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Martin Laplante

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Wed, 20 Dec 2006

Do Hidden Cameras Make Our Cities Safer?

I am torn. A recent article tells me that hidden cameras in a park near where I live are effective at making me safer. The combination of a hidden camera and a "you in the green shirt" loudspeaker seems to work.

On the other hand, many privacy advocates I know (look left for Michael Geist's blog) are uncomfortable with a benevolent Big Brother monitoring you in more and more places.

I have been disappointed on several occasions when developers propose CCTV cameras as security instead of actual physical design that allows ordinary community members to interact and animate public spaces. A camera is a sign of a building determined to look inward and cowering at the thought of strangers outside.

On the other hand, should we acknowledge that some areas have become impersonal enough that normal mechanisms of enforcing norms of social control fail us to the point that it becomes a vicious circle: there is no social controls so alienated people cause mischief. This makes people more feel less ownership of their community, which in turn reduces social controls and causes more alienation.

The solution, besides more police or more invisible robocops, is to design urban spaces so that everyone feels a part of the community.

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Mon, 18 Dec 2006

Drive Less, Says Automobile Association

On which web site can you find this text? "With such a dependence on roads and highways, how can we hope to preserve our environment? The answer is to re-examine our approach to mobility." "We can no longer continue to be a country that travels one person in one car at a time. We need alternative forms of fuel that are less harmful to the environment! Let's start sharing our cars, using public transit, and carpooling. Let's start buying vehicles that are less harmful to the environment, and changing our driving behaviour to be more environmentally friendly." Answer: The Canadian Automobile Association.

The CAA, once a bastion of car culture, is recommending to drivers that they drive less and adopt alternative vehicles, to do their part against climate change. It also wants the government to impose emissions standards for both light and heavy-duty vehicles. Their new policies go significantly beyond what even environment-friendly governements have dared do.

Among their policies are the encouragement of multimodal transportation through the addition of park and ride lots and bicycle/walking paths; the addition of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes for buses, taxis and cars with two or more occupants; improvements to public transit systems, which promote accessibility, reliability and convenience, thereby increasing usage; modern roundabouts should, where appropriate, be the preferred alternative for new construction and as a replacement for collision-prone rightangle intersections; governments, where feasible, should use low and zero-emission vehicles or alternative fuels vehicles in their fleets to prove their viability and encourage consumer demand for such vehicles; the government should implement progressively improved fuel consumption standards, to achieve a 25 percent improvement for cars and light trucks by 2010.

References
http://www.caa.ca/eco%2Dmobility/english/role/policies.html

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Sat, 16 Dec 2006

Planting Forests to Offset Global Warming

Can we plant a forest somewhere to atone for our fossil-fuel burning sins and emit with a clear conscience? According to several recent news stories, planting forests to combat global warming may be a waste of time, especially if those trees are at high latitudes. This story is a bit of a simplification of a pair of papers presented by Ken Caldeira, Govindasamy Bala, and others at the 2006 fall meeting of the Americal Geophysical Union.

There have been several other papers with similar conclusions in recent years by these authors, but without the media attention. What these authors are looking at is not just the capacity for trees to absorb carbon in a reassuringly visible way, but their effect on evaporation and albedo, compared to other ground cover.

Trees are darker than snow. Snow reflect light back out into space. Trees absorb it. Plants also release water into the air. This forms fluffy white clouds that also reflect light back out into space. Trees absorb carbon, but they are also little radiators, absorbing and releasing light and heat. The models behind the studies conclude that Their ability to block the light from the snow or to be blocked by clouds has an effect on temprature that is comparable to and can be greater than the cooling effect of their absorption of carbon. All of these effects depend on latitude. For northern latitudes, grasses are better than, say, desert.

Which is not to say that forests are bad. Whatever the short-term effects of albedo on a daily or seasonal basis, CO2 and methane are long-term effects, and photosynthesis is one of the only ways we have of keeping the levels in check. By we, I mean the Earth. People have a great ability to interfere with the process, but there is not much that we can do to help it along besides reducing our ecological footprint.

To paraphrase current research, forests in general are not really good carbon sinks. They can go either way. Peat bogs are good, definitely, as long as they are not flooded, for instance to produce clean hydroelectricity. And oceans are good, but they work slowly. Artificial carbon sequestration is, at best, entertaining hocus-pocus, and at worst an expensive way to ensure a quick end to life on earth some time in the future.

So the best thing is to reduce our energy use, preserve as much wilderness as possible, stop using peat for topsoil, and protect all peat bogs, encourage agricultural methods that are shown to accumulate carbon in soils, and work with tropical countries to help them do the same. Use your money to get more efficient, not to pay out to the forest protection racket.

References
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6184577.stm
Will afforestestion strategies help mitigate global warming?
Carbon, Biophysics, and Climate: Where do Forests Warm? Where do Forests Cool?
http://www.llnl.gov/tid/lof/documents/pdf/324200.pdf
http://www.mcgill.ca/reporter/32/15/roulet/
http://www.nwo.nl/nwohome.nsf/pages/NWOP_5X5LD5

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Thu, 14 Dec 2006

Carbon Emission Trading a Booming Market

The magazine Environmental Finance has some articles on the year in emissions trading. Despite not joining the Kyoto Protocol and not having mandatory CO2 targets, the U.S. is quite active in trading for GHG emissions.

For one thing, the greenhouse gases other than CO2 do have federal targets that are tradeable, including SOx and NOx. At $200,000 a ton, there is money to be made. Secondly, some states like California may well soon have state and regional trading of emissions. Thirdly, with a Democratic congress and a court case forcing the EPA to regulate carbon, the U.S. may very well get carbon trading soon and businesses want to be ready.

But most importantly, the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) are already multi billion dollar markets, even with 2008 two years away. One of the top firms involved in trading and consolidating emission credits is New York based NatSource. Another is White Plains based Evolution Markets. CO2e, the European GHG trader is part of the Cantor Fitzgerald group (New York). ICF International, one of the top advisory firms in GHG trading, is from Fairfax, Virginia. The Chicago-based Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) is where a great deal of the world's GHG trading goes on.

The U.S. and Australia are putting Canada to shame when it comes to regulating and trading GHGs, even though they never agreed to Kyoto targets. What precisely is wrong with this country?

References
http://www.environmental-finance.com/envfin/06survey.pdf
http://www.natsource.com/index.asp
http://www.evomarkets.com/
http://www.emissionstrading.com/
http://www.icfi.com/
http://www.chicagoclimatex.com/

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Environment Hamilton Response to Climate Change

The non-profit organization Environment Hamilton released on Monday a ten-point plan of low-cost actions that the new city council can undertake to address climate change.

The EH response to climate change report is a brief set of 10 suggestions, with relatively little quantification of the expected effects, but both GHG and smog reductions are mentioned in the document.

Among the recommendations are

  • Free public transit on all smog days.
  • High occupancy vehicle lanes on at least two major east-west corridors
  • An anti-idling bylaw
  • A moratorium and phase out of commercial drive-thru operations.
  • A bylaw banning or restricting the use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers and weed whackers.
  • Double the urban tree canopy by 2025.
  • An after-hours lights-out program for city facilities and offices and encourage private businesses to do the same.
The end of drive-thrus is interesting and controversial. Other cities, including Ottawa, have done it. The reasoning for it is not necessarily the GHG emissions resulting from the idling, but rather the fact that the design is auto-centred and makes a pedestrian-centred commercial street very difficult to achieve. Banning them gets people out of their cars both literally and figuratively.

The ban on gasoline-powered leaf blowers and weed whackers is also interesting. These are major contributors to smog, both when they are in use and when they are being fuelled. I would add lawn mowers to the list. The hydrocarbons released into the air on hot days are a major source of smog.

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Sat, 09 Dec 2006

Poorly Planned High Density Can Impair Child Development

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald describes how children living in apartments have poor motor and social skills The article is based in part on the research report Children in the Compact City: Fairfield as a Suburban Case Study prepared by Bill Randolph of the University of New South Wales. The report describes how higher-density living can reduce the opportunities for children to play outside. The lack of suitable places for active play, the lack of possibility of visual supervision, and the social isolation caused by these and other barriers to social interactions with other children all contribute to the lower motor and social skills.

This is not particularly new; Christopher Alexander has often discussed the four-storey limit supported by multiple studies showing that any more has impact on the mental health of residents, and decried that outdoor open spaces are merely "left over" between buildings. Only a few enlightened architects and urban designers create child-scaled features, and children are relegated to sterile playgrounds designed by others, rather than being full independent users of public space.

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Congestion Charge for New York?

Several articles have been appearing recently in New York City, making the case for congestion charges for all or part of the island of Manhattan.

The motivation is to reduce peak traffic. Environment does not seem to enter into it. But charging people a fee to enter the urban core is only part of the solution. Besides making driving a little more expensive, other means of transportation must be made more attractive. Successful traffic reduction plans also include improvements to walking and biking with more of the streets given over to them, making public spaces more appealing for people, improving transit and making parking more difficult. The Project for Public Places web site shows several examples where alternative transportation can become the showcase for a truly vital city.

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Thu, 07 Dec 2006

The Environmental Cost of Concrete and Aggregates

The Ontario government has decided to approve last year's joint decision of the Ontario Municipal Board and the Environmental Review Tribunal to allow expansion of the Dufferin Aggregates Milton quarry, located in the Niagara Escarpment and the Greenbelt (map), with strong conditions. This decision had been appealed to the Provincial Cabinet by two environmental groups and three members of the public.

This is the off note in the recent set of Ontario governement initiatives that include stronger rules to protect the greenbelt, the Escarpment, and to put stronger environmental controls on the aggregates industry.

The environmental groups argue that we should use less aggregates. Is building with rocks harder on the environment than using wood or other materials? Ontarians are among the world's biggest users of stone, gravel, and sand, at 15-20 tons per person per year, double the U.S. per capita consumption, and triple Europe's. Half of it is for roads and bridges.

The biggest environmental problem with concrete, a major use of aggregates, is the greenhouse gases emitted in producing cement and other components of concrete. For every ton of cement produced, more than a ton of greenhouse gases are released into the air. Half of it from the energy required to make it and half because the limestone itself releases CO2 into the air during the process. You are taking two sources of trapped CO2 laboriously extracted from the air by creatures millions of years ago, and releasing them again. And because concrete structures are not suited to adaptive re-use, you have disposable buildings with a disposal problem that will have environmental costs of their own in the relatively near future.

Building with wood, on the other hand, is a carbon sink. A natural forest, contrary to popular belief, is not a very good carbon sink. Yes, the trees take carbon out of the air, but eventually it all falls to the ground where natural processes release it all into the air again, some of it as methane which is even worse. But if you put that tree into some 2 by 4s or even fibreboard, the wood runs a fair chance of staying out of the atmosphere for a century or two.

The environmental scorecard of aggregates is considerably more complex than that. For a variety of reasons the quarries are likely to be on environmentally sensitive land, they consume and pollute water, emit fine particulates and sulfur and nitrogen oxides, and are a natural source of radioactivity near us. Their use in road building is certainly excessive. We could definitely do with less of it.

References
http://www.aggregateresearch.com/article.asp?id=10172
http://www.mnr.gov.on.ca/MNR/csb/news/2006/oct30nr_06.html
http://www.buildinggreen.com/auth/article.cfm?fileName=020201b.xml

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Mon, 27 Nov 2006

Toronto Greener and More Powerful Than Ever

Fresh from having defeated their opponents and more powerful than ever before, Toronto's mayor and councillors have revealed just how much power is being given to them by recent changes to the City of Toronto Act.

Their new taxation power not only gives them the ability to raise new revenues, but to also to selectively punish people for bad behaviour. They intend to use their new powers to slay the anti-environmental dragons. I won't say windmills because the windmills are the good guys in this story.

The new powers allow the city to selectively tax, for instance parking lots by their location and cars by their size. They can tax buildings according to their landscaping and energy source. "People who don't build best-use projects, you could whack them pretty hard," one councillor is quoted as saying. He is one of the guys who get to decide what use is best. The mayor also now has the power to appoint council committee chairs and fire them if they don't do as he says. Neither Napoleon nor Palpatine had that.

While I am a fan of the outcome, disincentives to using cars downtown and the ability to enforce certain environmental design standards, I am also a fan of democracy. Call me old-fashioned, but the ability to put a selective punitive tax on behaviour should be circumscribed, as should the ability for the mayor to punish disloyalty. Sure, it can be used for goodness and niceness but the power to be arbitrary is a bit scary.

References
Toronto Star story

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Thank You, Turkey

I don't often have posts on religious issue here. But this one is so refreshing that I couldn't resist. When Pope Benedict XVI quoted the opinion of a medieval Byzantine emperor about Islamic theolology in a scholarly lecture, there were some violent reactions from modern-day Muslims.

But when he went to Istanbul, where the Byzantyne emperors had once reigned and now a predominantly muslim country, he was greeted with crowds of protestors carrying signs with polite theological arguments. Signs with messages like “Jesus is not the son of God, he is a Prophet of Islam,” and “We as Muslims believe Jesus came before Mohammed and accept Jesus as our Prophet."

