|On the Corner of Cervantes and Coltrane
Unsolicited, random musings on time, space, and the human condition.
|Problem and Resolution? [6 November 2017]|
The Washington Post (D. Fears, 5 November 2017) reports that Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) noted that of the total species listed since 1973, only about 3 percent have been delisted and then quotes the senator as saying "As a doctor, if I admit 100 patients to the hospital and only three recover enough to be discharged, I would deserve to lose my medical license." Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and The Supreme Court soon determined that "the plain intent of Congress in enacting" the ESA "was to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost." It is the practitioner and not the patient that loses their medical license, so it should be members of Congress and not endangered species that lose their license to practice. We can start with Sen. Inhofe and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), both of whom have "practices" dedicated to removing federal protections from federal lands, and in their fondest dreams, removing federal land ownership as well. The native flora and fauna on federal lands are wholy irrelevant in this resurrection of Manifest Destiny.
|Nonsense or Mayhem? [4 October 2017]|
There are real problems associated with self-driving cars, but they're not the problems that are being broadly discussed in media. Consider the so-called "trolley problem." As a purely hypothetical, philosophers can spend all of their time on this one because it has little relevance to the real world. How many cars, trolleys, or other human-driven vehicles have ever been in this situation? I'd wager none. The issue makes virtually no sense. The processing time and complexity of the hypothetical situation, which appears to have no general solution, oddly reflects the reality that in the oft-chance that such a scenario would ever develop, the response would be instinctual and not based on any reasoning whatsoever. Would an autonomous car with better sensors and faster processors be able to address and resolve this complexity? If so, it would certainly be better to avoid the conflict in the first place by, say, just stopping. Second, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) recently discussed "big question" issues such as whether open-container laws would need to be revised with self-driving cars. This, of course, is clearly irrelevant to the deployment of self-driving cars.
So what are some real issues? The rise of automation has reduced the skill set of most individuals and the process of driving is precisely one of these skill sets (fundamental skills such as multi-tasking and spatial perception, not the act of drving per se). Studies have suggested that GPS-based way-finding apps result in spatial skills either never being developed or being lost (including atrophy of the brain-area dedicated to spatial perception). Now you may scoff at this concern, but read the above paragraphs again and tell me what you think the bigger problems would be.
|Overstating One's Case [27 September 2017]|
The USHSR News today (22 September 2017) says that "High speed rail is the smartest investment we can make in our future!" With all the chaos about quality of schools and public infrastructure in general, I guess the best strategy is to pour all the resources we have (save those needed to build the wall) into HSR and then just sit back and wait for the checks to arrive.
|Take a Knee [26 September 2017]|
Many letters to the editor published in the LA Times today, as well as in other media, have been from people symbolically expressing their opinion on "taking a knee." many of these writers also have symbolically expressed the strength of their opinions by stating that they will boycott the NFL until this protest movement is stopped. The protest in question is itself directed toward a symbol: the U.S. flag. These protests are not directed toward a disrespect for the country, patriotism, mom, or apple pie. Instead, as with many protests, these are directed toward a problem: the real problem of African-American men being shot by police throughout the country with little if any redress in virtually every case. Those protesting are no different from protestors in general who walk picket lines, file lawsuits, write letters, and boycott products or events. Take-a-knee protests are directed, well defined (if you're paying attention), and legal. If you don't agree with the problem or the method of protest, then you may, as some letter writers just did, start your own protest. It's the American way. But please keep in mind that regarding "taking a knee," there are actual people dying in the streets and thus an urgency much greater than football.
|Relativity [5 September 2017]|
This year, the City of Irvine re-constituted its Transportation Commission in response to increasing complaints of deteriorating traffic conditions, raised during last fall's election cycle. In May, the Orange County Register summarized initial comments and interests of newly appointed commissioners, all of whom appear to have at least some relevant experience. Comments were mostly run-of-the-mill such as "traffic is bad on major roads at peak hours in any big cities" and "local congestion (is) caused by people trying to avoid freeway traffic." Interests included "beef(ing) up bus routes" and improving traffic light synchronization." No surprises here.
No sense of history here, either. The City of Irvine is a "master-planned community" that has actually worked according to the plan. But this plan has started to change over the past few years with the City Council approving major development beyond what the master-planned transportation network can handle. This is why there is now excess congestion (some congestion is always expected in peak hours). Further, "trying to avoid freeway traffic" does not seem to be a valid excuse. There is little congestion on streets parallel (roughly east to west) to the two freeways, but significant levels of congestion on orthogonal (roughly north to south) arterials. The City is oriented so most north-south traffic has both origins and destinations within the City, thus, this congestion is in large measure by residents. One exception is extensive daily congestion on University Drive accessing the I-405 SB, which, in part is due to the City Council eliminating the Sand Canyon connection though (the gated) Shady Canyon. The City's design and daily population support limited public transit options, which in any case requires decisions by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) in a county that has transit ridership hovering around forty precent lower than pre-recession peaks. OCTA also has a long-standing program for traffic signal coordination but it must be noted that these improvements require continuous action, since studies show the associated benefits to be short lived.
Now we see plans for expanding Jamboree Boulevard in the Irvine Business Complex from four to five lanes in each direction north of I-405 to feed into the Jamboree "mini-freeway" that connects to the tollway system in the northern foothills. From this description, the plan sounds quite logical. The land use along this corridor, however, is not necessary condusive to such a facility, since it has been developed over the past decade to incorporate an urban residential area with mature trees over broad sidewalks. In hindsight, this land use decision was probably a bad one but, in foresight, this mini-freeway will at best only temporarily address congestion and will likely only accommodate planned growth in the future. From this persepective, it is fortunate to have a qualified transportation commission. But the ultimate decision-makers, a City Council outlook that got us into this mess originally, is not likely the best way to get us out of it. As one no less than Einstein said, "Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them."
|Heroes and Villains [3 Sept 2017]|
While we may not have all been surprised by arguments regarding the removal of confederate statues leading to arguments regarding the removal of founding father statues, I doubt many thought that the next salvo would be the LA City Council replacing Columbus Day with an Indigenous Peoples Day. While I've never been in favor of casting statues, buildings, holidays, and other honorifics on our favored heroes (or villains), I am less in favor of the ridiculous arguments made in support of these changes. Colombus is a symbol of an age of discovery that changed the world for the better, overall, despite the many atrocities that followed. But there were already wars, slavery, and other atrocities through out the New World prior to the arrival of Europeans, as was the case in many parts of Africa. And more of the same through out Europe and Asia before, during, and after the Age of Discovery. If you place any human being of any stature on a pedestal, real or proverbial, there will almost always persons or groups who were ignored, used, or effectively eliminated along the way. This is not a justification of past, current, or future behaviors of heroes or those who seek to, theoretically, honor them. It's just acceptance of the fact that no one is either a hero or a villain. Each of us is both.
|Spare Change? [3 Sept 2017]|
A study issued by the Roosevelt Institute and reported by CNBC concludes that "giving every adult in the United States a $1,000 cash handout per month would grow the economy by $2.5 trillion by 2025." Comments are in order. First, it would cost over $1.5 trillion annually to do this, all from increasing debt (since a tax increase to pay for it would cancel out the growth impact). The additional increase in GDP, up to $1 trillion by 2025, is the multiplier effect of money in circulation. This seems to contribute to an increasing debt each year (but I guess we're doing that anyway). Second, the discussion was oriented toward the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) which would be response to automation eliminating jobs (but says little what the psychological costs and benefits would be). Third, this is consistent with the idea that it makes no difference to the overall economy as to who gets the money, as long as it is all spent or invested (and not stuffed into a mattress). Whether it's the one percent getting an extra million each year, or everbody else getting $1,000 per month, the results will be the same (despite the claim that high personal tax rates somehow diminish the economy). There are enough people talking about this to suggest that the general trend toward automation decreasing costs by eliminating jobs is one that we need to start planning for now.
|Abstract Math or Abstract Reasoning? [28 August 2017]|
An LA Times letter (27 August 2017) addresses the recent Cal State University system decision to reduce the math graduation requirement and the associated commentary on the supposed rarity of practical usage of math, in particular, and of abstract thinking in general. While I wholeheartedly agree with the need for abstract thinking, I do not necessarily agree with the letter writer for three reasons. First, exposure to algebra does not mean that those who pass the course learn anything in the abstract sense, nor do such students reinforce that learning in subsequent coursework. Second, the formal algebra requirement could be replaced with other abstract reasoning courses, including an applied math course that would present the real world examples of math concepts, such as the exponential function mentioned in the letter, as a means of understanding population growth, climate change, and basic economics, all without the formal mathematics. Third, the problem is really a high school problem. Many of these students were not prepared for college and reducing college graduation requirements should not be an alternative to not admitting those who are not ready for college in the first place.
|Making America... [27 August 2017]|
Two OpEd pieces, one in the LA Times (27 August 2017) and one in the New York Times (25 August 2017), provide excellent summaries of current issues with deep ramifications for our future. The NYT OpEd by Paul Krugman discusses the under-covered campaign by Trump and Pruitt to butcher many environmental safeguards protecting the health and prosperity of all Americans. The LA Times OpEd by Lisa Richardson provides an excellent review of the history and symbolism associated racism and recent conflicts over monument removal. Highly recommended.
|Lemonade [21 August 2017]|
We have some people who want to stop immigration and want to maintain public display of memorabilia from days gone by. They want a wall and they want their statues. I propose that we remove all statues (and I mean all statues of "dead heroes" but will compromise and agree to just those that are the subject of current conflict) and place them along the U.S. / Mexican border, facing south, to form a wall (of sorts) to stoke fear in the hearts and minds of those considering crossing the border. Even if it doesn't achieve this goal, at least it will provide a convenient place for immigrants to relieve themselves as they trek north. When life gives you lemons...
|Horse Feathers [19 August 2017]|
I do not think that any historical artifacts should be destroyed but I also personally believe that, where there are local objections, such artifacts should be moved to a suitable location where the historical value of the artifact can be explored in the proper context. Because context is critical. There are few if any absolutes: everything is in shades of grey. Which is why it is difficult to believe that, as the LA Times reports (19 August 2017), "controvery rears its head" at USC where their "equine mascot Traveler is under scrutiny for having a name similar to Robert E. Lee's horse." A co-director of the USC Black Student Union stated at a public rally to express solidarity after Charlottesville violence that "white supremacy hits close to home." There are no shortage of valid criticisms against what seems to be pervasive racism so that one should not need to focus on the name of a horse.
FYI: The LA Times (20 August 2017) today explored similarities between George Washington and Robert E. Lee by interviewing a history professor at Washington and Lee University who provided some historical perspective.
|Days of Future Past [16 August 2017]|
Continuing with the interview with Harriet Tregoning, a former principal deputy assistant secretary at HUD, Tregoning says "Honestly not a lot of people are thinking about the future. They're mostly looking at the past. They're not really even looking at the trends in some cases." I sometimes think that this human condition is, as Bruce Cockburn puts it, a grey burden where "Those who know don't have the words to tell, And the ones with the words don't know too well."
Odd that the transportation planning process and the component travel forecasting models dwell virtually only on the future. At first glance, this may seem to be a raison d'etre but this process of dead reckoning, measuring well into the future from a single data point today or in the recent past, makes little sense. If the models utilized cannot backcast to yesterday from today, from the known to the known, with knowledge of all that has changed, then what faith can there be going forward to the unknown?
And trends are not enough to consider. Trends are, in the short run, usually missed (e.g., the 2016 election) or misinterpreted (e.g., the "end of VMT" or that millennials will all live in cities and not own cars). To quote Roy Amara "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run." Perhaps this is due to our desire to be first, rather than to be correct. As with psychics, it seems to be that only the hits count, even when there are so few.
|The Physics of Wasted Space [16 August 2017]|
In a recent interview, Harriet Tregoning, former principal deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Community Planning and Development at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, reported the following statistics. "In the U.S. automobiles are driven 5 percent of the time and parked 95 percent of the time." And she quotes UCLA'a parking guru, Don Shoup, who estimated that there are between seven and nine parking spaces for each and every automobile in America (virtually none, by the way, of which are available within walking distance of UCLA).
These numbers may actually be quite efficient given other conveniences of daily life. Consider appliances such as washers and dryers, not to mention microwaves. In my house, I'd add several rarely used TVs and stereo systems and I have more than enough clothes taking up space in my too many closets in my too many bedrooms. In fact, most of the floorspace in my house is empty almost all the time. Vertical space, while full with books and CDs, just consumes space and gathers dust (where would that dust be if it weren't somehow accountable to the physics of wasted space). And nothing wastes more space than all of the "information" accessible via the internet (wasted space is not always measured in square feet and by other people's consumption patterns).
So, yes, my cars sit most of the time, as do most of the cars on my street. And as do my bicycles (and my dog, but he is getting old). Except for those individuals who are truly anti-auto, do people really worry about having too much parking? Would these people feel better if cars were driven more and parked less? Most car-related problems start when cars are moving (accidents, noise, and emissions). When you are anti-auto and have been unsuccessful changing the desire of people to drive, then you start to accept driving and focus on stopping them from parking. In the near future, autonomous vehicles might be moving most of the time, with many studies showing a reduction in parking demand but perhaps greater vehicle miles travelled. Will this be a good thing?
"Because once you've already paid for an expensive parking space, the likelihood that you would own or keep a car is much, much higher" says Tregoning. I think the choice of housing is tied to the choice of employment and activity patterns, which together define the need for a car. I have known no one who has bought a house with plenty of "free" parking, be it garage, driveway, or street, who then says 'Hey, I should get a couple more cars since I've got the space for them' (unlike actual decisions to buy more TVs, furniture, clothes, and dogs since 'hey, I've got the space for them'). So maybe the problem the anti-car folks should focus on is consumerism, in general. That's where the real waste likely lies, gathering dust in the silent ticking of digital clocks (I don't own a watch but I have eight clocks in my kitchen alone). If anything is taking up space, perhaps it's Tregoning former title: "principal deputy assistant secretary..."
|Utopian Schemes [16 August 2017]|
In "America the Stuck" Citylab [2 Feb 2017] Richard Florida laments a decline in residential mobility as a blow against the American Dream and a yoke on the economy. "It's time that federal, state and local governments eliminate these distortions and level the playing field," writes Florida, "and help encourage the mobility that lies at the heart of the American Dream." He seems to ignore that this dream was more often the Jefferson's "movin' on up" and not Billy Joel's "movin'out."
Florida quotes a study by David Schleicher which argued that government policy plays a bigger role in American's declining mobility than we think. Schleicher identifies policies that he claims limit Americans' mobility, including the mortgage tax deduction (full disclosure: I no longer benefit from this and only marginally benefited in the past). Not paying income taxes on mortgage interest (or charitible donations, or other things that vary by state, such as not paying state taxes on federal taxes) may be viewed as "sacrific[ing] needed tax revenues" but which came first? Home ownership and charity came before federal income tax but more importantly, the decisions made in owning a home or having children can not be easily reversed, thus, these decisions would need to be grandfathered in, which would be inequitable for those trying to make such decisions today. Florida, to his credit, does mention that these policies have benefits, but does not argue causality regarding diminished mobility nor whether mobility on the scale of the late 20th century should be expected or universally beneficial. It is also never explained why the mortgage interest deduction makes owners less likely to move, since the same deduction would apply elsewhere (in California, Prop 13 is a regulation that can limit residential mobility).
A truly progressive world would exist only in utopian dreams, as would the libertarian's world of open markets, fluid labor supply, and pure competition. Some people are just happy where they are but there are always some that can only see this as leaving some money on the table.
|Road Diets [6 August 2017]|
A recent UCI senior design project consider a "road diet" plan for a sprawling business complex in Newport Beach near John Wayne Airport. In a nutshell, a road diet is a conversion of a road with two or more lanes in each direction to one or more fewer lanes in each direction, usually with a central bi-direction turn lane, all while typically maintaining the full right-of-way. A road diet usually involves adding bike lanes and often involves removing parking. This was part of a real planning project which, in this case, appears to have been selected to minimize negative impacts, such as increased congestion or diversion of traffic to other routes. The location in question was not congested, with little need for traffic control and turn pockets, and featuring minimal bicycle and pedestriam traffic. But no downside often means no upside.
Los Angeles has been more active in this regard and an LA Time editorial (30 July 2017) discussed Bblowback over 'road diets'" based on recent public outcry to a few road diet projects which, in LA's case, were in areas that were already heavily utilized. Traffic diverts to other routes with the effect of moving the problem from one location to another. There has always been quite a bit of wishful thinking when it comes to transportation, in general, and getting rid of the car, in particular (the car, like coal, will likely resolve many if not most of the negative impacts as technology provides solutions that are or will likely be embraced by users). Two such branded programs are "Complete Streets" and "Vision Zero," progressive policies that make complete sense in theory but, as Chuck Reid said, In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is." The idea behind Complete Streets is that all users should be accommodated, and the idea behind Vision Zero is the total elimination of traffic fatalities. One can't argue against either of these, in theory. In practice, what are the costs? Ceteris Paribus, one would think the the greater the general mix of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorized vehicles, the greater the number of fatal and injury accidents; in many environments, a great mix slows drivers and actually increases saftey of peds and bikers. But these two opposite outcomes leaves a wide range in between, the outcome of which will be determined by local conditions. We don't want peds on freeways anymore than you would want cars on sidewalks.
But the LA Times dismissed complaints, including several by LA City Council members, as "Typical City Hall" obstruction and the reason "why so many ambitious plans remain unfulfilled." Sometimes ambitious plans are just not good ones. There are values placed on time and on safety, and these values vary significantly in the population. But are they solutions? Maybe Newport Beach had it right. Start in an area where there would be few negative impacts, even if the associated benefits are underwhelming. Don't try to teach an old dog new tricks. We all know that diets never work for people that really need them.
|Humming a Different Tune [5 August 2017]|
The forecast for Orange County is HOT on the 405, and that "T" stands for toll. "Toll with a capital 'T' and that rhymes with 'P' and that (no longer) stands for (car)Pool!" (apologies to The Music Man)
|Not Who? But Why? [5 August 2017]|
Over the last six months, the reporting and subsequent complaining about leaks has become manifold, with recent administration statements suggesting that these leaks are both undermining the administration and threatening "all law-abiding Americans." I for one feel more threatened when the adminstration threatens the press (this being the administration that publically claims that the press is all fake news yet somehow doesn't think that the leaked material being reported is not fake news).
I have but few questions regarding leaks of classified information (few rather than no questions, because there have always been issues regarding what information is classified). For other leaks, the question should not be "who?" but rather "why?" Subjecting all government information to the light of day, except for truly classified information, reflects a fundamental right, and a free press serves in this capacity. When embarrassing (but not legitimately classified) information is leaked, one must ask, first, why were these embarrassing activities occurring in the first place and, second, why do hand-chosen staff think it best to leak this information.
|Massachusetts, Massachusetts, Massachusetts [1 August 2017]|
UC Irvine's Nicholas Marantz writes in an LA Times (1 August 2017) oped in response to several prior LA Times articles on housing problems in California (see Housing and Transport. Presenting what he thinks California's state legislature should do, Marantz mentions a law passes in Massachusetts that "shifts some power over land use away from local governments that aren't meeting state affordable housing goals." Little was said relative to the state's ability to "shift some power" or whether local governments had any say in their bargain with their big brother, but Marantz does summarize the "good reasons that California and other states give local governments primary authority over land-use regulation" including that "local officials are best positioned to understand the effects of development on a given site and are best equipped to recognize the interests of current residents." Since research by Marantz shows that Massachusetts has been able to use their law to get some housing where it was needed, I think think he has also found the solution for California: those who can't find housing in California can move to Massachusetts. In the end, Marantz does offer an unsurprising caveat that the Massachusetts approach is not a panacea (housing is still a big problem there), but somehow thinks that California should consider the same. I like my solution better.
|Coins, Crosses, Flags, and Ties [23 July 2017]|
"Am I the only person who doesn't care about what 'fill in the blank' did in his private life?" Thus began a letter in today's LA Times (23 July 2017) regarding a former USC Dean and alleged man about town (a letter likely written by a USC alum trying to close the ivory gates after the Puliafito Horse had already been celebrated within the hallowed walls of Troy). I wish the answer to that question was 'yes, you are the only person' who no longer feels that there is and must be a higher ethical standard imposed upon and embraced by those whom we elect, appoint, or acclaim as leaders, public figures, or heroes. But this would be wishful thinking since, while coins, crosses, and other emblems of honor and merit still shine brightly in harsh daylight, our society's values and ethics too often waver in the evening's shadows.
|Where There's Smoke... [20 July 2017]|
Regarding refusals to provide tax returns, the President said "If any president does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they're worried about. There's something, there always is." Look's like the President is finally coming clean and will... what, I mis-quoted? Oops, mea culpa. Yesterday's quote from the President was apparently expressed in response to a lack of support, from at least 20 states, for his voter fraud panel, and not in response to continuous calls to provide his tax returns. Furthermore, he said "If any state" and not "If any President." But where's there's smoke, there's usually fire, and one does indeed have to wonder.
Our President has long referred to any questioning regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election as a "witch hunt". But the more questions that are asked, the greater the wonder that there is more than just smoke (maybe a witch or two burning?). With virtually zero evidence of any voter fraud, this panel is primarily a means to divert attention from his and his associate's smokey business and political connections with Russia.
|Repeal and Disgrace [20 July 2017]|
Our President, despite his complaints to the contrary, does indeed own Obamacare, in the same way that he now "owns" through inheritance every law, policy, and guideline of the federal government. Even more so since his administration's actions have served to continuously undermine the ACA Law. If he succeeds in repealing ObamaCare, then he will fully own the collapse of health care for 20-30 million Americans. This will truly be "repeal and disgrace."
|Premature Prognostication [17 July 2017]|
Wishful thinking, apparently. The 2008 Great Recession brought with it declining vehicle miles traveled to complement the identification of "trends" that millennials did not want driver's licenses, or even cars, and were echewing the suburbs for center cities. We heard of "Peak VMT" ... at least until 2014. Turns out that VMT is back to its prior growth rate and, while metropolitan areas continue to grow, it's not the core urban component that captures most of this growth. The last few years have produced the highest levels of domestic automobile sales ever. While there are many reasons, good and other, to associate miles driven, cars owned, and growth in the suburbs with a declining quality of life with respect to air quality, congestion, energy use, social ills, and other characteristics of a general decline of the American empire, this is no excuse to base predictions on short term perturbations and to place your cart of wishful thinking before your horse.
|Does the Math Add Up? [8 July 2017]|
A headline in the LA Times (6 July 2017) states "Solve this puzzle to graduate." An algebraic factoring problem is presented with the stakes being a California community college degree and a potential transfer to a four-year college. Since "more than 3 out of 4 community college students in California cannot pass the placement exam" and must take remedial math courses, the oft-asked question is posed: "How necessary is intermediate algebra ... that most non-math and non-science students will rarely use in everyday life for the rest of college?" This is not a new question. What has changed is the general expectation that everyone needs to go to college to succeed in life. This expectation, however, does not seem to consider whether everyone is ready for college. Some valid questions, and some simple answers, are:
Consider the well-regarded education system in Irvine, California. I've witnessed K-8 schools in Irvine exerting significant efforts to ensure that students learned the art of writing via an iterative process of writing and feedback. This is a good thing. But the very same system, which inexplainably started with multiplication tables up to 12 (in our base 10 world) would grade math problems by exchanging papers and classmates and grading answers right or wrong. Beyond the basics, math requires the same level of feedback learning that writing does, but few schools appear to provide this.
At UCI, general education requirements reflect common precepts for a liberal arts education, including one year in each of the following areas: (1) writing; (2) science and technology; (3) social and behavior sciences; (4) arts and humanities; and (5) quantitative, symbolic, and computational reasoning (as well as single course requirements in language, global studies, and multicultural studies. "The general education requirements are intended to help undergraduates place the specialized study undertaken in the major within a broader context. They are designed to cultivate the skills, knowledge, and understanding that will make students effective contributors to society and the world. The general education requirements should enable UCI undergraduates to apply the abilities developed in their studies to identify significant issues, gather and evaluate available evidence, analyze alternatives, reach conclusions, communicate the results effectively, and take considered actions." And that is as good of an explanation as I have seen as to why analytical reasoning is a needed skill. But does it have to be math?
One could try to argue that a humanities major may not ever need algebra, or a computer science major may not ever need to write an essay, or a dance major may not ever need to understand environmental science, or an engineering major may not ever need to apply psychology. And, at least directly, this may often be the case. But these people are diminished by lacking the insight and skills that completing these requirements would provide, and that earning a college degree represents.
Are there other ways to achieve some level of expertise in critical analysis? Of course. Fundamentally, these skills apply to many areas so reducing the "abstract" while maintaining the "critical" thinking means that courses in public health statistics, management decision problems, or computer algorithms would all provide the needed skills (UCI provides these and many other options to intermediate algebra). But please do not think that critical thinking is not needed. It most certainly is.
|Dessert Topping or Floor Wax? [6 July 2017]|
In an LA Times OpEd (6 July 2017), Todd Gaziano and John Loo (the latter no stranger to controversy) claim "it's magical legal thinking to think that one president can't undo the declaration of another." And right they are, although they're completely missing the point. Presidential leadership, similar to that of the Supreme Court, must simultaneously exhibit legal correctness and reflect consistency, ethics, intelligence, and public support. Hitting one out of (at least) five will never make it. If there were good reasons for undoing a predecessor's actions, then by all means make the decision and provide the rationale, but Trump's attitude in usually just "because I can." This can quickly deteriorate into (rise to?) Monty Python on argument versus contradiction, or a SNL skit where today Bears Ears is a dessert topping and in four years it's a floor wax.
|Housing and Transport [4 July 2017]|
Housing, unlike transportation and many other urban services and most urban infrastructure, has rarely been seriously considered by engineers, typically falling under planning and policy. Housing, as a component of land use policy, has maintained this isolated nature in part because land use has been locally controlled ever since Euclid v. Ambler (1926), where as transportation has usually featured local, regional, state, and federal involvement, and has done so assuming a land use plan as a given.
One of the first topics covered in transportation planning is the fundamental, derived-demand relationship between transportation and land use. So how has the interaction worked in practice? Municipal General Plans have dictated land use and the transportation infrastructure needed to accommodate those plans. In general, this has worked well as long as areas were not growing to fast or too slow so as to compromise the plan's balance between development and the transport system needed to accommodate associated travel demand.
In today's LA Times (4 July 2017), Liam Dillon writes about housing in an article provocatively entitled "California's 'elaborate shell game' on housing." A 50-year-old CA law requires local government to submit a housing development plan which must be updated every 8 years, with an apparent lack of any meaningful enforcement (this sounds quite similar to the SB375 requirement for a Sustainable Community Strategy (SCS) as part of the Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP). Sandy Rosenberg did say that planners do too much too soon and are too proud of it.
The problem is an apparent lack of reporting on annual housing starts by local jurisdictions, probably due in part to sloth but more likely due to inaction regarding what was promised. New housing depends on costs (land, labor, etc.), financing for builders and buyers, and having local areas and local developers see a win-win proposition. And this has always been a local decision so the resistance to state interference is understandable.
Dillon states that "more than two-thirds of California's coastal communities have adopted measures ... aimed at limiting residential development." This should not be a surprise to anyone since communities, even liberal ones, are mostly driven to prevent any actions that will erode community and housing values to protect the largest investment that most citizens will ever make. And this has been the case since Euclid v. Ambler that concluded that it was not an unreasonable intrusion into private property rights for a government to maintain the character of a neighborhood and in regulating where certain land uses could occur. Dillon quotes a UC Berkeley study which found that growth control policies raise housing costs by five percent. No word on what depreciation would result due to overbuilding or to undesireable changes in neighborhood character.
State "agencies outline how many new homes are needed [by] income levels." "So, in theory, all cities and counties would receive their fair share of growth." Really? This top down policy to find the lowest common denominator would likely only equalize misery. Dillon does conclude by stating that current law "doesn't hold cities accountable" as it should be since such state law would indeed "unfairly take away [local] power over development in their comunities". What has often resulted are long commutes but this does not mean that rationale decisions are not being. A woman in the article would like to live closer to her job but has chosen a long commute associated with a distant, larger, and cheaper home (the opposite, by the way, of what many Manhattenites choose: close, small, and expensive apartments).
Now, California state Senator Scott Weiner wants to change this via SB35, apparently by rewarding "good" cities and (somehow) penalizing "bad" cities (sounds rather Trumpian). There is this progressive if not utopian idea that government can make everything better, not by just leveling the playing field but by instructing all the players how and when to move. He seems unaware of the basic relationships between land and transportation, between the private and public sectors, and of the real estate mantra of "location, location, location." You may build it cheap, and sell it cheap, but you would have to regulate it to keep it cheap. And who wants their biggest lifetime investment to not be able to accrue in value? And who wants the public sector management costs of price controls. This is not just a southern California phenomena, nor even an American phenomena. It is the nature of life. I do agree with Weiner's last reported comment that the housing law is a "complete farce" except I take this Trumpian comment at its face value that such laws simply cannot work.
|Hope and Violence [2 July 2017]|
White House spokeswoman Sanders tweeted (29June2017) "The President in no way form or fashion has ever promoted or encouraged violence. If anything, quite the contrary." Ignoring contrary evidence in his campaign is one thing, but a Trump video post this week had him punching a person with the CNN logo as the face. The original video is ten years old and sophomoric humor, but the revision has a darker context. Trump's continued assault on decorum is deplorable but this is made worse by the unconscionable defense of this behavior by a range of administrative staff, Republican officials, and various Trumpundits. Thomas Bossert, a homeland security adviser to Trump, defends the CNN tweet by saying "there's a lot of cable news shows that ... [are] really not always fair to the President," as if this, true or not, justified bad behavior and its defense. This homeland security advisor then said "No one would perceive that as a threat" followed by "I hope they don't." And I hope that homeland security is not basing their behavior and actions on their hopes.
|King Coal Is Dead [26 June 2017]|
The Daily Caller (6/27, Bastasch) has quoted Energy Secretary Rick Perry as saying, "politically-driven policies, driven primarily by a hostility to coal, threatened the reliability and the stability of the greatest electrical grid in the world." People do not hate coal: many people do hate what happens to our environment when coal is burned, at least at the levels that today's global economy is burning coal (and other fossil fuels, which are not nearly as damaging to the environment as coal). Coal is on it's way out as an element of Perry's "greatest electrical grid in the world" and all because the market has cheaper current options (natural gas) and more promising future options (solar and other renewables). It has little to do with "hostility to coal". Look no further than California's 15 percent solar share to see the growing importance of solar. Slate.com reports that the bowling industry employs more workers than the coal industry and that there are more professional dancers (20,000) in the US than actual coal miners (15,000). Perry should wake up and smell the cleaner air.
|Rhetorical Question [26 June 2017]|
Am I (yes, I know, most probably, I indeed am) the only one who is incredibly annoyed at the "new" style of web pages, a style that I can best describe as a very long vertical page, where a significant amount of embedded graphics (not necessarily ads) stream vertically, requiring significant scrolling to view? These pages often load quite slowly (on a Surface Pro 2 with Win 8.1 and an ethernet connection) and occasionally crash the page (although that may be due to ads). Oddly, these sites seem to carry very little actual information (like an e-billboard). Am I missing something about the potential utility of this design? Is it perhaps a design better suited for cell and tablet formats? Or is it just to annoy me?
|P3: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly [25 June 2017]|
Secretary of Transportation Chao was unequivocal on announced program cuts to the federal New Starts program, stating "The administration does not support New Starts." New Starts have not involved P3s but are considered local issues by the current administration.
In Public Privatization news, the State of Indiana announced that they were terminating the P3 contact with I-69 Development Partners, headed by Spain-based Isolux Corsan. The project is behind scheduled with large cost overruns. The added costs may be somewhat reduced by better bond rates with the public sector in charge, but tolls will remain if not increase to pay for the project. At least the public right-of-way will remain in public hands.
Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee Chair Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla) said the Trump administration's plan to privatize the nation's air traffic control system is "like handing the streets over to the taxicab commission right at the time when Uber and Lyft were entering into the market place." The proposal also calls for providing existing air traffic infrastructure free of cost to the private sector, which subcommittee member Price (D-NC) criticized as an "unprecedented give-away of (public) assets."
|The Third Time is the Harm [20 June 2017]|
The Washington Examiner reports that Energy Secretary Rick Perry said "If you are going to be a wise, intellectually engaged person, being a skeptic about these issues is quite all right." Perry told CNBC that "he does not believe carbon dioxide emissions from human activity are the main driver of climate change," joining EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt "in casting doubt on the conclusion of some of the government's top scientists." The AP quotes Perry saying, "This idea that science is just absolutely settled and if you don't believe it's settled then you're somehow another Neanderthal, that is so inappropriate from my perspective."
So what should "a wise, intellectually engaged person" make of all this? First, one should be skeptical of Tweedledum's and Tweedledee's motives regarding climate change opinions. Second, one should consider the source and qualifications of the speaker. And, third, one should be aware that climate change was likely a key factor in the extinction of the Neanderthals.
|Speculation [14 June 2017]|
I'm always interested in articles about transportation that try to explain the various constraints, cost and benefits, and other issues associated with the ability of various supply technologies to address transportation demands. I pay particular attention when certain words are featured, such as monorail, gridlock, or seamless, which are usually used inappropriately. An article by Dakota Smith in today's LA Times (14 June 2017) considers the option of a monorail system in LA's Sepulveda Pass over the 405 freeway.
Many people think that monorail and elevated rail are the same but this is incorrect. Monorail means "one rail", a single beam used to provide support, guidance, and power to system vehicles. The nature of the technology is that it is virtually always grade-separated, usually elevated. Any transportation system, however, including rail, bus, or cars, can use grade-separation to provide faster operations and increased safety. This confusion can be worsened by using the terms track and rail interchangeably. It's perhaps best to consider rail as an element of a track, such as conventional train tracks have two rails that provide support and guidance, while a monorail has one. Furthermore, systems such as the very few mag-lev systems in existence have wide single "tracks" but are usually not classified as monorail systems.
Smith quotes LA Mayor Eric Garcetti's statement that "monorails can" address steep inclines such as present in Sepulveda Pass but this is misleading. It is not the presence of a single rail that provides this grade-climbing functionality but rather the presence of rubber tires rather than steel wheels on steel rails (steel offers reduced friction for efficient "flat" operations but limits functionality with changes in grade). The grades in Sepulveda Pass are close to 6 percent which is also the likely limit for steel-wheeled rail systems. Rubber-tired systems may be able to handle steeper grades.
Perhaps the biggest problem with over-freeway systems are the presence of bridges, grade changes, and other infrastructure that would restrict elevated construction in the same right-of-way. If developed simultaneously, such as with Metro's green line in the I-105 median, sharing right-of-way is possible but this still places rail stations in the middle of the freeway, presenting pollution, noise, and access problems for rail travelers.
Monorail has been jokingly considered to always be the future of transit, as in never being the present. This "future promise" keeps monorail in the public eye but, while there are several dozen monorail systems in operation, with a few exceptions in China, Japan, and some oil-rich countries, most monorail systems serve tourist locations and amusement parks. BYD Skyrail has been mentioned as an option for LA but it is a lower capacity system (greater flexibility and lower cost are usually synonymous with lower capacity and lower speeds) that would not likely be appropriate for a high demand corridor such as Sepulveda Pass.
Over time, I have found one thing to be true about transportation. Just about everyone has substantial personal experience with travel and various transport systems, and this experience somehow translates to personal expertise. To quote Roger Creighton, "It is almost as if people delight in having an area in which anybody can speculate because nobody knows anything about the subject."
|Politics and the Gas Tax [11 June 2017]|
California will raise the state gas tax by 12 cents effective in November (and will also raise vehicle registration fees) with the funds dedicated to repair and maintenance of transportation infrastructure. It will provide much needed revenue for deteriorating infrastructure, with that revenue collected via traditional means. The gas tax has many benefits, including low adminstrative costs, dedicated funding, and a means to adjust the tax to inflation (the root of the original failing infratructure problem). It also has the benefit of being easy to change, whether based on revenue levels or good ol' politics. Despite it's name, the gas tax is a user fee, paid directly or indirectly by users. It is a fee that offers users a way to reduce fees by driving less or driving more fuel-efficient vehicles. I currently discard objections that electric vehicles do not pay gas taxes since this is an effective subsidy toward encouraging the adoption of electric vehicles (similar to allowing low emission vehicles to use HOV lanes, at least as long as we still have HOV lanes).
The LA Times (11 June 2017) reports that the California GOP is considering a ballot measure to repeal the tax. In general, I like the California ballot process but it has been unfortunately bastardized with both excess and inappropriate uses -- by inappropriate, I mean supplanting the responsibilies held by our elected representatives to enact appropriate legislation. First, just about everyone agrees that we need to repair and maintain our infrastructure, and user fees are usually seen as appropriate means to generate revenue regardless of political inclination. Supporters of limited government often wish to use such fees as leverage to address the cost, and regulatory reach, of government, particularly federal government. But this is a state issue (albeit in a progressive state that could use some serious debate on revenue and expenditures) involving dedicated user fees, so what is the issue? Well, it's politics in general: a mix of smoke and mirrors, get out the vote, distract voters from more important matters, and everything else that politicians, lobbyists, and big donors play with every day. To quote Ronald Reagan, "Someone once said that politics is the second oldest profession. I'm beginning to think it bears resemblance to the first."
|The Forest for the Trees [6 June 2017]|
The Guardian (6 June 2017) reports that British Prime Minister Theresa May "declared she is prepared to rip up human rights laws to impose new restrictions on terror suspects." When human rights are gone, what remains is an authoritarian state with absolute power. Isn't this pretty much what most terrorists want in the first place?
|Pots and Kettles [27 May 2017]|
Although I respond to many news articles and opinion pieces, and also often read letters to the editor, I do not usually read published reader responses to the same. An odd op-ed by Dianna Wagman printed in Tuesday's LA Times [23 May 2017] briefly caught my eye, as did the reader responses in Saturday's edition. Wagman described an "occupy Salem" mass spell-casting ritual which, to me, appeared oddly similar to many of the ways that many people are protesting actions taken by the current administration. While I would personally not expect her actions to be effective, I thought her explanation was.
So, while I was not surprised by the responses to her op-ed, I was a bit surprised by their rationales. One writer deplores Wagman for summoning "black magic" against Trump in these "scientifically enlightened times," apparently ignoring the fact that Trump and his appointees are the least scientifically-enlightened public decision-makers, possibly ever. Another writer concludes that "summoning evil against" Trump is not helpful while "many Americans are praying for this country," missing the subtle irony. A third writer critizes those who "denigrate (Trump) personally, simply because they disagree with his policies," defending the denigrator-in-chief. There was one writer who wondered whether Wagman described the "selfsame methods" used by Middle America to elect Trump in the first place. Pots and kettles.
|Would You Rather... [26 May 2017]|
... not hear a "would you rather" question ever again, or watch the person who bastardized this game in flagrante delicto with a giant cockroach? I'm not referring to philosophical discussions but to ridiculously exaggerated if not impossible juxtapositions (such as the second half of the above). The advent of autonomous vehicles has produced a number of "would you rather" situations, perhaps the most prominent being the "runaway trolley about to run over five people tied to the tracks that you can save by effectively causing the death of a single, independent person." Supposedly these results would be important in designing autonomous vehicles (apparently more important than designing better braking systems).
