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November 09, 2007


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Or the other way around?

Joel Garreau's 1981 book The Nine Nations of North America says yes, or at least that the tip of FL and the Caribbean form part of the same cultural entity. The Wikipedia article on NNoNA has a pretty good summary of the thesis. Where I know the facts on the ground, I find Garreau to be pretty accurate -- he says the western boundary of New England follows the line between Sox and Yankees fandom through western MA and CT, for example.

One piece of evidence I remember for the placement of Miami is that the Miami Herald, he said in 1981, was the local paper for the islands. (Though I never saw a copy in Barbados, I heard this claim from other sources in the 70's and 80's.) Miami doesn't seem to be part of The South, whereas Tampa/St. Pete pretty much does and Jacksonville definitely does. Is Miami more like San Juan or Port-au-Prince than like Jacksonville?

Miami is exactly like San Juan, with more money and somewhat more English. Or so it has seemed to me, when passing through it. I don't really know the town. We spent a few months in Florida last year, but further up the coast, in Palm Beach.

Also, from Puerto Rico's point of view, it's where you go to shop if you want to spend a long weekend shopping instead of a day.

God, I used to love _Nine Nations_. I wonder if I dare reread it now.

I shouldn't reply without having spent some time in that area. Which I haven't, or not for many years. But what the hell: I'll say yes. It's definitely distinct from the rest of Florida, no? And IIUC, from Miami it's much easier to get to San Juan than Tallahassee.

Doug M.

_Nine Nations_ is very much of its time -- it hasn't aged too badly, but it's very much a contemporary 1970s issues book. His Dixie is probably the best match to any current cultural divide in the US today; his Mexamerica, the worst, unless you're Lou Dobbs. The Foundry looks the most artificial in retrospect, but we forget how ominous the Rust Belt collapse was. (And note, it's Quebec, and not the French-speaking area of northern North America.)

It's probably why Garreau wrote _Edge City_, which is also getting kind of old.

Then I'll be putting any future posts about the town in the "Caribbean" and "USA" categories, same as Puerto Rico.

I thought Edge City was pretty innovative for its methodology, talking to the actual decision-makers who site and design new development. (I don't know if Tom Wolfe acknowledged EC as a source for A Man In Full, or reached some of the same conclusions independently, but Charlie Croker was absolutely one of those decision-makers.)

The thesis made sense to me at the time, except that it's obviously false when applied to New England. We ought to have edge city development at major highway intersections like Sturbridge according to him, but we don't. A plausible reason is that in New England, when you draw the lines on the map to determine where to site, you find something already there other than easily clearable abandoned farmland. Villages, medium-density suburb, lots of little landowners hard to buy off, and like that.

Clive Crook has a column in the new Atlantic arguing that the USA's subsidy of homeownership is a bad idea, in part because homeowners can't move easily out of economic downturns to follow new opportunities. (We were told that a family in Sobel's CNA moved on an average every five years. Maybe they have a lot more renters? And higher ownership rates help to keep that New England a conservative backwater?) On the other hand, if people like me didn't have a mortgage to pay down we'd be doing no saving at all...

Anyone read Garreau's new stuff on the prospects for a Vingean singularity? For that matter, has anyone besides me read Vinge's Rainbows End? One aspect of his projected 2025 I don't buy is almost complete abolition of private car ownership in favor of self-driving taxis. I could see that by 2040, maybe.

"We were told that a family in Sobel's CNA moved on an average every five years. Maybe they have a lot more renters?"

Does that follow? The current average life of a mortgage in the U.S. is under 7 years. Granted that has a good proportion of refis built in, but it still implies a fair amount of mobility. It might slow given the current dislocation in the housing market, of course, if it means it is that much more difficult to unload your current property (though my family is one datapoint against.)

Brief version, because my full Vinge/Singularity rant is almost as long as my full Diamond rant:

For Vinge's futurist scenarios to make more than metaphorical sense, physical capital has to depreciate much more quickly than it observably does. Vinge is trying the fanboy Jedi mind trick: let me confuse you with a clearly wrong counterintuitive scenario, and make *you* defend it. (It might not be a trick per se; there's enough evidence that Vinge believes his own guff.)

So. While the premise resulted in some brilliant imagery in _Rainbows End_, to an SF reader who kicks the tires of a background to make sure it's worth the drive, it's vastly annoying. But the Robert Gu character is a step forward in Vinge's writing.

Haven't read the Garreau futurist book. What's least worthwhile about it?

Dave MB: The average American moves once every seven years, whatever that means. The average homeowner moves once every 14 years. The average renter once every three. All of these numbers are also very easy to find on the census website.

In 1950, the average American moved every 4½ years. In other words, the cited statistic from a fictional work is well within historical American norms.

This particular mobility measure, I should add, is pretty close to meaningless: it's just the reciprocal of the percentage of people who moved in any given year.

I am getting a strange sense of déjà vu ... didn't we have this exact same conversation a few years ago?

As for Rainbow's End, I couldn't finish the damn thing. I honestly thought that it was just ... well ... stupid. I skimmed the end of the book while riding the Acela from Philadelphia and my only memory is of dueling mechanical Godzillas and a sense of "Man, this is really stupid. I'll skim the next page anyway. Christ, this is even stupider." It's too bad, because, IIRC, the first thirty pages or so were actually pretty intriguing.

I think Garreau's latest is sitting on a shelf in my house somewhere. I bought it in an airport and never got around to reading it. Not untypical for me, these days.

