The claustrophobia of personalization

This past weekend I watched a couple of movies based on Netflix recommendations which dredged up films that I’d wanted to watch for ages. I liked the movies – Netflix had it right. But the process of trolling through Netflix recs leaves me with a feeling of claustrophobia. I page through screen after screen, recognizing the same attributes I find pleasing. One of the things that I like best is finding new esthetic experiences through the tastes of other people. There needs to be some commonality – I’m not going to like super-violent movies or really schmaltzy ones. But I can expand what I like by experiencing what someone else enjoys. Browsing the Netflix recs created a strange sense of ennui – being bored with my own esthetic.

John Battelle made a related point last fall, when he wrote about the limits of the spread of dependent identity on the web (you can call it “facebookification”). If your identity follows you around to different social contexts, this constrains your ability to approach new social contexts and engage yourself quietly and gradually. He gives the example of listening to a group of cyclists discuss bikes, and having his favorite model immediately shared, rather than disclosing the information gradually. The availability of immediate identity has the potential to make the online world less like an urban area, where there are new social contexts to engage with, and more like a small town, where everyone remembers what you did a decade or two ago.

Battelle suggests that social software patterns should add nuance – the ability to choose when to disclose one’s identity in a new site – to mitigate the chilling effect of premature disclosure The claustrophobia of personalization might be mitigated with different patterns, ways of adding in social influences.

In the early days of the internet, Nicholas Negroponte talked about the promise and the threat of the “daily me” – news services that support the interests and the prejudices of the viewer. Considering total and immediate personalization as the extreme of a continuum, there are interesting opportunities to add back flexibility and diversity to the experience.

When will open ebooks cross the chasm?

Over the weekend, Cory Doctorow wrote and then updated a blog post referring to new and simpler ways of removing DRM from Kindle ebooks.

Cory Doctorow’s BoingBoing readers are no strangers to digital rights. In the comments section, many readers explained why they were thankful for the new tools. They want to be able to read ebooks they buy on any device that they own. They want to be able to protect their investment in case they want to buy a different ereader in the future. They understand that the policies of publishers and device makers are hostile to customers, trying to lock customers into a single device platform, and force customers to buy new media when they switch devices.

Doctorow’s readers also are more tech-savvy than the average ereader user. They are able to use command-line scripts and geeky tools, and follow detailed-instructions for multi-step processes. BoingBoing readers are technology early adopters. They understand the limitations of ereaders, and are willing to go through substantial hassle in order turning ebook files into assets they can use in the future.

Twenty years ago, Geoffrey Moore wrote “Crossing the Chasm” the technology marketing classic which described gulf between technology early adopters and mainstream buyers. It can take a long time to bridge that gap. Most buyers of e-readers probably don’t yet know that if they want to buy a different brand, their investment in the ebooks they purchased will be worthless.

It took seven years between Apple’s launch of iTunes and iPod, the first massively popular tools for digital music, and Amazon’s sale of un-encumbered digital music. Only one year later, Apple started offering DRM-free music as a standard offer. In the ebook market, Amazon and Apple are the market leaders, and they have mutually incompatible DRM’s book formats.

How long will it take for the knowledge about the limitations of ereader technology reach the majority of buyers of ebooks? What story will finally break into mainstream media and result in mass awareness that ereader lock-in is bad for buyers? What surge in customer demand, and what competitive trend will cause ebook providers to finally stop inconveniencing customers in the vain hope of longterm lockin?

The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman, a story that adapts childrens’ fantasy novels for grownups, is two stories together.

The inner story in the fantasy frame structure is a thought experiment exploring what happens when you run a children’s fantasy plot with adult characters. Fantasy classics the Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Pan – create enchanted worlds that are accessible to children – when a character reaches adolescence the magical world is out of reach; or the characters can stay in the enchanted land only if they resist growing up.

In the Magicians, Grossman has characters in their 20s travel to a magical world as adults. This is an opportunity for irony and dark humor. Cute things become dodgy or sinister – there is an alcoholic talking bear and lethal stuffed bunny. Characters can ask some of the logical questions – if character has a time machine, why do they not go back in time to fix problems; if a character is a god, why do they need others to help solve problems and allow suffering in the universe; and what’s the motivation of adults who write childrens fantasy novels anyway?

The adult characters and ironic tone facilitate the political questions implicit in the genre – when humans travel to an strange land and become heroes through combat and leaders by apparent local acclaim, isn’t there an element of colonialism? When there are sides in a conflict, how can you tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys”, or maybe there’s just a civil war, and the humans are being manipulated by the locals.

