What I learned from a Taipei alley

I was in Taipei the past few weeks working on a documentary with friends. Because of a busy schedule, it wasn't like my usual travels abroad for fun, it felt more like a work trip. Still, even if I'd been there purely for vacation, I would've wanted to try a different mode of travel, one less focused on eating at nice restaurants or visiting notable tourist destinations and ticking them off the list like some big game hunter hoping to stuff and mount my quarry on Instagram.

Instead, inspired by my last visit to Italy, in which I spent many weeks wandering cities with knowledgeable locals, listening to them discuss their views on the past, present, and future of their country, culture, and institutions, I've been contemplating how to evolve my travel approach to gather more than just photos and memories.

I didn't have time to really put this fully into practice this trip. However, insight comes in odd ways. While filming in a cram school district of Taipei, I posted this photo of an alley to Instagram, wondering in my caption why American alleys did not contain such a density of food stalls and stands and restaurants.

In the comments on my photo, a friend asked me where all the trash in Taipei went? Indeed, I didn't see trash piled up on the sidewalks, or anywhere in public. In fact, much of the trip I couldn't even find a public trash can in which to throw out empty boba tea cups or the plastic wrap around whatever snack from 7-11 I'd just inhaled during a break in shooting. Why were there so few trash cans, and where was all the trash? That mystery led me down a rabbit hole.

I happened to interview some government officials for the documentary, and after those would wind down, or during breaks, I asked some of them to talk about trash collection in Taipei. They gave me an overview, the details of which I filled in online.

Like New York City, Taiwan once had trash piled up on sidewalks awaiting collection. As anyone who's ever wandered through New York City in the summer, huge heaps of trash on sidewalks, baking in the humid summer heat, are one of the city's least attractive features. It's not just the stench or the reduced sidewalk surface for pedestrians but the occasional rat nearly scurrying over one's feet that can induce regular surges of revulsion and horror.

New York City doesn't have many alleys. In contrast, if you've ever been to Chicago, you'll encounter many alleys between city buildings, and rather than pile trash on sidewalks, residents and businesses stash it in trash bins sitting in those alleys.

How is it that Chicago has alleys and New York does not?

According to Michael Martin, alley expert and professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University, the “why alleys” question is easy to answer. You just have to go back to the late 1700s, decades before Chicago was founded. America was young, and had hardly touched any of its newest territories to the west.
 
“There's one thing you can do without having to explore all of it,” says Martin. “Lay a grid over that giant swath of land, and divide it up in ways that you can then take that land and you can sell it, you can deed it over to people.”
 
The federal government’s National Land Ordinance of 1785 imposed a massive grid over everything west of the Ohio River, dividing uncharted territory into square townships, each 36 square miles in size. Those townships were then sliced into progressively smaller sections, all the way down to the city block. 
 
“As you think about finer and finer scales of design, what's happening is those squares are being infilled and infilled,” says Martin. “The big grid was always the framework within which people developed things, and that leads to towns having square blocks, and ultimately the alley inside of that block.”    
 

Path dependence of development has a time dimension that impacts many aspects of the world, one of the things travel is good at teasing out. New York City was built earlier than Chicago. By the time it was time to develop Chicago, the grid design style had become prevalent.

The particulars came into play with the Illinois & Michigan Canal. In the 1820s, the U.S. Congress had granted the state of Illinois enough land to dig a canal to connect Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. The state planned to finance the construction by establishing towns along the canal and selling the land to developers.
 
The I&M Canal Commission hired surveyor James Thompson to lay out Chicago at the eastern end of the canal in 1830. To attract prospective land buyers, the General Assembly ordered that the new town of Chicago be “subdivided into town lots, streets, and alleys, as in their best judgment will best promote the interest of the said canal fund.”
 

In the American consciousness and pop culture, the alley is a place of danger and grime. It's where Bruce Wayne's parents were shot and Batman birthed, a place of drug deals, prostitution, gang fights, and dumpsters. This squalid reputation may trace back to the functional roots of the alley in America.

The city [Chicago] was a filthy, stinky, disease-ridden place in those days. Rear service lanes were essential for collecting trash, delivering coal, and stowing human waste — basically, keeping anything unpleasant away from living quarters.
 
