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October 31, 2010

Four Loko, for people who take drinking seriously

Four Loko joins this warped tradition. And what I quickly came to see was that if you set out to engineer a booze delivery system that is as cloying, deceptive and divorced from the usual smells, tastes and presentation of alcohol as possible, you'd be hard pressed to come up with something more impressive than Four Loko.

It's a malt liquor in confectionary drag, not only raising questions about the marketing strategy behind it but also serving as the clearest possible reminder that many drinkers aren't seeking any particular culinary or aesthetic enjoyment. They're taking a drug. The more festively it's dressed and the more vacuously it goes down, the better.

Four Loko cans -- I paid $3.50 apiece for mine -- are something to see, each sporting a few ultrabright, childlike hues in a kind of rippling weave that evokes a camouflage pattern. Fatigues like these are what an army of Teletubbies would wear into battle.

This obsession with vivid colors extends to the beverage itself. The watermelon-flavored Four Loko, for example, is a shade of rosy pink that put me in mind of sherbet. Or bridesmaid dresses.

In Scotland over the last few years, a mass-market, caffeine-spiked sweet wine labeled Buckfast Tonic Wine has provoked public worries similar to those surrounding Four Loko. Government and law enforcement officials there have noted that Buckfast Tonic Wine consumption is common among young people who commit crimes while drunk.

Caffeine and Alcohol: Wham! Bam! Boozled.
Published: October 30, 2010
Drinking the undrinkable, or how I tested Four Loko, the risky, trendy, double punch of caffeinated alcohol in sugary drag.

October 30, 2010

Penn Station, 1910

The main waiting room of Pennsylvania Station, 1910.


More: NY, transit.

The Architect Charles McKim, Designer of the Morgan Library
Published: October 28, 2010
The reopening of the J. P. Morgan library, and a new book, cast a spotlight on the architect Charles McKim, who is often overshadowed by his scandalous partner Stanford White.

October 28, 2010

Is quality of life about square footage ?

During the last decade's real estate boom, the annual demonstration kept up with the times: designs abounded with baronial features like colonnades, cathedral ceilings and observation towers, and they sometimes topped 6,000 square feet. But then the crash came, wiping out credit lines and shaking the industry's confidence. For this year's show, Boyce Thompson, the editorial director of Builder, wanted a look more attuned to curtailed appetites, so he came up with a concept that he called a Home for the New Economy.

The most salient specification of the house was its modest proportions. At around 1,700 square feet, it was the size of the average American home built in 1980. Since then, new houses have on average grown by more than 40 percent, as dens have expanded into great rooms, and tubs and sinks have multiplied. "Houses got too big, because people were chasing investment gains and there was cheap money, and the industry responded by building houses that were too large," Thompson says. "So we really wanted to focus people's attention on doing smaller, better homes." He points to Census statistics that show a slight decline in the size of homes built over the past two years and to a much larger drop in the square footage of those that have just started construction, and suggests that the market may be headed toward a more austere norm.

That's certainly debatable. If dissecting the causes of the housing market's crash is a task for economists, predicting its future is a fuzzier matter of sociology. Will Americans re-evaluate cultural assumptions that equate ever-larger houses with success and stability? Or will they invest more in their lived environments, figuring that with the demise of the quick flip, they are now in for the long term? In the absence of much real market activity, imaginations are free to run wild. The Home for the New Economy is one such exercise in speculation, a proposal that the future lies in denser, more walkable, modestly scaled communities. Marianne Cusato, who designed the Home for the New Economy, sees it as a rebuke to the ethic of the McMansion. "We're not going to go back to 2005," she says. "What was built then is not going to come back, and this is not a bad thing. What we were building was so unsustainable, and it didn't really meet our needs."

Cusato, who is 36, started her career drawing up million-dollar mansions, but she has made a name for herself by going smaller, designing a 300-square-foot Katrina Cottage meant to be a replacement for the trailers the government set up after the 2005 hurricane. When Cusato sat down to devise the Home for the New Economy, she tried to consider how families actually use their living areas. She started with a simple, symmetrical three-bedroom plan, excising extraneous spaces -- the seldom-used formal dining room, for instance -- while enlarging windows wherever she could and adding a wraparound porch. A result was a house that was compact, comfortable, bright and energy-efficient.

