Friday, April 29, 2016

Actually, Whole Foods are both high-price and high-volume

I have said before, I am in many ways generally sympathetic to the utopian urbanists. The problems they address are real and substantial and many of their proposed solutions make a lot of sense to me. That said, the movement, at least in the form that makes it into the popular press, often seems overly narrative-driven, romanticized,and derived and debated from a top decile viewpoint

Cities are all much nicer if you have money, and this is even more true in high density upscale places like New York and San Francisco. Unfortunately, many of the pieces you read advocating the charms of city living are written from the perspective of a six or seven-figure income. There is nothing this is nothing wrong with this perspective as long as the writers maintain a degree of self-awareness, but this is often not the case.

Recently, we've been hearing a lot of arguments claiming we can  get the costs of housing down to reasonable middle-class levels in places like NYC by aggressively building those cities up. Without that middle-class target, the argument would certainly be valid. With the target, the number of new housing units necessary would appear to be huge, particularly since many if not most of the specific proposals we've seen so far focus on upscale housing with relief for middle and lower class markets to come through trickle down effects.

But getting the prices down is only half the problem. We also to consider what living in these hyper-dense cities would look from the vantage of a median income, which brings us to this (with the usual caveats about quoting something you read in one of these pop sci sites).
Indeed, that’s what Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo and director of its Urban Realities Laboratory, has found in his own work. Five years ago, Ellard became interested in a particular building on East Houston Street — the gigantic Whole Foods “plopped into” a notoriously textured part of lower Manhattan. As described in his book, titled Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life, Ellard partnered with the Guggenheim Museum’s urban think tank to analyze what happens when someone “turns out of a tiny, historic [knish] restaurant” and encounters a full city block with nothing but “the long, blank façade of the Whole Foods Market.”

In 2011, Ellard led small groups on carefully planned Lower East Side walks to measure the effect of the urban environment on their bodies and minds. Participants recorded their response to questions at each stopping point and wore sensors that measured skin conductance, an electrodermal response to emotional excitement. Passing the monolithic Whole Foods, people’s state of arousal reached a nadir in Ellard’s project. Physiologically, he explained, they were bored. In their descriptions of this particular place, they used words like bland, monotonous, and passionless. In contrast, one block east of the Whole Foods on East Houston, at the other test site — a “lively sea of restaurants with lots of open doors and windows” — people’s bracelets measured high levels of physical excitement, and they listed words like lively, busy, and socializing. “The holy grail in urban design is to produce some kind of novelty or change every few seconds,” Ellard said. “Otherwise, we become cognitively disengaged.” The Whole Foods may have gentrified the neighborhood with more high-quality organic groceries, but the building itself stifled people. Its architecture blah-ness made their minds and bodies go meh.

First, as mentioned before, there are lots of reasons to worry about the homogeneity of the people conducting this research, making these proposals, and writing these articles.

With apologies for the snark, if you were to fund grants in the field of "first world problems," I can't imagine anything better than the psychological effects of the lack of architectural charm of a Whole Foods in the middle of a picturesque Manhattan street.This also brings up familiar social science concerns about unrepresentative populations and generalizing from outliers, but, putting all of that aside, let's  assume the results (which seem reasonable enough) are valid and see where they lead us.

Given the numbers being thrown around, it would seem that street-accessible retail, having limited capacity to build up, would largely be forced into one of two models: high price or high-volume.
Either way, retailers will have to make every expensive square foot pay for itself. We've already seen something like this in gentrifying neighborhoods where longstanding and often beloved mom-and-pop businesses are forced out to make way for chain stores and high-end boutiques. Barring some fairly draconian regulation (which would very much go against current conventional wisdom), it's hard to imagine the proposed hyper-dense cities not taking these trends to a new extreme.

Would this be a bad thing? That depends. I don't want to get all nostalgic about some neighborhood pizza joint (if anything, getting New Yorkers to stop going on about their neighborhood pizza places would be a national good). Antiquated and inefficient business model are supposed to go away. I'm not prepared to take a policy stand based on charm and sentimental appeal.

But, of course, I'm not a utopian urbanist. I've always been highly skeptical of these narratives, generally finding them to be overoptimistic and sometimes mutually contradictory. Increasingly dense cities are often held up as a panacea, curing all of our ills be they economic, environmental or cultural. That alone makes me nervous. Add on to that a romanticized, idyllic quality -- music in the cafes at night and innovation in the air – that has been seldom actually observed and is not at all the direction some of these policies seem to be headed.

At least not for the bottom nine deciles.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Damn, apparently Krugman has gotten to the College Humor staff

I was going to save this for later, but events seem to be picking up speed...

One of the things that impresses me about College Humor that, though they very much come from a millennial point of view, they are more than willing to satirize millennial culture.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Monsanto House of the Future

More on the retro-future thread.

Maybe "thread" is too strong a word. So far, it has mainly been fragments. Hopefully, this is building up to a coherent thesis about attitudes toward technological progress, particularly about how the huge advances of the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the Post-War era lead people to internalize the idea that every aspect of the world was changing at an ever-accelerating pace. (I also want to tie in the closing of the Western frontier with the opening of the technological one, but that's definitely a topic for another day.)

I've argued that for almost a hundred years, technological progress reliably outpaced prediction while for the past thirty or forty, it's been the opposite. Though it's dangerous to pin these things down,1967 is around the time when our expectations started exceeding our advances.

From Wikipedia:
The Monsanto House of the Future (also known as the Home of the Future) was an attraction at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, USA, from 1957 to 1967. It was part of Disney's Tomorrowland

It was sponsored by Monsanto Company. The design and engineering of the house was done jointly by Monsanto, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Walt Disney Imagineering. The MIT faculty members were architects Richard Hamilton and Marvin Goody, and building engineer Albert G. H. Dietz. The fiberglass components of the house were manufactured by Winner Manufacturing Company in Trenton, New Jersey, and were assembled into the house on-site.

