The Problem With Growth

What do you think of this headline?..
Burger King to sell Starbucks' Seattle's Best brew -Reuters
If you're a coffee snob like myself, you're probably thinking: "nice job destroying your brand, Starbucks!" Of course, if you're a coffee snob like myself, you probably stopped drinking Starbucks years ago, or maybe around the time they announced their intent to sell instant coffee crystals in the grocery store.

(from Flickr user d2digital)

This headline pretty much sums up the problem with business growth and the reason why so many publicly traded companies eventually lose their premium-brand credibility. On one end of the spectrum, you have coffee enthusiasts who want a good strong cup of coffee. On the other end of the spectrum you have shareholders who demand constant earnings per share growth. At first, both groups are satisfied with expansion. Starbucks opens more stores, serves more cups of coffee and makes more money. But there's a limit to growth. There are only so many street corners and strip-malls in America. Coffee drinkers might be satisfied at this point, but shareholders never will. So Starbucks opens stores internationally, but it's a tough sell to the Asians and the Europeans. So they start cranking out new products, cutting costs in the stores, generally doing things to make the shareholders happy, even as it starts to piss off the coffee enthusiasts.

Contrast this with a small, privately-owned chain of coffee shops. Maybe the owner doesn't have aspirations to be a billionaire like Howard Schultz. Maybe he just likes being able to wake up in the morning and know that he can live comfortably for the rest of his life doing the one thing he loves: roasting and selling coffee. Maybe he takes pride in knowing that he has the best coffee in town, and the most highly respected brand with the coffee enthusiasts.

From the coffee snob perspective, I'd rather there be a different small chain of coffee shops in every city in America rather than a single conglomerate that operates stores in those cities. While it's great to see our favorite brands starting to grow and expand, too much growth will probably destroy the very thing about the brand that we once loved.

Traffic Debts to Society

David Alpert worte a nice piece at Greater Greater Washington about the attitude toward bicyclists in Virginia. What caught my attention is one of the arguments that Virginia legislators made against a newly proposed bike law:
Bicyclists are often law breakers, unworthy of any added protection under the law.
The knee-jerk retort is: motorists are law breakers too, there's plenty of proof out there. Indeed, there is plenty of proof. Think about it... any driver who has ever gotten a moving violation is a law breaker. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that most drivers have either themselves gotten a moving violation during at some point in their life or personally known someone who has gotten one.

(from Flickr user Bob L2008)

Tickets for moving violations can be expensive, and they can be nearly impossible to dispute. Violators might have to pay a few hundred dollars or go to court-ordered driver-ed. The question becomes, once their debts have been paid, does it clear the driver from social responsibility of the fact that he or she was a law breaker?

To me, it seems like the anger with "law breaking bicyclists" is an anger rooted in the perception that bicyclists aren't getting busted when they roll through a stop sign or proceed through a red light. It's similarly a perception that motorists are targeted by money-hungry police departments and state highway patrols while bicyclists are allowed to go hog wild.

The Extra Bedroom Problem

A colleague of mine recently offered an interesting perspective on the 'extra bedroom problem', or the phenomenon where people buy houses that are unnecessarily large in order to accommodate infrequent guests. I wrote about this as evidence of irrationality in the way people choose where to live. My colleague agreed that, more or less, the behavior doesn't make much logical sense, but he argued that the homeowners engaging the behavior might be fully aware of their own irrationality.

(from Flickr user opacity)

Imagine a married couple, no kids, no plans to have kids in the near future, and maybe plans to have one kid in the long-term. They buy a 3-bedroom home. One bedroom is the 'master suite', one becomes the office, and one remains as the guest room. Twice a year, during Christmas and during the summer, the in-laws fly in for a few days at a time.

This whole time I've been assuming that it's the homeowners that incorrectly believe they need all that extra space to accommodate their guests. After all, it seems worth it to yield the master bedroom and sleep on the couch or an air mattress for a few days per year, if it means a better situation the other 360 days per year. That said, the irrational actors in this case might actually be the in-laws, not the homeowners; and they might have enough influence to determine how and where their adult kids live.

