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Showing posts from August, 2010

Canned Beer

Joel Johnson has a pretty interesting post over at Gizmodo about the rising prominence of canned craft beer.

I distinctly remember an event that transpired about two and a half years ago. I was sitting at Flying Saucer in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. A few minutes later two guys walked in and sat down next to me. When one of them saw Dale's Pale Ale on the beer list, he became unbelievably excited.. He launched into this big thing about how it's the most amazing beer ever, how this is the first time he'd found it in Texas, and generally kept hyping it to the sky. When the bartender brought it out, I looked at it and blurted out: How could this possibly be the best thing ever? Look at it... it's in a can!

(from Flickr user Phil Romans)

Of course, my reaction was based on a fallacious belief. It could be argued that (at least up until that point) all good craft beers came in glass; Dale's Pale Ale came in can; therefore Dale's Pale Ale couldn't be a good craft be…

The Danger of Free

Two weeks ago I wrote about parking, and the strange way in which it's priced. I started thinking about this again as I was watching this video with Dan Ariely, who's done some pretty interesting research on the concept of 'free'. (Click through to watch, because Big Think's embedding fails).

(from Flickr user poptech)

What's interesting isn't just that people consume more of something when it doesn't cost anything - that's predictable. Instead, people wildly over-consume things when they're free because of a psychological attraction to not having to spend money. Even once a small change is placed on a good or service, the demand drops more than you would expect.

Interestingly, I was at a grocery store in Washington DC last weekend, where every bag you take incurs a 5-cent charge. I paid the 5-cents, because I needed a bag; but the number of bags being taken from stores in DC has dropped drastically. From the Washington Post:
In its first assessment…

Urban Exploration

Every weekend, joggers, cyclists, power walks and other exercise enthusiasts hit the trails in and around DC to ‘get in some miles’. The region has some fantastic multi-purpose trails that are great for recreational exercise. Personally, though, when I go out to get a few miles in, especially on the weekend, I love riding in the city.

(from Flickr user M.V. Jantzen)

My rides are usually between 15 and 25 miles and I try to mix up the routes that I take. I like riding in the city because its the perfect way to see unique things. I’ve never really made much of an attempt to document my rides, but last Saturday, after I got home, I decided to write down, to the best of my memory, everything that I saw.

DC's Food Scene

New York Magazine's Grub Street thinks that DC's restaurant scene has made some big strides lately. Personally, I think nice restaurants are cool and all, but I rarely patronize them (unless I have a Living Social or Groupon voucher). And while DC may very well be catching up to New York on the high-end food scene, I also think it's still well-behind on the low-cost food scene.

(from Flickr user Roy Tomeji)

Granted, eating papaya dogs and greasy slices of New York style pizza is not something that anyone should do regularly; but in a city infamous for its high cost of living, it's nice to know that kind of food exists. Some nights you just don't feel like cooking, and if you don't make much money, your options are limited. Although perhaps what gets to me the most is how hard it is to find a good bagel around DC (a food staple for people on a budget).

I've always wondered... how can anyone possibly make money selling hot dogs or dollar slices of pizza in Manha…

Trader Joe's

Fortune Magazine has a surprisingly good article about the secret world of Trader Joe's. Props to author Beth Kowitt for a well-done piece.

(from Flickr user M.V. Jantzen)

My roommates love Trader Joe's. I've shopped there a few times, but it's not my primary grocery destination. Maybe that will change if the rumored store in Clarendon opens sometime in the near future; but as long as the two closest stores are out in Virginia suburbia and across the river in DC, I'll stick with the supermarket for my grocery needs.

Maybe I'm not enough of a foodie to appreciate the value that Trader Joe's has to offer. I'm personally content with the store-brand groceries that I can buy inexpensively at the supermarket. The Trader Joe's business model is nevertheless fascinating.

Taxes and Big City Living

Over at New Geography, Eamon Moynihan argues in against letting the Bush tax cuts expire. He contends that "rich" is defined in nominal dollar terms for tax reasons, rather than in terms of purchasing power. Thus, someone living in a high-cost-of-living city like New York or San Francisco or Washington DC ought to be weary of attempts to raise taxes on people in higher tax brackets, because they themselves would be disproportionately impacted.

