Benin

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Like Scott Alexander, I’m confused why I never heard about the spectacular medieval African city of Benin before, when “even the people complaining about how neocolonialist society covers up the greatness of Africa only ever talk about Zimbabwe and Kilwa which are both way less impressive”:

The Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition) described the walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom as the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. According to estimates by the New Scientist’s Fred Pearce, Benin City’s walls were at one point “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops”.

Situated on a plain, Benin City was enclosed by massive walls in the south and deep ditches in the north. Beyond the city walls, numerous further walls were erected that separated the surroundings of the capital into around 500 distinct villages.

Pearce writes that these walls “extended for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500 sq km and were all dug by the Edo people … They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet”.

Barely any trace of these walls exist today.

Benin City was also one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting. Huge metal lamps, many feet high, were built and placed around the city, especially near the king’s palace. Fuelled by palm oil, their burning wicks were lit at night to provide illumination for traffic to and from the palace.

When the Portuguese first “discovered” the city in 1485, they were stunned to find this vast kingdom made of hundreds of interlocked cities and villages in the middle of the African jungle. They called it the “Great City of Benin”, at a time when there were hardly any other places in Africa the Europeans acknowledged as a city. Indeed, they classified Benin City as one of the most beautiful and best planned cities in the world.

In 1691, the Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto observed: “Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.”

[...]

At the centre of the city stood the king’s court, from which extended 30 very straight, broad streets, each about 120-ft wide. These main streets, which ran at right angles to each other, had underground drainage made of a sunken impluvium with an outlet to carry away storm water. Many narrower side and intersecting streets extended off them. In the middle of the streets were turf on which animals fed.

“Houses are built alongside the streets in good order, the one close to the other,” writes the 17th-century Dutch visitor Olfert Dapper. “Adorned with gables and steps … they are usually broad with long galleries inside, especially so in the case of the houses of the nobility, and divided into many rooms which are separated by walls made of red clay, very well erected.”

Dapper adds that wealthy residents kept these walls “as shiny and smooth by washing and rubbing as any wall in Holland can be made with chalk, and they are like mirrors. The upper storeys are made of the same sort of clay. Moreover, every house is provided with a well for the supply of fresh water”.

Occupy Le Corbusier

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

The natural environment has its champions in American politics, but the built environment, where most of us live and work, does not:

Traditional architecture — derived ultimately from the columns, pediments, arches, and other features of ancient Greece and Rome — evolved by trial and error, teaching best practices to builders and architects generation by generation. The centuries forged a classical language that fostered architecture sensitive to the public’s desire for “congenial facades.” But in the mid-20th century, new ideas took over, and the public has ever since been subjected to endless experimentation and vanity projects.

In most cities and towns, the way new buildings look is not influenced by public taste, which is generally traditional. Instead, it is the purview of municipal and institutional facilities committees, design-review panels, the developers who hire architects who cater to the tastes of officialdom, and the local circle of professionals, academics, and journalists who may be relied upon to cluck at any deviation from the elite fashion in the design of new buildings.

Sustainable Produce

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

Modern greenhouses are now in the vanguard of sustainability.

The logic of farmers’ markets begins with this: that the route from harvest to plate ought to be as direct as possible. That’s fine if farmers live round the corner from consumers. But urban land is in short supply, expensive, often polluted, and unsuitable for horticulture. And there is more. Even in a short chain from farm to table, produce can get spoiled. A fresh tomato is not dead; like all fresh products, it’s a living organism with an active metabolism, post-harvesting, that provides a fertile substrate for microorganisms and causes tomatoes to deteriorate very fast. Freshness does not in itself translate into sustainability: unless the supply chain is well?organised, losses can be considerable. And food losses come down to a waste of land, water, energy and chemicals used to produce what is ultimately discarded. This ought to be a good argument for local markets, but it is not. Everything depends on transportation, storage and speed. Poorly packed products go to waste in a matter of hours.

Thanks to decades of research, we now understand the interacting metabolisms of vegetables and microorganisms. We can design high-tech transport and storage techniques that slow down, even halt, deterioration through the use of harmless mixtures of gases. Chips fitted to containers give off signals when the gas composition and temperature need adjusting to plan ripening at the exact moment of delivery. Likewise, to minimise food losses in supermarkets, packaging techniques and materials have been developed to prolong shelf life. Surprising but true: modern treatments with biodegradable plastic bags and sealing create an optimal environment inside the package and reduce loss. So does the industrial washing of packed and cut vegetables, which also saves water, compared with household?level processing.

