You Got to Be Kidding Me!

Robo Rally and the State Department

Posted in Books, History, Politics, Social Life by Stacy McMahon on April 9, 2006

Some friends introduced me to Robo Rally last night. It’s a fun little racing game where each player tried to get their robot to the flag first. It works like LOGO, where you plan your move five steps in advance. The tricky part is that you draw cards to determine what moves you can make, the board has obstacles on it that can change your course and speed if you hit them (or block your progress) and if you cross paths with another robot they can push you around too. It’s a lot of fun trying to anticipate everything you need to take into account in planning your path, though it can be a chore to make sure you’re moving the game pieces exactly the way that the cards, other pieces, and board obstacles say they should be moved. Clint and I both said you’d think this would be a videogame, not a boardgame, especially given its theme. Apparantly it was invented back in the 80s, though it occurs to me that turn-based roleplays were beginning to be played on PCs around that time. Anyway, I figure you could probably do it in DHTML now, or maybe flash. Though neither of those would allow the cool feature Clint suggested–first-person playback of the last turn.

On a totally different note, I’m re-reading (again) Six Days of War, and as it describes the days before the shooting started, it just jumped out at me that the US State Department seemed to be just as obsessed with appeasing bullies and thugs back then as they have been in the current situation. In that case, while the Syrians were sending terrorists into Israel and firing artillery at Israeli farms, the Egyptians were conducting a massive military buildup in the Sinai and forcing UN peacekeepers to get out of the way. Against that, Israel specifically avoided moving troops or doing anything else to provoke the situation, but when they asked the US to send some weapons and/or a warship to visit an Israeli port, State told them to stop acting belligerant.

Now, a diplomat’s job is to try and calm people down before they start fighting. They’re not in the business of making threats or pointing guns at the other side. But I think the major iniquity in the situation above points up an actual flaw in American society. In any organization, each individual will typically be committed to doing their own job the best they can. That would seem to be exactly what you want, except that in a political organization (like the pieces of the government that deal with foreign countries) the “job” is really to advance a viewpoint. You’re not making widgets and trying to shave 30 seconds off the assembly time to increase productivity. You’re representing the interests of your country in the world, and when someone threatens your friends you need to back them up. You need to do that even when it means some of your savage beast-calming music doesn’t get played. You need to do that, not because I or someone else thinks the other side are asshats that need a beatdown, but because if the government’s position is going to be that the other side has to back down or get shot, then every part of the government needs to consistently say that. If they don’t, someone is going to think we don’t care what they do, when the opposite is actually the case (think of Saddam Hussein and April Glaspie in 1991)

"overpopulation"

Posted in Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on April 3, 2006

One of my coworkers likes to blame the world’s problems on overpopulation. There are too many people, consuming too much (especially in America) and the planet can’t sustain it all. Of course he’s doing his bit …to be part of the problem. For the two people and two dogs in his household, the minimum necessary transportation equipment seems to be two Land Rovers and one full-size pickup with lifted “monster truck” suspension and a cargo rack setup that would warm M. Eiffel’s heart. Their townhouse began life with about the same square footage as the suburban two-story dutch colonial I grew up in, and they’ve nearly doubled it with a “Southern Living”-quality deck and fully enclosed storage room below. I needle him mercilessly that the zoning inspector is going to show up one day and ask to see a whole lot of nonexistant permits for his “deck”.

Anyway, between my coworker and my planning colleagues’ for-granted contempt of sprawl housing that takes up the entire countryside, it got me to wondering how bad the problem really is. Are we going to run out of land? If so, when? The other night an adjunct tossed out the following figures for Arlington County, one of the most densely settled jurisdictions in North America. There are, roughly, 200,000 residents in 34,000 households, or about 5.9 residents per household. Extrapolating that somewhat fishy number (do you know any 6-person households? I don’t) to the entire country, all 300m of us translate into about fifty million households. Give each of those 1/8 acre (roughly the space needed for a modern mcmansion, including its portion of the street) and we’d cover 13,762 square miles, or a square about 117 miles on a side. In other words, the entire US population could fit into New Jersey, and everyone gets a detached house, yard and 2-3 car garage.

Now, you’d have to cross the river into PA to go to Target, because that doesn’t include any space for retail, public or office/industrial buildings. But let’s say that stuff takes up Delaware, or Manhattan. I don’t want to think about the traffic on the turnpike in that case, but the point is that subdivisions on their own can’t explain why the Washington, DC metro area extends from Baltimore to Fredericksburg, and as far as Hagerstown in the west. More than half of that must still be greenspace, but just contained in between housing developments instead of off by itself in the mountains. And this is why some of us who aren’t religious new urbanists still try to push clustering of human settlements. Suburban greenspace tends to be manicured lawns, golf courses or tightly contained pockets of forest covering unbuildable geography. Most of it doesn’t function well as wildlife habitat, and not at all as a useful resource for humans, i.e. you can’t farm it either. Even without planting a house on literally every 1/8 acre in the country, we can still eat up all the land. And then ironically find ourselves without anything to eat.