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 beer. But the premise is all messed up. Just because all good craft beers happened to be bottled in glass didn't mean that they couldn't be canned.

In fact, if it's true that cans actually allow for higher quality of beer (and I find some of Johnson points pretty compelling) then stigma seems to be the only thing standing in the way of a structural shift in the industry.

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 of how the new law is working, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue estimated that food and grocery establishments gave out about 3 million bags in January. Before the bag tax took effect Jan. 1, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer had said that about 22.5 million bags were being issued each month in 2009.
In the scheme of things, 5-cents per bag is nothing, but psychologically, people don't like to pay. What's happened is that people have gotten smarter about how they shop. Now they consciously think before going to a store, they bring their own bags to pack stuff in, and they are generally less wasteful. A mere 5-cents is responsible for a huge drop in bag consumption.

How does this apply to parking spaces? If Ariely's theory holds, it means that people are wildly over-consuming parking spaces in places where no money changes hands for the privilege of parking a car. Motorists aren't thinking hard enough about the trips they take, because they know a free parking space is waiting on the other end.

Opponents of parking changes often argue that they're doomed to fail because, if one strip mall starts charging for parking, people will just get in the car and drive to a different strip mall. They say it's a race to the bottom that will only make businesses worse-off.

Admittedly, this is compelling in theory, but I could just as easily argue that people who don't want to pay 5-cents for a bag in DC will get in the car and drive to Virginia or Maryland to circumvent the charge. Of course, rational people realize that the cost of leaving DC vastly outweighs the 5-cent savings on bags.

There's a fear that if parking is charged at the 'market rate' that it's going to be really expensive. More expensive than the typical person can afford. That's not necessarily true; because if switching from 'free' to any charge, even a tiny one, changes parking behavior like a 5-cent bag tax changed shopping behavior, then the demand for spaces might drop significantly as well. A small charge would make people smarter about how they park, and consequently, how they consume parking spaces.

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 Manhattan? I suppose the sheer amount of volume makes it possible. I also don't know how much the business owners are paying for storefronts, and given New York's confusing rent-control rules, maybe it's less than I'd expect?

Whatever the case, DC still has a ways to go.

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 that concept of a 'cost-of-living' adjustment and the role of purchasing power in different cities.

For example, I could look at my job and say my salary should be worth $10,000 more if I were in New York, but it would be worth $10,000 less if I were in Kansas City, given the cost of living in those places. The problem is that my job doesn't exist in either of those places - it exists in DC; so if I want to do it, then I need to be in DC. This is true for a lot of careers. If you want to work in high-tech, you should really be on the West Coast. If you want to do fashion, you better be in New York. If you're into oil and gas, Texas is your place. There are jobs in these places that simply don't exist in other cities.

Of course, some jobs do exist everywhere... doctors, lawyers, nurses, kindergarten teachers, etc. We can look at salaries of the same profession across cities to draw a conclusion like: nurses in Omaha have more purchasing power than nurses in DC, even though nurses in DC have higher nominal salaries. Nurses in DC also pay higher taxes because they're in a higher tax bracket. When you read it like that, it sounds like nurses in DC are getting a bad deal and that the tax system is unfair. But then you have to ask yourself: why aren't all those nurses flocking to Omaha?

Eamon Moynihan ultimately thinks that high cost-of-living in New York is the problem to be solved, writing:
And in the longer term, we need to determine why the cost of living in New York is so high and then implement the reforms necessary to fix the problem and give New Yorkers a standard of living that is competitive with rest of America.
I've argued before that New York (and Manhattan in particular) is uniquely attractive because no other place exists like it in America. True, every city has its own unique charm, but as far as build environment, culture, and lifestyle goes, many of them are virtually the same. Manhattan stands out as completely unique. If there were more Manhattans, it might spread out the desire of people and firms who want to be there, and eventually lower the sky-high price-tag in New York. For now, the standard f living in New York is low because the quality of the city is so high.

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 purple," and hopefully it's obvious how ridiculous that sounds.

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 the time people reached the age of 30. Today, how many twenty-somethings are still trying to figure out step one? Marantz Henig sums it up like this:
The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain un­tethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.
She then goes into a discussion of the history of life cycle theory, the potential for the new life stage "emerging adulthood" and how it's becoming more prevalent than ever.

What bothers a lot of twenty-somethings, myself included, is the tone of the article. The idea that the way our parents' generation did things must be correct, and therefore there's something wrong with the way our generation chooses to live.

Think about the first of five milestones that twenty-somethings seem unable to accomplish: finishing school. Not long ago, all you needed was a bachelor's degree and you were pretty much set for life. And if you wanted one, the price tag attached to that degree was affordable. Not anymore. Now, people graduate without highly specialized or marketable degrees that make it challenging to land entry-level jobs that previously didn't require a college degree at all. And in the process, many have managed to rack up tens of thousands in debt, something unheard of until recently.