What then of labour? While ‘handpicked’ sounds attractive to the urban consumer or occasional gardener, this type of manual labour is backbreaking if done all day long. Remuneration is poor, job security close to zero, and only few are willing to do this kind of work. To top it all, the yield from organic farming is low. So think about the alternative: harvesting vegetables such as tomatoes with smart robots that carefully grab each fruit, after assessing its ripeness with a special camera; using smart technology to fine-tune the dosing of fertiliser to every stage of plant development. This enhances flavour and texture, and reduces the overall amount of fertiliser needed. The result is that, in greenhouses, one square metre of tomato plants produces more than 70 kilos of high?quality tomatoes, all of which make it to consumers’ kitchens.

Since we’re on the subject of freshness, consider this: ketchup might actually be better for us than fresh tomatoes – and not just because of economics (the tomatoes used in ketchup are subgrade ones that would otherwise be destroyed). While fresh tomatoes contribute to a healthy diet, human digestive systems are not tuned to extracting most nutrients from fresh tomatoes. Tomatoes are far more nutritious when cooked or processed into ketchup or paste. So, ketchup is no bad thing – unless overloaded with sugar and salt. Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that the discovery of fire and cooking – that is, heating food – has been essential in the evolution of the human brain because it allowed for a better absorption of nutrients. Moreover, drying and smoking promoted the preservation of perishable foodstuffs, and perhaps facilitated the emergence of a more complex diet and division of labour.

But surely, you’ll object, tomatoes grown in small-scale gardens taste better. Not so! Double-blind tasting panels have been unable to pick out the greenhouse tomatoes as lacking in flavour, or tomatoes grown without fertiliser as more tasteful. According to Dutch reports on such testing, taste is more dependent on the variety of tomato than on the way it is grown. More importantly, the context of eating determines everything. The on-the-vine tomatoes you consume with mozzarella and olive oil on a village square in Italy will never taste the same at home. It’s a matter of psychology and gastronomy, not chemistry and biology.

In complete contrast to the mantras of organic farming, modern greenhouses are now in the vanguard of sustainability. No longer net?energy absorbers, pilot schemes show that they can produce enough additional energy to heat an entire neighbourhood by storing excess heat from the summer sun in groundwater to be released during winter. Since plants use only a small part of the solar spectrum in photosynthesis, modern technology enables us to find applications for the rest of the spectrum. Greenhouses also utilise residual CO2 from industry to promote plant growth and, in the Netherlands, CO2 from natural?gas production is routinely reused in agriculture. Conceiving greenhouses as net?energy producers opens up new opportunities to build them in hot, arid climates in order to use the stored energy for cooling down the facility.

But energy is just one dimension of sustainable production. Water is equally important. Here too, greenhouses optimise resource use. Under the very best conditions, one kilo of tomatoes can be produced using just 4-6 litres of water, because evaporation from plants can be collected and reused. Meanwhile, according to a 2015 study published in Science Direct, for tomatoes grown in the open air or under open plastic, the production of the same one kilo requires as much as 60 litres of water. Just as water might be reused in greenhouses, pests can be kept out. In a controlled environment, you can minimise the use of pesticides, or opt to use biological controls in the form of predatory insects.

Agricultural science has made great strides in breeding tomatoes with resistance to disease and pests, or with longer shelf-lives and better taste; while the latest genetic and biological techniques have increased our understanding of the genetic diversity of tomatoes and enabled us to speed up the breeding process. Such techniques do not always lead to genetically modified tomatoes. For that to happen, genes from other species would need to be introduced, of the kind that lead to higher vitamin contents in sweet potatoes, for example, or that use bacteria to build resistance against fungi.

So what do we really mean by sustainability? There have been many attempts at providing an exact and measurable definition beyond the statement of the Brundtland Report (1987), which coined the term in the context of equitable development that would not endanger the livelihoods of future generations. The concept originated in 19th-century forestry science to indicate the amount of wood that could be harvested from a forest without damaging future productivity. Since then, it has evolved to mean ‘respecting people, planet and profits’, in the parlance of the UN Earth Summit of 1992 and subsequent Millennium Development Goals.

