“[O]ne of a sociologist’s prime traits is extreme nosiness”

A public sociologist describes how she interacts with what others say online about her opinions:

They say you should never read below the line after you publish an article in the public domain. Yes, but what if you’re a sociologist? You have to read the comments – it’s your job to know how society reacts to a particular viewpoint. Besides, one of a sociologist’s prime traits is extreme nosiness. So I look. My favourite comment came after I had written in a national newspaper about being a working-class academic and living on a council estate: “Where is her child’s father?” a reader demanded. That was just class – in every sense of the word.

Nosiness or someone who likes observing other people and social interactions? When sociologists describe what makes them tick (or at least how this is written in textbooks for Introduction to Sociology), people watching or a curiosity about social behavior is typically invoked. This could happen through reliable and valid data (in its more scientific and publishable forms) or through eavesdropping, seeing with your own eyes, and even acting within social situations (see breaching experiments as an example). Sometimes this is described as a sociological imagination. Such interest in the actions of others could be interpreted as nosiness, particularly if social norms are violated, but I hardly think reading online comments counts: reading such comments is observing actions taken in the public domain.

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Building tiny houses for Chicago’s homeless

A future community of tiny houses in Bronzeville could help Chicago’s homeless:

Tiny Homes Chicago, a venture from AIA Chicago, Landon Bone Baker Architects, Windy City Times, Pride, is of the firm belief that the tiny homes can help this group of people who are trying to positively contribute, but who are also being negatively affected by the transience of moving from shelter to shelter. Small homes would afford folks the ability to study and seek safety.

That’s why they’re creating a competition to create a Tiny Homes community in Bronzeville to alleviate affordable housing. This neighborhood would be a pilot prototype for other interested communities.

If you think you can come up with a solid design for a home, then attend the upcoming meeting on Wednesday, December 2 for Interested parties. The final proposals will address planned 12-unit developments, where residents have a safe secure space to sleep, study, and store their possessions. In addition, there would be a 1,200 s.f. communal space, as well as secure bike storage.

The 350 s.f. units themselves will have bathrooms, storage, and sleeping space. With a $30,000 limit on material and mechanical systems, the units need to come to life for under $60,000 and follow city building codes.

Tiny houses have been proposed for the homeless before (see here and here) and this effort in Chicago could serve to spur similar efforts. I imagine several important questions will arise during this competition:

  1. How many locations in Chicago could support even small tiny house developments like this one? While affordable housing is needed and the homeless need help, there may not be many neighbors who would want to be near such sites.
  2. Is the budget reasonable both to build lasting units and to make this an affordable project for funders?
  3. How will these housing units be paired with social services? Providing more permanent shelters could go a long way but so would jobs, education, health care, and other needs.
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Parallel railroad and Internet networks

Railroad right of ways contributed to the current infrastructure of the Internet in the United States:

Google didn’t come to Council Bluffs because of historical resonance. They came for the fiber, which runs parallel to Iowa’s many railroads and interstates. Rail infrastructure has shaped the language of the network (as noted in David A. Banks’s work on the history of the term “online”), the constellation of companies that form the network (most famously with Sprint emerging from the Southern Pacific Railroad’s internal-communications network), and, most relevant to this story, the actual routes that fiber-optic networks run.

Telecommunications companies quickly recognized the value of rail right-of-way as real estate for running cable networks long before the Internet—the first substantial use of rail networks for telecommunication networks starts with telegraphs. It’s a hell of a lot more efficient to run a cable along a single straight shot of property than negotiating easements with every single landowner between, say, Denver and Salt Lake City.

For railroads, this was a win-win, as the right-of-way agreements generate passive income, and the networks could be used for internal operations of the railroads themselves. As the first dot-com bubble expanded, more and more telecoms rushed to place their cables along rail routes. This New York Times story from 2000 documents the moment well; it also uses the delightful (and today, woefully underused) term “cyberage” and mentions an exciting new player in the telecom scene, Enron Broadband Services. Some railroad companies followed Sprint’s suit in this period, creating their own telecom services, like CSX Fiber Networks.

