Cities often celebrate the anniversaries of major pieces of transformative infrastructure, like bridges or buildings or dams. It's much more rare to celebrate the birthday of a design template. The bicentennial of Manhattan's street grid, which fell in 2011, was an exception. There was an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York to mark the milestone. Countless articles from planners, architecture critics, and urbanists lauded the foresight of the city's street commissioners, who in 1811 laid down the plan that defines the island's development to this day.
On the occasion, the New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, wrote this about the "oddly beautiful" grid:
It's true that Manhattan lacks the elegant squares, axial boulevards and civic monuments around which other cities designed their public spaces. But it has evolved a public realm of streets and sidewalks that creates urban theater on the grandest level. No two blocks are ever precisely the same because the grid indulges variety, building to building, street to street.
New York, of course, is not the only city built on a grid. Similar schemes could be found as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. But Manhattan's design was the exemplar for what became the default pattern of American cities.
Price has created a "street area calculator," that allows you to plug in a street width and block size. Using this tool, you can come up with some basic figures to compare different grids and how they apportion a city's land. To take two of the extreme examples calculated by Price using rough figures gleaned from Google maps, Portland, Oregon, has streets that are 60 feet wide (building face to building face, including the sidewalk) and blocks that are 200 by 200. Compare that to Salt Lake City, where the streets are 130 feet wide and the block are 660 by 660.
Portland, Oregon (left) and Salt Lake City, Utah.
These configurations mean that Salt Lake is using its space more efficiently by one measure, with only 30.2 percent of area devoted to streets, which must be maintained and are not "productive" in terms of tax revenue. Portland, in contrast devotes nearly 41 percent of its area to streets. Most street space goes to cars, with sidewalks taking up a relatively small fraction.
But when you look at how much street frontage a city’s grid creates within a half-mile walk of a certain point – one potential measure of walkability – Portland has nearly 160,000 feet, while Salt Lake has just under 60,000.
Price points out that if you create smaller blocks, more space goes to streets (and usually, in this country, that means it goes to cars), and the width of the street must be adjusted in order to create a pedestrian-friendly environment:
If we are to downscale our blocks to make our grid more walkable, we also need to downscale our streets, in order to keep the ratio of Street Area:Block Area down. We can have 150 ft blocks and keep our street area down to 22.15%, if we also build 20 ft streets (which would result in 284,800 ft of street frontage being within a half a mile walk - far greater than that of Portland!) However, when we start talking about 150 ft blocks and 20 ft streets, we begin to get into the realm of traditional cities.
Traditional cities are naturally highly walkable, human-scale environments.
Price’s work is inspired in part by the disorientation he felt upon moving to the southern United States from a more "human-scale" community. "I was born and raised in Australia, in a middle-class inner-city neighborhood," he wrote in an email. "I grew up around walking, transit, and street life. Two years ago, I relocated ... From dealing with the culture shock (most towns are simply a road with a couple of strip malls and drive through, very few actual 'urban' places where you can make a day of walking around), I've turned to blogging as a way to study and cope with the lifestyle change."
In most cities with wide streets and big blocks, Price says, precious little space is allotted to pedestrians. According to his calculations, 30 percent of a city’s area is typically dedicated to moving cars – "not counting the parking lots that push some southern cities over 50 percent."
Price hopes that by examining the proportions of the grid from a mathematical perspective, we can better understand what makes some grids a better place for humans to live than others.
So Gallup reports; the reported margin of error is +/-4%, and the question was, “Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?” I’m always skeptical of single data points such as this one, but this seems to be consistent with a broader trend; in 1995, there was only 25% support (73% opposition), and support has generally been rising ever since.
In 2010, Niklas Roy, "an engineer whose works always end up in art exhibitions," created an art installation in which a small curtain in a shop window follows people around in order to block their view to the inside.
But when he was invited to show that work at a media show in Sherbrooke, Canada, this month, he tweaked it a little bit. His new effort addressed a problem he observed in the exhibition city: streets plagued by empty shopfronts.
These were among the signs Roy encountered in Sherbrooke.
For the exhibit, he simply replaced the curtain with a "for rent" sign and the people just can’t help but respond:
While Roy doesn't think his motorized sign will actually find a new tenant for the space, his main goal was to enliven the otherwise empty shopfront and entertain those who pass by. Roy also hopes that this installation will make people "think about the future of all the main streets, as more and more businesses rather sell online than in retail spaces," he says in an email. He thinks more owners of abandoned shopfronts should open up their windows for artists to display interesting projects.
If this project has inspired you to try something similar in your city, Roy has uploaded all the plans and schematics for the setup here. How much does it all take? About 2,000€ for equipment and materials, two months to build the device, and one day to set up.
After more than four years of work from volunteers and a full-time team here at Sunlight we're immensely proud to launch the full Open States site with searchable legislative data for all 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico. Open States is the only comprehensive database of activities from all state capitols that makes it easy to find your state lawmaker, review their votes, search for legislation, track bills and much more.
Ranking apples against oranges is always a slippery process. How does one maritime battle rise above others in importance? One benchmark is whether an encounter saw one fleet crush another. We could put Lord Nelson’s face on such a list. The Battle of Trafalgar (1805) delivered astounding tactical results. Yet the Napoleonic Wars raged on for another decade after Trafalgar, until Europeans finally banded together to put a stop to the little emperor’s marauding. It was indecisive. So why not rank battles by the magnitude of the issues they decided? Which sea fights yielded the most fateful results, reshaping the Asian order?
Herewith, my list of the Top 5 Naval Battles of the Asia-Pacific:
5. Battle of Yamen (1279). Sometimes dubbed “China’s Trafalgar,” this clash between the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and the beleaguered Southern Song determined who would rule China. It was far more decisive than Nelson’s masterwork. Over 1,000 men-of-war crewed by tens of thousands of men took part in the engagement. Yuan commanders deployed deception and audacious tactics to overcome at least a 10:1 mismatch in numbers. Most important, Yamen claimed the life of the Song emperor, clearing the way for Kublai Khan’s dynasty to rule for nearly a century.
4. Pearl Harbor (1941).This epic miscalculation on Imperial Japan’s part opened a struggle for mastery of the Pacific Ocean. Rather than bypass Hawaii, strike at the U.S.-occupied Philippine Islands, and thereby firm up its control of the waters within its island defense perimeter, Tokyo dispatched Admiral Nagumo’s carrier fleet to strike at the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The result was an ephemeral tactical victory that brought about strategic catastrophe for Japan. American shipbuilders had laid the keels for a second U.S. Navy under the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940. The handwriting was on the wall for Japan once the new hulls arrived in theater starting in 1943. Pearl Harbor set events in motion that would give America nautical primacy for the next seven decades (and counting).
3. Guadalcanal (1942-1943). While the Battle of Midway garnered the most press, Guadalcanal and the rest of the Solomon Islands campaign launched the United States into an early offensive in the Pacific—despite the primacy Allied leaders afforded the European theater. The campaign kept Japan from extending its defense perimeter farther to the south, and thereby menacing the sea lanes connecting the United States with Australia. After six months of grueling battle—ably retold by the miniseries The Pacific and the memoirs from which it derives—U.S. forces could commence their methodical trek across the South Pacific toward the Philippines and Formosa. Never again would Japan regain the strategic initiative.