A wrinkle on this game is suggested in a recent article in engadget which reports a study comparing responses to moral decision making by individuals using a smart phone versus a PC. I say wrinkle because, first, the same silly runaway trolley dilemma is posed and, second, since we all know that smart phone users, at least those who would even notice the developing situation, would instead be filming the trolley running over the hapless Nell Fenwicks tied to the tracks rather than effecting any Dudley Do-Right rescue attempt (this comic analogy holds more relevance than appears on first glance). We have a meta-choice beyond the original dilemma. The article reports that smart phone users are more likely to choose the so-called utilitarian approach (take one life on to save five).
The study's authors state that smart phone users "were more likely to make more unemotional, rational decisions when presented with a highly emotional dilemma." While I would agree with this result, the important conclusion was that it's the medium and not the message. Smart phones re-define engagement in social interactions by immersing many users full time in a "would you rather" world.
|Heroes and Traitors [24 May 2017]|
Monuments to confederate leaders are being removed from public places and, I hope, placed in museums where both the beliefs which these leaders held and the culture that perpetuated the conventions of the antebellum south and the myths of the civil war can serve as reminders of our continued evolution as a people. I have always been wary of awards and over-promotion of people, places, and products: very little in life is black and white. Which is why I am also very troubled by the over use of terms of recognition such as heroes and, increasingly, traitors. Perhaps it's simply a sign of the times when all things are pushed to the extremes and compromise fading with civility. But I do not think of every cop, fireman, soldier, and, well, anyone doing their job, even doing their job very well, as heroes. And I do not think that individuals who have acted as they felt they should have acted, serving as a Schrodinger's cat while history turns her cards to hero or traitor. Robert E. Lee is a good example, an individual dedicated, as many if not most Americans at that time were, to his home state of Virginia more than to the United States and the U.S. military. Can an individual who follows his heart, mind, and soul be a traitor and, if so, to whom or what? A letter writer in the LA Times [24 May 2017] calls him a "traitor who fought for one of the most morally represensible causes imaginable." I whole-heartedly agree with this description of the cause but whole-heartedly disagree with Lee being called a traitor. Our "heroes" from that age were equally imperfect, as all humans are.
|Drain the Swamp [24 May 2017]|
Given Trump's proposals thus far, whether it be for tax policy, health care, the environment, or immigration, his apparent intent is to replace the swamp with a Trump country club for the white upper class to reap the benefits of Making America Great Again.
|More Old Maintenance, Fewer New Starts [8 May 2017]|
In today's LA Times, Aaron Renn calls for New Start rail transit funds to instead be directed toward maintaining current rail systems. Data suggests that overall transit ridership is declining in many areas, in part due to lack of systems maintenance (such as in San Francisco and Washington). A small increase in rail ridership in LA's expanding rail network is more than offset by declines in bus ridership. The call for infrastructure maintenance goes beyond transit systems, and includes many elements of the transportation system. Renn suggests that we "need more Old Maintenance and fewer New Starts". I concur and extend his call to highway systems, particularly the rush for HOT lanes and P3 toll projects which for decades will lock in these operations which require tolling schemes to pay for roadway infrastructure and thus limit both investment and use of public right-of-way toward more innovative options for transportation, such as connected and autonomous vehicles.
|The High Cost of Low Prices [25 Apr 2017]|
The Washington Examiner (4/25) reports that the Industrial Energy Consumers of America wrote to inform the White House that failure to leave the Paris accord "would hurt American industry." The letter said "All costs of reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions, whether imposed on the electric generation sector or the oil and gas sectors, are eventually imposed upon us, the consumer." Here, "consumer" means the industrial sector that purchases energy as an intermediate step in producing final demand. This is at least partially true: partial since most if not all of these costs would be passed on to the real consumers, the households that purchase the final products of American industry.
The question is "Who should bare these costs?" If environmental externalities are not born by the sector that creates them, then the final economic costs are distorted. Households, final demand consumers, get cheaper products but must bear the cost of polluted air and water and all the health risks that result. If the cost are passed through as a factor of production then, yes, the final consumers will face higher costs for these products, but reduced costs for the externalities of poor air, polluted water, and health problems.
|It's not the Years... [23 Apr 2017]|
Ronald Browstein writes in today's LA Times that the long-standing expectation of a minimal education of twelve years is under increasingly pressure to be fourteen years. Since the twelve year expectation was a public goal, the cost of this policy was borne by the public. Should the additional two years also be borne by the public?
It is not the years, it's the mileage. The twelve years that matches society's assessment of adulthood need not be extended in terms of education or other adult responsibilities and rights. The current twelve need to be fixed. There is far too much remedial material in the two years of junior college to justify this as a public good when the funds should be applied to the first twelve years. High school graduates look better on paper than they ever had, until we compare the relative performance to other education systems and until we assess preparation for college-level education. It's the mileage associated with the first twelve years that is in dire need of our attention.
|HSRailroaded [12 Apr 2017]|
"In stunning transportation news this week, a doctor is ripped out of his paid seat on a flight, dragged along the floor off the plane because the airlines wanted the seat for an employee." Is this sort of statement, received on the US High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) email list, the best way to court support for the development of domestic HSR? The email also states "if you don't like how the airlines treat you, you can get in a car and sit for hours stuck in traffic! Those are the transportation options for most of America!"
While I would not be surprised if this sort of marketing works some of the time, and while there is a growing sense that this could be a new normal, is this how people, who are paid professionals, and their organizations developing systems for the public good, should be seeking support?
|Guess Who? [4 April 2017]|
"Their base demands total war, total obstruction, and they are begrudgingly bowing to this demand. Unfortunately for them, it has proven difficult to invent attacks against an obviously well-qualified judge." Was this a quote from a Democratic senator after the Rebublican majority refused to consider Obama SCOTUS nominee Merrick Garland, or was this from a Republican senator after the Democratic minority refused to support Trump SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch?
|Two Sides of the Same Coin [27 Mar 2017]|
There are two perspectives being voiced regarding the first 100 days of President Trump. One perspective is utter disbelief that we have elected such an unpresidential president. The other perspective is that President Trump is, if anything, behaving precisely the way anyone paying attention over the past years would have expected. In a word: unpresidential. So it seems that everyone is getting what they should have expected, including Congress. The GOP is holding on to dreams of empire, while the Democrats perhaps are hoping for divine intervention, but both at least see the same person. The fundamental divide that has split this country and produced this Trumpian debacle has continued unabated, suggesting that the swamp that Trump promised to drain is still full, fetid, and frustratingly failing to represent the American people en mass. This, of course, is the real problem.
|HOT Immigration [27 Mar 2017]|
I'm not necessarily a fan of HOV lanes, but I am adamently opposed to irrationale attacks on a system that works as being "degraded" as a strategy to replace that system with something that likely could not be done on it's own merits. Or costs.
We've had another HOV lane of sorts running across domestic borders where citizens of other countries stream en masse across the US-Mexican border. There are many valid arguments that can be raised in opposition to this lack of control, but I find it surreal that Dana Rohrabacher (R, CA) is proposing a HOT lane for immigration as a means to destroy the current HOV lane. Selected individuals that want access and have the cash to pay for it can use the HOT lane: both in transportation and in immigration. In the latter case, a payment of $1 million by as many as 50,000 foreign nationals would grant them permanent citizenship. The resulting $50 billion would be used to build a wall, in theory eliminating today's HOV immigrants as effectively as HOT lanes eliminate carpoolers from the HOV lane.
One can argue the relative merits of HOV lanes and HOV borders, but are HOT lanes and HOT immigration something that any one without excess cash can really support? We've seen the unfortunate step onto a slippery slope with the Senate exercising the nuclear option. Will they let Orange County's heir apparent to B1 Bob push us further down that slope?
|Original? [27 Mar 2017]|
It is bitterly humorous that a letter in the LA Times claimed that with Trump already campaigning for 2000 perhaps Congress should refuse to consider any future SCOTUS nominee, at least maintaining consistency with their actions with Obama's nominee Merrick Garland. All joking aside, it is abhorrent that we accept such an usurpation of executive power by the legislative branch regarding Garland and thus somewhat paradoxical that such a seizure is effectively what SCOTUS did over 200 years ago in claiming judicial review of federal legislation. The result will likely be that an "originalist", Gorsuch, will be named to the court to replace another originalist, the late Antonin Scalia.
The SCOTUS power of judicial review was not formally present in the Constitution and only claimed by the Court in 1803 with Marbury v. Madison. Odd then that originalists have no problem exercising this ultimate judicial review despite not that right not being explicitly part of the original constitution. This point has been long debated. On matters of state legislation, judicial review was given to SCOTUS, but it was not assigned to SCOTUS for congressional legislation. An originalist would thus judge federal legislation reflecting what the framers meant at the time the constitution was written while exercising a power that was not given to SCOTUS at that same time.
|Second Opinions [23 Feb 2017]|
One should always get a second opinion when facing household repair cost estimates. What I can't seem to get a grip on are the job estimates which are used to help justify many public work projects. A recent $647 million request by California's Caltrain has been put on hold by the Trump administration. Caltrain claims that, according to The Hill, the project would "support over 9,600 Americans, not only in California, but in states including Utah, Virginia, and Pennsylvania."
My questions are, first, does this means, as some have reported, that this is 6,900 jobs? Second, are these full time, permanent jobs? Because $647 million divided by 6,900 jobs equals about $67,396 per job, assuming that the entire budgeted amount goes to salary and not to materials, overhead, profit, or other expenses. And this would be for one year. Such estimates are almost always questionable, not just for the accounting questions, but since they suggest that this particular project is justified based on the jobs when the federal government spending this amount in California would generate the equivalent number of jobs regardless of the project in question. For example, fixing dams, roads, or urban utilities with this money would have the same job numbers and, arguably, a much greater economic (and perhaps social) impact.
|Tribalism [19 Feb 2017]|
Families, clans, tribes; fraternities, blue walls of silence, political parties. Heritage, self-preservation, strength in numbers; us against them, power, corruption.
|Opting Out [18 Feb 2017]|
The concept of opting out is almost always illogical. Choices can be made to opt-in to something, but the default should be that you are not participating. Particularly when it is so clear most anyone would opt-out, such as "allowing" the sharing of your private information with anyone for any reason. There is a rather big and obvious exception: the opting-in, usually via birth, to being a citizen of one's native land, then one opts-in to a package deal (following the laws and paying taxes are prime components). What would opting-out of this entail? It would seem nothing less than physically and permanently leaving the country, as well as relinquishing legal rights of citizenship. Otherwise, you've opted-in.
While any party is free to work within the system to change the system, while you're part of the system, you are subject to the laws of the system. Currently that system requires taxes to support, among many things, public defense, public roads, and public schools. No one should be able to opt-out of paying for any of these public goods, whether they use them or not. School vouchers are a form of opting out, in that the taxes owed are returned to you to spend on non-public schools. Should a citizen who feels that public transit is failing be able to opt-out and receive a voucher that could be used toward paying tolls or buying a car?
|Is 20 the New 18? [15 Feb 2017]|
California's AB63 proposes to extend California's Graduate License Law to 20 year-olds. While prior legislation applied to 16 and 17 year-olds reduced the death rate for this age group, the corresponding rate for 19 and 20 year-olds significantly increased. Some have claimed that this older group is waiting to obtain a license to avoid the current law's restrictions. It is more likely that the reduced driving experience with the younger group combined with the lack of restrictions on the older group produces the noted increase in fatalities. Regardless of the real reasons, the proposed bill would simply shift the impact another two years down the proverbial road. There are many reasons why teens and young adults exhibit different behaviors than preceding generations: everything is changing and these groups are at precisely the age when most personal evolution and revolutions occur. New laws rarely address such problems and almost certainly introduce more problems. Just say no.
|Dick-insian Words [21 Jan 2017]|
From Nixon's 1969 inaugural speech: "To lower our voices would be a simple thing. In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words: from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading. We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another."
One could conclude that perhaps Americans do not wish to listen to each other. Or to learn.
|For Whom the Bell Doesn't Toll [19 Jan 2017]|
A Washington Post / ABC News national poll last week suggests that there's little support for tolls as a mechanism for funding the incoming administration's huge infrastructure plans. BondBuyer reports that the tolling plan was "strongly opposed by 44 percent" and "somewhat opposed by 22 percent". One could argue that the 11 percent that strongly supported the Trump proposal correspond to those who favor Public Private Partnerships and those who dislike automobiles (parties whom would make strange bedfellows). Something tells me that one of the last things that unemployed white men from middle America would want to see are tolls on their interstates.
There little need to regurgitate that tolls are a valid means to generate revenue and control demand, but that tolls also are regressive taxes and favor the wealthy. Although toll collection is no longer a major limitation, wide-spread deployment would have many problems. But the real issue here is not tolls per se, rather, it's tolls as profit generators for the private sector while the public sector bears the risk. Every dollar gained by the private sector in profits is one less dollar toward transportation infrastructure improvements.
Two bills in the California legislature are addressing increases in the state gas tax to pay for infrastructure maintenance needs. The gas tax is in place, accepted by the public, provides means of addressing increases by moving toward more fuel efficient cars, and can easily be reduced or eliminated at any time when a better funding mechanism comes along (Repeal and defer? Did I just say that?).
Turning over limited public roadway right-of-way to private sector profits makes as much sense as leasing Yosemite for 40 years to Time Warner. Let's hope that we don't soon hear "say your prayers, varmint."
Addendum: A second poll by Reuters said that most Americans want a federal infrastructure program that is focused on improving existing roads and bridges, with less interest in mass transit, new roads, and new technology. This poll was split between those whom did not want a higher tax bill or government borrowing to pay for infrastructure, with half preferring tolls and user fees and nearly as many whom did not. The population does not seem to realize that, ultimately, it will be consumers who will pay for these improvements, whether via general taxes, fuel taxes, tolls, or higher prices on all goods as the cost trickles down. This is why government must make the decision on what is best for the American public and the American economy, and what is the best way to cover the costs.
|California's Big Dig [17 Jan 2017]|
The Wall Street Journal, referring to the state's high speed rail project as "California's Big Dig," called for presumptive U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to cut federal funding for the project. Boston's Big Dig was plagued by obscene cost overruns, something for which California's HSR is clearly on track.
|Addictions [15 Jan 2017]|
In the LA Times (15 Jan 2017), Johann Hari attributes the domestic opioid prescription drup crisis not to the physically addictive qualities of these drugs but rather to the increase in people whom are "distressed and disconnected" turning to "anesthetics to cope with psychological pain." Hari's article provides evidence to support this claim and makes one think that reactions to a continued exposure to psychological pain might be turning others toward similar immediate but false prophets for addressing pain such as radicalization and terrorism.
|Russian Roulette [9 Jan 2017]|
For the fifth time in 45 first run presidential elections, the popular vote did not matched the electoral college results. This is Russian Roulette: a revolver with nine chambers and one bullet. And who would have thought that the name of this game was so appropriate?
|Really? [7 Jan 2017]|
In his Sunday LA Times column, Michael Hiltzik reports on a decision by UC San Francisco to outsource about half of its IT jobs to the Indian outsourcing firm HCL Technologies. State Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) said "UC is training software engineers at the same time that they're outsourcing their own software engineers." We'll train our citizens at their own expense but we'll only hire lower paid international engineers to work overseas? Really?
|Who's Not Going to College? [26 Dec 2016]|
The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) recently found that between 2011 and 2014, the number of black college students in the state decreased by 13 percent. A few paragraphs later, the Sac Bee article added that "the number of white college students in California has declined at a similar rate since 2011." The decline in black enrollments was partly "explained" by the collapse in the for-profit education sector in California which had enrolled a "fifth of all black college students ... compared with fewer than 1 in 10 whites." The article further states that "only a third of black high school students complete the eligibility requirements for UC and CSU." This seems to place the problem, at least for blacks, directly in high schools. But the article does not address why white enrollments are declining.
|One Size Does Not Fit All [20 Dec 2016]|
"Accessible describes transportation that allows people of any ability to participate in life's basic activities by traveling on our nation's streets, sidewalks, crosswalks, buses, trains, ferries and planes" ( Everyplace Counts Leadership Academy Transportation Toolkit ). Everybody? Does this include agoraphobics? It always seems that "one size fits all" never really fits anyone. And the cost of fitting the less accessible end of those transportation disabled is beyond reasonable reach.
|Elon's Elan [20 Dec 2016]|
Kudos to Elon Musk who is calling for more tunneling to address transportation needs. Nothing that he (off-handedly) proposed is new, but do tunnels exist in urban areas although commonly only used for public transit. It's very expensive (think Big Dig), in part due to the inherent complexity of existing underground infrastructure in cities, but it does effectively separate traffic streams (vehicles, transit, and pedestrians). The big problem is in Musk's contention that this would address traffic congestion. It would accommodate more traffic, increase safety, and possibly improve air quality but, in a growing area, congestion relief likely would be limited. However, if vehicle traffic could be removed from surface networks, flow improvements for transit and non-automotive traffic could be considerable. Why is it that it take's some tech billionaire to call attention to what (at least in hindsight) are potential solutions to today's problems (whether it's tunnels, hyperloops, or shared-use and autonomous vehicles). Does the field of transportation lack foresight or perhaps just a bully pulpit?
|Learning Teaching [11 Dec 2016]|
I'm believer of Thoreau's "beware of all enterprises that require new clothes". A colleague forwarded some slides regarding "active learning" (how I dislike buzzwords like active and smart) and included a cartoon of a professor pouring information into the head of a student. We've all seen quotes regarding the conventional lecture format as "words pass from the lips of the instructor to the notebook of the student without going through the heads of either" or "a professor's notes go straight to the student's notes, without passing through the brains of either." I've never agreed with this and never thought that the lecture method was the problem.
While there are many different ways to learn, and many different types of learners, my experience is that the most efficient learning does involve conventional lectures, expressed as above except that the knowledge does enter the learner's brain, via sight and sound, and is selectively recorded in both memory and in the student's notes. A student who takes good notes often does not need to even review these notes because this material has entered the brain. The instructor selects relevant material and presents it a manner that can be absorbed. A boring lecturer will not be successful, and certainly not with a unenthusiastic learner. While there is definitely a place for alternative ways to both present and absorb knowledge and experience, "active learning" pundits, much like anyone who promotes something old in new clothes, often forget that lectures, discussions, labs, exercises, and the like all have been long part of the educational process. The failures may be numerous but are more often explained by poor teachers and poorly prepared students. If either side is just going through the motions, then no method can work well. This is also one of the reasons why what many of these "new" methods emphasize, can work: both sides need to re-engage. But the tools themselves do not necessarily need to change.
I see many engineering classes taught by professors with the very notes that they took from their professors, in a seemingly infinite regress (I recall something about "one should not expect different results..."). But applying new methods to the same material, by the same professors, and for the same students, is not a recipe for success. For all the hype on MOOCs, flipped classrooms, hybrid courses, and online programs, not much of this is actually changing the many ways that people learn. In most institutions, until teaching is rewarded, one should not expect any changes.
|A New Newspeak [8 Dec 2016]|
UC Irvine announced a new "learning pavilion" that will feature "impromptu conferencing spaces," which I guess will be reserved for unreserved reservations.
|A Lowdown on High Tech [28 Nov 2016]|
In a 2014 interview at the Code conference, Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick predicted that the end of human drivers was eventually going to arrive. In 2016, Kalanick wasn't as certain when stating "Look, this is the way the world is going," Kalanick said, answering how he might explain it to Uber drivers who might lose their jobs down the road. "The world isn't always great." He later tweeted that the "driverless car is a multi-decade transition. Let's take a breath and I'll see you in the year 2035." In 1999, Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNealy famously said, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." Are these quotes by techno-males doing us a favor by prepping us for the inevitable, or are they just part of the plan to ensure the ongoing expansion of the technologies that are producing their fortunes, and their soapboxes.
|The Don [26 Nov 2016]|
Regarding the upcoming presidential family administration, it might be that "one with little hands is worse than two with a Bush."
|The Human Equation [26 Nov 2016]|
"The real issue," said Dietmar Exler, "is humans." Exler, CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, correctly dismisses technology and liability as issues that may delay acceptance of self-driving cars (LA Times 26 Nov 2016). Exler joins a growing number of other corporate decision-makers in a needed reality check but stops short of saying that the customers have any real say, only expressing concerns that some drivers will act aggressively toward autonomous cars. I guess it might come down to aggressive automobility versus passive-aggressive #autonimity.
|Movin' On Up [25 Nov 2016]|
The LA Times discusses prospects for replacing Kamala Harris as California's attorney general now that she has been elected to replace Barbara Boxer as one of California's U.S. senators. The Times identifies many qualified candidates, both female and male, and also says geneder should not matter. What they say does matter is that a fully qualified prospect be appointed and not a caretaker until the next election in two years. What the Times does not say, and what is evident in virtually all of the prospects named, is the current process of "moving on up" is the problem. We have elections to select the best candidate who promises to do the best possible job, at least until the time that a more prestigious position becomes available. Politicians should fulfill the term for which they were elected, and should not be eligible for higher office until they finish the job that they were elected to do. Most of the prospects for a replacement attorney general are already elected officials, and one will abandon their current responsibility to assume the higher position. This daisy chain often continues down several levels, at significant public expense. What we need is commitment from public officials.
The Times editorial (25 Nov 2016) also stated that "government works best when its leadership reflects the diversity of the population it serves." I'd like to think that this means that elected officials represent all of their diverse constituents and do so in an equitable way. But I fear that many believe that this means that the only way to ensure that government can work best is to have elected officials in proportion to the diversity of the population. This would imply that only an elected representative who was indeed "representative" of some defined portion of the population could well represent that population. Such a perspective would be unfortunate in suggesting that diversity effectively means "fundamentally different" and that one must be "like" those they represent. In my humble opinion, nothing could be worse for diversity.
|It Ain't Over Till... [23 Nov 2016]|
The Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) has apparently reached final agreement to drop the controversial SR-241 tollroad extension in southern Orange County. The project was effectively dead in 2008 after the California Coastal Commission rejected the project and the Bush administration rejected the appeal, but effectively dead is not the same as dead to the one-trick pony TCA, which will continue to study alternative routes to address transportation needs without plowing through state parks. The promise of a breath of sanity from both highway planners and environmentalists is a hopeful sign...
|America's Worst Traffic Jam? [23 Nov 2016]|
America's Worst Traffic Jam? A song thought to be the "perfect country-western song" was found to be lacking for omitting references to trains, trucks, prisons, getting drunk, and mama. The worst traffic jam would need to last a lot longer, feature road rage and accidents, and have no reasonable explanation as to why it occurred in the first place ... and you would personally have been in the middle of it. A better caption would be "Tuesday Evening on the 405."
|I'd Laugh If It Didn't Hurt [15 Nov 2016]|
The National Geographic headline of "Mars is still a priority under Trump. Earth, not so much" would be funny if it didn't hurt so much.
|Head Scratch [14 Nov 2016]|
The University of California may need to raise tuition next year to reflect rising costs and declining state support. Sources state that "most" students will have the increase tuition covered by financial aid. What the source of this financial aid would be is not clear, but if it were to come from the tuition increase paid by the "less" side, it would of course be a losing proposition, and not a revenue generator. Scratch. Sort of like the economic changes proposed by Trump that would apparently increase the national debt by well over $7 trillion dollars. Grover (from under what rock...) Norquist claims that such a "Reagan Mark II" tax cut would generate only about $5 trillion (if you believe the promise of a resulting 4 percent economic growth) but this too seems to be a losing proposition when one does the math. Scratch, scratch.
|What Votes Really Count? [12 Nov 2016]|
A letter to the LA Times today pointed out that Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, with slightly more total electoral votes than California, all went red in close elections, essentially determining the outcome. California, on the other hand, with an economy twice the size of these four states combined, went blue but with over a two million popular vote advantage. It really is time to do away with the electoral college. Our President-elect claims that it doesn't matter because if the results were to be base on the popular vote, he would have campaigned in states such as California and would have also won the popular vote. But at least then everyone's vote would truly have counted.
|The Times They (Will Be) A-Changin' [17 Oct 2016]|
Every passing week brings further announcements of the imminent production and deployment of autonomous vehicles, but this has been paired with only limited discussion on the ramifications of this potentially significant disruptive technology. With Uber launching a limited experiment with automonous cars in Pittsburgh, Steven Greenhouse commented in the LA Times (22 Sept 2016) that this will lead to the disappearance of jobs for the five million people who currently serve as drivers for various forms of transportation. Greenhouse concludes that ride-sharing services will see profits jump when they can keep 100 percent of the fare rather than sharing 70 percent with the drivers. This ignores the fact that these "shared" (i.e., for profit) services do not currently pay for vehicles, fuel, maintenance, insurance, and depreciation. My sense is that there would be but limited (if any) profit to current drivers if a full cost accounting was completed. What share of the 70 percent covers labor is unclear, but the other costs will likely be larger as the technology of autonomous vehicles continues to develop.
The various market niches that might be filled by autonomous vehicles are many but uncertain. Households foregoing an additional car which serves a relatively infrequent demand could save on total transportation costs. However, the cost per trip for frequent use would quickly exceed in total the cost of owning a vehicle (you can do the math: using car-sharing for one round trip per day will cost over $600 per month).
I've always found it subtly curious that there has been so little consideration regarding the technology-driven reduction in labor requirements for a service or a product being paired with a reduction in the size of the market able to pay as a loss of jobs produces a loss of income. Perhaps it is easier to forecast the impacts of technologies that have arrived than to foresee what technological impacts may occur down the road.
|Time to Complain [14 Oct 2016]|
USC's Lisa Schweitzer used Twitter comments to examine social media posts on public transit. She found that comments were more negative about public transit than they were about other public services. This should not be surprising since public transit is one of the few public services that not only has room for improvement but simultaneously provides an environment where posting might be the most efficient use of your time, even if you're only complaining.
|Big Data or Big Brother? [13 Oct 2016]|
CNN reports that bus users in Yinchuan, China no longer need cash or smart cards since the "system" uses facial recognition software to identify the traveler. "At the City Hall," CNN says, "holograms -- not people -- usher in residents. A smattering of QR codes dot the walls, allowing people to get quick answers to frequently asked questions" (questions like "Why?" and "Really?" would be on my list). What if a hologram asked a question or tried to board a bus?
|Every Other Year? [6 Oct 2016]|
After last night, I expect Mike Wiseman to be, somewhere, cursing me and the Giants.
|Read the Small Print [1 Oct 2016]|
In a year when presidential candidates are acting anyway but presidential, and California candidates for U.S. Senator acting the same way despite being from the same party, it brings a smile to my face to see some good old fashioned double-speak on propositions. Prop 56 would place a $2 tax on every pack of cigarettes sold in California. So TV ads feature a real teacher who says that Prop 56 was "written to intentionally undermine California's education-funding guarantee." The flyer paid for by "No on 56" boldly states that the propositon would be "cheating schools out of $600 million a year."
What the ads and the flyers do not say is that schools will get precisely the same amount of state support whether this proposition passes or not. The kernal of truth hidden in the proposition is that California has had a voter-approved policy since 1988 of setting aside 43 percent of any new tax revenue for schools, and that prop 56 will not adhere to this policy, in a manner similar to other special taxes such as on tobacco. This is the source of the $600 million figure. A "No" vote will generate zero additional revenue for schools and do nothing to address tobbaco use and related health care costs. A "Yes" vote will also generate zero additional revenue for schools, but will produce as much a $1.4 billion in the first year for tobbaco programs and health care. And, yes, money that goes to health care eventually goes to health care providers such as doctors and HMOs for health services, just like funds for infrastructure eventually end up with engineering and contruction companies that build infrastructure.
So who is funding these ads, flyers, and the "No on 56" campaign? Why Phillipp Morris USA Inc. and R. J. Reynolds Tobbaco Company, of course.
|Drivers Don't Want Driverless Cars [29 Sept 2016]|
Breaking news: most people who drive aren't high on driverless cars. The LA Times reports (29 Sept 2016) on a Kelley Blue Book survey of 2,264 U.S. residents that revealed about 80 percent of participants think people should "always have the option to drive themselves." Most respondents do not think that the future will be one of automous vehicles only, although the proportion that felt so decreased as respondent age decreased. Despite all the hoop-la regarding autonomous vehicles, the market is not similar to what existed for cell phone technology. That technology provided not only a better replacement for some current technology, but also new and innovative technology all in a small handheld device. The only advance in autonomous vehicles is the driverless feature -- all other technology advances will be also available in self-driving vehicles (including connected vehicles). And despite the presence of a huge market for automous vehicles, including ridesharing and public transit, delivery vehicles, and freight transportation, there will remain an equally huge market for self-driving vehicles, including passenger cars, trucks, and SUVs. The economics of vehicle ownership and usage patterns will not change the reason most people have a car, and one that they can drive.
|Can't See the Forest for the Trees [26 Sept 2016]|
The article Diverse Issues in Higher Education can't see the forest for the trees. It is reported that latinos comprise 17 percent of all students in higher education in 2013 compared to only 11 percent in 2003. This is a good thing. But the article laments the corollary that the gap in the latino student-to-faculty ratio is increasing since the rapid growth in student enrollment is at the undergraduate level and thus is not yet strongly feeding the path to the professoriate. Why is it that there's always a dark lining in every cloud? Why is it that, despite the presence of strong enrollment growth for under-represented groups, role models are somehow critical to this growth? Do role models produce this growth? Apparently not. Will this growth eventually produce role models? Almost certainly so.
|Four Kinds of Ice [21 Sept 2016]|
The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. is a Philadephia bar, but not just any bar, according to Frank Hribar in eCampusNews (21 Sept 2016), since its "drinks are carefully designed to stimulate the palate." Oh yes, they also feature "four types of ice." Hribar proceeds to discuss an effort, and an apparently very successful one, by Adrian College to feature interactive digital signage to improve student recruitment. The four kinds of ice, serving as a metaphor, essentially implies that the bar, and therefore the college to be, will spare no detail in providing the best possible experience. I am not the least bit surprised that each of these efforts was successful. Get them in the door, dazzle them with brilliance (or baffle them with BS), get their commitment, and then deliver... four kinds of ice.
|Mea Culpa? My Bad! [21 Sept 2016]|
Proposals for splitting California into smaller states seem to draw equally from defining a common set of beliefs and from a realization that the state is too diverse and too big to govern as a whole. State agencies face similar issues, with Caltrans, despite being split into twelve districts, still having a predominant top-down structure. The federal government faces continuous conservative calls to reduce the size and power of big government, and while much of this discussion is likely directed toward issues of public versus private, some of the proposals, such as funding transportation, seek to distribute power and resources, and bureaucracy, to state governments. Now we (finally) see the private sector facing similar scrutiny with the recent Wells Fargo scandle. Senator Vitter (R, La), echoed my sentiments that "this is crystal-clear proof that an entity the size of Wells [Fargo] is not only too big to fail, but too big to manage" (my existential comment went one step further). Yet we see continual consolidation within the private sector, continued growth in federal government, and California's governor still champions a High Speed Rail project that would likely be impossible in any reasonably balanced system. Why? Because power and money no longer are constrained by any real sense of accountability. Or, as the LA Times Michael Hiltzik says, "a vacuous recital of Wall Street's nirvana: accountability without consequences." Mea culpa has become the equivalent of the playground's "My bad!" So let's just get back to the game...
|I Can't Drive 55 [20 Sept 2016]|
"Everything comes and goes. Pleasure moves on too early, and trouble leaves too slow." Joni Mitchell
|Let's Make a Deal [14 Sept 2016]|
I have a program to give high quality cars to selected drivers in Orange County. Unfortunately, I don't have enough money to pay for this program. However, if OC residents agree to give me their cars, and about $10 per month, then I will have enough money to fund my program. It's not nearly as bad as it may seem since you will have use of your car while the program is being implemented over the next five years or so, and you will have full use of the same car when the program is fully launched. Unfortunately, you will have to pay the $10 per month in any case, whether you participate in this new program or not. But you will be able to lease one of my high quality cars any time you'd like. Do we have a deal?
Yes, we do have a deal since Caltrans and OCTA have already decided to expanded the current 405 by zero free lanes at the cost of about $1.2 billion dollars (and thank you for your $10 monthly sales tax contribution). The high quality cars in my plan are actually the high quality toll lanes in the Caltrans/OCTA plan. There are no funds to build these lanes, even with toll support, because there is no room on the 405 to build new lanes without a major reconstruction. OCTA's Measure M comes to the rescue by promising taxpayers one new general purpose lane on the 405 in each direction from Costa Mesa to the LA County line. Measure M will pay for the right-of-way and the required the replacement of all the bridges along this 15 mile segment. Drivers will get a new general purpose lane, but, they will lose the free carpool (HOV) lane which, with a second new lane being added, instead will become a new 2-lane (in each direction) HOT (toll) lane facility similar to the SR-91 Express lanes. So, while today we have (on average) six free lanes (5 general purpose and one carpool), after a public expenditure of $1.2 billion of Measure M local sales tax revenue, we will still have only six free lanes (all general purpose). And, of course, there will now be room for the two HOT (toll) lanes.
So, when the project is finished, you will still have the same six free lanes (at least after a few years of construction delays) and you'll still be paying the same Measure M sales tax. And, if you can afford the tolls (or if you can chalk them up as business expenses), then you will have a nice HOT lane facility available. But, somehow, shouldn't you be getting a bit more for $1.2 billion?
|The SAT Game [13 Sept 2016]|
In 2008, Baylor University, a , noticed a significant drop in the average SAT score for admitted students. They offered admitted students who would re-take the exam a $300 bookstore credit, and a student that reported a 50-point SAT score increase would receive a $1000 scholarship. Baylor said that it was not the pessimistic perspective that the uiversity was gaming college ratings; rather, it was upholding standards. Students that did not qualify for scholarships based on the SAT scores reported in the Baylor application, might qualify after a re-take, even though these students would have essentially the same qualities and quantities with the lower SAT score.
There have always been questions relating to college ratings, the appropriateness of standardized test scores, and the overall college admission process. When big bucks are in play, these issues should be expected to be present. Many students re-take the SAT on their own to get better scores to improve their admission and scholarship prospects. And many students pay to take review courses that guarantee increased scores. There are so many things wrong with the entire post-secondary education process that it is difficult to know where to start. But dropping standardized tests would be a good first step.
|The Ultimate Pyramid Scheme [9 Sept 2016]|
Recent tensions regarding immigration have once again pronounced a fundamental constraint on population, labor force, and social security. What we have is the ultimate pyramid scheme where the base must continue to grow. More people produce more workers, more workers earn more income, and more income produces more tax revenue, which in turn funds prior levels of the pyramid via Social Security, Medicare, and other government programs. Each level requires a larger level beneath it to support the pyramid. This is not Chicken Little crying that "the sky is falling" but Malthus did have a point. I'm not referring to the growth of population rapidly outstripping our ability to provide for that population. Rather, I'm referring to a more important point made by Malthus, that population growth precludes progress toward a higher standard of living. This in large measure is a matter of politics and economics, since the easiest way to expand the economy is to expand the market. Although markets appear stagnant when new consumer products aren't rolled out on a regular basis, the bread and butter of the economy has always been, well, more people eating bread and butter. If the common outcome of rising individual wealth, health, and education is a lower birth rate, doesn't this speak to the type, and level, of economic growth that leads to a higher standard of living?
|A(l)Literal Legacy of Hubris [7 Sept 2016]|
ASCE SmartBrief (7 Sept 2016) says "Maryland mulls maglev" to move the masses 40 miles in what might be a welcome Washington wonder or beget a Baltimore boondoggle. Proponents promise a Public Private Partnership with a pledge of $5 billion promoting the project that planners have been pursuing since 2010.
|The Year of Living Apprehensively [7 Sept 2016]|
In today's LA Times, a high school senior writes on his experience with college visits and asks college officials to "tell it like it is" (a published OpEd might make for an effective college admission essay). I've gone through this search process twice in the last three years and my primary conclusion is that selecting a college is at best a black art or a game of chance, but in either case it's a teenage year of angst that is not an optimal use of resources for anyone involved.
|It's about Time [6 Sept 2016]|
Quite a few years ago, there was talk of imminent death of the discipline of geography, when technology in the form of Geographical Information Systems provided a re-birth (while I don't believe that geography, while declining in modern relevance, was near death, I do believe that GIS provided a timely rejuvination). I now read that history is seeing a significant reduction in in college enrollments which, together with loosening of liberal arts requirements, may be reducing the relevance of history. Could the development of Historical Information Systems featuring Big Data representations in space and in time perhaps provide a similar rejuvenation?
|Know Nothings Again [28 August 2016]|
In the LA Times (28 August 2016), Georgetown professor Jason Brennan calls for an epistocracy, a "knowledge-based fix for democracy." Active voter participation in the political process is diminishing each election cycle; whether this is due to ignorance or apathy is unclear. I disagree with Brennan's claim that this is not due to poor public education systems, a lack of unbiased news and information sources, or an inherent limitations on voter intelligence. I think the public education system fails miserably at educating students regarding political issues and people thus maintain this lack of knowledge, not because they are inherently ignorant, because it's easier to continue not do the necessary due diligence to be informed. I agree that many news and information sources are biased, but how many non-voters are listening to this stuff in the first place?
Does an epistocracy, where (somehow) votes of more knowledgeable citizens are weighted to count more, make sense? More importantly, isn't this what we essentially have now, with the lesser informed simply not voting? I am not opposed to (somehow) raising the bar for voters to be better informed, but on the current scale, small changes in information cannot affect the outcome of an election since even reduced voter turn-outs still amount to extremely large numbers of voters. As Brennan comments, there is no easy "fix" for this situation. But a good starting place would be not to change the voting process but to change the voters themselves by "fixing" precisely the causal issues that Brennan dismisses.