The markers of this right-of-way race along railroad routes (and highways, which have a similar right-of-way appeal to telecoms) are not especially impressive, but pretty hard to ignore. They usually take the form of orange-tipped white poles, or orange metal signs, spaced out a few meters apart running parallel to the rails. The orange part usually has a label warning people to call before digging, a phone number to call, and sometimes the name of the company or government agency that happens to own the buried cable. Labeled this way, fiber markers become a testament to telecom history, bearing names of companies that fell in the bursting of the first bubble, long ago absorbed into larger telecom networks. The new owners apparently don’t bother replacing the poles with their names or logos—presumably because it’s not really financially worthwhile to send someone to put Level 3 stickers over thousands of Global Crossing or Williams Communications logos on signage that’s more or less designed to be ignored by 99 percent of the public, like most network infrastructure.

Fascinating story: the land along the railroad lines turned out to be valuable not just for railroad uses but for any other infrastructure that needed clear paths. If I remember correctly, some of the right of ways were the product of public-private partnerships between the government and railroad companies. For example, completing long railroad lines might require years of negotiating with individual landowners which would delay important construction. To flip this around a bit, what would Internet networks look like today if railroads had never been constructed?

I wonder how much money this generates each year for the railroads. There is certainly plenty of freight traffic in the United States but it would be interesting to know what these particular routes are worth.

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Declining American homeownership illustrated in Las Vegas

That city that may have been the exemplar of the early 2000s housing boom may now provide good evidence of a shift from owning to renting in the United States:

The shift to rental in single-family homes is visible on streets like Recktenwall. Between 2005 and 2009, about 80% of such houses in greater Las Vegas were owner-occupied; by 2013, that had dropped to 71%, a 12,000-unit shift…

But the homeownership decline is not entirely tragic. For the footloose, the empty-nested, the risk-averse and assorted others (contract workers, military servicemembers) renting makes sense…

The housing crash’s ground zero was Las Vegas. People who thought you couldn’t lose money on a house lost everything. At one point, an astonishing three quarters of Las Vegas mortgage holders owed more on their homes than they were worth, a percentage that still hovers around 25%.

That’s one of many factors suppressing home sales. Another is the fact that millions of houses have been flipped to rentals by investors who snapped them up at rock-bottom prices years ago.

This long article that covers presidential support of homeownership in recent decades to the perks of some newer apartment complexes presents an interesting conundrum: Americans – including young adults – tend to say that they would prefer or aspire to own a home but for a variety of reasons – from bad credit to tight credit in the mortgage industry to uncertain jobs to college loans to better perks in rental complexes to more options like single family homes available for rent – see renting as desirable at the moment. Some of this might only be determined over time; will the housing market conditions continue to push people toward renting? And, if this happens, does the aspirations of owning a home also slowly decline?

What would be helpful to see with this article that uses Las Vegas: where has the population increased or declined in the metropolitan region over the last ten years or so? While the single-family home market was hit hard, does that mean the suburbs lost people and residents moved closer to the region’s center?

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Are the Kardashian/Wests selling a mansion or a McMansion?

Save up all your Black Friday funds to purchase this large home – which may be a mansion or McMansion.

By now, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West have surely settled in at their tasteful Hidden Hills mansion, not far from Kris Jenner’s place, so it makes sense that they’re moving toward unloading the tacky Bel Air Crest estate that they’ve been renovating since they purchased it in 2013 (hopefully to make it less tacky). TMZ hears that the couple are readying to put the Tuscan-inspired McMansion on the market within the next few days, and that the house will be asking “more than $20 million.” Kim and Kanye paid $9 million, and reportedly dropped $2 million on renovations.

Shortly after buying the house, the British press reported that the couple’s deep renovations included things like a fridge covered in Swarovski crystals, a million-dollar security system, and four gold-plated toilets. We’ll have to wait for the listing photos to see whether those items ever made it into the house. Last September, perhaps fed up with trying to turn the estate into their dream home, Kim and Kanye reportedly whisper-listed the half-finished house for $11 million.

Lots of pictures follow.

I’ve discussed a number of these mansion/McMansion claims over the years. This particular house provides another strong example. On the mansion side, you have a large home, a wealthy location, numerous luxury goods inside, and famous owners (average people might live in McMansions but not famous people). On the McMansion side, it features the Mediterranean style common in many McMansions, it was a fixer-upper (if an expensive one), and using this term provides permission to criticize the home (it is tacky compared to their real mansion).

