Just a geek who lives in Olympia, WA with my wife, son, and animals. In my free time I play board games, write fiction, and make stuff.
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Walkability and the Culture Wars

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Image via Unsplash.

Image via Unsplash.

An unfortunate recent article by Aaron Gordon for Vice is titled, "Walking Places Is Part of the Culture Wars Now." It's centered around a discussion of recent survey results from Pew Research, which appear to show that a majority of Americans prefer a neighborhood with larger homes and yards, but where driving is a must to get to schools, stores, and restaurants, versus a neighborhood where amenities are in walking distance, but the homes are smaller and closer together.

The survey also suggests that the strongest predictor of preferring an auto-oriented neighborhood (larger homes, farther apart) is not age, education, or even urban versus rural location, but rather political identification. Self-identified conservatives are more likely to favor the spread-out, auto-oriented community: 77% to 22%, versus 42% to 57% in favor of the walkable community for self-proclaimed liberals. Hence Gordon's "Culture Wars" title and assertion.

The article is at points smug and condescending, not just toward conservatives but also toward the 42% of liberals whom "one would think [are] most concerned about climate change," yet favor less walkable places. The piece and the widespread sharing of it are emblematic of an unfortunate trend I see in my social media circles of jumping on results like this to shore up one's political priors, instead of building bridges and figuring out how to make a better world that all kinds of communities will buy into.

But also, the factual premise of the Vice piece is just wrong. The truth is that surveys like this don't give us much accurate insight into the reasons people choose a home or a neighborhood, or how they might respond if presented with a different set of options. And that is good news for those of us who see an urgent need to change the prevailing auto-oriented pattern of development—in all kinds of communities.

Image via Unsplash.

Image via Unsplash.

This Type of Preference Survey is Largely Meaningless

The kind of survey that Pew did here is fundamentally flawed, because it attempts to identify preferences in a vacuum, detached from the real-world contexts in which people develop and hold those preferences.

What are you buying when you buy a house (or rent one)? The answer is a "bundle" of housing and neighborhood attributes. These include the location, nearby amenities, and transportation options; the features of the home itself; the (perceived or real) quality of the school district; the local tax rate; the crime rate and your own subjective feelings of safety or comfort; and a community of people you might find like-minded and agreeable or otherwise.

You don't get to pick these characteristics à la carte: they only come bundled. And it's nearly impossible for a survey to neatly separate the pieces of that bundle for us, to the point where most respondents would make a dispassionate judgment about something like walkability separate from any other cultural, class, or lifestyle associations they carry in their minds.

The question of price also dramatically influences the relative appeal of different bundles. As Chuck Marohn memorably observes in Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution, "If the government were willing to subsidize lobster to be cheaper than hamburger, I’d continuously dine on lobster. More to the point, I’d express a strong personal preference for lobster. The longer this subsidy went on, the more entitled my expectations for lobster would become." 

Nearly every American alive today has only ever lived in a time when the suburban development pattern was deeply subsidized, while traditional urban fabric has been actively destroyed and disinvested in wherever it hasn't been regulated into scarcity. It's common—under these conditions of subsidy—for people to casually express sentiments like, "In suburbia, you can get more house for your money." Such a belief will absolutely influence a question about where you would live, given the choice.

Image via Unsplash.

Image via Unsplash.

What Respondents Are Actually Saying: "This is What I Know" 

Most people don't think deeply, if ever, about development pattern or urbanism or even about the possibility of other ways of getting around. And we simply don't know what we don't know. Many Americans have never experienced living in a walkable urban place. (Data point: I know multiple 30-somethings who have never learned to parallel park.) Even more have never experienced living in a rural place or small town. Most of us have at least some experience with auto-oriented suburbia, because of its inescapability, but we may not have lived in it for long stretches of our lives. It's hard for people who live and breathe urbanism to grasp, but most people, thus, will answer questions like Pew's based on gut reactions or emotional associations, not firm opinions grounded in true experience of what it's actually like to live in different kinds of places.

Most people do, however, like their own neighborhood. And most people also like the kind of place they grew up. They have fond associations with what is familiar to them.

That fact—familiarity—is what's driving these results, and the reason you see them map to political alignment is that there is a divergence in "what is familiar" that increasingly tracks with partisanship. The prevailing geographic factor that explains partisan alignment is whether a location is urban versus rural. It used to be more about region: North vs. South in particular, with the Midwest playing a swing role. Now it's population density. The cities and suburbs go blue, the exurbs and rural areas go red, with few exceptions.

