A friend of the blog emailed this NPR sob story about indebted graduates from elite grad-programs who can't land a job. Have a listen:

Around the 1:15 point in the story, there's a comment about how the woman being interviewed isn't getting any calls or interviews, even for waitressing jobs. To the audience, this is supposed to evoke feelings of recession anxiety, as even the most highly educated individuals from the most elite schools are struggling to land jobs for which virtually no education is required. But this is a flawed understanding of the labor market and it leads to miscalculations about how education and opportunities interact.

When you're a teenager, there are only a limited number of opportunities available. You can scoop ice cream at Cold Stone or make sandwiches at Subway or run the cash register at a McDonalds. When you graduate from high school, you can do that stuff plus more. Maybe you can become assistant manager at a Best Buy or do blue-collar work (where it's available). The logic continues that once you have a bachelor's degree you can do all that stuff plus work that requires an education; and once you have a master's degree you can do all that stuff plus you can potentially find work in a highly specialized field that requires very specific academic training.

The assumption, which is often incorrect, is that the doors that were open in the past will remain open forever. After all, if you were capable of scooping ice cream as a 16 year-old or waiting tables as a 20 year-old, you can certainly still do that as a 23 or a 26 year-old, right?

(from Flickr user I like)

It's not necessarily a question of qualification; it's a question of mutual fit. A restaurant manager knows that a person with a master's degree is applying to be a server as a temporary gig and will jump ship as soon as the first job-offer hits the table. The manager knows that he can hire a 'lifer' who will work just as hard and be loyal to the restaurant for a longer period of time. In fact, someone can easily be more qualified for the serving job, but still a worse mutual fit for the role.

As people move up the ladder, new doors open - few will deny that; but doors further down the ladder begin to close - an idea which many resist. True, they are the doors that people got a higher degree to avoid ever walking through again. But at the same time, they hoped that, in a jam, those doors would be open. Unfortunately, when they need them the most, they aren't.

I think the problem is that too many people think about their future in reverse. They find something that they want to do, then they ask what they need to do to achieve it. They don't necessarily ask how many of those opportunities are available and who else is trying to achieve them. Consider a college senior who wants to be an English professor. She does some research and determines that in order to become an English professor, she needs a PhD in the field. So she goes and spends a ton of money and gets one. What she didn't consider was that there were many other aspiring students who also wanted to be English professors, and now there are more PhD holders chasing a limited number of opportunities. So while getting an English PhD opened the door to becoming a professor, it didn't necessarily guarantee the ability to become one.

In a way, the newly minted PhD will have a hard time getting jobs they might have been able to land without the degree. The reason people aren't getting jobs that are obviously beneath them is because employers are being smart about who they're hiring. I think it's as simple as that.

The Tale of Two Suburbs

A friend of the blog tipped me off to this piece of blatant boosterism that appeared in last weekend's Plain Dealer. The column is tough for me to stomach, because, as much as I want to extol the virtues of Cleveland, it seems way over-the-top. It's misleading at best and factually dubious at worst. My research turned up virtually nothing on the author, Lisa Gitlin. What we do know is that she has lived in suburban Washington DC for ten years, even though she much prefers Cleveland.

(from Flickr user bankbryan)

The first obvious question I have is: why is Gitlin living in suburban Washington and not in Cleveland? Maybe there is a perfectly logical explanation. Maybe not. We have no idea. It seems fairly obvious that she has been removed from Cleveland for long enough to have hazy memories of the Cleveland neighborhoods she writes about.

More importantly though, Gitlin's column shines a light on a common problem I've noticed in articles comparing this city vs. that city. People tend to go to a metro area, pick a neighborhood to live, and then apply their experience in that particular neighborhood to the metro area as a whole. This really isn't fair, because metro areas can have dozens of unique neighborhoods, each with good features and bad features. What we make of one of them doesn't necessarily dictate what the area, in aggregate, represents.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. I've lived in two different Cleveland suburbs: Euclid and University Heights.

Euclid is more-or-less what I dislike about suburbia. It's chock-full of cookie cutter homes, it has a disconnected street grid, segregated zoning laws, and it's difficult to walk or bike anywhere. It's fairly distant from the central city (the house where I lived was 14 miles from downtown). It has relatively crummy public transportation options. It doesn't have many young people living there. It has very few unique places to hang out and spend time.

University Heights, on the other hand, is a place that wouldn't be a suburb in most other cities, it would be a neighborhood as part of the central city. It's dense. It has a fairly well-connected street grid that allows me to ride my bike on secondary streets to almost all of the places I want to go. It's closer to the central city (the house where I live is 8 miles from downtown). It has decent public transportation options. There are a lot of young people. There are many awesome restaurants and coffee shops and places to hang out and spend time.

What many people do is move into one of those neighborhoods, and they take what they like and don't like about it and apply their opinions to the city as a whole. This is the wrong approach. Someone might come to Euclid and then say, "eh, I didn't like Cleveland too much. Everything was really sprawled out and inconveniently located. There weren't many cool hang-outs or like-minded people there." But what they really mean is that they didn't like the particular neighborhood where they chose to locate.

