Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Parking and Snow

snow cartoonJeff Ely reports the problem:

You dig your car out of the snow, run an errand or two and come back home to discover…someone else has parked in “your” spot! This free rider problem reduces your incentive to dig your car out in the first place. If only property rights could be enforced, your incentives would be good.

According to the Washington Post, some cities use the legal system, others employ norms:

Boston has codified its citizens’ right to benefit from their backbreaking snow-clearing labor; a city law says that if you dig out your car in a snow emergency, a lawn chair or trash can renders the spot yours for at least two days while you’re away at work. In Chicago, blocking a parking spot is illegal, but city officials acknowledge an informal rule of dibs if you’ve done the digging.

During the DC Snowpocalypse of 2010, residents were unsure which method was best. The desire for some level of temporary property rights was there, but enforcement methods varied:

“I know this is public property, but if you spent hours laboring, I mean, come on, I think you have the right to say that is my spot,” said Tanya Barbour, who spent two hours Sunday shoveling free her silver Ford Expedition in the 1500 block of T Street NW. “If someone had clearly taken the time to shovel it out, I would not take that spot because I would not want that done to me.”

Across the District and in the Maryland suburbs Monday, many were not relying on Barbour’s honor system. Some used Boston-style markers — lawn chairs, recycling bins, orange cones, a mattress, even two bar stools with a Swiffer on top — to try to save spots along residential streets.

With Durham facing a forecast of “icy mix” for this afternoon, you can bet we here at YSPR will be on the lookout for emergent norms.

Punctuation Politics – The Curious Case of the Apostrophe

Apostrophe-manSome of the context is unfamiliar to me as a non-UK reader, but Michael Rosen makes an interesting argument that there is a politics of punctuation:

My position is that the apostrophe is on the way out. It’s an inconsistent item anyway; it was invented by printers – not grammarians or linguists – and like a lot of other ‘rules’ of punctuation is modified by use. No bad thing.

Like many other norms in everyday life, punctuation emerges through patterns of common usage. Declarations of these rules like the AP Guide to Punctuation and Strunk & White codify common patterns, but are not the source for them. Rosen uses the inconsistency of the rules to show how they have shifted and evolved over time:

We say as a general ‘rule’ that we use an apostrophe for ‘elision’ (when we leave stuff out) and for possessives (when we want to indicate that someone or something owns someone or something). So when we write ‘haven’t’ – that’s supposed to show we’ve ‘left out’ the ‘o’ of not. When we write ‘Michael’s writing’ that’s supposed to show that the writing is possessed by Michael. He owns it. So far so good.

But is all possession marked with an apostrophe? Oh no. So if we use what have been called the ‘possessive pronouns’, its, his, hers, yours, ours, theirs – no apostrophe! Why not? er…well, no one really knows.Look at eighteenth century texts and you will find phrases like, let’s say, ‘the lands were her’s’. Even Mr Strict, Bishop Lowth, the inventor of crap grammar, used an apostrophe there. So, if it was a ‘rule’ then, when did it become a ‘rule’ to not use an apostrophe in, ‘yours’ or ‘ours’? Answer, it’s only a ‘rule’ if you’re the kind of person who thinks this sort of stuff is a ‘rule’ and not, what I would call a ‘convention’.

Rosen discusses apostrophes for elision–it’s, haven’t, they’re–in some detail. Two other use cases also point out historical irregularities:

By the way that complicated stuff about plural possessives ‘the boys’ caps’ – meaning two or more boys’ caps only became a ‘rule’ in the nineteenth century. Up until then, people like Jane Austen and Daniel Defoe managed to get by without worrying about it.

And in case you’re wondering if the decade was the 60’s or the 60s, the answer is, it all depends on the house style of the whoever is publishing it. Again, it’s a trade matter, not a grammatical one of rules.

And if you’re wondering why the possessive apostrophe came in in the first place? Because most nouns used to express possession with an ending ‘es’ with the ‘e’ sounded out. ‘dogges ears’ – with the ‘e’ heard. That sounded out ‘e’ started to disappear just as the first efforts to standardise orthography came in so with the ‘elision rule’ they reckoned that they ought to mark the ‘loss’ of the sounded ‘e’. So it wasn’t a rule of possession after all! It was the old elision ‘rule’. So when you hear people say that the apostrophe is for ‘possession’ as I did all through this article, I was talking nonsense. It was the ‘rule’ of elision but as with vast amounts of so-called grammar and information about language, we believe in the necessity of lying to children – or just foisting our ignorance on to them. That’s because the old idea of ‘investigating language’ rather than laying down the rules has gone out the window.

When we focus on rules as they exist in the present without regard to their historical record, they seem fixed rather than emergent. But the near future may show us how short-sighted this is. Rosen argues that conventional usage of the apostrophe is slipping away as we generate more and more text at a rapid pace in the form of emails, text messages, and the like. We are already beginning to see a sort of double standard for formal and informal written language. The difference is not yet as stark as between, say, colloquial dialects and Modern Standard Arabic (the codified version used by college-educated professionals and journalists) but it is growing. There you have it–political change at your fingertips.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Walking Paths

I was delighted to discover an example of micro-institutions at work this week right in my own backyard, er, campus. Several of my classes have been held in the Social Psychology building on Duke’s West Campus. Most traffic to this building comes from the nearby Perkins library, to the southwest.

None of the sidewalks allows for the most direct route, which leads from an outdoor stairway diagonally across a small lawn. None until now, that is. This week I observed the scene in the photo: a sidewalk being put in exactly the same place as the well-worn footpath from pedestrians observing the triangle inequality. (Please forgive the poor quality of the picture.) The new sidewalk is a perfect example of a central planner responding to the emergent order of individual actions, rather than resisting it. Micro-institutions really work.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Pedestrians

From The Economist, two researchers trying to understand how crowds behave:

Imagine that you are French. You are walking along a busy pavement in Paris and another pedestrian is approaching from the opposite direction. A collision will occur unless you each move out of the other’s way. Which way do you step?

The answer is almost certainly to the right. Replay the same scene in many parts of Asia, however, and you would probably move to the left. It is not obvious why. There is no instruction to head in a specific direction (South Korea, where there is a campaign to get people to walk on the right, is an exception). There is no simple correlation with the side of the road on which people drive: Londoners funnel to the right on pavements, for example.

This reminds me of a story that my friend Chris likes to tell (apologies if I mess up any details). One day when his sister was in college, she was riding her bike down the sidewalk and had to turn a corner. There was another biker coming the opposite way. They both swerved. She “naturally” went to the right and he went to the left–but it was his left, her right. Crash. The other biker was from South Africa, where they drive on the left.

Until I read the above, I had assumed that people walked the way that they drive, but it appears that I was wrong. It will be interesting to see how South Korea’s efforts to overturn the emergent order work out. At the moment I can’t actually recall the dominant walking pattern in Jamaica, where they drive on the left, but in any case it is probably confounded by the high numbers of American tourists. Personally I just wish people would be a little more careful taking sharp lefts around corners.