Here's how my colleague describes it: when the in-laws come to visit, they want a 'hotel experience', but they want it in your house. That means they want their own personal room with a closing door, a queen sized bed, bathroom, tv and cable. They want to sleep in every day, even when their kids have to wake up and go to work. They want to stay in complete comfort, but they also want to be under the same roof as their family for the entire visit. Maybe the kids secretly think it's an unrealistic or unfair expectation, but they cave anyway.

I think this might be the case some of the time; at other times I still think it's the homeowners who believe the extra bedroom is more beneficial than it is. Whatever the case, it doesn't change the underlying fact that it's not in the best interest of the homeowners.

The Big Bad Auto Companies

I watched the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? on cable over the weekend. I hadn't seen the film since 2006 when it was first released in theaters. It's fascinating to listen to rhetoric from only a few years ago about how difficult people perceived it was to fight with the big auto companies because they were so rich and so powerful and the status quo was so profitable for them.

(from Flickr user kqedquest)

Obviously, this seems silly now, in light of the failure of big auto companies. I also think the hype has shifted quite a bit. Most topically educated people now seem to be in agreement that alternative fuels are generally worse than fossil fuels and that hydrogen fuel cells are a pipe dream.

So we had an energy crisis in 2008, and it got everyone all jazzed up about cars that would run on something, anything, other than gasoline. And really the best technological improvements that came out of that crisis were hybrids that run with slightly less inefficient engines. That's a big disappointment. That's a huge disappointment, when you think about it. By the time the next energy crisis comes, hopefully the discussion will change course entirely, from how to fuel cars, to how to live our lives in a world with escalating energy costs.

The Politics of Cross-X Debate

Having spent so many years of my life involved in high school and college policy debate, I felt obliged to write something about Joe Miller's book Cross-X. This book has been on my reading list for a long time, and I wish I would have gotten to it sooner, as it really is an excellent piece of writing. Anyone who has spent any time in the activity should pick up a copy.

I was around during the years that Miller was shadowing/coaching the team at Kansas City Central. I debated at one of the private schools (though not named in the book) that the author is critical of. My senior year of high school was the same year that Ebony Rose shook up the national circuit with his case on racism in the game. I can willingly admit that I dreaded the prospect of debating against teams like Kansas City Central that were really pressuring teams on these issues.

One major problem, which Miller tends to obfuscate, is that the way debate is structured makes it extremely difficult to bring your personal beliefs in the round and expect to win. Because each team has to debate half of the time on the affirmative and the other half on the negative, and because they can't necessarily predict what their opponents will argue, they will inevitably be forced to defend positions that they fully disagree with. I stood up on many occasions and argued that Bush's tax cuts for the rich were the linchpin of the American economy, even though I personally cringed at the argument. Whether this teaches critical thinking and forces people to explore all sides of an argument or whether it numbs people to their own personal beliefs is a legitimate question, albeit a topic for another day.

When you bring personal beliefs into the activity, the game gets messy. Imagine being from a private school and being accused of racism by kids from an urban public school. You may be completely sympathetic to their position, but debate is a game in which there must be one winner and one loser. What do you do? You can't agree and concede that their argument is correct, else you lose. But you can't disagree, and argue that the game isn't racist or that the power structures are somehow good, or you'll probably lose too or get into a nasty yelling match if you win. Teams end up making the lame generic arguments that Miller hates in response to these positions because they're walking such a thin line and still trying to win.

Which leads to a bigger issue which Miller ignores almost completely. The extremely competitive nature of the game is what makes it appealing to many people and a turnoff to others; but losing debates to specific arguments also conditions people to rebuff those positions, because they have a strong negative experience attached to them. When one of Miller's team wins a debate, that doesn't mean that their opponent has "learned a lesson" or become enlightened to their position. In many instances, it's likely that the exact opposite occurs.

Climate Change Rhetoric

It's been a long winter, for a lot of reasons. As if the many cities that got pummeled with snow haven't suffered enough, denialists have taken the opportunity to argue "proof" that global warming is fiction.


