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Monday 26 August 2002

Achievement, Schools, and Culture

An article in the Miami Herald not long ago points out the obvious: kids in schools run by the U.S. military outperform kids in ordinary public schools.

The Department of Defense spends a bit more per pupil on education than the average public school system, but achieves better results than even the highest-spending public systems — despite the fact that a lot of the students are ethnic minorities (gasp!), that their family income isn’t that great, and that families in the military tend to move around a lot.

A Vanderbilt University study last fall concluded that if all Department of Defense schools were lumped together as a state, the system would rank first or second nationally. As in many large urban districts, 40 percent of the students are minorities, and half are poor enough to qualify for the federal lunch program.

The article concludes with

Some factors responsible for the success cannot be readily duplicated elsewhere. Every student has at least one parent with a high school degree or more and a job.

But most parents and school officials say the biggest reason is the involvement expected, even demanded, of parents.

In other words, this culture doesn’t want or tolerate you if you’re a complete fuckup. It sets some fairly simple and achievable responsibilities, and simply does not tolerate failure to meet those responsibilities.

And kids growing up in that environment do better than kids growing up in the “inner city”. Hmm. Maybe it’s not all just down to “racism” after all?

Posted by tino at 15:53 26.08.02
Thursday 15 August 2002

A Radical Proposal

The Guardian suggests that services that meet the needs of consumers, rather than of the companies offering them, have a greater chance of success. Imagine that.

Posted by tino at 14:32 15.08.02
Wednesday 14 August 2002

United Airlines Warns of Potential Bankruptcy

Today, the parent corporation of United Airlines warned that it may have to declare bankruptcy in the fall, unless it pulls some other magic solution out of its ass.

“The world has changed,” [UAL CEO Jack] Creighton said. “Revenue isnít coming back the way the industry expected. Demand isnít returning, fares remain low and the industry is grappling with how to respond.”

Yep. That would explain why Southwest Airlines is continuing to pay steadily-rising dividends. In the first quarter of 2002 — in this “changed” world, in an industry “grappling” for a response, with lower fares than United — Southwest made $21.4 million on revenue of $121 million.

UAL, on the other hand, lost $487 million on revenues of $3.3 billion in the first quarter. At that time, Jack Creighton said that “We certainly are seeing signs that our industry’s situation is beginning to improve.” UAL did improve, in fact: in the second quarter, it only lost $392 million on $3.8 billion in revenue.

But, of course, it’s a changed world since September 11. UAL can’t be expected to make money in this kind of environment. I mean that — especially since they couldn’t make money before September 11. In the first and second quarters of 2001, they lost $305 and $365 million, respectively. And I’m even using UAL’s own figures, which exclude all kinds of garbage ‘one-time charges’ — meaning that the actual losses were even worse.

The last time UAL showed a profit was in the second quarter of 2000: $374 million. Or slightly less, once you include the $38 million in non-recurring charges they took. Still, it was a profit.

Southwest, on the other hand, has been profitable for 29 years; has never laid off any employees; and has increased rather tha reduced service since September 11.

Perhaps Mr. Creighton should consider the possibility that it’s not the airline industry that’s in trouble, but rather that United and other similar large carriers are just incredibly poorly-run companies.

Posted by tino at 23:02 14.08.02
Tuesday 13 August 2002

Dvorak (not the composer)

I have moved the keycaps around on my trusty vintage IBM Model M keyboard, and loaded the Dvorak keyboard map. God, is this ever awful. I have already beem five minutes in typing this. I have wore typos because I have to look at the keyboard all the time. And the pips — on F and J — are now in the wrong places.

My hope is that this will reduce that numbness in my hands. The numbness is actually the fault of my chair, I think, but at the moment I cannot afford a new chair.

A amd M are in the same places on both layouts, so that’s a help. I don’t think I can keep this up. And usimg the Dvorak keyboard is the first step to wearing a tinfoil hat and shouting at mailboxes, anyway.

Posted by tino at 17:40 13.08.02
Monday 12 August 2002

David Lynch Moment

Today, while waiting for a traffic signal at Herndon Parkway and Spring St. in Herndon, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw an man in a Toyota Camry rather animatedly playing a harmonica. He kept it up until the light changed, and then put it down in order to free his hands for driving.

Posted by tino at 17:18 12.08.02
Wednesday 07 August 2002

High School

An excellent op-ed column in today’s USA Today:

But if the goal of education is nurturing independent minds, spending more time in the current system is not the way to do it. Consider the all-American high school. You’re warehoused with 1,000 other students, herded like cows in the hallways, forced to move like Pavlov’s dog with each bell. After Columbine you’re anxious for your safety; many schools operate on the prison model in which you can’t just leave.

Posted by tino at 16:01 7.08.02

Architectural Eyesores

James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere among other things, has a section of his website for the architectural eyesore of the month. The archives are well worth a look, even if his links stop working after a while. He’s incredibly bitter, and it comes out as humor.

