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Local Food: Can we Ditch the Supermarket and Spend Less?

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This article is the first in a Sociecity exclusive series on Local Food, where consider some viable alternatives to standard supermarket food shopping, taking an in-depth look at what it really means to be a ‘locavore.'[/box]

Vegetables at a Farmer's Market in Scotland, UK (photo: P.M. Lydon, Sociecity | CC BY-SA)

Vegetables at a Farmer’s Market in Scotland, UK (photo: P.M. Lydon, Sociecity | CC BY-SA)

Local. Organic. In season. There exists a general growing curiosity about incorporating these concepts into our diets. We have heard these things are good for us, good for the local economy, good for the environment, but there are also many misconceptions and stopping blocks along the way. This week, we’re going to take a look at one of the biggest concerns, the money aspect.

The rhetoric often emanating from the mainstream media is that it is too expensive, or that ‘local’ and ‘organic’ are just aliases for ‘elitist’ and ‘upper-crust’. Let’s get something out of the way first of all, this rhetoric usually originates, funny enough, from wealthy folks with a financial interest in keeping any kind of local movement at bay. The wealthiest of corporations are built around the concept of cheap, industrially-produced goods; with few exceptions any effort to build local economies poses a threat to them. That includes farmer’s markets. In a big way. The idea of a direct-to-consumer relationship with local food producers has sent shivers down the spine of many a corporate CEO and investor because it puts people and the environment ahead of profit. It’s a deeply troubling issue in and of itself, but I’m afraid, is a story for another time.

Suffice to say, hand-grown local food tends to cost more than the supermarket industrial variety and there are many reasons for this, some real (nature driven) and some created (profit driven). Still, this is looking at cost and/or value from a purely economic standpoint when, in reality, it is likely not the most beneficial way for you and I to see value.

For us as consumers, when it comes to food, the word ‘value’ can have two meanings 1) It is synonymous with quality and nutritional value to our body to our local community, or 2) it is value in a purely economic way, having little or no bearing on the value of our own health, or that of local economies which feed into vibrant communities.

The average UK household throws away over $1,100 in food each year, in the US, we toss out 40% of what we buy, that’s more than $2,200 per family each year.

At the supermarket, at the home goods store, the ice cream shop, or wherever else we shop, we tend to choose the second of these two definitions for value. So if we are serious about our health, about living a ‘good’ life, about being even remotely caring for our environment, why not chose a different definition of value? Why not choose the definition that values ourselves, our communities, and our environment?

The largest reason for most of us, is that the system of how we buy food makes it extremely difficult to think of value in this way. Of the advertisements that come to our door for supermarkets each week, how many talk about health or quality before value? Sales and discounts permeate these ads because it is not in the best interest of these purveyors of food to talk about quality. Quality reduces profit — unless you are Whole Foods, in which case quality gives you the excuse to push your profit margins five-times higher than other food retailers.

Regardless of the difference in price between a farmers market and supermarket, it’s probable that most of us can actually lower our food bills by eating more local foods.


It’s been about two years since I made the mental promise to switch from being a supermarket shopper to shopping as much as possible for in-season organic foods from local farmers markets. These two years have been a process during which I’ve learned more about food, eaten better, become healthier, and spent far less money than I ever have on what I eat.

How is this possible? First, it wasn’t an immediate change, and second, it took some patience and practice. In short order: I plan and learn about what I eat, take the time to cook, and don’t buy all of the extra junk that supermarkets are really good at making me think I need.

Plan More, Buy Less

If food purchased = money spent, then throwing away food = throwing away money. This one is simple: by planning what I eat a bit more carefully, a larger percentage of the food I purchase goes into my tummy, and a smaller amount goes into the trash.  If this sounds trivial, remember that the average UK household throws away over £680 (~$1,100) in food each year. In the US, we toss out 40% of what we buy, more than $2,200 per family each year [The Telegraph, NRDC].

Far from being trivial. That kind of money alone could buy a years worth of organic local vegetables a few times over!

So, there’s a conversation we can have about the high price of local organic food, and then there’s what is perhaps an even weightier conversation we could have about how much money we throw away each year on uneaten food. This is not a call to finish everything on your plate. This is a call to buy less and to buy with thought to quality and the people behind the production of the food, and in turn, to enable yourself to redefine value in a way that is good for you, your environment, and your community.

Appalling as it may sound, this excessive waste is encouraged by supermarkets. It’s rather simple and profitable math: if a market can get consumers to buy 40-50% more food than they need, profits are up and investors are happy. [ Forbes | The Globeetc… ]

It’s easy for us to see these facts and realize we need to change our habits, but it’s far more difficult for us to remember this while actually inside the supermarket.

In fact, the only way I can personally manage it is by not going to the supermarket in the first place — or by going in for a few items, no basket, and only my hands to carry things out. I use this tactic because I know that if I go in there with a huge, empty shopping cart and a list of what I need, the shopping cart will magically fill itself up with a few dozen things I don’t need. I’m really bad at keeping to my list, and Safeway/Krogers/Tesco are all oh so good at encouraging this habit.

The other option? At a farmer’s market, an individual might go for some apples, potatoes, onions, carrots, pak choi, corn, a steak, milk, cheese, and dark chocolate. They can buy these things in exactly the (small or large) amount they want. For a single person or couple, this is ideal when compared to the supermarket, where the potatoes might come in a huge plastic bag on sale, the steak pre-packaged, the cheese and milk 2-for-1, and before they know it, they’re already buying and spending more than they need.

Korean Rural Supermarket (photo: P.M. Lydon, Sociecity | CC BY-SA)

Korean Rural Supermarket (photo: P.M. Lydon, Sociecity | CC BY-SA)

Nor does it end there. Whether you are a single person, couple, or family, the supermarket does its best not to let you get away with just the essentials. It springs hundreds of things you hadn’t planned on buying at you as well: sale items, new products, limited editions, buy X get X free offers, extras of items that might possibly come in handy, and when in line, well, why not a candy bar, and then some mints to take the smell off your breath after.

The goal of the supermarket is to move product and sell in volume, and they are darned good at it…

Every trip to the supermarket is a reminder that the goal of this place is not to give you what you need in the amount that you need it. The goal is simply to move product and sell in volume, and they are darned good at it for the necessary reason that they are a corporation and their responsibilities are to investors before consumers.

This backward-sounding responsibility is a big part of why we end up throwing out 30-50% of the food we buy.

I thoroughly reject the idea that profit is the primary motive for a business which is meant to deliver people basic nourishment. Whenever possible — I know, it’s not always possible — I opt for something else, and that something else is most often a local farmer who I can look in the eye, have a chat with, and buy directly from.

A farmer who is able to make a living on a small plot of land because there aren’t layers upon layers of industry taking profit from them.

A farmer who doesn’t put aisles of candy, sale items, pre-packaged food from factories, and other junk in between me and the food I need.

A farmer who sells me what are some of the best tools for a healthier life.

While the supermarket may seem to offer better ‘deals’ for your wallet than a local farmer, for the majority of consumers, that trip to the supermarket could easily end up costing more both in the short term (weekly food bill) and long term (hospital bill).

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Finding Farmers Markets

United Kingdom
Local Foods UK — http://www.localfoods.org.uk/

United States
Local Harvest — http://www.localharvest.org/
USDA Directory — http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/

Australian Farmers Market Association — http://www.farmersmarkets.org.au/


A Tale of Two Subways

A woman exits a train on Seoul Metro Line 1 (photo: Patrick Lydon)

A woman exits a train on Seoul Metro Line 1 (photo: Patrick Lydon)

Last year, I took a rather ‘complete’ tour of one of the world’s largest metro rail transit systems, visiting all 483 metro stations in Seoul, South Korea over the course of a month.

During that month, I found rapid transit in the South Korean capital city to be not only massive, but also among the most technologically advanced in the world. At the end of the system tour, I was left questioning — even more than I already did — the way that transit development is carried out in the United States, and further, how the world’s second largest integrated rapid transit system with a daily ridership of over 8 million people, was built from nothing in just about three decades.

A total of 469-miles of track and 483-stations were built in Seoul in 30 years. By contrast, it took about the same amount of time just to plan and start construction on a 5-mile, 2-station extension for the BART rail transit system in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A bit cheeky, but also somewhat harrowing, sociecity has put together a graphical timeline comparing three decades of development on the ‘BART to San Jose‘ corridor, set against a general timeline of metro transit development in Seoul.

A Tale of Two Subways, The BART Extension to San Jose (graphic: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

A Tale of Two Subways, Seoul Metro and The BART Extension to San Jose (graphic | sociecity)

On most levels a comparison such as this is just not a fair fight, but neither is the BART to San Jose extension timeline abnormally slow for an American transit project these days. Certain New York City subway projects wouldn’t fare too well either.

Will Travel for Public Works Projects?

A slightly ‘wild’ suggestion typically floats around when projects such as these are slow to take, that is: we might do well to buy our local policy-makers flights to places like South Korea, Germany, Japan, China, or even Columbia… all countries which are doing many things right in terms of public transit.

It’s actually not so wild a suggestion afterall, but seems more along the lines of common sense; learn and expand your knowledge by taking a live sampling from the world around you, and you will benefit greatly for it.

A Subway Exit into the Unfinished Incheon International Business District (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

A Subway Exit into the Unfinished Incheon International Business District (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

This is not to say that Seoul’s implementations are perfect — they are far from it — or that building at such a rapid pace does not have its downfalls — there are many. But in contemplating possible alternatives to the daunting process of political and financial mishaps in large public works projects, it often takes a bit of looking outside our borders — and comfort zones — to figure out what others are doing right.

Now, seeing how this story is titled a Tale of Two Subways, I’ll have to get back to finishing it later, perhaps around the year 2025… when the first actual BART subway tunnel in San Jose is scheduled to be completed.


Mighty Cheeseburger Meets Lowly Cabbage

Plant and industrially-processed hamburger set into soil (Artists: Vero Alanis, Patrick Lydon | photo: Patrick Lydon)

Plant and industrially-processed hamburger set into soil (Artists: Vero Alanis, Patrick Lydon)

The mighty, juicy, cheeseburger meets the lowly leafy green… or is it the other way around? Having a curiosity about the energy required to produce different foods, Vero Alanis and I put the Cheeseburger to the energy-efficiency test, pitting it against the cabbage.

Obviously, ‘growing’ a McDonald’s 1/4 pounder with cheese presents a bit more of a challenge than growing a cabbage, but we were interested in just how much more of a challenge it is, energy-wise.

Not to be taken literally, our question for the burger was this: how much more energy is required to create a single cheeseburger, vs creating a single serving of cabbage, carrot, or other vegetable?

A graph showing the number of food servings that can be created with 20 megajoules of energy (2012, Vero Alanis and Patrick Lydon)

Our findings — illustrated in the info graphic at right — are more than a bit surprising.

It takes 20 megajoules of energy to produce a single McDonalds 1/4 pounder — roughly the equivalent of powering the average American house for 4 hours.

By comparison, farmed salmon is twice as efficient to create vs the burger, boiled potatoes are twenty times more efficient, and most fruit will bring forty more servings for the same amount of production energy.

But the winner is the cabbage — may we call it mighty now? Given the amount of energy needed to produce, deliver and cook a McDonalds 1/4 pounder, you could grow, deliver, and cook 100 servings of cabbage.

That information, while starling,  is not exactly going to make most of us sign up to eat kimchi for the rest of our lives — here at sociecity, a few of us are fans of a good burger now and then.

But it does give a little bit of context to our diets and the effect that food choices have on the planet and its all-too-scarce natural resources. A little less burger, a little more veg, we think. Or perhaps there’s a good kimchi burger out there somewhere?

Project Team: Patrick Lydon and Vero Alanis


U.S. Energy Information Administration — Residential Energy Consumption
Elsevier — Ecological Economics: Identifying Critical Natural Capital


Is Global Warming Really the Problem?

The City 'Farm' on top of Osaka Station is about as natural as one can get in the middle of the city (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The City 'Farm' on top of Osaka Station is about as natural as one can get in the middle of the city (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

People have been playing the “environment” harp for many decades.

They have been calling out for the world’s inhabitants to save our resources because it is the only way to save ourselves, they have been predicting that this world will run out of said resources, they have told us that the earth will be submerged in water, that we will have no rain, that our oil reserves are finished, that worldwide crops will fail to drought and heat.

Those who carry this message seek to conveniently patch surface issues instead of addressing root causes (eg: they would rather have us drive a Prius to do our food shopping at Whole Foods, than create a system where we can walk to get our food from local farmers.) Neither of these scenarios is perfect, but the first one completely ignores the actual problem.

Global warming is not the problem, or the answer, it’s not the thing we need to fix, nor is it the way to go about living, in fear that we must bandage a cut in order to survive ‘for the time being.’

Both the problem and the answer are deeper, yet ironically far more simple than any of this would suggest. How so?

To Be Human

Let’s start here: you and I are humans. This is our common ground, and one thing that most of us won’t argue with, hopefully.

As humans, many of us loose sight of the fact that we are born to the world as a part of nature — well, except for test tube babies — and will also leave the world as a part of nature — okay, plus maybe some formaldehyde, antibiotics and whatnot — making us more or less, just another natural cog in this ecosystem. If that’s all fine and understood, then it’s this whole middle part between being born and death, the ‘living’ part, where we seem to have things a little screwed up.

Yoshikazu Kawaguchi at his farm in the Kansai region of Japan (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Yoshikazu Kawaguchi at his farm in the Kansai region of Japan (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Most anyone, whether scientist or philosopher, will attest to this idea that humans are not above nature, nor are they below it or somehow exempt from it, they are an integral part of it. As much as we try to fight this idea, we cannot escape it or its implications.

Nature is a beautifully crafted system, and as a part of this system, we humans have a responsibility to understand and operate ourselves in a manner which ensures its continued success.