Where there is partisan polarization, it's not surprising to see a corresponding increase in polarization around the cultural signifiers of that divide—the things that make you think, "These are my kind of people." But it's a tall order to claim that cultural hostility to "walking places" is what's causing conservatives to live in low-density areas. The reality is much more complex and multi-factor. A survey that says that conservatives prefer spread-out environments might simply be reflecting the reality of more conservatives having grown up and lived in such environments.

But this doesn't really tell us, in a constraining sense, what kinds of places people actually would enjoy living, or could enjoy if their lives put them in a context where a different set of choices made sense.

Image via Unsplash.

Image via Unsplash.

Walkable Urbanism Has More Unifying Appeal Than You've Been Told

Even if you do take this study's results at face value, it's a stretch to interpret its major takeaway as, "Most Americans don't want walkable places."

Most Americans, as I said, have only ever lived in a time in which the suburban development pattern was the subsidized, heavily incentivized, all-but-mandated default. More Americans than not grew up in single-use residential communities, where trips to work, school, shopping or dining out were almost always made by car.

Despite that, a whopping 39% of respondents to this survey across the board said they would rather live in a walkable neighborhood, even if their home and yard were smaller.

Think about that. What percent of Americans actually live in places where schools, stores, and restaurants are in comfortable walking distance? It is far, far less than 39%. Simply achieving 39% would be a dramatic transformation of this continent. 

We could stop building single-family detached homes on large lots tomorrow, and we'd still have enough to meet years of demand from the people who strongly prefer them. We could only build walkable infill, and it might still take decades to satisfy the 39% that say they want it.

And by the time we did, I suspect that 39% would have risen, because a lot more Americans would have experienced the option of living in a place where you're not tethered to a car. Maybe it's arrogant or too affirming of my own biases to say so. But I don't think so. 

I'm basing that belief not just on the financial and regulatory deck stacked in favor of auto-centricity, but also on the fact that the actual walkable places that Americans today are most likely to experience have a remarkably unifying appeal. Liberals and conservatives alike have a great time living on college campuses; visiting not just Paris and Rome but also New Orleans and Savannah; hanging out at state fairs and in theme parks literally modeled on traditional Midwestern main streets.

The popularity (and high price tag) of New Urbanist communities that emulate traditional forms and attempt to resurrect the principles of traditional neighborhood development also transcends party or region. Many of these are in fact built in deep red areas, from the Florida Panhandle to Alabama to Oklahoma.

And, of course, the real deal traditional pattern of development that New Urbanism is copying can be found both on thousands of small-town main streets and in neighborhood commercial districts in big urban areas. It has an appeal that transcends political and other cultural divides. Those two kinds of places, I should add, have far more in common with each other than either has with a suburban subdivision or power center.

These may not be the places many of us think are being pushed on us when we hear people talk about urbanism or sustainability or, god forbid, "density" in a culture-war sense. (Many rural conservatives hear “Everywhere should be Manhattan;” too many liberal urbanists are eager to confirm the stereotype.)

But that's just the thing. Where Americans have experience with traditional development, they tend to respond positively. Where they don't, they fall back on cultural signifiers and familiar reference points.

The bottom line is if you want people to like a certain style of development or neighborhood, build it. Make it awesome. Show them that they love it. That's the only way you're going to change minds.

And if you're a local policy maker, please just work to make it legal to do so.

 
 

Strong Towns is changing the conversation about development across North America. If you want to contribute to making our places less auto-centric and more walkable, then join the movement and become a member today.

 
  
  

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pawnstorm
2 days ago
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Reading through the survey, I also have to wonder how much the phrasing impacted the results. Would people have answered differently to "Would you prefer to live in a more walkable neighborhood even if it meant smaller houses on smaller lots?" than the actual question which was along the lines of "Would you prefer to live in a smaller house on a smaller lot in a more walkable neighborhood?" The original seemed to emphasize home size whereas my version seems (to me) to emphasize walkability. In any case, it seems hard to draw conclusions about a component part of the bundle when there's only one question and it's about the bundle as a whole.
Olympia, WA

Zoning and "Bigness"

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Image via Unsplash.

Image via Unsplash.

