Web Bits

My paternal grandfather has taken to the habit of giving members of his family, at every opportunity, denominations of the money he spent his life saving. He gave my wife and me money for our trip to Europe then, when we went up to the Upper Peninsula to visit and thank him, he gave us some more money. When we made him and my aunt dinner one night during our stay, he gave us yet more money. When my wife left a pair of shorts there, he sent them back with a dollar bill stuffed in each pocket. He seems determined not to take anything with him. I should note that my maternal grandmother, upon her passing, had a strongbox with $50,000 in cash stored under one of the steps of her stairs. The capacity for children of the Depression to save is amazing to me.

Since I had done nothing to earn the money, I thought at least a small part of it could go to some better endeavor than my coffee habit. I gave $20 to Dorothy at Cat and Girl and here you can see the result. This may be the best $20 I ever spent — it resulted not only in the artistic product linked to, but may facilitate even greater cultural production. Or something.

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I’ve put Greg Mankiw’s blog on the blogroll. While it’s unfortunately not very in-depth, it does give the occasional glance into the mind of economists, which I appreciate. One econ blog I can’t stand is the pointlessly contrarian, I-did-an-MBA-at-Chicago-and-am-smarter-than-you Assymetrical Information. Mankiw has also done some housing stuff I find interesting. Top econ blogs.

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I got on the John Edwards email list a couple months ago, and I’ve decided he is the candidate I am voting for in the Democratic primary. Chicago is nuts about Barack Obama, but I’m not as impressed. I’ve found him too centrist (despite his appropriate opposition to the Iraq War) from the start while Edwards has been closest to my positions on health care (hell yes we’ll have to raise taxes), opposition to the Bush administration, environment, and economic inequity. I’m generally left of the Democratic Party. My sense is that Clinton is the most likely to win the general (I don’t underestimate star power), but Edwards will provide the best opportunity for transformative change. With any luck, major news sources have gotten over the “$400 haircut” crap and might provide something better in the way of candidate coverage.

UPDATE: 4-min Edwards bit from N.H. on health care.

Holy Crap

I noted a while back that I was surprised to see a couple of the major political blogs talking about energy, transportation, and (obliquely) land-use. I’ve noted I think Jim Kunstler is a real blowhard, but one thing he gets right is that no major political candidate at the national level is talking about these topics (but then he usually goes on to blather about Peak Oil and The End of Everything). I’ve grown to like Atrios, because he’s been writing, albeit from a lay, this-is-what-it’s-like-around-me, perspective, about some of these issues. On his blog, I see this today, quoting Matt Yglesias talking about Bill Richardson:

I particularly liked his insistence on the idea that most people underplay the role of transportation and land use policy in the energy puzzle. This was appealing because it’s what I already thought, but Richardson said it totally unprompted, and it’s true. More fuel efficiency is good, and more renewable energy is also good, but we’re also going to need people to drive less. And that’s going to mean that we’ll need policies that make it realistic for people to do so — mass-transit, but also transit-friendly, high-density constructions.”

This is basically the deal. We need to increase the proportion of the population who live in areas where one car per driving age household member isn’t a necessity. Well-designed mass transit and pedestrian transit-oriented development is a requirement for that. I think it’s wrong to see it simply as encouraging “high-density constructions,” as there are plenty of places which are actually quite dense, but are dense in stupid ways and lack adequate transit. The flip side is there are places with adequate transit (certain suburban rail lines) which lack density in the appropriate places (Nimbyism, sometimes understandable, is often the cause).

I’ve got to say, this solidifies Richardson as my #2 choice behind Edwards in the Democratic primary race. And he is closing fast. I may devote one or more posts to this in the near future.

Modernism vs. Traditionalism

With a $1 billion building program each year, the General Services Administration, the buildings part of the federal government is a player in real estate, planning, and architecture.  The GSA has been without a chief architect for nearly 2 years and has now named its new head, Les Shepherd, changing course from early presumptive pick Thomas Gordon Smith.  The choice is particularly notable not because of the eventual choice, who served as the interim head for the last 18 months, but because the prospect of Smith’s appointment provoked a mild outcry from strident modern architects around the country.  The criticism was as superficial as it was biting, but didn’t stop Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin from trying to stir up the modernist vs. neo-traditionalist pot to sell some newspapers.

