Mees 3: Have your cake and eat it too?

The quote that first caught my eye from this chapter was:

However, the same citizens who are most concerned about sustainable transport are often the fiercest defenders of leafy, low-rise neighborhoods.

This is a particularly pertinent note for Portland, especially right now in light of the discussion around the code allowing developers to build apartment buildings without on-site auto parking (one of which I’ll soon be living in!). These buildings, which allow greater density and improved urban form, including a better pedestrian environment without ugly parking lot gaps and ‘blank faces’ on buildings, are fiercely opposed by inner SE homeowners who believe it destroys the character of their neighborhood and clogs their streets. (Let’s leave aside for now that the former is completely subjective and the latter is false based on research by the city.)

These same neighbors, to stereotype just a little, also recycle, compost, shop at New Seasons, have chickens in their backyards, collect water in rainbarrels, buy Priuses, and have a school in their midst called the Sunnyside Environmental School…in short, they care about the earth on a personal level. But heaven forfend someone should try to change the development pattern so that it’s better for long-term sustainability. That, to them, is “like a rape.” (Yes, someone really said that, and yes, it makes me want to throw up.)

So, are these neighbors super lucky? Yes they are. Because Mr. Mees is here to tell us that you can have your leafy low-rise neighborhoods and your public transit too, if you design your transit cleverly!

The bulk of the chapter is devoted to dissing other possible solutions, like road pricing and electric cars. He’s unsurprisingly down on electric cars, saying:

The global effect of a large shift to electric cars would be to increase greenhouse emissions, since coal is still the main source of power.

He’s also surprisingly down on road pricing, saying that while it’s been a modest success in reducing car travel into city centers, it motivates people who can afford it to continue to drive, because they can just buy their way out of congestion. If you can’t buy your way out of congestion, you just have to live with it, and you’re more likely to actually seek out alternatives.

Vancouver reduced journey times by promoting congestion, while the other Canadian cities increased them by planning for higher speeds.

This is also pertinent for Portland, since our land-use rules and urban growth boundary tend to create greater congestion within the boundary, but they also shorten journeys, leading to an overall reduction in travel times. Vancouver saw the same effect, simply by failing to build more roads further out — when congestion is a factor in the central city, people choose to live closer in and select transportation alternatives. So even though my life would be easier if we could clear out some of the cars from downtown at 5pm, maybe I shouldn’t really be wishing for that — unless it’s because they’re riding bikes instead.

Finally, Mees tars public transit with some of the same brush as cars, particularly low-occupancy buses:

A bus with half a dozen passengers will be no more efficient, in greenhouse terms, than if the passengers travelled in cars at average occupanies…Walking and cycling produce no greenhouse emissions and are the only truly sustainable travel modes.

I’m with him there, but only up to a point. Jarrett has made a case that the purpose of public transit is to extend the reach of the walk, and if walking and cycling are the primary local modes, public transit is the necessary long distance complement unless you want to have tiny towns and cities, and also keep everyone’s car in a giant lot on the edge of the city, which sounds pretty expensive and dumb to me.

So, we can have our leafy low-rise neighborhood and our public transit too, but we can’t have our auto incentives and our transit incentives too:

The only way to produce mode shift is to combine transit incentives with auto disincentives.

Ten is cool, seven is cool

Xtracycle on Twitter today pointed me to a great blog post from Doug about his seven years as a car-free commuter (in Minnesota, no less).

I mentioned to someone recently that it’s been nearly ten years since I owned a car. (Actually, I’m not sure I ever technically owned a car, since the car I drove in high school most likely still belonged to my parents at the time that I was driving it. But I was its primary driver.) I hadn’t realized it had been that long until I thought back over it and remembered that the accident that totaled our 1987 Acura Legend happened in August of 1999, and it’s now August of 2009.

