The new High Line extension opens

I thoroughly enjoyed my one visit to the High Line in New York and I look forward to seeing the new section that recently opened:

Officially titled The High Line at the Rail Yards, this is the park’s third section, extending from West 30th to West 34th Streets, bounded by 10th and 12th Avenues on its east and west. With this extension, visitors are now able to explore the former elevated railway-turned-park in its entirety, from its southern end at Gansevoort Street, up to its new northern terminus at 34th Street — an impressive 22 blocks. The 10th Avenue Spur, incorporated into the Hudson Yards mega-development, remains unfinished and will open towards the end of 2015, in tandem with the 52-floor tower that will straddle it.

A few nice pictures here. Also, as this brief description hints, there is some interesting potential for interaction between the new parts of the park and nearby buildings.

McMansions “bloom” in China

One fact about McMansions and one assertion: they are in China and they are “growing.”

In the Dianshan Lake region, less than 40 miles west of central Shanghai, the appetite for speculative real estate has driven developers into China’s most fertile land, the Yangtze Delta. Only about half of the luxury villas like those on the following pages, which can be as big as 6,300 square feet and sell for as much as $1.5 million, are occupied — mostly as second homes. The rest sit empty, as the housing sector staggers under a surplus. The photographer George Steinmetz, who visited the area last fall, describes the transition as converting “rice farms to high-end McMansions.” As that process plays out, the country’s domestic rice consumption is set to soon outpace rice production.

This highlights two small trends in reporting on McMansions:

1. People like to note the spread of McMansions around the world. I’ve seen articles talking about McMansions in China, Russia, and different parts of Europe, Africa, and Latin America. It is a unique American export that requires a supporting infrastructure of a wealthy upper middle-class, roads, power, and sewers, and space for large single-family homes. Outside of the United States, McMansions are most common in Australia and still limited elsewhere.

2. The idea of McMansions “growing” or “blooming” fits in with ideas about suburban sprawl as well as the land McMansions often replace. Critics of McMansions lament the loss of open land or fields, particularly when replaced by energy inefficient homes. At the same time, blooming might suggests McMansions are like flowers while some would prefer the comparison be made to weeds.

Naperville now at #33 of Money’s Best Places To Live

As little as a decade ago, Naperville was at the top of Money‘s Best Places to live (#2 in 2006) but it comes in at #33 in 2014. Here is the description of the community:

Naperville, a regular on MONEY’s Best Places to Live list, consistently draws families for its highly rated schools and safe neighborhoods. Yet unlike many Chicago suburbs, a vibrant downtown also gives Naperville a cosmopolitan feel. People run or stroll along the four-mile long brick Riverwalk, which hugs the DuPage River that runs through downtown. The pedestrian-friendly city center has more than 50 restaurants (pizza lovers will find both wood-fired varieties and Chicago’s signature deep-dish style on offer), as well as art galleries, boutiques and live music clubs.

Many residents do the 30-minute train commute into Chicago but local jobs are plentiful too: Naperville is located on the Illinois I-88 technology and research corridor and home to major companies like ConAgra and OfficeMax.

The big complaint around Naperville? Traffic. Rush hour can be brutal, and you can find yourself suddenly sitting in gridlock at any time of day.

What has changed?

1. The description mentions traffic. This is particularly bad going north-south in Naperville as the major highways goes east-west. You don’t want to be stuck on Route 59 on the western edge of Naperville, a road full of people traveling to Naperville as well as other burgeoning suburbs like Aurora and Plainfield.

2. Is something lost in the size of the community? Maybe, maybe not – the #1 place is McKinney, Texas which has a population around 140,000.

3. The methodology for the rankings might have changed. Here is how the found the Best Places To Live for 2014:

Next, we narrow down the list further by excluding places with a median family income of more than 210% of the state average or a median home price of $1 million or more. Then we use a proprietary formula to rank the remaining cities according to 45 factors in eight categories: Economic opportunity and jobs, housing affordability, education, crime, health, arts and leisure, ease of living, and diversity.

We give the most weight to the first four factors, and evenly represent the major regions of the country (West, Northeast, Midwest, South). That leaves us with about 100 cities…

Economic opportunity is based on purchasing power, foreclosure rate, tax burden, and state’s fiscal strength. Job opportunities is based on income growth, county employment (not seasonally adjusted), and projected job growth. Housing affordability is based on median home-price-to-income ratio and average property taxes. Education is based on test scores, educational interests and attainment, and percentage of kids in public schools. Health is based on number of doctors and hospitals in the area and health of residents. Crime is based on property and violent crime rates. Arts and leisure is based on activities in the town and area, including movie theaters, museums, green spaces, and sports venues.

