Friday, August 22, 2014

TED Talk Highlight: Jared Diamond on Why Societies Collapse

While working on the next post, I decided to post this video from a TED Talk by Jared Diamond. It was delivered several years ago, but the lessons he's trying to teach the audience resonate in any age, especially today.


Diamond outlines why some societies fail where others have succeeded, giving the audience some food for thought on how we can avoid our own collapses today. Especially noteworthy is his observation that societies tend to fail not long after their peaks, meaning all societies, even ones that seem powerful, have a risk of failing if they encounter the pitfalls that Diamond outlines.

Another point that Diamond articulates is the phenomenon that what has been a society's main strength, or a trait that helps it succeed at first, can ultimately be its undoing. For an interesting take on how societies, even ours, could fail, take a watch after the jump.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Development vs Preservation: Taller Buildings

The construction of taller buildings is a development issue that brings out many opponents all around the San Francisco Bay Area. Whether it is the erection of large skyscrapers in San Francisco, or the construction of anther office building in Silicon Valley, one doesn't have to look far to find opponents of large buildings. Despite the displeasure and vitriol directed at these buildings and the developers that fund them, building upwards may be the Bay Area's, and the whole world's best option to initiate sustainable growth.

Tall buildings certainly have significant drawbacks associated with them.  San Francisco is rightly investigating whether tall buildings on the waterfront is a good idea. However, some of the fear associated with tall buildings and the aversion to approving and constructing them is misplaced. Many readers of the San Francisco Chronicle immediately take to the comment pages whenever a plan for a skyscraper is unveiled, predicting that these new buildings will put the city at an increased risk of a large scale disaster, with multiple large buildings crashing down during an earthquake. 

Anybody with this fear should look at the pictures of damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. They will find that instead of tall buildings, most of the damage was to 2-3 story buildings with a garage underneath, or buildings built on landfill. The houses with large garages underneath were often not well supported, and the house fell through the garage space. Landfill is not as stable as solid ground, so understandably, some buildings were damaged. This is one of the reasons San Francisco should not build large buildings (or really, much of anything) on the waterfront on landfill or sandy soil.

Additionally, countries like Japan, who experience frequent earthquakes, build tall buildings that similarly outperform low lying, older structures in earthquakes. Architecture has become advanced enough that skyscrapers are not a significant risk of falling over. A person is more likely to have their old two story home collapse than the new, 800 foot skyscraper where they work.

Another concern people have is interruption of the view and creating an imposing feeling on residents. This can be a legitimate concern. In San Francisco especially, if super tall buildings are constructed on the waterfront, everyone's view is obstructed.  In suburban areas, taller buildings can create an imposing feeling, as many residents were attracted to the "small town feel" of their small cities.  However, as population increases, taller buildings must be constructed.  We need to build more buildings in order to meet the high demand for housing and office space. Residents and political leaders need to realize that some sacrifices have to be made-by everybody-in order to develop a sustainable future. In San Francisco, there is significant resistance to building taller buildings, as each building owner or resident does not want their own view blocked.  In San Francisco as well as other peninsula cities, locals complain about the high cost of housing, but are unwilling to see larger apartment complexes go up in order to alleviate the housing burden.  The issue then is how to construct higher density housing and office/retail space while preserving the core aspects of our local communities.

There is a solution to this problem, and it involves being proactive about solving the urban planning problems.  We cannot continuously shift back and forth between periods of housing development and office development: they must be done in tandem. The high cost of housing is a major problem, just as higher costs of office space are a problem and will get even worse if communities stop zoning for office and retail space and build only housing instead.

The idea is to create a balanced approach, zoning for the future, rather than the current situation, in mind. People need to make sacrifices regarding how the communities of the future will look, as they will need to deal with increased development that can make their small cities feel too big, but if plans are made earlier, it is much more likely that we can preserve key elements of our communities without seeing large scale development that we see in Asia.  We can set aside some areas for increased growth, while limiting growth in other areas, such as the San Francisco waterfront. By intelligently planning for the future, including transportation and open space in our plans, we can create a future society that may be significantly different than our present one, but nevertheless one we can all live in and enjoy.

