The Real Cost Of Changing NYC Street Signs

There’s outrage today over a story that NYC needs to spend $27.5 million to replace street signs because they are uppercase and federal regulations require title case. They will also now be using the font ClearviewHwy rather than what I believe is Highway Gothic (I’m no font geek).

However the headline is misleading if you read the actual article. A little common sense and a trivial knowledge of accounting (you most likely learned this in High School) will make you scratch your head.

The article even says typical sign lasts about a 10 years. They have until 2018 to make the change, which is 8 years. Assuming an even distribution that would mean 80% of the signs would have been replaced by 2018 anyway due to their age. The remaining 20% would be nearing their replacement time anyway. 20% of $27.5 million is $5.5 million. That’s the cost of the signs that will be replaced prematurely.

Even that however is not correct since the city would almost definitely use straight-line depreciation on the cost of the signage. The reasoning for this is as follows: If you have the sign for 8 of the 10 year lifespan, you got 80% of the value. Each year is worth 10% of the value.

The formula goes something like this:

annual depreciation expense = (cost of fixed asset - residual value) / useful life in years of asset

Again we’ll assume an even distribution of the remaining 20% (that’s 10% replacement per year or about $2.75 million). We’ll also assume no residual value though they are likely sold for scrap metal and have some token value.

($2.75M-0)/10 = $275,000

Now 10% of the signs are being replaced 2 years early, another 10% are being replaced 1 year early. That’s 3 years of value lost. That means:

$275,000 x 3 = $825,000

The actual cost to the city is $825,000 in lost value due to prematurely replacing signage. Not $27.5 million. I guess you can throw in a little more for labor, though I doubt you’ll get $26M and change out of that.

Median Home Prices vs. Median Income

The national median existing-home price in July 2010 was $182,600 [source]. The median household income in 2008 was $52,029 [source]. To account for some rising income and play it conservative we’ll call it $55,000 for 2010. I haven’t found any official number later than 2008. We should also note that this estimation ignores the current recession and its impacts like reduced hours, layoffs, and pay cuts.

The old rule of thumb is the maximum house you can afford is 3X your gross income minus obligations (debts). More than that and you’re odds of running into trouble making payments and affording upkeep/taxes becomes too high. That means the median affordable house is $165,000 if the household had no obligations. We of course live in a world of car loans/leases, $100+ cell phone bills, expensive broadband internet, and rising food prices. According to MSN Money the average household owes $8,000 in credit card debt alone [source].

For a more specific example, New Jersey’s median household income in 2008 was $70,347. Per Capita New Jersey is one of the most affluent states in the country. The median value of homes in 2000 was $170,800 [source]. The median price in the Northeast in July 2010 was $263,800. Assuming the median income rose to $75,000 the maximum affordable house is $226,041, again assuming no other obligations.

I should also note this rule of thumb was before the bubble and before banks became borderline paranoid about lending money.

The home ownership rate in the US is 67.8% [source (xls)] which means it’s a pretty representative part of the US population, hardly a niche group which we could suggest lives outside these numbers.

Using this back of the envelope calculation I propose that the housing bubble for existing homes doesn’t end until either the median existing-home price falls to meet the maximum affordable house index, or the incomes rise and debts fall to meet the existing-home price index. Only then will the supply and demand curve finally meet and the market volume will increase. Personal income and wealth are too tight for either the supply or demand side to cave right now. I further propose that housing prices will fall faster than incomes will rise.

Translation: the housing market hasn’t finished correcting.

Monkey Cocaine Research

Buried in an article on stimulus spending:

Then there is the project listed at No. 28 by the senators — $71,623 to researchers at Wake Forest University to see how monkeys react to cocaine.

Titled “Effect of Cocaine Self-Administration on Metabotropic Glutamate Systems,” the project calls for monkeys to self-administer drugs while researchers monitor and study their glutamate levels, the report said.

Emphasis mine.

Maybe I’m alone here, but the government funding monkeys that can snort cocaine on their own is pretty impressive. I’ll be really impressed if they can get one to cook meth. Even more interesting is if they can get them to understand enough about commerce to buy and sell. This is the first step towards making Planet of the Apes a reality.

Caller ID Spoofing Will Soon Be Illegal

Caller ID spoofing is rather easy to do for anyone who is willing to make the effort and apps to make it even easier. It’s akin to forging the “From:” header in an email. Both of these standards were developed in a time and environment where malicious use wasn’t a concern. Today obviously that’s hardly the case.

Now the House passed the “Truth in Caller ID Act of 2010“, which makes it illegal to spoof Caller ID information “with the intent to defraud and deceive”. Blocking is explicitly still allowed.

It covers any technology, not just POTS meaning that VoIP technologies are impacted. In theory even a poorly chosen Skype username (or whatever service you’re using) would technically be illegal. So don’t call yourself “HotChick69” if you can’t prove that it is accurate in court. “With the intent to defraud and deceive” suggests that Google Voice can still spoof Caller ID for the purpose of showing the original number it’s forwarding for, but I’m sure their lawyers are examining things closely.

It reminds me of the “CAN-SPAM Act of 2003”, which has been <sarcasm>extremely effective</sarcasm>. I’m sure nobody will ever spoof Caller ID again.

That said, this is why one should be concerned about services that recognize the phone number your dialing from and let you bypass security measures. Always use a pin.

Fourth Amendment In The Cloud

The Fourth Amendment in the United States Constitution reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

James Madison slipped up and failed to account for advancements in technology like computers and the Internet. Are digital files considered “papers and effects”? Is law enforcement copying files considered “searches and seizures”? If your files live on a server is that considered your “house”? Of course back in his day, this wasn’t even comprehensible. The amendment is a bit dated.

