so what, does this come in brown?
next year’s gorilla
so what, does this come in brown?
next year’s gorilla
No ‘truth’ is contained within a MEME, merely a convention.
When an isolated tribe of humans die off, that which can be reconceived by strangers is TRUTH, that which is lost, was a meme.
‘Zero’ is a truth — Hindus, Mayans, conceived of this mathematical necessity independently.
All extinct languages, religions, recipes, stories, fashions etc were memes.
A meme is not a description of reality.
We need to teach our children this… or even to understand memetics and to be capable of identifying it in our world.
Atheism is the identification and recognition of the presence of memetics in the world.
“meme” (mi:m), n. Biol. (shortened from mimeme … that which is imitated, after GENE n.) “An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation”.
Oxford English Dictionary, 1998
“a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”
Starting with the simple tale of an ant, philosopher Dan Dennett unleashes a devastating salvo of ideas, making a powerful case for the existence of memes — concepts that are literally alive.
March 14, 2010
The global financial crisis of 2008, which economists estimate could result in several trillion dollars of losses and which has already cost American taxpayers billions of dollars in government bailouts, was triggered not by war or recession but by a crazy, man-made money machine, built on flawed mathematical models that most financial executives did not really understand themselves. Greedy and heedless, Wall Street firms had been turning subprime mortgages — loans made to people with low creditworthiness or little documentation — into exotic, toxic financial products that they made a fortune laundering and reselling, and they were enabled in doing so by the very ratings agencies that were supposed to police risk. The insanity of this growing and highly leveraged trade in mortgage derivativescontinued even as the quality of the underlying loans grew increasingly dubious, even as it became increasingly likely that the American housing bubble was going to pop.
The clear and present danger posed by this deranged edifice built on the unstable foundation of subprime mortgages was not foreseen by the chief executives of America’s premier banks. It was not foreseen by government regulators, by Treasury officials or by the Fed. It was foreseen, however, by a handful of investors, who were aghast at the madness they saw on the Street and who used their prescience to make a fortune off the financial system’s calamitous meltdown. Some of their stories are told by Michael Lewis in “The Big Short.”
No one writes with more narrative panache about money and finance than Mr. Lewis, the author of “Liar’s Poker,” that now classic portrait of 1980s Wall Street. His entertaining new book does not attempt a macro view of the financial crisis, but instead proposes to open a small window on the calamities by recounting the stories of some savvy renegades who cashed in on their conviction that the system was rotten. In doing so Mr. Lewis faces the same problem that the Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman faced in “The Greatest Trade Ever,” his recent book about John Paulson, a hedge fund manager who made $15 billion in 2007 by shorting the housing bubble — the problem, namely, that the reader is put in the position of rooting for people who, while smarter or more farsighted than those who helped bring about catastrophe in the first place, were nonetheless trying to make money (who saw a rare opportunity, as one put it) by betting against the health of our financial system.
Still, Mr. Lewis does a nimble job of using his subjects’ stories to explicate the greed, idiocies and hypocrisies of a system notably lacking in grown-up supervision, a system filled with firms that “disdained the need for government regulation in good times” but “insisted on being rescued by government in bad times.”
Mr. Lewis argues that the roots of the meltdown of 2008 can be found in the 1980s of “Liar’s Poker,” when complex financial products like mortgage derivatives were developed. He also suggests that these financial instruments (which had names like “the synthetic subprime mortgage bond-backed C.D.O., or collateralized debt obligation”) grew increasingly opaque and complex to help obscure the fact that they were built around increasingly suspect loans: “low-doc or no-doc loans” requiring little documentation, adjustable-rate mortgages that ballooned after two years, “interest-only negative-amortizing adjustable-rate subprime” mortgages, and mortgages given to migrant workers and poor immigrants with little or no English.
As Mr. Lewis describes it, Wall Street firms were able “to hide the risk by complicating it” and by getting the rating agencies — notably, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s — to give triple-A ratings to bonds that were far lower in quality. Why, he asks, “were Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s willing to bless 80 percent of a pool of dicey mortgage loans with the same triple-A rating they bestowed on the debts of the U.S. Treasury?” Because, he suggests, Wall Street firms knew how to game the system; they knew how to get the rating agencies (which were eager to collect big fees for their services) to ineptly rate dangerous bonds. Most evaluation models, he observes, were based on rising house prices and used “the foreshortened, statistically meaningless past to predict the future”; this was how “the entire food chain of intermediaries in the subprime mortgage machine” was able to dupe itself.
