Wisdom from Escape to Witch Mountain

Ok, so I loved the original movie Escape to Witch Mountain when I was a little kid, and it was a major disappointment in my life that no, I did not have mentalist powers and I was was not going to go off on and live in the beautiful mountains with Uncle Jesse from the Dukes of Hazzard.

I recently had a Netflixing “aliens in our world” movie marathon with both “Starman” and “Escape to Witch Mountain”* and I noticed that Escape was based on YA novel, and I’ve been reading away on it. The novel is much better than the movie, actually. It’s written from Tony’s viewpoint, and Tia is more otherworldly and mysterious than in the movie, and so far I’ve encountered this gem:

It was just like her, he thought, to ignore any money she’d found. She’d always said there must be something very bad about money, because those who needed it most never had it, and so many who already had it would do such awful things to get more of it.

*I also view Escape from Witch Mountain during movie marathons around the theme “Gratuitous Ray Milland Watching”

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Marilynne Robinson on lack of generosity in public life

If you are not reading Marilynne Robinson’s books, you are missing out. Gilead was a life-changer for me, an absolute gem of a novel. The rest of her novels are similarly magnificent. I am teaching Rawls this week in justice class, and I am also reading Robinson’s exceptional collection of essays, When I Was A Child, I Read Books. There is so much wisdom and wonderful writing in this book I don’t even know where to start.

Given that midterm elections are coming, here’s one:

But the language of public life has lost the character of generosity, and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory. On both sides the sole motive force in our past is now said to have been capitalism.

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Katherine Perez-Estolano discusses the California High Speed Rail project with USC students

As regular readers will know, I am not a great fan of this project, but Jerry Brown had a moment of clarity when he appointed Katherine Perez-Estolano to be on the California HSR Board, and she represents the project beautifully. Here she is discussing the project and the progress to date in USC’s Urban Growth Seminar.

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ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #24: Herbie Huff and Kelcie Ralph on Women and Cycling

I have never had the pleasure of meeting Herbie Huff or Kelcie Ralph. The bios say that Huff is a research associate at UCLA’s Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and the Institute for Transportation Studies. Kelcie Ralph is a PhD candidate in transportation policy and planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. I didn’t find a web page for Ms. Ralph, but I did find her Twitter feed (@KMRalph) where she discusses her research and practice interests.

Huff and Ralph have a piece up over at The Gaurdian Cities called “The Reason why fewer US women cycle than the Dutch is not what you think it is.” Now, these titles are always dumb click-bait, and authors are never the ones writing such silliness. Because how could they know what reasons I am thinking about? Because my guess was actually right. But I am expert ;^). However, they didn’t cite my paper on the subject in the working paper on which this summary is based. Shocking! [grasps pearls] Kids today.

But I digress.

You are supposed to guess that that the reason women in the US bike less than women in Dutch cities is all the biking infrastructure the Dutch have, and even though the Guardian was fishing for clicks with that title, I’ve seen multiple instances online where people throw pouty fits because they think that the research doesn’t validate their religious zeal about differences in infrastructure being the only difference that matters. However, if you actually read the article, the authors do not dispute the role of biking infrastructure supply as a key difference between Dutch and American contexts. Instead, they use time activity data to show that American women still do a disproportionate amount of household work, and they work more hours at paid work, than their Dutch counterparts:

Dutch women can use bikes to get around because they are less pressed for time than American women, in three fundamental ways. First, thanks to family-friendly labour policies like flexitime and paternity leave, Dutch families divide childcare responsibilities much more evenly than American families. Second, work weeks in the Netherlands are shorter. One in three Dutch men and most Dutch women work part-time, and workers of either gender work fewer hours than Americans.

Lastly, Dutch parents do much less chauffeuring of children and elderly family members than American parents. Neighborhood schools and high-quality bike infrastructure in the Netherlands make it easy for Dutch kids to walk or bike to school, unlike their counterparts in America, where rates of bicycling and walking to school have been declining for decades. Dutch elderly are also much more independently mobile than their American counterparts.