It's quite startling that a 14-century old theological debate with so much political, cultural, and historical baggage should manifest itself today as, well, a 14-century old theological debate. Thank you Turkey for putting things in perspective.

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Fri, 24 Nov 2006

Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators, Relative to intensity

The second annual report on Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators came out recently and confirms, no surprise here, that Canada is far above its Kyoto targets.

As you can see in one if its charts, Greenhouse gas emissions relative to Gross Domestic Product is down. This is very important when it come to the proposed "intensity-based targets" in the Clean Air Act. If we use targets that are relative to intensity, we can easily reach them with business as usual. We've already achieved 6% below 1990 levels. The problem is that we are putting a lot more GHGs into the air than before, when our planet demands that we put less

Alberta is the culprit

The more interesting chart is one that the government has not drawn but I have, using their data. How is each province doing? The good news is that ever since the major government programs came out a few years ago, Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces have turned the corner. Their Greenhouse Gas emissions are now going down, not up. The data is missing for other provinces, but there are other sources.

For more information on short-term GHG trends by province, see the recently-released National Inventory Report - Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada, 1990-2004, and Trends in Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada, 1990-2004 and this page in particular.

The big problem is Alberta, and other provinces can not compensate for Alberta. Its primary energy consumption is up by a whopping 150% since 1980. Per unit of GDP, one job in Alberta costs 5 times more in terms of greenhouse gases than a job elsewhere in Canada. Alberta emits more than Ontario. It is a tragedy that Alberta is undoing all of the good work done by the people of all of the other provinces. Behind all of this, directly and indirectly, is the tar sands. It is the elephant in the room. All we need is a big-game hunter.

References
http://www.statcan.ca/Daily/English/061123/d061123c.htm
http://www.statcan.ca/english/freepub/16-253-XIE/2006000/t424_en.htm

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Mon, 20 Nov 2006

Congestion Charge Returning to Stockholm

Stockholm's congestion fee scheme is coming back. After a 7-month trial ending in July, which resulted in a 20% reduction in peak-hour traffic and decrease in the number of accidents, residents of Stockholm voted 53% in favour of makgin it permanent. Neighbouring municipalities voted against it.

Now a conservative (by Swedish standards) politician who voted against it has the job of implementing a new version of the plan. He says the money will be used on road building, but that a complete transportation planning exercise, including public transit, would follow.

The Stockholm fees, about $2, are a fraction of what is charged in London or in Singapore, about $15 in both cases.

References

http://www.thelocal.se/5466/20061110/
http://rawstory.com/news/2006/Congestion_fee_to_be_introduced_in__11102006.html

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Tue, 14 Nov 2006

Ottawa Election : Technologist Helped by Engineers

Larry O'Brien, an engineering technologist who founded a communication system consulting firm, has been elected mayor of Ottawa. The major issue (besides a 2% diffence in promised tax rates) was a remarkably unspecific public discussion on transportation planning. The old mayor wanted a North-South light rail link, which city transportation planners worked on for years, where the contract was already signed, and for which funds other than local ratepayers are paying for the vast majority of the bill. The local buzz was that east-west links are more important, since the city has an overburdened east-west transportation system.

The reason for North-South are that 1) It's much cheaper to build, and 2) the official plan call for most new growth to be in the south, where there are now few roads. It is thought that moving in to an area with good transit and bad roads, people will opt for transit.

Unfortunately for the mayor, Ottawa's transportation planners are notorious for vigorously arguing that their design is the only possible option and that all alternatives are impossible. They did that even with a flip-flop. They had presented one option for the downtown terminal and dismissed all other options as impossible. When they were instructed to evaluate another alternative, they evaluated the new one (previously dismissed as impossible) as the only conceivable solution and dismissed all others, including their previous single solution, as not up to minimum standards.

Difficult to have a rational policy discussion with that sort of attitude. Eventually, the city transportation engineers alienated all environmental and transit promotion groups, who came out against the city's plan. The mayor was stuck defending a plan that he had been told by his employees was the only possible one, but when experts started saying other alternatives are better, every citizen with an opinion was designing a transit system that would take all other drivers but him off the road.

O'Brien never presented a plan. He just critized the one the transportation engineers had come up with, like everyone else did. The engineers were too stubborn to allow that any of their plan was open to discussion, thereby sealing the fate of the mayor.

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Mon, 30 Oct 2006

Some Heresy About Google

Google's search engine is not as good as it used to be. There, I've said it.

There was a time when if you wanted a quality search, you searched Google. Almost every time, it found more stuff and also more relevant stuff, and the other search engines couldn't touch it. At one point, FAST (later called AllTheWeb) was coming close, but then Overture/Yahoo bought them and squandered what could have become a good alternative to Google.

In terms of relevance, Google is still pretty good. Despite the best efforts of the SEO industry to influence the rankings, Google stayed one step ahead of most of the ranking manipulation techniques. The other search engines, who were not even directly targeted by this battle between Google and "Black Hat" SEO firms, got caught in the crossfire and fared badly.

But the advent of the blog and the ability to set up fake blogs and to vandalize other people's blogs has got the better of all search engines, including Google, whose response to this attack has harmed its own index. The Google index now seems paranoid about "quality" and all pages having a hint of suspicion are subject to Soviet-era purges and guilt by association. If you search on Google now, you get much fewer results. Some high quality results that used to be returned are no longer there, although the pages still exist. Some of them even have high pagerank. If you're looking for something specific, use one of the other search engines. They have more spam, but they also have more of the relevant pages.

It used to be that Google could explain its reasoning to some degree. If a page was in its index, you could ask it which other pages linked to it using the "link:" command, and that gave you some insight into who thinks this page is important. Ah, it's in the Open Directory index or a Princeton prof links to it. No longer. I have often come across high-pagerank pages with apparently no one linking to it. I have to use the other search engines to tell me why Google gave it a high rank. Google denies knowledge of links from ODP or Wikipedia - those pages have been sent to the Gulag on suspicion of link spam and are now non-pages.

The Google blog search is even worse. This blog you're reading rates well in the regular Google index, but a few months ago it was purged from the Google Blog Search, despite dutiful pings. What did it do to offend? Mystery!

I hope that Google changes its tactics soon, because its paranoia about "quality" is interfering with its ability to do its job. Maybe Pagerank should be temporal: "this page was good in 2003 and good pages linked to it, but it's changed so I will give less weight to what's changed since then." Or maybe it can let me adjust whether I want precision or recall in my search, to use the technical terms. Or maybe it can even cooperate with blog owners to look up who is being blackballed and to let humans have a say in which blogs are clean and which are not.

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Sun, 22 Oct 2006

Brownfield Brutalism - Urban Planning for Sale

How zealous should governments be to put development on brownfields, and who should pay for the cost of rehabilitating the sites?

In an article in Spiked Online, James Woudhuysen talks about "The dangers of Brownfield Brutalism" in a reference to Britain exceeding targets for how much of new housing is going on brownfield sites. Get this, in England the target was that by 2008, 60% of new homes should be brownfield, but by 2006, 74% was on brownfield. Average densities of new homes have gone up from 25 dwellings per hectare in 1997 to 42 now.

While it is possible to have a perfectly nice community at that density, and I myself live in a modest single family home in a neighbourhood with even higher density, there is a disturbing tendency to build very high densities on brownfields.

It should be the case that whoever contaminated the site should pay for the cleanup. But the reality is that someone else often has to foot that bill. Rehabilitating and developing brownfields is a public good. Development on serviced and relatively accessible land reduces the cost of delivering public services to the population, and removing contaminants on sites means they are less likely to affect surrounding residents in the future.

Local governments recognize this, but hesitate to pick up the bill themselves. The economic system goes part of the way by reducing the cost of contaminated land, but apparently not far enough for the difference in price to pay for the cleanup. Someone should talk to whoever is in charge of economics to see about this. Maybe negative land prices would do it, but again, economics... Instead, local governments use a currency that is apparently free: zoning regulations. By allowing developers to build at higher densities than would have been found appropriate otherwise, developers can buy the land at one value, and have its value increased through zoning, in exchange for paying for something that is a public good, essentially writing a cheque to a cleanup firm as part of a deal for preferential legislative treatment.

I am very uncomfortable with governments putting urban planning up for sale. It would be better to have public funds pay for public goods, to have developers decide for themselves how much to pay for land and what to build within the law, and to have urban planning decisions made on the basis of what is best for the city and the community. If one community loses the right to be treated like other communities just because they live near a brownfied, then you have backroom deals involving transfer of costs from one party to another. I have seen some very nice brownfield plans and some terrible ones with excessive density for the location in the form of high-rise or low-rise brutalism, but the very idea that developers must be compensated in kind for having paid more than the contaminated land is worth to them is wrong.

Everyone involved can say that they are environmentalists and doing the right thing, but when urban planning is up for sale it loses legitimacy.

Reference
http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/1681/

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Thu, 19 Oct 2006

Urban Design and Public Health

One of the reasons we plan cities is to keep us alive. Urban and transportation planners are always looking at statistics to see how their designs can reduce fatalities. But there are more ways for transportation to kill a person than by high-speed collisions. The ways in which neighbourhoods are laid out are even more likely to kill us.

In a recent interview in Metropolis Magazine, Richard Jackson, author of Urban Sprawl and Public Health, explains that you are more likely to die in a pool of blood in the suburbs than in the inner city, because of the time you spend in or near cars.

But besides violent death, the inability for kids to walk to the store or to school has a huge effect on their health. And the time spent in smog caused by the combination of cars and heat islands is a major cause of deaths attributable to bad urban design.

Urban planning used to be all about public health. Get people out of disease-ridden blight and give them sanitation and open space away from the smokestacks. Only now, we make them bring their portable smokestacks with them.

Hover your mouse over the picture of the book. It's pretty cool. If you click on the picture to get to Amazon and click on the picture again, you get to a web page where you can read entire pages from the book.

Reference
http://www.metropolismag.com/cda/story.php?artid=2353

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Technorati is Back!

This blog had not been indexed on Technorati for over 6 months. The Technorati spider hadn't visited at all during that time.

I alternated between ping services Pingoat and Ping-o-Matic, tried pinging directly on the Technorati site, even found and adjusted a handy little XMLRPC plug-in for blosxom, the blog engine I am using. To no avail.

But after over a month of weekly support e-mails to Technorati, they not tell me that it is indexed again Was it put on some sort of black list the day I got big time comment spam? No explanation was given, just an apology.

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Sun, 15 Oct 2006

BT Tackling Spam at the Source

British Telecom will be monitoring its network for spam and taking action to stop it. It will disable accounts, blacklist IP addresses, and phone customers to tell them their computers have become spambot zombies, and help them clean them.

This is better than just filtering mail; it actually stops spam before it happens by identifying and isolating where it comes from. If they actually focus customer service on helping remove the problem, it will be a great move forward. I have had the pleasure of this "service" by Rogers Internet at work. Someone had brought in a computer from home and plugged it into our network. When someone noticed the activity an hour or so later, the computer was quickly removed from the network. Too late. Rogers cut off the broadband internet service half an hour later. Calling them to tell them that the problem had been solved 30 minutes before they acted did no good. Our IP address had been blacklifted and their rules were to keep cut off service for 7 days. A deterrent rather than a solution. Because of this, I can't recommend Rogers business service to anyone.

There are bound to be people cut off that are not happy about it. On the other hand, one of the reasons cited for BT to do this were that customers whose IP address was blacklisted because they had become zombies, were unable to send e-mail for reasons that they were never told, and simply got mad at their ISP and switched providers. At least when your own ISP bans you, they have your phone # and they care whether you remain a customer.

I contrast this with the ridiculous US court order against UK-based SpamHaus, which says that if you publish your opinion of which IP addresses are spamming, you are liable for lost sales to everyone who acts on your opinions. It even ordered ICANN to block access to all SpamHaus.org servers to ensure the list of spammer IP addresses is inaccessible. The US lawyers who came up with that gem should also be put on some sort of list.

It's a good thing the UK has more sense.

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Wed, 11 Oct 2006

The Causes of Sprawl

An interesting article in the May 2006 Quarterly Journal of Economics, regarding where sprawl happened in the US between 1976 and 1992, and what these places had in common.

This paper defines sprawl a little differently than many others: sprawl is a building with undeveloped land around it. Their index uses the amount of undeveloped land in the square kilometre surrounding a building. Their definition of built-up land is also different than most, so they come up with less built-up land than others, about 2% of the U.S. in 1992 as opposed the U.S. government's 3%. They split up the U.S. into 30x30 metre squares, and say it is built up only if there is a building or pavement in it, whereas the U.S. government calls it built-up if the gap between buildings is less than 150 metres. That means if your building is 75 metres from the lot line and you decide to subdivide and build something new, the government calls it infill and this paper calls it greenfield. It also refers to parks as undeveloped urban land, and to highways and parking lots as compact development. Still, if you are going to process that much data, you need simplistic definitions.

