When it comes to Wi-Fi in coffee shops, I've had a pretty strong shift in opinion over the past few years. If you can remember, this blog used to be written entirely from a single coffee shop in Cleveland.

During that time I spent a lot time in that coffee shop. I made friends with many of the baristas. I made friends with the owners. And I spent a lot of money. A friend of the blog calculated  that I was on pace to spend over a thousand dollars at that coffee shop by the end of the year, and I was fine with that, because it was my favorite local business. If that shop hadn't been friendly to me bringing my laptop into the store, I still would have gone their occasionally, but would have stuck to making most of my coffee at home.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)

The reason my opinion has changed is because my environment has changed. Coffee shops in DC tend to be busy, crowded, and because of high rents, they can't afford big swaths of open space for dozens of tables and couches and fireplaces everything else. It's simply not comfortable to bring a laptop into many of the local coffee houses.

I can sympathize with the guys who run Filter and Qualia and who don't want to offer Wi-Fi all the time or even at all. You should really listen to their take on this issue over on the Kojo Show. While the people upset with their decision may shout the loudest, I suspect that there are a lot of people who agree with the owners.

In a way, free Wi-Fi is like free parking. Sometimes it makes sense for businesses , because it's a means to get people in the door. Sometimes if you don't have Wi-Fi (or parking) some customers will go elsewhere. But in a big major city, seats in coffee shops (and free parking spaces) are in short supply and high demand. Having a few seats (or parking spaces) that a small number of people hog all day long simply doesn't make any sense. It doesn't matter if free Wi-Fi (or parking) is what people are used to. This is just the new reality.

Rising Rents

When it comes to the housing market, there are a lot of "supply side" advocates who argue that housing is expensive because there's not enough of it. I've been skeptical of this, at least on-face. I think the issue is more complicated than simply building more houses and convincing people is even harder still. I posed this question to Matthew Yglesias earlier in the week.
If we accept the premise that density is desirable, how does building more housing units actually lower rents in practice?...  Let's say we build more housing in DC's core by removing the height limit and the average rent in the metro area decreases; but rents in the core increase (due to higher demand for density) while the rents on the fringe decrease (due to greater overall supply of housing in the market). Has the policy succeeded because some housing in the overall market is now less expensive? Or has it failed because now the only affordable housing is the housing with the highest transportation cost?
Here's his answer. I generally think it's adequate but not compelling.
I think success and failure are relative concepts... In the scenario you're spelling out, we've hardly solved all of society's problems, but we have created a situation in which more people can afford to live in the region... And even if the cheapest housing continues to be in the places with the highest transportation costs, those costs would still be lower than the current cost of even-further commutes, even-more sprawl, or simply denying people access to the strong labor market and other amenities of greater DC.
Herein lies the reason why NIMBYism is such a difficult hurdle to overcome in this debate.

Let's say I live in some neighborhood and a developer proposes to build a new luxury building. That total number of units in my neighborhood and in the region goes up. Rents stabilize in some parts of the region, and developers don't need to sprawl farther out along the fringe to get housing built. For society as a whole, this new building is probably a good thing.

BUT, this new luxury building would make my neighborhood more desirable, demand would go up in my neighborhood, and it would make my rent go up when my lease comes up for renewal. So, as a renter, it's perfectly rational that I would want to stop this new building from getting built if I think my rent is more likely to remain stable without it.

Taxi Cab Deregulation

I've been in DC for about 2 years. During that time I've ridden in 9 taxi cabs. All of those rides have been business-related. I've never used my own money to hire a cab, and I don't plan on doing it anytime soon. I've had far too many negative cab experiences to make me want to do it again. I know of others who feel similarly.

Robert Samuels has a great article in the Post abut the mayhem that occurs at Union Station after midnight as people arriving on late-night trains try to get a ride home. I'd add that this phenomenon is not limited only to Union Station. My understanding is that trying to get a cab ride on a Friday or Saturday night is nearly impossible if you aren't in a group or if your destination isn't in a "choice" neighborhood.

(from afagen on Flickr)

During the late night hours, DC doesn't have taxi dispatchers or inspectors, so many cabbies make a calculated risk to disobey the law. In a sense, this creates a very interesting natural experiment. During normal hours, cab drivers operate mostly in accordance with the law. After hours, that all changes.

