No one takes the next step

Yesterday’s New York Times has an article, “Thanks for the painful reminder,” that starts, “Six months ago, our teenage son was killed in a car accident. I took a month off from work because I couldn’t get out of bed.” Almost everyone knows someone who was killed, almost killed, or seriously mangled in a car crash, yet no one is thinking or talking about how to reduce reliance on cars. In 2016 34,439 died in car crashes. None or few those parents and spouses start organizations dedicated to reducing car usage. Why not? School shootings keep inspiring survivors and their families to start organizations around guns, but the same doesn’t seem to happen with cars.

The author of the article doesn’t take the next step, either. It’s an omission that almost no one talks about, either. We’ve had the technologies to improve this situation for more than a century.

Thoughts on the movie “The Nice Guys”

* It’s charming: Charm is hard to define but easy to feel. The plot is ridiculous without being stupid, which is a more important distinction than it seems. Shane Black, the director, also did the underrated and forgotten Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In an age of Netflix and streaming, I’m surprised Kiss Kiss Bang Bang hasn’t been rediscovered.

Nice Guys* Like many caper movies (and books), The Nice Guys is about principled dirtbags, but observing life I’ve run into few, if any, principled dirtbags, and many unprincipled, standard-issue dirtbags. Shades of Elmore Leonard abound.

* One of the movie’s lessons may be, “Never lose your pistol.” But it’s not really a “lesson” movie.

* The Nice Guys‘s villain is unusual and unusually interesting, though not overstated or supernatural. You may be reminded of the second, not-very-good season of True Detective. But The Nice Guys gets tone as right as True Detective gets it wrong.

* The number of people who die in cars is amazing. Even today, around 30,000 people die annually in cars. You’d think this would lead to a transportation revolution and political outcry, but it doesn’t. About 3,000 people died, once, on 9/11. If the U.S. response to mass car death were proportional to the U.S. response to 9/11, we’d be living in a very different world.

* Seattle is now larger than Detroit, and Seattle isn’t even that big (this won’t make sense unless you’ve seen the movie).

* Were the ’70s as fun at the time as they’re now depicted in retrospect?

Links: “The Girlfriend Experience,” Hilarious book reviews, “The Red Pill,” oil and climate change, and more!

* The Girlfriend Experience: A show based on Steven Soderbergh’s movie tries to tell a new kind of story about sex and female empowerment.” This is the best of the reviews / discussions about the show, which has generated a lot of smart-ish essays.

* “He Got Greedy,” a crazy story.

* “Review: ‘Maestra,’ a Novel of Sex, Murder and Shopping.” The review sounds more entertaining than the novel:

Advances in publishing industry marketing have allowed G. P. Putnam’s Sons to bring forth “Maestra,” a pornographic shopathon travelogue thriller that has billionaires, art world scheming and a sociopathic heroine who can unfasten belt buckles with her tongue. It should go without saying that this book is part of a trilogy, is headed for the movies and has created a stir in countries where it has already appeared. As one reader reasonably put it on Amazon.uk’s website: “This book’s pomposity is unbelievable and the sex is ludicrous. Will sell millions.” Right now its sales on that site are sinking, and it’s selling only decently. But point taken.

* Swallowing the Red Pill: The online community hosted on Reddit is where men go to air views about women,” an article with a bad frame but that can be interestingly read between the lines. See also “The appeal of ‘pickup’ or ‘game’ or ‘The Redpill’ is a failure of education and socialization” and “Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser.”

* “ Oil industry knew of ‘serious’ climate concerns more than 45 years ago.” Then again, we, the public, have known for decades, and have done nothing. But scapegoating is appealing.

* “The Absurd Primacy of the Automobile in American Life: Considering the constant fatalities, rampant pollution, and exorbitant costs of ownership, there is no better word to characterize the car’s dominance than insane.” The most important piece you won’t read today. I just got back from L.A. and L.A. feels insane: a supermassive city built for cars.

* “Glaciers and sex: On the academy’s latest folly,” concerning the bad writing infesting academia. I used to cite examples of awful academic writing, but somewhere along the way I realized that almost no one cares.

* “Why There’s Hope for the Middle Class (With Help From China).”

* “Love in the Time of Monogamy,” a review of the recent evolutionary biology literature.

* On John Colapinto’s novel Undone; I ordered a copy.

* “The Senate’s criminal justice reform repeats one of the worst mistakes of the war on drugs;” depressing: “The Senate’s bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, spearheaded by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), suggests at least some federal lawmakers have truly learned nothing from the failures of the war on drugs.”

