Irwin Edman’s lovely writing on Epicurus and the momentary span of human life

I’ve been reading Epicurus (and no, I haven’t forgotten Aristotle), but I happened up on Irwin Edman’s essay introducing the volume, and it’s lovely:

There is no ecstasy and no adoration in Epicurus’ dream of the good life. But there is a decent, half-sad content, the resigned pleasure in what may be made of an earth where, lost amid the wide spaces where our world is but one among many, we may briefly and decently make a lovely and harmonious interval. The senses are avenues to delight; so are those impulses which enable us to enjoy the companionship of our friends; so is the mind which enables us to contemplate without fear that nature which has produced us, which will destroy us, which will generate others after us. The material surface of things, these make a quiet joy for a quiet garden. Better far are these, Epicurus thinks, than the turbulences of affairs of the anxieties bred by hopes an fears such as ambition or supernatural religion breeds. Epicurus is an almost melancholy, secular saint who tells us what we must renounce impossible and illusory happiness, for the modest content which mortal creatures may enjoy in their momentary span.

Oooooooo how I wish I could write like that.

JAPA’s Planning Perspective pieces and our profession’s recent losses

I’m just going to say it: I really have not been a fan of the “Perspective” pieces that the Journal of the American Planning Association has taken to publishing instead of the “Longer View” pieces that we used to have. The Longer View essays were thought pieces, usually by well-established scholars on a field, who used the essay as an opportunity to try to write about what the research in that area means for the professions and cities. Some of those were well done, others were less so, but they were, at least, about subject matter. The “Perspective” pieces are meant to be somewhat similar, but have a more personal bent to them. They are memoir, with reflections about the profession and the individual’s life in the profession. I say this even though I am quite a fan of a number of the people who have penned these pieces: I like the individuals, and their scholarship, but these particular essays have made me squirm.

I am torn. I am usually among those who will happily say that far too much of the academy tends to focus on very limited modes of communication and storytelling. Let’s have more of all sorts of ideas and expressing them, I always say.

Except when I am not. I am an avid, avid reader, with one major weak point: I hate memoir.

There are some people who *kill* this genre. David Sedaris comes to mind. Memoirists like him are brilliant prose stylists with a truly exceptional capacity to look at themselves with both tenderness and good humor.

Academics are too often neither.

Academic memoirs tend to be a lot like academics themselves: narrow and way too full of self-congratulation. Or score-settling. Or both.

And I have to say, the first “Perspectives” of JAPA have not made me happy to read them. My first thought was OMG: the Boomer scholars, who maintain their grip on the profession, have given up entirely on using evidence and doing the actual bloody work of scholarship as a means to promote themselves and have skipped merrily forward to simply talking about themselves.


We have also just lost Ed Soja and Jackie Leavitt at UCLA, my alma, and I find myself rather wishing now we’d had a “Perspective” column from each of them. Ed leaves a bunch of books that changed the way theorists discuss space, along with many students who remember how very kindly and inspiring he was. Jackie leaves behind a legion of students, colleagues, advocates, and projects she transformed with her support and vision.

One of my students after the Virginia Tech shooting said, in tears as I held her: “I hate that I only know how wonderful these professors are now that they are dead.”

Perhaps victory laps are ok.

Death (Ranier Maria Rilke)

Our fate held close within his quiet hands.

When with proud joy we lift Life’s red wine

To drink deep of the mystic shining cup

And ecstasy through all our being leaps—

Death bows his head and weeps.

Before us great Death stands

About those “cost-saving measures” business consultant Stanley Pearlstein just developed for higher education…

Well, now that the punditry sees dollars for consulting on the sorry state of higher education–because it has to be in a sorry state, otherwise we wouldn’t need consultants and charter companies chomping at the bit to reform it–we have Stanley Pearlstein business-splaining how it all oughta be done.

1. Cap administrative costs. (Because you know, that’s how businesses are doing it.) Sure, yeah, whatever. I don’t have a problem with this, but dude, you’re like the 1,000,000th person to suggest this. Maybe wanna use that fabulous research tool known as the “Google” to cite some proposals or experiments with it?

This is business journalism? How do I get this job? Because this job? It seems way easier than my job.

2. Operate Year Around, Five Days a Week. OMG that’s like totally sticking it to them lazy proffies, aren’t you! And it’s all cause they are just sitting around, doing nothing on those days, costing a ton and not producing anything. And then there are the empty buildings! Gasp!

Had business journalist of the year actually visited a campus on Friday or during the summer, he’d find it buzzing with activities. Fridays? Executive and continuing education programs that have dollars floating right in the door. Those cost money to produce. You may have this vision of forcing faculty teach 60 class a day, but the real question for any service is: does the revenue cover the marginal cost?

In summer, campuses have lots and lots of little camps for K-12 , and their dorms and classrooms have stuff going on. All that? It’s revenue. And costs. And the question is, as always: is p>mc?

You’d think a business guy would understand this.

Oh, btw, it’s not just Fridays and summers. It’s Saturdays and Sundays, too. No, there aren’t as many students on campus, but there are quite a few.