So then, along with this whole being ‘human’ thing, we have another deeper responsibility which is not always apparent to us while living — asphalt below, concrete beside, airliners above — in the built urban zone or suburban housing tract.

How do we make this responsibility more apparent?

Much can be said for a life which has to do with existing simply, yet in our world, simplicity is often seen as a strictly non-technological matter. It shouldn’t be so.

We should not seek to rule out technology, yet at the same time, we have an intensely important need to simultaneously cultivate an appreciation of the most basic elements and sensations in life, just as we do the artificial ones.

Doing this much ensures that we at least understand the difference between the two, and knowing that difference in our truly, uniquely, human way, helps us to appreciate, yet not rely on the crutch of modern convenience.

The Illusions of Control and Ownership

But a bitter comedy it is for us to believe that we are in the least bit in control of nature; we can see each and every day this is not true, yet most of us continue to live as if it were.

Nature gives us a bounty of food, drink, and beauty, that we might thankfully partake in it. But look to the history of our people, and we also see that Nature cares nothing about our human inventions, our awards, our accolades, our street credit, fancy belongings, money, stocks, bonds, loafers or high heels; Nature tosses us and all of our belongings to and fro at a whim, it lifts us up and throws us back down without effort, it destroys our greatest accomplishments on a whim, crumbling inventor and invention, investor and investment, all of this becomes insignificant little particles, eventually returned back to some other element of Nature.

However we fight with our lifestyles against it, Nature, is clearly in control of us, and we might do well to listen to what it has to say.

The dichotomy we have always been presented with is that a true life is so simple, we will never understand it by attempting to understand it, and so we frustratingly spend our life attempting to understanding it anyway, all the while synchronously laying to waste any chance of thoroughly enjoying life. What then, is the point?

Instead of constantly attempting to justify, explain, control, or own, perhaps it’s best to begin our pursuits first by just, simply, living.


The Art, the Individual, the City

A New Town seen past the walls of the old Seodaemn Prison in Seoul, South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

A New Town seen past the walls of the old Seodaemn Prison in Seoul, South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Certainly one of the few tasks of importance which must only be entrusted to the command of a single person, is that of art.

Yet art it is not primarily mechanical or utilitarian in nature.


Tasks outside of individual art, however — especially those which intend to serve function for a mass of different individuals — must in turn be planned and executed by these many individuals, not by a single master.

City design is inescapably the primary task of our times which falls within this requirement, and for this reason it remains far outside the realm of art.

But the city is art.

The city is art in the form of a collage, a group showing of creativity and cultures which come together in a deep and wide medely, pulsing with the rhythm of all who take part, an art in form and function of the people, and one which becomes a blanket to warm and protect the collective body, and outwardly, to show the world what the true spirit of a real city is. What a real community is.

The city is that special form of art which we must only, which we can only, build together.

NYC: Moving On Two Wheels

On a sunny sunday morning, near New York City’s Intrepid Museum, the Hudson Greenway is filled with cruise ship patrons, joggers, and cyclists of varying speeds.

The path feels narrow given the swelling volume of traffic on a picture perfect weekend, especially with summer cruise ships filling the pier. But this is only one section of the Hudson path; the greenway stretches uninterrupted, roughly from the southern tip of the island all the way to the northern tip. There are many amenities alongside the path to keep people entertained, a far cry from what you would have seen just a decade ago when most of the city’s waterfront was in ruins, filled with garbage and unrecognizable faltered structures.

The development alongside Hudson has been a huge success, renewing land and creating open green spaces for all.

Currently, the city is rapidly extending the ambitious path to circle the entire Manhattan island. A costly and huge undertaking — yet worthy, considering the trends. This is especially good news to cyclists and people interested in taking advantage of the waterfront.

Summer Streets is a NYC program that closes some 50 blocks of city streets to cars. Bicycles and pedestrians rule. (photo: Raymond Yeung | sociecity)

Summer Streets is a NYC program that closes some 50 blocks of city streets to cars. Bicycles and pedestrians rule. (photo: Raymond Yeung | sociecity)

The Hudson Greenway turned out to be quite popular, and this should be viewed as a sign that good public land development does not mean simply adding ‘nice features’ to already wealthy parts of the city.

Still, even the casual observer will find New York to be in dire need of more cycling infrastructure. New York is already home to the most cycled bridges in North America, and successes like these are indicators that should serve as momentum for further developments.

It took New York years to realize that, apparently people want to move around freely, and preferably not in bumper to bumper traffic, and for some, not even air conditioned subway cars. In just the past two years, the city has aggressively added varying degrees of cycling infrastructure and hundreds of miles of bike lanes, with an even bigger ambition yet still looming.

Hidden Dangers

Among the most recent additions is the 8th Avenue bike lane. Like others, it puts the cyclist on the left most lane of a one way avenue. The lane is cushioned by some three feet of paint on the ground, dictating the area when cars are meant to park. While the design seemes logical and perhaps fitting at first glance, a test drive of the lanes reveals many life threatening hidden dangers.

Unlike some of the other lanes — 1st Ave or 9th Ave — the 8th Ave lane does not have dedicated light signals for turing vehicles nor for the cyclist. While the surprise of an opening door is highly reduced — this danger makes up for over half cycling related accidents in the city — the highest risk of injury or death still comes from vehicular impact.

The Left Hook as it is sometimes referred to, is a concern at every other block.

The other risk for any bike lanes users comes from pedestrians who find it so irresistibly fitting to dash into the lane without looking, while texting, walking a dog, jogging with headphones pumping full volume; on top of all that, imagine delivery bikes zipping the wrong way, sideways, whichever way they feel like, hundreds of delivery vehicles and other  irresponsible drivers making a “quick stop,” then throw in street vendors and random garbage and the bicycle lanes are perhaps only a bit safer than not having them.

Why So Fast?

The big ambition — and soon to be reality — for the city is a massive bike share program. Whenever there is a bike share program being developed, fantastic images of European cities with overjoyed cyclists can be found. But is it particle to apply small-town-Europe ideas to main-street-America? While New York’s traffic chaos is not comparable to say, New Delhi, there are still substantial consequences to consider. In a city of 8 million, can the same stretch of road, butchered into genres of traffic, alleviate said traffic and protect the weaker, slower moving all at the same time?

New York’s bike share program is soon to be available, planned for late July, though it has already been delayed. The CitiBank sponsored project will bring some 600 share stations into Manhattan and some parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Skeptics have criticized the seemingly hastily put together project as adding congestion to an already crowded city. But Mayor Bloomberg — who has been a huge supporter of just about anything that will improve health — argued that not only will the program promote good health, but it will also lower congestion and pollution, a win-win for city planning, and for slowing the damage to our environment.

In the days leading up to the program’s due date, many major avenues have seen a seemingly overnight metamorphosis, with twenty-block long streets being repaved, painted and remodeled for dedicated bike paths in just under one week.

The Outer Boroughs

It would seem that the focus has traditionally been placed in Manhattan; the rest of the city, although they make deposits to the city’s coffers, are left with nothing. Conventional thinking tells people that government is more likely to allocate resource to the wealthy than the poor, but the trend is changing. The reality is, the poor are vastly larger in number than rich, so to speak, and screwing over the average person always ends up costing society in the long run, as they must be helped after the damage is done. Costly health care reform is one recent example of this phenomenon.

Jackson Heights Pedestrian Plaza in Queens, New York (photo: Raymond Yeung | sociecity)

Jackson Heights Pedestrian Plaza in Queens, New York (photo: Raymond Yeung | sociecity)

Recently, I had a chance to wander though parts of Queens, and was presently surprised to find a small street permanently turned into a pedestrian plaza with wide cycling lanes. This was in the heart of Jackson Heights, where folks on bikes are either without cars, or delivering food. It’s a small sign, but a sure sign that the powers in charge are willing to invest in all communities for the good of all.

It is clear that whatever anyone thinks, the city — and perhaps America — is heading into a greener future. One that is continuously being challenged by powerful interest groups and lobbying, whether it be from taxi drivers or car loving citizens. However divided the opinions are though, it is certain that we need to change our current trend of vehicular reliance.

The rest of the world took their models of urban planning from America, and perhaps it’s time again for America and its citizens to remind the world what great things can be accomplished when we work together for a greener, safer, environment for all.

Playa Giron

Hasta la Vista la Victoria (illustration | sociecity)

Hasta la Vista la Victoria (illustration | sociecity)

Suddenly I wake up, I am 33 years old and this is not the rising sun of our red future [1].

All of my dreams fiercely dismissed in the name of an adult age which still waits to show itself, I may -perhaps- start doing what all human beings with a minimum amount of brainpower do, that is, start projecting.

On the contrary, today I stand still, breathing others’ utopias, asking myself questions as an eternal post-teenager.

One day, many years ago, there was a person in my life I used to call Comrade. THE Comrade, by excellence and election, the one with whom I shared, for a whole spring, the big utopia of a revolution.

Hence, Comrade, if you’re still anywhere in the world…

Comrade I ask you: what am I doing, with books of others’ revolutions in my hands, if new ones cannot be written?

Comrade, how can one abandon their dreams without feeling as a looser, not having transforming those dreams into realities?

How can we fight each single day, if the maximum we can get for our efforts, is a refurbished two-room flat?

Comrade, was it a refurbished two-room flat that you wanted? Was it what we wanted? Was it to say mine, yours, was this our aim?

Comrade, you, who at the end bent yourself, much earlier than I, and sat in front of your payroll, why did you do it? Is there anything that I cannot see, is there a secret you didn’t confess me?

Is it perhaps hidden in the payroll, this revolution that I didn’t understand?

How can we train each single day for an upcoming revolution, when by now we know that the revolution will never come?

Comrade, how did my revolutionary training tragicomically become the study — crazy but not so desperate [2] — for interviews that I will never get?

Comrade, is there any meaning, any sense, now that I know no revolution will come; is there any meaning in continuing taking buses at five o’clock in the morning [3] to go protesting against the umpteenth law that will be approved anyway, while meanwhile we, in the best case, will write a book or make a show singing the brave deeds of our fierce heroes gassed by barbaric hordes of enemies?

I do not know, Comrade, what you are thinking of, in your refurbished two-room flat which at the end of the day I envy, and which I would like to have myself, too.

I don’t know how you dealt with your revolution, but I continuously ask myself “what am I doing here,” and Comrade, Comrade, the saddest thing is that, for 13 years of my life I thought I was actually making this revolution. I thought I was making it from arranged stages, from the wooden panels which I was scrambling on, knocked up by a miracle in order to bring the theater out of theaters.

The saddest thing Comrade, Comrade, is that I terribly, completely believed it all.

And giving tours in my old car in order to gain a few coins were my battles.

And meals eaten after the show seemed to be my refuge after extremely dangerous actions.

And claps were unexpected successes of my fights.

And Comrade, Comrade, what I have been trying harder at for 13 years, has been sharing my revolution, my battle, and I believed, I trusted, Comrade.

Firmly yet foolishly.

Because you see, Comrade, now I feel like I’ve lost my war. My only, unique war, the only one I believed in. The war I secretly trained daily for. This war I lost, I lost, because when I looked behind myself, I discovered I was alone.

And the word we had no meaning.

(Mine, yours, me me me)

Comrade. You’re sitting in your refurbished two-room flat that once more I envy, whereas my tours are each day more solitary. I was the only one who believed in this revolution.

Therefore Comrade please, tell me which is the secret to transform my farce into a certain quality comedy. How can I pull through with my head held high.

I, the one who never read Che Guevara, and who now languishes listening to Silvio Rodriguez.



[1] Quoting an old Italian Communist song that talks about Communism as “the rising sun of future” : Fischia il vento infuria la bufera/ scarpe rotte eppur bisogna andar/ a conquistare la rossa primavera/ dove sorge il Sol dell’avvenir.

[2] One of the most famous sentences from Giacomo Leopardi’s diary, which every student learns during their studies in Italy, which talks about a “crazy and desperate study”: uno studio matto e disperatissimo.

[3] Referring to the strong Italian tradition of organizing demonstration in the Capital, Rome. On these occasions, people from all over the Country arrive and demonstrate in the city center. It’s understood that this is why the life of all Italian activists is marked by certain kinds of appointments: a very early wake-up (3, 4, 5 o’clock am), a long journey, a huge demonstration, and a late coming back to each one’s town.

The Rio+20: Fifty-Three Pages to Save the World?

Dear United Nations: A Call for Moderation and Respect

As a highly developed nation, we in the United States understand that a large part of our responsibility when operating on a global scale is to assist under-developed nations in building their own staircase to the industrialized world. We take these actions so that so-called “lower” countries might make their way “higher” to being prosperous industrialized nations with abundant resources and dramatically lower rates of poverty.

But ask the world’s “developing” nations, and you might find a few people who have a slightly more sinister understanding of this process.

Many of these countries, from Ecuador to Brazil to Nigeria and countless others, understand that getting into bed with any industrialized nation is a bit like having a sleepover with vampire. Yet the situation can not be easily avoided. [1]

Gimme Resource, Gimme Labor

In a typical scenario, the industrialized nation makes excellent use of the resources and labor of the developing nation, mostly through the industrialized nation’s corporations. Labor and resource agreements are often excellent deals for the economy of the industrialized nation, but have been shown in numerous qualitative and quantitative studies to bring an overall decreased quality of life to the populations where these developments take place. [2][3][4]

Despite popular — although waning — belief, industrialized nations do not go through this process simply because they are nice people who want to eliminate poverty.

As developed nations, we step into the backyards of un-developed nations primarily for selfish reasons.

Yet this habit is a necessity for us since, over the past few decades, the typical industrialized nation has developed a consumption-based lifestyle which is unsustainable when using only its own resources. It is this lifestyle which is necessitating that each and every day, we infringe on the rights of those in other countries.