Whatever the definitions, what is interesting is what their sprawl index correlates with. One interesting conclusion is that the average "compactness" of development has not changed. As new outer suburbs are developed, the previous generation of sprawling suburbs is intensified. The sorts of places where people live has not changed, but where they work and shop has. Commercial development used to be split between the two extremes of density. It has shifted dramatically to low density. New jobs are far from downtown, bad news for transportation. In fact, the more sprawling employment is, the more sprawling residential development becomes.

The authors tested various theories of the causes of sprawl to see how they correlate with their sprawl index. The most important factors promoting sprawl are dispersed employment, fast growth, the appreciation of undeveloped plots of land, the presence of aquifers allowing individuals to have wells, rugged terrains but no high mountains, temperate climate, land not subject to municipal planning regulations, and the transfer of servicing costs to other taxpayers. The density of roads does not seem to have an effect. The fragmentation of local government is not as important as the existence of unincorporated land with few rules or taxes.

Factors that inhibit sprawl include a mature compact urban core, cities with a transit-oriented history, physical barriers such as mountains.

The most sprawling city according to their index: Pittburgh (up) overaking Atlanta (down). The least sprawling, Miami. Most improved: Phoenix. Portland and Seattle show no improvement but it would be interesting to see what happened after the urban boundaries were imposed.

Reference
http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/qjec.2006.121.2.587
http://www.planetizen.com/node/21462

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Tue, 10 Oct 2006

Energy Star Sprawl

vaughan transit mapThe city of Vaughan, in Ontario, is opening up new subdivisions where houses will be Energy Star rated, with upgraded insulation and heating/cooling systems. They claim these houses will use up 40% less energy.

That's better than it could have been, but looking at a transit map of Vaughan, these houses are beyond the current range of all public transit, even beyond the "limited service" dotted lines. The houses are being built on what was farmland across from the Kortright Centre for Conservation, a pristine natural habitat 30 miles from downtown Toronto.

The story says that "some commercial development" is part of future plans. No matter how you dress it up, this is sprawl. The 40% savings in heating will be quickly consumed and then some by the fact that every single resident will need a car to drive long distances every day. What a waste of good efficiency investments.

The Energy Star rating system for houses should really take the location into account.

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Thu, 28 Sep 2006

Auditor General: Climate Change Programs Worked

The report is now out, and the Auditor General of Canada is, contrary to what the National Post has been reporting as fact for a month, giving the thumbs up to most climate change programs reviewed, including the ones that were cancelled this year, based on the claim that the AG found them inefficient.

Quite the contrary. Energuide for Houses, for instance, was found to be 35% more effective, and therefore 35% more efficient for the federal dollars, than predicted. It was cancelled. What is more tragic, is that with it went a couple of dozen more provincial and utility programs that relied on it.

In terms of effectiveness, most passed, but some of the programs reviewed got an unsatisfactory score. But by and large these were programs where money was committed but not spent. So in terms or efficiency, getting no results by spending no money is still efficient.

I haven't yet found a table showing the programs that were cancelled versus the AG findings, but from looking a a few examples, I suspect that there is little correlation between a program's effectiveness and its odds of survival.

That excuse is gone. We've got to make up for a lost year. Let's get back to work and get some targets and stick to them. That means restoring the housing programs, strong measures on vehicles and on oil production, emission trading, and incentives for consumers in collaboration with their provinces and utilities, to put money in their pockets in lieu of tax cuts. To quote the report, a massive scale up of our efforts is needed.

References
http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/domino/reports.nsf/html/c2006menu_e.html
http://www.gca.ca/indexcms/downloads/Programs%20that%20piggyback%20on%20EGH%20-1.pdf

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Wed, 27 Sep 2006

Auditor General: Curb the Oil Sands

The Auditor General of Canada is calling for real action to deal with CO2 emissions by Oil Sands, an emission trading program, and the strengthening of the policies of the previous government. Although it does not deal with this year's events, the programs that they say should be strengthened have recently been scrapped. Ironically, the reasoning for scrapping these programs was that the Auditor General's unreleased report was going to show those programs were ineffective.

We could argue for a while whether the National Post's version of the upcoming report is closer to the truth than the Globe and Mail's version, or we could just wait a few hours. I also don't want to discuss politics unnecessarily.

Other news on this front: comments from Energy minister Rona Ambrose seem to show that the new "Made in Canada" GHG reduction policy would be... California's plan. That's actually a very good start. Like in the U.S., where states like California and cities such as New York are trying to make up for federal government deficiencies, provinces such as Manitoba and Quebec have decided to spend money from barely balanced budgets to address this issue.

But now in good news: Hydro Quebec has announced cuts in future electricity prices. The major reason is the unexpected progress in energy efficiency among its customers, even greater than last's year's unexpected progress. This cuts down the requirement to make expensive investments to increase supply in peak periods. It therefore decided to use some of that money for more residential energy efficiency programs.

As I reported before, where investments are made to improve the energy efficiency of individuals, they pay off and energy use goes down. Individuals do cooperate, programs are relatively cheap, and they work better than a tax cut to put money in the pockets of individuals.

References
http://www.hydroquebec.com/4d_includes/surveiller/PcFR2006-127.htm
http://www.cyberpresse.ca/article/20060926/CPACTUALITES/60926120/1030/CPMONDE
http://www.gov.mb.ca/finance/budget06/b_in_b/index.html

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Fri, 15 Sep 2006

Trees Prevent Accidents

In a recent article in New Urban News, studies of accident statistics show that rows of trees along arterial roads reduce the incidence of car crashes. Although cars are more likely to run into trees when they are there (duh) they are less likely to hit other cars, or to kill or hurt pedestrians because the narrower visual field of the roadway makes them be more careful.

The article quotes Eric Dumbaugh, from Texas A&M, and his 2005 article, "Safe Streets, Livable Streets," in the Journal of the American Planning Association, and a follow-up article in the 2006 edition of Transportation Research Record.

Traffic engineers routinely oppose street trees, arguing they are unsafe. These are probably the same engineers who say we can build our way out of congestion. My favourite quote: "many traffic engineers work out of a pseudo-science" Hear, hear.

What some engineers, with their little proprietary models and extrapolations, don't get is that behaviour is not held constant when other variables are changed. The more complex behavioural models are in their infancy, so unfortunately, we often jump to wrong conclusions and spend billions on misguided solutions.

The article briefly mentions Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Monderman is a visionary who has been allowed to try out his wacky ideas on live people, and they seem to work. Although that is not in the article, Monderman thinks that traffic signs are a symptom of bad design and a well-designed intersection should be obvious, with enough non-verbal cues to have drivers adopt the right behaviour. He thinks drivers should focus their attention on others road users, not on signs and lights. He has no curbs, and no separation between cars and pedestrians at intersections and traffic circles. That makes motorists slow right down.

See also
https://www.planning.org/japa/pdf/JAPADumbaugh05.pdf
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.12/traffic.html
http://www.ecoplan.org/wtpp/general/nomination-letter-monderman.htm

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Wed, 13 Sep 2006

Author Anthony Flint Drops By

Since my review of his book is no longer on the front page of the blog, I thought I would point out that author Anthony Flint has contributed a comment about the review of This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America.

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Fri, 08 Sep 2006

Happy Anniversary, Star Trek

Star Trek turns 40 today. How are you celebrating?

Star Trek changed our world. A lot of current scientists and engineers were inspired by it when they were young. Cell phones came from Star Fleet's communicators, many uses of lasers were first thought up there, NASA's new Ion Propulsion system, and many other technologies were first proposed there, including some not invented yet.

But not just in technology, it also explored social and political issues. Star Trek had US television's first interracial kiss, a multiracial bridge, some same-sex romances, a russian officer during the cold war, many episodes about the ethics of war and peace during Vietnam, it put women in believable positions of authority, um, eventually, but also in its first failed pilot.

Not bad for the mid-sixties.

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Wed, 06 Sep 2006

Is High Density the Cure for Transportation?

It's about time I talk about my paper in last month's Ontario Planning Journal, Optimizing TOD Housing Mix and Density before it disappears from the internet.

In a nutshell, it explains that higher density in the form of houses reduces the total driving done within a city, but high density in the form of apartments does not. The article on the web has been significantly edited by the journal to remove the diagram and the references, in accordance with the style guide of that section of the publication. Here is a longer version.

I got interested in the topic of what is the ideal residential density for Transit Oriented Development (TOD) when I read something written by Peter Calthorpe (I can't find it any more) that proposed some very specific percentages of different housing types in different types of TOD projects, that included a lot of relatively low density forms. Contrast that with the Official Plans in Ontario, in places like the Golden Horseshoe and Ottawa, where density is to be as high as possible. A great deal of those plans are based on having nothing but high-density apartment buildings near where there is transit.

These are two very different approaches. What evidence do either of them have to support this. In Ontario I talked to a number of planners and read a lot of documents. It turns out that there is no real evidence other than extrapolation. So I put together a very simple model based on what I knew about vkt of different groups at different densities and distance from transit or from downtown. All of it was very orthodox numbers, and it showed first of all that there was an optimal density, a minimum above and below which total driving increased, and how to calculated it with really quite simple easily available data.

The paper was rejected. Apparently it was based on unprovable assumptions. Essentially the model was based on the self-selection bias. Build at higher density and the mix of households will tend toward smaller ones. But eventually, the smaller households are on average closer to transit and the larger ones further. The larger ones then drive more. But how do I know that households will move and how do I know which will change their driving behaviour and by how much?

So I went back to the drawing board and took a detailed look at the data released by the 2001 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) in the U.S. They have a wealth of data and make it available. Rather than doing it group by group, and using statistics to see where people would eventually move to in response to development, I did the analysis based on the housing form, much more directly measurable. What I found was so surprising that I spent weeks going carefully through the weighting factors, sampling errors, and non-respondent corrections to make sure that it was not just a statistical anomaly.

The graph shows the story: for people living in single houses and townhouses, the relationship between density and total amount driven is pretty well according to common knowledge: if you live in higher density you drive less. But for people in apartments, the story is very different. First, in medium and high densities apartment dwellers drive more than house dwellers. Second, increasing the density has less effect on apartment dwellers than on house dwellers. Third, apartment dwellers drive much less in low density.

Also, by trying out the density graph with density measured at different levels (density of your block vs density of your neighbourhood vs density of your area) the effect is very local: block-level density is a better predictor of your car use than neighbourhood density.

For several different variations on types of apartments, the results are similar, and most of the graphs are much worse than this one; apartment dwellers actually drive more, not less, at higher density. But those conclusions are more difficult to be confident about, especially since they are more controversial. Some housing forms are rarer at low densities, so the sample sizes get pretty small for some points.

The results are actually quite shocking and show that not only does apartment-based high density do nothing to reduce car use, it actually has the opposite effect. High density does little or nothing to reduce car use of apartment dwellers. Density does, however, improve the picture when it is applied to houses and duplexes.

So if the objective of a plan is to reduce the total number of vehicles on the roads, concentrate on houses and townhouses and put them in as high a density as you can. As for apartments, it doesn't seem to matter much whether they are in high or low density. You don't get much reduction in vehicle use by putting them in high density.

So why do individual TOD densification projects show good results? This is where self-selection comes in. If the major advantage of your new apartments is that they are near transit, then those people who would use transit anyway tend to move there. That doesn't necessarily mean that there are more people using transit, it means there are more people using transit right in the vicinity. If they would have used transit anyway, then you have no new transit riders. But now you may have one less transit rider living further from transit, and the household replacing them further from transit may well now switch to cars in a big way.

This may be one of the lessons to be learned from Portland and other cities. You can have a lot of individual localized success stories, but you have to look at the big picture. If your overall transit ridership does not grow and your total vehicle distance driven does not fall you have not made any progress.

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Tue, 29 Aug 2006

Free Lessons on Manual Transmission

Here is an easy program to reduce GHG emissions: free lessons to switch from automatic to manual transmission.

Manual transmission is about 10% more efficient on average, but even more since car makers know that the energy-conscious are more likely to buy them. But most people in North America don't buy these cars even though they are cheaper to buy and cheaper to drive. Why? They never learned. Driving schools and dad's car often don't have the option. The driving test is hard enough without it.

A subsidy program to give free or almost free lessons on standard (manual) transmission to licensed driver is highly targeted to people who would reduce their GHG emissions. Even people who drive a standard already could benefit from lessons since the efficiency of a standard depends on how you drive it. Subsidizing lessons is a one-time cost in order to save 10% or more on gas. It's also a good way to make it cost-efficient for driving schools to get standards in their fleet.

If it succeeds, fuel-saving driving techniques could also be taught for other types of vehicles. Simple things like learning how and when to accelerate have a huge effect on fuel efficiency.

As an aside, I drove a Renault Megane Scenic while in Europe. Manual (it's Europe) diesel, with incredible fuel efficiency. Over 1,000 km on a 50 Euro tankful of diesel, seating 5 comfortably, plenty of luggage, driving 130 km/hr over mountain passes. Translation, 625 miles, US$64, 80 mph. Despite European gas prices, it's cheaper to drive there.

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Thu, 24 Aug 2006

Dedicated Servers Rented by the Hour

Amazon has released a new service into limited Beta: Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2). Essentially this lets you boot up and shut down as many server instances as you want, and pay for them hour by hour, with no long-term contract.

