Murdered cats and discussing suburban troubles in the US and Britain

The Croydon Cat Killer leads to reflection on how Americans and Brits view troubles in their suburbs:

When I told a friend I was writing about the Croydon cat killer, as he (or a copycat) appears to be holidaying in Washington State, her lips collapsed into a little moue, and then she looked away. “What?” I pressed, and she paused before replying, earnestly, “But what if he comes for you?” It was a risk I’d considered, having just celebrated our kitten’s first birthday, but one I am willing to take, because this story — some believe the same man has killed more than 500 cats over the last four years — is compelling and terrifying. And it encourages obsession: It pricks at ancient anxieties.

In midcentury America, the suburbs were seen by some as a dangerous social experiment — this style of living brought sickness. Suburban men fell ill from the stress of commuting; suburban women, trapped at home, had it even worse. In a best-selling 1961 study the authors renamed these regions “Disturbia.”

The place of suburbs in our collective psyche has been on my mind recently, as last year, with great internal drama, I moved out of the city, got a cat for my daughter — pets, of course, traditionally being tools for children to practice grief upon — and settled all the way down. In Britain the idea of suburbia has none of the David Lynchian perversion or drama of the United States. But it’s still thought of as an in-between place, a punch line, where small neat gardens reflect the dimensions of their owners’ minds. Suffocating, but safe. Until a predator shatters the illusion…

A year ago, after our baby was born, my partner and I moved to the area where I grew up, to a quiet street at the end of the Northern Line where the capital opens out into golf courses and garden centers, and I immediately began boring him with much existential whining about the shame of having returned to the safety of a life I’d thought left behind. Then, a month after we moved, our house was broken into. The bed was stained with muddy footprints — the burglar had turned over our furniture and opened my face cream, seemingly confused by the lack of jewelry. That night, tidying up, my partner said quietly, “I wonder what he thought of us.” The city had broadcast its dangers, using sirens and loud lights, but we learned quickly the suburbs hide theirs; here, on school fences, cartoon drawings warn of the threat of accidents and strangers’ cars in cute, childish scribbles. Now we always keep a light on.

This is not an uncommon story: person or family moves to the suburbs expecting an ideal life centered around a home and family life. Something occurs, often a crime or unpleasant experience with some other suburbanites, that then shatters the happy suburban illusion. The suburbanite then often lives on edge. This is also the plot of innumerable movies, books, and other cultural products.

On one hand, this is very understandable. The suburbs, particularly in the United States, are often sold as an idyllic place. Neighborhoods should be safe, kids can grow up without worry and also get ahead, and families should have plenty of good times together. These things do not always happen for a variety of reasons including an emphasis on privacy (which limits both exposure to and discussions of things that may otherwise be typical events), occasional crime, and personal choices.

On the other hand, most suburban places are relatively safe. A single encounter with crime could be very traumatic. Yet, on the whole, wealthier suburban communities do have less crime. Plus, crime on the whole is down compared to several decades ago. Perhaps we just know more about the crimes that do occur – a curse of too much information – and it is hard to keep the big picture in mind.

Perhaps the biggest issue here is the setup of the suburbs as a perfect place. This is a powerful cultural narrative. Yet, no communities are perfect. Simply making it to a nice home in a nice suburb is not a guarantee of a happy life. While there has been talk of developing resiliency in cities, do we also need resilient suburbanites who are able to weather some tough situations?

“Minister of loneliness” will get to work

This may be a new governmental role in the 21st century: minister of loneliness.

On Wednesday, the U.K. made political history by creating an entirely new, untried political role: the world’s first “minister for loneliness.” The post is designed to combat what Prime Minister Theresa May called “the sad reality of modern life” for many people…

The scope and effects of loneliness are unquestionably devastating. Half a million British people over 60 only talk to another person once a week or less. People who self-report as lonely are more likely to experience dementia, heart disease, and depression. When it comes to life expectancy, the long-term health effects of loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day

So what could a minister do to ease this situation? The issues spread across a very wide range of policy areas—and that’s kind of the point. A minister for loneliness could potentially have a trans-governmental scope, pressing policy-makers, businesses, and individuals to look at a whole range of decisions through the lens of loneliness.

I was reminded of this recently by a book that suggested cities can contribute to profound social isolation for some. And pair this with the idea that social media can lead to isolation and you have much of the modern world: urbanized and Facebooked.

I would be interested to see if such a minister sticks to small changes across a range of social spheres or tackles some of the broader issues like the individualism and autonomy promoted through the last few centuries of Western life. Is there any chance a Western government would promote less individualism in order to help promote less loneliness? Or, put another way, what would be the tipping point to convince a public that they should give some individual liberty in order to together tackle social isolation?

