Troll Ahead

January 4, 2012

Via TribLive

The European:

More than 50 percent of the world’s population now live in cities – and there is no end of urbanization in sight. As opposed to the conventional wisdom, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser believes urbanization to be a solution to many unanswered problems, such as pollution, depression and a lack of creativity. He spoke with Lars Mensel about these many advantages.

 The European: As an economist, you have a very pragmatic approach to cities. Let’s begin with one of your thoughts: Cities help preserve the environment precisely because they keep people away from it.

Glaeser: That is right. It is somewhat counterintuitive but all that is leafy is not necessarily green – living around trees and living in low density areas may end being actually quite harmful for the environment, whereas living in high-rise buildings and urban core may end up being quite kind to the environment. Together with with Matthew Kahn of UCLA we looked at carbon emissions from home and transport energy use and found very significant differences, even when holding incumbent family size constant between low density and urban living.

The basic point is that people who live in densities are much less likely to drive long distances than people who live in lower densities. And people who live in urban apartments all typically use less electricity at home and less energy at home heating than people who live in larger suburban or rural homes. A single family detached house uses on average 83% more electricity than urban apartments do within the United States.

The European: So, just by living closely together, people conserve energy?

Glaeser: What is really driving this is the cost of land: It makes people live in smaller apartments. Another way to think about is how in cities we often end up sharing space, like the space to eat in a restaurant or space in a café. From an energy point of view, that can be quite efficient.

The European: Small densities also affect city transport: In countries like the Netherlands or Denmark, city people are primarily moving by bike. But isn’t that kind of ecological benefit offset by cities like Los Angeles, where people mostly drive?

Glaeser: Well, the density even in Los Angeles does lead to shorter distances driven and switched with public transportation. Bike-riding in the US is still nowhere near as common as in the Netherlands but even within a nation of car drivers there is a big difference between people who live in denser cities and people who live in really sprawling suburbs. So even among the world of drivers, people drive much shorter distances and use less gasoline in cities.

The European: The subtitle of your book is a bold claim: ”How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier”. How are cities making us smarter?

Glaeser: I think the most important thing cities do today is to allow the creation of new ideas. Chains of collaborative brilliance have always been responsible for human kind’s greatest hits. We have seen this in cities for millennia – Socrates and Plato bickered on an Athenian street corner; we saw it again in Florence with the ideas that went from Brunelleschi to Donatello to Masaccio to Filippino Lippi and to the Florentine Renaissance. It helps us to know each other, learn from each other and to collectively create something great. In some sense, cities are making us more human.
Our greatest asset as a species is the ability to learn from the people around us. We come out of the womb with this remarkable ability to take in information from those people – parents, peers, teachers – that are near us. Cities enable us to get smart by being around other smart people. I think this explains why cities have not become obsolete over the past thirty years.

Many people thought that globalization and new technologies would mean that we would no longer need to live next to one another, that we would all disperse off to our little electronic cottages somewhere. But that is not really the case. We have just crossed the half-way point where more than 50% of humanity lives in cities. In the West cities like Frankfurt or London or New York are healthier than ever; for the first decade since the 1870s Boston added population more quickly than the state of Massachusetts did.

These facts are related to the role cities play today, a role very much tied to the generation of information. Globalization and new technologies did make the industrial city obsolete, at least in the West. But they also increased the idea of returns of human capital and innovation. You could sell something on the other side of the planet because you could produce it on the other side of the planet. By making knowledge more valuable, they made cities more important. That is why they continue to play the incredibly important role of connecting people, enabling them to learn from one another at close distances.

The European: Nevertheless, cities seem to have a bit of a PR problem. Their reputation is often that of an anonymous beast where people are lonely despite of living so closely together, right?

Glaeser: I understand why the politics have helped that image in the US but I don’t really understand so well why it is true in Europe. I think one of the problems that cities have is visualization. It is so easy to show what happens on a farm; we all see the wheat, milk and other good stuff being created. But we normally don’t see what creative types do in a city. We can’t really observe what the bankers in Frankfurt are creating and we may not even like what the artists in Berlin are creating. And yet, that is the backbone of the modern economy. In sum, the tangibility of rural life is helping the image of an anonymous city.

The European: One frequently hears the assumption that city people will end up suffering from peculiar civilization diseases resulting from a lack of movement.

Glaeser: Well, that is certainly not true in the US. I mean the US has high rates of obesity in the suburbs and in the cities. And people in the cities certainly walk much more in the cities than they do in the suburbs. Plenty of people prefer to take really long hikes in rural areas, that is true. But in terms of the business of everyday living, cities involve plenty of walking, certainly relative to the alternative of sort of car-based living which is usually the norm in low density areas…

Read it all.

BBC:

If we can stop thinking about what the future might bring and embrace the present for what it is, we would be a lot better off, writes John Gray.

It’s been some time now since history didn’t end. Twenty-odd years ago, when the Berlin Wall was coming down, there were many who believed that there would be no more serious conflicts.

The American writer Francis Fukuyama, who promoted the idea of the end of history in the autumn of 1989, declared that the chief threat in future would be boredom. A new era, different from any before, had arrived.

Of course it hadn’t. The end of the Soviet Union was followed by conflicts and upheavals of the sort that happen when empires fall apart – war in the Caucasus and economic collapse in Russia, for example.

In any realistic perspective the idea that a single event – however large – could mark the end of human conflict was absurd. But those who were seduced by the idea were not thinking in realistic terms.

They were swayed by a myth – a myth of progress in which humanity is converging on a universal set of institutions and values. The process might be slow and faltering and at times go into reverse, but eventually the whole of humankind would live under the same enlightened system of government.

