Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Book Summary: The Inequality Machine—How College Divides Us, by Paul Tough

 Paul Tough writes about how college in the US has gone from being a tool for upward mobility to a shield against downward mobility, and at the same time, colleges are employing survival strategies that further divide the diploma-haves and diploma-have-nots. Essentially, college is becoming more like a caste system, where the promise of "breaking out" of your caste via a degree from a selective college is less and less likely. He outlines a few patterns that explain why this is happening and the effect it has on students.

(Note: for brevity I use "smart rich kids", "smart poor kids", etc. as abbreviations for a more nuanced concept. They're not meant to be flip, just to keep things terse.)

Students who attend highly selective colleges are much more likely to be wealthy as adults, regardless of their initial socioeconomic standing. That is, the experience of going to a selective college can erase many socioeconomic disadvantages, although it is more "life-changing" (in terms of likelihood of climbing the socioeconomic ladder) for poor students. However, capable-but-poor students often aren't going to selective colleges: elite schools are largely (over 2/3) populated by rich students, i.e. by those who will benefit the least from the experience. Why is this and what problems does it cause for poor students?

The vicious cycle of standardized tests and admissions. Caroline Hoxby found that at selective colleges, the median SAT score correlates with the amount those colleges spend per-student to educate them. Elite colleges spend so much per student that they lose money on every student as a result. But attending a selective college also improves your economic prospects, so the colleges are counting on those students to be alumni donors later. At the same time, while the official party line given by high school guidance counselors was that any good college was fine and you should find the "best fit", students were increasingly realizing that selective=$$$, so today's students tend to go to the most selective college that will admit them. To do so, they need high test scores, costly test prep, etc. This further concentrates all the smart rich kids in a shrinking number of elite institutions that must then spend lots of money on them to make sure they will donate later—a vicious cycle. 

But Hoxby also found (based on studying ACT/SAT scores) that poor smart kids weren't even applying to selective schools that they were qualified for, and she hypothesized that they just didn't know the ropes about discovering and applying to selective schools (including things like knowing they could get fee waivers if they couldn't afford to apply), or perhaps weren't confident of their success, because they didn't have local role models to give them that information. Hoxby and Sarah Turner devised an intervention: they randomly chose 10,000 poor smart kids (based on SAT/ACT info) and sent each a folder with info about applying to selective schools, sample fee waiver forms, information about financial aid, and more. Students who received these packets were 31% more likely to apply to selective schools and 19% more likely to decide to attend, compared to a control group of similarly poor and smart kids who didn't receive a packet.

What about resources made available free to everyone to improve test scores? Khan Academy has a free "official SAT test prep" program anyone can use, but data scientists from Khan Academy and the College Board found that even though each hour of time spent on the site had an equal effect on score-boosting for all students, privileged (primarily white and Asian) students spent two to three times as long using the site as underprivileged students. UPenn social scientists Angela Duckworth and Katherine Milkman had intended to try various interventions to motivate the latter group to study more and develop better habits, but were unable to get the needed data and collaboration in time to do so; ultimately the study didn't get done.

Fear of failure/fear of fitting in. When smart poor kids do get into an elite college, they often have no peer group because the kids around them have been differently socialized. In particular, the rich kids likely came from professional households where the value of networking (with both peers and superiors, i.e. faculty) is well understood; the poor kids often didn't, and some see fraternizing with faculty or even forming peer study groups as an admission of weakness, and that they should instead just work hard on their own and keep their heads down. This causes 2 problems. First, students learn much more and have better psychological support if they study in groups vs. alone. Second, these students don't develop the networking skills they will need in post-college careers.  Even when these students are explicitly invited to join (eg) advising groups, they often don't respond. The situation is exacerbated if the students are from groups historically under-represented at that college or in that major.

Ethnic diversity ≠ socioeconomic diversity. Colleges like to boast that they accept a lot of Pell students, but many game the system by finding the students closest to the Pell threshold. Thus, a student who is qualified and just below the Pell threshold is ten times more likely to be admitted than one who is equally qualified but just above the Pell threshold. The result is that Pell numbers don't correlate with socioeconomic diversity: instead you get a bimodal distribution, with enough "barely Pell" kids to boost those numbers and a lot of rich kids to subsidize them. (Extreme examples: in 2013, only 2% of Princeton students came from the bottom 20% socioeconomically, whereas 17% of them came from top-1% families. In the same year, the median family income of entering students at Trinity College that year was $258,000. In 2018, the median family income at the University of Alabama was higher than that at Bryn Mawr.) Using a similar trick, colleges that admit students of color who immigrated voluntarily from Africa or the Caribbean (who are more likely to have attended private school, come from an intact 2-parent household, and have at least one parent who is a college graduate, compared to students of color descended from slaves) can hit an "ethnic diversity" target without improving socioeconomic diversity.

Lauren Rivera, author of Pedigree, found that "elite" firms when interviewing college grads are effectively screening for things that correlate with parents' socioeconomic standing—that is, for who the student was when they applied to college, not who they were at graduation. The rationale is that being accepted to a selective university is a signal that you're smart and can learn fast and work hard. How well you did in college is less relevant, especially for lucrative but entry-level jobs that don't require deep specialized skills but do require networking and schmoozing. Students from elite schools who did extracurriculars (especially sports, and especially sports with a high barrier to entry, like lacrosse) were judged particularly desirable by this criterion. As a result, for a student who comes to an elite university not from that background, their story/struggle (sometimes the very thing that brought them to the attention of an admissions officer) is not something they can talk about, so they feel even more isolated.

