Monday, November 26, 2007

Planet of Slums

Photograph of a painting by Walter Handro
Cities in the abstract are the solution to the environmental crisis: urban density can translate into great efficiencies in land, energy, and resource use, while democratic public spaces and cultural institutions likewise provide qualitatively higher standards of enjoyment than individualized consumption and commodified leisure. - Pp. 134, Planet of Slums.
Truly, in the abstract, cities appear the solution to a lot of things, in an increasingly populated and economically stratified world. From the Le Corbusien dreams of the master planners to the amplifying growth of real estate values in the center of so many megacities (New York, included), there is a prevailing, abstract logic that a well-planned city may bring order, meaning, and stability of the masses who aggregate in the city center. Mike Davis' Planet of Slums is an assault on this logic, providing an overwhelming onslaught of statistics, anecdotes, and analysis that indicates that the modern city, in its incarnation as slum, shanty town, ghetto, favela, fails to deliver its denizens from poverty, inequality, or hopelessness.

Chaos, economic blight, and false hope seem to be the driving forces in the cities of the developing world, forcing the urban poor into worse and worse scenarios -- under-served by public infrastructure, lacking economic opportunity or social mobility, beset by public health epidemics, and trapped by government policies wrought from the high ideals of academia and Western think tanks. Rather than organic, democratic institutions, the poor parts of cities, ever increasing in size and population, seem like traps, sinkholes which draw in larger and larger populations, and provide no ready way out.

I wish I could say that under the reams of data damning the world's cities there is a trap door, leading to a brighter future. Simply not the case. While not an uplifting heart-warmer, Planet of Slums is a necessary look at some of the key demographic and social trends that will dictate the next epoch of our forward march through history, describing in terrifying detail of data and history the cauldrons from which the next genius may hail, but more likely, the next epidemic, revolution, famine, or genocide. Scary, sobering, and impossible to ignore.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Money For Grades

From an article in the New York Times:
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said yesterday that he was considering a proposal to give some city students free cellphones and to reward high performance with free airtime, but emphasized that he had no intention of lifting the ban on cellphones in the schools.

“It’s something we’ll take a look at,” the mayor said of the proposal being pushed by Roland G. Fryer, a Harvard economist who joined the Education Department this year as chief equality officer. But, he added, “We have absolutely no intention whatsoever of letting students use cellphones” in schools. “That’s not what that proposal was all about.”

Dr. Fryer is also the architect of the city’s plan to pay cash to students in several dozen schools who do well on standardized tests, a step connected to the mayor’s broad antipoverty efforts that give families money as a reward for certain behavior. Dr. Fryer spoke of the cellphone plan during a lecture to his undergraduate economics class last month.
Some commentary from Slate:
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg brought only condemnation upon himself when he announced last Thursday that he is thinking about giving free cell phones and minutes to some public-school students who perform well on tests. The proposal is part of a larger effort (financed with private money and means-tested) to pay students in low-income schools for testing well.

The political spectrum united to oppose the whole idea. The Manhattan Institute's Sol Stern said paying for test performance undermined learning for its own sake. New York University historian Diane Ravitch called it "anti-democratic, anti-civic, anti-intellectual, and anti-social." Leo Casey of the United Federation of Teachers objected that "money can't buy you learning." On his show, Stephen Colbert teased city schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, "As long as you're going to be paying kids and making it seem like a job, why not just bring back child labor?"

In fact, Bloomberg is on to something. The cell-phone bribe and the pay-for-test-scores scheme, which provides up to $500 a year for seventh-graders who do well on 10 exams, are the brainchildren of black economist Roland G. Fryer. An assistant professor at Harvard who also serves as the New York City Education Department's chief equality officer, Fryer himself grew up in difficult circumstances (his mother left when he was very young, and his father spent time in prison for sexual assault). But Fryer succeeded, and he became interested in finding out what incentives would motivate more students growing up in like circumstances to do well. His ideas are an intriguing combination of tough and liberal approaches: tough because they take a hard-nosed rather than romantic view of education, and liberal in that the goal is to raise the achievement of low-income kids and foster social mobility.
A curious and innovative approach to education policy that provokes a lot of thoughts and mixed reactions from me, very few of which I'll bother to chase down in this post. One that reflexively comes to mind is about the different values and cultures to education and learning that are supposed to exist between (particularly) Asian cultures and America -- where young Asians, through a mix of necessity, shame, fear, competitiveness, and passion, supposedly value learning fundamentally differently than their American counterparts. But the more curious reaction is that, this idea doesn't seem like it's that bad, or even that crass, and I'm always impressed with Bloomberg's willingness to trot out and try new solutions, however odd they may appear. I say, give it a try. We could spend our money on worse things...