You want a Linux machine as a web server? It's up and running in minutes, and starts billing you 10 cents per hour until it's shut down. The site is popular and you need more capacity? Add more machines. It's less than $75 per month for a virtual dedicated machine, plus bandwidth. If you want to separate the web server, application server and database server, just ask for more machines and they are there within minutes.

These are actually virtual machines, but the initial disk image is what you want it to be. If a machine is shut down, its disk gets wiped. If you want permanent storage, you can use the existing Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service).

This option is great for startups. You never know if a new service will catch on, and scaling up can be painful from an operational and financial point of view. This new Amazon service is an innovative modern version of the old mainframe service bureau.

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Wed, 23 Aug 2006

Classified Ad: Scientist Opinion for Sale

Money is a little tight right now, so here is how I intend to pay the bills.

Scientist with related PhD will interpret data to fit any position on Global Warming. Can dismiss other facts as self-serving conspiracy. No recent peer-reviewed climatology papers to contradict opinion. Highest bidder + travel & living.

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Why not Build Medieval Towns Here?

I just came back from a trip to Europe to visit relatives. While I was there I visited several medieval towns in Umbria. Looking at them I thought why don't people still build towns this way?image from Google Maps

The towns I saw were mostly built in the middle ages, but on top of a Roman town which itself was built on top of earlier Etruscan and Umbrian settlements from 2500 years ago or more. They are often built on rocky southern hillsides, taking away very little agricultural land and giving everyone some sunlight and fresh air.

These towns are the archetypal walkable neighbourhoods, built thousands of years ago according to urban planning rules we are only now rediscovering. Inside the medieval or Roman walls, the streets are relatively narrow. Everyone walks or bikes and cars are mostly parked outside the walls. The streets are animated with kids running everywhere. There is ground level retail with housing above. There are all sorts of squares and public spaces. The houses are stuck together, with quieter residential areas down narrow laneways. There are lush private rear gardens and courtyards, more private than here because they are virtually invisible from the street. Outside the walls, the density is lower, but still high by North American standards. There is a relatively sharp boundary between urban and rural. Despite thousands of years of agriculture and development, there are always old forests within a few miles.image from Google Maps

Now, even in Italy not everyone wants to live like this. But here I don't know of a single example of this type of town planning. I bet that if you build it they will come. Include the narrow streets so that there is a reason to only have the small yet remarkably roomy European type cars, and people will be happy to live a much more energy efficient lifestyle. It will be difficult legally; even New Urbanism developments have to get relief from a lot of zoning rules. But so worthwhile.

 

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Tue, 01 Aug 2006

Green Roofs: Enough Energy Impact to Make a Difference?

The city of Toronto now has a Green Roof Pilot Program to encourage green roof construction. These small grants are more recognition than incentive. Shouldn't the energy savings be incentive enough?

Actually the savings to the building owner are relatively small, but new research is making it more appealing. A green roof is useful in the summer. It blocks some sunlight, and by absorbing and releasing water it diverts stormwater from the sewers and does some evaporative cooling of the roof. In winter, some types of designs can even reduce heat loss by insulation and by acting as a wind barrier. Technology in improving and energy costs are up, but the investment, extra weight, and maintenance are still high enough to not make the savings worthwhile.

The real benefit is that green roofs can combat heat island effect, where an entire city heats up in part because of its albedo. The higher temperature increases everyone's air conditioning use, and increases the incidence of smog. So the savings accrue not just to the building owner, but to the rest of the city.

I have been suspicious of green roofs in the past. Some buildings that I know tell me that they are not successful as recreation space: no one goes there and when they do the cost of maintenance is very high. So when a builder proposes to increase the building's lot coverage by putting the required outdoor amenity area on the roof, I can't support it. As outdoor amenity areas go, whether they are private or public, they will not have the same value as ground-level God's green earth natural space. The fact of having your garden at ground level where everyone can see it is a great incentive to keep it in good condition. Ground-level gardens are better at filtering water before it reaches the water table, and is better for the critters that maintain a healthy ecosystems. Bunnies, squirrels and toads don't take the elevator.

I hope the green roof movement does not lead to an increase in building footprints, which would make the ground even more impervious, but as long as it is not counted as amenity space it is a welcome addition to cities.

References:
http://www.greenroofs.net/
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20060725.PRGREENROOF25/TPStory/Business

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Sat, 29 Jul 2006

Free Transit: The Carrot and Making It Stick

The San Francisco area's "Spare the Air" days, where transit was free (see previous post), are over, and some transit agencies are reporting that ridership is up even though it's not free any more. The introductory offer has some people hooked.

This is despite the fact that regular riders complained loudly that the free days were crowded and unpleasant, and that extra delays made them late. Imagine how many people would switch if the newbies could experience a normal level of service.

The Bay area is already looking at extending the number free days next year. Looked at in terms of the cost per rider on the few free days, the program is expensive. But viewed from a marketing perspective, the cost of acquiring a new customer is relatively low.

I've mused before about free transit, mostly to dismiss it as being as poor a policy instrument as the Canadian federal transit tax rebate. But properly targeted as a marketing tools, it could be pretty cost-effective.

Imagine this scenario: your household has two cars. What if a couple of months before exipry the second car licence, the renewal papers had the following offer: Here is a voucher for 2 months of transit passes in your name. If you renew your licence during those 2 months, the cost of the passes will be added on to your fees. If not, the passes are free. We have arranged a simple process with all insurance companies to make it easy to suspend your car insurance for 2 months. The money you same on insurance can pay for a few more months of passes. And here is a list of employers who will match those passes, making it 4 months free.

Simple, cheap, targeted. A little unfair, maybe, to add the cost of the passes to the fees of those who don't use them, but disguising the costs in a fee increase would make the deal less compelling. Add in some car-sharing vouchers for when you really need a second car and you can make a real dent in auto use and have people like it.

References:
http://www.insidebayarea.com/trivalleyherald/localnews/ci_4096495
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2006/07/28/EDGOBIPVU31.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/sfgate/detail?blogid=13&entry_id=7417

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Free Transit: the Answer to Air Pollution?

The San Francisco area has just had experimental "Spare the Air" days where transit was free. These were so successful that city officials are wondering about making it free all the time.

San Francisco has a big problem with smog, and these are getting more frequent in all sorts of cities as well. The free fare days occured when smog was expected. They increased transit ridership by 15%. In parts of the network it went up by as much as 500%.

The free transit days are driven by a very interesting federal policy that cuts transportation funding to cities for every day with poor air quality. Unfortunately, the Bay area didn't succeed in cutting pollution enough to avoid the funding cuts.

Cities already know they can't pave their way out of congestion. Can free transit solve it? The city gets savings from less transportation infrastructure required. More transit brings more density (some think it's the other way around, but they're probably wrong) so all sorts of other municipal costs go down relative to the tax base. Money for free transit can be raised from other sources, like tolls and parking taxes.

Some cities like Portland and Seattle have made transit free in the downtown area. It seems to make financial sense for them. It certainly makes financial sense for commuters. The cost of driving is incredible. It costs you $20-30 per day to drive an average new car. This is already over 5 times more than transit. But the perceived cost is much lower compared to driving, so by removing the cost of transit altogether, money is removed as a factor.

References:
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/07/26/BAGCTK5I041.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/07/27/BAGK1K5ED41.DTL

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Thu, 27 Jul 2006

Nightclub Loses Licence so Residents Won't Lose Sleep

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) has revoked a longstanding nightclub's liquor licence because of noise complaints from neighbouring residents. In the past I have seen the AGCO impose severe restrictions on a licence, but actually losing the licence is unusual.

BlogTO post

This recent decision highlights what is increasingly becoming a problem with mixed uses in cities. Separation of uses, the old way of doing things, avoided this type of problem. Where families sleep remained quiet. But as soon as you stop having large separations between uses, you then have to manage the incompatibilities. If in addition you have higher densities, these problems affect a larger number of people at once. Ironically, most zoning allows more disruptive uses the higher the density.

Not managing the mixing of uses with more restrictive behavioural controls brings on a different and more damaging type of separation: segregation by age, income, and lifestyle. When you decide to associate noisy and disruptive mixed uses with residential forms, the result is a migration of households with children and more well-off families out of those areas. Higher density areas then have a very narrow set of demographics. Besides the social costs of this segregation, the people who leave will go for larger lots further away and drive more, creating environmental and financial costs.

The price of denser mixed uses is that noise standards must be very strict. There was a time when urban neighbourhoods could expect civil behaviour from customers of the local nightlife. But now the enforcement of social standards has declined, and must be replaced with laws and legal enforcement, preferrably with advocacy for the low-income. Party-goers hate it, they get fined and their hangouts get closed, but it has to be done. It's probably possible to have a good time without making noise that wakes the school kids.

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Wed, 26 Jul 2006

Changes to the Pagerank Algorithm

PageRank has been declared dead over and over, usually by people who only have a vague idea about the algorithm. Every now and then I read an amusing (to me) article about how no one knows what the algorithm is and then proceeds to speculate. These are usually people who charge money for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) services.

The article describing the algorithm was published even before Google existed as a company. The only thing that is not published is the value of the base of the logarithm that takes it from an open-ended scale to a 0-10 scale. It is thought to be between 5 and 6 and to vary. Despite its flaws, it is probably the best method there is to measure the relative importance of web pages.

The problem with pagerank is that it can be manipulated. People can agree on reciprocal linking schemes, or pay or trick someone into linking to a page whose intrinsic importance does not warrant it. Google is known to fight this in a number of ways, but possibly not in the PageRank algorithm itself. There are other factors besides PR in the rankings.

In a recent report that is frustratingly just a bit short on methodology, Fortune Interactive determined that inbound link quality and quantity are still major factors in figuring out ranking. Their definition of "quality" is missing, but Pagerank is one possible one. There are other definitions of "quality" hanging around, including different weights for different top-level domains. That one seems unlikely since GOV, EDU, ORG, etc, are very US-centric. However, I do note that where where Google ranking differs from other engines it is higher for non-com TLDs.

I would guess that the PageRank algorithm itself has been little changed over the years. Yet in light of the plague of manipulation of PageRank in recent years, a few changes to the PR algorithm itself have been proposed to automate the detection of links intended to manipulate it.

My favourite is the adaptive epsilon algorithm, which is simple and consistent with the intent of PageRank. Essentially this one changes the damping factor, or the proportion of a page's rank that is not propagated to the pages it links to, when the odds of coming back to the same page are too high. This is an indicator of collusion.

Another one is SpamRank, a more complex algorithm that looks at the distribution of the pagerank of the pages that link to your site. If there is an unusual relative number of low-rank sites that link to a page, it is evidence of a linking stategy or even of a spambot.

I wonder why there aren't more people doing serious statistical work to determine whether Google has changed the PR algorithm and if so why. For instance the PageRank of this site is a mystery. The site currently has a PR of 4. According to Google, the only external backlink it lists is a PR3 link from deep within the ODP index on a page with many external links. It's in a fly-by-night type of domain. I can't explain it.

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Sat, 15 Jul 2006

Off-peak Power for Electric Cars

With the recent release of Who Killed the Electric Car? and the narrow ideological niche it tries to appeal to, and the rise of the Cal Cars plug-in hybrids and its hype based on misleading mpg numbers, maybe it's time to start getting serious about off-peak electricity consumption at the consumer level.

First of all, despite the publicity's almost religious conviction in trumped-up numbers and political conspiracies, these technologies do have a lot of merit if, and there's a lot of work and expense behind this if, they can use off-peak power.

First my complaints about plug-in hybrid electric vehicle hype. Some claim they are 100+ mpg cars. They are not. Most of the time they are hybrid vehicles with about the same (maybe slightly less) efficiency as other hybrid cars. The extra miles they claim to travel on the same gallon of gas aren't powered by gas but come from a wall socket to recharge the batteries. The gallons of crude required to produce that energy aren't being counted, and if they were, the overall efficiency would be lower than that of a hybrid car. Figures and debate upon request, but really that's not the most important benefit of the electric or part-electric cars.

The fact is that even by just shifting the combustion of fossil fuels from individual internal combustion engines to electric power plants, we avoid putting a lot of hydrocarbons into the air. This is the stuff that causes smog and is more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2. Secondly, not all electrical power is produced by burning hydrocarbons. A significant component comes from renewable resources and nuclear power. Many of these sources have a fatal flaw: they can't easily increase and decrease production based on demand. When everyone gets home and turns on their air conditioner, the evening sun and wind aren't accommodating.

What renewable power needs to be commercially viable is economical storage capacity: massive banks of batteries to store electricity at night so that it can be used during the day, and people willing to pay money for electricity that gets produced at a time when nobody wants it. This is where electric and PHEVs comes in.

PHEV users may be willing to buy electricity at night at retail prices, store it at no cost to the utility, and use it later. Rather than spending their transportation dollars on gas, they spend it on batteries. This is similar to what hybrid users are doing, except that in this case the consumer's investment reduces the utility's investment, and allows it to rely more on renewables.

