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Tuesday 24 June 2003

Suburb Hell

Fairfax County, Virginia, sits just west of Washington, D.C., and is almost entirely filled with suburban development. It’s quite a prosperous place, one of the United States’ richest counties. It’s also a traffic nightmare.

Most of Fairfax County’s traffic problems are the result of classic suburban-type development. Very few of the county’s buildings are more than two stories tall, and, however high off the ground you find the roof, you’ll find it a good distance from any other roof. While this obviously varies from place to place, houses, office buildings, shops, hotels, and other structures are generally set well back from the road and are surrounded by quite a bit of space. The houses have nice broad lawns, and the offices etc. have large and generally nicely-landscaped parking lots. To look at it, Fairfax County is a very nice place.

Tyson’s Corner is the prime locus of business in Fairfax County, the closest thing the county has to a ‘downtown’. Since Virginia’s tax laws discourage municipal incorporation, it’s just what the post office calls a ‘named place’; it’s an unincorporated part of the county with no fixed boundaries, but most people would describe it as being bounded by the Beltway (I-495), Virginia Route 7, and Virginia 267, a.k.a. the Dulles Toll Road. Tyson’s Corner is home to two large malls, a large number of office buildings, about a dozen hotels, some condominium and townhouse developments, and at least a hundred restaurants.

There’s a Metro station at the southeast corner of that area, but it’s ten miles by road — about two miles in a straight line — from the station to the intersection of Rt. 7 and Rt. 123, which is where the malls and most of the office buildings are.

This is all set to change within the next ten years, though, as a new Metro line is built from the existing Tyson’s Corner-esque station (West Falls Church) to Dulles Airport. Rumor has it that when the airport was built in the early 1960s, an underground train station was built along with it. Thanks to the forward-looking attitude that you find everywhere in local Washington politics, it’ll only have had to wait for fifty years for a train to roll in.

tysons-corner-map.jpgAnyway. The plan is to build a Metro line from the West Falls Church station out to Dulles Airport, a distance of about ten miles or so.

The Metro orange line, on which the West Falls Church station lies, runs down the middle of I-66. Besides making use of the usually-wasted space in the median, this has the beneficial effect of pretty much requiring you to use a car to get to the train. The plan is to run the new line out to Dulles in the median of the Toll Road, with much the same effect. Since this route will take the new line within about a half-mile of Tyson’s Corner — which is, remember, the biggest single thing in Fairfax County — it’s generally expected that the line will make a detour, as depicted, through right through the think of things.

This will violate Metro’s usual practice of routing suburban lines in such a way as to minimize their usefulness and to maximize the need for enormous parking garages, but variety is, after all, the spice of life.

But now, according to this story in the Post, it appears that this might not happen at all, because the plan that Fairfax County has approved for development around the proposed Tyson’s Corner metro station is, well, just more Tyson’s Corner. That there’s to be a train line running through the middle of it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression: the buildings are far apart and equipped with large parking lots; the streets are six lanes wide. This model shows what they propose to build:

Clicking on this picture will pop up a bigger version, which will also make it easier to look at the photo while scrolling down and reading the comment on it.

If you’re familiar with the area, this view is the one you’d have if you were hovering in space above the Tyson’s Corner Center — that’s the mall with the Nordstrom and the Bloomingdale’s — and looking generally north, toward the mall with the Macy’s and the Neiman-Marcus. The Beltway is just off the side to the right.

The buildings marked with black squares already exist; the ones with red dots are the proposed development under discussion.

This scheme — that we should spend one and a half billion dollars on a Metro line only to build precisely the same kind of thing that’s already made Tyson’s Corner a traffic nightmare most of the time — is almost unbelievably idiotic. The government transit-subsidy people haven’t missed this, and there have been hints that funding for diverting the Metro through Tyson’s Corner might not be forthcoming if this is the best they can come up with.

Tyson’s Corner was a good idea for its time, one of the first edge cities. (In fact, it was the initial inspiration for the book Edge City.) No, wait, it wasn’t a good idea. It was fine when the first office buildings were built, but as soon as enough things had been built that it wasn’t the middle of nowhere, the traffic got so bad that they had to build frontage roads to allow people to get from one strip mall or office park to the next strip mall or office park down the road. The main roads were far too congested, even though they were all six lanes wide.

The frontage roads allowed people to actually get somewhere, though, even though they had only one lane going in each direction.

This, plus the fact that rush-hour traffic in Manhattan usually moves faster than rush-hour traffic in Tyson’s Corner, would seem to indicate that there’s something about traffic and, more generally, how human habitats work, that the people behind Tyson’s Corner don’t understand.

This hasn’t caused anyone to sit down and think about what the future should bring to Tyson’s Corner, though, no sirree! We’ll have more of the same, please. Notice the spacing and proportions of the existing buildings in the aerial view above, and the spacing and proportions of the proposed buildings. They’re precisely the same, and the new buildings are, like the old, exclusively office space. There’s a 2:1 ‘density ratio’, which means that for every square foot of land area, you’re allowed to build two square feet of enclosed space, and the buildings are required to have 2.6 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of floor space — pretty much the same requirements as developments that don’t sit near a billion dollars’ worth of mass-transit infrastructure.