As a matter of course, in order to maintain this lifestyle, the industrialized nation must secure two things from outside its own borders: 1) natural resources and 2) labor, both of which must be bountiful and cheap, and neither of which can be had without traversing the avenues of war, exploitation, or equality.

It may sound strange for equality to be put on equal footing with war and exploitation, but equality is in fact the most powerful of the three; and strangely, although countries such as the United States preach the value of equality, they rarely contemplate using this value as a tool when dealing with the resources or the people of other countries.

The Limits to ‘Unlimited’ Economic Growth

The number of well-off industrialized nations is essentially small, limited by the overall availability of natural resources and of cheap labor, and as Economist E.F. Schumacher famously wrote in 1973 “What needs to be questioned is the assumption that the modern lifestyle can be expanded to absorb virtually the entire population…”

Today, nearly 40-years after Schumacher’s writing, industrialized nations know very well that their lifestyle is both a social and ecological impossibility for a majority of the world to ever reach. Yet it has not stopped us from spreading an unattainable dream to those who find it convenient to ignore reality.

The quandary which industrialized nations have happened upon, is that the only way to indefinitely continue their amazingly advanced lifestyles, is if there continues to be undeveloped, resource-rich nations which can be utilized for their natural resources and labor.

The world's monster example of resource usage is the United States, which hosts only 4.5% of the world's population, yet uses around 25% of its resources (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The world's monster example of resource usage is the United States, which hosts only 4.5% of the world's population, yet uses around 25% of its resources (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Unless we find another planet from which to take resources and cheap labor, it’s clear that we’ve landed ourselves in the middle of a rather large problem which pans out very badly for developing nations in the short term, and will work out even worse for the industrialized nations in the long term, as these countries have become dependent on an unlimited supply of limited resources.

As for the ‘developing’ nations today, in order to successfully make their way to a consumer-based, poverty-free, lifestyle — the likes of which is enjoyed by all except a scant 46.2 million people in the U.S. — they will also likely need to find a nation or two to take advantage of. [5]

Unfortunately, the list of nations which are primarily un-developed — at least on this planet — is rather short of late, with only sixteen countries making the IMF list as of 2005. [6]

Our world leaders understand that world sustainability problems could be solved with the application of a simple ideology based on moderation and respect (for each other and the planet), yet they also know that before this ideology stands mounds of very serious politics, business, money, and other such important matters. [7]

To them, sociecity wishes to suggest the following statement, one which might easily replace guiding documents such as the fluffy 53-page Rio+20 document:

We, the world’s industrialized nations, hereby agree to cease utilizing the resources (both human and natural) of primarily un-developed nations in the name of monetary and material gains, and instead agree to focus our efforts on global equality in all facets; furthermore, we acknowledge that this dramatic shift in policy must result in all of the world’s countries adjusting their personal, industrial, and commercial resource-intensive lifestyles so as to fit collectively within the means of available global resources in a sustainable way.


[1] The Unsustainable Earth Summit – Bangkok Post

[2] Hammond, John L. “The Resource Curse and Oil Revenues in Angola and Venezuela.” Science & Society 75, no. 3 (2011): 348-78.

[3] Oil Turmoil in Nigeria - Journeyman Pictures (film)

[4] Amid Brazil’s Rush to Develop, Workers Resist – New York Times

[5] Poverty Highlights – U.S. Census Bureau

[6] Third World Countries List – International Monetary Fund

[7] A Cruel and Unusual Record – President Jimmy Carter


Transforming Suburbia into Eco-Utopia (part 3)

This is the final entry of a 3-part series on the city of San Jose’s sustainable transportation goals, based on Sociecity’s April 12, 2012 interview with Hans Larsen, the city’s Director of Transportation.

Bikes parked at a station in Chiba, Japan (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Bikes parked at a station in Chiba, Japan (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Continuing our conversation on bicycle infrastructure, I tell Hans that I have some fun stuff for him, too, and present a private stash of bike-infrastructure photos, taken during my visits to various cities including Barcelona, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Seoul, among others. [ view full slideshow ].

The first photo (shown at right) is of a Tokyo suburb – I use the term ‘suburb’ loosely, as the density of a Tokyo suburb is about on par with the most dense urban areas in the U.S.

In Tokyo, a city where you’re rarely ever more than several hundred feet from a metro station, bike usage is not tremendous; but, I tell Hans, if you visit the stations a little further out from the city, you have these huge parking lots, not for cars, but for bikes.

Looking at the photo, Hans cracks a smile; it is — as he mentions later in our conversation — not something he had witnessed during his visit to Japan.

The next photo we look at is a mockup that sociecity produced in 2011 for an article on the Alameda Bicycle Boulevard. I take the opportunity to ask Hans about the feasibility of a center lane that is physically separated and reserved for bikes, walking, and a landscaping buffer.

I know that New York has one, Hans responds, and Washington D.C. has one in a small stretch.

It’s interesting, because we have a project on the Alameda to make it more pedestrian friendly, kind of beautification, putting a landscape buffer in the center, make crossing easy for a pedestrian refuge area…

…but this, Hans says as he looks at the sociecity illustration (seen below), this is interesting…

Bicycle Boulevard Concept for the Alameda, San Jose, USA (design: Patrick Lydon, illustration: Chiaki Koyama | sociecity)

Bicycle Boulevard Concept for the Alameda, San Jose, USA (design: Patrick Lydon, illustration: Chiaki Koyama | sociecity)

Hans tell me that the main issue is how to deal with the intersections, and he gives Copenhagen and Amsterdam as examples where individual traffic signals are necessary for the bikes. He also admits that, while San Jose’s goal is to be “one of the nation’s leading bike cities,” the city has lot of catch up to do.

We’re very open to looking at trying new things, he adds.

One of the assets we have is the creek trail, kind of like a bicycle freeway that provides major avenues of long distance right of ways that are safe and convenient, and we’re looking to create a network to get from the creek trails to where you are going. I call it a ladder system, where most of the creeks run north/south and then there are these east/west connectors that form the rungs of the ladder.

The east-west routes would be mostly on city streets, where Hans says they intend to foster a trail-like experience, using both physical separations and colored bike lanes.

I ask what issues San Jose has with creating new bike lanes that are physically separated from cars, such as in New York, where some lanes use parked cars as a buffer between bikes and traffic.

New bicycle lanes planned for summer 2012 in San Jose (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity, Map: Google Maps)

New bicycle lanes planned for summer 2012 in San Jose (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity, Map: Google Maps)

When we had the downtown bike plan go to council, says Hans, Sam Liccardo [City Councilman] added some direction to actually have us look at that concept, and we do have a few places where we can, like 4th street where we’ve laid out a two-way bike lane buffered by parking, running against San Jose State and City Hall.

Generally, however, Hans tells us that most successful bike lanes of this type in other cities were originally one way streets built pre-car with few or no driveways to get in the way. Unfortunately for San Jose, most of the city’s streets were built post-car and are full of driveways and parking lot entrances.

The city is planning, however, to look at a separated bike lane option for 4th street along San Jose State University and City Hall, and Park Avenue from Guadalupe River Trail to the Cesar Chavez Park.

The current 3-lane single direction 10th street near San Jose State University. One lane will be removed and replaced with two bicycle lanes. (photo: Josh Hires | sociecity)

The current 3-lane single direction 10th street near San Jose State University. One lane will be removed and replaced with two bicycle lanes. (photo: Josh Hires | sociecity)

Hans pulls out a document containing a bicycle network that will be implemented this summer. The plan shows the 3rd/4th street corridors and the 10th/11th street corridors will lose a lane for automobile travel, and each gain two bicycle lanes.

These streets are currently main north/south thoroughfares, each with at least 3 lanes of one-way traffic, so it’s an impressive statement to drop an entire lane of car travel for two bike lanes. The city is not, however, planning to create a physical separations or buffer zones between bikes and traffic when they re-stripe the streets this June, something both Councilman Liccardo and many other advocates would like to see as a safety mechanism.

After these new bicycle lanes are completed in the Downtown area, the city will launch a bicycle share program in the city’s center. The system is the first of its kind in Silicon Valley and will initially comprise about 200 bikes installed in the city core.

These projects show a city leadership that is finally making strong efforts to live up to its promise of having a serious bicycle infrastructure…

…an infrastructure that aims to move a lofty 15% of the city’s traffic on bicycle by 2040, according to the city’s general plan.

Hans tells me, that although the city has a lot of good ideas, they have been struggling for a while in terms of not having much money to implement these projects.

How about corporate sponsorship, or joint public/private developments, I ask Him, maybe the Adobe Bike Paseo or Specialized Bike Highway?

We’ve kind of kicked that around on the maintenance side, more of having somebody adopt the bike route to help with money to re-paint the bike lanes every couple years. I don’t really know how generous corporations would have to be. Specilized is actually partnering with us on the Walk and Roll program, and we also have Lucille Packard working with us on that.

Bicycle Highway in Seoul, South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon)

Bicycle Highway in Seoul, South Korea (photo: Patrick Lydon)

Hans turns his attention to a photo I handed him of Seoul, and asks if it is a dedicated corridor… I explain that it is part of Seoul’s revitalization of the main river running through the city (Han River). The photo shows a four lane bike highway along the river.

I’ve been to Japan, he continues, but I didn’t really see that much bike use, I guess like you say, it’s not until you get out into the suburbs.

That’s the idea, I tell Hans, and even then, you have things like an underground bike parking garage at the shopping center.

Looking at another photo taken in Germany, Hans says that the city has considered separated bike and pedestrian areas on trails, where, as the trails get congested you have people walking their dog, or the stroller on one side, and people moving faster on bikes on the other side. Hans seems skeptical, however, of whether San Jose will get to the point where pedestrian/bike separation is necessary on the trail system.

People and bikes on the sidewalk in Germany (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

People and bikes on the sidewalk in Germany (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

It would be a nice problem to have, I tell him; we share a nod and smile at the notion.

Yes, it would.

Hans’ main interest in moving San Jose towards these sustainable transportation goals, he says, is that they can be driven largely by building smart around existing transit hubs.

The “station city” concept is popular in Europe and Asia, where is isn’t uncommon to see a dozen stories of shopping, corporate offices, entertainment and housing above, under, and adjacent to main train stations.

The newly built "Hakata Station City" railway station in Fukuoka, Japan (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The newly built twelve-floor "Hakata Station City" railway station in Fukuoka, Japan (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

San Jose certainly isn’t planning for a “Station City” anytime soon — although development in the city’s Diridon Station area might come close — but with a sea of parking lots currently surrounding San Jose’s transit hubs, the city does have many open opportunities to develop smaller, station-centric villages.

Hans says that the transit-oriented village is a key goal for the city, and the transit authority is essentially waiting to develop the current parking lot real estate that surrounds light rail stations into higher density shopping and housing — when the right plan comes along.

The city’s transit network is good, Hans says, but he also maintains that city land use does not support that system well.

It’s clear that there is opportunity to increase and optimize the use of existing mass transit — such as the city’s light rail system, which serves just 30,000 passengers per day — but in order for that to happen, smart, higher-density development needs to happen around the existing stations.

Hans finishes the statement by taking it back to bikes…

Having that [bicycle network] downtown, and expanding it to North San Jose, the East Side, Willow Glen, Rose Garden; building a really strong bike network is where we are going. I am optimistic in hoping that we can see some big changes.

After hearing and seeing the work the Hans is doing, I too, am rather optimistic for San Jose.

For more on San Jose development news, have a look at the San Jose Department of Transportation Website, or tootle on over to the San Jose Blog. There also seem to be some very passionate people over at SPUR San Jose.

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Death and Life of the Silicon Valley Streetcar

Silicon Valley (Santa Clara Valley) Streetcar and Interurban Rail Lines, Circa 1920 (Illustration, P. Lydon | sociecity)

Silicon Valley (Santa Clara Valley) Streetcar and Interurban Rail Lines, Circa 1920 (Illustration, P. Lydon | sociecity)

In the early 1900’s, most U.S. cities with populations over 20,000 or so had privately owned and operated above-ground electric rail systems.

The area now known as Silicon Valley was once home to a streetcar and interurban rail system with over 70 miles of track (see our map at right) and many lines providing train service every 7 minutes between the Downtown San Jose core and then-outlying towns including Santa Clara, Monta Vista, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Alum Rock, and Beryessa, as well as further out to Palo Alto and Stanford.

In 1920, streetcar trains reached the center of San Jose from the far points of the line in about 15-20 minutes.

Silicon Valley (Santa Clara Valley) Light Rail and Interurban Rail Lines in 2012 (Illustration, P. Lydon | sociecity)

Silicon Valley (Santa Clara Valley) Light Rail and Interurban Rail Lines in 2012 (Illustration, P. Lydon | sociecity)

Today, Silicon Valley’s more ‘technologically advanced’ government-subsidized light rail trains can take over 1 hour to make that same trip, stopping dozens of times along the way at stations in low-density suburban neighborhoods, surrounded by parking lots.

And so the questions: What happened?  Is local rail transit far too incompatible with the layout of Silicon Valley cities? Is there hope for building transit oriented developments in a smart, forward-thinking way? Let’s take these points in order.

The Car Rises in America, the Train in Japan

Most of the electric rail services in the U.S. during the early 1900’s were run by private companies, but as part of a nationwide push — some say conspiracy — by vehicle manufacturers such as General Motors to swap the trolleys out for buses, almost all trolley lines were abandoned by the end of the 1930’s. Conspiracy or not, however, the personal automobile was becoming more widespread, and as American cities began to grow in size, they built according to the automobile.

Interestingly, while I was in Tokyo last year — shooting images for my Transport Me project — I found that, at the same time U.S. cities and towns were dismantling their metro rail systems, the Japanese were just getting started building their first lines. The first of their metro rail lines were being built in the developing metropolis of Tokyo, laying the groundwork for several massive population centers connected by multiple commuter trains and subway lines, both privately and government owned. Today, the rail system in the Tokyo Metropolitan area is the the largest in the world.