The attraction offered a tour of a home of the future, set in the year 1986, and featured household appliances such as microwave ovens, which eventually became commonplace. The house saw over 435,000 visitors within the first six weeks of opening, and ultimately saw over 20 million visitors before being closed.

The house closed in 1967. The building was so sturdy that when demolition crews failed to demolish the house using wrecking balls, torches, chainsaws and jackhammers, the building was ultimately demolished by using choker chains to crush it into smaller parts. The reinforced polyester structure was so strong that the half-inch steel bolts used to mount it to its foundation broke before the structure itself did.

For a firsthand account, check out this post by Ken Levine.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The “Prisoner's Dilemma” moratorium

[Perhaps the nicest thing about having a blog is being able to shoot off an angry post when a news story annoys you.]

I'm not sure what the best way to get the ball rolling here would be (perhaps a kickstarter?) but we need  to have a strictly enforced rule that no journalist or pundit is allowed to mention the prisoner's dilemma for the next five or ten years, however long it takes to learn to use it properly and, more importantly, discover that game theory consists of more than that one concept.

If we could just get writers to stop mistaking a stag hunt for prisoner's dilemma, it would be a massive improvement. I see this all the time and it drives me crazy.

Then there are ideas like Schelling focal points. As mentioned before, while most political commentators have had what can only be described as a humiliating season, a handful (notably Josh Marshall, Jonathan Chait and Paul Krugman) have actually enhanced their reputations. One of Krugman's best posts of the year was this game theory-based analysis of the over-reaction to the results in Iowa (more on my reaction here).

Not to name any names, but a lot of writers would be looking better now if they had spent more time thinking about focal points and less time claiming to see inflection points.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Remembering the St. Francis Dam

I'm not going to spend a lot of time pointing out the obvious. Anyone who's been following the pubic works debate should find something of interest in this Newsweek article:

Eighty-eight years ago, the St. Francis Dam burst in the middle of a March night, killing nearly 500 people [431 according to Wikipedia -- MP]. There are some images of the aftermath, but numbers tell the story better: 12.4 billion gallons of water rising to the furious height of 140 feet, surging 54 miles to the Pacific Ocean, an inland tsunami 2 miles wide leveling towns in its path. Some thought a saboteur had dynamited the dam. This would be easier to believe than the dam failing and people dying senselessly. But that was the case. And given the sorry state of American infrastructure, something similar could be the case again: the St. Francis Dam as portent, not aberration. ...

The dam burst on its sides, so that a strangely picturesque center section remained, standing there as a lone man might on a deserted train platform. Morbidly nicknamed “the Tombstone,” this vertical slab of concrete was dynamited to bits after a boy climbing the structure fell and died (another boy had thrown a snake at him). The stated reason for the demolition was public safety, but as Jon Wilkman wrote in his excellent book on the St. Francis Dam disaster, Floodpath, “it was a memorial to a failure the leaders of Los Angeles preferred to forget.”

Friday, April 22, 2016

"Likely not peer reviewed"

Occasionally gross but otherwise safe for work.

From the good people at College Humor.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Suspensions and calm-down rooms in Boston

If you've been following the no-excuses debate, you should definitely check out this story by Peter Balonon-Rosen.

Last year, state data show, the school imposed 325 suspensions overall. Massachusetts schools, on average, out-of-school suspended one in 33 students. UP Academy Holland out-of-school suspended one in 11.


Of Holland’s 233 in- and out-of-school suspensions so far this year, 117 were for first- and second-graders, according to the records supplied to WBUR. The school has about 250 students in those grades. Students with disabilities substantial enough to keep them out of regular classrooms were suspended 37 times, the records show.


The teacher pointed to the school’s philosophy of punishing even small infractions, like rolling their eyes, sucking their teeth or not sitting in “scholar ready position” as setting students off.

A few points before we go on. These suspension rates are the  result of a deliberate policy by the administrators of these schools. If the CEO (yes, they have a CEO) of UP Education Network (formerly "Unlocking Potential" and I'll stop with the parentheses now) wanted to cut suspensions in half, he could do it with a conference call. That call hasn't been made yet because, though public pressure is starting to build, it still does not outweigh the benefits for the administrators.

Of course, there is also a regulatory component, particularly in cases involving the disabled.

Those processes include notifying parents before the student is suspended, holding a hearing on the suspension and, in certain cases, determining whether the student’s disability caused the behaviors, in which case suspension is forbidden. By state law, parents can appeal the suspension to the district superintendent.

For instance, Boston Public Schools’ Code of Conduct lists specific measures: Before any suspension, school staffers must document that they’ve tried discipline that keeps the student in class. Principals must notify the district superintendent in writing before any suspension of a student in kindergarten through third grade. And a student’s parents or guardians can appeal the suspension to Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang.


But UP Academy Holland, while still considered a public school, no longer reports to the superintendent of Boston Public Schools. So, rather than notifying Chang, principals are told to notify Given, the UP CEO. And if parents want to appeal, they would appeal to the CEO, not to a public official.

Calm-down rooms (which we discussed previously) are also present, along with the obligatory claim that the are seldom used.
Jayden was sent to one of the school’s “calm-down rooms.” A first-floor calm-down room is a former storage closet, still labeled “STORAGE” on an outside sign, that’s been turned into a dedicated space for timeouts.

Sometimes students stay in there alone while a staff member waits outside. The door has a small window for observation, although not every corner is visible through it. If a student is in the room longer than half an hour, the staff must notify the principal.

Malikka Williams’ son Malik attended UP Academy Holland in kindergarten. She remembers the first time she saw one of the calm-down rooms.

“Tears just started coming down my eyes, because it reminded me of a hospital ward room for psychiatric,” says Williams. “And I remember at that moment I said, ‘My God, this is not OK.’ ”

School administrators say they put students there only when they pose a danger to themselves or others. Principal Peddie says it allows students to calm down.