Likewise, step two: start a career. Anyone who honestly believes that, in the past few years, starting a career is a simple task, or that college grads who can't find work are just lazy, is delusional. Many young people are completely unable to find work, even if they want to, leaving them stuck in step one as they hope for an advanced degree that will mean something. Others take the one and only job offer that's extended to them - often in a field or position nothing like what they imaged doing while they were in college. Should it be such a surprise that twenty-somethings switch jobs so often? If it were as simple as landing their desired career after graduation, I'd bet that they wouldn't.

The last three steps are all connected as well. It's harder than ever to become financially independent with the sheer amount debt that people are taking on, often because they believe it's a necessity and unavoidable. And arguably, it's inadvisable to start a family if you can't financially support your kids. Would anyone actually suggest it's better to rush into parenthood before you can afford it so that you can meet some arbitrary life milestone? Not to mention, what's the point of getting married by age of 25? Our parents' generation did that and it turned out badly for many of them.

Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that there have always been twenty-somethings who were unable to grow up. An entire generation is too massive to describe as a single group. It is true that more twenty-somethings today are waiting longer to complete the five milestones. In some cases, it's because they have little choice. In other cases, it's because they're being smart about the situation.

Is this behavior different than the behavior a generation ago? Yes. Is it wrong? Not necessarily.

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 these countdown clocks raise is whether they cause motorists to behave in ways that lessen the probability of a wreck. In theory, a motorist who knows they will never make in through an intersection in time should prepare to stop early. A motorist who knows they have plenty of time doesn't need to worry about slamming on the breaks if the light suddenly turns. I'm skeptical that this is exactly how it plays out in reality, but I certainly would be interested to see some study on this question.

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 they are trying to manufacture a worthwhile memory. They want to go home and brag to their family and friends that they stood in line for an hour just to buy a cupcake. It's actually a pretty good conversation starter, since it's so ridiculous and silly.
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 given situation? I would argue that the answer is often yes.

Needless to say, the idea that there are just drivers, or just pedestrians, and that every person in the group behaves in a homogeneous way is silly. For the sake of having meaningful conversations about transportation, we ought to be able to get past this.

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 considering their rapid depreciation. If we don’t give away cars, why give away parking spaces?
Emphasis mine. This inspires an interesting thought experiment: what if the government required auto manufacturers to give away a certain number of cars every year at no-cost, but required all parking be priced at its market rate? (Admittedly, this is a flawed comparison since automakers and non-parking infrastructure are already heavily subsidized by the government, but for the sake of argument, bear with me). Yes, of course, a few luxury car brands would sell at a small premium, but 99% of Americans would get a vehicle at absolutely no cost to them.

My guess is that you would have a lot of people who very much appreciate that they get automobiles at no-cost. You would also have a bunch of urbanists and a few economists coming out and asking how allocating cars like this makes any sense? How it is sustainable? And how we can turn back the years of bad policy? And of course you would have people arguing that reversing the policy would be impossible because people love their free cars and would lobby hard against any change.

Over at Marginal Revolution, Cowen brings up valet as an alternative to big parking lots. This is something I've addressed before, but which typically flies under the radar of most urbanists. If government is going to demand that convenient parking be available wherever people go, then mandatory 'free' valet is the lesser of two evils, as at least it allows (in theory) the preservation of density in certain areas.

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 the need to "fight back".
Cafe owners have tried a variety of tactics to foil Wi-Fi squatters. They put out signs that ask laptop users to share tables or point them to nearby Wi-Fi hot spots such as public libraries. They hand out wireless passwords that expire in an hour. They cover electrical outlets (less effective now that customers come armed with laptops sporting longer battery lives or with spare batteries).
To me, this inspires one question: why isn't one of the 'tactics' simply asking the customer to buy another drink? Or respectfully explaining that other people would like to sit down? These attempts to 'foil' WiFi squatters suggests that business owners often prefer a passive-aggressive approach to dealing with abusive customers, which, frankly, doesn't seem to work.

I don't own a coffee shop (although one day I might like to) and I'm sure there are challenges that the typical customer, even someone who visits all the time, has no idea exist. I get that. But doing things like covering up outlets and turning off the Wifi is essentially punishing 20 good customers to take care of 1 troublemaker (I'm making up these numbers). The 20 good customers are probably sympathetic to the shop owner, and annoyed that some jerk is perpetually hogging space. But the old middle-school explanation that one bad apple ruined it for everyone doesn't quite fly.