This will just result in the Tyson’s Corner of the future being like the Tyson’s Corner of the present, but on an even larger scale. The traffic will still be terrible, because people won’t feel like walking a mile down a six-lane street from the Metro station to their offices. Continue down this path long enough, and the developments will start to fail as it becomes less and less attractive to locate in Tyson’s Corner.

And this is the problem of the suburbs, particularly those like Tyson’s Corner: they are totally unwilling to re-evaluate themselves, and make changes, as we learn from experience. Consider this spectrum of human habitat density, from sparse to dense:

The green bars show different means of moving people around; the shade of green indicates how well that means of transport works at a given density. This chart is greatly simplified — it doesn’t really differentiate between the challenge of getting around within a place and the challenge of getting to a place, for one — but it’ll do for now.

At low densities, cars work well, and nothing else works at all. Since since there’s more than enough room on the road for cars, this isn’t a problem. Sparse suburbs — like those on the outskirts of big cities — accomodate cars well, too.

At the other end of the spectrum, in big cities, cars don’t work well, but things are close enough together that you can walk between them without too much trouble. And things are dense enough that it’s practical to build high-cost infrastructure, like subway systems, to move people over greater distances.

In the middle, though, in places that are neither sparse nor dense — in short, in places like Tyson’s Corner — there’s just no good means of transportation. It’s too far to walk between most things, and yet there’s not enough room to allow you to drive around without losing your mind.

(This gap is part of the problem that Dean Kamen’s Segway was meant to solve, but in practice the things seem to be used primarily to extend one’s range within already-walkable dense areas.)

When places like Tyson’s Corner were originally built, this wasn’t well understood, if it was understood at all. One of the suburbs’ advantages was that you didn’t spend all your time caught in traffic. Today, though, the denser cities are luring people back with the promise of less traffic. In most places, though, the people in charge of urban planning — such as it is — seem to inhabit some strange fantasy land, where their arbitrary ideas work. How do these people get to work in the mornings? They fly in with jet-packs, apparently; if they drove, they couldn’t help but notice the problem.

My chart above may not be strictly correct; it’s based on unscientific observation, and there may be something that I haven’t noticed that could invalidate my conclusions. But what is undeniably correct is that environments like Tyson’s Corner do not function. These non-functional environments were built with the best of intentions, but circumstances have changed and resulted in problems. It’s important to proceed with the best of today’s intentions to solve the problems (or at least to cause no further harm), rather than to plow on for the next few decades with 1960s logic.

Posted by tino at 18:52 24.06.03
Wednesday 18 June 2003

And Another Thing

And another thing about those BBC polls: one of them asks people whether they see the United States as ‘arrogant’, ‘humble’, or ‘neither’.

The problem with this is that ‘arrogant’ and ‘humble’ are not opposites. The opposite of ‘arrogant’ is ‘deferential’, and the opposite of ‘humble’ is ‘proud’.

Americans are in fact very proud, and not very deferential, particularly as a group. But calling this ‘arrogance’, and setting a choice between humility and arrogance, is yet more survey bias, of a particularly blatant kind.

Posted by tino at 22:44 18.06.03

What the World Thinks of America

This BBC program(me)’s website is a rich vein to be mined for comment.

One of the things the BBC did, in advance of a recent broadcast entitled ‘What the World Thinks of America’, was conduct polls in a number of countries designed to answer the titular question in a number of aspects. (BBC style is to refer to the United States as ‘America’. This is wildly inaccurate — ‘America’ properly includes nearly all the land in the western hemisphere —, and goes against the Tinotopia style guide. I have left their references to ‘America’ intact when used in quotes.)

The general question, ‘how would you say you feel towards America?’ had France, Indonesia, Brazil, and Jordan returning unfavorable responses, and Canada, the UK, Israel, Australia, Korea, and Russia returning favorable ones.

The biggest surprise for me was the hostility from Brazil in the responses to all the questions. I suppose they blame American banks and the U.S. government for their financial mess.

But the overwhelming impression I get is that these responses tell us much, much more about the countries polled than they do about the United States. When it comes to religion, for example, 78% of French people polled see the United States as ‘religious’, and 15% as ‘not relirioug. In Jordan, 67% see the U.S. as ‘not religious’, and only 10% as ‘religious’. Brazil and Indonesia also only had a minority of respondents report seeing the United States as ‘religious’.

Whatever they think about religion in the U.S., though, everyone agrees that “the world looks at America and they see money and sex”. We do have a lot of both.

Almost everyone likes American movies and music, while American television is less popular. All but three countries (Brazil, Jordan, and Korea) like American-made clothing. I have to say I’m baffled by this as there is almost no clothing actually made in the United States.

It’s ironic, then, that people in almost all countries said that the influence of American consumer products and entertainment is too great.