Back in April, Daniel Herriges at Strong Towns wrote an excellent article called “Pretextual Planning is Absolutely Everywhere.” What does that mean? Essentially, the article is about zoning rules that are written into the code not because the requirement itself is considered important, but because it’s seen as increasing the bargaining power of the municipality vis-à-vis the developer. This bit explains the overall idea well:

The specific notion that local government needs bargaining chips in order to extract concessions from developers is a harmful one that has become more and more prevalent in recent decades. Inclusionary zoning requirements, for example, are often written with this mindset. A city will offer a density or height bonus—allowing the developer of a market-rate apartment building to add more units or an additional story—if the developer agrees to set aside a certain percentage of units for low-income tenants, or pay into a fund (an in-lieu fee) for such housing.

I am ambivalent on the outcomes of such policies, and the existing research doesn't support firm conclusions in every case. But the whole premise of the policy does beg the question: If no vital public interest is harmed by allowing the developer to build a denser or taller building, then why was the density or height restriction in place, to begin with? If the functional answer is, “As a pretext to bring the developer to the negotiating table,” then I think we have a problem.

I’m not sure I understand the heat “developers” get, in general. It’s been a very long time since anyone’s great-grandfather built a cabin in the woods. Almost everything built today is built by developers, so to single out “developer” as something negative doesn’t make much sense.

However, as I’ve learned more about how planning and zoning work in the real world, I’ve begun to understand a dynamic here. Complicated zoning codes that regulate everything you can imagine are probably understood (to the extent that anyone understands them) as restricting or controlling developers. In other words, more zoning means more municipal control over development. To some extent, of course, that is how it works; zoning absolutely shapes the built environment. But there’s something else going on.

Think about how big business often embraces regulation, perhaps quietly, because at the end of the day, it’s the biggest players who can afford the army of lawyers to figure out the compliance (and the loopholes). Financial and environment regulation come to mind. This is not because they like regulation, of course. It adds real costs to doing business. But it also has the effect of squeezing smaller competitors, who can’t afford the army of lawyers.

More generally, a similar dynamic takes place with regard to taxes and college admissions and funding. It even takes place with government benefits, where the people most in need are those who have the most trouble figuring out the system. And health insurance needs no explanation at all.

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Check out our top content on zoning over at the Action Lab!

The key insight is that regulatory complexity benefits the largest, richest incumbents. This line of argument is often associated with libertarianism, but you don’t have to be a libertarian to see its usefulness.

So what does this have to do with developers and zoning? Complicated and overbearing zoning requirements have the same effect. They can make it essentially impossible for ordinary people to engage in the kind of projects that built America. Want to restore an old building on Main Street? Uh-oh: the lot is nonconforming to the current code, which triggers all sorts of expensive compliance issues when you go to make any changes; the parking requirement is impossible to fulfill without bankrupting the project. Etc., etc. A homeowner who wants to add an ADU or a small business owner who wants to fix up that Main Street building will run into this kind of thing pretty quickly. Many will give up. Most will never even start.

A larger developer, on the other hand, can play the game, as it were. They can endure the time and the red tape, they can apply for variances, they can offer concessions, they can even apply for a rezoning. Ordinary people can do all of this, but it’s out of reach, practically speaking. More likely, however, a developer will ditch the small Main Street project and simply build something much bigger from scratch, where the expense of all that red tape becomes worthwhile. More likely, instead of ADUs and duplexes organically filling in underutilized space in existing neighborhoods, large, “boxy” apartment buildings go up.

So it’s not that developers like complicated zoning, or that such codes don’t substantially shape what gets built. It’s rather that big, complicated zoning codes ratchet up the scale of development—and thus, in a way, indirectly give developers more clout. They artificially price out small-scale projects, and artificially enhance the practicality of mass projects (like those I critiqued here).

The result is that ordinary people feel like developers are running wild. But the reality is that this state of affairs is largely the result of a land-use regulatory regime that gives developers no smaller-scale competition. More of that competitionand a fine-grained complexity in our places and not in our regulatory schemesis exactly what our cities, towns, and neighborhoods need.

 
  
 

Addison Del Mastro writes on urbanism and cultural history. He tweets at @ad_mastro and writes daily at Substack.

 

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Landlords Are Not Developers (and Vice Versa)

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Here's a fact you need to understand if you want to understand the housing affordability crisis gripping much of the U.S. and Canada: Landlords and developers are not the same. 