While I'm on Garreau, Massachusetts has quite a lot of edge cities. You can't miss them along Route 128, or out in the western and southern exurbs, or even the far eastern part of Cambridge, which meets Garreau's definition. Edge City has a nice map of the greater Boston area, I believe.

It is, of course, harder to build anything in Massachusetts than in many other places, but why would you expect a giant suburban employment center in Sturbridge? It's in the middle of nowhere, far from an available labor force, and it's not like there isn't plenty of office development in Auburn.

I read everything by Vinge, one of my favorite authors. Are we calling the Singularity Vingean now?

Carlos: why would physical capital's depreciation stay constant as physical matter becomes less important? As a random example, one of the components of value of, say, a house is its appearance, i.e. the labor required to have craftsmen with routers put little wooden bits all over it. Since one of the basic premises of _RE_ is more or less ubiquitous editing of perception, there's no reason to have that any more. Thus a less expensive house is equivalent to a more expensive house, and less expensively built houses will thus drive down the market value of more expensively built houses (except for the luxury aspect, but I'm talking about regular houses). Now, as you all certainly know, I'm not an economist -- but as value leaves the realm of the physical, wouldn't physical depreciation rates change? (Although they might go down, since maintenance for appearance would be less important, too. I'm not sure how that's calculated -- all I know about depreciation is from doing my own taxes while renting a house for a couple of years.)

Just a notion. Vinge isn't an economist, either. But as an avid SF fan and at least a one-time programmer, I'm betting he's right, more or less. (But I'm not taking bets on timelines.)

Michael, in the long run, that might be true, if perceptions can be edited. (Although looking at the history of audio reproduction -- almost perfect for decades -- I tend to doubt it. We put an ontological premium on live performances relative to recordings, and one that has only increased with time. I'm skeptical that will change with regards to nice houses.)

Anyway. Vinge is talking about 2025, eighteen years from now. The current rate for most physical stock, like books or buildings, is around 6 to 7%. If we assume physical stock depreciates the way interest accrues, it would take a hundred years for something to fall to a thousandth of its original value, essentially worthless, barring scarcity effects. (I'm using a thousandth here because that's the number I used to use in isotope waste calculations. Ten half-lives.)

In eighteen years, that same something should still be worth a quarter of its original value.

For high-tech stuff, the depreciation rate is higher. Call it 20%. Eighteen years drops something to about 2% of its original value, which is why I left my Macintosh behind on my last move. But most physical stock is not high-tech.

You'd need a depreciation rate of nearly 70% for something to reach a thousandth of its original value in eighteen years.

And yet, Rainbows End is filled with images of the solid present being ground up in the maw of the superfast future, as if the entire world were made of Atari 2600 E.T. video game cartridges.

For comparison purposes, eighteen years ago, we still had a Bush in the White House.

There were other too cute touches, like the point-to-point mail delivery system, which make no sense when considered broadly. The high school scenes are a mess, and have been since "Fast Times at Fairmont High". And Vinge wrote more interestingly about pervasive sensor networks in A Deepness in the Sky. (And he's wrong that they need a localizer mesh.)

I don't want to think about how long I've been reading Vinge. I think I read True Names in '82? So I think I know his work pretty well. For me, after a while, Vinge's writing began to look like a collection of tics and half-baked ideas. The same thing happened to me with Poul Anderson. It's depressing, because I really do like hard science fiction a lot.

Noel -- You're right, you made this point before and I should have remembered that the five-year datum isn't particularly odd.

I also agree that Rainbows End didn't maintain the promise of the early chapters. His vision of education is interesting but not really convincing in such a short timeframe.

With regard to Sturbridge, it was Garreau who says that new employment centers are supposed to grow up away from the cities at interstate junctions, as they seem to have done in Georgia and New Jersey. (Mahwah NJ has a lot more huge buildings than Auburn, Burlington MA, Southborough, or any other Edge City candidate I can think of around here.)

I haven't looked at the new Garreau book yet, just wondering if anyone else had.

It's strange to consider that both geographic and intergenerational economic mobility have declined in recent decades. I don't think they're related, but I do think they're unexpected.

To be contrarian, I don't think that Massachusetts is particularly unique in how it's suburbanized.

To be fair, I have to say that no image comes to mind when I think of Mahwah. In fact, I've never been to Mahwah, and I suspect that there's a pretty good chance that I never will. This fact, for whatever reason, does not perturb me.

But ... well ... Mahwah is on the western edge of a metropolitan area that's about five times more populous than Boston, so I wouldn't be surprised to find that it's bigger than its Massachusetts equivalents. Ditto, not every place where a freeway meets another freeway has spawned huge office complexes even in Greater New York. I mean, Brewster isn't exactly chock-full of giant buildings. And there's precisely nothing where I-78 cuts across I-287.

But here's the real kicker: Boston is much smaller than New York, and I think you'd agree that it has giant office complexes out in Framingham. They're infamous, in fact. Now, Framingham is already 23 miles by road from downtown Boston, giving Mahwah a run for its money at 33. Auburn, a bit smaller, is 47 miles out --- farther from its center than Mahwah and in a metro area with only a fifth of Greater New York's population. Sturbridge is another 12 miles by road.

I don't think you'd expect anything in Sturbridge even without the historic village. It's simply way way out in the boonies. I'm a developer: why on Earth would I build far away from all the people? None, really, and thus Sturbridge remains (mostly) unperturbed for the same reason as Brewster, New York.

More generally, Greater Boston just isn't that unique in its pattern of suburbanization. It's got the buildings on Route 128 and the endlessly spreading exurbs and everything else --- it's simply /smaller than New York/. Burlington and Auburn are much further out than the places you're comparing them to.

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