Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Day in Philadelphia for $20

Why is there a British flag hanging in Elfreth's Alley?
Let's call it...a sign of the glory of the First Amendment.

Yesterday I went with my friend Pat, my sister Samantha, and her boyfriend Jace to Philadelphia. Jace is from Maine and had never been here before. He is also studying to be a history teacher. So, we undertook to show him historic Philadelphia, on a budget. Our itinerary:
  • 8:04: Purchase SEPTA "Independence" day pass for $10 each and catch the R5 into 30th St Station.
  • 8:45: In West Philadelphia ("born and raised..."), catch the El to 2nd and Market St.
  • 9:10: Tour Christ Church at 2nd and Arch, birthplace of the Episcopal church. See George Washington's pew, a 300-year-old chandelier, and a 600-year-old baptismal font, among other treasures. Stingily give only $1 of the suggested $3 adult donation.
  • 9:30: Walk through Elfreth's Alley, one of the few preserved colonial streets left in the wake of demolition for Independence Mall and I-95. Price: free.
  • 9:45: Walk past Benjamin Franklin's grave on the way to Independence Hall. Price: Free.
  • 9:50: Get a fresh, fluffy, warm, mustard-drenched pretzel from a food truck. The pretzel is so good it "lives up to Avatar's hype." Price: $0.50
  • 9:55: Reach Independence Hall looking for tour tickets, only to discover we must walk a block to the "Independence Visitor's Center" to pick up the tickets. The Center is immensely pointless, a fact made more bitter by the knowledge of the aforementioned demolition of Elfreth's Alley-like neighborhoods in its place. Grudgingly pick up free tickets for the 11:45 tour.
  • 10:00: Stop in and see the Liberty Bell. Have the feeling that the history presented here is to real history as muzak is to music. Nevertheless, the bell is cool. Price: free.
  • 10:15: Stop for another pretzel at another cart. Find the second every bit as delicious as the first. Price: another $0.50.
  • 10:15 Walk to the Second Bank of the United States, and stumble upon an incredible exhibit of portraits of Founding Fathers and their contemporaries. Here is history intelligently and legitimately displayed, as the exhibit tries to explain these folks as products of a movement called the Enlightenment, grouped so as to leave room for visitors to make their own inferences and contextualization. See some really cool paintings. Price: free.
  • 11:30: Return to Independence Hall for tour. Hear excellent tour guide involve the whole group, which included visitors from both coasts, the South, Canada, and France. Price: free.
  • 12:30: Walk to Reading Terminal Market for lunch. Realize there are better times to go than Thanksgiving weekend at peak lunch time. Wait around 45 minutes for a cheesesteak at Spataro's, which proves pretty much worth it. Save money and unnecessary calories by bringing a water bottle from home. Price: $8.
  • 2:15: Walk to City Hall. Explore the tallest masonry building in the world. Find the city's Christmas Village set up in wooden huts on the west side. Meet Germans selling roasted nuts. Find out from the merchant that his group came from Bavaria just for this market and will return two days after Christmas. Share Pat's roasted pecans, which are out of this world. Price: free to me, $4 to Pat.
  • 3:30: Walk through Love Park with the intention of reaching the Franklin Institute.
  • 4:00: Stop in to see the Comcast Center's video wall, and receive 3D glasses for their "Holiday Spectacular" show. Enjoy the beautiful screen, though it is merely a glorified screen saver. Discover exactly how empty Christmas becomes when stripped of its Christian context, as most spectacularly displayed by a children's chorus of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" for the finale. Price: free.
  • 4:25: Return to Love Park for photos of Sam and Jace under the iconic sign.
  • 4:45: Take the El past the giant clothespin to 5th and South with the intention of dinner at Pietro's and an exploration of the street. Price: free.
  • 5:15: Elect instead to return home for free lasagna from Mom's kitchen. Stop by Carpenter's Hall, site of the First Continental Congress. Price: free.
A wonderful day with a few surprises to boot. Total cost was $10 for SEPTA, $1 for the Christ Church donation, $1 for two pretzels, and $8 for lunch.

$20 for a day packed with history, culture, and delights for the senses in a world class city? Sounds like a great deal to me.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Next Up: Unintended Consequences

Please don't take this away!
"A bike is a legal vehicle with the same rights and duties as a motor vehicle."
"A Guide to Biking in Philly"
That quote defines a broken and inadequate philosophy toward biking which is harmless when tacitly ignored but harmful to society at large when actually enforced. Unfortunately, it looks like there is a new push to enforce this misguided idea, with tickets for $119.50 likely being written to cyclists in Center City as I write these words.

I see only one reason why a bicycle should be governed by the same rules as a car, and it is not a good one: thinking through proper regulations for bikes would require work, maybe even hard work. Applying rules designed for cars is simple, and might make sense to someone unacquainted with actual cycling experience on the city streets. But if carried to its extreme, streets would become unsafe and inefficient for all users of the road while severely hampering cycling in particular.

Cars have four wheels. Pedestrians have zero wheels. Bicycles have two wheels. As a first approximation, it might make sense to treat a bike as something between a car and a pedestrian. I think this idea is a much better starting point than the quote above.