Writing in faintly Tom Wolfe-ian prose, Mr. Lewis does a colorful job of introducing the lay reader to the Darwinian world of the bond market: “An investor who went from the stock market to the bond market,” he writes, “was like a small, furry creature raised on an island without predators removed to a pit full of pythons.” He draws equally lively portraits of the central characters in his story. All, he notes, were oddballs or outsiders — people impervious to groupthink and conventional wisdom, and each of them, he says, “told you something about the state of the financial system, in the same way that people who survive a plane crash told you something about the accident, and also about the nature of people who survive accidents.”
To begin with, there’s Steve Eisman, who had started out “a strident Republican” and was on his way “to becoming the financial market’s first socialist” as he grew increasingly convinced that “an entire industry, called consumer finance,” basically “existed to rip people off.” Mr. Eisman and his team “had a from-the-ground-up understanding of both the U.S. housing market and Wall Street,” Mr. Lewis writes, and by performing the sort of nitty-gritty credit analysis on mortgages (that should have been done before the loans were made in the first place), they realized that they could make a fortune by shorting the worst of the worst.
Then there is Michael Burry, a doctor with Asperger’s syndrome, who’d become obsessed with investing and started a fund with money from a small settlement his family received when his father died after a medical misdiagnosis. Dr. Burry immersed himself in studying the bond market in 2004 and became convinced that lending standards had declined so alarmingly that he could make money by shorting subprime mortgage bonds; by the end of 2007, Mr. Lewis reports, “he would have realized profits of more than $720 million” for his fund.
Finally, there is the “garage band hedge fund” started by Jamie Mai and Charlie Ledley in 2003 with a Schwab account containing $110,000 and housed in a shed in the back of a friend’s house in Berkeley, Calif. Mr. Ledley believed, Mr. Lewis writes, “that the best way to make money on Wall Street was to seek out whatever it was that Wall Street believed was least likely to happen, and bet on its happening.” In this case, his contrarian instincts told him, in Mr. Lewis’s words, that “the markets were predisposed to underestimating the likelihood of dramatic change.”
Four and a half years later the American economy was in trouble, and, Mr. Lewis says, the fund run by Mr. Ledley, Mr. Mai and their partner, Ben Hockett, would net more than $80 million.
If we want Toronto’s streets to be complete how do we build them?
The take home message from TCAT’s Complete Streets Forum was that inclusive discussions build ideas and social capital in a way that exclusive tactics simply can’t. We build complete streets with public support, political leadership and effective implementation of provincial and municipal policies. We build complete streets with both fundamental and incremental approaches to change.
Building public support for complete streets is the first and most important step. “The street is a major component of the public realm,” argued Antonio Gomez-Palacio of the Office for Urbanism. “When built properly, the street becomes the destination for the community.” Celebrating these possibilities for our streets shifts the conversation away from conflict and deficiencies towards a shared vision of what is possible.
To aid in this effort, Barbara McCann, Executive Director of the Complete Streets Coalition, suggested that community organizers use local photographs to inspire citizens as to how their streets could better meet their needs. “Local examples allow us to see the city in a new way, to relate everyday experiences to policy decisions. By reaching people from all walks of life, we create a powerful constituency for change.” McCann has built a strong coalition south of the border, including advocates from the Association of Retired Persons, the American Heart Association and the Association of People with Disabilities.
Complete streets already have political allies in southern Ontario. Toronto Mayor David Miller counts himself as one of them. “We actually can make the changes we want in this city if we believe in it,” said Miller during his opening address. Miller highlighted the connections between complete streets and Transit City – citing bike lanes along the Eglinton LRT corridor as an example of multi-modal transportation planning. While the effort to complete Toronto’s streets will outlast his term as Mayor, Miller encouraged participants to advance the complete streets concept through the City’s Public Realm Office.