How much does the average American recall from any basic course in history, politics, or economics? Apparently, very little. More importantly, how many introductory history courses cover issues rather than events? How many introductory poly sci courses focus on how politics and voting actually work? Are any introductory economics courses concerned with mortgage and interest rates? Again, I'm fairly sure it's very few. Improving K-12 education in this regard makes emminent sense. The greater the ability to comprehend issues, the more informed and engaged citizens will be. They will "know more."
|Road Costs [21 August 2016]|
The Road Improvement Program (TRIP) recently reported that California motorists incur $53.6 billion per year in additional costs due to congested roads and deteriorating road infrastructure. Over a third of this estimate is associated with poor roads, leading toward "accelerated vehicle depreciation, additional repair costs, and increased fuel consumption and tire wear," and an additional 14 percent due to accidents. These are all real costs. However, over half (52 percent) is due to congestion-related delays. These congestion costs have always troubled me. The time lost to watching television shows (particularly via default channel surfing rather than designed watching) is certainly more than that lost to congestion, but somehow television is an entertainment activity with only positive utility while any form of driving is a pure disutility. First, roads are not designed to be congestion-free (the opportunity cost of under-used roads for most of the day is huge). Congestion by design of supply, however, is not separated from the congestion resulting from excess demand. Second, the time spent in traffic is not usually lost work time, rather, it is lost leisure time (less time in front of the TV), but never-the-less it is counted as if it equates to lost wages. Third, no effort is made to discount this time with effective use such as work-related (e.g., via cell phone) or leisure (listening to music or books). The deteriorating quality of roads does, of course, account for a portion of this congestion-delay. TRIP exists to lobby for better roads, and better roads are indeed needed since, even ignoring my complaint regarding congestion costs, the remaining cost estimates for California are still over $25 billion annually. That should be argument enough to take action.
|Means, Motive, and Opportunity [30 July 2016]|
Sprawl, used in the perjorative sense, is not a product of the automobile. If we treat sprawl as a crime (rather than as the natural process of growth) then there are three important factors: means, motive, and opportunity. First, the means is land use policy in the context of capitalist economics. Second, the motive is economic benefit, measured by cheaper development costs. Third, opportunity is two fold: available land and access to consumers. It's only in opportunity that the automobile plays a role. Sprawl -- good, bad, and everything in between -- is a product of our economic system. The automobile, at worst, is a symptom. Blaming sprawl on the automobile is equivalent to blaming a cold on sneezing.
|A Chicken in Every Pot [27 July 2016]|
Democratic campaign promises to eliminate tuition in public colleges sounds good. Too good. College costs have risen excessively but these costs are the real costs. Investigating ways to control if not reduce costs should be the first step. And college is not for everyone. Arguments are being made that adults need college, cannot afford the cost of living and the cost of college simultaneously, and/or are facing already accummulated college debts. While this is all likely true, the needs of adults might be addressed via expansion of community college career training. Those high school graduates that are not prepared to go to college should also consider community colleges. An article in the Washington Post says "one size does not fit all" and uses Germany as an example of different paths to career success. But every program must start somewhere, and those who came before will not likely enjoy the same benefits ... if these benefits ever actually arise.
|Are You Ready? [25 July 2016]|
Candidates talking about reducing the costs of a higher education seem to have their current focus on making community colleges free. That's what's called low-hanging fruit since most community colleges already offer very low costs. Community colleges address several educational needs for several audiences, but the most critical aspect relative to the high cost of higher education at most 4-year institutions is not the cost of two years at a CC, but whether transfer students were able to take the courses needed to complete the remaining two years in a total of four years. Getting students through in four years requires that the students arriving, whether as transfers or freshmen, are ready to go from day one. Students whoi are not ready to perform at a collegiate level, or who are uncertain of a potential path, should consider community colleges as an inexpensive, and perhaps soon to be free, place to explore.
|The Jersey T Party [25 July 2016]|
The on-going battle in New Jersey between the state legislature and the governor, which has resulted in shutting down virtually all transportation infrastructure projects, has nothing directly to do with the transportation fuel tax and the State's Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), which allocates revenues from the State's 10.5 cent fuel tax and a variety of other taxes. The TTF's authorization expired in June and the battle involves re-starting the infrastructure projects, for which virtually all parties are in agreement both in terms of transportation needs and economic impact, and what a Governor's spokesman referred to as a "plan to fund the TTF with an increased gas tax [that] offers tax fairness to the people of New Jersey in the form of significant broad-based tax relief." Sound familiar?
While it is true that a variety of revenue sources have been mixed and matched to fund transportation, the fuel tax provides the lion's share (and increases on the order of 23 cents per gallon are being considered) and a simple adjustment can directly solve the problem. What the real battle is about is taxes in general. Even a "good tax" can not be implemented because too many parties object to the overall level of taxation. This is not a bad thing. But proponents and opponents need to place the overall context before the public. While it is not necessary that transportation infrastructure be funded via user-based revenues, this is an existing mechanism that is easily adjusted, functionally, and readily addresses the need. Remember, fuel excise taxes are fixed per gallon rates and are not indexed to fuel price or inflation. But they can be.
What, IMHO, is problematic is the tax package that has been proposed on top of the fuel tax increase. In may include changes in estate taxes; retirement and pension income exemptions; Earned Income Tax Credits; gas tax deductions for people with incomes less than $100,000; and income tax exemptions for veterans. It is the complexity of the tax codes and the attempts to address as many special interests as possible, that needs to be addressed now that Jersey has thrown its TTF into the harbor. Maybe a flat tax ain't so bad.
|Platform(less) [20 July 2016]|
ENR reports that the GOP platform recommends phasing out federal funding for public transit, claiming that it is "an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population." Given GOP support of infrastructure spending, but not at the expense of raising taxes, perhaps they see the twenty percent of Highway Trust Fund Revenues (not to mention the federal general revenue funding that is supplementing HTF for the past several years) dedicated to public transit as funds to divert. While I support public transit, there position is not unreasonable if taken together with a shift of fuel tax revenues away from the feds and to the states. The simplest way to achieve this is to not increase fuel taxes but to leverage existing revenue with state commitments to increase their fuel taxes (or whatever funding mechanism works foir that state). Ideally, the federal tax could be reduced so that truly local highway and public transit infrastructure and operations would be fully the responsibility of the states and metropolitan areas. It is difficult to claim that, say, a light rail system in Phoenix benefits the rest of the country, but the rest of the country should have no problem with Phoenix, Maricopa County, and the state of Arizona dedicating local and state revenues to such an investment.
|Loan Me A Dime? [19 July 2016]|
Linking the availability of student loans to academic major, and thus to estimated post-degree employability, has both positive and negative aspects. First, I think that private lenders should be able to consider risk of pay-back the same way they consider risks in other loans. Government would not need to be involved unless they were offering loan guarantees. Second, I'm not a fan of borrowing your way through school, particularly as the cost of a college education inflates. Third, some claim this will increase the cost of liberal arts education. If the risk of pay back is greater then that cost, of course, should be greater. The Hechinger Report provides some research results that suggests the economic value of a liberal arts degree is only realized many years after graduation. I'm not sure if this has been empirically verified, but I am quite suspicious of quoted cases where a liberal arts major did not make a sizeable salary until becoming a college administrative many years after graduation. To what degree did the prior major affect achieving that salary many years later? Would the same person have been economically successful years early and still be able to rise to the same administrative position? And it is these very college administrative positions that are exploding in number and in salary over the past few decades, directly contributing to the college cost problem identified.
I strongly support a liberal arts education but I also tire of the liberal arts claiming some superiority in thinking, writing, and public service. All college graduates should master these 'liberal arts' and it wouldn't hurt if they added some economically valuable skills as well. The Hechinger Report also discusses the presence of a 'class differential' where constraints push students toward careers with a defined future over following their dreams. That, of course, is a choice. And choices, of course, make one's life.
|Phishing? [13 July 2016]|
How many of you are being spammed by e-journals seeking not just paper submissions but offering editorial board positions. The International Journal of Petrochemical Science & Engineering is "aware of (my) proficiency and expertise in this field," it was thus their "immense pleasure" to invite me to their Editorial Board. I honestly don't even know what petrochemical science is (and they, obviously, don't even know what I or other invitees do). But the composition skills in this spam-mail, which also had the subject line "Adorable Editor for IPCSE," strongly suggest that they first need to hire some English editors. It is sad to say that it has reached the point where the writing skills in Nigerian internet scams are better than those from presumably reputable e-journals.
|Deflategate [13 July 2016]|
Literary Agent and self-proclaimed (at least on his Twitter page) "Wannabe Patriots sportswriter" Alec Shane makes the case for Tom Brady to appeal his Deflategate suspension all the way to SCOTUS. According to Shane, if Brady stops the appeal process prematurely he will somehow be both admitting his guilt and limiting his ability to later sue the NFL commissioner for defamation. Is this Brady's motivation, or that of diehard Patriot's fan Shane? One must consider that, the longer the appeal process, the closer to retirement Brady will be, thus making the suspension and the appearance of guilt, moot. There's certainly a lot of cheating going on in professional sports, which has become an extremely lucrative market for those who know how to win at the margins. Whether Brady did not cheat, whether he's drawing this out to permanently avoid suspension or to maintain future options, or whether the appeal process is just a sound economic decision to further Brady's bottomline, does not matter. When a superstar gets involved in one of these issues, whether Pete Rose, OJ, Brady, or many others, the notoriety will follow for life. But maybe Brady can use the four week suspension to look for the real deflator.
|Self-driven [11 July 2016]|
Recent accidents regarding autonomous capabilities of Tesla automobiles has prompted a call by the LA Times (11July2016) to "tap the brakes" regarding self-driving cars. The OpEd suggested that it's drivers who are not reliable and are thus not ready for autonomous cars. But it is technology such as that in autonomous vehicles that slowly but inexorably will remove individual responsibility and the human need to be "self-driven" from not only driving but, eventually, everything we do. Martin Luther King, Jr. said "The means by which we live has outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power." To slightly paraphrase the rest of MLK's aphorism, "We have guided 'vehicles' and misguided men."
|Closing the Barn Door [8 July 2016]|
A Gallup poll [ Inside Higher Education (8 July 2016)] finds that 65 percent of the general public disagrees with the recent SCOTUS affirmative action decision. Respondents strongly support admission based on high school grades (73%) and standardized tests (55%) and ranked race and gender lowest (9% and 8% in favor). College has always been about merit. If achieving a level of merit prior to college is not possible in certain communities, then that is where our efforts and funds should be placed. Otherwise, it's closing the barn door after the horses have already left.
|On Whom the Toll Falls? [23 June 2016]|
In a letter to the LA Times (23 June 2016), LA Mayor Eric Garcetti uses his bully pulpit to rally the masses to support a ballot measure that will create a permanent and dedicated source of funding for public transportation in LA County. There is one good point being made: most transit systems do not have permanent, dedicated funding to support operating costs. LA continues to build but as the system ages, maintenance may well become an unbearable burden (look at the history of the Pacific Electric).
If the OpEd stopped there I think a very important point would have been made, a point that would seem to justify permanent, dedicated funding for operations and maintenance. But how can Garcetti ask for a permanent tax to pay for a future that is not even defined.
Garcetti states that, for over 30 years, "progress has been slow and steady toward adding bus and rail options to reduce traffic gridlock", but then notes that LA roads are some of the most congested in the nation. Progress, I guess, means something else. The current proposal, with a sunset date in 40 years, will continue to fund a range of infrastructure expansion directed, at least in concept, to fighting gridlock (oh how I detest that word). It is not clear how much, if anything, is dedicated toward maintenance and operations. And, of course, the conventional claim is made that this will create thousands of jobs (while neglecting to mention that any public expenditure will create jobs or that this one, in particular, will take dollars out of the wallets of LA residents, dollars that would have been spent locally and would have created jobs, too).
But that is not the big problem. By eliminating the sunset date, ensuring a flow of revenue ad infinitum, nine future projects can be moved up. LA County residents will get these projects today but they will, literally, be paying for them forever. The ability to respond to future needs with sales tax propositions in 20, 40, or more years down the road will be limited if not altogether eliminated because the taxes that you will be paying in 40 years will be for projects that were built 40 years before. While one may lament the loss of the Pacific Electric red cars, how would one feel, even a lifetime after that system fell to deferred maintenance and changing times, if you were still paying for it today. Will these projects be cheaper? The real question is "cheaper to whom?" because LA is about to mortgage its children's, children's, children's, ..., children's future.
|Ten Years Gone [4 June 2016]|
Ten years of unsolicited musings on time, space, and the human condition.
|SUSA [24 May 2016]|
Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science. NSF's INCLUDES program includes a tortured, imbecilic acronym. Stop Using Stupid Acronyms.
|Duh! [12 May 2016]|
From the "Annals of Obvious Research":
What should be obvious, and even if it is obvious would also bear repeating, is the simple fact that not everybody should go to college and that those who do should be prepared before they arrive.
|Three Things [12 May 2016]|
"When a thing connects to the Internet, three things happen:
This quote opens "When Everything Works Like Your Cell Phone" by Alexis C. Madrigal and Robinson Meyer (The Atlantic Sept 28, 2014). I have some old but fully functioning technology that I own and that never needs to be updated. Virtually nothing ever needed to be updated until everything became interconnected, because while nature may abhor a vacuum, the internet abhors anything that is not the newest version and that is owned rather than leased. This evolution has been so rapid and so effective that most people born in the last few decades don't even realize that things have changed.
|Fashion [24 April 2016]|
I'm not a fashionista but in the weekend LA Times my eye caught a large picture of leggings paneled with images of the designer's grandmother. I otherwise would not have even noticed the headline below the fold that "O.C. still lacks in the fashion department." The photos accompanying the article had images from Orange County juxtaposed with images from New York. The "fashion" was irrelevant, but this was yet another faux comparison of two places that need not be compared. But there was just enough commentary by Laguna Beach's David Hansen to keep me reading.
For example, since people in New York "don't drive, they use that extra car payment money to buy supple Hermes handbags." Extra money? In New York? Check out the cost of living in New York: that's where the car payment goes. Hansen does offer the SoCal choice that clothes are less important than tans and healthy appearances, and concludes "we are always on vacation." Sounds much better than New Yorkers wearing nice boots to minimize the disutility of stepping in not-so-nice things.
Last, Hansen provides a Fran Lebowitz quote that "L.A. is better than it used to be" and that "New York is worse than it used to be." Something to do with less suburban versus more suburban (respectively). What's the bottom line? The biggest difference between those who love living in big cities and those who don't is that those who do can't comprehend why those who don't, don't.
|Dual! [20 April 2016]|
Keeping Hamilton, the architect of the US financial system, on the ten dollar bill and replacing Jackson, who disliked government and banks, on the twenty with, potentially, Harriet Tubman is a win-win.
|Four Easy Pieces [10 April 2016]|
Perhaps the subtitle of Edward Humes' book, "Door to Door: The Magnificant, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation," provides a hint of what's to come in his LA Times OpEd (10 April 2016). Humes purports to address generic congestion but his fixes reveal that his focus is on what he calls "our have-it-now, same-day-delivery economy". And perhaps it should be since the "madding, mysterious world" in question is consumerism, not transportation.
Trader Joe's has a frozen pizza purportedly made in Italy, frozen and shipped to TJs everwhere, and sold for only $5. Just like the gas that's refined in California and piped for a week to Arizona, then trucked to the Colorado River where it sells for $1.20 less per gallon than that sold a few miles west in California. Yes, modern day logistics, or at least the driving machinations, are "maddening and mysterious."
The initial mantra is, as is usually the case for transport pundits, that "more lanes attract more cars." But somehow more buses apparently to not induce more traffic, nor does more housing attract more families, or more schools attract more students. Does better service on UPS attract more freight? Apparently, freight lobbyists wish to charge more for commuters congesting freeways so UPS can charge less for freight (to, of course, ultimately profit more). Humes says that goods movement in LA is "projected to double in the metro area by 2035." Is this induced demand? Or just growth?
So what are Humes "four easy pieces"? (Note: apparently an LA Times editor's addition to Humes OpEd).
If not "four easy fixes," what might work? There are but three "solutions". First, as politicians and engineers are wont to do, build more capacity. In the presence of growth in demand, this is a short-term fix (and, I claim, one that primarily accommodates and not induces growth). Second, as economists are wont to wish, price all travel. This can reduce congestion, but the implications are manifold (I'll let those priced off the road "count the ways"). Third, we can control development through pricing and regulation, rather than trying to price the second order effect of congestion. This is a topic for a future unsolicited rant.
|Foul or Fair? [8 April 2016]|
Two years ago, I suggested that the Dodgers would not allow Time Warner Cable to "ice 70 percent of their TV audience for long". I was wrong. I guess the business of sports does not value sportsmanship, but maybe this is to be expected in a game where the foul pole is fair.
|The Ketchup Question? [27 March 2016]|
No, it's not about the question of is it "ketchup or catsup". Rather, it's an inquiry into "refrigerator or cupboard," metaphorically posed by Scott Page in his interesting book "The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies" (Princeton University Press, 2008). I encountered this reference in a LA Times OpEd by Dexter Thomas entitled "Diversity's Secret Sauce" (22March2016), to which I will return.
Some people keep ketchup in the refrigerator, while some keep it in the cupboard. No comment was made regarding people that might do both or even those with no ketchup at all (so it's not just half-full or half-empty). Page suggests that it's not the unimportant behavior itself but rather the tradeoff between "incentives to coordinate [and] the desire to express individual preferences." I think that people who use ketchup even semi-regularly simply don't think about this at all but, yes, depending on the social interaction venue in question, Page's metaphor is of real value and his book promotes a broad concept of diversity. Page defines diversity as not external but internal, in fact based on intellect, information, and context, with implications for problem solving methods, models, maxims, and mindsets.
Dexter Thomas references a Reply All podcast as his source of the ketchup question. Thomas is also using this thought experiment as a metaphor to approach issues of diversity, here along more conventional lines of cultural and racial diversity. When you go to the cupboard expecting but only finding an empty bottle of ketchup, your second choice, Thomas proposes, would be driven by the search location for the ketchup. If you find the empty ketchup bottle in the refrigerator, you might instead reach for mayo; if you find the empty in the cupboard, you might settle on Tobasco. Anyone who appears so indifferent to ketchup in the first place, probably didn't care what condiment ultimately graced the food choice in question. So extending my take on the ketchup diversity metaphor, a tech industry executive who always reaches for ketchup, and often settled for mayo, may not be the best representative on which to base a rationale for diversity as a means of avoiding a second-best solution when the first choice was not really a choice to begin with.
So why am I wasting time with negative comments about a metaphor for a truly important issue? Because there is a more important issue when it comes to choices: most people prefer to not make them. Choices made from expanded choice sets come with greater responsibilities that, in business, can be the difference between success and failure, both for the business and for the individual. Cultural mindsets and habits dominant because they minimize choices. Like where to keep the ketchup. The breadth of the very concept of diversity makes for a complexity of choices.
|Let's Tweet for Road Safety [26 March 2016]|
Big data is big news. But as we've all heard from Einstein, to Zappa, to Stoll, "Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not ..." and so on. So I was amused to read about a research study reported in Civil Engineering (March 2016) that involved scanning Twitter data to identify travelers posting tweets about adverse weather conditions with the goal of helping traffic managers to better estimate travel times and recommend safe driving speeds. A system that could "influence driver behavior so that drivers can make more intelligent decisions" might start with "little data," as in "Don't Tweet when you're driving".
|Local Traffic [24 March 2016]|
My community listserve has been abuzz regarding an increase in drivers running stop signs, but the discussion has, not surprisingly, been extended to include even slight transgressions of driving rules. And, of course, what should be done about it.
The focus of most concerns are the drivers who behave irresponsibly, often due to distracted driving, including using cell phones while driving but also responding to many other distractions such as attending to a child or changing radio stations. This group should include many pedestrians who incorrectly assume absolute right-of-way at intersections or who also may be distracted by cell phones, ear buds, or even attending a child or a pet. And, of course, many bicyclists who obey virtually no "rules of the road".
Stop signs and most traffic calming devices do little to reduce exposure to these individuals who are more often than not simply not paying attention. The design of roadways and traffic control systems attempts to reflect these and other problematic travelers. The absolute most effective way to avoid an accident is to pay attention and never assume the right-of-way, especially when crossing roadways shared with other modes (including bicycles and pedestrians). Any pedestrian or bicyclist, or any driver, who would assume the right-of-way and move into uncertain traffic is simply stupid.
A stop sign is not a traffic calming device and should never be used as such. Poor decisions on stop sign placement can not only be ineffective but can also be counterproductive. A stop sign is a standard device to allocate right-of-way (and right-of-way is never absolute). There is a certain degree of anal retentiveness regarding "violating" a stop sign that is not present in the many other areas of roadway violations (including speeding, blocking sidewalks, and parking in bike lanes). The "stop means stop" argument is present in many listserve posts but rarely are "never park in a bike lane", "never park your car blocking a sidewalk", and "30 mph means 30 mph," each a more common infraction.
The stop sign serves to provide the driver with a warning of traffic conflicts that is addressed by visually assessing all potential conflicts, which in turn is best served by a full stop. Many drivers can accomplish this with a rolling stop (including many police officers) but some drivers seem to believe that a stop sign means "stop then go", without the necessary assessment of safety to proceed.
Drivers who behave responsibly yet make rolling stops are not the safety concern. Remedies that have been proposed to address the truly dangerous drivers have several side effects. First, such remedies often provide an increased but false sense of safety, replacing the individual responsibility incumbent on all users of our transportation system. Second, control and calming devices are present 24/7 so residents will need to stop or slow every time they approach one, whether conditions warrant it or not. And this relates to a third side effect: too many devices or signs in a small area are often ignored by drivers and pedestrians, especially with habitual users, leading to counter-productive results with higher violation and accident rates.
Some drivers and pedestrians regularly face a troublesome intersection, but make little if any effort to avoid it. Those few extra seconds that they expect other drivers to spend at a stop sign could be the same few extra seconds that the concerned party could spend taking a slightly longer but safer path out of their neighborhood.
Pedestrians do not expect a car on the sidewalk and drivers do not expect a pedestrian in the roadway. It is necessary that each exerts full attention in situations where the right-of-way is shared. What is needed is a bit of education and a lot of individual responsibility. This will be cheaper, less invasive, and likely safer.
|If I Had a Nickel... [5 March 2016]|
In a letter to the LA Times, Chris Busch, the director of research at Energy Innovation Policy and Technology LLC, concludes, as so may have so many times before, that "building more roads just draws more drivers onto the road until congestion clogs them again." If there is significant growth in a region -- the interconnected growth of employment, population, economic activity, and, thus, travel -- then there will be congestion. This increased demand for travel can either be accommodated or constrained.
Accommodating increased demand means adding new capacity or making more efficient use of current capacity. Whether with roads, transit, or a combination, the mechanics remain the same. An increase in capacity of roads will, in the face of growth, at some point again be congested (but with the increased demand being accommodated). Theoretically, the same will occur with increase transit capacity; in practice, transit is an inferior good so the response is not so direct.
Constraining demand implies one of two approaches: pricing travel or regulating development. Neither has been an acceptable policy in domestic applications, and attempts at partial implementation such as HOT lanes can only be seen as providing premium service to those capable of paying, by use of limited public right-of-way. Unfortunately, any "equitable" policy at pricing all travel or regulating development will be anything but equitable.
|Time to Disentangle [5 March 2016]|
In 2010, a legislative deal (which is rarely a good thing) was made by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger creating a "gas-tax swap" which entangled existing sales tax on gas (proportional to price) with existing excise taxes on gas (fixed 18 cents per gallon). This budget slight-of-hand was crafted to address state general fund problems by reducing the sales tax on gas but providing for annual adjustments to the excise tax, with the objective of being revenue neutral (and somehow, although incomprehensible to most reasonable people, also addressing state budget problems).
Today, the San Jose Mercury News reported that low gas prices are jeopardizing funding for transportation infrastructure projects across the state. Why is there a problem?
Despite the claimed revenue neutrality of the gas-tax swap, there appears to be a lag in the adjustment process. The unprecedented decline in vehicle miles traveled that began in 2007 has already ended over a year ago and the increased fuel economy of the vehicle fleet may be somewhat dampened by changing vehicle buying patterns in the face of cheap gas. So it probably is just a legislative lag.
So what to do? In the short run, immediately disentangle the 2010 gas-tax swap. Reset the excise tax to 18 cents per gallon and reset the sales taxes (including those dedicated to transportation). But don't stop there: consider an increase in the gas excise tax and, minimally, index it to inflation. This will lead to the stable funding required for longterm transportation infrastructure improvements.
|Headlines from the Times: Take 3 [5 March 2016]|
LA Times [4 March 2016]. "Slow Going for the Bullet Train". The Princess Bride's Vizzini would state that it is "inconceivable" that anyone could seriously be still seeing hope in the folly that the California High Speed Rail Authority's (CHSRA) bullet train has become. Had any private consortium proposed such a large-scale infrastructure project and faced manifold problems, funding and infrastructure in particular, that the bullet train has faced, then they would have taken the loss and bailed years ago. The CHSRA makes climate change denialists appear reasonable.
The Dread Pirate Roberts reminds Westley each night, "Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning." The promise of High Speed Rail in California is still alive each morning but, as in the book and movie, it is not the same Dread Pirate with which we started.
|Headlines from the Times: Take 2 [5 March 2016]|
LA Times [3 March 2016]. Randall Balmer's OpEd "Evangelicals' support of Trump is no surprise" provides a concise summary of the political evolution of evangelicals from the strict religious doctrines in place four decades ago to the secular practicality of the "pursuit of wealth and political influence" that we see today.
|Headlines from the Times: Take 1 [5 March 2016]|
In Sam Mowe's interview of UCI's Jack Miles, entitled "Embracing Ignorance" [ The Sun ] Miles states that "the default position of American culture ... [is that] ... each individual is a customer evaluating all offerings as products to be acquired or not." Sad but true. Commitment is fading. Companies don't commit to their employees, and employees don't commit to pretty much anything, including politics, religion, social groups, spouses and families. When everything in society is just another fee to use, then there is no society remaining. Society is a commitment. It can be diverse, but not in regard to some level of commitment to that society. Culture has always defined diversity, but requires a commonality of communication and commitment.
|Cake, Card, Congrats [20 February 2016]|
Happy Birthday, McNasty!
|Either/Or ... Both? [10 January 2016]|
Soon-to-be speaker of the California Assemby, Anthony Rendon, is quoted in the LA Time (10Jan2016):
"I never cared about the circumference of a circle or who started the War of 1812, but if you're asking what is justice or what is truth or what is beauty, that seems pretty important to me."
This is not a comment on Rendon or philosophers but why is this concept expressed as a dichotomy? Do philosopical types think that those who do care about circumferences and history somehow do not care about justice, truth, and beauty? Perhaps this is more of an issue of objectivity versus subjectivity but, again, both are always present. Our bilateral physiological symmetry might be why we think in terms of "either/or", but it's really always "both". And those who think otherwise only limit their philosophy.
|P3, Once Again [9 December 2015]|
In the January 2016 cover story, Financier Worldwide states that "According to the US Department of Transport, the country needs to spend between $124bn and $150bn a year simply to maintain its existing, crumbling infrastructure network." Does this mean that this level of funding would maintain the status quo of "crumbling infrastructure"? First, get the Department name correct, express annual costs as "per year", and clarify what is being maintained, then we can consider what the concept of public private partnerships can bring to the table beyond what is already present. With the exception, of course, that most civil infrastructure operations do not include private sector profits for providing a service (and perhaps encouraging the greater use of that service).
|A FAST One [9 December 2015]|
With the last full, 6-year federal transportation authorization signed in 2005, one would not have bet on the cycle of short-term renewals being broken. One would likely have bet that a new authorization, if passed, would not increase the gas tax but would keep with the inane practice of stupid acronyms. We now have a 5-year authorization entitled Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, or the FAST Act, maintaining the promise of an approximately $50 billion annual expenditure, still split 80/20 for highways and transit, re-authorizating the 18.4 cent gas tax, and implementing some sort of smoke and mirrors slight-of-hand to provide the $15 billion annual difference between authorized expenditures and anticipated gas tax revenues. The President and Congress have acted, but whether this is a case of pulling a "FAST" one remains to be seen.
|Micro Absurdity [29 November 2015]|
In a letter to the LA Times (29 nov 2015), one Sharon Rosen Leib said it better than I could:
"The very term 'microaggression' is a tortured semantic construct reducing real societal problems of race and wealth inequality to micro absurdity while creating macro problems on our college campuses."
These microaggressions can only be inferred by the listener with little or no insight to the speaker's implication. If anything is a microaggression, it is the self-censureship of common conversation based on an inferred expectation on the part of the speaker than the listener might be offended. And there is, unfortunately, no shortage of intentional aggressions that are most deserving of our attention.
|'Twas Brillig [20 November 2015]|
In a somewhat Carrollian tale, Orange County's high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on the 405 are flowing successfully, as designed, yet simultaneously deemed degraded by their success all while, according to some, failing to encourage ridesharing. Curiouser and curiouser!
But it's not that difficult to explain. HOV lanes were introduced as incentives to encourage ridesharing. The assumption was that drivers would leave a car at home and share a ride with another driver, increasing vehicle occupancy while decreasing the total number of vehicles (and the associated costs of congestion and emissions). Alas, some have complained that those using the HOV lanes were already driving together and thus not reducing the number of vehicles traveling. This, of course, should be testable but the results of current studies have not been definitive. The evolving problem is not the underutilization of HOV lanes, however, it's that nature abhors a vacuum. So, while lacking the "desired carpools" in the HOV lanes, authorities have expanded volumes by allowing access for selected low emission vehicles. These lanes still present incentives, for if there was no incentive, traffic would equilibrate over all available lanes.
But somewhere along the way, a Mad Hatter introduced the concept of "degradation" before making a Cheshire Cat escape into the southern California haze. From reading the language of TEA-21, it seems that "degradation" may have been introduced to prevent the addition of green or toll-paying vehicles from reducing the flow in HOV lanes, negating the original incentive. The term is defined as having speeds drop below 45 mph for selected time periods (the adjacent general purpose lanes can be stopped dead, as they often are, without being degraded, lending further support to the concept of "degraded" as a means to protect the HOV lanes, and not to eliminate them).
But eliminated is just what the Red Queen has ordered. The HOV lanes are degraded: we must destroy the village to save it. Are there options? Of course. HOV capacity could be increased (two HOV lanes). Or green vehicles could be expelled. Or we could replace the HOV lane with a facility for the near exclusive use of the landed gentry. Fortunately, or unfortunately, there is no budget to build these HOT lanes (for High Occupancy Toll, with the emphasis on the T). More precisely, there is no room to build these HOT lanes (and at least two are required to produce the speeds guaranteed by the toll imposed).
But there is $1.2 billion to add a General Purpose (GP) lane to the 405, as promised in Measure M. This is enough to widen every overpass over the 15 miles stretch that will provide space for not only the promised GP lane, but also for a single other lane. Another GP lane? Another HOV lane? No. In fact, the existing HOV will be combined with the new second land as a pair of HOT lanes. While the lane-specific cost of this added HOT lane will be borne by users via toll revenue, the lane could not be constructed without the $1.2 billion overall widening project. A project that, with the HOT lanes, will have the exact same number of free lanes after as it did before -- and all for the bargain price of $1.2 billion. Curiouser and curiouser!
The only party that said "no" to this was the OCTA Board, which pledged allegiance to the language of Measure M. Caltrans District 12 has no such public oath, but also no money to pay for re-painting the white HOV lanes HOT red. But at this tea party, the madness is synergistic and the forecast is for HOT.
So is there another option? Let's assume that we're no longer asleep on the riverbank. UCLA reports that the presence of HOV lanes may be responsible for about 40 percent of green (plug-in electric or hybrid) car purchases in Wonderland, a state which has been quite actively promoting the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The obvious choice would be to convert all HOV lanes to Green lanes. On the 405, only the budgeted GP lane would be added (if you are adamant about tolls, then toll green vehicles in these lanes, not to pay for the HOT lane that will no longer be needed, but to take the place of gas excise taxes not collected for these non- or low-polluting vehicles. A win-win proposition. Curiouser and curioser!
|O Frabjous Day! [11 November 2015]|
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
This month marks the sesquicentennial of the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Charles "Lewis Carroll" Dodgson. May you all someday awaken on a shady riverbank.
|A Highway Bill? [7 November 2015]|
Both the Senate and the House have passed apparently similar transportation authorization bills so we could soon have the first six year act in place for the first time in ten years. First, the good news: the House's "Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015" appears mercifully to avoid an annoying acronym. The bad news: the last three years are unfunded and it does not appear that there will be in increase in the federal fuel excise tax to address problems with the Highway Trust Fund. However, the House was at least talking about this in an intelligent fashion, suggesting that each state increase its gas tax and cut out the middle man rather than repeating the hackneyed mantra "Americans don't want to pay more taxes."
|Just Plug It! [28 October 2015]|
The Washingtom Post [27 Oct 2015] reports that Murray Energy Corporation is suing the Obama Administration over EPA's new ozone standards, claiming that these standards will "harm the coal industry." Murray chairman, president, and CEO Robert Murray said that the new ozone rule is "yet another illegal and destructive action aimed at killing ... jobs." I suppose Murray would be opposed to a plan that fully automated energy production in a manner that eliminated those highly-paid employees while maintaining the output of energy and profits because, afterall, it is about the jobs. We need to stop these toxic emissions -- and after we plug Mr. Murray's comments, we can address the emissions from his plants.
|Prix Fixe or Buffet? [21 October 2015]|
Prime time television has always followed a formal schedule, announced before the fall season starts, and making it easy for viewers to follow their favorites programs live or recording them for later viewing. It is not so clear when it comes to the news. Local news will cover your basic car chases, incidents and accidents, bears in backyards, and the like. National news covers the most pressing news of the day, with pressing determined by various algorithms depending in part on the network. But there is a wealth of news that is either not covered, or is mixed in with the daily fodder, whether local or national, political or demographic, cultural or technology. Why not a schedule of news shows focused on the type of news offered? We do this already, do some degree, for sports. If you want to watch a sitcom or a documentary, you do not have to sit through a detective/doctor/lawyer drama or the entertainment "news". But if you want updates in science and technology, it's hit or (more frequently) miss. Significant air time is dedicated to weather and the stock market when much of this can also be channelized or displayed at the bottom of the screen as sports scores now are on many news channels. I understand that this proposal may not make sense financially but it seems like the advertizing industry could focus related advertisements tailored to the news content. It would be a news buffet rather than a prix fixe meal.
|Ten Years Gone [19 October 2015]|
"Then as it was, then again it will be." The last full federal transportation authorization bill was SAFETEA-LU (MAP-21 was a 2-year, stop-gap authorization in 2012), signed into law in August 2005, a few weeks before Katrina took it's heavy toll on infrastructure and life along the gulf coast, and six months after the Kyoto Protocol took effect. Congress, in rare agreement on the need for transportation funding, has been extending support in a piecemeal fashion, continually split on the source of funding.
The federal fuel excise tax was last increased in 1993 to the current 18.4 cents per gallon. The annual revenue from this tax is about $34 billion while average transportation expenditures run about $50 billion, with the difference made up from the general fund. A fifty percent increase in the excise tax is required to meet needs. This corresponds to the 25 to 30 cent tax that would be consistent with inflation and the rate of increase in congressional salaries since 1993. "Then as it was, then again it will be."
|Can You Tell a Green Field from a Cold Steel Rail? [12 October 2015]|
Apparently not. Although it's hard to believe that anyone truly believed that the private sector would provide the massive investment required to build and operate "the once and future" California high speed rail system. The continual self-promotion of this system as a clear and obvious choice that everyone supports is surpassed in foolishness only by the lack of serious criticism.
The California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) initially promoted a strong support of private sector firms in providing statements of qualifications and interest in bidding on planning, design, and construction of the system, a level of support quite likely identical to that for any infrastructure project, regardless of mode, technology, or relevance. That, after all, is how these firms make money. The most recent CHSRA call for private investment support from a smaller number of international firms not surprisingly produced "support" but not any interest in "investing". Investment goes where there's money to be made. The provision, as CHRSA reports (LA Times, 12Oct2015), of "encouraging ideas and feedback" is clear indication, however, that these firms would be glad to "plan, design, and build" this system but not on their dime. CHSRA spokesperson Lisa Marie Alley further spun the responses as "a clear signal from the private sector that they want to participate." Really?
There are many innovative, private sector developments in transportation technology that reflect a future that will not hold a place for a non-innovative, public transportation technology such as high speed rail. What we need is the private sector to now put their mouths where they will put their money. And it will not be high speed rail.
|Die with Dignity [11 October 2015]|
Last week, Governor Brown signed the End of Life Option Act, a simple rational law providing an option to terminally ill patients in the last six months of life. The issue of questionable ethics lies not with the possibility that "low income and uninsured patients might feel great pressure to end their lives prematurely", a concern voiced by Aaron Kheriaty, but in the certainty that others in the pain and pressure of an effective death sentence but otherwise of rational mind would not have this choice. It is religious and not medical ethics that warps this argument as justifying suicide, an intential choice of a term to stir religious arguments.
Fordham's Charles Camosy offers his comments (LA Times, 11 October 2015) that "the 'right to die' is un-Californian" and a "betrayal of the state's progressive principles" (adding further evidence that there is a silver lining to every dark cloud). He even comments that patients don't need this right to avoid pain because "with palliative sedation, doctors can keep patients unconscious; they don't feel pain." This is wrong in so may ways (not to mention that pain under sedation is one of the arguments against exercising the death penalty). It also implies that it's okay for doctors to keep a patient alive as a vegetable until that time finally comes but it's not okay for the patient to decide that it's their time.
The European example of patients requesting and receiving the right to death because of depression rather than terminal illness is simply not relevant to the California law, nor are Camosy's comments on any extensions beyond the law's six months. His comment on "knee jerk compassion", hovever, is quite accurate, although misdirected toward decision makers rather than medical ethicists.
|To Grow or Not to Grow [10 September 2015]|
"We can't build our way out of congestion" is a hackneyed and misleading soundbite from overzealous opponents to cars and roads. In most cases, of course, you can build your way out, whether it's congestion associated with your belt, your wallet, or your public services. Greater demand begets increased supply, a fundamental capitalist tenet. If you gain a few pounds, then buy a bigger belt. If you want more consumer goods, then work more hours or more productively. If the roads or transit systems are too crowded, then add new or make better use of existing infrastructure or services.
Is this the best response? Probably not, but throwing out the baby with the bath water is certainly not a reasonable solution. A more logical alternative, of course, is to restrict growth. Don't eat as much, don't spend as much, or don't travel as much. If resource demands will exceed supply, then reduce growth. Don't limit roads or oil supply anymore than you would limit education when facing crowded schools. In a thriving economy, all public services will face capacity constraints. In transportation, it is not just roads: transit systems are fully congested during peak hours, as are sidewalks in dense urban areas. We should not address these problems by requiring restaurants to serve smaller portions, or stores to sell fewer goods, or have the general population cut their travel. Public services, in particular, are designed to accommodate an estimated demand, not unlimited growth. The problem is the growth.
Who should pay for the necessary maintenance and operations? Why, you, of course. One should not expect auto manufacturers to pay a tax on each car sold or the oil companies to cover the cost of road repairs. If they were forced to face such a tax, they would simply pass it on to consumers as a cost of doing business. Each consumer will decide whether the benefits derived from transportation, housing, food, or consumer goods are worth the cost. We just need to spatially control the number of consumers making these choices.
|Does the Right Hand Know What the Left Is Doing? [4 September 2015]|
Lot's of strategic positioning in the Sacramento transportation arena, but it's hard to determine what the strategies are. First, there's SB350 which would require the state to generate 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and also requires the state to undertake plans and policies to reduce gasoline consumption by 50 percent by 2030. The language on the shift in energy generation appears more "firm" than that regarding the reduction in gas consumption, which appears to be a bit more incendiary (see Big Brother).
The LA Times [4 Sept 2015] reports SB350 on the page before an article on Governor Brown "jumping into the legislative fray." Brown has proposed a new funding plan for highway infrastructure that includes increased vehicle registration fees and increased state fuel taxes. My support of higher dedicated fuel taxes, and my preference for increases at the state rather than federal level, is firm. However, the relative increase of vehicle registration fees (an proposed increase of $65 per vehicle) is disproportionate to the fuel tax increase (6 cents per gallon). The fuel tax increase for the average driver would be about $30 per year, less than half the annual registration fee increase. It is not cars but rather car use that should bear this tax burden. Increase the fuel tax to 8 cents and cut the vehicle fee in half.
These, of course, are details, and it is not the details where in resides the devil. Why generate these revenues to improve transportation infrastructure at the same time that you want everyone to cut driving in half? While the added fees will be a factor in reduced VMT, as well as improving infrastructure that in disrepair costs all drivers significantly each year, it seems that the state is sending conflicting messages. We're going to improve the roads so enjoy them now because we won't allow you to use them in 15 years.
And there are always good sound bites (not to mention ads, featuring a reference to the Pope, to shame legislators into supporting these proposals). In response to Brown's fee increase proposal, Assembly Republican leader Kristin Olsen of Modesto says that "We ... think that Californians have paid enough." Just whom does she expect to pay for these repairs if not Californians?
|Big Brother [4 September 2015]|
Could a California Senate Bill really be legislating a cut in statewide consumption of a central part of our existence by 50 percent? Big corporations, of course, want to kill the bill, claiming that the state would be playing "big brother" and tracking individual behavior, rationing supply, and taxing excessive consumption.