“We give students the space and the opportunity to self-regulate and really put themselves in a position where they feel as if they can be successful,” he says.

Quick note on the word "successful." This is a small thing but it illustrates a distinctive trait of the education reform movement. The language of the movement is very much modern corporate-speak, relentlessly aspirational. Certain words such as "success" are repeated with such frequency that they start to lose meaning.

Saying that a crying, traumatized six-year-olds should "put themselves in a position where they feel as if they can be successful” is entirely in keeping. It also shows a tendency to treat small children as components and statistics, not as people.
Eventually, Williams says, she was getting texts and calls almost every day to pick up Malik. More often than not, it wasn’t a formal suspension, just a demand that she come take him out of school. Sometimes, she says, a staff member told her that if she didn’t take Malik, they’d call EMS to do it.

“It got to the point that my phone would ring and my nerves became shot,” says Williams. “I do feel that through the numerous suspensions, calls and emergency removal threats, that you were pushing my son out.”

In January, Malik transferred to another school. Since then, he has not been suspended once.

“My son, when we pick him up, he runs to the car…,” Williams says with tears in her eyes. “He says, ‘Mommy, I had an excellent day!’ I’m so happy. Happy he’s happy.”

Good educators always strive for more excellent days.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A missing data parable that links to secondary data use

This is Joseph.

Thomas Lumley points out a terrifying example of mean imputation gone terribly wrong

It turns out that the source of this problem was the algorithms from a private corporation that mapped out zip code level data, coupled with the risks of secondary data use by people who don't understand what the data was collected to do:

Earlier this week, I reached Thomas Mather, a co-founder of MaxMind, via email. I told him Joyce Taylor’s story, and how I’d discovered MaxMind’s involvement in the IP mapping part of it. I asked him if he knew anything about the default coordinates that were placing unidentified IP addresses on the Taylor’s property.

Mather told me that “the default location in Kansas was chosen over ten years ago when the company was started.”
He continued: “At that time, we picked a latitude and longitude that was in the center of the country, and it didn’t occur to us that people would use the database to attempt to locate people down to a household level. We have always advertised the database as determining the location down to a city or zip code level. To my knowledge, we have never claimed that our database could be used to locate a household.”
This is a common problem with big data projects in which you attempt to repurpose a data source for something other than what it is intended for.  And this re-use had some pretty severe consequences -- the people living at the "missing data address" were visited by a lot of officials -- all relying on the addresses that the IP address was registered to. 

The new plan, to put the defaults in the middle of a lake, should result in less pain for the residents of the unfortunately located property.  I am curious if we will soon see divers at that lake looking for fraudsters, though. 

But the secondary lesson of this story (above and beyond mean imputation rarely being an optimal missing data strategy) is just how risky it can be use data for an unintended purpose without understanding just how that data arises and what the limitations actually are. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

It still counts as commuting when you do it in an airplane

In all of these posts about urban development, there is an underlying idea that I should probably spell out explicitly more often. My concern here is not so much that the urbanists are wrong, but that this and many other public policy discussions are being conducted under extremely dangerous conditions.

This is a hugely complicated issue but the major points that worry me can be broken down to four or five basic categories (depending on how you split them):

The overwhelming majority of the people conducting this discussion come from a remarkably homogeneous group (economically, geographically, educationally, and culturally). Furthermore, this group lands on the far end of the spectrum on any number of relevant dimensions. This invariably leads to distortions and blind spots;

This discussion has come to be dominated by a simple and elegant narrative with notable utopian elements. Not coincidentally, this narrative is remarkably appealing to the group conducting the discussion;

Much, if not most, of the supporting evidence for the narrative comes from a handful of outliers such as the Bay Area. What's more, the great success of some of these outliers may have more to do with having been in the right place at the right time for various industry booms than with the cities having pursued any particular policy.;

There is also a morality play at work here. This is often unavoidable in public policy debates but it becomes very dangerous when the judging is done by a homogeneous and insular group and the focus is on the sins of those on the outside.

Which brings us to our case in point. The worker who lives 25 miles outside of St. Louis, Missouri and commutes to work is seen as engaging in wasteful and environmentally costly behavior, but the Manhattan-based executive who flies once or twice a month to cities on the West Coast is not, despite the trip being roughly one hundred times longer and the mode or travel not being by any stretch of the imagination green.

From Duncan Clark [emphasis added]
The new paper, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, finally pins some numbers on all this theory by examining the impact over different time periods of various different modes of transport. The results are illuminating.

According to the paper, if we focus just on the impact over the next five years, then planes currently account for more global warming than all the cars on the world's roads – a stark reversal of the usual comparison. Per passenger mile, things are even more marked: flying turns out to be on average 50 times worse than driving in terms of a five-year warming impact.

If we shift to a 20-year time frame, things look completely different. The short-term impacts have largely died down and the plane looks considerably better – helped along by a quirk of atmospheric chemistry which sees nitrous oxide pollution from the aircraft engines causing cooling during this period by destroying methane in the air. The paper even suggests that for any time frame longer than 20 years, flying is typically greener per kilometre than driving (although when I phoned to check this, one of the authors of the report confirmed my suspicion that this isn't true in Europe, where fuel-efficient cars are more popular).

If we compare by miles traveled and we assume the average automobile fuel efficiency remains constant,  air travel is much worse than auto travel in the short term and slightly better in the long term, but both of those assumptions are questionable.

In an age of hybrids, plug-ins and increasingly viable electrics, it should just take time or a good regulatory push to get us to where Europe is. On the question of miles traveled... As we mentioned in a previous discussion of drunk driving, using per-mile comparisons when discussing modes of transportation with wildly different ranges is problematic at best. The decision to travel long distances and the decision to go by air are closely related and the causality goes both ways.