This economic formula only works if actual off-peak power is being used. If these cars are plugged in during peak hours, then the opposite happens. The utility woudl have to increase its peak capacity, which means high expense and greater reliance on fossil fuels. The current crop of PHEV enthusiasts say they will only plug in the car at off-peak times, but this is unlikely. Firstly, you plug it in when you get home - at peak hours. That is convenient and human nature, and without complex metering it costs you the same. Secondly, off-peak recharging will only top you up for your morning commute. This is about 20% of the daily driving according to recent statistics. Afternoon and evening driving now dominate the stats, and PHEVs will have to plug in during peak times in order to satisfy this driving demand.

In order for this to work, you need a better guarantee that only off-peak charging is done, and this has to be done with minimum cost to the utility. Some countries already have separate off-peak circuits. No complicated circuits, timers, or metering. In addition to your normal power plugs, the off-peak outlets have power only for random times at night. Plug the car into that outlet and hours later the power will turn on, and shows up on a separate line on your power bill. Only those who intend to use cheaper off-peak power will have the extra outlets and meter installed.

Some power companies around the world already have separate off-peak circuits. Some use a device called the Zellweger switch so that devices can be switched on and off while using the same circuit. The utility can send the switch some signals using the power lines as a carrier.

My own house has a "smart meter" as part of a pilot program. It measures my power use hour by hour, and can charge me based on a complex algorithm. It is an expensive way of metering. It takes a great deal of effort for me to get a tiny bit of insight into my household's consumption, and it gives me absolutely no help in changing my consumption pattern. Oh, and they intend to recover the cost of it from me even though it has no effect on my electricity consumption.

We've got to do better than that. We need proper off-peak switching and metering infrastructure, to benefit from the electric cars and renewables in a way that actually reduces GHG emissions.

References:

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Thu, 06 Jul 2006

Transit Tax Credit: How Much Per Ride?

Remember this Conservative party press release?

December 30, 2005

OTTAWA – In response to the Conservative Transit Pass Tax Credit, David Jeanes, President of Transport 2000, has incorrectly suggested in several news reports that the Tax Credit applies only to monthly-pass holders. On the contrary, under a Conservative government, any purchase of transit passes or tickets will be deductible so long as receipts are provided...

The details have been released, and it turns out that Jeanes was in fact correct. The tax credit only applies to monthly passes, thereby avoiding the "negative funding" scenario where transit systems would have had to incur costs associated with issuing receipts for cash fares and tickets. The expired pass itself is a tax receipt, and any combination of documents that proves that a monthly pass was purchased will do.

This program obviously addresses high-income suburban transit users. Refundable tax credits don't apply to low income households anyway, so removing the program's cash fare and ticket portion doesn't have much addition impact on low-income riders, the backbone of urban ridership. Still, these are the people who drive the most, and where the ghg savings are greatest.

The Finance minister's statement says the tax credit is to address gridlock. An interesting perspective. At some point I'll write about whether gridlock is good or bad for transit demand. The energy minister's statement predicts it will cause a 5% increase in ridership.

Does that mean that 95% of the money spent has no effect because it goes to people that were transit riders already? Not quite: most transit riders get nothing because they are not rich enough. Remember that Energuide for houses, where the money only goes to those who reduce GHG consumption, was cancelled because the minister claimed that 50% went for measuring energy losses rather than for the actual work? (In a televised committee hearing he admitted his officials disagreed with his figures)

So how much does this initiative cost per transit ride? There were 1.6 billion transit rides in 2005. A 5% increase is 80 million new trips. The program is predicted to cost $220 million per year. That adds up to $2.75 per new trip. That is more expensive than handing out free bus passes.

References:
http://www.conservative.ca/1113/37893/
http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/whatsnew/items/transit-e.html
http://www.fin.gc.ca/news06/06-031e.html
http://ca.news.yahoo.com/s/05072006/2/national-tories-tout-tax-break-transit-riders-environmentalists-remain-skeptical.html

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Sat, 01 Jul 2006

An Alternative to Net Neutrality

Network neutrality is a principle that all those who use the internet are equal and should be given the same quality of service, access, and pricing. It is a reaction against the ability of large large companies who carry both their own data and other people's data that they will let their own data jump the queue, and slow down or disable competitors. The recent initiative to legislate net neutrality in the U.S. just failed, barely.

On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for the ability to specify Quality of Service (QoS) on the internet. For instance, if you are listening to music broadcast over the internet and at the same time backing up a payroll file, you might like to say the file has priority and let the quality of the music degrade a bit if we run into a bandwidth crunch. Similarly, let my e-mail be delayed by a second or two, it's not that urgent.

We do it all the time to the extent that it is possible. That's what UDP is for: do your best to deliver this data packet, but if it gets lost I won't force you to track it down. I switch from Voice over IP to dedicated lines when VOIP quality get too low. Back in the old days we used UUCP to transport e-mail "whenever", and newsgroups were relayed as slowly as necessary. Still today, you get the speed and latency you pay for. You set up web servers and DNS services on the best backbone you can afford, with distributed servers linked by dedicated lines if budget allows. You can pay for "shortcuts" and "toll lanes", network providers who can shave milliseconds off delivery times by avoiding the crowded public networks and magically transporting your packets closer to their destination in a single hop. Operating systems almost always work that way: every task has a relative priority. If you set everything to highest priority, your computer slows down.

I haven't followed very closely the standards involved, but I see nothing wrong with being allowed to attach a QoS indicator to some of the network traffic, and to do so cooperatively - both the sending and receiving party agree to the relative importance of a data flow, both in terms of speed and acceptable loss. What's to stop people from always wanting top speed? Well, that's what money was invented for, to find a way to distribute scarce goods and services.

What is dangerous is when the phone and cable companies, who also give you network access for the VOIP that cuts into their revenues, are allowed to sabotage their competition and give their own service a boost. That's like giving taxi companies the right to set bus schedules.

So I see nothing wrong with being able to set quality of service according to standards and even paying for it, but the ones receiving the money shouldn't be the ones with a competing service, who can boost their own priority and not pay cash for it like the others. How about paying into a fund for educational access to the net, when the average priority of your packets is too high?

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Mon, 26 Jun 2006

Contested Streets: The Movie

I just noticed this on the Curbed web site. Contested Streets is a movie about the evolution of New York City's streets from public space to a conduit for efficient conveyance of cars and trucks. The premiere is tomorrow.

New York is very different from other U.S. cities. When doing any comparative analysis on urban issues, and particularly transportation issues, you have to exclude New York City as a special case. I've done it myself a few times - exclude New York and the data lines up in nice smooth straght lines. Include it, and the lines move up and down, and you have to change the scale of the graph to allow for some enormous densities and extreme transit use. A third of the country's transit users and two-thirds of the rail users are in NYC. Most households don't own a car. So when the streets are taken away from pedestrians and given over to cars, we are talking about the majority giving up civic space for a minority.

But New York is also a special case of sprawl. Its suburbs keep on getting bigger and lower in density, without any population increase. This is a sign that sprawl is not caused by population growth or by lack of public transit.

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Wed, 21 Jun 2006

Born Again in an Atheocracy

I had to get a new birth certificate. My original one had been issued by my parish at the time of my baptism, as was the centuries-old legal practice at the time I was born. That birth certificate was still valid until a couple of years ago.

Then the Quebec government decided that only it had the right to issue these documents, and I had to request a new one. Religious authorities are retroactively not allowed to be the registrar of births. Unless I be born again in a secular state, I shall not get travel documents to enter the Kingdom next door.

This is somewhat like what people in Ontario have to do to assume their spouse's surname. The government issues them a new birth certificate with the new last name. They are retroactively re-born with the new last name, as though the union had been arranged at birth.

On a similar subject, I am surprised that churches, which several decades ago gave up to the state the right to maintain their respective registries of marriages, are still participating in the provincial registration of marriages now that their conception of marriage and that of civil authorities are increasingly divergent.

The annulments and divorces granted by civil authorities are already not recognized by the Catholic church, that must therefore maintain its own registries. And from a legal and civil point of view being recorded as married by the government is increasingly irrelevant.

So why don't the religions that are uncomfortable with the role of the state in the institution of marriage simply stop participating in the civil registration of marriages? So what if the government thinks you're just shacked up, you still get insurance and still have to pay child support. Then we could have a full separation between civil marriages and religious ones and each camp could stop complaining about what the other is doing to the institution. Render unto Caesar, but not if you think it isn't Caesar's.

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Tue, 20 Jun 2006

Legally Binding Community Benefits Agreements

Is the latest Community Benefits Agreement proposed for Brooklyn's massive 9 million square foot Atlantic Yards project a model of corporate responsibility, or is it adding bribery to the project's already shaky track record?

When failings in a project are pointed out by community groups, there is a new trend of using benefits packages rather than changing the project, consisting of a contribution to the group's favourite charity, which in the Brooklyn case is sometimes the group itself. In many jurisdictions, these benefits have included employment, low rent, even free tickets to sporting events. But mostly cash.

New York City, as opposed to other jurisdictions, does not become a signatory to these agreements, and does not consider them as part of the zoning review process. Good for New York!

These agreements amount to a mutual understanding that the project is a fundamentally bad one. They use money to subvert the democratic process, by silencing opponents. It is particularly effective against the poor, who have a real ethical dilemna: a choice between real money that can do actual good, weighed against the abstractions of possible lost future opportunities and democratic principles that no one else seems to care about.

The fact of a city taking these deals into consideration when deciding on zoning permissions is probably a bad idea. I've been involved in some of these deals. One of the reasons they work is that the developer can credibly have the alternative of using the money on lobbying and lawyering that will get the project approved anyway. Community groups, particularly in poor areas, easily believe that the system will not stand up for them if enough money and influence is thrown at it.

One city in Ontario, even proposed price schedule - how large a cash contribution toward a public housing fund would get you how much added floor space to your zoning. Zoning for sale, but without a guarantee, city council still has to vote.

So development keeps on living with the reputation that large development projects are intrinsically bad and not worth fixing, and that the system is corruptible. What a way to build a city for future generations.

See Also: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/14/realestate/commercial/14agree.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

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Sun, 18 Jun 2006

Vancouver has it right - Ecodensity

Vancouver's new Ecodensity initiative is being incorrectly described as a high-density plan by the media, and even a higher-density downtown plan by the Globe and Mail. They got the story wrong.

The plan tries to distribute density that is higher than before in low-density neighbourhoods, and concentrates on Vancouver's 18 neighbourhood centres. High quality of neighbourhood planning and of architecture are hallmarks of the plan. It also addresses affordability, promises investments in greenspace and public amenities, and proposes to start the process with extensive public consultation to help citizens make choices.

Bravo, Vancouver.

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Sat, 17 Jun 2006

Ontario has it wrong - Places to Grow

Ontario's latest version of the Places to Grow plan for the Golden Horseshoe area around Toronto was just released. It has several good points, but it falls down badly when it comes to density, where it relies on dogma rather than actual knowledge.

It gets it generally right when it comes to higher densities for greenfield development, bringing it up to transit-supporting density and creating complete communities with a mix of uses.

When Ontario has it all wrong is in the growth targets for Urban Growth Centres. It is planning to have extremely high residential densities in and near the downtowns of all major cities. This part of the plan will fuel sprawl and increase GHG emissions.

The cities with the densest centres have the greatest sprawl. The highest densities are achieved at the expense of existing heritage neighbourhoods where families live, and these dnesities do a fine job of isolating people and segregating people by demographic and income factors. This fuels a flight to the suburbs.

Statistics are quite clear on this: apartment dwellers do not drive any less by living in higher density. House dwellers do. By replacing the house dwellers near downtown with apartment dwellers, you are taking the segment of the population that drives the least and transforming them into the segment that drives the most.

Too bad, Ontario.

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Mon, 29 May 2006

Average household size - up or down?

I may just be over-sensitive, but I must have heard 3 different journalists on 3 different urban planning stories referring to the decreasing average household size as the reason for various real estate trends and planning decisions.

It's common knowledge that the average household is shrinking, what with the divorce rate, fewer children, mobility, and empty nesters living longer. The problem is, it's NOT TRUE.

The average household size is now going up, not down, just about everywhere in North America. It had been steadily going down since 1960. In the late 80's or early 90's it stabilized, and since then it's been going up slowly. The U.S. leads the trend, with a small increase from 2.59 to 2.60 between 2000 and 2004, and very significant increases in family size. In Canada, the trend lags behind the U.S. a bit; the average size is stable at 2.6 in 2001 like in 1996 (there is rounding, it actually did go down a bit).

Yet urban planners, who should be looking into the future, are still making policies based on trends of the past.

References
http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/SAFFFacts

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Mark Jaccard - Economists' Self-delusion about GHGs

Apparently SFU professor Mark Jaccard, now writing a report for the conservative C.D. Howe Institute, says that the Green Plan was ineffective, while citing figures showing what a big dent it was putting into the problem, despite dismissing as ineffective programs on which he has no data.

