You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Information’ category.

Modern life is keeping one foot elsewhere, a hand in the ether and an ear in the cloud.

Advertisements

Along North Avenue, from Chicago’s west side well into the suburbs, at several major intersections lone men stand on the median strip of concrete – or just on the pavement between the two centermost lanes – holding a stack of newspapers.  They start selling well before most people get in their cars to go to work, but remain there – in all weather – until late morning, when most commuters have already gone by.  They sell the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and possibly the Daily Herald out past the numbered avenues of Melrose Park.  Wearing mesh vests to stay more visible in the low morning light, they are an unusual sight on multi-lane arterial roads, standing in the middle of the street selling newspapers.

As a print subscriber to the New York Times, and previously the Tribune, I never had occasion to buy a paper, but always felt bad for the men on the median, especially on bitter cold Chicago mornings, or when piles of snow had turned to brown slush.  Sure, it’s a job – but surely not a good one.  I did see some people purchase papers while stopped by red lights, holding coins out through their cracked windows, and maybe they had a regular “newsman” at a particular corner.  Even if I hadn’t a subscriber, though, I probably would not have bought one – after all, when would I read it?

The big arguments about why newspaper circulation is declining – a lot – are the usual suspects:  the decline of reading and intellectual pursuit, the rise of the Internet and television news, general phasing out of newspapers as a respectable, reliable, and up-to-the-minute source of information.  These are all surely important, though definitely debatable, particularly the “dumbing of America” argument.  Nor is this a new phenomenon, according to the Washington Post:

“The decline [in circulation in 2005] continued a 20-year trend in the newspaper industry as people increasingly turn to other media such as the Internet and 24-hour cable news networks for information. Newspaper industry officials also blamed the National Do Not Call Registry, which has forced newspapers to rely less on telemarketing to secure subscribers, and a shift in strategy among major newspapers away from using short-term promotions to acquire new readers.” – Washington Post, 5-3-2005

Think about 20 years before 2005:  1985.  No Internet, cable news just starting (if it existed at all, really?), and a culture on the verge of massive media change – MTV launched in 1981, a critical milestone in TV culture.  If the decline in newspaper readership predates the Internet in its popular form by at least 10 years – and certainly more time than its current form – then maybe that’s not the main cause, or at least not the earliest cause.

Back to the newspaper sellers – they’re basically doing the same job that paperboys and others have done for decades, both on street corners in big cities and (in the case of home delivery) at suburban doorsteps.  They are also doing the same work as the coin-operated paper boxes in downtowns and city neighborhoods, where people on their way to the bus, train, or office can stop and buy the morning news.  The difference is, they’re delivering them to people in cars, not out on the sidewalk.  Even those who drop off the paper on the porch in the morning, are mostly doing so for people who will end up driving to work.  And the biggest population of adults who don’t go to work in the morning – the elderly – are also those who tend to still subscribe to the newspaper and read it regularly.

Is it too much of a stretch to speculate that maybe our large-scale shift in transportation behavior, i.e. commuting to work by car to perform primarily white-collar jobs, has heavily contributed to the decline of newspapers?

Sure, the Internet makes news easier to get, iPads and the like are seen as “killer devices” for paper media, and people watch more television than ever for information and entertainment.  But if you think of reading a newspaper as an action requiring time, inclination, and the information source itself, commuting by car (having to drive) eliminates a big chunk of time when the newspaper might otherwise be read – in the morning, when you’re waking up and getting ready for the day, not fully functioning but wanting to find out what’s going on.  Having to drive to work takes up most attention that transit users can give to other things like reading.

It is also significant that the phenomenon of “morning drive” talk shows, and other sources like NPR’s “morning edition,” get wide listenership no matter the actual quality of the show.  You’ve got a captive audience in the car, probably two peak listening times at the beginning and end of the work day, and they want to get at least some idea of what’s going on in the world before they get to where they need to be.

There used to be evening newspapers, to get what happened at the end of the day, and some studies have shown that people tend to spend most time reading on their iPads and Kindles in the early evening.  Perhaps they’ve simply displaced their reading time to be after work, but it also means they cannot read the newspaper (or any other device) on the way home either.

The biggest exception to the newspaper decline seems to be the New York Times, probably the most well-known and respected newspaper in the U.S.  Coincidence that its primary readership, New York City and surrounding area, largely commutes by public transit if they work in the city?  And similarly with D.C.’s Washington Post?  And the Tribune and other papers publish variations on Chicago’s RedEye, a fluffy smaller-format paper that’s free and strategically placed in red boxes by train and bus stops.  It’s just enough information to get you up to speed on big national and local news, and includes some fun things to do that week and a crossword.  It’s free, quick to read, and as far as I can tell, popular with transit riders even if it’s mediocre quality.  It serves the morning-newspaper need.