A Tale of Two Suburbs

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Steve Sailer tells A Tale of Two Suburbs, the Beach Boys’ Hawthorne and NWA’s Torrance:

Straight Outta Compton is much celebrated by white critics for showing our heroes being hassled by suspicious police. (Ferguson is often cited by enthusiastic reviewers.) But, even sanitized as the film is — Dr. Dre’s penchant for beating women was left out, and I can’t recall a single scene of anybody smoking crack — Straight Outta Compton is still full of so much puerile mayhem that it’s hard to conclude that the cops weren’t sensible in trying to run these jokers out of town.

For example, when the Torrance police see our heroes hanging around outside the recording studio in gang gear, they force them down on the ground to send the message that Torrance isn’t gang ground. Their manager, middle-aged macher Jerry Heller (played by Giamatti) excoriates the cops: These aren’t criminals, they’re artists.

And indeed they weren’t affiliated with either the Crips or the Bloods. Just as drummer Dennis Wilson was the only surfer in the Beach Boys, N.W.A’s not-very-skilled frontman Eazy-E was the band’s only career criminal, and he was in the weed-dealing business (a less murderous line of work than cocaine). The more talented members were boys from respectable families who’d avoided serious trouble to focus on their entertainment ambitions. (Dr. Dre appears to have prudently restricted his violence to hitting girls.) But they couldn’t tell the cops that they were just pretending to be vicious thugs to sell records because that would have undermined their lucrative vicious-thug image.

I was particularly struck by their encounter with the Torrance police because I had looked into buying a house in that suburb in 1991. Like much of Southern California near the ocean, Torrance’s housing stock was of poor quality. (Before antibiotics, rich people had built inland in places like Pasadena out of fear that ocean fog causes tuberculosis.) And Torrance’s enormous oil refinery tends to periodically belch noxious fallout over homeowners.

But the schools were good because it’s a low-crime community. Today, while the Beach Boys’ Hawthorne, three miles north of Torrance, is over 80 percent Latino or black and Compton is 99 percent non-Asian minority, Torrance is still 42 percent white, 35 percent Asian, 16 percent Hispanic, 6 percent mixed, and only 3 percent black.

Torrance’s homicide rate in this century has been about one-fifth of Hawthorne’s and one-twentieth of Compton’s. How did Torrance dodge this (literal) bullet?

After watching Straight Outta Compton, I would guess: by the Torrance Police Department profiling black youths dressed as killers. Why did Torrance have the courage to save itself? I don’t know. Perhaps because Torrance’s large, politically powerful Asian presence (Torrance was the American headquarters of Toyota from 1982 to 2014) was immune to white guilt?

How Chicago Is Trying to Integrate Its Suburbs

Monday, July 20th, 2015

The Atlantic explains how Chicago is trying to integrate its suburbs — by replacing its housing projects with Section 8 vouchers to subsidize apartments outside the city — and Steve Sailer pokes some fun:

You may have somehow gotten the impression that tearing down Cabrini Green was all about driving out poor black people from right next to the Gold Coast to add billions to local property values. But, it turns out, it was really about Chicago generously Sharing Diversity with deprived suburban municipalities.

The Density Divide

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

Steve Sailer explores the density divide:

Different densities appeal to different personalities. For example, the frontier was always assumed to be where a man could be free from matronly tyranny, a major theme of American letters. Huckleberry Finn sums up that he’s headed for Oklahoma “because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

Americans were long extremely proud of settling the continent. The pioneers’ struggle against nature was an objective accomplishment that enthralled the world: Westerns were one of the most popular genres of movies from 1903 to 1970. American settlers combined independence and cooperation well, especially in contrast to the fractious Native Americans, who constantly stabbed each other in the back with self-destructive rivalries rather than unite to fight the white man.

Old-fashioned science fiction — Heinlein, Star Trek, Interstellar — tended to be about opening up a New Frontier that would allow Americans to once again flourish at what they do best: contend with nature for objective gain rather than with each other for subjective pride of place. Indeed the race to the moon proved a nonviolent way for Americans and Soviets to compete against the physical universe to show off who would win if they went to war against each other.