That statement probably seems head-slappingly obvious when stated so plainly. But it's something that a striking number of commentators and advocates get wrong without always realizing they're doing it. For example, if only I had a dollar for every time I read something like this (from a story about a proposal for funding a housing trust fund in Kansas City):

KC Tenants also proposes levying taxes on developers to generate funds….Proposed taxes on developers include an anti-speculation tax meant to stop investors from buying and reselling properties. KC Tenants proposes a 15-20% tax on properties transferred to a new owner within two years. Another proposed tax is a linkage fee, a development impact fee on new construction.

There are two taxes described in that paragraph, and only one of them is actually a tax on developers. The linkage fee specifically targets new construction. The transfer tax, on the other hand, targets the resale of existing properties. These are two completely different proposals with very different economic effects, and to lump them together as affecting "developers" is beyond unhelpful.

I think the root issue here is the populist idea that it's "the real estate industry" (or some similar construction) that is the villain of this story, profiteering off of soaring rents. Seeing Big Real Estate—developers, investors, speculators, flippers, Wall Street REITs, institutional landlords, mortgage lenders—as a unified front makes intuitive sense to people whose political instincts are anti-corporate and/or anti-elite. 

I largely share those political instincts. Nonetheless, this kind of conflation prevents us from understanding the housing market in a coherent way. Different players in the market make their money in very different ways, and have different interests and policy preferences as a result. 

A Crucial Distinction 

What is a developer? The simplest definition is anyone who increases the value of land by altering it and/or building upon it. (To get nitpicky, the developer plans and oversees the project, hiring the skilled contractors they need: a developer is to a building as a producer is to a Hollywood film.) 

What is a landlord? The simplest definition is someone who owns property and collects rent from its user.

These are two fundamentally different roles. The same actor can of course play both of them, at different times or simultaneously. But far more often, it's not the same people, because it's not the same business model. 

A landlord profits by possessing real estate.

A developer profits by creating real estate.

This distinction, as it turns out, makes all the difference.

Land Owners Profit From Scarcity

Landlords, as property owners, benefit financially from any form of scarcity which makes their property more desirable and expensive. It is low vacancy that allows them to raise the rent and be choosier about their tenants. And low vacancy happens when housing production lags housing demand.

Scarcity is in your financial interest if you're a small-time landlord who owns some duplexes. It's in your financial interest if you're a land speculator sitting on a parking lot for decades waiting to sell to a developer. Scarcity is certainly in your financial interest if you're a big corporate investor like the infamous Blackstone. The REIT's own SEC filings explicitly identify the "continuing development of apartment buildings and condominiums" as a business risk which could cause it to lose profit.

The benefits of scarcity apply not just to those who rent out their property, but to individual homeowners who treat their home as an investment. Even if they don't primarily think of it as one, if they ever intend to sell it or borrow against it, they have at least some stake in continuing unaffordability. As I wrote in "Rage Against the Machine," although homeowners are often posited as virtuous community voices standing in opposition to a "Growth Machine" consisting of big real estate and local politicians, the truth is that homeowners are, in numerical terms, the biggest land speculators in cities. For each hour spent at the office, a homeowner in San Jose, California collects $100 in rising equity.

As Josh Stephens memorably puts it, "Those who buy pork bellies do not make bacon.... To the person who owns pork bellies, the fewer pork bellies there are in the world, the better."

Developers Profit by Making High-Returning Investments

Something to understand about developers: Mostly, they don't own the properties they develop until it's time to start putting a project together. 

This is not strictly true. Sometimes a developer will speculate on an area they believe is up-and-coming by acquiring land early and sitting on it, and big ones may spend years "assembling" a whole block full of small lots in order to do a big project.

But developers, as a rule, acquire land with an eye to developing it. They're rarely sitting on huge real-estate portfolios, for the simple reason that they couldn't afford to do that and also, well, be developers. 

Making buildings is extremely expensive and puts you in a lot of debt, and selling a completed building is generally the least risky way to pay off that debt and walk away with your profit margin, versus getting into the property management business and having to ride years of market swings. Usually it's necessary to sell off completed projects in order to afford to begin the next project.

When a developer buys land, who is profiting? Any windfall goes to the previous owner, the one who sold to the developer, because they're going to sell it for the highest price they can get. Again, the key point here is that making money on the passive appreciation of property value, or the rent it brings in, is a totally different game from making money by building stuff.