For example, bikes go faster than pedestrians, but not as fast as cars. That means they should ride on the road, but accommodations should be made for the fact that they are slower. A great solution is the bike lane, which unfortunately does not exist in most places and is often obstructed when it does. However, bikes are flexible! They can bend themselves to be more like pedestrians or more like cars in any given circumstance, and this great advantage allows them to cope with most perils the road throws their way.

In my estimation, the crux of the issue lies in the assertion that bikes, like cars, should never be allowed to proceed through red lights or stop signs. To say otherwise would seem a dangerous idea if bikes were just like cars, but looking through the lens of a pedestrian provides a different perspective.

In Philadelphia, pedestrians frequently move through a red light when there is no car traffic coming. This behavior has the dual benefit of first, saving pedestrians time, and second, getting them out of the way so that when the light turns, parallel traffic need not wait for them to cross before turning. At times, pedestrians cross when it is unsafe to do so, but that does not invalidate the fact that jaywalking in general increases efficiency and productivity for everyone.

In this respect, bicycles are a lot more like pedestrians than they are like cars. A cyclist is equally as capable as a pedestrian of riding to the front of an intersection, determining whether it is safe to go through, and proceeding when it is so. In fact, doing so makes things easier for automobiles, since the slower bike is now out of its way and the car is free to go its normal speed.

I do not deny that reckless "jayriding" is hazardous, inefficient, and stupid, but that fact should not be used to condemn safe use of the practice. If bikes are prohibited from jayriding, the result in a city with ever increasing bike traffic will be a pileup of bikes at the light. This result would be inefficient, since not only would the cyclists' commute time be greatly slowed, but cars would also be inconvenienced by the obstacle which multiple cycles present. Given sufficient volume, this situation would also be unsafe, since there is not much space for bicycles to begin with.

How does a city prohibit behaviors like unsafe jayriding while allowing safe and productive use of the practice? This is the kind of challenge which city legislators should take up if they truly wish to make city streets safer and more efficient. Actually condoning moving through a red light for anyone may be hard to swallow at first, but that is only so if one has only experienced the perspective of an automobile.

It is easy to shackle cyclists to all of the limitations of motorists while denying them any of the benefits of the pedestrian side of their nature, but actually doing so almost keeps cycling from being worthwhile. Depending who you are, that may not be a problem. In a society as auto-dominated as ours, most people probably would not care, and many would probably be happy to have streets sanitized of the two-wheeled nuisances.

But any Center City rush hour prominently displays how broken our auto society has become, and any look at obesity statistics shows how sorely many Americans are lacking exercise. Within the city, biking is faster and more efficient than driving, with virtually none of the parking hassle. It is also a great way for people like myself who struggle to get enough exercise to burn calories.

In short, biking is a godsend, working against several social problems at once, and we ought to seek to make even more provision for its use rather than bullying cyclists off the road. There is no question that as use has increased, more regulation has become necessary. Let us hope that we as a city can rise to the challenge of doing so in an intelligent, useful fashion.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

If this is the placebo effect, I'm going to look like a fool.

To try and make ends meet while unemployed, I have been taking part in a study of the effects of Adderall on memory, concentration, and personality. For that work this morning I took a pill which was either Adderall or a placebo, watched an hour of the Planet Earth documentary while the drug kicked in, took a personality test, and took part of the SAT.

The drug's effects are likely still with me as I compose these thoughts.

This was my first time taking a pill for the study, but I feel pretty confident that this one was the real stuff. The sharpest changes I notice are an increased need to concentrate and increased self-awareness.

I say "need to concentrate" rather than "ability to concentrate" because I feel a drive to go deeply into whatever is my focus. I dove deeply into each separate task on the SAT, yet switching gears was unpleasant. I wanted to be absolutely immersed in each task while I was doing it, and having to come back to the surface before diving into a different task was unpleasant.

This behavior made clock management a little more difficult. Rather than having the back of my mind tethered to the big picture of completing the entire test as best as possible, I wanted to delve fully into every problem and task for its own sake, spurning the larger task at hand.

While I was able to concentrate more and attack problems with fiery zeal, I don't think I necessarily performed better. For instance, at the beginning of the math section there were several problems which I had trouble completing, yet with which I was fairly sure that I would not normally have much trouble. I felt as though there were a couple of circuits in my brain not connecting well.

I think the increased self-awareness I notice may not be directly due to the pill, but rather due to my curiosity as a scientific observer of myself in changed circumstances. Nevertheless I found myself thinking about my posture and my motion on my bicycle in ways I don't normally, which are the kinds of observations I wouldn't be making just based on searching for the pill's effects.

The questions lurking behind any such study are, first, can we actually expand human capabilities with this pill? Second, should we?

The consequences of answering those questions with respect to Adderall are pretty benign, since its effects in any rate aren't dramatic. Whether we do or we don't, most people's lives probably don't stand to change much.

But those answers will follow us once we open the door to more dramatic "enhancements." Our ability to change who we are and our descendants will be undoubtedly will increase, whether by taking drugs to change our minds and our bodies, by altering our genetic code, or by other means. In my opinion, the answer to the first question (can we?) is a clear yes.

I wonder whether many who are providing those yeses to the first question will give the second question a second thought. To most I expect it, too, leads to an obvious yes.

The specter of transhumanism has already graced our baseball players and our Olympic athletes, and it looms larger in the future as we journey inward. Should we? I hope to write more later.