Amazon.com is clever in its use of tracking and follow-up e-mails

I’ve been thinking about selling my camera and buying a smaller one, so I’ve been reading about the various choices and, naturally, looking at prices—including prices on Amazon. This morning I found, unprompted, a random e-mail from Amazon:

Screen shot 2013-03-31 at 8.58.59 AM

Not only has Amazon listed at the top some of the cameras I’ve looked at (like the X100S and RX1), but it recognized the general kind of camera I’m interested in (high-end, fixed lens camera; small mirrorless cameras) and listed a bunch of those too. Some of them are misses—Leica’s cameras look completely silly to me—but the hits are there. I haven’t done more than browse, and browsing alone caused Amazon to kick out an e-mail telling me about their financing credit card. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a retailer do so before.

The Amazon finance card doesn’t interest me and I’m not going to buy a camera today—or one from Amazon, because of they charge sales tax and most online retailers don’t. But I’m simultaneously impressed and creeped out by the company’s nudge e-mails.

This e-mail and post are also useful reminders: virtually everything you do online can be tracked, if someone wants to track you. Amazon does, for reasons that presently seem benign. Nonetheless, next time I move I might delete this account (if that’s possible) and start another one, which won’t have a purchase history going back to 2002.

Links: Unmarried moms and ignoring incentives, higher education and competence, Moleskine’s IPO, Victoria’s Secret, and more!

* “The New Unmarried Moms: We’ve reduced teen pregnancy, but now childbearing outside wedlock is exploding among 20-somethings,” which is interesting but ignores some of the really powerful social factors at work. A lot of women are willing to sleep with fun-loving bad boys over dutiful workers; consequently, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that men modify their behavior in response. In addition, as Philip Greenspun says in “Another reason to feel like a failure: Scientists say that women are easy to get into bed:”

At lower paternal income levels, a variety of forms of government assistance will provide the single mother with roughly $45,000 per year in tax-free benefits, depending on the state (see this chart). That is more than the average American worker’s take-home pay. At higher paternal income levels, court-ordered child support payments may provide the non-working single mother with a substantially higher (tax-free) income than working at an average wage.

In other words, the financial consequences of having a child often aren’t dire and in some cases may actually be a net financial improvement. Note that I’m not trying to make a normative statement about whether this is good or bad: I am trying to observe how people respond to incentives.

* Great news: we’re (slowly) moving toward a world where education looks at competency, not hours with ass-in-seat. This is flying under the radar of the national press but is hugely important.

_MG_9736-1* Moleskine’s IPO; if the company is this profitable, why aren’t more companies getting into the notebook biz? Rhodia’s Webnotebook is my favorite, despite some flaws.

* Get LED lightbulbs.

Buzz Bissinger’s extraordinary story of shopping and (a little bit of) sex. I thought it would be boring but laughed a lot.

* “The Shadowy Residents of One Hyde Park—And How the Super-Wealthy Are Hiding Their Money.” I don’t think I’d want to live in a $5M+ apartment even if I had the money for it.

* How marriage changes relationships and gender dynamics; actual title includes the phrase “the boob test.” See also the first link in this post.

* How to think like the next generation, by Penelope Trunk; as usual overstated but still useful.

* 11 solutions to the Fermi Paradox.

* “Victoria’s Secret Sells to High School Girls. So What?” Sample: “Apparently, you can fill out applications to major universities or have boys see you in your underpants, but you can’t do both.”

* A Man’s “C-Card:” Commitment.

TheAtlantic.com is increasingly copying others instead of writing their own work

Something is rotten at The Atlantic: Jordan Weissman “wrote” a piece called “Disability Insurance: America’s $124 Billion Secret Welfare Program,” which is just a restatement of an NPR Planet Money report and some of David Autor’s work (which I’m familiar with through his Econtalk interview and reading some of his subsequent papers; he’s also mentioned by NPR.) This comes not long after Nate Thayer called out The Atlantic for trying to get writers to work for free. It seems like TheAtlantic.com is increasingly doing things like this: using thinly-veiled re-writes to drive traffic to it. Weissman’s piece adds little if anything to the NPR piece, and The Atlantic could have just linked to that piece.