Jaccard, an economist, says the Green Plan, most of whose elements have recently been cancelled and not replaced, would have reduced emissions by 175 megatonnes compared with a business-as-usual scenario, far short of the 230 to 300 Mt. reduction required to meet Canada's Kyoto target. He is quick to dismiss the effect of new programs introduced late last year as "negligible". I don't believe any data has yet been collected on their effectiveness, so the fact that he is using his opinions as though they were facts somewhat reduces the value of the conclusions. However, his recommendation of what is essentially a carbon tax is a sound one.

To me, Jaccard crossed over from serious academic to borderline crackpot with his book "Sustainable Fossil Fuels - The Unusual Suspect in the Quest for Clean and Enduring Energy" in which his "solution" is to keep on increasing the use of fossil fuels but sequester the carbon dioxide by pumping it underground, creating vast pools of Perrier water out of sight and out of mind. He cites this as a "technology" but it is at best conjecture that this may be within the realm of future possibility.

I was shocked that this book won the prestigious Donner prize. I worked through some of his figures and they are disingenuous low and high estimates designed to support his contention. I suspect he had to go back over his draft several times until the figures started supporting his thesis.

Jaccard has scoffed in the past at geologists trying to estimate oil production. Leave that to the economists, he says. Yet he himself has to rely on an imaginary geophysical deus ex machina in order to let economists solve the global warming problem. Oh well. He has no faith in fundamental changes in behaviour, but he is still trying to solve the problem, somehow.

In a fact that was only reported by the French-speaking media in Canada, greenhouse gas emissions actually decreased in 2004 in Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador. The provinces with 2/3 of the population and the bulk of the industrial output stopped increasing their GHG emissions and actually cut them. This is good news!

Now, Ontario's per capita emissions are just 16.8 tonnes per resident, Quebec's is 12.2 tonnes. On the other hand, Alberta's is a whopping 70.9 tonnes per capita. Those who emit least still managed to cut their emissions, but those who emit most keep increasing.

The solution is clear: keep on working with people to reduce their emission. The plan is working and the growth trend has reversed. But that will do no good unless the oil and coal industries, particularly heavy oil and tar sands, are brought into line with what the population clearly wants. Bush delayed action on climate change until unspecified research goals were achieved. We should put a halt to oil sands and heavy oil extraction until research makes Mark Jaccard's "Sustainable Fossil Fuels" predictions for prices and technology achievable.

References
http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Canada/2006/05/28/1602520-cp.html
http://www.ledevoir.ca/2006/05/27/110163.html?304
http://www.parl.gc.ca/39/1/parlbus/chambus/house/debates/021_2006-05-11/han021_1250-E.htm

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Sat, 06 May 2006

Quiet Death of Energuide for Houses

In what is either a brilliant or an incompetent communication strategy, the death of the Energuide for Low-Income Houses program was tentatively announced by one of the Canadian government agencies responsible for it. The other agency says, essentially, that cabinet no longer tells the ministry about which of their programs are funded.

In a small story I read this morning, a CMHC spokesman was "guessing" that the program had been axed, while a spokesman for Natural Resources Canada would not confirm or deny it, essentially admitting the minister doesn't know. The CMHC is an independent agency and has a bit more freedom in their communication. Energuide for Low-Income Houses is a program that helps low-income people deal with the high investment required to make their house or small apartment building more energy-efficient.

Last November's "fiscal update" contained funding for this program, among other measures. The May 2nd budget seems to cancel most of these measures and confirms some of them. This program does not seem to be among those mentioned as confirmed. The budget doesn't say either way. The actual money for a lot of climate change programs ended at the end of last March, and groups receiving funding under those programs started to complain that there had been no routine extension to the next fiscal year, nor even an announcement about it.

My guess is that CMHC is reading between the lines of the budget document and 3 days later came to the conclusion that the money was gone. NRCan, who shares responsibility for this program, is probably too timid to read between the lines and announce it. The Ministry of Finance isn't telling even their own departments one way or the other, is what I read into this news.

How many other programs will be dropped in this way, through unconfirmed rumours spread over several days rather than through an official document saying which programs are and aren't being funded? This isn't a hidden agenda, it's hidden minutes.

If it works, it's a revolutionary way to make government policy. Quietly let programs lapse without telling even the bureaucrats. There are no facts to react to, so no organized reaction against it. If people do complain, claim an honest misunderstanding, a delay in the paperwork, and accuse people of distorting the absent facts.

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Tue, 02 May 2006

Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, and Barry Wellman

Reflecting on the recent death of Jane Jacobs, it is amazing to see how true her 1961 book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" still sounds 45 years later. Jacobs has been called the most influential urban planner of the century. Even though she wasn't actually qualified as a planner, I'll allow it since the qualifications required to become a planner are so wrong anyway. But influential? The reason that the book rings so true today is that the problems she identified a half-century ago are now worse than ever. She managed to slow down the worst excesses of 60's style "urban renewal", and some planners pay lip service to the principles that Jacobs proposed, but actually getting to work at incorporating them into planning has not yet happened. I'm afraid her influence has yet to be felt.

Another unknown classic of urban planning from the 60's is Christopher Alexander's "A City Is Not A Tree", a precursor to his extremely important work "A Pattern Language". Nothing of any real importance on the topic of urban planning has been written since then. I asked a number of professional planners how it is used in their work. None had heard of Alexander. It's as if physicists ignored Einstein.

Alexander is an architect and a mathematician. The "tree" he refers to is not a perennial woody plant, but a mathematical structure from graph theory. In the original work, and later extensions by physicist Nikos Salingaros, it is explained how cities build on a hierarchical pattern and with separation of uses have less connections between people and activities. The math to determine whether a city is "alive" or "dead" is quite straightforward. The link between structures and human beings is also quite straightforward and predictable. The beauty of the approach, in fact the point of the approach is that human beings are central at every scale.

Coming at it from the point of view of mathematics, Alexander reached many of the same conclusions as Jacobs, about how people and structures interact to make a functioning whole. However the solution is not a top-down planned assembly of identical groupings of buildings each tied to each other through higher-order connections. Each neighbourhood should overlap with the next one with a minimum of barriers and corridors. High-rise buildings are not an essential component. In fact based on Alexander's principles, Salingaros wrote the essay "The End of Tall Buildings" with James Howard Kunstler, calling high-rises vertical gated communities.

So we have known since the early sixties: build neighbourhoods with a sense of place. Interconnect them every which way. Keep everything human scale. Repeat patterns but adapt them don't copy them. The community will grow out of this sense of place and interconnection. Investment in places turn into investments in "social capital", a term first coined by Jacobs. We've known all this for 40 years and have been building exactly the opposite.

Like the topology of cities, the topology of social relations is studied by Toronto sociologist Barry Wellman. Our personal sense of community is no longer place-based, at least in the suburbs that Wellman studies. Based on an analysis that predates the internet but has been confirmed and perhaps accelerated by it, Wellman says that the presumed social patterns made up of groups where individuals are highly connected within the group and have weak links to outsiders has been turned inside out. Instead we live in a society of "networked individualism" where our relationships are "glocalized". We retreat into a dark room and communicate from there. It doesn't mean that local community is dead, internet users know their neighbours better than non-users, but place no longer commands allegiance, and it no longer has a major role in creating social links.

So 40 years later we are living in different society. Does that change the relevance of Jacobs and of Alexander? What types of places and linkages best support the new structure of social relations? Visionary that he was, and remains, Christopher's analysis still applies to the new social realities.

Two urban planners, two network theorists, two New York-born torontonians, three visionaries in all.

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References
http://www.katarxis3.com/Jacobs.htm
http://www.arq.ufmg.br/rcesar/alex/alexander/alexander1.html
http://www.patternlanguage.com/
http://www.planetizen.com/node/27
http://www.planetizen.com/node/104
http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/vita/vitweb.htm

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Mon, 01 May 2006

Review of This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America

The recently-released book "This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America" by Anthony Flint, is the story of sprawl, the movements to curb it, and the backlash against these movements. Flint, a Boston Globe journalist, has been writing about sprawl and urbanism for 20 years, whenever his editor allowed.

Flint maintains a veneer of journalistic distance from the subject, where the eco-terrorists who torch suburban developments and big-box stores are given the same sympathetic ear as the frustrated landowner who over decades of trying to fill in some wetlands, has seen the value of his property erode as land use laws got more stringent. But behind all of this, Flint seems to view Smart Growth as plain common sense and he is sincerely trying to understand the point of view of those who oppose it. He identifies the players who have a distinct financial interest in promoting sprawl. Those arguments he can understand. But he clearly has a harder time with those who oppose specific smart growth proposals for reasons other than money.

The book is meant to be a compelling story for laymen. You won't find a lot of facts and figures in this book, and the few facts he gives are often wrong. However the book comes alive when the author actually meets with the protagonists. He relishes his encounters with New Urbanism guru Andrés Duany, who he describes as swaggering and charming, a caffeinated Dr. Phil who always looks you straight in the eye even while checking his messages. Duany agrees with many of the criticisms of New Urbanism, as being for the wealthy. "Yes, they are expensive. They are outrageously expensive. That's why there needs to be more of them," says Duany, explaining that demand for compact development outstrips supply.

The book recounts the history of American suburbia, and the rise of the Smart Growth and particularly the promise of New Urbanism, which became particularly popular starting in the early 90's. This is also the time that smart growth turns into political conflict.

The suburbs, he says, are powered by inertia and money. Inertia because the approval process for low-density housing subdivisions and for new roads are so routine that they are practically automatic, while various aspects of Smart Growth, including small lots, connected street grids, and mixed use, are on the surface illegal under most zoning regimes. Smart Growth is difficult to finance because bankers would rather deal with the well-known economics and processes of yet another subdivision and strip mall.

"This Land" describes what pushes suburban politicians to approve sprawl and retail malls. In the U.S., municipal revenue comes from commercial development, which itself depends on federally-subsidized highway off-ramps and well-off residents, and where denser or more varied housing increases the municipal bill for education without increasing property tax revenues.

Flint describes the anti-sprawl bandwagon of Governors of both stripes in the late 90's, followed by an organized backlash that knocked them out of office and made Smart Growth a taboo subject. He doesn't believe in a secret conspiracy, but the details the source of the money for "Sprawl, Inc." his name for the media-savvy pro-sprawl lobby, made up of property rights groups supported by house, mall, and road builders.

One of the defining moments of the anti Smart Growth campaign is Measure 37, that struck down virtually all zoning in Oregon, by requiring that landowners be compensated for the value of the land that is affected by zoning changes, even if the change occurred several decades before. Flint meets with the elderly farmers featured in the media campaigns against the urban growth boundary. But also with farmers whose new suburban neighbours interfere with farming activities.

Flint also details the impact of terrorism on urban planning. By picking high-density targets and public transit, smart growth was dealt a setback. New federal buildings now have security rules that prevent underground and on-street parking, minimize the number of ground-level entrances and ban ground-level retail, and demand large setbacks from the street.

Oddly, Flint reserves his fiercest criticism for citizen groups who protest against high-rise luxury condo towers. The attitude of all citizens groups who question density offends and puzzles him, since high-density residents have no children and therefore don't put a strain on the school system. This singular loss of aloofness on this issue alone, one not clearly related to Smart Growth, is later explained by the fact that his neighbours once opposed a building on a vacant lot across the street from his own apartment.

This is where Flint loses me. Luxury condos are not and should not be an important component of smart growth. They are not only not a solution to sprawl, they are among its causes, although the developers of luxury condos have learned to wrap themselves in the cloak of environmentalism, which increases their chances of approval. As it turns out, having high-rise condos in central areas and near transit actually increases the total amount of driving in a city. I'll post something on this blog when the unpublished article on this subject comes out.

I have never seen a genuine informed Smart Growth proponent promoting luxury condo towers. It is no coincidence that those cities with the densest centres also have the most sprawl. Flint touches on this when he recognizes that Los Angeles, with medium-density suburbs and no dense centre, is among the densest cities in America overall. For more information on limits to density from an advocate of high density, see the Sierra Club web site

Flint uses interesting terms for oversized houses that are becoming increasingly popular. I'd heard of McMansions, but starter mansions, Garage Mahals? Also "snout houses", so called because the enormous garages to house the oversized SUVs protrude from the house.

The author's blog is at http://anthonyflint.net/

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Wed, 26 Apr 2006

Windows Genuine Annoyance

This is one of those times when I am happy that I set Microsoft Update to make me review what it is about to download and install on my machine. Most of the time nearly half the updates just don't apply to me. I don't like installing software I don't need, and Microsoft/Windows Update seems pretty poor at figuring out what software I have installed, and shows poor judgment in upgrading versions unnecessarily.

I had to laugh today when I saw that Microsoft Update thought that would want to install a Windows Genuine Advantage notification application. This is not a security update or a bug fix. In fact it has no benefit for me, only potential disavantages when it gets it wrong, and it will slow down the logon process and mess with the desktop.

