July 18, 2009

Foundational Papers in Complexity Science

From the website of Santa Fe Institute:

Peeling Back Pavement to Expose Watery Havens

From NY times:

Peeling Back Pavement to Expose Watery Havens

Talking about downtown or CBD, what naturally comes to our mind is the daily hustle and bustle. Yet in Seoul, South Korea, a clean stream named Cheonggyecheon goes through the center of the city. It is an amazing scenery. How awesome it feels to find a place so close to nature in a busy business area. I visited Seoul in the February of 2006, and I was naturally drawn to the bank of this little stream and played water with my friends. As described, "picnickers cool their bare feet in its filtered water, and carp swim in its tranquil pools."

All this came at a cost. This stream, officially opened in 2005, was liberated from its dank sheath and burbles between reedy banks after after a $384 million recovery project. But I believe most Seoul citizens love this idea. As reported, "Some 90,000 pedestrians visit the stream banks on an average day."

Now US planners begin to talk a lot about walkability, bicycle-friendliness, and transit-friendliness, after seeing the social problems in US cities in late 20th century. And to increase workability, in addition to building more pedestrian sidewalks or bicycle lanes, it is also of great importance to build lively neighborhoods with pleasant amenities which attract people to come, rest, and play.

It is time for civil engineers and urban planners to think and act in community terms.

July 17, 2009

U.S. and China Agree to Study Ways to Make Buildings More Energy-Efficient

From NY Times:

U.S. and China Agree to Study Ways to Make Buildings More Energy-Efficient

China is also erecting new buildings at a breathtaking pace and now accounts for half the square footage of buildings under construction around the world, Mr. Chu said in Beijing on Wednesday. The Chinese government has started urging developers to install insulated windows and compact fluorescent bulbs.

"If China were to adopt green construction methods, that would result in millions of jobs for the Chinese people," Mr. Locke said.

Investing and researching in the environmental industry seems to be a very hot topic now. And Gary Locke, current United States Secretary of Commerce and a Chinese American, is a China hand. To boost the economic growth, the Obama Administration knows one thing well: although all is not a bliss, China is a good place to invest.

July 10, 2009

City road networks like flowers

Although summer in MN is very short, it is often very nice. The flowers in the yard in front of my apartment are flourishing now. When I was enjoying their beauty and fragrance, I also realized that the texture of some flowers is similar to some road networks. To illustrate, here is the picture of a flower I took this afternoon:


And here is the road map of the Big Boston Region:

road map of boston.jpg
(Source: mapquest.com)

This road network exhibits itself in a hub-and-spoke shape, with some minors roads attached to the major roads. A study about the growth of city road networks and their similarities to biological systems can be found here. The researchers from France have examined this kind of road network growth from the perspective of probability models; yet no economic mechanism was included explicitly.

It should be noted that not all road networks look like that. Some networks are very grid-like, such as the road network in the Twin Cities, MN:

(Source: http://www.aaccessmaps.com/show/map/us/mn/minneapolis_metro)

July 6, 2009

Independence Day Syndrome

Independence Day is a good time both for commemorating the founding of this country and for personal relaxation. However, all is not a bliss. Some side-effects (fatal cashes and air pollution, e.g.) may have come along, as what I call Independence Day Syndrome.

8 killed in four Massachusetts Independence Day crashes


BOSTON -- Eight people are dead after four separate Independence Day crashes in eastern Massachusetts.

Two of the accidents were triple fatalities, including a single-car crash at about 1 a.m. on Saturday in Walpole and a rollover on Route 95 in Attleboro at about 2:45 a.m.

A 31-year-old Florida man faces three counts of motor vehicle homicide after allegedly speeding and driving drunk before the Walpole crash. Police said Jason Wayne Spurlin of Lake Worth, Fla., was scheduled to be arraigned Monday at Wrentham District Court.

The accident killed Nicholas Kelly and Anna Dubois, both 20 of Walpole, and Amanda Murray, 23, of Medfield.