Comparing the size of new American homes to those in France, Spain, and Britain

As the size of the average new American home dropped in recent years and then increased again in 2011, it is helpful to keep in mind how American homes compare to those in Europe:

By the way, even if American homes do shrink slightly, they’ll still be much bigger than homes abroad. A 2009 survey from Britain’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment found that the average new home built in the United States has twice the floor space of those built in France and Spain and is three times as large as the average new British home.Am

To put this in perspective, this means that the average new home in Britain is roughly 800 square feet and new homes in France and Spain are about 1,200 square feet. Is this what American exceptionalism looks like these days?

This reminds me of watching House Hunters International on HGTV. When you have an American looking to purchase a home in Europe, they often say they need space though the square footage or acreage is rarely quantified. In contrast, Europeans on the show seem to expect that European homes will be smaller and are willing to deal with it. You can often see quite a difference in expectations: Americans expect more personal space and distance between them and neighbors. This is not necessarily because Americans are unfriendly; one recent survey put the United States at the fifth most friendly country. Perhaps it could be tied to how much stuff Americans expect to have. Regardless, more Americans appear to relish the idea of having private space within the home in ways that is not possible or not wanted in other cultures.


British architects say British homes are too small

While new American homes have gotten slightly smaller in the last few years and a number of commentators see this as a good thing, the Royal Institute of British Architects says British homes are too small:

The RIBA, which looked at 3,418 three-bedroom homes across 71 sites in England, said the squeeze is depriving thousands of families of space needed for children to do homework, for adults to relax and for guests to stay.

The findings were based on building regulations introduced in London in July which set the minimum space benchmark of 96 sq metres (1,033 sq ft) for an average three-bed home…

But research found the average floor area of new homes is 88 sq metres (947 sq ft). And the most common size is 74 sq metres (797 sq ft)…

In 2009, a report by the Government’s former design watchdog, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, found new homes in Britain were the smallest in Europe.

It revealed homes in Greece and Denmark had almost twice the floor space of UK homes.

The argument here is that these “cramped houses” are “depriving households of the space they need to live comfortably and cohesively.” This is an interesting argument: the smaller house is harming residents, affecting their comfort (physical) and cohesion (social). Can there really be a case made that these homes are causing long-term harm to residents and families? If so, it is the homes themselves causing the trouble or the expectations about how much space the family should have and for whatever reason, can’t have?

Could there be some financial self-interest here on the part of these architects? Does the small average size of British homes necessarily mean that citizens openly desire bigger homes and are not getting their wish?

Are these smaller homes part of a larger effort to reduce the effects of suburbs and sprawl?

The psychology and sociology of being a soldier

This piece discusses the psychological states of soldiers. A quick summary: studies after World War II found that most soldiers were not shooting to kill, training in subsequent decades effectively trained soldiers to kill, a recent study suggests that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rapidly increased among American soldiers, starting in Vietnam, but didn’t increase among British soldiers, and a new book argues that American soldiers have more PTSD simply because they were expected to.

Sounds like an interesting subject area: how are individual soldiers affected by training techniques that prepare them to kill? What seems most interesting here is the disparity in PTSD between British and American soldiers. It reminds me of a book I read years ago that suggests that ADD and ADHD diagnosis rates differed greatly between the United States and Britain. This finding was partly based on studies that had shown that the same kids who visited both American and British doctors were evaluated differently, suggesting that cultural differences might be behind the medical expertise. Has anyone done a similar study with the same British and American soldiers being evaluated by both British and American doctors?

While the interest here is in a psychological topic, this sounds more like a sociological question relating to cultural values and expectations.

Richard Florida cited by UK Conservatives

The Economist takes a look into the background of urban thinker Richard Florida, who has recently been cited by leading British Conservatives. Here an excerpt about Florida’s background:

Although less well-known in Europe, he is as close to a household name as it is possible for an urban theorist to be in America. In his best-selling books, highly paid speeches and frequent television interviews, Mr Florida has extolled one core idea: that the creative sector is the growth engine for Western economies as menial work migrates to developing countries.

Mr Florida’s definition of creative goes beyond the obvious artists and musicians to include anyone open to new ideas. He says businesses must give space and flexibility to these freethinkers, and that cities must attract lots of them to be successful. This means they must be green, clean, tolerant and cultured, typically with large gay and ethnic-minority populations…

His superstar status, as much as his ideas, have made him enemies. One Canadian newspaper columnist, fed up with his high profile after he became head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at Toronto University three years ago, started handing out badges that read “Please stop talking about Richard Florida”. More seriously, other academics have denounced his “snake oil economics”, his use of statistics and his confusion of causation and coincidence. Joel Kotkin, another writer about cities, points out that over the past 20 years far more jobs in America have been created in boring suburbs than in the multicultural city centres beloved of Mr Florida.

He describes himself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

There are some interesting things to think about based on this story:

1. How much evidence is there that Florida’s ideas can bring about a “quick fix” to depressed locations? In England, are they looking to his ideas for a quick turnaround or is this a long-term project?

