Thursday, December 06, 2018


A recent article claimed that we could accommodate growing world population with less strain on resources by building "vertical cities":
A vertical city ... is an "arrangement of interconnected mega towers" that could support hundreds of thousands of people. These buildings could be as tall as 400 floors and contain housing, stores, hospitals, schools, farms, and outdoor spaces, all in one building or series of connected structures.
A quick reality check:

Going from sprawl, at about 2 people per acre, to the density of Paris, about 100 people per acre, saves a significant amount of land: close to 1/2 acre per person.

Going from the density of Paris to megaskyscraper density saves an insignificant amount of land - less than 1/100 acre per person.

Looking not only at the land the city uses directly but at all the resources people use, the average American has an ecological footprint of over 20 acres - representing all the resources he or she uses.
It requires less than 1/100 acre per person to live at Paris densities rather than in megaskyscrapers, a negligable portion of total ecological footprint.

It undoubtedly uses more resources to build these megaskyscrapers than to build the six to eight-story buildings common in Paris, since they must need very hefty steel skeletons. They probably also require more heating and cooling, since they are more exposed to the elements. The extra resource use may well be greater than the small savings of energy used for transportation and of other resources.

Someone should calculate the total ecological footprints of a city build of megaskyscrapers and a city built at Paris densities, both using the best possible technologies to conserve resources. They would be close, but the megaskyscrapers would probably have a greater footprint.

Yes, sprawl wastes a lot of resources, but let's not go from one ridiculous extreme to the other. Which gives a better and more human-scale quality of life: Paris densities or megaskyscrapers?
The answer is obviously Paris - and it is wrong to imply that megaskyscrapers would save a significant amount of land compared with the midrise urban densities of Paris.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Shape of History

A recent op-ed in the New York Times had drawings illustrating various philosophers' views of the shape of history.  In response, I created the following drawing and explanation of my view of the shape of history.
New technologies give people more power over nature, and there is progress with setbacks along the way. The best graphic representation of this is a series of waves that generally tend upward and jump upward when there are major changes in technology.
  • 100,000 to 50,000 BC: Humans invented more complex tools, such as the spear and needle. Population increased slowly, and humans spread through the world by 10,000 BC. Setbacks were caused by changing natural conditions.
  • 10,000 BC: Agriculture began and gradually spread. Initially population increased rapidly. There were permanent settlements and, thousands of years later, complex civilizations. Setbacks included the collapse of the Roman and Mayan empires.
  • The industrial revolution: New technologies let population and output increase rapidly in the West and, after World War II, in most of the developing nations. Setback occurred because technology became powerfully destructive as well as productive. Aerial bombing and the atomic bomb caused immense destruction during World War II. If we do not control global warming, it could cause even more damage.
  • The future: New technologies will be even more powerful. There could be rapid progress, but there could also be weapons more destructive than nuclear bombs and environmental problems worse than global warming. The graphic shows the waves going up and down more sharply to indicate the potential for huge setbacks, but what will actually happen depends on whether we can control destructive technologies. 
See the New York Times op-ed here.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Why Modern Art Is So Bad

There is a good clue to why most modern art is so bad in the recent review of an exhibit of Sterling Ruby's ceramics in the New York Times, which is a reliable source for the most conventional contemporary views of what art should be. 
The review says that the Museum of Arts and Design began as a museum of crafts and still shows to much work that focuses on craftsmanship and therefore is "technique-obsessed and uncreative." This exhibit is a refreshing contrast because Ruby is "at his most original and disruptive in ceramics." Many of the pieces "resemble giant high-sided ashtrays, filled with the detritus." They "exude signs of the artist’s hands — deep squeezes here, dragged fingers there and entire exteriors punched with thumbprints."
The word "disruptive" shows that the reviewer admires novelty for its own sake. Art is valuable if it breaks with tradition and disrupts our idea of what art is. The talk about "signs of the artist's hands" shows that the reviewer rejects artists who are skilled craftsmen focusing on the object they are creating and admires artists who focus narcissistically on themselves creating the object. 
Compare this critical attitude with the attitude behind a great work of art, Michelangelo's "David."
Michelangelo was not being "disruptive" by doing something totally different from traditional sculpture. On the contrary, he was working in a tradition that goes back to classical Greece. "David" stands out not because of its novelty but because of its excellence. It expresses the humanistic ideal behind classical sculpture more forcefully than it had been expressed before; this meaning is what strikes us when we look at the work. 
Michelangelo did not leave his thumbprints or dragged finger prints on "David." He is famous for the fine finish of his sculptures and for the careful study of anatomy that informed his works. He focused on the object he was creating, not on himself creating it. Could anyone conceivably say that this means Michelangelo was "technique-obsessed and uncreative"? And that Ruby is more creative because his work is sloppier?
The New York Times reviewer is stating the standards that today's art critics use in judging art. They admire disruption rather than excellence. And artists get extra credit for following one of the modern-art trends of the last century, as these ceramics follow in the footsteps of action painting, focusing on the process of creating the work rather on the object. 
We will produce great art again when critics care about excellence, craftsmanship and meaning rather than about disruption.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Jerusalem and the Traffic Engineers

We can get a lesson in the failings of mid-twentieth-century city planning by comparing the two most important gates to the old city of Jerusalem.

The Jaffa Gate was massively "improved" after the 1967 war, when Israel took the old city, and it became the main tourist entrance to the old city.  The traffic engineers built a highway below grade to create a large plaza for people entering this gate.

