February 17th, 2013

_Down the Asphalt Path_, Clay McShane

Subtitled The Automobile and the American City

"Clay McShane is Associate Professor at Northeastern University in Boston", well, he was, now he is "Emeritus" and while he used to do lots of car stuff this says he's into horses in cities now:


This book was published 1994 by Columbia University Press, however, it reprints part of "the author's May 1979 essay, "Transforming the Use of Urban Space: A Look at the Revolution in Street Pavements, 1880-1924"

It is the nature of this sort of book that it's going to be a bit of reuse, recycle (hence, two of the chapters spend a lot of time on the interaction of horses, rail, autos and pavements, and parts of other ones spend a lesser amount of time on the same thing -- a large chunk of the book, in other words), it is the nature of the topic that a good chunk of it is going to be reporting contemporary sources of variable reliability about what was actually happening, er, on the ground.

I found it frustrating, however, for two main reasons. First, there's a lot of scattershot facting: little details that struck the author as interesting or odd that he encountered in his research and serves up here. A lot of them _are_ interesting or odd, altho some of them I can't figure out why the author found that interesting or odd. I resorted, as I am wont to do, to the notes, where I discovered that quite often he was relying upon a quotation in a source unavailable to me. For example, he says that some sect banned cars, or specifically Buicks but not Model Ts because of exalting the heart. In both references (I've merged two), the source is a 1928 doctoral thesis that I cannot find a copy of (want to help? It's John Henry Mueller's _The Automobile: A Sociological Study_, 1928, University of Chicago). It's a maddening references in so many ways, because McShane calls the sect in question Dunkards (in one of the references, and I'm convinced if it isn't Dunkards in both, it's some related anabaptist group in the other and I'd like to know which) so naturally it is interesting to me. And he treats them as a "traditional" group which isn't really a fair way to characterize Anabaptists, altho I don't doubt that they'd like it.

Second, his gender analysis is relentlessly ... second wave feminist? would be the most optimistic interpretation, but honestly that's not particularly fair to second wave. He finds all kinds of reasons why women might not want to drive cars in the time frame he is discussing: they are dirty, unreliable, prone to breakdown, likely to be attacked by pedestrians, physically exhausting to start and operate, not to mention expensive. Sounds like _just_ the sort of thing a typical woman in any time and place might want to participate in, doesn't it? But instead, he dives into some weird analysis of power relations and threatened masculinity, when it is extremely apparent that even as the automobile became more widespread and accessible to less monied group (and thus a family could afford at most one, vs. earlier adopters who collected them in stables and thus had one or an entire category -- electrics, devoted to use by women and/or those who drove them about), women were never legally restricted in the United States from ownership, registration or operation, and while the first (only) car in a family was often registered in the man's name, equally it was often driven by the woman as well.

He does demonstrate that many women in the very narrow cohort that interests him (women who reached driving age before 1916, IIRC) were likely to drive than later cohorts, which is, I suppose, something, but I'm not sure what. We often tend to keep doing whatever we were doing when we matured: we adopt a pattern of life and are more likely to stay within it than engage in dramatic change. The pattern of life typical of the time period he is interested in involved a huge fraction of the population not ever moving very far in the course of their lives -- or making one big move and then never moving again, type of thing. I think that's a better explanation of that female cohort never-driving (in conjunction with how awful the cars and roads were when they might have been young and foolish enough to learn to drive) than the threatened masculinity and blah blah bleeping blah which he repeatedly invokes.

McShane also mentions children in the context of cars only rarely, and yet this was the last cohort that had large families as a matter of course. While he mentions the monied car owners complaining about the availability and reliability of chauffeurs, he completely ignores the issues associated with other kinds of domestic help, which continued to be an issue through this time frame. That only comes up when he talks about the move to the suburbs and home automation (and there, I feel like he's violating his time frame more often than not). Women who were having and caring for 5 or 6 or 7 children weren't really in a position to be learning to drive a car, much less engaging in extended road trips. While auto makers showed women with children in cars (and a few people were driving their kids around as a reward or a leisure activity and he mentions this in passing), they didn't show women and children in cars in line drawings with slashes to show them speeding down the road. I'm fairly certain everyone knew that if kids got hurt getting thrown when a horse ran away with the wagon (surrey, curricle wtf), kids got dead in autos pretty easily, too. McShane talks about kids in streets being killed (it's _really_ obvious McShane is writing through a Jane Jacobs lens), but he doesn't talk about kids in cars. It's a lapse that was an error, because therein lies most of the explanation for the paucity of women drivers. Women who were not elite enough to have an army of child care were spending all of their time in the company of and responsible for small children, which was wildly incompatible with automobility during his chosen time frame and a good while thereafter.

Far and away the biggest problem with the book, however, is its failure to even mention the development of rapid transit, particularly in NYC, during the time frame he covers. That's such a problem that it renders everything about the rest of his discussion of the evolution and revolution in urban space irretrievably suspect.

Don't waste your time. You'll learn things you can't trust, and can't check.