(from Flickr user william couch)

I'll admit, science is not my strongest suit, and the extent of my academic knowledge on this topic comes from a basic chemistry course I took in college. Nevertheless, I'm not here to argue the reasons why warmer temperatures theoretically cause more snow or rain or whatever. There are plenty of much smarter people already doing exactly that. I merely want to point out that, whoever decided that this phenomenon would be primarily known as "global warming" has really done the movement a bit of a disservice.

"Global warming" is too ambiguous. Literally, it means that the average global temperature will rise only a few degrees. Technically, it means that we won't necessarily notice any warming of temperatures. It's not like a summer day, where it's 60 degrees at dawn and then warms to 90 degrees at midday. Simple-minded people think of the phenomenon like that anyway. So when it's cold outside, it become instant "proof" against warming. It's scientifically false, logically invalid; but very persuasive to those who want to believe it.

We should have stuck to calling it "global climate change" - nothing more, nothing less. That way, we wouldn't have to worry about generally meaningless fluctuations in temperature, we could focus on the fact that really weird stuff is happening to the climate. Blizzards in Washington DC? That's not right. Floods in the Heartland? Not good. Unprecedented droughts? You get the point. The blizzards in Washington DC show that there's something seriously wrong with the climate... or the political rhetoric... or both.

Transportation & Technology

A reader emailed this picture to me recently (click to enlarge), it's really an incredible question to think about.


Scan this blog's archives and you'll see that I used to believe that technology would solve all of the world's transportation problems. Fuel prices getting too high? We'll run vehicles on alternatives. Carbon emissions causing climate change? We'll build cars that don't emit. Traffic congestion ruining everybody's day? We'll invent a car that drives itself.

What's amazing (and frustrating) is that motor vehicles, more or less, are the same as they were when they were first invented. Many of the "improvements" that have been made are superficial and based on advancements in consumer electronic, not automotive, technology. GPS navigation, satellite radio, heated seats, remote start, and windshield wipers that automatically adjust based on the strength of rain... these are all "cool" features but are mostly unnecessary to get us from point A to point B.

True, there are some new braking technologies that recycle energy, and hybrid engines are more efficient than purely internal combustion engines, on-balance. But the rate of technology progress, relative to computer processing, is virtually nothing. That's something concerning.
Mike McIntyre writes that Cleveland's RTA will finally get rid of the "Best Transit System in North America 2007" stickers that have been plastered all over buses, trains, and shelters since the APTA awarded the prize two years ago. From my perspective, the campaign has been a public relations failure, and removing the stickers couldn't come sooner.

(from Flickr user thegilmanator)

If you go back and look at the APTA press release from 2007, you'll see that it praises RTA for transforming its fleet of buses, reducing operating costs, and holding fares steady. Nowhere does it say state that, compared to systems in New York, Chicago, Vancouver, or Mexico City, Cleveland's transit system is objectively superior. But that's how RTA's PR machine tried to spin it. They didn't fool anyone.

I've gone into restaurants and seen stickers on the door that say thing like: Best Wings in Town! (source: online poll of AOL subscribers 1999) and I wonder, how long before these awards expire? I think the answer depends how plausible the award is. If the restaurant claiming to have the best wings actually does sell good food, then it's not unreasonable for them to advertise the award. On the other hand, if they serve wings so terrible that no one in their right mind would consider them "best in town" then the restaurant is probably just embarrassing itself.

That is, more or less, what RTA has been doing for the past two years. But it's even worse because during that time, service has declined, fares have increased, the agency has faced multiple financial crises. By continuing to boast about the 2007 award, they only managed to make themselves look completely out of touch with reality.

Coffee Shop Design

I've been spending a lot of time in coffee shops lately, and have noticed that there are some common issues that keep many of them from being more efficient. In other words, if I ever became enough of an aspiring entrepreneur to build my own coffee shop, here are a few ideas I would try to implement.