The spirit of constraint that Cusato means to tap isn't purely a product of the recession. It's a cultural thread that runs from Henry David Thoreau's 10-by-15-foot cabin next to Walden Pond all the way to the New Urbanist communities that began appearing in the 1980s, reacting to the spread of soulless suburbanization by trying to recapture a traditional small-town aesthetic. But the wider buying public has never found much appeal in the idea that it ought to make do with less. "Builders have tried quality rather than size, but they always fail," says Witold Rybczynski, an architecture professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "The market always says: We don't care. If you're giving us a smaller house, we don't want it."

Rybczynski speaks from experience. In 1990, he and a partner came up with a design they called the Grow Home, a 14-foot-wide row house that could be constructed for as little as $35,000. His intent was to produce something along the lines of Frank Lloyd Wright's famed Usonians, dwellings devised during the Great Depression as housing for the working man, which later became a model for the tiny tract homes of Levittown. Rybczynski built a Grow Home in Montreal and wrote an article about it for The Atlantic, in which he posited that the "abundant resources that accounted for the success of the large single-family suburban house -- unlimited land, cheap transportation and plentiful energy -- can no longer be taken for granted." That was 20 years ago. While the Grow Home design proved to be a niche success, it didn't change popular tastes, which kept inflating in defiance of all warnings about sustainability. By the market's 2007 peak, the average American house had surpassed 2,500 square feet.

"This happened at the same time as household size declined, so it's a little bizarre," says John McIlwain, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. "But people seem to have liked the idea of having extra bedrooms and lots of room, big kitchens and big master bedrooms and big master baths. I think it's just cultural, an expression of wealth." But it's not just that -- studies have found that lower-class homes in the United States are also much larger than comparable residences in Europe.

"To me, the answer is that we subsidized it massively," says Christopher B. Leinberger, a housing scholar at the Brookings Institution. "Over the last 30 years, we saw one of the largest social-engineering projects in the nation's history." The mortgage tax deduction encouraged a vast expansion of homeownership, while Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac created new pools of capital through securitization. The federal government kept building highways to serve ever-more distant suburbs, where local authorities often mandated large home and lot sizes in the belief that it would encourage the construction of affluent communities. Facing a widespread revolt against property taxes, many of the same municipalities began financing suburban infrastructure -- roads, sewers and so on -- through "impact fees" levied at the outset of the development process. This and other factors effectively inflated the cost of developable land. The homebuilding industry, which was in the process of consolidating into the hands of a dozen or so publicly traded corporations, passed on the added expense to consumers through higher home prices. But because they enjoyed such economies of scale when it came to construction, the major homebuilders could offer buyers an inducement in return: a lot more room.

October 27, 2010

On line youth are really 'there' in Japan

Like tank commanders giving shout outs through the fog of the battlefield

Consider a fascinating study of the text messaging behavior of Tokyo teenagers that was conducted as part of a much larger investigation of "digital youth" by Mimi Ito, the late Peter Lyman and their colleagues. The kids text back and forth all day. What are they writing? What is so pressing that it can't wait till they see each other?

Anthropologists looking at the matter were surprised to discover that the kids rarely send informative or detailed messages. As a general rule, they are not telling each other anything. Rather, they are just letting each other know that they are "there," that they are online, in reach. Texting for the kids is a way of "pinging" each other. They bounce pings back and forth and so signal their presence for each other.

October 26, 2010

Lady Sumo

Originally performed as a Shinto ritual to entertain the gods so they would bestow a good harvest, the game dates back well over a thousand years. It is a trial of strength in which 48 techniques may be used to throw an opponent off balance so that he steps out of the ring or falls to the ground. A match begins with a head-on collision, followed by a wild fit of shoving, lifting, throwing, tripping, slapping, yanking or any combination thereof. It is often over in less than 10 seconds but can last a minute or more.

An 18-year-old high school senior from Tottori, Yuka Ueta, was the strongest wrestler of the tournament. At 275 pounds, she plowed her way through five matches in the open weight class, dispatching each opponent within moments to earn her first gold medal in the senior group.


The sumo wrestler Miki Satoyama, right, threw her opponent during the heavyweight class of the Japan women's sumo championships in Sakai city, in southern Osaka on Oct. 3

In Sumo's Push for the Olympics, a Turn Away From Tradition
Published: October 18, 2010
To get to the Olympic Games, the International Sumo Federation has thrown its weight behind a form of the game that would offend purists and surprise most everyone else: women's sumo.

October 25, 2010

Rail line adds more to home values than it costs

WHAT is the real estate value of a one-seat train ride to Manhattan from a station close to one's home in New Jersey ? Leave it to statisticians to come up with a figure.

