Wore a tie

It happened this way:

We were going to brunch with Barbara at Windsor, where they prefer that people not wear jeans in the dining room, so I wore khakis. Then, since I was wearing those, I decided to wear my khaki linen shirt. I don’t wear it much, for various reasons. (It’s long sleeved, so I don’t tend to wear it when it’s hot, but it’s linen, so I don’t tend to wear it when it’s cold. Plus, since it’s linen, it needs to be ironed. Plus it’s been ever-so-slightly on the snug side, but I’ve lost a little weight, so it’s now fitting quite well.)

That outfit was going to have me looking just a bit dressed up, so I though maybe I’ll go whole-hog and wear my tweed jacket. That, plus the fact that the linen shirt has a button-down collar, made me think that maybe I wanted to wear a tie. And then, since it was the day after Christmas, it occurred to me that I could wear my Christmas tie—a very red, very shiny tie that my mom made about 30 years ago. It’s so red and so shiny that there’s not really much other opportunity to wear it.

To go out, I wore the trench coat my dad gave me last summer. It used to be just a bit on the snug side as well, but fits just fine now (even over my tweed jacket). But it’s not quite as warm as a parka, so I added the grey scarf Jackie wove for me last year. It’s the newest of my many handwoven scarves, and perfect for when one of my more colorful scarves would be insufficiently understated.

I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “Wow. I look just like a grownup.”

Then I put on my grandfather’s homburg and headed out to brunch.

Optimal city size

Is there an optimal city size? A lot of it comes down to personal preference, of course. If you want to go to the symphony, you need to live in (or near) a city big enough to support a symphony orchestra.

Putting mere preference aside, though, there are some things that ought to be more generally applicable. I remember back in the late 1970s, playing with some data my dad found that reported a bunch of metrics for all the villages, towns, and cities in Michigan.

My dad had hypothesized that there was considerable benefit to the earliest stages of growth (when a town got big enough to move from a volunteer fire department to a professional one, big enough to move from wells and septic tanks to a municipal water and sewer system), but that further growth beyond that stage came with costs that outweighed the benefits.

The data I looked at did show some support for my dad’s position, but I found it hard to make a good case with just the Michigan data. There was only one big city (Detroit), which was something of a special case even then, and only has become more so. I produced some graphs that seemed to show reasonably linear improvements in various metrics of “goodness” as cities grew, on which Detroit appeared to be an outlier—gaining less-than-linear benefit from its growth. I wrote a brief report of my analysis for an economics class, but didn’t have time to delve any deeper.

Just in the past few days, though, I saw the New York Times magazine article “A Physicist Solves the City,” reporting on the work of Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt to produce a model that describes urban performance as a function of population. Very briefly, they have found that both good things (GDP, income, patents) and bad things (traffic, crime) grow super-linearly with population growth: Increase the population by 100% and you get a 115% increase in most of the measurable aspects of urban life.

I looked at West and Bettencourt’s article in the magazine NatureA unified theory of urban living” (article is behind a pay wall), which lays out the case in a little more detail, and offers some references. It shows a graph of crime, GDP, income, and patents versus city population. The log/log graph does look strikingly linear (suggesting a super-linear relationship). However, the data come from just US 360 metropolitan areas. That suggests (assuming that they’re working with the largest US cities), that the authors have excluded cities with populations below about 100,000 people. (The 360th largest metropolitan statistical area from the 2000 census was Ocean City, NJ, with a population of 102,326.)

So, this work doesn’t really test my dad’s hypothesis. I’d be really interested to see what the similar curves look like for smaller metropolitan areas. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that growing your population from 1,000 to 10,000 produced rather more than a 15% boost over linear growth.

Obfuscating your email addresses is pointless

I’m with Cory Doctorow here: Keeping an email address secret won’t hide it from spambots.

When I had to change email addresses a couple of years back, I considered not posting the new address on my site, to keep the spambots from harvesting it. (My previous email address had been published before there even was spam, so keeping it secret from spammers had never been an option.)

In the end, though, I decided—just as Cory has—that there’s no point. The benefits are very small (the spammers will get your email address anyway), and the costs are significant (all your correspondants have to go through extra work to track down and de-obfuscate your email address).

In the end I did make one concession to the spambots. My email address is no longer in the footer of every page, the way it used to be. Now it just appears in my “contact” page (linked to from the sidebar). That hides it from the very most lazy spambots (which seems to be a large fraction of them). But my email address is right there as a clickable mailto link. Not obfuscated. Not presented as an image. Not hidden behind a contact form.