Proponents respond that these charges are ridiculous and that no one will ration consumption and the idea that consumers "would be stranded" half way there "is really beyond comprehension". They, instead, focus on the health benefits of cutting consumption and call on legislators to "stand up to big" ..., uhm, to big whom?
If you've read the LA Times [4 Sept 2015] or other local papers today, you'll know that the "big" applies to oil companies. But what if the "big" applied instead to big agriculture? What if the goal of SB350 was to cut by half state consumption of food instead of oil? The same arguments could be made regarding benefits to public health and the environment, but would legislators claim that no one will have to stop "half way through a meal", that no one will be facing high taxes on groceries, and that there won't be Soviet-style bread lines at your local market?
The problem is not whether we should consume less oil, less food, or perhaps less everything. The problem is that the state believes that it should be legislating this. And the bigger problem is the lack of public outrage that this could be happening.
|What's in a Name? [1 September 2015]|
First, we have to stop naming things after people who are just doing their job, no matter how one may perceive that job. Second, Denali has always been Denali, officially so in Alaska since 1975, despite a 1917 renaming to Mount McKinley a few years after that president's assassination in Buffalo. Third, is seems that only politicians from Ohio, McKinley's home state, are concerned. Fourth, even if you reject my first premise, let's agree that if you're going to name something after someone, keep it local. Rename Ohio to the "Great State of McKinley" but only if you ignore the fact that both Ohio ("great river") and Denali ("great one") are Native American names from long before there were US presidents or others needing their names chiseled in history. And, fifth, have you ever come across a Native American place name that was based on a tribe's wealthiest or most influential member?
|It's Not the Years, It's the Miles [21 August 2015]|
The Hill [20 August 2015] reports that domestic vehicle miles traveled (VMT), after topping out in 2008 and remaining stable until 2014, has been increasing for the past six months, in both rural and urban areas (so those millenials are driving!). Possible contributing factors are low gas prices, continued population growth, and an expanding economy. No results were provided regarding changes in per capita VMT which had been steadily decreasing over the past several years.
|Loan Shark? [20 August 2015]|
Mark Cuban thinks Hillary Clinton's plan to curb student-load debt will backfire, and I agree. While something needs to be done about the truly excessive cost of higher education and the growing burden of student-loan debt, any plan to either reduce the cost of student loans or to ease the payback process will only encourage institutions to increase tuition and students to borrow more. Cuban compared the loan crisis to the real estate bubble that lead to the last recession. And now it seems that billions of Pell Grants are awarded to students who never graduate. The system is broken but it's not a supply-side problem.
|Put Up or Take Down [20 August 2015]|
Students at an Indian Engineering College plan to launch a satellite in four years. I'd much rather see them come up with an effective technology to collect some of refuse of prior launches that is still in orbit.
|Are We Gas-taxed Out? [11 August 2015]|
Citilab's Eric Jaffe reports [10aug2015] that a study of OECD countries places US fuel taxes (combined federal and average state taxes) as by far the lowest, except for Mexico which apparently charges no fuel tax at all (comments welcome). Canada and Australia are well over double the US rate and most other countries are at least four times higher. While I do not agree with the full extent of Jaffe's arguments (not even close), we do agree that fuel taxes should at least cover the associated cost of maintaining the system. Indexing the tax to inflation is the first step.
|High Speed Advertizing [11 August 2015]|
I received an email from the US High Speed Rail Association, addressed "Dear Professor", which started "High Speed Rail and Transit Oriented Development are accelerating in California and across America. Creating new options for living, working and moving about, the transition of America to more livable, enjoyable communities is well underway!". The language is the same as what commonly appears in real estate advertizing, selling new homes as more than a just a house but more of a lifestyle change. This, of course, is what Madison Avenue does. But why would professional organizations and public institutions stoop to these methods, especially on an email with a subject line requesting statements of qualifications?
|Yellow River [10 August 2015]|
The real question is not how did the EPA screw up and dump 3 million gallons of toxic metal sludge into the Animas River, but how have federal and state governments allowed mines to use toxic chemicals in extraction and then just dump the resulting sludge in holding basins which clearly will not hold for ever. We seem overly concerned with oil companies and oil spills, but spilt oil is wasting a valuable product and is the last thing an oil company wants. How many incidents are waiting to happen involving mining companies that for years were allowed to extract what they wanted, by the cheapest means, and simply dump the resulting waste? Our excessive consumption of artificially cheap consumer goods will be paid for by our children. The same will likely be the case when the inevitable impacts materialize from the extraction and burning of cheap coal that fuels our habits, destroys ecosystems, and leaves often toxic mine tailings behind, impacts which also will be paid for by our children. And they will ask, "How could our decision-makers, our business leaders, and our parents have been so nearsighted and so unconcerned about our future?
|Duel? [5 August 2015]|
I'm not a fan of honorifics, especially when "honors" result from simply doing your job, when "honors" are political and self-serving (politicians naming public facilities for colleagues), or when "honors" are given out whether there is a deserving candidate or not. Placing a female face on US currency is a good thing (as would rotating the featured face every so often). I do object, however, to replacing Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill when a more appropriate candidate for replacement would be Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. And enough already with the $2 bill -- put Jefferson on the $50 (you probably don't even know who he'd replace). But, somehow, someone seems to have already selected Hamilton, who has often come out on the wrong end of a disagreement. In any case, that the choice of outgoing face was made prior to any decision on whom the incoming face would be is considerably lame.
|Gas Pump Lotto [3 August 2015]|
Have people been complaining that they'd like to play the lottery more but they just don't have the opportunity to buy tickets? Lottery sales will soon appear at the pump, where with a credit card and a driver's license you can buy up to $50 of tickets each week (any comparison of gas pumps to slot machines is entirely coincidental). Maybe the 70 percent of drivers who pay at the pump and do not want to walk inside to buy a ticket have requested this service. But the Lottery Commission has now determined that we need to get more people gambling ... I mean more people gambling for education. When the Lottery was created in 1984 with Proposition 37, it was approved, according to the lottery web site, with "a clear mission to provide supplemental funding for public schools and colleges". How do you think that's been working for our schools?
|Competency and Education [3 August 2015]|
A recent article in the Atlantic (see 31 July 2015) discusses competency-based education. No course lectures to attend, no classrooms (in fact, no college campus), and no formal faculty would decrease the overall cost of post-secondary education. But existing and emerging online courses and programs already allow a student to cover subjects at an independent rate, completing achievement tests at home (proctored remotely). I'm not sure about "most university learning" but UC Irvine already allows students to meet degree requirements, in addition to the conventional "butt in the seat, ears and eyes on the professor" approach, via "credit by exam". Essentially this is what competency-based education offers as an inexpensive carrot.
I am strongly supportive of major restructuring of post-secondary education and firmly against the corporate model of the research university. But the problems that exist are not the current majors and their academic requirements. The problems begin with the students whom are enrolling in these programs. Attending college, especially a prestigious college, has become the objective: it's the experience for many, and perhaps the credential for some, but no longer the opportunity to master knowledge and skills as a basis of starting a productive career.
Educated citizens are the most important part of our society, but this should not be taken as college-educated citizens. I support competency-based education, trade schools, online programs, community colleges, and continuing education. This is the route that most (yes, most) high school graduates should take, with only those seeking a higher level of enlightenment as part of achieving knowledge and skills in a pre-selected and pre-qualified major. In theory, college can be the place where a student can acquire the experiences to be able to make this choice to seek enlightenment; in practice, we can no longer bear this cost.
But for those who do make this choice, for those who seek a credential with true meeting, for those who seek competency at this higher level of enloightenment, the conventional college model is quite appropriate and satisfies these demands for almost all who desire them. This approach requires both breadth (general education in the liberal arts) and depth (in formal academic areas, such as STEM or the humanities), constant contact with others of both like and differing opinions, learning things that you do not think you need to learn, and formal assessment of your qualifications (a qualified credential). This is not what competency-based education will provide. It is the current academic institutions that must make these choices to focus on undergraduate education where one size decidedly does not fit all. Whether the current academic corporate model will allow this is uncertain.
|DRIVEL? [31 July 2015]|
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), adamantly opposed to raising the federal gas excise tax, has overseen the Senate's approval of a 6-year transportation authorization bill that will fund transportation infrastructure and programs for "longer than any transportation bill considered by Congress in a decade." The House floated a rather different bill then left town, which the Senate is about to do, leaving a few weeks to contemplate what it all means.
First, the Senate bill is entitled Developing Roadway Infrastructure for a Vibrant Economy Act. Deemed an Act, I assume, since if deemed a Law it's acronym would become DRIVEL rather than DRIVE and that, as for the funding element of the actual Senate bill, is indeed drivel. Why, over the last few decades, has a cute acronym become a pre-requisite for any transportation authorization?
Second, funding is only identified for the first three years of the six year bill. The source of funding, which McConnell claims will neither increase taxes nor add to the deficit, involves deft use of smoke and mirrors, including selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, shifting the increase in taxes or the deficit to future generations. Apparently, the only thing worse than a tax increase, is a tax increase in an election year.
Third, as McConnell says, this act, if approved by the House and the President, would be effective for longer than any transportation bill in a decade, as if this is a good thing. What this means is that Congress (a) has been ineffective for a decade in passing authorization of something almost everyone agrees is needed; (b) is more concerned with political ideology, partisan politics, and re-election than in fundamental responsibility to maintain infrastructure and thus the economy; and given the differences in the House and Senate bills, (c) is not about to resolve this any time soon (note that there have been 33 short-term extensions in the past 10 years).
Paul Ryan (R-Wis) has been pushing for major tax reform as a means of paying for a transportation bill. Besides transportation infrastructure, if anything is agreed upon by most parties as being important for the economy, it's tax reform. So don't expect any changes there, anytime soon, either.
|What We Do Want [28 July 2015]|
I want politicians to stop making statements regarding what people want or don't want, as a disingenuous way to justify actions that reflect what they personally want. Some of these statements are simply inane, such as "People don't want higher taxes." Duh. But what do people actually want? They are willing to work for the things they want, whether it be for personal utility or for the general good. But when politicians keep saying, time after time, that Americans "don't want new gas taxes" and "are tired of paying too much at the pump", people start to respond in like manner. Not one politician will explain, if the flat rate excise tax on fuel was indexed at the same level as congressional salaries, that we would not be having a transportation infrastructure crisis today.
In the past 25 years, the conservative bastion of Orange County, California has twiced approved, by two to one, an increased sales tax dedicated to transportation improvements. This passed because voters were given a list of improvements, and local authorities delivered. None of these voters wanted higher taxes; they each wanted improved transportation infrastructure. They made a purchase, the seller delivered, and when faced with a renewal proposition a few years ago, voters approved it again. They still don't want tax hikes, but they are willing to pay for what they want. What we don't want is this continued bastardization of politics. Now how do we pay for that?
|A Finch in a Coal Mine [27 July 2015]|
So much is being made regarding the fictional character Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and its recently published prequel/draft/sequel. A fictional chararacter imagined, written, and editted to appear in the final "mockingbird" form, based upon a different version of the character in the prequel/draft/sequel. How many fictional characters have evolved through the process of bringing one's imagination to the printed page. Did I say this was a fictional character?
Real life can give us real characters, characters that also evolve (or at least our awareness of them does), whether it be a white woman pretending to be a black woman or a southern-born general at a time when citizenship of a state meant more than citizenship of a country. Whether real or fictional, we appear to use these characters as metaphors for our own confusion regarding past, present, and future. While we should continue to interpret both fiction and history, we should exercise great care to not make any rash decisions about either.
|Formidable! [26 July 2015]|
The 102th Tour de France, and my first time watching it. It is not a bike race. It's the beauty of the French country-side and the madness of the French spectators, with 21 bike races as complex and multi-faceted as any other sport. Finishing with ten laps along the Champs-Elysees was a bit much, and I was a bit surprised to find that there's a bike racing fantasy league, but I highly recommend tuning in both you and your DVR next summer.
|From MOOCs to Modules [25 July 2015]|
About five years ago, I proposed a strawman for innovation in the education of freshmen in our civil and environmental engineering programs. The areas in need of innovation were increasing freshmen contact (a) with engineering in addition to the conventional math and science, (b) with design and problem solving, and (c) to engineering faculty and practicing professionals. A series of one unit freshmen seminars were proposed. Freshmen would select three from a palette of six seminars in the first year (typically, two would be offered each quarter. Each seminar would meet for one hour per week for 10 weeks. Faculty would offer a seminar, on a topic of their choosing, once every three years. The topics would vary but would serve to introduce aspects of the theory and practice of civil and environmental engineering.
Embedded in this strawman was the idea that faculty might wish to stop thinking in terms of conventional courses, as found in almost every college engineering program and start thinking of chunks of material that address a particular need or interest. Initial (and a bit surprising) support was obviated with the introduction of a school-wide freshmen program, one similar to that offered at several engineering schools but quite unlike what I had proposed.
My next step was to develop this idea in the form of an online graduate program at the master's level. This might be the ideal position for online education where residency is not critical and where the program audience may well be fully employed. This format may also be ideal for a program requiring completion of courses which are actually modules, or chunks of material of a length appropriate for the target material. The material developed thus far has been designed in nominal five week chunks, allowing use in conventional semester or quarter terms, as well as accommodating topics that neither require a full course to cover nor fit well with other chunks to form a conventional course. This idea is being considered elsewhere.
MIT, which over the past 15 years has taken a prominent position in digital innovation in education, first in providing free access to MIT course content online, and then launching Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), recently has convened a task force to consider the evolution of digital innovation in education. A task force recommendation was to break MOOCs into modules, for reasons similar to mine but also to address specific student interests.
The Washington Post reported a task force comment that "The very notion of a class may be outdated" and a comparison was made to the demand by consumers for an individual song rather than an album or an article rather than an entire newspaper. This comment had me re-think. As a lifelong music junkie I have always valued artists who released albums that represented a "state of mind" for that artist (and not necessarily a concept album) as achieving some higher order quality. Listening to a few selected cuts would be like being able to fast forward through parts of any performance or to view just the interesting parts of a painting rather than the view designed by the artist. I see reading the newspaper as something entirely different since it, by design, is offering a cross section of everything and is not meant to be read as a whole, such as a novel. So where in this comparison does the proposal to modularize courses fall?
Few if any college programs are canonical. Why program material likely overlaps significantly with other programs, each has its own focus. More importantly, none cover all the possible material associated with a field. The only reason we continue to think in terms of conventional courses is because that is how we, as students, completed our courses. In institutions where research is pointedly liberal, course work is generally conservative, not only in content but also is the arbitrary course units in which a program's material is currently bundled.
The growth of digital innovation is certain, but the direction and level of acceptance in conventional educational programs is anything but certain.
|Agree to Disagree? [24 July 2015]|
Quite telling that The Hill reports that "both Republican and Democratic leaders in the House are in "rare agreement" that the Senate highway bill is "looking to be a nonstarter" in the House. Finally, when they have agreement within the House, it's that they don't agree with Senate.
And the revenue problem will remain in any case. Each slight of hand approach being proposed would shift funds from places and schemes that few knew existed and even fewer would think made sense (underfunding pensions or selling oil in the strategic reserve). Re-set the federal gas tax to reflect 18.4 cents per gallon in 1993 dollars (about 25 or 30 cents) and only then start with the prestidigitation.
|Trump Cards [24 July 2015]|
In USA Today, David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, sounds a bit like like the Donald in calling to "drop this nonsense of raising the gas tax". Beyond his trash talk he does make some good points, including a proposal to shift responsibility to state and local governments. This, of course, would not altogether make federal environmental and labor requirements disappear, but there are advantages to some decentralization (an argument that McIntosh would have made stronger if he didn't play his Trump cards).
USA Today provides its editorial perspective by calling for indexing of the federal gas tax to reflect the 18.4 cents in 1993 dollars (about 30 cents today). Sounds familiar...
|How Many? [23 July 2015]|
Following the recent bridge washout on I-10 near Desert Center, California, the LA Times (23July2015) reported two figures on truck volumes using the corridor daily: according to Caltrans, the Average Annual Daily Traffic (AADT) is 3,100 trucks while according to the American Transportation Research Institute (using FHWA data) it is 8,100 trucks. As reported by the Times, the total volume is 27,000 vehicles, with 11.5% trucks. This yields the 3,100 figure but which of the three numbers was measured independently was not stated. It was also not stated if these numbers are for two-way volumes, but this is usually the case.
Retrieving data from Caltrans annual traffic volume reports provides 2-way AADT volumes at I-10 and route 177 near the washed-out bridge to be about 23,000 AADT, with about 9,400 AADT for trucks, or about (41 percent), as estimated using 2004 data. A more recent 2007 estimate further east on I-10 at route 78 is about 24,000 AADT with 8,900 AADT (or 37 percent). These annual traffic volumes are consistent with 2007 estimated data provided in Cal-FRED. These are big differences.
|Evil in the Flesh [21 July 2015]|
After proclamations protecting three new national monuments, Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, referred to The Antiquities Act as "evil in the flesh." This Act has been used by 16 presidents to protect places like the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty. Evil in the flesh. I think Rob needs to get out more.
|In God We Trust: Part 2 [19 July 2015]|
The City of Irvine's council has indeed voted to add "In God We Trust" to an "yet-to-be-determined area of City Hall" (Daily Pilot, 19 June 2015). They decided to also add "E Pluribus Unum", which has served as the de facto motto from 1782 until 1956. I will avoid all the legalese and simply state that displaying the phrase "In God We Trust" does not violate the Constitution. But I place this action in the same category as formal actions to name an official state bird, the official sports drink of the NFL, or other such nonsense. What is the purpose of this action? Is this inclusion or exclusion? Will anyone be able to tell? Do those who approved this action even know the history of these mottos, or the ritualistic rationale for them?
Mayor Steven Choi says that it is "proper for reminding our children how our nation has been founded on this principle". Actually, this was adopted as the official motto in 1956, not 1776 or 1789. And reminding children? How many attend council meetings? How many children can comprehend the meaning and history of either motto? Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Lalloway said "This is not about God" so I guess the focus must be on "in", "we", or "trust". Whether Americans have been using this motto, as Lalloway says for "generations" (or since 1956, in any case), is not a rationale to inscribe it on a wall. Councilmember Lynn Schott adds that the two mottos together will "acknowledge those that do practice faith with our fellow neighbors who don't." I assume that the "In God We Trust" motto is for those who do practice faith (even though her colleague Lalloway says it is "not about God") and that "E Pluribus Unum" includes everybody else (but then shouldn't the firt motto be "In God Many of Us Trust"?). Last, Mayor Choi states that singing God Bless America at most sporting events "seems to unify all people in attendance." Well this part of our heritage has been in place since September 11th when we again felt the need to let all know that God is on our side. Besides, the crowd appears unified because they have been sitting, eating, and drinking for six and a half innings of a baseball game. Even an atheist would stand and smile under those circumstances.
But Councilmember Beth Krom, alone in opposition, said it best: "...putting words above our heads here at the Civic Center will have no real purpose other to possibly make some of the people that come here uncomfortable or make them feel there is a real effort to bring a religious message into a civic space ... I'm not arguing if it can be done, I'm speaking to whether it should be done."
|SB375 at Seven [18 July 2015]|
SB375, "Redesigning Communities to Reduce Greenhouse Gases", the 2008 California law linking land use planning and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) reduction, requires MPOs to prepare a "Sustainable Communities Strategy" (SCS) as part of the Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) to meet GHG targets by reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) or other strategies. I hold significant concerns regarding the use of VMT as a standalone measure of system performance and using VMT reduction as the primary policy objective. The national and California trends, of course, have been a reduction in VMT per capita, independent of SB375 and any SCS. So what are the direct benefits of SB375 in the seven years since adoption?
First and foremost, the primary benefit of SB375, and this should not be understated, is that it has successfully engaged most stakeholders in the discussion of climate change and what policies, programs, and behaviors may need to be reconsidered. With the primary objective of SB375 being the development of strategies for reducing Greenhouse Gases, however, the primary impacts that should be assessed are the range and intensity of the various GHG reduction strategies that have been developed and included in each MPO's SCS. And, of course, how effectiveness have these strategies been.
Despite the seven years since the adoption of SB375, there has been but one SCS round completed and it is not likely that many of the strategies, even if formalized in terms of policies and programs, have been implemented. Furthermore, the effectiveness of strategies that have been implemented is unlikely to have been assessed. Each assessment should include a discussion of causality and the presence of contributing factors. Most important is a tracking of GHG levels, in the regions and statewide, to establish and compare levels with 2008 baseline measurements. My guess is that raw point measurements exist at field monitors but that it will be near impossible to associate any GHG reduction to the regional strategies implemented.
What is needed is not a thumbs up or down assessment, which I suspect would be significantly biased (in a direction dependent on who is doing the assessing). Ultimately, GHG reduction strategies must be connected with actual outcomes, which due to the complexity of the land use, transportation, and air quality systems, require a comprehensive tracking system and public database. This should include:
This evaluation process should be a requirement of the Sustainable Community Strategies and should be conducted independently. The costs of developing and implementing these strategies and programs should be tracked and be part of the assessment of overall effectiveness. An informal review suggests that a decline in VMT per capita (and perhaps a small increase in total VMT) has been the trend for the past decade (starting before the recession). This decline may stabilize as job growth continues, but recent trends in southern California show transit ridership on a steady decline despite job growth and an improving economy. What impact these trends might have on GHG levels needs to be measured.
|ExCEEdingly So [17 July 2015]|
Nervous anticipation, anxiety quickly vanished, upbeat music, welcomed with smiles and handshakes, an active icebreaker plucked from the Minute to Win It TV show, and humorous anecdotes. Embarked on a team building activity and going on a scavenger hunt. Sit in the center of the room, listen to feedback without speaking, including areas for improvement (careful to not say "weaknesses"). Left grinning from ear to ear.
Since 1999, about one third of the potential audience has experienced this event. Who are they?
|Throw Out the Bathwater [17 July 2015]|
Not a day passes without further evidence of corruption in the college application process, centered on the continued use of standardized tests. It's hard to believe that anyone can accept these tests as an unbiased measure of college qualifications. It is time to throw out the bathwater (the SAT, ACT, and related tests) and give all babies a clean and fair start.
|A Higher Standard [16 July 2015]|
In recent dissenting opinions, Supreme Court Justice Scalia has exercised language directed toward colleagues and others that disagreed, language that many felt was inappropriate. There have been numerous related examples of elected or appointed public officials physically confronting colleagues, the press, or the general public, having offensive conversations recorded, or "hiking the Appalachian Trail". Public officials have constitutionally defined responsibilities, and should adher to a higher ethical standard than the general public, as should the press and others in responsible positions. Such a standard seems to be diluted if not missing in all branches of public service when there are few if any consequences of such behavior.
|In God We Trust [15 July 2015]|
Although this motto was added to our coins during the Civil War (I guess the North was claiming that God was on their side), it was not added to currency, nor reflected in a revised "Pledge of Allegiance", nor formally approved as the national motto until McCarthy enlisted God to fight the commies in the 1950s. But this serves as excellent examples of something that is relatively innocuous and thus easy to implement (and hard to argue against), but likely impossible to eliminate down the road. But what does this phrase actually mean?
The City of Irvine is seeking to join the growing list of Orange County cities (and many others in the U.S.) that prominently feature this phrase in council chambers or with official city seals and papers. Irvine, however, recently repealed its 2007 ordinance for a "living wage" so I wonder if they trust that God felt that was a good thing?
And who is this "we" that is expressing their trust? The City? The council? The Orange County Register reports that, in May 2015, a nationwide survey by the Pew Foundation found that in the seven years since an earlier 2007 survey, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as Christians dropped from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent and the percentage who described themselves as religiously unaffiliated rose from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent. In our era of inclusion, apparently the only group remaining on the outside, growing as it may, are those who do not hold to formal religious tenets, concepts of superior beings, or the need for elected officials to sit below such statements when making decisions.
|Is a BA BS? [10 July 2015]|
In May, Mark Schneider, Vice President and Institute Fellow of the Education Program at the American Institutes for Research, or AIR, said that the U.S. must end its "addiction" to bachelorís degrees. Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, referred to American higher education as a black box, with revenue pouring in but little quality assessment at the other end. Instead of one in three Americans attending college after high school, as it was several decades ago, today it's about two out of three. This figure, however, has been declining from a high of about 70 percent in 2009. What is more consistent is the percentage of women choosing the college path, which tends to be about five percentage points higher than for men over the past decade (the majority of bachelor's degrees are awarded to women today). What's it all mean?
|To Be or Not to Be? [7 July 2015]|
UCI in the News (7 July 2015) reports that the California State Assembly is addressing right to die legislation that has already been approved by the State Senate. UCI's Aaron Kheriaty, Director of the Program in Medical Ethics, is quoted: "As soon as we ask physicians to change our role from becoming healers to becoming killers, what we are going to see is the gradual expansion over time of the number and the type patients for whom this option is recommended" (my emphasis). I don't know what specific legislation might result, but the few other states that have "right to die" laws neither have physicians serving as "killers" nor making "recommendations" that someone should select this option. Suggesting that this would be the case is itself a question of ethics.
|Selling Chryslers [6 July 2015]|
Academic institutions, in large measure as a function of their faculty, are encouraged by administrators to increase rankings to rise to the top. One way to do this is to poach the best from other institutions, simultaneously increasing your rating and decreasing theirs (double the effect by getting rid of current faculty). This is what capitalism is all about; this is what business and sports institutions do.
But should this be the overarching goal for academic institutions? More precisely, should this be the overarching goal of the faculty? The capitalist mantra was nicely put by Lee Iacocca (likely paraphrasing Patton) as "lead, follow, or get out of the way". But this implies a single direction and, in academia, this implied direction is some arbitrary and recognizably inaccurate ranking system. There are multiple directions since there are multiple goals, and multiple paths on which to reach them, but none necessarily should lead each institution toward the same destination as everyone else. Excellence should be a measure of quantity (assessing inputs relative to outputs) and quality, but is should be defined by the community as a whole and not by administrators. Is your institution a place that is consistent with your goals?
|Self-Interest? [27 June 2015]|
The California Senate approved 36-0 a resolution urging the U.S. Supreme Court to not tamper with the Constitutional principle of "one person, one vote". While I certainly agree with those last four words, the Senate is being disingenuous with the actual issue at hand. Most would think "one person, one vote" means that one citizen gets one and only one vote. The issue that SCOTUS will consider is whether the number of elected representatives should continue to be based on total census population, which now includes all humans whether voting-eligible (U.S. citizens over 18 years old) or not (resident children and non-citizen immigrants of any age). A district that was disproportionately non-eligible voters would have representation equivalent to a district that was entirely eligible voters.
The current system is not, therefore, "one person, one vote" (at least under the assumption that a person is defined as a U.S. citizen and not, for example, as a tourist, international student, or undocumented immigrant). The change could reduce the number of representatives in states with a disproportionate number of non-eligible voters in the population and would also necessitate a redrawing of districts to reflect the new "one voting eligible person, one vote" requirement. So some of those 36 aye votes in the Senate could find themselves out of a job. No wonder they're all concerned.
|Micro-passive-aggressions? [27 June 2015]|
There has been quite a bit of recent discussion regarding the University of California and free speech, especially on issues such as trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, and subtle UC policies to "mediate" free speech, in the classroom, on campus, and in general conversation. These attempts by the UC administration to mediate speech to temper microaggressions can themselves be seen as micro-passive-aggressions which, whether intended or not, may effectively serve as gag orders for faculty, researchers, and students who feel vulnerable regarding jobs and careers. "If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence" (Louis Brandeis, in Whitney v California, 1927).
|Write in Your Head (part 2) [18 June 2015]|
In an EDWeek blog (18June2015), Marc Tucker addresses the false dichotomy of a liberal arts versus technical education by asking "why not both?". In particular, he addresses 'thinking and writing', often incompletely replaced with 'problem solving' in technical education. I can not say it better so I quote directly from Tucker:
"If you cannot write well about it, you probably don't understand it. If you cannot marshal the facts from a wide assortment of sources to make a compelling, logical argument, your command of the facts may be shaky and your ability to weave them together in a logical way may be just as shaky. Writing and complex thought are close companions. Even if you have got it straight in your head, if you cannot communicate it clearly, then you are at a huge disadvantage in today's world, a world in which little can be accomplished by individuals who do not work in concert with others."
|Herd Immunity and Voting [16 June 2015]|
Voting is a right, but with that right comes a great responsibility. Most rights are not isolated absolutes: gun ownership is also a right, and with that right too comes a great responsibility, as is the case for most of what we think of as fundamental rights.
In the Constitution, the Framers envisioned a "one man, one vote" system, albeit where "one man" meant a property-owning, adult male of European descent (since, of course, amended to include all citizens over 18 years of age). The framers predominantly saw property-owning males as a indicator of responsibility, a status, given the cultural norms of the day, well understood as meaning an educated and active participant in the American experiment. The link was one responsible person, one responsible vote. The vote was granted explicitly; the responsibility was implicit.
The Supreme Court has now expanded, albeit indirectly, this vision, with the Citizens United v. FEC decision. I doubt the Framers conceived of a future where exceedly wealthy individuals or corporations would be able to so significantly interfere with political discourse (but then they likely did not envision assault weapons in the general population either). Under the assumption of responsible voting, this point is moot: individual voters will vote responsibly, taking all issues and beliefs into account. In large measure, the voting process would be relatively unaffected by even an onslaught of biased information, at least under the assumption of herd immunity. Only a significant rate of participation of responsible voters will ensure that the democratic process will be immune to viral contagions, and this participation will also ensure that all voices will be equally and fairly considered.
In recent years, a horse of a different color has presented itself. Fewer voters are exercising their right to vote, perhaps even fewer exhibiting their responsibility to educate themselves on the issues and candidates. A continual decline in active participation will result in a loss of herd immunity. The democratic process would then be susceptible to the biases of deep pockets, distorted media, and promises to "put a chicken in every pot".
So what has been proposed? Initial (one can only hope farcical) proposals range from giving lottery tickets to those who vote to actually paying voters to vote. Recent proposals appear to have engendered a bit more thought. The California Secretary of State has proposed legislation to automatically register anyone applying for or renewing a driver's license and now the County of Los Anageles is proposing to mail absentee ballots to all eligible voters. As with most remedial actions, you can't fix a pipe by putting a bigger bucket under the leak. The problem is not the level of voting participation, rather, the problem is the level of civic responsibility.
A sizeable portion of eligible voters who do not exercise their voting rights are perhaps also being "responsible", at least in the sense that they are not submitting an uninformed vote (if you're not going to help, at least get out of the way). Of course, these non-participants are more likely to be either unregistered or completely detached from the political process, whether due to perceived irrelevance, genuine indifference, or utter sloth, than to be actively deciding, in a responsible fashion, to not vote. These proposed efforts are thus treating the symptons and not the disease. Things will not be better if more people vote; things will be better when more people are responsible, that is, actively engaged in the political process. Treating the symptoms is certainly easier, but only addressing the engagement problem itself will cure the voting disease. But there are also second-order effects of the proposed "symptom cures".
How can one not be concerned with millions of blank ballots floating around for a month or two before every elections. Given the levels of registration and active voting, most of these ballots will not be used, at least by those who are intended to use them. This is not entirely dissimilar to "get out the vote" campaigns where partisan groups actively encourage similarly minded voters to register and vote. Nowhere in these efforts is the critical dimension of responsible voting presented. The last thing a partisan voting group wishes to do is to encourage a free thinking person to vote. With herd immunity such actions will be marginal at best. But we no longer have herd immunity. A greater fear is whether political parties, major corporations, and/or extremely wealthy individuals may now have it instead.
|Causality or Correlation? [11 June 2015]|
Urban renewal, often linked to transportation infrastructure and extensions of interstates into central cities, marked the post-WWII decades as poster children for environmental justice needs. But the LA Times article on "Mapping Pollution Disparities" (B4, 11June2015) appears to have it backwards. Income, of course, still drives the process. Home values will be highest in the most attractive areas, as far as possible from traffic noise, air pollution, toxic sites, and other "undesirables". Lower income groups move toward affordable housing, which much more often than not will be closer than desirable to these urban ills. But these ills are not being foisted on these disadvantaged populations. It is overt capitalism rather than covert racism. Unfortunately the result is the same: disadvantaged groups are subject to detritus of capitalism, a result that will continue to retard the upward mobility of these groups as long as the full costs of economic activities are unfairly borne. But even in utopia, some will have a better ocean view.
|Write in Your Head [3 June 2015]|
Robots Could Soon Teach College Classes, or so reports the Washingtom Post (linked in ASEE 1st Bell 3June2015). The (6/2) Innovations blog post states that the "erudite university professor" may "soon be headed for extinction" to be replaced by robotic professors. The old canard regarding a college lecture as an inefficient way to transcribe a professor's notes, via a black/white board, to a student's notes, emphasizes a critical point. The process of receiving and then writing selected information into one's notes also writes this information into one's head. Learning must be interactive and students actively engaged will learn best. So can a robot do this?
First, let me say, a lot of my colleagues will be thrilled, not because they expect to lose their tenured academic appointments but because they can focus solely on research, for which they are rewarded, and not on teaching, which they more often than not find annoying. If it is likely that the grunt tasks of "lecturing, grading, and test-making" will be taken over by robots first, then this suggests that graduate student teaching assistants will disappear first (and afterall, why train them for a task that they will never do again?).
Second, let me say, that this will not happen. If a human instructor is not needed, why would a (more expensive and less flexible) robot instructor be needed? The endgame is not information or even knowledge. It is the ability to think, to innovate, and to create. Paraphrasing Einstein, Zappa, and Stoll "information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom." Furthermore, the online content, that formerly resided in the brain of the professor, is certainly the academic property of the professor. No more than students can now attend a college for free or get free books or free tutoring, will online content be free (at least as soon as the need is established). Content providers will be the ones profiting from this change (or at least those who control the content, such as universities, corporations, or corporate universities). This content, unlike music and other forms of art that chiefly entertain (I do not mean to in any way disparage things that entertain), must also continuously evolve to stay relevant. Students learn to be creative from creative professors. If robot-teachers are the future, then it is likely robot students that they will be "teaching".
|Pay Now or Pay Now [1 June 2015]|
Media continue to report that decisionmakers continue to balk at either asking drivers to pay more at the pump (i.e., increasing the gas tax) or taxing travel by the mile (a VMT tax), despite the fact that the feds are spending on the order of $15 billion more per year than is coming in from fuel tax revenue. C'mon -- this ain't rocket science. Transportation infrastructure and thus the economy need these revenues. Either revenue must be increased or transferred: higher fuel taxes or diversion from general revenues (meaning less funding for other federal programs). That decision is a real decision.
However, the argument frequently presented is that Americans can't afford an increase in the gas tax, so let's find another way to raise new revenues. Six of one, half dozen of the other. More funding is needed and it makes no difference in absolute terms whether you get the necessary $15 billion from an increase in the federal fuel excise tax or if you implement a VMT tax to generate the same amount. Somehow, the VMT tax lobby are trying to sell you a line that the VMT tax won't cost you the way higher fuel taxes will. This is absolute crap. You will pay either way. This is not a bad thing, since a dollar of fuel tax is a dollar more spent on transportation infrastructure. Just like a set of new tires or a tune-up, you will be better off if not a few dollars less wealthy.
So what's the problem? First, be honest. We all have to pay for what needs to be fixed. Only new taxes can generate the necessary funds without decreasing support for other federal program (although I 'm not opposed to that option). The fuel tax system is established and works. The argument is that the excise tax has not been changed since 1993 (see Funding Transport 4). So vote to increase it by a few cents per year for the next several years and few will even notice. The VMT tax is altogether another story. Many proponents of a VMT tax are simply anti-VMT. You know: if you don't like alcohol, smoking, or sugar, then tax it and spend the money on something you like. But the required systems to implement this option, despite claims to the contrary, does not exist. Yes, the technology exist, but 250 million plus cars and trucks will need the necessary tracking devices, and the accounting systems do not exist. Did I mention privacy concerns?
Any viable VMT tax must be able to reflect the varying cost of motor vehicle use. An SUV getting 15 mph and driving in an urban environment would pay the same per mile tax as fuel efficient compact driving in a rural area. Today, drivers can choose to decrease costs by purchasing a more fuel efficient vehicle. Or driving in a fuel-conscience manor. Or in less congested conditions.
I could go (and have gone) on and on but the point is quite simple. We need more revenue now. The fuel tax system is in place now and requires only a vote and a signature to make the change. So increase the federal fuel tax now and when an alternative is identified that can be implemented in an effective and efficient manner, then do so.
|Compliment/Complement [18 May 2015]|
Look no further than the proposed two month (yes, months) extension of solvency of the Highway Trust Fund to see our disfunctional congress in inaction. There is not likely another issue as broadly supported than a federal transportation authorization, which will boost the economy, fund necessary infrastructure maintenance, and which has funding as part of the package. Mark Twain said he could live two months on a good compliment; the HTF, however, needs much more than a two month complement.
|Shares or Sharing? [16 May 2015]|
The City of Santa Monica has banned short-term rentals of less than 30 days in response an increase of residents renting out rooms via Airbnb. While there are many dimensions to this situation, not the least being the impact on the housing market both in terms of availability and property values, there is one dimension common to other "sharing" apps such as Uber. Do smart phone apps such as Airbnb simply facilitate an evolving and rapidly expanding bartering economy, or is this something altogether different?
Many people have always traded skills, knowledge, and assets, quid pro quo but outside of conventional markets and thus avoiding taxes, fees, and other regulations associated with what is essentially "regular" commerce. I can borrow your ladder and you can borrow my pick-up truck; you fix my plumbing and I'll do your electrical work; you can use my place out in the desert and I can use your ski timeshare. This is an increasingly extensive but difficult to measure gray area of off-the-books economic transactions. These have always existed and likely always will. But is this what apps such as Airbnb and Uber really provide? No.
Airbnb and Uber are businesses who have found a way to leverage IT with someone else's resources (such as houses or cars). They are not the first to leverage IT but may be the first to have perfected a working model of leveraging someone else's resources. This shows in the market share values of these companies. So how would Hertz do if they didn't need to buy and maintain all those cars? How about Hilton without the need for all those rooms and other amenities? Basically, how would all these companies do without the overhead of infrastructure and staff, not to mention, taxes and regulations? And do the agents that provide the needed resources really see the true cost of their operations, such as excess depreciation on their vehicles or the increased aggravation among their neighbors?
There may well be a true economic advance here but right now the playing field is no longer level. The concept of car sharing developed as "hey, I'm heading to the airport tomorrow -- if anyone is going that way, I'll split the cost". It has evolved into independent agents driving or idling in wait for prospective customers, delivered to them via an app that handles reservations and billing. If it looks like a taxi (or hotel), walks like a taxi (or hotel), and quacks like a taxi (or hotel), then it's probably a taxi (or hotel). The IT side is a true advance, and one which in turn likely will improve the taxi and hotel industries, which are in need of improvement. But the service that is provided, let's face it, is a duck. And all ducks should be paid, taxed, and regulated equally.
|Profit or Perish? [14 May 2015]|
North Carolina's for-profit Brookstone College of Business is ceasing operations citing "the impact of federal regulations that aim to make career-training programs prove they lead to jobs and the ability to repay student debt" (ASEE First Bell, 13 May 2015). The Brookstone President said that compliance "distracted the small college from its core mission of providing quality education and training." Sooo, having to prove that their career-training program leads to actual careers is distracting the school from its "core mission of providing quality education and training"?
|Publish or Edit? [11 May 2015]|
A mass email invitation to submit to the International Journal of Emerging Trends in Electrical and Electronics may be the perfect place to publish online for those who like adjectives but not so much nouns. From the journal homepage:
"International Journal of Emerging Trends in Electrical and Electronics (IJETEE) is an scholarly, online international journal which aims to Publishes peer reviewed original research result oriented Survey papers in the fields of Engineering and Promote Innovative Technology. IJETEE has 3.84 impact factor."