It would be easy to get mired in the details, but we can be fairly sure that a sharp reduction of air travel would encourage people to look for closer substitute destinations or to eliminate trips entirely (in the 21st Century, there is little reason for insisting that people be physically present for a meeting). Cutting back on air travel would certainly seem to be the environmentally sensible thing to do, but for this post, I'm less interested in going green than in going meta.Is the larger discussion healthy and productive.

Homogeneity is not always a bad thing. Sometimes a group of people of like backgrounds and similar minds can converge on a common vision and produce something wonderful and innovative. In these cases, isolation and even insularity can help get things started. (Chicago was a theatrical backwater before the Post-War renaissance.)  At some point, though, there has to be cross-fertilization. Otherwise conjectures become implausible, judgements become biased and ideas become stale.

Following the debate on urban renewal, food stamps, tax policy, education reform, etc. I constantly notice, not only that a plurality and possibly a majority of stories seem to come from the same perspective (top quartile, Ivy League, upscale neighborhood in a high-density city), but that the writers have no idea how unrepresentative their experiences (including bicoastal living)can be.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Striving to empower positive, problem-solving team members to aspire to inspire to create a culture of yes

A hybrid of business speak and the language of motivational seminars has become disturbingly ubiquitous in the corporate world and has started to bleed out into other areas such as education. (Ever wonder why you keep running across words like excellence and success?).

This prospectus from SoulCycle (a company we need to be spending more time on here at the blog) offers a rich collection of examples. For those of you who have been lucky enough to avoid this sort of thing, I have highlighted some of the more egregious clichés.


Our Company

SoulCycle is a rapidly growing lifestyle brand that strives to empower our riders in an immersive fitness experience. Our founders, Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, were introduced at a lunch ten years ago and quickly realized they shared a similar vision about the changing role of fitness in our society of over-programmed, always-connected consumers. Traditionally, exercise was viewed as a chore, a box that needed to be checked. We believe that fitness should be joyful, inspiring and help people connect with their true and best selves.

What started as a single, 31-bike indoor cycling studio on the Upper West Side of New York City has transformed into a high growth lifestyle brand that, as of March 31, 2015, comprised a community of over 300,000 unique riders in 38 studios across the United States and with social media followers around the world. We believe SoulCycle is leading the global trend towards healthy living and a lifelong quest for meaning, wellness and personal growth.


We Aspire to Inspire.    Our mission is to bring Soul to the people. SoulCycle instructors guide riders through an inspirational, meditative fitness experience designed to benefit the body, mind and soul. Set in a dark, candlelit room to high-energy music, our riders move in unison as a pack to the beat, and follow the cues and choreography of the instructor. The experience is tribal. It is primal. And it is fun.


During the class, the instructor leads the rider on an emotional journey that runs parallel to the physical workout. We believe the combination of the physical, musical and emotional aspects of the ride leaves riders inspired and connected to both the brand and the community.


Your Soul Matters.    We are a “culture of yes.” Our core values are service and hospitality. We believe every ride matters; every rider matters. All of our employees complete initial, as well as ongoing, hospitality training at our “Soul University” to ensure exceptional service across the organization. We empower our managers to treat their studio as their own business and believe this helps foster the entrepreneurial culture upon which we were founded. We care, we work hard and we work together as a team. We encourage our teams to ride as much as they can, as we believe that motivated, engaged and well-trained employees are the key to cultivating our rider communities. We invest considerably in celebrating our teams through programs (such as weekly “SOULccolade”) that reward hard work, creativity, resourcefulness and actions that embody the culture and spirit of our brand.

Pack. Tribe. Community.    At SoulCycle, our riders feed off the group’s shared energy and motivation to push themselves to their greatest potential. In becoming part of our community, our riders are instilled with greater awareness of not only their bodies but also their emotions. We believe this awareness leads to healthier decisions, relationships and lives. We are not a business that values only transactions, rather we create a community that cultivates and sustains relationships. Our immersive culture of inspiration and empowerment contributes to the engaged and connected rider base in each of our studios.


What Sets SoulCycle Apart

We believe the following strengths define our lifestyle brand positioning and are key drivers of our success:

Our SOUL: An aspirational lifestyle brand.    Great brands often begin with an authentic and powerful origin story, and at SoulCycle, we created a radically innovative business that has resonated with consumers and the press since day one. We believe SoulCycle ignited the boutique fitness category and remains the industry’s defining brand.

From the beginning, SoulCycle has attracted a following that includes business leaders, social influencers and celebrities who were drawn to the idea of an elevated, meditative fitness experience. The explosive growth of our brand is fueled by an ever-expanding core of passionate fans who develop a powerful, emotional connection to SoulCycle and are proud to act as Soul evangelists spreading the word to friends, family and followers. We believe the distinctive SoulCycle experience creates passion and loyalty and generates tremendous word-of-mouth brand awareness, fueling our growth.

Our riders arrive early and stay after class to socialize with their fellow riders, the studio teams and instructors. Riders voraciously consume, comment on and share content from our blog and social media channels. SoulCycle apparel has become the uniform of choice both inside and outside the studios. Our silver retail bags can be seen in airports, on street corners and in households across the country. We do not have a target demographic because at SoulCycle, ANYONE can be an Athlete, a Legend, a Warrior, a Renegade or a Rockstar. It is the place people come, regardless of their age, athletic ability, size, shape, profession or personality, to connect with their best selves.


We have been recognized as being an innovative force both within our industry and beyond, including our being voted one of the World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Fitness by Fast Company in 2013, and rated the sixth most influential brand on Twitter at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show.


What we provide: A one-of-a-kind fitness experience that inspires and delights.    Our focus is to change people’s relationship with exercise by creating a workout that doesn’t feel like WORK. We have accomplished this by consistently delivering an elevated fitness experience that is physically efficient and challenging, spiritually uplifting and above all else, FUN, paired with our focus on offering welcoming and personal service at every touchpoint.