2. Battle of Tsushima (1905). Admiral Heihachiro Togo’s Combined Fleet followed up its August 1904 demolition of Russia’s Port Arthur-based Pacific Squadron by sending the Russian Baltic Fleet to the bottom. After losing the Pacific Squadron, the tsar doubled down on failure. He dispatched the Baltic Fleet on a 20,000-mile voyage from the Baltic, around the Cape of Good Hope, through the Indian Ocean, and into the Far East. Togo’s freshly refitted fleet intercepted the Russians between Japan and Korea—handing Asians their first meaningful victory over a European imperial power in centuries. Tsushima electrified Asia, showing the region’s inhabitants they could resist imperial rule. Vanquishing its chief maritime competitor, furthermore, allowed Imperial Japan to annex Taiwan and Korea. The battle’s legacy haunts the region to this day.
1. Battle of the Yalu (1894). This trial of arms turned Asia’s Sinocentric order upside down. Seaborne European conquerors ushered in China’s century of humiliation in the 1840s, marked by the Opium Wars, a series of “unequal treaties” the imperial powers imposed on the Qing Dynasty, and European occupation of seaports along the China coast. This was bad enough. Upstart Japan had opened to the world only in the 1850s, following centuries of seclusion. Its Meiji Restoration (1868) launched the island nation onto the path to outward Westernization. An Imperial Japanese Navy fleet cobbled together from imported components steamed to the Korean west coast. It defeated China’s Beiyang Fleet, a force widely considered superior in material and seamanship terms. The battle hastened the collapse of China’s dynastic order, among the most fateful events to convulse Asian history in centuries. Such repercussions land the Yalu atop my list.
One minute, 13 seconds. That’s the length of the video on YouTube showing fifth grader Jonathan Carollo playing his family’s Super Queen, super-capacity, 14 cycle washer.
Everything about his performance is super. You have to see it to believe, what this 11-year-old does with his hands, and the sound that’s created with an empty washing machine.
“The very front of it, when you kick it makes a base drum sound,” says Jonathan.
I knew the video had gone viral. It had 1.5 million views and counting as of Sunday afternoon.
When photojournalist Matt Mrozinski and I arrived at the Carollo home in Sammamish the number of views, to be exact, was 1,524,534. By the time we left three hours later, there were nearly 4,000 more views. The numbers had grown to 1,528,150.
Is all this fame going to Jonathan’s head?
Both Susan and Dan Carollo responded in unison. “Not at all. Not at all,” even though his washing machine playing skills have attracted the interests of the Today Show, Good Morning America, and the Ellen DeGeneres show.
Nothing has been booked yet.
All of this because “He discovered the different sounds that the machine makes,” says Dan. “I’m quite proud of him that he has a bit of talent here. I think it’s something that’s different.”
You’re telling me.
“He doesn’t keep track of how many views he’s had,” says Susan. “We’re the ones telling him. He think it’s neat. He thinks it’s really cool.”
[ I am going to take a break until early 2013. See you folks in the New Year. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this piece by David Holmes that follows up on my "Don't Fly Too Close to the Sun" piece. He makes some of the same points I did at the conference, as well as some new ones I found interesting. Bye for now! - Aaron. ]
I was intrigued by Aaron’s recent post “Don’t Fly Too Close to the Sun Piece” which focused on the relationship between Milwaukee and Chicago and the notion of whether “proximity to Chicago or another mega-city represents an unambiguous good,” or – as posited by Aaron – may actually be more of a curse than a blessing, and something that drains vitality instead of increasing it. This is a topic that interests me both from the perspective of a long-time resident of Milwaukee and as a long-time fan of the City of Chicago. There are likely unique combinations of factors to consider in this type of evaluation for every city pair – including the distance between the cities, the presence or absence of high speed and/or low cost transit options between the cities, and the relative size. Although I did not comment on Aaron’s post at the time of publication, I thought it would be useful to consider some specific examples of ways in which Chicago enhances or decreases Milwaukee’s economic vitality as both the article and many of the comments on Milwaukee-Chicago and other city pairs, seemed to lack specific examples of both positive and negative impacts.
I will begin by presenting several examples of ways in which Chicago’s proximity appears to negatively impact Milwaukee’s economic vitality. I will then consider the impact of Chicago’s proximity on professional services, which Aaron evaluated in his recent series of articles on Chicago as a potential key growth area for Chicago’s economic future. Finally, I will conclude with examples of ways in which I believe Chicago’s proximity adds to Milwaukee’s economic vitality and/or quality of life.
Ways in Which Chicago Drains Vitality from Milwaukee
1. Competition for High End Specialty Retailers and Restaurants. The first specific example of a way in which Chicago drains economic vitality from Milwaukee is in the competition for certain types of high end retailers or restaurant chains that have a national presence, but one that is limited to perhaps 30 or 40 locations. When I travel to other Midwestern cities that are more geographically isolated or more dominant in their geographic region (such as Kansas City or Indianapolis) I am usually surprised by the number of high end specialty stores or restaurants that have a presence in those cities but none in Milwaukee. Chicago’s proximity is almost certainly a major factor in this dynamic, and a perception (rightly or wrongly) that either the business can’t sustain two locations in SE Wisconsin/NE Illinois, that residents in Milwaukee could be served by a Chicago location. A good recent example was the announcement approximately two weeks ago that: (a) Nordstrom is planning to open a store in Milwaukee in 2013, and (b) Milwaukee is the largest city in the U.S. that does not currently have a Nordstrom store. Chicago is almost certainly a major factor in Milwaukee’s status as the last metropolitan area of its size to get a Nordstrom store.
In researching this point, I came across a research article titled “Can We Have a High-End Retail Department Store? How to Tell if Your Region is Ready” which presented a formula for predicting the number of high end department stores (defined as Macy’s Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Saks) that could be supported in a metropolitan area based on its population, land area, and the percentage of households with at least $150,000 of income per year. Although the article did not present the findings for Milwaukee, I followed the researcher’s definition of high end department stores, and reviewed the current number of locations for these five stores that are in Chicago, Milwaukee, and several peer Midwestern metropolitan areas, using data available at www.mystore411.com. The findings generally confirmed my impression that Milwaukee is underserved by high end department stores – with 38 of these stores being located in the Chicago metropolitan area, 8 in both Kansas City and Columbus, 6 in Indianapolis, but only 2 in Milwaukee. Although the research study did not consider proximity of a metropolitan area to a neighboring larger metropolitan area, I think it likely that this is a factor, and one in which Chicago’s proximity negatively impacts Milwaukee.