Huge developer profit margins do happen sometimes, of course, but they happen most often by successfully betting on an up-and-coming market niche—be that a location or a type of product for which demand has been underestimated. It's a combination of luck, savvy, good timing, and (often) connections.

Not a United Front

Land owners benefit from scarcity and as such may support policies that drive property values higher. Do developers? This is far less clear, and often the answer is, "No."

There are a tiny fraction of developers who specialize in truly luxury construction, like the infamous Manhattan supertalls providing many a pied-a-terre to Russian oligarchs. There are far more whose niche involves stuff like the many "boxy" 5-over-1 apartment complexes with trendy-sounding two-syllable names that aren't truly catering to the superrich, but still sport showy amenities and are expensive enough to build that they wouldn't be viable if not for high rents.

For the rest of the development world, however, being able to build more homes for more people is preferable to being able to build fewer homes for fewer people. For small-scale developers in particular, land costs are often the most prohibitive barrier to entering the market at all.

When it comes to zoning and other land regulation, different categories of developers have opposing interests. So the notion that "developers" are a unified front when it comes to land use policy or regulation is an illusion. 

For that matter, so is the idea that "property owners" or "landlords" are a unified front. Landlords often aren't just landlords: small-time ones might have a stake in their community in other ways than pure profit. Homeowners often have interests other than just the investment value of their home. Questions like "Will my kids be able to live here?" can tug at their heart strings, but so can more self-interested matters like views, quiet, or perceived or real exclusivity. (The latter, of course, can have an ugly side.)

U.S. housing policy, on the whole, is designed to make housing a secure investment, largely to the benefit of those who got in on the ground floor, and to the detriment to anyone seeking to move to or build in an already-expensive place.

I didn't write this to essentialize any group as having comparatively noble motives or rapacious ones. Rather, it's helpful to understand the different interests that different groups may have and may or may not choose to act on. Step 1 in understanding an intractable problem is to understand who benefits from the status quo, and how.

Cover image via Unsplash.

  
   
  

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Bob’s 9/11 post from 20 years ago — To a Man With a Hammer

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Some things are worth reading again. For the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, here — unedited — is my column originally published September 13, 2001.

My smarter and handsomer brother was in Northern New Jersey on Tuesday looking across the water at what was for just a moment longer the single remaining tower of the World Trade Center. A cold front had passed through the night before, leaving the day startlingly clear. The carnage was easy to see even from a distance. Only the rising cloud of smoke and ash marred the sky. And then that tower, too, was gone. The magnitude of this disaster and its sister at the Pentagon in Washington is too great to ponder, so we are left wondering what we could have done to prevent it, and what we could do to keep it from happening again. I’m a longtime pilot, and a guy who used to work in the Middle East. Twenty-two years ago, I was a Fed investigating the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, so I have some experience of how governments approach disasters. It’s not pretty.

The point of terrorism is to leverage the efforts of a small group in an attempt to modify the behavior of a much larger group. I worked long ago as a reporter in Northern Ireland, and left that gig specifically because I began to feel like a pawn of the Provisional Wing of the Irish Republic Army. That 300-member organization was using my stories about their acts to influence people all over the world. I was probably just as much a pawn of the Ulster Defense League, the folks on the other side, but I didn’t want to be a pawn of anyone, so I left. The most important reaction to terrorism that a free society can show is to not give in to it.

But not giving in takes many forms, and I fear that some of the official reactions to the events of this week will take the form of effectively giving in if they also mean that we give up our freedom.

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” wrote Mark Twain. In the current, context this means that the organizations charged with reacting to this catastrophe will do so by doing what they have always done, only more of it. Congress, which controls the budget and passes laws, will want to pass laws and to allocate more money, lots of money, forgetting completely about any campaign promises. The military, which is the nation’s enforcer, will want to use force, if only they can find a foe. The intelligence community, which gathers information, will want to be even more energetic in that gathering, no matter what the cost to the privacy of the millions of us who aren’t thinking of terrorist acts. And agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulate, will want to create more stringent regulations. Now here is an important point to be remembered: All these parties will want to do these things WHETHER THEY ARE WARRANTED OR USEFUL OR NOT.