The magazine is still very good, and original, but The Atlantic’s web content has been getting worse in a very noticeable way, with thinly-veiled re-writes of other people’s work. If you want to write about other people’s work, just link to it directly.

I’ve been noticing this phenomenon more and more, but this is the first time I’ve posted about it. I hope it doesn’t become a series.

(And I’m letting the Scientology ad thing slide, because I think it was an honest mistake.)

Bowl of Heaven — Larry Niven and Gregory Benford

Bowl_of_heavenIt’s almost always a mistake to represent alien consciousness in science fiction. Aliens, if we ever encounter them, are likely to be so alien that we can’t or won’t understand them—not at first, and conceivably not ever. The bigger problem with representing alien consciousness in science fiction comes from the language that is doing the representing.

Language, as pretty much everyone who has ever learned a foreign one knows, shapes what and how you think, as does the culture that carried by that language. Languages, though translatable, have different flavors. And the aliens in Bowl of Heaven sound like the humans, who sound like each other, and all of whom sound like Americans. They can’t do much better than call the human-built spacecraft “boldly simple.” These are aliens who, even more than most aliens in fiction, feel like humans dressed in exotic garb and wielding exotic technology.

Arthur C. Clarke wisely avoided this problem in Rendezvous with Rama, which is one reason the first one is so good and the latter ones less so.

It’s very hard to create fully differentiated human characters, each with a style all their own. Few accomplish this, which is why most writers choose a single first-person narrator, or a limited third-person narrator. One accomplishment in a novel like Anita Shreve’s Testimony is that the characters don’t sound alike, as they do in, say, Tom Perrotta’s Election, or many of Elmore Leonard’s novels. Hell, the style of, say, Remains of the Day, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and Atonement are as different as they are because each of their authors is trying to achieve (and achieving) a very specific effect and way of thinking. Niven and Benford aren’t.

I got into Bowl of Heaven because Peter Watts blurbed it and wrote about it in Circling the Bowl. I should’ve paid more heed to the way he described it: “Bowl of Heaven resonates with me, not so much as a work of fiction but as an artefact of the publishing industry.” I can see why it wouldn’t resonate with him “much as a work of fiction,” because by that standard it doesn’t succeed well. I should’ve read his post more carefully and noticed that sentence, though he also notes that “Bowl of Heaven seems to have done just fine with the advance reviewers.”

_MG_9690-1Watts looked at Amazon reviews for the book and noticed that “27% of the reviews complain about sloppy editing and continuity errors.” I’m going to complain about sloppy editing too: a lot of my pages looked like the one on the right, in which extraneous words and sentences are crossed out. This is the sort of thing nearly all authors do on their own (many pages of my own work are filled with cross-outs), and that line and copy editors do too. Generally I ignore extraneous sentences in novels, because everyone commits a couple. But when page after page looks like the one depicted to the right, I get annoyed.

Anyway, Watts’s recommendation kept me reading despite editing problems, but I quit reading when the English-speaking aliens appeared, with all of their Capitalized Proper Nouns (“For Memor was not amid the fevered straits of the Change;” there are also mentions of “the Dancing,” “the Watchers,” and capital-A “Astronomers”). There’s better work out there: before Bowl of Heaven, make sure you’ve read Blindsight and Starfish first: those are Watts novels, and I don’t remember where I first learned about them, and both are hard to read at their beginnings but dazzling by their ends as pieces click into place.

To return to the language issue, novels like Bowl of Heaven tend to give SF a bad rep among lit-fic types, who are obsessively attentive to language and how people use language in very particular way. As I noted above, these authors aren’t attentive to those issues, and they also seem to have a confused point of view—and not one that’s intentionally confused for artistic effect, like Virginia Woolf. The effect feels like a mess: it seems like the novel is following Cliff from a first-person limited view, but then it slips into a paragraph or two with only things that Redwing, or other characters, could know. It’s the sort of thing that undergrads learn about in creative writing classes.

Maybe there’s an artistic purpose here, but if so I’m not seeing it. If not, it’s just a mistake, and seeing novels with many simple mistakes praised by many eminent science fiction writers will tend to subtly and unfairly devalue the genre as a whole.