I don’t think my story is as impressive as Doug’s. For most of the time, I haven’t lived anywhere with an icy/snowy winter, and I haven’t bike-commuted to work every day. First I lived on campus at Rice for two years, then rode a mile or two on my bike each day from the Violin House* to campus, then went back to living on campus for a year. One summer I borrowed a friend’s car.**

For the summer after college, I drove the family car when I went to work or out. Then I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, within 15 minutes walk of the Linguistics building at the university, for two years. Edinburgh has an excellent bus system which I frequently took advantage of, or I walked a lot; I didn’t ride during those years. (Cycle on the left side? No way! :)

When I came back, I drove the family car again for a few months before I moved to the Bay Area. In the Bay Area, I starting cycling again, often to work (and even in winter rains), but I usually took the train part of the way. I frequently rode along with other people in cars to get places that had proven to be annoying or impossible to get to via transit or cycling.

Now, in Portland, I walk and ride the bus a lot as well as cycling, and I (finally) have access to Zipcar. I’m not a frequent user, but it’s nice to know I can haul stuff or drive to remote destinations myself, without depending on the kindness of others. Of course, if I had an Xtracycle I could do more hauling, but I don’t see hauling four kitchen chairs even with an Xtracycle. I love Zipcar for being 90% of what Doug describes a car as:

Even though I didn’t drive much, having a vehicle sitting there, just in case I needed it, provided my mind with a feeling of security. It provided a mode of transportation that was convenient, easy, and available all the time. Peace of mind.

Zipcar claims that each of their cars takes 20 cars off the road (they ask when you sign up if you will be getting rid of your car). Pretty amazing, and a great way forward for letting go of your car without letting go of all that peace of mind.

Even though I’m much more impressed by Doug than I am by myself, I don’t think this is a contest of who’s the most impressive. I certainly don’t do it to prove anything or make milestones, and he clearly doesn’t either. We’re both happier when we’re not behind the steering wheel of a car, and for me that is and will always be the main reason I don’t drive much. I hope in ten years I’ll still be car-free and that even more people will find it a viable option for themselves, and discover their joy in a different kind of freedom from the kind a personal motor vehicle offers.

* The house in West U I lived in during my junior year of college. With a lot of violinists, hence the name.
** Partly as a favor to him so he didn’t have to drive it back to Oregon. And I locked myself out of it once — in the middle of Tropical Storm Allison.

Privacy, etc. II

I got some offline feedback on my last entry, with the effect that I rethought a few things. Here are some of the new thoughts:

Anonymity. The way I defined this previously was “being out in public without being notable”. This isn’t a very good definition, because, as Gavin pointed out, anonymity actually has a more technical definition that’s important to preserve, namely: being in public without being known. So works of art can be anonymous, in that they are well-known but no one knows who made them (they are completely unsigned). Or a person can be anonymous by being in disguise or otherwise completely unrecognized. Or information can be made anonymous, “unconnected to an identity”, by purging it of identifying information, like aggregated web search data unconnected to IP address or other similar identifiers.

Gavin suggested that the concept I defined previously could be described as being “unnotable” or “unnoticed”. Perhaps a better word is needed, but having both concepts is certainly more useful.

Another concept that I didn’t define explicitly, but left under the umbrella of privacy, is pseudonymity. This is a very important concept in modern web communications since so much information these days is attached to usernames. When is a pseudonym truly unconnected to a person’s “real identity”? This can be a challenge to determine, and a lot of pseudonymous information is poorly protected because of subtle identifiers in the information or interconnection between pseudonymous information and information filed under a “real name”; it can also become an issue when pseudonym or username is used for multiple sites, services, or types of works. It’s often easier to find a person’s data on the web once you know one of their common usernames than it is when you know their name. Usernames are, by their nature as keys to a specific record, more unique than names.

I also am not that fond of my definition of notability. It doesn’t seem to me to require numbers, but only a certain level of significant interest. However, that’s pretty hard to describe and define.

Finally, Dave wrote me an extensive discussion of yet another concept relating to accessibility: risk.
Risk is what you have when information is accessible to some people, but not others, because there’s a risk of failure of the safeguards that prevent it from being accessible to everyone (loss or deliberate breakage), as well as a risk of legal decision that the safeguards must be removed (search warrants, subpoenas).

Dave sums his discussion up thus: “Heightened accessibility, even if it is well-understood under normal conditions, still creates the prospect of lowered privacy.”

This is, I think, one of the big deals about accessibility that makes people pitch a fit about sudden increases in it.

