Archive for December, 2010

A Year in Cities, 2010

A new year approaches yet again, which means it’s time for me to list the stops I made this past year. Smaller places are excluded save for those in which I spent a longer amount of time. This time around, asterisks indicate a city of residency, while bold type indicates a new-to-me place.
  1. Kigali, RW*
  2. Greenville, SC*
  3. Charleston, SC
  4. Washington, DC
  5. Cincinnati, OH
  6. New York, NY
  7. Keene/Walpole, NH*
  8. Concord, NH
  9. Cologne, DE
  10. Freiburg, DE (where I am at the moment)

I spent the first five months this year in Africa, but unlike last year, I didn’t venture outside Rwanda. As per my 2008 wish, however, I did see much of the great American homeland, as Thelma and I drove from DC to SC to OH to DC on a family-acquainting driving tour.

Unlike previous years, I head into 2011 knowing where I’ll be residing this year and the next. Thelma’s agreed to indenture herself to Teach for America handling drooling pre-schoolers in metro Atlanta, so it’ll be southerly I go. I don’t think my expat days are fully behind me, but I am looking forward to a more staid couple of years living a certain version of the American Dream. There’s also the fact that  Thelma has summers off and tho’ it surely be a forsaken place, ATL will be but a peanut’s throw away.

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This past week at Florentine saw the entire gang gathered to screen the second visual pass of a documentary on the Dust Bowl (release date 2013, I believe). For the two days afterward, the bigwigs gathered for script rewrites, which offered me my first chance to see Ken Burns in creative action. I observed, I bantered, I poured a few cups of my fresh-brewed coffee, and I learned.

Realizing that not everyone gets such an opportunity–and it being the season for giving–I thought I’d share some things I learned about KB from an unlikely source: The Simpsons. In the first clip (skip to 5’20”), we learn from a lesser-known documentary by Ken Burns about Ken Burns that his twin love of baseball and jazz explains his famous boyish coif:

Vodpod videos no longer available.


In the second (17’55”), we learn that Ken and his brother Ric are direct descendants of Colonel Burns, who is C. Montgomery Burns’ father:

Vodpod videos no longer available.



Dah duh dah dling!


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Mauve and Cerise, I think


America, circa 1958, according to JK Galbraith:

The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground. They pass on into countryside that has been rendered largely invisible by commercial art. (The goods which the latter advertise have an absolute priority in our value system. Such aesthetic considerations as a view of the countryside accordingly come second. On such matters we are consistent.) They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings. Is this, indeed, the American genius?

The point he’s making is about a social imbalance caused by differences between private and public spending. In America, a society of affluence, where the production of comic books and pornography count as valuable economic output, the outlaying of money on roads, parks, policing, education, and other public services is considered nearly valueless and unpalatable.

America is still often considered a land of crumbling infrastructure, but compared to the America described above, some things have improved. The countryside is largely visible, our parks no longer a menace to morality, and the air has been mostly purged from the stench of decaying refuse.

Our private consumption has has also made progress over the decades, seeing as we’ve developed the good taste not to continue buying our autos in the colors of Wild Berry Skittles.

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Every so often when I glance at my Facebook feed, I’m reminded at how many of my childhood friends have stayed put in the place where they’ve grown up.  And it’s not hard to see why, since the private Christian school we attended runs all the way from preschool to postgraduate. Whereas I parted ways after twelve years to go to a secular university somewhere else, most of my class–and all of my friends–opted to rollover into what I called the 13th grade. There’s a whole host of reasons why staying for college made sense for them, however, and so it’s only been after graduation where location decisions were less obvious that I’ve been surprised. Forget going ye therefore to different nations, or even states; Greenville County is home. To a lesser extent (and yes, I am just speaking in anecdotes based on my FB friends), many of my USC acquaintances have stayed in South Carolina and (perhaps most perplexingly) in Columbia, even if they’re not from the area.

A typical suburban household.

What to make of all this? At first, my quick-draw explanation was to throw in some combination of status-quo bias and path dependence. Applying the status-quo bias I imagine is straightforward enough, but path dependence less so: here I’m using it to mean that the longer one stays in one place, the more geographically-bound his social network becomes, thus also binding his options to wherever he happens to be. Plainly put, people stay in a rut because there’s nothing strong enough to pull them out, and the longer they stay in, the deeper the rut becomes.

As I was googling around on this topic, however, I also came across two related psychological effects which might also apply. The first is the appealingly-named propinquity effect, which says that closeness (in one way or another) matters a lot for attraction. Similarly, the exposure effect holds that “people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them.” Perhaps then the status-quo bias is powerful because people like where they because that’s where they are.  Ain’t nothing like social science to make intuition sound complicated, is there?

How then have I managed to overcome the mighty propensities of my brethren? My city of residence has, after all, changed once every six months on average since graduating from college.  There are the Adamsian reasons, yes, but those are probably just cover for the real–but less noble and wise–motivations to signal how cool and cosmopolitan I am.  Something about this story is awry, however, because every time I move (Happy New Year!) I still feel a need to explain that I’m not cuckoo bananas.

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