Gosh, it’s almost like social policy can help improve lives or something, and that maybe design isn’t the whole story all the time, everywhere?

The authors recognize that design contributes to all of the factors they isolate: better design can enable children to make trips without being driven, and better design also means that travel for all errands could potentially gobble up less time, and they give design its due the report. But come on: screaming and yelling that the focus always has to be on design takes the focus off differences between men and women and how women’s oppression is tied to different amounts of work. I’m sure moving that focus off difference serves somebody, but it’s not likely women. Beyond that, it muddies how design exists in social contexts, and that just makes for bad planning and policy.

One thing I would like to know more about are differences among women. Both Dutch cities and American cities have significant populations of women of color and women from global immigration, and their differences in household and workforce status, along with differences in helping networks, strike me as being potentially quite interesting. Perhap it is in the working paper, which haven’t read yet.

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Michael Sandel, Virginia Woolf and intrinsic pleasures

We are reading What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets from Michael Sandel this week in my justice class, and we’ve had a lively discussion. Sandel’s point, which is a good one, is that markets have taken over all over American life so that we don’t have much égalité or fraternité any more. He calls it the “Skyboxification” of the world, where rich people buy passes to get to the front of the line Disneyland, cut to free-flowing traffic on congested freeways, and get shorter lines for security at airports, etc.

Many of his examples are not so trivial: The buying and selling of immigration or refugee status, the trade in organs, and paying women who are drug addicts to be sterilized.

Sandel does not help us much sorting through the cases he writes about. His major point is that market exchanges fundamentally change the nature of the human interaction: that once you pay, you feel more entitled, and less connected and obligated to the people in the interaction.

I have been writing about Sandel in Chapter 6 of the book. We’ll see how far I get in answering the critique.

My students’ reactions to the various cases were, as always, the most interesting part of the exercise. Of particular interest was their reaction to paying children to read books. That, in general, got a firm “nope.” I’m not sure what I think anymore, after the two classes. The students’ various reasonings have gotten into my own brain now, and I need to do some writing to figure out what’s going on in my own head here.

However, the being paid to read discussion made me remember Virginia Woolf’s reflections in How To Read A Book:

Are there not some pursuits that we practice because they are so good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? An how is not among them? I Have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgement dawns and the great conquerers and lawyers and statesmen receive their rewards–their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble–the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”

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David Levinson’s metro job accessibility report is out, and it’s vital for planners interested in transit

David Levinson has been working on accessibility for years, and his work is so important to those interested in public transit. He’s got two reports up we should be talking about right now. Here’s the link to the maps and the report for transit accessibility (2014), and here’s the link to auto accessibility. These are available from the Accessibility Observatory. There’s lots there to read because David and his research group are very productive, but here are some of the numbers that I have been playing with this morning:

Number of jobs accessible by car relative the number of accessible by transit by travel time (2014)

City 20 minutes 40 minutes
Boston 31.0 18.4
Chicago 36.4 19.6
Dallas 161.0 80.6
Portland 66.7 18.5
Los Angeles 96.1 39.6
New York 10.1 6.2
San Francisco 57.6 12.8
Washington, DC 38.9 10.2

All these are my calculations based on numbers I took from the two reports, so if they are messed up, I did it, not David. I typed this up before coffee.

This little exercise was eye-opening to me in several ways. First the no-brainer: We’ve always known that in US transit, there is New York and there is everybody else. That’s true here. Second, the 20 minute versus 40 minute distinction strikes me as being really important. For many cities thought to have good transit (San Francisco, Boston, Chicago), the competition enters in at the 40 minute mark, not the 20 minute mark. The rest of these numbers…oye. The Los Angeles numbers, oye. The Portland numbers, face palm.

I may spend the rest of the day in bed.

edited to add–David emailed me and said my original numbers were off…I found a bunch of typos. He’s going to have a proper report up in a month…so stay tuned for that. When I fixed the typos, the numbers got worse.

Seriously. Staying in bed. Do we have any ice cream?