2. Competition for Federal Offices Another example where I believe Milwaukee loses out economically due to its proximity to Chicago is in serving as a location for regional federal offices. I know this from personal experience in developing business plans for pursuing federal work, and discovering that in terms of regional facilities (versus those that are present in nearly every major city such as postal service, federal courts, social security offices, etc.), Milwaukee is pretty much limited to a Forestry Service Regional Office and a Veterans Administration Regional Headquarters. Although I don’t have any detailed data to back me up, I did review the locations of regional offices for five agencies, including the IRS, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), U.S. EPA, Small Business Administration (SBA), and the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB), and determined that Chicago has regional offices for 4 of these 5 agencies (the USACE, U.S.EPA, FRB, and SBA). Among peer cities, Kansas City has regional offices for all five agencies, followed by Minneapolis/St. Paul (with regional offices for three agencies); and Cincinnati, Memphis, and St. Louis (each having two regional offices for these agencies).
What this means economically varies from agency to agency, but for Kansas City, the office for the IRS regional service center reportedly occupies an 11-story building with 900 employees (based on data from Emporis). In addition to direct economic benefits to cities that host a greater number of regional federal offices, there are likely significant indirect benefits as well, as consulting firms are more likely to establish locations in cities that host federal regional offices, as there are benefits to engineering firms from being in the same cities as USACE regional offices, benefits to accounting firms from being near IRS regional offices, benefits to financial firms being near FRB regional branch offices, etc. Although there may be other major cities in the Midwest that are also losing out in the competition for regional federal offices, I believe that Chicago’s proximity puts Milwaukee at a particular disadvantage, and my impression is that on a per capita basis, Milwaukee has fewer federal offices than almost any of its peer cities.
3. Ranking as a Metropolitan Area A third example of a possible negative impact from Chicago’s proximity on Milwaukee’s economic vitality occurred to me as I was researching the example presented above on the competition for high end retailers. In trying to confirm that the Indianapolis and Kansas City metropolitan areas are in fact comparable in size to Milwaukee, I noticed that both are ranked ahead of Milwaukee – with Kansas City currently ranked as the 29th largest metropolitan area (with 2,052,676 residents) and Indianapolis ranked as the 35th largest metropolitan area (with 1,778,568 residents) versus the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis MSA’s ranking as the 39th largest metropolitan area (with 1,562,216 residents). This size difference could provide an explanation as to why Milwaukee would be chosen after these cities as a regional location for certain businesses.
However, Milwaukee’s ranking below Indianapolis and Kansas City is arguably more of a statistical artifact than reality, and due to Chicago’s proximity and the manner in which the U.S. Office of Management and Budget choses to split the two metropolitan areas. Indianapolis and Kansas City, which are more geographically isolated than Milwaukee, have MSAs that extend over approximately 3,200 and 8,000 square miles, respectively, whereas the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis MSA is defined as a much more compact 1,500 square mile area. If Chicago was not located in as close proximity to Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha Counties would almost certainly be included as part of the Milwaukee MSA. Adding the 361,000 residents in Racine County (defined as a separate metropolitan area) and Kenosha County (defined as part of the Chicago MSA) would result in a Milwaukee metropolitan population of 1,920,000 residents in a land area of 2,100 square miles – in theory, a market greater in population than Indianapolis and only 5% smaller than Kansas City, in a far more compact land area than either MSA.
Competition for Service Businesses
A fourth potential negative influence of Chicago on Milwaukee’s economic vitality that I considered (but rejected) is the competition for serving as a location for professional service firms. I considered this factor partly in response to Aaron’s recent series of articles on Chicago, which noted Chicago’s status as the Midwestern center for professional services such as management consulting, technology consulting, business process outsourcing and legal services. In theory, large firms with greater resources based in Chicago might out compete smaller firms based in Milwaukee. While I am not familiar with all categories of professional services, for law and engineering firms with which I am familiar, Chicago’s proximity and large pool of major firms appears to have no negative impact on the vitality of similar firms based in Milwaukee. This is probably most surprising with law firms, given that Chicago not only has 17 of the top 250 largest law firms in the U.S., but has an even more impressive 5 of the top 13 firms (based on data at Internet Legal Research Group). Milwaukee has 5 of the top 250 firms (including Foley and Lardner at No. 29), which not only compares favorably with Chicago on a per capita basis, but compares even more favorably with cities such as Charlotte (with 2 of the top 250 firms), Cincinnati (3 firms), Columbus (2 firms), Indianapolis (3 firms), Kansas City (4 firms), and even Houston (5 firms). None of these cities has a firm ranked as highly as Foley and Lardner at 29. The main point is that in spite of the incredible concentration of major law firms in Chicago, there is no evidence that this has negatively impacted Milwaukee’s vitality as a center for legal services. The fact that this is the case is significant for Milwaukee’s downtown, as nearly every major office building proposed or constructed in the last decade in the downtown had one of these major law firms as its anchor tenant.
Examples of Ways in Which Chicago Increases Vitality
Having considered some of the ways in which Chicago’s proximity drains vitality from Milwaukee, following are several examples of significant ways in which I believe Chicago increases Milwaukee’s economic vitality and/or the quality of life for residents of Milwaukee:
1. Enhanced Travel Connectivity. It takes 60 minutes to drive from downtown Milwaukee to O’Hare International Airport. For all intents and purposes, residents of Milwaukee have two airports – one (General Mitchell International Airport) that is 10 minutes from downtown, and the other (O’Hare) that is 60 minutes from downtown. Which airport is used for a particular flight is a choice made by Milwaukee residents on a flight by flight basis, based on the most favorable combination of price, availability of direct flights, and/or preferred departure or arrival times. Quite often, General Mitchell International Airport is the choice because similar flights from the same airlines are actually cheaper than from O’Hare (a competitive pricing factor that is almost certainly due to the Chicago’s proximity and the presence of O’Hare as an alternative airport for Milwaukee residents). Even excluding Midway Airport from the discussion (which is appropriate as Midway is not convenient for routine use by residents of Milwaukee), Milwaukee residents through the combination of General Mitchell International Airport and O’Hare have better air travel options than residents of almost any other major metro area in the U.S. (New York City, Chicago, and perhaps Atlanta, being possible exceptions). Another benefit related to air travel that Milwaukee residents take for granted is the convenience for visits by friends from other countries. Chicago will almost always be one of the lower cost U.S. travel options for foreign travelers.
2. Enhanced Entertainment and Recreational Amenities/Opportunities. It is nice to be located adjacent to a city that has some of the best museums and cultural institutions in the US. Although there is some inconvenience in driving 90 minutes to downtown Chicago, there is the option to take Amtrak, or even Metra ($5 from Kenosha). I’ve thought about this when visiting geographically isolated cities with great (and often deserved) reputations such as Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Seattle, etc. I would even add some sizeable (>5 million resident) metro areas to the list such Miami, Dallas, and Atlanta. The cultural attractions in these cities do not match those present in Chicago, such as the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum of Natural History, or the Chicago Art Institute. For friends and family travelling from other countries, a trip to Milwaukee means they get a trip Chicago thrown in for free. It also means that these visitors will never run out of interesting places to explore available through the combined attractions in Milwaukee and Chicago. For visitors to other even fairly large metro areas in the U.S., the entertainment options for out-of-town visitors will typically be exhausted within a week or less. Not so in Milwaukee, thanks to Chicago. This is a quality of life factor more than an economic vitality factor, but one that should be a consideration in businesses trying to recruit employees from other major metropolitan areas to Milwaukee. Although I think Milwaukee has a pretty large and attractive set of amenities on its own, due to the proximity of Chicago and the amenities available in our mega-city’s “southern” downtown, residents in Milwaukee have access to amenities that are matched by few cities in the world, and this has economic value in the increasing competition for highly skilled and mobile workers.