(from Flickr user davidboeke)

The argument is somewhat true, in theory, although the solution isn't lower income taxes for the rich. If it's true that purchasing power is actually lower for people in big cities than people doing similar work in smaller cities, then replacing income taxes with consumption taxes is one way to even the playing field. Although this is a complicated issue that I'm not getting into details about, suffice to say that it has some legitimate backers.

What's really at issue here for me is the idea t…

Fact and Fiction

Last week Pew Research released a new study about the president and religion. The findings are highly concerning.

(from Flickr user jmtimages)

Compared to a year ago, more people believe President Obama is Muslim, fewer people believe he is a Christian, and more people are unsure.

This isn't an opinion poll. It's a simple test of fact. Unlike a question such as: do you think the president doing a good job? Asking what religion the president practices is simply a question about the way things are. There is a right and a wrong answer. A majority of Americans cannot answer correctly.

Perhaps what's most bothersome is that media has chosen to report the Pew study as if it were an opinion poll. Doing this is like performing a study that asks people what color bananas are. Imagine that only a third of respondents answer yellow. The rest say 'purple' or 'don't know' or 'other'. Media can run headlines that say "more Americans now believe bananas are p…

20-Somethings

By now most Gen-Y bloggers have already seen the New York Times Magazine, and one of this week's feature stories, What Is It About 20-Somethings? The piece seems frustrating to so many because, from the perspective of a boomer, it criticizes an entire generation for being immature and unable to "grow up". No doubt, this article has left a lot of people with a sour taste in their mouths; some are even asking What Is It About Robin Marantz Henig?

(from Flickr user Thom Watson)

Marantz Henig's story begins with anecdotes of college grads who overqualified themselves for entry-level work with advanced degrees or who can't make a career for themselves for some other reason. The author dubs this a failure to "grow up".

Traditionally, "growing up" meant passing through distinct life stages: 1) finish school 2) start a career 3) become financially independent 4) get married and 5) start a family. Not long ago, all five milestones were accomplished by th…

Crosswalk Countdowns

New York City is installing 1500 countdown clocks in an attempt to improve pedestrian safety. I've typically found these types of signals helpful as a pedestrian, as they eliminate any questions about how much time I need to get across the street.

(from Flickr user Richard Drdul)

I've always wondered how countdown clocks influence the behavior of motorists. While their primary intent is to inform pedestrians, a secondary consequence is that they allow motorists to know exactly how much time they have to get through an intersection before the light turns.

I specifically remember from Drivers Ed when the instructor told me how to react when approaching an intersection with a "stale green" - ie. an intersection that you didn't see turn from red to green and could turn back to red at any moment. In those situations, you're supposed to take your foot off the accelerator and cover the break. That said, few seem to actually follow this rule.

Nevertheless, the question t…

Standing in a Line

When I rode past 33rd Street and saw the now infamous line at Georgetown Cupcake last weekend, I laughed out loud at the people waiting for their cupcakes. The Washington Post has video of some people who don't find it quite so funny.



Having sampled some of these cupcakes (purchased for me by someone else, so I didn't stand in line), I can honestly say that I wouldn't spend my own hard-earned money on these things with any regularity; let alone stand in an Disneyworld-style line and then spend my money on them. But hey, cupcakes are sugary and sweet and they look fancy and pretty. I can see why people like them.

At the same time, there now seems to be an abundance of cupcakeries in Washington DC, most of which don't need a crowd-control person watching the door. Ask a local about cupcakes and many will probably say that Georgetown Cupcake is overrated and give you directions to their favorite place.

Part of me wants to believe that people are standing in this line because…

One Person, Multiple Identities

The Guardian has an interesting article about how bicycle sales in the UK are being driven by 'middle-aged family men', many of whom also wealthy, well-educated, and own multiple vehicles. The piece suggests that the drivers vs. bicyclists war is not as black and white as it often appears.

(from Flickr user JulianBleecker)

In a way, this seems obvious. Drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists are often the same person. Just riding around DC, I see tons of cars with bike racks on the trunk on the roof. Considering how much those racks cost - I'm somewhat confident you wouldn't have one if you never used it.

More to the point, though. Most people have been to sports games or concerts or other big events. Sometimes you'll see people leave the game, brazenly jaywalk across a busy street, get into their car, and then honk and the people jaywalking and preventing them from getting anywhere. Is it one person with two personalities? Does context dictate how you identify in a giv…

Subsidized Parking

I can't stand the phrase "free parking". I much prefer "subsidized parking", which I think I'll start using from this point forward. That said, Tyler Cowen has a very good article in the New York Times on subsidized parking.