Links: Your house, cars, dubious campus policies, nuclear power, NIMBYs, and more

* “The most disruptive technology of the last century is in your house,” an underappreciated and lovely point: “The number of hours that people spent per week preparing meals, doing laundry and cleaning fell from 58 in 1900 to only 18 hours in 1970, and it has declined further since then.”

* Europe’s love affair with diesel cars has been a disaster.

* The Little Disturbances of Man.

The Limits Of The Digital Revolution: Why Our Washing Machines Won’t Go To The Moon:” On the future of work and why innovation may be slowing.

* For Students Accused Of Campus Rape, Legal Victories Win Back Rights, which makes too much sense; see also “‘Have We Learned Anything From the Columbia Rape Case?’ Not at the New York Times.”

* “You’ll Be Able to Buy Any Volvo as an Electric by 2019,” though I wonder if this is true.

* “Nuclear power is cheap, reliable, emissions-free–and struggling to keep up.” Nuclear power should be at the top of the agenda, especially when combined with electric cars. By the way, the next edition of the Chevy Volt is getting great reviews, and the development process behind the car is detailed in The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World. The Powerhouse is not a Tom-Wolfe-quality book but is interesting throughout and will make you respect the Volt.

* FYI for the grad students among you:

The decline of school-age children has important implications for colleges. College enrollment fell over the past few years just as the college-age population peaked. According to Census projections, the college-age population won’t return to the 2012 peak for more than 20 years.

* Students don’t seem to be learning anything in school, globally, which ought to depress those of us who do classroom work.

* Depressing, but: “This speech convinced me Israel’s wave of violence is so much worse than it looks.”

* How NIMBYs make your paycheck smaller.

* “Free” college tuition for everyone is not a good idea:

A more pressing issue is that community college is already close to de facto free for lower-income individuals, if they piece grants and aid together. Yet the completion rate at these colleges is at best approaching thirty-eight percent. The real problems come before college, and encouraging more people to attend four-year colleges is unlikely to do much good. In any case, here is further evidence that higher subsidies to community college attendance very often do not lead to more actual education. The same or worse is likely to hold for state universities.

Links: Cars and cities, antibiotics and sex, mattresses, universities, writing advice and more

* Cars Kill Cities.

* How to design happier cities.

* Computer science professor leaves, explains the problems with his institution, and doesn’t include the standard false-guilt genuflection. Or, as he puts it, he’s “going feral.”

* How Tuft & Needle is disrupting the wildly corrupt mattress industry; I’d buy from them next time I need a mattress.

* The media doesn’t talk about suicide and statistics about suicide with guns are nonexistent or bad.

* “No Antibiotics, No Sexual Revolution,” or, “how the legal system is holding back medical innovation.” See also Alex Tabarrok’s wonderful and short book Launching the Innovation Renaissance.

* “Are Graduate Students At Private Schools ‘Employees’?” Given the amount and kind of work they do, it’s hard to answer “no.” At the University of Arizona, English grad students taught two classes per semester, for pay—the same amount of teaching professors did.

* “Solving the Shortage in Primary Care Doctors;” see also my essay “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school.”

* Yet another reason why public schools are as fucked up as they are: Student Gets Suspended, Loses Scholarship After Hugging a Teacher.

* The politics of science fiction.

* “Doctors and nurses need to be replaced by computers and robots.”

* “How to Write: A Year in Advice from Franzen, King, Hosseini, and More: Highlights from 12 months of interviews with writers about their craft and the authors they love.” Perhaps the most notable part is the number of people who give opposing or at least semi-contradictory advice. From that we might infer a meta rule: what works for other people won’t necessarily work for you (or me), and there isn’t necessarily a perfectly “right” way to do it.

Why would you want to own a car if you could avoid it?

My Dad sent “Who’s Buying ‘Youth’ Cars? Seniors Aging Boomers Are Prime Buyers for Small Vehicles That Auto Makers Target at Hipsters,” because he bought a Mini Cooper a few years ago, which is probably targeted at “young” people. But I replied with a larger point:

Why would you want a car if you could avoid having one?

Young people don’t care about cars. They care about smartphones. See here for more:

Why are younger Americans driving less?

Brad Plumer considers several good hypotheses, including the recession, gas prices, student debt, tougher legal requirements, and a stronger desire to live in places such as Brooklyn. I would add one other factor to his list: because they are working less. A more speculative additional hypothesis would be “because it is easier to have sex without driving to get it.”

Ugh

Ugh

A nice car is still a status symbol but a much less important status symbol than it used to be. Cars are expensive, dirty, and cause a lot of traffic. Old people like you (wrongly) associate cars with freedom and the open road, because when you grew up the roads were relatively empty.

