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Archive for October, 2008

One of the pleasures I’ve had since resuming bus ridership a couple of weeks ago is seeing the buses so full.

Last winter, I took the bus to work every day.  Usually, there were no more than five people on the bus at any one time, including me and the driver.  On the ride home, the bus was often half-full.  (Or was it half-empty?)  There were always seats available.

But for the last two weeks, I haven’t boarded the bus to work with fewer than twelve other passengers on board.  The buses (at least some models) have 32 seats, and I find they are usually half-full from downtown to UAF.  And on the way home?  Crowded, crowded, crowded!  If I take an early bus, it’s perhaps only half-full.  But if I leave at five o’clock, nearly every seat is taken, and sometimes there’s standing room only.

This morning, for the first time, I saw a man on the bus who looked very well dressed — that is to say, he looked “high class”.  Okay, it was hard to tell for sure under his black wool trench coat, but it was a nice trench coat.  Both his graying hair and his white beard were neatly kept.  He carried a briefcase.  He got off at the Butrovich building, so I took him for a UA Statewide administrator, though he could have been heading for the G.I., too.  Him I was especially glad to see.

Why am I so delighted to sit on crowded buses among higher-class passengers?  Truth be told, it’s not because of the pollution that my fellow would-be drivers aren’t causing — although that’s something to celebrate, too.  And it’s certainly not because I anticipate better conversation out of the well-to-do.  I’m happy because the bus is starting to be more of a social leveler, bringing together a wider variety of ages, races, educations, and incomes.  And that’s important.

How many people of another social class, or race, or educational level are you likely to meet while at work?  Probably few.  How many in your home, barring your own parents or children?  Very few.  And how many while driving alone in your car?  Absolutely none!  For much of our days, most of have no chance to rub elbows with people who seem unlike us, because we lack space in which this can happen.  Our stratification and our isolation dim our understanding and dull our sympathies.

I recall, growing up in Anchorage, some ordinance involving expanded bus service came up before the municipal assembly (I think), and Mayor Tom Fink, speaking against it, said, “Everybody I know drives a car.”  Well, wonderful.  That really spoke more to his own social class and his own isolation from others, than it did to the actual state of affairs.

If the privileged leaders of our community — if our City Council and Borough Assembly members, our captains of industry, our professors, the members of our Chamber of Commerce — got to ride the bus every day, and to rub elbows with their fellow citizens of all classes, no such ignorant statement could escape their lips without consequence.  And I expect it would be much harder for us all to hold on to our prejudices.

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A couple of days ago, I voiced a little suspicion about the many new “social software” devices and applications that make forming connections so easy.  Today I want to amend that.

I’m reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (New York: Penguin, 2008), an exploration of the ways new technology allows us to form groups without the conventional barriers of distance, resources, or management.  I suspected that, when people can make online connections that seem to satisfy their needs and that are low cost (in time and money), they will more often forgo local, face-to-face connections (and group activity) that have a higher cost in time and interpersonal friction.

Well, the very next thing I read from Here Comes Everybody was a chapter about Meetup.com, a name that should be familiar to anybody who followed the 2004 presidential bid of Howard Dean.

Inspired by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), a modern classic on America’s loss of social capital, three men created an online tool to help people increase the number of their local connections.  They realized that people had difficulty making face-to-face, interpersonal connections in part because of suburbanization (greater distance) and the two-earner household norm (less time).  They assumed that people would not be content with new online “communities” — so they created Meetup.com.  It allows people to find others of similar interest locally.  People need only to sign up and enter a few interests, and they can see others of similar interest within a certain radius.  Once a Meetup group is established, Meetup.com can easily send e-mails to members about future meetings.

As Shirky points out, most groups fail: they never reach critical mass.  Fortunately, the ease of Meetup.com has made the transaction costs of trying to form new groups practically nil.  As a result, people make more attempts, and many find success.

There are currently 13 Meetup groups in Fairbanks.  The 74 Ron Paul supporters seem to be doing well, though I feel a little sorry for the two people in the singles group, especially for the one who attended last Saturday’s mixer.

I registered at Meetup.com with one of my interests and found that there’s someone else in the area with the same interest — unfortunately, his posted photo reminds me too much of the inappropriate yoga guy, so I’m a little wary of meeting him.  Shame on me for having such a prejudice: what’s called “bridging” social capital is built by spending time with people not of your in-group.  However, people will have prejudice — so why not just omit the stinking photo and give them a better chance to meet you?

Anyway, while there certainly are those who forgo the presence of flesh-and-blood human beings in order to spend more time “living” online, Shirky gives me hope that, for most people, such an existence isn’t enough.  Dispite their bizarrely strong streak of individualism, Fairbanksans seems to have a real propensity for civic engagement.  I have to believe that the new social software and tools will not isolate us, but bring us closer together.  We’re that kind of people.

