Archive for September, 2013


✁ Delusions of Grandeur

For some bizarre reason, this post has been making the rounds on the web. The piece is authored by the website, waitbutwhy.com, a site that seems to be in the business of explaining rather complex concepts using myopic and stereotypical archetypes rather than hard data.

Here’s a taste of the condescension:

This would probably be a good time to bring in our second fact about [Generation Y’ers (which the piece refer to as Gen Y Protagonists & Special Yuppies, or GYPSYs)]:

GYPSYs Are Delusional

“Sure,” Lucy has been taught, “everyone will go and get themselves some fulfilling career, but I am unusually wonderful and as such, my career and life path will stand out amongst the crowd.” So on top of the generation as a whole having the bold goal of a flowery career lawn, each individual GYPSY thinks that he or she is destined for something even better —

A shiny unicorn on top of the flowery lawn.1

Okay, okay! Relax! We’ll get off your lawn! Take it easy!

Look, I don’t know if the thesis of the piece is true.2 It may be. Our generation may be delusional, but if we are, how is this any different from prior generations?

I hold a strong skepticism for viewpoints that more or less explain “the problem with kids today….” That’s not because we don’t have problems, but because all of us were kids at one time, and such criticism seems to repeat itself every generation since the dawn of civilization. It also fails to comprehend that delusion is what spurs change and that in every generation we change. We face new problems, possess the benefit of hindsight, and are not yet significantly invested into the way things are to prevent us from implementing new solutions.

The author confuses the forest for the trees. The piece concludes that our generation is unhappy because of our unrealistic expectations, not the external realities facing society today. Let’s examine the questions that this piece raises.

  1. Are the issues facing my generation really a result of our collective personality?3
  2. Were previous generations’ personalities really that different? That is, if the problems are inherent now, why weren’t they in prior generations, considering the age old view of “the problem with kids today”?
  3. And if prior generations’ personalities really aren’t that different, does the author’s point even begin to explain the reason Generation Y’ers are fairly unhappy today?
  4. Let’s take a look at history to see if we can learn anything. Over the course of twentieth century, three generations have come of age: the “Greatest Generation”4 , the Baby Boomers, and Generation X. Generation Y is now on the cusp of becoming the fourth.

    Has our generation been the only one with high expectations? Maybe I’m manipulating the lessons of the Progressive Era, but it seems to me that the desires and demands of the people in the first couple of decades in the twentieth century sure came to expect a lot more than what society offered back then. The Greatest Generation wanted safer food, safer workplaces, fewer work hours, and more power to influence government. (None of these unreasonable of course, but dreams nonetheless.) Later, this Generation pushed for retirement security, unemployment insurance, labor rights/protections, and welfare under the New Deal.

    Similarly, Baby Boomers, fortunate enough to live in a post-War era of rapid economic expansion wanted more. The expectations of this era culminated in the start of Great Society programs, expanding the social safety net, investing in our schools, and tightening environmental protections. Through determination, Baby Boomers were able to demand more of from their society, just as the generation before had done.

    In much the same way, Generation X’ers also had expectations as the era of the Great Society peaked in the mid-1960s. Medicare and Medicaid were the most notable result that brought healthcare accessibility to the elderly and poor. Pension protections were also enacted ensuring that this generation could retire comfortably and with financial security. Just like prior generations, Generation X faced issues that undermined a strong society, ultimately trading a bit of self reliance and personal struggle to obtain it.

    I point these accomplishments of the twentieth century not to start a tit-for-tat debate to finger point in another direction. Nor do I mention them to suggest that reducing personal struggle makes individuals less hard-working or diligent.((Just because we don’t spend every waking moment hunting for food like the cavemen did by no means makes our struggles less challenging.)) No, I make the points to suggest that perhaps we aren’t that different from our parents and grandparents and to show how outlandish it is to explain away the problems of a generation as a result of our own personality flaws. Every generation has had somewhat delusional expectations, but accomplishment rarely comes without them.