Different kinds of science evolve best under different conditions. Evolutionary theory is very much a product of the countryside, especially of England’s culture of intellectual country boys. On the other hand, Claude Shannon worked out information theory in Greenwich Village.

In the red-blue debate, both sides view the other as horrifyingly conformist: In the country, you can’t get away from people who know you, while in the city, you can’t get away from people, period.

The kinds of businesses found in lightly populated areas tend to be agriculture, energy, and other forms of resource extraction, and, as population increases, construction and heavy industry. The type of industry found in the highest-density places tends toward finance, law, media, fashion, and marketing.

In my ill-fated venture into the marketing profession, for instance, I had a corner office directly across Wacker Drive from the Sears Tower, then the tallest skyscraper in the world. Granted, it was an inconvenient place from which to attempt to manipulate the habits of the average grocery shopper since it was an expensive cab ride from the nearest supermarket, but the view was amazing.

Silicon Valley started off on the exurban frontier between San Francisco and San Jose because early chipmakers needed open land to build fabrication plants. And the kind of engineers who wanted to work on the problems that firms like Hewlett-Packard and Intel were solving preferred living in their own houses with their own yards and, famously, their own two-car garages.

But as the tech industry has evolved away from wrestling with nature toward becoming a marketing and media juggernaut, businesses such as Twitter have flowed back to San Francisco. Sure, there’s no room for you to work on your hobby in your garage, but today’s tech titans don’t see why their employees should have time for hobbies.

In the Twitter Age, status competitions tend to be played out online in the realm of ideology, with the more implausible your dogmas, the higher your status.

In other words, we’ve managed to combine the worst of village and big-city life: There’s now an unlimited number of people at hand to take offense and remember you for it. And there’s no way to light out for the territory and start over, because now it all goes on your permanent record.

When Did Healthy Communities Become Illegal?

Friday, June 12th, 2015

When did healthy communities become illegal?, Charles Tuttle asks:

The scene is Upper Monarch Lake, ten thousand feet up in the mountains of the Sequoia National Park in California. If you got here, you climbed thousands of feet in elevation through the wilderness, carrying your tent, sleeping bag, and all your supplies on your back. There is not a single graffito or piece of trash to be seen. If you should happen to have neighbors in a nearby tent for the night, you will not worry a bit about whether they will steal your gear or harm you in the night, even though they are strangers. More likely, they’ll invite you to share some of their bourbon.

Why do backpackers feel safe sleeping outside in public at 10,000 feet but not in their own city parks? It is the steep barrier to entry that creates this microcosm of community that so naturally emerges: anyone who has made it here has the physical, material, social, and informational resources to pass this natural test of good character.

The same is true, to a lesser extent, of Burning Man – the travel and resource outlay required to get to the desert festival forms a barrier high enough to allow for the formation of a temporary community, one in which participants feel safer interacting with strangers than they might in their own hometowns.

Natural human intuition about character has served people well in forming and pruning communities for thousands of years. Specific legal interventions in the United States, however, have limited the ability of individuals to act on their local social intuition and traditions, substituting a legal notion of radical inclusion. Legislation removed barriers to entry that people had erected for their communities, acting in turn on four core areas of social cohesion. While communities at first adapted to the new restrictions and evolved around them, eventually they became so warped that they began to fail to perform their most basic functions: providing members with social belonging, usefulness to others, a sense of meaning, and safety.

The first of the big four areas of life to be threatened by legislation was business – especially the kind of business that might have been called an inn or public house in another time, that is, public accommodations and restaurants. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin illegal for businesses of this kind. Federal and state laws have since expanded this anti-discrimination provision significantly; almost half of all states also prohibit discrimination against gay people by businesses, and Colorado recently forced a religious baker to either bake cakes for gay weddings, against his religious principles, or go out of business.

No longer does the restaurateur, publican, or even baker have the privilege to exclude anyone he chooses from his premises and service, for any reason or no reason. Some argue that the publican is better off; with more potential customers, his market is larger now. But is money the only imaginable motivation for owning a small business of this sort, the kind that underpins communities? A barrier to entry for customers at the pub has been removed. The only barrier that is still legal – as we will see in later sections – is money. Rather than having an exclusive pub with its clientele weeded by a kingly proprietor, the patrons must pay high prices as a substitute barrier to entry. Another solution is to arrange businesses so that customers need not interact with strangers, a small-scale version of modern city planning.