Financial aid. To pay the bills, financial aid is often given to rich kids who don't need it in order to get them to come, because even at a discount, they will pay more of the bill than a poor student, and thus help balance the books. The most desirable students from this perspective are below-average academically but high-income: not so far below average that they drag down US News rankings, but enough below average that your offer is probably the most selective they'll get, so they'll be motivated to come. As a result, the richest colleges, which can best afford to take lots of poor smart kids, take the fewest. As one admissions officer said: “Admissions for us is not a matter of turning down students we’d like to admit. It’s a matter of admitting students we’d like to turn down.” His advice for improving the situation? "quit paying so much attention to the SAT & ACT", especially since test-prep and other $$$ strategies can "inflate" SAT scores to where they are out of whack with a student's actual ability (as demonstrated by their transcript, e.g.). When DePaul University (a less selective school) stopped weighting the SAT so heavily but asked students to voluntarily self-report their score after admission, they found that students who didn't report their scores on the application did just as well as a group as those who did report their scores. That is, low test scores are often a "false alarm". Family income predicts SAT scores; it doesn't predict high school performance.

A bright spot is the UTexas system's "top 10%" rule, in which the top 10% of students from any high school are guaranteed UT admission. Yes, some arrive less prepared for socioeconomic reasons, but support systems are put in place to help them succeed in the same courses as everyone else, rather than sending them to "remedial" classes. Some of the support is psychological: when these students have difficulty, remind them that it's because the material is hard, not because they are "less fit" to be here. (Students from less-selective high schools clearly see that their peers from more-selective high schools are ahead when they get to college, but they take this as a signal that they don't belong there.) Students need to hear that "someone here is looking out for me, someone wants me to succeed," and sometimes the support system has to be "focused and intrusive" to do this effectively.

Upward mobility or a shield against downward mobility? Having a Bachelors still commands a premium, but most of the increase in the gap between degree and nondegree students comes from those who continued to advanced degrees. The relative advantage of a Bachelors-only has not changed since the 1970s. Corollary: we need to invest more in other non-bachelors-degree pathways for those not college-inclined who want to pursue economically secure careers that don't necessarily benefit from a 4-year degree. And college is a terrible investment if you don't complete your degree, as you end up with debt but no premium. For-profit colleges are even worse, and spend twice as much on marketing and recruitment per student as on actual teaching. Yet they exist because "traditional" higher ed is structured to exclude so many students, so for-profit education soaks them up.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Book summary: Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine

Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine, by Jonathan Coopersmith

Facsimile, copying-telegraph, pantelegraph, radiophotogram, picture telegraph—the terms suggest that the fascination for sending images over a distance is as old as instantaneous electromechanical communication itself, and has tracked communications technology evolution. Of course, fax didn't become widely adopted until the 1980s. While some reasons for the delay were technological, starting in the 1970s delays were also due to large players stuck in old business models that would be threatened by fax, just as Xerox fumbled the PC because the PC was pioneering technologies that were existential threats to Xerox's paper-copier-centric business model.

The world’s oldest fax message (1848), made on Frederick Bakewell’s Copying Telegraph, is in the archives of London's Institution of Engineering and Technology. Bakewell and other Europeans demonstrated various prototypes in the late 19th century based on a common principle: a stylus dipped in caustic soda was used to etch away varnish on tinfoil, a sensor moving across the foil completed a circuit when it touched an etched-away area, and the resulting impulse sent by telegraph would trigger the lowering onto paper of a synchronized stylus at the other end. An improved 1906 prototype by Dr. Arthur Korn in Munich used a light beam reflected off of an arbitrary image onto selenium (whose conductivity varies with illumination), eliminating the need to hand-create a tinfoil master. But in all cases, the receiving stylus had to move across and down the paper in synchrony with the sender, which was the hard part about getting the machinery right. The technology remained too expensive and unreliable for all but the most elite customers.

WW1 stimulated technology development, as wars will, and by the early 1930s the reflected-light method of scanning was good enough to criticize, though synchronization of sender and receiver was still a challenge, now somewhat mitigated by electronics. RCA Corporation made international news when it saved the Boston Symphony Orchestra by arranging an overseas fax of a Sibelius score that had failed to arrive in the US by mail in time for the performance. By the mid 1930s, a few newspapers, Life magazine, and the International News Photos agency, among others, were using the technology to deliver photo images instantaneously. This practice established news photography as an essential part of journalism as newspapers faced competitive pressure from radio and television. By 1960 the fax enabled international newspapers: a completed page layout could be faxed to anywhere there was a printing facility. However, the combination of high long-distance telephony costs and equipment incompatibility stubbornly impeded wider fax adoption: Western Union’s Telex service (introduced 1932) and the later WW2 development of teleprinters (e.g. Teletype) were far less expensive for short messages, and by 1940 there were fewer than a thousand fax transmitters and receivers. (At the time, remote transmission of a picture within Europe cost between 1 and 4 pounds, and trans-Atlantic transmission could cost tens of dollars.)

In addition, faxing still required scanning the whole page, so a blank sheet of paper with a dot in the middle took the same amount of time (and data transmission) to fax as a complex drawing. Because of the high costs, fax terminal technology improved through the 1960s, but faxing remained a service rather than a product, and was often operated by companies locked into old business models or lacking imagination or both. Western Union’s Desk-Fax was used by the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central to fulfill multi-segment Pullman reservations in minutes, yet it relegated the fax to a fraction of its technological potential by positioning it solely as an adjunct to its successful flagship telegram service. Xerox positioned its fax machines as “long distance xerography,” but tried to price fax like copiers, in which the equipment is leased and the company charges for paper; the lower paper use of fax doomed the model. Vendors built deliberately incompatible equipment to protect their franchises, believing that users didn’t want to communicate with outside companies (imagine if your Verizon phone was only able to call other Verizon phones). Overall, the combination of high long-distance telephony costs and equipment incompatibility stubbornly impeded further fax adoption.