Young people today associate cars with traffic and their parents and death. Cars are like jails. In ye olde days getting laid meant cruising to drive-ins or malls or whatever. Today getting laid means texting, Facebook, and OKCupid. Former students have talked about Tinder (sp?), which is Grindr for straight people. Going back to the status symbol point, is it more useful for a guy looking to get laid to work his ass off for a BMW or to learn guitar and get a YouTube channel? For someone with no financial constraints the obvious answer is “both,” but for someone choosing between them I suspect guitar + YouTube would win.

An iPhone is much cheaper than a car. Even an iPhone, iPad, and laptop together are much cheaper than a car. See also Philip Greenspun on this.

DUI laws are also now heavily enforced and draconian (A BAC of .1 is much more reasonable than .08) and everyone knows someone who’s had ten thousand dollars or more in court costs and hassles related to DUI. Even so, a cop can ruin your night and next day for pretty much any reason if he suspects you’ve had anything to drink. Gas is much more expensive in real terms than it was even in the late 90s / early 2000s.

No one with half a brain would want to drive more than they absolutely must, so I am skeptical that any “youth-oriented pitches” will succeed because really who cares? Driving sucks. Part of selling is having something to sell that people want. And, as you yourself pointed out, you spent much of your working life in high school and college trying to keep a car in working order. AAA estimates that the average car costs $10,000 TCO, or about one quarter of median income. Even knocking $2000 off for a cheaper car, I suspect a lot of people could allocate $2000 to transit / bikes / Zipcar / etc. and come out way ahead.

Almost anyone who can avoid commuting by car is better off ditching their wheels. Even you, Dad, would be much more financially secure by selling your car, renting your parking spaces, and getting a Zipcar subscription.

[Note: My Dad doesn’t have to drive to his office.]

Links: National security letters, car culture, hookup culture and moral panic, art, booze as muse, and more

* “What It’s Like to Get a National-Security Letter,” which should scare you.

* The End of Car Culture; I view this as a positive development.

* What makes a work of art seem dated.

* Booze as Muse; yes!

* Thoughts about rice and men.

* Programming for everyone. Cool.

* “Quinoa should be taking over the world. This is why it isn’t.” This describes me: “But it’s also about the demographics of the end-user in developed countries–the kind of people who don’t think twice about paying five bucks for a little box of something with such good-for-you buzz.”

* “Special Deal: The shadowy cartel of doctors that controls Medicare.” One problem with centralizing government control of certain industries is that a small number of hidden players can control a larger and larger share of the economy, making it difficult or impossible for non-insiders to compete.

* “There’s an awful lot wrong with moral panic stories about “hookup culture” on campus [. . . ] I’m also struck that [. . .] these stories fail to reflect the very sound basis for engaging in casual sex if you’re a college student, and the folly of pining away for the traditional relationships of yore.”

Links: Unmastered: a bad sex memoir, the humanities in life, bikes, housing, happiness, and more

* “Lust Never Sleeps: An academic’s sexual memoir puts the ire in desire;” sample: “Once in a while a book appears that’s so bad you want it to be a satire. If you set out to produce a parody of postfeminist mumbo jumbo, adolescent narcissism, excruciating erotic overshares, pseudopoetry, pretentious academic jargon, and shopworn and unshocking ‘dirty talk,’ you could not do better than Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell.” I bought Katherine Angel’s Unmastered on the strength of an interesting interview and returned it after a few pages of reading and casually flipping through the remainder. I was hoping for something like Bentley’s The Surrender and sadly didn’t get it.

* This Is How to Leak to the Press Today; parts are overwrought: “With the recent revelation that the Department of Justice under the Obama administration secretly obtained phone records for Associated Press journalists — and previous subpoenas by the Bush administration targeting the Washington Post and New York Times — it is clear that whether Democrat or Republican, we now live in a surveillance dystopia beyond Orwell’s Big Brother vision,” but the how-to is accurate.

* “The Humanist Vocation;” I would add that the humanities are extremely important, but the humanities as currently practiced in most university settings are not, and the distinction is a key one for understanding why many people may be turning away from them.

* “Own Your Neighborhood: The real-estate crowdfunding scheme that could revolutionize urban policy by destroying stupid NIMBYism.”

* Alan Jacobs: “Am I a Conservative?” Notice that he does not see the contemporary Republican party as being particularly conservative; his second and third reasons are more interesting than his first.

* The U.S. has become the kind of nation from which you have to seek asylum—that is, the kind of nation you hide from, not go to for protection.