There are many issues not talked about in this article that clearly matter when talking about sustainable growth. We hope to delve into urban planning, transportation, open space, parks, and alternative methods of transportation in the coming weeks.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Development vs Preservation: Can we form a sustainable future? A case study in the SF Bay Area

In the San Francisco Bay Area, much ado has been made about the current jobs-housing imbalance, which is one of the driving factors behind high costs for housing there.  This is only part of the issue: California is a very desirable place to live.  Specifically in the Bay Area, there are good weather and good schools in addition to a good economic climate, and all this, combined with some other factors, make the demand for housing much higher than the supply.

This is a bit of a problem.  The Bay Area economy appears like it will remain strong for the foreseeable future, and other factors that make the housing market strong aren't changing anytime soon.  People will continue to want to live and work in the Bay Area.  Traffic, already bad, will continue to get worse, and housing will continue to lag behind the pace of job creation, forcing workers to live farther and farther away, creating and exacerbating more problems.

How to fix the problem remains a bit more problematic.  Numerous methods have been tried to keep housing costs down, such as rent control and development specifically intended for affordable housing. However, these methods can only control housing prices so much. In order to truly bring down housing prices, there needs to either be a huge decrease in demand or a large increase in supply.

Looking at the opinion pages across Bay Area cities, there are a wide variety of opinions concerning growth.  Many residents decry the need for more housing projects in place of business development, while others lament the urbanization of their communities, disliking how large apartment buildings and business complexes are increasing in number.  However, people need to realize that as time passes and the Bay Area's population increases, there will be more of a need for large building projects in order to keep up with growth.

The real problem is that the housing projects necessary to bring down housing prices aren't being built fast enough.  The Bay Area needs commercial development to sustain a strong local economy, but this must be accompanied by residential development as well.  If communities continue to ignore pressing issues regarding development, these actions will have to be taken later, where the situation will be much more dire.  Any problems the Bay Area has at present will only get worse of cities large and small ignore this development crisis.

People in cities all over America need to take action now in order to shape their communities before it's too late.  There are a lot of great community assets the San Francisco Bay Area has, such as its proximity too, and large amounts of open space.  This community treasure could be jeopardized as cities become more populated and communities run out of room to grow.  As of now, Bay Area cities still have the time to invest into detailed long term community planning, making sure they have enough room for companies in the area, places to house the workers, yet still have adequate amounts of open space and a strong transportation system to help people get around.

These are important issues that communities all over the country, or all over the world, not just the SF Bay Area.  If communities like the Bay Area with strong economic growth start early and plan for future, residents will be more likely to have a future community that they find appealing and desirable to live in.  But only if planning starts now.  If we wait too long, it will be much too late to intelligently solve the problem and more money will be spent, more headaches created, and our future cities will not be as enjoyable to live in.

In the coming days and weeks, we will have other posts exploring this issue in depth, including putting forward ideas on how to plan our future cities, how we can solve our inevitable transportation problems, and explore how to pay for all this development.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Puerto Rico Question: Statehood, Independence, or Neither?

Puerto Rico's status in the Unites States' political sphere is a bit complicated.  It is considered a commonwealth, which means that the people of Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States but they do not have much say in the nation's government.  This has led to questions over the years about what should be done about Puerto Rico, to the extent that there is a group of Puerto Ricans that want to reunite with Spain.  While some still favor the status quo, others are proponents for statehood, and there has been some movement on that front in the form of a resolution in the Senate.

Many proponents for statehood cite the economic benefits associated with becoming a state, especially citing a recent GAO report that projects a favorable impact on the Puerto Rican economy if statehood is achieved.  It also suggests that statehood is both in Puerto Rico's interests as well as the nation's interest, which has been a cause for worry in the past regarding Puerto Rico's status.  The U.S. Government is constitutionally obligated to treat Puerto Rico with less priority that the states, and would have to sink more money into the State of Puerto Rico than they do the Commonwealth. However, the GAO report suggests that increased revenues from the state will ably make up for the extra dollars spent.