Cabs are a highly regulated industry. The government licenses drivers. The government sets the fares. The government enforces the rules. Late at night, the cab industry morphs into a sort of free market, where drivers become profit maximizers. The highest bidders get served first, and everyone else can fend for themselves.

The response to the article, especially these letters to the editors, makes me believe that many people aren't happy with the current system, not because it's over-regulated, but because the regulations are too weakly enforced and drivers aggressively try to skirt them. We don't need to imagine what a de-regulated cab industry in DC would look like because, for a few hours each night, we can already witness it.
Richard Florida's interview with Jonah Lehrer over at the Atlantic Cities about "creative density" got me thinking about the work I did on "degree density" back in 2010. The concept that Lehrer describes is relatively simple: lots of like minded people in close proximity to each other drives creativity because these people can bounce ideas off of each other and learn from each other.

Lehrer talks about David Bryne of the Talking Heads:
David Byrne, after all, wasn’t influenced by the Latin rhythms of some distant musician. Instead, Byrne was seduced by his local dance clubs, blasting those songs he could hear from the sidewalk. It is the sheer density of the city - the proximity of all those overlapping minds - that makes it such an inexhaustible source of creativity.
A major flaw with my 2010 analysis is that it focused on entire cities and counties. It ignored the fact that the size of cities is somewhat arbitrary and that density is more of a neighborhood phenomenon than a city or metro area phenomenon.

Within a single city, there can be pockets of degree density (which, admittedly, is a very crude proxy for creative density as Lehrer describes it, or even for intelligence, as many commenters have pointed out). There can be neighborhoods where lots of educated people are highly concentrated, while another neighborhood in the exact same city could be much less dense and not a place where many degree holders live.

The easiest way for me to explain this is visually. First, here's a map of the Washington DC metro area. Each dot represents 1,000 adults 25 and older with at least a college degree. Not surprisingly, degree holders are much more sparely populated in the fringe parts of the metro area than in the urban core.

(click to enlarge)  

My 2010 analysis showed that DC has about 3,400 degree holders per square mile, the fourth highest of the 50 cities that I looked at. The combined DC/Arlington/Alexandria area (the original DC triangle) has about 3,900. This map clearly shows that these folks are not evenly distributed throughout the city. There are concentrations of degree holders in Northwest DC, Capitol Hill, and certain parts of Arlington and Alexandria.
On a recent Friday afternoon I received an email sent to a group of people that suggested going to a DC United game the following Saturday. The emailer wrote "weather looks like it's going to be great!" with a link to a 10-day forecast showing sun and mild temperatures with a 20% chance of rain. 8 days went by and the weather on that Saturday turned out to be less great than anticipated.

(from Jorge Quinteros on Flickr)

I'm really glad Greg Postel published this post over at Capitol Weather Gang about the accuracy of advanced forecasting. It's worth a read, but if you're not going to click through, the short-version of is that Greg uses empirical data and shows  that forecasting accuracy decreases the farther you get from the actual date in question. It's not a surprising finding, but one that's worth re-enforcing.

Capitol Weather Gang is the best weather source around. The reason it's so great is because they not only give a forecast, but explain why they think it's going to happen, what the alternatives might be, and how confident they are in the forecast. I've never seen TV forecasters go into this level of detail. I've certainly never seen it in a generic 10-day forecast.

From what I understand, weather forecasting is a specialized skill. It's not something that an untrained person can really do especially well. I'm confident that this is the reason most people misinterpret weather forecasts.

For example, what does it mean if a forecast says 30% chance of rain? Does it mean that 3 out of 10 days this forecast appears it will rain? Does it mean that 30% of the coverage area will see some rain? Does it mean that it will rain for 30% of the day? Further, how much rain is going to occur? If it rains lightly for 5 minutes and is sunny the rest of the time, does that satisfy the condition? How does this apply to percentages given in the hour-by-hour forecasts?

These are all questions that a trained meteorologist could answer but that a lay person probably could not. Still, people often look-up a forecast up to 10 days in advance and state with confidence that it's going to be correct. That's probably a mistake.

Since I bicycle a lot, weather is more important to my daily life than it is to someone who doesn't bike very much. The only thing I've found to be truly reliable is the radar. When I wake up in the morning, I check the radar, if it looks like I'm in the clear for the next hour, I ride to work. I do the same thing in the evening. A forecast could show 90% chance of rain in a given day and I might be perfectly fine to bike to and from work without getting at all wet.

