Thursday, July 26, 2007

We Flee Again

The Wall Street Journal's Informed Reader website highlights an interesting article by Joel Kotkin asserting that the demographic shift of 20-somethings into city centers like San Francisco and New York in the 90s is being reversed, as these same people settle down, have kids, and move to suburbs and secondary cities like Houston and Phoenix. While I don't dispute any of the factual assertions that Kotkin makes, and the underlying drivers for this demographic data are all too sensible and intuitive, I do take issue with some of Kotkin's explicit and implied analyses.

First, Kotkin notes some trends and makes assertions that I don't dispute:

- People who moved into dense urban centers like SF and NYC in their twenties are moving out to suburbs and exurbs. While I don't have the data, I can't dispute this. People get older, people have kids, people want to own not rent, people want more space, a backyard, a garden, a lawn. This is certainly deeply buried in the American psyche, if not a fundamental desire of wealthy societies. What is more suspicious, or perhaps just curious, is if these emigrating 30-somethings aren't being replaced by an equal crop of 20-somethings (particularly given that the 20-something echo-boom cohort should be larger than their elders). My experience in New York doesn't signal this to be true. 30 somethings may be leaving the city but they are being replaced by 20 somethings -- and the city is growing both denser and sprawling outwards. But if it is a trend, that as a generation is leaving the cities, they are not being replaced, then why is a fascinating question.

- People actually enjoy living in the suburbs, more than in cities. I think this is entirely plausible, although I would guess that most of the studies that find this to be true are asking questions that pose false choices. For example, asking whether people are more likely to identify their suburban neighborhood as "home," where they have settled down for the rest of their lives, versus an urban neighborhood, where some significant portion of the population will be necessarily moving on at some point in their lives doesn't make a lot of sense. Perhaps a more telling question would be to find out whether those "lifers" who have chosen to live suburban and urban areas have stronger identifications with their homes. I've got a good idea what Brooklyners and New Yorkers would say, even through their complaining and misery.

- People are moving to suburbs and the SunBelt for job opportunities. Fair enough, I imagine the economic data sees this through.

- People are moving to suburbs and exurbs because they get more value for their money. Undoubtedly.

Where I think Kotkin's article weakens is in failing to address the following questions:

- First, the too-cute opening gambit of the article, that the "increasingly trendy theory holds that the ticket to attracting and retaining the educated and upwardly mobile is a big dose of urban cool" doesn't hold up is neither proved nor dis-proved by any of the data or studies that Kotkin cites. In fact, I'm quite sure that the increasing availability of much of the consumable elements of urban cool being readily available in suburbs and exurbs (thanks to Starbuck's, an increasingly de-centralized retail economy, urban planning efforts by smaller municipalities) makes the move to the suburbs a much softer landing for ex-urbanites. You can still get a good latte. You can have your books and CDs delivered to you by So those creature comforts that a city could offer become less valuable.

- Second, the same argument above I think mis-represents the premise of cities investing in "urban cool." It is not that cities don't need to invest in energizing their cores to draw in residents - they certainly do. The problem is, even when doing so, dense cities still may lose out to suburbs and exurbs. So cities need to figure out how to address other issues - like becoming more kid friendly, creating more opportunities for young families to own property, and providing better access to open space and green space. Otherwise, what's the alternative? Should cities dismantle their infrastructure and orient themselves to suburban development? I feel like we've seen that movie before...

- The biggest question I have is if the economic and demographic growth that Kotkin cites stimulates the kind of innovation that the "Creative Class" is responsible for, and which allows for sustained growth in the long term? In the Bay Area, the increasingly sprawling and exurban Silicon Valley has been effective at driving technology innovation in the last thirty years. At the same time, cities throughout Silicon Valley, from San Jose to Palo Alto to San Francisco to Oakland to Danville have invested in bringing some elements of "urban cool" into their neighborhoods. And New York's recent resurgence is surely spearheaded by the twin draws of an incredibly engaging and active city life paired with an increasingly safe, clean, and in some respects, suburbanized Manhattan. I have less experience with Phoenix or Houston but I would be curious to see what the patterns of innovation are with respect to economic and job growth. Are the economies in these region creating the sorts of new products and services that can motivate and sustain the rest of the economy? Or is the regional growth in these areas simply the scaling of innovation (i.e., no longer the locus of innovation, but places where cheaper capital, labor, and operating expenses allow for more efficient scaling of product and service delivery) happening in other areas?