J.M. Coetzee’s realism

“[T]he generability of the particular is the of realism, is it not? I have in mind realism as a way of seeing the world and recording it in such a way that particulars, though captured in all their uniqueness, seem yet to have meaning, to belong to a coherent system.”

—J.M. Coetzee, Here and Now: Letters 2008 – 2011

How much criticism amounts to taste? Jonathan Haidt and The Happiness Hypothesis

In Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis he writes:

Consider the following story:

Julie and Mark are sister and brother. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other.

Do you think it is acceptable for two consenting adults, who happen to be siblings, to make love? If you are like most people in my studies, you immediately answered no. But how would you justify that judgment? People often reach first for the argument that incestuous sex leads to offspring that suffer genetic abnormalities. When I point out that the siblings used two forms of birth control, however, no one says, “Oh, well, in that case it’s okay.” Instead, people begin searching for other arguments, for example, “It’s going to harm their relationship.” When I respond that in this case the sex has made the relationship stronger, people just scratch their heads, frown, and say, “I know it’s wrong, I’m just having a hard time explaining why.”

The point of these studies is that moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment. When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate. You don’t really know why you think something is beautiful, but your interpreter module (the rider) is skilled at making up reasons [. . . .] You search for a plausible reason for liking the painting, and you latch on to the first reason that makes sense (maybe something vague about color or light, or the reflection of the painter in the clown’s nose). Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. When you refute a persons’s argument, does she generally change her mind and agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of her position; it was made up after the judgment was made.

Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at a time, and the same is of art.

Haidt’s description shows why political, religious, and even economic arguments are often so unsatisfying: regardless of what ideas or evidence one person cites, the other person isn’t really going to care (and you’re probably the other person, too). The other person is looking for ways to justify their thinking, like you are, and feelings can’t really be argued with—not by most people, most of the time.

Plus—and Haidt doesn’t discuss this, but it’s hard to miss if you’re paying attention to everyday life—most people have only a superficial understanding of the opinions they hold. This is especially obvious to any expert discussing matters with a non-expert. In many fields, even experts discussing matters with other experts may just have more sophisticated versions of their initial opinions and impressions; that’s certainly how I often feel when I read papers in English lit, or talk to some English professors. That discipline certainly seems to proceed funeral by funeral.

Still, I wonder if Haidt has run studies in which he has explicitly primed participants for critical thinking and reasoning, then asked similar sets of questions. One of the rare ways that people might open up and think is to avoid the direct discussion—”Is gun safety good or bad?”—and move to a meta discussion—”most people are too closed to new information to have political discussions”—prior to the “real” discussion about gun safety, or whatever the political or social issue du jour happens to be.

In light of these ideas, it might be best not to argue directly: when abortion comes up, don’t talk about the issue directly. Talk about what happens to the people in the moment: what pressures is the woman having the abortion feelings? What does the protester feel? Why? The same is true of art: what’s a great sentence in that novel? Where does the plot turn suddenly? What is greatness in general?

These are the same methods good teachers use: they don’t directly fight with their students, because the fight is unfair and, more importantly, it’s unproductive. I tend to ask questions that students find oblique, and now, after reading Haidt, I know why.

I also know why I give some of the answers I do when I’ve been asked to read friends’ or students’ stories, novels, and other writing. Sometimes they asked if I think the work is good. I never answer directly, because the more useful answer isn’t mine—it’s the writer’s answer, five years from when they’re asking. If the writer spends five years working on their craft and thinking about their problem space, they’ll have a very different perspective, and they’ll be able to judge for themselves. At a high enough level, taste rules, but getting to that high level is a steep climb.

Opinions also shift in the individual over time: many novels I liked in middle and high school I would now find unbearable boring, clichéd, and stupid, while my middle-school self would find many of the books I like now incomprehensible or pointless.

Links: Publishing, BDSM (these two are not related, surprisingly), Chekhov the player, Lasch, parking, L.A., the ten-year hoodie, and more

* “The [Non] Death of Publishing,” which argues that publishers used to the recession to consolidate their positions and make more money; I can’t evaluate most of the claims, but they seem plausible.