If the first four factors matter more, Naperville might hampered by the state of Illinois’ fiscal strength and higher housing prices than a number of the top-ranked places. Looking further down the list, crime might be up some in Naperville.

The trade-off of having insider access vs. passing along bad information

Several journalists are fighting over what boils down to this: can you have access to political insiders and still pass along correct information and/or critical analysis?

Is political science a rigorous field that journalists ought to tap when trying to understand and explain what’s happening in American politics? Will doing so imbue them with a structural understanding of events that’s superior to the armchair analysis provided by journalists and sources who overestimate their own expertise? Or are Washington, D.C., political journalists excessively beholden to so-called experts and their impenetrable jargon, people with no understanding of America beyond an insular bubble, whose track record of awful recommendations includes the Vietnam War, a conflict run by “the best and the brightest”?

Those are rough outlines of the positions taken by two high-profile journalists, Ezra Klein and Thomas Frank, during a much-discussed exchange on American political journalism. They’re actually arguing over a subset of the field that focuses on describing politics as it currently is. My typical focus has been on how Americans ought to govern themselves, rather than the depressing business of how they actually do govern themselves, so I’m commenting here as something of an outsider. In time, we “oughts” hope to persuade Americans to give Klein and Frank a less depressing status-quo to fight over. But there are so many people thwarting us.

Drawing on nine years in the nation’s capitol, Klein acknowledges one class of obstacles. “Washington is a cesspool of faux-experts who do bad research (or no research),” he explained, “but retain their standing by dint of affiliations, connections, or charisma.” Sweet validation! I’ve often suspected that official Washington is populated by enough disingenuous, misinformation-spreading hucksters to fill an underground container of organic waste. No one has better standing to render this judgment than Klein, whose earnest, tireless embrace of deep-in-the-weeds wonkery is unsurpassed in his generation. He wouldn’t assert a whole cesspool of intellectual waste product without having seen plenty of specific examples…

It’s such a wonderful quote: “Washington is a cesspool of faux-experts who do bad research (or no research), but retain their standing by dint of affiliations, connections, or charisma.” Kudos to Klein for saying what many insiders would never acknowledge. But if even powerful insiders who know that solidly enough to confidently declare it for publication won’t name names, the cesspool will never be drained.

A tough problem to overcome: insider access leads to scoops on information and comfy relationships. At the same time, the public might be better served by outsiders who aren’t so beholden to particular political figures or camps.

One solution could avoid having to drain the swamp of insiders by balancing insider and outsider perspectives. This is where the power of a news organization could come in. Let’s say the New York Times has reporters both with insider connections as well as people who can take the broad view. The newspaper could work to balance these accounts, not presenting one or the other as better as each other but combining them to give a more complete picture. This reminds me of the job of an ethnographer who seeks to balance the insider perspective (participating in the group/culture under study) but maintaining an outsider perspective (avoiding “going native” and retaining the ability to critically analyze the situation). It might be too much to ask this of any one journalist who has to find some way to get information but a media organization could help pull the pieces together.

California issues first autonomous car driving permits

Several corporations recently received California’s first autonomous car driving permits:

On Tuesday, Audi became the first car manufacturer to receive a California autonomous car driving permit (as of this writing, Mercedes-Benz and Google have also filed for and received permits). The permit was presented to Audi by Sen. Alex Padilla, who signed the state’s new autonomous vehicle laws that went into effect Tuesday; the law will allow for the legal testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads…

One is the specific mention of a visual indicator that clearly signals to the driver when autonomous mode is engaged. Making sure the driver is completely familiar with the technology and understands when the car is under machine control versus human control is something carmakers must get absolutely right. Consider what GM is doing with its Super Cruise technology, which allows the car to take over steering and pedal operations in certain highway conditions. Earlier this month GM announced that Super Cruise will be available in select 2017 model year cars. Those cars will likely have the same indicator that we experienced when testing Super Cruise—a large light bar on the top of the steering wheel that indicates when the car is in control (green), when the driver needs to take over (red), and when the driver has control (blue). Hard to miss that. Oh, and it issues an audible alert as well.

Something else to consider: According to the permit, should the driver be unable to take control of the vehicle during an emergency or system failure while autonomous mode is engaged, “the autonomous vehicle shall be capable of coming to a complete stop.” Pretty important! But also a little scary when you think about a car just stopping on the highway. After all, the permit doesn’t say the car must be able to safely pull off the road and come to a complete stop. And in reality, that’s probably asking a lot for now. It’s a reminder that if we want to test autonomous vehicles in the public domain seriously, we have to understand there will be risks…

Lastly, it’s worth noting that the permit calls for an extra device—separate from the data recorders already required in cars—to specifically monitor and record the autonomous systems and their sensors. On top of that, the information must remain accessible for three years. As optimistic as lawmakers and auto manufacturers are about the potential for autonomous vehicles, they also know that one bad accident could stymie progress and reaffirm the public’s worst fears. In case an accident does happen—and eventually, it will—at least they’ll know exactly what went wrong.