Very few people in any of the countries surveyed said that the United States was a better place to live their their home country. The countries most like the United States — Canada and Australia — predictably were the least likely to think the U.S. to be a better place.

But while only 6% of Canadians said the U.S. was a better place to live, 17% said they’d like to live in the United States. Since it’s unlikely that Canadians would be interested in living in the U.S. in order to experience its exotic culture (Canadians like to deny this, but there’s almost no difference between Canada and the U.S., culturally), I think I smell a rat. 1% of Australians said the U.S. was a better place to live, but 16% would like to live here; most countries exhibited a similar mismatch in their responses.

The most interesting responses by far came in a section of the poll where people were asked what things about the United States that their home countries should aspire to achieve.

In France, only 19% said that France should aspire to achieve the level of economic opportunity that we have in the United States. 13% said that France should aspire to achieve U.S. standards of freedom of expression; 27% American democratic institutions.

Now, some of these questions are a bit daft. Why should France want American democratic institutions? They have their own democratic institutions. I don’t understand what they have against freedom of expression and economic opportunity, though. I would like to see the French version of these questions.

Interestingly enough, a majority of Jordanians said that Jordan should aspire to achieve American-style economic opportunities, freedom of expression and democratic institutions, by 80%, 51%, and 65%, respectively. This despite the fact that only 15% of Jordanians thought that the U.S. was a better place to live than Jordan, and despite the fact that nearly all their other responses were hostile to the U.S. And, despite the fact that 79% of them think the U.S. military is a threat to the rest of the world, they apparently believe that the road to freedom, opportunity, and democracy for Jordan is best travelled in a tank; alone among those polled, Jordanians believe that their country should aspire to American-style military power.

The main conclusion that I draw from these polls is that foreigners’ opinions of the United States are based almost entirely on prejudice, and that any similar poll that would actually seek the truth (as opposed to fodder for the BBC cannon) needs to be very carefully crafted. Good surveys are carefully constructed in order to avoid ‘survey bias’. For example, when you ask Americans if they would accept fewer government services if they would also get a tax cut, the majority respond in the negative: they appear to prefer the taxes. If you ask the very same people whether they’d like to pay lower taxes even though this would mean fewer government services, they say they’d accept a cut in services. Two questions, same meaning, completely different answers.

The responses in these BBC surveys seems to show a whole lot of survey bias, and a number of the questions (‘Should [your country] aspire to achieve American pop culture’) are either absurd on their face, confusing, or seemingly designed to elicit an anti-American response.

Posted by tino at 16:28 18.06.03

The Greatest American

The BBC recently ran a program called ‘What the World Thinks of America’, in the run-up to which they asked readers of their website for nominations for the greatest American ever. They produced a shortlist of ten nominees, and posted the final results on Tuesday.

Here are the results, with my comments.

1. Homer Simpson, 47.17% Homer enjoys a significant advantage in that he’s almost certainly more familiar to the viewers of the BBC and the ‘ten other national broadcasters’ that showed the program. A significant disadvantage is that Homer is a fictional character, but that shouldn’t necessarily disqualify him. It’s too soon to really gauge Homer Simpson’s effect on the world, but it’s likely to be at least as great as Bob Dylan (see below) and many other cultural icons.

2. Abraham Lincoln, 9.67% I don’t fully understand how Lincoln is seen outside the United States (and, I suppose, inside the United States). I suppose the best that can be said is that Lincoln made the best of a bad situation. Human slavery had to be brought to an end in the United States; it’s so antithetical to everything else that the country is about that it couldn’t be allowed to continue. This could probably have been achieved without significantly altering the relationship between the various states and the federal government, though.

3. Martin Luther King Jr., 8.54% King, in as much as he represents the broader civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, is deserving of praise. Just as slavery had to be abolished, so did the Jim Crow laws and other instruments of legal discrimination against people based on the color of their skin. It’s been forgotten, though, that King was also in favor of racial set-asides, reparations for slavery, a socialist economy, and class war. Were these things better known, though, he might actually have received more votes from people in places like France.

4. Mr. T, 7.83% That’s right, Mr. T was voted the fourth-greatest American ever. Be sure to think of this whenever anyone says that Americans don’t know anything about foreign countries: most foreigners don’t actually know anything about our country, either. They just think they do.

5. Thomas Jefferson, 5.68% Jefferson would get my own vote. It’s heartening to think that he only trails Mr. T by 2.15%. I repeat my comment, above, about foreign knowledge of things American. And where is James Madison in this list?

6. George Washington, 5.12% If you conducted this poll in the United States, Washington would almost certainly wind up on top of the list, though few people would be able to articulate why they’d voted for him. Washington’s biggest contribution to the country was his conduct as president: he wasn’t a tyrant, and he left after two terms. Many other countries with similar systems have not been so lucky, and have wound up with democratically-elected presidents who never left.

7. Bob Dylan, 4.71% Name recognition at work again. He was a great artist in the 1960s and early 1970s, but as anyone who’s been to one of his concerts in the last twenty years can tell you, he’s been coasting since then.

