The Suburban Default

Joseph White has a pretty interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about switching from a suburban lifestyle to a city-dweller and doing it as a Boomer. This is one group that seems to often get written-off as extremely attached to big houses, suburban streets and cars; so this little anecdote caught my eye:
I got a 35-pound package delivered to my office. Old life: Stick the package in the trunk and drive it home. New life: Haul the package to the corner of K Street and Connecticut Ave. and hail a cab. Future life: Live without 35-pound packages.
A typically response here would be: see, look how bad life would be without cars. How would you haul around all your stuff? Which raises an equally good point, why do we even need all that stuff?

But I digress, because the reason for this post is really about Generation Y more than it is about Boomers. I was sitting around a poker table over the summer with a few people I'd known since high school. All but one of us grew up in suburbs, and the fact that we were in the basement of an unnecessary large house in a subdivision miles away from the closest city was brought up at some point. To my surprise, there was unanimous agreement that suburbs were really not great places to be.

I was supposed to graduate from college last May. That didn't happen. But a lot of my friends did graduate. Some of them moved to cities, but fewer than said they were going to.

(from flickr user pixelhut)

What happened? I think it has to do with the fact that, for a lot of young people, suburbs are literally all they know. Even if they want to become city-dwellers like White, it would require breaking more than two decades of momentum and denying what has always been the default in their lives. The default option can be a very powerful thing.

Digital Navigation

The Google Maps navigation tool is on its way. I've been skeptical of the value of GPS devices, but the new Google product looks pretty promising.



At this point, it's very auto-centric, but given the capabilities of Google Maps, I can only hope that the program incorporates Google Transit in the near future. If a person could input a destination and Google could walk you to a transit stop, tell you what time the bus or train is scheduled to arrive and then walk you to your final destination, that would be pretty cool. I don't know if it would actually induce people to ride transit who otherwise wouldn't, but it couldn't hurt.

Cross-Disciplinary Thinking

I'm reading Malcolm Gladwell's new book of essays from the New Yorker. It's excellent. One of the best books I've read this year. I'm typically not big fan of books of columns or articles or essays, but Gladwell is such a talented writer that makes up for it. I actually hadn't read about two-thirds of the essays in the book, since they pre-dated my magazine reading days, and it's nice to re-read some of his best pieces.

(from flickr user santheo)

Gladwell's interview with Time is also pretty interesting, particularly his advice to future journalists.
The issue is not writing. It's what you write about. One of my favorite columnists is Jonathan Weil, who writes for Bloomberg. He broke the Enron story, and he broke it because he's one of the very few mainstream journalists in America who really knows how to read a balance sheet. That means Jonathan Weil will always have a job, and will always be read, and will always have something interesting to say. He's unique. Most accountants don't write articles, and most journalists don't know anything about accounting. Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master's in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that's the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.
I'm going to take this one step farther because I don't think the issue isn't confined to journalism. Many academic disciplines seem to be suffering from a lack of cross-disciplinary thinking. Universities have their various departments, and the people in those departments do their own work, typically segregated from everyone else. The philosophers philosophize and the psychologists think about behavior and the economists do calculations about GDP and unemployment and none of them ever really work together to think about how these things interact or whether it even matters.

I know too many people who think they need a degree in some discipline in order to do any work there. Whenever I tell people I'll have a degree in economics soon, I usually hear "well, what are you going to do with that?" Depending on who's asking the question, I might give some canned response, but the real answer is, I could do anything I want.

When people go to get a masters degree or a PhD, yes, they are becoming "specialists" in their discipline, but they're becoming generic specialists if they lock themselves into a way of thinking that's narrow and limited in scope. If disciplinary specialists can open doors to views outside of their immediate world I think they will ultimately be "smarter" in the way that Gladwell describes.
Let me start by saying I really enjoyed Freakonomics and after seeing the slew of bad reviews for the sequel, my expectations going in were pretty low. Overall, the books is not a terrible read - it's quick and easy and Levitt and Dubner do tell some interesting stories. My problem with the book is that the arguments are intellectually inconsistent and the book essentially refutes itself.

Take, for instance, the point the authors make about drunk walking being more dangerous than drunk driving. The model they use has been well-refuted around the blogosphere (check out Ezra Klein or Tom Vanderbilt for more on the specifics). The problem with the authors' back of the envelope calculation is actually described in the third chapter of their book, which is all about the law of unintended consequences! Did the authors even consider what might happen when they tell thousands of people that you can statistically drive across the country and back, intoxicated, before getting caught, hurt or killed? Or that drunk driving is several magnitudes less dangerous than drunk walking?.. something most people probably already perceived as perfectly safe?

The book really starts to refute itself in the last chapter, the infamous global warming chapter. There's been tons of criticism that the authors got the science and the facts wrong. My issue is with the argument they make against climatologists' models. After spending a hundred odd pages making claims built on statistical models with dubious assumptions and drawing conclusions that seem absolute, the authors attack climate change models for, of all things, questionable statistics, dubious assumptions and claims that the results as absolute. If there is good reason to question global warming models, then there is equally good reason to question just about every one of the models described in SuperFreakonomics.

In the end you have to wonder what the motivation was to publish this book. Levitt was a generally well-respected economist and co-editor of a prominent economic journal. But enough of the book fails to meet the standards of academic rigorousness that any journal would call for that I can't stop coming back to the question, "why"?
I've worked at four companies in my short career: three of them required a drug test before my first day of work, a signed document consenting to random drug tests, and an agreement that I understood drug use could lead to the termination of my employment.