Some interesting extra pieces to these permits. All of this suggests that there are still some important things to sort out before driverless cars hit the roads in large numbers.

A few other possible additions that came to mind:

1. An indicator on top of the car or with the front and back lights that shows other drivers that the car is in autonomous mode. We haven’t heard much how such vehicles would change their behavior based on the drivers around them. Say someone doesn’t like their speed and so they tailgate the car, an action that sometimes leads to the front driver speeding up. What would an autonomous car do?

2. A running set of easy-to-understand output from the autonomous car to the driver. It is one thing to provide an indicator that the car is running itself but another to give feedback to the potential driver. Granted, these vehicles are likely making a ridiculous number of calculations per second but I’m guessing some users would like to know what the car is “thinking” as it acts.

The rise of nomophobia

Smartphones have greatly increased in number as has our need to have them nearby:

Nomophobia is a term describing a growing fear in today’s world — the fear of being without a mobile device, or beyond mobile phone contact. Among today’s high school and college students, it’s on the rise. An increasing number of college students now shower with their cell phone. The average adolescent would rather lose a pinky-finger than a cell phone. A growing percentage text or tweet instead of actually talking to others.

Nomophobia is everywhere in industrialized nations. The term is an abbreviation for “no-mobile-phone phobia,” which was coined during a 2010 study by the UK Post Office. The Post Office commissioned YouGov, a research organization, to look at anxieties suffered by mobile phone users. The study found that nearly 53 percent of mobile phone users in Britain tend to be anxious when they “lose their mobile phone, run out of battery or credit, or have no network coverage.”

The study found that about 58 percent of men and 47 percent of women suffer from the phobia, and an additional 9 percent feel stressed when their mobile phones are off. The study sampled 2,163 people. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed cited keeping in touch with friends or family as the main reason that they got anxious when they could not use their mobile phones. The study compared stress levels induced by the average case of nomophobia to be on par with those of “wedding day jitters” and trips to the dentist…

A full 66 percent of all adults suffer from “nomophobia.”

Unfortunately, this article is short on citing reputable sources outside of one YouGov study in the UK. However, I have seen other similar findings trickle out in recent years.

As I’ve noted before, if this behavior becomes widespread, particularly among normal adults, is it really a problem or phobia? Perhaps the more unusual people are the ones without smartphones or Facebook accounts (they do occasionally pop  up in the college student population) who also may feel odd: peer pressure to join, missing out on information that everyone else seems to have, paying attention to other things more than new technology.

Google wants to build cities and airports?

Google has its hands in many things but now it is planning to build cities?

Google’s seemingly limitless ambition has seen the company take on drones, self-driving cars and even the problem of aging, but the company’s founders have even grander plans – to build cities and airports.

A report from The Information (paywall) says the co-founder Larry Page has set up a ‘company within a company’ dubbed ‘Google 2.0’ that will look at the tech giant’s long-term future – presumably for when advertising revenue from search traffic (inevitably) dries up.

This could even include building “a model airport and city.” Page has argued that although rival billionaire Elon Musk might be in favour of a ‘hyperloop’ (a train concept that could travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes), the problem with long-range transport is not that planes are slow, but that airports are inefficient.

It might sound far-fetched, but Google’s executives are already building their own private air terminal at San Jose International Airport for $82 million to handle the eight private jets owned by Page and fellow co-founders Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt.

It would be fascinating to know how exactly Google would go about planning and building a city. What urban planning techniques would they adopt? Is building a city primarily a way to get more people to see their ads and use their products? At this point, if you Google “what is the best way to build a city,” the top search results focus on SimCity.

I’m sure this doesn’t ease the minds of those worried about the reach of tech companies – they don’t only want your devices and money, they think they have answers for everything…

Even Utopia needs followers

After watching a number of the early episodes and reading several reviews, I think I know one thing the new reality show Utopia is missing: followers. As some have noted, the show seems to feature a number of outgoing and stubborn personalities. These can be the sort of people reality shows attract: go-getters who are there to win. Even though Utopia doesn’t have the typical winning as it has mostly eschewed competitions (except surviving for an entire year and sending out one person a month), it also appeals to strong-willed survivalists who think they have the right skills in creating a new society.

But, to work in the long-term, every larger society needs followers, people willing to support leaders as well as do a lot of the basic work that needs to be done. Without that, you end up with a lot of disagreement about what should be done and little actual work. If they really worked with leaders and followers, the band on Utopia could really accomplish things: imagine 15 adults working to expand the garden or digging trenches for irrigation. This may happen eventually as the group settles in but the lack of followers in hindering them at this point.