From an informal review of recent online publications, there appears to be more than one emerging trend: speeding publication at the expense of editting.
|Six of One ... [11 May 2015]|
In the Washington Post, economists Robert Archibald and David Feldman of the College of William & Mary argue that the problem is not so much the trend of increasing private college tuition and fees as it is the weakening of the middle class, stagnating family income, and continued decreases in state support of higher education. Either way, the trend is not sustainable.
|Crossing State Lines [7 May 2015]|
California fuel taxes run about 30 cents per gallon more than Arizona. This week, I was heading east on I-10 through Blythe, California and saw signs advertizing regular gas at $4.09 while in Ehrenberg, Arizona, five miles east of Blythe, the same gas was $2.89, a difference of $1.20 per gallon (further east, in Quartzsite, Arizona, the same gas was $2.75). According to USEIA, there are no refineries in Arizona. According to Arizona Energy, gas is supplied from California and West Texas refineries via pipeline (with each gallon in transit for about 7 and 6 days, respectively), then delivered by truck to local markets. All for about 25 percent less per gallon, even after accounting for tax differences, than in California.
|A Stupid Idea (Take 4) [20 April 2015]|
Yet again (see stupid idea 3, stupid idea 2, and stupid idea 1), someone is doing the wrong thing for the right reason, that is, paying people to vote. The non-profit Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (see LATimes editorial 21April2015) will award $25,000 from a random draw from those who vote in an LA school board election. Democracy just ain't what it used to be...
|I'm a Little Verklempt [20 April 2015]|
One often sees or hears the expression "one of this country's leading intellectuals, and a world-renowned ___" but this is most likely followed by an academic endeavor in the humanities or social sciences rather than one in intellectually-challenged fields such as the physical sciences or, heaven forbid, engineering. As Linda Richman would say: "I'm a little verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves."
|BS In America? [20 April 2015]|
In Congress, a bipartison HR 1846 has been introduced that would index to inflation the fuel excise taxes that fill the Highway Trust Fund. About time. However, I hope a different name is proposed. Known as the "Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Act", I suspect that it will soon be taxingly abbreviated by some to "BS In America".
|A Viscious Circle? [20 April 2015]|
SmartBrief for the Higher Ed Leader (20April2015) links to two opposing trends in college education. First, a higher proportion of blacks and hispanics (73% and 72%) value a college education than for whites (56%). Second, an NYU/CUNY study found that each $1,000 increase in undergraduate tuition lowers racial and ethnic diversity by almost six percent. As with most studies and trends, there are many factors confounding the results as well as their interpretation. As we continue our fall down this educational rabbit hole, things do seem to get "curiouser and curiouser!" I won't get into yet a third trend with a link in the same SmartBrief, one that suggests that women, blacks, and hispanics have an advantage in faculty hiring in STEM fields (although not, apparently, in gaining tenure). As Alice said, "curiouser and curiouser!"
|The Best of Questions Need No Answers [15 April 2015]|
A column by Larry Gordon (LATimes 15April2915) offers a debate on the "worth" of a college education. Mary Daly, a senior VP for the Federal Reserve, states that "It is an irrefutable fact that college gives you a significant and persistant advantage decade after decade" and presents analysis supporting the claim. But is this a proper experiment? Those whom go to college are, on average, already ahead of the game, both more successful and driven that those who do not go to college. Peter Capelli, on the other hand, argues that success varies over contributing factors, including majors. It's hard to believe that such an analysis has not been undertaken. Perhaps colleges don't want to know. Or don't want us to know.
|How to Reduce Congestion by 17% [8 April 2015]|
The LATimes (8April2015) reports that unpaid traffic court fines have led to driver's license suspensions for one in six California drivers. So one in six (about 17 percent) drivers on the road, not counting those driving without obtaining a license in the first place, should not be driving on the road.
While I can understand the arguments that fines and escalating penalties can drive "low income people deeper into poverty", the triggering infractions were not unavoidable actions, nor are the decisions to keep driving. But layered fines, fees, and penalties really should be addressed: this should not be an income generating machine for local governments. And, as the article points out, there is bias in the process "beginning with who gets pulled over in the first place." It is these aspects of the problem that need to be addressed: not a knee jerk moratorium on license suspension or foregiveness of the original fine (I'm fine with foregiving the fees and penalties). And it makes a lot of sense to extend Don Shoup's argument for graduated parking tickets to repeat traffic fine recipients: the more you get, the more each one costs.
|A Stupid Idea (Take 3) [31 Mar 2015]|
Last year, a stupid idea was floated in LA to pay people to vote. In 2006, a similarly stupid idea was proposed in Arizona to give a lottery ticket to people who voted. Now the California Secretary of State has proposed legislation to automatically register anyone applying for or renewing a driver's license, with an opt out provision, checks on citizenship, and risk all around for private personal information. Why? Because voter turnout has been very low and, we all know, you treat the symptoms and not the disease. It is not that people are not voting because they are not registered; rather, they are not registered and they are not voting because they either don't know enough, don't care enough, and/or don't feel that it matters. You can't address obesity by signing everyone up for a gym membership.
Voters, or more precisely, potential voters, feel disenfranchised. They no longer feel a part of the democratic process. That is the disease. Cure the disease and there will be a rush to the polls.
|Consider the Source [24 Mar 2015]|
USA Today reports that a plan to close tax loopholes (the US treasury reports that nearly $100 billion is lost annually to offshore tax dodging) was rejected along party lines. Sen. James Inhofe (R, Okla) called the proposal "a massive tax increase". Filling in loopholes is only a "tax increase" to those who have been receiving an unintentional "tax benefit" for years and one would have to be as thick as a brick to see it otherwise.
|211 F [24 Mar 2015]|
I was at least partially premature to be steamed with California Assemblyman Mike Gatto's call for a new UC technology-focused campus dedicated to STEAM. I still think synergies and scale economies would be increased by blending new investment in existing UC campuses, but Gatto argued, in response to an LA Times OpEd denigrating his legislative proposal, that elite UCs are full, have relatively high costs of living, and leave many high-merit students choosing out-of-state colleges. Unlike the LA Times, I think the STEM shortage problem is real; unlike Gatto, I think the solution remains with current campuses, but rather than more of the same, UC should try innovative programs, perhaps focusing on co-op education with California businesses that are concerned with the shortage. Seems like a potential win-win.
Indeed, a letter sent yesterday to Obama from the engineering deans for 122 domestic universities commits each to training at least 20 graduates per year for a decade as "Grand Challenge Engineers". Programs will integrate "five educational elements: (1) hands-on research or design projects connected to the Grand Challenges; (2) real-world, interdisciplinary experiential learning with clients and mentors; (3) entrepreneurship and innovation experience; (4) global and cross-cultural perspectives; and (5) service-learning." Time for the feds, the state, and the private sector to invest?
|Fiat Lux [22 Mar 2015]|
"Old Glory needs our protection" is the headline on a Commentary in Orange County's Daily Pilot by California Asemblyman Bill Brough addressing the recent UCI flaghazi. Politicians have a self-promoting history of shamelessly wrapping themselves in the American flag and while Brough did emphasize the need for colleges to be a place for open examination of controversial subjects, he nevertheless focused on the symbol rather than the freedom that it represents.
So go ahead: kick the tires, look under the hood, check the maintenance records. Our democracy is an excellent vehicle to get us where ever we're going. If anyone thinks that a student resolution that promotes "deconstruction of convention, challenge to customs, or push over of patriarchy" could in any meaningful way diminish this democracy, then a challenge to any symbol such as a flag is the least of our worries.
|Helmets and Sodas and Flags (oh my) [22 Mar 2015]|
Somewhere between California legislative proposals banning flag banning and banning soft drinks with sugar, is a state senator's call to mandate bicycle helmets for everyone, despite little evidence to suggest that such a mandate would be effective, cost-effective, or even enforceable. No consideration was made of alternative and better ways to protect bicyclists and encourage use of the mode. If this is the best our elective officials can do, then I suggest a moratorium is needed to stop legislation that any reasonable person would consider stupid.
|Oo-De-Lally [22 Mar 2015]|
"Be together. Not the same." Who'd of thunk it? That a TV commercial (Android?) with odd pairings of cavorting animals could say it best, with Roger Miller singing "Oo-De-Lally" for Disney: "Robin Hood and Little John walkin' through the forest..." Similarity, or difference, is irrelevant. Be together.
|Admission on Admissions [20 Mar 2015]|
The Washington Post (20March2015) reports on the potential to use MOOCs as part of the college admission process, providing college applicants with the opportunity to offer proof of merit. What's wrong with the current process? The Post summarizes quite well: "Grade-point averages are tricky to compare because grading standards vary widely among teachers and high schools. Personal essays could have been written by someone else. SAT scores are highly correlated with parental income, and students can learn strategies for maximizing their scores that have little to do with aptitude or achievement. Test scores aren't incredibly indicative of collegiate success, anyway. For example, economist Jesse Rothstein found that, after controlling for students' background characteristics, SAT scores predict only 2.7 percent of the variation in students' college grades." Why does any institution continue with these standardized tests?
|Exceptional! [11 Mar 2015]|
For those of you who read the torturous wording in the UCI student government's Flaghazi resolution, it might be good to know that some college students are more down-to-earth in their writing, especially when providing a personal profile (in its entirety, with the names changed to protect all):
"Chosen for his/her abilities and experiences, Mr/Ms Blank shows the dedication and qualities necessary for a position in leadership and organization. Other than assisting and improving multiple programs of the School of Blank at the University of Blank, Mr/Ms Blank is also recognized for his/her passion in reforming the community and bringing in solutions to societal problems. As one of the most achieving students at the University of Blank, he/she obtained experiences in leading a good team and succeeding in difficult tasks and competitions. Mr/Ms Blank's earned experiences from many programs, alongside with his/her hardworking personality, will help guiding the Blank Program to an exceptional level."
Now this is exceptionalism... in what precisely, I'm really not sure.
|Chutzpah! [11 Mar 2015]|
A UC Irvine student who helped author and voted in support of the shortsighted and now notorious (and since vetoed) resolution to ban flags, including the US flag, from a student government lobby, wrote in the student newspaper that the US flag was "triggering to students who are undocumented and to whom the flag represents a constant struggle to gain American citizenship ... and also as potentially disrespectful to the increasing international student population."
So the root of the problem appears to be the "constant struggle to gain American citizenship", and assumedly to enjoy the freedoms that American citizenship brings, for which these individuals wish to ban what they claim is a "symbol of US imperialism and neo-collonialism" and "disrespectful to the increasing international student population". What deconstructive chutzpah! I doubt they even see this twisted language nor the many symbols of American imperialism that likely are present on their clothing, backpacks, and iStuff.
But college is precisely the time and place for self-examination, learning, and, yes, challenging social mores. The student government system seems to have worked with the resolution being vetoed. So is this much ado about nothing? Well, the public outrage has been a bit excessive (mountains and molehills come to mind), and a freshman state senator (and UCI alumna) has proposed a state constitutional amendment to ban flag banning. I think the students, the protesters, and the senator may have points to make, but they've not yet learned how to make them. It's time, I guess, for me to propose a constitutional amendment to ban any constitutional amendment that would ban banning anything.
|STEAMed [3 Mar 2015]|
California Assemblyman Mike Gatto has called for the University of California to build a new technology-focused campus dedicated to Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics. Why a new campus? Several UC campuses have room to grow and leveraging current programs will obviate building redundant support programs, and strengthen STEAM efforts already in place. Sometimes, big ideas are just a lot of hot, moist air.
|Manifest Destiny? [24 Feb 2015]|
A letter in today's LAT Opinion section (24feb2015) addresses the terminology of how to categorize the human rights abuses of ISIS claiming the correct term is colonialism: seizing independent lands and resources by force, ethnic cleansing of endemic populations, and imposition of new, and complete intolerance of old, cultures, laws, and religions. A new Manifest Destiny.
|Are We Better Off? [29 Jan 2015]|
"Work is Personal. Computing is social. Knowledge is power. Break the rules." This manifesto from Fast Company's first issue was just repeated in the 20th anniverary issue with the following observation: "Bill Clinton was still a first-term president and Taylor Swift was in kindergarten. Mobile phones were still analog devices. Social media didn't exist." Are we better off?
|The Brilliant Need Not Apply [15 Jan 2015]|
An article online in The Chronicles of Higher Education reports on research published in Science that found that "women tend to be underrepresented in disciplines whose practitioners think innate talent or "brilliance" is required to succeed," including areas such as the STEM fields, the humanities and the social sciences. Apparently, there are disciplines that don't think brilliance is a path to success. I can only think of a few not included on the above list of those that do think brilliance is important, but what are these other faculty thinking? 'You know, we're pretty much mundane thinkers -- plodders, really -- so the last thing we need around here is someone that's brilliant.'
|P3rofits [12 Jan 2015]|
President Obama has proposed a tax-exempt municipal bond with fewer restrictions than private activity bonds to help finance public-private infrastructure projects. VP Biden said "This isn't privatization, this is collaboration."
In transportation, there has always had public-private infrastructure "collaborations". The private sector participates in planning, most design, virtually all construction, and even maintenance and operations. Most public infrastructure, however, is owned by the public sector so no usage-based profits acrue to the private sector. The advent of Intelligent Transportation System technologies have now provided the means to efficiently price infrastructure so the private sector can now profit from infrastructure operations.
"Private capital is not a substitute for public investment," the White House statement said in its fact sheet. The White House should add that a private company's profit motive should not influence the control and operations of public infrastructure. These companies can profit from every step in the infrastructure development process, but income from operations should remain in the public sector and, ideally, flow 100 percent into infrastructure maintenance and improvements. Besides, if the private sector needs to borrow using municipal bonds, why do we need them in an expanded role in the first place?
|Half Full or Half Empty? [1 Jan 2015]|
UCI's Jack Miles writes on the relative change of knowledge and ignorance, and roles played by religion.
But, as our grasp of knowledge grows, it is not our ignorance that grows more rapidly but rather our awareness of other areas of knowledge, areas which we can see but not grasp (I'm not being Rumsfeldian). What would we do if a scientific advance, such as verification of the existence of the Higgs boson, did NOT increase our awareness of further frontiers of knowledge? What if the grass no longer promised to be greener on the other side of the fence? I think the result might be man creating a new religion to imagine new unknowns, in a parallel manner to his creating the old religions to help explain the old unknowns. It is the unknown, not the known, that drives us forward. We need not mask this as ignorance nor religion.
|Pun-inshing Publishing [1 Jan 2015]|
What a way to start the new year. An LA Times (1jan2015) headline on page B3 of the Business section says "Hasbro to yank phallic Play-Doh". Did the Royal We review this?
|A Streetcar Not Desired? [30 Dec 2014]|
An article in Politico suggest that the recent streetcar renaissance is "threatening to run off the tracks - imperiled by cost overruns (and) lower-than-expected ridership". While we have heard this before, a few comments are appropriate.
First, under-estimating cost and over-estimating demand is both chronic and unethical. Einstein said that insanity was "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results", so the politics (but not necessarily the technology) of travel forecasting is clearly insanity. I'm not sure what politicians are good at, but it's not understanding travel forecasting. But wait: isn't there more to transportation improvements than just ridership?
Arizona state senator Steve Farley is quoted as saying that transportation is "not just about moving people. It's about a community's soul." While there's truth in his belief it should be equally clear that it will take more than one good deed to save a soul that's in need. While transportation should not be only about moving things, it should also not be considered a panacea for social and economic ills. Mission one must be mobility. Everything else is frosting.
Second, why do streetcars serve the community's soul but buses do not? It has been repeated ad nauseum that fixed rail systems show a development commitment to a community or corridor, a commitment that residents and business owners would not see for bus service. But it's the commitment, and the money, and not the mode. A fixed rail system does command a commitment of plans, funds, and focus but an inexpensive mode, with the same level of commitment, would command the same.
All of this decision-making process can be improved. All it takes is a commitment.
|Murder and Money [11 Dec 2014]|
Murder. A bad thing. There are lot's of laws that define the penalties for this and most violent crime, but there are no regulations, per se, only punishment. The cost of this punishment is on the order of tens of thousands of dollars per year to house each murderer, but individual responsibility is imposed and enforced.
The banking and financial industries are rife with both expensive regulation, which on the most part doesn't seem to work, and very little if any punishment when the law is broken. The cost to society is huge. Dump the regulations and the associated bureaucracy: what we need are laws and punishment. Spell the penalties out and enforce them. Send a banker to jail.
|A Modest Proposal [10 Dec 2014]|
A National Soda Tax? David Lazarus (LA Times 10dec2014) may as well call for Prohibition II, a constitutional amendment to ban soda with "caloric sweetners". I'm not a fan of sin taxes, especially when the "sin" is not in and of itself what is desired. Lazarus, to his credit, raises the issue of a "nanny state" but to his discredit, quickly dismisses it. Let's not argue here whether the state should be regulating bad or excessive behavior, or whether some zealot is just exorcising a pet peeve; instead, let's first examine what the problem really is and then consider a solution.
Excessive consumption is a general problem, part of which is the problem at hand: Americans eat too much. But it's not just soda, nor just fast food, nor just large portions. It's just too many calories being consumed, leading to obesity and related problems. So what's the real problem? Obesity. An appropriate tax would be a National Obesity Tax: NOT!. Each person is taxed annually based on how far away they are from an ideal weight, based on an annual health exam with the doctor of your choice, who files a 1099 with your tax liability. The resulting tax revenue would then be directed to Individual Health Care Accounts so the more obese you are, the more you are taxed, and these funds are available to directly address your problem. Voila.
I should stop right here, but, Lazarus quotes Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UC San Francisco, as saying "We like markets doing the regulation, but market's can't regulate substances of abuse. The definition of these substances is that you want them even though you know they'll ruin your life." Wow. Might as well face it, you're addicted to ... sugar? Time for a methadone program to wean people off Coke (the soft drink) and onto orange juice (sugar again so I guess it will be onto Diet Coke). In response to the sound bite from the American Beverage Association that "What goes in your cart is your choice", Lustig replies "Your personal freedom has already been taken away," explaining most store-bought food is sugar-spiked. "We're being poisoned", he says. To quote the Dead, "I might be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I'm enjoying the ride."
|ARTICulate [10 Dec 2014]|
The Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, ARTIC, is open, without light rail or high speed rail, but with Amtrak, Metrolink, and OCTD buses. It's a boondoggle and a success story (and perhaps a dessert topping) that will handle somewhere between 900 (the old station) and 10,000 (estimated) rail boardings per day. This was one of those projects that likely originated with visions of sugarplums, or maybe it was more like a gym membership to get in shape in the new year.
What caught my eye was the plans for a "progressive convenience store" (I can only guess), an organic coffee kiosk, and restaurants offering the "opportunity to grab a bowl of quinoa and super veggies, watch oysters being shucked, or sip a hand-crafted cocktail." Jimmy Rodgers, much of whose short-life was spent along the rails, sang: "My pocket book is empty, and my heart is full of pain, I'm a thousand miles away from home, just waiting for a train." I wonder if Rodgers ever wished he could savor some quinoa and shucked oysters while waiting for his train? [LA Times 10dec2014]
|Ivory Tower or Golden Silo [7 Dec 2014]|
Bloomberg Businessweek reports that RPI's president received $7.1 million in compensation, number one of 36 private college leaders whose compensation exceeded $1 million in 2012. I've had this all wrong. Universities are corporations and IPOs should address their true market value and that of the degrees that they grant. They are no longer Ivory Towers but more of Golden Silos for feeding those animals who are more equal than others.
|Flush It? [2 Nov 2014]|
In an LA Times OpEd (2Nov2014), Judith Lewis Mernit asks "How green is my doggy?" In discussing the various options for dog poop disposal, she writes that the US EPA recommends "flushing as the optimal solution". I could find only a few references to this recommendation, each associated with a municipality and not the EPA, and none discussing the associated water usage and treatment costs. And before you can flush it, you still have to pick it up. And that's the real problem.
|Sour Grapes [2 Nov 2014]|
Bill Plaschke column "Series is no longer must-see baseball" (2Nov2014) in the LATimes makes some good points mixed in with some sour grapes regarding baseball and the San Francisco Giant's third World Series title in five years. First, he cries for "no more fourth-place teams battling fifth-place teams for a first-place trophy". Both the Giants and Royals were second place teams in terms of final season standings. Even with only division winners in the playoffs, there will be low seed teams making it to the finals. I am opposed to having multiple wildcard teams in a single game to complete the playoff brackets (in all sports, including the NFL and March Madness, which has become March Mediocre for the first week with several teams playing to make the final 64).
Second, there's always market share interest so New York versus LA will always draw bigger than SF versus KC. The only option is to eliminate all small market teams, and that ain't gonna happen. When there is a small market series, the big markets teams should be asking themselves "what are we doing wrong" and not just complaining about TV ratings.
Third, baseball can be boring (and it starts in youth baseball and too many coaches trying to get their sons into the majors, but that's another story). Plaschke thinks the biggest slow down is the time between pitches: I think it's the time between sales pitches, not fastballs. If you want to watch millionaires play a game, then there are going to be ads. Lots of them. Regardless of the sport. Just compare the actual time "in-play" for football with baseball, even ignoring the commercials. Even as a life-long basketball player, I no longer enjoy watching the NBA. The games just don't excite. Or matter.
What explains the viewership declines in "five of the least-watched Series all occurring in the last seven years?", asks Plaschke -- how about why can't the Dodgers or the Yankees, or even the Angels or the Nationals, win the really important games. The Giants and the Royals are similar teams, and typical of well-coached, small market teams. Given the last five years, I'd say get use to the trend.
But he does make some good points, including implementing a pitch clock, resolving the DH dilema, and setting home field advantage based on the best record. I'll add a couple, including shortening the season back to 154 games and limiting each league to only one wildcard team and 3 division winners. I won't get into the cost of attending a game, even though this is probably the real cause of all the other problems.
|Student or Athlete? [23 Oct 2014]|
Inside Higher Ed reports that UNC's school newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, argued that that university goals to keep athletes eligible to play are at odds with their admission of "academically underprepared or uninterested" student-athletes. The problem is that many student-athleles are simply athletes that would not have been admitted to any academic institution based on academic performance, anymore than I would be "admitted" to any sports "institution" based on my athletic performance. This is a fundamental conflict -- fundamental in that it's all about money.
|Revenue and Rainfall (Part 2) [10 Oct 2014]|
In February 2010 I wrote "Tax revenue that feeds California's budget is a lot like the rainfall that feeds our water supply: it's either too much that we flush it away with short-sighted planning or too little that we borrow from the future to quench our thirst today." In November, Californians will have the opportunity to vote on Proposition 1, a Water Bond to address water storage, and Proposition 2, a State Budget Stabilization Account. Proposition 1 will increase water storage for when we don't have enough rainy days, and Proposition 2 will create a "rainy day" fund for when we don't have revenue to cover our expenses. But there's a difference between saving excess revenue and saving excess water, especially when conventional means of water storage such as dams and reservoirs can have such significant environmental impacts. Please review voter information material or visit proposition pro and con web sites and then cast an informed vote this November.
[24oct2014] Note: An political advertisement in today's LATimes paid for by the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority in support of Prop 1 show aerial photos of Lake Oroville taken recently and in 2011, showing the significant drop in water level. No mention is made as to how Prop 1 will fill up this reservoir. The devil is in the details.
|Earmarks and Earwax [10 Oct 2014]|
ASCE SmartBrief reports Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) as "blaming the legislative earmark ban passed in 2010 by the Republican Congress for the current transportation-funding crisis". It has been argued that earmarks make sense since states and regions have the best sense for which state or regional projects are most needed and beneficial. A direct extension of this argument, however, shows that the relative need and benefit among state and regional earmarks still should be determined. And funding decisions should not be based on by what amount of earmarks is sufficient to "buy" the vote of a particular senator or representative.
Will earmarks accelerate passage of a long term transportation bill? Possibly. But just because an earmark, like earwax, serves some purpose, is no reason to leave it in.
|Supreme Logic [29 Sept 2014]|
Reviewing the evolution of the US Supreme Court, Erwin Chemerinsky proposes reforms including merit selection committees for judges, more candor in the confirmation process and term limits for the justices. He endorses a broadly considered plan for 18-year terms that balances the pros and cons of the current presidential appointment process. Not posed is the simple question: Why can't we vote for Supreme Court justices? It's not like they're transportation officials [see: You Can't Vote for ... ].
|Let Them Walk [23 Sept 2014]|
Arte Moreno, the owner of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, wants a new and/or improved stadium (or at least the right to develop the stadium parking lots). The City of Anaheim appears to be looking at this based on potential economic impact, which apparently has made Arte walk away from negotiations. I think if Arte wants to get Anaheim to pay for a new stadium for his team, he should first change the name of his team back to the Anaheim Angels, or go ask LA for the handout.
|College Costs, Loans, and Debt [21 Sept 2014]|
For the second time this year, congressional Republicans blocked a Democratic-sponsored bill to refinance $1.2 trillion in student loan debt which would have been offset with a minimum 30% income tax on the high incomes. The proposal identified necessary funding but it seems that Republicans will only accept funding taken from other federal authorizations and not new funding (at least not new taxes). What is not mentioned is the rapidly increasing cost of a college education, far out-pacing inflation and most other cost trends. It seems that the competition for students (and tuition) between colleges is increasing, and the cost of playing this game is raising total cost in a vicious circle. Forget the symptoms; address the disease.
The Regents of the University of California just increased the salaries of several chancellors of the ten campus system based on the observation that longer serving chancellors were making less than recent appointees (see prior paragraph). So they gave 5-20 percent raises to equalize the salaries of several chancellors, then immediately gave the new UCI chancellor a salary about $90,000 higher than the adjusted group's average. This was presented as a rationale thing to do.
|It Ain't Over 'til It's Over [19 Sept 2014]|
"Seasons on the brink: What 0-2 teams can still get to the playoffs?" Really? FoxSports says the stats for the last 24 years since the NFL playoffs expanded to 12 teams show that over 63 percent of 2-0 teams made the playoffs while only 8 percent of the 0-2 teams made the playoffs. A better conclusion to draw from this data is that lower quality teams that are unlikely to make the playoffs are more likely to start the season 0-2, and vice versa. This is a much simpler explanation that does not attempt to extrapolate unreasonably. But not as nice of a sound bite.
|Paper or Plastic? [7 Sept 2014]|
Several local and state governments have passed or are considering passing laws outlawing plastic bags. Given the empirical evidence of the environmental impact of these plastic bags, it is hard to argue against such a prohibition. Increasingly the talk has turned to a prohibition on paper bags. I have not seen any empirical evidence on paper bags fouling any environment, plus they are readily recycleable and can be produced in a sustainable fashion. In some locales, a ten cent fee has been proposed for shoppers who wish to use store-provided bags: this would be most shoppers (unlike those individuals who live in denser areas with public transit, shop more frequently but make smaller purchases, and thus can readily use the cloth bag alternative). But there is a simple solution: impose a cash redemption value of five or ten cents per paper bag just like with aluminum cans and glass bottles.
|Role Models Ain't What They Used to Be ... [4 Sept 2014]|
Cheryl Schrader, Chancellor of MUST Rolla, reports that her institution is introducing "a new credential in elementary education that will prepare graduates to teach math and science" (and engineering?), a significant step in the right direction to raise awareness of STEM careers early in K-12 education. The article, however, focuses on a repeated theory that woman lack role models. I do not claim otherwise but I also do not see male role models, and I certainly did not on my way to a career in STEM. I'm actually not sure what is precisely meant by role models. I was not immersed within a male dominated environment until I entered a college engineering program but then I saw few if any individuals whom I could have envisioned as role models among both faculty and peers. It is safe to say that those around me in engineering did not provide a positive influence, with my self-image quite opposed to what I saw in every class, lab, and hallway.
What pushed me through was the education I received in K-12 (4-12, actually) from almost exclusively women (including a nun or two). And what pulled me in my last two undergraduate years was meeting a few people who appeared to be genuinely interested in people, the real world, and "doing good" rather than just the engineering. These role models set me on a path in which I have seen very few people like them. Had their influence not been as great as it was, then it is likely that not only would I have not finished in engineering but, given that I did I would not have been able to continue in what has remained a stifling, conservative climate focused on product and not people. If this is what is meant as role models, then, yes, there is a paucity of such people. But they should not be defined in terms of gender and diversity but, rather, in humanistic terms.
|Disadvantaged [1 Sept 2014]|
We've all read about misuse of parking placards for the transportation disadvantaged (a quick fix might be stamping placards with an expiration date and a very large fine for the health care professional who essentially authorized the misuse). A fundamental question should be: "What is the nature of the disadvantage?" For those with a physical disability, access to parking close to the destination is what is needed: but it should not be free. For those who might be categorized as economically disadvantaged, access to free or inexpensive parking is what is needed: but it need not be close. Eliminating free parking at meters for vehicles displaying handicapped placards is the first step. The second step would be to heavily fine those using placards illegally, although you might find that the first step addresses most of the problem.
|Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other? [27 Aug 2014]|
California is replacing Level-of-Service (LOS) with Vehicle-Miles-Traveled (VMT) as a required performance measure for projects underggoing an environmental impact assessment [see LA Streetsblog (7aug2014) ]. LOS has always been a sloppy measure in practice, and VMT will likely prove the same. What I find funny is the fact that those who sought to eliminate LOS were concerned that it was auto-centric (which, in practice, it clearly was). So they replace it with VMT, which is of course equally auto-centric. In fact, any equilibration of supply and demand will produce a measure of quantity (volume) and quality (cost, time, or, yes, LOS). Six of one, half dozen of the other? It would make more sense to add LOS for all modes of travel, not just cars. Or, if VMT is the measure you want, again compute it for all modes. And then we can start looking at the relative costs and benefits of all modes in a multi-modal system. I think most people would find the results quite surprising.
|Opportunity [25 Aug 2014]|
USA Today, reporting on the proportion of Blacks and Hispanics in the general work force relative to technology professionals in the Silicon Valley, quoted Derecka Mehrens, the executive director of WPUSA, who stated that service workers should share in the tech industry's prosperity. The significant salary differences that exist point to cultural differences in both education and opportunity, differences that should be addressed. But, as is the case for affirmative action, this does not mean that service workers should be paid more simply because the industry in which they are employed is dependent on highly skilled and highly compensated employees. Leveling the playing field means opportunities should be as equal as possible from day 1; it does not mean that society maintains the level playing field regardless of how one capitalizes on these opportunites.
|Small Print [24 August 2014]|
Remember when airlines advertized fares that turned out to be one-way fares that were valid only when a round trip was purchased? I'm not sure if that gimmick is still used since airlines have found user fees to be the path to profit. In today's LATimes, Cox advertizes high speed internet prices (starting) at $19.99 per month. As with the old airline stunt, there is of course a small print catch: the rate is good for 12 months subject to a 24 month contract (during which the price doubles) and subscribing to a second Cox 24 month service agreement (for TV or phone). In other words, they can advertize $19.99 but you can't get the internet service for $19.99 just like you couldn't get the one way airline fare for half of a round trip.
Consider this similar situation. A service station offers gas for $3.00 per gallon, but the small print says that you get this price for purchasing the same amount of gas for each of 12 months, and then for another 12 months during which you have to pay double, and you have to bring your car in for another auto service each and every month for the two years. Or consider a grocery store that offers an item on sale but with restrictions that you must buy the same item every month for the next 12 months at that price and then at twice that price for the subsequent 12 months, and you also need to use their pharmacy or another of their services every single month.
Why do we accept this behavior with technology companies? Lack of competition? Ignorance? Immediate gratification? Or are we just too lazy to read the small print?
|P3 or P4 [22 August 2014]|
The private sector has always been the primary designer and builder of transportation infrastructure, with the public sector providing the policy and planning that preceeds design and construction and also operating the resulting system.
Most transportation infrastructure is funded through bond sales: money that is borrowed and paid back with interest, typically with general tax revenues and/or user fees. The source of that money is the private sector, with the interest being the cost of capital. Most of the construction and much of the planning and design is conducted by the private sector. Infrastructure operations, however, is near exclusively in the public sector, and thus no profits need be taken out of operations. The private sector plays the major roles and benefits significantly from this process, but remains one step away from operations to avoid any semblance of a conflict in interest (such as profiting from manipulating demand).
Whether we maintain current fuel excise tax funding or eventually change to a more direct pay-as-you-go system (such as a VMT tax) is irrelevant; what is relevant is that more revenue is needed. Thus all users, direct and indirect, will pay more. Increased attention is being paid to Public-Private Partnerships (P3), but isn't this precisely what we have always used for public infrastructure? Well, there is one subtle difference: the fourth P, profit. One technology has stood first and foremost in Intelligent Transportation System development: automated toll collection. It is now possible for a fee to be charged, and thus a profit to be collected, for each and every trip made. Beyond the cost of providing and operating the infrastructure, revenue from operations (e.g., user fees) should go fully to transportation infrastructure design, construction, and operations, and not to private sector profits. P4: Just say no.
|Sidewalks [19 August 2014]|
In an LATimes OpEd (19aug2014) Don Shoup proposes a "point-of-sale" fix for sidewalk deterioration in Los Angeles. A good idea but, as with all good ideas, the devil is in the details. The City assumed legal responsibility for sidewalk maintenance in 1973, but there are no longer funds available. Shoup proposes that homeowners pay for repairs from the proceeds when a home sells and states that many owners are leaving the city and thus providing a benefit to residents. In the current housing market, given the number of homeowners upside down in mortgages or being foreclosed, it would seem that many ownership transfers would not be producing any profit and thus no means to fund sidewalk repair. And it also seems likely that home prices would increase to reflect this new cost and thus be passed on to the new resident owner.
This is quite similar to my post Prop 13 ... Again [28 June 2014] to defer property tax increases until the property sells. However, that deferral would not change cash flow today nor would it result in payment unless the property increased in value. For sidewalks, the repairs are very much needed now. A good idea, but I think a more direct solution may be required.
|A Stupid Idea (Take 2) [17 August 2014]|
Paying people to vote? What ignorant fool thought this would be a good idea? How can anyone, let alone a "ethics commission", think that paying someone to increase voter turnout could, from any reasonable perpective, be a good thing? I'm always stunned at voter registration efforts or get out the vote campaigns, which are no more than disingenuous efforts to essentially buy votes for a particular political party, issue, or candidate. Talk about treating the symptom and not the disease. All of these efforts should be refocused on educating citizens who will more likely register and exercise voting rights when they feel that they are a part of the process by understanding the issues and playing a role in the outcome [see LATimes (15aug2014) and A Stupid Idea ].
|Can We Build Our Way Out Of ... [14 August 2014]|
A former student asked: "Does adding capacity on a roadway automatically increase volume? I have heard mixed reviews about this concept. The environmentally oriented folks say an automatic yes and the traffic folks seem to think not really." My response follows.
In a region with latent demand, meaning travel demand that is not currently being realized in a particular time and space due to cost (e.g., congestion), any increase in supply will eventually see an increase in revealed demand reflecting the new supply demand equilibration. This includes trips that were not made before as well as trips which now change destination, mode, time-of-day, or route to take advantage of the new capacity and thus lower cost.
This is not unlike any other public facility: we build schools when we see the costs of enrollment congestion and these schools in time are filled to capacity. This is neither bad nor good but should be fully expected and, in fact, already planned for and modeled in an area that is experiencing growth.
This is true regardless of the capacity increase. Adding public transit service in a corridor increases corridor capacity. The same travel shifts described above will occur (with scale dependent on the quality of the capacity change). Some drivers will shift to use the new transit capacity, which would be taken as a decidedly positive benefit of the new transit system. The resulting reduction in road demand produces an effective increase in road capacity (via a reduction in road travel cost) so it should be no surprise that a similar effect results when you add a lane to a roadway or add transit service in parallel. This is something that many pro-transit/anti-car groups either don't recognize or won't admit. Of course the opposite can also occur as well when increased road capacity yields some transit users shifting to the road's now lower cost.
Given traveler habits, the reaction time for roadway capacity changes being "consumed" would likely be much shorter than for transit effects, since, currently, roadway capacity is a highly demanded, superior good with a much greater market share (and transit is an inferior good, in most cases, with a relatively small market share in part due to limited supply).
No increase in supply will reduce demand anymore than an increase in demand can magically change supply. If you want more supply, then build it (if demand exists, they will come). If you want less demand, then reduce it (directly via road pricing, or indirectly via a range of land use and transportation policies).
There is an explicit land use and transportation relationship. If you allow growth, in absolute terms or via increased mobility (say, due to income increases), you then must accommodate the accompanying resource demands, whether it be for transportation, public safety, water, or other utilities. What we are seeing is a growth problem manifesting itself as a traffic problem, exacerbated by the peaking effects of transportation demand and the static nature of transportation supply.
So, the brief answer to the question would be, yes, added capacity will be consumed in time (and you'd be in trouble if it was not). Whether corresponding level-of-service will be better or worse depends on the relative changes in supply and demand (this is covered explicitly in my courses). If supply changes are "greater" than demand increases, then more people will travel at a lower cost. If the demand changes exceed supply changes, then more people will travel with a higher average cost. The assumptions is that demand is not controlled by planning and operating agencies other than through supply policy. If you wish to control demand, you need to look at growth and development controls, or you'll probably need to say the p-word.
|Advanced Placement? [13 August 2014]|
An OpEd in today's LATimes [13aug2014] questioned whether the recently reported increase in Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams in Los Angeles high schools is "a good thing". I side with the author, Brian Gibbs, regarding the tendancy of the multiple choice part of the AP exam to reward rote memorization over analytical skills. The result of inflated grade point averages improving admission odds to the "best" colleges runs contrary to the goal of producing better students. Years of "better statistics" for incoming freshmen have not produced better seniors, given the thousand or so seniors that I have guided through senior design over the last ten years, and anecdotal evidence from many colleagues and media. If this is true, then why are we pushing the AP system? It is advancing placement of students, likely beyond where they really should be based on long term performance, but is it advancing student quality? A performance assessment is needed.
But today's Higher Education SmartBrief reports that states will now be able to use $28.4 million in US Department of Education grants to help low income students pay for AP exams. I'm all for balancing the playing field but I much rather eliminate this game altogether.
|I Should Be Happy About This [30 July 2014]|
If you live in southern California, and you're a Dodgers fan, then you're likely more than a bit peeved that you probably can't watch them on TV. Now I'm not a Dodger fan, having been a fan of their arch-enemy and nemesis, the Giants, but I have nothing but respect for the Dodgers. However, the Time Warner Cable (TWC) situation, has now drawn the attention of the FCC (FCC Chair Tom Wheeler is looking for anything to get the media off the evolving net neutrality problem). In a nutshell, TWC signed a B-I-G TV contract with the Dodgers and wants to have area TV providers pay more for Dodger TV. These providers have said that they will not increase their rates to all subscribers just to offer Dodger games as part of the typical package deal. Those that want to see these games currently do not have a choice, whether they are willing to pay or not.
