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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.

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.

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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.