and destruction that took place in downtown Los Angeles after the Lakers won the NBA championship. Now, if it had been a bunch of people in Orlando Magic gear tearing down the city, this might be understandable, but it's not. One thing I never understood about sports is why the winning team's fans occasionally proceed to destroy their own city. A few weeks ago I heard people saying the same would happen in Cleveland if the Cavs had won the championship... how embarrassing.

Open Source Textbooks

Kevin Drum recently had a few thoughts about the open source movement:
Ten years ago, I remember ruminating over the open source movement and wondering what its limits were. What kind of stuff would people do for free, and what kind of stuff wouldn't they? Since open source software is mostly produced by obsessive nerds, the obvious answer is that they'll work for free on the kind of things that obsessive nerds themselves like to use: operating systems, editors, compilers, etc. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, you have, say, the firmware for controlling GM's assembly line robots. Nobody in their right mind would do that for free.In my opinion, open source has gotten pretty sophisticated. There are now a whole lot of open source software programs that are nearly as good as their proprietary counterparts (at least for individual or casual users). Craigslist is easier and more efficient than newspaper classifieds. Wikipedia is more comprehensive than the old-school …

Praising Public Media

Frontline has another awesome documentary about the financial crisis as a follow up their Inside the Meltdown episode.



Without a doubt, public radio and public television have had some of the best coverage of the financial crisis. Between the two Frontline episodes, NPR's Planet Money blog and podcast, This American Life's series of episodes on the topic, and anything else I may be forgetting, there isn't much out there that is better.

Like Taking Cars Off the Road

In the debates over energy efficiency, a new metric has emerged to measure how green policies are: how many cars is it like taking off the road?

For example, Coke's new vending machines are like taking 218,000 cars off the road for two weeks. Regulating energy utilities in California is like taking 350,000 cars off the road for a year. Switching to CFL light bulbs is like removing 3.5 million cars from the road. Using biofuel is like taking 32 million cars off the road. Painting roofs white is like taking all of the world's cars off the road for 11 years! I think you get the point.

This language shows something extraordinary about how we now think. We are fully willing to admit that driving cars is bad for the environment and even that we should probably try to do what we can to stop polluting. But instead of policies that seek to actually encourage removing cars from the road, we like to think about pollution reduction policies that are "like" taking cars off the road…

City in a City

I've recently become intrigued by the new City Center project slated to open in Las Vegas later this year. The project promises to be an "urban metropolis" and a "city within a city". Admittedly, it looks extremely cool, but I have my doubts.



At first glance, this development seems to have everything: 2000+ condo units, 5000+ hotel rooms, casino gambling, public transportation, shopping, Cirque duSoleil, and its own fire department and power plant. At $8.5 billion it's supposedly the biggest private development in U.S. history. MGM Mirage has put a lot on the line to get it built. They've already sold their Treasure Island property to raise desperately needed cash. Now they've put up their Circus Circus property as collateral against cost overruns.

When (and if) City Center opens this winter, it will certainly be a spectacular sight. But will it be the great urban place it promises to be? Or will it be more like a cartoon of a great urban place? I gue…

A Quick Look at Urban High Schools

Daniel recently opined about his sister's acceptance and scholarship to Harvard, noting that the difference between the two is that she attended a Chicago public school while Daniel attended one of the city's private institutions. And while my interactions with Daniel make me think he is a very smart guy, like me, he did not make it to Harvard.

Now, I've spent enough time around high school policy debate to know that there are a number of very respectable urban public high schools across the country. Conveniently enough, Newsweek's Jay Mathews top public high schools list was released last week, so I went ahead and combed through looking to see whether any big city high schools made the list.

Some big city school districts are nicely represented. New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and San Diego all have more than five public high schools that make the list. Most big cities have one or two high schools that make the list; and the are typically magnet or other spe…

All About Infrastructure

This week's New York Times Magazine is all about infrastructure, architecture, urbanism, and other cool topics this blog finds interesting.


Infrastructurist has a nice summary of the issue, but all of the articles are worth a read. Check it out.

Business and Casual Travelers Unite

I got excited when I saw some of my buddies starring in this new YouTube promo video for Southwest Airlines:



Considering that this video appears to be a low-budget production filmed at (what looks like) Love Field Airport and starring some of Marketing's and PR's finest, I have to admit that I am impressed with its overall production value.

I am a "C group traveler" like Christi. Maybe one day I will graduate up to an Adam or a Blair, but for now I am happy with the Wanna Get Away fares that I like to book.

Ohio Hates Its Cities

So the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that cities cannot enforce residency requirements for civil service employees. I think this is a shame. It will probably weaken all three of Ohio's big cities, as well as its metro areas and ultimately the state itself.

The Ohio Judicial Center (from Wikipedia)

There are a few things I want to address.

First, the argument that residency requirements somehow infringe on a person's freedom to choose where they live is nonsense. Every job in existence has requirements that infringe on some right to do something. If I pass the bar exam but can't get a job as a trial lawyer because I refuse to wear a suit in court, does that infringe on might right to dress casually at work? Sure. If I land on job at Subway and get terminated for showing up to work intoxicated, does that infringe on my right to get drunk? Sure. The Cleveland Clinic won't hire anyone who smokes; does that infringe upon someone's right to enjoy cigarettes? Absolutely. Peop…

Last Summer's Crisis Revisited

This column in the Detroit Free Press does a good job summing up last summer's crisis in the context of today:
Gas prices are sneaking up again, into territory that's making me cringe, not just for my own budget but because so many people are pinching every penny in this miserable economy. The experts are saying we shouldn’t fear a repeat of 2008’s unbelievable record prices, when gas topped $4 a gallon and really got people to cut back on driving and rethink buying vehicles without regard to fuel efficiency. OK. Can we slow down the recent rise, then?Amazing to think that it was only a year ago that the hottest topic on this blog (and elsewhere) was the energy crisis. You remember, right? When crude oil crossed the $100 mark and kept skyrocketing upward; and when gasoline made it into the $4 per gallon range and freaked out everyone who drives a car on a regular basis. Politicians blamed the evil Wall Street "speculators" and consumers thought they could boycott thei…

The Wrath of Unpaid Interns

Last week the Daily Dish linked to a new blog called Spotted: DC Summer Interns, which essentially publishes anecdotes about the naivety and ignorance of Washington DC's summer interns. In fairness, though, it seems like most of the abuse is directed at Congressional interns, who of course are fully unpaid.

