Channel your inner Moses

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Since the recession, academics, urban planners, and policymakers alike are diverting their attention away from the national government in light of the political gridlock in Washington. Instead, the focus has shifted to cities and local governments, where increasingly, municipalities are launching innovative practices that would seem impossible to pass through the national legislature.

Last Friday, May 30, 2014 as part of the Princeton University Reunions Weekend, I attended a Princeton Alumni-Faculty Forum on Cities of the Future, where Guy Nordenson, a professor of structural engineering, moderated a panel of four Princeton University alumni to discuss where cities are headed. In a tightly packed room at the School of Architecture, each of the four speakers (listed below) shared variables needed to craft the formula for desirable cities.

Jim Stockard ’64, Curator, The Loeb Fellowship, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Graham A. Richard ’69, CEO, Advanced Energy Economy
John Hatch ’84, Principal, Clarke Caton Hintz; Partner, HHG Development
Clifford J. Levy ’89, Senior Editor, The New York Times

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Stockard, a resident of Cambridge, MA, spoke about how changes in demographics could impact housing demand and consumption. Citing a 2013 statistic that only twenty percent of all households consisted of married couples with children, Stockard urged cities to adapt to the needs of smaller households and retiring baby boomers. Also, because urban planning is often mired in bureaucracy and paperwork, Stockard encouraged civic leaders to be nimble. To that end, Stockard suggested abolishing city and county boundaries, arguing that those boundaries diminish mayoral power while serving no administrative purpose.

Richard, former mayor of Fort Wayne and an Indiana state legislator, acknowledged how difficult a mayor’s job is, a sentiment echoed throughout Buzz Bissinger’s book, Prayer for the City. Richard’s expertise is in economic development: He called for the use of more innovative financing, such as issuing municipal bonds. In addition to public-private partnerships, Richard also advocated for intergovernmental cooperation via local-state-federal partnerships. Noting young people’s preference to live in more active and connected communities that are marked by walkability, bikeability, and the availability of public transportation, Richard insisted “the amount of new tech startups per capita is going to be the most important factor for cities in terms of attracting and retaining young talent.”

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Hatch is a practicing architect who has resided in Trenton for the past two decades. He relentlessly criticized America’s tendency to subsidize suburban sprawl. Later in the discussion when the conversation turned to Benjamin Barber’s 2013 book If Mayors Rule the World, the moderator noted that many notable mayors, such as Robert Moses (read: The Power Broker by Robert Caro, another Princetonian), Ed Wendell, and Michael Bloomberg, use power and sheer will to get things done. “So how should upcoming mayors channel their inner Moses?” Nordenson posed that question to the Panel. “Undo what Moses did,” said Hatch, referring to Mose’s preference of automobiles over human beings.

Finally, Levy, a Pulitzer Award-winning New York Times investigative reporter who now heads NYT Now, centered his talk on citizen engagement. He spoke on why it is crucial for government leaders, urban planners, and engineers to listen. His job as a journalist is to give the public a voice, but he cannot do it alone. Planners need to “bring the public along” and be responsive to the residents’ needs and wants. This “humanization” of cities can be advanced via pedestrianization and building more affordable housing, says Levy, who shared with the audience that he walks seven miles from his Park Slope home to Manhattan as a part of his commute.

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When asked to give a silver bullet for livable and economically competitive cities, each panelist shared their secret ingredient:

Jim Stockard: High-speed rail
Graham A. Richard: High-speed fiber optic internet, become a Google Fiber City
John Hatch: Undo highways
Clifford J. Levy: Declare decent housing as a human right

Five years ago, phrases like “the sharing economy,” “big data,” “urban science,” and “city analytics” were barely entering into the public consciousness. Today, cities are hosting hackathons, hiring data scientists, and implementing edgy policies everywhere from San Francisco’s Zero Waste Goal to NYC’s Vision Zero. To further advance the explosion of citynomics, former mayor Mike Bloomberg recently started a global consultancy to facilitate the sharing of ideas and resources among city leaders. It is not hard to imagine that our cities will become increasing data and technology driven. But how do we transform insights into real policies?