2. I’ve seen and read some of this criticism of Florida by other academics. Some of it did seem based on envy of his status and money-making abilities – his books have done well, he is an expensive speaker, and he has had the ear of a number of politicians. At the same time, there are legitimate concerns about whether his ideas work in the real world. I’m particularly struck by Kotkin’s criticism as noted in this story – job growth in America has been primarily in the suburbs.

3. In another part of the story, The Economist hints that politicians who court thinkers or adopt ideologies can often be left struggling to convey or act upon these ideas. On one hand, it is remarkable that Florida gets so much attention from politicians – few academics ever draw this kind of attention. On the other hand, when social scientists and urban thinkers do have a chance to influence politics, what are the outcomes?

h/t The Infrastructurist

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman influencing British politics

The Guardian offers some insights into how sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has continued to influence British politics and thought:

Despite officially retiring in 1990 as professor of sociology at Leeds University, the 84-year-old has remained remarkably productive – churning out a book a year from his home in a leafy Yorkshire suburb. His latest, entitled 44 Letters from the Liquid Modern World, is a collection of columns written for Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper featuring pithy potshots at Twitter, swine flu hysteria and the cultural elite.

Such is his star power that when Leeds opened the Bauman Institute for sociology in September, more than 200 foreign delegates flew in to listen to the octogenerian thinker. Despite the plaudits, Bauman appears to be a prophet everywhere except in Britain. This may be because until now he had proved unwilling to provide politicians with grand overarching theories to explain what they were doing and why – unlike Lord (Anthony) Giddens, the sociologist whose “third way” political approach was embraced by Tony Blair’s New Labour.

That has all changed with the arrival of Ed Miliband as Labour party leader and his Baumanesque analysis that the party had lost its humanity by embracing the market. The sociologist says he was encouraged by Miliband’s first speech as leader to the Labour party conference, saying that it offered a chance to “resurrect” the left on a moral basis.

Several thoughts come to mind:

1. It is interesting that Britain has sociologists who are influencing politicians and policies. Does any sociologist in the United States play a similar role?

2. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Bauman called a major thinker. And yet, how many Americans (or even American sociologists) have heard of him? I think I once read a piece by him regarding modernity but other than that, haven’t really encountered his work.

3. This all is a reminder that there is a role for the public intellectual in Britain and Europe that doesn’t really exist in the United States.

Additionally, Bauman comments on the ability of sociology to help solve the major problems in society:

Despite such interrogative success, Bauman today is sanguine about his own discipline’s ability to find answers for such problems. He warns that sociology, with its falling student rolls and insular outlook, is caught between number crunchers and philosophers. “The task for sociology is to come to the help of the individual. We have to be in service of freedom. It is something we have lost sight of,” he says.

What kind of freedom is Bauman talking about? Freedom from repressive dictators? Freedom from traditional metanarratives? Freedom from restrictive social structures?

Quick Review: An Education

An Education is set in Britain during the early 1960s. It begins with a 16-year old British girl  (Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan) studying hard in order to pass her exams to get into Oxford. But she soon meets an older man (Daniel, played by Peter Sarsgaard) who introduces her to a new world of jazz, art, vacations to Paris, and general excitement.

Quick thoughts:

1. This might be a period piece…but it might not be.

On one hand, the film takes place in the early 1960s, an era just before Britain moved from post-World War II austerity to the Swinging Sixties. Jenny’s parents are of the previous generation: her father is provincial and blustery (but only willing to stand up to his family members) and her mother fades into the background. Jenny starts the film wanting to go to Oxford but spends much of the film chasing a more exciting life. In a key scene involving Jenny and the headmistress of her private school, Jenny explains these differences: “It’s not enough to educate us anymore, Mrs. Walters. You’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.” Without having a “why,” Jenny is unwilling to go on.

On the other hand, this movie is similar to numerous other stories that have simply taken place in other settings. Jenny is a typical middle-class girl and expects to go to college. She thinks she wants what her parents want, a good education. But all this changes as she “grows up” by interacting with the outside world. This is a classic “coming of age” tale as Jenny overcomes adult obstacles. Some of the characters are a little stale: the parents are typical suburban parents who fall apart when confronted with the complexities of the world.

2. I enjoyed the atmosphere of this film. I could feel the drudgery of the middle class home. I could see the excitement when Jenny went beyond the walls of her home and private school. Britain is shown as both dull and alive, as surely most places are.

3. There are a number of enjoyable short and sharp dialogues between Jenny and her parents.

4. Daniel is somewhat creepy, not quite of the Lolita variety but is still an older man chasing a teenager. We are never really told what motivates him or how he got to this position. Perhaps this is the case because Jenny is the main character and she never digs very deep into who Daniel is. Since Jenny just sees Daniel as a source of excitement, the audience doesn’t need to know much about Daniel either.

5. The overall question of the film is one that everyone can relate to: what kind of education are we seeking? One based in books, thinking, and analysis? One based in experiences? Or something else?

(The film was well-received by critics: on RottenTomatoes, 170 reviews with 159 fresh/94%.)