When you’re inside a myth it looks like fact, and for those who were inside the myth of the end of history it seems to have given a kind of peace of mind. Actually history was on the move again. But since it was clearly moving into difficult territory, it was more comfortable to believe that the past no longer mattered.

Something similar seems to be happening today. For many people, the idea that the institutions that have been set up in Europe since the end of World War II might be breaking up is too horrific even to contemplate.

European institutions have preserved the peace for more than a generation and presided over a steady growth in prosperity. The very idea that they could now break up challenges the prevailing belief in steady improvement, which is the faith of practical men and women who imagine they have no religion.

As progress continues, these supposedly hard-headed people believe the gains that have been made in the past will be conserved, while lingering evils will gradually diminish.

Life’s framework

The implication is that sudden shifts are relatively rare in history. But consider continental Europe over the past 70 years – until recently a normal human lifetime. Unless they were Swedish or Swiss, an ordinary European man or woman lived during that period under several quite different systems of government.

Nearly all of Europe, some of it democratic, succumbed for a time to Nazism or fascism. Half of Europe moved from Nazism to communism with only a brief interval of democracy. Most of that half, though not Russia, became functioning democracies after the end of the Cold War.

Not only have political forms changed during a normal lifetime, systems of law and banking have come and gone along with national currencies. The entire framework in which life was lived has changed not once, but several times. In any longer historical perspective discontinuities of these kinds are normal.

It is periods of stability, such as the one that existed in at least the western half of Europe from the end of WWII up to the present, that are exceptional. When trying to understand what it means to live through a time of discontinuity, it’s often best to read the accounts of people who experienced a period of this kind. Here the writer Arthur Koestler is an illuminating example.

Born in 1905 into a prosperous, highly-educated family in Budapest, Koestler grew up in the chaos that followed WWI – when Central and Eastern Europe had become a battlefield of warring social and ethnic groups.

As the economy swung from inflation to deflation and back to hyperinflation, the middle classes were ruined while workers suffered mass unemployment.

Life-and-death crisis

Politics splintered into extremist parties with moderate groupings powerless to hold the centre ground. The old order had gone and there was no agreement on what might replace it. Steady, incremental improvement presupposes a background of stable institutions and some agreement on shared values.

In inter-war Europe, these conditions were lacking. As a result gradual progress was just another utopia. Believing that any kind of improvement would only be possible after a cataclysmic upheaval, Koestler became a communist.

He went on to have an adventurous and dangerous life travelling throughout Europe and the Soviet Union, being captured by Franco’s forces in Spain during the Civil War and sentenced to death only to be exchanged at almost the last moment for a Nationalist prisoner who was in Republican hands.

After he was freed, Koestler settled in France, where he was interned in a concentration camp at the outbreak of war and then escaped to Britain via North Africa after joining and quickly deserting the Foreign Legion.

Koestler’s book Scum Of The Earth, published in 1941, describes the sudden disintegration he witnessed in France as it fell to the Nazis. Searching for a metaphor to capture the collapse, Koestler turned to the world of insects.

He writes that when he heard the news of the evacuation of Sedan, where French and British forces had been resisting the German advance, he was reading the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck’s Life of the Termites, a study of the insect…

Read it all.

Wall Street Journal:

I recently got a glimpse into the future of books. A few months ago, I dug out a handful of old essays I’d written about innovation, combined them into a single document, and uploaded the file to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service. Two days later, my little e-book was on sale at Amazon’s site. The whole process couldn’t have been simpler.

Then I got the urge to tweak a couple of sentences in one of the essays. I made the edits on my computer and sent the revised file back to Amazon. The company quickly swapped out the old version for the new one. I felt a little guilty about changing a book after it had been published, knowing that different readers would see different versions of what appeared to be the same edition. But I also knew that the readers would be oblivious to the alterations.

An e-book, I realized, is far different from an old-fashioned printed one. The words in the latter stay put. In the former, the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with access to the source file. The endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing.

When Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type a half-millennium ago, he also gave us immovable text. Before Gutenberg, books were handwritten by scribes, and no two copies were exactly the same. Scribes weren’t machines; they made mistakes. With the arrival of the letterpress, thousands of identical copies could enter the marketplace simultaneously. The publication of a book, once a nebulous process, became an event.

A new set of literary workers coalesced in publishing houses, collaborating with writers to perfect texts before they went on press. The verb “to finalize” became common in literary circles, expressing the permanence of printed words. Different editions still had textual variations, introduced either intentionally as revisions or inadvertently through sloppy editing or typesetting, but books still came to be viewed, by writer and reader alike, as immutable objects. They were written for posterity.

Beyond giving writers a spur to eloquence, what the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein calls “typographical fixity” served as a cultural preservative. It helped to protect original documents from corruption, providing a more solid foundation for the writing of history. It established a reliable record of knowledge, aiding the spread of science. It accelerated the standardization of everything from language to law. The preservative qualities of printed books, Ms. Eisenstein argues, may be the most important legacy of Gutenberg’s invention.

Once digitized, a page of words loses its fixity. It can change every time it’s refreshed on a screen. A book page turns into something like a Web page, able to be revised endlessly after its initial uploading. There’s no technological constraint on perpetual editing, and the cost of altering digital text is basically zero. As electronic books push paper ones aside, movable type seems fated to be replaced by movable text.

That’s an attractive development in many ways. It makes it easy for writers to correct errors and update facts. Guidebooks will no longer send travelers to restaurants that have closed or to once charming inns that have turned into fleabags. The instructions in manuals will always be accurate. Reference books need never go out of date…

Read it all.

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January 4, 2012

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