So, it would be really difficult to actually determine a causal link between the rise in commuting by car and the decline of newspaper readership, and certainly the Internet, TV, and “instant gratification” attitude toward information play no small part in this trend.  But I think it’s worth considering how our land use and transportation decisions have affected other aspects of our lives, and what impact they have on our routines.  The newspaper sellers of North Avenue are a half-hearted attempt to bring the newspaper into our cars, since we cannot get out and get them on the sidewalk.  The problem is, we’ve eliminated the time in our day we used to have to actually sit down and read it.

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.

As promised, I’m actually adding some content to my Local Food Resources pages.  It’s not meant to be exhaustive or even necessarily well-rounded, but as I gather a variety of sources for my final project and other readings, I thought it would be nice to produce a page or two of bibliography (ideally annotated, at the very least well-ordered) for others looking to get an idea of what’s going on in the field.

To start, and in the interest of shameless self-promotion, I’ve included two reports I did last semester on different aspects of regional food systems.  They can be found on the Local Food Resources page, or the individual reports here and here.

I’ll also soon be posting a PDF spreadsheet of various urban agriculture projects I’m aware of (sorry, creating HTML tables was a huge pain in the ass), as well as in-page lists of readings on various topics.

And as a side note, in the further interest of shameless self-promotion, I will also be creating a Writing Samples page on this site and posting a couple things I’ve done recently.  I also consider the entries on this blog to be writing samples, though they may or may not be planning-related.

And finally, I will soon get around to editing and posting the rest of my photos from my January trip to Chicago, including those of the Chicago International Produce Market, my subject of study for the report I’ll be submitting to CMAP in late spring.

Lincoln Park Bus Stop

Chicago, Not Food: Lincoln Park Bus Stop

More to come, when I find the time!

I’m sidestepping planning for the moment to make some brief comments about Girl Talk’s album All Day.  (If you haven’t heard and are feeling up to the challenge, download here for free.)

Driving back from Ohio, I decided to use one of the (seven) hours to listen to the album.  I had tried before, but was pretty much overwhelmed by the first three minutes of the first track.  The second time, however, I made it through, and I’m listening to it again now in fact.

Here’s my take on the album, or more specifically its style of hyper-mashup:  it’s not so much music, a series of songs, as it is a 71-minute manipulation of the brain to experience music.

What I mean by this is, that it’s not original music in the traditional sense of composition and performance, it’s a collage, like other mashups.  What stood out to me in this work, however, was that unlike other mashups (which generally combine two songs, or take brief samples from a couple songs and other places) the entire thing is just a series of brief references mixed to sound like a comprehensible song.  This creation of “meta art” seems to be a more and more common form of work on the Internet, with mashup videos of all the times Don Draper says “what?” in Mad Men (sorry, it’s not up anymore) or the massive infographics of every kind of beer or the Batmobile.  The skill lies not in inventing something out of nothing, but clever manipulation of found materials, so to speak, by wading through a massive pile of already-known objects of pop culture.

For it to make sense, then, we (the reader, listener, viewer) must already know most, if not all, of its constituent parts – otherwise it’s just noise.  This is particularly true of All Day; if you don’t know most of the songs, it’s almost unlistenable because it just jumps from one short clip to another, chaotic with multiple layers of different genres, sometimes three or four songs at a time.  We enjoy it only because we’ve really heard it all before.

What’s going on, it seems, is that we may like listening to it because of its technical quality, the way seemingly incongruous songs fit together, etc., but we’re really enjoying it because it’s triggering a constant sense of nostalgia in our brains, hearing those songs we recognize instantly and probably know by heart.  Each small sample is enough to make us hear the rest of the song in our heads, making the experience of listening not one that engages with the song actually playing, but one in which we actively play all the songs over ourselves in memory.  The album is basically a rapid series of memory-triggers, and makes no sense unless we already have those memories (songs) stored away for easy reference.

That isn’t to say it’s not a fun experience, even if you don’t know all the songs (I certainly don’t).  It’s just a notably different experience that says something about where culture is going.  Now that it’s technically possible, it’s also artistically acceptable to build something out of a mass of existing data – not simply through influences or lyric references or homages, as has been done for centuries, but by actually constructing a new work solely with the pieces of others, on a scale which would have been imprecise and extremely time-consuming using non-digital methods.

