The most important annual statistical moment in America: the start of March Madness

When do statistics matter the most for the average American? The week of the opening weekend of March Madness – the period between the revealing of the 68 team field to the final games of the Round of 32 – may just be that point. All the numbers are hard to resist; win-loss records, various other metrics of team performance (strength of schedule, RPI, systems attached to particular analysts, advanced basketball statistics, etc.), comparing seed numbers and their historic performance, seeing who the rest of America has picked (see the percentages for the millions of brackets at ESPN), and betting lines and pools.

Considering the suggestions that Americans are fairly innumerate, perhaps this would be a good period for public statistics education. How does one sift through all these numbers, thinking about how they are measured and making decisions based on the figures? Sadly, I usually teach Statistics in the fall so I can’t put any of my own ideas into practice…

Making money by betting on dying malls

Some are hoping to make a lot of money with the decline of shopping malls:

It’s no secret many mall complexes have been struggling for years as Americans do more of their shopping online. But now, they’re catching the eye of hedge-fund types who think some may soon buckle under their debts, much the way many homeowners did nearly a decade ago.

Like the run-up to the housing debacle, a small but growing group of firms are positioning to profit from a collapse that could spur a wave of defaults. Their target: securities backed not by subprime mortgages, but by loans taken out by beleaguered mall and shopping center operators. With bad news piling up for anchor chains like Macy’s and J.C. Penney, bearish bets against commercial mortgage-backed securities are growing…

Many of the malls are anchored by the same struggling tenants, like Sears, J.C. Penney and Macy’s, and large-scale closures could be “disastrous” for the mortgage-backed securities. In the worst-case scenario, the BBB- tranche could incur losses of as much as 50 percent, while the BB portion might lose 70 percent.

I’d love to see some analysis of whether this is a good development: it doesn’t sound like this will break the mortgage industry in the same way as the subprime mortgage crisis, clearly some investors have learned something from the past, yet the default of shopping malls can have a big effect on the local economy and community.

There is an interesting summary of the fate of the American shopping mall in the final paragraph of the article:

“When a mall starts to falter, the end result is typically binary in nature,” said Matt Tortorello, a senior analyst at Kroll Bond Rating Agency. “It’s either the mall is going to survive or it’s going take a substantial loss.”

This can’t be good in the short term, particularly if the retail money vanishes into the Internet ether. In the long run, it does hint at a very bifurcated retail experience in coming decades: wealthier places where shopping malls still thrive and are popular and other places where there is nothing but big box stores, the occasional strip mall, and online shopping.

Skepticism on whether the AFFH will improve urban housing

An overview of how the Trump administration might work with the Obama administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule includes this skepticism from a sociologist:

While these baby steps are improvements on the status quo, it’s easy to see why many housing experts remain skeptical of the rule. “The whole history of enforcement of fair-housing law … shows that more conservative and more liberal politicians use different rhetoric but act pretty much the same,” Brown University’s John Logan, a well-regarded expert on segregation, told me. “Only through court action, with HUD and/or localities as defendants, have real steps been taken.” The history is certainly not heartening.

The real question regarding housing integration or affordable housing is how government officials can convince wealthier white residents to live near cheaper housing and non-white residents. Residential integration does not come easily, and as Logan suggests, court action is often required before it will happen. If the new AAFH is successful, will it be because fair housing is built in less white and less wealthy areas?

Snowproofing the morning commute

Hearing the morning travel times near Chicago this morning, I wondered what it would take to reduce the abnormally high drive times due to the lake effect snow. The short answer is easy: get more people to take mass transit. But, this may not be doable. Here’s why:

  1. Not desirable. Even with the troubles presented by daily commuting via car (high costs, getting stuck in traffic, road maintenance), this is what Americans choose to do, even when they have other options. It is simply too attractive to be able to go and leave when you want and to not have to be close to other people while doing so.
  2. Not practical. Much of the American lifestyle, even in a city like Chicago, is built around the car. We have our own private homes with yards and garages (even in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods), we don’t put much emphasis on promoting street life, and our activities (work, school, recreation) tend to be all spread out. If you wanted to get rid of your car, you would need to live in denser areas – which do exist – but this would be a significant change for many.

Another way to put it is that days like today might be terrible for commuting but they are likely not enough to cause significant lifestyle changes. Americans have a high tolerance for putting up with commutes and having to use mass transit 300+ days a year isn’t worth it to many.

An additional option would be to delay commutes on days like these. Can’t more businesses and institutions provide more leeway to commuters? This might free up some road space if more people could delay their start or work from home.

Honor a president…with a highway named after them

Chicago likes to honor famous people and politicians by affixing their names to roads so what would be a fitting honor for former president Barack Obama?

A few weeks ago, state Rep. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, submitted a resolution to have the entirety of Interstate 294 named after President Obama. However, in the same week, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, indicated that he was moving to submit legislation that would rename much of Interstate 55 that passes through Illinois as the “Barack Obama Expressway.” The moves in Springfield led to chatter in the press and elsewhere about how to honor President Obama and his legacy.