Electronic Communications Privacy Act (EPICA) was an effort in 1986 to clarify how such laws applied to electronic communications. It too is somewhat outdated and heavily focused on the transfer than the storage aspect, something the modern SaaS model has completely disrupted. It’s also been weakened and contradicted by court rulings and things like the Patriot Act.

This creates enough of a legal quagmire to concern a seemingly bizarre list of companies and organizations to form the Digital Due Process Coalition to revise and clarify these laws. For companies like Google and Microsoft it makes sense. Their business relies on making companies and individuals feel comfortable trusting them with personal data. They are also increasingly stuck in odd positions thanks to contradictory and untested laws.

The outcome of this will possibly be as long-lasting and as iconic as the fourth amendment itself. Given our culture, information, and way of life is becoming increasingly digital it will impact a large part of how we function and will function in years to come. For anyone working in IT, this will impact the way you do business.

Google vs. China

Google’s announcement about China is rather stunning in many respects from its candidness to the rather bold decision to potentially leave China over “[t]hese attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web…”.

Some may remember a few years ago that Yahoo! controversially provided information to the Chinese government that resulted in the arrest of Shi Tao and Li Zhi. There’s no evidence this impacted the decision but I would be shocked if it didn’t play any role.

It sounds like within the next few weeks we’ll know if Google and the Chinese government have come to an agreement regarding the censorship of search results. I suspect this is only a tiny part of the full story regarding google.cn.

WhiteHouse.gov Goes Open Source

I noted in January that WhiteHouse.gov relaunched for the Obama administration using a closed source infrastructure (it was using ASP.NET on IIS 6.0) running a proprietary CMS.

It has now relaunched using open source Drupal. Also interesting is that it’s no longer broadcasting any headers regarding it’s server. Considering Drupal is by far better tested on a Unix OS andApache, I’m wondering if they dropped Windows Server/IIS 6.0 in favor of some sort of Linux and Apache. I can’t find any hint at what they are using.

It’s noteworthy that Drupal was already used on recovery.gov and has been used in politics by way of CivicSpace for the Dean campaign in 2004.

Via Drupal it’s still using jQuery (verison 1.2.6). It’s also now using RSS rather than ATOM for feeds, which I presume is by way of the switch to Drupal rather than an intentional effort.

Another interesting change is they tweaked the doctype from XHTML Transitional to XHTML+RDFa.

Pretty much everything else is still the same including the design. Analytics is still done using WebTrends (holdover from the Bush administration) and Akamai still sits in front of their servers.

For CSS hackers: They still choose conditional CSS for IE compatibility.

Their pages don’t fully validate anymore, though there is no terrible markup either.

Video is still done using Flash, maybe they’ll consider adopting HTML5 video. They could do so and fallback to Flash. The latest versions of Firefox, Safari, and Chrome could take advantage of it today. The rest of the browsers would get the Flash experience. That would be the next major step in opening up. Mark Pilgrim has a good primer if they need.

Edit [9/26/2009 @ 1:45 PM EST]: Tim O’Reilly confirms it is indeed running on LAMP, specifically Red Hat Linux with Apache, MySQL and obviously PHP. Apache Solr is used for search.

Feds Alarmed About RFID Reader At DefCon

This is pretty amusing. Federal agents were apparently surprised that there were RFID readers hidden at DefCon, the most cut throat (and amusing to read about) hacker convention. Why they would carry anything containing a RFID chip inside is beyond me, but even more interesting is that they were surprised by this.

The article goes on to explain the usual explanation about how insecure RFID really is. I feel like I’ve written about RFID’s security issues before.

Federal Support For RSS

An interesting little note going around the web today is the push for RSS/Atom feeds by the new administration. For example in the Initial Implementing Guidance for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 [PDF] it specifically dictates that feeds are “required”:

For each of the near term reporting requirements (major communications, formula block grant
allocations, weekly reports) agencies are required to provide a feed (preferred: Atom 1.0,
acceptable: RSS) of the information so that content can be delivered via subscription. Note that
the required information can be supplied in the feed or the feed can point to a file at the agency
using the convention noted below. If an agency is immediately unable to publish feeds, the
agency should post each near term information flow (major communications, formula block
grant allocations, weekly reports) to a URL directory convention suggested below:
www.agency.gov/recovery/year/month/date/reporttype.
It is expected that the information files
will be posted at the following URLs:

  • Major Communications: www.HUD.gov/recovery/2009/02/16/comms
  • Formula Block Grant Allocation: www.HUD.gov/recovery/2009/02/16/fbga
  • Weekly Report: www.HUD.gov/recovery/2009/03/01/weekly

I predicted a few months ago there would be slow growth of feeds in the future. This is just another example of what will be fueling that growth. While I won’t debate RSS vs. Atom here, it’s still interesting to see. It seems whitehouse.gov also prefers Atom using it throughout it’s feeds.

Interestingly a year ago when I profiled all the candidate websites only Hilary Clinton (D), Tom Tancredo (R) and Ron Paul (R) preferred Atom. Everyone else used RSS. I couldn’t even find a feed on Barack Obama’s site.

I wonder if the federal government will ever have a syndication standard, either RSS or Atom. I’m guessing that decision comes down to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) who I don’t think has any standard for syndication. They themselves use RSS. So does NASA among other government agencies with websites. Considering Atom has come closer to IETF standardization it might have an edge over RSS.