Independence Day deadliest holiday for alcohol-related crashes

Nation's deadliest days:

Fourth of July 2007: 200 deaths (44 percent were alcohol related)

Labor Day (Sept. 1 to Sept. 3, 2007): 519 deaths (40 percent)

New Year's (Dec. 30, 2006 to Jan. 1, 2007 ): 391 deaths (40 percent)

Memorial Day (May 26 to May 28, 2007): 491 deaths (38 percent)

Christmas (Dec. 22 to Dec. 25, 2007): 468 deaths (36 percent)

Thanksgiving (Nov. 22 to Nov. 25, 2007): 548 deaths (35 percent)

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2007 data

Other news: 4th Of July Disney Crash Turns Deadly.

About air pollution caused by fireworks: Twin Cities air quality befouled by fireworks (star Tribune):

Particle pollution in the Twin Cities was elevated Sunday because of Saturday night's fireworks all over the metro area, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said Sunday.

The agency issued an "orange" notification after light winds failed to disperse the pollutants that lingered after the celebratory fanfare and fumes. People with asthma and other health problems, as well as elderly people, were advised to stay indoors, and everyone was urged to avoid prolonged outside exertion.

July 5, 2009

Conference: Harvard Political Networks

I just got to know this conference: Harvard Political Networks Conference, which was held from June 11 to 13, 2009. This seemed to the second annual conference. I don't know much about political science, but looking at politics and governance from the perspective of social networks is undoubtedly very interesting.

In fact, I was in Boston during this period of time. Had I known it beforehand, I would definitely have shown up in some of the workshops.

July 3, 2009

For whom the bell tolls

From star Tribune: Bicyclist, 60, killed by car in Blaine

Last year was the deadliest year for bicyclists since 2000. In all, 13 cyclists died in accidents on Minnesota roads.

Despite the increasing bicyclists' fatalities, here is the good news: Highway deaths fall in 2009, lowest since '61

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Thursday about 7,689 motorists were killed in the months of January through March, a 9 percent decline from a year ago.

Reporting ahead of the July 4 holiday, a busy period on the nation's roadways, the government estimated that 37,261 motorists died in 2008, the fewest since 1961. If the 2009 fatality trends continue, fewer than 31,000 people will die this year.

In this tough period of economic downturn, probably fewer people are using cars (or at a lower frequency) and more people tend to become bicyclists. So the recession saves lives on highways, yet the bell may toll for more bicyclists/pedestrians.

June 30, 2009

How the city hurts your brain

See: how the city hurts from brain.

Given the myriad mental problems that are exacerbated by city life, from an inability to pay attention to a lack of self-control, the question remains: Why do cities continue to grow? And why, even in the electronic age, do they endure as wellsprings of intellectual life?

Recent research by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute used a set of complex mathematical algorithms to demonstrate that the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory -- the crowded streets, the crushing density of people -- also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the "concentration of social interactions" that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists. The density of 18th-century London may have triggered outbreaks of disease, but it also led to intellectual breakthroughs, just as the density of Cambridge -- one of the densest cities in America -- contributes to its success as a creative center. One corollary of this research is that less dense urban areas, like Phoenix, may, over time, generate less innovation.

Beijing Subway vs. Tokyo Subway

I did a comparison of Beijing subway system and Tokyo Subway system.

As the capital of arguably the most fast-developing country, Beijing has been exerting all its effort in developing public transit system to cope with the challenges of increasing urban population. As of 2007, Beijing only had four subway lines in use; in 2015, however, Beijing is expected to own 28+ subway lines with 561 km in total network length (the longest in the world), where subway/LRT users will account for 23% of total travelers. (source: wiki-beijing-subway)

Here is Beijing's subway plan for 2015.

In comparison, here is the map of current Tokyo subway system (with 14 lines and 328 km in total length):

I visited Tokyo in 2005 for a students' cultural exchange conference, and I was really impressed by the service of the subway system there. Moreover, the subway system was not just a subway system; it was also an integrated area of shops, restaurants, malls, theaters, and other entertainment facilities.

By just looking at the topologies of the two systems, we can find that BJ subway is more grid-like, yet Tokyo subway network seems to have more junctions (I don't know if this fact can lead to shorter travel time, I guess it will).

Here is some demographic information. While Tokyo has about 12.8 million people, Beijing is home to 14.93 million (not considering immigrant workers from the inland area). The population density per km2 in Tokyo is about 5847, and in Beijing is 760. China still has a large rural area to be urbanized. Yet Japan has been trying its best to make full use of underground space due to its limited territory, which is a remarkable effort.