“This was one of the reason why alleys have this dark and nasty reputation,” says Martin. “They were very much the grimy service part of daily life. It wasn't expected that this would be a well-maintained landscape; it was kind of a landscape of raw utility.”
 

Despite that, alleys do offer Chicago a place to stow trash that in NYC would pile up on sidewalks. However, Taipei has alleys that don't house trash dumpsters and are an improvement, to my mind, over Chicago alleys in their contribution to civic life. How does Taipei manage it?

Once, like New York City, Taipei had trash piled up in public, the stench of trash stewing in the tropical weather permeating the city and attracting rats. In an effort to remove this highly visible trapping of third world status, the government made a concerted effort starting in the mid-80's to overhaul their trash collection policies.

Für Elise” is one of the world’s most widely-recognized pieces of music. The Beethoven melody has been played by pianists the world over, and its near-universal recognition has been used to attract customers for companies as big as McDonald’s and as small as your local ice-cream truck. But if you hear the song playing on the streets of Taiwan, accompanied by the low grumble of an engine, the only ice-cream you’ll find if you follow the tune will be the soupy remains of a neighbor’s Häagen-Dazs. In Taiwan, “Für Elise” means it is time to take out your trash. Directly out to the truck. Yourself.
 
In the capital city of Taipei, trucks play two different songs along their garbage-routes (the other one is “A Maiden’s Prayer” by composer Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska).
 
Five nights a week, Taipei residents head to out to designated street corners, where the yellow garbage trucks will stop for a few minutes (and turn off their music), so that people toss their bags of trash in themselves.
 

Having shot a documentary outdoors for almost two weeks in Taipei, I'm by now well-acquainted with these garbage trucks. It's a nightmare for sound recording as the musical chimes from the trucks makes it very difficult to edit around footage in post.

However, seeing citizens lining the sidewalks, official government required blue trash bags in hand, was a remarkable vision of civic cooperation. The idea that trash collection would occur multiple times a day, five or six times a week, is stunning to this American. In effect, Taiwan moved to a just-in-time trash collection system. As noted in this article:

This ‘trash-doesn’t-touch-the-ground’ system makes each person responsible for his or her personal consumption. Every plastic fork, every bottled beverage, and every food scrap needs to be accounted for by its consumer. The implementation of a few clever policies encourages this new relationship with trash.
 
It’s compulsory for the people of Taiwan to use a special blue ‘City of Taipei’ garbage bag to dispose of general waste. They’re available at most corner stores and come in different sizes, ranging from 3 to 120 liters. On the other hand, recycling is free and can be brought to the truck in any kind of bag.
 
This encourages people to recycle more and produce less trash.
 

What did this have to do with the paucity of public trash receptacles which also forced me to carry plastic wrappers and bottles in my pocket as we wandered around the city? City officials discovered that citizens had been skirting recycling mandates by dumping things in public trash bins. To increase recycling compliance, the government removed public trash receptacles, conducted occasional audits of trash and recycling when the trucks came by, and started posting videos of and fining violators.

All together, these policies have been remarkably effective.

[Taiwan was]  producing 3,296 tonnes per day and recycling only 5% of it. Today, they have reduced that number by more than 2/3, of which they recycle an impressive 55%.
 

The difference in philosophy and ownership of trash collection between the United States and Taiwan is striking.

The difference between Taiwan and other nations is the way waste management sits in the public’s consciousness. In the US, waste management is run by private companies. Companies place the emphasis on quality of service, aiming to reduce the burden on the consumer.
 
People don’t have to think about the amount of trash they produce – once it’s in the can, it’s no longer their responsibility. Garbage trucks come in the dead hour of the night or during office hours, to be as inconspicuous as possible.
 

For some problems, achieving a breakthrough requires a holistic solution, with interlinked policies as Taiwan implemented to avoid any Cobra effects.

It depresses me to think of San Francisco's reactionary, incrementalist governance in comparison. The MTA recently voted unanimously to cap the number of total electric scooters in the city to 1,250 for the first year of testing. That's among five different rental companies.

I don't mind that government agencies implement codes and regulations; some policies save lives, like earthquake and fire building codes. But the incrementalist approach likely dooms the city to a series of local maximums at best, and at worst locks out all the dynamic improvements that characterize the most vibrant systems.