- A final quibble is that I think Kotkin falsely suggests that people move to suburbs, exurbs, and Sunbelt cities because of job opportunity. It is not as if jobs are natively growing in those regions - except perhaps in the energy sector. Rather, I think a more fair assertion would be that both job growth and demographic shifts are occurring because these regions offer competitive advantages in terms of capital, labor, and resource costs -- to both individuals and families, and to industry.

All in all, I don't take issue with most of Kotkin's positions. The demographic trends and assertions that follow-on make sense. It seems a perfectly plausible explanation of what is happening. The question, as always, is if what is happening is what should be happening. Are the outcomes of increased growth, economic and demographic, in suburbia, at the expense of dense cities good for cities in the long run - either those being left behind or those being choked by sprawl and outward development? Are those outcomes the best way for fostering innovation in the economy? Does suburban life make people happier in the long run, compared to investing in vibrant cities? Does it create a sufficiently common set of experiences and interests to maintain and enrich a national character? The answer to all of these may be yes, they may be no, but I think they are vital questions to ask before suggesting that the investment in vital urban life is a failed policy.

Let the Mirror Reflect the Room

I imagine most people who visit this site are familiar with the fact that I write another blog, The Quiet Quiet. But, just in case, I wanted to point it out. The difference between the two blogs, generally, is this: the blog that you are on focuses on technology, environment, development, politics, and similar topics. The Quiet Quiet will have posts on art, architecture, books, movies, music, random stuff I find on the internet, food and drink, and things my friends do. So, if you happen to have stumbled upon this blog, feel free to check out the other one.

As always, thanks for reading. I hope you are enjoying!

Pictures above and below are from Flickr, searching for "Convex Mirror." See more here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

How Advertising Runs The World, part II

Seth Stevenson's Ad Report Card feature in is generally interesting and occasionally great. Given how pervasive and influential advertisements are in our daily life, I'm glad that someone is taking the time to be thoughtful about them.

Of the higher-ups in the advertising world that I've met personally or gained an impression of through some print or video interview have come across as smart and competent about how to use the tools of their industry to achieve their objectives - communicate brand identities, introduce new products, and sell you things. But the vast majority of the advertising world seems to be made up of uninspired, dull, and misguided people.

This is, of course, an overly harsh judgment. Harsher still has been my impression that beyond a few geniuses, a slightly bigger handful of expert manipulators, and some successful copy cats, most advertising professionals have no fucking clue what they are doing. Advertising, as an industry, seems like an elaborate and extremely well-funded crapshoot. Theories abound, few of them good. Disciplines on only vaguely sounder footing, including psychology, marketing, visual design, creative writing, and even neuroscience get dragged into the tawdry discussion.

All this, I suppose, as a long-winded way to convey my ill-informed impression that few of the practitioners of advertising are as thoughtful as the handful of people who critique the industry. With that said, the current article/video essay in the Ad Report Card feature is worth a look, as it summarizes one industry veteran's identification of archetypal ads that are successful. From Stevenson's introduction:

In 1978, Donald Gunn was a creative director for the advertising agency Leo Burnett. Though his position implied expertise, Gunn felt he was often just throwing darts—relying on inspiration and luck (instead of proven formulas) to make great ads. So, he decided to inject some analytical rigor into the process: He took a yearlong sabbatical, studied the best TV ads he could find, and looked for elemental patterns.

After much research, Gunn determined that nearly all good ads fall into one of 12 categories—or "master formats," in his words.
See the essay here, with a lot of embedded video examples.

Tickle Me, Elmo

When the day comes, long after we humans succeed in wiping each other off the face of the Earth, and the aliens finally come, I hope they find a land filled with Tickle Me Elmos, laughing uproariously, slapping their thighs, falling over. At least we will have accomplished something.

I leave the deep thinking about how our brains work and what are the evolutionary reasons for why we do the things we do to my smarter friends, like current roommate EZ or PK. Existential questions that I just haven't got the chops to tackle. So I don't have too many comments on this article, although it is worth a read. First my comments, then excerpts of key phrases that I found amusing or charming, if not poignant:

Examinations of the question "Why is something funny?" are invariably unfunny, tiresome, and tend to belie the author's lack of a sense of humor and general failing to get the point. The quick pivot in the focus of this article from humor to laughter made for a more engaging read, and bolstered my confidence that the underlying science might be on to something, instead of nothing.

Isn't it incredibly difficult to study humor, given that most people don't have any idea what's funny, and even fewer are actually funny? Isn't trying to understand why a person getting hit in the crotch is "funny" just as misguided as trying to prove that dinosaurs roamed the Earth sometime between the Flood and modern times? Not that the article broaches either topic.

Thank goodness we're more like chimpanzees than lizards. Imagined how horrible the world would be if we were more like lizards...