* “BDSM in the mainstream.” (Maybe.)

_MG_8952-1* “The No-Limits Job” is dumb, but it’s also in the NYT’s Fashion & Style section, where rigor goes to die. The basic problem is that the industries described glamor industries, which means lots of people want to get in because people think they’re cool. This drives the salaries down (to zero, in the case of internships). You may notice that there are no examples of programmers working 70 hours a week for $22,000 a year, and the words “supply” and “demand” never appear. I’ve seen this basic supply / demand principle in action, since I went to grad school in English Lit, where many, many people want jobs (because they’re fun) and relatively few jobs are available, with the result being that supply and demand meet at a low number. Solution: Don’t go into glamor industries. If you do, don’t complain about the trade-offs you’ve made.

* Chekhov: a lifetime of lovers. Demonstrating that writers can be players too.

* Christopher Lasch: Scourge of the elites.

* Don’t subsidize parking. This should be obvious.

* Has L.A. fallen behind? (Hat tip Marginal Revolution). To me, the car-centric culture and traffic are the worst parts, and I don’t see those improving without some combination of removing or raising urban height limits wherever subways or light rails are built or planned.

* Upgrade or die.

* The ten-year hoodie on Kickstarter; I “backed” the Flint and Tinder underwear project and though the outcome okay but not exceptional.

* The case for a true Mac Pro successor.

* How New York Could [and should] Get More Affordable Housing.

Journalism, physics and other glamor professions as hobbies

The short version of this Atlantic post by Alex C. Madrigal is “Don’t be a journalist,” and, by the way, “The Atlantic.com thinks it can get writers to work for free” (I’m not quoting directly because the article isn’t worth quoting). Apparently The Atlantic is getting writers to work for free, because many writers are capable of producing decent-quality work, and the number of paying outlets are shrinking. Anyone reading this and contemplating journalism as a profession should know that they need to seek another way of making money.

The basic problems journalism faces, however, are obvious and have been for a long time. In 2001, I was the co-editor-and-chief of my high school newspaper and thought about going into journalism. But it was clear that the Internet was going to destroy a lot of careers in journalism. It has. The only thing I still find puzzling is that some people want to major in journalism in college, or attempt to be “freelance writers.”

Friends who know about my background ask why I don’t do freelance writing. When I tell them that there’s less money in it than getting a job at Wal-Mart they look at me like I’m a little crazy—they don’t really believe that’s true, even when I ask them how many newspapers they subscribe to (median and mode answer: zero). Many, however, spend hours reading stuff for free online.

In important ways I’m part of the problem, because on this blog I’m doing something that used to be paid most of the time: reviewing books. Granted, I write erratically and idiosyncratically, usually eschewing the standard practices of book reviews (dull, two-paragraph plot summaries are stupid in my view, for instance), but I nonetheless do it and often do it better than actual newspapers or magazines, which I can say with confidence because I’ve read so many dry little book reports in major or once-major newspapers. Not every review I write is a critical gem, but I like doing it and thus do it. Many of my posts also start life as e-mails to friends (as this one did). I also commit far more typos than a decently edited newspaper or magazine. Which I do correct when you point them out.

The trajectory of journalism is indicative of other trends in American society and indeed the industrialized world. For example, a friend debating whether he should consider physics grad school wrote this to me recently: “I think physics is something that is fun to study for fun, but to try to become a professional physicist is almost like too much of a good thing.” He’s right. Doing physics for fun, rather than trying to get a tenure-track job, makes more sense from a lifestyle standpoint.

A growing number of what used to occupations seem to be moving in this direction. Artists got here first, but others are making their way here. I’m actually going to write a post about how journalism increasingly looks like this too. The obvious question is how far this trend will go—what happens when many jobs that used to be paid become un-paid?