Electric scooters might be a wonderful addition to the city's transportation options, but it's something that needs to be tested at scale because it's a solution that depends on scale for a good customer experience. I've tried to take electric scooters a few times, and either the nearest one is too far away, or the one I walk up to has a dead battery. If you limit the number of scooters during a test you might as well just ban them.

A much more vibrant and livable San Francisco likely involves something like 25-50% fewer cars, sidewalks 50% wider, buildings 50% taller, twice the population density, and 25X the number of electric scooters, just to throw out some back of the envelope guesses of enough magnitude to alter one's conception of the city in a significant way. But no incrementalist approach will get the city there.

Through the eyes of a burglar

Geoff Manaugh's upcoming book A Burglar's Guide to the City sounds great:

Encompassing nearly 2,000 years of heists and tunnel jobs, break-ins and escapes, A Burglar's Guide to the City offers an unexpected blueprint to the criminal possibilities in the world all around us. You'll never see the city the same way again.
 
At the core of A Burglar's Guide to the City is an unexpected and thrilling insight: how any building transforms when seen through the eyes of someone hoping to break into it. Studying architecture the way a burglar would, Geoff Manaugh takes readers through walls, down elevator shafts, into panic rooms, up to the buried vaults of banks, and out across the rooftops of an unsuspecting city.
 
With the help of FBI Special Agents, reformed bank robbers, private security consultants, the L.A.P.D. Air Support Division, and architects past and present, the book dissects the built environment from both sides of the law. Whether picking padlocks or climbing the walls of high-rise apartments, finding gaps in a museum's surveillance routine or discussing home invasions in ancient Rome, A Burglar's Guide to the City has the tools, the tales, and the x-ray vision you need to see architecture as nothing more than an obstacle that can be outwitted and undercut.
 
Full of real-life heists-both spectacular and absurd-A Burglar's Guide to the City ensures readers will never enter a bank again without imagining how to loot the vault or walk down the street without planning the perfect getaway.
 

The book streets April 5, 2016.

"Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy"

Eric Posner believes American fear of Syrian refugees can be explained by factors other than bigotry and nativism.

Psychologists who have studied these reactions have identified a number of factors that predict when people place excessive weight on a low risk. All of these factors point, with remarkable clarity, to the reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis.
 
People underestimate risks that are familiar, under their personal control, voluntarily incurred, ignored by the media, and well-understood. Driving an automobile is the best example. Everyone is accustomed to driving, feels in control of the car, and drives by choice. The extraordinarily high risk of an accident becomes background noise that no one pays attention to. By contrast, the opposite qualities are true for the risks that people fear the most, like meltdowns of nuclear reactors, airplane crashes, and cancer-causing food additives—and even more so for terrorism. The Syrian refugees are strangers from an unfamiliar and terrifying part of the world, and they will be placed in neighborhoods where people did not necessarily invite them in. The media has made much of them, particularly after the Paris attacks, and most Americans don’t understand the circumstances that drove them from their country.
 
People also overreact to risks that may produce especially dreaded or gruesome outcomes. While a car accident can produce mangled bodies, a terrorist attack is an especially gruesome event, often involving hostage-taking and terrifying helplessness. Terrorist attacks victimize children as well as adults, and there is no practical way to avoid them. People are more likely to tolerate risks when the accompanying benefits are clear—that’s why, in the end, people fly. But any benefits from refugee resettlement are remote, intangible, and indirect. People also fear risks of human origin (vaccines) more than risks of natural origin (the flu), and terrorism is very much the fruit of human ingenuity.
 

Until we have a way to bypass human emotion and augment our statistical reasoning, fighting irrational fears of the public will continue to feel like so much noble thrashing.

I just finished David Simon and Bill Zorzi's Show Me a Hero, a look at the attempt to desegregate Yonkers, and it felt like a mini season of The Wire, on a different subject. That should sound like high praise because it is.

The miniseries illuminates how racism is not merely a subset of what Posner identifies as irrational fear. Having experienced various forms of racism in my youth, I've encountered many a strain that seems to arise not from fear but a desire for dominance. It isn't a creature lashing out in defense or fear but but a monster on the offensive.

How to solve chronic homelessness

Sam Tsemberis came up with a novel solution to solving chronic homelessness: give people homes, no strings attached.

