Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas, Charlottesville.

I've been researching the Global Business Network and Scenario Planning. The idea here is to chart out possible future scenarios for the item of interest, in my case Charlottesville. You look at a do-nothing scenario, realistic scenarios if each faction gets its way, and hopefully some scenarios where multiple or even all factions get their way. Something that's bothered me with Charlottesville is that we have no real vision, no great plan for the future that we all understand and believe in. Even among the elites who follow these issues closely. The County has attempted this with the Neighborhood Model, with mixed success, but the Neighborhood Model is really just a jumble of useful tactics. It isn't really a scenario/dream/vision. I see nothing comparable on Charlottesville's end. Folks like Maurice Cox and ACCT support the Streetcar, folks like Mitch van Yahres and Bern Ewert support the Ruckersville Parkway, folks like David Slutzky support Bus Rapid Transit, and folks like Meredith Richards support the Virginia Railway Express. I happen to support land value taxation. Whoopee, these are all tactics. They're meaningless without a greater framework to rest upon. I'd like to see all of the interested groups in Charlottesville get together and chart out some possible scenarios for the region. I'd like to see a pro-development backlash scenario like what we saw in Loudoun, I'd like to see a Smart Growth scenario, I'd like to see a No-Growth scenario, and I'd like to see all the scenarios we aren't even talking and thinking about, like some sort of small farmer agrarian scenario like what Al Weed and Dave Matthews seem to be leaning towards, or a William McDonough-style Eco-Effective scenario, or a Peak Oil scenario, or a positive libertarian vision that doesn't trample our countryside, like what I suspect is in Neil Williamson's head. I'd like to see some real analysis done to see how all these scenarios pan out, who wins, what works, and I'd like for the region to go through the process to find a plan where we all win, and make it happen. I think there is a broad understanding of how special this region is, and what a crucial turning point we are at. We're drowning in good ideas, but without a scenario to throw around, a framework to fit them in, they have no substance, and we'll keep marching along the path of least resistance.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

This is the first short story I wrote. It was inspired by Ray Kurzweil's Age of Spiritual Machines.

Lost in Fog
Lyle Solla-Yates

I reclined on a bench in my favorite garden, lost in daffodils. A monarch butterfly flew out from them and fluttered in front of my face. I lay still, watching the butterfly. It landed on my nose and slowly flapped its wings. I crossed my eyes and watched it melt away to nothing.
A bed of marigolds wilted and flowed together, forming a patch of brown linoleum tiles in the mulched bed. Two cherry trees parted to reveal a dingy corridor. My father stepped out of the corridor into the garden.
“Tom, where are your glasses?”
“Oh, I forgot. They’re right here.” I pulled a fresh pair of brown-rimmed glasses out of my pocket and put them on.
Dad frowned. “Your glasses have black rims.”
“Right.” The rims turned black.
“You have to maintain your habits, Tom. Humans are creatures of habit.”
“Yeah, you’ve told me,” I answered quietly.
Dad squinted at me. “What happened to your face?”
“My pimples? I have to keep my pimples?”
“They’re part of who you are, Tom.”
I felt two pimples appear on my face: one on my lower lip and another on the side of my nose, where I could see it.
My dad nodded. “Better. Have you been doing your homework?”
I shook my head, exasperated. “I barely did my homework before, what’s the point?”
He sighed and looked at the endless fog outside the garden walls. “It’s important, Tom.” He walked to the edge of the garden and turned back to look at me. A dark hallway stretched out behind him. “We’re having dinner up top tonight.”
I grunted and dad walked away. The trees closed up behind him. A flute played somewhere.
Moaning a little, I sat up on the bench and took my father’s workbook out of some thick ferns. I brushed a ladybug off the cover and started reading.

DARPA Internal Report
Top Secret

The civilian applications of U Fog are limitless. Medicine, communications, entertainment would benefit from this technology. Manufacturing is the most severe design problem. While desirable for control, centralized production is not viable. Atom by atom construction of nanobots is too slow and too costly. Nanobots need to self-replicate to a defined limit…

DARPA Nanotech Division Progress Report
Top Secret

Building upon the recent developments regarding buckyballs and their applications in nanotechnology, our division has successfully developed several microscopic carbon-based robots. They are able to work in a coordinated manner and are responsive to remote commands. More research is needed to improve user interface and refine nanobot motor skills…