Tyler Cowen thinks we might be headed towards a guaranteed annual income, an idea that was last popular in the 60s and 70s. When I asked Cowen his opinions about guaranteed annual incomes, he wrote back to say that he’d address the issue in a forthcoming book. The book hasn’t arrived yet, but I look forward to reading it. As a side not, apparently Britain has, or had, a concept called the “Dole,” which many people went on, especially poor artists. Geoff Dyer wrote about this some in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. The Dole subsidized a lot of people who didn’t do much, but it also subsidized a lot of artists, which is pretty sweet; one can see student loans and grad school serving analogous roles in the U.S. today.

IMG_1469-1Even in programming, which is now the canonical “Thar be jobs!” (pirate voice intentional) profession, some parts of programming—like languages and language development—basically aren’t remunerative. Too many people will do it free because it’s fun, like amateur porn. In the 80s there were many language and library vendors, but nearly all have died, and libraries have become either open source or rolled into a few large companies like Apple and Microsoft. Some aspects of language development are cross-subsidized in various ways, like professors doing research, or companies paying for specific components or maintenance, but it’s one field that has, in some ways, become like photography, or writing, or physics, even though programming jobs as a whole are still pretty good.

I’m not convinced that the artist lifestyle of living cheap and being poor in the pursuit of some larger goal or glamor profession seems is good or bad, but I do think it is (that we have a lot of good cheap stuff out there, and especially cheap stuff in the form of consumer electronics, may help: it’s possible to buy or acquire a nearly free, five-year-old computer that works perfectly well as a writing box).* Of course, many starving artists adopt that as a pose—they think it’s cool to say they’re working on a novel or photography project or “a series of shorts” or whatever, but don’t actually do anything, while many people with jobs put out astonishing work. Or at least work, which is usually a precursor to astonishing work.

For some people, the growing ability of people to disseminate ideas and art forms even without being paid is a real win. In the old days, if you wanted to write something and get it out there, you needed an editor or editors to agree with you. Now we have a direct way of resolving questions about what people actually want to read. Of course, the downside is that whole payment thing, but that’s the general downside of the new world in which we live, and, frankly it’s one that I don’t have a society-wide solution for.

In writing, my best guess is that more people are going to book-ify blogs, and try to sell the book for $1 – $5, under the (probably correct) assumption that very few people want to go back and read a blog’s entire archives, but an ebook could collect and organize the material of those archives. If I read a powerful post by someone who seemed interesting, I’d buy a $4 ebook that covers their greatest hits or introduced me to their broader thinking.

This is tied into other issues around what people spend their time doing. My friend also wrote that he read “a couple of articles on Keynes’ predictions of utopia and declining work hours,” but he noted that work still takes up a huge amount of most people’s lives. He’s right, but most reports show that median hours worked in the U.S. has declined, and male labor force participation has declined precipitously. Labor force participation in general is surprisingly low. Ross Douthat has been discussing this issue in The New York Times (a paid gig I might add), and, like, most reasonable people he has a nuanced take on what’s happening. See also this Wikipedia link on working time for some arguments that working time has declined overall.

Working time, however, probably hasn’t decreased for everyone. My guess is that working time has increased for some smallish number of people at the top of their professors (think lawyers, doctors, programmers, writers, business founders), with people at the bottom often relying more on government or gray market income sources. Douthat starts his essay by saying that we might expect working hours among the rich to decline first, so they can pursue more leisure, but he points out that the rich are working more than ever.

Though I am tempted to put “working” in scare quotes, because it seems like many of the rich are doing things they would enjoy doing on some level anyway; certainly a lot of programmers say they would keep programming even if they were millionaires, and many of them become millionaires and keep programming. The same is true of writers (though fewer become millionaires). Is writing a leisure or work activity for me? Both, depending. If I self-publish Asking Anna tomorrow and make a zillion dollars, the day after I’ll still be writing something. I would like to get paid but some of the work I do for fun isn’t contingent on me getting paid.

Turning blogs into books and self-publishing probably won’t replace the salaries that news organizations used to pay, but it’s one means for writers or would-be writers to get some traction.

Incidentally, the hobby-ification of many professions makes me feel pretty good about working as a grant writing consultant. No one think when they’re 14, “I want to be a grant writer like Isaac and Jake Seliger!”, while lots of people want to be like famous actors, musicians, or journalists. There is no glamor, and grant writing is an example of the classic aphorism, “Where there’s shit, there’s gold” at work.