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While all panelists agreed on what needs to be done, putting their thoughts into practice means having fearless civic leaders who can translate what academics and activists say into reality. There is no doubt that Al Gore was right when he predicted the return of regionalism and metropolitanism a decade ago. However, even adding bike lanes, which seems like common sense to many of us, can be an object of backlashes. It is understandable when the backlash comes from Atlanta, a car-dominated city, but what about the whole Citi Bike controversy in New York City?

I have many environmentally friendly and socially aware friends from New York City who are vehemently opposed to Citi Bikes. Some say funds should instead be given to the public transit system. Some harbor a negative perception toward bicyclists. Some despise the commercial look of Citi Bikes. Some cite how the bike share does not address economic inequality. While all are legitimate criticisms, my opinion is that it is better to experiment than not. Although planners should understand and cater to the needs of different stakeholders to the extent they can, there is no silver bullet. Nonetheless, reiteration, adaptation, and eventually culture shift, can allow innovative programs to succeed and persist. Having a charismatic and forceful leader helps too.

About a month ago, my company hosted a brown bag by Jim Manzi, whose firm helps companies implement thousands of RCTs (randomized control trials) on a yearly basis. Why doesn’t the public sector have the same culture of experimentation as the business or the scientific community? Is the government self-perpetuating the myth that its incompetent and backward-looking? I tend to agree with Manzi. The government should implement more evidence-based practices and make decisions based on a wide variety of tools available today, including, but not limited to big data. The government should not be afraid of experimentation and failure. It should, as many successful entrepreneurs tell us, embrace failure.

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It wasn’t meant to be

These photos came out of my first roll of B&W film. Given that I was a neophyte film photographer, let along a black and white film photographer, I was pleasantly surprised by the results. Since Japan, especially Tokyo, provided a more consistent access to high quality development labs than in the states, I took advantage and brought a pack of 35mm cartridges and took my Canon AE-1 almost everywhere I went.

Ah, those were the good days — sipping wine, being a nefarious foodie, hopping venues…

I realized recently that since B&W film roll #1, my zeal for digital photography has diminished drastically. Not only that, B&W film roll #1 turned out to be my first, but also my last roll of film. I haven’t touched my AE-1 since shedding a silent tear upon seeing my receipt for the two rolls of color films I developed here in Princeton back in June 2013.

The cost of film & development is not an excuse, however, because I have spent $11 on a bowl of very sad-looking bulgogi — that’s equivalent to developing one roll of film!

You might ask: “What about your fancy Canon 70D?” Well, I realized that ever since I discovered the beauty of films, I became obsessed with rendering digital images as if they were shot on film. However, no matter how much I perfected the grain width or level, adjusted the curves, and played around with colors, contrast, and blurs, nothing came close to resembling the raw beauty of the film.

One of the best compliments I have received is from a college professor, who told me that I stood out to her because I treasured every experience and proactively took on every opportunity presented to me in life.

Perhaps it’s the unavoidable dreariness and complacency that comes along with careerism, or the lack of companions who are interested in photography, but my photography spirits have dwindled to this, and I am on the verge of doing this.

I think it’s time to reignite.

How I Acquired My First Domain Name

Ladies and gentlemen, connieqian.co is mine.

Don’t paste that into your browser’s address bar just yet because it literally happened 30 minutes ago and I have not uploaded any contents. Nonetheless, I’m pretty giddy about all of this because getting my own domain has been on my mind for the past few years, yet nothing ever materialized… until now.

I created my first website on the now defunct GeoCities to play with HTML. As an unhappy and bored high schooler, building a website enabled me to waste time yet feel somewhat productive.

I created my second website as a part of an AP Art class assignment. My portfolio website was hosted by NISD for a while before disappearing into the oblivion. You can still see my high school art here though.

In the space below, I will describe the steps I took before signing up for my own domain. Although I am completely new to all of this, I hope these steps will inspire or help some of you who are not sure about where to start. So here it goes.