(from Flickr user 1Flatworld)

A lot of coffee shops have large tables, which often go underutilized. True, there are groups who visit coffee shops to chat, or have a meeting, or just hang out; but there are also many solo customers who come into the coffee shop to read or write some blogs. When there are large tables, solo customers will sit at them, rendering the other seats unused. Sure, another solo customer could sit at one of the empty seats, but in my experience, this only occurs when there are no more empty tables.

What's the solution? More small tables and a bar. Think about it, when a solo customer walks into the neighborhood tavern, he/she doesn't sit at a a big table by themself to drink beer, they sit at the bar. My ideal coffee bar would have a large bar along one wall and an outlet for every stool, so people don't have to fight over power or make some stools more valuable than others. Since there really doesn't need to be a bartender, the bar could face right up against the wall, preserving space for tables in the rest of the shop.

Speaking of outlets and wifi, my coffee shop would have outlets at every stool and table and free wifi. I've written about coffee shop squatters and my opinion is that they don't do the harm that people often accuse them of. Nevertheless, I understand the concern. I don't think removing outlets or charging extra for wifi is the solution, as such moves risk alienating good customers in order to crack down on abusive customers. Instead, I think the answer is a little libertarian paternalism.

I would hire a programmer to build an internet landing page, similar to those that exist for wifi in hotels. When the customer opens his/her browser, the first thing they would see is a full menu, the day's specials, the shop's twitter feed, etc. To connect to the internet, the customer would simply have to click "connect". After an hour or so, a message would appear - it would thank the customer for his/her business, and remind them that table space is valuable, and ask them to make another purchase if they plan to stay for a while. Basically, it would "nudge" customers to follow coffee shop ethics.

There's not much I like more than a great coffee shop.
Last week I went on a mini-rampage against Forbes's "Worst Winter Cities" list and the Plain Dealer's sloppy reporting on the issue. Yesterday, Ted Diadiun, the PD's reader representative, defended the paper and the article's author for giving the Forbes list front page coverage. It's a painful read, and, whether Diadiun realizes it or not, it's a very good example of why people are losing so much respect for newspapers like the PD.

(from Flickr user qwincowper)

There's a lot to cover, so I'll start at the beginning.

Parking Entitlements

Via @DonaldShoup comes this article about city employees losing their "free parking" privileges in San Francisco.
For years, government employees have enjoyed nonenforcement of parking policies around public facilities such as the Hall of Justice, and workers from city departments have been able to park for free by crafting informal agency placards that were intentionally overlooked by the SFMTA’s parking enforcement division.
I imagine some people are asking, who cares about whether city vehicles pay for parking? What difference does it make whether the city pays itself to park its own vehicles?

(from Flickr user ryascolot)

The situation is fairly similar to a restaurant owner who brings his family into the restaurant for dinner every night, and who hands out free drinks to his friends every weekend. If the restaurant is successful, the owner might be able to get away with this. But most restaurants are notorious for their razor-thin margins. Just because he owns the place doesn't mean there isn't a cost to the owner when he doesn't pay for the food or drinks.

I Despise Forbes Lists

When I first wrote about my beef with "best of" lists last summer, I suggested that local news outlets, for their own good, ought to stop going wild over the nonsensical fluff that magazines like Forbes continually crank out. It didn't happen. Just look at some of these headlines from this week:
The Plain Dealer's Michael Scott picked up the story too:
Forbes.com on Friday named Cleveland as "America's Worst Winter Weather City," in a ranking of the top 50 metropolitan areas by population. (If only Buffalo could bring in more people, surely we could lose this ignominious label).
Unfortunately, Scott botches the facts and obscures the issue even more. Forbes didn't look at the 50 largest metros, it looked at the 50 largest cities. And yes, it matters. In fact, the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro is one of America's 50 largest (it comes in at number 47). Does poor reporting on an even poorer ranking list bother anyone else as much as it bothers me?

My full criticism of the Forbes article is up at Brewed Fresh Daily. If you think the conclusion is valid, I challenge you to justify it. But don't take this published list as gospel, because the author's methodology is truly terrible and it's a good lesson in why you often cannot trust somebody's "research" just because they waved a magic wand over some set of data, produced a result, and a "respectable" magazine ran with it.