The Quest for Data

I'm a data guy. I spend many many hours at my day job staring at tables, crunching numbers, and turning piles of data into something comprehensible. Yet a day doesn't go by when I don't at some point mutter, "man, I sure wish we had better data on this question".

(from ckhamken on Flickr)

We (society) are currently at a crossroads when it comes to how we  feel about data. On the one hand, there's a genuine fear that corporations and government are harvesting every single data point about us that they possibly can and that they're doing something malicious with it. Facebook is selling our data to advertisers! Target is using our data to send diaper coupons to pregnant ladies! The government knows every step we take every day of the week!

If data this comprehensive exists, I'm yet to see it. Instead, I'm often faced with the opposite dilemma: a situation that's not especially well studied that could be better understood by data. It isn't either because no such data exists, because it's being held by someone powerful behind bulletproof glass, or because it's simply in a format that's not analyzable (try sorting thousands of records of physical paper and you'll know what I mean).

Last week I downloaded Untapped on my iPhone. Its premise is simple - keep track of the beers you drink, when you drank them, where, how you liked them, etc. On the surface, the utility of this app seems limited, and appears to appeal to people in the "share happy" world we now  live in. Unless of course you're using it to harvest data about yourself that could later yield some very interesting results.

When I was first trying to figure out the excitement about the Foursquare app, someone left a comment on this blog explaining that he uses the app essentially as a ledger to document his life. It's a running tab of every place he goes during every day. I hadn't initially thought about it in that way. To me, it was some kind of goofy game where you score points and compete against other people; not a data collection tool on your movement from place to place.

To me, both Untapped and Foursquare show that people actually want to harvest data on themselves. Why? Because it can lead to interesting insights. What was the most frequent beer I drank last year? What were the most frequent places I visited? Did my enjoyment of those beer differ by different days of the week? Did I see any evidence of my tastes changing with time? If I had to recall from memory, I might have some good guesses, but I might significantly over or under count certain things due to a cognitive bias. Keeping records is the only way to know for sure.

I've come across data warehouses online that make you check a box when you sign up for an account. This box says "I agree to use this website always for GOOD, never for EVIL". I think it perfectly sums up the struggle over data. Data can be a powerful tool in the quest for knowledge and understanding. But if it falls into the wrong hands, it can be used for potentially malicious purposes. It's the fear of the evil that often keeps valuable data from being used by the forces of good.
Some folks may have seen my post that appeared briefly over at Greater Greater Washington earlier today before it was taken down by the editors. The post was about whether car2go, the new car sharing service in DC and other cities, offers its members adequate insurance in the event of a collision.

My answer to this question is: I don't know.

(from GwenaĆ«l Piaser on Flickr)

This is a timely question because the company is running a limited time promotion for new members to sign up before May 6th. I have not signed up. I want to sign up; but the question about whether the service provides its members with adequate insurance is not clear to me. I'm very uncomfortable with the Terms and Conditions as they're written. Others who have actually read this document have shared similar concerns with me.

More broadly speaking, this isn't just about a single car-sharing company. I want to see car-sharing succeed as a transportation system. As long as there are services that are affordable, convenient, and most importantly, safe, then I'll be happy.

The main issue I have with car2go is that it's extremely difficult to interpret their contract. Much more difficult, for example, than Zipcar's (for which I am currently a member). I've spoken with car2go and they have told me that the service comes with insurance and a $1,000 deductible. I could take them at their word, but that information isn't clearly stated in the Terms & Conditions. Nowhere in that document do you see specific dollar amounts. In Zipcar's member contract, on the other hand, both the level of liability coverage and explanation of the "damage fee" are quite clear.

So again, are car2go's members covered in the event of a collision? Maybe. Maybe not. I'm not an attorney and don't have training interpreting contracts. Maybe the coverage advertised is completely legitimate, maybe it's not legally binding because of vagueness of the language in the contract.

These are questions I can't definitively answer. But they are questions that I do want to raise because I won't become a member until they are clarified. I also think the people who are already members ought to know what they've signed up for. Like I said, I want car-sharing to succeed, and without certain legal protections for members, I'm afraid it could ultimately undermine these services.

I'm told that an update to car2go's Terms and Conditions is currently being drafted. I hope it becomes comes available soon. And I hope that it's sufficient for me to set all of these concerns aside.