Anti-Social Networks

The first thing I should say is that MF is a genius. Two or three years ago, MF and I had caught up for a drink in Noe Valley, and were walking around in the cool evening, talking about his new venture. While talking, we kicked around a few other ideas (or mostly, he did). One of them was "Foester" -- the website where you could make "friends" with your enemies. Oh, how we laughed. It was a genius idea, impractical and ridiculous. But still genius.

Fast forward to a week chock full of interesting news and articles about the wide-world of social networking (and a note, it is nice that the notion that social networking platforms are now "utilities" is starting to take hold, for whatever little or much that means to people). I won't pass much comment on recent news, other than to highlight:

- Google's announcement of OpenSocial last week, which is the right idea, and has genuinely disruptive potential in this relatively small corner of the online world. Most charming in the announcement of this initiative is exactly who was left out of the launch of this project:
There are many websites implementing OpenSocial, including, Friendster, hi5, Hyves, imeem, LinkedIn, MySpace, Ning, Oracle, orkut, Plaxo,, Six Apart, Tianji, Viadeo, and XING.
As anyone paying attention could have told you, it's exciting that we may actually have a real fight on our hands -- between a huge player who controls data and so many of the complementary utilities that a robust social network can bring value to, and a pretty big player who actually owns the current high value network, and more importantly commands the active, opted-in user base.

- Paul Boutin's article in Slate, which gets both what is exactly (and inherently) right and wrong about Facebook's ability to capitalize on their social network and user base through advertising.

- But most amusingly (and least importantly) an article from the Financial Times, that I first saw on David Byrne's blog, about Social "Hateworking." An idea whose time has arrived:
Goes under the strap line “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”. Set up as a riposte to the perceived bogus nature of many online friendships, Enemybook runs off the back of Facebook. It allows you to add people as Facebook enemies below your friends, specify why they are enemies and notify them that they are enemies. You can also see who lists you as an enemy, and even become friends with the enemies of your enemies.

Similarly to Enemybook, Snubster derides the notion of social networking sites, and can run off Facebook. Users can build lists of personal enemies from their Facebook contacts, who will then be sent a snub and will be alerted that they are either “On notice” or “Dead to me”.

Modelled on the Facebook concept, and with an almost identical layout, Hatebook offers a less friendly approach to the world of social networking. You can befriend “Other haters”, and your homepage alerts you when “Other fricking idiots” contact you. The site also provides you with an “Evil Map”, marking the locations of other users. The antithesis to Facebook’s emphasis on making friends, this is an open forum for abuse and aggression.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Design In-Joke Crowd

I haven't posted much about my current job, but it is certainly interesting working at a firm (albeit a small one), where a large number of my colleagues are creative people - visual and user experience designers. One of my favorite parts of this are the email exchanges, somewhere between arch and snarky, where the designers make fun of the products/ websites/ad-campaigns that some other set of designers were (presumably) compelled to do by their no-taste marketing minders. Often these exchanges are peppered with real insight or inquiry, but sometimes they're just mean (though rarely mis-guided). Some examples:

- JM sends out a site for Make My Logo Bigger Cream.
- An incredibly bad, so-bad-its-funny, ad for some sort of flu medicine.
- A possibly very good (?) marketing campaign for a futuristic toilet (sometimes, you can't tell if the designers are pro/con...)

The other side benefit, of course, is getting turned on to some very cool stuff happening, both from a design and technology perspective. Surely more fun than lawyers:

- Perceptive Pixel, bringing Minority Report one step closer to reality.
- The World Clock Project.
- Stixy, another attempt to solve the on-line collaboration problem (although looks to be a good one...)

Biking as Business

An article in today's New York Times, along with an accompanying video story, discuss efforts made by the city of Portland, OR, in supporting both bike culture and local businesses. Notable as a small example of how a combination of individuals embracing a change in behavior (from cars to bicycles), combined with civic support can help move a community towards more sustainable ways of living. The scale of change and overall consequence may not yet be huge, but building a city that supports bicycle culture is one of those changes that manages to neatly entwine a positive environmental impact, a clear improvement in quality of life in embracing a change in behavior, and a very tangible example to those people who are further back on the adoption curve that embracing sustainable behavior can be both the right thing to do and the pleasurable thing to do.

A couple of side comments that struck me while watching the video:

- It is interesting that while some American cities are slowly embracing bike culture (Portland, San Francisco), urban centers in developing countries that were built around bicycle and pedestrian traffic are shifting away from those modes of transportation (due largely to increased income of the middle class and status-driven changes in behavior).
- Is it a necessary condition of cities moving towards sustainability in the U.S. that they be populated by goofy white people? An un-serious phrasing of a serious question: how does the culture of sustainability become appealing to minorities, people in the inner cities, people with more conservative/traditional visions of success and status, new immigrants?
- Can anyone recommend me a good model of bike to buy, for casual city use? I'm looking for low maintenance, sturdy, relatively light-weight, and built right for my somewhat shorter (5'6") frame.

Photos from a Flickr search for 'bicycle.' Actually, quite worth a look-see.