Some Light Reading

There’s been a handful of articles from the past few weeks that I’ve found really interesting/eye-opening/rage-inducing.

From Daily Kos, is an article attempting to debunk the recent premise that a lack of father figures is the cause of the conflicts in Baltimore and Ferguson. The article evolved over the course of the day as folks dove into the numbers (from the CDC). In the end, it seems there’s no evidence to support that black fathers are any less involved their white fathers

However, what the CDC info does show is that pound for pound, on a family by family average basis Black fathers are generally more attentive to their children whether the live with them or apart from them, and even using the Census Bureau numbers there are far more White Children “at risk” from their less attentive and absent fathers than there are Black

Sy Hersh wrote on his (reasonably well sourced) suspicions that the assassination of Osama bin Laden didn’t happen quite the way we’ve been told. This is an astonishing article, and one that has generated a ton of criticism. Certainly it’s wise to be skeptical. I did love this analysis of the criticism from the Columbia Journalism Review. Both worth reading.

Finally, this Ars Technica article about one of the early documentaries about Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht is so even handed in its takedown of the documentary and the “Free Ross” crowd that I don’t know how a reasonable person could quibble with it. I’m going to start paraphrasing parts of it to use to shut down the super-libertarians who believe that folks like Ross Ulbricht are activists:

Take a hypothetical example: Let’s say I go outside my apartment in Oakland and mark off a few city blocks as a “freedom market” where anything can be bought and sold—I just need a 10 percent cut of all transactions to maintain the marketplace. (Suspend your disbelief to imagine this can be done without violence.) No surprise, it’s mostly drugs that are sold in the market. The goods are high quality and sold peacefully. My “freedom market,” when it works right, arguably does reduce harm, making sellers and buyers safer. It also inarguably will make me rich, as long as I get my 10 percent cut.

But running my hypothetical street market doesn’t mean I am striking a nail in the coffin of the drug war. Likely, it’s just the opposite. A market designed to hide from the law is a great excuse for law enforcement to double down on the severity of enforcement and punishment.

Being an Uber Driver

This amazing article by Emily Guendelsberger makes me really think about my use of Uber. Uber already has had a few rough months, but this article really cuts through the fantasy of how much better Uber is for drivers than being a cabbie is.

In the end, it’s just a more convenient, less regulated cab service. And since they’re skirting a lot of the regulations that (in theory) cab services, they’re passing that cost savings on to us (the consumer) and themselves.

Whatever my reservations about Uber as a driver, it really, really is better for riders. I’m actually a staunch defender of Philly cabbies — I’ve never met a bad one, though many vocal people have. But Uber is just … better. The current medallion system sucks. Without getting too into the regulatory weeds, it creates an environment that screws over drivers and has no financial incentive to provide a pleasant experience for passengers. Uber can provide better service at cheaper prices with UberX because, by refusing to work within the medallion system, it has far fewer costs than a regulated taxi company — the cost of medallions, owning and maintaining a fleet of cars and paying for full commercial insurance.

But not the driver.

Driving for UberX isn’t the worst-paying job I’ve ever had. I made less scooping ice cream as a 15-year-old, if you don’t adjust for inflation. If I worked 10 hours a day, six days a week with one week off, I’d net almost $30,000 a year before taxes.

But if I wanted to net that $90,000 a year figure that so many passengers asked about, I would only have to work, let’s see …

27 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The whole article is fascinating. And, in the end, as passengers, we’re screwed if wanting to do the right thing. Cab services have a tendency to be inconvenient, expensive, and often not customer friendly. And not always nice to the cabbies. Uber is customer friendly, convenient, less expensive, and not always nice to the driver. And opens up the driver to a lot of potential liability.

So, it all sucks.

I’d feel 1000x better about it if Uber was passing on some of that margin to the drivers so that drivers really could achieve a meaningful existence … without working 27 hours a day. But in the end, I’ll just end up using whatever is the most convenient because both neither Uber nor the cab companies are really doing right by all three parties.

The Relativity of Winter

Going to school in Virginia, I built up this impression of myself, an image that coming from the brutal winters of New England, handling winter in the Blue Ridge Mountains was nothing. To be clear, winter in Blacksburg was rough. The Drillfield in the middle of campus was a giant wind tunnel, making the trek across campus to class an exercise in trying to get up a short, icy slope with massive wind bursts blowing you the other way. The temperature, often hovering around freezing, lead to mixes of snow and rain that changed rapidly to slush and ice.

Winter in Blacksburg was tough, but it was short and it was, definitively, nothing like a New England winter.

Or so I told myself.

Then I came back to live just north of Boston and, in the years since, rapidly began to wonder if I was ever that tough. The cold ate at me in ways I never remembered. Whereas I used to love the prospect of snow, and having a day off from school, I now dreaded the idea that my city would declare a snow emergency, leaving me to have to find a place to park my car, and then trudge back and forth to it to shovel it out and make my way to work.

The occasional light winters with only a couple of snow storms that melted away rapidly were a joy, and made me wonder if I had lost my New England seasonal toughness. Maybe I was better equipped for warmer climates.

Everything is relative.

