Tuesday, February 22, 2011

It's Been a While, But Here's A New Self Portrait

Why do I only have the motivation for this sort of thing after 2:00 AM. I haven't been doing much, since my flash has been broken for about a year now. The part that connects it to the camera broke off. But it can still flash if you push the little button on it. It takes some experimenting to work it out, and you have to leave the shutter open long enough that you can hear it click and push the button before it closes. I used a half second, I think.
From Will the World End in the Night Time?

Monday, February 21, 2011

I Think Someone Was Lying To William Whyte

Since I haven't had a chance to check out Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City yet, I've been satisfying my urge for urbanist reading with William H. Whyte's City: Rediscovering the Center. This book basically takes the opposite perspective on how cities work: whereas Glaeser looks at the macroeconomic situation of cities in general, Whyte has gone out and filmed countless hours of how people in cities do the simplest things like converse on a sidewalk. Being a bike messenger, I am often in a position to see these things as well, so I find it all rather fascinating, yet familiar. For example, people apparently are more likely to stop have a conversation in the busiest part of the walkway, rather than off to the side. It always seemed that way to me, but I figured that was just when I noticed it the most.

I had to laugh at this passage from page 62, though. Keep in mind that this was written in 1988:
“A new danger for pedestrians is the rise of the messenger cyclists. Up until about five years ago most of the cyclists one encountered were people on their way to work. The messenger cyclists, however, are animated by money. They get paid for the number of deliveries they can make in a day, and true speed will net them an additional $100 additional a day, for a total take of $250–$300. So they go fast, very fast—thirty to thirty-five miles per hour when possible; they go against traffic and they run red lights. They seem to hate pedestrians; they scowl and curse at them and yell and blow whistles at them to get them out of the way.”
Really? $250–$300 a day, in 1988? $150, if you don't go fast? Thirty-five miles per hour? Sounds to me like he's listening to people telling stories. Sure, such things are possible, but certainly not on anything approaching a regular basis.

Other than that, though, it's a great book. It's amazing how much getting the little details right or wrong can make a difference in how things work. It's especially poignant for me, because I see so many things all the time that are just done the wrong way. Just little things like a building directory organized by floor number, so you can only find what you're looking for if you already know what floor it's on (77 Franklin St. is a particularly egregious example). It's nice to see someone try to shine light on these sorts of issues. Not that they've gone away in the 22 years since the book came out.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I Think I Mentioned That Edward Glaeser Was Everywhere These Days

And here he is on the Daily Show:

Not long after his Atlantic article “How Skyscrapers Can Save The City.” I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the idea of as many buildings as tall as he's advocating, but it would be nice to move further in that direction.

And an interview with Grist a couple weeks ago, where he fesses up to actually living in the suburbs himself. Kids, private school tuition, the usual excuses. And another interview, this time with the Atlantic.

I'll definitely be trying to get my hands on a copy of his new book from the library ASAP (having no money sucks). I keep checking online, but there's never a copy available. Guess I'll just have to keep following the promotional appearances.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sal Mineo, Murdered 35 Years Ago Today

Sal Mineo
Such a tragic life, a poor kid in the Bronx who couldn't stay out of trouble, a quick rise to fame, then a has-been in his mid-twenties, broke and trying to get back into the game, and pointlessly murdered at 37. It was his question, in Rebel Without a Cause, asking James Dean if the world would end in the nighttime or daytime, that inspired the title of this blog (the exact wording was from The Smiths' “Stretch Out And Wait”, Morrissey being a James Dean fan, naturally). Really one of the most amazing performances I've ever seen on film, at the young age of 16. He could have been one of the greats, but things just wouldn't work out that way. Also, not at all bad looking:

The Scourge of Pointless, Knee-Jerk Contrarianism

OK, so a while ago I promised an update on where the fight for marriage equality might suffer setbacks this year. Then I kept waiting to get a handle on what's going on in Wyoming, where they looked to be working towards any combination of: a law banning recognition of out-of-state marriages, a version that would also ban recognition of civil unions, a constitutional amendment doing either, or a law providing for civil unions. It was confusing. I'll try to sort it out at some point.

The other places to watch out for are New Hampshire, where the Republicans have a veto-proof majority now, the District of Columbia, where Republicans in Congress might be able to undo what the DC City Council has done, and Iowa, where same-sex marriage is legal, but still rather unpopular. New Hampshire and DC don't seem to be getting much enthusiasm from opponents, but in Iowa, there is a real push to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to ban same-sex marriage. Luckily, this isn't easy to do, and the Democrats hold the state Senate, where the majority leader, Michael Gronstal, has vowed not to bring the issue to a vote. The Iowa House of Representatives is still trying to do something, though.