"It has to be a lot," said Perri K. Feldman of Keller Williams Realty, who has built a client base in towns along a section of the New Jersey Transit Midtown Direct line running from Morristown to South Orange. "It's the first question so many people ask about a house: 'How close is it to the train? Can I walk to the station?' "

Now, the extra value that comes with proximity to a station with direct service to Manhattan -- no transfer required -- has been quantified: $19,000, on average, for homes within two miles of a station; $29,000 for houses within half a mile.

Home values would increase by those amounts in neighborhoods surrounding 10 New Jersey Transit lines and 2 Metro-North Railroad lines if a third rail tunnel under the Hudson River was ever built, according to a study by the independent Regional Plan Association.

Statisticians worked backwards, analyzing the impact on real estate value when previous rail-improvement projects were done, to project the impact that a new tunnel would have on home values.

The cumulative increase in property value would be $18 billion, according to the study, which was published two months before Gov. Christopher J. Christie of New Jersey decided to suspend work on the tunnel as of Oct. 7. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, a tunnel supporter, has worked to publicize the findings.

Mr. Christie says the state should not proceed with the $8.7 billion project, because it cannot afford to pay for any cost overruns. He cited a recent study by his transit officials, which predicted that the project could end up $2 billion to $5 billion over budget.

The original cost of the tunnel was to be financed this way: $3 billion from the federal government, $3 billion from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and $2.7 billion from the State of New Jersey (mostly in the form of Turnpike receipts).

In the study of the tunnel's potential effects, researchers estimated that the $18 billion in increased property value would generate $375 million in increased tax revenues per year.

Some local and county politicians -- in addition to Mr. Lautenberg -- have argued that municipalities cannot stand to "lose" those potential tax revenues, which would presumably start flowing in 2017, after the project was completed. Others have called the tax receipt estimates "fictional," and contended that they were too far in the future to matter now, in the midst of a statewide budget crisis.

The calculations on the proposed trans-Hudson tunnel known as ARC (Access to the Region's Core) were based on what happened to real estate after these developments:

¶The 1996 addition of Midtown Direct service to the Morris and Essex Line;

¶The 2002 addition of the service along the Montclair-Boonton Line;

¶The 2003 opening of the Secaucus Junction, allowing transfers there instead of at Hoboken.

After those projects were completed, the value of homes within two miles of train stations increased by an average of $23,000, according to the planning group's study. The Regional Plan Association is a nonprofit that studies policy matters affecting Connecticut, Long Island and New Jersey.

Data from 45,000 area home sales that took place from 1993 through 2008 were analyzed. According to Juliette Michaelson, who performed that section of the research, the analytic process assumes that the price of a house is determined by the value of characteristics like number of bedrooms, quality of the school district and access to train service. By looking at thousands of sales involving houses with differing combinations of those characteristics, it becomes possible to estimate the amount that each individual characteristic adds to the price of the house, Ms. Michaelson explained in the notes accompanying the study.

She tallied the estimated time in minutes that train riders saved on travel, waiting and making transfers after the Midtown Direct and Secaucus Junction improvements. Each minute saved, she determined, adds an average of $1,959 to the value of the house.

For homes within walking distance (half a mile) of a station, each minute was worth $2,902.

If the ARC tunnel was built, the average New Jerseyan's train ride would be shortened by 10 minutes each way, the study indicated.

Riders on the Raritan Valley line, which runs to Raritan Station out of Pennsylvania Station in Newark, would see the biggest drop in round-trip travel time in the state, since the new tunnel would directly serve that area. Trip time would decrease by an average of 32.6 minutes, with variations along the route.

Cranford residents' commute would be 23.6 minutes shorter, for instance; Roselle Park riders would get the biggest drop in travel time in the state, 37.6 minutes.

Using the rate-per-minute formula, the value of a home close to the rail line in Roselle Park could be expected to increase by more than $100,000.

But a third tunnel would also have statewide impact, as it would nearly double the current tunnel capacity, cutting down on trip time across the board and allowing for more frequent trains. (The estimates in the planning group's study are all based on schedules as they stood last spring.)

How a Tunnel Would Help New Jersey Home Values
Published: October 22, 2010
Homes close to a rail station with direct service to Manhattan might rise in value by as much as $29,000 if a tunnel project proceeded, a study found.

October 24, 2010

Triathletes extend life from 20s to 40s, and consume

"Triathlons are much better for the body than long-distance running. With triathlons, when you are injured running, you can still swim and bike."

-- Dr. Michael J. Neely, the medical director at NY Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy, based in Manhattan.