But if anyone can find that Mueller thesis for me, I'll pay to have it copied if I can't pay to buy it.

I bought my copy of McShane's work used in paper. It'll head out to the donation bin within the month.

a persistent clutter problem

I used to have a pile on the kitchen counter, that I would hide in a drawer underneath when we needed to straighten up. I never managed to clear it away completely, despite repeated efforts, so I thought, hey, I'll buy a home filing Thing to put in the living room and be the place my laptop lives and whatever I am drinking or snacking on while watching TV. In the process of acquisition, that Thing turned into a two drawer lateral file with a hutch of bookshelves on top: sort of an obese version of what was once known as a secretary.

Even _that_ didn't put an end to the pile on the kitchen counter, but I wiped it out -- permanently -- recently, and have been working hard to clear out the lateral file and the shelving. Alas, every time I get it clear, it repopulates, so after reorganizing it for the nth time and moving contents out of the house or elsewhere in the house, I thought about it for a while and I believe I have figured out what the core problem is.

That Thing is where I put all my Projects of a Unusual Size: electronic gadgets as yet unopened that need to be opened up, powered up, configured and put to use, type of thing (the Rosetta Stone headset was in there, the travel router was in there, the external hard drive is still in there, nagging at me to bag up my laptop). And a whole host of other things that I can't think of right now because if I remember all of the POUS's at the same time, I freak out because I recognize that I Will Never Get Them All Done.

Which is okay. R. configured the travel router today and we discussed why I own it and whether I still should and if we should be putting it to some use in the house. We concluded that we didn't need it in the house. I recalled that the Use Case was when we went somewhere that had wire-ful internet but either had no wire-less internet or it was really, really terrible. This used to happen a lot, so I put the travel router on a wish list and either someone bought it for me or I gave in and bought it for myself, but by that time, all the places we were traveling had decent wire-less service and the Use Case had largely evaporated.


So I'm in a quandary. Should we go spend a week at a lovely place where a wireless router would come in handy, buying this a second time would be incredibly annoying, so I don't want to get rid of it. OTOH, it seems a little lame that I'm hanging onto it Just In Case. It's going to continue to take up space in a drawer (probably not in the hutch, tho -- probably in one of the drawers in the closet where I store travel equipment like headphones for the kids). And it will no longer be silently reprimanding me for owning something Really Very Cool and not even bothering to take it out of the box.

Maybe I'll spend five minutes on the drawers and see what else can be moved along.

Why DO we still get phone books?

Phone books don't happen very often and ours aren't very big. I make a point of getting rid of the old one of each when the new one arrives and there's a drawer in the kitchen where they live.

Where they lived.

Because one of my cousins posted to FB: "Why do we still have phone books delivered? When was the last time you needed one?"

I told R. about this and speculated that within 10 years, even allowing for people who don't want them to go away, it was kind of hard to imagine paper phone books existing at all, beyond a few thin ones produced for highly local areas that continued to rely on a paper and wire-ful world. Then he said that Seattle got a punch of phone book producer pushback when they implemented an opt-out system (makes sense: they need to sell advertising, and advertisers don't want to advertise to all the people who didn't opt-out, right? Because that's just rubbing their noses in the obvious). He said 100K people signed up in the first few weeks, which is an interesting minority of the area's population.

Anyway, I latched onto the idea you could turn this stuff off. Here's one way:


Have fun! I'm all excited, because we not only opted out of everything (who knows if it will really work, but catalog choice's mailstop sure worked, so I'm feeling optimistic), we _threw away all the existing phone books_, mostly because neither of us could think of a scenario where we couldn't look a phone number up online but could somehow still have phone service.

ETA: In 2010/2011, Seattle and San Francisco passed ordinances which included penalties to phone book distributors who left books at addresses that didn't want them (I think Seattle had an opt-out and SF had an opt-in, but I'm not entirely certain). Last October, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled Seattle's ordinance on first amendment grounds: sure, phone books have commercial speech, but they have other speech as well and that gets full protection.

I analogize this to the right (and I do mean right) of Jehovah's Witnesses and others to litter our front doors with their religious paperwork. We may not like it, but it's sort of part of the current deal. And while you can rail against it, the odds of winning this particular battle are slim.

The good news is, the opt out page I mentioned above was created by the phone book industry in the wake of this kind of legislation, so Something Good Came of It All, I guess, altho not as effective an anti-littering operation as one might have hoped for.

ETAYA: http://sfappeal.com/news/2012/10/sf-suspends-yellow-pages-distribution-law-but-you-can-still-opt-out.php



ETA still more (live in fear -- there will likely be even more since I'm getting a lot of kid-related interruptions):


My sister is wildly skeptical that this will work -- she's called in the past and been told it goes to every door. R. points out that the people doing the delivery are paid by the ones they don't come back with, so they've historically dumped what they couldn't deliver (hundreds stacked outside a locked apartment building, type of thing) -- this is part of what motivated the Seattle ordinance, which he remembers being bandied about before we moved out in 2006. The comments at the above referenced link claim, as R. does, that the law requires that _all_ addresses receive a phone book, which is presumably from the days when phone books weren't delivered in economically less advantaged areas (and/or racially segregated areas, etc.).