Homeless services once worked like a reward system. Kick an addiction, get a home. Take some medication, get counseling. But Tsemberis’s model, called “housing first,” said the order was backward. Someone has the best chance of improving if they’re stabilized in a home.
 
It works like this: First, prioritize the chronically homeless, defined as those with mental or physical disabilities who are homeless for longer than a year or have experienced four episodes within three years. They’re the most difficult homeless to reabsorb into society and rack up the most significant public costs in hospital stays, jail sentences and shelter visits.
 
Then give them a home, no questions asked. Immediately afterward, provide counseling, a step research shows is the most vital. Give them final say in everything — where they live, what they own, how often they’re counseled.
 

You can read more about the Housing First model at Pathways to Housing, the organization Tsemberis founded and runs. What's beautiful about Tsemberis' approach is how it comes from a place of empathy for the homeless, rather than distrust or disdain, which is how the current system of helping the homeless approaches them. First he realized that these were people with an inherent resourcefulness and strength, contrary to most people's opinions of them as lazy drunks and drug addicts.

And so, it perhaps came as a surprise when, in the early nineties, he took a job in New York City doing outreach for the mentally ill, which brought him into close contact with the homeless. He soon sank into their hidden world, noting the complexity of its social rules and survival tactics. How some experts perceived homelessness, he said he realized, was fundamentally flawed. This world’s denizens, in fact, were profoundly resourceful.
 
“We were equating the severity of diagnosis with ability to function,” he said. “But surviving in homelessness is labor intensive, exhausting and complicated. It calls for a skill set of functionality.”
 

By living among the homeless and understanding their plight, Tsemberis saw that the stress of being homeless is so great it is almost impossible to recover while living on the street.

Housing First was developed to serve the chronically homelessness who suffer from serious psychiatric disabilities and addictions. Traditionally, the chronically homeless live in a cycle of surviving on the street, being admitted to hospitals, shelters, or jails and then going back to the street. The stress of surviving each day in this cycle puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the individual’s psychiatric and physical health. “Living in the street,” one Pathways to Housing client said, “It makes you crazy.”
 
The traditional structures in place to “help” the homeless population often make things worse, particularly for those who suffer from mental illness. Shelters and transitional living programs often require people to pass sobriety tests and other hurdles before they can be considered for housing programs. Housing is considered a reward for good behavior instead of a tool to help stabilize a homeless-person’s mental health. This attitude cuts out the people who need the support the most, effectively punishing them for their conditions. 
 

By following up housing with mental health treatment, Housing First has been able to keep the chronic homeless off the streets with a higher effectiveness than other models, at a lower long-term cost. Perhaps not surprisingly, the program cuts exactly along the fault lines of the debate between the Right and the Left on welfare.

Not everyone agrees. Although Housing First was adopted by the George W Bush administration, it remains unpopular on the right of the political spectrum, and not just among people who believe that citizens should “earn” state support. The initial cost of Housing First is expensive, and many people are resistant to the idea of providing housing for homeless drug addicts without first enrolling them on to a rehabilitative programme. 
 
This strikes at the heart of the debate about the root causes of homelessness, which is fundamentally about two arguments, according to Nicholas Pleace, a housing policy expert at the University of York and researcher with the European Observatory on Homelessness, an arm of the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (Feantsa).
 
“There is the idea of essentially structural causation: economic downturn, cuts to welfare, service and benefits, limitation with services with, for example, regards to mental health and the care system,” Pleace says. “But then you’ve also got what we call individual pathology, which tends to be argued by those on the right, more about individual actions, choice and characteristics.”
 

The article notes that former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was one of those opposed to Housing First, instead using taxpayer money to give the homeless one-way tickets out of town. In the years he tried a series of moves to lower homelessness, the Coalition for the Homeless note that homelessness in NYC rose to all-time highs.

This is yet another reason having more affordable housing in our cities is imperative. The world is moving into cities, and the rate of housing construction is not keeping up. One flaw of Housing First is that it doesn't work unless such housing is available, and the Guardian article notes that it hasn't worked to reduce homelessness in Los Angeles. The scale of the problem in LA is so large that Housing First can barely make a dent, so little affordable housing is available to use as a base to work from.