This is not a defense of the practice of racial discrimination. But outlawing bad discrimination has chilled the expression of good discrimination – of intuitive, personal discrimination, which sometimes but not always takes things like race or sexual orientation into account. (The race of neighbors at Upper Monarch Lake would scarcely make a difference.) Discrimination – the selection of some and exclusion of others for social interaction – had acquired the characteristic of a slur, but it is a necessary faculty for humans and groups. Peaceful people can hardly remain so if they can’t exclude destructive people. Discrimination, like speech, needs to be free from the chilling effects of lawsuits.

The right of a business proprietor to kick out anyone he likes seems a minuscule freedom in comparison to decades of legal oppression of a race of people descended from legal slaves. But black communities have served as a mascot for legislation rather than actually benefitting from it.

Gentrification in Baltimore

Monday, May 18th, 2015

The fact of urban gentrification in Baltimore is that hipster homesteaders have moved into traditional working-class white enclaves:

These areas were sought by the first hipster pioneers to benefit from the protection of the tough whites in those areas who had held out against the black-on-white race purge that was the 70’s and 80’s in Baltimore. The end result is that the housing values go up so much that the working and poor whites must move out as they can’t pay the taxes.

Recently, beginning in the 2000s, Johns Hopkins University and Hospital have been buying up vast swaths of vacant property in East Baltimore [where Boomy the Nigerian cabby rescued the ‘blonde woman of the yuppies’] and along the Charles Village Corridor. This was in response to blacks preying on hospital and university staff. These large institutions are buying up the criminal seed beds which constitute perhaps a third of the black Baltimore economy [with welfare constituting roughly another third]. This has caused more damage to the drug gangs than any police action, and is covered in the final season of The Wire. Over the past two years a concerted effort to discourage white resettlement of Baltimore has been made by black criminal residents. However, the news spin and statistical manipulation engaged in by the leftist city government has successfully blinded the prospective home buyers of these facts until it is too late.

It is no accident that the prime targets of the mob attacks were the Shoppers supermarket [which was successfully defended thanks to the early warnings put out by black cashiers from the neighborhood], and the CVS drug store which the Mayor gave orders not to defend. Both of these locations were only established due to city government initiatives to bring businesses into the neighborhood.

Note that the most successful pockets of gentrification such as South Baltimore, Locust Point and Canton, fared better than the Hopkins controlled areas and the others, because they are neighborhoods with their backs against the water, and raiders have only one way out, with Locust Point, which terminates in Fort Mchenry National Park, being a virtual fortified position.

With the white trash priced out of the community, the protective basis for resettlement is now gone. Without nasty whites to fight the blacks at street level, and with the police now exposed as enfeebled, the hunt for Whitey is on in earnest. This is how I have lived my life, as a white hunted by blacks across an urban crimescape, what H.L Mencken famously called, “the ruins of a once great medieval city.”

Traction Magnates

Sunday, May 17th, 2015

Back in the 1920s, most American city-dwellers took public transportation to work every day, but then a company called National City Lines, which was controlled by GM, bought up all the streetcars — or so the conspiracy theory goes:

During the 1800s, animal-drawn streetcar lines were built in cities across the United States. Starting in the 1880s, they were replaced by electrified streetcars, which quickly became the dominant mode of transportation in many cities.

Running streetcars was a very profitable business. Cities expanded, and people who found themselves living too far from work to walk depended on them. (Some real-estate developers built nearby suburbs around streetcar lines.) Over time, the businessmen who ran the streetcars, called “traction magnates,” consolidated ownership of multiple lines, establishing powerful, oftentimes corrupt monopolies in many cities.

Eventually, many of them contracted with city governments for the explicit right to operate as a monopoly in that city. In exchange, they agreed to all sorts of conditions. “Eager to receive guarantees on their large up-front investments, streetcar operators agreed to contract provisions that held fares constant at five cents and mandated that rail line owners maintain the pavement around their tracks,” writes Stephen Smith at Market Urbanism.