Now, I am meticulous about properly licensing software. I install and uninstall software all the time, and reinstall it on new machines when the licence terms allow it. Windows Genuine Advantage has never helped me and it often hinders me in doing legitimate things. When I reformatted a hard drive and reinstalled Windows XP from the original media (full retail version not OEM) I wanted to install SP2 first for safety and then check for recent drivers and stability of the suspect drive before consuming one of my XP licence keys. No deal. Windows Genuine Advantage tells me it won't let me get SP2 because I haven't activated the licence yet. This is a foolish restriction because it is easy, but a pain, to get around this perfectly legally. Microsoft is just being petty and calling me a thief, just because I buy the more expensive retail version of their software in packs of 5 or 10 and manage the licences properly. Now they want to annoy me not just when I use the convenient Microsoft Update web site but every day. Thanks but no thanks. I'll have to turn off the "always trust Microsoft" settings too just in case they try to sneak this in under false pretenses again.

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Mon, 24 Apr 2006

Pay-As-You-Drive Insurance Included in Gas Prices

A few weeks back I talked about Pay-As-You-Drive ("PAYD") insurance, something that gives ghg reductions and improved safety without cost. Since, despite the rise in gas prices, most of the costs of a car are not variable, this is a proven way to connect the cost of driving with the amount of driving.

I mused that the jusrisdictions with an auto insurance monopoly could probably implement it, and the federal government could use its insurance regulatory powers. The technology and administration required, however, are a problem in a conservative industry like insurance.

Here is a simpler way - include insurance in the cost of gas. Very simple to administer. The distribution of costs would be similar and just as fair as the current system. Additional premiums could be collected from those whose risk is higher per litre of gas, but even then the cost of collecting the money would be much lower.

Gas taxes are already being used for things not related to transportation. This would be a good way to use it to decrease costs and effects of driving, but in a way that does not increase the total premium-plus-tax burden.

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Mon, 17 Apr 2006

Canada's Fictional Climate Change Policy

The announcements of the first set of cuts to Canada's federal Climate Change programs came on Maundy Thursday, ironically a day in the Christian calendar where the theme is betrayal. As many have commented, there seems to be evidence of a guilty conscience in having the press release come a few minutes before the 4-day weekend, traditional when popular reaction is feared.

And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him; for they feared the people. Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve. And he went his way, and communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray him unto them. And they were glad, and covenanted to give him money. And he promised, and sought opportunity to betray him unto them in the absence of the multitude.

If the stated reason is true, then this is just routine completion of the policy review of climate change programs, to remove the programs that are not effective and replace them with new effective ones. There are two things wrong with that stated reason: the results of the policy review were not released, and the new effective programs are nowhere to be seen.

A press release quoted by a press service says "The new government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper is committed to putting an end to the massive increase in (greenhouse gas) emissions that Canada has seen over the past decade." So the climate change policies haven't changed only the programs to bring this about. Reading between the lines, putting an end to the massive increase isn't the same as committing to a decrease, but it's a first step.

However, in a puzzling turn of events the Environment minister ordered government scientist Mark Tushingham not to talk about the science of global warming in public. The event was the release of his new novel "Hotter than Hell", a science fiction novel set in the future when global warming has changed the climate.

Commenting on the story, the Prime Minister said "I obviously not only hope, but expect, that all elements of the bureaucracy will be working with us to achieve our objectives." Now if a scientist in the Oil, Gas and Energy directorate of the Environment Ministry talking about the science of global warming at an event that cost the government nothing isn't in keeping with the objectives, then what is? Is there a policy that is incompatible with science? Or is there a policy that fictional works must conform to government policy?

I hope that this is just the result of senior public servants being in the dark about what are the objectives of the government, rather than a denial of science or a concerted effort to say one thing and do the opposite.

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Tue, 11 Apr 2006

New York's Downzoning Uprising

In the past few years, the development of apartment buildings in New York, particularly the upscale condos, has moved from Manhattan to the other boroughs. Like a ticking time bomb, the zoning in Brooklyn and Queens had allowed new buildings a lot bigger than what was already there, but there had been no market interest.

Archie Bunker's houseSince 2002, community associations in NYC have discovered just how much of their neighbourhood is zoned for buildings that are out of character with the surrounding communities, as developers started picking up more and more sites. If you haven't lived in New York, you may not realize that most of Brooklyn and Queens is made up of older single family houses and townhouses.

However, the new mayor Bloomberg was not into business as usual. He started a review of zoning in dozens of neighbourhoods which resulted in downzonings of 42 neighbourhoods, about 3600 city blocks, to something that was more in keeping with the local communities. He appointed new commissionners to the Board of Standards and Appeals that seem to insist that real estate lawyers have a real case when they ask for an exemption from zoning. Downzonings are a more powerful force in New York than in many other jurisdiction. Downzoning applies even to buildings whose construction has begun. If developers don't win their appeals the building gets torn down.

Most of New York's zoning was last revised in 1961, when planners were expecting a continuing increase in population. The population has remained about the same for 50 years. In the meantime, zoning was never revised to reflect the stable population.

This "people power" is different from suburban resistance against density for a number of reasons. Rather than keeping out poor people, it is trying to keep out conspicuously rich people - it is blocking the luxury condos and the McMansions (oversize houses). Some of the rezonings also have measures to preserve availability of affordable housing.

In a normal city, this type of downzoning is an excellent though counterintuitive way to combat sprawl. If the communities close to downtown and to transit already have reasonably high density, you do not change their character. The people who live there, often with children and dual incomes, would do a multiple of the amount of driving if they were to move to the suburbs, while the driving and land use of high-density apartment dwellers are less sensitive to location. However, New York is different from all other cities. Here, people in houses use transit while apartment dwellers drive. But when people in the outer suburbs drive, they drive more than anyone else. I don't know what's best for New York. I lived there for a number of years, and I really appreciate the character and vitality of the neighbourhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. But when I'm drawing graphs of driving behaviour in the U.S., the points only fall on nice straight lines if New York City is excluded. It's just too different.

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See
http://www.stablebrooklyn.com/
http://www.wirednewyork.com/forum/showthread.php?t=4439&page=3
http://www.gothamist.com/archives/2005/10/10/stunting_new_york_citys_growth.php
http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/landuse/20051018/12/1622
http://www.prattcenter.net/pubs/PrattCenter-Can_Growth_Work_NY-Briefing.pdf
http://www.queenstribune.com/feature/TheFightAgainstSuper-Sizin.html

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Thu, 23 Mar 2006

Paypal's illusion of movement

I have been doing web site payments since 1995. This is an area where technology has been steadily going backward.

Back in the mid-90's Cybercash Inc. had it all figured out. Its electronic wallet had greater security than anything that has ever been used since, 1024 bit end-to-end RSA encryption. The merchant that you buy from never saw your credit card number; it remained encrypted all the way to the payment processor - even more secure than real stores.

Cybercash also had Cybercoin, a micropayment technology to buy things for a few cents without high transaction fee overhead. Then the market intervened. For some reason, consumers wanted to see an SSL icon with 40-bit encryption between them and the merchant. Cybercash bought low-tech rival ICVerify and dumbed down their product. Between the consumer and the merchant it's just SSL. The card number is then stored in cleartext in a temporary file before being re-encrypted and sent to the processor. It was several versions ago and not Y2K compliant, so I can safely reveal that the NT version of that software gave anonymous users permissions to the temporary file with the credit card number. More importantly, the private key for encryption was stored in a web-accessible directory with a name that could be easily guessed. Encryption was dumbed down to triple DES, still pretty good.

Later, Cybercash was sold to Verisign and dumbed down even further, and users were migrated to the simplistic Payflow software. All currencies other than US$ and customers outside the U.S. stopped working. Verisign was not even aware of the fact that other banking systems and currencies could no longer be supported. It never occured to them. Their solutions for "offshore banking" were just ludicrous. It's still pretty bad. Cybercash used to have local offices in several countries and dealt in the local language and with local banks. But now if you are outside the U.S., Verisign essentially tells you to find a U.S. company willing to accept your customers' money for you and they will deal with the U.S. firm in U.S. dollars.

Paypal, whose classic system has been working in different currencies and countries for years, did not have direct credit card processing for merchants until last year. Last year they started providing it under the name "Website Payment Pro", but they were dealing with a U.S. payment processor and they too were unable to deal with firms outside the U.S.

Then in October 2005 Paypal announced they were buying ... Verisign's Payflow business, with the same features and even more stilted than their existing solution. Neither one has improved since then. Some day I'll explain the "two-factor authentication" technology they acquired and show how useless it is for e-commerce.

What got me going is today's spate of announcements that Paypal is going to launch a mobile payment product. Hello! Paypal has had mobile payment for many many years, using its x.com service (you need a cell phone browser to see it) which has not improved in 5 years. In fact, it's gotten worse since it is clearly never tested with more modern phones. x.com and the new "Paypal mobile" which seems nearly identical simply sends money to another phone. It uses e-mail and wap. It can not be integrated into a store, something that developers have been complaining about for years. It's a manual process where the payer fills in the amount and Paypal sends an email to the recipient's phone. It doesn't look like that's changing, according to pages I stumbled upon on the Paypal site a couple of days ago.

Now what looks interesting on the other hand is something completely different: services called text-to-buy and text-to-give. This is new to Paypal but old to everyone else: you send a text message to a "short code" (U.S. only I'm sure) in order to pay for something. Lots of companies have done this for years all over the world. Bango is one of many, and it works well in many countries. A limited one that is gaining in popularity in the U.S. is TextPayMe. Professionals who want serious integration use Ericsson's IPX service. So the technology is old news, but the innovation is that the money comes from your Paypal account not your phone bill or credit card, and your account is already set up with your name, e-mail and shipping address.

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Sat, 11 Mar 2006

Killer Kites

According to a recent news story, "Pakistani law, including the recent Kite Flying Act and even anti-terrorism legislation, has been used to charge more than 700 people with kite-related crime this year."

In Pakistan, and in India's Punjab as well, Basant is a festival celebrated by flying kites. Unfortunately, one of the sports throughout South and Southeat Asia is killer kite competitions where strings are lined with tiny shards of broken glass in order to cut the strings of adversaries. On one day this year 20 people were killed by kite flying in Pakistan, some motorcyclists getting slashed by falling kite strings, while others fall off rooftops or get electrocuted as kites with metallic string fall on power lines

In Lahore, kite flyers jump from rooftop to rooftop in the irregular maze of flat roofs that cover the ancient city. Besides the unfortunate deaths, the idea of the entire city taking to the rooftops is a feature of city living that is missing in the occident. So much potential civic space is possible when buildings are the same height and roofs are flat and accessible.

Source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,25689-2079726,00.html Tags:

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Tue, 28 Feb 2006

DNS troubles with Network Solutions

Yesterday, one of my domains expired. The domain had multi-year registration with Network Solutions, a high-priced premium registrar service. Because it does not expire the sme time every year like some other domains I care less about, I forgot that this year was the year. Somehow, none of the e-mails from Network Solutions reached me. Is it my spam filter, or did something else go wrong?

Yesterday, one user in Austria phoned to say that he saw a "page under construction" site, typical of Network Solutions. Within minutes, the domain registration was renewed for another 5 years. The NetSol whois currently says 1 year and that is something else that will have to be addressed...

But more troubling was the fact that many users were still seeing the NetSol "under construction" page, and that e-mail to my domain was being returned by a domain named resalehost.networksolutions.com. My registrar had decided to immediately start selling my domain.

Using nslookup and dig, I looked around at the DNS servers of the ISPs that were getting it wrong. The TTL was set to a surprisingly high value on most records!

Very brief technical runthrough for the uninitiated: Network Solutions as the registrar tells any computer who asks where to find the correct information about the domain, including where to send e-mail and where to get details about the hosting of web sites, etc. Your ISP will not go query the registrar or the name server every time it brokers an e-mail transmission or a web session. It has its own domain name server that stores information it receives from domain name servers that are in the know. Domain name servers tell other domain name servers how long the information is good for (TTL=time to live) after which they should check again. This is a simplification of the actual process, mind you.

Whenever there is a change expected, TTLs are set low - a few hours or a few minutes. When the information is expected to be stable, a longer TTL, in days, is set. Network solution, having just taken over a domain that doesn't belong to them, was announcing to the world that this change was for the long term. We then paid them good money to have them tell the world where to look for our e-mail server our web sites, but they make no effort to tell those with outdated information, those that think that Network Solutions itself owns the domain are not told otherwise. More than 24 hours later, half of those who had received the wrong information still have the wrong information.

Network Solutions is no worse than any other registrar, but I expect it to be better than others for the premium price it charges. If domains expire, they should make greater efforts to contact the owner. Particularly if the domain is in current use, something that is easily checked. When a domain is recently expired and they change their DNS records to point to themselves, they should keep the TTL short, since the error may be quickly corrected. And as soon as the domain registration of the domain is renewed, their web and mail server, which are temporarily still getting my traffic, should forward the traffic to the right place, to the extent that this is possible, or tell the users what is actually going on and when to retry otherwise.

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Sat, 11 Feb 2006

Stossel's Urban Myths and Lies

ABC's John Stossel should probably join Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the Comedy Channel. John Stossel's regular series on 20/20 aggravates opponents and supporters alike with its trivializing of serious issues, mock-serious interviews and made up facts.

The latest one takes on the "myths" of gas prices, urban sprawl, and even sharing.