At the municipal level, McCann encouraged decision makers to engage their communities about their vision for the streets. She emphasized the importance of addressing the needs of all users, embracing the particularities of our neighbourhoods and formalizing the process for policy exemptions. “Effective complete streets policies restructure the procedures, policies and programs to which our streets are subject,” says McCann. “They rewrite design manuals and standards, offer training opportunities to municipal staff and create new performance measures to evaluate success.”
At the regional level, key public servants are tuned into the need for complete streets planning. Leslie Woo, Vice President of Policy and Planning at Metrolinx, is among them. “A culture of active transportation is essential to public transit success,” said Woo. “All transit users are pedestrians first. We need to capitalize on the 80% of residents in the GTAH who live within walking or biking distance of a rapid transit route by making our stations mobility hubs. With the right infrastructure choices we can help to create seamless transitions between modes and jurisdictions in the region.” Woo identified specific strategies, like pedestrian corridors across busy streets and bicycle parking, being employed at the Kipling and Cooksville GO Stations.
The province is thinking about complete streets too. Jamie Austin of the Ontario Growth Secretariat (Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure) proudly showcased the complete streets-friendly elements of the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Mandated population and employment density targets, he argues, will help to build “dynamic, complete and connected communities”. The vision for complete streets in complete communities is there but the Growth Plan lacks the teeth to guarantee this kind of development across the region. All the while, Woo pointed out, “we continue to confront the challenges of a lost generation of investment.”
We are left with two mutually reinforcing approaches to completing our streets. The first is a fundamental shift in the way that we live and move. The second is an incremental course of action.
“We’ve been hitting the bullseye of the wrong target,” said Geoff Noxon of Noxon Associates. “Carefully considered decisions have led us to where we are today. We believed that sprawling cities filled with cars meant prosperity. We believed that children were safer away from the streets. Many are still aiming at the wrong target.” Noxon advocates for “biting off more than we can chew rather than nibbling around the edges”. That means redefining the problem from one of increasing road capacity to diversifying the range of choice for getting around. Equally, it requires us to identify new ways to define and measure success.
Yet with an enormous existing car-centric infrastructure, change is bound to be slow. Buy-in may not come as quickly as we hope, the funding for re-allocation may not be available right away. These roadblocks shouldn’t stop us from moving forward, according to Fiona Chapman, Manager of Pedestrian Projects for the City of Toronto. “We need to start somewhere. Getting projects on the ground creates powerful examples of change that citizens can interact with. Pilot projects let politicians off the hook. We can say, ‘This is a one off. Let’s just try it.’ There’s a different level of political investment in a pilot project and they allow us to understand how we’ve been effective and what we can do better next time.”
Andrew Wiley-Schwartz of the New York City Department of Transportation agrees. A pilot project his office initiated to close traffic on Broadway through Times Square yielded much needed public space, a 15 percent improvement in travel times and a 63 percent reduction in pedestrian injuries. “With some paint, tables, chairs and umbrellas, we were able to generate all kinds of dividends that delivered in a matter of months.” The city will now use routine resurfacing projects as an opportunity to make these pilot projects permanent. In the mean time, the city’s street design manual has changed to embed the complete streets ethos in future redevelopment initiatives.
Bit by bit, cities like New York can change the streetscape, demonstrating to politicians and the public alike that there is another way to build. Projects beget success, success begets further opportunities for change. Before you know it, you’ve got a network of streets that are accessible to the complete range of urban travelers.
Conversations about the architecture of Toronto’s streets tend to be terribly divisive. You’re either a cyclist or a driver. A transit user or a pedestrian. And don’t even think about trying to speak with the other side. No, no, in this town, we prefer to battle it out in the streets or during election campaigns. Or in the comment sections of blogs and media outlets.
Thankfully, the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation (TCAT) is trying to change the tenor of this conversation.
Back in late-April, TCAT hosted its inaugural Complete Streets Forum. The conference expanded the mandate and scope of previous bike summits to draw in movers and shakers of every description. There were pavement pounders, there were gung-ho cyclists, there were dyed-in-the-wool Metropass holders, and there were car commuters. There were even folks who do all four. In spite of their differences, participants in this year’s conference share the belief that streets are our most sacred public space and that we can make them work better.
But what does better look like?