... And leads to branded consumerism:

all the accessories and lifestyle brands that now cater to him and other triathletes. They can now buy TriSwim's shampoo to remove chlorine, and sports drinks like Hammer Nutrition Heed, which is sold on Web sites like One Tri. There are aerodynamic helmets and sunglasses made for triathlons, as well as wet suits and tri-specific running sneakers made by K-Swiss, Asics, Zoots and Newton.

At Placid Planet, a bicycle and triathlon shop in Lake Placid, N.Y., the new must-have accessories are Zipp wheels and compression tights. "Zipp wheels are an aerodynamic carbon wheel that increase speed by reducing drag on the wheel," said Kenny Boettger, the owner. Compression tights and socks, he said, help athletes recirculate oxygen and blood. "This is the big thing right now and it works," he said.

There are also magazines like Lava, which began publishing in August and offers testosterone-fueled articles and profiles that appeal to men who dream about being Ironmen. With page after page of Lycra, equipment reviews and training tips, the magazine is geared for "hardcore triathletes who want to get right inside the fiery molten center of triathlon," according to its mission statement.

Lava's macho-man mantra is simple. "Forty is the new 20," said John Duke, who publishes the monthly magazine in San Diego. "And in triathletes, 40 isn't old. The median age of the sport is 41."

Good thing, too, since triathlons don't come cheap. "Forty-somethings are also the ones who can afford the sport," said Scott Berlinger, the head coach of Full Throttle, a 120-man triathlon team that is based out of the Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. "I tell my athletes everything costs $100 -- shoes, helmets, glasses -- and the big purchase is your bike."

A bicycle -- the tri-world equivalent of the red sports car -- can cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to more than $10,000. After the bike and the chiropractor bills, the biggest item is individual coaching, which can easily run $100 an hour.

"Triathletes are a discerning group of alpha consumers, with $175,000 average salaries," said Erik Vervloet, vice president for sports marketing at K-Swiss, which jumped into the tri-market three years ago. "The average Ironman spends $22,000 a year on the sport."

The high price is an issue, particularly for spouses. "I still argue with the wife about the costs," said Mr. Goodman, the triathlete from Stamford. His gear includes a $5,000 Cervelo bicycle, a $3,000 Pinarello bicycle, Xterra Vector Pro2 wet suits, Izumi Tri Fly 111 bike shoes and a Lazer Tardiz helmet.

But his wife, Amy, eventually came around. "At first it was a bit hard for me to swallow," said Ms. Goodman, 32, who is attending graduate school in the field of public health, "but when I saw that the bike wasn't going to hang on the wall, I thought, in terms of self-indulgences, this is one of the best things he could be doing."

Triathletes, 40-Somethings, Going for Youth
Published: October 22, 2010
A growing number of men in 40-to-49 age bracket are becoming triathletes.

October 23, 2010

Starbucks vs Walmart

Densities are negatively correlated: Starbucks Coffee vs WalMart shopping.


October 21, 2010

The block of 35th St. between Sixth and Seventh Ave is said to be uglty

The block of 35th St. between Sixth and Seventh Aves. plays starring role in Municipal Art Society's 'Ugly Streets' tour.
Some streets are mean. Others are just plain ugly.

The ugliest stretch of midtown - and maybe all of Manhattan - is 35th St. between Sixth and Seventh Aves., according to Municipal Art Society member Frank Addeo.

"It's midtown's ugliest block," said the former Department of Transportation and Downtown Alliance staffer, who highlighted the spot as part of an "Ugly Streets" walking tour Friday.

"Blank-wall buildings drive me crazy," he said, gesturing to the shuttered back entrances and boring brick along the block.

Scaffolding and sidewalk sheds cover the back side of Macy's along the entire south side of the block, making it even darker.

People who walk the block every day were far from surprised at its dubious distinction, although a homeless man wearing underwear on his head seemed to find it an ideal spot to spend the afternoon.

Rick Tiberii, 39, a manager at nearby Premier Technology Solutions, said, "It's hideous! It's dirty. And the traffic! The road is always packed with cars. And it's dark. I just try to block it out."


October 18, 2010

Whenever people make decisions, there's money involved -- Charlene Li

"Google's made a lot of money helping people make decisions using search engines, but more and more people are turning to social outlets to make decisions," said Charlene Li, founder of Altimeter Group, a technology research and advisory firm. "And whenever people make decisions, there's money involved."

Determined to Crack the Social Code
Published: October 17, 2010
Google likes to have its finger on the pulse of the Web, and that's becoming harder to do as users increasingly use closed networks like Facebook.