8. Benjamin Franklin, 4.1% Franklin is the only person depicted smiling on U.S. currency. Possibly he’s pleased to find himself on the $100 bill. Franklin stands out among the founders of the country as being the one with a sense of humor.

9. Franklin D. Roosevelt, 3.65% Roosevelt saddled the country with a lot of socialist folderol, but he also managed to prevent the country going entirely to the dogs during the Depression, and his leadership during World War II seems to be endorsed by the results.

10. Bill Clinton, 3.53% Like Homer and Dylan further up the list, Clinton probably benefits significantly from name recognition. This is like putting Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore: the achievement that got him there was that of being well-known when the thing was carved.

Posted by tino at 15:16 18.06.03
Tuesday 17 June 2003

McDonald’s Hours

So a week or two ago, I go into McDonald’s and find that they’re changing their hours of business for the summer. Good idea, that. Unfortunately, they seem to be sharply curtailed:


You’ll notice that, Monday through Thursday, they appear to be open six and a half hours per day (only six hours on Sunday), and that they close right at lunchtime. Must be one of the effects of that economic slowdown I’ve heard about; fewer people eating out.

Now, a little more puzzling, and you figure out that the person who put this together just didn’t understand the difference between a.m. and p.m.. This is common enough, as are people who refer to midnight on a 24-hour clock as “24:00”. Idiots.

That isn’t the only problem with this, though. Pay attention to the parenthetical remark at the bottom, which makes it clear that during a good portion of their extended ‘open’ hours, their doors will actually be locked. From the point of view of the community, this is horrible; these extended hours won’t result in there actually being any activity later at night; it’ll just mean that you can get a Big Mac to take home and wolf down as a midnight snack.

Anyway, this flyer caused so much confusion that they made a new one, and it might actually be worse.


This one makes it clear that it’s the drive thru hours that are changing (and it avoids the whole 12 a.m./p.m. issue by saying “midnight”), but it’s still unnecessarily complicated and confusing. Taken literally, this says that on Thursday nights, they close at 11:00 p.m., clean up for an hour, and then reopen from midnight to 1:00 a.m. Friday.

It’d be much clearer and more concise to say, “During the summer, the drive-thru will be open until 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.” While this whole “1 a.m.”/”night” thing might be technically inaccurate, it would more clearly express what I think they’re trying to say.

Posted by tino at 14:08 17.06.03
Wednesday 11 June 2003

Netflix and the Customer Service Rules

One of my regular booze-addled correspondents recently forwarded along a message he’d got from customer service at Netflix. For those of you not in the know, Netflix offers flat-rate movie rentals through the mail. You pay your monthly subscription fee, and for that you can have x DVDs out at a time. x varies depending on how much you pay.

Anyway, my correspondent had recently had something go wrong, and he complained about it. Part of the company’s response was as follows:

We shipped 14 movies to you in April at approximately $1.42 each, that
includes postage and handling as well. I think you are getting a great
price. Compare that to a retail rental price, add in the gas to drive
there, and the lines, and the late fees. It is clear you are getting a
more than fair deal with Netflix.

Now, obviously my correspondent thinks he’s getting at least fair value for his money, or he would have cancelled his subscription. This is how a market works: if you don’t assign a higher value to a product or service than the amount of money being charged for that product or service, you keep the money, and the seller keeps his product or doesn’t perform his service. If you think that the product is more valuable than the money, you hand over the money. This works all the time, whether the product or service is a used car, a movie-subscription scheme, or some non-leg-breakage from the mafia.

But when you’re told what a great value you’re getting, I’ve found that one of two things are true. Either:

  1. You are actually getting ripped off, or
  2. You are witnessing seller’s remorse.

Examples of the first possibility abound, usually in cases where the buyer does not understand the actual value of the product or service being purchased. You often find people trying to sell cars for more than they’re actually worth by any reasonable measure: This one is a good example. It’s a 1982 Porsche 924 that someone recently tried to sell on eBay for $27,000. This particular 1987 Porsche 924 had a tiger-woman airbrushed onto the side of it. It truly must be seen to be believed.

The eBay listing goes on and on about how much money was spent on this car. The person who did this obviously assigned a great value to having a tiger-woman on the side of his car. The mistake, though, is in assuming that anyone else would assign any positive value at all to such a thing. With very few exceptions, though, any one 1982 Porsche 924 is worth very little more in the market than any other 1982 Porsche 924. Anyone who spent $27,000 on this thing would be getting ripped off.

The second case in which you’re assured what a great deal you’re getting is a case of seller’s remorse. Buyer’s remorse is a common term; it refers to a situation where a buyer’s sense of the value of something changes once he’s bought it. This may be due to psychological factors related to the ‘thrill of the hunt’, or it may be due to a fuller understanding of the value of a product or service, an understanding that comes only with posession or experience. Let’s say you really, really wanted a 1982 Porsche 924 with a tiger-woman on the side. You find one on eBay, and you buy it. After you get home, though, you discover that, despite your enthusiasm for tiger-women, you don’t much like being laughed at when you drive this thing, and you don’t like all the overtime you have to work in order to pay for it. You think you’d have been better off with the image of the tiger-woman in your mind, your Chevy Cavalier in your driveway, and your money in your pocket. That’s buyer’s remorse.

