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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.

May 8, 2009

The death-spiral in the US housing market

From wikiinvest:

The death-spiral in the U.S. housing market is nearing a bottom

The topic sentence is that "The National Association of Realtors said today (Wednesday) that sales of existing homes fell to their lowest level in almost 12 years, as prices also fell and are now near their six-year lows."

Besides the gloomy economic status for many real estate developers, another side-effect is the trend of demolishing old houses rocked by foreclosures and vacant buildings. See the report from StarTribuene:

Twin Cities urban renewal, bulldozer-style

In Twin Cities, MN, many residents living in the neighborhoods where houses are falling vacant already started to complain. Concerns about security, aestheticity, and livability in such neighborhoods have risen up.

If such concerns are representative among local residents, my hypothesis is that people are even less willing to buy houses in those old neighborhoods or more people may tend to move out, when the concerns about livability are incorporated into their utility model in mind. But the impact on good/rich neighborhoods might be marginal. In fact, one of my friends working in real estate told me that house prices in good neighborhoods such as Eagan or Woodbury have not changed much.

It would be of interest to study: would today's economic recession impact urban sprawl and urban patterns in the US? If yes, what kind of change will happen and how is it effected?

May 3, 2009

Developmental v.s. Evolutionary

My current research looks into the growth of city road networks and land use and the distribution of human resources in an urban context. One popular word in the complexity science community to describe this process is evolutionary, which dates back to Dawin's theory of evolution. It is worth mentioning that this year is the 150th anniversary of the publications of On the Origins of Species and 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. Undoubtedly, the Darwinian Theory impacts tremendously on science, arts, philosophy, religions, and even people's worldview. To name but a few.

Some of my Christian friends did not quite like the word "evolutionary" when I tried to describe my research to them. some people argued that the networks are at most "developmental", indicating that they are still in the process of developing. when I looked into the implication of evolution, it seemed that their argument was not unreasonable.

The basic premise of the theory of evolution is that all life is related to a common ancestor. Complex creatures evolve from simplistic ancestors over time. In this process, only the fittest survive --- known as the natural selection ---- where the advantages of genetic mutations accumulate in some members but in others due to a variety of reasons. My research aims to find out why and how today's road networks and land use patterns come to being? Is the trend very clear-cut in the beginning or does it include obvious phase changes? In terms of research approach, it is similar to Darwin's -- studying time-series phenomena through inductive reasoning. Honestly speaking, however, I don't quite know to what extent we can really justify the behind-the-scene mechanisms.

Some simple online research will easily help us realize that the word "evolution" has been overused in scientific papers. What many authors have discovered de facto is the different stages of development of cities, communities, and infrastructures, without much evidence really pointing to the conclusion of being evolutionary.

They (me included) use the word more often than it is needed, I believe, largely because it is a popular jargon in the emerging field of complexity studies. But interdisciplinary research, in essence, instead of being just about borrowing words from other domains, is more about combining different perspectives and approaches from different disciplines. This is hard work. Moreover, it calls for our special caution about the conclusions we make when attempting to explain what has not been sufficiently studied before.