How we do it: Invest in scaling our empowered instructor and studio teams.    We are truly in the people business and place our instructors and studio teams at the core of our culture. We are intentional about hiring people who genuinely care about others, and who show the capacity to cultivate and sustain meaningful relationships. In hiring our studio teams, we value positivity and problem solving.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Trump, Hitler and an excuse to post a College Humor video [slightly NSFW]

Even if Trump doesn't get nomination, we're certainly going to have to make it through endless Fourth Reich analogies, many if not most from previously calm and sober institutions like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Most of these will fall into the general Lonesome Rhodes genre -- crude but charismatic demagogue uses his mastery of media to brainwash the gullible and irrational masses while intellectuals and the establishment watch with helpless disapproval.

With so many pundits (as Mr. Pierce might put it) climbing up on the fainting couch, it might be a good time for some perspective on the Hitler analogy.

Let's start with a bit of history from the good people at Cracked.
#5. Hitler Wasn't Swept into Power by a Brainwashed Germany

The worst thing you can say about our favorite form of government (democracy) is that it brought a cockburglar like Hitler into power. It's a sobering lesson in human gullibility and the madness of crowd psychology, one so obvious, even George Lucas picked up on it:

It's a message clear enough that a Star Wars prequel couldn't fuck it up: Charismatic dictators are great at popularity contests, and what is an election but one big-ass popularity contest for control of the police and the best houses? You may not know much about Hitler's rise to power, but you know he body-surfed into the Reichstag over a sea of enthusiastic, brown-shirted German voters.

But guess what? That's not how it went down. The Nazi party never took more than 38 percent of the vote in a free election. Hitler didn't win so much as a presidential election, and even George W. Bush won one of those. Liberty "died" in Germany exactly the way you'd expect it to die: in a series of underhanded backroom deals that saw Hitler appointed chancellor.

Now here's where it gets kind of sad: Hitler assumed power in 1932, and the very next year Germany held nationwide elections. That's the sort of thing dictators everywhere do; there's nothing like a show vote to prove the legitimacy of your reign! He went about "winning" this election with every trick in the toolbox of oppression: violent thugs at the polls, waves of propaganda, ballots that looked like this:

This ballot is actually for the annexation of Austria, but you get the idea.

So what did the Nazis win, 99 percent of the popular vote?

98.2 percent?

Try 42 percent. That's the best the Nazis ever managed, and that's with the repressive might of a burgeoning evil empire behind them. Not even one in two Germans thought this whole "fascism" thing sounded like a good idea. Saddam Hussein held more-competent sham elections, and he's widely considered the Pauly Shore of violent dictators.

Sure, Hitler got way more popular after conquering France and Poland, but the whole idea that he was swept into power by a mass of fanatic brainwashed Germans has no basis in fact. Most Germans were too sane to want to march around like the Demon Boy Scouts and worship racist Charlie Chaplin. The problem was, they were also too sane to start a fight with a bunch of crazy people.
[Not to put too fine a point on this. but a lot of the actual dirty tricks the Nazis used to gain power (harassment, misinformation, partisan use of investigations) resembled, in type if not in magnitude, the ratfcking we've seen of every Democratic presidential candidate in the post-Reagan era. Many of the publications and quite a few of the actual reporters currently crying Hitler were remarkably quiet about and often complacent in Willie Horton/Whitewater/Inventing-the-Internet/Swiftboating/Birtherism/Bengahzi.]

If Hitler was not actually all that great at brainwashing the ignorant masses, how about the other half of the story? How good were intellectuals and the elite at seeing through him?

For the first category, it is not that difficult to find Hitler supporters such as Ezra Pound, but they were certainly in the minority. If, on the other hand, you broadened your definition to include supporters of any genocidal dictator in the mid 20th century, the walk of shame becomes quite crowded indeed.

Hitler supporters were even easier to find among the political and economic elite of the Western world.

Here's Tom Sykes
British high society had a ’30s love affair with Nazism and Hitler which was in many cases just as profound as that which the German people experienced at the same time.

When they looked at Hitler, many who had an affection for Germany liked what they saw. Intermarriage between British and German high society goes all the way to the top; the Royal Family themselves were called the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas until they changed their name to Windsor at the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

Germany seemed to be thriving under the man who had abolished democracy and declared himself dictator in 1933.

And although few could claim to have been unaware of the official German policy of anti-Semitism after the 1936 Olympics in which Jewish athletes were banned from the German team, many were prepared to turn a blind eye in the face of the country’s extraordinary economic and psychic revival from the crushed and humiliated shell of a nation state it had been for all of the 1920s.

By 1938, unemployment was virtually nil—it had been 30% when Hitler took power.

Many of the British upper classes—not, it must be said, universally famed for their racial tolerance at the best of times—were impressed.

We'll give the good people at College Humor the last word.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

When moving to a high density urban area increases commuting distance

[preemptive apologies if I get something wrong in the following. I don't know much about the Bay Area and this kind of writing in the dark always makes me nervous]

I am, in many ways, the target audience for the utopian urbanists.. I mostly fit the demographic and I very much understand the appeal. If I were to list the things I liked best about life in LA -- the diversity, the culture, the food, the chance meetings with interesting people -- it would sound very much something from an urbanist op-ed.

In some ways, understanding the appeal makes me a bit more skeptical. Lots of smart people have jumped on this bandwagon, but almost all of them are even more in the target audience than I am, and when you combine that kind of strong appeal with a simple, elegant narrative and once the constant reinforcement of conventional wisdom starts kicking in, remarkably smart people can start missing surprisingly obvious counterexamples.

Take the frequently made argument that any addition of residential units to any area like San Francisco is good for everyone even if only the wealthy can afford the new units. More supply should translate to lower prices overall while increasing population density around job-rich areas will reduce commuting distance and strain on transportation infrastructure.

There's a beautiful simplicity to this argument, but much of that simplicity comes from some not-so-robust assumptions and aggregations.

