Jun 242002

William Beatty explains not only what causes traffic jams — and it isn’t accidents, at least not most of the time — but how, as a single driver, to help fix them. (Thanks to Cut on the Bias for the link.)

For somebody who doesn’t drive I seem to write a lot about cars.

Jun 232002

Aren’t we? Postrel, Joanne Jacobs, Volokh, SamizData, Megan McArdle, Eric Raymond… (This extremely abbreviated list is in approximate ascending Sullivan number order, so everyone can feel insulted.) Not even counting the fellow travelers like Lilek and Musil and Reynolds and King Andy himself, who may also have spawned the weird Catholic blogging subculture. If you wanted to compile a list of libertarian blogs the real question would be if you could find anybody to exclude. There’s Alterman, and Josh Marshall if you absolutely must. Mickey Kaus used to wring his hands over the gap between rich and poor in America and the decline of public civility and other sissy stuff, but that was ten years ago. Now it’s all welfare reform, all the time. We have before us a case of selection bias on a par with the poll of automobile owners that predicted Landon for President in ’36. But why?

I’ll post a theory when I think of one.

Jun 222002

“Hi, I’m Chris Rock…I’m Paul O’Neill…I’m Beverly Sills…I’m Judge Judy Sheindlin (and I’m Judge Jerry Sheindlin!)…I’m Plaaacido Domiiiingo..” And they all agree on one thing: when you enter a taxicab in New York you’d better buckle up. Two things actually: you should also make sure you have your belongings when you exit. (No Mary Lou Retton, that’s not your gold medal back there.) Passengers are assaulted, twice, at top volume, with these directives, every time they take a cab ride.

I have nothing against seatbelts, they save lives just as the nanny liberals say. But nobody wore a seatbelt in a cab before these recordings started, and nobody wears one now. For whatever reason it just isn’t done. I don’t wear one. I don’t know anybody who wears one. I’m pretty sure I don’t know anybody who knows anybody who wears one.

What’s the point of these recordings? Petty graft. As my driver kindly informed me the other day, if you own a medallion you have to pay 80 bucks for the tapes — every six months. I guess you can keep Joe Torre in heavy rotation for only so long before you start to bore the passengers. Estimate of what celebrities charge to record these “public service” announcements: zero. Total cab medallions in New York: approximately 12,000. Profit margin: fat.

So some ne’er-do-well nephew of a bigshot at the Taxi and Limousine Commission fancies himself a “businessman” for raking in a million plus a year by annoying taxi passengers. Who is this slob, and why should he get rich on the back of poor cab-driving immigrants who have it tough enough already?

Jun 212002

Turns out the new poem by Shakespeare isn’t really by Shakespeare after all. No one ought to care a great deal because it wasn’t much good. But you have to admire anyone who can say, as Donald Foster did in his attribution retraction, “No one who cannot rejoice in the discovery of his own mistakes deserves to be called a scholar.” Or a blogger for that matter. Worth reading is Ron Rosenbaum’s reaction to the attribution retraction (this link, alas, appears to be temporary).

Jun 212002

Read Part One. Go on, it’s short.

Watching baseball actually impedes understanding. When I was fourteen my father took me to a Yankee game. The Yankees lost and Bobby Bonds struck out four times, twice on changeups in the dirt. After the game my father said, “I never realized Bonds was such a bum.” Now, of course, Bonds wasn’t a bum; Bonds was a borderline Hall of Fame player in the middle of one of the best seasons of his career. But that’s what happens when you string up a hammock at some local minimum or maximum and proceed to draw conclusions about the shape of the graph.

When blowhards like Joe Morgan and Tim McCarver exult over “the little things that don’t show up in the box scores” this should be regarded as a paid commercial announcement — as if you have to listen to them to know what’s going on. Just about everything shows up in the box scores, and if it doesn’t, then we just need better box scores. Box scores used to show next to nothing, not even walks. And then they showed hit-by-pitches, and intentional walks, and pitch counts, and ball-strike ratios, and stolen-base attempts, and caught-stealings. Soon they will show runners advanced, and groundball/flyball ratios, and out charts, and the margin of baseball events that don’t show up in the box scores (what Bill James used to call “the swamp”) will dwindle, inexorably, to zero, just as science gradually asserts its dominion over all kinds of problems that used to belong to philosophy.

In the meantime, at least turn the sound down.

Jun 202002

IBM, Royal Dutch Shell and sundry other filthy multinationals are being sued for nefarious doings in South Africa. What doings? Well, providing jobs for black South Africans, who would surely have been far better off if the executives of said companies had stood around the quad demanding to free Nelson Mandela instead. Time was you actually had to cause the tort to pay damages. Now apparently it’s enough to be caught loitering in the vicinity of the tort. Sounds like a job for Wally Olson. (And thanks to RocketKnowledge for bringing this to my attention.)

UPDATE: Wally took my advice. (Which is more than I can say for Mickey Kaus. The back button still doesn’t work.) How bad is the lawyer behind this, one Edward H. Fagan? So bad The New York Times called him “media-savvy!” (Bad, worse, media-savvy.) Finally, Wally was kind enough to link to me, giving me a temporary Sullivan Number of 2.

Jun 192002

So Pat Buchanan, who certainly has more serious transgressions to answer for than alleged disloyalty to his past employer, is the latest suspect, according to the execrable Joshua Micah Marshall. Marshall is atwitter because, mirabile dictu, Buchanan won’t confirm or deny! Um, Josh, Stanley Kutler in Slate supplies a slightly more persuasive explanation. And as Jane Galt points out,

if Buchanan were really concerned about alienating his peeps in the GOP, he’d be more worried about, oh, say, his running for national office on a third party ticket and thus siphoning off some of the party’s base during a tight election year than he would about admitting he blew the whistle in a 30 year old political scandal.