Most articles and stories I've seen about the drug war and decriminalization are focused on the political side of the issue. It pits the "morally correct" social conservatives against the "laissez faire" social libertarians. It's obvious what the social right has to gain from keeping drugs illegal - the belief that it will stem the immoral use of them. To what extent these laws have a deterrent effect or stomp over our freedom is debatable, and I'm not here to debate it.

It's easy to overlook the role that drug laws play in Corporate America, or the fact that the biggest and most powerful corporations have a lot to lose if the laws are loosened. Strict drug laws give corporations a legal tool to hedge against legal responsibility for bad things that happen in the workplace.

Think about this: people are at work; something goes wrong and people get hurt. The first response for many corporations is to call for drug tests. If the employees involved test positive, it gets the corporation off the hook for a lot of liability and pushes responsibility for the accident onto those individual employees.

If Congress ever gets serious about changing these laws, it's not unreasonable to expect corporate lobbyists to get involved. The PR machines will spin it as a moral issue, family values, or whatever else they can piggyback off of the Christian right; but their real motivation will be the bottom lines of their income statements. For that matter, anytime corporations can get the government to protect their interests, I'd expect them to fight for it.
The New York Times has a nice piece about the growing trend of car-free existence. This is a hot topic, and my opinions have been expressed many times here. But look, I understand that it's not something for everybody. From the article:
Millions of people face long commutes, along with ferrying kids to school and activities, and countless errands that cannot be conducted via bus or streetcar. Beyond that, there will always be a group of customers who want the latest, hottest, sexiest car that automakers put on the market.
So maybe you have a family or you locked yourself into a long commute by buying a house far away from work that you can't sell and your mortgage is underwater. Yeah.. those people are pretty much stuck, I guess. But what is one group that (in general) has the most flexibility, is least likely to have kids, and is most likely to be cash-strapped? New college graduates.

But there is the serious problem: many of those same young people, even if they are sympathetic to the benefits of not owning a car and live in a walkable urban area, they might buy a car anyway, simply for those "once in a while" trips that people tend to like. The obvious answer to this is to utilize rental cars for such occasions. Most of the non-airport rental agencies run deep discounts for weekend rentals to get their vehicles off the lot. And if you're only renting for one or two weekends per month, the cost should be entirely reasonable. Unfortunately, the big rental companies either won't rent to anyone under 25, or they'll rent to them at some exorbitant price.

(from flickr user Henderson Images)

If I wanted a car from my local Enterprise for next coming weekend, I could get a compact from Friday morning to Monday morning for $52.34 (including all taxes and fees) if I was over 25. But I'm not, so my rate would actually be $133.15. That's not a good deal and probably not worth it. Car-sharing services like Zipcar do rent to people 21 and up, but those rentals are best for short trips in town, not so much for long trips to other cities.

We need to think about a solution. Whether it's a certificate that good drivers acquire get based on past records or some ability for urban dwellers to socialize the risk that car rental companies pass on to individual customers. Rental cars are great tools for those over 25 who live car free; it would be nice to extend that privilege to people a little younger.

Stop!

Christopher Beam has a nice article over at Slate about the question of whether bicyclists should be legally allowed to make rolling stops at stop-sign enforced intersections. He thinks they should - I agree. But this paragraph caught my attention.
Lawmakers tend to favor the full-stop, in part because not all cyclists are skilled enough to judge the safety of proceeding through an intersection. During a debate in the Oregon state legislature, one representative admitted that he doesn't like stopping at signs. "But I do it because it's the law," he said. Plus, if bikes can cruise through stop signs, why not cars? Why do bikes deserve special treatment?
Emphasis mine. Here is the reality: on-balance, motorists roll through stop signs just as much as bicyclists; but it's more difficult to notice.

Consider this: a driver speeding down the street at 35mph approaches a stop sign and slows to 5mph, looks left, then right, sees no cross-traffic, then re-accelerates. The casual observer would probably say that this person made a safe and rational stop, even if it wasn't a full stop. Many analog speedometers in cars don't even register below 10mph, further giving confidence to the driver that the rolling stop was sufficiently safe and appropriate.

Now consider a bicyclist traveling at 10mph, slowing to 5mph, looking left, then right, and pedaling through the intersection. To a casual observer, it looks like this person did not come to a full stop. It's not even obvious that they slowed significantly. I understand why its easy to think they just recklessly "blew through" the stop.

Even though both scenarios are functionally identical, the perception is very much different. The 1.5 mile route I ride to school uses secondary roads with 25 mph speed limits (frequently violated and rarely enforced) and about a half-dozen stop signs along the way. It's quiet, but there are usually at least a dozen cars that pass me during the ride. I can say with confidence that a majority of drivers who approach empty intersections roll though at a speed very similar to what I do on my bike.

Before the Storm

I've said it before and I'm going to say it again: public television and public radio have really done a tremendous job covering the financial crisis. No other television or radio news media can even claim to come in a close second.

This week's Frontline is no exception.



It's a well told story about Alan Greenspan, Brooksley Born and the politics of the Clinton Administration. Admittedly, it's a story that was mostly new to me.

Parking Games

I visited a grocery store with a friend last weekend. It was in a typical suburban strip mall - the kind of place with an excess of parking spaces that will never all be filled at any given time.

(from flickr user jgrimm)

I would expect the parking lot to fill up in a predictable pattern - the spots closest to the door filling first and then moving outward away from the store. But that's not exactly what I observed. All of the closest spaces were filled; but tons of spaces slightly farther out were available, and yet some people drove in circles, apparently waiting for one of those occupied spaces to become vacant.

