Your friends have more friends that you

A sociologist discovered a law about how many friends your friends have:

Twenty-five years ago, sociologist Scott Feld demonstrated that on average, your friends have more friends than you do. This sounds impossible, but it’s true…

Go ahead, draw your own social networks and do the math for yourself. You’ll find that Feld’s law holds true for almost any network you can think of. That’s odd, but why should you care?

One reason to care is that Feld’s law explains that feeling many of us have that we’re less popular than our friends. Odds are, you’re right. Don’t take it personally; it’s just the way societies work.

Another reason to care is that Feld’s law is also true for any relationship in which people share something with one another. People share needles in the opiate epidemic facing Maine. People have shared sexual relations since the dawn of humanity. These kinds of sharing can also share deadly viruses like AIDS, hepatitis B and syphilis.

See the abstract of the 1991 article here.

It is interesting that this newspaper piece focuses on the dangerous aspects of this. Danger and death are needed to catch the attention of readers who might not otherwise care about sociological findings? What about normal life when it seems your friends are more popular than you? Rest assured; that is just the way the math works out.

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How Illinois residents want to close the budget gap

A recent report sums up how Illinois residents between 2008 and 2016 want to address the state’s budget issues:

First, here’s how people want to address the budget deficit, according to the most recent polling.

Party Cuts Both Revenues Haven’t Thought Don’t Know/Other
Total 47% 33% 10% 4% 6%
Democrats 36% 36% 16% 5% 7%
Republicans 60% 32% 4% 3% 2%
Independents 50% 34% 9% 4% 3%
SOURCE: Paul Simon Institute of Public Policy…
So maybe we don’t want to cut our way to a balanced budget after all. Which makes sense, since it’s more or less impossible to do so without gutting programs that people support and use. That makes the next question all the more relevant: What new revenues do people favor?…
But there’s one thing that is relatively popular: soaking the rich. And the more closely targeted the policy is towards the rich, the more popular it is…
All in all, it’s a good measure of why we’re in such chaos. We claim we want to cut our way out of the problem, but only one type of cut (pensions) gets even close to an overall majority and is constitutionally prohibited. We’re actually in favor of higher taxes, but only in forms that are constitutionally prohibited, not that even an advisory referendum on a millionaire’s tax can make it onto the ballot. And one of the governor’s pet projects, extremely popular among the electorate and a potentially valuable piece of political leverage, would most likely do little to alleviate any of these problems.

Not a very hopeful analysis. In other words, voters and politicians have worked together to put together plans that significant portions of voters liked (i.e., pensions) but then neither want to enact certain changes (spending cuts and new taxes) that would help solve the past problems.

Is this good evidence for hitting a reset button on the entire state government? Bankruptcy to deal with existing debts? A completely new tax structure? More broadly, a new state constitution? Past actions in a bureaucracy tend to constrain certain future actions while enabling others…has Illinois simply run out of palatable options?

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Mass transit users want three basic things

Fast wi-fi? Cushy seats? A recent survey of mass transit users suggest they want more basic features:

Analyses in the TransitCenter report suggest that riders agree. In one, the researchers compared satisfaction levels with various attributes of regional transit systems between respondents who said they’d recommend their transit service to others and those who wouldn’t. Of all the attributes (charted above), frequency of service demonstrated the largest gap in satisfaction between transit boosters and detractors, and it got the very lowest rating from transit detractors. That suggests that frequent service is essential if you want happy riders…In that same analysis, the second-largest gap in satisfaction was travel time—how long it takes to get from station to station. Translation: Fast trains equal more satisfied riders. A second analysis supports this conclusion. Respondents were asked to ranked the relative importance of 12 potential improvements to a hypothetical bus route (the results are charted below). They ranked travel time number one. (Frequency is a close second, with cost reduction in third place.)…

Finally, the report identifies walkability—here, the ability to walk to transit—as the third key factor at the heart of effective, useable transit. To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers broke down riders into three types: Occasional riders, who use transit only once in a while; commuters, who use transit regularly, but only to get to work; and “all-purpose” riders, who take transit regularly to travel to all types of destinations—work, dining, entertainment, and shopping. That last category is especially important for cities to pay attention to, Higadishe said: “When you have lots of all-purpose riders, that’s a signal that a transit system is really useful.”