Grant writing is also challenging. Very few people have the weird intersection of skills necessary to be good, and it’s a decade-long process to build those skills—especially for people who aren’t good writers already. The field is perpetually mutating, with new RFPs appearing and old ones disappearing, so that we’re not competing with proposals written two years ago (where many novelists, for example, are in effect still competing with their peers from the 20s or 60s or 90s).

To return to journalism as a specific example, I can think of one situation in which I’d want The Atlantic or another big publisher to publish my work: if I was worried about being sued. Journalism is replete with stories about heroic reporters being threatened by entrenched interests; Watergate and the Pentagon Papers are the best-known examples, but even small-town papers turn up corruption in city hall and so forth. As centralized organizations decline, individuals are to some extent picking up the slack, but individuals are also more susceptible to legal and other threats. If you discovered something nasty about a major corporation and knew they’d tie up your life in legal bullshit for the next ten years, would you publish, or would you listen to your wife telling you to think of the kids, or your parents telling you to think about your career and future? Most of us are not martyrs. But it’s much harder for Mega Corp or Mega Individual to threaten The Atlantic and similar outlets.

The power and wealth of a big media company has its uses.

But such a use is definitely a niche case. I could imagine some of the bigger foundations, like ProPublica, offering a legal umbrella to bloggers and other muckrakers to mitigate such risks.

I have intentionally elided the question of what people are going to do if their industries turn towards hobbies. That’s for a couple reasons: as I said above, I don’t have a good solution. In addition, the parts of the economy I’m discussing here are pretty small, and small problems don’t necessarily need “solutions,” per se. People who want to turn their hours into a lot of income should try to find ways and skills to do that, and people who want to turn their hours into fun products like writing or movies should try to find ways to do that too. Crying over industry loss or change isn’t going to turn back the clock, and just because someone could make a career as a journalist doesn’t mean they can today.


* To some extent I’ve subsidized other people’s computers, because Macs hold their value surprisingly well and can be sold for a quarter to half of their original purchase price three to five years after they’ve been bought. Every computer replaced by my family or our business has been sold on Craigslist. Its also possible, with a little knowledge and some online guides, to add RAM and an SSD to most computers made in the last couple of years, which will make them feel much more responsive.

Summary judgment: Planet of Cities — Shlomo Angel

Planet of Cities is for a specialized audience, but it has one very big point that I didn’t realize:

New empirical evidence on the average population density of cities across space and time confirms that these densities have been in decline almost everywhere for a century or more. The new evidence is counterintuitive, since numerous academic researchers believe that urban densities have been on the increase. Were that true, it would lend encouragement and support to those favoring densification. However, urban density decline has been persistent and global in scope, and it predated the automobile. It is not restricted to the United States or other industrialized countries, but is pervasive in developing countries as well. [. . .]

The forces driving density decline—rising per capita incomes, cheap agricultural lands, efficient transport, and income inequality—are quite formidable. Accordingly, absent a highly effective policy intervention or a steep increase in travel costs in the future, there is little reason for the global decline in densities to slow down anytime soon.

Planet-of-citiesI like living in cities (if New York were less expensive—as it was until the ’90s—I’d happily live here forever) and attack legal rules that prohibit higher buildings. But the research Angel has both conducted and cited indicates that, even in the absence of such rules, cities would still probably be getting less dense, or at most evening out. That is news to me; he also says, “No matter how we choose to act, however, we should remain aware that conscious and conscientious efforts to increase the density of our cities require the reversal of a powerful and sustained global tendency for urban densities to decline.” Newer cities, like Phoenix or Dallas, are even less dense than older cities, which is an innovation problem for the reasons described in Steven Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City.

Cities like New York and Boston remain so important because creating dense neighborhoods like those found in both areas is effectively impossible in today’s climate of urban land-use controls. Building such areas doesn’t have to be impossible, but we, collectively, make it so. Take Seattle, a city I’m very familiar with. In downtown Seattle, rents have effectively increased by 40 – 50% from 2002 – 2012, even though some construction has been permitted. Rapid increase indicates that much more could be commercially built, and that many people want to live there and will pay to do so.

