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Showing posts from October, 2009

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…

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…

SuperFreakonomics & Intellectual Consistency

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, hur…

Corporations and the Drug War

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…

Urbanism's Rental Car Problem

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…


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 ca…

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 …

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 …

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 b…

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 Eur…

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 …

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 calc…

Why I Said No to Ohio Issue 3

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 casino…

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 m…

How Bike Commuting Changed the Way I Think

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…

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 genera…

Universities and Youth Magnets

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 f…

Why is the MLB Season So Long?

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-gam…

What's the Matter with Math?

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 hindsig…

Seven Questions for Ryan Avent

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 meaning…

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 reason…

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 motoris…