Economic benefits certainly are debatable, with some people drawing different conclusions from the same report, but Puerto Rico would likely be better off as a state in the United States rather than on their own, where they would have to pay for national defense and international diplomacy in addition to managing their own national economy.  The independence question is something that both Catalonia and Scotland have considered in recent years.  It would be a bit of a stretch to think that Puerto Rico would be better off on their own rather than aligned with the economy of the United States.  It is likely that remaining with the United States as a state would either better protect, or at the very least not change Puerto Rico's propensity to economic fluctuation, since their economy is dependent substantially on oil for transportation and energy, as well as its dependence on imports.  Puerto Rico has struggled to become fully self sufficient in its history, so enhancing ties with an economic power like the United States would seem to be in it's best interests.

Regardless of the economic situation, the people of Puerto Rico deserve to have something done about their future.  Right now, though they are a United States Commonwealth, they cannot vote in presidential elections and do not have a voting member of congress (they do have one representative to serve their interests, but they are not able to vote).

Whether or not Puerto Rico should become a state is a question best left to the Puerto Rican people, but a decision should be made.  Puerto Rico should not exist in a limbo where they are not independent or not represented in the government of their own country.  It is in Puerto Rico's best interests to force this issue.

Adding Puerto Rico to the Union could influence the politics of the United States significantly, and this is possibly why there has to some resistance to decision making regarding Puerto Rico's status in Washington.  Adding Puerto Rico as a state could well add two Democratic-leaning senators to the U.S. Congress, as well as some representatives, possibly taking representatives away from lower population right-leaning states.  This leaves the Republican Party with little incentive, though the party's platform does support it, to initiate action towards Puerto Rico's admission into the Union as a state.

Irrespective of these effects, Puerto Rico's needs and accordingly, its politics, would affect how the national parties approach certain issues.  Puerto Rico is different culturally and economically to the other 50 states. Namely, Puerto Ricans speak primarily Spanish, where the mainland obviously favors English.

These differences, however, could have a positive effect on the politics of our country. The nation's own demographics are changing, with many more Latinos than there were 20 years ago.  Other immigrant groups are also on the rise.  Adding Puerto Rico to the Union would add some diversity to our country, and hopefully force the political parties to cater to a diversifying nation.  At the very least, it could provide some fresh blood and some new perspective to Washington, a city that badly needs some different opinions on how to run the country.  Puerto Rico might give the United States that opportunity.

Friday, June 13, 2014

NOVA Program: Zeppelins of World War I

We are not just a political blog, as we often post on other issues, such as economics, technology, innovation, and science.  I am personally a big fan of the PBS program NOVA, and today's post highlights an interesting show they aired some time ago on the technology behind Germany's zeppelins in World War I.



In a war defined by many blunders by both sides and incompetence in leadership, this show highlights some interesting technological and tactical advances that would change modern warfare forever.  It's hard to justify triumphing war technology, but the show shows how advances made during this time have been used to develop airship technology and discusses how these airships changed how war was fought.  It brings up how technological advances were used to wage modern, total warfare.  It is an interesting watch.

Direct link: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/military/zeppelin-terror-attack.html

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Fallout from Eric Cantor's primary loss: what should people take away?

Ah, there's nothing better than a political shocker.  In a field that seemed to get just a bit too predictable, the Republican voter's of Virginia's 7th congressional district handed the political establishment of Washington a bit of a surprise.  Eric Cantor was defeated in his own party's primary by Dave Brat, a formerly little known economics professor that has now managed the impressive feat of unseating a sitting majority leader in a primary for the first time since the Constitution went into effect in 1789.