I won't pretend to have studied all the research on this issue with any sufficient depth, but the initial story caught my eye for more than just its counterintuitive solution but for how it came about. Tsemberis assembled a team of outsiders to think through solutions from a point of empathy for the people they were trying to help.

There was need of a change. So he assembled a very small, very unusual team. None of them had any training in homelessness. They, too, were outsiders. One was a recovering heroin addict. Another was a formerly homeless person. Another was a psychologist. And the last, Hilary Melton, was a poet and a survivor of incest.
 
“We were people who weren’t that far removed from the people we were serving,” recalled Melton, who runs Pathways Vermont. And so, over long conversations, they fashioned the rough contours of what would become housing first.
 

Isn't that often how the most difficult of problems are solved, with fresh thinking from fresh thinkers and a radically different perspective or approach?

Ritual as urban design problem

Kavanagh identifies several influences weakening the urban Church as civitas. The many churches developed many different liturgies, resulting in what he calls “liturgical hypertrophy.” These were flattened and standardized, shrunk to centrally-manageable size and legible doctrinal authority, by the English Act of Uniformity of 1549 and the Council of Trent by 1614. At the same time, printed books ushered in the new literary consciousness, eroding the power of community ritual consciousness for European Christians.
 
But ancient religious practices (and their modern elaborations) are still performed in Europe; processions may still be seen winding through the streets of cities and small towns. Except for the occasional Palm Sunday procession, they are all but absent in the United States. The American urban design pattern — increasingly spreading even to small towns — is forbidding to the kind of religious practice that transforms space and time.
 
The American urban design pattern is characterized by, first, an orientation toward the automobile above all else; second, toward consumption as the main activity besides work; and third, toward efficient human storage. Human activities other than consumption and “being stored” – as in day cares, schools, prisons, offices, nursing homes, and “housing units” themselves – are made difficult and uncomfortable by the physical built environment itself. Religious activity and social activity, two main components of human flourishing that transform local environments, are increasingly rare and emptied of transformative power.
 

From a great piece at Front Porch Republic by Sarah Perry, whose work I've appreciated wherever it shows up online.

Many people are excited about all the free time self-driving cars might return to people, but I'm more excited to reclaim all the physical space currently dedicated to parking garages, parking spots on the side of the road, and roads themselves. If you had more self-driving cars in operation at all hours, you'd have fewer idle cars requiring space to park. A road that is four lanes wide, one on each side for parking spaces, one in each direction for traffic, could be reduced to two lanes, or maybe even one if self-driving cars could coordinate with each other when to head which way down a road. Now you'd have two or three extra car widths of road space that could be used to widen sidewalks, add dedicated bike lanes, grow trees or plants, and so on.

It is only when one travels to a city that was designed before automobiles became prevalent that one senses just how much of their surface area American cities have sacrificed to cars. Pedestrians have been trained to stay out of the road, it holds nothing but danger for them, and even when there are few cars around, that road space lays idle for the most part. It's a usage of land that is actively hostile to most people who are walking around the city, instead giving preference to cars, many of which are too large, most of whom only hold one person, and a large percentage of which are just driving around in search of a parking spot because street parking is priced too low and public transportation is under built.

The next time you're out in the city, look at the width of the sidewalk you're walking on and compare it to the width of the road off the side. Then travel to Europe and stroll around a town like Seville or Florence and do the same arithmetic. Or you can just use Google Street View or an online image search for a cheaper, if less charming way to complete the exercise.

A street in Seville. If you add up the sidewalk space, it's almost as wide, if not as wide, as the space dedicated to cars and motorcycles. But this understates the pedestrian-friendliness of Seville because people feel very comfortable walking on the roads in Seville, not just the sidewalks.

Market Street in San Francisco. It is the widest street in San Francisco, but the ratio of street space dedicated to automobiles to sidewalk set aside for pedestrians is similar to that of other streets throughout the city. As a pedestrian, the difference in feel between walking in a European city like Seville to an American city like San Francisco is palpable.

SimCity's homelessness problem

SimCity's homeless people are represented as yellow, two-dimensional, ungendered figures with bags in tow. Their presence makes SimCity residents unhappy, and reduces land value. Like many other players, Bittanti discovered the online discussions when he was searching for a way to deal with them.