Privacy, Accessibility, and Notability

As a result of some long-ago and more recent conversations with smart friends of mine, I came up with some interesting thoughts about privacy.

I don’t fully understand the legal umbrella of privacy, but it seems to me that there are a few distinct concepts that it would be useful to introduce into quasi-legal/common-sense discussions of privacy, and potentially to the legal arena too, in the long run.

First, a brief rundown of the concepts, before we get into their interactions and complications.

Privacy. Things that are private are things that you do on private property not visible from a public space, or public spaces where you have “a reasonable expectation of privacy”, and that you don’t speak or publish about in publicly-accessible forums — or if you do, those forums are specifically unconnected to your “real identity”. Also, things are private which are defined by law to be private, but that’s less important here than the nontechnical definition.

Accessibility (or Ease of Access). Things that are accessible are things that are easy for the average person or user to find. This is not a great term because “accessible” also has a technical binary definition related to privacy: if information is not at all accessible, it is private. But bear with me for a while, and suggest a better word if you have one.

Notability. Things that are notable are things that a substantial percentage of people (in the whole population or some subgroup) is interested in knowing about.

Anonymity. Being out in public without being notable.

The complexities of online “privacy” often come up when something besides privacy is involved, namely accessibility or notability. In my old journal, I wrote an entry about Google Street View (and Facebook News Feed, to some extent) in which I used the terms “theoretical privacy” and “actual privacy” rather than using the word “accessibility”, although I did notice, on re-reading the comments, that I start to talk about information being “(easily) accessible”.

GSV and FNF are iconic examples of things that “raised privacy concerns” without actually doing anything to change whether information was private or not. All the information on GSV and FNF was always available (to anyone who set foot in a place, in the case of GSV, and to anyone who previously had access to the info, in the case of FNF). What they did do was make it incredibly easy to find things out that previously had required a lot of effort to find out: what a place looks like at ground level, and what your friends are doing on Facebook. So the information became accessible (in the sense defined above) where before it had been inaccessible.

Notability is implicated in most problems where accessibility becomes an issue. If information is not notable (no one is really interested in knowing it), it doesn’t matter if it is easily accessible or not: no one cares, either way. Dave sent me a link today (which spawned this whole thought process on my part) about a guy whose information suddenly became notable. The guy didn’t mind, but it gave him pause for thought, as I’m sure it would most of us.

In the FNF and GSV cases, nothing became differently notable, just differently (more easily) accessible. This is closer to a form of privacy loss, because it makes something notable easier to find, and if something notable is found, you have much easier access to it. BoingBoing readers had many things to say about it, some of them wondering if we need new laws, or a new area of law, to deal with accessibility of information, since it isn’t covered by traditional privacy law.

Personal conduct in public, combined with YouTube and other video-upload services, illustrates a different set of circumstances. Most of us who live in largish urban areas, most of the time we’re in public, are anonymous: out in public without anyone particularly caring who we are. We feel restricted in our activities by our visibility, but don’t need to worry very much about anyone caring what we’re up to, even if we’re eating cookies when we’re supposed to be on a diet, or smoking when we said we quit. The situation isn’t the same in smaller communities, of course. In small communities, it’s hard to be out in public without being known.

Even in larger communities, recording and uploading a person’s behavior to a video site like YouTube makes it more accessible, but doesn’t necessarily make it more notable (consider all the incredibly boring YouTube videos that no one watches). Likewise, a person’s behavior becoming an object of attention/controversy would make it more notable but not more accessible: you’d still have to actually find the person to see what they were doing. When you get the simultaneous combination of accessibility and notability, you get something like the recent BART shooting video + controversy or the Caltrain cyclist arrest. But another worrying situation is when something goes up earlier, and then later becomes notable (like the guy’s photos as linked above, or like Facebook photos of undergrads drinking which get them in trouble).

How do we live our lives in a world that is increasingly a participatory panopticon? How do we act in public? What do we publicize and what do we keep private when things could become far more accessible or notable in the future than we ever imagined?