There will be many takeaways from this race, especially among the Republicans in the House.  This can be very dangerous, for despite Cantor's inability to retain his seat, this new trend is so far a trend of one; it is very difficult to accurately determine long term consequences based on one race in one district in one state out of fifty.  However, Republicans all over do have some reason to be worried: if Cantor could lose his primary, it means that they could too.

This, to a certain extent, has always been the case, but it still won't stop Republicans from overreacting to the Cantor race.  The fact that Brat ran emphasizing his opposition to immigration reform means that many Republicans will run away from an issue that they should in fact be embracing.  The longer Republicans ignore the need for immigration reform, the more immigrant and minority groups will vote for Democrats instead, and in large numbers.

We'll see for certain in the coming weeks and months what the Republican leadership takes away from Cantor's race, but they need to be careful not to read to much into it.  Brat ran a grassroots campaign, didn't take anything for granted, and capitalized of of Cantor's perceived complacency about the race.  If the GOP continues to drift to the right, as it has in other races, nominated candidates who oppose compromise, they will set themselves up as a parliamentary party that does not appeal to the nationwide electorate and they will struggle in presidential elections.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Don't people care who gets elected?

These are troubling time in California.  Very troubling times.  As many people around the country know, California had a statewide primary on June 3rd, 2014, on which Californians voted for statewide offices as well as propositions, local positions, and measures.  Well, some Californians did.

Initial tabulations have voter turnout at a whopping 18.3 percent.  It was even worse in Los Angeles County, where only around 13 percent of registered voters decided to vote.

With this low turnout, a casual observer might think there wasn't anything, or anything important, to vote for at all, but this was hardly the case.  For one, this primary served as a major test of the top two system in California, where instead of seeking party nominations, candidates run off in an open primary, and the top two vote getters get on the general election ballot in November.  Californians voted for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Controller, Attorney General, Insurance Commissioner, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and two statewide ballot measures.  Additionally, Californians all over the state voted in primaries for their representatives in congress, which given its approval rating, people may want to rethink whether they want their representative winning another term.  There were also a lot of local ballot measures that many Californians didn't vote for but some did.

So why didn't Californians go to the polls?  Was it because they felt that certain candidates would win anyway?  This could certainly be the case, as in races such as Governor, Jerry Brown, the incumbent, won by a wide margin.  However there were numerous other races, such as for Secretary of State and Controller, where the incumbent was termed out and Californians had the opportunity to vote for someone else.  Potential voters also may have felt a bit of apathy to the political process.  The state's fiances seem to be on the mend, and there is less for the electorate to get enraged about.  Some people probably thought their individual vote wouldn't make a difference, but with situations such as measure AA in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, which looks to have just squeaked by, individual votes here and there certainly made a difference.

Regardless of their reasons, the fact that many registered Californians decided to forgo participation in the electoral process has lasting effects for our future.  Gone are the days of strong electoral participation in California that say around 60 percent of registered voters participate in elections.  In these kind of elections, there is a new silent majority, one that would rather stay home than vote in an election that they deem to be either predetermined or pretty much meaningless.  Paradoxically, because this silent majority has grown ever larger, especially in California in this election, these voters have shown exactly why they are wrong.

If only 18 percent of registered voters vote, not even registered voters, then that means over 80 percent of people that were in a good position to vote decided not to.  That is a sizable portion of the state's population, certainly enough to make a difference, that sat on the sidelines instead of participating.  There are fewer and fewer excuses available for failing to vote: voting is becoming ever easier.  We can vote by mail and in some areas of California you can receive your sample ballot and election information electronically.  It's not that hard to vote, but so many Californians didn't do it on June 3rd.

Voting is one of the most important things a citizen can do to make a difference in America.  If people don't take the time and participate in elections, they get the government they deserve.  Regardless of whether people hate their government of love it, voting is an important action to make sure that citizens can influence how decisions are make.  If you don't vote, you don't matter.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Reform to Education is Needed

Our education system is broken.  We have students that are struggling and we are locked into a system that rewards teachers for hanging in there the longest, not ones that effectively teach and inspire their students.