It feeds into some larger questions I have about the Internet and where we’re headed:  Are we really stretching our minds to take in and process more information?  Will we eventually find single-stream information too boring?  What are we giving up in return?  Are we losing the ability to think deeply about one thing because we are pushed to constantly think about so many things?  What are the consequences of our speeding up and layering and augmenting of reality, the real-life equivalent of constant footnotes and marginalia and cross-references?

And, of course, there is a Girl Talk infographic explaining the whole thing.  Actually, there’s one from Fast Company, Wired, and a real-time sampling list from Travis McLeskey.  Not to mention all the people who have populated the album’s Wikipedia page.  Meta squared, if you will.

For a similarly interesting pop song mashup, check this out (via Urlesque).

A short thought-detour out of the city.

I was signing up for office-hours meetings today, that sheet on the professor’s door.  It’s never easy to write vertically with a standard office pen, and everyone’s name looks uneven and scrawled across the time slot line.  Even so, each person’s handwriting was distinct in size, shape, angle of inflection, and all those points and curves a writing analyst might study.  Then I realized – I don’t really know anyone’s handwriting!

This isn’t a problem of not being observant.  Being left-handed, I tend to glance around and take note of who’s holding their pen in the “wrong” hand – there are never that many.  Most of my classmates still take their class notes on paper, so opportunities are there when you tend to have the same neighbors.  Yet at times I’m a little struck and surprised when confronted with a handwritten item from someone I know, realizing that this ingrained and distinct expression of that person is something totally banal, yet someone I rarely (if ever) see and even less often consciously think about.  Whose handwriting can you recognize?  Family?  Friends?  Co-workers?

Computers must be to blame. So much of what we communicate is text, but specifically electronic text – E-mails, Word documents, instant messages and texts.  Our digital writing may begin to more closely resemble our speech patterns as we type our conversations.  Our finished documents all look alike because they use the same fonts – even the most distinctive font cannot easily be “owned” by a particular individual.  We even give “digital signatures” in lieu of inked ones, consisting only of our name and perhaps a second piece of personal data.  The act and form of the written signature, itself a piece of personal data, becomes lost.

While handwriting is a commonplace and unconscious production of self-expression, it is not really commonplace anymore.  While so much of my day-to-day communication is done through the written word, almost none of it is written out by hand.  The distinctive handwriting of my most frequent associates or closest chat-buddies, rather than being the easiest to recognize, becomes strangely hidden and surprisingly intimate when revealed in a casual note or scrap of paper or on a professor’s office-hours schedule.  Whereas handwriting was perhaps once the most widely-distributed form of one’s self-expression, it is now reserved for closest connections (notes to roommates on the refrigerator, cards and letters, project collaborators trading drafts) but also the most mundane, throwaway items (grocery lists, signatures on credit card receipts, administrative forms).  Recognizing someone else’s handwriting therefore becomes a significant act.

What strikes me most about this thought is not that recognizing someone’s handwriting is somehow a mark of friendship or privilege – certainly there was no point in time where that ability was a perfect measure of a degree of relationship.  It is the increasing disconnect between communication and handwriting – that it is possible, indeed the norm, to communicate (in writing) with someone regularly, perhaps every day, and have no idea how they would actually write the same words with pen and paper.  That a small piece of ourselves remains so mundane yet so hidden from those around us makes the discovery of that small piece all the more interesting.

Well, this is later than intended!

As usual in the perpetual-struggle-against-the-inevitability-of-time that is my life these days, I haven’t gotten ’round to posting things I should.  On top of everything else, I’ll be spending several weekends here for a workshop…

New York City, Lower Manhattan

… and thinking a lot about food:

Find the watermelon! (Joy Garden, Chicago)

The latter does not just refer to eating (though there’s been plenty of that).  I’ve decided to focus my final project on local food systems, specifically examining methods of distribution (moving food from farm to consumer, with however many steps in between) and ways in which policy (planning!!) can help encourage movement “within the foodshed.”  Ultimately the report will focus on implications for Chicago and its surrounding region, as the project will be written for CMAP (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning), but will draw on literature and examples from other places.

To that end, I have a LOT to learn about this area, and need to keep the resources I gather in good order.  In the coming weeks, I intend to post some of these resources online in a blog page, roughly sorted by geographic area and/or subject matter.  The intent is not to create a full digital library (and license issues likely prevent me from posting actual documents anyway), but to offer an accessible collection of links about whatever I dig up on the subject that might be of interest.  If possible, I will also post my finished report in Spring 2011.

