Inside Tom's Head - June 2021

16 Jul 2021

I continue my trend of not knowing quite how to characterize the past month. When work was good, it was really good, when it was hard, it was really hard. The weather was great until the atmosphere tried to cook us. I actually wrote something that wasn’t a monthly update, a rant about how people don’t quite seem to get how much damage even a little extra vehicle weight does to roads, but have been too tired to get any other writing done.

What I read on the internet in June

  • I have long found the idolization of Sparta to be problematic, but it turns out that it was even worse than I had imagined.
  • You probably won’t find this surprising, but most drivers speed. However, when Transportation Alternatives sent teams out with radar guns, 70% of the drivers that they measured were speeding. I guess that’s what you get when you design roads for high speeds (wide, straight, trees removed from the roadside) and set speed limits based on how fast people drive (the 85th percentile rule from the MUTCD).
  • Living in the US, I can’t imagine people letting regulators put any sorts of policies in place about maximum car size, but if you accept the premise that they should be allowed to keep obviously dangerous products from being on the market, then yeah, they are failing us on that one. I don’t think that we’ll see regulation on huge personal vehicles any time soon, but I could see some sort of legal framework that would acknowledge that driving a bigger vehicle makes you more likely to kill a pedestrian (or other vulnerable road user), and force insurance agencies to raise their rates accordingly.
  • While I agree that we shouldn’t focus so much on European city desgin, people calling for us to look closer to home are often short on good examples, usually talking about ciclovia in Columbia and leaving it there. I guess that we need to make some examples of our own. I’m planning on watching [this presentation] (https://chi.streetsblog.org/2021/06/17/lessons-on-building-bike-culture-from-latin-america/) next month in the hopes that it fills in some of these gaps.
  • This is really cool. Indigenous forest gardens are still productive despite being untended for the past 150 years. It’s amazing that they are even still there, given how aggressive forests can be in claiming new land.
  • Tom MacWright, whose blog inspired the current design of this site, has started selling his theme as a package.
  • I ran across a TED talk from 2007 that felt halfway between urban planning and stand-up comedy: James Kunstler: How bad architecture wrecked cities. I’ve read some of Kunstler’s stuff in the past, and I don’t subscribe to his central idea of the Long Emergency, the idea that we are at the beginning of a long decline, but I do think that his take on the current state of our built environment (that we have built many places that are not worth caring about) is relevant.
  • Governor Inslee finally got a climate bill passed. As much as I wish it had been sooner, at the very least it looks like they learned some lessons from those who have gone before, such as California.
  • Believe it or not, the rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes. Shocking, I know.
  • How parking destroys cities. I recently realized that in Olympia at least you can tell where downtown ends by looking for surface parking in a satellite photo. There’s a surprisingly sharp line (north of Legion, for example) where parking lots suddenly take up the majority of space, and beyond that there’s really not many places you would want to go except for lunch places catering to office buildings.
  • I just learned about the Downs-Thompson Paradox in this video. Unfortunately, close reading of the wikipedia article leads me to think that its application is more narrow than I would hope, and that it probably doesn’t apply at all in places without well-developed mass transit.
  • I had never really considered why the Idaho stop/bicycle safety stop is, well, safer, but this video does a good job or demonstrating it. Bonus points for making the case that if you need to put up a sign, there’s a good chance that you actually need better design.
  • Apparently, Amazon is famous for its document culture. When I TA’ed Symbolic Logic, it always struck me as odd how many people skipped the required reading. From where I stand now, it seems that while some people very clearly don’t bother with the reading, a lot of people simply struggle with absorbing complicated written material and it is important to present over multiple channels. That being said, scheduling the required reading into the meeting time could definitely be worth it.
  • It’s tempting to say that Americans don’t care about rail, so it’s good to see that rail is actually getting better in some places
  • I like the idea of a sprawl tax, though I have no idea of how it would be calculated.
  • There is some (justified) concern out there about bicycle infrastructure being just another tendril of gentrification, so it’s good to see a study showing that bike lanes aren’t associated with the displacement of BIPOC and low income people. I’d like to see more studies like this, but it’s a good start.
  • “What spam is to communication, scams are to marketplaces.” Even if I were okay with Amazon’s labor practices, the sheer number of knock-offs on the site are starting to render it useless.
  • Apparently marijuana legalization is having a negative effect on traffic safety. Not terribly surprising given our culture’s permissive stance on drinking and driving or texting. If you really want to prevent these sorts of accidents, walkable neighborhoods (if you can easily walk to the pub, you probably aren’t going to get in a car accident on the way) and transit (you’d have to really miss your stop to do much damage) are definitely the way to go.
  • One of the consequences of suburbs generating so little tax revenue that they can’t fund their own infrastructure is that they effectively end up being subsidized by apartments and other higher-density land uses.
  • I can’t imagine these happening any time soon, and they’re kind of hard to wrap my head around, but I have to agree that banning certain kinds of turns for automobiles would probably make things a lot safer for everyone. I remember back in the early 2000’s my friend Ken and I spent a day driving around Anchorage without making any left hand turns. At first it seemed like it would be difficult and perhaps dangerous, given that the roads really weren’t set up for it, but it didn’t take too long for it to become trivially easy. Maybe we should form a “leage of rightists” who voluntarily forego left turns whenever possible?
  • How bad was the Pacific Northwest Heatwave of 2021? Well, it has made me reconsider my stance on air conditioning. We are getting a quote for a heat pump in a few weeks. Granted, heat pumps aren’t the same thing as AC and we probably wouldn’t be considering it if it didn’t have the strong possibility of reducing our winter heating costs/energy usage, but this is still a big change.


Again, the outdoor kitchen/living room/theater was an excellent investment. During the heat wave we would wait until the temperature outside dropped below 100° turn on a fan, and watch stuff until the house was cool enough to sleep in. Here’s (some of) what I read, watched, and listened to:

  • Infinitum by Tim Fielder was an excellent afro-futurist graphic novel.
  • The Miracle Pill by Peter Walker was an excellent tour of how we should be more active. I especially appreciated how his solution isn’t “Everyone should go to the gym!” but rather that we should make sure that our built environment encourages activity, whether it be making the stairs accessible and inviting or planting trees between buildings to make it more pleasant to walk.
  • We watched Biggest Little Farm on Kanopy, which was really good. In particular, it made me appreciate how as our edible landscaping has grown in, we are seeing more and more wildlife that we weren’t seeing before, from some large garter snakes to a beautiful Western Tanager.
  • We watched The Mitchell’s vs the Machines again as my movie pick for Father’s Day. It holds up and was just as fun the second time around. Probably my favorite movie of the year, so far.
  • Toradora! is an adorable anime series with short episodes (~24 minutes) currently available on Netflix.
  • I’ve been reading a lot of stuff from Strong Towns, and so decided to give Chuck Mahron’s first book, Bottom-Up Revolution, a listen. I definitely didn’t agree with everything in there, but it does present a good way of looking at our cities.
  • I kind of expected Netflix’s Wish Dragon to be a rip-off of Aladdin, but it ended up feeling pretty original and far exceeding expectations.