Key passages:
"a British research group who claimed they had determined the world’s funniest joke. Despite the fact that the researchers sampled a massive international audience in making this judgment, the winning joke revolved around New Jersey residents: A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing; his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency service. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says: “Take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says, 'OK, now what?'"

"Speakers, it turned out, were 46 percent more likely to laugh than listeners—and what they were laughing at, more often than not, wasn’t remotely funny."

"At one point Provine stops two waste-disposal workers driving a golf cart loaded up with trash bags. When they fail to guffaw on cue, Provine asks them why they can’t muster up a chuckle. “Because you’re not funny,” one of them says. Then they turn to each other and share a hearty laugh."

"The limits of our voluntary power over laughter are most clearly exposed in studies of stroke victims who suffer from a disturbing condition, known as central facial paralysis, that prevents them from voluntarily moving either the left or right side of their face, depending on the location of the neurological damage. When these individuals are asked to smile or laugh on command, they produce lopsided grins: One side of the mouth curls up, the other remains frozen. But when they’re told a joke or they’re tickled, traditional smiles and laughs animate their entire faces."

"According to Fouts, who helped teach sign language to Washoe, perhaps the world’s most famous chimpanzee, the practice is just as common, and perhaps more long-lived, among the chimps. “Tickling . . . seems to be very important to chimpanzees because it continues throughout their lives,” he says. Even at the age of 41, Washoe still enjoys tickling and being tickled. Among young chimpanzees who have been taught sign language, tickling is a frequent topic of conversation."
Which, of course, begs a final question: what are other frequent topics of conversation among chimpanzees? And shouldn't this knowledge be widely known? Perhaps in place of Lindsay Lohan mugshots?

Read the article.

Iraq Into Asian Cup Finals

Iraq beats South Korea 4-3 on penalty kicks, and await the winner of Saudi Arabia-Japan. An improbably run by the Iraqis, I wonder what the reaction is on the ground in Iraq...

UPDATE: Ah, fuck. The nihilism currently in Iraq, whether it is foreign terrorists, sectarian violence, or whomever, is numbing. Today's headline: "Baghdad bombers target soccer celebrations, killing at least 50." Between regular attacks on weddings, religious festivals, and national sporting triumphs, it is impossible to see how hope or joy can exist in Iraq. How incredibly sad.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Get Green: Design Leads the Way

In my mind, there are three keys to solving the "green equation" of how we can live more sustainably, particularly with respect to energy and natural resource consumption. The first is driven by science and public policy, and has to do with our ability to discover and develop fundamental advances in our ability (as a society/economy) to get the goods and services we need out of the primary inputs we consume, with minimal adverse impact. Clearly, research and development efforts in fields as disparate as biofuels, solar/fuel cells, genetic engineering, carbon sequestration and other core science and technology initiatives are targeting these fronts. To my inexpert eye, the investments we are making here are limited to-date, and the initiatives, though encouraging, are insufficient.

The second piece of the puzzle is cultural, and lies with the willingness of individuals, as consumers and political actors, to make decisions that take into consideration environmental consequences. These decisions include choosing to consume less, pay market premiums for goods and services that provide greater dividends in protecting environmental and natural resources, and promote, through voting and civic engagement, a political climate that supports policies targeting sustainable development. A political and economic climate created by an environmentally conscious public could more effectively create market opportunities for alternative, efficient technologies, fund research in core sciences and technology, re-aligning tax policy to create incentives environmentally responsible behavior, and create a baseline understanding of the values and ethics of "sustainable development." While the cultural sensitivity to certain issues like global warming and a potential energy crisis have been heightened in recent years, I don't think that a true ethic of sustainability is anywhere near close to existing in the U.S. Additionally, as a sometimes student of economics, I'd mention that much 0f what I discuss above is somewhat anathema to parts of economic theory - in that, I believe that people as consumers will have to make economic choices that aren't rational w.r.t. price because of a deeper core set of values, ethics, or understanding about environmental consequences. Consumers will have to shape the market, not vice versa.

The third piece of the puzzle is very much design-driven, and have to do with the ability of architects, engineers, product designers, and policy makers to create appealing consumer choices - in terms of what car to drive, where to live, what to buy, and so on - that align environmentally-positive consequences with benefits that appeal to other values, like status, cost efficiency, comfort, quality of life, aesthetics, and so on. Where I have a dim view of the progress we're making on each of the previous two fronts, I am excited about the cool new products, across all facets of life, that seem to come out every day. While the impact on the bottom line may be modest, it is tangible. And the further impact of these "green" products and policies, if successful may be a heightened environmental consciousness for individuals and greater investment from government and private capital in the fundamental technologies that can allow us to take big steps forward.