I’ll try to keep the content reasonably updated, with the first steps being making the page and then pledging to update it (see above).  In the meantime, much reading to be done!!

I felt compelled to write about this, because The Daily Beast did not.  They recently featured the results of Richard Florida’s “Top 25 Cities for College Graduates”, finding that Ithaca, New York was #1.  That’s right, Ithaca.

What?

Now, this list was supposed to highlight where recent graduates are likely to be comfortable settling:  finding a job, being around other young (single) people, and other amenities.  So it might surprise you that Ithaca is first, a bunch of other college towns are also high on the list (regardless of whether they’re in a big city or not), places like New York and DC are middling, Los Angeles is pretty low on the list, and Chicago does not make it at all.  Also, much as it pains me to say it … Albany (NY) makes the list, but Portland (OR) doesn’t?  What?

Granted, some choices like Austin or Boston make a lot of sense.  But Ithaca?!  So, let’s look at Florida’s criteria:

“These rankings are based on an index of nine statistical indicators … measures in the rankings include:

  • Presence of twentysomethings (20-24 year olds) in the population
  • Singles—measured as the share of unmarried people
  • Earnings potential—measured as average salary
  • Unemployment rate
  • College educated workforce—the share of the workforce with a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • Rental housing—having an abundant, available stock of rental housing is key. We measured this as the share of all housing made up of rental units.
  • Youth-oriented amenities—like bars, restaurants, cafes, sports facilities and entertainment venues.
  • Creative capital–we use this to capture the creative energy of a place. It’s measured as the share of employed artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, designers, and entertainers in the workforce.
  • Openness–A region’s openness to new and different kinds of people reflects a lack of barriers and willingness to let newcomers, including young people, have a go. Our measure is the share of gays and lesbians and foreign-born residents in a community
  • Affordability–The overall rankings do not take housing costs into account. Generally speaking, new college grads are renters and can easily share apartments to reduce costs. It’s also difficult to get a handle on the full living costs borne by young people—some communities have accessible mass transit; in others, new grads must buy a car (and pay for insurance, maintenance, gas, and parking).

“We decided to break out an additional index to account for affordability. This index includes a variable for rent levels—median contract rent. It weights affordability at 25 percent of the overall index value, and lets the other nine indicators account for the remaining 75 percent.”

Sounds pretty good, right?  Except all of those exactly describe COLLEGE TOWNS – more specifically, towns dominated by a large university and who have attracted a significant population to the town in the first place.  Here’s how it measures up with Ithaca:

  • Presence of twentysomethings – Cornell has something like 20,000 students, and the city itself has 60,000 total.  You do the math.
  • Singles – see above; how many full-time Ivy undergrads are married?
  • Earnings potential – average salary?  You’re either earning nothing, an Ivy League professor, or you can afford to live in Ithaca.  Most of the (lower-income) service staff live well outside the city itself, because they can’t afford it.
  • Unemployment rate – again:  COLLEGE TOWN.  If you’re in college, you’re not unemployed because you’re not seeking work.  If you’re in grad school, ditto.  If you’re retired or the spouse of a professor, double ditto.  If you’re working at a coffee shop and on a quest to “find yourself,” don’t even count the number of dittos.
  • College educated workforce – … seriously?  Tompkins County has something like 50% adults 25+ with a bachelors or above.
  • Rental housing – … again, seriously?  Ithaca is 70% rental housing.  There’s no way any normal city could compete with that stat.
  • Youth-oriented amenities – COLLEGE TOWN.  It’s even got a whole freaking neighborhood called Collegetown.
  • Creative capital – this is pretty much code for “College Town or Big City.”  It is a good point; young people like culture and amenities.  But again, you can’t compete with a huge university for cultural offerings (AND the money to pay their honoraria).
  • Openness – “Our measure is the share of gays and lesbians and foreign-born residents in a community.”  Kind of a fair point on the first part, but DUHHHH on the second.  Especially a high-level (high-cost) school like Cornell.  Again, how could a large city really compete with that?
  • Affordability – it’s true that college students (or recent grads) split rent efficiently.  But they’re going to find cheap rent in college towns, and very few rental options in all but big cities.  And if that’s the only measure of affordability… I feel compelled to mention that I know of someone (via Craigslist sublet posting) who has actually paid $1800/mo for a 1 BR in (Collegetown) Ithaca.  ITHACA, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

So as far as I can tell, Florida came up with a brilliant way for identifying college towns, which I’m pretty sure you can do with a short stint on Google Maps.