This leads into another point I was to address. Being "close by car" to something is not the same as actually living in the neighborhood as that same thing. Theoretically, I have access the entire Cleveland metro area by car, but there comes a point when access only "by car" lessens the experience of the places I'm visiting. Yes, when I lived in Euclid I could have driven a car to University Heights and the surrounding area to hang out at the places I enjoy in the neighborhood, but that would have been about an hour, round-trip. Driving long distances becomes tedious. Would I really want to spend an hour driving a car just to spend an hour having a cup of coffee in my favorite cafe? The experience, in this case, becomes something very different.

When I lived in Dallas in 2008, I frequently told people that I couldn't stand the city. Back then I could have written a column similar to Gitlin's abut why Cleveland is awesome and Dallas is terrible. But after I left and started to think more about it, the more I began to wonder if what I really disliked was my neighborhood. If I was living in the Euclid, Ohio of Dallas, I can only imagine how things would have been different if I'd lived in a neighborhood that better fit my personality.

A Festival of Films

I've been trying to think about what I want to say about the Cleveland International Film Fest (CIFF) for a few days now. There are a few things I'd like to comment on, and then I'll give you three of my favorite films from the festival, which I would recommend checking out on DVD when they're released. You should also check out my post over at Brewed Fresh Daily about thinking ahead to future film festivals.

Anyone who regularly watches independent movies knows that the trailers always hype the awards these films receive at Sundance and Tribecca and Cannes and other prestigious festivals. I've never been to any of the big-name film fests, but I imagine that they are filled with celebrities and VIPs and people out to 'be seen.' I think what makes the CIFF so awesome is anyone with a desire to see films can be reasonably accommodated. You don't have to know the right people or have a ton of money. If you like film and there is something you really want to see, there is only a tiny likelihood that you won't see it.

From an urbanist perspective, I love the CIFF because it gives a taste, even if for only ten days, of what Cleveland might be like if it ever hits the critical mass of people living and spending their leisure time downtown. For a place that basically closes for business every evening at 6pm, it's exciting to see Tower City bustling with people well into the night.

Have I mentioned that I think Ryan Avent is one of the most articulate thinkers about urban economics? His recent series of posts about zoning and sprawl are outstanding. Let's begin with this:
What is clear from price data, however, is that there is unmet demand for walkable neighborhoods. Homes in walkable neighborhoods are expensive, and not because those homes cost a lot more to build. Homes in safe walkable neighborhoods are really expensive. And homes in safe, walkable neighborhoods with good schools are mind-blowingly expensive. Some people prefer to live in low-density neighborhoods. Price data suggest that many, many others would love to live in walkable neighborhoods but simply can’t afford to, because it’s difficult to build them.
The extreme example of this phenomenon is Manhattan, which is both the most walkable and the most mind-blowingly expensive place in America. And still, plenty of people live there.

(from Flickr user matt.hintsa)

I think if you ask people about why they wouldn't want to live in Manhattan, one primary answer would be that housing is too expensive, or that the housing you get is too small or too old for what you pay. This suggests two things. Either a) if housing prices in Manhattan were lower, people who wouldn't live there because of affordability would and b) if residences were larger and nicer, the same might be true, as people perceive they get "more housing for the money."

What people really want is to live in a home like the White House - a safe and huge mansion with a yard, but also in a city surrounded by valuable amenities. Oh, and they want it for as little money as reasonable. But you can't plop a bunch of those types of houses into Manhattan because, if you did, it would cease to be Manhattan.

Not liking a place because of its price doesn't necessarily mean people don't like the place because of its build environment. One reason why Manhattan is so expensive is because there are so few places like it. So if we want to bring down the prices in Manhattan, we don't do it by building "cheap" housing in the suburbs and exurbs or even necessarily by cramming more housing units into Manhattan; we do it by building more dense urban places that can compete on the same environment and amenities.

More March Madness Math

After last week's post on the ideal March Madness strategy, a reader and I had a pretty in-depth conversation about whether there is any point to make a serious effort in filling out brackets. His argument, and I'm quoting here, is "how many guys follow basketball all season, make intelligent and well-thought out picks, only lose the pool to the dumb blonde who picked based on how pretty she thought the teams' uniforms are." I'm going to be honest, I've witnessed something like this before, but I don't think it refutes my point.

(from Flickr user Mouzzy)

Think about it like this. Imagine that you play in the same NCAA pool every March. The buy-in is $10 and it's winner-take-all and the prize is $100. Now let's say you carefully study teams and statistics and make solid picks. You still lose 8 out of the 10 times. Should you consider this a failure?

Absolutely not. In this scenario, you've paid in a total of $100 ($10 each year) and you've collected $200 for your two wins. Thus, your expected value is $10 per year, a 100% return. Incredible for any investment, let alone in sports betting.