Something buzzed harshly in the giant dandelion patch, breaking my concentration. I put down the book and stood up. I walked to the patch and stuck my hand into the mass of soft white puffs and yellow flowers. I pulled out an old-fashioned metal alarm clock with a new digital display. It read seven o’clock, not that time matters much down here. I turned it off and tossed it back into the dandelions.
The sky darkened and warm tropical rain fell into the garden. I tilted my head up, enjoying the warmth. The rainfall intensified, until the garden was washed away and I was underwater. I swam up, frog style.
My dad sat at our old white antique dinner table on top of the fog. He gestured at the seat across from him. His mouth was full.
I waded to a pool ledge and pulled myself up easily. One of the nice things about this new situation is that I’m a lot stronger. I dried off and sat down. “What’s for dinner?”
“Your mom’s collards and black-eyed peas.” He smiled sadly.
I looked at my collards. “I wish she was with us.”
“I miss her too.” He looked at the horizon, totally gray and empty. The fog frothed hungrily.
I looked up at the stars. They were perfect. I could never get the stars to look that way below. The air was so strange, very light and clear. I sighed and looked back down at the eerie landscape. In the distance, I saw something jutting out of the fog.
I got excited. “Hey, what is that? Is that other people?”
He shook his head. “That’s what I brought you up to show you.” An oriental rug formed below the table and carried us forward. As we got closer, I could see that it was moving slowly. It looked like a giant black rectangle tilting away from us. We stopped moving a hundred yards away from it. I saw our shadows against it.
“Is that a solar power thing?” I stared at the monolith in awe. It was massive.
My dad nodded grimly. “The utility fog is showing some extremely intelligent behavior.”
We had a solemn moment in front of the monolith. I broke it. “How can the fog be intelligent? Isn’t it just a lot of tiny robots?”
He shook his head. “I guess you haven’t gotten that far in the book yet. It is a lot of tiny robots, but the robots are all connected together, like neurons in our brain. Also like neurons, they have the potential for quantum computing, which allows for nonlinear leaps of logic and creative thought. As for how it figured out how to build a solar power collector, I have a theory.”
“Okay, tell me.”
“Read a little further and I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
The sun fell below the horizon and the monolith sank back into the fog.

Nano Lab Hypothesis: Life Beyond our Bodies
Dr. Pete Johnson

In religion, life after death plays a key role in the belief system of a group. However, science has, for the most part, left this concept unexamined. What makes us human? Is it our bodies? Our brains? Our minds, which are not our brains but something beyond and more complex? Or is it our soul?
There have been some fascinating recent developments in destructive scanning. Destructive scanning is defined as an extremely high quality digital copy of a three-dimensional object that destroys the original in the process. This is opposed to, say an MRI scan, which does not destroy the original, but produces a much less sophisticated copy. Destructive scanning is accurate to the submolecular level now. I was involved in a recent and innovative use of this technology in IBM’s Brain Machine project, where we destructively scanned a cadaver in order to reverse engineer his brain. Apparently this will help to build a better computer.
The hypothesis of Nano Lab is that destructive scanning technology can be used to store a person’s data, hopefully that person’s essence, and then download that data into a more durable form, preserving that person’s consciousness. It sounds like ghastly science fiction, but many…

Nano Lab Progress Report
Dr. Pete Johnson

We attempted our first destructive scan and digital reconstitution this week using a cadaver and some “utility fog” on loan from the Defense Department. Although we didn’t get enough to replicate the whole body, what we could copy came out perfectly. An interesting feature of this “fog” which no doubt improves its performance, is the way that it stores data. It works rather like a hologram or the brain, with data distributed evenly and apparently randomly throughout. When this project was in its early stages, it was thought that we would be using some form of robot or even a database, but this “fog” appears to be much more suitable for organic data. Hopefully, we will be able to get more for the next experiment…

DARPA Internal Report
Top Secret

From a Defense standpoint, the key development in nanotechnology is exponential reproduction. The Warbot team has nearly finished a design for assassin nanobots that reproduce exponentially in the circulatory system, causing cardiac arrest. There is also theory work on Counter-Nanotech, since rumors of similar weapons being developed in Europe and China…