The inner story, the Narnia takeoff, has flaws as a story. It tries to combine irony and straight up plot, with setup, conflict, combat, and denouement, and does so unevenly. There are time travel mechanics and political machinations, where each development creates different understanding until the whole thing is unravelled at the end. I think the puzzle creation and resolution works well. The story and drama, not so much. But even though the half-parody of the Narnia genre has its flaws, I enjoyed the playing out of the thought experiment.

Where the inner story plays on Narnia and its cousins, the outer frame story plays off of Harry Potter; the characters are students at a college for magicians. But the main references, the way it reads to me, are Yale/Harvard (the author studied at both schools), and novels of GenX anti-coming-of-age.

The campus buildings at Brakebill are retro architecture with details full of stories, the school’s customs are thick with ritual and tradition, the schoolwork itself has appealing substance and rigor, the students are expected to master the discipline and also to grow into adult sexuality, alcohol, and connoisseurship. The elite selection and socialization inculcates participants from a variety of class backgrounds into a ethnicity-free international upper-middle-class, where participants from Europe and South America are known for their accents and locally styled skills, but not any substantive differences.

But when students graduate and are forced to leave this idyll, there is nowhere to go but an empty world where choices are high-paying management consulting, finance, and law; genteel academia; public service taking little bites out of unsolveable problems. Graduates defer vapid adulthood with alcohol and drug-fueled chronic hipsterism. The Brakebills network insulates graduates from the economic consequences of slackerdom, as long as their misadventures are short of fatal.

When students make it through the rigorous selection process to study magic at Brakebills, they leave behind the vapidity of modern life and enter a world where gestures and sounds take on meaning and power, where the mix of diligently acquired craft and self-discovered spirit can transform reality. Magic, yeah sure, Grossman is talking about art in general and literature in particular.

There is an odd exchange in the book, where one of the characters observes that Quentin, the main character “believes in magic”, unlike most of his peers. This is strange, given that magic at Brakebills is indubitably real – characters cast spells that change physical reality. There is no doubt that magic happens in the world of the story. What characters believe in, or don’t, is the meaning of magic, it’s power to rise above the purposeless, emptiness, and misery of life.

The strongest characteristic of Quentin, the main character, is his chronic unhappiness and self-hatred, which he takes out on himself and those around him, an observation that his too-good girlfriend makes explicitly, a weakness in the “show-not-tell” esthetic of fiction, and a handy moral summary for the perhaps-dense reader. This is the allegory of the frame narrative – young artist learns his craft and struggles with the hope that it will redeem life, and the apparent reality that it doesn’t; that life is one thing after another; that misery comes from within, and that being a jerk has consequences.

The Magician explores the tensions between the esthetics of the modern novel (write what you know, often a world without given meaning or morality) and fantasy literature (explore a world of the imagination, where good and evil are explicit). The book is an interesting exploration of the contrasts between those expectations. As in the GenX coming-of-age novels that the frame story resembles, the world of adulthood that the young magicians grow into has sex and drugs and alcohol, but no consequences or responsibilities. That’s a valid fictional world, and a somewhat claustrophobic reading experience.

The High Cost of Free Parking

Why did the US landscape become covered in sprawl in the second half of the 20th century? Why were retail stores located in strip malls and shopping centers where it was impossible to walk, while downtown districts languished? One key reason is that it wasn’t legal to build compact shopping areas, because postwar legal codes quickly added mandatory parking requirements for new buildings. And it wasn’t legal to rehab older buildings and convert them to new uses unless they could retroactively add as much parking as a suburban shopping center. Parking requirements institutionalized the designs we recognize as sprawl.

But, isn’t all that parking needed? In The High Cost of Free Parking UCLA professor of urban planning Donald Shoup explains that the parking requirements used across the US are based on bad data and poor logic. The “bible” used by local planners to set parking requirements, the Parking Generation manual published by the Institute for Transportation Engineers, includes information about parking requirements for hundreds of uses, from fast food restaurants to funeral parlors. Many of the data points in the manual are based on one to four observations – not enough data to mean anything. The classic planners’ rule of thumb for the allocation of parking spaces is based on the square footage of the type of building. But studies show that there is no statistical correlation between the square footage and parking use.

And the logic behind the parking requirements is specious. For each new building, developers are required to build out the amount of parking needed for drivers to easily get a spot at close to the highest use of the year — assuming that parking is provided free to drivers. The prediction for the amount of parking consumed is based on a universal assumption that it is a good that should be free, and always available.