But it's really really hard to put this into perspective, because the NCAA tournament comes just once per year, so most people will consider this outcome a failure. If you knew you could consistently make a 100% return by making some bet, even if you didn't win every time, or even the majority of the time, you'd make that bet as often as you could. You can't with the NCAA tournament, because it occurs too infrequently, and most people forget what happens from year-to-year.

The Electric Car Fantasy

I get irritated every time I read about electric cars on a "green" or "socially responsible" blog; like these posts, among many others, over at GOOD. The whole idea that electric cars can solve our environmental and social problems is fantasy. Do I think of electric vehicles would be better than the current fleet of vehicles on the world's roads? Sure. But they are a long way from the ultimate solution. Before we have conversations about the awesome future EVs might potentially hold, we need to step back and understand exactly what problems these machines would solve and which they would not.

(from Flickr user NA.dir)

Problems EVs might solve:
1. Geopolitical Turmoil - the problem with refining oil into fuel is that many of the oil producers are corporations owned by governments that are hostile to the United States. If we can switch to a fuel produced by domestic corporations or those in friendly countries, it would be a step in the right direction.

2. Pollution and Emissions - this one is a big 'if' because whether electric vehicles reduce emissions depends on how the electricity to power them is produced. If it's from dirty fossil fuels, then no improvement. If it's from clean sources, then the emissions issue could be resolved.

Problems EVs will NOT solve:
1. Traffic - if you switched every vehicle on the road today into a pure electric-vehicle, you would have exactly the same amount of traffic that you have now. If you don't think traffic is a problem, maybe this is an acceptable outcome. If you realize the huge cost that traffic and congestion places on society, then we need to come up with a better solution.

2. Parking - cars, no matter how they are fueled, will need to be parked for 95% of their lives. Replace every car on the road with an EV and you've solved none of the parking issues.

3. Mutilated Urbanism - you know all of those suburban subdivisions and strip malls and car-dependent suburbs? Switching to EVs won't reverse any of that. If anything, it will perpetuate it, particularly if the cost of driving on electricity is less than driving on gasoline.

4. Infrastructure - roads and highways are funded primarily (although not entirely) by the highway trust fund. And much of the money for the highway fund comes from taxes on gasoline. If you get rid of gasoline, you need to find a new means to fund the infrastructure, and given the political difficulty in raising the gasoline tax (even in proportion to inflation) this is going to be a serious problem.

There are more issues that fit into both categories, but the point is that EVs are hardly an ideal solution, even in the unrealistic fantasy world in which every car in existence is replaced by one that runs on cleanly-produced electricity.

The NFL's No-Brainer

NFL owners are currently meeting to discuss a few rule changes, including one to alter the way overtime is played. To me, this seems like a no-brainer. The issue is this:
Currently, the first team to score any points wins. The team that wins the coin toss determining the first offensive possession in overtime now wins the game almost 60 percent of the time, [Rich] McKay said, up from about 50 percent between 1974 and 1993.
Considering the popularity of the NFL, the few games each team plays per season and the stakes that ride on each win and loss, it seems unfair to allow outcomes that are heavily influenced by random chance.

(from Flickr user Scott Kinmartin)

Here's how I would design the rule if I had unilateral control of the NFL: the winner of the coin flip would choose either to kick-off or receive. If the team that receives first scores on the first possession, the kick-off team gets exactly one chance to tie or win the game. If neither team scores on their first possession, then whichever team scores first wins the game.

After all, in baseball, the team that gets to bat first in extra innings doesn't automatically win when they score a run, the home team gets a shot in the bottom of the inning. Why professional football has utilized such a nonsensical system for overtime for as long as they have baffles me, honestly.
As I've mentioned here before, I am in the process of an entry-level career search. I won't go into the details about what I've been up to, but let's just say that the employment environment is about as rough as every media account and "scariest jobs chart ever" post makes of it. Or to put it another way, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that people are leaving the labor force because they are becoming discouraged, I completely understand why these people are feeling so down.

So I'm stepping up my game. I created a video resume.

Lessons in Business

Earlier today a buddy and I biked over to the West 9th Phoenix Coffee for a chat with Phoenix’s founder, Carl Jones. There were about a dozen or more who turned out for a nice discussion. Many topics were covered, from philosophy to coffee culture to local politics. What I want to focus on is Carl Jones’s take on business, since he is after all, a successful businessman.

When you think about it, the Phoenix Forum itself is something extraordinary. For Carl and Sarah Wilson-Jones (the company's ‘superbarista’ CEO) to take two hours out of their day and invite the community to come and chat is something that many business executives would never dream of doing. As far as the stereotypical business school executive goes, Carl and Sarah probably wouldn’t fit the bill; and that’s something to think about, because even if they don’t play the part, they still are successful business executives.

I asked Carl about the most recent addition to the lineup of television garbage, the show Undercover Boss. If you are lucky enough to have never seen it, the premise of this program is that executives of big corporations go and work in their companies doing menial jobs. Every episode has a happy ending, because once the executive sees the company from the perspective of its employees, he can improve the way of doing business. What’s disgusting, of course, is that there is such a wall of segregation in these corporations that the chief executive can go work inside their own company and nobody knows who they are! The executive is just another faceless character in another faceless corporation.