Across all three rider types, most survey respondents said they typically walked to access transit. But all-purpose riders did so overwhelmingly, with 80 percent typically getting to transit on foot, compared to 53 percent of commuters and 57 percent of occasional riders. In an additional, more fine-tuned analysis of spatial data from TransitCenter’s national transit database AllTransit, the researchers identified a similar relationship…

Infrastructure tends to work this way: it has to work well and consistently. Perhaps then some extra frills could be considered but as long as they don’t compromise the basic features.

So, if these findings hold across a majority of transit users, why don’t politicians and infrastructure authorities pay more attention to these issues? Are they too expensive to address? Or, are these leaders always looking for cool new features (i.e., wi-fi) to impress the public? Perhaps this exposes a gap between who uses mass transit and who doesn’t – politicians and business leaders likely use it less.

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Slow process for possible new rail line around Chicago area

While the mayor of Aurora praised plans for a new railroad line around the Chicago area, the process of approval will take some time:

Not that everyone loves the idea. At a recent public hearing in Belvidere, near Rockford, some 400 people showed to say the train line would be dangerous in their areas, and would impact farms and groundwater. The U.S. Surface Transportation Board held a series of hearings on the proposed railroad, and took public comment through the middle of June. The board will issue an environmental impact statement, followed by more public hearings. A final impact statement is likely two to three years away, and then the Surface Transportation Board must approve the railroad before construction could begin.

Not only does new infrastructure require large sums of money, it often involves a lengthy process involving federal and local agencies as well as local residents and local officials. As has been noted by multiple commentators, this can make infrastructure projects very difficult to construct. By the time all the hoops have been jumped through, the money secured, and bids and plans approved, a significant amount of time has passed. At the same time, not all major infrastructure projects are worthwhile. I’m thinking particularly of highways in major cities, like along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, the elevated highway in Boston which was replaced in the Big Dig, or the Lower Manhattan Expressway that was never built. So, we have a system that slows down the process, which helps in some circumstances and is burdensome in others.

This is a reminder that perhaps the best way to deal with all of this is to have good foresight. Plan ahead and fewer residents might be affected, costs are lower, and society can benefit from the infrastructure for longer. When governments or private firms wait – for lack of funds, lack of need, political pressure – the construction only becomes more difficult.

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Six elements in a green home

In order to avoid a greenwashed home, here are some things to look for to identify a truly green home:

?Site planning for the house that is sensitive to the immediate environment, minimizes tree destruction and is strong on managing water runoff.

?Energy efficiency throughout, including high-performance HVAC, lighting, insulation and appliances.

?Exceptional interior air quality through the use of advanced air filtration and exchange systems.

?Extensive use of nontoxic building materials.

?Water conservation efficiencies, such as water-saving toilets and shower fixtures and possibly some reuse of waste water.

?Ease of long-term operation and management.

I would guess most buyers would first think of #2 on the list: efficient lightbulbs, a newer furnace, AC unit, and appliances, good insulation and no obvious drafts or leaks. But, some of these other things are much harder to find, particularly it is an older home. Nontoxic building materials? How many homes – even new ones – have this? And air quality – isn’t this something that is used in the rare passive home? And #6 is interesting: the green features should be relatively to utilize and maintain.

This leads me to several questions:

  1. How many green homes would meet all six of these?
  2. What is the added cost of meeting all 6?
  3. Presumably, some of these six are more important than others. Which ones make for a greener home if you could only have/afford a few?

Expect to see more listings in coming years that emphasize green features.

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The suburbs as a “Great Wrong Place”

In a review of mysteries written by women, one critic explains why suburbs are a common setting:

In the books I’ve been reading, the Great Wrong Place is sometimes suburbia, sometimes social media, sometimes high school, sometimes the marriage bed—everywhere something feels missing in contemporary life.

There is not much explanation here. However, this taps into a familiar suburban critique: the suburbs are a darker place than they appear. Even though they might be the image of the American Dream, many disturbing situations are underneath the surface. The key is the contrast between the displayed success of the single-family home and happy family and the tension that threatens to bubble to the surface.