Yet just as with cloud computing arriving in 2007, a series of independent events on the horizon in the 1960s opened the way for a fax takeover: 

  • the invention of the high speed xerographic copier by (ironically) Xerox in 1965; 
  • the deregulation of the telephone networks in the US in 1968 (the Carterfone decision) and Japan in 1972;
  • Claude Shannon’s groundbreaking 1948 development of information theory, which would soon lead to a recasting of faxing as encoding dots, rather than scanning a fixed area, thereby reducing data transmission needs;
  • the 1952 appearance of the Huffman code (inspired by Shannon’s work), whose data compression properties would further reduce data transmission needs and would be central to the world-changing G3 fax standard;
  • the rise of overnight delivery services such as FedEx, which trained consumers to expect instant communication;
  • research at Fairchild Camera and Instrument on charge-coupled devices (CCDs), which would eventually revolutionize all digital imaging, including fax. (Ironically, Xerox had been partnering in this research but later withdrew from the effort.)

One of the most important convergences of the above threads was the development and adoption of the "G3" fax standard, whose crucial innovation was that a fax machine would scan a document, represent it and compress it digitally, then use a modem (digital-to-analog converter for sending data over wired phone lines) to transmit the image, which would be converted back to digital and decompressed by the receiver. One key aspect of compression was "2d scanning"—statistical prediction of the next line based on the current one, in contrast to the existing "1d scanning" in which each line was scanned and encoded in isolation. Both the image conversion and the 2d scanning required more compute power and RAM than would have been practical for a consumer product in the 1960s-1970s, but by the 1980s microprocessors had made it possible. Similarly, while thermal paper was a transitional technology, Xerox's high speed marking engines for photocopiers could image onto plain paper, and fax machines were able to adopt that technology. This was a dramatic change from the "fax as a service" model: a consumer purchased a fax machine in a big-box store that was not expected to provide service or support, took it to the office, plugged it into a phone line, and fed it regular copier paper (which most offices already had). Fax went from a service to a product by the early 80s. By 1983 virtually all fax service bureaus in New York had gone out of business, while existing copy-shops had added fax machines to their offerings.

Importantly, the Japanese market was more eager for fax since the pictographic writing of that language did not lend itself to short-message transmission as Telex or telegrams did. Japanese companies would quickly dominate the consumer fax market by working with international bodies to promote compatible fax standards that would enable a market. While American companies can be blamed for missing the boat, many of them thought fax was already a dying technology because they saw the rapid rise of PCs in the late 1970s and early 1980s leading to a paperless office. As it turned out, it took over two decades for that vision to truly take hold. During that time, because of the hesitation to act and because of Japan's new prowess in high tech R&D, Japanese companies took over the fax market. Some American companies were instead working on G4, which would be purely digital and integrate with the under-development OSI telecommunications stack and ISDN digital phone/data service. However, OSI was soon steamrolled by TCP/IP, ISDN was quickly supplanted by other home data service technologies such as cable modem, and G3 kept getting improvements over time (the standard was designed to allow such improvements to be integrated without breaking backwards compatibility) that made G4's promises uncompelling, so G4 died a quiet death and G3 was the last major fax standard, until fax faded away as a technology in the early 2000s.

Once a technology becomes absorbed into the mass market, it has societal effects. Just as in the 1930s, fax transformed the news business by allowing, for example, political candidates to respond in near-real-time to an opponent's quote or address. Everyday people started faxing each other jokes, love letters, even marriage proposals. A fax machine to God was set up at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall. The easier dissemination of information somewhat helped the spread of democracy in places like Panama, Poland, and ultimately the Soviet Union. US courts began allowing faxed documents to be as legally binding as originals.

Bad actors also came out in force. Fax machines don't transmit watermarks, so some kinds of document fraud were easier. And it wasn't long before fax spam ("junk faxes") and unsolicited fax advertisements appeared. This is more intrusive than email spam because it costs the recipient paper and toner.

In the late 1980s, integrated faxmodems started to appear in PCs, outselling fax machines by 1994. But fax software was hard to use compared to the simple fax machine, didn't work with all faxmodems (fax transmissions had been standardized, but PC-to-modem interfaces hadn't), and users were confused. This remained the case until WinFax was built into Windows 95, providing a single built-in solution for software faxing. Meanwhile, the technophiles who had previously predicted that phone-based fax was a backward-looking technology were now certain they were right: shouldn't email and other electronic communication render fax entirely obsolete? Unfortunately, like fax software, email software and document formats were often clumsy and proprietary (PDF wasn't invented until 1993) and email systems of the time didn't handle attachments well. So fax remained a popular way to get information delivered on demand until the mid 1990s. Fax machines were easy to use and they worked; as happens so often, that was enough to keep them entrenched against email and fully-paperless communication until the late 1990s, when the Web exploded (and in certain areas like medicine and law where a facsimile of a handwritten signature still carried authority that a digital document did not). (Faxing did, though, pave the way for those other communication media by strengthening the expectation that you could get information on-demand any time you wanted.) The switchover was complete when bad actors switched from junk faxes to email spam.