Carl’s opinion is that once a company's revenue exceeds $100 million the company becomes too unwieldy. Anyone who has ever worked for a Fortune 500 company knows that 95% of the employees rarely, if ever, interact with the CEO. The CEO is a kind of mythical figure, the person who makes an absurd amount of money and is perceived as too busy and important to interact with the company’s employees and its customers.

This ties in nicely with what I wrote last month about the problem with growth. When a company focuses exclusively on growing, it does things that destroy the community that should exist within companies. Carl Jones says he struggles with the idea of growing Phoenix Coffee for that very reason. He thinks huge corporations should be sliced up into their component parts and operated as smaller businesses. He thinks the idea of “economies of scale” is bogus. He despises the very thought that executives should be paid as much as they are. He blames the culture of huge corporations for fueling the financial crisis and destroying historically great and successful firms.

This stuff isn’t coming from a textbook written from the ivory tower of an elite business school. This stuff is coming from someone who has been a businessman for decades and, from my perspective, seems to be pretty good at it.

Season Ticket to the Bar

A friend of the blog tipped me off to this post by Darren Rovell.
Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar & Grill is opening near Fenway Park next week with a twist. It’s selling season tickets. For a one-time $500 fee, patrons will get a guaranteed table during Red Sox games. A same “ticket” for Patriots games costs $350 and $250 for Celtics games... On the surface, the $500 might seem tough to swallow, but if played right, it could be an incredible value. Consider the fact that the person who buys the season ticket gets a $25 food and beverage credit every time they show up. Watch 20 games at the restaurant and you’ve already made your money back.
At first I thought this sounded like a pretty novel and entrepreneurial idea, until I got to the part where Remy's manager is quoted as saying that the program is primarily being marketed to big companies with deep pockets.

(from Flickr user caribb)

The problem I see with Remy's season ticket program is the same problem I see at the ballgames themselves. Why is it that you can go to a game and there will be thousands of people in the crowd, but many of the best seats, the seats right next to the field, are empty for the entire game? It's because those are the seats owned by the big companies with the deep pockets; and for whatever reason, the companies didn't get anyone to use them.

What's going to happen when you've got a packed bar next to Fenway and tables sitting vacant because the owners of the "season ticket" never showed up? Is Remy's going to make all the suckers who didn't buy season ticket stand? Are they going to give those people the table but then kick them out if the season ticket holders show up? Either way, I imagine a lot of peeved reviews on Yelp from people who aren't going to be happy about getting second-class treatment for failing to pony up for the season ticket.

NCAA Game Theory

Last year I downloaded a huge set of data to build a model that would estimate the bracket with the highest probability of winning a March Madness pool. I did OK in the three pools I entered, winning one of them. But I've had some time to rethink the strategy, and incorporate another cross-section of data. Now that the betting is closed for this year's tournament, I'll share a few of my thoughts.

(from Flickr user SD Dirk)

First, picking March Madness winners is at least as much about game theory as it is about raw mathematics. The problem with the bracket that my model tells me has the highest probability of winning is that it picks the same winner that most of the other participants are picking. This year, that's Kansas. When you have the 'favorite' team as the winner in your bracket, that means you need to stay ahead by picking a lot of early games correctly - that's tough because those games have the least predictable outcomes. The better strategy is to start with the team that has the most plausible chance of winning, but which the fewest others have picked. For me, this year, that's Syracuse.

Second, picking upsets early is a sucker's game, even in pools that give bonus points for correct upset picks. Undoubtedly the first weekend of the tournament is the most exciting, because everyone still has a fighting chance in their pools. At the end of the first weekend, scores are tabulated and people go into work on Monday morning either happy or upset with their placement. But it really doesn't matter, because picking upsets early doesn't guarantee you'll pick the right Final Four or the right champion. If you go overboard with the upsets, you'll probably "upset out" the teams that have the best change of winning the thing!

Third, it's probably true that it's better not to know anything about college basketball before Selection Sunday. That doesn't mean you should be completely ignorant - it means you should base picks on the statistics, not some narrative you've built up in your head. There is a lot of risk for psychological bias in bracket picking. It's extremely tempting to fall into this trap.

Best of luck to everyone this year.

The "Busy" Ideology

I've read a couple of very good pieces on the concept of 'busy' over the past week. The first is Scott Berkun's post on the cult of busy; the second is the post that inspired it, Marissa Bracke on why she stopped working with busy people and why busy is a cop-out.

(from Flickr user funkandjazz)

To me, the key point is that 'busy' is a relative, not an absolute state of being. Most people are not inherently busy. People make themselves busy and then they expect their 'busyness' to matter to other people. It doesn't. People typically aren't impressed by busy. People get annoyed by busy.

Is it true that many people have a lot of stuff on their plates? Absolutely! But having a lot on their plate doesn't make them busy. Deciding that they are going to let the things on their plate dominate their life and relationships is what makes people busy.

