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This book is not planning related, but it’s an interesting read for anyone interested in race and ethnicity in American society!  Which, of course, all planners should be!

I was watching a DVD of old episodes of “You Bet Your Life,” the game show hosted by Groucho Marx in the 1950s.  The show featured a series of couples, usually a man and a woman, usually not related in any way and chosen by the audience, sometimes two men or two women.  The couple is given trivia questions in a category of their choosing, worth more according to difficulty (between $10 and 100); answering incorrectly costs half.  In later seasons, the couples also compete to answer a final question, whoever has won the most in their first round.  There was a bonus word, held by a duck on a string hidden from the players, that is “a common word you hear around the house” or similar (things like door, chair, head, etc.)  If a player happened to say the word they would get $100 to split.

In the episodes I’ve seen, there are many really interesting people – all living in southern California at the time.  Librarian, fruit vendor, wrestler, mayor of one of the suburbs (I forget which), military people, a forewoman for a manufacturing plant, etc.  Groucho does his usual mix of sarcasm and sketchy old-man flirting with the women when interviewing the players.  And of course the whole thing is (aggressively) sponsored by DeSoto, I think a branch of Chrysler at the time, with flanking ads and brand-name-dropping throughout the show.  (Here’s an example from 1955 and another from 1957).

One of the player-couples, Carl and Helen Doss, are a minister and wife from southern California.  Groucho talks to them a while about his church, but when he asks about the children, it comes out that they have 12 children – and all of different races:  Japanese, Blackfoot tribe, Indian, etc.  They explain that they can’t have children of their own, and when going through the process of adoption they found that mixed-race children were “classified unadoptable.”  When asked if race is an issue in their family, Helen tells a story that “the two oldest boys always play Cowboy and Indian, but the blond, blue-eyed boy always plays Indian, and the boy from India plays cowboy.”  She also refers to a book she’s written, The Family Nobody Wanted, published by Little Brown in 1954 (which means the episode must be from just after that, possibly early 1955).

Given the unusual nature of their family for the time period (and really, 12 kids is a lot no matter who the kids are!) I decided to track down the book via the library, apparently reprinted by the Northeastern University Press in 2001.  It arrived this week by BorrowDirect!  I’ve only gotten through the introduction to the new edition, but it hints at the (former) popularity of this book.  For many years it was available through Scholastic-style book catalogs for children, and though hard to find cheaply on Amazon (in 1999 at least) the readers’ reviews were pretty uniformly positive about how sweet and interesting a story it is.  The editor’s analysis focuses more on the issues of adoption than the ethnic composition of the family, noting that the narrative challenges the still-dominant narrative that only a biologically-related child is a “full” child of a parent.  Doss writes of her family that they were meant to be this way and that they were fully hers and her husband’s, despite not being born to her, which the editor notes is not unique to the Doss family but certainly not the assume behind those who shy away from the option of adoption.  As she was a minister’s wife, it should also be interesting to see what Christian elements influence the narrative, beyond the usual tropes of past decades’ language.

I’ll be starting the book itself soon, but even before I get into it, I wanted to share this interesting little find.  In light of the recently published 2010 Census data, which has found that “minority” populations are growing in the U.S. and that there has been a significant increase in multi-racial children, taking a look at the country 60 years ago should be thought-provoking.

Helen Doss, The Family Nobody Wanted.  Mary Battenfeld, ed.  (Boston:  Northeastern University Press, 2001 [1954].

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In the view days of calm before the storm, also known as Spring Break, I spent a lot of time working, and a fair amount of time sleeping.  But I also spent some time (a little over a full day) seeing parts of Upstate with a couple friends.  We passed through a lot of farmland and saw a lot of lovely historic architecture, unfortunately a lot of it empty or at least not what it once was.

We stayed overnight in Rochester at Reen’s B&B and saw a bit of the city, including the Eastman House, the random assortment of buildings downtown, the Public Market, AAAND the flagship Wegman’s Grocery Store in the suburbs.

Here are three representative images from the trip:

Barn in Upstate

Barn in Upstate

Downtown Rochester

Downtown Rochester

Eastman House, Rochester

Eastman House, Rochester

Back to work and blogging soon!

I’m taking an Organizational Behavior class this semester, and at the heart of the class is a series of tensions that all organizations face in deciding how to go about their work.  These tensions aren’t problems which can be solved, but basically a series of choices along a two-ended spectrum – for example, whether to focus on being profitable (exploitation) or innovative (exploration), or to structure themselves with formal or informal roles and processes.  Organizations don’t just do one or the other, but there are generally tradeoffs associated with each choice which may or may not work well for what the organization is trying to accomplish, and what other choices they’ve made.

This made me think of another tension which manifests in a variety of situations, one often on my mind (though not always in so many words) and certainly important to individual members of any group:

Is it more valuable to achieve an end, emphasizing the efficiency of completing the job, or have the process be valuable for those involved, emphasizing the agency of group members?

This is an open question, and a dilemma which gets at the heart of urban planning, among other things.  Sometimes the choice is clear.  A task needs to get done quickly and accurately, so a group delegates that task to the most competent person, or the leader takes on the task him/herself.  Or, a task is used as a learning experience for a new initiate or often a child, and it is more important that the doer gains experience than that the task is done in a particular way or to a certain standard.  In most situations, however, these two goals require very different means to reach the same end.  A project can be structured with decision making power concentrated in a few positions, a strictly-defined process emphasizing results and resource management over creativity, and division of labor according to who can already best complete the tasks.  Conversely, a project can have the same end result but be deliberated over by all equally-contributing members, leave the design of process to individuals or subgroups given targets to reach, and teams formed to emphasize members’ learning new skills or developing new processes.