Streetcar in Traffic in Fresno in 1938

The real problem was that once cars appeared on the road, they could drive on streetcar tracks — and the streetcars could no longer operate efficiently. “Once just 10 percent or so of people were driving, the tracks were so crowded that [the streetcars] weren’t making their schedules,” Norton says.

In some places, like Chicago, streetcars retained dedicated rights of way, and they survived. Pretty much anywhere else, they were doomed. “With 160,000 cars cramming onto Los Angeles streets in the 1920s, mass-transit riders complained of massive traffic jams and hourlong delays,” writes Cecilia Rasmussen at the Los Angeles Times.

What’s more, in many cities the streetcars’ contracts required them to keep the pavement on the roads surrounding the tracks in good shape. This meant that the companies were effectively subsidizing automobile travel even as it cannibalized their business.

And paying for this maintenance got more and more difficult for one key reason: many contracts had permanently locked companies into a 5-cent fare, which wasn’t indexed to inflation.

How Riots Start, and How They Can Be Stopped

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Riots are more common in democracies, Edward Glaeser notes — writing at the time of the London riots a few years ago:

The deadliest was the 1863 Draft Riot. More than 120 people were killed when the streets of Manhattan were taken over by protesters, many of them immigrants, who were furious at the prospect of having to fight in the Civil War.

In the early decades of the 20th century, cities such as Atlanta and Chicago were torn apart as whites attacked newly urban blacks for perceived transgressions. Chicago’s 1919 riot began when a child crossed an invisible racial barrier while swimming in Lake Michigan. In the 1960s, there was widespread unrest. In many cases, including the 1965 Watts Riot, the violence began with an argument over law enforcement.

These public disturbances are a classic example of tipping-point phenomena, which occur when there is some positive feedback mechanism that makes an activity more attractive, or less costly, as more people do it.

There is a tipping point in rioting because the cost of participating — the risk of going to jail — gets lower as the number of people involved increases. If I decided to start rioting tomorrow in Harvard Square to express my outrage at the closing of the beloved Curious George children’s bookstore, it’s a pretty good bet that I would be immediately arrested. But if thousands of others were involved, I’d probably get off scot free. The police would be overwhelmed, and my probability of incarceration would fall to zero.

Thus, riots occur when the shear mass of rioters overwhelms law enforcement. But how do these mass events get started?

In some cases, such as the New York Draft Riot, organizers get people out on the street. In others, such as the 1965 Watts Riot, a peaceful crowd provides cover for initial lawlessness. Sporting events, such as Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in Vancouver this year, can easily produce the crowds that allow a riot to start. Most strangely, riots can follow an event that creates a combination of anger and the shared perception that others will be rioting. The acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King case seems to have created these conditions in Los Angeles in 1992.

The London riots appear to have had a simpler starting point. About 300 people gathered at a police station to protest the shooting of a 29-year-old suspect. Once there were so many angry people in one place, setting fire to an empty police car became a low-risk piece of pyrotechnics for the protesters.

After riots, there is often an attempt to explain the outburst as the result of large societal forces. The events in the U.K. have been blamed on growing inequality and the current government’s austerity program. The disorder in the U.S. in the 1960s was attributed to racism.

But across U.S. cities, there has never been much of a link between unrest and either inequality or poverty. In fact, the riots of the 1960s were actually slightly more common in cities that had more government spending. Riots were significantly less common in the South, where the Jim Crow laws were making their long overdue exit. This isn’t to say that many people involved in riots don’t have valid grievances, but plenty of people have serious grievances and don’t riot.

Somewhat paradoxically, even though the police often provide the flash point for these outbreaks, larger police expenditures per capita in a city in 1960 was associated with fewer arrests and arsons when riots occurred. Even if a riot provides a wakeup call for police reform, in the short run, the outbreaks typically end only when there is enough law enforcement to ensure that such behavior leads to arrests.

I hope the U.K. can handle its violence with a purely police response, but in the U.S. restoring law has typically meant bringing in the military. The 1863 Draft Riot ended when federal troops arrived after a long march from Maryland. Detroit’s terrible 1967 tumult ended with tanks on the streets. The National Guard was deployed in Los Angeles in 1992. Trying to stop a riot with too small a force can often lead to more, not less, bloodshed, because as the riot continues, vigilantes step in and beleaguered policemen can resort to brutality.