Perhaps because driving is so ingrained in American culture officials like to rename roads and highways. A highway seems so dull here: it will be a staple of morning traffic reports (“The Obama is clogged from 159th to Cicero”) and make it into countless digital and print atlases. I imagine it takes time for a name change to switch over into normal use: is I-55 the Southwest Highway, the original name, or I-55 (when it was adopted into the Federal Interstate System), or the Stevenson (to honor an Illinois governor and twice-failed presidential candidate. How many people who live in the area say they drive the Reagan?

But, there are plenty of other infrastructure options: how about O’Hare Airport (named after a World War II aviator), one of the most important airports in the American system? How about a branch of the L? Think how many people travel on and would see the Obama Line and perhaps some politicians would rather be known for promoting mass transit. Of course, if you didn’t like a politician (not the case here), you could attach their name to something less worthy like a sewage treatment plant or a viaduct.

 

McMansions as the base for futuristic enclaves

A new futuristic book written by an architect makes use of McMansions:

But what if the McMansion could be put in the service of urbanism instead? In his new book Atlas of Another America: An Architectural Fiction (Park Books, $49), the architect Keith Krumwiede, who teaches at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, envisions an alternative reality in which McMansions are used as building blocks to create small communities not unlike medieval villages or 19th-century communes. These “estates,” aggregated from real house plans used by big homebuilders such as Toll Brothers and Pulte, are set in Krumwiede’s fictional domain of Freedomland.

Across the Atlas’s richly colored pages, Krumwiede offers dozens of variations on the idea of the tract home as a module in a much larger dwelling. His estates have up to 200 bedrooms and 100 bathrooms each. Some are cruciform or X-shaped in plan; in others, the McMansions pinwheel around a fountain, lock together in tight Tetris-esque combinations, or link up delicately like daisy chains.

And the author discusses some of his thinking:

I think we do ourselves a disservice as architects dismissing all of these houses out of hand as aesthetically impoverished dreck, because they are really smart plans. That’s not to say that they have architectural values in a traditional sense. What I think they do effectively is they are able to deliver on the idea of every house being that individual’s palace…

I’ve had certain architects affiliated with the New Urbanist movement who’d say, “These individual estates are really great. You need to find a way to build these.” There are other friends, who see themselves more as avant-gardists, who are like, “How can you be mucking around with these shitty houses?” They see it as selling out.

These plans may make use of the physical structures known as McMansions but they certainly play with one of the object’s central features: a private space separate from neighbors. This is both a feature and a big: homeowners seem to want to get away from neighbors and society (with lots of interior space, sometimes a sizable lawn, and architectural features that impress but don’t necessarily expose the inside activity to outsiders) while critics suggest these home privilege private lives over robust community interaction (with sizable and prominent garages, plenty of interior space, and often imposing exteriors that discourage neighborly activity). Would a McMansion intentionally created as part of an enclave cease to be a McMansion?

Another idea: imagine you could move existing McMansions to create these new enclaves. It would be difficult to move large structures like these but then new McMansions don’t have to be constructed and it frees up other locations for new uses.

A push for Naperville to declare itself a “welcoming city”

The Naperville City Council has recently discussed declaring the suburb a “welcoming city”:

Some Naperville residents and city council members want the city to adopt a resolution that would declare Naperville a welcoming city to people of all backgrounds. The push comes amid an election that includes the first openly gay candidate for Naperville City council…

O’Meara is part of a couple women’s groups that are asking the city not to become a sanctuary city, but to name itself a welcoming city, she said. “We believe that becoming a welcoming city is something that you’ve already done over the years that people have been coming here,” O’Meara said. “It’s important that people moving into this town know that this town is going to support them in what they have to do going forward.”

Councilwoman Becky Anderson floated the idea of adopting such a resolution at an earlier City Council meeting after Naperville resident Anthony Castagnoli spoke during public comment period, asking the City to act in resistance to President Donald Trump’s actions…

“One of the things I would task us to think about as council members as we approach our next social service grant cycle is what could we be doing with the social service grant to make people feel more comfortable, or to aid those who are struggling in our community because of discrimination whether it’s through immigration or otherwise,” Boyd-Obarski said. “As we confront the country around us, if we really want to be welcoming, let’s think about ways that we can do that with our dollars as well as our voices.”

This could be viewed as interesting as a community that traditionally has been fairly conservative. As noted here, perhaps that is why being a sanctuary city is not on the table. At the same time, Naperville is home to a number of wealthier, well-educated residents and wants to continue to attract both high-end businesses and residents. One thing Naperville has done well over the last six decades as it has expanded from a small town to a giant suburb is created a high-quality of life, which today likely includes the values of tolerance and diversity (see Richard Florida’s work for an argument on why this is so important for today’s cities).

The people quoted from this article primarily cite Naperville’s welcoming attitude to gay residents. Have all minority residents had similar positive experiences? It wasn’t that long ago that Naperville was a sundown town or a place where black residents could not be shown housing. Or, in the last twenty years or so, the Islamic Center of Naperville has faced opposition over their locations.