June 18, 2009

Climate Change - China in Action

A short documentary made in 2008 fall aiming to show the effort of Chinese government in addressing the climate change:

China in Action

Also, in 2008 the Chinese government published a white paper on China's policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change.

I am glad to see that the Chinese government begins to take responsibility in protecting the environment worldwide. As a fast-developing country on her way toward industrialization, China has been facing a challenge in tackling the overwhelming environmental pollution in almost all aspects (air, water, soil, noise).

I hope that China will continue to open her doors to the world and embrace critiques and suggestions from different corners of the world with an even more open mind and with greater rationality. Environmental issues and climate change are huge challenges facing the international community, and only when all the nations become interdependent and are willing to work together that it is possible to make this world greener, cleaner, and more livable.

June 2, 2009

Treasure or Trash? That's the question

The other day my professor gave me a cart of old books and journals which were apparently of no use to him. He claimed that "they were a gift for you". Although I suspected that his real motive was to find a free laborer to dump his trash, I accepted the books in a slim hope that any interesting books/journals might among them.


The books are now in my office; the majority of them are urban planning journals and TRB journals ranging from 1992 until 2003, plus a bag of coffee which expired a few days ago. Nowadays almost all these articles can be found online easily. So here is the question, what is the value of hard-copy journals when most of the articles are on-line, considering our increasingly limited physical storage space? While knowledge is treasure, the physical old journals--when the words in them can be easily carried on in our computers, cell phones, and PDAs with no effort--are de facto of very limited value. E-journals also save the printing cost and are environmentally-friendly. The exceptions are, but not limited to, the handbooks that you may want to reference frequently.

So computer does have changed the world and the way people live. I remember when I was young, a remarkable sign of being a scholar is having a lot of books in his/her study or office. But now the sign may have changed.

Of course, another topic is whether the academic articles should be accessed for free. This has been a debate in academia and publishing houses, concerning the distribution of interests and the conflicts between the for-profit goals and non-profit ones. I am not in a good position to cover this topic, but it is definitely an interesting one worth pursuing.

May 28, 2009

Primary seat-belt law will be in use in MN

From MN daily:

New law will enforce seat belt use

Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed a primary seat belt bill into law Thursday that will allow police to pull drivers over simply for failing to wear a seat belt. The law, which will go into effect on June 9, will replace a more than 20-year-old secondary seat belt law that allows officers to ticket someone for not wearing a seat belt only if they first witness a moving violation.

The previous law also only requires that the driver, a front-seat passenger and a passenger in any seat between three and 11-years-old wear a seat belt. The new law requires all passengers — regardless of age or seating position — to wear a seat belt. Violators will face a $25 fine.

Some people have voiced their favor for this policy, hoping that the primary seat-belt law would help reduce crashes in MN. Nevertheless, other argue that enforcing a stronger law on seat belt would lead to people's even riskier behavior in driving, especially on highways. Also, there are concerns on the possible side effects of racial profiling and "nicking someone’s pocket book" through a law like this.

I believe that the lure of money is the much bigger reason for legislators to enforce this law. From Politics in Minnesota:

Minnesota has already received $15.3 million from a federal incentive program based on the state’s 85 percent level of seat-belt use over two years (2007-08). An additional $3.4 million in federal funds will be available in FY 2010, but only if a primary seat-belt law is on the books by June of this year.

Of course, House sponsor Rep. Kim Norton was pleased: "By enforcing seat-belt laws as a primary offense, we not only help prevent many of those injuries and those costs, we make Minnesota eligible for millions of dollars in federal funding. In a time of serious budget shortfall, those savings have never been more welcome.”

If we look at the findings from previous studies, the effects of safety belt usage are controversial per se. Some research contended for a happy ending -- primary enforcement laws are likely to be more effective than secondary laws. Whereas another research showed that the population safety belt usage rate (at least, at the current rates) is associated with little or no effect on reducing fatality rates, although this policy might help reduce fatal crashes.

OK, it is possible that the primary seat-belt law could save more lives, yet I also believe the major reason for passing the law is just not that simple. That's why public discourse is important --- it helps unveil which interest groups would de facto benefit from adopting this law and how.

May 24, 2009

Sidewalks in the Kingdom

Eric Jacobsen's book Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos Press, 2003) is on my reading list. Here is EARL F. PALMER 's review on this book.

