Monthly Archives: December 2011

On dreams and visions and the future

We were debating over cocktails the merits of “being realistic” and “accepting constraints.” My position was: f*ck that. Security is over-rated, past a certain point.

Neil deGrasse Tyson:

10 Rock Star Scientists

Neil Gaimon’s wishes for the new year:


I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

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Blog worth looking at: Urban Observations

Urban Observations describes itself as…a personal, non-commercial blog of visual urban studies. Photographic images lean towards “New Topographics” (urban landscapes) with a smattering of urban abstract/details and urban candid photography (but this is not street photography).

Go look.

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The perils of innumeracy, Iowa caucus version

Because I’m lazy and technically on vacay, I don’t have time to link to all the offenders, but, honestly, people:

a) conflicting poll results in Iowa or different poll results in Iowa’s GOP race are not scientifical proof that Iowans are changing their minds (or flip-flopping as I just read, geez);

b) that’s just what happens when the world and journalists do not understand the concept of confidence intervals and repeated small-sample trials on separate subjects with nonstandard instruments.

IOW, for those of you who haven’t taken statistics and survey research, it’s entirely possible that the “He’s in the lead, now he’s in the lead, no, wait, now HE’S in the lead now” we hear from the media simply reflects noise rather than trend. If the leader and next-place candidate both reside within a confidence interval, there is *no evidence* that one person is in the lead over the other, and with that result, it’s entirely possible that the second-place candidate ranks higher than the first.

GARGH. I don’t know how political scientists keep from drinking themselves to an early death.

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Fact-checking and ethics-testing “quals” tendency towards imprecise use of numbers

Andrew Gelman takes up the question of the “quals” versus the “quants.” To nobody’s surprise, Gelman has trouble with people throwing around numbers, and the tendency to use numbers as a claim to authority. Me, too. I recently read a sentence in a draft that somebody sent me to review:

In 2003, the Bureau of Transportation found that 6 million adults with disabilities felt that public transportation did not meet their needs. Further, 1.9 million adults with disabilities never leave their home because they lack access to transit (Feeley, 2009).

This type of sentence has to make you stop. I set out to do some basic fact-checking. There is no Bureau of Transportation, at least not in the US. And who is this Feeley person?

Turns out, Feeley is a consultant who wrote a very nice paper for the Transportation Research Board Annual Meetings in 2009 on autism and access [pdf link]–what I am writing about at the moment based on work that I had students collect. This Feeley paper should have gone into the literature review in the first place, but didn’t, serving only as secondary citation fodder for a point the authors wanted to make about the issue close to their heart: transit.

So I go find the original brief:

U.S. Dept of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Issue Brief – Transportation Issues Keep Over Half a Million Disabled at Home. April 2003. No. 3.

Suddenly, even in the title shows that the 1.9 million people “staying home due to lack of transit” wasn’t right. In my book, the estimated 560,000 people staying home is still awful–unless they like staying home. The brief shows that 1.9 million do stay at home, but they don’t do so just because of transportation. They do so for a variety of reasons.

The last bit is a tiny bit, but a big problem with lack of care. The original sentence claimed that lack of access to transit is what caused the (incorrect) 1.9 million to stay home. But the BTS brief actually describes the difficulties:

The one difficulty cited most frequently was the lack of a personal vehicle. Other difficulties cited by respondents included public transportation availability or cost, physical problems that made using transportation too difficult, and personal preferences, such as not wanting to ask others for help or having to depend on someone else for transportation.

That’s a much different description of the problem than “they lack access to transit.” In fact, the # 1 self-defined problem is not having a car.

There are host of disabilities for which transit is not necessarily a great big help (there are some that good-quality transit is a big help for, but not all, and high-quality transit…well, it’s pretty rare.)

So when does one stop being “in the ballpark” and start being just plain misleading in a way that subverts the truth?

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Richard Green and Joe Nocera on empty-headed and empty-hearted punditry

Richard Green always points me to the best reading. He’s at it this week by pointing me to Joe Nocera’s bit on the Big Lie.