My colleague Christopher Stone has argued that there is another lesson about fighting riots to be learned from the incidents in the Paris suburbs in 2005, and the violence that didn’t happen during the Republican National Convention in New York City in 2004. In France, the police initially arrested relatively few people, but sought serious criminal penalties for those they did arrest. The New York Police Department arrested more than 1,000 people and let them go. The New York strategy protected the city; the French strategy wasn’t as effective.

The lesson: Light penalties widely applied and serious penalties applied to a few can both deter unlawful behavior. This is a central conclusion of Gary Becker’s path-breaking economic analysis of crime and punishment. But in the case of riots, it is awfully hard to actually prove wrongdoing and extremely important to clear the streets. Arresting widely and temporarily can be far more effective.

One-Way Thoroughfares

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

In the 1950s and ’60s, streets that once flowed both directions were converted into fast-moving one-way thoroughfares to help cars speed through town — but this had unintended consequences:

In John Gilderbloom’s experience, the notorious streets are invariably the one-way streets. These are the streets lined with foreclosed homes and empty storefronts, the streets that look neglected and feel unsafe, the streets where you might find drug dealers at night.

“Sociologically, the way one-way streets work,” he says, “[is that] if there are two or more lanes, a person can just pull over and make a deal, while other traffic can easily pass them by.”

It’s also easier on a high-speed one-way road to keep an eye out for police or flee from the scene of a crime. At least, this is the pattern Gilderbloom, director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods at the University of Louisville, has observed in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, in Houston and Washington…

I always thought they were simply annoying, but now researchers have collected data about one-way streets and the problems they cause:

In 2011, Louisville converted two one-way streets near downtown, each a little more than a mile long, back to two-way traffic. In data that they gathered over the following three years, Gilderbloom and William Riggs found that traffic collisions dropped steeply — by 36 percent on one street and 60 percent on the other — after the conversion, even as the number of cars traveling these roads increased. Crime dropped too, by about a quarter, as crime in the rest of the city was rising. Property values rose, as did business revenue and pedestrian traffic, relative to before the change and to a pair of nearby comparison streets. The city, as a result, now stands to collect higher property tax revenues along these streets, and to spend less sending first-responders to accidents there.

Gilderbloom and Riggs have also done an analysis of the entire city of Louisville, comparing Census tracts with multi-lane one-way streets to those without them. The basic pattern holds city-wide: They found that the risk of a crash is twice as high for people riding through neighborhoods with these one-way streets. The property values in census tracts there were also about half the value of homes in the rest of the city.

Some of these findings are more obvious: Traffic tends to move faster on a wide one-way road than on a comparable two-way city street, and slower traffic means fewer accidents. The rest of these results are theoretically connected to each other in complex ways.

(Hat tip to Tyler Cowen.)

The Retro Electric Moped That’s Taking Over Europe

Friday, March 20th, 2015

The Motorman electric moped offers simplicity in a retro design:

The Motorman may fit the legal definition of a moped, but it has no pedals. The drivetrain is fully electric. No human power required. Tech-wise, though, this is no Tesla. The 2kw engine won’t allow you to do burnouts or evade the polizia. There’s no iPhone charger, blind spot detection sensor, or autonomous driving mode. Not even a lousy cup holder for your macchiato.

What you will get, though, is brilliant industrial design. While other moped and scooter companies are striving to make all their models look like Tron light cycles, Mr. Meijs has gone full retro. The Motorman — with its balloon tires, low-slung gas tank, oversized headlight, and spring-mounted leather seat — looks like a cross between a Schwinn cruiser and a 1915 Harley-Davidson.

Motorman Electric Moped in Red

The ride isn’t bad either. At just 99 pounds (less than half the weight of a typical moped), the Motorman is easy to balance and maneuver through congested streets. “If you can ride a bike,” says Meijs. “You can ride a Motorman.”

[...]