Where are they now? Derivatives of Huffman coding—variable-length prefix codes—are used in pkzip, JPEG, and MP3 compression. Many of the leading engineers at Fairchild Camera and Instrument would eventually go on to found the "Fairchildren", the companies that seeded Silicon Valley, including AMD, Intel, Intersil, and National Semiconductor. The Carterfone decision made it legal to connect whatever you want to your phone lines, leading to the proliferation of low-cost direct-connect modems and dial-up ISPs that fueled the explosion of the consumer Internet in the late 1990s.    


Saturday, October 5, 2019

Book summary: A Thread Across the Ocean

A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable

by John Steele Gordon

The most wonderful thing about the writing in this book is the constant impression that the author is a wide-ranging expert on everything about the history of this period, but he happened to choose to write about the transatlantic cable. The contextual asides and periodic tangents are so interesting and richly written that they bring the narrative more vividly to life rather than distracting from it, which is what usually happens to such tangents in the hands of less skilled historian-authors.

I had never really thought about how the transatlantic cable was laid. Among the things that surprised me, starting with the fact that it was privately funded—essentially by one man who spent his own fortune and raised huge amounts of money from others. A consummate entrepreneur, American businessman Cyrus Field was analogous to a theatrical producer: “The producer does not sing, act, or dance, but without him/her, neither does anyone else.”

The cable was laid at a time of great techno-optimism, but relatively little techno-savvy. Electricity wasn’t well understood yet—the discoveries and formulae of Ohm and Watt were roughly contemporaneous with the first attempts at cable-laying—and there was no real pushback to the idea that if you could shove an electrical (telegraph) signal through an underwater cable a few miles long (short-run telegraph cables had successfully traversed rivers and small bays), why not through a 2,000+ mile cable? There was telegraphy infrastructure in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, so once news reached North America (typically by ship from Europe), it could propagate quickly; but Field wanted to reduce that latency by the 2 weeks or so it took to make the transatlantic crossing.

I also didn’t realize that Field consulted one of the leading British naval explorers of the time, Lt. Matthew Maury, whose explorations and soundings of the Atlantic revealed a long “shelf” connecting (roughly) the coast of Ireland to Newfoundland, moving the sea bottom a couple of thousand fathoms shallower than elsewhere and seemingly almost intended for a transatlantic cable to be laid.

That it took five attempts before a functioning cable was achieved is staggering, and each attempt was essentially brute force, though each attempt addressed mistakes of earlier attempts. Imagine piling 2000 miles of cable into a ship—even, in one attempt, a purpose-built ship—sailing away from Ireland, paying out cable as you go, hoping nothing breaks. That kind of chutzpah would not be seen again (in my view) until the manned moon landings. Indeed, the first attempt didn’t even use a steamship, but a sailing ship, notoriously difficult to control, and the ship was operated as a cruise for the investors and VIPs. Future endeavors used steam-powered ships instead of sailing ships, even at one point custom-building a ship with highly maneuverable dual steamer wheels, all manner of special equipment for unspooling and laying the cable without having it kink or tangle, and more. Vulcanized rubber was undiscovered, so gutta percha (a natural tree extract) was used instead, but it had problems of its own and the early cables made with it could kink and crack. 

At least two of the attempts ended with the cable snapping or being severed while paying out, and I can barely imagine the feeling of watching the end of a piece of cable sink to the ocean floor thousands of feet below after you’ve laid nearly a thousand miles of it and the other end is in Ireland.

Even more impressive was the (ultimately successful) attempt on one such mission to drag a hook along the ocean bottom to grapple the cable and pull it back up, splice the broken ends back together, and continue the attempt!

Of course, the first cables (which become operational in 1869) were only suitable for telegraphy; signal-to-noise considerations and signal propagation in the presence of parasitic capacitance and inductance were not well understood, so the signal bandwidth was barely sufficient for Morse code telegraphy, at a few words per minute and astronomical cost to the sender. But it worked, and future advancements in electronics led to AT&T laying a new cable with repeaters to boost the signal every few miles, allowing transatlantic voice communication.

Transatlantic cables were workhorses for longer than most people realized. Satellite communications were being used for long distance phone service up until the 1970s, when it became possible to lay fiber optic transatlantic cables; at which point the cost per bit fell so dramatically that satellites had no business model anymore. Today we take instantaneous global communication for granted, but it’s humbling to read about how one man—really, the Elon Musk of his time—had an audacious vision and made it happen. Every chapter is a cliffhanger, and it makes for a thoroughly entertaining and informative read for anyone interested in the history of communications or in the catalog of engineering marvels of a forward-looking age.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Istanbul, day 1

Erol, our private guide, came to meet us at 9am. The first stop was the site of the former Roman hippodrome. When Constantine beat out his rival to become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire (this was before Rome fell in 476), as was traditional for the Romans, he brought shit from the empire to adorn his new capital city, which he renamed from Byzantium to Constantinople. When the Turks toppled Constantinople, the hippodrome fell into disrepair because the Turks weren’t into horse racing, but the open plaza remains, as do the monuments that were in the center median of the elliptical hippodrome track: two Egyptian obelisks and a bronze serpentine column the Romans brought here from temple of Apollo at Delphi (sweet irony, since it had been moved to Delphi from this region when the Greeks conquered the Persians). The obelisk that looks better-preserved and is one solid piece (traditional for Egyptian obelisks) was taken by the Romans from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt, which is kind of cool because it is one of a twin pair and I have seen its twin (though that was back in 1998).