Now whether you think cable choices should be packaged or whether a menu should be an option for all subscribers, the issue of a cost outlier, sports, distorts the package with a disproportionate cost. But why is this situation now the interest of politicians and government agencies? Let the private sector work this out. I doubt that the Dodgers will allow TWC to ice 70 percent of their TV audience for long.
|Soccer Playing Robots [28 July 2014]|
ASEE's First Bell reports that visiting Mexican students have built soccer-playing robots at the University of Arizona. Maybe we can get other UA students to build soccer-watching fan robots.
|Forecast or Foresight? [25 July 2014]|
In an article about the decline of Atlantic City, in part due to devastation from super storms Irene and Sandy, the LA Times [ 25 July 2014] quotes a local business owner saying "I don't think it's going to get better. I think it's going to get worse. This will probably be my last year here." The business? A psychic shop. Shouldn't this owner be a bit more certain about the future?
|The University In California [23 July 2014]|
Non-residents are on the rise in the University of California (LATimes, 23July2014), this claimed to be a financial necessity (non-residents pay about double). First and foremost, however, UC must serve California residents and every non-resident takes a slot from a resident, residents that often are left with attending a college out of state, paying that state's non-resident rates. A bit twisted. The fact that UC's non-resident numbers are not as high as similar state universities is irrelevant and all the spin offered by UC administration adds nothing to the fundamental issue that California is not taking care of Californians.
|Autonomous Vehicles and Autonomous Projects [22 July 2014]|
Bloomberg BusinessWeek quotes Ken Laberteaux of Toyota on the potential for the success of autonomous vehicles could increase sprawl-related traffic noting that "U.S. history shows that anytime you make driving easier, there seems to be this inexhaustible desire to live further from things." Laberteaux also suggest that "driverless" personal vehicles may proliferate as they become more attractive than alternative modes. And the Wall Street Journal reports on the cost of sensor technology to be a major stumbling block to deployment of autonomous vehicles.
Awareness and active discussion of limitations are necessary tasks in the future success of large scale projects and technology change. Interesting that this exchange seems common in the private sector where decisions are driven by real costs and benefits, but not so much in the public sector, such as for High Speed Rail, where getting construction started is all that counts (damn the torpedoes...).
|The United Corporations of America 2 [19 July 2014]|
Although deemed a "fiction" by Samuel Alito, if a corporation serves as an organization of people and thus can hold and express beliefs, isn't the next step a government, whether it be local, state, or federal, which is a convenient organization of people, which can also hold and express beliefs?
|Jaywalking and Jaydriving [13 July 2014]|
As far as I can tell, the point of Stephen Baker's Op-Ed in the LATimes (13July2014) has something to do with self-expression in general and jaywalking in particular. Cars and pedestrians become "weapons" (killing machines) and "targets", with both required to follow very strict rules to avoid the carnage. Wandering into AI and rule-based systems, Baker identified pedestrians as capable of "advanced analytics", but as not always paying attention. But he completely forgets that cars are driven by drivers who have similar capabilities and faults. He also assigns future advances to "computer scientists" rather than engineers, including computer engineers, who will design the entirety of any future transportation system, but that's another topic.
The self-expression in free choice that Baker encourages for pedestrians already exists, as it does for drivers. Some peds jaywalk, some drivers roll through stop signs. When these actions are done in a safe and intelligent manner, they are likely overlooked by authorities. Interesting aside: it seems that pedestrians exercise more care midblock, in a place they do not expect car drivers to slow down or even expect pedestrians, but drivers seem to be more aware at intersections where they expect potential conflicts).
Looking at jaywalking as a virtue, Baker thinks that "we'll especially treasure this freedom of movement because in so many areas we're going to be less free." This applies to people, in general, both walkers, bikers, drivers, and those blogging about the others. Baker also sees the evolution of driverless cars as a potential pedestrian panacea. Odd that the rule-based AI that Baker calls "thickheaded" may produce a technology so peds will no longer need to apply their "advanced analytics" and can freely jaywalk, becoming even more oblivious to the world around them.
|Duh [13 July 2014]|
What are "the factors that set successful transit investments apart from the rest"? StreetsBlog reports on a recent Berkeley study that identified the key factors are to "place a transit line where it will connect a lot of people to a lot of jobs and give it as much grade-separated right-of-way as possible". While I'm sure that "the devil is in the details", aren't both this devil and these details well known (ignoring the political and funding realities that place or maintain transit independent of this knowledge)?
|Net Neutrality ... in Transportation? [12 July 2014]|
Net Neutrality has been a "trending topic" in most media but noticably absent from discussion in the research and academic circles that were responsible for creating the internet in the first place. Maybe because the internet's prima facia of equal access for all has never been challenged. Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education [ 12July2014 ] reports that the Association of American Universities and ten other academic and library groups have released 11 principles to guide the FCC, including "recommendations to prohibit the blocking of legal websites, ensure neutrality on public networks, forbid paid prioritization in the transmission of some content over others, and adopt enforceable policies." Whether it be cancer research, web porn, Nigerian email scams, or national security (OK, probably not national security), no one can serve as a network manager, or traffic cop, to decide what is more worthy. You know, the way we used to manage transportation networks.
|Self-Promotion [11 July 2014]|
Unsolicited musings on time and space, for over eight years all in one place.
|Tautology in Diversity [4 July 2014]|
The Brown Daily Herald quoting Charles Lu, director of academic advancement and innovation at the University of Texas at Austin, states: "If the underrepresentation of minority groups in STEM fields perpetuates, 'We're not going to have scientists and medical practitioners who are responsive to those demographics'". So, if A is true, then A is true. Deep.
|The United Corporations of America [4 July 2014]|
I bet the on-going Orwellian evolution of the United Corporations of America into "people", given the Citizens United and Hobby Lobby decisions, would slow if these corporations had to pay "people" taxes and face "people" prosecution. Happy 4th to our new fellow citizens on the farm.
|Funding Transportation 6 [3 July 2014]|
In a LATimes letter (1July2014), LA County Supervisor Antonovich makes some points in response to an editorial on the gas tax. He calls for serious consideration of alternatives including auditing Highway Trust Fund expenditures and eliminating non-highway projects; reducing project costs (this could include streamlining the environmental process); and eliminaing rail grade separation, freight corridor, and port-related projects (to be separately funded from a freight-based revenue stream). Not clear about what other sources would fund transit, but each of these points should be discussed.
|Canterbury Tales [1 July 2014]|
The dog, the dog, he's at it again. Hobby Lobby follows Citizens United. The "train to the airport ... doesn't go all the way to the airport" but now appears to be getting closer (but neither close enough for horseshoes or hand grenades) (see 24Nov2010). Facebook throws even more privacy rights out (no, these were not already moot). Iraq. Another Bush? (fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice -- uh, you know the rest). The dog, the dog ...
|Prop 13 ... Again [28 June 2014]|
California's Prop 13 has always been considered "untouchable", at least by those who directly benefit from it and by the politicians who pander to them. And there is at least one very good argument behind it: Should a homeowner be forced out of his residence because of rising property taxes? This can be especially problematic for retirees or others on fixed and limited income.
However, when the costs of providing public services, which are funded via property taxes, increase over time, precisely whom should pay? Arguments regarding the relative advantages and disadvantages of property taxes, and the efficiency of public services funded from these taxes, are not addressed here since the direct issue is who should pay. If you accept that greater property value should require greater property taxes, then Prop 13 is unfair, taxing neighbors with identical properties a drastically different tax, based simply on how long you lived there.
An option would be the introduction of deferred property taxes, where a homeowner is taxed based on assessed value (and not longevity) but can defer any tax increase until the property is transferred (via sale or estate). Property owners should also be allowed to transfer their tax rate when downsizing as long as they reflect the deferred taxes for both properties.
|Funding Transportation 5 [26 June 2014]|
The LATimes (26June2014) had an editorial on the Highway Trust Fund problem that references policies to "progress" Americans out of their cars and on to sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and public transit. Remember the HTF also funds these non-automotive modes and, while there may be many costs not fully accounted, who would fund our evolving transportation system when people stop driving? Are we ready to charge users the full cost of transit, bike lanes, and, yes, sidewalks?
|High Speed Promotion [23 June 2014]|
In a column in the LA Times today, Madeline Janis of the LA Alliance for a New Economy discusses "high speed job creation". When public funds are being invested in public projects, it is appropriate to take steps to ensure the quality of not only the project but also the quality of impacts on the community, including job creation. I am, however, afraid to admit that I do not fully understand what appears to be the tail wagging the dog when it comes to public transportation projects rather than other public sector projects. The bottom line is that an investment of public dollars in a region will have a significant economic impact but in itself can not be the primary justification for a particular project. In other words, if a public transportation project is warranted, then taking steps to ensure that project will be planned, built, and operated to maximize positive impacts makes total sense, but that project must pass muster on transportation efficiency and effectiveness criteria first.
So why is (Not So) High Speed Rail the focus of this column? First, it was supposed to be a project funded by the private sector, although no private sector dollars have yet been identified. So any local, state, or federal funds will be transferred from some other public sector project. This is not creating positive impacts but, rather, shifting potential impacts spatially. Second, if $60 billion of public sector funds is to be spent, is (Not So) High Speed Rail the best project? Why not repair local and state infrastructure which has suffered under deferred maintenance? Construction jobs result in either case. Why not focus on urban revitalization, so-called "smart cities", or other projects with the equivalent promise on creating "good" jobs.
Regarding manufacturing NSHSR rolling stock, this is not something that one just decides to do domestically. The production economics of high techology products are not determined by off-the-shelf processes and basic job training. Yes, it would be great to buy American designed products built by Americans in America for use in American applications, but if wishes were horses... ... ...
|Non-overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) [21 June 2014]|
Separation of church and state? How about separation of academics and athletics? Yes, in both cases there are inherent benefits but also inherent costs of allowing magisteria to overlap. I dislike the use of hyphenated titles (perhaps of titles, in general) with the exception of that in my surname proposal [see 27 Nov 2009], and this includes the expression "student-athlete". I support the concepts of minor leagues for sports, trade schools for those so oriented, and academic institutions for those academically-inclined. College athletics should be part of the college experience, but via active versus vicarious participation. Let all those who choose a college join the various athletic teams -- the same way that secondary education should do it.
How big of a problem is this really? A really big problem, especially in really big athletic programs (i.e., where coaches are paid more than faculty). How big will the cost be under my proposal? Initially large, but most direct funding flows not to the institution but to the athletic programs. Big donors seeking "naming rights" and a tax write-off would still, eventually, be engaged.
There will still be students who are athletes (we just won't hyphenate them) but there will be no differentiation based on athletic participation, including tutors, room and board, and scholarships ... and sharing of athletic revenue, which of course there will be little if any). Nothing would preclude students or athletes from pursuing academia and athletics, either simultaneously or sequentially. I can envision athletic "colleges" where the business, science, and art of sports would form degree programs, something we have to some degree already. But athletic teams should be privatized, and academic institutions should be free to buy one. Let USC buy the Clippers for $2 billion. I doubt their endowment has increased at the rate that Donald Sterling is seeing.
|Do You Walk to School or Take Your Lunch? [21 June 2014]|
Last week the LA Times reported that the City was posed to become more "walkable" and today a new Director of LADOT was named whom was succesful with bicycle and safety programs in San Francisco. This is really a real estate thing, and it's success will depend on selling urban housing to an upscale market which, as the Times points out, could result in low and middle income residents being forced out. Affordability issues are critical, but perhaps unresolvable such as for low income housing programs that are priced below market value. While the zoning and economics can be resolved, any realization of a walkable community will be nothing like what many of us (older folk) would envision. That train has left.
|STEMs, Trees, and Forests [16 June 2014]|
ASEE's First Bell (16June2014) eNews reports that an op-ed in Nature calls for "elite PhD programs to lower math requirements so they can admit more women", quoting GRE math scores as a barrier. While ASEE quotes various sources regarding "playing into stereotypes of women's inferior math ability", the eNews does not mention the primary role of math in most STEM area. It is not true that women are in anyway inferior in math, but it is also not true that admitting unqualified applicants, regardless of the area of study, can be justified. I am no fan of standardized test scores and I do not believe that they should be used in admission decisions, particularly in an age where the breadth and depth of relative academic qualifications should be readily available and thus readily assessed. If the op-ed recommends re-considering the GRE when referring to "lower math requirements", then I agree, since this may well increase the quality of those admitted.
|Funding Transportation 4 [16 June 2014]|
ASCE SmartBrief compares two alternative approaches for federal transportation funding, both of which devolve the federal role back to the states and/or metropolitan areas, but the President's GROW America providing essentially a policy change while the Republican's TEA option would reduce the federal gas tax and allow the states to pick up the slack. While I support fuel taxes as a funding mechanism, I think that some devolution from federal to states makes great sense. A coordinated effort to reduce federal fuel taxes in states that raise state fuel taxes could initiate this policy shift. A federal role remains for interstate commerce, research and development, and technology sharing would be maintained.
Members of congress made $133,600 in 1993 and 30 percent more ($174,000) in 2014. At that rate of change, federal fuel taxes should be increased from the $0.184 rate per gallon last changed in 1993 to about $0.24 per gallon. The solution may be as simple as linking fuel excise tax increases to congressional salaries.
|So We Are Preparing Our Graduates! [28 May 2014]|
The New York Times editorial "Fat-Cat Administrators At The Top 25" says that the average pay package for presidents of the highest-paying public universities increased to about $974,000 while student debt is worse than at other schools, administrative expenses were twice those for student aid, the percentage of tenured faculty members fell dramatically, and part-time adjunct faculty rose twice as fast as the national average for all universities. At least this will be great training for what to expect when grads seek jobs in corporate America.
|Luddite Complaints [14 May 2014]|
My archaic email program protects me from clicking on links that would take me to any questionable sites by not allowing me to click on any links. The cost is that I need to cut and paste the url for any links I do wish to access. But web etiquette has been microwaved -- people can no longer take the time to enter a subject line or include the actual URL address in the email. Many use web sites that handle all this "complex" stuff for you, by embedding the link into several lines of html code that take you, without telling you, first to their site where they can track your web usage, then to the site you thought you were accessing directly. Any web site that provides these free services for the consumer, whether it be searches, scheduling meetings, or tracking ads, profits from your "clicking". I wonder how much bandwidth is consumed, not by junk mail, but by the added "junk" (html crap, re-routing/tracking info) in most emails?
|Quantity and Quality [14 May 2014]|
What is the relevant measure of the value of a paper: how many times it is referenced by another paper, or how many times it is actually read. For years, the original article on Braess's paradox, published in German, was referenced in thousands of transportation books and papers, but I'd wager it was read by only a few fluent in German. Similarly, Lowry's Model of Metropolis was widely referenced despite appearing as only a tech memo (and later in a compiled volume) but never as a regular paper. Who has actually read it? [see 13april2014]
|Random Notes 2 [5 May 2014]|
Random Note 1. Recent ad: "The Kia warning system takes the drama out of backing up." No.
Turning your fricking head around and opening your eyes takes the drama out of backing up.
|Don't Sit for the SAT [16 April 2014]|
The SAT (ASEE 16Apr2014) will move toward testing analytic ability, in part via more graphs, "to analyze science and social science texts". An improvement on the surface only since I cannot see how such changes can eliminate the income effect where the test, with enough effort (i.e., money), can be gamed to improve scores (when Kaplan and other for profit companies guarantee improved test scores, they are basing this promise on real results).
|Random Notes 1 [13 April 2014]|
Random Notes 1. "Deputies Killed Man by Mistake"(LATimes). They meant to kill someone else?
|Indentured Servants [10 April 2014]|
The Chicago Tribune reports (Rueters,10apr2014, Bohan+Edwards) that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has proposed a bill to promote Income Share Agreements, essentially investors financing a student's education in exchange for a portion of that student's future income. So your education becomes someone's business investment. Something does have to be done since student loan debt has eclipsed all but mortgage debt, in large measure due to college cost increases outpacing inflation in virtually all areas. So rather than addressing this cost crisis directly, we propose new ways to shovel more cash into the sinkhole and a legal means to extract a pound of flesh down the road? Indentured servants for the 21st century.
|Funding Transportation 3 [7 April 2014]|
Atlantic Cities [7apr2014] discusses "Why U.S. Infrastructure Projects Cost Way More Than They Should", focusing on seven federal policies. It does appear to be the right time to review the cash flow of fuel taxes and to re-define the federal role in the process. The federal govenment looks at interstate commerce and travel as a federal responsibility. The collection and subsequent return of the majority of federal gas tax funds to the states was instituted to ensure that the interstate transportation system was properly planned, designed, constructed, and maintained. That task has been completed, except the tax, a fixed excise tax (not a rate) unchanged since 1993, can no longer pay for the maintenance of this system. While "federal rules and regulations" increase the cost of infrastructure, it's not clear that the same is true for maintenance.
Gabriel Roth reported that an effective federal surcharge of up to 30 percent exists due to excess regulation, much attributed to labor requirements and environmental review. The cost of Federal administration is significant and is likely duplicated to some degree at the state level. This must be addressed. However, also mentioned is the federal ban on tolls on existing federally funded infrastructure. Here I (of course) disagree: tolling roads paid with taxpayer dollars and support would be like tolling police and fire service after you've bought your home and paid property taxes for years. Public services should be provided by the government (the level does not need to be federal) out of general revenue. These basic public services are a cost, and a benefit, of participating in public society. And increasing revenue will not address, and will likely worsen, current inefficiencies (my, how republican of me).
|Cosmetic Surgery [26 March 2014]|
A local listserve discussion of the qualities and quantities of high school options has lead to the consideration of the qualities and quantities of colleges. The nexus was the (to me, all too familiar) comment that if the quality (and quantity) of our incoming freshmen is increasing (in terms of AP-inflated GPAs and standardized test scores), then why am I not seeing it in the classroom? I've come to the following set of observations:
|Biological Diversity [19 March 2014]|
The Center for Biological Diversity seeks pledges to eat less meat. By pledging to reduce meat consumption, you could have a "huge impact on the environment" (based on water use, land consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions) as well as on hundreds of species threatened by "livestock and Big Agriculture" (does that mean we have to reduce consumption of veggies, fruits, and grains?). What I've always wondered is what will happen to all the cattle, pigs, and other species that exist today as only a step in the food production process. Will they be put out to pasture and spend the rest of their days on a nice farm out in the country? At some point, they will cease to exist. I read in The Week [21 March 2014] that diversity in the planet's diet is shrinking significantly as the world adopts western diets and thus western crops. Rice, corn, potatoes, and sugar are replacing rye, millet, sweet potatoes, and cassava. With less diversity comes increased vulnerability to world-wide crop failures, not to mention increases in western trends such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
|Apples and Oranges [18 March 2014]|
In the WSJ [15mar2014] Andrea Coombes argues that "a car costs a lot more than you think". Quite true, and an exposition such as this goes a long way toward explaining the full costs of owning and using a car (such analysis should equally be applied to all activities and purchases, whether buying a home or buying a coffee and a copy of the Wall Street Journal, but rarely are).
I start to disagree when the argument is stretched without considering the broad view. Start with parking at a baseball game: if you want to argue costs associated with a baseball game, start with hotdogs and beers, not to mention admission (all likely equivalent to costs incurred whenever average people wish to watch millionaires make money), and don't get me started on public financing of stadiums. But I digress. Why is parking part of total car cost and not household entertainment cost? Why not add in the hotdogs and beer? If my family of four takes a train to Angels Stadium, it will cost almost twice as much as parking and mileage charges. One should not confuse the costs of an activity with the cost of transportation to the activity or at least be sure to compare apples with apples. And garages are used for general storage as much as for storing cars, so don't add that into transportation costs.
Speaking of improper comparisons, how about commuting? Coombes presents AAA estimates of commuting (50 minutes round trip daily) and assumes a $25 value of time yielding $5,200 per year in added car costs. What if you leave your car (in the garage?) and take the bus -- is your 50 minute or more commute no longer a cost? Is it a cost of not owning (or using) a car? If you count the costs of a choice alternative you also need to count the benefits.
This goes for housing, the next aspect of car ownership adressed by Coombes. Not only do transportation costs vary by region, but they vary within a region as a function of distance from activity centers. Costs are increasing for both housing (52%) and transportation (33%) since 2000 in the largest metropolitan areas, while income has increased by only 25 percent. But this ignores differentials within urban areas. Transportation costs can be much less in dense areas but housing costs per square foot of housing are typically much higher. In general, density declines with distance form the center, as do housing costs, while transportation costs to the center increase. Also, while urban dwellers are less obese than rural residents, urban dwellers are more obese than suburbanites. Such location-based conclusions, however, are difficult to make since other variables such as income likely dominate.
Coombes goes on to make some very good recommendations on buying cars, including "don't buy more car than you need", "don't buy new", and suggestions for insurance and maintenance such as "read the manual" (not only do people not read manuals, but most of Coombes' readers likely skipped right over this section entitled "Read the Manual"). Americans are not "in love" with cars. Addicted, perhaps. While the GM Conspiracy regarding the demise of the street car still engenders discussion, I can't wait to see the next GM Conspiracy (on how Americans were hooked on cars) to see the light of day.
|Show Me the Money [5 March 2014]|
From the ASCE SmartBrief, Inside Higher Ed published a response from Lafayette College's Scott Hummel to a survey by Rice University's Erin Cech whose study concluded that "engineering students graduate less concerned about public welfare than when they started." I think the issues are not the veracity of the specific survey, conclusions, and interpretations but, rather, are issues related to more fundamental questions.
First, how was public welfare defined? How does this concern for public welfare vary over time and over other fields? Are engineering students becoming less concerned with public welfare each year, or at a different rate than other degree awardees? Graduating with real prospects to improve public welfare may well trump stated desires by many in other fields.
|Call a Spade a Spade [3 March 2014]|
Orange County's ASCE Transportation Technical Group announces a talk by Ryan Snyder on design principles embedded into the new Model Design Manual for Living Streets. Despite my disdain for euphemistic language, I generally support the concept of "Living Streets" or "Complete Streets". I do not, however, support the process of hyping these strategies through intentionally misleading statements such as "People want streets that are safe to cross or walk along, offer places to meet people, link healthy neighborhoods, and have a vibrant mix of retail. More people are enjoying the value of farmers' markets, street festivals, and gathering places. And more people want to be able to walk and ride bicycles in their neighborhoods."
Each of these "wants" are gray matters at best. What people? All people? People who have already made choices and want others to make the same choices? Are these obvious statements that ignore associated costs? Is this the emerging modus operandi for planners and bureaucrats to make it look as if "the people" have already spoken?
Apparently, it's the medium, not the message. For further information on the message, see Living Streets for LA County.
|Significant Places [22 Feb 2014]|
Roughly right or precisely wrong (to borrow from Don Shoup)? When the road sign says 298 miles to LA, what does this mean? On a federal or state highway, it is likely the distance from the sign to the location where the road crosses the LA city limit. In similar cases, it's the corresponding distance to a specific off-ramp. But in any case, it's based on the engineering plans for the road, the same plans that are drawn to a high level of precision to ensure the safe completion of your trip.
There are many similar figures relating to cities. Denver is the Mile High City, arbitrarily and conveniently based on the elevation above sea-level of Denver's city hall. A city's population, which is sometimes displayed on a road sign (and, coincidentally, often with elevation), is an estimate of the actual population, which changes continuously.
It may be more appropriate for the sign to state the distance to LA is "About 300 miles, depending on you're specific destination", and that a city's population is "Around 87,000" rather than 87,068 (though I'm not sure that I want to drive on roads designed by such folks). And it's probably okay for Denver to keep using its "Mile High City" slogan since most people probably don't know that this means 5,280 feet.
|Really [19 Feb 2014]|
The University of California, Berkeley, to create more diversity in their computer science programs, recently renamed the "Introduction to Symbolic Programming" course to "Beauty and the Joy of Computing" and saw the numbers of female students increase to more than the number of male students. I really do not know what to say...
|STEMs, Trees, and Forests [14 Feb 2014]|
The BizTalk blog (14Feb2014) reported that UC Berkeley, UCLA, CalTech, and Stanford have formed a coalition with the goal of recruiting "more minority Ph.D. students in mathematics, physical and computer sciences, and engineering." What I'd like to see is these four institutions forwarding a goal of developing "more minority students" in these areas, by improving K-12 STEM education, but this would not have the immediate impact on these schools of simply drawing more of the available and qualified minority candidates to their campuses rather than having them go elsewhere.
|Funding Transportation 2 [11 February 2014]|
Bloomberg (4Feb2014) reports that House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster has said that user fees such as a VMT tax need to be considered as the long term mechanism to fund transportation infrastructure and operations. Furthermore, Shuster rejected an increase in the existing Federal fuel excise tax.
Whether or not a VMT tax is the future is moot; the funding need exists today, and VMT tax collection is not ready for deployment (technologically, politically, or even economically). An increase in the existing fuel excise tax, indexed to inflation, is the only current option for the problem at hand.
The next politician who says "Americans don't want more taxes" should be tarred and feathered. What Americans most likely don't want is more general fund taxes being given to our politicians for them to decide how they should be spent. What Americans likely do want is for these politicians to fix the transportation system: whether it's a gas tax or a user fee makes little difference. The unspoken reality is that all Americans will pay more. And they will likely be willing to pay more if it is clear exactly where all of this revenue is going to be spent. That is what Americans want. And only an increase in the existing fuel tax can achieve this right now.
|The (Not So) Melting Pot (Take 2) [13 Jan 2014]|
The Contra Costa Times reports (13Jan2014) that the faculty of California colleges and universities are not representative of the changing diversity of the student body. Not surprising, of course, given the simple fact that faculty tend to stay in place for their entire careers while the student body changes every year.
How many times has someone said: "Students need, want and deserve a diversified faculty to help them through the kinds of unique circumstances that vary from one particular student group to another" (said Bill Nance, Vice President for Student Affairs at San Jose State). Quality, not diversity, draws the best students, and produces the best candidates for jobs in the future.
At San Jose State, 59 percent of the faculty are listed as white, although 10 percent of the professors didn't specify a race. A San Jose State graduate student said in response "That's shocking and definitely concerning ... this is America. It's supposed to be a melting pot." Yes, America is supposed to be a melting pot. And our country is, of course ... but apparently it's not "melting" enough. Perhaps it's more of a stew than a fondue (feel free to play with this).
Let's imagine an outcome where, magically, faculty diversity reflects the student body. When student diversity continues to evolve in the future, what do we do with all those faculty that we hired based on yesterday's diversity but that no longer reflect the diversity of the new student body?
The problems exist primarily below the college level. Colleges wish to select the best students each year, and the best available candidates for faculty positions, regardless of diversity. When both our communities and our primary and secondary educational systems produce quality applicants of all backgrounds, we will no longer focus our attention where it should not be.
See related posts: [27 dec 2013]; [5 Sept 2013]; [18 Jan 2013]
|Fatally Hurt? [28 Dec 2013]|
The LA Times (28dec2013) had the headline "Skydiver fatally hurt in landing". I can't think of many other ways a skydiver could be fatally hurt. On the same page was the headline "Mice that 'cram' for tests recall less". Scientists use lab animals in lieu of human subjects, but don't we already know this cramming fact when it comes to humans? What knowledge is being gained by this research?
|The (Not So) Melting Pot [27 Dec 2013]|
Counselor Solyn Laney of California's San Joaquin Delta College is reported in SmartBrief for Higher Ed Leader (26dec2013) as saying "Diversity is more than just color ... but our students need to see people who look like them." This in response to a significant increase in the proportion of Hispanic students with no change in Hispanic staff. I'm trying hard to see why it is that "students need to see people who look like them". Do student's who seek higher education choose an institution based on its diversity and not based on educational opportunity? The Hispanic student increase was about 30 percent over the prior four years, despite no change in staff diversity. I think it is of primary importance that society provides all qualified people with equal access to opportunity. I don't belong in professional sports, dance, or numerous other fields because I'm not qualified. It has nothing to do with diversity. If the presence of various barriers have limited access to opportunity to certain qualified people, then those barriers need to be removed. But those qualifications need to be present. Race, religious affiliation, and other designated characteristics have nothing to do with qualifications. Students need to see people who are qualified so that these students can also become qualified.
|Best If Used By ...[19 Dec 2013]|
In light of recent news from genetic and pharmaceutical corporations that were unable to replicate most prior studies published in academic journals, and the limited long term validity of theories rewarded the Riksbank Prize in Economics, not to mention the apparent lack in the field of transportation to even consider the ramifications of poor theory and models, the need for replication studies, and stronger linkages between the state-of-the-art and the state-of-the-practice, perhaps it is time that every academic paper be assigned a half-life, based on what portion of the original hypothesis is assumed away, inordinately relaxed, or conveniently ignored, as part of any assessment of quality. Sort of like "best if used by" dates on items at the supermarket.
|Busy Week in the OC [17 Dec 2013]|
Southern California has had a busy week in transportation matters. First, the OCTA Board reaffirmed an earlier decision to add one General Purpose (GP) lane in each direction onthe 405 freeway, deciding against an alternative to also add a HOT lane to be paired with the conversion of the existing HOV lane yielding 2 HOT lanes in each direction in addition to the two GP lanes. The OCTA Board's decision reflected the fact that Measure M2, the half cent county sales tax that authorized and generated funding the 405 GP lanes, would not cover the cost of additional lanes, nor did the voter-approved M2 make any mention of toll lanes or of compromising the near completion of (the in part M2 funded) HOV network throughout Orange County (5 Dec 2013 post). The correct decision, in my humble opinion, but I still wonder what forces had driven the board to reconsider, and ultimately reaffirm, their initial decision?
The Transportation Corridors Agency (TCA) refinanced the bonds for the SR-241 tollroad, and the Orange County Register (9 Dec 2013) indicated that this could "add (an) extra $1.8 billion to (the) cost. TCA CEO Neil Peterson responded with an apt analogy to home mortgages and, indirectly, some insightful comments on the tollroads. As for homeowners who refinance to achieve lower monthly payments in return for a larger total payback, the benefits sometimes outweigh the costs. If your current payments cannot be met, then a refinance can help (perhaps in simply delaying that final day of reckoning). Someone will pay for these roads. Refinancing extend the payments but it also maintains payback from users and not the general public, who would likely incur the debt upon a default. The real message is that these toll facilities have problems (the SR-241 much less so that the SR-73) and that these problems are directly due to the nature of the beast.
Speaking of beasts, how about that "Not So High Speed Rail" project. All these legal set-backs (involving project funding and environmental review, or, more accurately, the lack thereof), seem minor in face of more basic problems. First, and foremost, what is currently on the table is simply not what was approved by voters in Proposition 1A (2008). Second, the politically-driven alignment under consideration is not at all optimal (i.e, fastest and cheapest) option. It is time to either fully comply with Proposition 1A or take the plans back to the voters.
|The Politics of Occupancy [5 Dec 2013]|
The Orange County Transportation Authority, having previously approved adding a single general purpose (GP) lane in each direction on the 405 from SR-73 to I-605, is now reconsidering their choice. The option is to replace the current carpool, or High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane with a so-called High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lane, similar to the SR-91 Express lanes.
Measure M2, the half cent sales tax that funds many transportation improvements in Orange County, makes no mention of HOT lanes but OCTA has supported the construction of HOV lanes, including during the 20 years of M2's predecessor, Measure M. Carpooling has been actively promoted by federal, state, and local government for many decades and Orange County is unique in featuring a near-complete HOV network. In fact, OCTA and Measure M2 are responsible for enlarging this HOV network on the 405 at the very same time that they are considering eliminating it. Why?
Some HOV lanes have become a victim of their own success. In federal parlance, they have become "degraded" at certain times of the day, meaning that speeds drop below a federally-mandated level for HOV lanes. In other words, they are heavily utilized, which was precisely the goal when these lanes were built. They are successful and move way more people per lane than general purpose (GP) lanes, which somehow are not subject to the term "degraded" despite a much more inferior performance.
Measure M2 proposed and will fund the single GP lanes on the 405. There are no funds for additional lanes, unless these lanes can fund themselves. Such a tolled option, or HOT lane, actually requires two lanes in each direction to meet minimum speed goals guaranteed in return for a sizeable toll. To add tolled HOT lanes thus requires elimination of the HOV lane. Strictly speaking, carpools with 3 or more occupants would still be free, but allowing 2 plus occupant carpools would overwhelm the facility. Why would HOT lanes be a bad thing?
First, OCTA and Measures M and M2 have promoted carpool lanes and are responsible for the HOV network that now exists. Taking action against the promise to voters who approved M2 by over 70 percent would be an unprecedented action. It would also be a short-sighted action. Removing this section of the HOV network will reduce the attractiveness of carpooling and will increase pressure to convert the remaining network to HOT lanes for toll revenue. If this is a revenue issue, OCTA is quite aware that funding for transportation is almost certainly changing in the near future with proposals for federal fuel tax changes in Congress, VMT-based alternative taxes in California and many other states, and the success of local sales taxes dedicated for transportation. A short-term, corridor-specific revenue enhancement that compromises the operation of an HOV system under development for decades is myopic vision.
Second, there are many alternative uses for the HOV network, if planners decide that increasing occupancy is no longer a goal. The lanes can be converted to "green lanes" to encourage the use of energy-efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles. The lanes can become "distance lanes" to accommodate long distance travel (the original goal of freeways). And they could convert a GP lane to a carpool lane and immediately address the "degradation" issue. They could maintain HOV status and address peak hour degradation by increasing occupancy to 3 plus during these times.
This is a simple choice. Reaffirm the original decision to add the GP lanes, support the HOV lane network and Measure M2, and focus on the big funding decisions coming down the road.
|Americans Don't Want ... [1 Dec 2013]|
As a follow-up to the prior post, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) announced a proposal to phase in a 15 cents per gallon federal fuel excise tax increase over three years, increasing the tax from 18.4 to 33.4 cents per gallon (42.8 cents for diesel). The last such increase was in 1993. Blumenauer "pointed out that a gas tax puts the burden on those who use the roadways".
|Americans Don't Want ... [18 Nov 2013]|
The Hill Transportation Blog profiles a new bill by Lee (S-R-Utah) and Graves (H-R-Ga), the Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA... hmmm), that would gradually eliminate most of the current federal excise fuel tax (from 18.4 to 3.7 cents per gallon). The bill, which would also transfer authority for federal highway and transit programs to the states, has been deemed "devolution". The bill's pros and cons are obvious. On one hand. as Senator Lee states, "Americans would no longer have to send significant gas-tax revenue to Washington, where sticky-fingered politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists take their cut before sending it back with strings attached". On the other hand, with the assumption that the states will add the equivalent excise tax to current state fuel taxes, Americans will now be sending significant gas-tax revenues to their state capital where sticky-fingered ... oh, I'm sure you get it. You see, the same game is played already on the state level, with fuel tax revenues collected by the state "processed" before sending back to the counties. The same as there are "donor states" in this game, there are donor counties in the states. I do, however, have greater faith in keeping revenue streams, and accountability, closer to home. California county local sales tax dedicated to transportation infrastructure and operations most clearly link a market basket of projects with a price tag, with Orange County's Measures M and M2 serving as proud examples.
|Diversity in Engineering [5 Sept 2013]|
Diversity is a good thing, whether it be in diet, activities, friends, colleagues, or many other dimensions of life. On the other hand, regarding current policies to achieve diversity in higher education, or even the need for diversity as a goal rather than a beneficial outcome, this I'm not so sure is a good thing. I'm simply convinced that, regarding engineering, most Americans simply don't have a clue as to what engineering is or what an engineer does. Most K-12 programs don't mention engineering, certainly not as a learning outcome, and most K-12 teachers know less about engineering than any other field. Can you think of anything in current cultural media that says anything at all about engineering other than that some remarkably creative people, with the right opportunities at the right time, radically change the world in which we live? And they accomplish this by inventing and marketing technologies -- not by inventing and marketing themselves, unlike many if not most other creative people who have defined the celebrity culture that dominates wealth and media.
|A Field of Dreams [15 August 2013]|
Eric Jaffe reports in Atlantic Cities research by UC Berkeley's Dan Chatman regarding public transit creating agglomeration benefits in metropolitan areas. Chatman explicitly states that any mode "...could promote agglomeration...". Chatman also states that if access to a center is only by car, then "... eventually traffic will become so bad as to hinder growth." This misleads the reader into thinking that only agglomeration will follow transit and not congestion. But transit, as for "any mode", is subject to both capacity and thus congestion. Chatman's own definition of agglomeration is "... more people in the same place" certainly sounds the same as being on the fast track (pun intended) to congestion. Of course, pedestrian traffic is the ultimate congested mode, with sidewalk capacity being met the same way, and often at the same times, as both roadway and public transit congestion. Anyone for peak hour pricing for transit and/or pedestrians? And while we're at it, shouldn't we price elevators, the vertical transportation that enables higher population densities but the cost of which is hidden in the significantly higher rents found in high density areas?
While many of Chatman's models failed to pass statistical muster, Jaffe reports that "...those that did revealed a pretty clear line from transit expansion to economic growth via agglomeration. Every time a metro area added about 4 seats to rails and buses per 1,000 residents, the central city ended up with 320 more employees per square mile." Transit ridership increases were mapped to annual income and gross metropolitan product increases (and I assume, correspondingly, higher rents, particularly in the agglomeration -- see the Google Shuttle / San Francisco rent debate). While these numbers are correlations, do any of them represent causal effects? Was transit the cause or at least a catalyst for this job growth, or did actual or planned job growth serve as the cause or catalyst for transit growth? I'm not aware of any public transit operations built as a "field of dreams" (with the possible exception of one being built in a field (literally) of dreams (metaphorically) in California's Central Valley, but that's another story).
|Nay-sayers [11 August 2013]|
In BITS, Nick Bilton presents some "expert views" on the Elon Musk Hyperloop proposal. First, yes indeed, Hyperloop is just a vision, as were virtually all paradigm-changing technologies at first. And while this is from a man who is batting 1.000 in his first few at bats with PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX, it's only fair to say that the idea builds on over a century of similar ideas by many other, umm, "people with visions". Second, yes indeed, there will be naysayers, and many reasons to say nay. But I'm a bit surprised at some of the nays.
Many said that the $6 billion cost was unrealistic. Hard to argue with that given the plans for a current technology, High Speed Rail, in California with costs in the upper $30 billion range when sold to voters, approaching the $90 billion range when plans were better considered, then cut to the current $68 billion figure that is virtually certain to be as unrealistic as the $6 billion figure for the hyperloop (and don't ask how cost was reduced by one third to $68 billion). One naysayer commented that these huge cost fluctuations are in large measure due to the influence of local, state, and federal politics (for example, in determining route and station location). This may elicit a call for a a non-profit, private developer, or at least a Public-Private partnership (although the central issue with these options is that nasty word "profit").
Particularly "naysaying" (is that a word) is Stanford history professor Richard White who says of Musk "... let's be realistic; he's not Henry Ford creating the Model T. Musk is creating $60,000 to $100,000 electric cars for rich people." Is there even a point there? Once the assembly and supply angles were divined, selling the product was, in a word, easy for Ford, even without a roadway network on which to drive. It was the right time and the right place. In fact, the Model T was sort of a response to latent demand similar to that for, say, PayPal. Now who thought of that?