This is a book I have been needing for a long time! What I find in the book has kept its promise too! We as Christians who live in cities and towns have a mandate to work toward making the streets and squares and parks in our cities not only safe but humane and people-friendly. Jacobsen has given some very helpful biblical guidelines for architects, pastors, city planners, and ordinary citizens too.

Also a quote from this book:

So much of our Christian literature seems to be focused on the question of whether and how we can save our cities. It seems to me that we need to adjust this approach and begin to look for ways that our cities can save us. I mean save here not in the sense of salvation from sin – only Christ can do that – but rather save our souls from the damaging effects of uglification, standardization, privatization, and mass consumerism that have fueled this historically unprecedented appetite for sprawl in this country.

I must say the topic of this book is really interesting to me, and I cannot tell you how exciting I was when I got to know this book. One question I have been thinking since last December is: how to examine current town planning practice from the Christian faith's perspective? How do we design public space, mixed land use, tansportation networks, and regions of different uses that make a city more sustainable and livable, and utimately, inspire citizens to think what it means to be a whole person?

Some intriguing questions proposed in this book can be found here.

Since almost every one is engaged in urban activites at different sacles, our urban life--built in a physical setting consisting of various infrastructures and mansions--not only are shaped by our worldview and life philosphy, but also contribute to its growth.

May 18, 2009

An analogy between the law of chemistry and US highway system

From The Origins of Life: A Case is made for the descent electrons, appeared in American Scientist:

Consider the requirements of the U.S. Interstate highway system. The system includes an enormously complex network of roads; major infrastructure devoted to extracting oil from the Earth, refining oil into gasoline and distributing gasoline along the highways, a major industry devoted to producing automobiles; and so on. If we wanted to explain this system in all of its complexity, we would not ask whether cars led to roads or roads led to cars, nor would we suspect that the entire system had been created from scratch as a giant public works project. It would be more productive to consider the state of transport in preindustrial America and ask how the primitive foot trails that must certainly have existed had developed into wagon roads, then paved roads and so on. By following this evolutionary line of argument, we would eventually account for the present system in all its complexity without needing recourse to highly improbable chance events.

In the same way, we argue, the current complexity of life should be understood as the result of a multistep process, beginning with the catalytic chemistry of small molecules acting in simple networks—networks still preserved in the depths of metabolism—elaborating these reaction sequences through processes of simple chemical selection, and only later taking on the aspects of cellularization and organismal individuality that make possible the Darwinian selection that biologists see today. Our task as origin-of-life researchers is to look at the modern highways and see what they reveal about the original foot trails.

Looks like Chemists are trying to learn from civil engineers and town planners. Although I don't believe there is any universal law to explain the growth of networks of different categories (say, engineering networks or biological networks)---since the mechanisms and incentives that induce the network growth are quite different--the patterns of different networks, in the final outcome or in the process of incremental change, might exhibit similar features, which is interesting.

May 12, 2009

The next big thing: Wolfram | Alpha

When talking about Stephen Wolfram, people in the field of complex systems will naturally think of his well-known book A new kind of Science and the software Mathematica. Now he and his researchers will publicize a new kind of search engine: Wolfram|Alpha , the so-called computational knowledge engine. It will be open to the public pretty soon.

Some people asked Stephen if Wolfram|Alpha wanted to be the google-killer. He said no, " the goal of Alpha is to give everyone access to expert knowledge and the data that a specialist would be able to compute from this information."

So what's special about this search engine? Here is the quote from Read Write Web:

Alpha, which will go live within the next few weeks, is quite different from Google and really doesn't directly compete with it at all. Instead of searching the web for info, Alpha is built around a vast repository of curated data from public and licensed sources. Alpha then organizes and computes this knowledge with the help of sophisticated Natural Language Processing algorithms. Users can ask Alpha any kind of question, which can be constructed just like a Google search (think: "hurricane bob" or "carbon steel strength").

I haven't got the chance to try it yet. But Some snapshots can be found here. Also, here is a sneak review of WolframAlpha. Just looking at the results, I was very amazed. By inputting information like GDP in Europe, you could get many interesting graphs, demographic data, and GDP-related data, which used to be probably only available for experts in this field or took lots of effort for a non-expert to secure.

For researchers, I assume it could be of even greater value, since we all know the pain of researching for relevant and reliable research data.