As a result, tourists have a good view from the plaza.
But there is a very weak connection for pedestrians coming from the adjacent Jewish neighborhood.  Tourists get off the bus and climb up this ramp, but people living right next to the old city rarely walk up to the Jaffa Gate.
As a result, the shops near the Jaffa Gate virtually all sell souvenirs to tourists. The vendors are generally Muslims, but the merchandise is Jewish or Christian religious trinkets.
By contrast, the Damascus Gate is the largest entrance to the old city from the adjacent Muslim neighborhood, so it was spared this sort of massive "improvement." There is a small plaza in front of the Damascus Gate because the old city is on a lower level than the surrounding city, but it gives you a view of the adjacent neighborhood, not a view of the distance. 
When you leave the plaza, a lively neighborhood is right across the street.
The people from this adjacent neighborhood go to the old city for their everyday shopping.  Inside the old city, near the Damascus Gate, there are stores selling clothing, toys, hardware, baked goods, and other useful products, rather than trinkets for tourists. 
At the Jaffa Gate, mid-century traffic engineering cut the old city off from the surrounding neighborhood. The Damascus Gate was spared by the traffic engineers, so the old city remains an integral part of the surrounding neighborhood.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Transcendentalism and Liberalism

Transcendentalism does not fit into the conventional history of liberalism, which says it originated with Locke, and that it was based on self-interested individualism that promoted economic growth.
For one thing, this important strain of American liberal thinking was anti-Lockean. Emerson wrote:
... the idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses ....
For another thing, this strain of liberalism questioned technological progress and the market economy. Emerson wrote:
Machinery is aggressive. The weaver becomes a web, the machinist a machine. If you do not use the tools, they use you. ... What have these arts done for the character, for the worth of mankind? Are men better? 'Tis sometimes questioned whether morals have not declined as the arts have ascended. Here are great arts and little men.....
When he says he wants an economy that would produce fewer goods but would produce freer and better men, Emerson is in the tradition of Jeffersonian liberalism, which tried to limit growth,  but limiting industrialization was no longer a live issue in the 1840s, as it had been in Jefferson's day. Emerson had an economic ideal but no practical policies to go with it. Likewise, Thoreau criticized the new technologies of his time - he wrote "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us" - but he dropped out of the economy to live at Walden Pond, rather than trying to change the economy.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Socialism in the Democratic Party

Socialists in the Democratic party fall into two categories. Some, like Bernie Sanders, are old enough that socialism still seemed to be viable economically when they came of age and are too stubborn to learn from history. Others, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are too young to remember the collapse of socialism and apparently don't know the history. 
In the 1960s, when Sanders came of age, about one-third of the world's population lived in communist nations with economies that were totally socialist, owned and managed by the state. Many other nations, such as India, had economies that were partly socialist, with government owning and managing some industries.  Socialism claimed it was more efficient than capitalism: in 1956, Khrushchev told western ambassadors "We will bury you," meaning that Russia was growing more rapidly than the West, and the entire world would ultimately become socialist because of its economic success. 
It didn't work out that way. In the late 1980s, communism collapsed in eastern Europe because it was inefficient and the economies were stagnant. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed for the same reason; economists agree now that it had rapid growth in the 1950s only because population was moving from the countryside, where productivity was very low, to cities where it was somewhat more productive, and after this movement ended, its economy stagnated.  India socialized parts of its economy after independence, but a stagnant economy led it to privatize in the late 1980s and early 1990s. China still calls its economy "Socialism with Chinese characteristics," but the main Chinese characteristic is a large market sector, introduced in the 1980s, which accounts for most of China's economic dynamism. 
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, virtually every nation realized that the market was more efficient than socialism. The few nations that remained genuinely socialist, such as Cuba and North Korea, became economic basket cases. 
A market economy is more efficient for an obvious reason. As a result of competition, more efficient businesses thrive and less efficient businesses fold, so the economy as a whole become more efficient. By contrast, when industries are state-run monopolies, they keep plodding along no matter how inefficient they become. 
It is easy to understand why some young Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are socialists. Since the 1970s, most of the benefits of America's economic growth have gone to the wealthiest 10%. The average person's earnings grew slowly for decades, and median income has not grown at all since since the year 2000. In 1970, inequality in the United States was similar to other advanced economies, but now the United States is the most unequal of all the advanced economies.
But history should teach us that the solution is not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Rather than replacing the market economy with a socialist economy that will lead to stagnation, we should distribute the wealth that the market economy creates more fairly. 
One key is overhauling the tax system. Raise taxes on the very rich. Lower taxes on the middle class. Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit for those with moderate or low incomes. Other things are needed, but using the tax system to reduce inequality is one key action that would let us bring back the widespread prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, when the benefits of economic growth were distributed fairly and incomes went up for all Americans, not just for the obscenely rich.

Monday, July 30, 2018


Since ancient times, there have been philosophers advocating hedonism, the idea that the good life is the life with the most pleasure and least pain.
But new technology should make it clear that this is not true. In 1954, psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner were doing research on rats brains, and they accidentally placed an electrode in a rat’s pleasure and reward center, the so-called limbic system.  Later, they wired rats so they could press a lever and stimulate the brain's pleasure center directly, and rats did this as much as 5,000 times an hour. If they were allowed to, the rats would die of starvation, because they would continue to press this lever rather than eating. This study became the basis for later research about serotonin and dopamine, and the endorphins, the chemicals associated with pleasure. 
This sort of machine refutes the ethical theory of hedonism. The life that with the most pleasure would be a life attached to this machine, with constant stimulation to the pleasure center of the brain, and with intravenous feeding and other medical care to insure that you live as long as possible. But no one would call this a good life.  
In the past, some philosophers were able to believe that the best life is the life with the most pleasure, only because all pleasures were the side-effect of some natural activity -- such as eating, friendship, sex, or learning.  Once we see that it is possible to have pleasure detached from any natural activity, it is absolutely clear that pleasure itself is not the essence of the good life.