October 10, 2010

Auburndale, Queens neighborhood of tutor homes

But ask many residents, especially if they've lived here for decades, and a consensus emerges that Auburndale is roughly bounded by 162nd Street, 48th Avenue, Francis Lewis Boulevard and 32nd Avenue.

South of the tracks, the homes tend to be slightly more modest, with ranches and some chain-link-fenced yards, but also capacious Dutch colonials.

North of the tracks, in the more affluent area also known as Broadway-Flushing or Flushing North, Queens, sizable center-hall colonials and porticoed Mediterreans vie for space among the Tudors. This is particularly true on and near 35th Avenue, where the homes draw attention because they often sit on lots higher than the sidewalks.


October 9, 2010

Sweetleaf Coffee LIC

Sweet Leaf Coffee, Jackson Avenue in Long Island City, Queens, NY.

Review by NYT and by GrubStreet.

As good as Stumptown or Caffe del Doge ?

October 5, 2010

Jeremy Dehn teaches film and video production at the University of Denver, the Art Institute of Colorado and the University of Colorado at Denver.

First there's the cost: For-profit colleges are often much more expensive than comparable public ones. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, one for-profit institution charged $14,000 for a certificate in computer-aided drafting that a local community college offered for just $520.

Then there's the issue of how the cost is covered: for-profit colleges take a disproportionate share of federal education loans. Although only 12 percent of post-secondary students go to for-profit colleges, they account for 23 percent of federal loans. And students at for-profit schools default on their loans twice as often as their public school counterparts, leaving taxpayers with the bill.

This is partly due to the open enrollment policies at for-profit colleges. It's disturbingly easy to get accepted, receive thousands of dollars in loans and then flunk out with crippling debt and no degree to show for it. I'm about to fail 4 out of 11 students in one of my classes because they simply stopped showing up. Some students will fail anywhere, but at this rate it's clear that many of them should never have been sold on the program in the first place.

I've also been on the other end of these sales tactics. I once looked into taking a class at a for-profit college. The admissions counselor was quite skillful at avoiding my questions about costs, and pressed me to enroll in a full degree program, despite my repeated refusals.

Problems with the for-profit business model don't end with recruitment; they extend to the classroom. While my nonprofit orientation covered how to create a syllabus and relate to students, the for-profit session addressed the importance of creating paper trails on attendance, should a student need to be flunked, and a video on how to avoid getting sued.

Here's the part that's really going to make me unpopular at my next faculty meeting. Many of my colleagues are excellent teachers, but their qualifications aren't much of a priority for the college. While teachers at a state or private university are typically expected to hold M.F.A.'s or Ph.D.'s, for-profit teachers need only to have taken a few hours of graduate course work.

Teachers at for-profits are paid less, and work more. Full-time instructors teach up to four times as many classes as their state school counterparts. And although nobody teaches only for the money -- I gross just over $30,000 a year, summers on, no benefits -- I earn 50 percent to 65 percent more at nonprofits. I try to treat both jobs with the same seriousness, but I'd be lying if I said this was always the case.

The business model of for-profit schools may pay off for shareholders -- just ask Goldman Sachs, which controls a third of the parent company of my for-profit employer, the Art Institute of Colorado -- but it clearly isn't as effective at educating students.

-- Jeremy Dehn teacher of film and video production at the University of Denver, the Art Institute of Colorado and the University of Colorado at Denver.

October 4, 2010

Nobel Prize for Economics 2010

Safe choices for Nobel Economics Prize:

William Nordhaus (Yale) and Martin Weitzman (Harvard) fo their work on Environmental Economics.

Perennial choices:
Eugene F. Fama and Kenneth R. French
Robert J. Barro
Jagdish N. Bhagwati and Avinash K. Dixit
Lars P. Hansen and Thomas J. Sargent, and Christopher A. Sims;
Martin S. Feldstein; Armen A. Alchian and Harold Demsetz
Dale W. Jorgenson; Oliver D. Hart and Bengt R. Holmstrom
Elhanan Helpman and Gene M. Grossman; Jean Tirole; Robert B. Wilson and Paul R. Milgrom

New choices:
Robert Shiller,
Paul Michael Romer
Richard H. Thaler

Kevin M. Murphy (Chicago): pioneering empirical research in social economics, including wage inequality and labor demand, unemployment, addiction, and the economic return of investment in medical research, among other topics .

Ernst Fehr and Matthew J. Rabin;
John B. Taylor and Jordi Gali and Mark L. Gertler

See also Ideas, Reuters, mostly econ, Scott Masten, Harvard pool.

October 3, 2010

David Choe


David Choe's asian logo (bio).