This behavior baffles me. I can understand if someone is disabled. I might even be able to shrug it off it the weather was inclement. But these were fully-abled people on a clear, cool and dry Sunday afternoon.

And the other thing is, even the farthest parking space from the door isn't particularly far away. The number of steps that a typically shopper takes inside the store is probably a significant multiple of the number they take in the parking lot, regardless of where they park. And nobody carries their groceries outside at this store anyway - they push them in a shopping cart all the way back to the car.

A friend of the blog suggested to me that people behave this way because they are playing some kind of strange parking lot game. Taking any open space other than one right next to the story would be conceding defeat; but circling and waiting for that prime space to become available makes the person feel like a winner. It makes sense in a twisted way, although I'd like to believe we haven't devolved to that.

Coffee Shop Squatters

When I go onto Google Maps and type "coffee shop near my location" about half of the results are for places that no longer exist. On top of the fact that Starbucks keeps closing their stores, I'm led to believe that the half-life of a typical coffee shop is actually not very long.

I've heard it argued that coffee shop squatters are to blame. You know, the people who buy a coffee and then sit and read a magazine or surf the web for the next few hours... Admittedly, I'm guilty of being a coffee shop squatter. I'm writing this very post from my favorite coffee shop. I do it because it's so easy, and because sometimes I enjoy drinking a hot cup of coffee out in a public space more than in my own kitchen.

I have to question this theory on the grounds that many coffee shops actively encourage squatting. My favorite coffee shop, for example, has free wifi and power strips which allow more people to plug in laptops. On Wednesday evening there is open mic night and on weekends they often have acoustic musicians. All of these things encourage people to buy a coffee and stay for a while. And the coffee shop could at any time take all of them away.

I also question the assumption that a full coffee shop is bad for business. Psychologically, people like to patronize businesses that seem to be doing well. Having every seat in the room filled might actually help boost a coffee shop's take-out business.

Lastly, I think the situation is partially location-dependent. Where I live, retail space is cheap and population density is relatively low. I can imagine coffee shops in Manhattan having trouble with too many people trying to free ride on a single cup of coffee, but in a lot of places, I don't think it's as big of a concern.

Keep Up With Me

If you enjoy colorful charts and graphs and/or numbers and math, you may be interested in my new post over at Rust Wire about the relative bicycle friendliness of Rust Belt cities. I've also got a new post up at Brewed Fresh Daily modeling Cleveland's RTA ridership since the 1970s.

And because I know you loyal readers want to keep up with all my writing from around the internet, I went ahead and set up a delicious feed for all of my work that doesn't appear on this blog (subscribe using this link). I might not say it enough, but thanks for reading!

Capitalism: A Review Story

Yes, I know I'm a few weeks late to this ballgame, but I finally got around to seeing Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story. You can consider anything below this line a spoiler, so if you are interested in going in fresh, you might want to skip this post (you can still watch the trailer, of course).



My overall impression is that this movie is a mess.

I think Moore's goal is to track the historical movement of capital and wealth in America, connect it to the current economic crisis, and argue that the majority non-wealthy should overthrow the minority capitalists. I like to believe that I'm fairly educated on the crisis, and two hours with Moore left me feeling less confident about that than when I walked in.

Moore uses words like 'exploitation' and 'revolution' a lot - words similar to the ones Karl Marx uses in The Communist Manifesto. There is no explicit mention of Marx in the film; but there are a few examples of workers getting upset and fighting back against management and of evicted tenants fighting back against the banks that evicted them. Regardless, I think the self-selected clips are less mainstream than Moore might want you to believe.

If capitalism is undergoing a period of demise, I happen to think it looks much less like what Marx predicted, and more like what Joseph Schumpeter predicted. Here's a nice summary, from Wikipedia:
Schumpeter's theory is that the success of capitalism will lead to a form of corporatism and a fostering of values hostile to capitalism, especially among intellectuals. The intellectual and social climate needed to allow entrepreneurship to thrive will not exist in advanced capitalism; it will be replaced by socialism in some form. There will not be a revolution, but merely a trend in parliaments to elect social democratic parties of one stripe or another. He argued that capitalism's collapse from within will come about as democratic majorities vote for the creation of a welfare state and place restrictions upon entrepreneurship that will burden and destroy the capitalist structure.
If Moore understands these subtleties, then he doesn't do a particularly good job explaining them to the audience. There is reason to believe he just doesn't get it, which is one takeaway from this Q&A he did at GWU.



Lastly, there are a few buzzwords that get tossed around during the film: capitalism, socialism and democracy. The problem is that there's very little discussion about what these words actually mean and whether they are mutually exclusive. Moore shows clips of people at a John McCain rally, for example, claiming that Obama would invoke socialism which would crush democracy. At the end of the film, after Moore puts crime scene tape all over Lower Manhattan, he says that the ultimate solution to capitalism is democracy. What?!

There were a few hilarious scenes, like when Michael Moore goes to the General Motors headquarters in Detroit and nonchalantly tells the security guard "hi I'm Michael Moore I'm here to see in chief executive." Or the scene where Michael Moore is trying to talk to some guys having a smoke break outside the New York Stock Exchange and he asks "does anyone have any investment advice for me?" and one Wall Street guy shouts back "yeah, stop making movies." There is also a pretty comical clip from a Ronald Reagen movie where the former-president slaps a woman across the face.

This was a movie that I wanted to be good - I was rooting for it to be good. But I walked out of the theater disappointed. It wasn't very good.