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It finally got cold enough in Fairbanks — three degrees Fahrenheit this morning — that I decided to forego riding my bike to work and to take the bus instead. Truth be told, I don’t mind the cold or the dark so much as all the damned dressing and undressing. Lazy, I guess.

Riding the bus this morning gave me the pleasure of reading for twenty-five minutes on the way to work, something I haven’t done since April. (Readers may recall that I extolled this virtue of bus-ridership in June.) Right now I’m reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (New York: Penguin, 2008), in which the author considers the new kinds of social action made possible by computer (and specifically Internet) technology. For example, Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”, is minimally managed (though Shirky makes it clear that it is managed). Yet it amounts to an encyclopedia of vast scope and variety — and usually improving quality — because of the existence of countless volunteers whose contributions range from small to great, and who are motivated largely by good will. (Ego also plays a role.)

Shirky observes that political and social actions are easier to coordinate now because of the tools available. It’s not that the desire to form political and social groups was absent before, but potential participants were always constrained by the cost. “What cost?” you ask. Well, the cost of printing, for one. Before the printing press, anyone in the West who was not a scribe worked pretty much on a word-of-mouth basis. After the press’s invention, written knowledge could be spread much farther and much faster, but that power was still restricted to those who owned a press. Now, with e-mail, cell phones, text messaging, wikis, and blogs, transmission of information has become accessible to all. Not only that, but the previous publication model — even with e-mail — was “one to many” communication; that is, one person (or an organized collective) could push a message out to a single person or to the masses. Now, however, we have the chance for “many to many” communication: blogs and wikis allow a limitless number of people to contribute to a given conversation.

Another cost Shirky discusses is the time and human effort required for social action. Consider that, twenty years ago, if you saw an article in the newspaper you thought friends might be interested in and you wanted to share it, you would have to:

  1. possibly cut the article out,
  2. get to a photocopy machine and print enough copies to send to everyone,
  3. put each copy in an envelope, perhaps with an explanatory note (which you remembered to write ahead of time and copy also, right?),
  4. seal, stamp, and address each one, and
  5. drop the lot in a mailbox.

Then, if any of your friends wished to share the article, they would have to do the same. None of these steps is laborious, but together they amounted to enough work that most of the time we were inclined not to bother.

Today, most U.S. newspapers are online. Not only can their content be cut and pasted into an e-mail, but the newspapers themselves usually have gadgets already in place on the page to allow you to share the story in a number of ways. (The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner offers readers the chance to print the story, e-mail the story, leave comments about the story, and share the story with your choice of Digg, Delicious, Facebook, Mixx, Reddit, and StumbleUpon.) Or, you could just link to the story and post an excerpt on your blog.

Online tools exist not only to share information, but to organize participants into groups of common interest. While these tools still require managers at the head, middle managers — and they are legion in the face-to-face world — have been nearly cut out of online organizations. Collective action is much easier now, because the costs in equipment and time have been drastically reduced. If you wish to join a common-interest group, or if you wish to form one yourself, nothing is stopping you.

That’s where I wonder if there’s a dark side.

If nothing, not even time, stops you from joining or forming a new interest group — if all the costs have been removed — then what is the incentive to continue working with the existing, often difficult, community that you already have? Yes, yes, the incentive is supposed to be that you get some kind of reward from all your negotiation and all the time you’ve spent together. But how many of us regularly embrace something more difficult with more abstract benefits when we could have something less difficult that seems to meet our needs? For example, if sex were free, easy, and without consequence (as I believe most “free love” practitioners have found it is not), how many of us would embrace the more difficult task of building stable families?

If we are always perfectly free to choose those with whom we interact, or to create our own groups if our exact desires are not met, then aren’t we more likely to spend time with online “communities” that we could have spent working out difficulties in our local communities, in the face-to-face world?

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I need to lower my standards enough to let out a few half-baked ideas.

If you read my last post (on the crime rate in Fairbanks), you may have left with the feeling that it was not the most thorough piece of argumentation you’d ever read.  Frank Cox called it a “rough and ready first cut at analyzing the crime situation in the city and the borough.”  That was fairly kind.

The causes of crime in an urban area are a topic that deserves quality research — and a topic for which a lot of quality data are probably available.  What’s more, when I start trotting out the suggestion that crime is related to income and possibly race, I’d like to present a good case .  Many of us may have that intuition or may have read some such statistics, but when it comes to the possible appearance of denigrating a class of people, I’d rather be cautious and thorough.  My last post was neither.

However, by demanding the most thorough research and brilliantly crafted arguments for everything, I could completely paralyze myself.  I already feel that I’m not posting enough.  Instead of having few postings of spectacular scholarship, I would rather post often, on a wide variety of topics, and (with luck) initiate more discussions.