3. Enhanced Business Expansion Opportunities. For businesses based in Milwaukee, having a metro area with 9.5 million residents an hour away is a significant plus. For entrepreneurs based in Milwaukee, Chicago presents an exceptional opportunity for expansion, as the cities are close enough together that it is possible for someone living in the Milwaukee area to oversee branch offices or locations in both the Milwaukee and Chicago metropolitan areas. Although one could argue that businesses in Milwaukee have additional competition from businesses in Chicago, this type of analysis varies greatly from business to business with no consistent rule. For major businesses located in Milwaukee, if they need access to some very specialized consulting expertise, if it isn’t available from firms based in Milwaukee, it will almost certainly be available from one or more firms based in Chicago, providing a very deep business support talent pool and a competitive advantage for firms based in Milwaukee relative to those based in more geographically isolated cities.
4. Enhanced Global Mindset. This is a little more subtle advantage, and a quality of life enhancement versus an economic vitality enhancement. Even if I don’t go to Chicago for several months, I like having Chicago nearby. I’m conscious of it. It is definitely one of the reasons I like living in Milwaukee, even if it is impossible to precisely quantify this aspect. In my mind, I always know that I have all of Chicago’s assets readily available to me, whenever I might feel inclined to “imbibe” (but without the hassle of actually having to live in Chicago, as well as not having to live in a state that is currently ranked 49th or 50th in most financial health measures). When I travel (and I suspect this is the case for most people) I almost always measure the city I am visiting in my mind to my hometown of Milwaukee. Whenever I visit some nice, but geographically isolated metropolitan area, the quality of life in that city is frequently downgraded in my mind as I can imagine how quickly the interest of living in that city would wear off once I exhausted the list of unique attractions in those cities. Chicago is a component of how I measure Milwaukee against those cities, as all of its attractions are in fact readily accessible to residents of Milwaukee. I suspect there are many other cities where a similar dynamic plays out – such as for residents of Baltimore including the attractions and opportunities available in Washington DC in their similar assessments.
5. Increased Groundedness. This is a subtle point and one that occurred to me only recently. Milwaukee is a city that definitely does not have an inflated view of itself. I think part of this is the result of its proximity to Chicago, and knowing that by a hundred different measures, Milwaukee does not match Chicago. If there were fifty new 50-story skyscrapers constructed in downtown Milwaukee over the next 100 years, I am pretty sure that our skyline would still fall short of Chicago’s. I think there is a tendency of other somewhat “successful” cities (Charlotte and Indianapolis come to mind) to always be chasing some grand ambition. Although there are definitely positive aspects to ambition, there can also be a tendency to pursue goals that really aren’t important, as well as a greater reluctance to realistically address obvious shortcomings. Milwaukee, through its proximity to Chicago, is relieved of this aspirational burden, and can simply go about its business in a quiet, but usually highly effective way.
David Holmes is an environmental consultant focused on brownfield redevelopment issues. He is also a co-author of a book on the history of the Chinese community of Milwaukee: “Chinese Milwaukee” (published by Arcadia Publishing in 2008).
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Etgar Keret’s house is only 4 feet wide but that’s all he needs. He’s also one of my favorite short story writers. I just finished his collection, Suddenly a Knock at the Door. I can’t tell if he’s insane, a magic realist, someone who is constantly beaten by life and bad relationships, or simply a great writer. Probably all of the above. I found on the blog, rookiemag, his 10 rules of Writing. For me, #9 is the most important in terms of the psychology of writing. Not only for writing but for everything you endeavor to do in life. #4 is probably the most valuable tip for actual writing. And for starting a business. Always think from the middle and work outwards.
(Keret’s house is only 4 feet wide but 30 feet high and 30 feet deep)
Here are Keret’s Rules of Writing:
1. Make sure you enjoy writing.
Writers always like to say how hard the writing process is and how much suffering it causes. They’re lying. People don’t like to admit they make a living from something they genuinely enjoy.
Writing is a way to live another life. Many other lives. The lives of countless people whom you’ve never been, but who are completely you. Every time you sit down and face a page and try—even if you don’t succeed—be grateful for the opportunity to expand the scope of your life. It’s fun. It’s groovy. It’s dandy. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
2. Love your characters.
For a character to be real, there has to be at least one person in this world capable of loving it and understanding it, whether they like what the character does or not. You’re the mother and the father of the characters you create. If you can’t love them, nobody can.
3. When you’re writing, you don’t owe anything to anyone.
In real life, if you don’t behave yourself, you’ll wind up in jail or in an institution, but in writing, anything goes. If there’s a character in your story who appeals to you, kiss it. If there’s a carpet in your story that you hate, set fire to it right in the middle of the living room. When it comes to writing, you can destroy entire planets and eradicate whole civilizations with the click of a key, and an hour later, when the old lady from the floor below sees you in the hallway, she’ll still say hello.
4. Always start from the middle.
The beginning is like the scorched edge of a cake that’s touched the cake pan. You may need it just to get going, but it isn’t really edible.
5. Try not to know how it ends.
Curiosity is a powerful force. Don’t let go of it. When you’re about to write a story or a chapter, take control of the situation and of your characters’ motives, but always let yourself be surprised by the twists in the plot.
6. Don’t use anything just because “that’s how it always is.”
Paragraphing, quotation marks, characters that still go by the same name even though you’ve turned the page: all those are just conventions that exist to serve you. If they don’t work, forget about them. The fact that a particular rule applies in every book you’ve ever read doesn’t mean it has to apply in your book too.
7. Write like yourself.
If you try to write like Nabokov, there will always be at least one person (whose name is Nabokov) who’ll do it better than you. But when it comes to writing the way you do, you’ll always be the world champion at being yourself.
8. Make sure you’re all alone in the room when you write.
Even if writing in cafés sounds romantic, having other people around you is likely to make you conform, whether you realize it or not. When there’s nobody around, you can talk to yourself or pick your nose without even being aware of it. Writing can be a kind of nose-picking, and when there are people around, the task may become less natural.
9. Let people who like what you write encourage you.
And try to ignore all the others. Whatever you’ve written is simply not for them. Never mind. There are plenty of other writers in the world. If they look hard enough, they’re bound to find one who meets their expectations.