A letter to the LATimes said the heck with 30 minutes to San Francisco to LA; how about 10 minutes from anywhere in southern California to LA?
|It's Not Your Grandmother's Kitchen [8 August 2013]|
I've always had a closet interest in residential architecture and design, so I tuned in HGTV and quickly realized that every show, whether a remodel, a purchase, or even a move abroad, presents people looking for open-floor plans, granite countertops, and stainless steel appliances (oh my). Any guess how long that will last? Will our kids find all this a little too dated when they enter the housing market down the road? Will avocado appliances ever return?
|Romantic Fiction [3 Aug 2013]|
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that over half the Bay Area's commuters drive solo to work versus two thirds across California (versus three fourths five years ago in 2008). The article references the trite aphorism about "America's love affair with the automobile", once again attributing a romantic rather than utilitarian rationale behind automobile use. The car, in general, and commuting to work alone, in particular, makes absolute utilitarian sense for most of those who do precisely this, whether based on convenience, cost, a broad range of psychological preferences, or even the utility of habitual behavior. Pollster Mark Baldassare states that "Habits like driving to work, those habits take a long time to change." While some commuting behavior is likely habitual, commuting by car remains a rationale choice that would still be made in a full information decision reassessment. My UC colleague Robert Cervero gets it right stating that a range of socio-demographic factors "foster 'more complex travel patterns,' which in turn 'favor more solo commuting'". Utilitarian choices.
The article states that California residents "are clearly considering the environmental effects of automobiles" with over half of the survey respondents stating that "they are seriously considering a more fuel-efficient car". This is likely an economic decision for most, and not one based solely on environmental impact. If more highly polluting fuels were available at lower prices than current fuels, then people likely would be buying them.
|On the One Hand. [12 July 2013]|
The New York Times reports that the National Foundation for American Policy has found that international students make up "70% of the full-time electrical engineering graduate students in the US, 63% of those in computer science, and more than half in industrial engineering, economics, chemical engineering, materials engineering and mechanical engineering."
What are the college fields, or non-academic pursuits, in which domestic students are engaged? Why is so much reporting on educational trends, whether it be on diversity, international students, or STEM enrollments, only presenting part of the picture? Is it simply that enrollment growth in these fields is increasing, with the growth disproportionately international, or are domestic enrollments shrinking? If the later, what are these domestic students doing instead?
|Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud [8 July 2013]|
In today's Energy Economics Exchange, Severin Borenstein discussed "Bad Incentives for Green Choices", essentially arguing that pricing bad behavior is usually the better path than subsidizing good behavior. I agree that incentives for buying and driving EVs, such as free parking and free charging, only reward those who've already made an independent decision, in the same manner, perhaps, that HOV lanes benefit people who were carpooling in the first place rather than serving as an incentive to get people to carpool.
But I disagree with two key points. I find it surprising that Borenstein favors a VMT tax which in itself provides a relative subsidy to heavy, energy-inefficient, and/or higher polluting vehicles, and a penalty to those in rural uncongested and unpolluted areas, by charging the same tax per mile. Such a tax would not support other strategies for addressing congestion, air quality, and energy consumption by appropriately taxing a vehicle based on it's environmental impact. While VMT can be one element in assessing impact, other aspects must be reflected.
But there's one more thing. When all consumer behavior is priced, even if efficiently and fairly, then what becomes of neighborhoods, communities, cultural groups, and society as a whole? When we place everyone on an economic leash to ensure they pay for their consumption, and only their consumption, where is the appeal to the higher level?
|A Kodak Moment [15 May 2013]|
Andrew Keen for CNN CNN reports on "The future of travel: How driverless cars could change everything". Time will tell how transportation will confront its "Kodak moment".
|Enough What, More Why. [18 March 2013]|
ASCE says that more than 20% of engineering school graduates are women, yet a mere 11% of practicing engineers are? Why is this? Where do the 9% go? Are they working in different fields, or choosing not to work? How do these rates compare with other professional fields, such as other STEM areas or law and health care? If these areas are retaining a higher proportion of women, why is this so; if the retention rates are lower, what is engineering doing that's better? How does this vary over fields of engineering practice? Does civil engineering fare better than, say, mechanical, in terms of retention? Do private sector firms fare better than the public sector?
This is almost certainly linked to why fewer women enter engineering and most but not all other STEM areas. What advantages does biological science offer over engineering as a career choice for women? With women comprising well over half of current college enrollments, in what areas are women over-represented? Does engineering present barriers to women, or are women drawn to these other areas?
|Poltician, Heal Thyself. [18 March 2013]|
The California state legislature, renowned for inability to make decisions on such items as budgets, for which it is legally required to do, is now making educational decisions, having decided that the University of California, the California State University, and the California community college systems will offer selected on-line courses in areas where budget cuts have reduced the number of courses offered, making it increasingly difficult for students to meet degree requirements. The bill, SB520, also makes $37 million available in support and appears to provide faculty with the right to select, develop, and manage these courses. I think this education delivery option was likely to occur anyway.
Academia has been dedicating significant effort of late addressing on-line education, including a limited number of true on-line courses (and degree programs) and growing interests in hybrid course. Hybrid courses essentially "flip" the classroom, with recorded lectures provided on-line prior to the formal lecture, which then becomes a discussion section where the lecture can be rehashed, questions addressed, and problems solved. There are, however, potentially significant costs associated with the apparent benefits of this approach, but who better to implement and assess this than faculty?
Instead of answering that question, I'd like to raise a few others. If this experiment does work, are we ready to accept that, perhaps, the traditional four year college education is defunct? Should the first post-secondary school year be completed away from campus, focused on on-line education and deeper consideration of a major? The largest proportion of entering freshmen at UC Irvine are undeclared majors, spending the first year exploring educational options. The primary bleeding of STEM majors at UCI occurs at the end of this first year. Does this first year need to be on-campus? If so, surely the best approach to assist these students is not via 300 student lecture halls and multiple choice exams?
There are many second order questions. How will this affect college athletics? Maybe it means all students will redshirt, engaged in the background with an institution, residing elsewhere, but advancing to the point where they are fully prepared to engage in a formal, in-residence program (educational, athletic, or other) the following year. Whether or not a four year program is still an inherent quality of an education may be moot but in the redshirt approach, with the right preparation, it is likely that only three more years would be needed.
The traditional model of delivering education to college students via textbook and lecture is evolving. The real questions are how fast and how far this evolution will take us.
|A Circuitous Path to Circuitous Reasoning [15 March 2013]|
Along yet another circuitous path I found myself at Jeff McMahon's Forbes tech column entitled "US Poised for Passenger Rail Boom" (dated 15march2012). First, people need to clearly provide context and use the correct vocabulary. Passenger rail implies intercity rail and not public transit in metropolitan areas. Second, "fun and functional transit centers"? Really? Third, and the catalyst for these words, is a quote from Tom Downs, chairman of Paris-based Veolia Transportation, a for-profit company that operates transit systems around the world:
"If you look at the current dominant modes of transportation - highways and aviation - they are capacity constrained, capital starved, and there is not much in the way of optimism about either ... capacity seems to be pretty much unlimited for rail."
Really? Public subsidies for highways and aviation are minor compared to those for transit, both intercity and metropolitan. And 15 percent of current fuel excise taxes go to public transit, which for most operations is subsidized on the order of 60-70 percent of operating costs. Amtrak loses money every year, although its 2012 loss of $361 million was its lowest since 1975 (but note that Amtrak also received about $1 billion annually in federal subsidies).
And both McMahon and Downs refer to "young workers choosing urban homes" and not owning a car. These people do exist and do use urban public transit, but not necessarily intercity passenger rail. And, the cities in question already offer extensive public transit options. A self-selection bias exists: people who like cities and public transit tend to live in cities that provide these options; people who like suburbs and cars do the equivalent.
McMahon states that "railroads can accommodate dramatic increases in traffic more easily than highways or aviation." Really? Ever stop a 10 car train on an 8-car platform? The only way train frequency can be increased is to be below current capacity (which is often limited by freight operations and other traffic). Adding any capacity requires significant cost. There are no magical routes just waiting for track to be laid. Let's stop with trite remarks that preach to the choir.
|Architects and Engineers [23 Feb 2013]|
Through a very circuitous path I found myself at Randy Crane's 5 August 2010 blog entry "Smart Growth and One of Its Mad Men" (they call it the web for a reason). Randy provides a concise take on the behavior of social scientists but does not extend this to scientists, in general, and to most individuals following logical pursuits. Then, in an aside on architects, he offers a justification as to why architects tend to be ultra-defensive regarding their work. It was not his defense of architects but rather his brief, stereotypical dismissal of engineers to which I object.
"Architects are trained to believe in what they do based on their ability to defend utterly subjective work against aggressive would-be critics..." Interesting, and I agree, but not utterly, with the subjective label. "... Where engineers get their answers out of a book or an HP calculator."
Randy seems to have forgotten a punch line or maybe figured that engineers don't read blogs and in any case would not take offense since HP calculators do not (yet, give them a few years) understand attempts at humor. Mind you, I do not take this personally since I don't think of myself as an engineer nor other confining labels. Randy continues:
"architects study books, and architectural products of all kinds, much the same way artists do: To find gaps they can fill by doing things differently. Architecture is all about originality and individual voice."
This is what engineers do: study books and all other sorts of information, and fill the gaps in knowledge, products, infrastructure, and all other things designed, with originality and individual voice, subject to the condition that it has to work (in the fullest sense of the word "work"). He continues:
"[Architecture] literally is art, where technical prowess is part of the story but where ultimately the metric is how much you like the result."
Once again, this too applies to engineering, although with the additional metric that the result has to work. And as with architecture, engineers deal with form and function, with the later usually being an absolute for engineers (and, according to Randy, the former being a de facto absolute in architecture). He continues:
"There are technical elements to be sure -- buildings have to work within the laws of physics -- but the merit of architecture is how it does things differently within those laws -- which is why architecture is among the most challenging of the arts, as it involves creativity within lots of rules."
Here he's nailed engineering (and it's engineers that do the "physics" for the architect, although it's often the same person or team). I've heard that there are no two identical major structural elements in Gehry's Disney Hall, which was a real challenge for structural engineers -- I bet more so than Gehry's architectural challenges.
Here's the thing. Engineers, planners, and architects are linked (and economists, but some how the other three seem more closely linked in practice), in many, many ways. Engineers have traditionally had it hard vis-a-vis scientists (with the moon-landing being a scientific achievement but the Challenger incident being an engineering disaster -- we've all heard this but still, stereotypes die hard). So let's not make it more difficult than it already is. I'll conclude with Sandy Rosenberg's witty and pithy quote:
"Urban planners do too much too soon, and are proud of it;I'll leave it to others to try to fit architects as the fourth musketeer.
|Hyperbolic Hyperbole [23 Feb 2013]|
This week, LA's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) extended their sponsored foray into tolling with 14 miles of HOT lanes on the 10 freeway (Interstate 10, or the San Bernardino Freeway, for non-Californians). The LA Times (23Feb2013) quotes LA Mayor and MTA board member Antonio Villaraigosa as saying: "this shows we are willing to address traffic, gridlock, and congestion in the region". Now traffic is often bad, and congestion almost always is, but gridlock is the whole nine yards. To have all three being addressed at the same time -- wow, they are serious.
|A Good Start [13 Feb 2013]|
A landmark decision which should be anything but: Pope Benedict XVI's resignation. Instead of the many silly reactions of main stream media, several on-line sources have focused on the importance of physical stamina on performance, addressing these comments to business leadership. Perhaps even more relevant is political leadership. Term limits often only serve to emphasize the career-orientation of politics today, with termed-out politicians jumping to the next feeding trough. And of course there is academia and tenure. If there is a system that needs a make-over, that would get my vote.
|Where to Start? At the Beginning. [25 Jan 2013]|
Karen Purcell (The Scientist, 23Jan2013) makes some excellent points regarding lack of diversity by gender in STEM fields. Among her conclusions are: "Progress takes time" and "With the right support especially early on, girls can thrive in science and STEM", eventually concluding that "The fix starts with exposure to the STEM fields at a young age. Young adults are inquisitive and may end up in STEM fields for a variety of reasons, and early exposure to these fields would result in more informed and more precise decisions when selecting a college or university and a particular course of study." What's missing is a precise definition of how "early on" exposure should occur. Her final conclusion suggests that we should assist "young adults" to make more informed decisions, but the problem is (at least) a decade earlier. Elementary school is where the STEM options need to start, from somthing as simple as STEM career day to increased STEM educational activity. If I had a nickle for everytime my teachers (all female) said that "math and science are hard", or if I had the extensive editting on math and science work that I received in writing and non-STEM areas, then life may have been quite different for me and many of my classmates.
|Students, Faculty, and Regents? [17 Jan 2013]|
Something in the recent news (LATimes, 17Jan2013) concerning Governor Brown and the UC Regents planning for a greater on-line presence caught my eye. An add-on to the article addressed on-going concerns with faculty diversity. The very last paragraph quoted Regent Eddie Island as saying "How much more will we have to wait until the faculty looks like the students we serve?"
Well, he's right about one thing: UC faculty do not look like the students enrolled in UC. What the UC faculty do look like, in terms of gender and race, is the current make-up of the UC Board of Regents (fill in appropriate aphorism).
But that is not my real point. Why would we want the faculty to look like the student body? Do we want our very best students coming to UC to find the very best education, or to find a faculty that "looks like them". And don't say both. At any point there are only so many candidates of merit that are in the pipeline (oh crap, I said the m-word -- my bad). So let's say we somehow arrive at a faculty equally as diverse as the student body. This student diversity loosely evolves as the state population evolves. However, students are at UC for four years while faculty are there for a career. So what are we going to do with all those white male regents, uh, I mean faculty members?
|Funding Transportation 1 [18 Jan 2013]|
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has proposed an alternate revenue option for the Highway Trust Fund -- a sales tax to replace the current federal excise tax. A sales tax would be a percentage of the fuel purchase price per gallon, while the current excise tax is a fixed 18.4 cents per gallon, unchanged since 1993. With increased fuel efficiency, revenue under the current system is declining in relative terms while vehicle miles traveled and the need and cost for infrastructure maintenance are increasing.
When fuel prices soar, the public complains and politicians claim that the US taxpayer won't pay more taxes... but the US taxpayer wants safe roads and transit systems and these funds are dedicated to just that. This is a simple and logical adjustment that can maintain current prices and revenue, but will increase revenue when fuel prices rise. A no brainer. Don't hold you breath.
|It's 4th and 10 on the 405 [11 Jan 2013]|
The best vantage point for viewing a football game is often on your couch in front of your TV. This may also be the case for officials, given the technology that superimposes a line that indicates the distance for a first down (I can only assume that the game and team officals "upstairs" are viewing the same graphics). Where else can this technology be used?
Proposals have been made to re-stripe freeways, effectively increasing capacity by placing more, albeit narrower, lanes in the same right-of-way. This greater capacity can accommodate more traffic, but at the potential cost of slower speeds. Small and Ng suggest [ Access ] that restriping to narrow lanes can produce better travel times in congested conditions, but admit that wider lanes have greater speeds in uncongested conditions and safety concerns are real for narrower lanes.
So you all know exactly where I'm going. Cars and drivers would see lane width defined by time-of-day, accommodating congestion, controlling speed, and making way for emergency vehicles. A truly smart road, at least for those who think roads can still be considered smart at all.
|Disaster Insurance... for States? [4 Jan 2013]|
Why don't states carry disaster insurance? With Katrina and Sandy resulting in the need for (unbudgeted) federal support to the tune of $20-60 billion, and these being relatively rare events, why don't states budget an annual risk avoidance payment to a federal account that holds these funds to help pay off disasters. Whether it be a hurricane, earthquake, fire, or other disaster, each state would have insurance commensurate with their assessed risk and, dare I say, how much they pay in?
|Education is A Process, Not a Destination [3 Dec 2012]|
An article from ASEE, the NY Times (11/30, Williams, Subscription Publication) reported, "The idea that a college diploma is an all-but-mandatory ticket to a successful career is showing fissures (with) a groundswell of university-age heretics ... pledging allegiance to new groups like UnCollege, dedicated to 'hacking' higher education."
Personal drive and vision have always been critical components of success, even within a conventional academic environment. A self-motivated, hard-working individual will be able to identify and master information necessary for success, perhaps even more efficiently in a non-academic environment where the opportunities, and risks, are literally "real world".
There will always be portions of the broad education and experience provided by conventional institutions of higher learning that will not be available to those on a different path, but so shall there be alternatives of potentially greater worth. To an individual who can assess the relative merits and risks, understand their personal strengths and weaknesses, and be willing to follow that alternative path, the choice may be anything but academic.
|Demographic Diversity? [10 Oct 2012]|
An article from ASEE, the El Paso Times (10/9, Kolnec) reports on University of Texas El Paso College of Engineering efforts to "increase the number of engineers in the (US)" and quotes UTEP Dean Richard Schoephoerster as saying "The solution is for engineering colleges to ... match the demographics of their communities".
This is the solution to what problem? Increasing the number of engineers in the US? In Texas? In the local El Paso community? This is "what UTEP has done for decades"? So I assume that this has resolved the local problems and that UTEP admits engineers whom are representative of community demographics, and they all graduate in engineering and they all enter professional practice in that community. And as demographics change in El Paso, they adjust admissions for representativeness, perhaps to the point where one day, say, in a 99% hispanic community, no non-hispanics would be admitted. And this will increase the number of engineers by what magic potion?
Perhaps faculty should also be representative of the community, being hired, and in turn, fired, as demographics change. Would public and private sector employers be expected to follow this same rule of hire and fire to keep demographic representation? Would you want to work in a place like this? Would you even be able to work in a place like this?
Also needed, says Dean Schoephoerster, is to "make engineering curriculums more interesting and more tied to how engineers' technical skills can help improve the world". Engineering curriculums clearly need to be tied to the technical skills that the graduating engineer needs to compete in the job market. This need has always existed and programs that do not provide these skills will not be successful. But interesting? All this misses a key point.
If we fail to instill awareness of technical skills and creativity in career choice, if we fail to do so from the get go, when K-12 students can be made aware of if not embrace these long term goals, then no decisions of any college, no representativeness, and no curriculum, will provide students whom are ready, willing, and able to undertake the task.
And I'm still not sure how this will "change the way engineers think." At least not in a good way.
|Bad Behavior [6 Feb 2012]|
Honor and self-sacrifice are unfortunately increasingly rare qualities. Much is said about noble acts of bravery, and recently of ignoble acts of cowardice. But both of these options are based on immediate often instinctual response to extreme stimuli. In the case of those who face negative repercussions for actions taken, there usually are honorable means of redress: accept that their behavior was not honorable and apologize: mea cupla. Bad behavior may be excusable in pressure situations, but only when one then accepts responsibility after the fact. But what about bad behavior that is not associated with pressure situations? Such behavior based on conscious thought likely is more prevalent, more damaging, and, arguably, more ignoble than failure to act in pressure situations. What is worse: not assisting an elderly woman during a purse snatching or knowing accepting elderly persons facing all sorts of social, physical, and psychological trauma?
|High Speed Means High Speed [16 Dec 2011]|
High Speed Rail. How quickly we have moved from the proposal for a "bullet train" that would provide service competitive to airlines between southern and northern California, to questioning the constraint in the original legislation to achieve speeds required to be competitive. If you want High Speed Rail, then it must be grade-separated, with very few stops, integrating expensive technologies, and using a lot of energy, and thus it will be expensive. Sort of like air travel.
There are a lot of misleading or meaningless buzz words in transportation, including "intelligent", "smart", and "managed lanes", but High Speed Rail is not one of them. California's system must be high speed, as dictated in the authorizing legislation. And it should not have taken 15 years and $80 million to get to this decision point. If it cannot compete with other modes, then it should not be built.
|Diversity: Where to Focus (and Fund) [16 Dec 2011]|
Why is it that decision-makers at higher levels of education continue to address problems at lower levels by providing funding at the higher level where the problem is observed but not at the lower level where the problem is created? If there are not enough engineers graduating, it is not because students are finding more appropriate degree programs with similar demands and benefits. It is because either they aren't enticed by engineering in the first place or they are not properly prepared when entering engineering programs. This includes students in all demographic cohorts. Any "affirmative action", regardless of how urgently needed, must start at the beginning: until we have the best STEM-related educators teaching our children in K-12, with hands-on experience in science, technology, engineering, and math, we will not have the necessary numbers of students suitably prepared for our STEM programs. Any attempt to entice unprepared college-aged students to enter or remain in a STEM program is short-sighted and will simply perpetuate the problem. You do not fix a leak in a pipe by placing a better bucket under the drip, or by devising a system to get the water back in the pipe after it's leaked out. First, you fix the pipe.
|Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater [9 Dec 2011]|
The LA Times [9dec2011] reports that 2010 domestic traffic fatalities reached a 61-year low, decreasing to 32,885 (2.9 percent) relative to 2009, despite a 1.6 percent increase in VMT. This reduction in large measure is due to improvements in both vehicle technology and roadway design. Of note was the corresponding data for fatalities in incidents involving drunk drivers, which although showing a 4.9 percent reduction over 2009 still amounts to 10,228 lives lost. In comparison, only 3,092 fatalities were classified as "distraction-affected", which includes texting or cell phone usage and related causes. It sure seems that directly addressing these suspect driver behaviors is the way to make significant decreases in fatalities, rather than trying to reduce overall driving, which would essentially be "throwing out the baby with the bath water".
|Cost versus Revenue: Guess Who's Winning [1 Dec 2011]|
The proposal for High Speed Rail in California was welcomed by many. Although I harbored a good deal of scepticism, I waited to see how the forecasts of cost and revenue would evolve over time. Few have been surprised at the cost increases (from $33 to $98 billion) but even fewer have reconsidered the associated revenue side. Based on initial ridership estimates, there was sufficient demand projected to cover cost after a few years of operations. Whether this was an overly optimistic estimate is moot now that cost has tripled. Either ridership or fares would also have to triple, or the public sector would be on the hook for the difference. A BIG difference.
|Some Things Never Change [27 Oct 2011]|
I don't understand much of this mortgage mess. It looks like many people were sold the unfounded dream of endlessly rising home values, that many people made an awful lot of money on this, and that many lives have been devastated, financially and emotionally. But there's a plan afoot to help people who, while underwater on their mortgage, are current on their payments. This suggests that their income remains sufficient to make mortgage payments, although they're now paying for something that isn't worth what is was when they bought it (hmmm, sounds like every car loan ever made). The problem, apparently, is that it's difficult if not impossible to refinance underwater loans. So the government will step in to help. But what happens when the housing market recovers and these mortgages are no longer underwater? Does the government get a share of the profits? I think this is part of the Occupy movement. I don't think it's wealth per se that has pissed off people but, rather, it's the way this wealth was attained. Those that made a killing leading up to the bubble bursting certainly realize this, but don't expect them to fess up.
|On and Off the Funding Grid [18 Oct 2011]|
Marlon Boarnet blogs on transportation in Los Angeles going "off the grid" and quotes an MPO figure that 70 percent of revenue is now from local sources. I'm not so sure that the "on the grid" to "off the grid" transition is so clear since the vehicle side has always been and will likely remain predominantly "off-the grid". While local infrastructure can move "off", it still requires the background network to be fully on (consider the internet analogy). It's the "on" that has reduced highway fatalities by 40 percent in decades characterized by huge increases of exposure (VMT).
These local funds are predominantly county level sales tax revenues. Over half the cost of routine road maintenance in Orange County cities comes from local sales tax revenues. These local cities are dependent on county funds in a manner similar to local transit agencies being dependent on federal operating support. If LA is going "off the grid" it will be more important to recognize the hierarchy within the local level.
|Darwin and Smith [18 Oct 2011]|
Cornell Economist Robert Frank writes in today's LA Times (18Oct2011) that he would honor Charles Darwin and not Adam Smith as the founder of contemporary economics. He draws an analogy between Darwin's theory of natural selection and Smith's "invisible hand". Both, Frank argues, favor individual success that can lead to group success. However, when individual and group interests conflict, "individual interests generally trump group interests." Natural selection makes "no presumption that the process promotes the common good." Frank concludes the analogy by stating that "the modern conservative's case for minimal government rests on the assumption that competition always promotes society's welfare", but that this competition presumption does not hold water. Last month I criticized Rick Perry's belief that we have to first grasp the science before we jeopardize the economy and I further offered the antithesis. Is Frank suggesting that the science and the economics may be one in the same?
|Chicken or Egg? [11 Oct 2011]|
A California Assemblyman asked the question: How do tax increases create jobs? The antithesis is equally valid: How does decreasing taxes create jobs? The key remains, what ever the policy, does it work? Businesses can be given incentives to creating jobs (tax credits, reduced taxes, etc.), in a manner that only a net increase in domestic jobs would count. Jobs would be classified as full- or part- time, and by salary level, with incentives set accordingly. Seems rather simple and avoids this constant argument over what is more effective. Just measure it!
|Carpools and Carrots [8 Oct 2011]|
A recent study conducted at UC Berkeley concludes that the elimination of permits for LEVs to use carpool lanes in California has made traffic worse for all users. The LEVs banished to the gulag of the General Purpose Lanes, of course, suffered the most, but solo denizens of the General Purpose lanes were also worse off from sharing their already congested space with the banished LEVs. But it turns out that "real" carpools now take longer to cross the more congested gulag to the safety of the HOV lane. It's a question of relative distribution: a more uniform distribution of traffic seems to offer higher overall performance.
HOV lanes have not been successful in encouraging carpooling (with rare exceptions, such as right here in Orange County). These lanes, however, do appear to have been successful in getting more people to purchase LEVs, with associated air quality benefits for all. So what do we do with all these HOV lanes? We could consider the original intent of freeways to move long distance drivers through a region (rather than give locals a convenient alternative to driving two miles to the grocery store) by limiting access/egress spots to major interchanges (in opposition to arguments for continuous access to HOV lanes). Not being a conspiracy theorist, I won't say that it was all a ploy to build a network of toll roads (but stranger things have happened). Or we could just let the LEVs come back from the gulag.
|Two Sides to Every Story [8 Oct 2011]|
From my very first course in transportation to the present, I've read about the disruptive impact of highways on urban communities, especially in the 70s when Interstate spurs and beltways, elevated or below-grade, split the social fabric of many neighborhoods. Racial and income biases were usually present. Most people shake their heads in disbelief that communities were sacrificed for the greater good of the motoring public.
What I've never seen discussed is a similar impact of road building. How many communities ceased to exist when roads were not built? When the links of the first federal highway system were selected, as with the more familiar interstate system that followed, states and communities lobbied for roads to include them directly on the network. But many towns and cities were bypassed, left to wither in history. How many towns, how many jobs, and how many lives were changed forever by these decisions? And why to we look wistfully on a Route 66 or a Lida, Nevada as a valued part of our collective history but in shame at the urban equivalent?
|Do Ya Think? [1 Oct 2011]|
Today's LA Times (1Oct2011) reports "It's three feet long, weighs eight pounds" in referring to NASA's new GALE, an "unmanned aircraft". Unmanned. Do ya think?
|Render unto Caesar [1 Oct 2011]|
Tomorrow is "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" where religious organizations will claim their right to be politically active, as guaranteed by the 1st Amendment. This, I trust, will be followed by "Freedom from Tax Exemptions Monday" since there is no such right in our Constitution. Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.
|Pay, Patronage, and Pensions [28 Sept 2011]|
Pensions and pay. Double and even triple dipping. It's often politicians that retire with a public pension and then are reappointed to an often well-paid position, while still drawing their pension. This is one of many issues with a seemingly simple answer. Pensions are for retirement and it should begin when you retire, or at least when you reach a "reasonable" retirement age (the devil is in the details on what is reasonable). The problem is compounded by politicians looking to cut spending and who promise to cut wasteful positions, but who then appoint cronies to various boards that pay quite well. Arnold did it, Jerry did it. And their appointees seem to think that they are the only ones who can do these unnecessary jobs. A sure sign of senility -- maybe they should retire... oh, yeah.
|Jeopardy: What is... Science? Economics? [8 Sept 2011]|
At the GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Library, Texas Governor Rick Perry said "Let's find out what the science truly is before you put the American economy in jeopardy." I personally find it odd that in his last conversation with God when Perry was told to run for president, he was not told that it is science and not economics on which we have a firm grasp. I suggest he consider what the economics truly is before he continues to to put science, and his reputation, in jeopardy.
|Politics in Transportation [16 May 2011]|
An LATimes Editorial [16may2011] lauded a report from the State of California's Legislative Analyst's Office criticizing the state's High Speed Rail Authority, finally showing that perhaps the largest problem in transportation planning is simply the political process in which it occurs. I often have commented on the utter lack of elected positions in transport and on the redundancy of agencies with overlapping charges (see TCA, OHR, 15 March 2009). This is well illustrated by the HSRA: political appointees charged with overseeing not only a portion of one of the largest public works projects ever proposed but also billions of dollars of public support. It's not as if we don't have agencies in place for precisely this responsibilities (e.g., Caltrans). On the other hand, large agencies can become too large (e.g., Caltrans).
|A Timely Death [2 May 2011]|
The expression "an untimely death" has always seemed superfluous, but I now see that the obverse can be most appropriate.
|Irony in Privacy and Profits [1 April 2011]|
I received an e-mail from an academic department at another university which stated:
"Our records show that you haven't opened our recent mailings.
Ironic, no? Apparently, my privacy does not include actively tracking my e-mails to see whether I'm reading them or not! After I complained, they responded that "everybody does it" (where have I heard that before?) and that they were protecting their system as well as my account from spammers (since I never signed up for their list in the first place, does this make them spammers?). Then "my IT people" said that my (archaic) e-mail software does not allow such tracking, so maybe the fact that they could not track my e-mail opening behavior was mistaken for, as they assumed, simply not opening it. I don't have answers; but I do have two questions.
First, why is the concept of public and private so difficult to understand? Why the concept of "opt-out" even exists is beyond any conceivable rationale other than someone wants to make money from violating your privacy.
Second, your web browsing behavior can be tracked via cookies, but web browsers provide the option to turn off cookies. Your behavior won't be tracked (although you may not have access to certain sites that require cookies). Why does this not exist for e-mail? Or, if it does, why is it not well known? And for the record, I do not use Google's g-mail and my *.edu e-mail address is from the same university system as the list's owner and, I assume, is more controlled and thus more difficult to violate. Google has said something to the effect of: "Privacy doesn't exist anymore. Get used to it." Easy for them to say, as they profit from just what they're promulgating.
|Holy Strawberries, Batman! [3 March 2011]|
A recent ASEE First Bell (ASEE, 3mar2010) reports:
"Cities Redesigning Themselves To Avoid Use Of Highways"
Hmmm. Where do we start? Start with an incorrect and misleading title, throw in multiple grammatical errors in the first sentence, let on that it is a plea for funding rather than actual activity, suggest that highways are wearing out for reasons other than they were designed to do so after a accurately designated lifespan, then indirectly suggest that the building infrastructure of cities is somehow different from that of roadways and thus immune to decay, and then to quote my good friend Joe DiMento ("Say it ain't so, Joe") who claims a "growing faith" (hallelujah! born again planners! the end is near) in the potential of urban centers, and highways are apparently STILL tearing "apart the social fabric of the community" so the big city decides to replace the highway with LRT and PARKING LOTS! Holy strawberries, Batman... We're in a jam!
|Trends [21 Dec 2010]|
The LA Times reported that domestic demand for gasoline is "believed to be at the start of a long-term decline. By 2030, Americans will burn at least 30% less gasoline" than today, attributed to greater fuel efficiency and alternative fuels. Didn't say who did the study, but this would be the first real decline in over 70 years. This after reports that traffic fatalities have dropped significantly to under 33,000 per year, the lowest in decades. Both of these changes are despite significant increases, and projections of continuing increases, of vehicle miles traveled (VMT). So why do planners and policymakers continue to look at VMT as an indicator variable? The only direct VMT link seems to be with mobility, and that used to be a good thing.
|Le Roi Est Morte; Vive Le Roi [3 Dec 2010]|
Le Roi est morte; vive le Roi! As December began so did the once and future uncertainty of high speed rail, or any form of fixed guideway transit, at least for system-wide deployment. With Obama administration and DOT secretary LaHood an outspoken champion, HSR and its companion federal dollars are on Santa's list for many states. Consider California. Over the past few years, we've had a $10 billion state bond proposition pass, competing proposals for high speed rail from southern California to Las Vegas, and, of course, all sorts of politics and associated conflicts of interest. And now the California High Speed Rail Authority board has announced the first HSR link, a 65 mile "starter line" that has quickly been dubbed "the train to nowhere".
What are the problems? Well, ignoring the fact that the two end points are indeed as close to nowhere as anyone could possibly imagine, at least when considering rail systems planning, the analogy made to the interstate highway system as beginning the same way is inappropriate since a comprehensive highway system was already in existence so that virtually any "starter" interstate segment would be effective. Second, it does not appear that any of California's HSR efforts will actually be "high speed" rail. Faster than current domestic rail, perhaps, but in many cases only marginally so. Third, and most important, the estimated cost, even if entirely accurate -- and let's face it, such estimates are at best teasers and at times border on fraud -- is simply too great. California does not and will not have $40-50 billion to field test the potential effectiveness of a "not high speed rail" system.
Expenditures for transportation infrastructure has often been justified with promises of job creation, but there are many transportation infrastructure projects that could serve this goal, such as replacing every structurally deficient bridge and supporting existing bus transit throughout California.
|Subway To(ward) the Sea [24 Nov 2010]|
In the LATimes [23Nov2010], Steve Lopez describes the proposed "subway to the sea" as a fitting moniker for a city whose "train to the airport ... doesn't go all the way to the airport". The "STTS" would stop about 3 miles short, leaving what would be one of the highest ridership corridors in LA unserved by rail. And UCLA a tempting half mile away. Transportation improvements always seem to be about what can be done and not what should be done, in large measure due to the incremental nature of the game.
|One Man's Ceiling [22 Nov 2010]|
Abu Dhabi, which has a less developed transport infrastructure than Dubai and suffers chronic congestion problems, is expected to spend $68 billion from 2010 to 2015 on public transport alone [Saifur Rahman, gulfnews.com, November 22, 2010]. Nicely juxtaposed with Off-hand Remarks before and after this one, we see the big difference being cash. Lot's of it. For decades, we've put our's in our gas tanks; they found their's in the sand. One man's ceiling is another man's floor. Ironic.
|Will It Play in Peoria? [14 Nov 2010]|
"That's what people want."
|Childhood's Bend? [28 Oct 2010]|
The ASCE Smart Brief quotes a Grist interview with USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood who says: "I grew up in an era [of] livable neighborhoods and livable communities... When there was no urban sprawl, when you didn't have to have three cars, when there weren't houses with 3-car garages, everybody had one car."
First, Lahood's 1950's Peoria childhood was precisely when "sprawl" began, along with the decline of public transit, the growth of the suburbs, and the decline of the inner city. Second, the marketing of car ownership and sprawl was and remains a hallmark of the American capitalist system. People did not ask for it, although they clearly responded with their wallets open (an all too familiar trend in the continuing saga of American capitalism). When women began to enter the workforce, in part to afford the lifestyle they had been sold, car ownership increased. These changes, however, have ultimately been income driven. These were choices made by consumers. And now LaHood says people are making different choices. Choices for sustainable living, public transit, walkable communities, etc. This is no more than a new marketing approach to continue the trend. And I suspect that people, while they may be responding for these options, are likely thinking in terms of complementary goods and not as substitutes. Very few people are trying to get rid of their cars so they can walk or take a bus, although such communities, if marketed well, may result in some of these changes. But I think it's putting the cart before the horse. Let's just hope we don't end up relying on carts and horses.
|A Good Idea (I Think) [27 Oct 2010]|
In a LA Time OpEd [27Oct2010], UCLA's Don Shoup proposes a graduated parking fine system. The more tickets you accrue, the more each one costs. Shoup provides data that show that a relatively small proportion of drivers account for a disproportionate share of parking violations. He also suggests that the requisite technology to track violations is already available. In calling for stronger punishment for serial violators, Shoup notes California's three strike (felony) law. While he says "no one should receive a life sentence after three parking tickets", it does make one wonder, given Don's, uh, "alternative" views on parking, if he was referring to "a life sentence" as not being appropriate or to the number "three".
|Re-Inventing the Wheel [20 Sept 2010]|
"Aggressive, Timid Drivers Are Major Sources Of Traffic Jams, Researchers Say." So reports The Daily Telegraph (19sept2010), which also said researchers "found that when drivers changed their speed, they caused drivers further back to change their speed. The change in speed passed like a wave, backwards through the traffic." Wasn't this stuff done back in the 1950s? The research was published, however, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Royal Society? Perhaps my cynicism is unwarranted, since this research apparently is deserving of Newtonian acclaim. I had to dig deeper, and with such cutting edge reporting, I stuck with the Telegraph, which two years earlier (4 Mar 2008) reported research published in the New Journal of Physics that concluded "the real origin of traffic jams is (often) simply the result of there being too many cars", which the Telegraph (cynical bastards themselves) headlined "Science of the bleedin' obvious".
The Telegraph also reported (Chivers, 9 Jul 2010) that a team of MIT mathematicians have developed "equations, similar to those used to describe fluid mechanics, (to) model traffic jams as a self-sustaining wave. Variables such as traffic speed and traffic density are used to calculate the conditions under which a (traffic jam) will form and how fast it will spread." What are these "equations" that thou speak of? I needed to dig deeper, perhaps finding reports of wheels being re-invented, but I found a hint of even bigger things. Chivers (29 Jun 2010) reported that a flying car is going into production! Alas, no comment was made regarding aggressive or timid pilots, nor new insight on the relevance of fluid mechanics on aerial traffic flow, or simply having too many flying cars on the, uhh, road?
|Triple (Harmonic) Convergence [2 Sept 2010]|
In a recent article, The WSJ revisited "triple convergence" - a Downsian construct invoked by Martin Wachs that says new capacity is consumed by drivers who had previously changed to different modes, routes, or times-of-day to avoid congestion but whom now return to their original travel behavior to utilize the new capacity. The conclusion was that the new capacity had no benefit. The output of a transportation system is flow, which is measured in terms of both volume and level-of-service. New capacity accommodates increased volumes, perhaps at a similar level-of-service (that is, congested). As I have commented ad nauseam, judging "failure" of an investment that is exceeding its volume goals is foolish, parallel to judging new schools that are immediately overcrowded as failures. The multiple dimensions of travel choice include mode, route, and time-of-day and the results of drivers behaving rationally should not be taken as a bad thing. There are legitimate arguments regarding policy and pricing, but we need to all be on the same page with regard to fundamental understanding first.
|Private (Sector) Parking [20 August 2010]|
The Week (20aug2010) reports that in 2008 the City of Chicago sold its future parking revenues to investment bank Morgan Stanley for $1.15 billion dollars. Downtown meter fees recently were increased from $3 to $4.25 per hour, increasing the expected take for Morgan Stanley to $11.6 billion dollars by the time the contract expires in 2084 (on a particularly Orwellian centennial). More meters per block, more hours metered per day, and higher rates would be just what one would expect under such privatization. Some may argue "good, parking and automobile controls are just what's needed," while humming the Shoup Shoup Song (did I spell that right?). But these same investment bank profits could have been supporting transportation improvements in Chicago. As many public entities look to unload public property in the current economy, they should look down the proverbial road a little bit further before they take that first step (my apologies to my colleague DS).
|The Revolution Was Televized [10 August 2010]|
Tony Judt died this month and the LATimes (9 Aug2010) quoted the following from his last public lecture: "Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For 30 years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest... The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears 'natural' today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, and delusion of endless growth." The revolution was televised; and the collective "we" lost.
|Hometown Cooking [1 May 2010]|
The City of Irvine, with regard to residential, commercial, and other land uses (save open space), was designed for the automobile. This is not an argument for or against the automobile or any form of public transit; rather, it is an observation of the transportation and activity systems. Roadways, organized in an hierarchical fashion, feature broad rights-of-way, multiple turn lanes, advanced traffic control, and land access defined by facility type. Land use is highly segregated, organized by transportation access, and provides ample parking. While sidewalks line virtually all roadways, there is a significant distance separating roadways from buildings, limiting pedestrian access, and in turn, transit access. This is not to state that public transit and non-motorized modes do not have a role, even a significant role, current or future, within the City. But it does say that current travel behavior is strongly linked to current infrastructure and, thus, changing either behavior and/or infrastructure will be both difficult and costly.