Most of the references I’ve found online related to “seller’s remorse” have to do with real estate: moving out of a house you’ve loved is difficult, even if you’re making money and moving to an empirically better house. But you can also have seller’s remorse for more mundane reasons, like realizing that you have not made a very good bargain: selling your tiger-woman Porsche for mere money migh qualify, if you’re sufficiently loopy.

It appears that Netflix feels that in this case they have not made a very good bargain. My correspondent doesn’t own a TV, so he sits at home, drinking his Schlitz out of the can and watching romantic comedy DVDs on his computer. He goes through one movie about every two days, but he pays Netflix the same amount as someone who only watches one movie a week.

This in no way means, though, that, as Netflix says, “It is clear [he is] getting a
more than fair deal with Netflix.” If the deal were more than fair to him, i.e. and less than fair to Netflix, Netflix wouldn’t enter into the deal. They’d cancel his subscription. Ergo he’s getting a perfectly fair deal. If Netflix does not make any profit on his subscription, that’s because subscriptions like his are part of the cost Netflix must pay in order to charge the same amount to people who take a week or longer to watch one movie, and who are very profitable for them. This latter group of people would be better off financially renting their movies at Blockbuster; but if the terms of the subscription were such that only the one-movie-a-week behavior was supported, very few people would see Netflix as having any value.

Having said all of this, I think it’s time for a new customer service rule:

  • Never tell a customer that you’re being ‘more than fair’ to him.
    Advertising hyperbole aside, telling a customer what a great deal he’s getting is insulting to both you and the customer. By definition, in a market economy you’re selling something at a price equal to or greater than its value to you, and the customer is buying it at a price equal to or less than its value to him. Implying or directly stating that anything else is going on means that you’re either an inept businessman or a liar; in either case, you’re better off keeping this to yourself.
  • (Though it’s unrelated to this particular complaint about the company, someone has conducted an experiment to probe the black box of Netflix and determine something about how they jigger the effective value of subscriptions from month-to-month depending on viewing habits. Netflix’s actions — basically, if you rent a lot of movies, your access to high-demand DVDs, mostly new releases, is somewhat restricted — seem reasonable, but they are deliberately misleading about these actions and thus about the value of their service.

    This is covered by customer service rule #13, “Don’t cheat your customers”. Even with the silent controls on availability of the most popular titles to the lowest-margin customers, Netflix provides good value for the money.)

    Posted by tino at 23:30 11.06.03
    Tuesday 10 June 2003

    Converting Ability into Currency

    In Slate, Rob Walker is complaining about Reebok’s use of 3-year-old Mark Walker (no relation) in its ads.

    The young Mr. Walker appears to have an unusual ability to perform basketball-related acts:

    In one clip the child, who seems to be in a basement, clutches a basketball, rears back, and hurls it over his head with both hands into a basket, 18 times in a row. He counts out the shots in a diminutive voice. Another clip shows him as a diapered 21-month-old making baskets into a toy hoop, and then, at age 3, shooting into a rim set at 10 feet while his off-camera mother chirps, “Good shot, sweetie.”

    Anyone who pays attention will note that this is not entirely unlike the footage of Tiger Woods as a toddler batting away at golf balls. Reebok is trading on this: young Mr. Walker may or may not be a future basketball star. If he isn’t, they’ve got some ads to sell Reeboks for toddlers. If he is, the gamble will pay off in a very, very big way for Reebok. This isn’t the first time the company has tried this: in 1992, they ran a big ad campaign centered around Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson in the runup to the 1992 Olympic games. O’Brien no-heighted in the pole vault trials, and Johnson won the bronze medal in the decathlon. As it was, the ad campaign was effective (I remember it, ten years later); had Johnson and O’Brien been wildly successful, so would the campaign have been.

    Anyway, the elder Mr. Walker, of Slate, is disturbed by Reebok’s use of a 3-year-old spokesman. He says it has “something to do with the voyeuristic impulses that feed reality television, and even more to do with the basic marketer’s instinct for hype.”

    Watching the 3-year-old’s performances, you can’t help but wonder about the parents, always at the ready with their video camera and a few words of chipper exhortation. In the past, such parents may have sought out a cash-prize talent contest to convert their “prodigy” spawn’s curious ability into currency.

    I don’t understand what he’s talking about with ‘voyeuristic impulses’. This is a show put on for the camera, of someone throwing a basketball at a hoop. If he thinks that’s voyeuristic, make sure nobody tells him about NASCAR, where millions of people watch cars driving.

    His last sentence, though, is even more bewildering, but in a different way. He seems to have a problem with the conversion of ability into currency.