Tossing out Eric Owen Moss’s criticism of New Urbanism as the architecture of the Old South after Hurricane Katrina revitalization efforts reflects badly on both Moss and Kamin.  No architectural organization has done as much for post-Katrina reconstruction as CNU and its allied designers; using Moss to retread the pointless battles of the 1930s is neither scandalous nor titillating in the least.  You might as well say that neo-classicism is the architecture of imperialism.  Good God — these kids learn(ed) nothing in their architectural history classes.  It is astounding to me that our society’s cultural vanguard is so limited that it cannot understand the fundamentally modern basis for even neo-traditional architecture, and that styles have no inherent meanings, much as we might like to slap pejorative labels on it.  But with apologies to Nixon, we’re ALL Modernists now — in structures, in materials, in combining service systems, and the rest.  Bully for Ed Feiner; cleaning up attrociously designed federal buildings (at the micro and macro level) is a major achievement.  Federal Buildings didn’t always have to be cleaned up and taught how to contribute to a community, though.  Some designers and some buildings do it naturally — providing strength, feelings of security, and utility to the neighborhood and pedestrian while delighting the consumers.  Once a modernist ideologue designs something that does all that, we can listen to his criticism of neo-traditional design.

I’ve Been Around

Where have you been?

Wanking around the blogosphere this morning, I found this map of visited states via Tiki Dave. I’ve been around quite a bit of the US, but this map is misleading in a way. In 1999 I spent part of the summer driving around the southeastern US in my Ford Ranger, sleeping in the bed, running, and visiting places I thought were interesting. With the exception of Mammoth Cave, most places I visited were cities or towns. I mostly didn’t care about the countryside, even though I made it a priority to stay on US highways rather than interstates. So I’ve really been to Hannibal and St. Louis, rather than Missouri; Knoxville rather than Tennessee; and Athens rather than Georgia (why didn’t I go to Atlanta, again?). At the end of that same summer I flew to Folsom, CA and drove back to Michigan with a friend who was concluding an internship there. That’s how I saw Tulsa and, even though we drove through New Mexico, I don’t remember a stop other than for gas, so I don’t count it. (NOTE: I just remembered I spent a day in Gulfport, MS, the week before Katrina hit and got stung by a jellyfish.)

This reminds me I should read some more Jane Jacobs, who, in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, argued that cities and city regions were the basis for the creation of wealth. Aggregate state and national economic evaluations were meaningless as they elided the substantial disparities between city regions and unconnected rural areas. The same goes for travel, I think. My map, in terms of places actually visited, would look like a spray of dots across the national map, rather than the large blocks of real estate indicated here.

More interesting wanking available at Common Census.

Eight Months Later

I’m having a difficult time understanding what is going on in New Orleans. If anyone went down there for Spring Break or has been there recently, please pipe up. What is the scale of cleanup and rehabilitation? Also, if there are any good maps about (re)investment or rehab, please link. The odd snippets I see in the New York Times or on blogs don’t really give a sense of how this city is coming back or not.

Was He Just Lost in the Flood?

Having come back from a trip to New Orleans a week ago, I find the hurricane’s impact upon the city particularly poignant. (The trip partially explains this blog’s inactivity). What a city. First off, they have two functioning streetcar lines — Canal Street, running north from the Mississippi riverfront (which runs East-West at that point) and St. Charles Avenue, running a looooong east west perpendicular (and connecting) to Canal. These streetcars, limited as they may be, are integral to the city’s identity. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was named for a line that ran on Desire Street, but doesn’t any more. As in the film starring Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh, the name of the line shows above the car’s front window.

These aren’t merely tourist attractions, however. They serve a real need — particularly connecting the garden district, which is largely residential, to the French Quarter, where even locals go to party. St. Charles was an incredibly smooth ride, if loud. Operated by electricity supplied by an overhead cable, the trolleys have conductors who literally make the thing speed up and slow down by opening and closing a circuit with a hand lever.