    Adam Weinstein wrote a strong worded response to the absurdist waitbutwhy.com piece that I took comfort in, because it addressed the elephant in the room: societal changes (especially those brought on in 2009 and the Great Recession). Unfortunately, it didn’t demonstrate the red herring in the original piece’s thesis, instead dismissing it with contempt.5

    There *are* delusions at play here, but they are not our generation’s. They play out as two contradictory lectures that we are told, simultaneously, by our monied elders:

    1) This is AMERICA. Everybody does better than their parents!

    2) This is AMERICA. Suck it up and quit bitching that you’re not as well-off as your parents!

    The latter maxim lurks in the heart of every critique of millennials. It assumes that if we’re worse off than previous generations, the fault is ours, and our complaints are so much white whine. We should shut up and be content, because we do work less than our forebears, and spend more time enraptured by our own navels, trying to divine some life-affirming creative direction in them.

    Who cares if my generation’s personality is flawed when previous generations prospered with similar deficiencies. So why is our generation failing to do better than the prior generation? Weinstein provides, I think, a much stronger thesis:

    This state of affairs does not exist because we’re entitled and have simply declined to work as hard as the people that birthed us. American workers have changed from generation to generation: Since 1979, the alleged Dawn of the Millennial, the average U.S. worker has endured a 75 percent increase in productivity…while real wages stayed flat.

    […]

    this financial system that establishes complete social and political control over us, that conditions us to believe that we don’t deserve basic shelter and clothing and food and education and existence-sustaining medical care unless we throw our lives into vassalage and hope, pray, that the lords don’t fuck with our retirements or our coverages. (Maybe if we’re extra productive, someday they’ll do a 4o1K match again, like our ancestors used to talk about!)

    At last, we focus on tangibles that can be demonstrated through data. Weinstein addresses the challenges facing our society rather than blaming those trying to overcome them. Just as previous generations did, when they confronted issues (i.e. worker abuses, food contamination, individual and societal economic risks of unemployment and retirement, an aging population), our generation faces difficulties presented by the introduction of a post-industrial American economy.6

    Most things that appeared reliable in the fifties and sixties are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Pensions are rare. Employer provided healthcare is becoming less and less common as a benefit of employment. Salaries are relatively flat. We are asked to work more for the same pay. We are expected to intern for no pay. Education costs continue to climb. There’s a contradiction of being either overqualified for a job or lacking enough experience to be hired. The list continues. Our generation may not yet possess our elders’ wisdom, but ironically, many of our elders lack perspective. They fail to understand why we struggle, forgetting that we grow up in a different society than they experienced.

    I’ll concede that our generation is delusional. Sure, why not. I’m not ashamed of that. And some of our expectations seem pretty valid. We’ve received more education than prior generations. We were raised in a time where understanding technology is essential and experience the world in a different way. We are more connected. The labor force is less unionized. Manufacturing, while recovering, will likely never be what it was in the early- and mid- twenieth centuries. We are different!

    So what?

    Until we acknowledge that maybe there’s a problem with the current concept of the American Dream and that some things in our society are broken, things will never get better. It won’t get better for us, and it certainly won’t be better for our children. To blame it on our personality, flaws and all, allows older generations to live in denial that our society is still not perfect despite all of their desires to improve it.