    There are actually few abilities that are directly useful or remunerative, though. The ability to make food grow from the ground is inherently rewarding; so is the knowledge of where and how to dig up valuable minerals, how to construct a shelter, kill a moose, etc., etc.

    Nearly everything else, from throwing basketballs to writing for Slate, involves turning ability into some abstract currency — which currency you can then use to deal with people who know how to do actually useful things, like kill moose and build shelters. That someone with a valuable ability is only three years old shouldn’t make a difference. The only reason that more three-year-olds aren’t making money is that only very few three-year-olds have any valuable abilities at all.

    Posted by tino at 23:23 10.06.03
    Monday 09 June 2003

    Why The Music Industry Is Doomed

    Today’s New York Post reports that the Apple iTunes Music Store’s sales have fallen off since its initial launch in late April. At the outset, the store was selling about a million songs a week.

    Now the company is averaging about 500,000 downloads a week, sources say Apple executives told independent music label execs at a recent meeting in California.

    “You don’t see them putting out press releases anymore” touting their numbers, one music industry executive said.

    In what other industry would you see someone gloating about troubles for one of the channels for distributing his product? Isn’t it more usual to wish success on anyone selling your product, even if you believe that their plans are a bit daft? Isn’t the “Ho, ho, ho, our products only sell under certain narrow circumstances” reaction an indication that the industry has some problems?

    One of those problems, of course, is utter contempt for customers:

    But many big-time artists - including Madonna, the Foo Fighters and the Dave Matthews Band - still balk at making their music available to Apple because of the computer maker’s demand that the artists allow single tracks to be sold in addition to albums.

    Make that, of course, customer’s demand that they be allowed to buy single tracks, rather than more-expensive albums full of garbage. But then why should that demand be taken into account? Those people are only customers, after all.

    Music execs have been lobbying [Apple honcho Steve] Jobs to concede to the artists’ wishes and allow musicians to only sell full albums, without offering singles.

    “We’re saying to him he should look at the artist issues here,” David Munns, the head of EMI Recorded Music North America, recently told The Post.

    Though of course the artists’ main issue, if you believe the RIAA, is that too many people are pirating their music online, rather than trundling down to the record store and buying CDs. The Apple music store is a potential solution to that ‘issue’, one that offers an advantage both to the customers and to the artists and labels. But that’s not enough for them.

    Imagine a world in which the record companies made cars, and where they’d discovered that 60% of all Corvettes were being stolen from dealer’s lots, with no real way of catching the thieves. Along comes Steve Jobs with a way to stem that tide of thefts somewhat — and further imagine that the record companies came back with a demand that everyone purchasing a Corvette (rather than stealing it, which involves about the same effort and risk in this thought-experiment) also be compelled to buy a Chevy Malibu or some other car that isn’t in demand.

    If people still won’t won’t go for the deal now that we’ve made it even more unattractive for the customer, this RIAA-GM beast says, we’ll solve the Corvette problem by simply fitting the cars with square wheels and tires, which will make it much more difficult to steal them.

    That this would also make it much more difficult to use a Corvette one has purchased legally wouldn’t enter into it, apparently. The customers should take what the record industry offers, in the form in which they choose to offer it, and like it, goddamnit. And any drop-off in sales, of course, is due entirely to those vicious pirates.

    Posted by tino at 19:12 9.06.03
    Friday 06 June 2003

    Teen Drinking and Ordnung

    I really have to start resisting the temptation to write about some of the things I see in the news. Some of these stories are so absurd in themselves that I don’t have much to add. Let’s see, though.

    Today’s New York Times tells that story about the prom at Scarsdale High School. The headline says that limos are banned this year, but the full story is worse:

    On prom night, June 12, Scarsdale High School seniors — in slinky strapless gowns and uncomfortable bow ties and cummerbunds — will have to be dropped off at school by their parents, attend a pre-prom party organized by the PTA and then climb aboard buses along with faculty chaperons.

    Apparently, ‘scores’ of students were drunk at Scarsdale’s homecoming dance last fall, and this is the school’s attempt to prevent a repeat of that experience.

    I can certainly symapthize with the school authorities on this one — it’s entirely legitimate for them to take steps to try to prevent even a minority of students showing up incredibly drunk for the prom — but still I can’t help but wonder whether their strategy isn’t going to be counterproductive.

    Their strategy is based entirely around infantilization of the students: they have to be brought to the school by their parents (i.e. they can’t drive themselves), where they’ll be supervised until they’re trundled off to wherever the prom is, after which they’ll be brought back to the school and issued back to their parents. Statistically speaking, since the prom is held in June and since people tend to turn 18 sometime in the twelve months following the beginning of their senior year in high school, the majority of the people being treated this way are legal adults. They can vote and be elected to many public offices; they can serve in the military; they are full legal participants in our society, except that they’re not allowed to posess this molecule:


    That’s C2H5OH, or ethanol, which is the active ingredient in beer.

    The school is entirely justified in trying to keep people from showing up sloppy drunk at a shindig it’s hosting.