Something about Deep Throat — secret meetings! scribbled times on newspapers! wrestling matches in underground parking garages! — inflames the imagination of every journalist. My friend Mark Riebling, who’s really more a historian, joined the fray by nominating, in his generally excellent book Wedge, ex-spooks William Colby and Cord Meyer, but he admits he’s no longer convinced, and really he wasn’t very convincing even when he wrote it eight years ago.

Edward Jay Epstein, on the other hand, argues that there was no Deep Throat. Throat’s revelations were attributed in the original Washington Post stories to multiple sources, which Woodstein bundled up and dramatized for All the President’s Men. Epstein’s theory is no fun at all. Its only merit is that it’s obviously true.

Jun 192002

The relevance of Eric Hoffer’s book The True Believer to suicide bombing is obvious, and Jason Rubenstein has an excellent post about it. You could do worse than this if you want to understand the character of the suicide bomber:

There is a tendency to judge a race, a nation or any distinct group by its least worthy members. Though manifestly unfair, this tendency has at least some justification. For the character and destiny of a group are often determined by its inferior elements….The reason that inferior elements of a nation can exert a marked influence on its course is that they are wholly without reverence for the present. They see their lives and the present as spoiled beyond remedy and they are ready to wreck and waste and wreck both: hence their recklessness and their will to chaos and anarchy. They also crave to dissolve their spoiled, meaningless selves in some soul-stirring spectacular communal undertaking — hence their proclivity for united action. Thus they are among the early recruits of revolutions, mass migrations and of religious, racial and chauvinist movements, and they imprint their mark upon these upheavals and movements which shape a nation’s character and history.

Jun 182002

Fifteen years before Christopher Alexanders deservedly celebrated books on patterns in architecture and at least twenty before anyone had heard of design patterns in software, Jane Jacobs, in her 1965 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, laid out an urban pattern language. Her patterns include short blocks, residence and work mixed together (also one of Alexanders patterns), aged buildings (interspersed with newer ones to promote diversity of use), wide sidewalks (to give children safe, because supervised, areas to play), and high dwelling, as distinct from population, density. City neighborhoods that have these patterns are alive; neighborhoods that lack them are dead. But as Jacobs points out, the urban planners like Corbusier, Ebenezer Howard, Lewis Mumford, and the other prophets of what she calls Garden City opposed these patterns at every turn. To see their legacy in Manhattan, look at Stuyvesant Town, or any housing project. Essentially they hated cities and proposed to fix them by making them as uncitylike as possible.

The power of Jacobs book lies in its specificity. To get some idea of her method, consider one of her patterns, high dwelling density, in some detail. She first takes pains to distinguish dwelling from population density:

The Garden City planners and their disciples looked at slums which had both many dwelling units on the land (high densities) and too many people within individual dwellings (overcrowding), and failed to make any distinction between the fact of overcrowded rooms and the entirely different fact of densely built up land. They hated both equally, in any case, and coupled them like ham and eggs, so that to this day housers and planners pop out the phrase as if it were one word, “highdensityandovercrowding.”

But here the planners run into difficulty: often the most successful areas of a city, because they have high dwelling densities, have high population densities as well, but without overcrowding. And the opposite is also true: areas with low population densities, like Bedford-Stuyvesant, are often full of overcrowded dwellings.

Having isolated the real question, dwelling density, Jacobs proceeds from low to high to see what works and why. Six to ten dwellings per acre, yielding lots of 70 by 100 feet or so, can succeed in a suburb. Ten to twenty dwellings per acre tends to look like semi-detached row houses, like parts of Queens.

These arrangements, Jacobs writes, although they are apt to be dull, can be viable and safe if they are secluded from city life…They will not generate city liveliness or public lifetheir populations are too thinnor will they help maintain sidewalk safety. But there may be no need for them to do so.

Above 20 dwellings per acre, however, youre in a city:

From this point on, a city settlement needs city vitality and city diversity. Unfortunately, however, densities high enough to bring with them innate city problems are not by any means necessarily high enough to do their share in producing city liveliness, safety, convenience and interest. And so, between the point where semisuburban character and function are lost, and the point at which lively diversity and public life can arise, lies a range of big-city densities that I shall call “in-between” densities. They are fit neither for suburban life nor for city life. They are fit, generally, for nothing but trouble.

Successful urban areas typically have dwelling densities of at least 100 to the acre, and sometimes many more. And yet the urban planners consistently recommended population densities of about 100, which meant dwelling densities of about 25 to 50the exact recipe for gray areas and blight.

It seems incredible now, but in the early 1960s, Robert Moses, New Yorks Parks Commissioner and public works czar, planned a series of east-west expressways through Manhattan, beginning with Greenwich Village. One of the best passages in Jacobs book is a description of the intricate street life, the staggered comings and goings, on her block on Hudson Street, and a more wanton destruction of this sort of life could hardly be imagined. She remarks in her book that There are only two ultimate public powers in shaping and running American cities: votes and money. To sound nicer, we may call these public opinion and disbursement of funds, but they are still votes and money. Lacking money but having votes, Jacobs put her principles into practice, organized her neighbors against the expressway and defeated Moses, who at the time was at the height of his powers. Moses lost his momentum, and none of his proposed cross-Manhattan expressways came to pass. We should thank her by reading her.