10. Hear what everyone has to say but don’t listen to anyone (except me).
Writing is the most private territory in the world. Just as nobody can really teach you how you like your coffee, so nobody can really teach you how to write. If someone gives you a piece of advice that sounds right and feels right, use it. If someone gives you a piece of advice that sounds right and feels wrong, don’t waste so much as a single second on it. It may be fine for someone else, but not for you. ♦
I've written before about the ongoing shift away from the Silicon Valley-style suburban nerdistan office park model. Entrepreneurial high-tech start-ups have taken an urban turn. Nowhere is this shift more apparent than New York City, which has emerged as the nation's second-largest center of venture capital-financed high-tech start-ups, thanks to Google's significant presence in the old Port Authority building in Chelsea and companies ranging from Foursquare to burgeoning tech-fashion players like Rent the Runway, Warby Parker, and Gilt Groupe.
A report [PDF] from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's office, "Start-Up City: Growing New York City's Entrepreneurial Ecosystem for All," released earlier this week develops a series of important recommendations not only for deepening New York's start-up ecosystem but for extending its benefits to less-skilled workers, diverse demographic groups, and other groups typically thought to be outside of the tech community. (In the interest of full disclosure, I met with Stringer and his team, discussed these and other issues, and provided comments on a draft of the report.) That said, the report goes far beyond my own thinking and commentary, and in my view breaks important new ground on this critical issue.
While lauding the importance of start-ups and high-tech entrepreneurship to the city's' economy, the report identifies the uneven benefits that flow from it, noting that only one in five New York-based start-ups was founded by a woman and that only 29 percent employed African-Americans and 20 percent Latinos. That's compared to the half of all employed white New Yorkers who work in the creative economy, which includes science and technology, arts, design, media and entertainment, business and management, healthcare and law (a pattern which mirrors the national trends I wrote about here).
Echoing the dynamism of New York's burgeoning high-tech, entrepreneurial start-up economy, the report stresses the need for policies and strategies that can expand the city's economic power in ways that benefit a broader and more diverse array of workers and communities:
One important area of focus is the City’s emerging tech sector, which could offer a gateway to the middle class for thousands of New Yorkers―but only if the city ensures that workers have the skills needed to fill those jobs. Unlike other growth areas of the economy, an entry-level coding job at a start-up tech firm can pay as much as $65,000 a year, well above the city’s median household income.
The report includes a series of detailed recommendations for accomplishing this goal, across five key areas:*
Fill the talent gap: The report suggests addressing the high-tech talent gap by upgrading the skills of a broader cross section of New Yorkers as well as by staying open to new immigrants. All New Yorkers need to be equipped with the core skills needed to succeed in high tech age — from computing and math to the "language of business." Specific recommendations include improving the computer science curriculum in the city's public schools, creating STEM programs for college and continuing-education students, easing immigration restrictions and creating new visas for entrepreneurs and tech talent, and establishing an "Empire Engineers Initiative," which would offer financial aid to college students in exchange for working in the city or state after graduation.
Streamline the bureaucracy for launching and building new start-ups: The report notes the rapid cycle times on which start-ups are built and their need for flexible space to ramp up quickly. In contrast to suburban high-tech districts where start-ups can often grow into adjacent space in industrial and office parks, the nature of the center city often means start-ups have to move much more frequently as they grow and take on new people. Finding such space on quick turnaround is difficult given the city's permitting and coding processes. The report recommends creating simpler more flexible permitting and licensing processes for entrepreneurs and start-ups who need affordable, timely space for their enterprises. Specific recommendations include: expanding NYC Digital to match what the successful Office of TV and Film already does cutting red tape, and establishing a new cross-cabinet group to advise the mayor's office on emerging core needs of start-ups and high-tech businesses.
Improve high-tech infrastructure: The report highlights the need for the city to improve its internet infrastructure, what it refers to as the city's "fourth utility." Just like American industrialization needed subways and pipes and electricity, the knowledge and innovation age needs wireless internet. The report recommends creating a city-wide fiber network to encourage competition between internet service providers and expanding Wi-Fi service across the city.
Close the affordability gap: New York City — despite or perhaps as a consequence of its many economic advantages — suffers from an affordability problem across two dimensions: the affordability of housing for budding entrepreneurs and affordability of space for their companies. It notes that aspiring entrepreneurs are building businesses and cannot afford to spend a great amount on space. Start-ups require the "garage spaces" and cheap re-configurable space Jane Jacobs long ago identified as key to innovation and new business development in cities. The report recommends creating resources for co-working spaces, reforming the city's regulatory restrictions to create more micro-housing units and enabling "accessory dwelling units" (additional full living spaces on a property), as well as reducing or eliminating parking minimums for residential properties near transit.
Connect the high-tech economy to all corners of the city: Right now, New York's high-tech economy is isolated and geographically uneven. This is a byproduct of start-up culture thriving on concentration and clustering, as we've pointed out many times here at Cities. But the report notes that there are strategies than can be adopted to improve access to less advantaged and less-skilled groups, as well as outlying parts of the city. Here its recommendations include using light rail and bus service to supplement and connect people across job corridors. This to my mind may well be the most intriguing of the report's many recommendations. It shows how the density and public transit available in cities like New York make it possible to extend the urban tech model to benefit a broader cross-section of workers than the traditional suburban nerdistan model, with its dependence on the car.
As Stringer writes: It is time to set in place a framework that not only spurs high-tech development, but "shows the world how the entrepreneurial economy of the 21st century can reinvigorate our middle class." The recommendations in this report represent an important step in moving us in that direction that other cities and states as well as the federal government can take heed of and build upon.
* An earlier version of this post misstated the number of key areas listed in the report.
You probably want to be taken seriously, get good service at a restaurant, and make a good first impression when you meet a business partner.
Fleece coats from The North Face may be great for a camping trip and for outdoor activities, but at your office job, they make you look like an amateur, especially if you wear a suit.
When it is cold outside, the only acceptable outerwear with a suit is an overcoat. But there are a lot of terms thrown around when discussing these dressier jackets. In particular – what is the difference between a topcoat, an overcoat, and a greatcoat
In a nutshell, the differences all pertain to weight, style, and heritage.
An overcoat is a long coat with sleeves that is worn on top of something else.
A topcoat is a lightweight overcoat.
A greatcoat is a heavy, bulky overcoat with a military history.
When you buy a coat understanding this distinction, especially when buying online, you can save quite a bit in shipping fees as well as disappointment.
Characteristics of a Quality Overcoat
A good overcoat should be warm, fit you, and make you look great.
Fabric. If you plan to wear your overcoat for years to come, make sure you buy a coat that is made of 100% wool and that it weighs at least 4 pounds (for average-sized men). In general, heavier coats last longer because the fabric is more durable.
Cashmere coats are nice, soft, and warm but they will show wear on the cuffs, the collar, and moths love them. In addition, they can double the price of a coat for little to no advantage (in terms of warmth or appearance). With the quality of most wool jacket fabrics these days, they are often just as soft as all but the finest cashmere. I find a nice compromise is a wool cashmere blend – my overcoat is about 10% cashmere.
Sleeves. The coat sleeves should completely cover the suit sleeve as well as the shirt cuff, and even reach a little further down. This way, you should not get cold on your wrists when you wear gloves with it.
Length. Traditionally, overcoats were rather long-reaching garments, extending almost all the way to the ankles. These full-length coats are often the coat of choice for seasoned gentlemen as they can compliment a wide range of figures…to include those of us a bit rounder in the midsection.