Why do people move to cities? High paying jobs are often mentioned, but that only pins you down to a general area (and in an age of telecommuting, maybe not even that). Even for those without a car, most medium and large cities have options for commuting to nearby communities with cheaper housing. Since most people don't seem to object to reasonable commutes, other factors must come into play.

The appeal of cities compared with suburbs, small towns and the country can depend on a number of personality traits that can be difficult to predict such as tolerance to crowds and noise, but there are strong demographic indicators such as being well-off, young, single or childless. At the risk of stating the obvious, those indicators are remarkably easy to find in Silicon Valley.

That brings us to the sometimes controversial Google shuttle buses:
In late 2013, San Francisco Bay Area activists with Heart of the City began protesting the use of shuttle buses by Google and other tech companies to ferry employees from their homes in San Francisco and Oakland to corporate campuses in Silicon Valley, about 40 miles away.

It is helpful at this point to check the map (courtesy of Google):

To answer the musical question "do you know the way to San Jose?," The answer is: Yes, just headed down the 101 a few miles. You can't miss it.

This is relevant because, not only is San Jose closer to Google headquarters in San Francisco is, it is also far less expensive. Not to put too fine a point on it, these people are spending an hour or two a day sitting in a bus traveling 30 or 40 miles so that they can spend thousands of dollars a year more on rent.

Essentially, these Google employees are treating San Francisco as a suburb, and while this is something of an extreme case it is not all that unusual. Lots of large companies these days build sprawling campuses on the outskirts of urban areas.

This raises all the standard troubling questions about suburban living: everything from city culture to environmental impact to public health. It also raises some equally disturbing new ones. City living is disproportionately attractive to people who have money, particularly disposable incomes. If you are counting on market forces to set things right, what happens when people who want to live in the city can consistently outbid those who need to.?

P.S. For a bit of context on Silicon Valley suburban campuses, check out this NYT article.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

When threads collide -- anti-trust and copyright

[via Brad]

This piece on the new age of trusts by David Dayen does an excellent job discussing the extent of our growing monopoly/monopsony problem, but I wish he would have gone a bit further with the ramifications.
At a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on antitrust oversight, the first such hearing in three years, everyone—Democrats, Republicans, and the two witnesses, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) chair Edith Ramirez and assistant attorney general of the antitrust division William Baer—agreed that there had been a “tsunami” of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) recently. Baer attributed it to money coming off the sidelines after the Great Recession. But the numbers are historic in nature: 2015 was the biggest year of M&A ever, with more than $3.8 trillion in deal value. That means lots of fees for Wall Street banks that shepherd the deals; it’s become a major profit center for them. And 2016 promises to be just as good, if not better.

This makes sense if you think about everything you buy and every service you pay for, and how they come from concentrated suppliers. We have four airlines serving 80 percent of all passengers. We have four cable and Internet companies providing most of the nation’s cell-phone and television service. We have four big commercial banks, five big insurance companies (only three if two proposed mergers go through this year), and a handful of producers selling every major consumer product. Even when you think you have a choice, like in the array of online travel-booking sites, two companies (Expedia and Priceline) own all the subsidiaries.

This dovetails all too neatly with the points we've been making in the past about copyrights. Though Dayen does not spend a great deal of time on the entertainment industry, media is certainly one of those areas that demonstrates the one-two punch of consolidation and regulatory capture: You get really big, you buy up the intellectual property of smaller companies (which they pretty much have to sell either to you or to another major since they don't have the capacity to capitalize it on their own), then you send an army of lobbyists to Washington to extend those rights indefinitely. (I suppose that's technically a one-two-three punch)

Think of a famous movie or TV show or comic strip or song or fictional character. If the creation you have in mind is less than hundred years old, the chances are extraordinarily good that it is now owned by one of a tiny handful of major media companies, and at this rate, they'll still have them a hundred years from now.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Paul Krugman provides a coda to the naked emperors thread

Back in August, we ran a post on the dilemma Donald Trump presented to the establishment press:

Symbiotic relationships, non-aggression pacts and naked emperors

I did a post a while back arguing that Fox News was partisan rather ideological. I didn't get very far into the obvious ethical concerns associated with having a major news and entertainment conglomerate in partnership with one of our two major political parties. Fox is able to maintain this symbiotic relationship and still keep up at least a facade of independence and respectability partially because most of the mainstream press has entered into an unspoken but remarkably well-observed non-aggression pact with Fox and the Republican Party.

Writers for papers like the NYT still criticize conservatives, but only in measured and indirect ways. They won't come out and say that an emperor is naked. Instead, they come up with all sorts of ways of saying sheer and flimsy and overly revealing.

This system has worked fairly well as long as their subjects have met them halfway. Even bomb-throwers like Ted Cruz kept up at least enough pretense of seriousness that the journalists could maintain some plausible deniability.

The problem with Donald Trump is that he doesn't give journalists any cover. He isn't actually that ideologically extreme compared to the other GOP candidates on most issues (if anything, he's to the left of the field on health care, monetary policy and the Iraq war). His comments about immigrants and support of birtherism are clearly designed to appeal to racist elements in the party, but it's not like we haven't seen other racist candidates recently and the press was remarkably OK with it.

Over the past couple of decades, the press has gotten stunningly good at not noticing things they don't want to notice. You can get journalists to ignore all sorts of lies and bigotry if you just give them an out, but that's just the thing Trump refuses to do. His whole campaign up to this point has depended on being as memorable and entertaining as possible, the ultimate reality show villain in what is arguably the ultimate reality show.

There have been other naked emperors on the stage recently but they've all played it at least a little coy. Trump is basically running around, grabbing his crotch, shouting "Hey, baby, do you want a piece of this?" then skipping away singing "I'm naked, naked, naked."

The press can't ignore Trump's behavior, but if they want to maintain any credibility and consistency, they really need to stop ignoring a lot of other candidates' behavior as well.
It turned out to be a futile thread.