    1. I’m not making this up. This is an actual quote from the piece. Unicorn adorned lawns and flower gardens… []
    2. The piece claims that we can see the Generation Y trend through the frequency of word usage, using the Google Ngram Viewer, charting an increase in “fulfilling career” and decrease in “secure career”. I’m no expert on author demographics, but I would suspect that most authors are over the age of 35. But even if you were to somehow draw a meaningful conclusion from word frequency in books, how can one conclude that Generation Y is responsible for this trend, when in all likelihood, the majority of all authors are not part of this generation? Sadly, these are the only charts the piece uses to attempt to demonstrate that the author’s thesis is right. []
    3. A question might also be raised about the logic of explaining unhappiness of our generation solely as a result of the increased expectation vs. a stagnant reality. If expectation is the only variable that has changed, wouldn’t there be a relatively equal number of happy, expectation exceeders, and unhappy, expectation failures? Unless every Gen Y’er’s expectations are set impossibly high (a notion the author does not seem to posit, since s/he seems to think our flaw in expectations are merely that we expect to do better than our parents), without another variable (let’s say… that societal opportunity is also in decline, compared to the prior generation), the logic of the author does not make sense. And, if we look at the perception of the American Dream, our generational views of it have decreased, not increased, []
    4. I suppose the author doesn’t see the irony in pointing to our generation’s delusion, when the first generation of the modern era calls itself the greatest. []
    5. By the way, this past Saturday’s SNL perfectly juxtaposes the two perspectives captured in these pieces. Tina Fey’s Blerta sees Hannah as delusional and naive, but also fails to see her genuine struggles because she has the wisdom of years and dismisses them as less significant as the ones she dealt with. A must watch, if only for a laugh break. []
    6. Imagine for a moment your grandparents’ parents (your great-grandparents) criticizing your grandparents (their children) when demanded a safer food supply that didn’t make them ill. Would your great-grandparents write this off as being demanding or delusional?. Particularly after one-hundred years of the FDA, you can see how absurd this sounds. []

Russia agrees to support Syrian UN Resolution

Funny how two weeks ago, pretty much everyone was claiming that Putin embarrassed Obama in the handling of the Syrian chemical weapon situation.

But news comes this evening that Russia, for the first time since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, supported a resolution to force Syria to do something.

That is a compromise with Russia, the Syrian government’s most powerful defender, which had said from the outset it would oppose a Chapter VII resolution, as it has repeatedly done throughout the divided Security Council’s efforts to forge a consensus on resolving the Syria conflict.

Russia has stubbornly refused to agree to even the most benign of resolutions. Obama’s threat of force (and mostly rhetorical suggestion that Syria give up it’s chemical weapons to resolve this matter) forced Russia’s hand.

Sure, it’s not the macho, warmongering solution that the jingoists have come to desire, but do tell how Obama’s been embarrassed, even slightly.

Foreign policy is a long-game. Unfortunately, our news is no longer designed for patient analysis.


Interesting video outlining Market8 proposal

They make some great points.


Philadelphia’s second casino gets hearing to move forward

The city of Philadelphia still has one license available to issue within the city and are currently weighing six proposals, located in various areas of the city. Curbed Philadelphia has done a tremendous job at mapping the various projects.

  1. Wynn Philadelphia
  2. Hollywood Casino
  3. Casino Revolution
  4. The Provence
  5. Live! Hotel and Casino
  6. Market8

I won’t pretend to know the details of these proposals besides the information that has been provided on these sites, but from an urban development perspective, it appears that only The Provence and Market8 make sense as a way to build upon the city’s preexisting strengths. The Wynn would sit adjacent to the other Philadelphia Casino, Sugarhouse, a project that looks more like a mall within a city than an urban resort. Such a project would create an even greater sea of cars that separate it from, and do little for the neighboring Fishtown and Olde Kensington districts. The remaining options are all in South Philadelphia where space is plentiful and sprawling, unintegrated development is likely. Instead of truly developing those areas in an urban way, any project in those areas will likely create a “castle” in an otherwise fairly undeveloped highway area.

While the South Philly projects are likely more attractive to developers who can keep guests spending money within their properties, it does nothing to drive people into the most busy areas of Philadelphia to even further build upon our infrastructures supporting it and the surrounding areas. Various mass transit choices exist to get to the Center City projects, and more foot traffic to this area will only create greater demand for such transit choices and resulting commercial development. Successful cities discourage development of surface parking lots. The South Philly projects encourage it.