In Defense of the Census

I found the Census Bureau's Super Bowl commercial to be sufficiently entertaining (at least compared to what you might expect from one of the stereotypically most boring agencies in the government). Watch:



Conservatives aren't entertained, though. Pundits on Fox are up-in-arms over wasteful spending. John McCain is already working an angle for his next campaign.

But this is all too simple minded. Anyone who has done research with decennial Census data knows that it is one of (if not the) most powerful tools we have to analyze demographic and social trends, and that's aside from the important political implications an accurate count has for local governments and citizens. Unfortunately, counting people isn't as simple as it should be, and it costs real money, a lot of money, to run the Census.

At first, I wondered what business the Census Bureau had advertising at all, until someone pointed out the obvious fact that it costs more money to send a Census worker to someone's house than to get their form in the mail. Not to mention the fact that door-to-door counters are known to be less accurate, especially when they're sent into neighborhoods where they don't necessarily feel the most comfortable.

In the scheme of things, the $2.5 million is only a tiny fraction of the total cost the federal government will pony up to operate the Census this year. If that $2.5 million means we get a better, more accurate count, then I can defend that.
Michael Lewyn has a nice little post up at Planetizen about the functional problems with suburban office parks.
I can think of no reason why an office building (other than, perhaps, one where the Ebola virus is routinely handled) should be behind a 500-foot driveway with no sidewalks. The arguments for allowing offices to locate in suburbia do not justify the office park form, because 500-foot driveways do not reduce rents in any obvious respect. Moreover, the suburban office park in its current form creates harmful externalities, by forcing people to drive to reach them even if they live nearby (thus increasing pollution and traffic congestion).
There's another, longer-term problem with suburban office parks: they create future uncertainty and inefficiency.

(from Flickr user Dean Terry)

Imagine a metro area where all of the white-collar jobs exist inside the central business district. If people want to live in the suburbs, they can live on the east side of town, west side of town, or wherever, it doesn't really matter. Transit could efficiently provide service for people who don't want to drive. People who want to live downtown could reasonably walk to work. Fewer two-parent working families would have to make the awkward decision of which parent has to make the painful commute to the other side of town for their job, they might even be able to carpool to work.

People change jobs a lot. Some change jobs more often than they change homes. If someone works in a west-side suburb and chooses to buy a home near their office, that's a reasonable short/medium-term decision. But what if they then lose that job and find a new one in an east-side suburb? What do they do? Do they make a painfully long cross-town commute every day? Do they sell the house, pack up and move to the east-side suburb?

If all jobs were located in the central business district, this long-term uncertainly would be greatly reduced. A person or family could choose a place to live knowing that, if anything happens to their career, they'll be looking for a new one in the same general vicinity.
I think just about every college-aged person on Twitter has made some comment about this article in the past few days. The premise is simple enough: more women go to college than men and the imbalance creates a social burden for women and amazing opportunity for men. Many people, myself included, look at this article and think, "heh, I wish this were true at my university."

(from Flickr user opacity)

The author, Alex Williams, focuses on the culture at the University of North Carolina. Admittedly, I know little about either UNC or Chapel Hill, but my research turns up these statistics... Chapel Hill is a fairly small city, with a population about 55,000 (I don't know whether or not that includes students) and a relatively low population density (2,750 per square mile). It's part of the Durham metro area, which is the 103rd largest in the United States, with a population of a little less than 500,000. Because of these demographics, I'm weary of attempts to apply the circumstances at UNC to other universities.

Consider a hypothetical university that has a perfect 50/50 gender split; but it also has a nursing school, where 95% of the students are women. And because nursing has a very specific curriculum, the gender imbalance is skewed in favor of women who attend classes and are majors in other departments.

Now, you could say, "it doesn't matter because these students are ultimately all on the same campus." But that raises another key point: why does the social environment need to be contained within the campus? Williams points out that more women than men attend both New York University and Fordham University. But in these cases, there's no reason women from these universities can't associate with the millions of men in New York City, and presumably, they do. After all, what single guy wouldn't show up at a bar in Greenwich Village where there are supposedly six women for every man?