I lay out this somewhat abstract framework for two reasons: first, simply to put it out there, to solicit feedback, and to reference in future posts. I hope it is a useful framework. Second, as an excuse to post about a handful of interesting innovations in technology and design recently published in Wired magazine:

- A proposed new dorm at Stanford University, whose theme will be eco-efficiency, but which also proposes to be the "most desirable housing on campus." Thankfully, having gone through Stanford's undergraduate housing lottery, that claim is readily falsifiable. See here for more detailed plans;
- A Jetsonian plan for improving transportation efficiency and quality of life in San Diego, through the deployment of "robot buses." Cool if it works, and a great example of how environmental efficiencies and quality of life improvements can be made in one fell swoop;
- A proposed residential tower in Chicago that falls back on pre-Columbian building design to create a more energy efficient and more pleasant living environment. The simple decision to angle the buildings Southern exposure to maximize passive solar heating in the winter, and minimize direct sunlight in the summer helps keep electricity and heating costs down while letting more natural light in. Not the first time such a dwelling was built in the Americas, and hopefully not the last.

YouTube Debate

As mentioned, I didn't get to watch last night's debate, due to the whole no TV thing. In truth, I don't really enjoy the debates, and its interesting to see the candidates themselves bristle against the format more and more often. The inclusion of "user-generated content" was a novel twist in the YouTube debate, and the reviews I've read have been pretty encouraging - particularly in citing the more cogent questions, while noting that the format, like YouTube itself, allowed a few average Americans to make fools of themselves. The consensus seems to be coalescing around the trio of Clinton, Edwards, and Obama winning the debates - which is encouraging, in terms of seeing the potential nominees performing well, but a little discouraging, in terms of feeling like all of the elements of the nomination process are like an echo chamber. It would be nice to see someone (Biden? Richardson?) make a serious challenge from within the pack...

Below are some links to coverage that I found interesting. Anyone see the debates and have opinions?

TalkingPointsMemo put together a "highlights video"
John Dickerson at seems to score it: Clinton, Obama, Edwards
Roger Simon at explicitly gives the win to Edwards, then Clinton, then Obama

Monday, July 23, 2007

Notes on Obama

Last weekend, RM and I went up to JWW's new place in Cold Spring, NY for lunch. To our pleasant surprise, JWW's father, step-mother, and sister were there, as well - all three of us, RM, JWW, and I have a great deal of fun talking to his father, who never fails to be engaging while relating his opinions and experiences, covering forty-odd adult years in the New York area. During the course of our gin and hamburger-fueled conversation, Mr. W cast out an interesting aside - that he found Obama to be an intriguing candidate, generally very likeable, and would consider voting for him. This counts as an interesting aside as Mr. W has a certain amount of disdain for any politician, it seems, equally reviles Clinton and Bush, one for his equivocation, the other for his sheer incompetence, and maintains a laughing distaste for "that Catholic president." So is this a small bellwether for the Obama candidacy?

Being without TV, I missed tonight's debate - and I'll catch up to it tomorrow on the news sites, Slate, and TPM. I am, in general, very pro-Obama. My only concern is that winning the 2008 presidency might not be the best presidency to win. What with our problems, and all. But that's a discussion for another day.

Today, I wanted to re-visit Obama's speech from the 2004 Democratic convention, nominating John Kerry. Previous to that speech, I did not know much of Obama, and I found the speech electrifying. I'll get into the whys in a subsequent post, but I distinctly remember forwarding the text of the speech to all my friends who vaguely care about politics immediately after Obama finished. An excerpt of the speech is below, with a link to the full speech following:
OBAMA: [...] Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely.

My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin- roof shack. His father, my grandfather, was a cook, a domestic servant to the British.

OBAMA: But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son. Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that's shown as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before him.


While studying here my father met my mother. She was born in a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas.


Her father worked on oil rigs and farms through most of the Depression. The day after Pearl Harbor, my grandfather signed up for duty, joined Patton's army, marched across Europe. Back home my grandmother raised a baby and went to work on a bomber assembly line. After the war, they studied on the GI Bill, bought a house through FHA and later moved west, all the way to Hawaii, in search of opportunity.


And they too had big dreams for their daughter, a common dream born of two continents.

OBAMA: My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or "blessed," believing that in a tolerant America, your name is no barrier to success.


They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren't rich, because in a generous America you don't have to be rich to achieve your potential.


They're both passed away now. And yet I know that, on this night, they look down on me with great pride.

And I stand here today grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents' dreams live on in my two precious daughters.

I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.


OBAMA: Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy; our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...