What then exactly is missing from suburbs? Authentic displays of human difficulty and anguish (residents don’t talk about this stuff, perhaps because being vulnerable in the suburbs leads to social problems)? A lack of diversity in who lives there (the typical suburb is white and middle-class and shuts out other experiences)? Public spaces where residents can regularly mingle without having to have strong interpersonal relationships (everyone is cooped up inside their private spaces)? Whatever the reason, the suburbs provide rich spaces for today’s mystery (such as Gone Girl) and horror stories.

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Having a McMansion with a carport

Living in a McMansion yet also having a carport seems incongruent. Yet, this recently was an issue in Austin, Texas:

Given a Planning Commission vote and a range of opposition willing to stay late to fight, it seems unlikely that McMansion rules on carports and garages will be changing any time soon.

At their most recent meeting, Planning Commissioners considered an amendment that would change part of Subchaper F, aka the McMansion Ordinance, that eliminates exemptions for carports when they are enclosed. (Enclosing carports, of course, turns them into garages.) Instead, staff is recommending that the exemption be based entirely on where the structure is located in relation to the house, not whether it is a carport or a garage.

Senior Planner Greg Dutton explained that, under the current code, carports get a 450-square-foot exemption when 10 feet or farther from the main house. If closer, the exemption is 250 square feet. However, if exempted carports are subsequently enclosed, that exemption is reduced, and can cause problems for unsuspecting homeowners.

The change was initiated after a perceived flurry of requests for waivers from that rule hit City Hall. Those requests came from homeowners who put doors on what they thought were unfinished garages, only to be told their homes were now out of compliance because those structures were previously considered carports under city code. Dutton said the influx of waivers seems to have died down.

I could see two reasons for having a carport rather than a garage:

  1. They are cheaper to construct because you don’t need to enclose the whole structure.
  2. With warmer weather, carports become more viable because all you want is a roof over the vehicle. (Hence, there are not as many carports in colder weather climates.)

Yet, the first reason would feed into a common critique of McMansions: so much money is spent on trying to impress people from the street – usually with the size of the home or the overblown architectural elements – that there is little leftover for other features like the back of the house or a carport. In other words, if you spend a lot of money to build a McMansion, couldn’t you go a little further and construct a garage as well?

To be honest, I’ve never seen a picture of a McMansion with a carport. Indeed, one of the nicknames for McMansions is “snout houses” because they tend to lead with a large garage. Perhaps carports occur more in teardown situations where the size of the lot makes it more difficult to have a large garage on the front and an existing carport in the back or on an alley is a viable alternative.

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“It’s part of the American identity to have a grill”

This is the final line in a story on grilling. Here are some updates on the American grilling industry:

Grill sales in America are growing only by low single-digit percentages each year, and the market is nearly 20% smaller than it was a decade ago, according to the research firm IBISWorld.

U.S. grill manufacturers — led by Weber-Stephen Products, maker of the iconic Weber grills — also face stiff competition from imports, which now account for 56% of U.S. sales, up from 46% a decade ago, the IBISWorld data show.

Grill sales are closely tied to changes in the U.S. economy, especially the housing industry. So, not surprisingly, the grill business was hammered between 2008 and 2010 when the housing crisis and severe recession took hold…

The Fourth of July is the most popular day of the year for outdoor grilling, with 76% of grill owners planning to fire up their barbecues on the holiday, the HPBA says. Those summer bookends, Memorial Day and Labor Day, tied for second place at 62%…

And in the heated debate between gas and charcoal, gas has the edge. Gas grills outsold charcoal grills, 57.7% to 40.1%. The remaining 2.2% of grills sold were electric.

Based on this article, then grilling is tied to the single-family home, the lawn and backyard, eating meat, and American holidays. Perhaps it is a symbol of having the leisure time to cook slowly outside. We can add the grill – perhaps the distinctive Weber grill in particular – to other consumer goods that supposedly symbolize the American Dream (McMansions, SUVs, large sodas, fast food, big TVs, etc.).

Yet, other people in the world use grills or outdoor cooking spaces. Are Americans really that unique in this regard? Bon Appetit takes a look at grilling around the world after this introduction:

For Americans, firing up the Weber and grilling up some meat has a distinctly patriotic vibe–we barbecue on the 4th of July, after all, and no image of the American Dream would be complete without a cookout-friendly lawn behind that white picket fence–but we’re not the only ones who pride ourselves on our skill with charcoal and tongs. From satay in Singapore to asado in Argentina, there’s a whole world of grilling out there. You can always find regional variations from city to city, town to town, and family to family, but here are some of the world’s great grilling traditions.