A JR Tōkaidō Line Interurban Rail line near Kōzu Station, Odawara, Japan (photo: P. Lydon | sociecity)

A JR Tōkaidō Line Interurban Rail line near Kōzu Station, Odawara, Japan (photo: P. Lydon | sociecity)

For most American cities, however, ‘suburban sprawl’ became the favored method of development, town centers became less important, and people traveled longer distances in cars to do things which were once neighborhood chores. At the time, there were several positives for this model of living, including a tempting cocktail of convenience and lower prices for consumers, as well as ease and better profit margins for investors and producers;  it seemed like a situation where everyone was winning.

It wasn’t until decades later that the numerous negative effects of our automotive-based city layouts truly began to take hold. The problems were — and still are — numerous, including:

  • loss of community/neighborhood interaction
  • pedestrian safety hazards
  • degradation of cultural values
  • higher levels of stress in population
  • increased pollution
  • inefficient use of energy resources

This list, quite unfortunately, could go on, and on. Swapping trains out for cars and buses may have been a positive economic move for the United States at the time, but these profits carried with them some bitter consequences for people, nature, and cities.

A few Decades Late to our own Party

In the 1980’s, 40 years after abandoning the last of the local rail lines in Silicon Valley, the county and local governments began to build rail lines again in an attempt to combat rising street traffic. It was a novel concept that faced one giant issue:

in the 40 year time span between the abandonment of the first rail system and the building of the second one, the majority of Silicon Valley had been covered with exactly the type of low-density suburban sprawl that is unfailingly incompatible with any form of mass transit.

There were no more ‘city centers’ or ‘town centers’ with the housing and commercial density to support a rail system of such proportions, only suburban housing, and shopping centers built to accommodate vehicular traffic. Almost nothing built in Silicon Valley form the 1950’s onward was compatible with either foot or rail traffic.

Today, many American cities are slowly attempting to build smarter developments along rail lines, but as it turns out, we’re a few decades late to the party that, ironically, we invented. We’re now realizing just how difficult a proposition it is to build smart ‘transit oriented’ developments in a valley that has spent the last 40 years building mainly for the automobile.

There is Good Growth Ahead

A light rail transit stop in San Jose, California at mid day (photo: P. Lydon | sociecity)

A light rail transit stop in San Jose, California at mid day (photo: P. Lydon | sociecity)

It’s no use crying over dairy farms crushed by housing tracts. New development plans call for human-oriented city design, where urban planners and developers again create neighborhoods with people in mind, instead of 2-ton hunks of metal on wheels.

Yet, changing the way we design transportation and surrounding urban development is not something that city governments and developers can do alone, and frankly, it’s not something we should let them do alone anyway. Good city growth calls even more on the public to be judicious in educating themselves, speaking out against poor developments, and, on the occasion a city does come up with a laudable master plan, holding that city accountable for sticking to its guns. The more each of us is involved and educated, the more the city will be shaped how we want it to be.

Is respect to all of this, it should be evident to us that, although we’ve come a long way since 1920, perhaps it’s time to 1) look back and see if we’ve dropped anything along the way, and 2) Re-examine other countries who have been pushing innovative alternative transportation solutions while we Americans have been toying around with our personal automobiles. Japan is a good place to start, but also far advanced are South Korea, GermanyHolland, and even Colombia, among others.

[box type=”note” style=”rounded” border=”full” icon=”http://www.sociecity.com/wp-content/uploads/question.gif”]The way transit (both public and personal) is built and used has positive and negative effects our communities in many ways. How has transit planning (or lack thereof) effected you?[/box]

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Resources:

SPUR San Jose – Ideas and Action for a Better City
The Great American Streetcar Scandal
– About.com Report
San Jose / Santa Clara Streetcar + Rail Routes – Listing of Historic Routes
San Jose Streetcar Lines – Buena Vista Neighborhood History
Envison 2040 – City of San Jose Master Plan


It Takes a Village

How Superstardom Discourages the Cultivation of New Creative Talent

Accordion player Isabel Douglass plays with Rupa and the April Fishes at Left Coast Live in San Jose, California (photo, Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Accordion player Isabel Douglass plays with San Francisco-based 'Rupa and the April Fishes' at Left Coast Live in San Jose, California (photo, Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

We are both amazingly fortunate, and woefully unfortunate to live this day, in a world where superstardom exists. Over the past several decades, the exploitation of talent as practiced by the modern entertainment industry has effectively demolished the ability for talented artists to make a living. The silver lining which puts us in a slightly more fortunate position, is that this exploitation has effectively begun a reversal, largely thanks to modern technology and the ability for artists to create and share their work cheaply and easily.

But is a the “self-publishing” and “self-producing” system run by the people any better than this giant behemoth of an industry? Certainly not if its proprietors have the same aims as the industry…

The “Village” Mentality

Let’s take it back to a time when superstardom had no weight in the world of music and art, where small groupings of people rejoiced in and supported their own local artists. I call this the “Village” mentality.

When the modern agricultural-based society began to flourish — and communities of people grew larger and were afforded more and more “free” time — the arts took hold not only as a way to entertain, but to communicate and explain the human condition in ways not previously possible. It was during this time that the idea of the importance of the arts (music, dance, visual, and other expressive forms) became accepted as a required part of a “good” life.

The Village mentality meant that each village supported their talented artists and artisans as such, and allowed them to live and be supported by the village in order that they should do their art and perfect their craft. It didn’t always mean that they were supported to sit in a cabin and solely practice their craft, but that the village understood the importance of creativity and talent, and would work to help support and nurture that talent for the good of the village. As a consequence of this Village mentality, it would appear that the world had a great number of artists who were supported well enough to maintain and further their craft.

Superstardom, on the other hand, sees the entire world as a village. This concept could quite possibly be acceptable if it were handled in a responsible way. But that’s not the nature of the worldwide entertainment industry.

Today, superstardom encourages the idea that only a very few in the world are talented enough to make a living from music, visual art, dance, or acting. The irony is not only in the fact that many amazingly talented individuals don’t “make it,” but that many of the ones who do “make it” are not the best, but are merely the ones who are both lucky and just “good enough.” That’s fine, but if this the case, then everyone who is good enough could be supported. Impossible?

Funding Superstardom in the Music Industry (illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Funding Superstardom in the Music Industry (illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Using music as an example, in order to make it to the top, musicians must allow themselves to be controlled by an industry which is focused on making income from their talent. It sounds like a good deal for these few individuals, but the reality is that Joe Superstar alone, supports a giant industry of marketers, commercial sponsors, booking companies, giant venues, record company executives, and office workers solely based off the commercialization and exploitation of his talent (see illustration at right). In a sense, the greed and thirst for stardom fuels the greed of hundreds of other individuals who may not be talented, but are perfectly happy to make a living off of exploiting talented individuals and feeding them to the masses.

As consumers, we buy into the idea that superstars aren’t everywhere. We buy into the idea that the best will be found if they really are “that good.”

Then we sit in front of the tele and watch a 50-year-old women who has lived in obscurity all of her life belt out songs that bring us to tears. Susan Boyle is an example of someone who was “found” by the entertainment industry, a few decades late. After her appearance on Britan’s Got Talent, Boyle spent several days in a mental institution and now battles with life as a public figure. Is she better off now that her talent has been commoditized? Now that she has been subjected to public scrutiny on a global scale?

Boyle didn’t have her village for the first half-century of her life, and she still doesn’t to this day. There is no close-knit community which is invested in her talent and personal well-being, there is only a global cast of people who are either  enthralled by her story, or enthralled by the fact that they can make money from her story.

The reality is that our “system” to find talent and bring it to the masses is not just broken, it’s completely wrong in the first place.

Little do most of us know that the people who produce shows such as “Britan’s Got Talent” and “American Idol” are the very people who have created a world where it is nearly impossible to follow your dream of producing work as a talented creative individual without working against all odds for your entire life in order to do it.

Superstardom. Who Needs It?

The creators of superstardom have thrown the majority of the creative world into a ditch, all the while running around, trumpeting the Superstars they’ve manufactured, making millions for themselves along the way. Ask an industry-supported artist and you’re likley to find that, out of the millions that are made from their talents, a very small fraction of a percent ever actually gets to their wallets. The majority of the money made is filtered through giant entities which promote ideas like Superstardom. Do away with this industry-supported superstardom, and the insanely large amounts of money which currently go into global promotion, products and management, could instead be going directly to thousands of local acts and their local management, playing and making livings in their backyards.

Funding Village Stardom in the Local Music Industry (illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Funding Village Stardom in the Local Music Industry (illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

No more middle men, no more superstars that travel the world playing for millions of people. If you want to see your favorite group from Australia… why not plan a trip to Australia and see them at the local concert hall or pub instead of in a football stadium?

Our current format of introducing and supporting creatively talented individuals by exploiting them on a global scale is by and large a complete waste of time and resources.

From the point of view of the artist, and their fans — who, we assume want to hear and see a true and untainted version of that artist — it would be far more beneficial  to keep even the best talent local. It would be far more beneficial to let many many individuals shine and hone their skills instead of picking a select few that will appeal to the masses, watering down their talent, diluting their message, and making them global-industry-supporting-fancy-pants commodities. But it can’t be done by musicians alone, the fans of good music must also join suit.

In the end, it takes a Village.

Does Car + Bike = A Good Thing?

Besides gaining ultra-buff legs, many ‘part-time’ bike commuters end up with an extra  $12,400 at the end of the year.

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece about how Rush Hour can Save you Money, it compared a typical Silicon Valley commute using a car, and the same commute using a bicycle. At the end of the article, a breakdown of costs was provided.

A Twitter re-posting in several different languages followed the article, and many readers found it compelling proof that you don’t need to completely replace your car with a bicycle in order to see immense benefits. Part-time bicycle commuters come away all the better through increased health and cost-savings.

Today, we’re spelling the results out in visual form. The graph below illustrates the average cost of car ownership vs. bicycle ownership over the span of 1 year. We concede of course, that the average bike owner will also need a car on occasion, so we tack on the the bicycle-rider’s budget, around 5,000 miles worth of car rental travel through the ZIP Car service.

Perhaps surprising to many, the bike+rental car still come out on top by far…

The Cost of Your Commute | Car vs. Bicycle and Zip Car (illustration, Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The Cost of Your Commute | Car vs. Bicycle and Zip Car (illustration, Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

How did we come up with these numbers? Check out Calculating the Savings.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Links

Can Rush Hour Save you Money? – sociecity
ZIP Car – urban car sharing / rental
Contact Your City Leaders – usa.gov
Map You Bike Route – Google Maps for Bikes
Physical Activity and Public Health – Journal of the American Heart Association
The Cost of Being Obese – USA Today


Eco-Friendly Consumerism

How the Marketplace Ruins the World, and Claims Credit for Fixing it at the Same Time

What is eco? Eco is short for ecological, a term that has its routes in the study of relationships between living things and the environments they inhabit.

Today, from household items to the cars we drive, one can find more eco-friendly labels plastered everywhere on the shelves than ever before. By buying these products, we are told that we are doing a part in bettering the world, but is that really the case?

Few of us ever consider whether or not consuming more actually helps reduce waste at the same time. The answer, as long as eco-friendly merely implies buying a product with an eco label on them, is no.

Let’s recall some of the places we visit on a regular basis.

The supermarket for example, while many places of the world have banned plastic and even paper bags altogether, one is never too from an array of totes. Totes printed in a thousand colors with phrases like “I love recycling,” or worse “Save the World.” No one seems too bothered by the pollution that this variety of totes have created.

Then there are “eco” products such as coffee mugs with eco-slogans that acknowledge our good behavior. There are eco-burger joints that serve “morally delicious” angus beef that is very sustainably made from cattle raised with corn, then killed, cut up, packed, shipped, frozen, shipped again, frozen again, cooked, and served with paper and plastic before it reaches the individual consumer.

Even Trek Bicycles has their eco bike Atwood. It uses biodegradable materials, yet its very existence is to entertain the eco ego because no other bicycle in Trek’s thirty-plus aluminum bicycle catalogue is built eco-friendly. Then there’s the endless pit of eco-friendly consumer electronics that come in a million colors and a trillion plastic and silicone components.

In general there is an industry-standard practice of having an entire line of regular environmentally-damaging products and just a few eco ones for show. What does that say about our eco commitment?

An Arsenal of Eco Products, Ready to be Consumed

Starbucks has recently unveiled its newest store in the coffee giant’s hometown of Seattle. While the idea of using a recycled shipping container as a store front might seemed a novel idea, the plastic straws, caps, and paper cups yet another Starbucks will generate make even the most casual of environmentalists cringe.

And by the way, it is also a drive through.

The carbon footprint created by everything we do is so astonishing, and so there is a large disconnect between proponents of all things eco-friendly and the physical reality of executing all of them. The eco-friendliness of something is only as positive as the production end, meaning however witty an idea is, it isn’t “eco” if the source of production or end result introduces more pollution.

We cannot possibly hope to reduce our waste by consuming more.

Each and every new product, eco or not, requires varying degrees of raw materials. Regardless of how eco-friendly the harvesting process is, goods for the masses demand ecologically-damaging harvesting, transportation, and storage to minimize cost and create a large profit turnout.

On the other side is tight control over production with high cost and a limited audience; a much riskier business tactic and sheltered business practice that is nearly useless from the perspective of globalized economy.

Just imagine: new products of all kinds requiring new packaging, new delivery routes, new advertising material, storage, even web based sales uses energy; and shipping a product from continent to continent just to reach a single individual shows us only a fraction of this invisible, yet very real pollution. With over half of America powered by coal, the puny savings that entertain our intellectual arrogance can hardly be called eco-friendly.

Are the contradictions more apparent today? The eco brand was perhaps invented with good conscience, but it almost immediately became the victim of the market place.