Bike Helmet Politics

TheWashCycle poses this simple question:
I wear a helmet. But let me ask this question, why is riding a bike without a helmet dumb?
I think a good answer is: it's dumb because in the United States, bicyclists are almost always assumed to be at fault in a car/bike collision. If the bicyclist doesn't have a helmet, it's all too easy to argue that the bicyclist is reckless and probably deserved what he/she got. Sad but true.

Journalistic reporting on car/bike collisions is particularly bad. Many authors revert to the "phantom driver" description or use third person passive to refer to the things "which had been hit by an out-of-control car". Check out any article reporting on the death of a cyclist and I'm confident that if the cyclist died, the language makes the counter-factual suggestion that if only that person had been wearing a helmet, they would still be alive.

I've seen pictures and videos of bicyclists in Amsterdam and Copenhagen and other European cities and it always amazes me that almost none of them wear helmets. It's basically the polar opposite of the pictures I see out of San Francisco or Portland, where everyone has helmets.

Ultimately, I think the primary value to wearing a helmet is a combination of culture and politics. Until American society is willing to accept that a bicyclist isn't automatically at fault in a collision, wearing a helmet is really one of the few things the cyclist can do to hedge their bets against being taken by a legal system that is badly biased against them.

Mexican Coke

Rob Walker has an interesting piece in the NY Times Magazine about the cult following of Mexican Coke in the U.S.

(from flickr user Adam Kuban)

I wouldn't consider myself a cult follower; I certainly wouldn't go out of my way to find Mexican Coke, but if I could choose between a Mexican or American cola beverage, I would undoubtedly choose the variety from south of the border.

When I lived in Dallas I shopped at a store called El Rio Grande Supermercado. The store had it's pros and cons... sometimes I loved it, sometimes I couldn't stand it. But they carried a wide variety of Mexican imported soft drinks - not just Coke and Pepsi, but a lot of fruity flavored carbonated drinks as well.

It's true - soft drinks made from cane sugar are just better tasting than drinks made from corn syrup. They do taste noticeably different, so I think some people born and raised on American Coke might not like Mexican Coke at first - not because it's worse-tasting, just because they aren't used to it. I think the phenomenon in similar with other drinks. Most people would consider what I think is "good" coffee different. They would recognize a distinct taste, but because they aren't used to it, might write it off as not worth trying again.

I think that's the power of eating and drinking a lot of bad-tasting stuff. Eventually you get so used to it that you have a difficult time appreciating the truly good things. When it comes to food, it's definitely happened to me.

On Extreme Commutes

Every time I hear a story like this one I feel like the piece is trying to evoke sympathy from the reader (or in this case, the listener).

I'm sorry, but I just can't feel bad for people who make these ridiculous commutes. I agree that they are probably painful and awful and incredibly unpleasant, but at some point the person doing it needs to step back and simply decide if it really makes sense.

Nick Paumgarten wrote a great piece about two and a half years ago in the New Yorker on this topic. Penelope Trunk gives a nice slap in the face to the very idea that it's a good idea. I can buy into the argument that people make these commutes because they are very bad at calculating costs and benefits, especially when abstract value is involved. The other day, for instance, I asked a simple question to some very smart guys: if you commute 30 minutes to work each day, how many work weeks would you spend commuting per year? Neither had any idea off the top of his head (a pocket calculator will tell you the answer is about 6.5 forty-hour work-weeks).

I also think the problem is self-perpetuating. In my mind, a 60 minute per day round trip commute by car is very long and probably very far; but you'll hear other people say that it's actually very short. Nobody is going to be shocked if you commute 2 hours per day by car. When society reinforces the idea that this behavior is normal and acceptable, it stops being extreme and starts becoming mainstream. When people think about where to live and where to work, they probably discount the cost of the commute, because if everyone else is making long commutes, there must be some awesome value to it, right?
It really has little to do with gambling per se, jobs, construction, tax revenue or even the equality concern I raised a few weeks ago. In fact, the primary reason I voted no is really quite selfish, in a way. If I am going to live in Cleveland after I graduate from college (and this is becoming a big if anymore), basically the only place in town I would have any desire of living is downtown. Do I think living blocks away from a full-service casino would be desirable? No. I do not.

(from flickr user John Wardell (Netinho))

Cleveland already has plenty of challenges facing its downtown. I was recently reminded of this while talking to a friend of the blog about my frustration with the fact that the public library in my current neighborhood closes at 9pm and my favorite coffee shop at 10pm. That's pretty generous, really, he reminded me, since where he lives downtown, so many places that don't have a bar attached close while the sun still shines.

I've been to my share of casinos. I've visited Las Vegas, gambled on Indian reservations in Oklahoma and observed all three casinos in Detroit.

My fear is that Cleveland's casino will turn into something out of Detroit, where people drive in their cars, park in huge garages, spend time and money in the casinos, and then drive right back out and right back home. Official statistics might show people "visiting" these casino neighborhoods, but it only requires a little observation to see that the neighborhoods surrounding the casinos aren't exactly major beneficiaries of this influx of visitors.

I'm partial to the Hiram College study which concludes that a downtown casino will siphon business from neighboring bars and restaurants and drive many out of business entirely. Frankly, if I'm going to be a downtown resident, I'm pretty sure one of the last places I'd want to spend a Friday or Saturday night is at some casino bar. The fact that many of downtown Cleveland's existing business owners oppose the casino is enough to convince me that the risk is real enough.

There are so many things Cleveland could do to improve its downtown. To suggest that the casino is the only option left seems to be an admission of defeat. And it's hard to gloss over the reality of what casinos are in Detroit. Proponents kept telling me that somehow the Cleveland casino would be different, that somehow Cleveland will do right everything that Detroit did wrong...