The next two stops were the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. There are photos of these all over the Internet, plus the Blue Mosque is undergoing extensive restoration so what you could see inside was limited, but it was impressive for what it was. But of course the Hagia Sophia ("Holy Wisdom"—an innocuous impersonal name that saved it from being renamed by Muslims later) is what people come here to see. Built in 537 as a Christian church by Justinian (well, really slaves did the work, Justinian just commanded it) of brick coated with plaster, it was actually the third church on this site. The second was destroyed by taxation riots (“Lock her up! Lock her up!”) but fragments remain, giving a glimpse into a transitional period around the time it became legal to be openly Christian in the Roman Empire and before a new architectural language had developed for decorating Christian buildings; the motifs on the ruins include some halfhearted crosses, but a lot of the imagery has more in common with earlier pagan temples.

The Hagia Sophia was originally largely unadorned because it was built during the iconoclastic period. This was a case of religious practice (Islam forbids images of deities or prophets in its places of worship) spilling over too enthusiastically into secular life. The prohibitions were lifted around the 10th century, when amazing mosaics were installed; these were subsequently plastered over (but not defaced) by the Turks in the 16th c. when it became a mosque. Some are in better shape than others, but a notable aspect of the artwork is its humanistic appearance, which presaged the Renaissance and was a stark departure from medieval art.


At the time HS was built, it was the largest enclosed space under a dome in the world. (It’s now the fourth largest, after St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Paul’s in London, and the Seville Cathedral. It occurs to me I’ve visited all those places in order of descending size.)

Lunch was in a small knot of alleys in Sultanahmet that have a bunch of restaurants where locals eat, surprisingly for an otherwise touristy area. Turkish food is awesome, and I was not disappointed by my entrée of Iskender in casserole—basically gyro meat sliced and marinated in a really amazing sauce, and the whole thing baked with vegetables and topped with sour cream or something. Whatever it was, it was amazing.

Almost none of the non-tourist restaurants serve beer or wine. Turkey isn’t a teetotaling culture like Morocco, but it is definitely partitioned. There are bars and taverns where locals go to consume beer, wine, and rakı, a national anise-flavored spirit that I’ve grown to like and am enjoying right now as I write this. But in most restaurants, it’s juice, soft drinks, and of course tea in those tiny cups.

Over lunch I got to learn some about Turkish politics, as Erol was quite forthcoming. As he pointed out, Istanbul has way more mosques than it needs for its population. People don’t mind because the sound of so many live muezzin calls makes them feel good about their religion. But the muezzins and the imams are paid public servants—as Americans we often take separation of church and state for granted, but in Turkey, the Department of Religious Affairs pays these folks a salary from public dollars. And every Friday, the imams are given a message from the Department (whose head is appointed by the President) to convey to the faithful. As public servants, they’d basically lose their jobs if they refused to do this. And these days, the messages are propaganda from Erdogan against the ruling party. So basically the mosques provide a taxpayer-funded mouthpiece controlled unilaterally by the President (who, unlike in the US, is basically not answerable to anyone) whose sprawling network of communications is run by employees funded at public expense. Hmmm.

We talked about Trump, of course, and Erol said he’d seen TV footage in which Trump’s limo procession was driving down some US street or other, and there were protesters shouting obscenities at the passing motorcade and holding up raunchy signs, “and the police just did nothing!” In Turkey, he said, the police would have been all over that—most countries don’t have anything as strong as what we think of as freedom of speech. So all is perhaps not lost.

After lunch was a trip through the spice market, locally called the Misir market. Misir is the Turkish word for Egypt, and the market got its name because many of the exotic products originally available there were shipped through Egypt. (Interestingly, misir also means corn. New World foods coming to Europe and continuing on to Asia also came through here, and the name of this particular food became associated with the name of the market itself. Most other New World agriculture, such as tomatoes and potatoes, are named in Turkish via loan words.) At my insistence, Armando stopped at the best Turkish Delight confectioner in the market, and because the proprietor loved me, we got some tasty samples of this confection that is made in dozens of varieties.
Next it was a walk across the Galata Bridge (all the way across, this time) to the underground funicular up Galata Hill. Our first quick stop, at Armando's request, was the Hotel Pera Palace. It was built in 1892 to give Orient Express passengers a nice place to stay, since there were no hotels in Istanbul at that time that offered European service standards. Unlike Sirkeci Station, this hotel still looks every bit the part; Agatha Christie allegedly stayed here while writing her famous novel, and Hemingway was apparently a regular visitor too, along with Rita Hayworth and some other Hollywood nobility.
The queue for the Galata Tower was too long, so we did a nice walk around Beyoglu (the shopping area around Galata) instead before heading back to the historical center, where we parted ways with Erol.

We decided to use the rest of the afternoon to cruise around different neighborhoods. Erol had recommended Kadiköy, a 20 minute ferry ride away on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, as an up-and-coming cultural neighborhood, so we went there. It was nice enough, but the highlights were really the ferry ride and the long walk along the waterfront in Kadiköy. The photo is hazy but you can see the first Bosphorus Bridge behind me; on the right is Asia, on the left is Europe (north/east shore of the Golden Horn), and where your right shoulder is when you're looking at this picture is the historic center (south/west shore of the Golden Horn).

We got on the wrong ferry when trying to return homeward (Armando thought “Besiktas” meant “departure,” but it was actually the name of a neighborhood…the fool), though easily rectified by a bus ride thanks to our handy Istanbul Kart, which Armando is adding to his collection “transit cards of the world.” (Honestly, who collects that?) Anyway, by bus we managed to get back to Galata easily enough, and as there's no shortage of rooftop bars and cafés there, we chose one more or less at random that claimed to offer a good view of the city, which was true.

A pretty full day overall—we rode trams, a funicular, two old-time streetcars, and two ferries. The only thing we didn't ride was the subway! But there'll be time for that tomorrow, after seeing Topkapı Palace and maybe some museums!