The winter of 2015 is going to go down in history as probably the snowiest on record for the Boston area. It’s rarely been above freezing for the last 4 weeks, and there’s only been a handful of days that didn’t contain some snow. Navigating the city by car or on foot is treacherous and takes three times as long as normal, simply because there’s nowhere for the snow to go.

The difference is none of us seem to care any more. Or don’t care about the precipitaton and cold, at least. More snow? I just need to figure out where I’m going to put it. Only in the single digits today? Ok, I guess I’ll put on some gloves when I shovel. As the winter has worn on, I’ve realized that I never lost that toughness necessary to handle a New England winter. I just hadn’t faced a tough New England winter in a while.

Our big complaints now? That aforementioned traffic due to streets that are 60% their normal size. The T not running because the snow has come so fast and furious that the tracks aren’t even clear in some places. Are they going to have ice melt at the hardware store since they’ve run out for three days in a row. Are parking space savers ok?

My memory of being a kid and facing down winter head on doesn’t include the six layers of clothing topped by full snow pants, or coming inside and standing next to the wood stove, which in hindsight, is how we survived winter. No, I just remember winter not being a big deal.

30 years later, six feet of snow later, watching as a near blizzard drops another ten inches of snow onto our yard, already swelling with mounds of shoveled snow, winter isn’t a big deal. My hearty New England soul can handle it just fine.

It’s just a pain in the ass.

In need of disruption …

Posts will likely be short for a while. We’re in the process of buying a house and moving. Hooray!

However, over the past 3 months, while house hunting, open housing, making offers, accepting offers, and everything else that goes into the process, nothing has been more clear to me than the fact that the process of buying and selling a home needs to be massively disrupted.

When making what is likely the biggest purchase you’ll have made to that point, you basically see a house for 30 minutes in as optimal a situation as possible. You have to go through agents on both sides because, well, why would you be able to act on your own? That would be cutting out the middle man. The hilarious part of it all is that the least expensive part of the entire thing are the lawyers, who basically have the whole thing covered and end up costing pennies out of the whole process.

Companies like Redfin, Trulia, and Zillow are helping with connecting buyers and sellers, but really, they’re now just full of buyer’s agents and seller’s agents. It’s a market where it’s very hard to actually find the real person on the other side. That probably works fine when the market is hopping, but if/when the market comes down, the loads of agents just hanging around the market and acting as gatekeepers will get churned out and replaced by either a) nothing, or b) real, value added agents.

During this process, there are lots of places where I’d happily pay someone to solve a problem with skills I don’t have (a mortgage, legal documents, moving). Those services seem to be priced appropriately. The real estate agent side of things is a place where the price you pay seems to dwarf the services rendered. The interwebs have a tendency to solve that problem over time. I expect that by the next time I buy a home, it’ll be a very different experience.

Post-Script: I did some googling around to see if I’m the only one who feels this way. I’m clearly not. This post resonated so strongly with me. I heard nearly every one of those canards during our buying process.

Post-Post-Script: Our agent was quite nice, and I don’t think doing anything that was deceptive or misleading. It’s really just a case where the goals of the real estate agent are not aligned with the goals of the buyers/sellers. They don’t get paid for their time, just for the sale. Like car dealers, the folks working the floor of your local Home Depot, or the folks calling you to offer you some new phone service, they make money when you buy something. And they don’t, when you don’t.

Harmontown Episode 72: On the Nature of Art

I love the Harmontown podcast for a lot of reasons. It’s consistently funny, goofy, and offensive. And, very often, it’ll hit these little moments of humanity where you realize that everyone, from a Hollywood writer to someone who considers themselves the loneliest outcast in society, is the same on some level.

There’s this unbelievably remarkable sequence about art, how it makes you feel emotionally and physically, which segues into a bit about crying at the launching of the Space Shuttle and when it’s appropriate to applaud, jumping back and forth between art and what it means to be paid for art. It’s really just this enlightening, uplifting, beautiful conversation.

I don’t know that I can do it justice. When you hear people talking about how daunting it is to create (whether it be words, pictures, or music) when you walk into a museum and see the amazing work done by people like Van Gogh or Da Vinci—until you realize that you’re seeing only their best work. Or when it is pointed out that Michelangelo had a number of unfinished sculptures after David, because people stopped paying him. They stopped paying Michelangelo.

It’s just a brilliant, unscripted sequence that may be one of my favorite things I’ve heard or seen this year.

And then it’s followed up by some Dungeons and Dragons.

Such is life in Harmontown.

Listen starting around 1 hour in (it’s almost exactly 1 hour in) until about 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Picking a Premier League Team

Joe Posnanski (probably our preeminent sportswriter right now) tackles choosing a Premier League team. I imagine lots of folks are getting into the Premier League given NBC’s stellar coverage (and the fact that it’s on in the morning before college or pro football start). It’s worth a read.

A couple of years ago, when I got into the Premier League pretty heavy (that’s what having access to the Fox Soccer channel will do …), I bounced between teams who were all on the verge of being relegated (Bolton, QPR, West Ham). Relegation has chosen West Ham for me.

From JoePos:

Why you should be a fan: The team’s thrilling history, centered around those three great West Ham players who led England to glory in 1966.

Why you shouldn’t be a fan: Because they’re still talking a lot about 1966.

Yep. Sounds just like a team I would gravitate towards.