Today, most younger men wear their coats knee-length, which is anywhere between the lower part of the knee to slightly above. This only compliments men with trim builds and who wear the coat closer to the body. It’s a convenient option if you find yourself entering and exiting your automobile multiple times a day.
If you pick a full-length or knee-length coat is a matter of choice, but bear in mind that the full-length coat may be warmer, and can make you look a little more seasoned than the knee-length coat.
Fit. When you buy an overcoat, make sure to wear a shirt and a sportscoat or suit jacket because the coat has to fit on top of it.
Some men like a looser fit while younger men often prefer a trimmer fit. However, if you see X-wrinkles when buttoning your overcoat, it is definitely too tight.
Style. With regards to style it is once again up to you what you choose. The single-breasted overcoat with notched lapel is a good all-a-rounder whereas the double-breasted peak lapel overcoat is a little more formal and wears warmer when it is cold because you have two layers of fabric over your chest.
Construction. High-quality coats have a sewn canvas, whereas less expensive overcoats have a fused canvas. A sewn canvas is definitely more durable and built to last whereas a poorly glued interlining can come loose after a few years, ruining the garment. If money is of no concern to you, go with a fully canvassed overcoat. If not, try to buy fully canvassed suits and go with a glued overcoat. Unlike with a suit, a glued canvas overcoat is acceptable since it is cut looser and you wear it less frequently.
Types of Overcoats
In order to be more specific, I want to introduce you to a number of classic overcoats which have all made their mark in men’s clothing history. As such, these styles are timeless and will look as good today as they will 20 years from now.
First, let’s look at the Chesterfield coat. Named after the Earl of Chesterfield, and invented in the mid-19th century, it was the very first overcoat of its kind. Over the years, it has only changed insignificantly and today a Chesterfield features:
No waist seams or front darts (up until then, those were the standard)
Single-breasted fly front
Short, notched lapel
Velvet collar (optional)
Straight side pockets – it looks like a flap pocket but it could be a jetted pocket
Single back vent and an otherwise plain back
Generally, it is about knee-long and in grey or charcoal, it makes for a great business coat. If you go with a velvet collar, you will definitely own a conversation starter. If you want to learn more, check out this article on the Chesterfield coat.
The Covert coat is very similar to the Chesterfield, but it was designed for hunting and the outdoors. Therefore, it had to be tailored from particularly sturdy material – the so-called Covert cloth, named after the covert bushes. It was designed to protect its wearer from mud, bush encounters, and of course the weather. For that reason, it had to be very heavy (29 or 30 ounces a yard), sturdy, and durable. Today, the fabric is not quite as heavy anymore, but it is still a tweed material made to last. It always comes in a brownish-green color because it does not show the dirt very much.
A Covert coat usually has the following:
Single-breasted with a fly front
Made of brown-green Covert cloth
Short topcoat that is just a little longer than the jacket beneath
Signature four (sometimes five) lines of stitching at the cuffs and hem, and optionally on the flap of the chest pocket
Two flap pockets with optional ticket pocket
The collar is constructed either of Covert cloth or velvet
Poacher’s pocket (huge inside pocket that can accommodate a newspaper or an iPad)
The rows of contrast stitching are a hallmark of the Covert coat and lend it a more casual flair. If you want an overcoat that will be your companion for the next two decades, you should consider this one.
It should be noted that if you wear your coat primarily for business, this may not be your best choice.
The Trench coat is a timeless classic that was invented in the trenches of WWI and evolved into a raincoat that is second to none. To explore the trench coat further, please read this classic AOM Guide.
The name Paletot is French and was used to describe a fairly short overcoat that was very fitted, but otherwise could have many features. It could be double-breasted or single-breasted, with pleats or without, and could have pockets or not.
Today, a Paletot is a classic business overcoat with the following features:
Double-breasted with a 6×2 button arrangement
The top buttons have a wider button stance and are not buttoned at all
It must have peaked lapels
The coat is semi-fitted to fitted and has a flat back without a belt
Especially in a dark, plain fabric, this coat is very versatile. Personally, I think a navy blue or charcoal Paletot overcoat can be worn to the office, with a tuxedo, at funerals, and pretty much anywhere else. So, if you only have money for a single overcoat, you’d be hard-pressed not to buy a Paletot. To learn more about this coat, read this Paletot Overcoat article.
Left to right: Ulster coat, Guards coat, and a reversible coat.
The Guards Coat derives from the coat English Officers of the Guard used to wear. It is usually a navy blue overcoat that is very similar to the Paletot with two basic exceptions:
It has a half belt in the back
It can be buttoned with three buttons or just two
Basically, the Guards Coat is not very different than the Paletot. Its back belt makes it a little fancier and more unique but at the same time it is very difficult to find one off the rack. If you strive to be classic and versatile, yet unique, the Guards Coat is the way to go. Otherwise, stick with the Paletot.
The name Ulster is derived from the Irish province of Ulster, whose people popularized a particular tweed overcoat. A classic Ulster is:
Rather long, roomy, and double-breasted with either 6 or 8 buttons
Great for cold weather because its Ulster collar makes it easy to protect the neck from the elements
A rough country code with patch pockets, cuffs, and contrast stitching
Made out of heavy, durable Donegal tweed
Belted in the back with an adjustable half-belt
An Ulster is an overcoat for a man who is outside a lot and needs a reliable companion. In my opinion, it is an ideal travel coat for the colder months of the year because it is warm, durable, and has big, patch pockets, so nothing can fall out accidentally. In addition, the Donegal tweed structure hides dirt and stains.
Overall, the Ulster overcoat is for the rugged man who is not all that much into suits but enjoys rugged, high-quality products.
The Polo Coat is an American classic that originates in England. During the chukkers of a Polo game, the polo players used to wear a golden-tan wrap-coat to keep them warm. Later, the belt was substituted with buttons, and when they started wearing the coats after the game as well, spectators noted it and by the end of the 1920’s the Polo Coat was one of the most popular ivy league overcoats. A few years later, no well-dressed man could live without one. A Polo Coat has the following characteristics:
It is made out of golden, tan-colored camel hair or a 50/50 blend with wool
It has a half-belt or a full belt
It features 6 or 8 buttons
Peaked lapels or an Ulster collar with optional cuffs
As you can see, the Polo coat is quite similar to an Ulster overcoat, but it is special because of its camel hair fabric and the golden-tan color.
With its light color, the Polo Coat definitely stands out from the crowd. If you are looking for an American legend, this is your overcoat.
How To Buy An Overcoat
eBay and second-hand stores are good places if you are a bargain hunter and look for special styles. Of course, supply is limited and it requires a lot of work. If you do not have an overcoat yet, I would advise against eBay because it is very difficult to get the fit right. Every manufacturer’s sizes run slightly different. Instead, head to your local thrift stores and check the racks for overcoats.
Make sure the overcoat does not have stains, as not all of them will come out at the dry cleaner. Also, double-check for moth holes because fixing them will be either very expensive or impossible. In order to make sure you do not have any surviving moths or their eggs in your garment, send the overcoat to the cleaners. This will guarantee that all moths are dead. And no, putting clothing in the freezer does not work..