    In doing this by very closely supervising the activities of these legal adults, though, is the school making things better, or worse? These people will soon leave high school, and will live in a world where their activities are not so closely monitored. Eventually, they will live in a world where they can legally purchase and consume all the ethanol they want. Amazingly enough, as restrictions on youth drinking have become more and more, well, restrictive, young people have started drinking less and less responsibly once those restrictions are lifted. This, of course, is just used as evidence for even more zero tolerance and more restrictions.

    Wouldn’t it be better to teach the kids to drink responsibly? I realize that the laws put the school in a bind here; but couldn’t the school simply refuse admission to anyone who showed up drunk, and throw out anyone who became drunk while at the prom? The problem here, after all, is that these kids are not behaving responsibly. You don’t make people less responsible, not more, by herding them around and closely controlling their activities.

    For people of any age, there are social restrictions on when and how much one should drink. But the moral absolutism that declares that anyone under 21 years of age should not drink at all actually leads to less real control over drinking by young people, not more.

    Drinking alcohol at all is, for someone under 21 in the United States, an act of rebellion. It’s a violation of the law, and of the prevailing mainstream social opinions on the matter. A law that mandated the death penalty for muggers would result in a lot of mugging victims being killed; if you’re facing the same penalty, there is be no legal advantage to leaving witnesses behind. Similarly, since taking even one drink is illegal (and, according to some, immoral) for a young person, the systems that society has developed over thousands of years for consuming alcohol in a responsible manner are of no use. So teenagers — who are unfamiliar with drinking in the first place — are the people in our society least likely to drink in any kind of situation where responsibility is encouraged.

    Banning limos from the prom, particularly given stories like this one from the Washington Post recently, about teenagers hiring ever-larger and more-absurd vehicles, might be a good idea simply in the interest of good taste. But extreme in loco parentis protection of legal adults from their own stupid decisions is a sick and dangerous idea, and one that’s destined not just to fail but to backfire.

    Posted by tino at 17:51 6.06.03
    Thursday 05 June 2003

    Field Trips, Commercialism, and Education

    The Washington Post ran a story recently about school field trips. It hardly surprises me that they’ve become incredibly lame:

    The three dozen first-graders were a rowdy and wiggly bunch, almost as jumpy as some of the animals brought out for them to pet.

    The two classes from Arnold Elementary School in Arnold, Md., were on a field trip, 10 minutes from school, visiting a local Petco that was already as familiar to the students as McDonald’s.

    That’s an interesting way to put it, because one of the better field trips I went on as a child was to a McDonald’s. I’m not sure, now, whether this was a field trip to a McDonald’s, or if it was a field trip somewhere else, but with a stop at McDonald’s on the way back. The general routine was, we’d all come equipped with an elaborately-frozen and -wrapped can of soda, which would be left in the school bus all day. While we were at the zoo, or the Arch, or the Twinkie factory (yes), or at the brewery (yes, really, in high school), the bus would head off to a nearby McDonald’s and pick up a hundred burgers and several bushels of fries, which we’d eat in a park or something before heading back to the school.

    Anyway, one time we actually went to a McDonald’s in person, and we were given the grand tour. Did you know those places have basements? Some of them do, anyway. Or at least one.

    Is it legitimate to take kids to a McDonald’s in the interest of education? The Indymedia crowd would almost certainly denounce the trip as capitalist indoctrination, training kids for their future as McDonald’s slaves and Tools of the Machine.

    I, on the other hand, approve. McDonald’s is part of the world we live in, and a McDonald’s restaurant, taken as a whole, is a pretty interesting machine. I don’t think it would make for a good field trip all by itself — there’s not enough there to engage the kids for very long — but it’s definitely a learning experience.

    Going to Petco, though, I’m not sure about. We once went to a grocery store, but the attraction there was in the back-room areas, the storeroom with twenty-foot-high stacks of toilet paper, the butcher shop with its hanging carcasses, the enormous walk-in refrigerator where eggs, cheese, milk, and such were stocked directly onto the shelves that fronted on the ordinary part of the supermarket.

    That is, the attraction and redeeming value of the McDonald’s and grocery store field trips were that they exposed me to something that was ordinarily hidden. Yes, these were places of commerce and places we’d been hundreds of times already; but we hadn’t been there in the same way, as observers from the other side of the looking-glass, as it were.

    Visiting an enormous pet store so you can play with puppies and kittens just doesn’t seem to be in the same league. The problem isn’t that commercial interests are sponsoring field trips, or even that they’re sponsoring field trips doubling as marketing exercises. Hell, the trip to the Twinkie factory was clearly a marketing gimmick — they had a special room in the basement of the factory where a former Harlem globetrotter they had on full-time field-trip duty showed us a movie about Wonder Bread (same company) while we scarfed down Ding Dongs. But at the same time, there were things to be learned there: how bread is baked on a massive scale (a conveyor belt that continuously runs pans of good through an oven that can take thirty loaves across, that’s how); how they get the goo inside the Twinkies and Ding Dongs (another machine, surprisingly enough); and how the squiggly icing is put on top of Hostess cupcakes (yet another machine, with a cam-driven icing nozzle).

