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Showing posts from August, 2009

The Next Big Fast Food Thing

It doesn't feel like it, but it was only 6 or 7 years ago that Chipotle Mexican Grill was the hottest new thing. Back then there were plenty of cities that didn't have a Chipotle or that only had a single location. I used to get excited about the prospect of eating one of their delicious San Francisco style burritos. Now, it just feels like another run of the mill eating experience.

(from Wikipedia)

It makes me wonder when the next big food phenomenon is going to sweep the country?..

Energy and Trucking

NOW aired a pretty good episode last Friday about the issue of moving freight. Watch:

I have one major beef with NOW's presentation: there is almost no discussion of oil, energy, or how energy prices will impact future economic trends. The assumption is that growth leads to higher demand for stuff which leads to higher demand for freight services. That's fine, so long as we also assume that oil prices will be stable in the foreseeable future. I don't think that's particularly reasonable.

The reason why it's economical to have highly a centralized manufacturing network is because moving stuff is cheap. And the reason why moving stuff is cheap is because oil is cheap. As oil becomes come expensive, the whole system starts to break down.

In the short-term, higher energy prices will probably lead to inflation, much like they did last summer. But at some point it will become more economical to grow produce and other food in many locations rather than in a few locations. Th…

Black Market Textbooks

It's that time of year again. Classes start on Monday. I haven't gone to the university bookstore yet, but I probably will soon enough. I'll have to figure out which classes I can get away with not buying the books, since I'm sure none of my professors will be using open-source texts. There is little that gets me angrier than the textbook racket market. For that matter, I'm actually surprised there isn't really much of a black market for bootleg textbooks.

(from flickr user wohnai)

What is a bootleg textbook? I've never seen one. I imagine it's a PDF document with all the pages scanned in. Given the level of sophistication in the bootleg music and movie market, it seems like textbooks might logically follow.

There will always be some people who actually want to own dead-tree copies of certain books or who are rich enough not to care how much they pay. With something as notorious as textbooks, there might even be people who make bootlegs as a political stat…

Laffer Curve of Transit Pricing

In less than one week, Cleveland's RTA is going to raise it's fares again, to $2.25 per ride. It was only a year ago that the cost of a ride was $1.75. I understand that transit agencies across the country are having a budget crisis. I'm even more worried that raising fares is going to badly backfire.

(from flickr user DistractedMind)

For those unfamiliar with supply-side economics, (and don't feel bad if you are) the Laffer Curve basically argues that the government's tax rate should be set as such that it maximizes government revenue. At a rate of 0%, government won't collect any revenue for obvious reasons; but at 100%, government also won't collect any revenue because people either won't work (no point in working if you can't keep your income) or hide all of their income from the tax collectors. Thus the ideal tax rate is high enough to bring in revenue but not so high to keep people from working or hide their income.

Now, consider the case of tran…

Cell Phones on Subways

Second Avenues Sagas notes that Washington DC's Metrorail will soon have cell service for most carriers, while "New York’s own MTA continues to fall further and further behind its technologically-advanced competitors."

I'm usually in favor of all kinds of new technology, but in this case, I don't think that cell phone blackouts in subway tunnels is such a bad thing. Personally, I use my cell phone very little. But there are, of course, people constantly having conversations.. Sometimes loud and obnoxious.. Often about nothing particularly important.

What confuses me is that people seem to oppose cell-phone use on airplanes but want it in subways and trains. Ultimately, both are cramped forms of mass transportation, after all.

When I lived in Texas last winter, I didn't have cable TV. At first I thought it might be the worst thing in the world, but it didn't turn out so bad. Then I moved back home and watched TV all the time. The difference was availability. …

Better Than the Book...

I never thought I'd watch a movie and say, "wow, that was better than the book!" Even in the cases where I read the book after I see the movie, I usually find it to be superior to the big-screen version. Not anymore... Even though it's been out for a while, I finally got a chance to watch Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

Not only was the movie better than the book, it was significantly better than the book. Aside from a solid cast (including Michael Cera and Kat Dennings) and the fact that the movie was able to incorporate the "playlist" in a manner impossible in the book, the storyline in the movie was simply better-written. The book was raunchy with obnoxious dialogue and seemed to be targted toward audience of pre-teens. The movie script was intelligent, funny and written for adults.

The whole thing makes me wonder what other movies are out there that are actually better than the books on which they are based?

A Free Parking Compromise

I recently came across this story from a Bay Area news source. The short version is that Oakland passed higher parking meter rates and local business owners aren't happy about them.