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Armando's hamamı experience

I’m sitting on the roof deck of my hostel in Sultanahmet, enjoying a pleasant breeze and a view of the confluence of the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. Maybe this is what it’s like to be a travel writer. Hmmm.

So Travel blogged about our first day, but he wasn’t interested in joining me in the hamamı experience (note spelling: that’s the Turkish “short i” that is pronounced like a schwa) since he said it looked very steamy in there (it was) and he’s not into very hot climates.

I went for the “traditional”, which includes a vigorous soapy rubdown but not an oil massage. On my sis-in-law’s recommendation, I went to Çemberlitas, built in the 16th century and the real deal. Although I didn’t plan it this way, I went after the evening rush was over.

The hamamı experience is definitely a sensory stimulus, and I can imagine how it might not be appropriate for, say, Iowans. (No offense if you’re reading this and from Iowa.) You start by stripping down in a changing room (there are separate men’s and women’s areas) into an oversize towel whose fabric actually reminds me of wrapping myself in an enormous dish towel, which isn’t a bad framing for what’s about to happen.

My host (facilitator? scrubdown guy?) was Ahmed, and I had watched him do another customer so I had some idea what was going on. The bathing room itself is circular and maybe 25 feet across, with of sinks with bowls around the perimeter and a large circular marble slab in the center at bench height, which was very warm (think marble on a sunny day) so that I’m not sure if it was heated from within or just holds the heat well. (It felt like a mild sauna, and indeed you’re supposed to lie on the slab and relax for a few minutes before you are treated.)

The first step was for Ahmed to don the hamamı scrubby sponge (your personal one is included in your admission) and exfoliate you on both sides, while you lie on that same marble slab where thousands of others have been exfoliated. Though it gets rinsed constantly so I’m sure it’s fine.

Next is a soapy scrub down with a substance I can best describe as bubble bath, using a large scrubbing sponge that was definitely not included in my admission so whatever. This rubdown includes a few well-placed massage strokes on the quads, hamstrings, and shoulders, at a level I would estimate at half a Moore. (The Moore is a unit of massage pain inspired by my excellent therapist Courtney Moore back home. At 1/2 Moore I make involuntary sounds; 1 Moore is the level just before I have to ask her to back off. So in that sense, I can always take 1 Moore. Thanks, I’m here all night.)

The scrubdown is rinsed away by bowlfuls of water that are, by any standard, hot. My not-insignificant experience with hot tubs says 102 or 103°F. This is followed by a trip to the rinsing room outside the main baths, for another scrubdown and rinse; by this point there was nothing left to wash off, and I’m pretty sure I could feel my epidermis growing back. After reminding me several times of his name and number (“10”) so I wouldn’t forget to tip, Ahmed indicated I should shower and change back into the dirty, sweaty clothing that had brought me to the hamamı in the first place.

Truth be told, it was so refreshing (and getting off my feet for awhile probably helped, as I must have walked 7 or 8 miles at least) that I’m inclined to do it every day. Now that I know the protocol, I can find a more locals-oriented place that is a bit less pricey (though at about $45 US, it wasn’t ridiculous, and this place is known to be more expensive).

So that was my experience. The breeze caresses newly-exposed pores as I write this up, so I hope you enjoyed reading it.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Travel Penguin's Istanbul diary, arrival day.

Armando and I arrived uneventfully after a 13 hour flight that should have been more uncomfortable than it was. I slept through most of the flight but Armando only got about an hour of sleep by design, to ease adjusting to the timezone. The most interesting thing about the flight was that on the inflight entertainment system, you can read the Qur'an and bring up an app that tells you which direction Mecca is in at all times.



The airport was a breeze, though the customs guy seemed baffled by Armando's passport and stamped the entry on a random page of text. Hope it won't be a problem when we leave. The new airport is a good hour from downtown by car, and the highway is apparently very strictly speed controlled despite being a multi-lane controlled access road, but the ride was uneventful. I was happy to get the adoration I richly deserve when we checked in to the hostel.


To power through the evening, I convinced Armando we should go for a brief walk rather than collapse into bed at just 7pm. As a nominal destination, he chose Sirkeci Railway Station, former terminus of the famed Orient Express, though today just a commuter terminal. The grandeur is certainly gone, but you can sort of see what it was, and there is a period-atmosphere restaurant still operating there. (But we found better Orient Express ambience at other stops we'll mention later!)


We continued to the waterfront and walked halfway across the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn. The lower level of the bridge has a number of restaurants—obviously touristy, but we were too tired to care, and we really wanted a beer. The guys on the left really tried to sell it to us to eat at their place.



The waterfront is a highlight of Istanbul, I think. Ferries are crawling everywhere, like Hong Kong. There is life and atmosphere. Across the Golden Horn is the hill on which Galata Tower sits, a lookout built in 1349 by the entrepreneurial and seagoing Genoese. Just around the corner to the left is the Bosphorus (literally “ford of the cow,” whence also “Oxford”), which means just around the corner to the right is Asia. The weight of multicultural history is heavy here.

But, by this time, so were our eyelids, so we let the melatonin do its work and put us to sleep so we could jump into a full day tomorrow!