Although I presented two sides above, this isn’t much of an argument: given the size and expense of this house, it is clearly a mansion.

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Scientists have difficulty explaining p-values

Scientists regularly use p-values to evaluate their findings but apparently have difficulty explain exactly what they mean:

To be clear, everyone I spoke with at METRICS could tell me the technical definition of a p-value — the probability of getting results at least as extreme as the ones you observed, given that the null hypothesis is correct — but almost no one could translate that into something easy to understand.

It’s not their fault, said Steven Goodman, co-director of METRICS. Even after spending his “entire career” thinking about p-values, he said he could tell me the definition, “but I cannot tell you what it means, and almost nobody can.” Scientists regularly get it wrong, and so do most textbooks, he said. When Goodman speaks to large audiences of scientists, he often presents correct and incorrect definitions of the p-value, and they “very confidently” raise their hand for the wrong answer. “Almost all of them think it gives some direct information about how likely they are to be wrong, and that’s definitely not what a p-value does,” Goodman said.

We want to know if results are right, but a p-value doesn’t measure that. It can’t tell you the magnitude of an effect, the strength of the evidence or the probability that the finding was the result of chance.

So what information can you glean from a p-value? The most straightforward explanation I found came from Stuart Buck, vice president of research integrity at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Imagine, he said, that you have a coin that you suspect is weighted toward heads. (Your null hypothesis is then that the coin is fair.) You flip it 100 times and get more heads than tails. The p-value won’t tell you whether the coin is fair, but it will tell you the probability that you’d get at least as many heads as you did if the coin was fair. That’s it — nothing more. And that’s about as simple as I can make it, which means I’ve probably oversimplified it and will soon receive exasperated messages from statisticians telling me so.

Complicated but necessary? This can lead to fun situations when teaching statistics: students need to know enough to do the statistical work and evaluate findings (we at least need to know what to do with a calculated p-value, even if we don’t quite understand what it means) but explaining the complexity of some of these techniques wouldn’t necessarily help the learning process. In fact, the more you learn about statistics, you tend to find that the various methods and techniques have limitations even as they can help us better understand phenomena.

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Solving flooding in China with “sponge cities”

Chinese officials are providing funds for “sponge cities” to reduce the effects of flooding:

“A sponge city is one that can hold, clean, and drain water in a natural way using an ecological approach,” says Yu, who is helping to coordinate the national project.

Traditionally, Chinese cities handled water well, Yu notes. “But in modern China, we have destroyed those natural systems of ponds, rivers, and wetlands, and replaced them with dams, levees, and tunnels, and now we are suffering from floods.”…

Reverse-engineering a city to make it more spongey requires a mental rather than physical shift, he argues. “It’s a whole new philosophy of dealing with water. It is about how we plan and design our cities in an ecological way. Not about piecemeal, manmade engineering projects. So we need to avoid this kind of trap.”

Sponge-city design could also run up against China’s centralized planning system.

It sounds like this is a major work in progress. As has been found in American cities, such as Chicago, trying to solve flooding issues after the city is a certain size is quite difficult. Are cities really willing to move residents or commercial structures to better deal with water issues? Is it only possible to make changes after a major flood convinces people? The optimal way to do this would be before the development happens as planners and others can set aside space or promote greener options.

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For Thanksgiving, carve up McMansions

The Financial Review serves up this headline: “Architects sharpen knives to carve up McMansions.”

He says there are different ways to redeem McMansions. One could be divided into two side-by-side dwellings or even three separate townhouses. Alternatively, the division could be horizontal, with a ground-floor apartment and separate first-floor one. Fences could be knocked down to create common garden areas between dwellings.

Neustein calculates that to turn a typical seven-bedroom, three-bathroom McMansion into a split-level two-unit dwelling would cost about $350,000, or a $770 per square metre.

The procedure would involve removing the brick veneer walls and plasterboard lining, weatherproofing the newly exposed timber frame, demolishing internal walls and putting in new external walls with double-glazed windows and doors, rerouting plumbing and electricity, waterproofing decking for the new verandah space and installing a rainwater tank and sprinklers to fire-proof the timber structure.