TCAT and other community partners are advancing the idea of complete streets. The term, coined by Barbara McCann, Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Complete Streets Coalition, refers to streets which “provide safe access for all road users, including pedestrians, cyclists, public transit users and motorists and are comfortable for people with disabilities, children, families, and the elderly.” Adaptable to the particularities of a given place, complete streets are safe and accessible for a variety of users.
“Streets give a lot of information to drivers,” explains McCann. “We need the road to communicate with us about safety and the presence of other users on the road way.” By shifting the balance of facilities to improve accessibility, complete streets offer a profound opportunity to change the way that we relate to the city and get around. Just look at College Street – with connected bike lanes, wide sidewalks, regular streetcars and several lanes of traffic, it supports the diversity of Toronto travelers.
Most notably, New York City has developed and begun to implement complete streets across Manhattan. Janette Sadik-Kahn, comminsionoer of transportation in NYC, discussed her city’s approach to complete streets the last time she was in Toronto. You can listen to her speech on episode 005 of Spacing Radio.
Complete streets are compelling in part because re-allocation of street facilities is demonstrably win-win-win: improving economic, traffic congestion and health outcomes.
Critics frequently cite economic concerns associated with the re-allocation of street space away from motorized vehicles. They argue that a lack of parking space will drive customers away from local business and make deliveries impossible. Taking a lane away from car traffic will increase congestion and negatively impact trade.
Eva Ligeti, Executive Director of the Clean Air Partnership, challenged the correlation often made between motor vehicle traffic and economic prosperity. Citing a 2009 study of transportation choices and economic outcomes in the Annex neighbourhood — check out Spacing’s lively discussion when the report was released — Ligeti claims that cyclists and pedestrians visit local businesses more frequently and spend more money than their car-bound counterparts. Re-dedicating space to cyclists and pedestrians won’t dry up business; it might even improve it.
As the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton enter a period of sustained growth, figuring out how to move people at the lowest public and social costs is a top priority. McCann argues that complete streets are an inexpensive way to increase road capacity, offering Portland, Oregon as an example.
“In Portland, the entire cycling network cost $60 million to build: the same amount as one mile of greenfield roadway. Between 1991 and 2008, the Hawthorne Bridge saw a 20 percent increase in passenger volume, but only a one percent increase in motor vehicle traffic. The bulk of new traffic was traveling by bike or on foot. Improvements to cycling and pedestrian facilities made this increased capacity possible.”
Another key benefit of complete streets is their role in improving health outcomes in the city. Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, David McKeown was clear: “We are not a healthy city. Fifty percent of adults in Toronto are not active enough to maintain or improve their health. We are in the midst of an epidemic of Type II diabetes and the outlook for the future is not any better – 10 to 25 percent of Toronto teens are obese. These problems are particularly prevalent in low-income neighbourhoods.”
But McKeown sees possibility in our streets: “The shape of our communities is one of the most important determinants of our health.” Nearly 17 percent of trips taken in this city are within walking distance (less than 2 km), 40 percent within biking distance (less than 5km). By making our streets more accessible, we can tap into the latent health benefits of daily physical activity.
Meanwhile, complete streets help to improve air quality, reduce traffic injuries and noise and support the development of social networks and corresponding improvements in mental health. These positive impacts are so strong, McKeown argues, that they help to mitigate the negative effects of poverty on health. Not bad for some concrete and a little paint.
If the benefits of complete streets are not clear enough, the costs of inaction are. “We are paying the costs of incomplete streets in other budget areas,” says McKeown. “A 30 percent decrease in vehicle pollution would save 190 lives and $900 million annually.”
With over 130 Complete Streets policies enacted in the US, there is a growing body of evidence to support the complete streets concept here in Canada. While enthusiastic, McCann cautioned the conference that “complete streets are not a silver bullet to the perfect city. These policies work because they zero in on the transportation sector. Complete streets policies do not directly address other aspects of the built environment, such as land use.”
Yet with streets comprising 25 to 30% of the land area in our cities, the potential for marked impacts is large.
“As a major component of the public realm, streets ought to behave in the public interest,” said Dan Leeming of The Planning Partnership. Complete streets are one way to codify the public interest into the urban landscape.
I’ll be following up this call to action with a discussion of how we go about building complete streets.