I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt. I just don't have the faith to believe them.

As We Mature

After a break-up a few years back, Blink 182 got back together this summer to do a big tour. Admittedly, I don't love music the way a lot of people do; so this will probably be one of few music posts here for a while. When the reunion announced last spring, I had mixed feelings about it. The more I think about it, the more I'm disappointed that it happened.

I guess it wouldn't have mattered so much if Tom Delong wasn't also the lead singer of one of my favorite bands, Angels and Airways - and the fact that Blink 182 is together meant that Angels and Airwaves was not.

After going through some old Blink 182 songs on my iPod, I realized why I liked the band when I was 12 or 13 or 14 years old. The songs are generally pretty immature and definitely appealing to the teenage demographic. But now that I'm 22, I find the songs much less appealing.

I mean, honestly, does anyone remember this?




I hope to see more of Angels and Airwaves and less of Blink 182 in the future. As we mature, it's nice to have music that matures too.
A few weeks ago I posted about becoming an amateur bike commuter. In the first month and a half as an urban cyclist, I've ridden a few hundred miles. It's certainly nothing record-breaking, but it feels like an accomplishment, nevertheless.

Here are a few observations I've made along the way:

Every Mile Counts. I know exactly how far I ride to get to school, work, Whole Foods, the public library, my favorite coffee shop, and various other destinations around town. Knowing how far away things are helps me determine how long it will take to ride there and how much energy will be required. When I drove places or used public transportation, I rarely knew how far I was traveling. I might have been able to tell you how many minutes it required to get there, but that's about it.

How's the Weather? When you're out in the elements, the quality of the weather can have a major impact on your mood. I tend to find myself in a much better mood when the weather is sunny and warm than when it's cold and wet (obviously). I have realized though, that cold weather can be ideal for riding, since as long as I dress properly, I can ride for several miles without even breaking a sweat. Plus, I now fully appreciate how lame of an excuse it is for people to use weather as a reason never to ride.

Always Multitasking. One of the things I hated most about commuting by car to school was that it felt like I was wasting a ton of valuable time- hours every week that I could spend doing something more enjoyable. That's really not an issue now because every time I ride somewhere, I'm getting in some solid exercise at the same time. I've been riding about 30 miles per week, excluding big rides, and it's already a lot more than I used to be exercising.

Better Than Physics Class. One of the problems I made when I started was to try to ride as fast as possible by peddling as hard as possible all the time. It didn't take long to realize that the relationship between energy input and speed is not linear. I could expend a lot less energy but travel only a little bit slower.

I'm a Mechanic. I'll be the first to admit that I am one of the least mechanically inclined individuals out there. The only things I've really been successful at building or repairing have been computer hardware. I grew up believing that when the car broke down, you had to take it to the mechanic to get fixed. But bikes are much simpler machines. Simple enough, even, for me to make most repairs at home. It's nice to have the peace of mind knowing that if anything goes wrong, I can probably learn how to fix it from a Youtube tutorial video.

Do You Like Hot Dogs?

I'm not much of a hard science kind of guy, so I didn't love the chemistry class I had to take in college; but we did do one lab that was pretty interesting - we measured the amount of fat in potato chips and hot dogs by simulating the digestive process and then separating the fats from the proteins and other elements in the foods. It was pretty disgusting, in fairness.

I'm pretty confident that most people know that hot dogs and potato chips are among the most unhealthy foods available, but it took doing that chemistry lab for my classmates to say things like "I'm never eating hot dogs again".

I'm pretty sure they were eating hot dogs again within the week...

I also really like this episode of How It's Made on the Discovery Channel.



Whenever I ask people if they've seen this clip, they usually say, "no, and I don't want to see it - I'll probably never want to eat hot dogs again."

To some extent, I think this logic is valid. In general, we simply have no idea what goes into our food. That's not good. But once we do know? What effect does that have?

Having done the chemistry lab mentioned above and having watched the How It's Made clip many times, I still eat hot dogs regularly. But I don't eat mushrooms. What's the difference? When I was a kid I ate some bad mushrooms and threw up, now I'm conditioned to hate them.

It's kind of strange the way that works, actually... as long as we can eat something without becoming immediately ill, we will continue eating it, sometimes even when we consciously know it is for us. But if we have even one bad experience with a food, we avoid that food for a very long period of time.
The Wall Street Journal has a list of the next youth magnet cities. I hate ranking lists, even though I can't really can't disagree with the cities that popped up on this particular one.

Richard Florida weighs in with one variable that he believes attracts young people to certain cities.
Where older Americans see high-quality schools and safe streets as key, Gen Y understandably ranks the availability of outstanding colleges and universities higher. Many are likely to go back to graduate school and having great programs nearby is a big plus. When it comes to their overall community satisfaction, access to open space, being in an aesthetically beautiful city, and having access to vibrant nightlife are also quite important. Affordable housing, air, and water quality, and availability of religious institutions matter too but slightly less so.
Emphasis mine. I have issues with the idea that "great universities" drive young people to cities, both from an analytic angle and from an anecdotal angle. I don't think it's as understandably obvious as Florida suggests.

(from Wikipedia)

The Analytic Problem
In order to build a statistical model that accounts for the significance of universities as an independent variable, one of two things would have to happen. Either a) the "greatness" of universities must be put onto a measurable scale or b) "great universities" must be included as dummy variables, requiring that a subjective and arbitrary distinction be drawn between what is "great" and what is not.

In the first case, how do we know how much better any university is than another? How much better is Harvard than UMass? How much better is Stanford than UCLA? How do the best universities compare to the worst? You could use any of many available measures, like the US News rankings, but they are based on questionable methodologies, anyway. Any attempt to measure the quality of a university will be arbitrary in some way.

