The Million Dollar Taxi

The statistic of the day comes from The New York Times, which reports that for the first time ever, taxi medallions–aluminum plates that grant the right to operate a yellow cab–sold for over $1 million a piece:

The sale was the culmination of decades of astonishing growth for the humble medallion, which is nailed to the hood of every yellow cab in the city. When New York issued its first batch of medallions in 1937, the going price was $10 even, or $157.50 in today’s dollars.

Some perspective: The Dow Jones industrial average has risen 1,100 percent in the last 30 years. In the same period, the value of a taxi medallion is up 1,900 percent. That return beats gold, oil and the American house.

According to NPR, New York City strictly limits the number of medallions — currently at just over 13,000. So as the supply is held relatively constant, demand has been rising. But according to NPR:

The medallions create a textbook example of what economists call rent-seeking behavior: Basically, gaining extra profits without providing extra benefits. If the number of taxis were allowed to increase (and if cab fares were unregulated), the number of taxis would increase and the price of a cab ride would fall.

So forget investing in gold or the general stock market… Consider investing in TAXI.

The Casting Director for Police Lineups

Ever wondered where they find the people to fill in police lineups with the guys who didn’t commit the crime? Apparently, in New York, they hire this casting director:

For some 15 years, Mr. Weston has been providing the New York Police Department with “fillers” — the five decoys who accompany the suspect in police lineups.

Detectives often find fillers on their own, combing homeless shelters and street corners for willing participants. In a pinch, police officers can shed their uniforms and fill in. But in the Bronx, detectives often pay Mr. Weston $10 to find fillers for them.

A short man with a pencil-thin beard, Mr. Weston seems a rather unlikely candidate for having a working relationship with the Police Department, even an informal one. He is frequently profane, talks of beating up anyone who crosses him, and spends quite a bit of his money on coconut-flavored liquor.

Sounds like something from the movies, right? It sounds like a hectic life:

Mr. Weston says he is always on call; his Bluetooth earpiece comes off in public only when he goes to the barber for his weekly $16 trim. His cellphone, he says, holds the numbers of some 100 potential lineup fillers, mostly friends and acquaintances from the Mill Brook Houses, the public housing project in the South Bronx where he has lived most of his life.

He often complains about how people hound him for the chance to make a few dollars through lineup work.

“I can’t even play basketball on the courts or sit here and drink a beer,” Mr. Weston said on a recent afternoon. “People are always asking me if there is a lineup.”

Hey, someone’s gotta do it, right?

Readings: Diller’s Creative Process, Google Cars, Africa’s Soccer Impostors

Some interesting articles I’ve read recently:

1) “Picturing Failure, Sketching Dreams” [Wall Street Journal] – an excellent profile of Elizabeth Diller and her creative process. She’s the architect behind The High Line in New York City. This passage about the creative process resonates with me strongly:

Ms. Diller said her creative breakthroughs usually come when she isn’t working. She might be watching a play by the experimental Wooster Group, or seeking out work by late French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, known for his irreverent use of everyday objects. They might come while she’s reading—from an academic journal to People magazine. (Mr. Scofidio [Elizabeth Diller’s husband] sticks mostly to novels; the frequent traveler sometimes rips out each page of a paperback after he finishes it to lighten his load.)

Read the entire piece here, and please also check out my photo essay on The High Line.

(2) “Google Cars Drive Themselves, in Traffic” [New York Times] – very interesting development from Google. This is fascinating:

With someone behind the wheel to take control if something goes awry and a technician in the passenger seat to monitor the navigation system, seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control. One even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation. The only accident, engineers said, was when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.

So is Google competing with DARPA’s Urban Challenge?

(3) “Africa’s Soccer Impostors” [Slate] – this is a sad, incredible story about a team that pretended to be Togo’s national soccer team while playing a game in Bahrain in September 2010. How did it happen?

After what must have been a grueling piece of detective work, the investigators pinned their suspicions on Tchanile Bana, a former national-team coach who had recently been suspended for taking another fake team to a tournament in Egypt.

The story is even more insane than most people would expect… In January 2010, Togo’s real national team traveled by bus into Angola’s Cabinda province, the site of its first match in the Africa Cup of Nations tournament, and this is what happened:

As the Togo team’s bus crossed into Cabinda, armed soldiers from a separatist sect opened fire, killing the driver and two staff members and wounding several players. The team’s French manager, Herbert Velud, was shot in the arm. For around half an hour, the rebels fired on the bus with machine guns and fought with the team’s Angolan security force while the players crawled under the seats.

So unfortunate and bizarre. Are there any national soccer teams that have had worse luck and misfortune? I should mention that the article is written by Brian Phillips, who authored a post that I claimed is an absolute must-read.