Thursday, December 13, 2018

Book summary: Radical Cities



McGuirk writes about an emerging urbanist philosophy manifesting itself in cities across Latin America that comes from a different philosophical place than the many failed public housing projects of the latter 20th century (think Cabrini Green in Chicago, 23 de Enero in Caracas) and seems to actually be working. The theses of the projects described in this book are roughly:

  1. "You can soothe social divisions with urban forms." That is, while architects cannot create social relations (the arrogant stance of post-LeCorbusier architects), they can create the channels that allow such relations to occur naturally.
  2. "The answer to a divided city is integration, and there is no integration without transport connections." When poor people's housing is far away from the city center, it separates them from economic opportunities and class-stratifies the city. Transportation infrastructure is the only solution for this, and unlike housing, that is something only governments can do.
If you're interested in urbanism and the future of urban living, this book is highly worthwhile. What follows are a few of the highlights of the case studies it presents.

Central to the book is the concept of informal dwellings: improvised housing of variable-quality construction, not officially on any map, which may or may not legally or illegally receive basic services such as electricity and running water, "exist[ing] outside the legal and economic protocols that shape the formal city" (think slums, favelas). Over 1/3 of urban dwellers in Latin America and nearly 1/4 of humanity worldwide live this way, and it's estimated that 85% of housing worldwide is built "informally." Yet, while classic old-school urbanism views informal housing as a stepping stone towards urbanization rather than an end state, informal housing is characterized by stakeholders who, by virtue of being direct participants in constructing their own communities (out of economic need) are more deeply in their community than any "formal" public housing project has been able to achieve. As a result, these places are often self-regulating systems (similar to Dharavi in Mumbai; see also Brillembourg et al., Informal City, Prestel, 2005) that just need some thoughtful injection of resources combined with participatory design. Latin America is placing this attitude front and center as a way to better leverage public housing funds, an approach originally articulated by British architect John Turner in 1963, who argued repeatedly that "living in a self-built shack near the city centre was best for rural migrants, because they could save money and be close to work and opportunities." In this scenario, governments have definite but well-circumscribed responsibilities, in particular where transportation infrastructure is concerned.

Classic social-megahousing projects fail for many reasons. They are seen as a one-time capital investment but allowed to deteriorate from lack of operating resources (Cabrini Green, USA); they are vote-buying exercises subsequently abandoned (Piedrabuena, Buenos Aires); the actual building projects fall victim to a corrupt construction industry (nearly everywhere) or dysfunctional bureaucracy (Minha Casa Minha Vida, Rio de Janeiro); they are built on the periphery of city "citadels", thwarting socioeconomic mobility for their residents (Co-Op City in the Bronx).

A few examples are given of what Latin America is doing differently.

Alto Comedero, San Salvador. Túpac Amaru is a grassroots social movement whose premises are the right to self-organize and the right to work, and it lives entirely off of very modest government subsidies. Alto Comedero, consisting of about 2700 houses at the edge of San Salvador, is one of its sites. Needy families were organized into work parties that at first built their own homes (to a standard-issue blueprint provided by the public housing authority; 2 bedrooms, 50 square meters), then subsequently built factories to produce the essential building materials such as steel and bricks, and then factories to produce quotidian necessities such as textiles for clothing. It builds houses four times faster than private construction companies for 2/3 the cost (about US$23,000 per house), with the builders being paid for their work. In other words, public money buys the materials, you get paid to build your house, and then you keep it. Groups of houses are built around enormous swimming pools and parks that serve as social nuclei: "Social housing is ordinarily a matter of achieving the minimum…But how do you define ‘essential’? Swimming pools are a relatively cheap way of making poor people feel rich." Politicians are scared of Túpac Amaru because it shows that the promise of building housing may no longer be a viable vote-buying mechanism—and maybe, because it is a grassroots social justice movement that subverts existing political-economic structures: it "operates seemingly independently of the market. These people own their houses, but they did not buy them. Nor was there a developer generating profit out of this enterprise. Instead, government funds are made to work hard, with the benefits distributed to the community – and any profits converted into playgrounds and other social amenities."

Quinta Monroy Houses, Iquique, Chile. Santiago-based architect Alejandro Aravena and his firm Elemental believe firmly in Turnerism. With a government subsidy of $7500 per dwelling, they arranged to build each family half a house, specifically the half they cannot build themselves—concrete structure, roof, plumbing—arranged around communal courtyards. There are gaps left between the houses so families can later add more living space, and most do. The idea of building a house shell and letting the inhabitants fill it in was proposed by LeCorbusier but its “business model never got off the ground,” which is perhaps the reason Quinta Monroy worked: it is pragmatic but not idealistic, wrangling a government loan system, a policy framework, and construction and land-use issues to achieve a practical yet bespoke result that would be unlikely to scale well, either in density or number of dwellings. The success has been repeated a few times at small scale in Chile, which is now democratically governed and richer because of copper: several new dense projects close to the center, in which the exterior and infrastructure (and since housing subsidies are higher now, a nice facade) are constructed, and the residents complete the interior, including dividing vertically into two stories if they wish. Interestingly, Aravena is less interested in these developments, which "look like middle-class housing developments," because when there is more money available "the quality comes out as architectural language" rather than each home being a more direct expression of its owner's tastes and investment. This attitude strikes me as intellectually arrogant, but there are plenty of money-challenged places Aravena and Elemental could make a difference, and they are now working on projects in Guatemala and Peru. Today Chile's overall housing deficit (modulo the recent earthquake) is about 100,000, which is nothing for Latin America, though the houses aren't great—both the Pinochet government in the 80s and the center-left government in the 90s built about 1M low-quality, low-density, far-from-the-city projects, which eased the housing deficit but are recognized as some of the worst housing in the country today.