So, they held hearings on the matter, the only real effect of which was to give a 19 year old Iowan named Zach Wahls a platform for his eloquent speech about being raised by a lesbian couple, the video of which has become a Youtube hit (1.5 million views right now):
This seems to have gotten a very positive response from the various news sites and blogs that I pay attention too. Yeah, I'm sure there's all sorts of stuff out on the “family values” crowd's websites, but that's not anything I give a shit about. Those who disagree with marriage equality, but have much more important concerns aren't going to chime up to talk shit about Zach Wahls. That'd be stupid.

But then again, there always seems to be that one guy who just has to disagree to prove how above-it-all he is. In this case, University of Rochester economist Steven Landsburg decided to fill the role:
“In a video that’s begun to go viral, University of Iowa engineering student Zach Wahls attempts to refute this notion without offering a shred of evidence beyond a single cherry-picked case (his own) to prove that children of gay parents sometimes turn out just fine… What’s particularly disturbing to me is all the chatter about how eloquent this kid is, as if eloquence in the service of intellectual misdirection were somehow something to be admired.”
Not being a reader of Prof. Landsburg's, I only found out about this from Will Wilkinson at the Economist's “Democracy in America” blog, where he neatly eviscerated Prof. Landsburg's argument. I highly recommend Will Wilkinson (the Economist only identifies its bloggers by initials, but it's not too hard to figure out from other places who W.W. is); he's enough of a libertarian to frustrate me at times, and enough of a liberal to get tossed out of the Cato Institute, which seems to be politically where my blog is focusing its commentary. Expect to see me quote him from time to time.

At the end, he sums up a frustration of mine:
“So what gives? My guess is that, like a number of right-leaning economists, Mr Landsburg has a regrettable tendency toward tone-deaf, context-dropping, contrarian provocation based on an unexamined assumption that this is what it means to be bravely rational. It is not. In any case, I think we can all agree that, other things equal, intellectual misdirection is not ‘something to be admired’.”
This does seem to be something of an annoying strain that I've noticed especially in otherwise top-notch right-of-center economics writing. The guys behind Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner, seem to have made their whole career off of examples of “counterintuitive” economic phenomena, even when it requires being sloppy to get there. I think there's definitely something to conservative or libertarian criticisms of the side-effects of government policy, but one can go too far in that line of thinking as well. Kudos to Will Wilkinson for calling that sort of thing out.

As for the rest of us, I suppose we can just enjoy seeing Zach Wahls speak passionately about his experiences without trying to judge him on whether his speech was a complete logical refutation of all arguments that same-sex parents are inferior. Certainly, the data exist to refute those arguments as well, and I'm sure various legislatures weighing the issue have considered expert testimony on the matter. But those videos aren't going to have the same appeal as this one.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Reason Magazine Cheers On Jerry Brown

“There can be no doubt that a good many, at least, of the problems with which the modern town planner is concerned are genuine problems with which governments or local authorities are bound to concern themselves. Unless we can provide some guidance in fields like this about what are legitimate or necessary government activities and what are its limits, we must not complain if our views are not taken seriously when we oppose other kinds of less justified ‘planning.’”
–F. A. Hayek

Apparently, I seem to like posting stuff with a basic theme of libertarian critiques of urban planning issues. I'm decidedly more of a liberal than a libertarian, myself, but I think that the history of failed “urban renewal” schemes in the US provides many lessons about the limits of central planning to solve the problems of large cities. And any focus on the issues affecting our great metropolises coming from a libertarian direction is a pleasant surprise to hear. So often, it seems that libertarian ideas are created around some ideal world where people live in freedom and self-sufficiency by themselves with their guns and SUVs. The article by Tim Lee that I grabbed the Hayek quote above from offers a more cogent critique of modern libertarianism along those lines. But that's not what I want to focus on here.

This article on Reason.com, cheering on California governor Jerry Brown in his quest to take on the state's bloated redevelopment agencies is the sort of thing I like to see. I don't know much about California, but I've been known to try to keep up on what the Boston Redevelopment Authority does. And much of it is the sort of necessary upgrades to the city's infrastructure that are always going to happen. (Also, their Boston Atlas is amazing if you love maps as much as I do, and the receptionist is always nice when I deliver stuff there.) But I've never liked the basic setup of the city basically putting its planning and development functions in the hands of a semi-autonomous, barely accountable agency. The whole way it's structured seems to invite collusion between the Authority and large developers, and hooking up those with the right connections with sweetheart deals on whatever property the city can grab via eminent domain (all given Supreme Court blessing in Kelo v. City of New London).

So I can heartily join in with Reason in hoping Jerry Brown is successful in taking on the redevelopment agencies. And, in the broader scheme of things, I hope that perhaps there's a way to find some common ground between liberals and libertarians interested in urban issues to dislodge the entrenched interests from the positions of power they command within our institutions of civic governance.