This overcoat was purchased for $10 – click here to learn more.
New overcoats are definitely an easy route, though department stores often lack variety in overcoat styles and colors. Chances are, you will find a better selection at your local haberdasher and since it is the end of the season, you will probably be able to buy a classic overcoat on a discount.
Most men never bother to think about a custom overcoat, although it probably provides you with the best fit and you get exactly what you want. Moreover, you pay for the quality of the fabric and the workmanship, not for marketing and ads.
Considering that a classic overcoat can last for 20 years or longer and you can get exactly what you want with a custom piece, you may want to think about having one made just for you.
In summary, a well-fitted classic overcoat is a smart investment you’ll get thousands of wears out of. And every time you put it on, you’ll instantly step up your style. Even if you’re just wearing jeans and t-shirt underneath.
Watch a Video Summary of This Article
What do you think? What are your thoughts on this classic piece of menswear?
Eric Jaffe introduced us a year ago to Waze, a route-planning app for drivers that leverages the experiences of other people on the road to help you optimize yours. The idea, as Jaffe wrote, implies a kind of "crowdsourced commute." And mobile social apps like it – connecting people by shared traffic routes, as opposed to shared interests, or shared college alma maters – have given way to what might be called the "networked commuter."
These people are, crucially, connected not just to information, but to each other. And with cars, this represents a basic shift in what it means to drive somewhere alone. A new study [PDF] released Monday by the New Cities Foundation, based in part on data provided by Waze from drivers in the San Jose area, suggests that networked commuters have a more positive experience of their slog around town than drivers who go it alone (or go it with non-networked apps like Google Maps).
On one level, this is unsurprising. Drivers alerted by such apps to traffic jams or accidents encountered by others can often get where they’re going faster and with less frustration. Waze, for instance, automatically takes such real-time data gathered from other cars using the app to reroute your commute. And drivers are also invited to more proactively share notes on a message system (although we’re hoping they do this while parked or stuck in stand-still traffic). But this obvious benefit – a quicker commute – isn’t the only reason why these networked drivers seemed happier.
"What was interesting is that they found benefit from being able to provide this information, being able to help others, and being able to affect the community in a positive way," says Naureen Kabir, director of the foundation’s Urban Lab.
These networked drivers also experienced a better commute simply by virtue of belonging to a network.
"What it sounded like was that there was a feeling of being able to help the community of commuters, others who are also traveling on the same path or take the same route every day," Kabir says. "There was that level of feeling a connection with those travelers."
This idea – commuting as a communal experience – sounds awfully familiar. That’s because public transit, by definition, has always been a networked experience. This study, conducted with the University of California's Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, also looked at networked public transit commuters (in this case, transit riders using the social app Roadify). By and large they seemed less impressed by the opportunity to virtually connect to other commuters (and their info) because, well, such people were sitting two feet away.
The study conducted sentiment analysis of user comments on these apps, as well as focus groups. As one transit commuter hinted, a social network is kind of redundant on a train: "A fellow commuter will tell me about an incident."
In the bigger picture, all of this suggests that social mobility apps for drivers can replicate some of the community of public transit while retaining the privacy of a quiet car. The study produced some word clouds drawn from the sentiment analysis of user reports filed in Waze. Here is what people were talking about under the “traffic jam” discussion (comments are filed by category):
Here’s the “police” category:
And here’s the more free-form “chit chat” section:
Clearly, these drivers are sharing more than utilitarian traffic info. Does this also mean they’re approaching their commute as a communal exercise instead of a battle of every man for himself? Next, we want to see a study measuring whether these people experience less road rage.
In some ways, this discussion is about improving car commuting by making it more like a ride on the train. And so – because we know you’ll ask – why not just get people to ride the train instead?
"Certainly that’s a valid thing, and we should be trying to encourage people to take the train," Kabir says. "However there’s a time and place for all different types of modes, and different people have different needs." When people use these apps, she adds, there’s the potential through efficiency for them to save gas and reduce carbon emissions. "There are some network effects that can be had from having a critical mass of people who are joined together into a community of drivers," Kabir says. "If and when they need to continue to use vehicles for their travel purposes, at least they can do so in a way that’s more efficient."
It’s true. I am not happy all the time living in Cleveland. But I don’t want to be happy all the time. That’s unnatural. Said Nietzsche:
“Sometimes, struggles are exactly what we need in our life. If we were to go through our life without any obstacles, we would be crippled. We would not be as strong as what we could have been.”
Cleveland is a struggle. But that is how I know it. That is how many Clevelanders in their 20’s to 40’s know it. We didn’t know the city of Mr. Jingeling and Bob Hope—the city of a near million—the “Best Location in Nation”. No, we knew Cleveland on its knees. We knew Cleveland praying. But being born into post-industry is a good first lesson. Life is an obstacle. Cleveland prepares you.
Bullshit, or at least the proclivity of it.
Aspirations abound now. If you were only creative enough, rich enough, worldly and knowledgeable enough, then: you can become something, a star—evolved from your basic beginnings. Fine. But it’s this ambition-before-all-else mindset that has also extended our eyes from our feet, or our aspirations from our selves, and so for long the country has left its principles behind to build castles in the air with no foundation. Consequently, our culture—our sense of being from somewhere, of bleeding the aesthetic of someplace—has taken a hit. It’s no surprise, then, that our castles keep falling down into a pile of broken promises that never seem to be able to feed, clothe, or employ us properly.
To hell with it. Time to be proud in the gift of being grounded. It is the only way up.
Grounded. It’s how we are grown here in the Rust Belt. For you see it everywhere: the reality of things. You see it in the cracked sidewalks, and in the seriousness on the faces of the people all around you. You see it in the empty brownfields behind chain link fences. Yet there is a comfort in the Rust Belt aesthetic, one tied to the fact there’s little pretentiously precious. From the bodies we are built with to the handshakes we make to the food we eat to the buildings we see, shit is heavy here. And it’s a ritual you learn simply by living on Rust Belt ground.
I am watching this unfold first hand with my 2-year old daughter. You see, I have a place near the rail ties, and each time the train rides through my girl runs to the window to see the power of the “choo choo”. I watch her with a smile as she watches with awe as the force of the box cars enter our bodies through the vibrations coming up from the ground. She is becoming Rust Belt, I think. I do this every time this happens.
But this groundedness, this Rust Belt-ness, it’s not a settling or a lack of aspiration, but rather—for Clevelanders populating the city that never knew its heights— a chance to look around and see nothing but work to do, and an opportunity to do it. There are a lot of fresh eyes around. The city psychology is changing. And I think this may save Cleveland, because people are no longer waiting for Cleveland to save us.
This is happening all across the Rust Belt. For instance, Detroit native Bill Morris recently wrote about his trip back to Motown to “see that Detroiters had stopped waiting for salvation from above – a new auto factory, a new government program, a new housing development – because they were too busy saving themselves down at street level.”