It’s a cheaper outlay than buying a new apartment, the median price of which in Sydney was $675,000 last month, would let the existing owner stay in their home and area, and would create an asset they could rent.

This article provides a lot more details about these plans that were featured at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Two quick thoughts:

  1. If apartments really are so expensive in the Sydney area, it seems like there is a lot of financial incentive to try something like this. Imagine a local business or institutional investor buying up some of these large McMansions and converting them into rentals with the aim of long-term profits (as opposed to the big profits made by building and selling such a big home in the first place).
  2. As the article goes on to note, it is hard to know whether people would want to rent so far out from job centers. Yet, I imagine another issue: what would the neighbors say? These large homes are probably built in neighborhoods with a number of similar homes. Renovations like these would be frowned upon as it would introduce renters (who are different kinds of people than those who own expensive large homes) and change the character of a quiet neighborhood. In the United States, such changes would have to go through municipal approval and to put it mildly, I think the neighbors would be opposed.
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The effects of residential segregation on kids

Sociologist Carla Shedd describes some of her findings about what children in segregated neighborhoods learn about the world:

I’m looking at young people in a very similar predicament, and their vantage point is outside their window. I interviewed one kid and asked, “What do you think about police in your neighborhood?” He said, “I think they’re fair. When I look outside my window I see black gangbangers, I see people doing things they shouldn’t be doing.” Whereas the kids who move across these boundaries of race and geography, they’re saying, “Wow, the police downtown, they wave at people and give the thumbs up. They don’t do that to me. They actually go in the shops and buy stuff. These aren’t things I see in the South Shore.”

The protective piece is so key. A kid asks, “Don’t the police stop everyone?” If you shatter that and say, “No, it’s actually just in your neighborhood,” or “No, it’s people who look like you,” what does that do, if they feel like they can’t really respond against it, or change that reality?…

So when it comes to looking at someone under the guise of criminalized suspicion, younger and younger black kids are caught under that same gaze. That’s one piece where they say, “I have to learn that I can’t run and race with my friends, since I might be seen as running from the scene of a crime.” Or, “I have to be careful about how I use my body in public spaces.”

Think about all the opportunities adolescents have to figure out who they are and try different things. These kids don’t get that same freedom to do that. To try different looks, to range farther from home, to be around different types of people. That’s not a mark of their adolescent experience, and it ages them.

In my estimation, it makes them skip that step of exploration, because there are consequences to stepping outside of those boundaries, or perhaps being received in a certain way by authoritative figures in what could be free spaces, like in school or particular neighborhoods.

While the attention urban neighborhoods receive may typically focus on large or traumatic events, Shedd and a number of other scholars have revealed day to day life and its consequences.

This reminds me that one of the goals of relocation programs – like Moving to Opportunity – was to provide better opportunities for kids. Some of the research has found such moves help.

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Photographing affordable housing in New York City

With the expense of Manhattan and a booming luxury market in NYC, one sociologist shows what affordable housing looks like:

Garbage-strewn common areas, ominous graffiti, the twitching fluorescent stairwell lighting — these are the images most often associated with public housing. Even privately owned affordable housing is often seen as something bland and tiny you settle for, not aspire to. But David Schalliol, a photographer and sociology professor in Minnesota, sees a shift toward something that goes beyond the cliché…

In New York, however, he found that there was much more to the story. “Affordable housing means so many different things in New York City,” he said, citing developments, like Co-op City in the Bronx, that helped give the city a reputation for finding innovative ways to provide decent housing to middle- and working-class families.

Mr. Schalliol surveys this landscape in a new anthology, “Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places and Policies That Transformed a City,” from Princeton University Press…

“One of the aims of this book, this project, is not only to demonstrate the wide variety of these developments, but also the common experience within them,” he said. “But it’s where people make their homes, where they meet their friends. They don’t just come home, they’re actively producing community.”

It would be interesting to see what sort of argument Schalliol makes in this book. The photos provided with the article suggest the people in New York City’s affordable housing are just trying to live a normal life. Yet, collections of photographs can counter stereotypes and help the broader public see what affordable housing really looks like. Perhaps the images could even help people see that having affordable housing nearby will not necessarily ruin their property values and lives.

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