In 1956 two airliners collided over the Grand Canyon and the regulatory response was today’s air traffic control system. The FAA felt that by keeping most planes under positive control — telling them where to go and when — they could avoid future collisions. Yet collisions continue to happen. In 1978 a Pacific Southwest Airlines plane smashed into a small Cessna over San Diego despite the fact that both planes were flying under instrument rules and were under positive control. The FAA response that time was to carve up even more finely the sky over nearly every metropolitan area, controlling the airspace even more stringently with the intent of keeping instrument and visual traffic apart. There was no visual traffic in the San Diego accident, yet we still live with rules that arose from that accident even though those rules would not have prevented it.

So how will the FAA react this time? They will do what they have always done, pass new and stricter rules, and they will do so because it makes them feel better, not because it will actually help.

There is already a restricted area around the Pentagon where planes have never been allowed to fly, yet that didn’t stop this week’s attack. Should we make the restricted area larger? How much larger is large enough? Will we mount anti-aircraft guns atop office buildings? It won’t help. Would creating a restricted area over the World Trade Center have kept a hijacked airliner from entering that space? No, it wouldn’t. New rules will follow, and some of those rules won’t help, either.

It’s not just the government that is guilty of this over-reaction. Tuesday morning, I was speaking to eighth graders at the Pleasanton Middle School in California. The school was abuzz with news from the East Coast, but even more abuzz the next day when the kids had been through a full evening of re-run explosion footage and talking news heads instead of “That 70s Show.” I’m not saying we shouldn’t cover the news, but sometimes the extent to which we cover it creates problems of its own. There has been much made of the terrorists choosing New York as a target because it is the heart of the world financial community, but what made it an attractive target was more likely the city’s role as the very center of world media. That Peter Jennings could grab a shower at home and get right back on the air wasn’t by accident.

And I, too, am just another man with a hammer. My gig is technology, and I keep thinking there must some way to use it to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. The terrorists grabbed Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft because they are very different aircraft, yet share a single type certificate from the government. This means that the cockpits are identical. Learn to fly a 757 and you can fly a 767 too, making for a much larger pool of available aircraft with enough fuel capacity to take out the towers. But having a common type certificate also means the planes have the same autopilot systems, both of which include auto-landing capability.

Why, I find myself thinking, can’t we build a system that takes over control of the autopilot, locks out flight crew and hijackers alike, and lands the plane at the first sign of trouble. Well, we could, but it opens a whole new area of vulnerability — hijacking autopilots. Forget I said anything.

So there are no answers, just more questions, and nobody is right. But we can’t give in, because to do so is to become less free, to be no longer ourselves. And above all, what defines us as Americans is our need to be ourselves.

The post Bob’s 9/11 post from 20 years ago — To a Man With a Hammer first appeared on I, Cringely.






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pawnstorm
6 days ago
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I wish he had been wrong.
Olympia, WA
ManBehindThePlan
4 days ago
Yep - society has changed, and little to the better

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Villain

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

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I don't see the Dursleys owning any elves is all I'm saying.


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ChrisDL
8 days ago
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Im going to commit these arguments to memory and use them at the next possible moment in a social gathering haha.
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CallMeWilliam
13 days ago
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Everyone sucks.

And what we owe to each other is to try to be a little better today than yesterday.

... Or so a demon told me, at any rate.

Einstein’s Fridge: Who knew the history of thermodynamics was so much like high school?

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Almost 50 years ago I had the misfortune to take two statistics classes at the same time. One was a required introduction to statistics and the other was econometrics. Don’t ask why I took them both — I don’t remember. But I do remember one day in the Intro to Statistics class when another student asked about this distribution plot (below).

 “What was it? What did it indicate? What could it be used for?” they asked.

“It’s nothing,” said the TA. “It’s useless.”

But I had seen that shape before, in econometrics, where they called it a split normal distribution. that was said to be good for displaying time-series data.

So not useless at all.

The split-normal distribution was first drawn in 1897 and has been rediscovered several times since, most recently in 2016 by people who — honest to God — think they invented the thing.

Which brings us to an important book on the history of thermodynamics by Paul Sen. If you are into the history of science, read this book.

When I was a kid I loved reading books about science, the history of science, biographies of scientists — anything I could get my hands on about science. In all of this reading about science, though, I never read a non-textbook specifically about thermodynamics — until now.

Einstein’s Fridge by Paul Sen is the thermodynamics book I never knew I needed to read. It’s an exciting story of how the three laws of thermodynamics haltingly came to be and what they mean for our modern life, which comes down to pretty much everything. Thermodynamics turns out to rule both the beginning and the end of the universe. Who knew?