On gas prices, he's nearly right. He says inflation-adjusted gas prices in the U.S. are not at a record, but that's only if you take annual average prices. The peak daily price is a bona fide record. In Canada, these have been record prices any way you look at them, by a large margin. And it hurts more now, since people are using more and more gasoline every year. The early 1980's had some reduction of consumption as a result of price shocks, but it seems that it takes a very large price increase before consumption is affected. Part of the reason is that gas is an increasingly small proportion of the cost of driving because of other costs like insurance.

On urban sprawl, Stossel just gets simplistic. Only 5% of the U.S. land area is urban, he says, so there is nothing to worry about. Without getting into splitting hairs about how much of suburbia is of such low density that it does not even qualify as urbanized areas in U.S. statistics, I'm not certain how much of the area of the mountainsides, glaciers, deserts, national parks and agricultural land would have to be turned into subdivisions before "running out of space" becomes an issue.

Urban sprawl is just not about using up 100% of the land area and turning earth into an ecumenopolis like the planet Coruscant. It is about the fact that people are driving twice as far per day as 25 years ago.

Stossel also claims that having an urban growth boundary increases land prices and makes housing less affordable. But according to King County, which has had an urban growth boundary for 10 years,

As a proportion of the cost of a new home, however, a standard housing lot in King County, on the urban side of the UBG, remains at the same 9% of the cost of a new home in 1999 as it did in 1982. As a proportion of the cost of all existing homes, it has risen just 1% from about 11% in 1982 to about 12% in 1999.

Very little of the actual increase in home prices can be attributed to the increase in land cost. In terms of dollar increases, the average per unit cost of land rose $23,500 during the 1982 - 1999 period (from about $9,500 to $33,000), while the average price of a new home increased by $251,500 (from about $110,000 to $361,500). Because the cost of raw land is a small proportion of the cost of a home, the effect of the UGB on housing costs is likely to be small to negligible.

But what an urban growth boundary does do is reduce transportation costs for everyone, and the cost of public infrastructure. Home developers don't like it because the price of the land does not appreacite in their hands, as it does for greenfield development, it appreciates in the hands of homeowners.

On sharing, Stossel showed how private ownership of resources is better than shared resource ownership. He shows an experiment with high school students. In one scenario, they were able to secretly withdraw from a shared resource for private use. It was depleted. This is a version of the "tragedy of the commons." In the second case, they were asked to manage, in public view, their own share of the resource. It was conserved to a larger extent. He did not show a scenario with a shared resource but no secrecy. Actually he did have this experiment in his 1998 "Is Greed Good?" special, where the fact that people cooperate and maximize the resource proves the value of laisser-faire capitalism. Opposite experimental results, identical conclusion. Weird science.

Stossel only showed a small extract of a classic scenario known to game theory for many decades and to humans for many, many millenia: in order to manage a shared resource, individual actions must be visible and the group will spontaneously enforce shared norms of behaviour. Although Stossel's experiment was such that there was no intrinsic advantage to sharing, something that is rare in real life examples of public goods, again societies have done a good job of sharing even when there is no apparent individual advantage to the member.

Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. Tis profitable for us both, that I should labor with you today, and that you should aid me tomorrow. I have no kindness for you, and know you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains upon your account; and should I labor with you upon my own account, in expectation of a return, I know I should be disappointed, and that I should in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labor alone; You treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security.

– David Hume, 18th century Scottish philosopher

Stossel goes further, advocating for families to withdraw from contributing to public education if their kids go to private school. It's everyone for himself!

Now I am a fan of capitalism; it is one of the mechanisms that societies have come up with to help preserve common resources, and one that relies on cooperation and shared public goods such as currency and subsidized public roads to the suburbs. But a simplistic conclusion like private property is better than sharing? Give ME a break, John Stossel.

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References: http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/2005/html/table_01_33.html

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Fri, 03 Feb 2006

Wikipedia Reputation

Wikipedia is getting some bad press lately. Some of its pages are being used for self-serving purposes. It seems the invisible hand of the collective editorship is not catching all errors and vandalism quickly enough for some tastes.

When John Seigenthaler Sr. was falsely accused of being suspected of both Kennedy assassinations, there was an outcry. Seigenthaler is a journalist, and journalism has (usually) better mechanisms for fact-checking but worse ones for correcting errors.

Wikipedia is like a market. It is sometimes temporarily wrong, but on the whole it is an excellent way to integrate information. There are experts and authorities that could better set prices to optimize production and distribute resources, but markets seem to work better. Frost in Brazil? How do we get coffee drinkers to temporarily switch to tea or ask other countries to increase their exports? Somehow the simple price signals of millions of unschooled grocery shoppers works better than armies of authoritative experts. It's what we call emergent behaviour. Genetics, the brain, and thermodynamics all work because of emergence. Collective behaviours occur that weren't designed into the individual components, which are often simple and nearly identical.

This week, the entire U.S. congress was banned from Wikipedia for repeated vandalism. Apparently, politicians or their staff were editing articles about them to be more like their campaign literature. Banning is one of the many mechanisms, besides collective editing, by which Wikipedia maintains its standards.

Actually there is remarkably little abuse in Wikepedia considerig its size and importance. Internet technology including e-mail, search engine ranking, and blogs, are continually under massive attacks from people who turn their permissiveness to their advantage. Wikipedia is remarkably self-regulating. However, there are many calling for regulation, editing, and the end of anonymous or pseudonymous contributions.

One comment said: What Wikipedia needs to do, is go to a secure system. Require everyone to register a credit card AND driver's license number, if they want to make changes. Then give them a secure login/password.

Rather than regulating it this way, I would suggest some kind of a reputation system like Slashdot's Karma system or eBay's. A default filter would be set so that changes by people of little or no reputation to text written by people of high reputation do not appear for the average user unless the user resets his/her filter or the higher-reputation author accepts the change.

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References: A false Wikipedia 'biography' By John Seigenthaler http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2005-11-29-wikipedia-edit_x.htm
Wikipedia Reputation and the Wemedia Project http://many.corante.com/archives/2004/08/29/wikipedia_reputation_and_the_wemedia_project.php
Congressional staff actions prompt Wikipedia investigation http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/Congressional_staff_actions_prompt_Wikipedia_investigation
How is this going to stop them? http://www.dailytech.com/article.aspx?newsid=536&commentid=3347&threshhhold=1&red=3212#comments

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Mon, 30 Jan 2006

Social Capital: Second-Hand Capital or White Man's Burden?

I am doing some work that involves measures of "Social Capital". It meant reading Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" as well as a vast number of other authors who have contributed to this still-emerging field (Pierre Bourdieu, Ronald Burt, James Coleman, Mark Granovetter, Alejandro Portes, Amartya Sen, Barry Wellman, to name just a few)

Social Capital is defined as an analogy to Economic Capital and to Human Capital. Whereas economic capital is mostly money, giving access to transferrable resources, and human capital is mostly the skills that people carry around in their head, social capital is "defined" relationally as the value of interpersonal relationships. With more social capital, people do things for other people without direct repayment.

The "defined" is in quotation marks, since I have found no methodology for actually measuring the value of this capital, only indirect and relative approximations. Some look at it individually - my social capital is bigger than yours because I know more people or know them better, or know people who can do more for me. It's a matter of using social network analysis and giving weights to things.

Another school of thought measures it in the aggregate. For them social capital is a collective property of groups; it's a measure of what they can achieve because of shared norms, altruism, and various other types of goodness and niceness. White man's burden stuff (yes, these measures of social capital are highly correlated with nordic ancestry and negatively correlated with poverty.) The measures include whether you are a member of a service club, how often you go to church, whether you trust others, and so forth. Some of it shows signs of a cultural bias. Not surprising when describing a vague positive human attribute.

In both cases, whether people are volunteering, donating, providing loans or job prospects, the value is actually derived from the social and the human capital, made more efficient because of the social capital. If we're looking at individual measures of human capital, it's not merely a count of how many people you know, it's what they can do for you. A sycophant or a mistress, who derive all their resources from a single relationship with high human and economic capital may have more social capital that someone highly connected within an impoverished clan.

But if social capital is defined in terms of the value of what resources you can get get access to, it's just second-hand human and economic capital. A social recluse with a large fortune would rate high on the social capital index, just knowing himself gets him all of the resources he needs.

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Fri, 13 Jan 2006

Tax Credit for Transit Users, Private Housing Builders

The Conservative Party of Canada has proposed a couple of policies that I was sure journalists had gotten wrong, maybe backward. But no, the actual policy statements are there and confirm them.

There would be a 16% tax credit to people who buy transit passes or tickets, as long as they keep receipts. Receipts for each fare. I remember the look on my accountant's face when I presented him with a pile of bus transfers as proof of the cash fares I had paid while working in another city for a while. I can imagine the lineup at the fare collector's window as each passenger asks for a receipt.

If I pay $2.00 for a fare, that receipt is worth 32 cents to me as a tax credit. A hundred of them and I have $32 to go out to dinner, alone, by bus. But each of those little pieces of paper has to be produced and handled by the transit organization, by me, and by the tax department (maybe by my employer also, but that's another story). And it is the poorest people that need the most help from their accountants. But as it turns out, it is a non-refundable tax credit, meaning that if your income is too low you don't get the money. Over a third of the population and probably a larger percentage of transit users would get no benefit.

Wouldn't it be more efficient to give the money to the transit systems directly so that they can reduce fares by 32 cents without all the overhead and paperwork? In this case, the tax credit is going to the wrong place.

As an aside, the original plan as well as the January 13 version said "A Conservative government will give public transit riders a federal tax credit to cover the cost of their monthly transit passes." A December 30 press release says "In response to the Conservative Transit Pass Tax Credit, David Jeanes, President of Transport 2000, has incorrectly suggested in several news reports that the Tax Credit applies only to monthly-pass holders. On the contrary, under a Conservative government, any purchase of transit passes or tickets will be deductible so long as receipts are provided."

Another Conservative policy is to give tax money to private sector builders for affordable housing. I have seen something like that before, from a Conservative government in Ontario. Unfortunately, that one was a trickle-down policy. Most of the subsidies, via municipal taxes, went to subsidizing luxury housing. The reasoning was two-fold: one is that luxury housing is already profitable so only a small subsidy per unit is required to get more of them built. The second was that the people who move into them will vacate older housing that is then available to the poor. Unfortunately, because of rent control laws the vacated apartments immediately shot up in rent, making the average low-end apartment even more expensive than before. Rent on high-end apartments went down because of the supply. The ones who came out ahead are apartment owners and apartment builders.

How does this new policy compare with that one? Hard to say. Here is what the original party policy said:

A Conservative government will work with the provinces and municipalities to develop framework agreements that help low-income city dwellers access affordable housing, through the use of tax incentives for private sector builders. The Conservative Party of Canada recognizes that most renters live in urban centres, and that the pressures of population growth as well as certain economic factors have made it increasingly difficult for many renters to find housing."

This is from the recent outline plan:

On an experimental basis, a new Conservative government establish a tax credit to encourage developers to build or refurbish affordable rental units for low income Canadians. Details of the plan include the following:

  • Setting aside $200 million annually in the form of federal tax credits to encourage developers to build or refurbish affordable rental units.
  • Defining affordable units as those in which at least 40 per cent of the occupants earn less than 60 percent of the local median income.
  • Distributing funding among the provinces on a per capita basis, but smaller provinces will be guaranteed a minimum amount of funding.
  • Administering credits through the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).
Again, I wonder whether the tax is going to the most effective place. Giving money to private builders, and not to public ones, is a bit like giving money to oil companies to make oil prices go down. The definition of affordable is also a bit troublesome, and many cities have gone through the same difficult process.

Someone builds a set of units: 50 luxury condos and 50 rooming units. At some point, a "reverse credit check" is done on those renting the rooming units, checking their income to make sure that it is low enough. At what point is the money released to the builder and when is it safe for whoever bought the building from the developer to evict the rooming residents and convert the space to condos? Or will there be some definition that a certain type of unit is presumed to have a certain rent? Or maybe this will be a new federal rent control contract, where the federal agreement fixes initial and future rent.

There are many players in the affordable housing arena: renters, non-profit groups, public housing, senior housing, governments, and private developers. Giving money to the least needy of all the players somehow doesn't strike me as the most effective use of tax money.

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Fri, 06 Jan 2006

Pay-As-You-Drive Insurance Reduces Risks & GHGs

Here is something that gives ghg reductions without cost: Pay-As-You-Drive ("PAYD") insurance. Estimated ghg savings are between 5% and 15% , with a significant improvement in safety. Some companies also use more complex technology, such as GPS or the vehicle’s On-Board Diagnostic (OBDII) port, to reward lower risk from not driving in congestion with frequent braking, and driving slowly. As it happens, these safety benfits also reduce GHG emissions.

In Canada, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia could implement it themselves since they own the auto insurance monopoly.  The federal government also regulates insurance, so could act without cost.

Something else that would use insurance to reduce GHGs is if courts would let you sue the owner or salesman of the heavy SUVs that hit you for knowingly increasing the risk to others, be they smaller cars, pedestrians, or cyclist in the case of an accident. A few awards of this type and SUV insurance will reflect the true cost of the additional risk they cause for energy-efficient vehicles.

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