Today, the eco branding is no longer here to better the world, but to exploit consumer demand.

The question is: do we need to feel rewarded for consuming?

Marketing directors everywhere will agree that people need a big pat on the back for being good consumers, even if it is contradictory to the cause. And what’s good for business is good for the economy, and what’s good for the economy is good for the government; a very unfortunate branch of logic when policy sides with commercial exploits. With our current state of economic distress, I doubt any leader will dare to stand in the way of economic growth at any expense of nature.

But I digress.

Our chauvinism and arrogance is clear, but let’s take a moment and consider the worst case scenario which scientists claim: at the peak of global warming comes rising water levels, run away green house effect, everything dies, but the planet is still around. The lesson is that we humans, just don’t really matter. As once said by George Carlin “a planet don’t need saving from a species that can’t even take care of itself.” And so we are trying anything. It’s not about saving the planet, it’s about saving our own asses, and we are doing a terrible job at it so far.

All of this negativity might seem a bit extreme because under this dark umbrella, almost everything we do for fun is a cause for concern. But we have a daunting task in undoing damages from the past to avoid more damage in the future, so perhaps extreme is not a good word to describe it all, and perhaps minimal is what we should consider.

Fixing the environment is not about feelings, it is about scientific examination and application of realistic solution in this finite world.

So don’t let this turn into yet another casual chat over lunch or dinner, take guilt and knowledge and turn it into action, reconsider every time you make a purchase whether it is a gas stop, a restaurant, or at school. Reconsider your purchases everywhere, all the time, and maybe, just maybe, it could be that you should not make that purchase at all.


Further reading:

National Geographic Channel: Six Degrees Could Change the World

Impact from a Cattle Waste Lagoon Rupture on a Downstream Fish Farm: A Case Study

Starbucks Opens New Reclamation Drive Thru Made From Recycled Shipping Containers

Coca-Cola Polar Bear Support Fund

Great Pacific Garbage Patch




We met Bea some weeks ago. I was with The Doctor, having one of our clandestine lunches, those lunches that we have when everything around us seems too meaningless or too messy.

We were talking, deeply, deeply, oblivious to the madness around us in the middle of Seoul at lunch time. This girl comes and says hallo in Italian, not such a common event in the Eremite Kingdom of South Korea. At the beginning I couldn’t make up my mind if I liked her or not. But when she told me she had been living for seven years in Italy, I thought I would like to talk to her again, in order to understand what a Korean woman thinks about Italy. And what she thinks once she’s back to a world that, for me, is an infinite delirium.

We ended up meeting every now and again, just Bea and me, for a hot chocolate and some chatting. Precious small windows on a world – Korean culture – almost unknown to me. I have always tried to listen, carefully, to understand what she was really saying to me. During these months spent in Asia I understood that here they have a deeply different sense of time; a time of thought that is even when mine is odd, and then turns again odd when mine is even.

After several accidents and unsolvable trips over odd thoughts, I decided to slow down. And so I do always with Bea, because there are things that I really would like to understand, instead they stay obscure. Hence I apply and commit myself, I ask questions, I listen to the answers. If she asks about me, about my life, I try to be blunt.

I never thought of my life as a particularly adventurous one, yet here, I understand that my stories – especially if told to girls – sound simply scary.

I always considered myself as a mediocre activist and a decent irresolute woman. But here in South Korea, I perceive myself as a revolutionary for women rights.

The point is not going to demonstrations. It isn’t. The point is being strong enough to follow one’s desires, dreams, even if it means sometimes going against that invisible, yet constricting, wall that we call social approval.

On Tuesday Bea sends me a message in Italian. I don’t understand much of it, but in these months with The Doctor I have learnt how to recognize signals. This signal is clear, the fracture was triggered and the implosion is in underway: Bea is in the middle of a cultural storm and she doesn’t understand any of what’s going on. Her friends can’t explain the reason of her sudden insanity. Her last chance is talking to me, the shiftless (according to me), the revolutionary (according to her).

I say: Oh Bea keep calm we’re gonna have a coffee very soon, resist.

Bea arrives, breathless; I buy her a hot chocolate which helps her little, numb heart. I expect I have to be patient, as always, and wait for her to talk. Instead she starts all of a sudden, impetuously, so that I barely recognize her. She almost throws up her feelings of non- approval, with her deep, unreachable wish of becoming a respectable woman, esteemed, accepted, she cries out her will to fit with the expectations of her family and friends.

She screams about her love which is NOT FAIR, because he’s separated and, in her society, if she chooses to stay with him she must renounce her family and job. She becomes a sort of pariah, hence she speaks impetuously, because she’s stupidly fallen in love and she doesn’t know what to do, and she doesn’t want to see him anymore because her deepest wish is to be a winner, as they love to say here, to fit the frame the society drew for her. The thing she wants more than anything else is being esteemed by her world, but then she suddenly realizes that perhaps the thing she really wants is happiness, and society be damned, who could ever guess that happiness could be something other than “being a winner”?

How can love become so important, how can things change so much that all of a sudden your work is not enough, social approval is not enough, a new pair of Gucci gloves is not enough? how can such a weird thing be possible? There must be a small hole somewhere, there must be something wrong, something is not working, and, from this hole, huge uncontrollable tears drop down and Bea would like to keep them. I see it, she would like to resist because crying in a public place is too bad, but the leak has sprung and question marks run down her face together with her tears.

How can it happen that you feel it’s not enough? How can it happen that, despite all these boundaries all these limits all these rituals all these frameworks built to help define life, how can it happen that despite all these things, the idea of a totally irrational happiness can enter?

I dunno Bea. I dunno but I ask myself, Bea, what’s important to you? Because you see, at the end of the day I do not care. I don’t judge you like an idiot if you want to be as your family says and you erase the number of your lover because he’s not the man your family chose for you. On the contrary, Bea, you know what? If I really have to judge you, I would say you’ re very strong, and I would appreciate you, because I would see the strength of coherence inside you, and lucidity, lucidity that I do not own. That’s all. Yet Bea, goodlord, it seems like these big tears are telling us a different story and you’re not really really convinced, aren’t you?

Yes, I know, I know.

No, I do not own the answer Bea. My life is a big mess, I have never been good at living up to expectations. I have always deluded everybody. Yes, I have always created chaos and mayhem.

Do I seem freer than you? Me? I don’t know if I am, Bea, but I can tell you for sure that it is not easy at all to live like this, choosing every single day of your life not to respect any external model and honestly asking yourself what you want and where you want to go.

Damned, Bea, sometimes I am really confused and it hurts. It hurts, because it seems like I loose everybody I love because of my stupid honesty. Of course it hurts sometimes, and of course I cry, also. By the way, here are some tissues, superstoft and superfancy, with the advertisement of the cafe printed on them in brown. Please dry away your tears.

Of course I suffer, and I feel like an idiot. I don’t know what I would choose if I were in your place, at the end of the day is it important? I can tell that every time I had to make a choice I made the wrong one. But it doesn’t matter, I was convinced.

Well perhaps the only thing I can tell you, Bea, is that I am not scared of suffering, and I am not scared by loneliness. Well, just a little bit sometimes. But then I suck it up.

Suffering? I would suffer anyway. Better alone than bored.

No Bea, there is nothing to esteem about my situation, look, I swear to you, it’s just a lot of difficult times. Had I the chance to go back, I don’t know if I do it again, but now I’m too far in. Can you imagine me, 33 years old, saying “good morning I would like, if possible, to please fit into your mould.”

I end up with all those Korean that go nuts and commit suicide. That’s not nice, but no, I am too old, I can’t go back. But you, Bea, well…give it a bit of thought.

No I am not telling you to dump him

I’m not telling you

No. Please, give it a bit of thought. Ask yourself a pair of questions. Listen to yourself. What can I say Bea, if you like we can meet next week and you tell me how it is going.

No don’t worry I am okay, even if sometimes I ask myself tons of questions, I am all right, really, I can handle it. Life in Korea is not easy at all, but I can manage it. Here, bring some tissues with you, just in case you can’t help and you start crying in the metro.

And try not to be late, it’s Saturday and we all know that Saturday is the day of tennis, we don’t want you to be late for your tennis match, you could destroy half a dozen young, brilliant Koreans, hurry up.

Yes, of course, next week, so that we can say happy Xmas.

No don’t worry.

Hurry up, you’re gonna be late, Bea.

Artwork by J.H. Lee in Seoul, South Korea (photo: patrick lydon | sociecity)

Artwork for this story by J.H. Lee in Seoul, South Korea (photo: patrick lydon | sociecity)

The Fed: When Congress Gets Lazy

The Fed Coins Money Because Congress is Lazy? (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The Fed Coins Money Because Congress is Lazy? (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

I’d like to start with a little piece of our U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8:

Congress shall have the power…
To coin Money (and) regulate the Value thereof”

Since 1787, the constitution has given the right to congress to regulate and coin money. Handing Congress this power ensured that a body elected by the Citizens of the United States would be held directly responsible and accountable by its citizens for the actions it made.

Today, however, the responsibility of ‘coining’ money and regulating currency lies with the Federal Reserve, not directly with congress.

To compound this problem, despite the “Federal” moniker in its name, the Federal Reserve is essentially a privately-owned entity. Although it was indeed established by congress, the Federal Reserve very often executes the duties assigned to congress on its own, behind closed doors, and without input from said congress; it’s a situation in which, only after a decision has been made, do our congressional representatives learn of it. In short…

Congress has no direct accountability, no direct decision making powers, and little to no influence over what the Federal Reserve does to create — or destroy — money.

The Federal Reserve is run by a private board of governors, each serving 14-year terms, yet congress does not directly elect the board members, that duty falls to the President of the United States pending approval of the senate (the House of Representatives is left out).

A Call to Arms for the Private Sector

Following the Fed: McDonald's Hamburglar Militia

Following the Fed: McDonald's Hamburglar Militia (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Given the precedence set in the creation of the Federal Reserve — where Congress literally handed a congressionally-reserved  power over to a private entity — it makes you wonder: what would happen if all congressional duties in Article1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution were to also be handed over to private institutions.

Other rights which could be  given away to private institutions would be:

  • To regulate commerce with foreign Nations
  • To hand out patents
  • To hold court trials
  • To punish pirates (yes, pirates on boats)
  • To declare war on other countries
  • To fund, train and maintain an Army and Navy
  • To ‘call to arms’ said army, navy, or militia
  • To tell government how land can be used
  • To make any and all laws they deem necessary and proper

If we were to follow the lead of what Congress did with the Federal Reserve, we might one day see McDonald’s handing out patents or perhaps even training a Hamburglar Militia…

Then again, maybe a Hamburglar Militia would be preferable to the Federal Reserve.

Can I get fries and a drink with that?

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]For More Information:
About the Federal Reserve Bank (Federal Reserve Official Site)  http://www.federalreserve.gov/pubs/frseries/frseri.htm
Federal Reserve Bank Structure (San Francisco Branch Site)  http://www.frbsf.org/publications/federalreserve/monetary/structure.html
Article I of the Constitution (hosted by Cornell Law School)  http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/articlei
Federal Reserve to Gain Power (Washington Times) http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/jun/16/plan-gives-fed-sweeping-power-over-companies/?feat=home_headlines
Congressman McFadden’s Remarks on the Federal Reserve http://www.bigeye.com/mcfadden.htm[/box]

Can “Rush Hour” Save You Money?

Biking to Work in Japan (photo, Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Biking to Work in Japan (photo, Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

What if our path to saving money and becoming more healthy could be as simple as applying some math and logic to our daily commutes? Well, it might take a little bit of physical effort too, but we’ve cooked up a plan that just may be the cure to that pesky post holiday “fund-drain” and “weight-gain” duo. It should be of no surprise that it has to do with one of our favorite topics of late, the humble bicycle.

The illustration below uses times for a typical Silicon Valley commute (during rush hour) on bike and by car. Examining the two commutes, we find that:

1) Car Commute: The typical car commute includes around 1/2 hour in traffic each way, and enough calories burnt to eat a scant few bags of airline peanuts. Then, if you’re still up for it after work, you’ll have to spend more time and energy to sneak in that extra cardio workout. There’s also a whole heap of added money involved (we’ll get to the details of that later.)

2) Bike Commute: The typical day with a bicycle commute often means zero time sitting in traffic, and a whole Big Mac’s worth of calories burnt each way. Then there’s also less time at the gym, with the majority of commute time often going towards a solid cardio workout.

The Bicycle Commute vs the Car Commute | time, money, calories (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The Bicycle Commute vs the Car Commute | time, money, calories (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Using cycling as a commute tool can quickly and easily reduce money spent on gas, vehicle wear and tear, gym memberships, stress management, diet plans. But there’s more to using the bicycle as a commute tool than even this…

Calculating the Savings: A Little Incentive for Everyone

One common belief when contemplating the bicycle vs. the motor vehicle is that the biggest savings is on fuel. While this may come to pass eventually given recent rises in the cost of fuel, it’s currently not the case. There are several areas in which you can save huge amounts of money by riding a bicycle, and not all of them are as apparent as one might think.

Another belief — or hardcore eco-cyclist mantra — is the “all or nothing” attitude: ride every day, and ride through wind, rain, sleet, and snow. This is fine for a select few riders, and kudos to those who get out there and do it, but it’s not necessary for all of us to think this way, especially in the beginnings of our bicycle adventures.

The reality is that you don’t have to completely replace your car with a bicycle in order to enjoy the monetary and health benefits of riding.

Even part time bicycle commuting once a week will add up at the end of the year, both in terms of health benefits and money savings. The following numbers take a balanced approach, counting out the cost of a car vs bicycle over an entire year when each method of transportation is used for commuting and short trips around town. These figures also take into account that the bicycle rider will need to use a car for a certain percentage of trips.