Further, what big city doesn't have at least one university? If you use "great universities" as a dummy variable, either every city would be coded as having one, or there would be a highly arbitrary cutoff determination as to whether or not a city has one. Does Cleveland have a great university because it has Case Western Reserve? Does Detroit not have a great university because it has only Wayne State and Detroit Mercy? Pittsburgh has Carnegie Mellon, but Cincinnati only has U of Cincinnati and Xavier. Where do you draw the line?

The Anecdotal Problem

When thinking about what cities I might want to move to after graduation, the universities in those cities has almost no impact on that thought process. If I were to go to Boston, I would definitely be close to some great universities. So what? I probably couldn't get into and pay for Harvard or MIT for grad school, even if I wanted to. Florida's explanation seems to presume that members of the creative class are so smart and so talented that they can go just about anywhere they want at a moment's notice.

A more likely explanation (and one that a friend of the blog proposed to me) is that universities attract certain kinds of amenities: specific kinds of stores, restaurants, bars, coffee shops and other hangouts. Those are things that would make me want to live in a particular city or neighborhood, but they really have little to do with the greatness of universities themselves. In that sense, any university that is sufficiently large and isn't a commuter school should effectively serve the purpose.

Lastly, the quality of a city's universities cannot change overnight. New universities do not spring out of the ground and rise to excellence in a matter of years. Some cities might be able to invest in their state schools or turn commuter schools into more campus-based environments, but unlike other things that cities can change to attract young people, they really can't do much of anything with the schools themselves.
A friend of the blog recently posed an interesting question to me: why is the Major League Baseball regular season so long and the post-season so short?

(from flickr user Joe Penniston)

The MLB regular season in 162 games long. There are 30 teams in the league, 8 make the playoffs, in which a maximum of 41 games can be played.

The NBA regular season, by comparison, is 82 games long. There are 30 teams in the league, 16 make the playoffs, in which a maximum of 105 games can occur.

So the ratio of regular season to playoff games in the MLB is (2430 to 41) - 59.3 to 1. The ratio in the NBA is (1230 to 105) - 11.7 to 1. This is a pretty big discrepancy.

Instead of ending the baseball season around October 1st, MLB could end it around early September. This would cut the regular season to about 130-135 games per season. The number of teams allowed into the playoffs could be doubled if the MLB allowed in two 2 teams per division per league and 2 wildcards per league. Additionally, the bogus 5-game first round could be eliminated and all rounds bumped up to 7 (or more) games.

Who would this benefit? I think the most obvious beneficiary would be the teams on the margin that would otherwise not make the playoffs. Fans of teams that don't necessarily win their divisions can still experience playoff excitement. I also think it benefits the most talented teams, since the statistical likelihood of the worst team in the league beating the best team in a short 5 game series is surprisingly high. 7 game series increase the sample size and the probability that the expected outcome (best team wins) will occur.

Who would this hurt? Franchises that never (or almost never) make the playoffs would be hurt, since they would have a couple dozen fewer games to sell tickets to every year. The Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates, for instance, are pretty infamous for rarely making the playoffs. Though this could be resolved if MLB were to establish some sort of playoff revenue sharing agreement between teams.

I'm sure there are other consequences I'm overlooking here. Please let me know who else this might benefit/hurt. Bonus points will go to the person who can best explain why Major League Baseball will probably never adopt this idea.
I have a very love/hate relationship with the discipline of mathematics. On the one hand, I understand the power of numbers, I appreciate their useful applications, I often wish I was some sort of math whiz like Nate Silver or Bill James or the fictional character from NUMB3RS. On the other hand, the process of learning math can be a painful experience. I think it causes a lot of people to write off the mathematical concepts as "useless," even though they can be incredibly useful in many disciplines. I'm sure it's the reason why many otherwise very smart people give up on it after high school or college and never look back.

(from flickr user tkamenick)

In college, I've taken pre-calculus, calculus 1, calculus 2, basic statistics, intermediate statistics, and currently mathematical economics.

Pre-calculus was by no means difficult. I signed up for it before I decided to major in economics, figuring I could get a math credit out of the way and an A to boot. In hindsight, it was not the best strategy.

Calculus 1 was mostly about derivatives. It wasn't particularly difficult. I got an A. Calculus 2 was mostly integrals. I had almost no idea what was going on most of the time. I elected to take the class pass/fail, so I don't know what grade the professor gave me - probably a C or D.

Similarly, I elected basic statistics pass/fail. I struggled to get through it. Again, I probably got a C or D. Then I took intermediate statistics and found it very easy . I got an A.

Whats going on here? While it seems like I'm a complete schizophrenic when it comes to learning math, I think there is more to it. How, for example, could I barely understand basic statistics but ace intermediate statistics? I honestly think the single most important factor in all of these instances was how well the material was applied to reality.

In calculus 1, along with learning derivatives, we learned the many uses and applications of derivatives. I did well in intermediate statistics because I knew exactly what the statistical procedures were useful for (thanks mostly to my job). In calculus 2 and basic statistics, the professor spent the semester flying through highly theoretical mathematical concepts.

I'm a right-brained person - typically good at writing and bad at visualizing mathematical concepts. I hate mathematical proofs. I just want to trust that someone much smarter than me figured the stuff out long ago. Most math courses, however, are taught by left-brained people (and why shouldn't they be?) For left-brained people, teaching math in a highly theoretical manner might be fine because it's very easy for them to understand. But for us right-brained people? The concepts become infinitely easier to comprehend when you know exactly what application it will have in real-life.