Morris goes on to interview Jack Kushigan, a Detroiter who grew up working in the family’s machine shop before moving to San Francisco and then back. He writes of Kushigan:
I met him in the woodworking shop he’d set up in a church basement on the city’s hard-hit East Side, where he was teaching neighborhood people how to make furniture out of wood harvested from abandoned buildings, a virtually limitless source of raw materials. “Detroit for years, during its decline, has been hoping for a Messiah,” Kushigian told me. “Detroit has finally given up on that. A lot of people in Detroit have a fire burning inside them that I don’t see anywhere else. My feeling is that the Messiah is us.”
I feel the same thing is happening in Cleveland. The work the young people are doing. The fact they are entering the broken dreams of past generations with no illusions, little skeletons, but with a determination that comes with being grounded. And it is this kind of collective turn-the-page energy that will end the endless recent history of our decline.
Call it the benefit of struggle, or of not having your castles yet crumble because you’d been born into the ruin.
Sometime around midnight in early July, 1997, my childhood came to screeching halt. In my tiny, darkened bedroom, I stared at my little television set, completely shocked and speechless.
I wasn't sure if I was sad or angry. I'd spent months playing through Final Fantasy 7, and it felt like such an achievement just to reach the end of the first disc. Aeris had been a mainstay in my party. Now she was gone.
As a kid, I was terrible at video games. I was an only child, and with no older siblings to show me the ropes, I had to stumble through the process on my own. I was eight when I received a Super Nintendo for Christmas, and it was such a strange and novel contraption. I didn't really know anyone who had a video game system, and now that I had one, I wasn't sure what to make of it. Like the monkeys in 2001: A Space Odyssey, marveling at the giant black monolith, I didn't entirely trust or understand my new device.
My mom would take me to the video store to rent games, and for years I didn't realize people could actually buy them to keep. I'd look at the back of the boxes, choose whatever looked most interesting, and spend the weekend crouched in front of the television. I could never truly grasp the strategy involved in the games, but it didn't stop me from being completely enamored with the experience. I'd try to recount events to my mother, who did her best to act interested.
It didn't matter to me that my skill with video games was on par with a lobotomized preschooler with no fingers. A houseplant could have fallen onto the controller and had more luck at beating the game than I even did, yet I never felt frustrated while playing. I was happy to just be experiencing new and different worlds. Because I only rented games for years, I was able to play other people's save files, meaning new areas were always opening up to me. If I waited a couple weeks, I could rent a game I'd played half a dozen times before, and if I was lucky, someone else would have advanced the story for me. It made games strange and mysterious, because I never knew what to expect.
One weekend I rented Final Fantasy 3 (technically 6, but let's not get into that) and opened up a save file from the previous renter. I played for a while, wondering why I was on an island, and doing my best to catch fish for the whiny banana-looking dude in my cabin.
When the banana guy died from tainted fish, I thought I'd done something wrong. I had tried so hard to catch healthy fish for him, but he bit the dust anyway. I felt awful for my tiny sprite-based character, lugging fish back to sickly banana-friend.
Then, feeling alone in the world, she tried to commit suicide. It was a lot for a nine-year-old to handle.
Slowly I got a little more skilled at video games, but by and large I still sucked. I didn't beat a game on my own for years, but still I was enamored with them. It gave me something to talk about with other kids in my school. Since I could draw, I'd doodle characters from my favorite games, which impressed my schoolmates, and making friends became easy for me.
One day in class, I learned that some kids actually owned their video games and that renting wasn't the only option.
I felt like I'd been lied to for months. How was it possible that I'd remained in the dark so long? Lowly humans could purchase videogames? For keeps? Everything had changed. I went home that afternoon and made an announcement to my mother.
That Christmas, I received Earthbound as a present. To say I was excited would be an understatement. I was thrilled. I was ecstatic.
It was the first game I'd ever owned, and I cherished it like the treasure it was. None of the video stores around me had copies of it to rent. I'd only heard tales of it from my friends, and it sounded too good to be real.
"It's like, set in modern day. You run around town and fight aliens and monsters and stuff. You eat pizza to regain health!" I didn't believe it. It sounded like a myth.
It's difficult to put into words exactly how delighted I was to own a game of my own. I went nuts. My little heart could barely handle the excitement.
With a game in my permanent possession, I could take extra time and learn the strategy involved. It was still a struggle, and I died hundreds of times, but slowly and surely I managed to advance further and further into the storyline.
Earthbound spilled over into my real life. I fought evil robots at recess. Everything I ate in the cafeteria refilled my HP. A sandwich was no longer a sandwich; it was a vital item, bringing me back from the brink of death so that I might save the world.
Earthbound, like the other games I'd played before, eventually became too difficult for me to beat, but I didn't mind. I'd start over from the beginning and play through the familiar parts, over and over.
I became a gamer. I'd brag to my friends about completing dungeons in A Link to the Past, or we'd speculate what the secret might be in Secret of Mana.
When I was eleven, I sold my Super Nintendo to a neighbor so I could buy a Playstation. Then, because I didn't have any money left, it sat unused for several months until I could afford a game to play. I bought Final Fantasy 7. I died six times before the first boss. I was awful. But I stuck with it, and advanced in the game bit by bit. It might've been easier if I'd known what I was doing, if I didn't run away from battles so often and load up my characters exclusively with Summon Materia.
When Aeris died, I was floored. Final Fantasy 7 was the first game in my life I'd had any real success at, so it felt like a real blow. I eventually beat it, but it took a year, and I've never felt that sense of accomplishment since. Graduating from college pales in comparison to delivering that final blow to Sephiroth.
In high school, I played games less and less, focusing more on my studies. Senior year was devoted to college admissions, and soon after that I stopped playing games altogether. I moved to Boston for college and left my videogame systems behind. "I love video games!" became, "Yeah, I used to play games. Are they still making Zelda?" I fell out of the loop.
A couple months after I graduated, and several years after I'd picked up a controller, I came to possess a copy of Fallout 3. I don't remember how I came to own it. I like to think it just appeared in my apartment one day like a divine gift from above.
I popped it in my Playstation 3 (which I'd purchased as a Blu-ray player) and didn't leave my apartment for four days.
Just like that, I was a gamer again. I went back and beat all the old games I was too young to grasp. I sought out the games I'd missed in high school and college and blazed through them with ease.
At 25 years old, I pre-ordered my first video game: Skyrim. I waited in line for the midnight release, barely able to contain my excitement.
I played it all night and well into the morning. I felt like a kid again. I didn't feel bad about neglecting my friends over the next couple weeks, because they were all playing it too.
I remember once trying to make my mom play Street Fighter 2 with me but she wasn't interested. To her, I think videogames were just flashing lights set to bleeps and blips. I took that to mean adults don't like videogames in general, and that I should enjoy them while I was young because eventually I'd lose interest.
On the contrary, I'm more fascinated and enamored with videogames as an adult than I ever was as a child, and I can't imagine a time when I won't be. Years from now, I'll be sitting on my porch, leering at youngsters as they pass by, thinking, "fucking n00b. I bet I could waste you in Mortal Kombat 23."