More naked emperor reporting -- at this point, the NYT is just trolling us

"... while Governor Bush's attire was tastefully sheer and minimal"

Breaking news: New York Times spots naked emperor at GOP royal court

Now that there are no establishment-approved candidates in contention for the GOP nomination, the naked emperor reporting has tapered off considerably, but it hasn't gone away entirely, In a couple of excellent recent posts, Paul Krugman points out the absurdity of focusing on Trump's protectionism while Cruz is out on the Ron Paul fringe, then offers an explanation [emphasis added] that suggests some things haven't changed all that much in the last six months.
But too many anti-Trump critics seem to have settled on one critique that happens not to be right: the claim that a turn to protectionism would cause vast job losses. Sorry, that’s just not a claim justified by either theory or history.

Protectionism reduces world exports, but it also reduces world imports, so that the effect on overall demand is a wash; textbook economic models just don’t say what conventional wisdom is asserting here.

History doesn’t support this line of attack either. Protection in the 1930s was a result, not a cause, of the depression; the early postwar years, when tariffs were still high and exchange controls were pervasive, were marked by very full employment in many countries.

Why, then, focus on such a weak argument against a truly despicable candidate? I think I know the answer: it’s an argument that doesn’t involve taking on bad things in the Trump agenda that differ from the agenda of other Republicans only in degree — as Matt O’Brien says, on tax policy Trump is just Paul Ryan on steroids.

But bad arguments are bad arguments, even if used against a bad guy. And the choice of this argument is telling us something about what’s wrong with a lot of people beyond Trump.

P.S. Along similar lines, check out this Chait column pointing out the disparity in the coverage of the very similar health care plans of Trump and Cruz.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Deferred futures, unvanished cities and bent spoons -- pre-blogging an Arthur C. Clarke thread

This mid-Sixties clip discussing what the world will be like in the early 21st Century is fascinating on its own but it also fits in with a number of running threads.

For Ddulites, the Sixties was a pivotal era, arguably the last period when technological and scientific progress was outpacing expectations virtually across the board. Most of Clarke's predictions outside of telecommunication seem overly optimistic, but in 1964, they were entirely reasonable extrapolations of the trends of the Post-war Era.

The technology that comes closest to living up to the predictions is not surprisingly in one of Clarke's areas of expertise, telecommunications. Among other things, he largely called the internet but incorrectly predicted that telecommuting would kill cities. Though the utopian urbanists would have a different explanation, I suspect this misstep is also mainly due to Clarke's 1964 outlook. The balance of power between labor and management was very different fifty years ago, particularly for employees with technical backgrounds or pretty much any kind of advanced degree. These days employers are used to getting the person they want at the location they want for the period they want.

Though not directly relevant to in the video, Clarke is an excellent case to start with when digging into the complex and shifting attitudes of the Twentieth Century scientific community towards the paranormal. In the middle of the century, it seems to have been fairly credulous (even Einstein was open to telepathy); by the end, belief among the serious seems to have dried up entirely (This certainly sped the  decline). The Clarke of 1964 was well on his way to being a true believer. He'd be hanging out with Uri Geller ten years later, then declaring himself a total skeptic by the early Nineties.

More on these threads soon (I know I always say that but this time I really mean it).

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

When surveys come back and bite you

Lydia DePillis of the Washington Post has an amusing article on what must have been an uncomfortable presentation:
Whenever minimum wage increases are proposed on the state or federal level, business groups tend to fight them tooth and nail. But actual opposition may not be as united as the groups' rhetoric might make it appear, according to internal research conducted by a leading consultant for state chambers of commerce.

The survey of 1,000 business executives across the country was conducted by LuntzGlobal, the firm run by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, and obtained by a liberal watchdog group called the Center for Media and Democracy. (The slide deck is here, and the full questionnaire is here.) Among the most interesting findings: 80 percent of respondents said they supported raising their state's minimum wage, while only eight percent opposed it.

"That’s where it’s undeniable that they support the increase,” LuntzGlobal managing director David Merritt told state chamber executives in a webinar describing the results, noting that it squares with other polling they’ve done. “And this is universal. If you’re fighting against a minimum wage increase, you’re fighting an uphill battle, because most Americans, even most Republicans, are okay with raising the minimum wage.”

Needless to say, Merritt and company did their best to focus on the positive.

Merritt then provided some tips on how to defuse that support, such as suggesting other poverty-reduction methods like the Earned Income Tax Credit. “Where you might find some comfort if you are opposing it in your state is, 'how big of a priority is it against other priorities?'” he said. "Most folks think there are bigger priorities. Creating more jobs rather than raising the minimum wage is a priority that most everyone agrees with. So when you put it up against other issues, you can find other alternatives and other things to focus on. But in isolation, and you ask about the minimum wage, it's definitely a winner.”

Sixty-three percent of respondents said they belong to a chamber of commerce, whether on the local, state, or federal level — suggesting that the groups' public statements might be out of step with their members' beliefs. The materials shed light on how some business trade associations operate, and why they’ve continued to oppose minimum wage increases even as the rest of the public thaws towards them.
That last paragraph raises an interesting point: don't profession organizations have an ethical obligation to represent their members? Instead we have what appears to be a case of the leaderships of the state chambers using their members to provide money for and lend legitimacy to lobbying efforts that go against the beliefs of the majority of the members.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

When threads collide -- ed reform and the new economy

I've been on a sub-thread based on this extraordinary piece of investigative reporting by Cosmo Garvin on Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson and the huge education/industrial complex he and his wife Michele Rhee have assembled. It's a must read for anyone following the education reform movement and even more essential for those concerned about government corruption. The following is a very minor part of the story, but it does give an interesting glimpse into how some of the new economy hype is generated.
At his peak, KJ was a figure to behold, an urban policy entrepreneur and brander-in-chief selling #Sacramento 3.0, a “world-class” city where kids would take Uber vehicles instead of buses to their charter schools, “never check out a library book,” and have “more smart devices than toothbrushes.”