The magnitude to which a gender imbalance exists, I think, depends heavily on the city where the university is located and whether or not the campus is "open or closed". One quick litmus test we can use is to ask whether or not students at a university refer to locals as "townies" - a term I wasn't familiar with until I visited Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a rural campus that definitely can be classified as "closed". I can't imagine many NYU or Fordham students referring to the residents of NYC as "townies".

In places where campuses are open, gender imbalances will tend toward equilibrium more efficiently. There might be significantly more women than men at a Greenwich Village bar on Monday night, but word will get around quickly, and by Tuesday night that gap will be narrowed or closed. But at schools where the primary means of closing the gender gap is enrolling more men at the university, the imbalance may never return to an equilibrium. It's easy to read articles like Williams's in hindsight and think, "wow, I wish I would have gone here or there". But when teenagers are in high school picking a school to attend, few are looking at statistics on gender imbalances or factoring them significantly into their decisions. Perhaps that will start to change now that the cat is out of the bag.

Mixed Messages

All the other blogs on the web are recapping the best commercials from yesterday's Super Bowl. For a little change of pace, allow me to share with you what I think is one of the worst commercials I have seen in a while.



Let's get this straight... the 30-second spot begins by setting up the David and Goliath story of the little local businessman vs. the giant evil corporation hell-bent on driving him out of business by stealing his customers with cheap haircuts. In response, the little guy goes to Office Depot (not the mom-and-pop office supply store in town) and he likes it. Why? Because the giant corporate office supply store sells stuff for really cheap! Lowest prices, guaranteed, in fact.

Call me crazy, but aren't there some serious mixed messages being sent here? Or is it a deliberate and subliminal attempt to convince people that by buying from the faceless corporation, you are actually helping the local businessman?
When I lived in Dallas in 2008, there were a lot of aspects of life in the Lone Star State that contributed to my 'culture shock'. One thing I noticed right away that seemed out-of-place was the prevalence of mandatory complimentary valet at various restaurants and bars in the city.

(from Flickr user hellomarkc)

Growing up in Ohio, I was led to believe that valet parking is a luxury that only rich people use because they can afford to have someone else do the chore of parking their car. The "working man", on the other hand, parked his own vehicle and walked. I'd never encountered a complimentary valet, let alone one that was also mandatory. I thought it seemed pretty silly and unnecessary.

Since moving back, I've done a lot of writing about urban issues, including parking, on this blog. Mandatory complimentary valet now seems a lot less absurd if the alternative is an ocean of self-parking surrounding every place of business. A system of mandatory valet guarantees a space to park for people who wants to drive, solving the "people won't go there if there isn't a enough parking" dilemma; at the same time, it doesn't require completely mutilating the build environment to accommodate those cars.

The biggest hurdle, I think, is the cultural one. There are still a lot of places where the concept of a complimentary valet would seem foreign and weird.

Greenwashing

Here's a view of the ice cream freezer at my local Whole Foods, taken last week.


In case it's hard to see, that product on the right is a 3.6 ounce container of Ben and Jerry's. Yes, you read it correctly, 3.6 ounces.


To put it into perspective, that little container of ice cream is about what you would get in a single scoop at a Ben and Jerry's store. You would need to buy 17.8 of them to have the equivalent amount of ice cream that you get in traditional half-gallon container. It's the most expensive ice cream in Whole Foods. On a per-ounce basis, it's more than 3 times as costly as the least expensive brand (Pierre's).

But this isn't a post about price. If people want to spend money on premium ice cream, that's their choice, and Ben and Jerry's is good stuff, don't get me wrong. This post is about the environmental unfriendliness of products like these. It would be easy to write it off as corporate bastardism, but Ben and Jerry's markets itself as an environmentally conscious company. They even have an Environmental Activism section on their website to tell you all about it.

Why do companies do stuff like this? Why do oil companies spend money marketing themselves as green when the reality is far from it? Why does Starbucks talk up fair-trade coffee when they could be buying so much more? Do companies brag about being sustainable and socially conscious to cover-up some other not-very-socially conscious parts of the business? Do they do it because it's good for sales? or because they genuinely care and think that something is better than nothing?