If you’ve got something you want to say to me, send me some email!

Localization—not just for food

I spent the whole decade of the 1990s hoping that the economic upturn would prove that the strategy of letting employees go the instant there wasn’t any work to do was unwise. Surely, I thought, those companies would suffer—missing out on business because they didn’t have the skilled employees to do the work (and screwing up on what business they did get, because rushing to hire new employees would result in picking up some duds).

My hopes remained unfulfilled. Oh, probably plenty of companies did suffer from an inability to hire skilled, reliable workers at reasonable wages. Certainly employers complain that they can’t, especially when they’re lobbying Congress for an expansion of the H1 visa program. But it didn’t matter, because the company’s were profitable. (Profitable companies may do as they please; unprofitable companies must kowtow to the financial markets.)

I’ve written about this before, in a two part series at Wise Bread called “What’s An Employee To Do?” Part 1 laid out the issue in some detail, and part 2 talked about the best strategies for an employee to follow. (There’s actually a lot of opportunity for employees in the current situation, as long as they don’t make the mistake of thinking of themselves as employees.)

Prompted by Tobias Buckell’s recent post Working culture, though, I wanted to talk a little about the broader impacts of the way we’ve come to arrange society, because there were other reasons that employers kept employees on during a business downturn. Business owners kept employees on during a downturn because they cared about them as people, because they were friends and neighbors, because the whole community suffered when one person lost a job.

A small part of the reason that things are different now is that this is less true. Managers are not as likely to live in the same neighborhoods as their employees. They don’t shop in the same stores. Their kids don’t go to the same schools. In any case, the decisions are being made far away. (The local managers were completely out of the loop when the site where I used to work was closed down three years ago.)

But that’s just been an enabler of this shift. The real cause is the behavior of the financial markets, which since 1990 have crushed any employer that tries to resist, by driving its stock price low enough that someone could acquire them and bring in new management—management that would lay off plenty of workers.

This isn’t new, of course. Business owners knew that going public meant putting their business in the jaws of the financial market nutcracker—but they made so much money it was worth it. You occasionally hear about the rare business owner who has declined to go public for just that reason—but you hear about it because it’s rare enough as to be news.

As Toby describes, Germany has structures and institutions in place to support businesses that are small and local. Unions are a big one—including the government support for unions that encourage and enable unions to work together in a block. Also important are rules that lean against market pressures for business consolidation, offshoring employment, etc.

Personally, I used to support a purely market-based approach. That’s why I spent the 1990s waiting for markets to punish the bad actors. I’ve changed my mind. It’s fine to leave the fate of the companies up to the markets, but it unacceptable to leave to the markets the fate of whole communities.

Similarly, I used to support the notion that the right way to address this sort of issue was education (because I believe in free choice). Yes, stuff made by prisoners, slaves, and children costs less. Yes, stuff made by heavy industry costs less if the manufacturers are allowed to wreak environmental destruction all across their supply chain. But surely people would make different purchasing choices if they understood that they’re not only paying to have all this harm done, they’re also putting their friends and neighbors (and themselves) out of work. There again, I’ve changed my mind. It turns out, I simply didn’t understand how much cheaper that stuff was than stuff made locally.

Given the option to have the accoutrements of a middle-class standard of living—clothes, dishes, furniture, gizmos—it’s become clear that most Americans will cheerfully accept any amount of slave labor and environmental destruction (as long as they don’t have to see it) and tolerate the destruction of local businesses and the bankruptcy of their neighbors.

They’ll complain about how it affects property values and how it makes it tough to find a job. But then they’ll take their unemployment check and food stamps and go buy the cheapest stuff they can find at WalMart.

Neither markets nor eduction are going to do the job. The U.S. needs to create institutional support along the lines of what Germany provides.

Recycling for apartment dwellers

Recycling Bin
Recycling Bin

To me, recycling is kind of a declaration of failure. It’s a statement that that I needed something so badly that I couldn’t just do without it, nor make do with something I already had, and yet didn’t need it so badly that it made sense to buy an item of enduring value—something I’d keep, rather than tossing into the recycling.

Champaign-Urbana, though, is very much a recycling kind of place. Locals in both communities have long had curb-side recycling—but only people who live in houses. For some insane reason, there was no easy way for people in apartments to recycle. (There was a “recycling center,” but it wasn’t satisfactory—it was 3.6 miles away, and really only accessible by car. You could get there by bus, but it took an hour—and you still had to cover a mile of the distance on foot.)