At first, players wondered if they were having so much problems with the homeless in their cities because of a bug in the game. Like many of 2014's big-budget games that launched in broken or barely-functional statesSimCity originally would only work if players connected to EA's servers, which repeatedly crashed under the load of players. It seemed possible that the homeless problem in SimCity was simply a mistake.

"Has anyone figured out a easy way to handle the homeless ruining those beautiful parks you spend so much money on?" asks one player on EA' site. "Create jobs, either through zoning or upgrading road density near industry, that helped me a lot," another player suggests.

Amazing. Professor Matteo Bittanti has collected online discussions about how to eradicate homelessness in 2013 SimCity in a two volume book called How to get rid of homeless. Volume 1 costs $150, Volume 2 $70.

Since Simcity is a game simulation of urban planning, it's impossible not to regard it as a standard bearer for the arrogance of Silicon Valley technological solutionism and difficult not to invoke Baudrillard. Given the income inequality of the Bay Area and its own notable homelessness problems, this is the most Silicon Valley-ish story I've read in weeks, I'm surprised I didn't read it in Valleywag or Gawker.

The contour of money

Meanwhile, the bullet train has sucked the country’s workforce into Tokyo, rendering an increasingly huge part of the country little more than a bedroom community for the capital. One reason for this is a quirk of Japan’s famously paternalistic corporations: namely, employers pay their workers’ commuting costs. Tax authorities don’t consider it income if it’s less than ¥100,000 a month – so Shinkansen commutes of up to two hours don’t sound so bad. New housing subdivisions filled with Tokyo salarymen subsequently sprang up along the Nagano Shinkansen route and established Shinkansen lines, bringing more people from further away into the capital.

The Shinkansen’s focus on Tokyo, and the subsequent emphasis on profitability over service, has also accelerated flight from the countryside. It’s often easier to get from a regional capital to Tokyo than to the nearest neighbouring city. Except for sections of the Tohoku Shinkansen, which serves northeastern Japan, local train lines don’t always accommodate Shinkansen rolling stock, so there are often no direct transfer points between local lines and Shinkansen lines. The Tokaido Shinkansen alone now operates 323 trains a day, taking 140 million fares a year, dwarfing local lines. This has had a crucial effect on the physical shape of the city. As a result of this funnelling, Tokyo is becoming even denser and more vertical – not just upward, but downward. With more Shinkansen passengers coming into the capital, JR East has to dig ever deeper under Tokyo Station to create more platforms.

From The Guardian on the effects of the Shinkansen bullet train on Tokyo (h/t Marginal Revolution).

We often analyze architecture and urban layouts for their purely functional and aesthetic utility, but it's just as important to understand the interplay between money and geography. They shape each other.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me

It feels ridiculous to post a link found from Kottke (especially one that came via Alexis Madrigal) since I assume everyone has already seen it, but this article on analyzing cities like one would the molecular structure of materials intrigued me. Will this modeling actually yield value? I'm skeptical of any algorithm that puts Los Angeles and Seattle in the same bucket.

The premise is intriguing, but the question of the value of metaphor is even more important.

Are materials and metropolises really comparable? And if so, is the comparison useful as more than a metaphor? The urban planning community, which has its roots in the design world, has historically been wary of science’s attempts to capture the incredible complexity of the urban environment. (In her classic 1961 book “The Death and Life of American Cities,” Jane Jacobs lambasted modern urban planning itself as a “pseudoscience,” in which “years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense.”)

But it is warming to these efforts. Today scientists are some of the leading investigators of urban design issues. “There have been ideas about cities since Aristotle and Plato,” said Luis Bettencourt, professor of complex systems at the Santa Fe Institute. “But the ways we can measure cities, test ideas, and compare cities across time and place and size has become so much more possible, that we can now test those ideas.” Bettencourt, who was trained as a theoretical physicist, published a paper in Science last summer proposing a new quantitative framework for understanding cities: They are a unique complex system, he argues, with predictable social, spatial, and infrastructure properties.
 

It's a worthwhile question to ask because I've long thought Silicon Valley and the technology world to be dangerously addicted to metaphor. If you look hard enough, almost anything can be found to resemble something else, but that does not mean outcomes in one system can be used to predict outcomes in another.