I’ll save my scholarly work for scholarly publications, cut a few intellectual corners where needed, and try just to get some ideas out there.

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A couple of weeks ago, in a comment to my post “Home insecurity system“, Brian wrote,

On the other hand, I haven’t had a shooting in my neighborhood in the ‘burbs….. ever. You have shootings, assaults, and assorted nonsense in yours THAT NEVER EVEN MAKES THE NEWSPAPER. Would you go to Weeks Field after dark, unarmed?

I said I’d try to respond within a week.  Well, best laid plans and all that…

Now, I’m only guessing that Brian’s point (or part of it) was that the City of Fairbanks proper suffers from more crime than outlying areas, and that that is one of the reasons people flee the central city.  Another point might have been that the crime rate is a good and reasonable reason to live out of town with plenty of space between you and your nearest neighbors.  I think he was saying in part that the city really is a good place to live, and that it’s the fault of the police department for not cracking down on more of the drug-related crime.

Anyway, my perception is similar to Brian’s — that the city is a little more dangerous.  More drug-related crimes, more drunks, more violence.  I wonder if it’s really true?

There are a couple of ways to consider it, I guess.  That there be more crime per square mile seems almost inevitable.  According to the State’s online community database, Fairbanks’s population density in 2007 was 967 people per square mile, while the entire Fairbanks North Star Borough’s was just over 13.  (If you measure just the Borough outside Fairbanks, the population density was less than 9 per square mile.)

I realize that large parts of the Borough are uninhabited and that the actual population density closer to Fairbanks and North Pole is higher, but you get the point: where you have fewer people, you probably have less perception of crime.  Of course, the crime rate per capita might be just the same or higher — but we’d have a hard time knowing, since so much goes on in the outskirts that we just can’t see.  Are people shooting guns off their porch? singing loudly and drunkenly? getting into ass-kicking fist-fights with their neighbors? dealing crystal meth out of their cabins?  Maybe.  Hard to say.  (I recognize that there’s a place for research here, but I don’t have time to call the Fairbanks Police Department or the Alaska State Troopers, or to pore over the public safety reports in the News-Miner.)

Of course, shooting a gun off your porch probably isn’t a crime if you live on twenty acres off the Old Nenana Highway.  Nor is being a noisy drunk.  A lot of the things that are crimes in the city are public nuisances or crimes against public safety — and there is no “public” when you’re in the middle of a vast plot of land.

So let’s just talk about the things that are against the law no matter where you are: physical assault, dealing illicit drugs, cooking meth, arson… you get the idea.  Let’s assume — and I’ll stress again that this is the proper place for research — that the rate of, say, violent crimes per capita (not per square mile) actually is greater within the city.  Why would that be?

I’ll hazard a guess based on the common wisdom, and pepper it with a few facts. I suspect that crime has more to do with the income of the perpetrators than with their urbanity.  According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (a division of the U.S. Department of Justice), the Homicide Offending Rates per 100,000 Population in 2005 (the latest year available) was more than 7 1/2 times higher for Blacks than it was for Whites.  In no way do I think that race is the determining factor.  In this case, I’m using race as a proxy for income, since the BJS seems not to track criminal offenders by income.  According to the Census Bureau (PDF link), Black families in 2005 earned 60% of what White families earned.

Well, people in the City of Fairbanks earn significantly less than those of the Fairbanks North Star Borough as a whole.  According to the aforementioned online community database, the per-capita income in the City is 92% of that in the Borough; and both the median household income and the median family income in the City is 83% of those in the Borough.  If we can use race as a proxy for income or for other factors relevant to the crime rate, then the online database should help us: a look at the three largest racial categories in both jurisdictions shows that Blacks constitute 11.2% of the City population, Natives 13.3%, and Whites 66.7%.  In the Borough, those numbers are 5.9%, 9.9%, and 77.8%.  In short, the Borough outside the City is significantly richer and whiter — and far poorer in traditionally disadvantaged minorities — than the City itself.

This only makes sense to me — the income part, at least — since (1) people who live far from town tend to buy larger plots of land (in fact, I think there’s a minimum size based on how near you can put two septic tanks), and (2) living out of town while still depending on it requires owning and maintaining an automobile, which isn’t cheap.

So, insomuch as race and income (taken as aggregates, not on an individual basis) are predictors of an area’s crime rate, we could expect the City of Fairbanks to have a higher crime rate than its suburban and rural surroundings.

If avoiding crime is a major factor in your choice of place to live, moving out of town looks like the smart move: go where there are fewer people and where your neighbors are richer and whiter.

Does that sound repugnant to anybody else?

For me, the residential breakdown by income raises the question: Why have we created a city that those with the greatest means feel it necessary to leave?  And, as always: What do we need to change to make a city worth embracing rather than abandoning?

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