One of my favorite all-time colleagues made a great point on this topic that I've never forgotten. Nobody - not a client, not a boss, not a friend - is ever so busy that they can't take 30 second to call, text or email you and let you know that they acknowledge your existence. If someone really does have a lot on their plate, that's understandable, but that doesn't render them incapable of sending a quick email or voicemail to say that they got your message and will be in touch on whatever day they can make some room on that plate. It's something else entirely when a person blows you off for an entire week and then when you finally hear from them they drop the "oh sorry, I've been so busy" bomb on you.

OK, or imagine this... you find a mistake on your monthly bank statement. You get on the phone and they put you on hold for two hours. When the rep finally takes your call, she says, "sorry, I've been really busy this afternoon." Are you impressed? Are you even appeased? Hell no!

I don't know why the idea exists that people are impressed by each others' busyness. I couldn't feel more strongly the other way. When I want to interact with someone, do business with someone, make friends with someone, etc. I don't want to wait weeks between messages because of their 'busyness'. Why would I want to deal with someone who is so busy that they literally won't give me any time of day?

When someone drops 'busy' on me, I typically conclude one of a few things:

They are horrible with time management. The reason I didn't hear back from them for a week is because they are terrible at managing their time. It took them an entire week to get to the point where they realized they need to get back to me. That's just poor skill.

They have misallocated priorities. Maybe they do have a lot on their plate, but they put me way down on the priority list. That makes me feel like they don't really care about me and that I wasn't good enough to be part of their 'busyness'.

They need an excuse. They blew me off for a week and they don't have a good reason for it, so they use busy. It's the perfect excuse. I can't really challenge it, and they don't really need to do anything to prove it. They say 'busy' and I'm just supposed to accept it at face value.

The game has changed. The days of 'oh my roommate never gave me the message' or 'I was away from my desk all week' are over. I know that people get email on their cell phones now. I know that people sleep with their Blackberries because they're so addicted to them. I know that people spend hours on Facebook and Twitter every single day. I'm not impressed with busy people. Quite the opposite, really. I like the interact with people who can give me some time of day and who are up-front about the things they really do have on their plates. This stuff is really not that hard.

An Hour With Jim Kunstler

I got a chance to see Jim Kunstler speak at the Cleveland Public Library on Sunday as part of their Writers and Readers series. If you're not familiar with Kunstler, a good place to start would probably be with the TED Talk he gave in 2003. He is outspoken on a lot of topics, ranging from suburban sprawl to peak oil to banking - but it all boils down to the same basic thesis: the lifestyles we are living are not sustainable, and there isn't a magic technology or mysterious 3rd party that will come along and bail us out.

Below is a short recap of Kunstler's talk, organized by topic, for all those interested.

Michael Lewis is one of my favorite authors. His books, Liar's Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, are all excellent (did you know that Michael Lewis wrote The Blind Side? Yeah, he did - and it's about a thousand times better than the movie version of the story).

Anyway, Lewis was on 60 Minutes yesterday promoting his new book, which I plan to read in the near future. It's a nice piece. Here is part 1:

And part 2:

I love the Cleveland Film Fest. Every March dozens of excellent films are shown during a ten day period in downtown Cleveland. It's also a bit expensive for those of us on a budget. Non-members pay $12 per film this year - that's a 33% premium over the regular ticket price at a Cleveland Cinemas theater, and film fest organizers are always quick to remind everyone that, even at $12, tickets are heavily subsidized by the corporate sponsors.

(from Flickr user Jess J)

But hey, don't worry, at least you won't have to pay to park your car at Tower City, where all-day parking can cost up to 12 dollars during the week and 6 bucks on the weekend. If you're attending the film fest, it's free. They think it's so important that they even put it in all caps on the website - FREE PARKING.

Except that it isn't actually free. Somebody is paying. We're all paying, by forking over $12 for a movie ticket instead of less. The corporate sponsors are paying. If you've ever been to a film fest and seen how many people attend, you know that all those validated parking tickets add up pretty quickly.

If you ride a bike to the film fest or you live downtown and walk, good for you, but don't expect much more than a pat on the back. If you have a monthly RTA pass, you get a $2 discount on in-person ticket purchases. But not if you have a 7-day pass, or a daily pass. In fact, it's really not much of a discount at all since there are so many promo codes floating around for $2 off online purchases that anyone can use.

Now, I understand the argument that Tower City Cinemas normally needs to subsidize parking because competition from suburban multiplexes with oceans of free parking is just to great. But the film fest is different. It's unique. There is no competition from the corporate suburban theaters. Many of the films sell-out in advance and every seat goes filled. It's tough to argue that there is a shortage of people who want to attend, and that subsidized parking is such an utter necessity.

Coffee Snobbery

The New York Times dining section has an outstanding article about coffee in the big apple. Even if you're not a New-Yorker, it's worth a read.

(from Flickr user indieink)

It's worth putting into perspective, though. The author names about 15 cafes in Manhattan and Brooklyn that serve either outstanding or notably good coffee. But for every one of those cafes, there are hundreds of Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Tim Hortons, McDonalds, and other run-of-the-mill, mediocre places to get your caffeine fix.