It’s like universities already know where their money comes from, or something.

3. Make them lazy proffies teach more and do less research.

I’m not talking about research supported by grants. I’m referring to the research by tenure-track faculty members that is made possible because they teach only two courses per semester, rather than the three or more that was once the norm.

Then he goes on to list some statistics about teaching hours have declined 30 percent! Lazy proffies! Doing their lazy dumb research!

Only the statistics he lists do not back up his claim that *most* college faculty taught 3 or more classes a week as a “norm.” The 2/2 course load at research universities has been standard at most research universities since the early part of the university system.

What HAS changed are the number of faculty on campus who teach little or nothing because they have been hired solely for research positions in centers or because they are hired into chair positions with sweetheart deals because they are prima donnas OR because they have to be bribed into administrative roles and universities can’t offer monetary compensation. Putting those all in the same pot and averaging is going to make it look like the college teaching job of 2/2 is a recent decline of higher workloads. It’s not.

I teach 2/2 year in and year out, and I have won three teaching awards over the course of 7 years. I’m here to tell you: adding another course to my 2/2 would not improve the student experience in any of them. And I don’t want to hear from somebody who pipes up and says they teach 3/3. Fine, ya got me if you are teaching 3/3 of 50+ students in each class, or more. But if you are teaching 3/3 of 10 student seminar classes, I’m not buying. I teach heavy course load, undesirable classes, damn well if my scores are any indicator.

Now, actually compensating me for my classroom performance would be both a) nice and b) a radical change. Because the time I spend making my classes tough and worth taking? That comes out of my skin. I get exactly nothing from the university for performance here. And it boggles my mind but hey, administrators control this process, not students, and administrators like metrics.

Oh, journalist of the year grants:

A better approach would be to offer comparable pay and status to professors who spend most of their time teaching, reserving reduced teaching loads for professors whose research continues to have significance and impact. Some departments at some schools have embraced “differentiated teaching loads,” but most tenured faculty members resist and resent the idea that they need to continually defend the value of their research. And administrators are wary of doing anything that might diminish their universities’ research reputation.

Some departments have done this, it’s totally magotally true that most haven’t because if they had, then I wouldn’t be able to try to claim it was my fabulous insight…instead of the standard practice at most universities, where tenured faculty have little to no influence over governance and haven’t in the decade that I have been in higher education.

Move on, nothing to see here.

WELP….I didn’t finish *the* book, but I did finish *a* book

Ok, I am among the first people to note that I don’t always have a lot of self-control. As in, I never have a lot of self control. So let’s just get that out of the way.

I began writing a book about urban theory, and I am still very excited about that book. But that shit is hard. I started out with all sort of questions in my head about “why hasn’t anybody written about this topic in a way that works for my undergraduate class?” Well, I know now. The reason is that it’s Hard.

Midway through the summer last summer, in order to get through a writing block, I started writing, of all things, a novel. I’ve tried to write novels before, but the stories and characters I created didn’t sufficiently interest me to finish them. This time, I got interested. I would work on the manuscript during evenings and weekends when I was too tired to work on data or other things.

Earlier this month, when I looked at the story arcs, I realized that I was actually getting done. It’s a comic novel, a comedy of errors, and I have no idea about its quality. I just had fun writing it.

This weekend, I resolved the last plot point I wished to. I have an alpha draft of a novel. I have no idea what to do with it now. I am sure I have to revise it, but to what end? I have no idea how to go about publishing the thing, or whether I ought to think about that at all. After all, it was supposed to be relief valve from the very steep uphill climb of the theory work.

Keep writing, friends. There’s so much advice and scolding out there that you scarcely need me to add to it. Just keep going. Eventually, you will get somewhere, even if it’s not where you planned, if you don’t stop. If nothing else, I can say to the part of me that always felt like a loser for never finishing a novel that I have now done so.

Pearl-grasping and the Reason Foundation’s Regional Mobility Plan for Southern California

It seems that the required response to the Reason Foundation’s Mobility Plan for Southern California is to grasp our pearls and get all sniffy about how bad it is, but folks, you gotta understand: I’ve been doing this a long time, and just about all plans with a strong point of view also usually have aspects that are politically, economically, or physically not very likely. I’ve sat through presentations about hovering pod cars and harvest-your-own locavore restaurants on high speed rail. Plans are supposed to have vision, and sometimes, vision shows us the impractical as well as the practical. The plan seems to have been authored by Baruch Feigenbaum. This is, on its face, odd: planners like me usually assume a plan is going to be produced not by single individuals, but via a process, and I am pretty sure that if I authored a plan on my own there would be some pretty outre parts to it, too. I don’t know Mr. Feigenbaum, btw, so I have neither animus nor affection.