What would make this index better?

  • Measuring how many other EMPLOYERS are in the area – since the damn list is supposed to be all about employment after school.  A college town is going to be well-employed because everyone already works at the college.  Those out on the job market, while sometimes they find jobs with the school, are more likely looking for work at another company or non-profit.  Look at who ELSE is hiring.  Ithaca, for one, has very little to offer a new grad, unless you want to stay with Cornell; want to work in agriculture; or happen to get a job with one of the various small companies in the area.  It doesn’t have much on a big city, and certainly is not a bountiful cornucopia of job opportunity.
  • Along the same lines, maybe measuring the number of start-up businesses – like the Boulder description implies, or like Silicon Valley shows, that is a more solid indicator of creative, educated talent making a start.
  • Measuring not college-age students, but householders (single or otherwise) from 25-35.  This covers people who actually stuck around after school, and who are not living with parents.  If you could cross-reference with educational attainment, so much the better.
  • If possible, better household ownership stats – are people right out of school buying condos (or townhouses or duplexes), not family-sized houses?  That seems a great indicator to me, knowing several people who have done that very thing.
  • Expand the definition of “creative.”  Florida seems to limit it to artists (visual, performing, etc) but those are very hard to measure and don’t include a broad enough spectrum of “interesting jobs” which I think he’s attempting to get at.  Might I suggest number of self-employed people?  Or number of locally-owned businesses?  Or perhaps a more qualitative rating based on festivals, annual events, concerts, etc?  Or whether or not they have some local equivalent of a Metromix events site?
  • Florida skirts around this, but you almost want to think he would include “Number of Democrats” in the ranking – the “Openness” category seems to want to go there, but doesn’t.  Maybe “Percentage Who Voted For Obama”?  (Note:  this one wouldn’t actually be very good, but who knows, maybe there’s some kind of crazy-high correlation after all.)
  • And finally, you could use a silly little indicator like “number of places to get a latte” or “price of a cup of coffee” or “frequency of recycling pickup” to get at the question of diversity.  You could even include something like Walkscore.  Something that doesn’t skew so heavily toward a college town (or big city) like the gay/lesbian and foreign-born indicators do.

In conclusion:  Seriously, Florida.  Ithaca?  Have you been to Ithaca?  Or more importantly, have you ever looked for a job in Ithaca?  It’s pretty and all, but … seriously.  Ithaca.

I found an article today (via Planetizen) that made me happy.  Ed Glaeser, the Harvard economist, writes that in addition to the traditional economic explanation for cities – agglomeration, in which it is more efficient for manufacturing firms to share resources by being physically near each other – there is an information component to agglomeration as well.  While the manufacturing version of agglomeration becomes less relevant as transportation costs have decreased in recent decades, Glaeser asserts that information- and knowledge-based productivity increases along with density:

via NY Times

Glaeser, "Why Humanity Loves - and Needs - Cities" (NYTimes)

One of the issues I have with the traditional agglomeration argument is that it does not sufficiently describe individuals’ desire to be near other people.  This isn’t quite that argument, but it’s getting closer!

Is this the new economic model for twenty-first century cities?  Or does it over-estimate the influence of the knowledge-based economy on urban form and our settlement patterns?

[Read the article here]

After finally cracking open the March issue of Wired mag, I came across an interesting thought by Clive Thompson about texting and transportation.

His argument:

  • Texting while driving is dangerous, and should be stopped.
  • People really, really love to text.
  • Texting-while-driving bans therefore probably won’t work.
  • Instead, we should discourage driving rather than discouraging texting.
  • This means we need to invest more in public transit:  other countries, like Japan and Germany, don’t have a texting-while-driving crisis, because people can travel without needing to mind the road.

It’s an interesting connection he makes, and one which is mindful of the general principle that people act the way they want, and it’s hard to prevent them from doing so.  Rather than treating texting (series of brief, digital written communications) as a problem to be solved, to Thompson it is simply a reality to be faced.

His concluding statement is insightful:

“Texting while driving is, in essence, a wake-up call to America. It illustrates our real, and bigger, predicament: The country is currently better suited to cars than to communication.”  [emphasis mine]

When setting policies which attempt to encourage, discourage, or prohibit certain behaviors, how do we prioritize?  Which part of a problem is the actual problem?

Also, could phone use actually become a legitimate argument for making certain choices in our transportation infrastructure?