This also reminds me of Karl Marx’s ideas about what a socialistic utopia would look like. This is a quote from “The German Ideology“:

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.

This gives a lot of freedom to individuals but sometimes society does need tasks done.

Revival of urban conservatives in Southwestern cities?

Politico suggests that urban conservatives may be making a comeback in a few Southwest cities:

Squint, and you can see that Mesa is just one of several places where Republicans are creating a new model of conservatism for the post-Tea Party era, through an appealing blend of fiscal pragmatism and no-nonsense competence. Across the country, Republican cities are building new infrastructure and even embracing trendy liberal ideas like “new urbanism”—all while managing to keep costs in line and municipal workforces small and cost-effective. As the great, Democratic-run cities across the country—Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles—face fiscal calamity, America’s conservative cities are showing that there’s another way…

While Mesa has long pursued the lightly regulated development patterns that one would expect from the wellspring of Goldwater Republicanism, change is afoot. Over the past several years, the city has begun embracing development that’s downright trendy, and implementing policies that will make it more like Portland, Oregon, than Orange County, California…

The flair for new, pedestrian- and transit-friendly development extends beyond downtown. All through the city, Mesa is pursuing development policies that are downright crunchy. The city is undergoing a “road diet,” cutting one six-lane road to two, expanding sidewalks and adding bike lanes. “[We’re] trying to set the table for a more pedestrian-friendly environment,” says Richins, who has served on the City Council since 2008. A sprawling new park, adjacent to where the Chicago Cubs are building a new spring training stadium (another development that Smith spearheaded), has recently opened…

While it’s willing to make investments, Mesa is also lean in ways that more bloated liberal cities can’t boast. Take the City Council. Despite Mesa’s hefty population, council members are part-timers who have day jobs in fields from education to copper mining. City leaders also pay themselves considerably less than those in other cities do. Mesa City Council members make only $33,000 a year, and the mayor is paid only $73,000. (And those salaries represent the fruits of a big raise: Before last year, city councilmembers made less than $20,000 a year and the mayor earned only $36,000.) By contrast, as of 2012, in similarly sized Fresno, the mayor made $126,000; city council members brought home nearly $65,000. In neighboring Phoenix, meanwhile, the mayor makes $88,000 and city councilmen earn more than $61,000.

In fact, Mesa is lean all around. The entire municipal workforce stands at only about 3,200 people, down from approximately 3,600 before the recession, and only the firefighters and police officers are unionized. (The school district is separate from the city.) The city doesn’t hand out the fat union contracts that make infrastructure projects in blue states so outlandishly expensive (and thereby reduce support for infrastructure spending, period). During the Great Recession, when area construction companies were reeling and desperate for business after housing starts had fallen off a cliff, the city inked a number of extremely cost-efficient deals—literally building three firehouses for the price of four.

And the article goes on with brief descriptions of conservative moves in Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, and Colorado Springs. But, while the story of Mesa sounds interesting, this is the problem with such an article: how do we know that these cities are representative of other American cities or of a broader social movement? They may be representative but the article doesn’t give us enough information to know. In fact, the opening of the story makes it sound as if it is strange enough to find even one conservative city, let alone four. So, which is it: are these cities really rare or are there lots of cities like this?

If I had to guess, here is what I would put forward: if you grouped big cities in some different population categories (say 1+ million, 500,000-999,999, 250,000-499,999, 100,000-249,999), you would find more conservative versus liberal cities as you move down the categories. While I don’t have the time to look into this right now, this would be a fairly easy hypothesis to test.

OECD report blasts Chicago area transit

A new report from the OECD suggests transit in the Chicago region could improve a lot:

“The current state of transit ridership in Chicago is relatively depressing,” concludes the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based research agency whose backers include the world’s richest nations, among them the U.S.

The report found a lack of coordination among the four transit agencies and their four separate boards as well as insufficient accountability. Those issues intensify the economic impact of congestion on Chicago, estimated at over $6 billion in 2011 by the Texas Transportation Institute, the report said.

Although the new study largely echoes previous critiques of the area’s transit system and contains no startling findings, it offers a view of Chicago from a global perspective. And in doing so, the report gives an unflattering assessment of a transportation network that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other leaders have aspired to be world-class…

One of the findings bolsters a recommendation made this year by the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force: that a single superagency should replace the RTA and oversee the CTA, Metra and Pace.

Could a report from a reputable international organization finally spur organizations and governments in the Chicago area into action? I’m skeptical. I would guess a lot of actors would frown on the idea of a overarching superagency that could override their particular concerns. Imagine Chicago neighborhoods and far-flung suburbs with competing interests both being dissatisfied with the decisions made by a board of bureaucrats.

At the same time, not pushing reforms means the Chicago could be leaving a lot of money and time on the table.