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Showing posts from February, 2010

The Problem With Growth

What do you think of this headline?..
Burger King to sell Starbucks' Seattle's Best brew -ReutersIf 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. Th…

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 fro…

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 s…

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…

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 …

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 temper…

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 unnecessa…

When the "Best" Isn't That Great

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…

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 b…

Why Newspapers Are Losing Respect

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 doe…

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:
We're No 1! Cleveland Named Worst Winter Weather City - Fox 8It's official: Cleveland is worst winter city - Elyria Chronicle-TelegramCleveland Is Worst Winter Weather City - NewsNet 5The Plain Dealer's Michael Scott picked up the story too: 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…

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…

Scorn for Suburban Office Parks

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…

A Closer Look at the College Gender Imbalance

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…

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?

Mandatory Complimentary Valet

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 guarante…


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…


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 transp…

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…

What if Seinfeld Had Twitter?

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 p…