Some cities have attempted to limit horizontal urban sprawl, and presumably increase vertical urban height. Portland is a case in point, because it created an “urban growth boundary” (UGB) and thus has been a test case for some city planning. By density, which is arguably the most important measure of whether an UGB succeeds, the UGB failed:

The chief aim of the UGB was to contain urban sprawl and preserve the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside within reach of city residents. Sprawl was not defined precisely, but presumably it included both low-density development and fragmentation. After examining the change in built-up area density within the UGB between 1973 and 2005, we found that densities decreased rather than increased.

Even cities that have explicitly attempted to contain sprawl by increasing density have not fully succeeded. This points to the obvious need to plan for sprawl, and to plan for less centralization:

The possibility that cities worldwide are now in a process of transformation from a monocentric to a polycentric spatial structure poses an interesting challenge. It suggests that if public transport is to be a viable option in areas of expansion to economize on the energy expended and to limit greenhouse gas emissions, then it cannot be limited to continued reliance on radial routes to the city center. The transport network must be two-dimensional, providing frequent and reliable service among suburban destinations over the entire metropolitan area, rather than a one-dimensional network of radial routes into the city center. Some public transport systems that already provide such service are the bus lines of Edmonton and Toronto in Canada.

To provide reliable point-to-point service throughout metropolitan areas and to function effectively, bus lines or new transportation technologies will need to operate on a grid of arterial roads.

Again, this is certainly true in Seattle: I can’t find a citation, but for a time there was more Class-A office space in downtown Bellevue than downtown Seattle. In the greater Seattle area, there are major population and employment centers in Seattle itself, Bellevue, downtown Kirkland, Redmond (where Microsoft is headquartered) and Renton (where Boeing has or had many facilities). Many people I went to high school with live on the Eastside and seldom cross Lake Washington, and they can live a relatively urban experience in downtown Bellevue or Kirkland. Seattle as a city still imposes severe height limits in areas adjacent to downtown, and, as a result, some of the development and population infill that might otherwise take place, say, east of 12th Avenue or North of Olive / John on Capitol Hill, instead moves to Kirkland and Bellevue.

The style in Planet of Cities is unimpressive, verging on non-existent, as the quotes above demonstrate. But its insights impress, as does its re-evaluation of the conventional wisdom about rising densities in cities. As I wrote in the first paragraph, it’s a specialist book for specialist interests. Still, most people hold naive views on city planning, even if they don’t realize they hold such views. Planet of Cities replaces naiveté with knowledge. It could use panache, but that’s true of almost all textbooks and monographs.

EDIT: Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy wrote to ask me to note that the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy published this book. I’m not sure why this is important, but here it is.

Links: Building stuff, Michael Jordan, wine and deception, beliefs, tunnels, BDSM, and more

* “Home craft project: replacing broken laptop screen.”

* Who pays for healthcare also explains why prices are so high. In my view we also spend too much time debating insurance coverage and too little time discussing access to care and how that can be improved.

* Generally I don’t care about sports, but “Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building” is special.

* People can’t tell good from bad wine, and use context clues to “decide” which wine is best. I see this effect in many other areas too, and am surprised, for example, the more people don’t remove the badges from their cars.

* I can appreciate “Confessions of a stationery addict,” given my musings on little black notebooks.

* “A Dress-Code Enforcer’s Struggle for the Soul of the Middle-School Girl;” I find Amanda Marcotte’s reaction optimal: “If You Don’t Want Girls Judged by Their Hemlines, Stop Judging Them by Their Hemlines.”

* “Our current communication constructs make us intellectually lazy. It’s too easy to blurt out what you’re thinking on Twitter and Facebook and then forget you said anything at all.”

* The Tunnels of NYC’s East Side Access Project.

* “The global war on drugs has cost billions and taken countless lives — but achieved little. The scant results finally have politicians and experts joining calls for legalization.”

* Human extinction could be closer than anticipated.

* BDSM and the mainstream of American life, from the New York Times.

* The wit of Louis CK; I like him better in quoted, out-of-context form than I like his show or whole acts. This is rare for me.

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