That “fuel tank” holds a lithium polymer battery, the ideal choice for light EVs because of its high power density rating. That translates to some respectable specs. Range: 43 miles. Top speed: 28 mph. Charging time: 6 hours. Not road trip numbers, but ideal for office drones who like the idea of lowering their carbon footprint without breaking a sweat. The Motorman is also maintenance-free and economical to operate: less than two cents per mile. That may help soften the blow of the sticker price: $5,158 for the base model (available in Jet Black or Ruby Red). This being Europe, tack on another 21 percent for the V.A.T. Options, like Bauhaus paint jobs, leather saddlebags and custom logos, will pad the bill further. Which only proves that not every Dutch treat is cheap.

My first instinct is to drop the “fuel tank” to the lowest point on the frame.

Designing Private Cities, Open to All

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

Alex Tabarrok and Shruti Rajagopalan argue for private cities, open to all:

Gurgaon was a small town 25 years ago, but today it’s a city of some two million people filled with skyscrapers, luxury apartment towers, golf courses, five-star hotels and shopping malls. Often called “the Singapore of India,” Gurgaon is home to offices for nearly half the Fortune 500 firms.

Gurgaon, however, grew not by plan but in a fit of absence of mind. After the state of Haryana streamlined the licensing process, it left developers in Gurgaon to their own devices with little intervention from any national, state or local government. As a result, almost everything that works in Gurgaon today is private. Security, for example, is privately provided for almost all housing, shopping and technology complexes. Over all, about 35,000 private security guards protect Gurgaon, compared with just 4,000 public officers. Gurgaon also has India’s only private fire department, filling an important gap, because it must be capable of reaching Gurgaon’s tallest skyscrapers.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story

But not all is well. No developer in Gurgaon was large enough to plan for citywide services for sewage, water or electricity. For a price, private companies provide these, but in inefficient ways. Sewage doesn’t flow to a central treatment plant but is often collected in trucks and then dumped on public land. Tap water is often delivered by private trucks or from illegally pumped groundwater. Reliable electricity is available 24 hours a day, but often using highly polluting diesel generators.

Compared with the rest of India, Gurgaon fares well but its functioning is far from ideal. Is there a middle ground between China’s ghost cities and the anarchy of Gurgaon? Surprisingly, privately planned cities may be an answer. And one of the oldest is in India.

Jamshedpur was founded by Tata Steel, as a company town, in 1908. It has landscaped parks, paved roads and even a lake, but it’s no playground for the rich. It’s a working town. Nevertheless, it is the only city in the state of Jharkhand with a sewage treatment plant, and it’s one of the few cities in all of India where residents enjoy reasonably priced, reliable electricity and safe tap water. In a survey by the marketing research company Nielsen, residents ranked the city among the best in India for its cheap and reliable provision of sewage, water, electricity, public sanitation and roads.

Jamshedpur works because Tata owned enough land so that it had the right incentives to plan and invest in citywide infrastructure. Tata has also had to maintain good services in order to attract workers. In Gurgaon, private developers built lots of infrastructure, but only up to the property line. By extending the property line to city-scale, the incentives to build large-scale infrastructure like sewage, water and electricity plants are also extended.

Alluring Beauty of Ruins

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

Lewis Dartnell (The Knowledge) shares some examples of the alluring beauty of ruins:

FranceRailroad

Czestochowa

SandSnow

Kenmare

Pripyat

Why They Lost The Wheel

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

Once, in ancient times, the Middle East teemed with carts and wagons and chariots, but they were totally driven out by the coming of the camel:

Good harnesses for camels were designed in Central Asia and, in the 19th century, in the Australian desert, but these did not affect the Middle East.

The only way to make use of this immensely strong beast for transport was to throw the load, averaging anywhere from 300 to 500 pounds, on its back. Thus the pack camel came to compete directly with the ox cart for heavy transport.

The ox cart was equally slow, and in the competition the camel had certain positive advantages. It ate otherwise unusable desert plants, which made its upkeep inexpensive. Little wood, a valuable commodity in the largely deforested Middle East, was required by ancient saddling technology. And its care and breeding could be left to the nomads and thus not be a burden upon the farmer or merchant.

These advantages meant that camel transport was about 20 percent cheaper than wagon transport, according to the edict on prices issued by the Roman emperor Diocletian in the third century A.D. Therefore, simple economic efficiency caused the camel to supplant the wheel, not some mysterious reversion to primitive life.

(Hat tip to commenter Harold!)