(from Flickr user bossco)

This is one of those instances where libertarians and urbanists tend to agree pretty strongly. And Cowen's article has also already spurred discussion beyond the group of usual suspects, which I hope continues throughout this week.

In my opinion, Cowen's most compelling argument is right here: Many parking spaces are extremely valuable, even if that’s not reflected in current market prices. In fact, Professor Shoup estimates that many American parking spaces have a higher economic value than the cars sitting in them. For instance, after including construction and land costs, he measures the value of a Los Angeles parking space at over $31,000 — much more than the worth of many cars, especially when c…

Passive-Agressiveness

Until recently, I did most of my blogging out of my favorite coffee shop. The arrangement was perfect. I got to have my favorite drink, chat with my barista friends, and do a lot of writing, all under one roof.

(from Flickr user jypsygen)

I was able to do this because there was wifi, more than enough outlets, and plenty of space to sit down for a little while. To me, it's frustrating to read articles like this, from the LA Times, about coffee shops that are pulling wifi and outlets from their stores in an attempt fight against free loaders.

Who are these free loaders? They are typically described as lonely, unsocial 'techies' who behave like jerks. From the article:
"People were sitting all day long on one cup of coffee, blocking tables. Nobody was talking, and there was no table turnover. It was hard to make money," owner Nicola Blair Nook said. "I turn off the Wi-Fi and in 10 minutes all the computers are gone."Many coffee shop owners apparently feel t…

As Bicycling Gets Popular

The Brooklyn Paper has a frustrating (and poorly written) story about a vigilante who's been going around Williamsburg and gluing peoples' bike locks shut. It seems that the vigilante is upset because there are so many bikes locked up all over the neighborhood. This is an ironic style of justice, of course, because he/she is effectively making it impossible to move those bikes.

(from Flickr user animalvegetable)

A lot can be said on this topic. I'll put the vigilante aside for a moment and point out that bikes, in neighborhoods where it's becoming increasingly popular, suffer from problems like traffic, lack of parking, etc. The idea that bicyclists have an advantage because they can wiz past traffic and park, cost-free, wherever they want, is usually true; but there comes a saturation point when it starts to become less true. Williamsburg is probably a good example of where this is occurring.

That's not to say that there isn't safety in numbers. It certainly feel…

An Open Letter to Ira Glass

Dear Ira,

I'm sure you get plenty of letters and emails from people with show ideas for This American Life. And I'm sure you've got a team of people finding the themes and stories that get more people to download your podcast than just about any other on the web.

Everyone who listens to This American Life has their personal list of favorites - I'm no exception. To me, 24 Hours at the Golden Apple, Rest Stop, and Scenes from a Mall are all brilliant. These shows bring to life the people you see every day, and sometimes wonder: who are these people? What is their story?

I often ask these questions in my head when I ride public transportation. Surely, as a resident of Chicago and New York City, you've had moments where you watched people moving into and out of subway trains and thought: who are these people and where are they going.

(from Flickr user Runs With Scissors)

Putting together a '24 hours on the subway' could easily surpass the Golden Apple. Position you…

On the Stock Market

The Wall Street Journal recently had a pretty decent article titled Ten Stock-Market Myths That Just Won't Die. If you're interested in throwing your hat into the stock market ring, it's worth a read.

(from Flickr user bfishadow)

I've dabbled in the stock market. I once thought Wall Street might be my calling, though it's probably good that I realized early-on that it's definitely not.

It's easy to write about how to invest wisely. It's extremely difficult to actually do it. No matter how smart you are, stock trading is really hard, not because it's overly complicated, but because it's a highly emotional activity, not much unlike casino gambling. Even people who fully understand how to invest well can make mistakes based on emotion.

Based on my research and personal experience, I honestly believe that there are only two investing strategies that will yield worthwhile results. The first is the simple long-term value investing that Warren Buffet has m…

Everybody Hates Metro

One thing I've found amazing about living in DC is how much people hate the public transit here. At least I think people hate it, because they gripe about it constantly. I've lived in cities with much less useful, frequent, and clean transit service. And yet, people around DC make noise like Metro is a scourge on the city that can do nothing right.