    The problem is that the schools are swallowing these marketing exercises without making much of an attempt to get anything educational out of them. Part of this is probably laziness, but more of it is an ever-narrowing definition of what is ‘educational’. I’m of the opinion that nearly anything novel that you expose a child to is educational, but the establishment ever0increasingly sees education solely as something that happens in a classroom. And, if that’s true, then just about all field trips are a waste of time, so you might as well take the path of least resistance and truck the kids down to Petco.

    Posted by tino at 14:18 5.06.03

    Found At Last

    I have been searching for a Bert doll for some time now. For whatever reason (possibly because he’s evil), Bert merchandise is difficult to find these days. At Toys Backwards-R Us, there’s no Sesame Street merchandise to be found at all as a result of some licensing deal with Spongebob Squarepants or some such competing television show. Do kids even watch Sesame Street any more? I suppose not.

    Anyway, I found Bert in a bookstore the other day, and bought him. Here’s a photo of Bert sitting on Lapzilla. I think some of the others may be feeling jealous and plotting revenge:


    Maybe Bert has faded into the shadows in order to quiet speculation about the nature of his and Ernie’s relationship. Maybe Bert is actually being held incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay.

    Or, more likely, it’s because the central message of Bert and Ernie — how children and adults are different and yet alike — is one that’s no longer popular.

    Posted by tino at 11:37 5.06.03
    Wednesday 04 June 2003

    Chocolate and ‘Decadance’

    Last winter, I wrote about a bad customer-service experience I had at Old Country Buffet. I defended my patronage of OCB in the first place this way:

    Nearly all restaurants these days have some sort of gimmick: the waiter pours olive oil into a dish on the table, instead of offering you butter; the bread you dip in the olive oil is strange; the desserts are all some ?Chocolate Decadance Orgy? idiocy, which is offensive both in its misunderstanding of the meaning of the word decadence and because it?s usually no good.

    Old Country Buffet, on the other hand, is incredibly gimmick-free. They serve ham, and roast beef, and vegetables, and rolls, and ? this is the really exotic thing ? ordinary chocolate cake (among other things) for dessert.

    I went there again yesterday, only to find no ordinary chocolate cake in evidence. In its place, they offered chocolate cake — the same cake — but now with whipped-cream frosting and with little chunks of toffee sprinkled on top. In case you’re wondering, this isn’t really an improvement.

    And the name for this dessert, according to the little engraved plastic sign on the sneeze guard? “Chocolate decadence”. Going by the actual definition of ‘decadent’ — which is ‘being in a state of decline or decay’, incidentally — I would have to say that this is an accurate description.

    Posted by tino at 13:12 4.06.03
    Tuesday 03 June 2003

    Roadside Memorials

    There has been a fair amount of commentary lately about the practice of erecting unofficial roadside memorials to people killed in traffic accidents. Families of victims want these things to be permanent, and state and local governments see them as distractions for the drivers who are still living.

    In Wisconsin, the families claim that the state is being pressured by anti-religious groups, who object because most of these memorials are small tacky crosses. The state denies this, but it still eventually removes the memorials.

    Most of the on-line commentary I’ve seen sides with the state against the families, and I think I’m inclined to agree with this. Most of the families interviewed seem to believe that they have a ‘right’ to put these memorials on the side of the road, and that the state must respect that right, rather than treating the stuff just as they would anything else in the same place — as litter.

    But all the random blog-commentary also seems to be flatly against the concept of roadside memorials, which I believe is a mistake.

    The state maintains that the memorials are a dangerous distraction to drivers; but certainly the ordinary roadside memorial is no more distracting than common road signs, particularly those festooned with logos from the fast-food places near the next exit. You’ve got to squint at some of those to distinguish the names, but those aren’t distracting, because they generate revenue for the transportation department.

    For all our worrying about SIDS and Anthrax and Drugs and Trunk Entrapment and kids getting run over by school buses and the like, the reality is that getting into a car is the most dangerous thing most people will ever do. More ‘premature’ deaths in the United States (and, probably, in most industrialized countries) are caused by car accidents than by anything else.

    Roadside memorials can communicate this hazard to drivers better than any Slippery When Wet or speed limit sign ever does: they say, “Someone died here doing just what you’re doing now”. Because the placement of these memorials is so haphazard, and because they’re often removed after a short time, I’m sure nobody’s ever done a study of whether they actually reduce the occurrence of further fatalities in the same place; but if they do, they would have the advantage of enhancing the safety of all cars, without the expense of retrofitting them with air bags, fancier seat belts, child seats, etc.

    They also can serve to alert drivers to deficiencies in the road design itself. A curve, an intersection, a crest of a hill with a lot of fatal accidents and thus a lot of memorials would be clearly distinguishable by approaching drivers. The presence of the memorials alone might result in the hazard being diminished — and if it didn’t it would make the public aware that that section of road needs to be redesigned.

    Posted by tino at 12:06 3.06.03