The Woes of Atlanta’s Housing Market

The New York Times has a story on Atlanta’s depressed housing market. It paints a dire picture of my hometown:

The reasons for Atlanta’s housing woes are both representative of the nation’s troubles and special to this former boomtown, where housing appreciated handsomely, though not to the lofty heights of Las Vegas, Miami and New York.

Where the region once attracted thousands of prospective home buyers drawn by plentiful jobs and more affordable living, that influx has dwindled. Local unemployment, at 9.2 percent, is slightly higher than the national rate, in part because one in every four jobs lost was connected to real estate, a much higher rate than in the rest of the country. Those jobs have yet to return, while even people with work are having trouble qualifying for loans.

The region, plagued by mortgage fraud and developers who dotted the exurban landscape with large luxury homes that never sold, is inundated with foreclosed properties. In fact, Atlanta has the most government-owned foreclosed properties for sale of any large city, according to the Federal Reserve.

Quite simply, it’s a buyer’s market right now:

Atlanta has suffered greatly from a contracting pool of home buyers. The number of people moving from within the United States to Atlanta peaked at 100,000 in 2006 and plunged to just 17,000 by 2009, the latest census figures available.

On The Diversity and Genetics of Dogs

This short National Geographic piece explains how the enormous diversity of dog breeds can be explained away by a relatively small change in genetic manipulations:

The difference between the dachshund’s diminutive body and the Rottweiler’s massive one hangs on the sequence of a single gene. The disparity between the dachshund’s stumpy legs—known officially as disproportionate dwarfism, or chondrodysplasia—and a greyhound’s sleek ones is determined by another one.

The same holds true across every breed and almost every physical trait. In a project called CanMap, a collaboration among Cornell University, UCLA, and the National Institutes of Health, researchers gathered DNA from more than 900 dogs representing 80 breeds, as well as from wild canids such as gray wolves and coyotes. They found that body size, hair length, fur type, nose shape, ear positioning, coat color, and the other traits that together define a breed’s appearance are controlled by somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 genetic switches. The difference between floppy and erect ears is determined by a single gene region in canine chromosome 10, or CFA10. The wrinkled skin of a Chinese shar-pei traces to another region, called HAS2. The patch of ridged fur on Rhodesian ridgebacks? That’s from a change in CFA18. Flip a few switches, and your dachshund becomes a Doberman, at least in appearance. Flip again, and your Doberman is a Dalmatian.

This is in stark contrast to genes in humans, where something like human height is controlled by interaction of 200 or more genes. So why is there such a difference in dogs? The answer lies in domestication of dogs:

Sheltered from the survival-of-the-fittest wilderness, those semidomesticated dogs thrived even though they harbored deleterious genetic mutations—stumpy legs, for instance—that would have been weeded out in smaller wild populations.

The most fascinating part of the piece is the relevance of dog to human diseases, and how they may be related:

Cornell researchers studying the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa—shared by humans and dogs—found 20 different canine genes causing the disorder. But a different gene was the culprit in schnauzers than in poodles, giving researchers some specific leads for where to start looking in humans. Meanwhile a recent study of a rare type of epilepsy in dachshunds found what appears to be a unique genetic signature, which could shed new light on the disorder in us as well.

Here is the link to the Cornell genetic diversity project in dogs.

###

(hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)

Jonathan Franzen on E-Books

Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom and The Corrections, expresses his thoughts on e-books:

The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model.

I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.

Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball.

But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

I understand where Franzen is coming from, and I used to be in the same camp as he is now (i.e., I wouldn’t read any e-books). But ever since I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs on my iPhone, I’ve become more warm toward reading books on digital devices (I have still yet to get a Kindle, however).

Franzen goes on:

Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring.

Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

Yes, the concept of being reassured that the text hasn’t changed is wonderful. But he neglects dynamic titles that can be updated over the years (think introductions and forewords to texts). My feeling is that Franzen’s thoughts on e-books will become more malleable (i.e., sympathetic) in the next few years. It certainly takes time, as was the case with me.

Whoopensocker! Dictionary of American Regional English is Complete

The Guardian notes that the Dictionary of American Regional English (fun acronym: DARE) is finally completed, after 50 years of work:

From whoopensocker to upscuddle, strubbly to swivet, 50 years after it was first conceived the Dictionary of American Regional English is finally about to reach the end of the alphabet.

The fifth volume of the dictionary, covering “slab” to “zydeco”, is out in March from Harvard University Press. It completes a project begun in 1962 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, when Fred Cassidy was appointed chief editor of a dictionary of American dialects. Cassidy spent several years crafting a 1,600-question survey covering all aspects of daily life, and in 1965, 80 fieldworkers set out in “word wagons” to 1,002 communities across the US, interviewing 2,777 people over six years. This information has been mapped by editors over the last 40 years with written materials dating from the colonial period to the present, creating a 60,000-entry dictionary that its chief editor says gives the lie to the popular myth that American English has become homogenised by the media and the mobility of America’s population.

From DARE’s site:

DARE can tell you where people might live if their favorite card games are euchre, five hundred, schafskopf, sheepshead, or sixty-three; or where Americans eat apple pandowdy, lutefisk, or rivel; or where people are from if they live in dog trots, railroad flats, salt boxes, or shotgun houses.

The language of our everyday lives is captured inDARE, along with expressions our grandparents used but our children will never know. Based on interviews with thousands of Americans across the country, as well as on newspapers, histories, novels, diaries, letters, government documents, and other written sources, the Dictionary of American Regional English presents our language in its infinite variety. 

For the serious word lover, this dictionary is a must on your bookshelf. You can pre-order the dictionary here.