(from flickr user Chris Tirello)

This quote in particular caught my attention: Lydia Wallenberg of Grand Flowers said parking used to be difficult in the afternoons near her shop. "And now, you can just drive by and pretty much pick your parking spot, which means people are going somewhere else to buy," Wallenberg said.OK - if this anecdote is true, it sounds like all of the parking spaces near this store used to be almost completely filled and now they aren't.

Now, having every parking space taken may look perceptually good to this business owner. On the other hand, if additional shoppers show up and can't find any place to park, they will probably leave and go someplace else anyway. But there is really no way to measure the number of people who don't stop because they couldn't …

Journey to the Big Apple

Closing Observations

This will be my last post in the Journey to the Big Apple series. I've covered quite a few topics and made a number of observations thusfar. This final post will cover all of the assorted topics that I've missed. I spent three days in New York City, which certainly wasn't enough time to scratch the surface of things to do or see. There are thousands of blogs in the city covering nearly every topic imaginable. It took a long time to make my first trip to the city, and I'm sure I will be back again.

Iced Coffee Mania
I'm a big coffee guy, but I almost always drink it hot. Iced coffee is typically more expensive and tastes weaker. So why do people buy it? For that matter, why do so many more people in New York seem to drink iced coffee rather than hot coffee?

(from flickr user SheWatchedTheSky)

Yes, I drank an iced coffee while I was in Las Vegas earlier this summer. It was about 110 degrees, so hot coffee simply would have been uncomfortable. I didn&#…

Cities, Suburbs and Football

Yglesias thinks professional football stadiums belong in the suburbs:
A baseball stadium or a basketball/hockey arena are used frequently enough to be perfectly viable elements of an urban neighborhood. Nevertheless, the tendency is for governments to subsidize their construction to a degree that goes far beyond what can be justified. But a football stadium just doesn’t work, it’s a hugely inefficient use of land, and thus ought to be exactly where FedEx Field currently is—a pretty peripheral area in the suburbs.I'm not a huge fan of football and I think baseball and basketball are both better sports to watch. But I do think that there is some truth to this point. One other aspect that sets football apart from baseball or basketball is, for better or worse, the tradition of tailgating.

(from flickr user momboleum)

Football fans seem to have an affinity to sitting outside in the cold for hours on a Sunday morning drinking cheap cans of beer out of the back of a truck and tossing a foo…

Grade Point Complaints

Daniel Hamermesh wonders if his university's adding +/- to the grade point scale will change the level of student griping. I think the answer is yes. At least for a little while...

(from flickr user jakevol2)

The simple reason is that there will be more opportunities for complaining. Imagine that under the old system, a class has some students that get an 81%, some get a 86% and some get an 89%. They all receive a 3.0 on their transcript. The students with 81% won't complain since they are on the low end of the spectrum and know they got a good deal. The students with the 86% won't complain since it's hard to argue that they should get an A. But the students with the 89% might complain on the grounds that they are "right on the border" of an A.

Now imagine the system has +/-. The students with 81% will now complain because, just a semester ago, that same score got them a 3.0 - now it gets them a lousy 2.7. The students with the 89% will probably complain too, st…

Understanding Systemic Risk

The research folks at the Cleveland Fed have come through with a simple yet understandable explanation of systemic risk in the financial system.

If there is one positive impact that the financial crisis has had on the discipline of economics - it has created a huge demand for "common sense" economic explanations. A lot of people want to know about this stuff, they just don't have the time, patience, or background necessary to extract these concepts from the math-heavy and jargon-filled working papers that economists typically rely on to communicate their ideas.

Journey to the Big Apple

Taste of New York

As mentioned in my trip preview post, I planned on eating a few specific items during my visit: a New York bagel, a dirty water dog from a pushcart, a New York deli sandwich, and a "slice" of New York thin-crust pizza. I did get a chance to try all of them. I also stayed true to my word and avoided all chain establishments. New York City, I'm sure, has its share of excellent (albeit expensive) restaurants. One day I would like to dine at some of them, but for now, my budget called for sticking to the lower-end diet.

It's Less Expensive Than You'd Think
For all the hype about New York City being so much more expensive than anywhere else in the country, it really surprised me how easy it was to find inexpensive food. All four of the pizza places where I ate, for instance, charged less than the Sbarro in the food court near my office. Many of the vendors selling food on the street wanted less money than I'd seen back home. The bagel stores charged…

What to Do About Cars

David Alpert has a great post up at Greater Greater Washington about the debate over how cars belong in urban places. Anyone interested in this topic should read it (and the comments).