When I explained this phenomenon to a friend of the blog in Cleveland, he wrote back:
What's the root of this transit hatred in DC? In a transit poor city like Cleveland I can understand, but in a relatively transit rich region such as DC it surprises me.I think the simple answer to this question is that so many people use it here that there are a whole lot more opportunities to hear from people that don't like it. In Cleveland, the same types of professionals who get frustrated with 'hot cars' and delayed trains and rude station managers simply aren't using public transit. They realize how poor the service is, bu…

Coffee Roasting Snobbery

When I shop for groceries, I’m typically one to buy off-brands or whatever is on sale, with one exception – coffee. For me, paying $12 a pound has always been worth it so long as the coffee was well-roasted and fresh.

(from Flickr user Morten Brekkevold)

There isn’t a shortage of gourmet coffee in DC, I just haven’t yet found one that I’ve become particularly attached to. So not too long ago I decided to try my hand at coffee roasting, and I’ve since become a huge fan of home-roasted coffee.

A lot of people like the idea of home roasting because of the potential cost-savings, but like I said, that’s not really the issue for me. The greatest thing about home roasting is that the coffee is always guaranteed to be fresh; there is never any question about how old a particular batch of coffee might be.

Now, I'm still an amateur as far as all of this goes, and my roasts are hardly what anyone would consider professional-grade. It's inevitable. Nobody cooks anything perfectly without a l…

Ice Cream Economics

The New York Times has a really interesting article about gourmet ice cream and whether the premium prices that people pay for it are justified.

(from Flickr user hopemoore)

Let's begin with this question:
But is there any good reason for ice cream — basically milk, sugar and eggs — to cost more per ounce than wild Atlantic smoked salmon or prime rib-eye? This seems to be a common assumption that people make when it comes to thinking about price: that things ought to be priced equal to the cost of the inputs, even if that ignores any overhead costs that may exist. Yes, when it comes to ice cream, milk, sugar and eggs may be inexpensive, but hand-made ice cream requires a huge labor input to make the stuff, not to mention the labor required to staff the stores and scoop the cones. Plus, most gourmet ice-cream stores tend to be in highly desirable neighborhoods and locations, and the rent on those storefronts does not come cheap.

It would be one thing if nobody was buying this ice cr…

Working on the Railroad

If you like trains, you'll probably like this video of the train that builds trains. Via Gizmodo:



I'm not sure where else this technology has been employed, but it is interesting to see that you don't necessarily need a ton of guys doing horrible back-breaking labor to get a railroad built anymore.

Greater Greater Blogging

When I announced my move to DC, David Alpert reached out to me to invite me to contribute to his fantastic DC-centric urbanism blog, Greater Greater Washington. I have a new post up over there from this week about walkability in Arlington, so in lieu of a regularly-scheduled post over here, I encourage everyone to check out GGW.

(from Flickr user thisisbossi)

If you like what you see, you can subscribe to my GGW posts, or the whole blog, it's definitely worth it, even if you don't live in or around DC.

The Psychology of Unlimited Transit Passes

Christopher Bonanos has a great short article in New York Magazine about what the end of the unlimited ride MTA pass could mean for urban dwellers in New York.

(from Flickr user same_same)

Pay particularly close attention to this paragraph:
When out-of-neighborhood errands, even interborough ones, no longer carry a penalty, the transit system ceases to be about a binary commute, and instead encourages zigzagging around town. The unlimited pass promotes French-style shopping: cheese here, coffee beans there, fruit at the Greenmarket, cutlets at the butcher, all without spending twelve bucks on fares. A stop at Whole Foods on the way home to Park Slope merely requires a brief trip up the steps at Second Avenue. Movie isn’t showing near you? Hop across town. In a city where “unlimited” is far from universal—where else do you have to pay $4 for an iced-tea refill?—the monthly pass is freeing. It’s overstatement to say that it caused the Brooklyn boom, but it sure didn’t hurt to kno…

Stop, Yield, Go

In less than five minutes, Gary Lauder convincingly explains why a new type of 'Yield' sign would be safer, more efficient, and generally superior to stop signs at many American intersections.



If this logic applies to cars, then it should also apply to bikes. Interestingly enough, the type of 'T' intersection that Lauder describes is exactly the type of intersection where having the same sign for cars as for bikes is unnecessary. Because a bicyclist riding along the top of the 'T' will never come in contact with vehicular traffic, whether cars are turning or continuing straight, there's no reason to require them to stop at the intersection.