###

(via WSJ)

Why Young People go into Finance, Law, and Consulting

Tyler Cowen has a simple theory why young people tend to go into law, finance, and consulting:

The age structure of achievement is being ratcheted upward, due to specialization and the growth of knowledge.  Mathematicians used to prove theorems at age 20, now it happens at age 30, because there is so much to learn along the way.  If you are a smart 22-year-old, just out of Harvard, you probably cannot walk into a widget factory and quickly design a better machine.  (Note that in “immature” economic sectors, such as social networks circa 2006, young people can and do make immediate significant contributions and indeed they dominated the sector.)  Yet you and your parents expect you to earn a high income — now — and to affiliate with other smart, highly educated people, maybe even marry one of them.  It won’t work to move to Dayton and spend four years studying widget machines.

You will seek out jobs which reward a high “G factor,” or high general intelligence.  That means finance, law, and consulting.  You are productive fairly quickly, you make good contacts with other smart people, and you can demonstrate that you are smart, for future employment prospects.

Combined with the fact that these jobs tend to be higher-paying than anything else available, and we’ve got a recipe for young people to pass opportunities in technology, public service, and the like. This New York Times piece sheds some data on percentage of people from Ivy League schools that directly entered finance jobs. For example, those graduating from Harvard were more likely to enter finance than any other career (in fact, 17 percent of new grads did so in 2010, which is down from 28% in 2008, just before the financial crisis).

The Cult and Culture of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

This is an interesting New York Times piece exploring the cult and culture of Stanley Kubrick’s film, The Shining:

Three decades on, scholars and fans are still trying to decipher this puzzle of a film directed by Stanley Kubrick. To them it’s only ostensibly about an alcoholic father, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) going more than stir crazy while his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny, try to cope in an isolated hotel, the Overlook. Mr. Kubrick was famously averse to offering explanations of his films — “I have found it always the best policy to allow the film to speak for itself,” he once wrote — which has led to a mind-boggling array of theories about just what he was up to.

The hotel’s hedge maze, many Kubrick authorities agree, is a reference to the myth of the Minotaur; others have drawn convincing connections between the Overlook’s well-stocked pantry and the confectionery cottage in Hansel and Gretel. The more one views the film — and many of these scholars admit to viewing it hundreds of times — the more symbols and connections appear. 

“Room 237,” the first full-length documentary by the director Rodney Ascher, examines several of the most intriguing of these theories. It’s really about the Holocaust, one interviewee says, and Mr. Kubrick’s inability to address the horrors of the Final Solution on film. No, it’s about a different genocide, that of American Indians, another says, pointing to all the tribal-theme items adorning the Overlook Hotel’s walls. A third claims it’s really Kubrick’s veiled confession that he helped NASA fake the Apollo Moon landings.

When Mr. Ascher first began discussing the project with his friend Tim Kirk, who would later become the film’s producer, the two were simply hoping to find enough fans and theories to flesh out a series of short films, maybe something to post on YouTube. “On paper it seems like a very specific niche,” Mr. Ascher said, speaking at the oldest standing Bob’s Big Boy, in Burbank, not far from a campus of the New York Film Academy, where he teaches a class in editing. “The Secret Meanings of ‘The Shining’ — we should be able to wrap that up pretty quick. But the thing kept growing and growing.” By the time the two were done, “Room 237,” which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, was nearly two hours long.

What they had stumbled upon was a subculture of Kubrick fans that has been expanding over the last several years. The group includes professors and historians, fanboys and artists, many of whom have posted their theories online accompanied by maps, videos, and pages-long explications pleading their cases. The Liverpudlian filmmaker Rob Ager’s video analyses of “The Shining” have garnered hundreds of thousands of YouTube hits; the voluminous online essays of Kevin McLeod, a k a “mstrmnd,” range from the film’s marketing materials to its many uses of artificial light.

This is rather peculiar:

The documentary’s biggest leap of faith comes with Jay Weidner, who posits that Mr. Kubrick helped NASA fake the Apollo Moon landings, then used “The Shining” to both confess his involvement — and brag about it. Mr. Weidner is at work on a DVD about the Kubrick-Apollo connection, his second, and cites as evidence a sweater worn by Danny with “Apollo 11” on it, and the hexagonal design on the hotel hallway carpet pattern, which he argues is a dead ringer for the aerial view of the Apollo launching pad. “The entire substory of ‘The Shining,’ ” Mr. Weidner said in an interview, “is the story of Kubrick making the Apollo footage and then trying to hide it from his wife, and then her finding out about it.”

In case you are wondering, Room 237 is a reference to a haunted room in the hotel, though the NYT piece attests that we still won’t learn what The Shining is after watching the film.

###

Related: Wikipedia has an extensive section of The Shining in popular culture.

Do-It-Yourself Tiny Homes

The WSJ notes that of the most intriguing trends in homebuilding these days is do-it-yourself tiny homes. And there are books aplenty to match this enthusiasm. Among the first on the market this year is Lloyd Kahn’s Tiny Homes, essentially a photo book that preaches the benefits of a “grassroots movement to scale things back.” It has already sold 5,200 copies in the U.S. and Canada since going on sale earlier this month.

If you didn’t read the article first, what would you think of the image below (full slideshow is here)? I kept looking at it for a while, trying to decide whether this is a real house or a doll house…

The money quote from the author of Tiny Homes, Lloyd Khan:

What I’m saying with this new book is don’t get a mortgage, don’t pay high rent, and don’t go into debt…If you’re young enough or you’re just starting out and don’t want to work 12 hours a day, here’s an alternative.

Good trivia: Lloyd Kahn made his first splash in publishing by editing the “shelter” section of the Whole Earth Catalog in the late 1960s, a collection of tools and ideas later much praised by the late Steve Jobs.