... that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

That is the true genius of America, a faith...


... a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles; that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door; that we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe; that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution; and that our votes will be counted -- or at least, most of the time.

Full text of the speech here.

Also, Obama has a Flickr site. It's sort of crazy. You should check it out.

Leave Those Kids Alone

A strange study cited in an article on focuses on the work of Utah State University anthropologist David Lancy, who appears to be making the argument that encouraging of parent-child play in developed societies is a potentially dangerous to child development. Lancy's rationale, the best as I can grasp it from a brief article, is that historically, and in contemporary tribal societies, parent-child play is not characteristic. Children play with their peers and on their own. Excerpt:
"...parent-child play of this sort has been virtually unheard of throughout human history, according to the anthropologist David Lancy. And three-fourths of the world's current population would still find that mother's behavior kind of dotty.

American-style parent-child play is a distinct feature of wealthy developed countries -- a recent byproduct of the pressure to get kids ready for the information-age economy, Lancy argues in a recent article in American Anthropologist, the field's flagship journal in the United States.

"Adults think it is silly to play with children" in most cultures, says Lancy, who teaches at Utah State University. Play is a cultural universal, he concedes, "but adults aren't part of the picture." Yet middle-class and upper-middle-class Americans -- abetted, he says, by psychologists -- are increasingly proclaiming the parents-on-all-fours style the One True Way to raise a smart, well-adjusted child.

Needless to say, this analysis makes little sense to me, and smacks, unfortunately of that evil of academia, particularly in the social sciences - to be shamelessly sensationalist and willfully perverse in your conclusions. But I'm neither a social scientist nor an anthropologist. The article seems to contain an adequate rebuttal, by Yale's Jerome Singer:

"I'm not clear what's bothering this guy," he says, referring to Lancy. "We are not talking about the parents playing all day long with the children. We're just saying that children need to play, and particular kinds of play -- imaginative play that has a storytelling element to it -- are very useful" in our culture.

But I'd be interested in other thoughts. People with kids? Anthropologists? Psychologists?

Moscow's Collapsing Middle Class

I'm not a huge fan of Anne Applebaum's columns, and I don't have a great deal of context for Russia. Her latest posting on Slate caught my eye, about how the increasing failure to enforce the rule of law in Russia is taking a toll on the professional middle class, as observed from the experiences of Applebaum's friends and acquaintances . An excerpt:

If you look at the statistics—GDP, stock market, annual growth rates—Russia's economy appears to be improving rapidly. Presumably the oil magnates who are snapping up big houses in Geneva and London are benefiting from the huge rise in oil and gas prices, and the accompanying boom. Maybe the retirees whose pensions are now paid on time—in the 1990s, they would go for weeks without seeing a ruble—benefit, too. But there is a group that clearly isn't doing well from Russia's economic growth, and most of my friends—doctors, journalists, teachers, historians, some entrepreneurs—are part of it. For lack of a better term, I'll call this group the would-be middle-class.

The mere fact of living in a post-Communist country doesn't explain their tribulations, however. I reckon my friends in Warsaw must be the rough socioeconomic equivalents of my friends in Moscow, but my Warsaw friends are flourishing despite the chaotic coalition government that currently runs their country, and despite the corruption that sometimes prevails in their city government. They might not be zillionaires, but their children study abroad, their apartments have new Ikea bookshelves, and they don't regularly tell horror stories about their daily lives. They aren't a would-be middle-class, they're a real middle class, and eventually they'll vote like one, too.

It's a good reminder of something we often forget: Not every prime minister has to be a genius, not every economic target has to be met in order for life to improve in a developing or transitional country. But a few institutions are required, at minimum: a percentage of honest bureaucrats, a minimal investment in public health and safety, a genuine separation between criminal mafias and at least most state authorities. And, of course, a working legal system.

Applebaum's observation immediately triggered two disparate thoughts in my mind. The first revisited an observation of my reading of Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon from earlier this spring. Specifically, I always have this feeling that the experience of the individual in Russia, dating in literature from Soviet times and before, is a unique one. I have no personal context for this assertion, but when reading either great literature or more recent accounts like Applebaum's, I get the impression that the impersonal bureaucracies, the systematic unfairness, and monolith of illogic that your average thinking Russian faces is somehow of a different character than what you might find in Kafka, or in any of Graham Greene's bizarre outposts, or in navigating the multi-tiered government ministries of modern day India or China.