I have a math exam tomorrow. For a course called "mathematical economics" there has been almost no economic application so far in the semester. That really frustrates me an makes me anxious about the exam. Hopefully it does not play out as history may predict.
If you're a fan of the urban-related topics on this blog and you aren't reading Ryan Avent, you should start. Immediately. Avent is one of my favorite thinkers and writers on urban topics. His personal blog, The Bellows, features a nice dose of such discussions, with the occasional look at other important progressive issues.

Additionally, Avent blogs at Streetsblog and has contributed to Free Exchange, Grist, and Portfolio's now defunct Market Movers. A collection of the many of his print articles can be found on his delicious feed.

It is my pleasure to present a brief interview with one of the web's most talented writers. I hope other readers find the responses as interested as I did...

Rob Pitingolo: You are an economist who has made a career as a blogger and journalist. What would you say to an undergraduate economics student like myself who might consider a similar path?

Ryan Avent: First, that you should feel lucky. The opportunities to develop an audience and meaningfully influence ongoing policy discussions have never been so great. As for how to get there, I'd suggest first that you read and write a lot. That process is key to learning what does and doesn't work in the medium and what you'd like your own voice to be. It's also how bloggers spend most of their day, so it's best to learn early whether you can tolerate the hours spent reading blog posts.

Beyond that, I'd say be patient and don't get discouraged. There will be long periods of time when you're not getting links or responses, and you'll feel like quitting. But those periods pass. And once you do have an audience, you'll occasionally find yourself subject to harsh criticism, which can be tough to stomach. But don't let that stop you.

And finally, don't feel bad about reaching out to other writers when you've written something you like. Bloggers are always looking for interesting topics to cover, and that's the easiest way to begin building an audience.

Rob Pitingolo: You grew up in a North Carolina suburb. To what extent have those experiences contributed to your writing about urban issues? Do you think your background gives you more insight or credibility on these issues than someone born and raised in a northeast city?

Ryan Avent: I think my background has played a significant role in developing my interest in these subjects. My mom's family lived in Baltimore, and even at an early age I remember being fascinated by the look and feel of gritty, urban Baltimore. But even more important, I think, was the experience of growing up in the Raleigh area during a time of dramatic change there. Between the time I was born there to the time I graduated, Raleigh went from a sleepy capital city to part of one of the nation's top research centers. It was an unbelievable growth story. And so that got me very interested in how cities work and why some develop rapidly while others stagnate or shrink. And from that original interest came a desire to understand other things as well, including why cities sprawl and what that means for the local economy and the quality of life of people who live there.

The suburban background gives me some credibility, I think. I can certainly understand that life -- being 16 and dying to get your license so you can finally have some freedom, then getting it and basically spending your time with your friends in various parking lots, because where else are you going to go? The punishment of all punishments as a high schooler isn't an earlier curfew or getting grounded, it's losing the car keys.

But having that background hasn't stopped people who don't know much about me from assuming that I'm a typical eastern elite, which is silly anyway. I really dislike the fact that I feel the need to cite where I'm from as a defense against bad arguments. Matt Yglesias has very good ideas, to which people ought to pay attention, and never mind that he's from Manhattan. Both Ed Glaeser and Joel Kotkin are from big cities and they love sprawl. The only thing that should matter is the quality of the argument. And when people fling the eastern elite thing at you, that generally means that they're unable to engage with what you're saying.

Rob Pitingolo: Having myself lived at Catholic University a few years ago, I'm not sure that I would consider Brookland to be one of the best examples of walkable urbanism in Washington, DC. Why did you choose to live in the Brookland neighborhood over any of the others in Washington?

Ryan Avent: The main reasons were convenience -- it's on the Red Line -- and affordability. It's not as walkable as I'd prefer, but it has steadily improved since I moved in; there's now an organic grocer, a couple of coffee shops, and some new bars within easy walking distance of my place, in addition to the restaurants, drug store, hardware store, and post office that were already there.

But Brookland has a great deal of potential. Catholic University is well on its way through the PUD process on land it owns adjacent to the Metro station, which will eventually be a very nice mixed-use, walkable development. As the market improves, there will be renewed interest in doing more with the lots to the east of the station, as well, which are set to be fairly dense and walkable in the wake of the adoption of a new small area plan. In five years, the combination of pleasant university setting, tree-covered bungalow neighborhoods, and walkable core around the Metro station will make Brookland one of the city's best neighborhoods.

Rob Pitingolo: If you could accept a scholar or fellow position at any policy think tank, which would you pick? And how would you focus your research?

Ryan Avent: I'm not really sure. I know some of the folks at Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program, and it would be interesting to work with Bruce Katz, but I'd probably prefer to go somewhere where I would be able to set the agenda a little more. As for how I'd focus my research, one key area of interest for me is the way that urban growth patterns are influencing macro variables -- basically, how do changes at the metropolitan level affect things like output, income growth, productivity, and so on at a national level. I'd also like to do some work on the economics of transit, from a more comprehensive view than the typical, "hey, if we build transit will it pay for itself?" angle.

Rob Pitingolo: Along similar lines, if you could teach any class at any university, what would it be? And why?

Ryan Avent: That's a really tough one. I suppose what I'd most like to teach is a survey class on the economic history of the city. Urban histories are fascinating to me; one of the things I love most about cities is that they're living historical records, containing bits and pieces of all the eras in their pasts. The where is less critical. I can imagine a lot of universities where I'd be happy to work. But let's say, oh, NYU. I've always wanted to live in New York for a while.