Just like the atrocities of Atlantic City development, the South Philadelphia projects are designed so that tourists arrive to the casino resort in their car, vacation, and then return home in their car, never to visit any potential attractions in the surrounding areas. Market8 and The Provence propose a more integrated solution so that perhaps, some of the guests may take a walk to see other famous sites, dine downtown, and explore shops and boutiques. It offers tourists to opportunity to use SEPTA and Amtrak to get to the casino from afar, and provides locals with bus, trolley, and subway options.

If Philadelphia wants to develop Philadelphia, they need to grow from the middle outwards, not create several unconnected magnets that poorly connect to each other. While Market8 would fill a hole in an otherwise strong area of the city, The Provence has the ability of expanding the Walnut and Market East areas northward 10 blocks to make the downtown area even more robust. Either one of these choices are smart, but expanding what constitutes Center City seems to be the smarter of the two. Broad and Callowhill has tremendous potential and is extremely close to downtown and the Convention Center. From an urban development perspective, this choice is a no brainer.

I hope the Council asked good questions last night and has the vision to understand what’s holding this city back when it comes to development. Hopefully, it thinks more about the potential boon to the city’s indirect commerce through smart growth than on the obvious, direct tax revenue garnered from a slightly larger casino.


The Counterintuitive Science of Traffic

Outstanding 20 minute video on some of the aspects of traffic management that we embrace, which actually contribute to our traffic frustrations. Tom Vanderbilt speaks at the Boing Boing conference. Certainly worth a watch.


Critical mass transit

A new paper looking into the attributes of mass transit that draws new riders by Swedish researchers Lauren Redman, Margareta Friman, Tommy Gärling, and Terry Hartig. This, I thought, was an interesting point.

Friman (2004) and Friman et al. (2001) note that patrons’ overall satisfaction with the quality of PT is additionally influ- enced by the experience of ‘critical incidents’ accumulated over time. A critical incident is a particularly satisfying or dissatisfying
encounter, such as a transport interchange that ran particularly smoothly, a particularly rude member of staff, or a trip on a particularly crowded bus. It is claimed that overall customer satisfaction with PT depends on satisfaction with specific quality attributes, as discussed, as well as the persistence in memory of negative or positive critical incidents. PT patrons do not re- evaluate perceptions of PT quality each time they use the service, but instead establish their overall perception over time based on critical incidents.

I think about a delayed flight. It doesn’t matter if Company X has a 99% rate of flight punctuality, if you happen to be on a flight that is delayed, this study suggests that your perception of Company X will be more determined by your anecdotal experience as opposed to hard data that may suggest otherwise. Kind of makes sense.


Slice of Life #1

NPR and their affiliates have done a good job at offering a visual for defendants who cannot post bail at $500. WNYC has elaborated on this point.

Nearly 50,000 defendants each year are put behind bars after their first court hearing pending trial. Most spend days or weeks in jail. Some, however, can spend months or more than a year on Rikers Island all because they can’t afford to make bail. And that costs taxpayers a lot of money.

Idea: A 501(c)(3) dedicated solely to evaluating the risk factors of non-violent accused suspects and posting bail for them. Or perhaps developing some type of working relationship with them to stimulate rehabilitation in exchange for posting bail for them.


Starting a new type of post today

We all have ideas, some of them great, others, well, not so great. I think it might be fun to get some of them out of my head for use by anyone who thinks they may be able to make something out of them. I’m calling these posts “Slices of Life”. As I compile a collection, I’ll develop an archive page specifically for them.


“New? New is easy. Right is hard.”

Craig Federighi, Senior VP Software Engineering, Apple, Inc.

Informational design helps solve problems

Example Number 1: encouraging preferred escalator behavior.

Sometimes problems don’t need millions of dollars thrown at them to be solved. Proper design gives context and embraces instinctual cues.