Cost to Purchase
Car: $6,811
Road Bike: $126

This price figures the average purchase price of a new car ($28,400) and a new road bike ($524) and depreciates that cost evenly over an average ownership time of 50 months. Figures are from the FTC, and the NBDA, respectively.

Insurance  / Registration
Car: $1525
Bike: $5

The average insurance and registration cost for a motor vehicle, according to AAA statistics (2011). Bicycle registration is not available or not required in most states or municipalities, although in areas where it is, the cost is usually between $1 and $10 a year, we split the difference.

Car: $810
Bike: $400

The average maintenance cost per year for a motor vehicle, according to AAA statistics (2011). Statistics on bicycle maintenance are scarce and vary, so I relied on the folks at New York’s Metro Bicycle store for an estimate based on their experience with customers. Because of the location in NYC, this estimate may be on the high side.

Finance Charge (interest)
Car: $796
Bike: $0

The average cost of financing your purchase, according to AAA statistics. As the cost to purchase an entire bicycle is about 1/3 the average down payment for a car, it is assumed that a bicycle purchase would not be financed.

Added Health Costs
Car: $2,120
Bike: $0

If you get your exercise some other way, it’s safe for car drivers to remove this from their total cost. The number for car commuters represents the average increase in health costs due to being overweight and/or obese, according to a study by researchers at Gorge Washington University. If you think you’re not in this boat, remember that 70% of Americans currently are! Multiple studies such as those found in the American Journal of Public Health have also found that bicycle commuters have far lower rates of obesity and/or health problems in general.

Added Fuel Costs
Car: $1,923
Bike: $0

Average cost of fuel for a midsize car driven 15,000 miles, according to AAA statistics. Although we assume that the bicycle commuter would also need to drive a car around 5,000 miles per year for trips where the bicycle was an inconvenient mode of transportation, these figures are included in the next section.

Zip Car / Car Rental
Car: $0
Bike: $1,020

Because the bicyclist can’t conceivably make all of his or her trips on bicycle, we’ve figured in an average yearly usage of the zipcar service, both for weekly trips around town and day trips throughout the year. Zipcar includes fuel and insurance as part of their flat-fee rental structure.

[box style=”rounded” border=”full”]TOTAL COST PER YEAR

CAR ONLY: $13,985

BICYCLE + PART TIME CAR: $1,551[/box]


For those of us who are stuck all day in traffic, in a cubicle, or in a gym full of sweaty people, cycling to work begins to look like an appetizing alternative to a workweek of driving.  And call us penny-pinchers, but we’re always open to the prospect of staying physically and mentally healthy, while saving gobs of money to boot.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Links

Contact Your City Leaders – usa.gov
Map You Bike Route – Google Maps for Bikes
Physical Activity and Public Health – Journal of the American Heart Association
The Cost of Being Obese – USA Today


Diet, Exercise, Repeat…

This week’s startling fact (1/2/12):

High Tech Exercise BikeMillions of Americans will stream into diet clinics and gyms this week, beginning the inevitable “New Year’s Resolution” rush, a phenomenon that routinely starts with a new-found energy and then quickly fades into non-existence.

But for all of our no carb diets, Jenny Craig meals, Slimfast shakes, and gymnasium boot camps last year, we still live in a nation where 70% of the population are overweight or obese. According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and US Census Bureau

Americans are more likely to graduate college (29%) than they are to be of a healthy weight (21%).

Well then, apparently whatever we are learning in college, it isn’t how to be healthy. The reality is that it’s natural for us to look for quicker, easier, cheaper ways to stay healthy — and the market isn’t ignorant to this fact — so we are often duped into buying less-healthy pre packaged foods instead of more nutritious ‘real’ foods.

One of our New Year’s Resolutions is to help buck that trend. What’s yours?

Caring for Cancer with Organic Foods
Nutritional Superiority of Plant Based Organic Foods – PDF

Reconsidering Laissez-faire

How May I Help You? (illustration | sociecity)

Laissez-faire: a French term roughly translated to Let Do, meaning let it be or sometimes, more passionately, leave it alone.

For centuries people have debated the effectiveness of the laissez-faire free market economy. While the benefits of this theory seem obvious enough to some, there are just as many faults and contradictions, making the Laissez-faire model equally hated as it is loved.

Many of these often overlooked problems can only be identified if one is willing to peek into the development of society and economics from more grand perspective, spanning centuries and continents, instead of decades in a domestic sense. If we do take that peek, history shows us why any who have ever uttered the words laissez-faire have often lacked historical perspective, tending towards shortsighted, survivalist outlooks. It is worth noting that many of the supporters of the so-called pure laissez-faire are mostly lucky, well-off, self-congratulatory industrialist intellectuals. A mouthful, but necessary in explaining their highly questionable vision of society which consists of upstanding, able-bodied citizens drinking wine and dining on red meat while the rest of existence is left to fend for themselves.

The main argument for laissez-faire is that there should be less government involvement in business affairs. But people cannot be trusted, and that is why laws are created to safe guard individuals against coercive powers. But what is coercion? Who decides when it is coercion? For example: should we allow the oldest business, prostitution, to prosper? Weapons dealers to profit freely from both sides of the law? Doctors to perform “necessary” abortions?

It seems that laissez-fairers have failed to establish — and have never agreed on — a standard by which to govern their system. In this everlasting tug of war over what is considered “coercive”…

…the let-it-be theorem in its most natural form would seem to side with the convenience of profit, even if it may come from ethically questionable practices.

It is often said that having no government oversight in the employment market will propagate itself and in turn create amazing jobs and amazing workers. I beg to differ, and here is why.

Two Sides of Coercion

If there are no rules against business practices, some businesses that are less desirable to work in — such as retail and service industry jobs — will hire employees to work just below full time as to prevent any overtime pay. Additionally, employees will be provided with an unpredictable schedule as to prevent them from having the time to seek employment elsewhere. In this example, whose side should we take?

Do we side with the employers, in favor of job creation and staying competitive in the free market?

Or should we side with the employees, in favor of human freedom and protection against employment traps?

Both sides can be equally coercive to the other and will also prevent each other from generating any growth. Under the let-it-be doctrine, it is assumed that this type of standoff will work itself out naturally. If labor laws remain unchanged, it can be assumed that undesirable jobs will be naturally phased out because of unpopularity, and everyone wins.

Without being cynical, one can easily predict that once businesses discover a way to maximize profit without consequence, it is only logical that such practice should continue. And while smaller, boutique-like businesses might be able to maintain a certain moral standard based on a niche market, major businesses — the majority of hiring entities — will have to forget ethics in order to stay competitive.

It is also worth noting that there are many important people giving lip service as to the advantages of small business who are themselves, monopoly millionaire playboys. All the while, some lesser laissez-fairers want to have it all, desperately calling for free enterprise, while also wanting to be moral gods; a total impossibility.  Remember that in this global market economy, there are entire nations willing to offer an equally educated, twice as hard working population for pennies a day.

The central idea is that people of great power and wealth — in short, monopolies — conceived of this let-it-be ideal. The monopolies’ motivation to apply the free-for-all model seems to be an attempt to put limits on the very people they exploited in order to achieve a monopoly. The idea of free market is often expressed by those of great power and wealth after a period of success through years of exploitation and warfare against the weak. Laissez-faire comes up as these people wish to justify and maintain the wealth accumulated, easily shrugging off any remaining guilt.

It surely would be convenient to “let-it-be” if I made incredible profit through labor and resource abuse instead of being held accountable by the people and building my model on a sustainable future.

Deregulation has always seemed laughable when considering the harsh lessons learned before any particular policy was conceived. Should we reinstate slavery? How about ending laborer’s rights? Revoking intellectual property laws? Who is to decide what is coercive to the free market ideal?

When applied in full, the ideas behind laissez-faire are contradictory and awkward for both sides. Lassiez-faire is only a matter of convenience, favoring short sight and a narrow-minded self-interest. Think slavery, conquest, colonialism and the modern West, and inside you will find all of the same contradictions of the laissez-faire model. Laissez-faire always has and always will serve to promote selfish, idiotic, survivalist behavior that, left unchecked, will quite easily end the world.

Freedom ≠ Success

I feel that we should also mention some popular vocal supporters of this model. These are the people who refer to the less-competitive as moochers and/or looters. The reality is that no one can achieve anything based purely on merit; there is luck, and then there is luck, and then there is also luck. To think that people are capable of succeeding based solely on their “talent” is elitist thinking. By now we must have learned that a talented person’s talent can sometimes be untimely, misunderstood, or even misguided by the times.

Laissez-fairers are also quick to use independently successful individuals with humble beginnings as examples of how a free society will help proliferate more of the same fantastically successful human beings, ignoring the reality of pure random luck, inheritance, and the brutal formations of many so-called free societies. In the context of achieving anything in this society, it seems the route to success is shown to those most willing to exploit the current exploitables. Meaning, if blood is a good seller now, you’d better be getting into blood production or contributing in some way to the blood trade. You will, of course be most successful if you can maximize your blood to profit margins.

Is this what we wish mankind to be? A thoughtless creature that preys on any opportunity to profit, even if it means damaging the future for themselves or those who may come after them?

I can understand why some cannot fathom an end of our times. All we can see are cities that stretch across the horizon; the free market economy is like this grand paper mâché bull, fooling people of the world into blind action.

There are misguided souls around the world who wish to look to the West for moral support when it comes to applying laissez-faire on their compatriots. We must remind ourselves however, that centuries of warfare and violent land grabs are what made today’s Western world so dominant. It was not carefully fostered creativity that built the modern Western world, it was mostly military power and random opportunities to exercise said military power.

World dominance through force also improved the prospect of success for many Westerners; so success stories in the modern West are by-and-large less respectable than they might seem. Those who see Americans as pioneers and devoted users of laissez-faire, are a bit misguided and misinformed as well, for even America’s beloved founding fathers could be summed up as money-hungry, slave-owning, tax-evading violent militants. And each year as we contemplate deeply the meaning of “Thanks Giving,” we might also do well to wonder how the original colonists would have fared if the natives simply applied their own brand of laissez-faire and let the colonist be with their disease and famine.

But yes, of course laissez-faire is the most ideal way to govern the world. Take China, a country who’s success has been achieved largely by self-inflicted exploitation, something that economists consider the only way out for a nation which has only natural resources and raw manpower to offer.

The correlation is undeniable: exploitation, not freedom, equals success.

In today’s world economy, imagine if we treated each nation as a person. Who would survive if we were to apply the laissez-faire model?

Nations without any natural resources would be at the mercy of nations that have natural resources. Here, it becomes apparent that someone born small and limited can only achieve more by taking what’s free, or robbing from another. Today however, with every useable land occupied by flags, guns, and tanks, it is hard to justify making it on one’s own like in ancient — or even colonial — times, where one could land anywhere and start extracting resources and wealth by enslaving the indigenous people with no consequence.

Apply the laissez-faire model and the motivation for murder and mayhem will increase ten fold.

And government? Supporters claim that governments are only good for protection from coercion, from rude, uncivilized looters.  This official coercive force, such as police or army is laughable when you consider the people they are protecting. The government under laissez-faire is basically an all-too-necessary police and military force, put in place to protect business interest, and ironically funded by the very people they must oppress.

Gentleman v. Hypocrite

We must notice now, that the application of laissez-faire is only beneficial to those who are already well off. Supporters of laissez-faire are not ready to compete, they simply want everyone to respect their achievements, or exploits, and adjust to their world order. Should they realize the possibility of destructive competition, do you think they will stand idly by and accept a gentleman’s defeat?

In the 1980s, did we think that a proud all-American-cowboy like Regan would bow down to the awesomeness that is the Japanese automotive industry? Today, will the United States’ unprofitable farming industry survive under the model of free competition? How about the airlines? The banks?

Many of these entities were conveniently bailed out by the exploited and we all wonder… is it even possible to be any more ironic? All of these proud developments of the deregulated free market failed, and they will fail again, and again, even if we let-it-be, because we never learn from history unless someone beats that bit of truth in our face and stops us from doing it again.

A society without consequence is a society no more.

Academics will be quick to point out that law and order is necessary to promote fair competition, but it is obvious that laws are made in favor of those who are already in power. So of course we cannot expect fair competition. Natural selection means creatures will do anything at any cost, to compete, to survive, to the point where we cannot even trust the democratic process, a concept which has been around as long as man lived in society.

The explanation — or excuse — most often used to describe this legislative power transfer is that the powers in charge, the all too important millionaire playboy job creators, need maximum freedom to stay competitive. This competitive streak will guarantee this amazing thing call trickle down wealth. But how contradictory is it for laissez-faire supporters to enjoy the thought of trickling down? Is trickling down some philanthropic saying utilized to calm the masses? It seems rather arrogant for the rich to ban government from being able to help those in need indiscriminately, and that only the rich should be relied on to fill this need with their selective benevolence.

Those who believe that pure merit and creativity will always prevail are utopian dreamers, lunatics. Creativity alone cannot solve or defeat matters such as economics, or limitations in physical resources. When a person or nation simply does not have resources, it doesn’t matter how non-violently creative they are, pretty soon the reality of doom will motivate the most natural behavior of all, aggression. That’s nature’s instinct, and I’d dare anyone to let that be.

Pure laissez-faire is founded by unscrupulous, individualistic, blood thirsted hypocrites who want the world to quietly put their hands up and comply with the monopolies. There is no doubt laissez-faire is elitist. It is also cruel, and it poses a living-breathing contradiction, especially when supporters of the laissez-faire model deny the obvious cold-bloodedness of what they do.

But I’d have no problem in supporting such an economic and governmental doctrine… if it weren’t for the hipocricy.