I started to get sleepy. Okay, bored; I haven’t been sleepy in a while. I put down the book and stretched, accidentally knocking over a potted ivy plant. I picked it up and put it back on a pedestal. Something was really bothering me, I couldn’t focus. I took off my glasses and cleaned them on my shirt. Unfortunately, that didn’t help. I remembered a trick I figured out the first day. It had really freaked my dad out and he asked me not to do it again. I really felt the urge to, though. I stretched, and I stretched more, and I exploded out in all directions.
I saw my dad working in his office, studying the Fog, still trying to figure out how to stop it. I felt the jagged ocean floor as the Fog dug into it, searching for nutrients. I scraped along great piles of metal and rock, the torn remains of great cities. And far, far north, I felt an irritation, something huge and strange. I went there, curious to see what it was.
It was round and smooth, urgently real, but totally bizarre. It was a gigantic glass sphere bobbing in the Fog. I put my hand against it, fascinated. It didn’t break apart, it was totally solid. I looked through the glass.
Inside there was a garden filled with tropical plants. Something moved, and I saw that it was a girl. She was watering the plants methodically, going from one to the next. She was about my age and very pretty. I tapped on the glass, but she couldn’t hear. I stayed outside the sphere for a while, letting the Fog swirl me around with it. After half an hour, another girl came into the garden and talked with my girl. I thought my heart would burst. Thought became reality and my chest exploded, throwing me away from the sphere.
When I got myself back together, the tropical garden was empty. I looked at other parts of the sphere, seeing people eat, talk, live their lives. They all looked like people from a movie. They were all white and good-looking, and they wore really nice name brand clothes. Watching them made me feel lonely and self-pitying. I left them and went back to my garden. The daffodils waved at me and a fly swooped around my head. I sat down on my bench and tried to think things through. I kept getting this image in my mind of me running towards the girl from the sphere, and we hug and we kiss, and she gets ripped apart in my arms by the nanobots. Like mom.
Before I could clear anything up for myself, my alarm went off. I angrily pulled it out of the giant dandelion patch and threw it against the brick walkway, breaking it apart. I sat down on the bench and looked at the smashed parts for a minute, then picked them back up and put them together. Seven o’clock, time for dinner.
“You’re a little late tonight, Tom.” My dad arched an eyebrow.
I shook my head. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
He shrugged. “Okay, what do you want to talk about?”
“The solar thing, how did the Fog figure out how to make a solar thing?”
“I think it took the idea from our heads, or rather our data, which is spread evenly across the Earth now.”
“So it isn’t really intelligent, it just takes people’s ideas?”
“That’s pretty close. It’s actually extremely intelligent, but it lacks creativity. However, it can apply our creativity to its own problems.”
I remembered smashing the clock in my hand. I saw the scene where I hug the girl and she gets ripped apart again. I faded away from our conversation, moving quickly through the Fog and arriving back where the giant glass sphere was. It was held in a massive fleshy hand far above me. The Fog cleared away where I was standing, and I was too shocked to flow away with it. I stood on bare scored rock, in the shadow of the endangered sphere. I tried to make the giant hand stop, to make it put the sphere down gently and leave it in peace, but it only lifted the sphere higher.
The sphere dropped. I watched it fall toward me, faster and faster. I touched it, and it crushed me. The sphere shattered and the Fog rolled in. The screams carried in the Fog, I heard them even without ears.

I drifted.

I’m alone now, my fantasies are gone. My garden, my father, my girl. They’re gone. It’s strange to be so alone.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

How to Solve All of Our Problems

You know the story about the greek philosopher and the bathtub, yes? I had one of those moments last night at the Medeski, Martin, and Wood show at Starr Hill.
As part of my work with Charlottesville Tomorrow, and to a degree with ASAP, I've been spending a great deal of time watching (with horror) the development trends in Albemarle and surrounding counties. We are being strangled with urban sprawl, ladies and gentlemen. Albemarle's good-intentioned efforts have staved it off somewhat, at least in the county, but it seems to just be rolling out into Greene, Fluvanna, etcetera. If trends continue, the Chicago-New York-DC Megalopolis will slouch south in the next twenty years, swallowing us up and ruining our way of life and economic health. I don't believe I'm exaggerating here, I foresee bad things if major shifts aren't made soon. Even if Albemarle and Charlottesville stay relatively undeveloped, we'll be an island of green in a sea of awful. So that's my fear. I watched it happen in Miami when I was growing up there, and many of you watched it happen in Northern Virginia and elsewhere. The horror.
People want to live in Charlottesville, but because of the way the rules are set up, the only really profitable way to house them is outside the city. Developers buy up surrounding farms cheap, wait a few years, then develop to get the highest price. It's huge money. Dr. Hurt and Wendell Wood didn't become millionaires because they wanted to make our traffic problems impossible and our lives less social and relaxed and physically fit. They wanted to buy low and sell high, like good entrepreneurs.
The way the existing body of laws is set up, developers make the most money by buying low in rural areas surrounding a city, and developing to sell high. They don't make their money selling houses, but in selling land. Developers aren't evil. This came as a bit of a revelation to me, coming from the environmental community, but I believe they simply want to be good entrepreneurs. The challenge then, if we don't want to consume Central Virginia in a sea of awful development and traffic, is to change the laws so that buying low and selling high means compact development in the city. Let's make capitalism work for Charlottesville's future instead of against it.
There are three policies I see as crucial to accomplish this. I assembled them for Charlottesville, but I suspect they would work well in any growing community:

1. A form-based code. This idea was sprung by Duany Plater-Zyberk, the minds behind New Urbanism. Did you see Truman Show? Remember how pretty his town was? That's New Urbanism. Anyway, normal code, Charlottesville's for example, evolved from court battles. People needed to be less bad to prevent lawsuits. So older codes talk about all the bad things developers shouldn't do. Form-based codes talk about all the good things the community wants, and gives developers clear examples and instructions to do it, with easily understood graphics. Reading them is a breath of fresh air for a planner used to older codes. And the beauty of this is that developers are set up to succeed. All the problems that normally come up in the review process are designed out up front, allowing a greatly accelerated approval process. This means developments get a clear timetable and guaranteed public support. Why? Because they're doing what the residents want, from the get-go. Plus, the city saves big bucks on staff time and advertising money for public comment. You can see a beautiful example here. I'm hoping to develop some open-source software in graduate school that allows anyone to almost instantly develop an approved site plan and profitable business plan using this code.

2. Transit that matters. In Charlottesville, people are talking about a streetcar. Other places are talking about bus rapid transit or light rail. What's crucial is a transit system that makes people want to take transit. Most (unprofitable) systems, such as Charlottsville's, serve people who have to take transit because they have no other choice. Everyone else is given excellent roads for their cars, which is the natural choice. Since the gas prices went up, I've been riding the free trolley a great deal, and let me tell you, it ain't competitive. It's extremely undependable, slow, and inconvenient. It's easier for me to drive everywhere. This is wrong. I should have some excellent alternatives, in case I want to be more physically fit, or get outside more, or want to be easier on our air. And in fact, I do. By offering competitive transit, the city becomes a much more attractive place to live, and therefore, a much more attractive place to build. People may cry gentrification at this point, but do you think it's nicer to lower income folks to force them to either live in a house they can't afford close in, or live so far out that they have to drive more than they can afford? Affordability is a big part of this plan, as is diversity. A bus system that only the poor and disabled use, that is clearly inferior to car travel, is not being nice to the lower income folks.

3. Land value tax. A huge reason why developers don't invest in urban areas is that as soon as they invest money in property, it raises the value of the property, and therefore the taxes. As soon as developers put money in, they have to swim upstream to stay profitable. This higher cost is passed on to consumers in various ways, either in the real estate market or hidden in retail prices. Lynchburg and Richmond have somewhat addressed this by offering developers several years with no tax increases when they rehabilitate historic properties. That's a nice thing, and I support it, but I don't believe it goes far enough. I would like to see taxes on all buildings eliminated. Taxes on land would rise to make up for the gap, making this shift revenue neutral. What happens then? Well, development becomes tax-immune. People are free to do whatever they like to their property with no fear of the assessor. In fact, the city can save a great deal of money by canceling real estate assessments. This makes investing in development very very attractive. This could be phased in over several years to ease the market shock.

So that's my recipe for success. If all three elements are enacted at the same time, we'll see a major shift in development away from the suburbs and into the city along with major improvements in housing affordability, lower taxes, better mobility, and a more pleasant, livable city.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

I'd almost forgotten I had this blog. For whatever reason, my web browser stopped working with Blogger for a while, and I left it behind. My thanks to Bill Emory for helping me remember its existence.
I am currently working with Charlottesville Tomorrow as an intern and Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population as a web developer. I'm expecting good things of both in the future.

Much as I enjoyed working in the wine department at Foods of All Nations for a year and a half, I must say that working in my area of interest has made me feel alive again. Exciting things are happening. You can see what I'm working on with Charlottesville Tomorrow on the weblog. It's exciting stuff.

Also, the ideas I discussed in my previous posts remain near and dear to me, and I will get to them. However, at the moment I'm focusing on getting my wine distributing company off the ground and my self into graduate school. Much as I've enjoyed interning with Okerlund Associates, Topia Design, Oliver Kuttner, and Charlottesville Tomorrow, I'm anxious to be able to work on my own two feet, and a Masters in Urban Planning is necessary for that.