But pattern recognition is a reflexive habit for venture capitalists and technology prognosticators. When the future is unknown, we look to history as a guide because hindsight is rich in specific outcomes. This can be a dangerous trap when the similarity in patterns occur at the surface but result from differing underlying dynamics.

Modeling is one form of metaphor, and it can also be dangerous (recall the first chapter of Kieslowski's masterpiece The Decalogue, based on the first of the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me."). However, the increased digitization and measurement of the world has made it possible to model many more natural phenomenon.

Look at the recent success of people with finance backgrounds moving over into the sports franchise ownership and management. Jonah Keri examined one such successful crossover in The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, but most teams not run entirely by finance alumni still employ quantitative analysts to pore over data and model out player and franchise performance, not to mention attendance and revenue. With advanced camera systems and statistical tracking come more data with which to build models of individual and team performance at greater resolution. Sports previously thought to be too complex to model (mostly team sports like basketball, football, soccer, and hockey, which lack the volume of discrete individual confrontations that baseball offers) are being understood at a deeper level using technology like the SportVU camera systems, and even baseball is being understood at a finer level by its own implementation of 3D camera tracking and systems like PitchFX.

When is there enough data to use a model for prediction? I thought of this when reading about the analysis of cities as molecular structures, and it recalled the legendary city of Magnasanti, the so-called perfect city.

If you haven't heard of Magnasanti, it's likely because it's not a real world city but a virtual city built in the game SimCity a few years ago by a young architecture student named Vincent Ocasla.

This video provides an overview of Magnasanti, as does this interview with Ocasla.

Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi seems to have been a big inspiration.
It very much was--I first watched it in 2006. The film presented the world in a way I never really looked at before and that captivated me. Moments like these compel me to physically express progressions in my thought, I have just happened to do that through the form of creating these cities in SimCity 3000. I could probably have done something similar--depicting the awesome regimentation and brutality of our society--with a series of paintings on a canvas, or through hideous architectural models. But it wouldn’t be the same as doing it in the game, because I wanted to magnify the unbelievably sick ambitions of egotistical political dictators, ruling elites and downright insane architects, urban planners, and social engineers.

I’ve a quote from one of your Facebook status updates here: “The economic slave never realizes he is kept in a cage going round and round basically nowhere with millions of others.” Do you feel that sums up the lives of the citizens of Magnasanti? (And you might want to set your Facebook to private by the way.)
Precisely that. Technically, no one is leaving or coming into the city. Population growth is stagnant. Sims don’t need to travel long distances, because their workplace is just within walking distance. In fact they do not even need to leave their own block. Wherever they go it’s like going to the same place.

Heavy.
There are a lot of other problems in the city hidden under the illusion of order and greatness--suffocating air pollution, high unemployment, no fire stations, schools, or hospitals, a regimented lifestyle--this is the price that these sims pay for living in the city with the highest population. It’s a sick and twisted goal to strive towards. The ironic thing about it is the sims in Magnasanti tolerate it. They don’t rebel, or cause revolutions and social chaos. No one considers challenging the system by physical means since a hyper-efficient police state keeps them in line. They have all been successfully dumbed down, sickened with poor health, enslaved and mind-controlled just enough to keep this system going for thousands of years. 50,000 years to be exact. They are all imprisoned in space and time.
 

If you look at how Ocasla achieved the perfect city in SimCity (I have not played the game in years but “perfect” in this case is measured by in-game metrics such as citizen happiness, crime rates, the number of abandoned buildings, etc), Ocasla came up with a symmetrical layout based on the Buddhist Wheel of Life and Death. The symmetry means everyone has the same amenities within a short distance of their residence, so there's no need to travel a lot for those because everyone has their version nearby. There are no roads, only subways, and there are lots of police stations, one of the things that gives Magnasanti its totalitarian feel.

If this is the ideal city in SimCity I have severe doubts as to the sophistication of the game's simulation. It looks one roadless suburb with the same strip mall in the center of each, all with the same exact stores: Chipotle, Starbucks, a Best Buy, maybe a Home Depot. The same suburbs that are seeing ghettoization and an outflow of residents into urban centers. Where is the art museum, the local sports stadium? How do you replicate restaurants from star chefs?

Despite all that, I could see China trying to build a Magnasanti prototype in their countryside.