The group I went with took a swamp tour by airboat (think big fan on the back of the boat). The swamps were ecological marvels, a kind of place you may not want to be around, but are really grateful that they exist (and are preserved). We travelled a bit on the intercoastal waterway, a channel for barge traffic along the gulf coast and continuing up the eastern seaboard, then tooled about the swamps. The guides had an interesting relationship to the local natural resources. For one, they were long-time locals who were immersed in swamp-related activities and particularly hunted, fished, and trapped animals like muskrats and alligators. They didn’t have much of a conservation ethic, however — and I mean conservation in the sense of taking steps to make sure that current activities could be prolonged into the distant future. There wasn’t much remorse or thought about the ongoing degradation of the swamplands and what might be contributing to it, except an anecdote about the arrival of the nutria rat at the hands of the McIlhenny family (of Tabasco fame). The nutria eats the root system of some type(s) of swamp vegetation, which allows the soil to wash away down the river, a serious problem in the Mississippi delta.

Anyway, much of the area in the city is underwater due to a breach of the levee system though the French Quarter itself, wisely built upon a hill, fared well. Though a LOT of the residential areas were run down, they had a special character, and throughout the city one found 2nd story verandas and balconies, a particular favorite form of mine. Lets hope the trolleys, for which replacement parts must be custom machined these days, get back up and running soon.

UPDATE: That doesn’t look too promising. The whole city may henceforth be a memory.

Reality Check

This post was supposed to be a warm one about my experience this evening watching the fireworks in Washington DC and how Virginia suburbanites came together on 395, 66, and US1 to make these highways part of the public realm, pulling onto the shoulders and leaning against guardrails as traffic stopped during the celebration of our nation’s declaration of independence. It was supposed to sheepishly admit that I drove all over DC with my girlfriend, burning through a half a tank of gas to see great DC, Maryland, and Virginia attractions — assets, I should say — during her brief stay.

But, in fact, I’m not so cheerful anymore. A foreboding feeling has gnawed at the fringes of my consciousness since the news a week-and-a-half ago that a Chinese government-owned corporation has bid for the purchase of Unocal. Since my sophomore year in college when Ken Organski taught us his Power Transition theory I have been warily waiting for the theoretical implication that China would surpass the United States in world power to come true.

We may very well be in the midst of this transition. The late Organski, when I queried him one day, claimed that the transition would not necessarily be bloody or confrontational — as it often had been throughout world history — if both China and the US were somewhat rational and amicable partners in the process. To return us to the present, this Washington Post article makes it look like the transition will not be as smooth as we might hope. Given the Bush administration’s deaf ear on foreign policy, economic development, domestic politics, and every other topic they’ve touched, I can’t help but be worried that this attempt to buy Unocal’s energy assets — oil, minerals, etc. — is going to get botched by the White House ideologues and we are going to have a serious situation on our hands, both long-term and short-term.

The U.S., of course, produces nowhere near the energy we consume, so we have to go to other places to get it, particularly oil and natural gas. Thus, our unhealthy fixation on the Middle East. Then, our domestic companies are some of the ones to drill for oil and mine for whatever overseas. CNOOC, a government-owned corporation, wants to buy Unocal and control its assets. CNOOC claims it is investing in energy assets, a safe bet in our increasingly consumptive world; however, if the Chinese government owns the company that owns the energy company and its assets, I have no doubt that there will be no little influence from the Chinese government on directing these assets to increasingly demanding and lucrative Chinese markets. ie, I can see them horning in on “our” oil pretty easily and there being serious domestic political upheaval here as people complain about the price of everything relying on oil for production or transportation AND the fact that the Chinese will become a more important global force than the US.

I certainly am a pessimist and even have a little conspiracy theorist in me. God, I hope I’m overreacting to China’s increasingly hostile rhetoric (given their government controlled currency and humungous trade surplus threatening the US economy) and everyone will play nice. But I am worried about where the U.S. is headed. Just what IS the future of the US economy and the world’s last remaining super power? How will the US react to the rise of the increasingly powerful and assertive China?