Rob Pitingolo: You've been critical of Greg Mankiw. What do you think of his textbooks? Why do you think he has difficulty applying the concepts that he writes about in his textbooks to real-world policy? And do you think that we risk "overteaching" economic theory to the point where it becomes difficult to apply to actual policy?

Ryan Avent: To be perfectly honest, I've never cracked his principles text. I believe the first edition came out around the time I was in my intro econ class. To a certain extent, I think Mankiw does what a lot of us tend to do--including myself at times--and places loyalty to his "team" over intellectual consistency, sometimes, perhaps, without realizing it. But speaking more broadly, I think a lot of economists--again, myself included at times--have become too enamored with the power of the analytical tools economics offers. We can tell some very compelling stories about a lot of different kinds of human behavior, and we got very used to approaching people studying all kinds of things, telling them what our tools say about their fields, and assuming that we'd then settled the matter.

But as we're increasingly learning, economic analysis must be used with caution and humility. I do think that abstract theorizing came to be a bit too important in economics in recent decades, but I also think that the bigger problem was a failure to ask hard questions about how much we actually knew and to listen to others who were offering what in retrospect we know are quite valid criticisms.

The other thing to point out is that Mankiw, like a lot of top economists, is very smart. And smart people often have a difficult time accepting that they may be wrong about something.

Rob Pitingolo: In what year do you predict the U.S. will have a high speed rail network comparatively respectable to what exists in Europe today?

Ryan Avent: I'd say never, but never is a long time, so I'll say that I don't think we'll get there by mid-century. Which isn't to say that rail won't get a lot better in America over the next few decades. It will, and we'll see some real improvements in speeds and connectivity that will prove extremely popular.

But Europe has been at this for a while, and they're not going to stop working on their systems. And two trends have become very pronounced in recent decades: the national government has become increasingly sclerotic, and the process of building infrastructure has become longer, and more burdensome, and more expensive. We couldn't build the interstate highway system now.

I'd love to be wrong, but I think that in 40 years, most of the country's major regions will not have trains traveling over 200 mph.

Wide-Open Country Roads

Via Richard Layman, take a look at this Audi TV spot:



Yes, I get it - they're a car company and they are trying to sell cars.

But look a little more closely... first they show a packed bus with two bikes on the front, then they show a person riding a bike in awful rainy weather, and finally they show a city street so crowded with pedestrians that the person on the segway can barely navigate. Seems like urban congestion is pretty frustrating, huh? I guess if you buy an Audi, your commute to the busy urban center gets replaced with a drive on beautiful, empty, country roads?

It's sure a nice dream to have, but it's only a dream. I can't wait for the day that a car commercial shows anything close to the reality of a daily auto commute.

How We Value

Friend of the blog Ashley has a nice post about how her life changed after she and her husband threw out their TV. She highlights, in fact, five distinct reasons why her life is better now that the TV is gone.

Because I write about wonkish policy issues here, people are constantly reminding me that that we have to think about whether policy addresses the things in life that people value. There is an assumption that people know what they value, and that they act accordingly. Further, economists typically use rationality as a necessary condition in their models. Without it, the models would come apart at the seams.

But back to this TV scenario.. a year ago, an observer would have looked at the situation and said that Ashley obviously values having a TV and watching it; the observer would know this because it's what she was doing. The reality was that what she was doing was actually making her worse-off than the alternative.

There are two things that strike me about the post. Two reasons why Ashley had a TV, even though not having one would have been better:
  1. It was the default option. In this case, she had access to cable TV in college dorms and her first apartment. To switch from having TV to not is to reverse momentum and deny the default option.
  2. It was a 'normal' thing to do. If anything, people probably look at someone without a TV and feel sorry for them. Quitting TV isn't culturally perceived in the same positive light as say, quitting smoking.
Here's the point: because people are already doing something does not necessarily confirm that they value it more than something else. They could be wrong for any number of reasons, or because a better alternative simply doesn't exist yet - one that can be addressed with policy.

I hear this in the transportation debate all the time. I say we ought to build more bike lanes and paths. My opponent says we shouldn't because nobody wants to bike - everyone wants to drive. Further, we know this because few people currently bike but many drive. On the one hand, I'm somewhat confident that a small number of people would switch if they just tried the alternative (they don't because, like above, it's not the default option and it's not the 'normal' option). But there are others, people who economists might call "marginal non-participants". They are on the fence but they need an alternative which doesn't yet exist for them to make the switch.

Dan Ariely has done some good work on rationality, his book is one of my all-time favorites. But his research focuses a lot on dollars and cents calculations, he looks at situations where it's obvious whether people are making the wrong decisions. He doesn't delve into questions of abstract value because it's very difficult to measure. For that reason I think a lot of people tend to shy away from it, even though it's still an important calculation.

Median Bike Lanes

This video from Streetsfilms highlights one of the many things that makes me really wish I lived in New York City.



Seeing this really makes me believe that if it can be done in the most densely populated place in America, it can be done just about anywhere with the right leadership and vision.

Where I live, there are a lot of boulevards with grass or tree-lined medians. Some of them have two lanes of traffic, others allow parked cars in the right lane, effectively leaving one lane to traffic. You can bike on these streets, but you're typically in the "door zone" of the right lane if you choose to do so.

It seems like one approach would be to utilize the median, either by shrinking it and adding bike lanes or paving over the grass and putting two bike lanes in there. The wide traffic lanes could be shrunk to encourage slower driving without sacrificing the number of lanes.

I think biggest challenge is convincing the public that adding the infrastructure won't hard motorists. Utilizing unused medians could be an easy way to make the case.