The second thought, more germane to the remainder of this blog, is about the disconnect between the official evaluation of development and government policies, as measured by things like GDP or economic growth rates, and the experience on the ground of those pillars of civil society that make an economy or a society function. From an academic perspective, many attempts have been made by socially-concerned economists to try to gauge the health of an economy - the genuine progress indicator being one. Less academically, ff Applebaum's observations hold true, and Russia's professional class is at risk, then this represents a significant threat to Russian society. Living in America, projecting into the next century, Russia and China remain the two real wildcards to the global order - and our focus has been distracted by the war in Iraq and Islamic terrorism in the past six years. Perhaps warnings like Applebaum's warrant further attention?

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Green/Yellow Journalism

In general, I like reading Jack Shafer's columns on His most recent, a brief invective against "environmental" journalism, is a little puzzling. Opening with this broadside attack:
green journalism tends to appeal to our emotions, exploit our fears, and pander to our vanity. It places a political agenda in front of the quest for journalistic truth and in its most demagogic forms tolerates no criticism, branding all who question it as enemies of the people. Not all green journalism harangues, but even the gentlest variety sermonizes, cuts logical corners, and substitutes good intentions for problem solving.
Shafer goes on to haul a small and unimpressive set of evidence out damning environmental reporting, squaring off most directly with Slate's own "Slate Green Challenge" series, which was jointly authored with a few weeks ago.

While I tend to agree with Shafer, that, overall, journalism about environmental concerns can be sloppy, and from the perspective of an environmentalist, possibly self-defeating in so far as the softer, do-gooder reporting undermines the more serious scientific, technical, and policy reporting, it is curious that Shafer tries to hang environmental journalism on failing to prize journalistic truth and cutting logical corners, without providing more than one instance of this (the NYT article). I don't have any data in hand, but my general impression is not that "green" reporting is factually incorrect, or even incomplete, but that it suffers from too much rah-rah cheerleading and a bad case of the telling-you-what's-best-for-yous. This puts green journalism more in the camp of journalists advancing unpopular causes grounded to a journalistic truth (see Kristof on Sudan), than in the company of yellow journalists, doesn't it?

Or maybe sensationalism isn't that damning a charge, after all?

Friday, July 6, 2007

Global Cities at the Tate

I've had a couple of interesting conversations in the last few days about cities - one with OES and AL over dinner on the 4th of July, another in fits and starts with ENW over email. In all cases, I am advancing a half-thought out thesis, which basically goes like this: as cities become richer and safer in their centers, and more sprawling and stratified as you move outward from the center, the city loses some of the essential qualities that make it special. With respect to sustainability and resource planning, I think this argument is on pretty solid ground. As I think about culture, I veer onto thinner ice (with ideas like 'a city can be too safe and too easy to live in'). I was hoping to post something cogent on these topics, but I'm still sorting through some thinking on this front. In the meantime, I wanted to post some photos from the Tate Modern's Global Cities exhibit, which I saw in London a few weeks ago, as well as direct you to the exhibition site. While it wasn't great, either as art or urban study, the focus on a couple of key indicators - density, % of population that is foreign-born, ethnic diversity - are really interesting perspectives on what demographic factors will shape the evolution of some of the world's major cities in the coming years.

Also, a particularly contentious post by Matthew Yglesias on the Atlantic Monthly blog, tying global warming concerns to issues of urban density and planning. In general, I agree with Yglesias, but it is a thread worth picking up in greater detail in a future post. Courtesy ENW.

Photos, from top:
Maha Maamoun, Domestic Tourism
Scott Peterman, Ecataepec
Andreas Gursky, Copan

Social Divides on Social Networking Applications + Twitter

My opinion on social networking software is pretty simple. I do believe that encoding social networking behavior in online platforms and applications has the potential to enrich people's lives, as well as add value to wealth-creating activities (i.e., SN has business applications). Appealing to my idealistic side, satisfying one or both of those criteria is the basis on which a technology or business innovation is worth spending time thinking about. While the question of how business value will be delivered from social networking is a topic I have discussed (see previous posts, or this article for a cursory view), the question of how social networking applications may be enriching people's lives is not something that I have spent less time considering. At a very high level, I think social networking software can enrich a person's life in the following ways:

1. Allowing a person to capture and maintain their real-world social network through technological means - so you do a better job maintaining friendships over distance and time, and understand your friends in new ways based on the information they choose to convey about themselves;
2. Allowing a person to find new friends through their social network - so you can extend your circle of friends on a friends-of-friends basis;
3. Enabling a person to express their personality through a "broadcast" medium - so you could use the profile feature of most social networks allows a person to create, control, and communicate their identity to the world at large;
4. Enabling a person to make connections based on interests or attributes that can't be facilitated by their real-world social networks - so you can meet people online to whom you may have a strong affinity using a social networking service, where the connection may never have occurred in the physical world;

With that generally in mind, two recent articles caught my eye and are worth a quick read.