But to define a role for non-automotive transportation in Irvine, where should one start? First and foremost, the start should be with land use and infrastructure, but any changes must be supported by market forces and a willingness to alter travel behavior. Land use changes are strongly evident in the Irvine Business Complex (IBC), as this area is slowly but steadily evolving from single-story, campus-like office, commercial, and industrial space to multi-story, urbanized, mixed use complexes. In general, a 180 degree turn from Irvine's status quo. The IBC also borders Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, and Newport Beach, so externalities of dense growth, such as traffic congestion, will spill into these areas. The nature of this residential growth will be greatly limited by housing prices and access to conventional amenities, including the Irvine Unified School District, which will not serve much of this area. I do not see this particular growth lending itself to non-automotive transportation. While the City has always had a balance between jobs and housing in terms of totals, there are no mechanisms that can match jobs to housing in a one-to-one fashion. Residents in any part of the City are as likely to work elsewhere as City employees are likely to live elsewhere.
So what's the master-planned community to do? It has proposed the expansion of an existing bus-based shuttle system. In a recent Irvine World News article (3July2010), Mayor Kang states: "As population grows obviously traffic will get worse." He then adds "I think this (the expanded shuttle) will take a lot of cars off the street." The statements raise two critical questions. First, traffic is a second order effect. Population and employment beget traffic; excessive population and employment beget excessive traffic (congestion). While traffic congestion can be an indicator of a healthy economy it is also an indicator of poor planning: not necessarily poor transportation planning but poor integrated planning. The automobile-oriented plan for Irvine has worked thus far, with residential and employment areas having limited (albeit increasing) traffic congestion.
Before I address this point further, consider the second part of Kang's statement: "It will take a lot of cars off the street." There are only two ways to address such problems as traffic congestion: either increase supply or decrease demand. Adding transit capacity increases supply. So would adding capacity to current roads. But somehow, adding transit capacity will take cars off the road but adding road capacity will only increase traffic! Both measures will accommodate latent demand by increasing system capacity and by not addressing demand. One could argue that such transit will have only a marginal impact in taking cars of the road, but this is not the point. What ever road capacity is gained will serve as a draw for added road traffic, as long as the demand is there. I am not advocating adding road capacity. I'm merely stating that such uninformed opinions are misleading at best. The cost of each alternative relative to the benefit provided must be fully assessed before overall system impact can be estimated. Given the current transportation infrastructure and land development, any growth of jobs or housing in the IBC will lead to increased congestion. Infrastructure expansion, especially a shuttle system, will not be able to accommodate the growth with out behavioral changes in residents and employees alike. The bottom line is that population and employment growth must be controlled, or forced to pay the marginal cost of increased congestion and any infrastructure improvements so that demand is properly priced. The City has a plan for growth, but the ability of the transportation system to accommodate this growth has now been exceeded.
If transit is to be pursued, it must be done at the regional level. The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) provides county-wide transportation planning and transit service, and coordinates with other agencies on a regional level. While it is true that the City is working with OCTA, one must question the viability of the proposed iShuttle system expansion based on the excessive costs of providing each ride (estimates of $19 per trip have been publicized). When one talks of "green" alternatives and sustainability, one can not simultaneously talk about a deficit of $19 everytime a rider boards a bus.
City Councilman Larry Agran states in the same Irvine World News article: "The one missing element to Irvine's outstanding planning has been a failure to create a comprehensive public transit system." The problem is that the initial vision of City and Irvine Company planners, that of an automobile-oriented community, has produced an infrastructure and land use pattern in which conventional forms of transit can not compete. Guideway transit, light rail, and other alternatives have been proposed and have failed to garner support. Even with a land use pattern that could support transit, it is unclear that sufficient Irvine residents and employees would change their behavior, at least under current pricing.
The last large scale public transit system supported by the City Council was Centerline, the OCTA-sponsored proposal for a light rail system from Fullerton, through Santa Ana and Costa Mesa, to Irvine. Irvine residents objected (with a range of reasons, many of them quite silly, but objected never-the-less) and the Council opinion came down to what essentially would be a rail system to provide access for non-residents to Irvine jobs, but would not "intrude" in Irvine's existing residential communities. This would not have been a "comprehensive public transportation system", nor would it address exactly how to get non-residents to use the system to get to their Irvine jobs. And it does not consider how these non-residents would be able to access other Irvine business before, during, or after work without a car in an automobile-oriented city.
Financing will likely be the biggest issue, as it will for California proposals for High Speed Rail. Big ideas should be encouraged, but reality needs to be reflected in all plans and proposals. And most of all, wishful thinking cannot form the basis of public policy.
|Information is Everything [1 May 2010]|
In the Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein concludes that the "fundamental truth about Wall Street firms is that they succeed by having better information than most of their customers." This information is gained by experience that follows from position. The very wealthy have more information, more expediently, and are thus more readily able to capitalize on opportunities that most of us will never see. This extends into politics, where the support structure around politicians at any level is significant, to provide information on demand. But this system makes these politicans appear more valuable than they are. Pearlstein also concludes that "more than the skills or the brilliance of its executives, it is information asymmetry" that provides the opportunites to gain wealth. And power. Power that can be used for the "greater good" or for personal gain. And, yes, this applies to academia, as well as to any established bureaucracy.
|Ethics Ain't What They Used To Be [27 April 2010]|
California's republican primary race has been nasty from the start. I decided as soon as I saw a Meg Whitman commercial that referred to Steve Poizner as "desperate, dishonest, and way more liberal than he says he is" that, whether it was true or not, I could not possibly vote for someone who'd say that. Then came Meg's Goldman Sachs deals. This got me thinking and I was forced to conclude that virtually all very wealthy people have quite likely participated in "ethically-vague" decisions since fortunes are typically gained at the margins of normative behavior. Meg, Martha, and every CEO backdating stock options, while not necessarily breaking the law, certainly take advantage of opportunities that their wealth provides but that their intelligence must, at least momentarily, consider questionable. This should call into question the qualifications of these incredibly wealthy people for public service. Why do these people feel that they are qualified to represent the other 300 million Americans who do not have these opportunities, other than the simple fact that they are only, once again, using their position to further their fortunes?
|PR and BS [12 April 2010]|
Here we go again with California propositions. Consider Prop 16, sponsored by "Yes on 16 / Californians to Protect Our Right to Vote". Now don't get too riled: no one, and no proposition, is threatening any of your rights. The sponsors just want you to think so. There's a very convincing TV actor suggesting that, whether or not local governments should "get into the electricity business", at least the people should have their say. This might make sense. But how come only 50 percent of the voters have to approve Prop 16 to make it law, but then the law says that 67 percent of the voters need to approve any local government proposal? That doesn't make sense. Especially when all California residents have seen the problems with the two-thirds voting requirement in the state legislature. It's almost impossible to get two-thirds of any group to agree on anything, and the sponsors know this.
A recent mailer from the sponsors quotes the president of the California Chamber of Commerce stating: "local voters have every right to have the final say on ... who provides them with local electric service and how much it costs." I personally don't recall voting on PG&E or SoCal Edison providing my service, not to mention my rates. We do elect our local representatives, so we certainly have some say regarding "costly and risky government schemes to get into the electricity business." I wonder if the electrical utilities knew that their own "schemes" were "costly and risky". I wonder if their share holders know? Well, PG&E must, because they are the major sponsor of Prop 16. Hmmm. And shame on the California Chamber of Commerce for also supporting this sham. Follow the money and just vote no. [Note: For more information, see George Skelton's LA Times column on April 19th]
|Unusually Pervasive? [2 April 2010]|
ASEE's First Bell (2 April 2010) reports a level of mistakes in the Macmillan/McGraw-Hill math series used in the Sacramento City Unified School District that the superintendent referred to as "unusually pervasive". I guess the "usual" pervasiveness of mistakes (with pervasive meaning diffused through every part), which is a problem in itself, is in this case somehow even more, or perhaps even less, pervasive. This is about the same as saying that a structure was "completely razed". Houston, we have a problem. And it's not just with math.
|Robber Barons [19 March 2010]|
Popular Science (3/17, Dillow) reports that China has offerred to fund and build high-speed rail in 17 nations extending service to southeast Asia, London, Germany, and Russia by 2020 ... in exchange for "rights to natural resources in the nations that benefit from the high-speed links." Hmmm, we may be verging on "privatization" but it sounds like China is taking the route of the U.S. railroad robber barons in the 1860s, with land grants that continue to provide the railroads, and their successors, profits to this day.
|Revenue and Rainfall [19 February 2010]|
Tax revenue that feeds California's budget is a lot like the rainfall that feeds our water supply: it's either too much that we flush it away with short-sighted planning or too little that we borrow from the future to quench our thirst today.
|A Case for Hyphenated Names [27 Nov 2009]|
I've noticed an increasing number of professional athletes using hyphenated last names, which reminds me of a naming convention that I envisioned many years ago. It is typical of a male-dominated society that the names of predominantly male ancesters pervade family genealogy. Although it may prove impossible in most cases to go back to correct this habit, it would be easy to start an hyphenated system with the current generation. Children take both parents names. Parents are also free to choose both names: if Mr. Smith marries Ms. Jones, they become Mr. and Mrs. Smith-Jones (any convention on which name comes first is fine). Their children are John Smith-Jones and Jane Smith-Jones. When Jane decides to marry (or otherwise co-mingle economics, genes, and lives), she will keep her mother's name, and add her new partner Dave Armstrong's name becoming Dave and Jane Armstrong-Jones. Jane's brother John partners with Sally Wesson to form John and Sally Smith-Wesson. Males carry their father's lineage and females carry their mothers. Everyone knows what kid belongs to whom. And we owe it all to professional athletes (although, if there is profit involved, it was my idea).
|The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences [12 Oct 2009]|
It's that time of year of make believe when we dress in costumes that aren't who we are. I'm referring to The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel that has been awarded since 1969.
"In 1895, Alfred Nobel gave the largest share of his fortune to a series of prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace - the Nobel Prizes. In 1968, Sveriges Riksbank established The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel." [http://nobelprize.org/]
Not the same thing, although no one ever points this out. But alas, perhaps I've been too harsh. This year, the Riksbank Prize goes to two economists whose work suggests that outside institutions could out-perform conventional markets and central governments. And get this: co-awardee Elinor Ostrom is not even an economist. A rather humorous story from MarketWatch.com states "Obama fails to win Nobel prize in economics". Good fun! But to this untrained eye there does seem to be a deeper joke on MarketWatch as to who actually did win.
|Differential Fees [12 Oct 2009]|
Tuition and fees at many public educational institutions are now greater for select majors such as engineering and business, a very short-sighted step that the University of California is now considering. In support of the proposal, UC argued that higher salaries for engineering faculty justify the added fees. I wonder if anyone considered the relative magnitude of gifts from engineers to UC compared to, say, literature majors? It is virtually certain that business and engineering professionals and corporations contribute disproportionately to public universities, in large measure based on higher salaries and profits. Does it make sense to charge them coming and going? Does it make any sense to discourage students from pursuing technical majors? Does it make sense to confound the educational choices of minds just beginning to open?
While one may see such efforts as necessary steps to maintain some status quo in public education, it's more likely one more step in simply surrendering to the economic mistakes of the past few decades. In that light maybe we should charge more for business majors and economists.
|Sound Off! One, Two, ... [2 Sept 2009]|
In the LATimes today, James Rainey discussed the "war-correspondent" approach of the media in reporting southern California wildfires. The "inexorable 'march' of fire across the mountains", the "counterattack", the "air assault". He observed, as did I, a constant questioning by reporters as to why some planes are on the ground and not fighting the fire. This simply suggests that those reporters haven't done their homework or just don't have a clue. But it was a short article on the Hidden Springs Tavern that really caught my eye. The information officer for the fire fighting effort was reported as saying "It was completely razed". I certainly don't blame the spokesman for this redundancy spoken in the heat of battle (my bad!) but I cannot excuse the LATimes' Victoria Kim for reporting it and then invoking her own military, not to mention anthropocentric, analogy: "With no more fuel to consume, the fire had moved on, sparing only a couple of trailers." There's something mesmerizing about watching these fires; to others, there's also something mesmerizing about watching car chases. In either case, if you want to keep the picture on, I recommend you keep the sound off.
|Continuous Growth and Cancer [27 August 2009]|
I've always thought that the typical capitalist model of ever growing population, markets, and economies was not sustainable, long before sustainability was a buzzword. But I never found a good analogy until reading Stan Stalnaker in the Harvard Business Review [19aug2009] who presents a cancer analogy. "Continuous growth can't be sustained in living things. It's likewise unsustainable (and undesirable) in business."
|A Mouthful of Sound Bites [5 August 2009]|
A column by David Lazarus in the LATimes business section today entitled "A tough sell for public transit" provided many choice sound bites. Media love them because you get an expert summarizing the problem and sometimes a potential solution in very few words as if to close the book on the matter.
"I rode just about every form of public transit imaginable...". It's always a short stay in a foreign city that makes people say "Why can't we have this here?". If you want that sort of getting around, make your next stay permanent. Or move to New York. The biggest difference between those who love living in big cities and using public transit and those who don't, is that those who do can't comprehend why those who don't don't. Regarding NYC, Lazarus says "Who'd even consider the hassles of driving and parking in Manhatten when you can take the subway instead?" Wrong question. Most people would not even consider living in NYC, in part because they do like to consider driving and parking. And have you waited for a rush hour train in NYC lately? Or priced an apartment?
The chances of public transit becoming a viable option in southern California in the near future is, as the sound bite provided by Marty Wachs suggests, not likely unless we "discourage the use of cars". In other words, people are making choices and these choices are not for transit. Robert Cervero wrote a wishful book about the "Transit Metropolis" but concluded that it would likely take strong car disincentives such as $4 per gallon fuel. While there were some signs of reduced VMT last summer when fuel prices went way over that, it did not have a huge (nor long lasting) effect. But we know all of this. Evidence suggests, however, that we don't exactly know why. Not that this would stop the sound bites.
Consider Lazarus' discussion of high speed rail. How often to you see high speed rail mentioned with the benefit of congestion relief? What congestion will be relieved? Fast intercity rail will not reduce metropolitan congestion. Fast metropolitan rail barely has any effect. But such comments sound good.
Brian Taylor provides several sound bites. "We now keep the cost of driving as cheap as we possibly can." Replace the word "driving" with "education", or "heath care", or public goods, in general. Or even with public transit, as in "We keep the cost of public transit as cheap as we possibly can." These are good things, right? What we do need to do is to address the negative impacts of driving choices, such as air quality, by making sure that the cost of polluting is borne by those who pollute.
But what is proposed? Charge more for parking and for road tolls just to get people out of their cars? No mention of the costs and benefits to society. Taylor also thinks that the cost of gax taxes need to go way up. I agree. But if we spend this money on cross-subsidizing transit, the funds available to maintain the highway system, which is also used by freight and transit systems, will decrease, as will the subsidy for transit itself. If transit is to be successful, it needs a direct source of revenue, not a cross-subsidy. Taylor's conclusion that, under the current model, more ridership would generate more revenue is very misleading. Since every transit rider covers only about 25% of their total cost, while revenue may increase, costs will increase faster. Where does this "cities good and suburbs bad, bus good and car bad" mentality arise?
David Boyce says we should focus on land use. We should, but for some reason, our transportation agencies historically seem to have been told that land use is not their business. What Lazarus did not mention about any foreign city where transit "works" is that the land use pattern has developed to support first walking then public transit since the city's beginning. The variety of shops, cafes, and other land uses at transit stops supports transit use. In the US, I guess we could locate transit stations inside of a Costco, but that would only work if we put high density condos on top of the Costco.
Lazarus realizes the political infeasibility of changing land use and transportation patterns, even if he never defines the associated problems (again, driving a car is not a problem; pollution and other impacts can be). So this would be a good time to mention that virtually all transportation agency boards are politicians, elected for other offices and appointed to the board, with nary a single transportation professional elected, or even appointed, to the board. I think we need less professional sound bites and more professional decision-making.
|Pre-poned? [16 March 2009]|
Today a meeting was moved up an hour. A colleague used the term "preponed". I always took the term "postponed" to imply indefiniteness, a deferment to a later but unspecified time. In that light, how would one realistically "prepone" a meeting?
|Regurgitating Deceits [15 March 2009]|
Jerry Amante, chairman of the TCA, quickly responded to the Shriver/Reynolds opinion piece in the LATimes (see 10 March 2009 below) stating that the article "regurgitates deceits from an anti-road, pro-gridlock campaign". Talk about "regurgitating deceits". While "the TCA and other planning agencies" do, collectively, deal with all modes of transportation, the TCA by itself does not (how about "Kobe Bryant and Mike McNally are keeping the Lakers at the top of the NBA"). The TCA is a one goal entity: build and operate the full tollroad network as initially planned.
The county's master plan is just that: a plan, by design, intended to provide broad guidance and to evolve over time. Broad master plans do not reflect specific problems on specific projects, and it was certainly never envisioned to plow a state road through a state park. All issues might have been considered but the results are clearly not "balanced". Our county's transportation authority, OCTA, together with Caltrans, both of whom consider all aspects of transportation planning for the county, the region, and the state, should be the only agencies planning for the future. The TCA is simply not authorized to be "balanced".
And, ignoring for the moment the continued incorrect use of the term "gridlock" by those who should know, is there really anyone who is pro-gridlock? In particular, are there any environmentalists who think wasting energy and polluting the environment is a good thing?
|A One-trick Pony [10 March 2009]|
In an editorial in today's LA Times, Bobby Shriver and Joel Reynolds propose a broader course for the TCA to undertake since the denial of their appeal to the feds to approve the Foothill South tollroad. While they are right on regarding the problems with the Foothill South, they missed the bus regarding a revised role for the TCA. The TCA was created as a "one trick pony" -- build a tollroad network in Orange County, their sole raison d'etre. The state legislature chartered the TCA for nothing more than expediancy. It was a bad idea then and it remains a bad idea to have such a public agency independent of conventional regional planning agencies. We have OCTA and Caltrans to handle these tasks. The legislature should revoke the TCA charter and transfer any further planning and design, if not operations and management, to OCTA and Caltrans.
|Too Big to ... Exist? [5 March 2009]|
If an entity is "too big to fail", then it is too big to exist.
|A Singularity [24 October 2008]|
A singularity becomes manifold. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
|When Peak Demand Exceeds Supply... [21 October 2008]|
Problem: To much demand for the capacity available in the peak hour.
I'm talking about highway congestion, right? At least that's what you assumed.
What about public transit? We've known for decades that the public transit problem IS the "peak hour demand exceeds supply" problem. Without the peak problem, we could reduce transit fleets and costs substantially, so...
Why don't we price people off transit during these congested times? In fact, don't pricing proponents expect that those who are priced off the higher utility roads will move to the lower utility transit systems, exacerbating the already improperly priced transit problem?
I smell a Nobel Prize in Economics (except that there's not actually a Nobel Prize in Economics; rather, a Swedish Bank created a prize to emulates the original Nobel Prizes -- I'll still take the cash).
|We Are Stardust, We Are Golden [14 October 2008]|
Someone has proposed that $50 million be spent to string a stainless steel net under the Golden Gate Bridge to catch jumpers. If these depressed people really were calling out for help, I would think that a less definitive action than bridge jumping would be in the cards. If they want to die, they will just find another way to do so.
Update (1 Sept 2014): Funding was recently approved for this Golden Parachute.
|You'll Have To Cut Your Hair [12 October 2008]|
All this attention on getting people to register to vote but virtually nothing on getting them to pay attention to the issues as a necessary pre-requisite. If so many registered voters don't exercise the privilege they have, maybe it's because they just don't understand the choices. So wouldn't someone who understood the real choices be registered already? If you want to sign up new voters, the day after election day would be the perfect time to start the process.
|The Privatization Canard [29 July 2008]|
At the end of last summer (see September 2007, US Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said: "The daily frustration of drivers on our roadways is ample evidence that our current transportation model is broken, and that bold thinking and leadership are needed. We're never going to solve congestion with higher federal gas taxes or additional earmarks; instead, we need fresh approaches like new technology, congestion pricing and greater private sector investment to get Americans moving again."
Congestion was the problem: "we need ... new technology, congestion pricing, and greater private sector investment to get Americans moving again."
Fast forward about a year, and Peters said: "By driving less and using more fuel-efficient vehicles, Americans are showing us that the highways of tomorrow cannot be supported solely by the federal gas tax. We must embrace more sustainable funding sources for highways and bridges through more sustainable and effective ways such as congestion pricing and private activity bonds." [FHWA Press Release]
Different problem but apparently the same solution. First, we have too much traffic. Now we have too little. In either case we need new technology, congestion pricing, and private sector investment.
Technology can do only two things. It can increase capacity through more efficient use of existing infrastructure and services (increasing traffic and thus increasing road revenue, ceteris paribus), and it can facilitate pricing (thus decreasing traffic with likely increases in revenue). And the private sector? For their investment, they will make a profit. In fact, new technology and congestion pricing must each involve the private sector, and private sector profits. And this is what Peters, the Bush administration, and the private sector want.
This is not about transit versus highways. This is not even about different mechanisms for funding transportation systems. This is simply another attempt to privatize transportation... at least those components where there's a profit to be made.
|Waterboarding [20 July 2008]|
Waterboarding. Subject all proponents to said torture. If they stick to their story that it isn't torture, then I'll believe them. If they change their mind and say that it is torture, then I'll believe that it is, whether they truly believe it or if they were just tortured into saying so.
|Pricing: What's Good for the Road... [13 July 2008]|
Too many cars? Let's price them off the road. Essentially, demand exceeds capacity and pricing can remove those trips. But how do we provide for this supressed demand? Pricing proponents would direct this demand to less congested periods and to public transit. While it may be hard to envision now, what would happen if public transit systems become congested? Should these systems be subject to congestion pricing?
Guess what? Public transit systems are already congested. The biggest problem in providing public transit is not the low level of ridership in off-peak hours; rather it's the excessive demand during the peak hours that requires a larger fleet size, larger vehicles, and more drivers, resulting in many vehicles and paid drivers that sit unused in the off-peak or large empty vehicles in service with little demand to balance the costs of operations. Shouldn't we price people off of transit so that we can avoid these problems? We can, as with the highway, hope that those priced off the system will instead still travel by the public mode but at an off-peak time. And what about the sidewalks?
|If You Can't Dazzle Them with Brilliance... [20 February 2008]|
I support the application of appropriate technologies to improve the performance of transportation systems. I support the deployment of public transportation, even where it is not justified based on system performance, if it addresses other regional goals and if it does not degrade the performance of other transportation system components. I support policies, programs, and plans to encourage land development that address population needs and encourage land, activity, and transportation options that minimize impact on the natural environment. I do not support the use of euphemistic, politically correct but typically inconsistently applied weasel words such as "smart" (as in technologies or growth), "success story" or "boondoggle", "seamless" or "balanced", any term followed by "-oriented" (pedestrian-oriented, transit-oriented, active lifestyle-oriented), or "green". And gridlock does not mean what you think it does.
|There are ONLY Two Ways... [20 January 2008]|
There are only two ways to address congestion: increase supply or decrease demand.
Scenarios to increase supply include new roads or transit systems as well as more effective use of existing facilities and services, such as better timing of traffic signals or transit transfers. The cost varies significantly over the options, but in general the entire traveling public has access to most if not all of the options.
Scenarios to decrease demand include a range of policy options to control travel by either restricting facility access to defined users (e.g., carpools in carpool lanes) or by simply directly charging for it (e.g., road tolls or transit fares). The cost varies depending on the specific strategy (and typically will involve supply-side changes) but, in general, the traveling public will not have equal access to system options due to the imposed pricing and significant variation in ability to pay.
A downside of capacity increases in areas marked by increasing congestion is that performance improvements are often soon lost to new demand that now can be accommodated by the new capacity. But the system is accommodating more demand and this is a good thing, all other things constant. There is no real difference from adding, say, school capacity in response to school enrollment pressure and finding that the new capacity is consumed by new demand. Fresh air, clean water, public safety, K-12 schools, and transportation are public goods, the demand for which increases with growth, growth that is typically a sign of strong economic activity.
The downside of pricing options is equity. We all have 24 hours in a day but we all do not have the income or employer benefits to provide full access to variable rate transportation systems. Yes, once in a blue moon a poor man will choose to pay more than they can afford to save time and a rich man will choose to save a few dollars and sit in traffic, but no responsible person would actually pose this argument as if this made things acceptable. Transportation is not a simple economic good, and a typical traveler is often not your typical economic man.
Pricing some facilities and services shifts demand to unpriced options. Congestion is managed on the priced facility at the expense of the unpriced facility. To prevent these shifts, all facilities must be priced. In this manner, pricing will decrease overall demand. One could assume that less important travel will disappear first. One could also assume that those with a lower ability to pay would suffer more, to the benefit of those who can pay and can now drive less impeded on their merry way. So will congestion be reduced? If all travel is appropriately priced, then probably so. If only selected facilities are priced, then probably not, with congestion getting worse on free facilities.
|Hmmm [28 September 2007]|
US Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters is quoted in a recent Institute of Transportation Engineers e-news: "The daily frustration of drivers on our roadways is ample evidence that our current transportation model is broken, and that bold thinking and leadership are needed. We're never going to solve congestion with higher federal gas taxes or additional earmarks; instead, we need fresh approaches like new technology, congestion pricing and greater private sector investment to get Americans moving again." This is the Bush administration speaking for corporate America and stating that an over-burdened system is "broken" and thus in need of a new operational paradigm. Ignoring the obvious applicability to the federal government, that conclusion could apply to virtually any component of public infrastructure and service. One must properly define the problem before one can evaluate potential solutions.
I'm in favor of new thinking, open to new technologies, and supportive of privatization, where the solutions fit the problems. However, each of these "fresh" approaches, including Intelligent Transportation Systems, congestion pricing, and privatization, is a case of the tail wagging the dog. Is congestion even the problem? Isn't the overarching goal to provide a system to move people and goods to benefit the economy and quality of life?
The fundamental problem is that these "fresh" approaches are not unlike the old build for capacity approaches. It all comes down to either increasing capacity or reducing demand. Any stragegy that makes more efficient use of current capacity is effectively increasing capacity. This will initially improve system performance but, in an area defined by a growing economy and population, this will tend to induce demand.
The potential contribution to a sustainable transportation system is constrained. Demand has to be controlled, not simply priced. The factors contributing to demand, land development and a population growing in size and affluence, must be controlled. Pricing people out of traveling will reduce demand and allow for an acceptable level of congestion to be established, but with significant equity issues. If you do not provide more capacity, or make better use of existing capacity throught fundamental changes in location and travel behavior, then the wish to "get Americans moving again" can not be gained.
|The Name Game [30 August 2007]|
This from the Institute of Transportation Engineers (assuming that's still their name):
"The name of the Goods Movement Council has been changed to the Freight Mobility Council by the ITE Board of Direction. The Board has recognized the increasing importance of freight transportation and the role that transportation engineers and planners can play in increasing efficiency..."
So, in recognition of "the increasing role that engineers and planners can play", the ITE Board of Direction renames that council. Now that's definitive action, and none too soon! And it's called the ITE Board of Direction? Not Directors? (Egads, it seems ASCE also has a Board of Direction!) How about replacing "transportation engineers and planners" with Mobility Enhancement Professionals? Meps... meps!
|A Modest Proposal [21 August 2007]|
Here's an idea. If you want to go to a baseball game, just go. Buy a ticket, take a seat, and watch the game. Have a hot dog and a beer, cheer on the home team, and maybe engage in some good-natured booing. And when the game is over, just get up and go. This is not about self-affirmation or group identification. Keep your social and religious revivals in the churches, temples, and mosques. And leave baseball alone in the parks.
I wish this would go for the athletes, too. Play your game; do your best. And if you win, enjoy it (but respect the other team). But please leave the Big Guy out of it -- he wasn't rooting for you nor was he rooting against the other team. [see 10 June 2006].
|A Process Gone Bad [14 October 2006]|
The California proposition process is a good idea gone bad. Virtually all of these public initiatives are sold as single issue initiatives but in reality they're very badly written but complex legal documents subject to judicial interpretation. In other words, it's impossible to tell what you're getting.
Case 1. The supposed single issue behind Prop 90 is that property transfers between private parties should occur only in the private sector marketplace. If that was all that it said, then most people would back it. Afterall, who wants their house taken by eminent domain then sold to Walmart for the supposed "public good"? Public takings should be limited to direct public facilities. Unfortunately, Prop 90 is being forwarded by developers and property rights supporters, and backed by many public office seekers, who typically see any taking for the public good as a bad thing. It is unclear how the general public power of emminent domain will be affected, since the Prop 90 language seems to suggest that any constraints on private benefit of property is effectively a taking. While I have personal arguments with strict supporters of property rights (and the historically recent systems that "assign" such rights), my argument here is simply that such complex propositions should never be approved. KISS.
Case 2, 3, ... Let's nail the oil companies. Why not compare the relative price of gas with coffee and see whether it's not Starbucks that we should be nailing? I'd like to agree with Gore and Clinton: we really should start doing something about the energy future. But when proponents of Prop 87 tell us that this will reduce oil prices, how can we possibly agree? Even if it was sold solely on promoting alternative energy, one would think that the private market place would address this. Hey, maybe that's why gas prices are so high. And let's nail smokers while we're at it. If we really cared about them, we'd dedicate all of Prop 86 revenues directly toward stopping smoking. That is not what Prop 86 does. Read the legislative analyst summaries in the ballot material all registered voters receive.
Propositions more often than not leverage real public fears to misrepresent complex positions that the public in general would not support at face value. This has been the case for prior propositions that claim to advance environmental protection, reduce smoking, help uninsured children, and spank oil companies. Maybe Nancy Reagan was right: "Just Say No".
|Measure for Measure [7 October 2006]|
Orange County's Measure M. There are three possible perspectives. The first is that all taxes are bad. While I tend to agree that most taxes are bad, a tax that is very well defined as far as an expenditure plan seems to be one that can be analyzed via the other two perspectives: either what is being sold is worth the price of admission or it is not. The first Measure M has been very successful on virtually any scale. The Measure M renewal promises more of the same projects, policies, and perspectives. Read the ballot summary. Is what is being proposed worth continuing the half cent sales tax that you already are paying? If so, vote yes; if not, vote no. Actually, there is a fourth perspective, one that says we really need a renewed Measure M, but not the one being offered. The original Measure M was the third attempt to pass this sales tax for transportation. Perhaps a defeat in November would produce a better version next time around. Things change.
|Constitutional [30 September 2006]|
For all its greatness, the US Constitution makes it virtually impossible to change it.
|How Can I Try to Explain? [20 September 2006]|
|Geography Lessons [10 September 2006]|
Geography 1. East vs. West -- East coast people walk faster and drive slower.
|Leash Laws (Take 2) [3 September 2006]|
Why was it so easy to impose term limits, especially since politicians now all seem to want to relax them? Why couldn't we address the real problems of special interests, campaign contributions, and other politician self-help programs. Did we just create a leash law?
|What Moves You? [27 August 2006]|
What college course really moved you? The LA Times asked the question of several local names, and the results were not very surprising. For those involved in some form of public service, it was a non-technical courses that fed the fire. One might guess that scientists and engineers would be motivated by a technical-oriented course. But why? A career-forming experience could be a single course, but is this likely? What really moves you in college? In life? I couldn't think of a single college course, or other event, that set a path for me. Isn't it more the many choices we make? Or don't make?
|Leash Laws [20 August 2006]|
Leash Laws. If you put a leash on what disturbs you, is the real concern really being addressed? If not, what happens when the leash comes off?
|Hybrid Thinking? [13 August 2006]|
There are many inexpensive automobiles available that feature high fuel mileage, so why the excitement with hybrids? They're expensive relative to non-hybrid equivalents, have somewhat unknown maintenance and re-sale values, and don't really save much gas. What cars do people give up to purchase a hybrid? Is the HOV lane enticement reducing fuel consumption and improving air quality? Do we know any of this? Or is this a roundabout way to move toward HOT lanes?
|Patriotism [5 August 2006]|
What should be outlawed are the shameless politicians who wrap themselves in the flag while pretending to be looking out for anything other than themselves. The flag is symbolic of our freedom -- let's protect that and not just the symbol. The last thing I want to do is burn our flag, but the first thing I'll have to do if they change the constitution is to be civil disobedient and do so.
|A Stupid Idea [29 July 2006]|
Last week, some one in Arizona proposed giving a lottery ticket to everyone who votes. Talk about getting it wrong -- if anything, we should prohibit people who buy lottery tickets from voting at all. Voting may be a right, but educating one's self on the issues and the candidates is a duty that needs to be completed before exercising the right. It's not a crap shoot, but there is a big payoff when you play your best game: it's called democracy. Then again, maybe we should replace elections with lotteries. We couldn't do much worse...
|Damn that Dam... Maybe [21 July 2006]|
Take down the O'Shaughnessy Dam and restore Hetch Hetchy Valley? While it's hard to believe that it was built there in the first place, this certainly isn't something that needs to be placed on the front burner. Why not open the reservoir to a range of recreational activity, continue to benefit from the dam, and think about the many ways the $1 billion to $10 billion could be used to save unprotected natural areas. When we run out of other more urgent environmental needs, and if we still have the big bucks left, then consider removing the dam.
|Our Strength is ... [15 July 2006]|
"Our strength is our diversity". A colleague said this referring to research endeavors. I begged to differ: our strength is our strength. It's not the quantity or range of ideas that is important but how well you express the ideas that you have. In public affairs, however, our true strength is indeed our diversity, or at least the ability to take and express a range of opinions. It is not "either you're with us or you're with (them)". As soon as we acquiesce to a bully pulpit, we have lost our strength.
|Public in Name Only [7 July 2006]|
Re-organized two years ago, the Board of Directors for the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) now comprises 17 members. The five county supervisors serve as well as ten city representatives, two from each supervisory district. Each pair are appointed by the OC League of Cities (one weighted by city population and one not). The other two are public members that are appointed by the first 15. A good starting place for reform would be direct election of the two public members, based on qualifications in the field of transportation. Such an obvious choice, right?
|You Can't Vote for ... [30 June 2006]|
Who's the last person elected to your local water district? How about the last one for the Board of Equalization? How about the people you elected to your community college district? Or even your local school board? Well, you certainly can remember who the last person was that got your vote for the local transportation board? No? Well, I can't help you with the first four but I can with the last. No one. You'd find it quite difficult to find anyone elected to any transportation position at the federal, state, regional, county, or local levels. While engineers, planners, accountants, lawyers, educators, and entrepreneurs can bring their skills to many elective offices, it's not the case in transportation. And not for any shortage of skilled candidates. With about 12 percent of the GNP associated with transportation there is a corresponding share of total employment in transportation fields. In additional to thousands employed by government agencies at all levels, more are employed by private industry, transportation providers, shippers, consulting firms, and educational and research institutions. For domestic households, transportation is typically the largest expenditure after housing.
Who does serve on transportation boards? In general, people that were elected to other positions and were then appointed to the transportation board. Many boards have public members, but these positions are appointed by other board members. If you're not elected to do a job, then you are probably not accountable for that job. When's the last time you heard of a politician being voted out of office for bad transportation policy? Or being punished for rampant pork barrel politics that dominate transportation appropriations?
Any potential solutions? Give me to next week to think about it...
|Peak Pricing Crowded Public Facilities [23 June 2006]|
School's out. For some kids, maybe it should be permanent vacation. Let's face it, our schools are getting crowded, and both capital and operating funds are limited. We can't keep building our way out of school congestion. Demand for schools must be managed. The economically efficient way to do this is congestion pricing. "Value pricing" will give families a choice: pay more to attend in the peak hours (during the day), or pay less to go off-peak (at night). Sounds great, right? Maybe we should apply this approach to other areas of congestion...
|American Idols [17 June 2006]|
We've always been encouraged to maintain our bodies through good nutrition and exercise, and to maintain our minds through the mental equivalents. The personal benefit was basically that you would have a healthier, happier, and longer life. In our world, we increasingly see that "maintain" must become "improve". And it seems that we can't do this by ourselves. From self-help gurus (oxymoronic?), to personal trainers, to just about anyone with a way to expand your guilt and deflate your wallet, an entire industry has emerged based on self-improvement. This trend has been inflicted on our children as the days of pick-up neighborhood baseball games has become personal coaches for second grade kids to sizable investments in hi-tech training and travel teams. When the bar for success has been raised so high, and the rewards for success even higher, it should not be a surprise that any means of improvement will be utilized. But it's no longer a question of personal improvement; rather, it's performance improvement.
Why are we so concerned about illegal drug usage in professional and amateur sports? We are all medicated beyond what any physician could have imagined years ago. We accept plastic surgery in beauty pageants and the media. We expect everything to be bigger and better. Our celebrity athletes have become CEOs of their self-named athletic enterprises with staffs replete with personal trainers, nutritionists, spiritual guides, media and financial advisors, and, apparently, pharmaceutical advisors. Only this last one seems to be a problem.
There are two ways to address this. The easy way is to grin and bear it. If it's such a bad thing, then the piper will be paid one day. The hard way? Cancel your subscriptions to SI and People. Stop attending professional sports. Boycott the Olympics. Don't buy sports merchandise. Don't put your kids on a one-way street. But whatever you do, please don't just complain about Barry Bonds -- afterall, you created him.
|Unnecessary Piety [17 June 2006]|
Would everyone please stop thanking Jesus for your success. I can't think of any world, physical or spiritual, where any higher being would care about your personal success at the expense of others. If you really want to thank him, then donate your winnings and your time to helping those less fortunate. No need to tell anyone about it. He'll know.
|Degrading [4 June 2006]|
Not long ago, UCI faculty transcribed final grades from digital media (often a spreadsheet) to 3-part paper forms that were hand-carried to the registrar who then promptly re-entered the data to generate digital student transcripts. But we have recently evolved to a 100 percent digital system. Almost.
Faculty still assemble final grades from a variety of student work, much if not most that is still graded on percentage terms. In a typical engineering class, students complete homeworks, lab reports, papers, quizzes, and exams, the weighted sum which is used to establish a digital grade for the course as a whole. And then we convert that score to a letter grade (several years ago we added + and - refinements).
In my humble opinion, the letter grade is bad enough. But we now electronically send the digital representation of that letter grade to the registrar who assembles all of the letter grades for a given student and promptly converts them back to a numerical score, the student's Grade Point Average (GPA). So a student is "letter graded" based on how they fall on a distribution curve (did you ever "just miss" an A?). But the most important measure of student achievement is the GPA, reported more often than not to two "significant" digits (e.g., 3.42). Why do we do this? Why do we have these letter grades at all?
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