Rio de Janeiro. Unlike some cities, here the marginalized favelas are right in the city center, housing 1.4M people or 22% of the population. Rio has installed funiculars like Medellín, but they were costly, are underused, and have been much more controversial, as the public space taken by the stations was lost without the residents ever being consulted (though it enriched construction companies). There is even a marked path for tourists to follow to see the "authentic" favela from a viewing platform overlooking a garbage dump. There seems to be a kind of cargo-cult-science feel to this ham-handed approach. Over the decades, most efforts to seriously eliminate favelas have failed because "policies were rarely capable of matching the scale of the problem…[or]…erred too much in one direction or the other: they placed too strong an emphasis either on architecture (as with the mass housing programmes) or, conversely, on economic policies that ignored the spatial dimension altogether." This changed in 1994 with the Favela-Bairro project, whose first intervention by architect Carlos Nelson was arguably the first attempt to "upgrade" a slum via sound architectural principles but with participatory design, rather than see it as a tabula rasa. As Medellín would do later, transportation infrastructure (roads, stairs, funiculars) linked the neighborhood to the larger city, and prideworthy public spaces were inserted, often at the boundary with middle-class neighborhoods, to soften the transition. Unfortunately, for all its successes, the program neither brought out the "social investment" from homeowners in their communities, nor did it rid the neighborhood of drug trafficking. (Two decades later the latter problem saw some improvement with the introduction of Police Pacification Units, an uncomfortable-sounding moniker if ever I've heard one.) And tragically, a key element of the plan—the creation of a public plaza, and the elevation of a railway line onto piers to create a linear park and remove a barrier between neighborhoods—has fallen victim to dysfunctional bureaucratic processes, so that the train line is indeed up on piers, but the displaced dwellers whose houses were destroyed to accommodate the work have not been relocated, turning the area under the train line into a war zone rather than a park. As well, the newer Minha Casa Minha Vida project has eschewed having architects on board in favor of providing another vehicle for the construction industry to profit from, resulting in poor-quality, ugly, faraway buildings that serve the interests of everyone except their residents, ignorant of the lessons of previous projects including Favela-Bairro. The best laid plans are readily wrecked by a dysfunctional or venal bureaucracy.

Jailson de Souza, an academic from the favelas, opposes Hernando de Soto's argument (The Mystery of Capital) that what the favelados lack is access to the capital embedded in their homes: if they were suddenly given that, he argues, they'd sell their land for peanuts and enable the gentrification of the neighborhood, eventually leaving themselves worse off. (Some of us have witnessed this firsthand.) He argues instead that they should be given the right to pay a low rent for the cost of living there, which can be passed on to another renter if they move out, effectively arguing for a co-op model over a condo model—effectively placing the land's equity value in the neighborhood, not in the landowner.

Caracas, Venezuela: "Urbanism is frozen politics." Although now overtaken by events, the two fastest-growing types of developments in Venezuela have been slums and gated communities—Chávez distributed a lot of petrodollars, but mostly in the form of material goods, not improvements in infrastructure or urban fabric, modulo a few political-theater concessions such as appropriating shopping centers or office parks to turn into housing. One success was a large and well-designed gym that has provided an essentially public activity space, but it has not been replicated. The funicular almost didn't get built because of a mayor so corrupt and vindictive (Barreto) that he made New York's Al Smith look like a Boy Scout.

What happened at Quinta Monroy and other places by design has happened at Torre David in Caracas by accident: the skyscraper was left incomplete (for the usual reasons: corruption, venality, running out of money) with most of the floors poured but no curtain walls, modest infrastructure (they're connected to the power grid legally but with makeshift machinery), no elevators (28 of 47 floors are inhabited; an adjacent parking garage is about 10 stories high), and is now a self-policing, unofficial, and probably unsustainable squat of 3000 residents, with its own gangster caretakers, internal ecosystem of micro-stores, legal payments to the electric company, and co-op agreements that allow the transfer of squatting rights (and the $23/month maintenance fee) but not sale. If it's a populist gesture of "empowering" the people, it's a fragile, illusory, chaotic, and unsustainable one.

Bogotá: city as school. Antonus Mockus, a Lithuanian Jew who became a Colombian academic with a theatrical flair that got him fired from the university but elected mayor, turned Bogotá around starting with mimes that patrolled traffic intersections and shamed bad drivers despite having no authority to issue fines, cards that drivers could hand out to each other to praise or criticize each others' driving, and painted yellow stars at intersections that had been sites of traffic-related deaths. "As mayor you don’t regulate people’s behaviour, you build conditions for people to regulate each other’s behaviour." His successor, Enrique Peñalosa, built a BRT system ("TransMilenia") that made it so that the poor now moved the fastest through Bogotá, as has occurred in Curitiba, Quito ("el trole") and other large Latin American cities. (He's the source of one of my favorite quotes: "An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation.") While many of Mockus's concrete advances seem to have been rolled back—traffic is awful again, the TransMilenio is overcrowded, aggressive driving is back—the memory of what Bogotá could be is, perhaps, his legacy.

Medellín: "el más educado." Mayor Sergio Fajardo's idea was to build schools and libraries as symbols of the fight against inequality, and "wash the violence from our public spaces" by building new ones that represent the city's aspirations: "opportunities based on education, science, technology, innovation, entrepreneurship and culture." These projects, even if architecturally imperfect, send an important message to the populace, as well as to small businesses that subsidize public good (e.g. in the form of free museum admission on certain days) because they want to be seen supporting that message.

In all, McGuirk presents an ultimately hopeful vision of urbanization, led by Latin America and based on a reformed notion of the roles of architects and government in urban development. Here's hoping.

Book Summary: The Inequality Machine—How College Divides Us, by Paul Tough

 Paul Tough writes about how college in the US has gone from being a tool for upward mobility  to a shield against downward mobility, and at...