* A Prolonged Depression Is A Poor Affordable Housing Policy.

* The Netherlands is swamped by bikes, which is pretty cool.

* AAA says that the TCO of a car is $9,000 a year.

* The secret to Danish happiness; not all lessons transfer but I take Citi Bike (for which I’ve signed up) and similar efforts as a small step in a positive direction.

The future of the city: the L.A. and New York models

Matt Yglesias wrote an implausible-sounding story about “How Los Angeles—Yes, Los Angeles—Is Becoming America’s Next Great Mass-Transit City.” It sounds like L.A. is (slowly) becoming a more palatable place to live, and the city’s mass-transit strategy makes sense to me because driving pretty much anywhere in L.A. right now is a hellacious, grinding experience, and that experience is only getting worse over time. Which means L.A. and its residents only really have two choices: accept the hellacious driving experience and accept that it’s going to get continually worse, or attempt to build some kind of alternative system, presumably modeled on New York.

At the moment, we only really have two “models” of cities: the New York-style, walking and public transit version, or the L.A. style of car-based transport. Most cities over the last 75 years have followed the L.A. model, but L.A. is now demonstrating the limits of that very model.* When Southern California first began growing in earnest in the 1920s, cars were just getting started, and for each marginal driver getting behind the wheel made a lot of sense. But we’re now at the point where each marginal driver makes the situation that much worse, and the net effect of all that driving is an awful lot of misery. The only real alternative is allowing much denser construction patterns and building mass-transit around those very dense developments. I just didn’t expect that L.A.’s politicians and bureaucrats—and, by extension, its voters—would actually embrace, or at least tolerate, this solution.


* I’ve written a little bit about this topic before, most notably in Cars and generational shift.

Cars and generational shift

In The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann asks: Why Don’t Young Americans Buy Cars?. He’s responding to a New York Times article about how people my age don’t want or like cars. The NYT portrays the issue as one of marketing (“Mr. Martin is the executive vice president of MTV Scratch, a unit of the giant media company Viacom that consults with brands about connecting with consumers.” Ugh.) But I don’t think marketing is really issue: the real problem is that we’ve reached the point where cars suck as a mode of transportation for the marginal person.

Until the 1990s, car culture made sense, to some degree: space was available, exurbs weren’t so damn far from cities, and traffic in many cities wasn’t as bad as it is today. By now, we’ve seen the end-game of car culture, and its logical terminus is Southern California, where traffic is a perpetual nightmare. Going virtually anywhere can take 45 minutes or more, everyone has to have a car because everyone else has a car, and cars are pretty much the only transportation game in town. Urban height limits and other zoning rules prevent the development of really dense developments that might encourage busses or rail. In Southern California, you’re pretty much stuck with lousy car commutes—unless you move somewhere you don’t have to put up with them. And you’re stuck with the eternal, aggravating traffic. Given that setup, it shouldn’t surprise us that a lot of people want to get away from cars (I’ve seen some of this dynamic in my own family—more on that later).

The hatred of traffic and car commuting isn’t unique to me. In The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten’s There and Back Again: The soul of the commuter reports all manner of ills that result from commuting (and, perhaps, from time spent alone in cars more generally):

Commuting makes people unhappy, or so many studies have shown. Recently, the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger asked nine hundred working women in Texas to rate their daily activities, according to how much they enjoyed them. Commuting came in last. (Sex came in first.) The source of the unhappiness is not so much the commute itself as what it deprives you of. When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people. The two hours or more of leisure time granted by the introduction, in the early twentieth century, of the eight-hour workday are now passed in solitude. You have cup holders for company.

“I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is,” Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, told me. (Putnam wrote the best-seller “Bowling Alone,” about the disintegration of American civic life.) “There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.”

I doubt most people my age are consciously thinking about how commuting makes people unhappy, or how miserable and unpredictable traffic is. But they probably have noticed that commuting sucks—which is part of the reason rents are so high in places where you can live without a car (New York, Boston, Seattle, Portland). Those are places a lot of people my age want to live—in part because you don’t have to drive everywhere. Services like Zipcar do a good job filling in the gap between bus/rail and cars, and much less expensively than single-car ownership. In my own family, it’s mostly my Dad who is obsessed with cars and driving; he’s a baby boomer, so to him, cars represent freedom, the open road, and possibility. To me, they represent smog, traffic, and tedium. To me, there are just too damn many of them in too small a space, and that problem is only going to get worse, not better, over time.

(For more on cities, density, and ideas, see Triumph of the City, The Gated City, and Where Good Ideas Come From.)

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