Now, I've always been skeptical of unpaid internships. Personally because I've never been able to afford them. In a city like Washington, DC, an unpaid internship could easily set you back thousands of dollars by the end of the summer. Plus, there are only so many minimum wage bar and restaurant part-time jobs to go around. But professionally, unpaid internships theoretically attract the lowest-quality talent for a few reasons. First, because it basically strong-arms anyone who can't afford the cost out of the picture. And second, because even for people who can afford to do an unpaid internship, it would have to be a spectacular experience for them to accept it over…

Food, Inc.

David Brancaccio talked to Robert Kenner about his new documentary on last Friday's episode of NOW.



My initial thought is that the material in this film looks basically the same as Michael Pollan's bookThe Omnivore's Dilemma. Nevertheless, this is an important topic that impacts more Americans than just about any else. I've already heard rumors that Food, Inc. is going to win awards for documentary of the year. I'll wait until I see it to make my own judgment, but based on the clips I have seen and this interview, it definitely has potential.

Peak Car Consumption

Felix Salmon sees the peak of car consumption:
If we’ve learned anything over the past decade, it’s that things can stay at unsustainable levels for much longer than anybody might imagine. And over the medium term, it’s far from obvious that auto sales in the 9-10 million range are really as unsustainable as all that. Not only don’t we need to get back to “a typical replacement rate”; it’s actually very unlikely we will ever again see the rates of car ownership that prevailed before the crash. That was a world of 3-car garages in exurban McMansions; we’re moving into a more sustainable way of living, which involves fewer cars and higher urban density.It makes sense. In fact, the day that there were officially more vehicles in this country than registered drivers (this occurred more than 30 years ago), it probably should have been obvious that the end was near, but it continued unchecked for decades. After that, the only way for growth to continue was for households to own more cars tha…

False Reality

I caught this commercial for the new Sims PC game yesterday night.



Admittedly, I played the original Sims game, but that was probably 7 or 8 years ago. I can't really stick with any of these games because I get bored of them too easily. Nevertheless, the whole concept of the Sims seems like a strange but interesting sociological phenomenon. On the one hand, these games allow people to live in a fantasy world and do things that they can't or won't do in their real lives. On the other hand, it really makes you wonder why we do some things in reality that we would never want to do in the game. For instance, maybe this new Sims game will allow players to spend 2 hours a day sitting alone in a car in bumper to bumper traffic. But why would anyone in their right mind want to do that, after all?

Why So Few Passports?

A lot of my peers seem surprised (some even shocked) by this statistic that only 30% of Americans hold passports.


I think the explanation is rather obvious: travel is expensive. Travel is really expensive. Considering that the median household income in the United States is about $50,000, most Americans simply can't afford to pack up and hop on a plane to Europe or Asia or South America on any notice. Adding salt to the wound is the fact that passports themselves are expensive ($100) and inconvenient to obtain (paperwork, lines at the Post Office). Why would anyone struggling to pay for mortgage or feed their family spend their hard-earned money on a passport knowing they can't afford to leave the country anyway? I guess they wouldn't...

Backpacking across Europe after graduation might be an Ivy League tradition, but for a majority of Americans, it simply isn't feasible. There are probably a few closed-minded folks who have no interest in leaving the United States (and t…

Poker Still Strong in Weak Economy

Las Vegas's tourism industry might be hurting, but poker is still running strong. Gambling 911 writes that the 2009 World Series of Poker has already set a handful of new records, including: the largest prize pool for a non-Main Event tournament ($7.7184 million), the biggest Omaha tournament ever played (833 participants), and the largest non-Main Event hold'em tournament (which hit capacity at 6,000 participants).

Honestly, I thought poker would hit its peak in popularity two or three years ago, when every sports network (and a few others) started airing poker games non-stop. When the Unlawful Internet Gambling Act made it difficult for internet gambling companies to offer satellites and get players into World Series tournaments for cheap, the number of attendants took an immediate dive.

Why is 2009 turning out to be a record breaking year for the World Series of Poker? Maybe there are many out-of-work individuals with time to burn and the lure of big money is driving them out…

Another Post on Density & Baseball

In yesterday's post about density and baseball, I tried not to speculate about what causes MLB ticket prices in some cities to be higher than others. Unfortunately, I don't have the data, resources, or time necessarily to do a full-blown study on this question. Any hypothesis I come up with will be untestable (and thus unprovable). But because a few have inquired, I will toss out a few theories.

The first and most obvious hypothesis is that the more people who live close to something of value, the higher demand for that something will be. Thus by extension, places with high population density should have higher demand for Major League Baseball. Here is another way to think about it: when I lived within walking distance of my favorite pizza restaurant, I went all the time. Now, I still live within driving distance of this pizza place, but I rarely eat there. When I do, it is for some special reason. Driving ten miles for pizza has become an event itself. The same idea could hold…