Social networking expert Danah Boyd publishes an interesting study on her website in which she traces "class divisions" in the usage of the social networking services MySpace and Facebook. In studying the use of these services by young people, Boyd has found both perceptions of usage and actual usage patterns where "good kids" - meaning college-bound students, but also a proxy, it seems, for middle-to-upper-class students, and traditionally popular school cliques - tend to use Facebook, whereas the "Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, "burnouts," "alternative kids," "art fags," punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids" call MySpace home.

There may be some features of each of the services that are responsible for their attraction to different types of users. Boyd indicates that the Facebook crowd prefers its "clean" interface, whereas some of the heterogeneous set of high school outsiders lumped into the MySpace crowd prefer the "bling" and front-end configuration capabilities of MySpace. More likely, however, is a simple migration of real world patterns of behavior and social networking migrating into the online world. This is a real shame, of course, as one of the hopes of the online world would be the ability for people to transcend the impositions of their day-to-day realities. Especially for kids. As Boyd sums it up, sigh.

On an entirely separate note, Clive Thompson writes in Wired about recent flavor-of-the-month Twitter. Now, I haven't actually used Twitter, as I try to avoid the more twee software phenomenon to the extent that I possibly can, no matter how hot they are, but smarter people than me have. In case you don't know what Twitter is, Thompson sums it up well:
a tool that lets you post brief updates about your everyday thoughts and activities to the Web via browser, cell phone, or IM. The messages are limited to 140 characters, so they lean toward pithy, haiku-like utterances.
And his argument for Twitter is as follows:
Individually, most Twitter messages are stupefyingly trivial. But the true value of Twitter — and the similarly mundane Dodgeball, a tool for reporting your real-time location to friends — is cumulative. The power is in the surprising effects that come from receiving thousands of pings from your posse. And this, as it turns out, suggests where the Web is heading.

When I see that my friend Misha is "waiting at Genius Bar to send my MacBook to the shop," that's not much information. But when I get such granular updates every day for a month, I know a lot more about her. And when my four closest friends and worldmates send me dozens of updates a week for five months, I begin to develop an almost telepathic awareness of the people most important to me.

It's like proprioception, your body's ability to know where your limbs are. That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects, and it makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity.

Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.

Now, I don't know if I buy any of this, but it is an interesting hypothesis - that the more data we provide about ourselves to our friends, the better they can know us - in greater depth, in more detail, with greater variety. And that is, I would hope, one of the aims of social networking software.

New Ways to Social Network

While Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn have emerged from the pack in the social networking space (it's still hard to really call it a full-fledged market, isn't it?), it seems to me that quite a broad range of users and use cases are being under-served by these three services. Specifically, while Facebook and MySpace have done good jobs serving the social part of social networking, in the broadest sense, they become less effective as a user tries to use their social network effectively to satisfy some specific aspect of their personality.

For example, Facebook and MySpace have not been particularly effective in serving their users in a professional context, either as job seekers or as employees who may leverage their social network to do their jobs, like salespeople or recruiters. This opportunity fueled the rise of LinkedIn, as well as my previous employer, Visible Path. As another example, while each of the social networks may help me identify certain interests (I am a soccer fan, I like to travel), they are less useful in exploring those interests to any depth.

As those uses of social networks are left unmet, other services are struggling to fill those niches. Part of the difficulty in doing this is the relative saturation that Facebook and MySpace have achieved (in the US) for users likely to sign up for social networks. This leaves upstart competitors trying to establish new ways of getting their social networking services out. One method, currently adopted by Visible Path, is to understand a social networking service not as a "destination," but rather, as a service that can be accessed from other business applications. This effort has the benefits (to Visible Path) of broadening the points of access that a user might have to its service and (to the user) of providing access to a social networking service from within the context of applications or websites they are already using. Visible Path CEO discusses this approach in a blog post on that company's blog. While this isn't a new approach, (as social networking has long been a feature of many community/bulletin board web sites, and LinkedIn and Facebook are opening up there networks to external development) it will hopefully be a successful gambit in introducing users to a service with some differentiating value (and with the caveat that, as mentioned, I formerly worked at Visible Path).