Kunstler has correctly identified the problem with modern American urban planning and architecture, but I think he gets the solution wrong.

Posted by tino at 11:53 7.08.02

Sprawl & Farmland

The Heritage Foundation debunks the argument that we must stop urban sprawl because it’s somehow using up farmland. This is good; only someone who’s never spent much time in the Midwest could have come up with such an idea. There’s enough land out there to feed us all even if everyone in the country lived on a 1-acre plot.

The Heritage Foundation goes on to say:

As all levels of government enact and promulgate laws and regulations on land use, homebuilding, and community design standards, individuals’ freedom to live how and where they choose is becoming increasingly limited. Such growing limits are a deliberate consequence of the “smart growth” movement, which attempts to force or encourage households to choose alternative lifestyles and living arrangements.

[…]

To achieve these objectives, many advocates of smart growth solutions prefer communities of apartment buildings, townhouses, or detached houses on small lots, and they take flawed images of American cities and towns of bygone eras as their role models.

Aside from their conservative Christian claptrap about “alternative lifestyles” — what the hell is the matter with these people? — they’re right on.

Beyond that statement, though, I don’t think that my opinions have much in common with the Heritage Foundation’s. They believe that everyone wants to live in single-family detached houses in the middle of an acre of land. This, of course, explains why real-estate in Manhattan goes begging for buyers at low prices, and why nobody lives there. The Heritage Foundation says that “most Americans continue to exhibit a decided preference for single-family, detached, suburban-style housing on lots large enough to ensure some measure of privacy and easy access to green grass and nature’s blessings.” That’s true, but only because of government interference.

It’s generally impossible to build dense housing that’s actually useful — that is, housing that gives the resident something, like proximity to work, restaurants, theaters, or anything but other identical houses, in return for his sacrifice of living space — in the United States. You’ve got your choice of a single-family house from which you’ve got to drive everywhere, or a ‘townhome’ or condo ditto. Of course, when faced with that choice people will pick the larger house. They’ve got to have a large kitchen, home theater, etc. after all, because going to an actual theater or a restaurant means 30 minutes in the car.

The reality is that while some people do want a single-family house on an acre of land, not everyone does. Unfortunately, the zoning laws and and tax and building codes make a single-family house on an acre of land the only choice that’s economically rational or, generally, legally buildable.

What’s generally rational, in the absence of government meddling, is easy to spot. If you look at cities around the world — including those built in American before World War II — you find that they’re all about the same. This is hardly surprising, since all cities serve the same function: human habitat. If you compare those designs to American cities built after World War II — most of the suburbs, for a start — you find a radically different plan. This plan isn’t a habitat for humans, it’s a habitat for cars, and cars can’t exist at anything like the density people need for convenience.

Usually there’s no choice, though, but to build a habitat for cars. The zoning laws require that residential, commercial, and industrial uses all be strictly separated — preferably by six-lane roads — and that adequate parking be present everywhere. You can’t walk anywhere in that kind of environment. The problem is, once an area like that is built to ‘capacity’, you can’t drive anywhere either; you just sit in traffic. If people — builders, renters, owners, residents — were given a choice, we’d soon return to a denser model — chosen everywhere in the world, including the United States, where zoning laws permit it — where cars are an important means of transportation, rather than the only transportation possible, by design.

The Heritage Foundation is right — the government should get out of the way of what people want built. But it should truly get out of the way, rather than just forcing to be built what the Heritage Foundation thinks is right.

Posted by tino at 11:36 7.08.02
Tuesday 06 August 2002

Nimbyville and Development

In between searching for jobs and houses in anywhere not the Washington, DC area today, I’ve had time to squeeze in a little newspaper reading.

On the front page of the Washington Post’s Metro section is a column by Marc Fisher headlined In Nimbyville, Even Schools Face Resistance. The central point of the column is about the difficulty the Jewish Primary Day School is having in finding a home in Washington.

Specifically, the JPDS is trying to buy the Rosedale estate in the Cleveland Park neighborhood. Local residents do not think much of this idea:

In vituperative traffic on the Cleveland Park e-mail list, neighbors accuse the school of having, as one woman put it, “its own sense of manifest destiny, completely rolling over the feelings, preferences and quality of life of” neighbors. [… Douglas Clark, a local resident] argues that “this snooty little island in the city is starting to have a traffic issue”

And here we get the central problem of the NIMBY in the early 21st century. Classic NIMBYism has centered around power plants, factories, airports, and other large, noisy, dirty, polluting uses. These days, NIMBY thinking applies to any kind of development or land use at all, because of traffic.

I like cars. I have several of them myself. I am not deluded, though, into thinking that cars are a good method of transportation in anything like a dense area.

Cars are an excellent means of transport in the boonies. Our house in the boonies is almost exactly a mile from the county road; even if there was a bus line or a metro station just in front of our mailbox, it’d be impossible to get around, even in nice weather. And given that things in the country are spread out — to put it mildly — a car is the only solution.