Two things that are fantastic

I’ve had kind of a crazy week — maybe kind of a crazy month, really — and two things this week were particularly fantastic:

Dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes from Ella Bella Farm

These tomatoes are expensive compared to most of the heirlooms and organic tomatoes at the Menlo Park Farmer’s Market — they cost I think $3 or $3.50 a pound. But they are SO WORTH IT. OMG. They are fantastic and amazing and so flavorful and with great structure and they are great alone or in tomato-basil-mozzarella sandwiches and they pep up anything they are in, making a salad into a fun hunt-the-tomatoes experience.

XKCD Store‘s customer service

A while back I ordered the Regular Expressions shirt from the XKCD store and I got it when I got back from Portland, but I hadn’t worn it until this week (everyone at work loves it, incidentally). When I did I found a small hole in the shirt. I wrote to the XKCD store person saying, hey, I found this hole, I don’t think I made it but I can’t be sure, and they said, basically, “No worries! We’ll send you a new shirt right away! Feel free to keep the old one!” How awesome is that? Love.

Wall-E should probably make this list too, because it is really sweet and funny and I liked it a lot, but foodie geek that I am, the other two things actually make me happier. Tomatoes and XKCD FTW.

SFSO & C do Brahms (and blow my mind)

Back in February after my first experience at the San Francisco Symphony, I wrote that if them doing the German Requiem (with SFSO Chorus) didn’t blow my mind, nothing would.

Well, it did. What a beautiful concert. For the first half they did Gestliches Lied and Four Songs for Women’s Chorus, which I thought were amazing. At intermission I described the sound to Ryan as like glass globes floating in the air. I don’t know how they (or Brahms) do it, but that’s what it sounds like. Brahms is odd because the songs are often sad but they don’t always sound it.

The Requiem was just wonderful. That piece lives in my soul, so I think it’s impossible for me to do an adequate description of it. It’s got so many tender and lovely moments, so many powerful moments, and so many sad moments, and the ensembles expressed it all perfectly, both emotionally and artistically. I savored my favorite moments, occasionally unable to resist silently forming the words in my own mouth and remembering how it felt to sing them. And I rediscovered other beautiful bits that I often pass over as I listen preferentially to my favorite movements.

Actually, the only weak spot for me (and this is perhaps more my taste than my artistic judgment) was the soloists. I felt the soprano was fine but too ‘soprano’-ish and not very expressive, and the baritone was too quiet and his voice quality was blurry. But the choir and orchestra were absolutely on.

My mind is officially blown.

Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg?

Never thought it would happen but…

…I think I’ve fallen for California, or at least for the Bay Area.

I fell for San Francisco a bit before I moved here, loving the little houses all packed up in the hills. It reminded me a little of Edinburgh (the city I love best). I also had an affection for BART — the speed, the frequency, the sounds it makes when it accelerates.

But moving to the Peninsula isn’t really like moving to San Francisco. It’s suburbia on crack, high-density, long-range suburbia, set into a landscape that would be much more beautiful if only it weren’t crowded with overpriced, undermaintained homes. It’s a frustrating place to live — I think whether you have a car or not (because if you do, you spend a lot of time in traffic), but more so if you don’t. Not dense enough for transit to be effective, too dense for transit not to make sense. I was angry with Caltrain for being crappy. I didn’t feel at home. I couldn’t get to places. I didn’t know people.

But I got seduced by the flowers in everyone’s yards, the beautiful weather, and the ever-tantalizing closeness of both city and wilderness. You can go to San Francisco and have your fill of urbanness (I don’t need that much, it turns out). And there’s that little strip of undeveloped area off to the coast edge as you start to come south from the city, progressing to a wide swath of ranches, estates, parks and near-wilderness as you go further south. Hiking and riding in that area isn’t too far from being a little strip of heaven.

Farmer’s markets overflow with produce from farms in the nearby area and the Central Valley. There are towns and cities with a multitude of different sizes and personalities, and interesting places to go that aren’t really that far away, even though they’re a lot further away than most people want to admit. Slowly, I started to get the measure of this place. I didn’t realize how at home I’d become until a fortuitous invitation to temporarily get away came my way, and I realized I didn’t want to miss anything.

I have the uniform, but I never really thought I’d become a California girl. I guess I underestimated California.