It's worth reiterating that the idea that society can either have cars or not have cars in our cities is an obvious false dilemma. Plus, it's not really in anyone's best interest to have one or the other anyway - they key is a good balance.

Take traffic, for instance. Nobody likes traffic; but the more people who drive, and the longer the distance those individuals drive, the worse that congestion gets. The same is true for transit. Having a bus or train with someone in each seat isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if means the service is popular enough to maintain frequent service; but having a bus or train packed wall to wall isn't really comfortable for anyone.

In nearly every instance in this country, nevertheless, the balance is tilted toward the auto side of the equation, ma…

Journey to the Big Apple

Getting Around Town

New York is the only city in America where the majority of households do not own a car, and even though many do (even Jerry Seinfeld, George and Kramer all owned cars on TV) they are far less reliant on them for day-to-day living. It's the idea that this type of thing is acceptable and common that intrigues me. For all the stigma that plagues American transit systems, on the New York subway you might find yourself next to a Wall Street trader or a homeless man playing a harmonica for money or a tourist from Russia. There is no first class, business class - its all coach. Whether you sit or you stand has a little to do with luck and a little to do with timing.

Of course, subways aren't the only means of transportation in New York. Taxis and buses are everywhere. I saw fewer bicycles than I expected, although my understanding is that bicycle ridership is growing. Surely there is much I didn't see, but here are a few transportation-related observations.

New Y…

Journey to the Big Apple

America’s Greatest Urban Place

In discussions about urban design, the conversation often turns to how New York City got it right. Some believe that using the Big Apple as a basis for comparison is unfair and that no other American city will ever (or at least soon) be able to duplicate its successes. To some extent I think there is some truth to that point. The density and the vibrancy of the city are at least partially thanks to the fact that there are always people everywhere. And the reason there are people everywhere is because there is something happening on nearly every corner. And the reason there is so much happening is because streets are packed with places to live, work, or have fun; not with parking lots, poorly designed buildings, or other wasteful uses of space.

Now that I’ve seen it, the idea that other cities will have much trouble copying it is a plausible idea in my mind. Honestly though.. what a shame. In a country as great as ours, there shouldn’t just be one New York …

Why I Quit CNBC

Daniel Gross has a nice piece over at Slate about why CNBC's rating have been in a tailspin lately. This is an interesting topic to me because I used to watch a lot of CNBC. Now I watch none.

The basic problem CNBC faces, at least from my pespective, is that it simply has way too much time to fill and not enough content to fill it. It's similar to the problems Jim Cramer or big-name newspaper columnists have to deal with. Jim Cramer makes so many bad stock picks because every single night he has to go on TV and pick something... newspaper columnists have to crank out material on a fixed schedule. If they had the ability to communicate only their best stuff, they would probably have a much higher rate of success.

But CNBC isn't even efficient at delivering the news that is important. They have shows designed for day traders (Fast Money), shows for amateur traders (Mad Money), a show that appeal the right-wing ideologues (Kudlow and Company), and a number of shows in the morni…

When Parking Incentives Go Bad

I like independent movies. In Cleveland, there is a single theater are two theaters, one of which is the Cedar Lee, that shows such films. I've been going there for five or six years; certainly not as long as some of its loyal patrons, but long enough to have seen a few of the neighborhood's changes over the years.

(from flickr user three sad tigers)

For what it's worth, Lee Road in an acceptable (although far from extraordinary) example of urban design. It features a nice mix of retail, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and of course, the movie theater. Everything is built out to the sidewalk and metered parking is available on Lee Road and behind the buildings. In a few unfortunate spots, parking is available on the side of buildings and leaves awkward gaps for pedestrians who might want to walk along the sidewalk.

When I started regularly going to the theater years ago, the city-owned surface parking lot behind the theater building had meters in every space. The price was 2…

The Problem with 'Best of' Lists

Auto-posted while I am in New York City.

We are a society obsessed with rankings. We have rankings for the best colleges, the best companies to work for, and the best city for one thing or another. Whether people admit it or not, these lists drive what colleges people look at, what jobs they apply for, and what cities they visit or ultimately make home. Unfortunately, the lists are basically useless. They are often arbitrary and unscientific and their creators have specific agendas that don't necessarily keep the readers' best interest in mind.

The list that recently struck a nerve was Forbes's list of the best cities for singles. Yglesias correctly notes that most of these lists are ridiculous, but that this one "seems unusually ridiculous".