Housekeeping

I've made a few administrative changes here at Extraordinary Observations that I thought everyone might be interested in knowing about.

Comments - all comments will now reviewed before appearing. I was hoping I wouldn't have to do this, but unfortunately, while I was out of town last month some anonymous commenter(s) ran amok with obnoxious comments and ruined it for everyone. Sorry!

Template - Last week the template which I had been using here for years went berserk. Rather than dig through the CSS and attempt to fix the problem, I installed a brand new template (if you're an RSS subscriber, click-through to come check it out). I like it. It's very simple like the old one, but it also feels a little more "fresh". You'll also notice that I have a new headline image. The four pictures represent a few of the most important topics here. First, the skyscrapers represent all of the urban topics. The subway train represents my writing on public transit and transportation in general. The coffee cup stands for all of the miscellaneous observations (in addition to being my favorite drink from my favorite local business). Lastly, the U.S. Capitol dome is for everything here that is politically related.

Blogroll - I did have a blogroll for most of this blog's life, but Blogger (for whatever reason) nuked my blogroll three times last year, so I decided not to deal with it anymore. I've also been rethinking the effectiveness of blogrolls, and I'm not convinced they play the same role they once did. It now seems that most of them link to the same "brand-name" blogs with only a few smaller players mixed in. In that sense, it's no longer a good way to discover new material in the blogosphere as it's a way for the author to say "yeah, I read the big guys".

Home Button - several non-RSS readers have been bugging me about why they couldn't click back to the blog's home page easily. The new template corrects this problem. My apologies for the delay in getting that fixed.

Around the Web - Although most of my blogging appears here, I do occasionally blog elsewhere around the web. You can check out my delicious page for a list of posts and subscribe here to make sure you don't miss any future content! I've also included a link at the top of the page, so you never miss out on anything.

Ohio's Soon-to-Be Railroad

Last week Ohio won a small 'victory' as the Federal Government announced $400 million to develop the 3-C corridor. A few people have asked for my take. I don't have a particularly strong opinion on this issue, but now that the project is closer to reality, I'll throw out a few thoughts.

(from Flickr user StevenM_61)

I still think the downtown Cleveland Amtrak station, without improvements, is a big problem. There's no nice way of saying this: it's in a terrible location. RTA's Waterfront Line is on the chopping block, and it's hard to imagine RTA adding any service in the near future.

People will use service on the 3-C corridor. I'm convinced of this after reading James McCommons's Waiting on a Train. It may only be a tiny proportion of the total commuting population, but I don't anticipate empty trains like some critics are predicting.

Whether or not the corridor will drive economic development or reduce traffic on I71 to the extent that it's been hyped is the biggest unknown, in my opinion. Corridor service has worked very well in other parts of the country, particularly on the coasts; but the dynamics in Ohio are not quite the same.
What if Jerry Seinfeld and his pals on the show had cell phones, Twitter, Foursquare, or any of the other 'social' devices we take for granted anymore?

(from Wikipedia)

Instead of barging in to Jerry's apartment, would Kramer text message Seinfeld from his couch? Instead of ringing Jerry's buzzer when he was in the neighborhood, would Costanza just show up at Monk's when he saw Jerry and Elaine 'check in'? Would the show be more interesting? Less? We'll never really know the answers to these questions.

When I started using foursquare a few months ago, it seemed like a pretty promising concept. For years people have been describing some sort of program by which you broadcast the place you're hanging out to all your friends and one or some of them decides to join you as they read your message. Foursquare seemed like the tool to make that happen. But in the past few weeks, something has changed. Now I click on the "nearby" tab on my phone, and places like "Tom's House" and "Shell Gas Station" are showing up in my list. I log onto Twitter and see messages like "I just became the mayor of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles".

There's a thin line between being social and too much information. It's one thing to know that my friends are having a drink at my favorite bar or coffee shop; it's entirely another to know that they're pumping gas on the way home from work.