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Stephen Yarwood: Cut the Red Tape, Activate the City

Aerial View of Adelaide, Australia (Photograph: DougBarber | CC BY-SA)

Aerial View of Adelaide, Australia (Photograph: DougBarber | CC BY-SA)

We ran into Lord Mayor, Stephen Yarwood at a conference on Eco Mobility in South Korea of all places, and have since been keeping an eye on the forward-thinking developments in Adelaide, Australia.

A master-planned city of 1836 vintage, Adelaide is the capital of South Australia and a blooming center for culture. But it hasn’t always been this way; after the collapse of the state bank in the early 1990s, the city was thrown into bankrupcy. The last 2 decades have seen a slow recovery in bringing Adelaide back to being one of Australia’s cultural capitals.

Today however, the government is acting with surprisingly quick and bold moves – words that are rarely associated with government actions — thanks in part to the young and spry Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood at the helm. As Mayor Yarwood tells us, the city (and state) governments have some interesting tricks up their sleeves in terms of spurring development of arts, culture, and strong community, even on a tight budget.

Activating the City: Adelaide is currently piloting a “City Activation” program, whereby it funds small citizen-driven projects with micro grants. Yarwood wants to remove the complex bureaucracy and permitting process for people who have ideas on how to create a stronger sense of community. Although the program entails a small financial risk for the city, it allows citizens to test ideas that would otherwise sit as unrealized thoughts on paper. The first of these City Activation pilot projects were funded just this month.


Sociecity: The central portion of Adelaide was Master Planned nearly two centuries ago, which would lead some to think of this area as static, unchanging. What is the reality to that, and what are the unique challenges you face having that pre-set city plan which is now around 170 years old.

Mayor Yarwood: First and foremost, yes, that is the valid perception, but not the valid reality. Cities are living, breathing organisms, transport is changing, society and the values are changing. The baby boomers here in Australia have really defined our society. There’s going to be an increased need for higher density housing. Eighty-five percent of housing in Adelaide is low density, our densities are massively lower than most any city anywhere else in the world.

There’s also a sense of tradition, and we’re one of the only cities completely surrounded by parkland. To preserve that parkland without being tempted to being drawn into the short term opportunistic process… I mean, even expanding the high school by 50-60 meters is a hot debate. We’re having a brand new 50,000-seat stadium built, and we’re encroaching on the parkland; some people would rather oppose a ½ billion dollar stadium project rather than see thirty trees removed.

So it’s an interesting challenge.

What we do have is a great grid system, so we have wide streets, a permeable city, fantastic heritage assets, a great railway network, like Melbourne. We have a fantastic canvas that we can use and enjoy.

How is your centrally planned business district “protected” from development due to it’s historical status.

I wouldnt’ say that the CBD is protected, North Adelaide is protected, as are other pockets. It’s more protection of the buildings rather than the urban structure itself. We’re still going through the process. We still have the challenges… we’re about to go through a big economic boom here, we’re just about ranked the world’s biggest open cut mine and world’s biggest mineral resource. As you can appreciate, that’s the history of Australian cities, gold mines, copper mines; but, we are still having that challenge where we need to define heritage as a strategic asset, protecting historical precincts, and not just historical buildings.

In comparison to other cities in Australia, Melbourne, Adelaide and Hobart are the three cities that absolutely have the heritage fabric where people come and say “wow, this is beautiful.” Much more like European cities.

Sydney is kind of like a shiny new American city, whereas Melbourne and Adelaide are more like European cities.

What is your City Activation plan looking like so far?

We’re really only maybe 3 weeks into it, and now we are in that ‘summer summer summer’ period. Frankly, my daughter finished school this week, so now the project is all about summer. There’s this really kind of personal dedication to getting out there and activating it, especially now. We have this whole pile of young entrepreneurs who are really inspired to do these things, we also have a new Permier (similar to a state Governor in the U.S.) who I met with last week who was actually saying “yes, you need to do this…” It’s really exciting for the Permier and the lord mayor (to be) completely on the same page, and it’s not official yet, but he’s pledge to match our funding for the project with $100,000. It’s not big money, but it is about quicker, lighter, bigger, cheaper, and in year one of the project, it is really just about proving it.

It’s the cab drivers, the car focus people, the small businesses who think that cars mean money, It’s these people we have to challenge in this first phase and do these small projects.

I think it’s going quite well so far and people are excited. We’re also getting a lot of community involved small businesses.

We’re not afraid to get out there and see what other cities are doing, either (Mayor Yarwood is visiting New York City later this year). In North America in the summer, everyone competes for attention, but when it comes to summer in the southern hemisphere, there’s really only a dozen or so interesting cities in the southern hemisphere. So you know, we get all the rock stars coming here, and we also get a lot of experts trying to escape the cold winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Charles Landry has been a thinker in residence here in Adelaide, Fred Hansen from Portland has come down here, and some staff designers from New York are coming here to show us what they have done and help train our staff. We are particularly open to new ideas, we have a history of multiculturalism, we’re not like some Americans who are say, a very proud San Franciscan, or a proud New Yorker, we are a proud part of the global culture.

You are taking certain risks in order to make this project successful, what are the limits as to how much risk, financial or otherwise, you are willing to take to make these projects happen?

The whole idea is doing is as cheaply as possible. We’re trying to get the local businesses to you know, water the plants on the street, and bring the tables and chairs in. One thing I’ve learned in the last 12 months is that cities are about people, not necessarily councils and bureaucracies, and so what we are trying to do is to start a real community movement, not an ‘Occupy Wall Street’ community, we’re actually trying to go to the broader community, to get businesses involved, get precincts involved, because it’s actually really up to the people. I’m saying: cities are for people and that means you. My favorite quote is “it’s not what your city can do for you, but what you can do for your city,” and it’s working, people are excited.

Burger Theory Mobile Food Truck in Adelaide, Australia (photograph: Timothy Tuppence)

Burger Theory Mobile Food Truck in Adelaide, Australia (photograph: Timothy Tuppence)

It’s all about getting out there and engaging people. Even getting the media on board with these issues is important. Usually they are critical, but they are actually being incredibly supportive, and part of my job is about communication and telling story and exciting people.

We also have a project called Renew Adelaide where we get young people to work with the council to find empty buildings, to work with the property owners to get free or very cheap rent to activate these buildings. We have a huge arts festival (Adelaide Arts Festival), and over that period especially we get people to activate these buildings and turn them into event spaces. I know San Francisco is really good at this stuff, and New York is as well, and it’s all got that ‘artist’ link to it, and I would say that Adelaide is more like San Francisco than any other city in Australia.

We’re trying to cut the red tape, to help change the culture. It’s all about helping people find solutions and we’ve had to re-write some of the rules so that we can allow temporary activity. So here is company-X having to spend 5 million to create something absolutely perfectly, like a Tiffany’s or Christian Dior or whatever, you know, but if you’ve got $50,000 and you want to put out some groovy materials or sell beer from an ice bucket, you have to pay the same fee and do the same paperwork as the the retailers at the high-end of town.

So what we need to do is have two sets of rules, if you’re trying to do this on the cheap, or trying to do some sort of temporary thing, we’ll let you do that. So it’s that birth, death, rebirth of cities.

Do you have a favorite project that’s being implemented?

Australia we have the biggest houses and biggest yards in the world, so we have this backyard BBQ culture where the real challenge for us is to draw people out into these public spaces because they are so used to say, activating their own backyard. A favorite I’ve had is the mobile catering and food trucks like Burger Theory because they have the ability to wheel something into a space, put out cardboard chairs and tables, use social media, you know, twitter it or something else, and have people show up. They provide a temporary activation of that space.

We’re really in the early stages of ‘reclaiming’ our spaces, and by doing that we can prove what is right. I think the critical thing is that, by doing this, the city council will know where to invest in the long term. This is about pilot projects that help us determine how to invest in the future, so instead of doing a huge white elephant, you are actually shoring this thing up with incredibly cheap activation, and if it actually starts to work then we can come in and start planning, spending you know, 10, 20, 30 million to improve the public realm and by then it will begin to attract private investment as well.

So what you really want to be doing is investing in the public realm at the time when it is so happening that the private sector is also going to come in an contribute, in terms of appropriate shops, land uses, housing, all those sorts of redevelopment things to help activate the space.

It’s like anything, you have to draw up a great plan, you first use pencil and/or charcoal, then you get our your paints afterward and you start painting in the picture. So we’re sketching a 21st century city at the moment in the hopes that in 5-10 years we can start to paint in the details.

It’s an exciting time, we’ve got that arts culture, we’ve got the history of being innovative and forward — we’re the first place in the world where women were able to vote — but we’re also outward looking, part of the global culture, and we’re open to accepting what other people are doing all over the world, we’re connected to the U.S. To Europe, to Asia, we have those networks out there, and not just with global corporations but with grassroots organizations.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded”]Links and Further Reading…

Adelaide City Activation Program – City Website
Adelaide Arts Festival – Festival Website
Fringe Festival – Festival Website
Burger Theory – Food Truck[/box]


“Buckshot” Needed to hit Emissions Targets

Multimodal Transportation in Barcelona, Spain (photograph: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Multimodal Transportation in Barcelona, Spain (photograph: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Let’s face it. Even if you’re not on the Global Warming Boat — we assume a boat would be the best place if the sea level were rising — there aren’t many viewing angles at which burning fossil fuel looks good for us in the long term. The issue of airborne pollutants alone should be reason to take emissions reductions seriously, especially given the recent headlines regarding places such as Beijing, where air pollution routinely enters seriously hazardous levels for human health.

In light of all of this, the European Union has set a goal of achieving a 80-95% reduction in greenhouse gas (CHG) emission levels by 2050. When faced with the task of actually doing it, however, the pertinent industries (energy, transportation, manufacturing) generally argue that this goal is nearly impossible to reach, while your standard-model eco-scientists fight back with: We’re going under Scotty. We don’t care how you do it, just get it fixed.

Aye, captain.

The Bicycle, the Bus, and the Car

Father and Children Cycling in the Netherlands (photo: Marc van Woudenberg)

Father and Children Cycling in the Netherlands (photo: Marc van Woudenberg)

The European Cycling Federation (ECF) released a report yesterday, giving an extremely thorough and well thought out study on transportation forms and how they will contribute to a serious reduction in emissions.

The commission’s report takes a serious look at the issue of emissions, quantifying production, operation, maintenance as well as infrastructure and disposal as part of the entire “transportation” picture. In doing so, they show a rather rough looking road to the dramatic European Union targets for lower carbon emissions, and also one where large-scale reconsideration of transportation methods is a requirement.

According to the study, about 24% of CHG emissions in the EU are from transportation (cars, airplanes, boats, trains) and 30% come from power generation (household, commercial, industrial, your electric car). The ECF figures that for every 1,000 miles driven in a car, you would need to ride approximately 13,500 miles on a bicycle to produce the same CHG emissions levels.

But what about my cool “∞ MPG” shirt, you ask?

Well, yes, bicycles are infinately better for the environment and for the personal health of the people who use them as a method of transport, but they create emissions too, however small.

These emissions are not from a tail pipe so to speak, but from the foods that riders eat, the metal and rubber that makes up their bicycles, and the transportation required to move all of that stuff. After all is accounted for, biking still results in emissions over 10 times lower than that of your average passenger car.

The Silver Buckshot

Simply evolving technology in transportation methods is not nearly enough to reach emissions goals, the study asserts. So what’s left, then?

Changing habits, changing commute lengths, and pretty much a complete restructuring on how we think of transportation.

The study calls this approach using “silver buckshot, instead of a silver bullet.” Getting folks out of cars and onto bicycles may seem like the most difficult way to reach emissions goals, but on the flip-side of that, switching to bikes is certainly one of the cheapest and most effective changes we can make.

If the general population cycled an average of just 3 miles per day, 50% of the targeted CNG emissions reductions could be achieved, the study suggests.

In general, however, the entire transportation system needs to be rethought. When used, vechicles need to be able to travel at consistent speeds, traffic needs to be reduced, public transportation and rail travel needs to be more efficient and link the correct places, and cities need to be built in concert with these modes of transportation.

European Cycling Federation - Avoid, Shift, Improve (Source : Dalkmann and Brannigan)

European Cycling Federation - Avoid, Shift, Improve (Source : Dalkmann and Brannigan)

The ECF model identifies three targets for change 1) Avoid — help reduce the necessity for car-trips with better city planning and land use 2) Shift — change our habits to make use of current alternative transportation methods 3) Improve– finally, engineer better mass transit and personal motorized transportation mechanisms.

If this sounds troubling for the EU, it is  a problem magnitudes worse to solve in the US. This is because, for the most part, large areas of EU cities are already built to work with mass transit, walking, and bicycles. In America, the majority of cities are unfailingly incompatible with the idea of short local commutes, efficient mass transit, and trips by bicycles and walking.

This study doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the US and other countries who have built their cities around the personal motor vehicle. In doing so, however, it shows us that we need to approach the restructuring of our cities with the utmost seriousness. We need to be doing everything in our power to make this change possible.

The study focuses on CO2, understandably, since it is a popular metric and driver of the eco industry. But CO2 isn’t truly a root or reason for a restructuring of our transportation system, it is just one symptom of an imperfect system. For the Eco movement to be understood and implemented correctly, the conversation must evolve to talk not simply about measurable pollution, but about the end results in terms of health benefits to individuals, the planet, and society as a whole.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Read More:

Read the Full ECF Study – (PDF)
Beijing Pollution – Wall Street Journal[/box]

The American (Fooled and Drugged) Economy

Why are there more obese, diabetic, just plain sick Americans than ever before? What causes us to be sick, and why do we pay so much compared to other nations to get healthy again?

Well, we’re not only paying more to get healthy, we’re also paying more to get sick. Confused? Follow along with the illustration below, dubbed the American Fooled and Drugged Economy and see if things start to make sense.