A different approach to introducing a new social networking service to the market is being taken by Ning, founded by Marc Andreessen, which recognizes that most people have different aspects to their personality and may have wildly divergent interests. Ning allows users to start their own social networks, focused on whatever topic they choose, and then allows people to use their single Ning userID to join any network of their choice. The service is fairly feature rich, and has the obvious benefit of marrying the appeals of community and area-of-interest focused services to a single social networking platform. While I haven't used Ning extensively, I have been excited by the launch of Tripsanity on Ning, by my old friends CC, DC, and KP. Tripsanity is a social network focused on traveling for people with an adventurous spirit. It brings the sensibility of guides like Lonely Planet to an experiential and user-driven community, and is a cool way to plan a trip, be a voyeur on someone else's trip, or keep tabs on your globe-trotting friends.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Trickle-Down Edunomics

An interesting article in the New York Times a few weeks ago caught my attention. The opening paragraphs are as follows:
Lehigh University has never been as sought after as Stanford, Yale or Harvard. But this year, awash in applications, it churned out rejection letters and may break more hearts when it comes to its waiting list.

Call them second-tier colleges (a phrase some administrators despise) or call them the new Ivies (this, they can live with). Twenty-five to 40 universities like Lehigh, traditionally perceived as being a notch below the most elite, have seen their cachet climb because of the astonishing competitive crush at the top.

“It’s harder to get into Bowdoin now than it was to get into Princeton when I worked there,” said William M. Shain, who worked at Princeton in the 1970s and is now dean of admissions and financial aid at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me. Bowdoin is one of those benefiting from the spillover as the country’s most prestigious colleges turn away nearly 9 out of 10 applicants.

At Lehigh, known for its strength in engineering and business, about 12,000 students applied this year. That is a whopping 50 percent increase in applications over seven years ago and more than 10 times the seats available in a freshman class of 1,150. The median SAT score of admitted students has climbed about 10 points a year in recent years, officials said.

Not knowing enough about the demographics of matriculating college classes, don't immediate questions arise about who is getting a "first-tier" quality education, and what the is quality of the education being received by the students who in another era might have been first tier? It feels like an odd supply and demand problem, but where I'm left wondering - is the increase in demand for top tier education simply a result of demographic shifts and increased access? And is it possible that the quality of the "product," so to speak, of "second-tier" institutions can be elevated to provide the same quality of education to those students who might otherwise have attended Harvard or Yale? And what is the macro consequence? Will we have a more effective, better educated populace? Or a populace who is under-served, in terms of higher education?

Hipsters, Prepare to Die

ENW sends me an article form 3 Quarks Daily entitled "Hipsters, Prepare to Die." For that reason alone, I must write about it, but unfortunately, the title may be the only reason I have. It is fascinating to hear someone who has somehow stationed themselves in the outskirts of Romania reflect back on Williamsburg hipsterism (in whose bosom I now sit). But it's hard for me to really believe that a) this generation is really so different from the last, or any other, given that I know enough children of the 60s who did not, in fact, share that mythic experience of the 60s and that b) we, our hipster generation, don't really feel all that special. Do we?

I think what is perhaps more consequential than the supposed irony of these hipsters, as a threat to us in our old age, are three things: our late bloom into adulthood, where so many of our contemporary twenty-, thirty-, and even forty-somethings have been able to put off the basic mechanics of life, like jobs, babies, death, and taxes; our political disengagement, where we are ill-equipped to navigate and shape an increasingly complicated and technocratic political landscape that will determine the fate of issues like health care and social security; and the changing demographics of our world, where, as we collectively get older and (maybe) richer, the world will get younger and poorer. None of these things are caused by irony, nor will any of them be fended off by irony. ENW?

Freeman Dyson on Our Biotech Future

Freeman Dyson's essay "Our Biotech Future" in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books is a speculative take on the potential of biological science and biotech to provide a basis for addressing the key social and environmental problems of the 21st century - including rural poverty. I suppose it is a positive that Dyson is hopeful and not resigned in his take on the future, but his very high concept essay, which skims from the domestication of technology, through to early/proto-Darwinian models of evolution in early microbes, to a comparison of "Green" versus "Grey" technologies is so un-tethered from any immediate technological reality that I'm left grasping as to the hope that Dyson holds. Maybe that's why he's a visionary and my imagination strains to keep up, but it seems that while Dyson's optimism might be contagious, his practical conceits are frail, at best. Take the opening comparison of the domestication of physics to the domestication of biology (a future which I still can't conceive...) Isn't his example about the domestication of information technology, not physics? Other than advances in telecommunications, have the hallmark scientific initiatives of the atomic age - nuclear power, nuclear weapons, space exploration - really made it into the home? I guess the list might include fiber optics and lasers, but can you really count microprocessors, as well?

And what I struggle to imagine is the analog for biotechnology. Will there really be an interface that allows the non-expert user to manipulate biological information? Is that really what breeding new species of flowers or reptiles is? And is that really a good thing?

Growing uncomfortable in my old age, I suppose.