[much later in the article.]

In 2013 Stand Up employees teamed up with staff on the Sacramento city payroll to advance Johnson’s successful bid to take over the forty-year-old National Conference of Black Mayors.


In 2013 a PowerPoint presentation was distributed to the mayor’s City Hall staff, titled “National Conference of Black Mayors: Annual Meeting ‘Coup,’” laying out in bald terms the strategy behind the Johnson putsch. Participants included Aisha Lowe, who worked in City Hall as Johnson’s interim director of African American affairs—a position that doesn’t exist on the city payroll. Instead, she was earning a $100,000 annual salary as Stand Up’s executive director, while “volunteering” for the city.

Among the other plotters were Stephanie Mash Sykes, Johnson’s director of governmental affairs, and Mariah Sheriff, Johnson’s director of government affairs in education. Both positions are phony, but Sykes and Sheriff have presented themselves as employees of the Office of the Mayor. Sheriff even uses the City of Sacramento’s logo on her LinkedIn work history.

Johnson ultimately forced NCBM into bankruptcy, and that legal fight is still wending its way through the courts in Atlanta, where the group is headquartered. He immediately started a competing group, called the African American Mayors Association, and installed Sykes as executive director and himself as president. In short order, AAMA has established itself as yet another pay-to-play arm of the KJ Inc. machine. Perhaps the clearest example is Johnson’s mercenary relationship with Uber.

In June 2014, Uber gave a $50,000 check to the AAMA. In August, Mayor Johnson penned an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle praising Uber as an exciting part of “Cities 3.0” and arguing against new regulations for such ride-share companies. In September, at the USCM fall meeting in Sacramento, Johnson held an entire session on the “sharing economy,” featuring Uber CEO Travis Kalanick as a speaker. Days before, the Sacramento Kings had announced that Uber was the official ride-sharing service of the Sacramento Kings.

Monday, April 4, 2016

"Will More Transit Actually Ease L.A.'s Traffic?"

Deeply mixed feelings about this. On one hand, we desperately need to spend more money, more effort and more serious thought on public transportation, and it seems almost certain that rail should play a key role. On a more specific note, the proposed extensions of LA Metro Rail should have been done years ago.

On the other hand, there's a lot here that makes me nervous: lack of focus on the fundamental problem of getting commuters quickly, cleanly and reliably to their jobs around the county and back; gentrification; questionable developments that threaten to make congestion worse in certain areas that are already trouble spots (and no, the owners of those upscale condos aren't going to forego driving just because you put an Intelligentsia Coffee on the first floor); and the disturbing signs of muddled and wishful thinking that I've increasingly come to associate with utopian urbanists.

 Gene Maddaus writing for the LA Weekly
The idea is that building high-density projects around stations creates walkable neighborhoods and lessens the impact of traffic while providing much-needed housing. But wherever this theory is applied, it seems to generate a backlash.

In Hollywood, developers have been putting up high-rises and mixed-use complexes around Red Line stops. The proposal for one particular project — the Millennium Hollywood — calls for nearly 500 condos, plus 200 hotel rooms, inside two towers — one 35 stories tall, the other 39 stories. And it has spurred an anti-development revolt.

The project would be about a block away from the subway stop at Hollywood and Vine, and its developers contend that it would help ease traffic by providing convenient transit access. But it also would include 2,000 parking spaces — an indication that no one truly expects residents of the luxury project to give up their cars.


The Platform development [in Culver City] — a mix of high-end galleries, boutiques and pastry shops — just opened to the southwest of the train station, on the site of a former used car lot. On the southeast corner, where a roofing supply store once stood, builders are finishing work on a 115-unit luxury apartment complex with ground-floor retail.

On the northwest corner, where there used to be a nursery, developers plan to build the Ivy Station, a 200-unit residential building with office and restaurant spaces, plus a 148-room hotel. Restaurant supply store Surfas has been located on the northeast corner for nearly 30 years. Developers plan to tear it down and put up an 80-unit condo building with creative offices and ground-floor retail.

Some residents to the east of this intersection view this development with alarm.

“The traffic already on Washington Boulevard is atrocious,” says Ken Mand, of the group Arts District Residents for Responsible Development, who argues that the traffic studies for these projects were deeply flawed. “They are far underestimating the reality of traffic as it currently stands. Nothing they did was illegal or wrong. But the reality is it’s all fucked up.”

The city did not mandate that a portion of the housing units be set aside for lower-income residents, and Mand doubts the new residents will take the train.

“They’re just adding a ton of apartments and a ton of retail that is not geared toward Culver City residents,” he says. “Culver City residents are not shopping for $150-an-ounce hand lotion. … It’s all about the Google people that are coming to town. It’s all about pour-over coffee.”

Worse yet, from his perspective, is what’s in the works for the La Cienega train station, one stop to the east, within the Los Angeles city limits. There, developers are planning to build the Cumulus project — 1,200 housing units, plus a grocery store, restaurants, office space and 2,400 parking spaces.

The current height limit at that intersection is 45 feet. The height limit at other transit stations on the Expo route — such as Sepulveda and Bundy — tops out around 160 feet. The Cumulus project will tower 320 feet above the ground.

“It’s pretty crazy,” says Jamie Hall, an attorney for La Cienega Heights, a predominantly African-American and Latino homeowners group, which is fighting the project. “It’s gonna make traffic a lot worse.”

Friday, April 1, 2016

Baseball is kind of a slow game -- maybe it leads to ADHD

Or perhaps there's some lesson here about the way people circumvent rules.

From Drug Monkey:
The question is why [Maria Sharapova] has been taking this since the age of 16 for an "abnormal EKG" diagnosed by her personal physician.

MLB players have *astonishingly* high rates of adult ADHD which requires treatment with amphetamines.

Pro cyclists are cursed, apparently, with almost universal asthma, requiring bronchodilator use.