So sure, New York is a coffee town, but probably upwards of 90% of the coffee sales still come from the same handful of big corporate fast-food chains.

On a related note, if I ever acquire the skills necessary to develop a smartphone app, my app will be called "Coffee Snobs" and will be a directory of snob-approved coffee shops in all the big American cities. Why? Because I find it very frustrating to travel to a foreign city and have to drink a bad cup off coffee because I don't know where to find the good stuff. And frankly, there are a lot dumber apps out there...

The Magic of Bicycling

The weather has finally gotten to the point where I can make the 8-mile bike ride to work in the morning. On Monday it was still pretty cold, so there weren't many other bicyclists out. Today, it was much warmer, so there were quite a few other bikes on the road.

(from Flickr user ebis50)

I pulled up next to a fellow bicyclist in University Circle. "Good morning," he said.

"Hello," I responded, "how are you today?"

"Good. This weather is great," he said.

The light turned green and we both rode away. Sure, this was pretty much pointless banter. No, we are not best friends. Something similar happened again about a mile down the street. Another guy on a bike said hello as we were passing. What's noteworthy is that this sort of interaction never happens between motorists, and only rarely between riders on public transit.

Teenagers in Suburbia

This is a comment that a friend of the blog emailed to me yesterday:
Here's something I noticed on Saturday night: I stopped at the Westlake Giant Eagle at around 9:30pm and found tons of teenagers just hanging out and walking around the store. Is that some new trend I've been missing out on?
I can't comment specifically on this being a trend, as I do not spend much time in suburban supermarkets. I do, however, have a theory about teenage behavior in suburbia.

(from Flickr user Malingering)

The turning point for most American teenagers is when they turn 16 and get a drivers license and their own car. There's some evidence that fewer teens are driving or getting licenses once they turn 16. Some are telling the "technology" narrative, that teens don't need to hang out in big box parking lots anymore because they can hang out on Facebook. I think it's even simpler than that.

Driving is expensive. Almost no 16 year-old teen can afford it on his own. In suburbia, the cost of driving has historically been subsidized by parents. Maybe a kid had a job at McDonald's and paid part of the cost, but hardly the full burden. This arrangement also gave disciplinary leverage to parents. If their kid got a bad grade or misbehaved, just take away the car - it's the ultimate form of punishment.

Things are different now. Mom & dad are out of work. The mortgage on their house is underwater. Something's got to give. If the parents say no to giving their kid a car on his 16th birthday, that's tough luck; the kid probably won't be able to afford one on his own. And without the necessary resources, what's the point of spending time and effort in driver's ed? So yeah, of course fewer kids are getting drivers licenses; but they are still stuck in car-dependent suburbia and they still don't have a whole lot to do.
I graduated from high school in the spring of 2005. In the months prior to commencement, I applied to five universities, got accepted at three, rejected at two, and ultimately transferred to and will graduate from a college I never imagined attending. I can't help but feel like I approached the undergrad admission process all wrong. And of this is on top of the fact that I went to a private high school that employed a half dozen "college counselors" whose sole job was to ensure that students got into the universities that were worth getting into. At least that's what we were lead to believe.

Knowing what I do now, I wish there were a few things I had considered back then.

Don't plan for the best
In 2005 the economy was cruising along just fine. Unemployment wasn't much of a concern. The toughest decision for most college grads was which of multiple job offers to accept. It was assumed, for the most part, that the same environment would exist by the time it was my class's turn to graduate from college. Counselors told us go to college, work hard and have a good time; the good life would be waiting once we finished. The reality is that many of my peers graduated into unemployment last year. For some of them it took the entirety of the summer or longer to receive a single offer. It's hard to deny that the environment was not the best. Every indication leads me to believe the same will occur this May.

Location matters
Every year US News & World Report releases their rankings of "best colleges". When I was a senior in high school, people memorized this list; they could tell you where any school landed. College counselors encouraged us to shoot for the top. What almost no one told us was to think about colleges geographically. Sure, many teenagers want to go to college "far away from home" to get away from their parents or live in a warmer climate; but that's more of an "anywhere but here" approach than anything else. Colleges in urban centers inherently offer access to now crucial internships at companies in those cities, regardless of how they shake out on the ranking lists. Colleges in rural areas and some suburbs simply do not, leaving their students to duke it out for overly competitive summer internships. As a college senior, it's frustrating to hear corporate recruiters admit that they any shred resume with an out-of-town address on it. Many college graduates look forward to relocating, often to a big city; but if you aren't already in one, you're not doing yourself any favors.

You have to pay back the loans
This point seems obvious, but it wasn't when I was in high school. Back then the attitude was that it didn't really matter how much a university cost. If it was a top-ranked school, they told us that we'd be making so much money in the first few years of our professional careers that we'd be able to pay it all back in no time. This is a frightening proposition to seniors who took on tens of thousands of dollars in loans and will probably earn enough money in their first job (if they're lucky enough to land one) to barely squeak by making the minimum payments for the next few years.