Author Sen comes to book writing from British television where he has made films about science and technology for more than 30 years, so the fact that he wrote this complex story as the equivalent of a really good BBC Connections episode shouldn’t surprise. 

To be clear, the author is my friend. He directed my documentaries Triumph of the Nerds, Connected, Plane Crazy, and of course the derivative Steve Jobs — The Lost Interview. But in Plane Crazy I threatened on camera to beat the shit out of Sen, so if I didn’t legitimately like his book I wouldn’t be writing this column at all.

The big players on Sen’s thermodynamics stage start with Nicolas Sadi Carnot, the Frenchman who figured out that steam engines worked by moving heat around. Carnot then dropped the ball by dying of cholera at age 36. Then there was Rudolf Clausius, a German physicist who came up with the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states the equivalence of heat and work. Whenever work is done by heat then an equivalent amount of heat is consumed.

Clausius also developed the concept of entropy (the state of disorder or randomness in a system) leading to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that there is a natural tendency for any system to degenerate into a more disordered state, maximizing entropy. 

My son Fallon, 15, has been using entropy lately to explain why his room is so messy.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics was stated about the same time by Clausius and by the Englishman William Thomson, who was later dubbed Lord Kelvin.

The Third Law of Thermodynamics extends the concept of the Second Law, stating the entropy of a system approaches a constant value as the temperature approaches absolute zero.  Another way of explaining this is that atoms stop moving at absolute zero, which pretty much describes the end of the world, eh?

This Third Law, which was stated by chemist Walter Nernst in 1906, is a sort of outlier in Sen’s thermodynamics tale, both because it was coined by a chemist rather than a physicist, but also because it came after a three-decade fight-to-the-death between physicists arguing about whether atoms existed or not.

The Third Law might have come from Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. Boltzmann did the math, but that math was dependent on the existence of atoms and a lot of the cool physics kids — specifically the Germans Ernst Mach and Max Planck — did not believe in atoms. Boltzmann had developed a statistical approach that allowed him to sort of sneak up on the Third Law, but Mach and Planck didn’t buy it. Like high school bullies, they taunted Boltzmann at conferences, ultimately leading to the Austrian’s suicide in 1906.

I am not making this up.

Now the irony really begins to boil, because the math that Boltzmann couldn’t do had already been done by Yale physics professor J. Willard Gibbs.  Gibbs was able to prove the Third Law without mentioning atoms at all, but hardly anyone in Europe had even heard of J. Willard Gibbs. 

The great Scottish physicist James Maxwell knew about Gibbs, writing the American was “better than all the Germans,” but then Maxwell died in 1879 and Gibbs lost his champion, decades before finishing his seminal work.

Gibbs was a Yale professor, but his position was unpaid and he worked in a department that had no laboratory budget. So Gibbs — who was independently wealthy — built a lab in the attic of his New Haven home. Even his scientific papers were published obscurely by the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences — a publisher who literally did not understand what Gibbs was writing about. 

Gibbs published his papers where he did because it was the closest thing in New Haven to a scientific journal. And the Connecticut Academy published his papers because Gibbs submitted them. They not only had no idea what he was saying, the Academy had to raise extra funds to typeset the papers (this was all math, remember) which ran as long as 471 pages!

They saw publishing Gibbs’s work as a patriotic duty — and they were correct.

Einstein later described Gibbs in a wonderful bit of European chauvinism as “the greatest mind in American history.”

So Gibbs was an unheralded (and unread) genius who could have saved Boltzmann from the bullying of Mach and Planck, which brings us back to the split normal distribution.

Because while Mach and Planck and even Einstein were uncertain about whether atoms actually existed, their existence was, by the time of Boltzmann’s suicide, already the basis of the global chemical, munitions, and pharmaceutical industries. 

Like those econometricians who used split normal distributions every day, thousands of chemists IN GERMANY were relying on the existence of atoms to make their living.  Which in part explains why it was a chemist who published in 1906 the Third Law of Thermodynamics.

How could the German physicists have not known this?

Einstein eventually proved the existence of atoms based on Planck’s work on quanta which led to the latter’s 1919 Nobel Prize — a prize that ironically could only have been won if atoms were real.

Boltzmann made possible Planck’s Nobel, yet Boltzmann was still dead.

It’s all in Sen’s book and well worth reading.

The post Einstein’s Fridge: Who knew the history of thermodynamics was so much like high school? first appeared on I, Cringely.






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