  1. Ask yourself: Why do I want to create a website? 
    This step is important because you don’t want to commit to a 12 or 24 month web hosting plan or waste that $10 on acquiring a domain if you’re not serious about it. I had three compelling reasons to get my own domain name.

    First, I wanted to start establishing my personal brand. Not only is this crucial for my career development, it is also vital for my social media/online presence. Second, as lame as it sounds, I needed a way to motivate myself to learn JavaScript/Python/Ruby. For the past year, I have repeatedly told myself to learn those languages, but never invested more than 10 minutes before quitting. Because I operate well with monetary incentives, spending ~$9 per month, I think, will incentivize me to start coding. Third, I needed a creative outlet. My profession is very analytical in nature, and I have not found a way to channel my creative energy since I started working. It’s about time that I put all of those post-its ideas into something tangible.
  2. What kind of website do I want to build? 
    Do not skip this step. Without having a purpose or knowing your needs, you cannot make an intelligent decision about which web hosting service will benefit you the most and how much money you want to spend. For me, I knew I wanted to build an online portfolio. There would be no business involved (i.e. setting up an online shop or having a customer database). The website would be a simple showcase of my work.

    Tip: I spent countless hours on siteInspire to brainstorm for ideas.
  3. Which web hosting service should I use? 
    I have to admit, I was very confused when I started searching for a web hosting service. Excluding sites like SquareSpace, which is nonprogrammer-friendly, most of the web hosting service websites were not friendly toward first-time users and completely ridden with industry jargons. Besides feeling confounded by all the products each site offered, I was rendered hopeless by the marketing gimmicks each site used. What the fuck is Cloud or Dedicated? Premium DNS? SSL? Whaaa? OK, excuse my ignorance, but I thought the whole purpose of “cloud computing” was to be perpetually backed up? Why then are they offering separate backup services?

    In any case, after hours of research (i.e. typing into Google “what is the difference between X and Y?” or “best web hosting service”), I ruled out cloud hosting and opted for shared hosting. Cloud hosting is for those who expect to have a significant need of resources. For example, if you’re creating a recipe-sharing website and expect to have a big user base and high traffic, then cloud hosting provides you with the flexibility to scale your website as needed. If you’re interested, I get the impression that Amazon Web Service andRackspace provide the best cloud hosting service.
    Because I am not familiar with my hosting needs (yet) and don’t expect to obtain a high traffic (yet), I went with the more traditional and standard options, which meant that I had to navigate through the sea of regular web hosting services. Perhaps this was a bad approach, but I actually went to www.whoishostingthis.com to see what my favorite websites were using as their hosts. After all, you want to learn from the best, right? After some more research, I came down to three contenders: MediaTemple, DreamHost, and GoDaddy. I ruled out MediaTemple immediately because of their price tag (see below). Based on customer reviews and general internet consensus, DreamHost seemed more reliable and ethical than GoDaddy; so I ended up choosing DreamHost’s Shared Web Hosting service.

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    (The little table I made on Google Docs)

  4. Choose a domain name. 
    Depending on your name, this steps may be the hardest. My first choice name, connieqian.com, was already taken; so I had to pick an alternative. Although connie-qian.com was available, I personally don’t like typing a dash and I was repulsed by the the look of having a dash in middle of my first and last name.
    I also ruled out .info and .net because those sounded too commercial and old-school. Although I really like the idea of .org, I didn’t feel important enough to attach the respectful .org to a non-idea or non-nonprofit website. The only choices remaining were country-based domains like .us or .jp.
    In the end, I settled for .co (used for Colombia-based domains) because how succinct and beautiful it was. Also, I guess it would be unfair to not mention the hipster points I get for having a .co domain. I mean, just look at vsco.co! There is even a whole website dedicated to recruiting and supporting .co users. As far as I’m concerned, .com is so yesterday and .co is the new black.
  5. REGISTER & CELEBRATE.

So there you have it — my overly verbose guide to getting your first domain! Happy domain-hunting!

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(mischievous grin, “fufufu”)