The situation reminds me of the 'seat hog epidemic' going around on public transit systems across America. Most of the articles talk about the passive-aggressive approach that upset riders take: making nasty faces, posting photos on the web to 'shame' the seat hogs, etc. As it turns out, many people have come forward and pointed out that all it usually takes to sit down is to politely asking the seat hog 'may I sit down?'.

I'm a strong believer that coffee shop design matters a lot. Shops that get a lot of solo customers can design themselves to cater to solo customers. Shops that do a lot of take-out can similarly design themselves for that audience. I'm not sure whether completely removing Wifi will backfire or not, a prediction that many will defend; but it certainly makes you wonder if it was the best decision that could have been made.

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 feels much safer to be out biking around when others are with you, and evidence suggests that it actually is. But it's also frustrating to pull up to a bike rack and not find a single place to lock-up.

People are starting to talk about registering bicycles, paying licensing fees, and generally making bicycling more like driving. These aren't necessarily bad ideas. If bicycling becomes prominent enough in the United States that such measures make sense (and that's a far way off), then I don't see why I would oppose it.

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 your people on trains in New York or Chicago. Talk to people. Find out not only who they are, but where they're going, and why. So much research on public transportation focuses on the stations where people get on and off. Few ever step back and ask why they're going there.

This is a theme that I think can produce some fantastic stories; and doesn't seem to be an area yet explored by the show. I trust if there is anyone who can pull it off and do it well, you can.

Sincerely,
Rob

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 made famous. There are dozens if not hundreds of books on this strategy. The second is laid out in William O'Neil's book How to Make Money in Stocks - it's more complex strategy and requires diligent watch over the market. You probably wouldn't want to try it if you can't afford to spend at least an hour a day reading and thinking about the market. It also requires incredible emotional discipline, which is why it will never work for so many people.

After all, the WSJ missed the biggest stock market myth out there: that trading is easy. I can't imagine how much money has been lost as the result of people unwilling to accept that their strategies simply had no hope.

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, but they are disconnected from it on a personal level.

(from Flickr user joekerstef)

The comment from my friend does demonstrate something important. While DC is a 'relatively transit rich region', that doesn't mean the service is objectively amazing. For all the time we spend comparing which transit system in America is better than the others, it misses the bigger picture. Every single city in America could use better public transit service. Every one. Even 'America's best' cities for transit could use some serious help. There is still a long way to go before they become truly great.

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 little practice. When I roast, some beans come out a little darker or lighter than others. Nonetheless, the freshness simply can’t be matched.

Plus, there’s that sense of accomplishment you get from doing something on your own. Anybody can go to a bakery and buy a fancy cake, but the one you successfully bake on your own is the one that you typically perceive as tasting the best.

Coffee roasting is, in fact, surprisingly easy. You don’t need fancy equipment, you don’t need any secret ingredients. All you need are unroasted (green) coffee beans, heat, and a pot/pan. I hope this post successfully demonstrates how simple it really is.

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 cream, but they are; which leads to another key points: demand exists for premium gourmet ice cream, even at high prices.

People often say things like "I could make this stuff at home for a fraction of the cost" and in many cases it's true. But making ice cream as good as the stuff you buy at a gourmet scoop shop is not easy, and even if there are people can pull it off, many of them simply won't be willing to go through the process of doing it all the time.

Lastly, there's something to be said from the libertarian paternalist's perspective. Why is cheap ice cream so great for society? At the end of the day, the fact that people are paying more money for smaller portion of something as unhealthy as ice cream might not be the worst thing in the world.

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.
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 know that, even if you move to sleepy Windsor Terrace, sleepless Manhattan is just a swipe away.
What's amazing is that this is the exact same line of logic that people use to say that owning a car is the ticket to freedom. In a sense, both are marked by the same irrational idea: that once the initial price has been paid, every trip is effectively "free".

In a sense though, rides using an unlimited transit pass are free. An economist would point out that the 'marginal cost' is zero, even if the 'average cost' is something. This is very different from a transit system like the one in DC, where the 'marginal' cost is the fare a person pays based on where they're going and at what time they're doing it. Psychologically, people who have to pay for each and every trip often have a lingering question of whether it's justified.

I know, I've experienced the feeling of possessing an unlimited ride metrocard in New York. Even though mine was only good for a single day, I felt like I could go anywhere in the city and see anything I wanted to see. I never had to answer the mental question: is it worth the $2.25?

I support the unlimited ride transit card. If driving is psychologically appealing because of the perception of 'free', then it's not doing transit agencies much good to make people choose between a (perceived) free trip in the car or shelling out a few bucks for transit fare.

There is real value in getting people to ride buses and trains, particularly during the off-peak hours. There is real value to having people use transit in exactly the way Bonanos describes. The bigger the constituency a city's transit system can build, the more power that city has to fight bureaucrats at the state and national level who can't or won't provide funding to maintain a quality of service.

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.