The college counselors at my high school were nice people, and I don't think they had an intentionally malevolent agenda; but their incentives were not necessarily the aligned with the students'. It's a marketing ploy for any private school (or public school, for that matter) to claim that 99% of their graduates go straight to four-year colleges. It's even more impressive to have a list of Ivy League and other elite schools where students attended. What they don't always tell you is whether the students who went to them could afford it, and how many of them transferred to a less elite school or dropped out of college entirely. It looks like the approach that college seniors are taking is beginning to change, thanks to the great recession. It's just too bad it took until now for that change to happen.

Renegade Parking

I snapped this photo last Friday, around 2:00 in the afternoon.

Anyone who has lived, worked, or visited Cleveland Heights, Ohio will probably tell you that the local police are notorious for writing tickets for parking violations. Sure, it's ironic to see a police car illegally parked in a city that has zero-tolerance for illegal parking. Any motorist who has been ticketed for an expired meter violation might be justifiably upset; but you don't have to be a motorist to find this sort of behavior unacceptable.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are really a number of specific reasons why having police that don't park legally is bad for everybody.

1) It makes drivers feel victimized. How would you like to be a visitor in Cleveland Heights and get a parking ticket because you didn't feed your meter, only to walk a block down the street and find the police car of the officer who ticketed you parked at an expired meter? You'd probably be pretty pissed. You might not want to visit anymore. You might take your business elsewhere. If the police had simply put a quarter in the meter, at least they could point to it as behavior that should be modeled.

2) It's bad for local business. Metered parking on streets exists so that customers can have a place to park for a short period of time and so they can run into local businesses. With the police taking a space for an indefinite period of time and not paying, at least one fewer customer was able park in front of the business next to where I took the photo.

3). Last, and most importantly, it justifies the mindset that parking ought to be "free". Think about it. The police are supposed to be the enforcer of a policy that, although many people dislike it, is necessary for the proper functioning of an urban retail or mixed-use environment. When the police fail to respect the law that they are enforcing, it leads people to believe that the law isn't worth having and that if "free" parking is good enough for the police, it ought to be good enough for everybody.

Update: I've gotten a few emails and there seems to be some confusion about this post that I want to clear up. I'm not making a claim about the legality of police parking, per se. I don't know whether the municipal law in Cleveland Heights exempts police vehicles from parking in certain places, but that isn't the point. If police are responding to a crime and their lights are flashing, then yes, they should be able to park wherever they need to respond to that crime. However, if they are stopping to get donuts or write tickets for expired meters (which I witnessed two officers doing on the afternoon I took this picture), then the department should spring for some rolls of quarters for officers to put in the meters, because it's a matter of public relations. As Ed Morrison noted back in December, this is a department that already has a bit of a PR problem.
Earlier this week I took my bike and rode over to Legacy Village, one of two "lifestyle centers" in suburban Cleveland. I've been to Legacy Village before. I don't visit often. Every previous visit I made, I came and went like 99% of the visitors: by driving in a car and parking in the ginormous "free" surface parking lot. Only after I made a trip in a way the designers didn't intend it to be made did I get a perspective on why these "lifestyle centers" are truly so awful.

(from Flickr user parislemon)

Legacy Village is the kind of place Jim Kunstler would probably call a "cartoon architecture". It's a fantasy of an idealized "village". Nobody actually lives there. There really aren't many local businesses. When you think about it, everything is kind of foreign. The people live elsewhere. The businesses live elsewhere. Every night the little village shuts and reopens again the next morning.

There are two primary entrances to the center. One on Cedar Road and one on Richmond Road. There is a perimeter road with 25 mph speed limit signs, but the streets were designed to handle traffic moving at speeds well exceeding 25. Many drivers ignore the speed limit, and why shouldn't they? The designers built the perimeter road so that they would feel safe flying around every curve.

During my visit the heated sidewalks inside the center were salted, dried and cleared so that no "pedestrian" would have any trouble moving from store to store. But the sidewalk right outside the center on Cedar Road, the street that I carried my bike along to get to the center, was covered in a foot of week-old snow. No salt. No plow. Nothing. The street itself was clear and dry. Cars sped by at 40mph.

Legacy Village is surrounded by an ocean of free parking spaces, but bike parking spaces are few and far between. I couldn't find a rack near my destination on the main "courtyard", although I was told after the fact that there is a rack somewhere near the Apple store. I locked my bike to a fence and on top of about a half-foot of snow.

In the end, the question in my mind was, what kind of "lifestyle" does the center attract? It's ironic that in order to be a pedestrian inside its boarders, it's essentially a prerequisite that you must be a motorist to get there. It's convincing evidence that if what we want is density and walkability, the solution doesn't come prepackaged in some faux village on the outskirts of a city. We had real towns, villages and cities in this country for most of its history. And we destroyed them and replaced it with this? That's sad. Really sad.
This post on public transit by Yglesias makes many good points, including a response to the argument that public transit is a socialist ploy and infringement on liberty:
But of course [conservatives] have nothing to say about genuine infringements of liberty like minimum parking requirements, maximum lot occupancy rules, building height limits, prohibitions on accessory dwellings, etc. that are mainstays of America’s centrally planned suburbs. That’s because to them what really matters isn’t socialism or liberty (certainly nobody who cares about liberty could be as enthusiastic about torture as National Review writers are) but Americanness.
I generally agree, but see it a bit differently. When George Will writes that Ray LaHood is the "Secretary of Behavior Modification," he gets away with it because good mass transit, mixed use developments, bicycle infrastructure, etc. are things that most American metropolitan areas do not have. If a city builds awesome public transit, and lots of people ride it (which is hopefully the goal), then indeed, behavior will have been modified.