Maybe we're going about this the wrong way. The catalog choice stuff is driven by the presumption that a catalog company has to pay to have the damn things printed and would just as soon not print and mail copies for people who are angered just to see them. Phone books, alas, have a perverse incentive: the publisher wants to keep the "subscriber"/delivery base high to justify a higher ad rate.

If we can convince enough businesses that advertising in the phone book is a pointless waste of time and/or get _them_ to lobby the phone book companies to stop delivery to people who don't want them (don't know how to accomplish _that_), the phone book publisher might actually listen.

Unfortunately, paper, ink and time on the printers gets cheaper and more available every single year that goes by, making production of these things tough to attack on a cost basis. Delivery is presumably done on a "contract" basis in much the way newspapers have historically been delivered. In an economic downturn, it's too easy to get reliable people to deliver the books, so pressure via labor is unlikely.

We may be stuck with these things for a while.

I guess the mediocre take away for me is, even if the opt out doesn't work, I took the step of throwing away the phone books, and will pre-emptively throw them away from now on.

Mandatory Phone Book Laws

With the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturning Seattle's and San Francisco's efforts to punish persistent delivery of unwanted Yellow Pages, people are talking about laws that mandate delivery of the phone book to all addresses. But do these laws refer to the yellow pages, the white pages, or both?


This article says that at least some (maybe all?) of those laws are specific to the White Pages, and there has not been a push by recipients to get rid of the White Pages -- or even the legislators and regulators and elected officials who made such a big deal over the Yellow Pages. And that must be in part because the phone book publishers would really rather not deliver _any_ of these things and if you give them the opportunity to just quit, they will. And we probably shouldn't go randomly sticking it to all those 60ish, 70ish and other people out there who are persistently without electronic access to the same information.

The author of the pieces provides a detailed explanation of how to address this particular issue in a fair way (ensuring that the people who still want and need the white pages won't be stranded), and the limited comments are all worth reading.

More on the subject, and on which states are modifying (or have modified) their laws to allow opting out of white pages:


The links embedded in it are _stunning_. Very, very few people want the white pages anymore.

Experimenting with Smart Delivery and other signs of Phone Book Decline


Substantial piece on a big phone book publisher which is planning further cost cutting in 2012 (article dated March 2, 2012) after a couple years of layoffs, as they continue to transition to a digital product.

"The bulk of the cost-cutting will stem from what Mockett calls "smart distribution" of print directories. With seven of 10 adults using print directories, that means three of 10 people never open the books, Mockett said. Dex is putting programs in place to make sure that the directories are delivered only to the people who really want them."

Some 2011 coverage from the changeover in many states away from mandatory delivery of white pages:


Some 2010 coverage about California considering making the switch from mandatory delivery of white pages, notable for this quote:

“Anybody who doesn’t have access to some kind of online way to look things up now is probably too old to be able to read the print in the white pages anyway,” joked Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University.

- vcstar.com

Altho on the whole, I think this is the most interesting paragraph:

"Earlier this year, two Riverside men who were hired to distribute more than 700 new telephone books were arrested after they were found dumping them in a Ventura ravine."

better, even, than these (a true sign that we are nearing the end):

"If the white pages are nearing their end, then Emily Goodmann hopes the directories would be archived for historical, genealogical or sociological purposes.

“The telephone directory stands as the original sort of information network that not only worked as kind of a social network in a sense, but it served as one of the first information resources,” said Goodmann, a doctoral student at Northwestern University who is writing her dissertation on the history of phone books as information technology."

Ah, a PhD thesis on phone books. They can't last long now, can they? Altho I don't think Goodmann is done with the thesis yet:


You know, I think that's out of date. I think she's working at DePaul now.


This one is fantastic:


A blogger returns to see how his predictions turned out. The phone companies are trying to (or have already) unloaded their directory divisions, which used to be reliable cash cows (amazing chart of profitability) but are now subject to rampant bankruptcy restructuring.

I think the piece of this I find most astounding is how under-the-radar for me it was until R. told me about the pushback on the Seattle ordinance -- and yet here I've been tracking e-books, mail volume decrease, newspapers attempting to transition to paywalls, blah, blah, bleeping, blah and never once, not even for half a second, thought about paper phone books.

ETA still more: Italian Yellow Pages insolvent:


That one is recent, from earlier this month. Owes $200 million Euros this year, but, "The telephone directory company, Seat, said in a statement after a board meeting that it could only generate cash flow of around 50 million euros to service its debt and had available liquidity of some 100 million euros." Oooooh. They think they need to restructure the debt. I'm thinking that's a rearranging the deck chairs statement, but what do I know.

If you do a google news search on "yellow pages" (in quotes), some of the things that pop up are yet-again articles about scammers who call small businesses, tell them their ad in the yellow pages is about to expire so just give us your credit card and we'll renew it. Businesses _do_! Sometimes their credit card company catches the charge and stops it. Really, the mind, it boggles.