Neither is better than the other, especially given the goals and constraints of an individual situation, but they have different underlying priorities.  Is it better to keep resources to a strict budget, or allow for some “waste” with the potential pay-off of new ideas or future savings?  Could time spent discussing a decision be better spent by instead giving everyone a specific role?  And perhaps most fundamentally, is the product of this project more important than the participants’ experience of completing it?

Debates about regulation and autonomy reflect this tension.  While those who advocate for the free market (versus centralized planning in the form of government regulation, land use controls, taxation, etc.) would argue that the system is more efficient because it responds more readily to changing resource conditions through supply and demand, in reality it is not clear (to me) that the free market always produces maximum efficiency.  The example which comes to mind is the privatization of city bus services in England, resulting in two bus systems running essentially the same routes in the town of Oxford, neither honoring the other’s ticket stubs.  A more consistent underlying assumption of the free market seems to be that regardless of their ends, rational beings are best left to act autonomously, and it is their pursuit of these ends rather than the ends themselves which will collectively create a functional system.  In terms of resource management, it may be more efficient to control and selectively allocate scarce resources, or to allow unilateral decision making rather than engaging in an endless democratic process, but these diminish the agency of individual participants, and may be less a problem of inefficiency than of “inautonomy.”

The history of urban planning seems to symbolize this tension, particularly the division between large-scale planning projects such as urban renewal or Moses-style infrastructure building, and participatory planning projects like community development, constituent empowerment, and environmental justice.  While the outcome is not unimportant, it is the process which, time-consuming and open-ended, grants a sense of agency to the previously-disenfranchised and ultimately brings more people into the conversation.  Making all zoning decisions by local referendum is not efficient, but it (in theory) allows citizens to have a say in what happens in their community.  Rationing the town’s water supply or mandating total greywater recycling  would (in theory) diminish waste, but political implementation would be extremely difficult insofar as it impedes on individuals’ rights to use water on their own property.

This tension plays out even on a small scale in a group meeting.  Who sets the agenda?  How are decisions made and tasks delegated?  Is it more important to run through the to-do list to meet a deadline, or to allow people to choose their own tasks and decide how they will get them done?  What is the individual member’s experience of working in the group and feeling empowered, and how much does this matter?  How much does it matter that they are given an opportunity designed to let them learn something new?

I put to you the idea that this tension is present, though rarely explicit, in any situation in which a group must somehow make a decision and/or complete a project.  Furthermore, I suggest that many group conflicts, particularly between a group’s leader and its members, may be traced to some form of this tension.  Where two or more individuals have very different views about which takes priority, the dispute may instead surface about micromanaging, time wasted in roundabout discussions, dictatorial decision making, or being pigeonholed into a certain role.

It might therefore be helpful to also talk about a group conflict in these terms, something I haven’t tried yet in this context but which may get past the surface matter and at the assumptions behind it.  Worth a try!

Here’s an interesting dilemma about the Internet:

Inventions are about the idea and the sale – someone makes a new product or process and wants two things, recognition for the idea but also some profit from the sale of the idea.

On the Internet, in its ideal form at least, an idea is meant to be freely shared – blogs represent hours and hours of (mostly) free published content, open source software abounds, MP3s make their way onto some sharing site or another, and memes are effective because they are (presumably) good enough ideas to send around.

What about the sale of Internet-based ideas?

So far the results have been mixed.  Apple’s iTunes seems to flourish, but that’s less an idea than it is a different type of product, a commodity to be sold.  Newspapers have been discussing paid subscriptions and what those might look like, and some (WSJ) have already done it, but again the line between commodity and pure idea are not clear.  Some blogs and podcasts require paid subscription, but more often they rely on advertising revenue or other sponsorship.  Wikipedia works in part because it is completely free, relying only on (hefty) donations to keep the operation going.  Selling something (or rather, not a thing, but an idea) online may be seen as selling out.

Where it really shows up, it seems, is in the purchase of websites or other content by a large (usually corporate) entity.  On the one hand, an Internet entrepreneur wants their idea to pay off.  On the other hand, deals like the AOL acquisition of the Huffington Post happen, and onlookers squirm.  What are they really paying for?  How will that affect what’s posted?  (In the case of HuffPo, the general theme of the content is more or less already expected, but the question of proper influence arises nonetheless.)

We seem ambivalent about payment transactions for ideas in what is supposed to be a free and open forum.  But the longer-lived culture of entrepreneurial invention reminds us that we can’t pay the rent with ideas alone.  Can Internet culture support two forms of currency?  Does corporate sponsorship or pay-to-play content de-legitimize an idea (or its source) in an online forum?

(That’ll be 63 cents, please!  PayPal accepted.)

Update:  I was thinking this morning (Saturday) that this post is a bit of a ramble.  And I should have incorporated a piece on Net Neutrality, perhaps a tangent but certainly directly related to the presence of for-profit corporations (or any other entity with an agenda) on the Internet.

And perhaps one important part of online ideas vs. inventions for sale is the concept of the commons versus a scarce material resource.  Unlike the grassy field example, however, the online commons is not at all diminished by more people accessing or making a copy of the information; Wikimedia Commons is an example of this.  You can point out that digital information tends to degrade with more copies, but this is not a function of more people accessing it, only it being copied more times.  And of course server space and electricity are the scarce material resources on which the information depends, but the trend has been more and cheaper space, not less.

Thus it is more difficult to enforce ownership over an idea or online object, because unlike a produced item it can be copied and/or transformed with almost no effort.  While it is good form on the Internet to credit your original source, as it is in other realms, it does not necessarily restrict access from that source, nor does someone else really profit from it – the copier may, in fact, be showing tribute to the original idea by spreading it to more people.

Anyway, there’s a lot to sort out for this thought to really go anywhere, but there are a couple more pieces to consider.