Wednesday, January 29, 2014


State of the Union speeches are not anything I enjoy.  Obama's performance last night was entirely predictable. Carefully crafted populist platitudes were lobbed all evening. Judging by the cheering and applause seen on TV last night, most of the lobs had the intended effect. The Republican response that followed was pathetic and also predictable.  Here is the Cato response to Obama.

Beyond political hyperbole, there were some zingers. At the top has to Obama taking credit for the energy boom.  This boom is not about Solyndra and/or "renewables."

One of the least useful statistics that an unthinking press corps keeps repeating is the unpopularity of the Congress. But the overwhelming number of incumbents keep getting re-elected and sent back from their gerrymandered districts. An inanimate and abstract "Congress" may be unappealing to polled respondents but "our rep" is a real person who manages to bring home (or promise) just enough favors to get re-elected again and again -- by the voters he and his party chose when they drew district lines.  Perhaps that's what all the cheering and smiling were really about.


Look at #1.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Big Data?

The Atlantic reports "How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood ...To understand how people look for movies, the video service created 76,897 micro-genres." (H/T Ed Shen) 

I am perplexed.  I am a longtime Netflix user and fan. By their count, I have watched and rated (their five-star scale) 1227  films over the last 10 (or so) years.  They have 20 suggested movies for me as of this AM, including Being Elmo. It's probably a fine film but I looked at the trailer and decided to pass.

1227 data points, 76,897 micro-genres and 20 suggestions that I will pass on. Is this The Big Data we fear? There may be some big Type I and Type II errors.


Monday, January 20, 2014


The Economist (Jan. 18) has another piece on accelerating technological change ("Coming to an office near you ... The effect of today's technology on tomorrow's jobs will be immense -- and no country is ready for it").

Music, news, publishing, education, medicine, transportation and many more are changing as never before. We see it every day. But what about our cities?  What is the impact?  None?

Put "death of distance" into Ngram Viewer; use of that phrase peaked in 2003 (Ngram only goes to 2008).

The latest U.S. urbanized area population data show no change in established trends. For 2000-2010, the fastest growing areas are in the Sunbelt.  The largest areas continue to suburbanize; for the 50 largest areas, the average decline in population density was -5.1%; only 13 gained density; only 8 showed a density increase greater than 1%; the outlier gainer was the San Diego area (up 18%) but Wendell Cox explains that this was due to re-drawing of boundaries by census.

Yesterday's NY Times Magazine included "The Not-So-Lonely City ... Is technology really driving us apart? It turns out we may be more social than we were 30 years ago -- at least in public spaces."  The research cited compared photos of people, taken now and thirty years ago, in spots in selected public spaces in NY, Boston and Philadelphia. We do know that crime is down and public spaces are more attractive.

Are electronic links complements or substitutes for the old fashioned ones?  Who knows?

It used to be that "We see the computer age everywhere except in the productivity statistics." (R. Solow, 1987). We now see it [tech, especially communications] everywhere except in the urban statistics.


But here are some data that may be relevant.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Private plans

It has been 20 years since the LA area experienced the Northridge earthquake. There is a 20-year anniversary confab at UCLA to hash over what we learned.  I attended and tried to make these points:
In a market economy, we expect “short- run” impacts mitigated in the “long-run” – as people are prompted to be   inventive and opportunistic. Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy wrote in the WSJ on Oct 29, 2001: “Prosperity Will Rise Out of the Ashes.” It did.
Economic impact modeling approaches are unsettled. Study findings vary greatly. Approaches involve measurement and modeling; both are controversial. 
Modelers had hoped for simple relationships between structure damage losses and business interruption losses.  The post-disaster studies done in recent years (disclosure: I have been involved in some of these) provide results that do not reveal any simple relationship.
What to do? Screen businesses in terms of plausible documented  back-up/continuity plans and credible   supply-chain back-ups?  
Can insurers offer businesses with credible back-up  plans premium reductions? How to evaluate and   screen plans? “Do you have a supply-chain back-up plan in place?” Incentive effects would be useful. This could be win-win-win (insurer, insured, society). There would be less moral hazard if pre-commitment of the insured were demonstrated.
 Until we learn how understand business interruption better, an alternative involves focus on business interuption loss mitigation plans. The quality of a firm's production back-up plans may be easiest to evaluate than an impact model. And insisting on such plans informs all involved  


Odd ducks

Censorship attempts by any agency of government are usually dealt with by the courts.  The materials that cross the airwaves, however, are in a gray area.  The providers and the participants are private but the airwaves are heavily regulated.  This is why currents of our culture become heavily involved.  And this is where it can get very strange.  David Theroux nails the latter aspect here and here.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Smartphone city

Cities have been spreading our for all of recorded history. From the “walking city” (pre-1880) to the “streetcar city” (1880-1920) to the “automobile city” (post- 1920). Are we now looking at the “smartphone city” (post-2007)? Perhaps, but there is no "death of distance" to speak of.  The biggest and priciest places (London, Hong Kong, New York, San Francisco, etc.) continue to grow (mostly outward) and thrive. Growth is always the best indicator.

There is seemingly enough agglomeration "glue" to hold the large metro areas together -- and to justify high land prices. The growth we are getting is pretty "smart".  This is not the popular "smart growth" prescribed by people who assert they are somehow smart enough to plan whole metropolitan areas.  Rather, we are getting smarts in the form of spontaneous spatial arrangements that "click" for large numbers of people and firms.

Qian An, Jim Moore and I have been looking at the 2009 NHTS. These data are for the 50 largest U.S. metro areas. Places within metro areas are classified by NHTS as "Urban" "Suburban" and "Second City" (middle three rows, below).  Data below are for the three major trip types. The differences within each table among means and variances (with the exception of commuting variances) are fairly small. Area
Commuting Times (Minutes, Solo Drivers, One-Way)

Second City
Town and Country

Below are the same results for shopping and social-recreational trips:

Home-Based Shopping Trips (Minutes, Solo Drivers, One-Way)
Second City
Town and Country
Home-Based Social/Recreational Trips (Minutes, Solo Drivers, One-Way)
Second City
Town and Country
Here are millions of people and many businesses picking and choosing in ways that allow them to live, work and play. Yes, there are problems in the world. But the way the cities are arranging themselves is not one of them.