Popular Posts

Friday, September 30, 2011

Those Pesky Humans: Urban Planning and its Discontents

Article first published as Those Pesky Humans: Urban Planning and its Discontents on Blogcritics.

Greg Lindsay writes in the New York Times that Pegasus Holdings, a technology company based in Washington, DC, is building a "medium sized town" on 20 square miles of New Mexico desert. The town, dubbed the "Center for Innovation, Testing, and Evaluation" (mark it on the map!), will contain infrastructure adequate to support a population of 35,000, but will be home only to a handful of engineers and other geeks from Pegasus, who plan to use it as a laboratory to build future "smart cities", where power grids, traffic, security and surveillance systems are monitored and controlled by computer.

On the face of it, "smart cities" sound like a good idea (better than, say, "dumb cities"). The idea is, in outline, simple enough: a) install sensors to get information about how people move about and interact in cities, then b) feed this data to computers develop complex models of human behavior, generating policies that make things work better, more efficiently. To take an obvious example, who wouldn't want traffic lights optimized to increase vehicle throughput? Or pedestrian pathways that make two-way foot traffic flow more smoothly? Makes sense, right?

Yet, as Lindsay points out, these seemingly innocuous examples paper over a broader project that has repeatedly been exposed as folly, that of trying to simulate the behavior of people in cities using abstractions like computer models, rather than by gaining an understanding of what people living in cities care about, and find valuable. These qualitative, subject elements are typically what determine what makes a great city "great", smart by computer modeling standards or not.

It would seem obvious and necessary to account for this "human-factor" when constructing quantitative models for smart city projects like Pegasus' (after all, we're talking about humans), only, as is so often the case, the computer geeks view "qualitative" features of a city as the very thing that needs to be analyzed quantitatively, and replaced. As Rober H. Brumly, managing director and co-founder of Pegasus pronounced, "We think that sensor development has gotten to the point now where you can replicated human behavior".

And so Brumly and the Pegasus visionaries, in this latest round of "machine versus man", continue the tradition of remaining seemingly ignorant of the manifest lessons of over-thinking urban planning going back decades, at least to the publication of the seminal "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by flesh and blood New Yorker Jane Jacobs. Jacobs repeatedly documented how best laid urban plans would lead to frustration and a sense of alienation in the neighborhoods of New York City. For example, urban planners who attempted a gentrification project in a NYC slum decided that planting strips of grass outside tenements would have a salubrious effect. But alas, the pesky human tenants saw the grass strips as ridiculous, ill-placed, and insulting. It had the opposite effect, in other words, which could have been "predicted" had only the urban planners taken the time to understand the neighborhood, and get to know the tastes and circumstances of its inhabitants.

And there are more nefarious examples, like the 1968 RAND project to reduce fire response times in NYC, resulting in an estimated 60,000 fires in impoverished sections of New York, as "faulty data and flawed assumptions" triggered the replacement of fire stations in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx with smaller ones. The coup de grace here was the politicization of the supposedly "scientific" project, where clever RAND officials, realizing that rich folk in well-to-do neighborhoods would not tolerate the effects of "efficiency" using their (flawed) simulations, placed such neighborhoods outside the scope of the project.

And on and on the story goes. Unintended consequences are simply part and parcel of the development of causal or predictive models using quantitative data gleaned from messy, complex systems. The real folly, however, in the Pegasus project and so many others like it, is not in the (basically correct) idea that quantitative analysis can provide useful information when devising strategies, for urban planning or otherwise, but that the human element can therefore be eliminated. That latter claim does not follow, and taking it too seriously will almost certainly guarantee that among the lessons we learn from the "Center for Innovation, Testing, and Evaluation", one of the most important is likely to be that innovation, testing, and evaluation is not enough.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

I Eat Yogurt, Therefore I Am

In the WSJ today, Jonah Lehrer, who dropped out of his Ph.D. program in neuroscience to make millions writing Barnes and Noble science books like "Proust Was a Neuroscientist", and "How We Decide", wrote a piece in the review section about eating yogurt and its connection to the mind-body problem. The basic idea is that yogurt makes you less anxious, because it contains probiotics, which contain GABA, a neurotransmitter that limits the effects of neurons. This is all true enough, I'm sure, just as its true that eating simple carbohydrates gives one a feeling of energy followed by a "crash". It's no mystery that the types of foods we eat affect how we feel. But it's quite a leap from this sensible factoid to conclusions about the nature of the mind--if it's distinct from the brain, or more generally our physical bodies. In fact Lehrer glosses over the pivotal conceptual conundrum, that all the gastronomic observations he or anyone else adduces in favor of theories about the nature of mind are consistent with theories that correlate mind and body, as well as those that identify them. C'mon Jonah, you surely most know this. Was it that hard to find something to say?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cosmic Rays and Climate Change: Shhh!

I have no idea whether there's any scientific validity to the research conducted at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, aka CERN, on whether cosmic rays affect climate on Earth. What is interesting is the implication in Anne Jolis's September 7 article The Other Climate Theory, that researchers have long speculated that not just C02, but cosmic rays, may indeed change our climate. Where's this debate in the media? Roger W. Cohen, in a WSJ response to Jolis's article, claims that the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) camp--the scientists who think that the primary cause of the warming Earth is human activity--is actually much smaller than how the media frames the debate, and in fact there is another school of thought among scientists that non-anthropogenic factors may be driving changes. In this "contrarian" school of thought, scientists tend to group into those interested in investigating the influence of cosmic rays, and those interested in the hypothesis that the Earth naturally and quickly changes temperature based on its own "unforced chaotic variations". Whatever the merits of these discussions, why haven't we heard them? That's a question even a non-atmospheric scientist can pose.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Oh, Right, I Have a Blog

I've been away on an extended hiatus as CEO of a software startup, which is still ongoing, but I just can't stay away from blogging any longer. I picked up a copy of the NYT times this morning at the Starbucks, which is proof positive that I'm missing the ole' blogging world.

So, I'll start out modestly with a phenomenon that I'm sure we're all familiar with, but is really kind of silly if one stops to consider...

The Token Door Shove... (dramatic music starts now)

This refers to the little polite "shove" we give the door as we're entering a building and it's closing on the person entering behind us. The TDS is silly because, more often than not, it makes zero difference to the life of the person behind us; in some cases it might actually make things nominally worse, as just opening the door afresh would be easier than attempting to coordinate the door grab post push. We just do this, of course, because it's a signal that we recognize the person behind us, which in general is a good thing. But, again, it's silly because it doesn't really matter. It masquerades as having some positive benefit, when in fact it's pure theater (if it actually does help in some particular case, great, but it's a knee jerk thing that we never figure in the first place, which is The Point). How many other benign actions do we engage in just to reassure those around us that we're polite members of civilization? How about, the little purse of the lips we give to passersby? Do you know the one? Ever so soft and reassuring, and completely useless, unless it's midnight in a shady part of town, of course, where it might give evidence that we're not in attack mode with, say, a rusty screwdriver concealed behind our back (but what if it's just facial expression subterfuge?). But if we're in the shady part of town, we wouldn't look at the passerby at all, would we? So, again, we're hell bent on appearing polite to each other, whether we're actually helpful to another, or not.