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On Aristotle and thanking dogs

Acknowledgements in books or dissertations are very funny things. People get sniffy if one goes on too long, but they also get mad if their own perceived contribution is slighted in any way. The former does have a point. I wrote before about Noreen Malone’s commentary about the breathlessly overblown, name-dropping acknowledgements section of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean-In:

She also lets us know that Scovell wasn’t the only person who adjusted her schedule. Harvard Professor Hannah Riley Bowles “interrupted her vacation to spend hours on the phone discussing her work,” a description that was surely meant to express genuine gratitude, but mainly just clarifies the global pecking order.

I am so important, even Harvard proffies and Oprah come a-running. Or these folks are just exceptionally generous. Same diff?

I got a fair amount of crap for thanking my dog, Zz, in my dissertation. Zz was a marvelous little dog I got when I was 22 years old, and who had traveled with me from Iowa, to Chicago, back to Iowa, then to California throughout grad school and my dissertation, and then finally passed away at the age of 17, when I was living in Virginia. He was an exceptional little fellow, always up for a walk or snuggle, and his friendship mattered tremendously to me.

So what’s the point of thanking him in the acknowledgements? Dogs can’t read. He can never know what I wrote, even if I read it to him. That’s just stupid, people said, and still say. That’s treating animals like they are people, which is wrong. (I don’t think so, but it’s a common argument.)

But saying thank you is only partially about the recipient. I’m convinced Aristotle was right about virtue: it develops via practice. I practice gratitude on purpose. I’m not as good at it as I want to be, but I figure the only way to get better is to do what I’d do if I wanted to play the guitar better: keep working, keep trying to find new ways to do it, keep at it, time and again. If a waiter fills up my coffee, I say “thank you.” If a student holds a door for me, I say thank you. The waiter is just doing his job. Should he be thanked for doing his job? Yes, yes he should because we all need to feel like our work matters beyond whatever coins we receive for it, and because I myself need to remember that I’m not entitled to things. I’m not entitled to coffee, even if I pay for it; it’s not the sum total of what happens between me and waiter. I’m not entitled to a door being opened for me. I’m not entitled to friendship, either human or animal; it has to be acknowledged, cherished, and fostered. Whether anybody cares if they are thanked or not, letting myself forget my debts, big and small, is bad for me. I am proud of much of my work and what I have achieved in my life, but it’s self-delusional to believe your own bootstrap stories.

To wit, thank you for reading. :)

Here’s a picture of ZZ:

ZZ close up

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Fabulous urban links to read

The Rise and Fall of Public Housing in New York by Richard Price

Emma Staub moved to Nashville, the city, because of Nashville, the television series. Media, of course.

Rebecca Onion covers the crazy quilt of neighborhoods by ethnicity from an 1894 map of Manhattan in Slate.

The Road to Civilization: A Conversation with Sid Meier from Ars Tecnica.

The Toronto Star lists 10 books that capture its beautiful city.

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#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #23: Lois Takahashi and Michelle Magalong and AIDS and Social Capital

This week I am reading Lois Takahashi and Michelle Magalong. Lois was one of my teachers at UCLA, which is a bit of an understatement. Whenver I am asked the question, “which teachers influenced you the most”, I always have to mention Lois. She was never really a formal mentor of mine at UCLA; she did teach my advanced planning theory courses, wonderfully. And I think she served on my committee for roughly 14 seconds. But she had a tremendous influence on me nonetheless. Always gracious, always supportive, she helped me by being a cheerleader who understood, perfectly, how hard it is to be an outsider in the academy. She also taught me how to be a cheerleader, too, in that just as everybody needs criticism to learn and grow, they also need encouragement. I never, ever would have managed to finish my PhD without Lois’ support. She’s one of the most generous, compassionate and funny people I have ever met, and she’s also brilliant.

Michelle Magalong was a student at UCLA when I was just leaving, and even though I didn’t get to know her well, my first impression of her turned out to be right. When I first encountered her, I remember thinking: this person is a leader. She’s one of those people who is attracted to planning less because they are all that motivated by the academy, but because they want to change cities and neighborhoods, and Michelle has gone on from UCLA into nonprofit management. She is one of the co-founders of My Historic Filipinotown. When I think of her work, I think of Gail Dubrow and Leonie Sandercock and the unique possibilities for constructing history based on place and ethnicity.