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J.P. Zhou, Yin Wang and me on jobs/housing balance in Transport Policy

Jobs/housing balance and employer-based travel demand management program returns to scale: Evidence from Los Angeles

From the abstract:

Abstract
Research on environmental justice and social inclusion suggests that high-income wage earners may have better job access due to their greater choices in both housing and transportation markets. This study compares the jobs/housing balance and mode choice of different groups of employees of a large employer (27,113 employees) and those of the “reference groups” from comparable employees working for smaller employers in Los Angeles. Based on spatial and statistical analyses, this paper finds the following:

a) Across all employee groups, a better jobs/housing balance was accompanied by higher income, as was likelihood to patronize Travel Demand Management (TDM) programs.
b) Employees from the large employer had more options for carpooling and thus drove alone less, even after controlling overall housing stock, residential location, annual income, and/or commute time.
c) Across all employee groups, good jobs/housing balance did not necessarily bring about green mode choice.
d) Comprehensive TDM measures by the large employer significantly reduced employees’ dependence on driving, even in a region where autocommuting dominates. However, these measures were costly to implement.
e) Different employee groups favor different TDM programs, and the patterns are marked by income.
The above findings suggest that shared or consolidated TDM and housing programs, which pool smaller employers, might better promote green mode choice. Participating employers may also negotiate better deals for program implementation when these programs involve third-party transit agencies and contractors.

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Sanctuary Cities, Maricopa’s county sheriff, and hospitality

For the past two years, I’ve had my students read Derrida’s essay On Cosmopolitanism in learning about multi-cultural cities, set along with assorted material from immigration opponents on “sanctuary cities.”

My planning students, for the most part, are good liberals, and tend to side with Derrida, but are shocked when they discover his argument does not allow for permanence; Derrida grants rights to sanctuary, but he was not prepared to extend rights to permanent residency. You would think that such a position would have made him more popular with those on the political right, but no.

I’m thinking about these issues this morning as I read through the Yahoo news story about the Maricopa County sheriff’s legal troubles in Federal court. Beyond his wild-west appeals to conservatives, the guy is having documents shredded. There’s a little hint: if you have to have destroy evidence, you’re probably not a worthy custodian of due process or the rule of law.

Every year, I’m consistently surprised that so few of my students develop consequentialist arguments against the criticisms of sanctuary cities, and Maricopa County’s sheriff rather embodies the consequentialist argument. You can, indeed, make chasing down immigrants who are here illegally your priority, but there are opportunity costs of your department’s staff time. For places like Los Angeles or New York, our police forces would do nothing else if catching immigrants were the priority–because the only practical way to do that is to conduct yourself the way Arpaio appears to have done: start checking everybody who looks brown to you. Even if you believe strongly that those who have entered the US illegally have committed a crime and are a threat to communitarian US identity and values, that’s a pretty stark deviation from constitutional practice.

But to the consequentialist point: to be so active in places like Los Angeles or New York would leave the police time to do little else. I already live in a world where somebody breaking in had better have a gun if I want the police to care and where calling 911 means you are going to be put on hold, and you’re going to stay on hold a lot longer than anybody who might have occasion to call 911 wants to be on hold. Forget about ever seeing a policeman over things like bike theft or property damage like graffiti. They just don’t have the time or the staff.

There are some small cities on Bill O’Reilly’s list of sanctuary cities, but not that many, and some that look small, like Cicero, IL, are part of much bigger regions like Chicago.

So the question becomes why, exactly, O’Reilly and some conservatives think that municipal police forces even have the wherewithal to prevent cities becoming sanctuary cities even if they wanted to, or whether people like O’Reilly simply make these assertions about cities for political gain and to appeal to conservative rural constituencies, who may view places like LA and New York as antithetical to American identity and values in the first place.

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Lorenzo Bini Smaghi on the academic advantages of empty-headed punditry

The FT this morning has an interview with ECB Executive Lorenzo Bini, who notes:


“To me, it seems that some economists have become increasingly attracted to quick, simple, and shocking answers–just to get the attention of the media and to promote themselves.”

A dynamic hardly isolated to economists, but very apt in its description.

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for on his brow I see that written which is Doom

`Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe,’ but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw.’

`It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. `Look here.’

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

`Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.’ exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

`Spirit. are they yours.’ Scrooge could say no more.

`They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. `And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. `Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

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Brilliant breakdown of Ron Paul in the TNR

Will Wilkinson is emerging as a writer to watch for me. He’s got a thought-provoking essay on Ron Paul in TNR. Sharp reasoning, terrific writing. He calls BS on Paul’s unwillingness to take a principled stand on immigration and his inability to acknowledge the selective enforcement of property rights needs to be redressed:

Nevertheless, it’s hard to say exactly what “justly acquired property” amounts to in a country built in no small part by slave labor on land stolen from indigenous people. How much of Thomas Jefferson’s property was justly acquired?

These issues get complicated fast. Most of us think there’s a sort of statute of limitation on the sins of our fathers, and for good reason. But it’s absolutely undeniable that the distribution of property and power in America partly reflects hundreds of years of constant and systemic violation of precisely those rights Paul claims to prize.

There isn’t any statute of limitation on inherited wealth, though, and that’s the trouble. I’m wrapped up thinking about a final report today, so I don’t have time to stop and work through these ideas. But’s a worthy ethical problem to spend some time thinking about.

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