In suburbs that are new and sparse or rich and sparse, cars are still a good means of transportation, and certainly better than anything else. The houses and businesses are spread too thin to make any kind of mass transit work, but that’s okay because there’s enough room for private cars.

In denser suburbs and in the cities, though, the car starts to get in the way. In most suburbs, things are too far apart to walk between them. Sure, you can walk to your neighbor’s house, but you likely can’t walk to a mall or restaurant, even if you live across the street from the mall. To begin with, you probably would live on a very wide street with a high speed limit and few (if any) crosswalks. Should you be brave enough to sprint across the street, you’ll find that the mall is surrounded by an enormous parking lot, and that that parking lot is in turn surrounded by a fence, or a berm, or some kind of unintentional barrier to pedestrians. It’s just never considered that anyone would want to walk to the mall, and with good reason. A successful mall needs to draw far, far more customers than could possibly live within walking distance.

So you get in your car and drive to the mall, instead. You park in the enormous parking lot — which creates its own necessity, since it forms a barrier to the mall that forces you to drive and park — and go in. All your neighbors do the same thing. Eventually, the parking lot fills up, which prompts the city to require that new businesses have even larger parking lots and be located on even larger roads; a few more people who would otherwise walk to the new businesses decide to drive instead. Even larger parking lots and roads are required. Et cetera ad infinitum.

Or ad nearly infinitum, that is. Eventually, there’s no more room to widen the roads or build larger parking lots. The parking lots are full all the time, and the traffic is constantly backed up. It takes so long to get to the mall that people stop going if they have a choice.

In economic terms, at this point we’d say that the cost of driving has exceeded its value. Only the people who truly value the mall — people who really need to buy something — will bother to spend the hour in the car it’s going to cost them.

In a free transportation market, some of those people who no longer feel like driving would take the bus or the train, or just walk. But where the mass transit is bad (almost everywhere), or where you can’t walk (again, almost everywhere), a person who isn’t willing to drive is a person who isn’t willing to go.

There’s nowhere in the United States where there is a free market in modes of transportation, though. Such a market requires a very dense population, and there aren’t very many places like that in America. (To be fair, there’s not a free market for thansportation anywhere else in the world, either — just for different reasons and in different ways.)

Cleveland Park is an interesting case: most of it has been around since well before the Second World War, and it seems to have functioned fairly well all along. True, there’s no longer any streetcar service in Washington, but Cleveland Park now has several Metro stations.

Trouble is, fewer of the residents of Cleveland Park use the Metro than you’d expect. The Metro was planned and built in the 1960s and 70s, when nearly all of the commuting was into the downtown area in the morning, and out in the evening. Today, the residents of Cleveland Park are as likely to work in a suburb as they are in downtown Washington. The public transit system isn’t well-suited to anything but carrying people to or from central Washington, so everyone else drives.

I like cars. I have several of them. But I don’t confuse liking cars with thinking that they’re a good means of transportation for every last thing I do. Unfortunately, given where I live, I’ve got no choice but to drive everywhere. I would live in a place where that wasn’t true, but then I’d have to give up my cars: and the system isn’t set up for you to exist without a car. The pro-car people and the pro-transit people agree on one thing: neither one of them wants a system that includes cars when they’re the best solution, and includes something else when they aren’t.

I cannot blame these people in Cleveland Park, really: I have no doubt that their complaints about traffic are well-founded. And for their little neighborhood, it’s possible that the best solution, right now, is to not have a school in the middle of it.

The problem then isn’t Cleveland Park and the Jewish Primary Day School, though. The problem is what this implies for the rest of our cities and suburbs.

Posted by tino at 19:29 6.08.02

At least someone is paying attention

The Washington Post reports today that someone in the U.S. government, at least, has noticed the obvious:

“The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot-soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader,” stated the explosive briefing.

However, the report’s suggestion that the proper action toward Saudi Arabia is to “give it an ultimatum to stop backing terrorism or face seizure of its oil fields and its financial assets invested in the United States” is probably short-sighted. Too many investors are already justly wary of having money in the United States right now, after it’s come out that many of the recent glittering earnings reports from large corporations have been fairy tales. The last thing we need at the moment is credible fear that the government may seize your assets.

A far better plan is a program of “regime change” — what an awful term — in Saudi Arabia: the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency can keep humming along, just under new management. An open war with Saudi Arabia would not be much of a military challenge; but I am not certain the US could withstand an all-out economic attack from them in our current condition. Far better to pre-empt the possibility of such an attack in the first place by quietly taking the weapon — the money — out of the hands of those who would use it against us. Dirty? Un-democratic? Sure. But it beats the hell out of bombing the place, or of plunging the US (and Saudi Arabia — they need someone to buy all that oil) into economic blackness.

Posted by tino at 13:15 6.08.02