Takahashi, Lois M. and Michelle G. Magalong. 2008. “Disruptive Social Capital: (Un)Healthy Socio-Spatial Interactions Among Filipino Men Living with HIV/AIDS.” Health & Place 14: 182-197.

One of the biggest revolutions in health research comes from the idea that people exist in places, families, and networks, and those influences can help foster an individual’s progress, or not, in health. Social capital is the idea that within social contexts, people differentially trust and rely on individuals in reciprocal relationships that encourage and reward selected behaviors within that social group. The norms can either be healthy or not.

Nonetheless, as Takahashi and Magalong point out, there are any influences on individual choices, and social relationships can take on different aspects in places where people struggle facing oppression, poverty, and other structural forces that ‘distrupt’ and destabilize what might otherwise be more ordered expectations of relationships and contexts. That is, people can’t always reciprocate, and as a result, trust may not form, and if it does, expectations may not be met. Furthermore, not all network effects are good. Networks can serve as means to set groups against each other, or set the larger group against its more vulnerable members. People in distrupted contexts have to be more entrepreneurial in looking out for themselves; they can’t just sit back and expect their social contexts and contracts to deliver.

Takahasi and Magalong interview 52 Filipino men living in Los Angeles through a community organization, the Asian Pacific Aids Intervention Team. What they found was that social capital worked readily for these men who were able to move into employment and housing opportunities through their families. Nonetheless, gay activities and identity are strongly suppressed among traditional Filipino families, so that men within these contexts did not really see their families as potential sources of support in their relationships. As a result, many of these interview participants reported in high-risk sexual behaviors in part because of the anonymity involved, as a way to separate that part of their lives from their everyday social networks. Their places–homeplaces and places of homosexual expression–existed in entirely separate social milieu, neither of which informed the other.

The HIV positive diagnosis was a severely disruptive event for these men. I found this quote to be particularly poignant:

I started doing heavy drugs [after I received my HIV positive test result]. … I wanted to kill myself. … I was doing, excessive amount of, not just crystal, I was doing, you know, I mean, I tried heroin, I tried, um, PCP. I tried, smoking crack. I tried, primos. I tried hydroglass, crank, peanut butter crystal, paint crystal. I tried uh, mushrooms. I tried uh, angel dust. I tried, oh, every drug, you name it. Acid. … (And um, was there anyone that you, you feel, you felt like you could turn to during this time?) Um, no. I didn’t feel that I, I didn’t feel comfortable, where, you know, I didn’t feel comfortable going to, any of the group. No. (And um, did you, talk to your, your therapist? About this? After when you got your results?) Um, yeah, but it was, like, too shocking for me. I didn’t want to, talk to anybody after. Because I had to, rethink my life. So I wanted to be left alone. [232949, Filipino male, 32 years old, immigrant, lived in US 20 years, diagnosed in 1995]

He’s not coping very well, and he is isolating himself even more when he needs support the most.

Moments of rebuilding social capital came for some of these men when their illnesses required them to come out to family, and/or when their own illnesses coincided with those of other family members who needed help: rebuilding across the common issues of chronic illnesses like cancer became possible, and in some instances, redeeming in their family networks.

In sum, the work highlights how important it is for researchers in health to really understand what disruption is, and how it works in contexts.

Brilliant student Brettany Shannon, of course, thinks of everything light years ahead of me, and has written up her own summary of the manuscript.

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Some wonderfully wise words from Eric Hayot’s The Elements of Academic Style

I have been reading Eric Hayot’s wonderful book The Elements of Academic Style:

Let’s start with fear. I am terrified–seriously terrified–of academic writing. Nothing that I do confronts me as strongly with a fear of total, consuming incompetence and inadequacy. The problem is that I am trying to be great, and I am (quite reasonably, unfortunately) afraid that I am not great.


Of course you should be afraid, aiming higher, going farther. If you weren’t afraid, you’d be complacent, and it wouldn’t be research.

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