So, perhaps Americans just do the grilling in distinct ways: often in private spaces (backyards of owned homes) at particular times (summer holidays).

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First Medicare patient was in Naperville

Edward Hospital in Naperville will on July 20 celebrate the first Medicare patient in American history:

A Chicago Tribune reporter informed 68-year-old Avery she would be the first citizen to have her bills paid under the then-new program. Her amused reply, “Oh boy! Now I can go to New York and get on the television program ‘I’ve Got A Secret.'”

It was no secret when Avery signed her Medicare forms in her hospital bed on July 1, 1966, the day the program went into effect for nearly 20 million Americans age 65 or older. In addition to front-page coverage in the Tribune, an Associated Press photographer snapped Avery’s picture, which made its way across the country and into numerous other newspapers and publications…

“Edward Hospital, birthplace of Medicare” is how Carlson wryly refers to the event. Carlson is the one who chose Avery for her distinction.

“The reason I was given the right to choose was that I was a member of the communications staff at the national Blue Cross Association,” Carlson said. He and the head of communications at the U.S. Social Security Administration coordinated Avery’s form-signing and photo opportunity.

Although Naperville was still a small town at the time – under 10,000 residents – this illustrates how social networks can help push small communities into the spotlight. Even large bureaucratic programs have to start somewhere and a personal connection between the Blue Cross Association and the Social Security Administration made this possible.

The article says the hospital will dedicate a plaque and hold a small ceremony to make the anniversary. Is this the best way to mark social welfare programs? How many people will know that the plaque exists and view it? The United States regularly crafts memorials for particular people, whether notable leaders (like the proposed Eisenhower memorial in Washington D.C.) or collections of soldiers, but doesn’t mark government programs as well. A memorial to the New Deal? The Monroe Doctrine? The Interstate Act? All of these were incredibly consequential yet it is more difficult to envision where and how these should be marked.

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“Sociology is alien to literature”

One reviewer of a new book suggests the retelling of personal experiences cannot be equated with sociology:

Ben Simon writes in the introduction, “I am not sure that my immigration experience is representative of the immigrants from Morocco.” But elsewhere he also writes: “To date, no attempt has been made to decipher the sociology of the Moroccan immigration. This book is a modest step in that direction.”

I object to Ben Simon’s sociological aspirations in this book. In his work as a journalist, he aimed his efforts in this direction, always doing so in an interesting and profound manner. But that is not the story here, because this is a different sort of literary undertaking. Someone who seeks to tell about himself has to first employ tools of emotion, sharing experiences and memories, allowing the reader to learn the process involved in consciousness-in-the-making: a private and personal consciousness, not a “sociology,” not the diagnosis of a society, not a creation of a portrait of something – but rather literature.

By its nature, an autobiography is first and foremost a literary text. And it is enough to think of Sartre’s “The Words” to understand this. Sociology, by virtue of the alienation that underlies its definition, in its critical sense of observation from the outside – is alien to literature. Being Moroccan is, in any event, much more complex, and so too are its immigrant experiences. It is enough for me to think about my “Moroccan” family, about its consciousness, about how it coped, about its relationship to religion and its immigration experiences.

Ben Simon sets out on a journey that traces the impressive path he has forged, the consolidation of his own perspective on reality, his emotions. But in “The Moroccans,” he feels a need to package this in “sociology.” Clearly there is a context, a “period,” a reflection of reality, but it is marginal; it is not the main thing.

Without reading the book, it is hard to know exactly what is going on here. It sounds like the author wants to extrapolate a bit from his own experiences to those of all Moroccan immigrants and the reviewer suggests he can’t speak for such a large group. This kerfuffle may also be about style; autobiographies and sociological works are often written differently with the emphasis of the first more on experiences and emotions and the second on larger generalizations, data, and theory.

This does hint at a larger issue in sociology and related disciplines where some research methods – particularly ethnography – allow for the mixing of researcher experience while still attempting to remain objective and connect the research to bigger issues in the field. This line can be quite blurry; see earlier issues raised about the work of Venkatesh or Goffman. Yet, it is an issue that is not going to go away as (1) insider information continues to be valuable and (2) some look to connect with different (i.e., non-academic) audiences with more literary styles.

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