(from Flickr user caribb)

To these types of conservatives, it doesn't matter who builds, maintains or operates roads and highways; it doesn't matter that local governments have draconian zoning laws because those things represent the status quo. The status quo is comfortable. For some, it's all they know. Thus, retaining the status quo, no matter how much sense it makes ideologically, is better than making changes, because retaining it requires no modification or adaptation.

There's this perverse notion that the status quo exists in its current form because that's how we, individuals, want it to exist. We don't live different lifestyles than the Europeans because of social and economic incentives that evolved throughout history. Oh no, we live differently than the Europeans because we want to live differently; it's how we've always wanted to live, and to argue otherwise is to somehow deny that we are rational beings able to exercise our ability to make free choices.
I'm very loyal to my favorite brands. I buy both my morning cup of joe and my beans at Phoenix Coffee. I recommend a Great Lakes beer whenever someone ask for a tip on a microbrew. When I travel it's almost always on Southwest Airlines (I also tip my hat to JetBlue, but without service to Cleveland, I don't get many opportunities to travel with them). When I visit a business I don't like I don't demand a refund or write a complaint to the manager or go and whine on a blog (although I do occasionally write reviews on Yelp); I simply stop patronizing the business. When I find a business I like, I give them my business and I tell my friends to give them their business too.

Not everyone behaves like this. When friends tell me about a business trip or a vacation, I usually ask what airline they flew on. The answer is often, "I don't remember. Whoever was the cheapest."

I was once an avid reader of The Consumerist blog, but I've since become disgusted with much of their content. Yes, there are instances in which customers are legitimately cheated by the companies they trusted; but often the blog is filled with petty whining and one-sided accounts of incidents that anyone who has actually worked at a company and dealt with customers will tell you only vaguely reflects reality. To me, it all begs a bigger question: in competitive markets, why do people do business with bad companies? And why do bad companies act like jerks toward their customers?

I think the answer can be found in this game theory matrix:

Bad companies treat customers poorly because it's the strategy that is most effective to achieve a strong bottom line, so long as their customers aren't band-loyal and they just go after the "cheapest" or the "most convenient" or whatever. On the other hand, some businesses do treat their customers very well because they know it will yield significant returns.

But wait, you might look at this matrix and say that it looks like an example of a coordination game, except that the outcomes in many cases are more like a prisoner's dilemma... What gives?

The first answer is that "customers" as a group do not represent a single player in this game. Some customers may be highly brand-loyal, others may not. Some firms know they can do just fine by picking the unfriendly strategy because many of their customers are already set on the no-loyalty strategy.

The second answer is that external factors impact players' strategy. Maybe some people love shopping for groceries at Whole Foods, but they don't earn much money and they have a whole family to feed, so they shop at WalMart, hating every trip they make there, because it's all they can afford. In this case, customers are not consciously brand loyal, but they consistently take their business to the same places and the businesses respond with a predictable strategy.

I will continue to be brand loyal. If more customers became brand loyal, I believe more businesses would be pleasant places to be a customer. Isn't that what we all ultimately want, anyway?
Between December 1st and yesterday, I biked 285 miles (which I tracked using the awesome website dailymile). Almost all of the riding came in the form of simple "around town" trips in Cleveland. This was the first winter that I tried it. You can call me crazy, just about everyone else has.

(from Flickr user debs-eye)

It turned out to be much less physically difficult than I expected; and really put the "it's impossible to ride a bike in Cleveland in winter because it's so cold/snowy" argument to shame (at least in my mind).

Now, I know that many could leave comments here and say, "dude, it is impossible for me for me to bike in the winter. You only live a mile and a half from school and you took public transportation to work. I don't have those options where I live." Statements like that remind me about the goals of a decent urban environment. It isn't that biking was my only option for getting to class; or that public transportation was my only means of getting to work. If that were the case, I'd be stuck in the same dilemma as people who have no transportation options besides driving their cars (except that people would want to take pity on me).

By far the worst part of all of it was dealing with the people who talked very condescendingly about the experience; the people who got upset when I politely turned down their offer for them to drive me someplace, as if I was helpless child unable to get myself around. It was a harsh reminder of the long way we will have to go to make even a small dent in the completely auto-dominated culture.

Another challenge that I hadn't anticipated is that my bike really took a beating! The salt they put down on streets is great at destroying everything in its path. I'm going to need to buy a new chain and I definitely need my gears and brakes tuned-up.