Local media eats this stuff up. In Cleveland, Forbes' singles list got coverage by all local media, including the newspaper and TV news, as well the tourism industry. The weird thing is that Forbes ranked Cleveland 14th out…

No Love for the Kindle

Auto-posted while I am in New York City.

Despite the hype, I have virtually no interest in buying an Amazon Kindle (or any similar technology). I understand the concern that publishers have about this device crushing their industry, but from my point of view, the Kindle just isn't a great deal.

First, from a purely dollars and cents standpoint, the Kindle would take a while for me to see a return on investment. The unit itself costs $300. Most new ebooks sell for $9.99, which, at best, is about half of what Amazon charges for the hardcover or paperback. At that rate, the Kindle wouldn't have paid for itself until after at least 30 ebook purchases. Perhaps there are some who buy that many books in a year. I read that many books per annum.. but most of my reading material comes from the public or university library, so it would probably take a few years for me to buy enough books to make Kindle worth the initial investment.

Second, I simply don't like carrying high-end electron…

End of an Era

Three months ago Newsweek brought a handful of young people together to follow the career of President Obama. Yesterday I published my final piece on the Generation O blog. Congress is on its traditional August recess and life in the political sphere is about to take a breather (to some extent). It's been a pleasure participating in Newsweek's great project and an archive of my contributions can be found here. Finally, I want to give a big thanks to Aku Ammah-Tagoe for putting everything together and working with us over the summer.

How Terrible is Local TV News?

A lot of people rely on local TV news as a primary source of information. This has always baffled me. I usually can't stop myself from rolling my eyes at the teaser spots the networks air during prime time TV shows. It's been a while, consequently, since I've actually sat and watched an entire episode of the local nighttime news. How bad could it be?

I went ahead and watched the 11:00pm news on one of Cleveland's TV stations (I won't say which, but I think most people would agree that it's the worst of them). So here you have it; a liveblog of yesterday night's local news:

11:01 - Opening intro: Lots of flashy colors and sounds.

11:02 - Top Story: “Otis the Dog” got tasered by Lakewood police and has now been kicked out of the suburb for threatening police! The owner is moving out of town and some people are boycotting the suburb by threatening not to spend any money in Lakewood. Local business owners are concerned about losing customers. A few are interviewed…

The Plastic Payment Dilemma

I've been making almost all of my small purchases with cash nowadays. I didn't always operate this way - I used to be the king of whipping out a debit card for everything: a cup of coffee, a Chipotle burrito, a bottle of Pepsi... I thought it was my right to make every purchase with plastic. At some point I even thought I was doing businesses a favor by not making them deal with cash all of the time.

(from flickr user sroemerm)

I used to get annoyed when businesses would put hand-written signs on the cash register that said something like "$15 minimum credit card purchase". How could they expect people to carry cash all the time? If they didn't take debit cards, they were going to lose business; it seemed like these places asking for minimum purchases had something coming. Then I noticed something about the places that had these signs: most of them were local mom-and-pop stores. The kind of businesses that I really want to succeed. The kind of places that I don'…

Public Sphere Stigma

I've been keeping track of all the books I've read this year. I really wanted to write some book reviews, but it hasn't exactly happened as planned. Anyway, since January, I've read slightly less than 40 books. A few of them I received as gifts, and a few I bought new on Amazon. The rest all came from the public library. I also checked out a handful of books that I returned after reading 25 pages because they just weren't good. By my estimate, assuming a cost of $15 per title, I would have paid about $500 had I bought all of those books new.

(from flickr user shanebee)

To some extent, public libraries are perceived as welfare establishments - a place for people to go and relax or play checkers on Yahoo Games because they have nowhere else to go. But there doesn't seem to necessarily be a huge stigma against regular, well-to-do people who want to check out books from the local public library because they want to read. Yes, bookcases have become status symbols in s…

Bag Tax!

The Center for American Progress says the time is now:
A bag tax works by charging shoppers a fee—typically between 5 and 30 cents—for every bag they get in a store. This fee drives consumers to buy reusable bags and change their habits. It also causes high-quality reusable bags to emerge and diffuse because it’s a market solution. The resulting revenue can be used to raise awareness, to pay for environmental clean up, or to subsidize reusable bags...

The case for a national bag tax is clear. Plastic bags are a huge and growing problem. They’re not free, either, since retailers pass on the costs to consumers. In comparison, good reusable bags pay for themselves in no time. Bag taxes have been proven effective, and many other countries have passed them. It’s time that we do, too.Last summer I made my case for getting complimentary plastic bags out of retail culture. I find the subsidization argument particularly compelling. Bags aren't free, customers pay for them via higher retail p…