Teaching is and will remain some of the most important jobs in America.  Teachers instruct and enlighten new generations, driving them towards success.  We need to ensure that those who fill these jobs are both well qualified and well prepared to do this.  Merit based teacher hiring, promotion, and retention will encourage teachers to be the best they can possibly be.

This is not all on the teachers though.  Instructors who teach teachers need to be the best they can be also.  Teachers need to be well prepared so that they can succeed. Ensuring that we have extensive teacher training is essential.  Teachers should be informed on strategies that help motivate students.  They can share their ideas so they all can succeed.  Such collaboration must be encouraged in the education system.

In order to push students to learn more, we must challenge them, but not beyond their limits so that they are overwhelmed.  In our educational system, there are often only two streams: Grade Level and Honors/Advanced Placement.  There is no middle ground.  Often students feel they are unready or unprepared for the most challenging class, but then, devoid of options, are frustrated with the simplicity of the Grade Level Class.

This needs to change.  Teachers in all classes need to asses student skill and willpower to offer or assign tiered assignments varying the challenge that students have.  Some students may not be able to go beyond what Grade Level requires.  Very well.  Others can have a challenge, so that they may still challenge themselves and expand their knowledge without overwhelming themselves.  This would not require any additional "Accelerated" classes from being added to the school course offerings, thus eliminating any additional class/teacher cost.  Though all assignments may not be tiered, as to ensure grade fairness, a significant amount of increased challenged could be added to the courses with this system.  Teachers can assign some tired assignments, and present a choice to the student on others, encouraging students to challenge themselves, but within their limits.  This provides a way for all students, not matter their skill level, to push themselves without increasing their stress level.

W.B. Yeats once said, "Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire."  By challenging our students, we can light student's intellectual fires so they burn bright and powerful into adulthood, catalyzing and illuminating their futures.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Campaign Finance Reform

In 2012, PBS Frontline aired a documentary on the effect of outside interest groups on elections.  Though the program focuses mostly on the state of Montana, their findings do have wide ranging implications.  If you have the time, give it a watch.

Here's a trailer for the program:



The link to the full documentary on the PBS Frontline site is here:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/big-sky-big-money/

Saturday, June 22, 2013

IRS Scandal and the Future of America's Least Favorite Institution

After the recent breaking news that the Internal Revenue Service was giving additional scrutiny to the tax exempt status of Tea Party Groups based on having words such as "Patriot" or "Tea Party" in their name, there was massive political outcry on both sides of the aisle, most of which was well warranted.  Groups should not be targeted purely based on the name of their group.  But to make the assumption that the IRS was completely uncalled for in it's extra scrutiny and purely based on targeting conservative groups is not.

According to a recent NPR report, many liberal groups with had missions or names having to do with "progressive" tendencies  were also targeted to a significant extent by this IRS oversight.  This means that the IRS blanket of these groups is not a mechanism of the party in the White House trying to delegitimize groups that should have non profit status.
IRS Building in Washington (Washington Post)
But the larger issue that this scandal raises is the fallout and effect on the IRS's future policy.  The political posturing that is taking place in Washington takes away from the fact that investigation and scrutiny is what the IRS was set up to provide.  Rhetoric like that of John Boehner, who insisted that he was concerned with "who was going to jail" rather than who would resign in the wake of the scandal makes the situation even worse.

The result of this controversy will unfortunately make the IRS less likely to provide scrutiny where there should be, instead making them gun shy of political backlash. This spells bad news for rooting out organizations that really should have a little extra scrutiny in order to get non-profit status.  The IRS clearly states that in order for organizations to receive a 501(c)4 charitable tax exemption, they need to have their activities be focused "exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes." (irs.gov) This means that in order for a group to get such an exemption, they cannot be focused primarily on political actions. Instead of giving these groups a rubber stamp, the IRS should be providing extra scrutiny to groups that have dubious charitable actions.