The story, as I understand it, was that apartment dwellers weren’t the sort to take to recycling: They were too lazy, too uninvolved, too low-class. Only house dwellers were the sort of upright people who cared enough about their environment and community.

It’s a story that pisses me off, because apartment living is much more sustainable than vast suburbs of detached homes. To simply dismiss people like me (who chose to live in an apartment on the grounds of simplicity, frugality, and energy efficiency) over an offensive stereotype of apartment dwellers is annoying.

Far more annoying, though, would be to have that stereotype vindicated by my neighbor’s behavior. And the opportunity to find out has arrived here in Champaign. A few weeks ago, recycle bins appeared next to our big dumpsters (sealed shut with a strip of tape asking us not to dump recyclables until Thanksgiving). We all got fliers asking us to feed the thing.

So far, I haven’t seen much use by other residents. We don’t use it a lot, because we don’t produce much recyclable waste, but we have started separating our cans, bottles, paper, and cardboard from the food waste. But even if our neighbors are quite conscientious about reducing and reusing, I’d expect to see more recyclables than I do.

It’s not looking good for team simple-living. Let’s hope it’s just some combination of newness and holiday craziness—that by early next year, my neighbors will be recycling up a storm.

I really don’t want the stereotype of the disengaged apartment dweller to be true.

[Updated 2011-03-11: Once the recycling bins had been in place for a couple of weeks, my neighbors started doing a much better job of putting the recyclables into the recycling. Phew.]

Adoration of the Snowman

Adoration of the Snowman, originally uploaded by bradipo. Photo by Philip Brewer. Snow sculpture by some neighbor kid, I assume.

I almost captured the posture in this picture—the snowman leaning back, face turned up, arms spread wide. He looks like there’s nothing in the world more interesting than the apartment building across the path.

Creative Commons License
Adoration of the Snowman by Philip Brewer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Applications open for Clarion

If you’re a writer of speculative fiction, you’ve probably already heard of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop—and probably already spent some time wishing you could go. At least, that was my experience. I first heard of the workshop in the late 1970s; I didn’t manage to attend until 2001.

For me, Clarion was a purely positive experience. I learned a lot about writing, wrote several stories (one of which got published in a good market), met a bunch of great writers (both teachers and fellow students), and generally had a blast nearly every day for six weeks.

If you want to know what Clarion was like for me, you’re in luck—I kept a journal of my time at Clarion. (Other possibly useful stuff I wrote about Clarion include my article How I Learned at Clarion, which talks about my surprise at discovering that the activities that I thought would be more or less useful turned out to be just about backwards, and my page on Clarion Costs, which talks about my Clarion expenses.)

But what’s more important is what Clarion will be like for you, which is something that you can’t read about—it’s just something that you’ll be able to write about, if you go.

Here’s the official announcement.

If the idea appeals to you, there’s a button at the bottom of the Clarion page that you can click to start your own application.

Website revisions

I’ve made some revisions to my website.

  1. I’ve updated to a new theme that includes support for “asides” (brief posts like this one) and thumbnails (pictures to be featured when only an extract of the post is shown, such as on the category and search pages).
  2. I’ve removed the “sticky” post that had my picture and text about me, and replaced it with an abbreviated version at the top of the sidebar.

What do you think?

NaNoWriMo ends

As NaNoWriMo ends, I’ve taken down my progress bar. It topped 15,000 around mid-month, but hasn’t moved much since then. I’ve re-learned a lesson I’ve learned before—I can only produce around 1000 words of fiction per day on a sustained basis.

At the end of the first week I managed a 2300-word day to get back on track, but then only hit 300 words each of the next two days. That pretty much put paid to the notion of hitting 50,000 by the end of the month—and the related discouragement made it all the harder to be productive over the second half of the month.

However, I’m by no means giving up. At 1000 words per day, I should be able to finish this novel in just another couple of months.

That’s my plan. I may even put up a non-NaNaWriMo progress bar.

Even with the failure to produce a novel in a month, I’ve found the process to be useful. Two things in particular stand out:

  1. I had a boatload of new novel ideas that I’ve had to push aside to keep working on this one. They all seem particularly shiny. I’m looking forward to picking one of them to work on next.
  2. I’ve learned a lot about structuring a novel, which is very different from structuring a short story. I’ll have more to say about that in the future.

I spent most of the morning making minor revisions to my outline, based on insights into how the novel should be structured. There’ll be some more of that this afternoon—but also, hopefully, some new text generation as well.