Now, if you ask drivers or merchants if they want free parking, the answer is going to be yes. Same as if you offer free chocolate or free beer. But society doesn’t provide free beer. The cost of “free” parking is built into housing, commercial building, and all other products and services. The High Cost of Free Parking totals up the cumulative value of the free off-street parking subsidy for drivers- it adds up to between 1.2 and 3.6 percent of GDP, larger than Medicare, and near to the amount spent on the US military.

A major contributing factor to sprawl is the assumption of free parking, and the mandatory requirement for developers to provide as much free parking to meet the maximum desire for free parking. This state of affairs isn’t the result of a national policy debate, like debates about whether society should provide health care or education. It just gradually accreted based on an assumption that parking ought to be free for drivers.

The consequence is a landscape covered in parking that is unused 99% of the time and development patterns that make alternatives to driving impractical and unsafe. And, as road planners eventually learned, it is impossible to build one’s way out of traffic. At busy times and places, most drivers aren’t going someplace, they are circling looking for free parking spots, even if there is offstreet parking not that far away.

After laying out the case for the cost and damage caused by ubiquitous free parking, Shoup presents a number of insightful and practical ways to gradually get us out of this jam. To reduce the number of parking spots, employers can offer employees transit passes, and options to take cash instead of a parking spot. Studies of initiatives in Silicon Valley found that transit passes reduced parking by about 20%, and allowing employees to “cash out” their parking allowance reduced parking by another 13%. These results occurred even though alternatives to driving in Silicon Valley are limited – people will use alternatives when it makes sense. Similar initiatives allow businesses and apartment buildings to replace some of their parking requirement by allocating space for car-sharing services, instead of a larger number of private cars.

Instead of requiring developers to build parking spots, some cities are allowing developers to pay cash instead – the money is used to build shared parking that can be more space-efficient than parking for each building, and allows businesses with different time needs for parking, like a bank and a nightclub, to share parking. There are further innovations in parking technology that make it easier to set prices. Digital meters can monitor the use of parking and be used to set a price that will maintain about 15 percent vacancy – a rate that ensure easy entry and exit, without traffic james caused by cruising for parking. San Francisco is experimenting with networked parking meters that charge based on availability. Similar systems have been in place in Aspen since 1995, and such systems are common in Europe.

But how to get around people’s preference and habit for free stuff? Shoup makes a case in favor of creating parking districts that sending the revenue from metered parking to the local neighborhood. This approach has been effective in Pasadena, where downtown renewal in the 80s and 90s was fostered by paid parking, with revenue used to pay for lighting, street furniture, trees, and other other improvements to the local business district.

My motivation to read this book was sparked by a controversy around a downtown redevelopment project in Menlo Park where I live. The proposals call for shorter time limits in the central district, and longer-term paid parking in lots that are a few minutes away, and for eventually replacing some street level parking lots behind the downtown main street with parking structures allowing longer-term paid parking. Local businesses protested vehemently, fearing that charging for parking, and encouraging drivers to park in lots for long visits would chase drivers to other areas. I wondered about the underlying assumptions behind the design, and wondered whether the fears of local merchants were justified.

It turns out that the dire outcomes feared by local businesses didn’t materialize in Pasadena – charging for parking didn’t chase visitors away, and the more attractive, walkable, and less congested downtown generated more business. According to Shoup’s argument, the Menlo Park plan does not go far enough. Instead of restricting parking time at popular locations on the main street, it would be better to charge for parking. For a quick stop the fee would be minimal, and the price would encourage employees and others staying for hours to park in the garage.

Defenders of suburban sprawl often contend that the American landscape has been created by “the free market.” This view ignores the web of policies and subsidies that created the current system. Kenneth Jackson’s classic Crabgrass Frontier describes the policies that favored highways and new construction over transit and refurbishing older buildings. Shoup’s book explains another important piece of the puzzle – parking requirements that result in overbuilding of parking and major subsidies favoring driving instead of alternatives. Shoup argues that if prices were used to allocate the provision of parking, there would be less oversupply of parking, and more parking available when people need it.

One of my favorite quotes is from biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, “everything is the way it is because it got that way.” There’s a historical trajectory and structural reasons that resulted in things being the way they are. But just because there’s an explainable cause doesn’t mean that the system is easy to change. One of the strengths of the book is that it describes mechanisms to introduce change that could garner support, and brings evidence for many of these mechanisms working in practice.

The High Cost of Free Parking joins a short list of my favorite books that uncover the origins and mechanisms behind aspects of daily life we often take for granted. The book long, and makes its points exhaustively, sometimes repetitively. I’ve summarized the books argument in this post for readers who may not have the attention to get through 700 pages of data and evidence about parking policy. For those who are interested in urban design and environmental issues, the book is enlightening and highly recommended.