Conceptually, I like how the plan addresses one, single issue with a cost-benefit perspective. I think the intellectual backlash on cost-benefit assessment has been well-deserved, but agencies have continued to use cost-benefit language, weakly and not very convincingly, because so many of the projects being schilled tout assumed benefits from climate change to obesity prevention. But here we have an explicit touting up of envisioned toll revenues and project costs. I have my problems with the assumptions on the cost side, but I usually do. At least when these are stated, and connected to a price that people would be expected to pay, we get some clarity on the balance sheet. Now, I do agree that cost-benefit isn’t everything, but it also should not be *discounted* when we look at making public investments simply because it might not make the rail projects we love so much look as shiny as we want them to look. If we don’t think about the balance sheet at least some, our investments are likely to disappoint.

I also think that we could be doing a bit more with express buses and BRT in southern California. I question the use of the BRT label for parts of the proposed network; I doubt we’d necessarily need BRT in the strictest sense on the freeway lengths where it is outlined, but I think the intent is simply to suggest the sort of dedicated lane suburban busways we find in Toronto. I’d actually like to see about a year’s serious experimentation with the idea before I got all “This is stupid” over it. Right now, people in those locations can either carpool, drive alone, or take Metrolink, and that’s not much of a choice set. Yes, Metro already has some of these ideas in their plans, but what of it? New plans always include things from existing plans if either the former or the latter are any good.

Further, southern California could do, in theory, a lot more with corridor management than it does. This plan emphasizes managed arterials, and by managed, we should think managed and priced. I am less sanguine about the prospect of pricing arterials than I am about pricing freeways. I’d like to see people get used freeway pricing first. The general theory is the same: replace unpredictable congestion costs with explicit prices as way to a) help people decide whether they value a trip enough to pay for it and b) generate revenue to pay for the system. I’m just a little worried that it’s much easier to Waze your way around arterials where you have to pay and get on streets not really designed for high traffic volumes, and while I have no sympathy for West siders pissed that they might have to deal in their backyards with traffic when they, themselves, drive constantly, displacing traffic from roads with higher design standards to lower design standards might present a safety loss. It might be, in theory, that the arterial was managed so well with prices (and other improvements) that it would take traffic off those streets onto the managed arterials because the value for money would be so good, but theory isn’t decisive here. It is an empirical question.

That said, the reason we do not have as much corridor management as I would like isn’t that local area professionals are not smart enough to see the advantages, but as usual, disparate jurisdictions and interests within those jurisdictions disagree on the ends for corridor management. For residents, the ends are to slow traffic down and get it to go elsewhere. That’s hardly a congestion solution. From a regional perspective, the idea is to increase throughput overall. And because those two are irreconcilable in one mode (the auto), we have…bike lanes, transit, and walking proposal galore that may, or may not, improve congestion.

Finally, I think the plan highlights points where the problems of auto congestion really are severe. We discuss the TTI report about overall levels of congestion every year, and we all sigh when LA comes out on top…and we all drive in the region all the time, and then go to places, like Washington DC, and then figure out that David Levinson is actually right: congestion is much worse in those regions than it really is on a day-to-day basis in Los Angeles. Yes, you get more delay in the aggregate when you cause 10 million people 10 minutes of delay than you do when you cause 1 million people 30 minutes of delay, but qualitatively, those are very different experiences. To wit, LA has some bad bottlenecks that generate quite significant delays as a part of the total, and we just physically are not going to get more out of the infrastructure that is there, even with better management, and in those places, the Reason plan puts in tunnels. Now, I don’t think these are feasible, but I also would point out: if you don’t like those, then what’s your idea? Those are places where, if this were a different plan produced by different people, the map would have little red links decrying these as “problem zones.” Treating those problem zones as problems strikes me as a useful idea, even when the alternative offered may not be, and even though we know these are problem areas already.

We could decide, as UCLA’s Brian Taylor has urged us, to just say that congestion isn’t a problem to solve, but a condition of urban life. I’m willing to go there to some degree, but my urban economist hat notes that if you really hate sprawl, those problem zones actually do represent a problem because they note areas where there are strong economic incentives to move activity to the other side of the bottleneck–maybe not in the next 10 years, but in the next 20 to 30.

I think a lot of pearl-grasping is just that the people who think of themselves as the legitimate commentators/experts on LA transport are pissed because their favorite thing, rail rail rail and more rail, isn’t a feature of this plan, and/or because they think Reason is trying to advocate for more freeways using pricing as cover and/or they themselves get a lot of political mileage out of the fact that the freeway system is hardly optimal. Yes, the plan includes new infrastructure, but the 710, for example, has been on every map everybody who doesn’t live in South Pass has produced for 50 years. I never hear this kind of flouncing around when some architect produces a Tokyo-style train map for LA that would cost so much money we would have no money left for anything else and would also be empty for large portions of the network because it puts the same amount of investment in places that have acre lots as in places where we have good, rail-supporting densities. Instead, these are greeted with rapturous sighs about how wonderful that would be because that’s an awesome vision. And I generally don’t mind, and even like those kinds of visions, too, even though I don’t tend to get poetic about them.

My point is, simply, that good ideas come from lots of places; sometimes good ideas are mixed all up with silly ones, even, and I guess I am disappointed in the response. Reason hardly needs me to speak up for it, but I would prefer we discuss rather than screech or belittle, even when presented with visions and concepts that run counter to our own.