The American Food and Drug (fooled and drugged) Economy (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

In short, the American people make money at unnecessarily stressful jobs to help pay for fast food, cigarettes, alcohol, and various pollution-generating devices, all of which in turn causes disease and health issues for the people. So the people then pay for cures, which come from the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry who make the drugs, weight-loss schemes, diabetes medication, cancer treatments and various forms of therapy.

It’s no small wonder that the U.S. is by far the world’s leading economy, no other country takes advantage of its people so efficiently…

The New Cyborg

The New CyborgI’m pushing forward my anthropological research on this inscrutable Asia.

I look around myself in the metro and all I see are women of an undefined age somewhere between 17 and 45. The more I look at them the more they seem indefinable, the more I look at them the more I realize there’s something that doesn’t quite fit in these 50s’ style cute dresses, in these pointed heels, in this always bright, always soft hair.

There is something that quite doesn’t fit, because it seems like all these women have in their mind a unique, changeless model which is always the same, for everybody.

Because of this uniquely Korean ideal, hair will never be soft or bright enough, eyes never deep enough, eye-lids never perfect, skin never sufficiently white.

I clash against the stereotypical dream of the baby-woman, beautiful doll-like skin as white as porcelain, lips perfectly shaped as if they belong to an ancient mannequin in a shrine. Around me, these dolls sport three or four clothing styles, all the same, only colors and sizes change. Actually, even the sizes are mostly all the same.

I enter a shop and discover that there are no fitting rooms. I enter another. Ditto. And ditto the next shop, and the next. Fitting rooms simply DO NOT exist here, because there’s no need to fit anything. Clothes fit nearly everybody in the same way. There are three sizes, yet only because of the remote chance of some imperfect centimeter that can make the difference. Three sizes that are almost all the same, and you can do nothing but choosing the color.

And so ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the four Korean Dolls:

The Sporty Doll: Young, tight pants, American sneakers and big hoody, a little bit too big on the shoulders, one or two sizes bigger than normal, as if it has just been taken from the drawer of an imaginary boyfriend.

The Superyoung Doll: Really a high-necked top but inguinal shorts, worldwide-known-brand backpack, ipod ipad and iwhatever.

The Elegant Doll: in case of afternoon dating with following engagement, skirt to the knee, thin heels, hair up, light make up, small bag to the elbow. And finally, for the most demanding we can offer…

The Night Doll: aggressive heels, mini skirt more mini than ever, strong lipstick en pendant with the nails, a little bit of lace, lots of glitter, anorak Dick Tracy style.

These are our all-around stereotypical Korean dolls; all motionless, all perfect, even a smile is forbidden as the skin can be damaged.

Curious as to the habits of the Korean doll, I ask some questions to the locals and I discover that the average girl needs about two hours in order to get ready for going out. I also discover that in her bathroom is an army of whitening creams, anti-wrinkles, anti-lucid, antioxidant, anti-anti. Further investigation, and I find that an average of two in three women in Korea have already had plastic surgery by age 18.

It seems so many in this country are fiercely trying to please this overbearing ghost of perfection I glimpse in the metro:

Bigger eyes
Deeper eye-lids
Better curved forehead
Less prominent jaws
Less bent legs
Bigger breasts
Straighter nose
Juicy lip

and above all… stomach reduction, because if you weigh more than 36 kilos (80lbs) you’re living in a tragedy. Also popular are sweat gland removal (being sweating a not-so-noble-affair) and calf reduction (they’re often too big to be elegant.)

For those past their ‘prime,’ after a certain age here, comes “vaginal rejuvenation” surgery. Yes, in Korea you can have back a fifteen year-old vagina.

The New Cyborg is Here

The new cyborg is already among us, in the metro in the offices and in the buses. It doesn’t laugh, doesn’t cry, it barely speaks, eats just a little bit and seems to get pleasure even less. The new cyborg’s body is not made in order to achieve pleasure, but just to be looked at, admired, taken care of.

The overbearing ghost of perfection whom the new cyborg attempts to imitate is the ghost of a baby, a doll-woman: no need to act sexy, seductive, intelligent, just plainly, simply, cute.

The new cyborg is a girl you can help by carrying her bag while she brings you along for some shopping, she is a little, perfect cyborg with an undefinable age that you can show off to your colleagues, and on the necessary occasion she is a blow-up doll who can satisfy quick appetites.

I am astonished the slavery to this idea, this mass-movement of impossible aiming towards a cyborg-like perfection.

I am shocked by this way of using the body as a fashionable toy, a toy that continuously needs to be improved, until it is perfectly equal to the Korean idol.

These mechanic bodies
These all-the-same beauties
This continuous call-to-arms to be the un-reachable ghost that is the cyborg

This unavoidable and unchangeable beauty worries me, this homogenization of tastes, these forever-young armies of cyborgs, they make me shiver while I look at them, marching out from the metro stations in order to win their battle against any possible diversity, against who they are.

There are those in this city who say “even if you’ve got so many wrinkles, you’re not so bad” and it shocks me, it leaves me speechless. Most of the women I meet are more than perfect, and the ones who are not remain full of complexes, unable to see themselves fitting anywhere in the puzzle because of their diversity, their 55, my goodness, 55 kilos, their foreheads slightly flat, their eyes too small.

As for the cyborg women, the Amazons of the mechanic progress, how can I talk to these people about diversity? About the uniqueness of body? What am I blathering about to them?

These, and other questions, I ask myself daily, while I am getting ready for my new mini-war in the metro. Every day, as I look at Western men, all drooling at the thought of having their own cyborg-dolls.

Takeshi Yamasaki’s “Socially-Conscious” Investment

Takeshi Yamasaki, CEO of Global Agents (photo: Akihito Hatanaka | sociecity)

Takeshi Yamasaki, CEO of Global Agents (photo: Akihito Hatanaka | sociecity)

I hardly remember when I first met Takeshi. I think I was brushing my teeth in the communal bathroom of my new social apartment when I barely acknowledged the gentle “konbanwa” of the unassuming young Japanese guy next to me. Later, somebody told me the CEO of Global Agents was living in the same apartment and pointed to Takeshi. I couldn’t believe it. “That guy?” I asked. Yes, that guy.

Takeshi Yamasaki left the intensely profit-driven world of Goldman Sachs real-estate investment to form his own investment company. Today, Yamasaki’s chief concern is in making sure that his company is ‘doing good for society’ rather than just doing what makes profit.

Not to be confused with “social housing,” Yamasaki’s social apartments are modern, well-appointed buildings with communal areas for residents to interact. They are made affordable not through government subsidies, but by the very nature of their communal and social atmosphere, and as such are often full of young, energetic people.

Sociecity’s Sonya Poller interviews Takeshi in Tokyo, Japan…


What inspired you to set up your company?

Well, I lived in London for six months when I was 19 and I shared a flat with other people. I found that this residential style was pretty fun. It’s not common in Japan; at least it wasn’t at the time. After that I started to think about business ideas. I heard that social networking sites were expanding such as Mixi or Gree (popular in Japan), so then I thought about demand which was socializing or connecting with people through the Internet. I thought there should be the same thing in real life so that people can socialize where they live.

It’s one thing to have an idea and another thing to actually do it – how did you make the transition?

Two main things. One was to find sponsors. The other was to find the right properties to be converted into social apartments. So, almost all of my first year was focused on these two things. Actually finding a sponsor was not really difficult. The most difficult thing was to find the right properties.

What reaction did the sponsors give a 22 year old student?

Well of course it was just a student’s idea. I wondered if they were really committed. But they thought it was kind of interesting and said “if you find a good property, we are going to support you.”

They took you seriously from the beginning?

Yes, but after that it was very, very hard. At first the board members were pretty skeptical about future demands. As CEO I needed to present properties with profit – definitely no loss. So in terms of that it was really hard. I think I saw 3000 properties, out of that I visited about 100 properties in about six months. We closed two properties. I was lucky.

Only two out of 3000 properties? What kept you going during that time?

Belief in myself, actually. I really thought that I could find good properties – that is the only thing that kept me going. I just want to provide those kind of properties and environments for people. I want to expand these things into Japanese society, to make Japan more global.

Now you are operating 10 properties. What is your goal in five or 10 years?

In five years I want to expand to more properties, to like 40 or 50 throughout Tokyo, and Japan… of course I want to go outside Japan and expand the social network throughout the world: America, Singapore, London… and then it will be easier to do house exchanges.

I want to create a real social network among the social apartments so that people can enjoy communicating – not just inside one property but among all residents.

I was surprised that you live in a social apartment, why do you choose to live there?

It’s a new type of apartment so I need to live there. Also I enjoy it. It is important for me to see for myself, what is good, what is bad, what needs improvement, from the tiny things to the big things.

I don’t think too many 28 year olds are doing what you are doing. How do you think you were able to succeed at such a young age?

Actually we are not successful yet. (Silence) I try to make an effort. Of course taking risks is very important, but not too much! Meeting many people, gathering many perspectives and knowledge has been very beneficial for me… but I am really not successful yet.

One of the Social Apartment properties in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan (photo: Social-Apartment.com)

A common room in one of the Social Apartment properties in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan (photo: Social-Apartment.com)

What does success mean for you?

Well I don’t know, actually I am pretty satisfied with what I am doing. Of course sometimes I face very difficult situations and I really think I cannot do something well. Sometimes, people may feel troubled, because of me, so as long as I feel something like this I cannot say I am successful.

How do you survive the difficult days?

As long as I am doing good things my actions won’t betray me. If I were doing something bad I might not get anywhere, I might be dead already. What I am doing, I think, is the right thing and our business definitely makes society better. As long I believe this, I try to think that society will return the feeling back.

What are some of the mistakes that you have made?

Many mistakes…really! It’s hard. I mean if I knew in advance maybe I wouldn’t make any mistakes. Of course I try not to repeat a mistake. I learn from every mistake, but sometimes it is too late but it’s human and humans cannot be completely perfect.

What about your mentors?

Recently I see how important having a mentor is. Asking people, looking for a mentor, that is a sign of change for me. I was not a person who liked asking people but I realize it is very important. Three or four years ago, the company was very small so I could say the company was mine, but now there are 10 people…just 10 people but also 10 people, you know… and shareholders. I realize that the company is not mine any longer. So I have to change.

What would you say to somebody who also has a dream of starting a business?

I think Japanese people tend to be bound by the current situation; they like things to be the same. Don’t be afraid to change your environment. If you don’t think about anything, I think that is the biggest risk, you can’t change. You have to be accustomed to taking risks. Taking risks is actually low risk, compared with people who don’t think about their situation.

It seems to me that you have a unique attitude. Why do you like taking risks?

Actually my family was really poor, so being in the same environment would not be good. I needed to change, I needed to get better and meet with people. I started to think about these kinds of things when I was about 17 or 18. Before that I was of course ordinary, even now I am ordinary, but at that time I was even more ordinary. I didn’t study at all. I just played mahjong every night.

How do your parents feel about what you do now?

Well good and bad. I worked for Goldman Sachs after graduating university for three years and I think from my parent’s point of view, working for Goldman was good with not very bad pay. But when I went back to my company, I got paid almost nothing. They wondered why I chose this kind of life.

Goldman was really interesting but it was about trading, buying properties at a low price and then selling them at a high price, that’s it.

It is not creative, it doesn’t create any market. Interesting and fun, but not fun in a different sense. What I wanted to do most was create new ideas, new lifestyles, kind of a new culture in society.

Who do you look up to?

The original investor of this company. He is the person I respect the most. He is kind of a genius, so creative with many good and new ideas. He gave my life a direction. Because of him I started to get interested in investment. Originally I didn’t like investment, I studied biotechnology in university. As I said, my family was poor so I had to make money for my family. I didn’t have time to think about many things. But somehow I started to get interested in finance, and then I had the opportunity to intern at a company involved in investment funds. He taught me the philosophy of investment, about culture and of course life. I was really shocked, culture shocked. I was impressed and inspired. I decided to forget about biotechnology. If I hadn’t met him, maybe my life would be different.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Every situation, even if it is a hard. I actually enjoy working during the hard times. It is difficult to think that it’s enjoyable but I think things will definitely get better, so I can get through it. Then it is studying time, learning time. Experiencing hard things is definitely good for the future. I try to think about that. When I face a bad problem, I try to enjoy it, not really ‘enjoying’ but enjoying trying to be good. Any situation, good or bad, it definitely makes you better.

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Takeshi’s 10 Keys to Success

1. Take risks
2. Be creative
3. Do the right/ethical thing for society
4. Meet with as many people as possible
5. Believe in yourself
6. Believe in your team
7. Look at the long-term (not just the short-term)
8. Think and act (“There should be a balance- perhaps 70% thinking and 30% action is good. Don’t think too much but don’t act so fast.”)
9. Follow your intuition
10. Enjoy yourself – even in bad situations



For More on Takeshi’s Social Apartment Project, Visit…

Social Apartments Website (English/Japanese)


Dirty Useless Bums, or Eco Heroes?

Homeless: The Unlikely Eco Hero? (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Photo Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity

Let’s cut to the chase and be brutally honest about what our stereotypical “bum” is: a dirty, drunken, frightening, socially inept creature of the urban environment, someone who has ‘fallen off the cart’ so to speak, and makes a living, well, by living off of the hard work of other people who have chosen to be productive members of society.

With that out of the way, let’s have a look at the street-dweller from a slightly different point of view.

Most street-dwellers don’t just stand on corners begging for money, and they don’t just walk around with all of their belongings in that stolen shopping cart. Many are active recyclers, walking about with shopping carts full of cans and glass bottles, all of which are turned in for cash at local recycling stations.

Not only do these homeless recyclers take responsibility for all of us ‘average’ persons who hastily throw away our bottles, cans, or papers from time to time — or all the time — they also happen to have an inherently low impact lifestyle to begin with. No huge house to air-condition or heat, no bathtub or shower to run, no fancy gas or electric range, no washing machine, no closet full of clothes and shoes, no fossil-fuel burning SUV. If they’re lucky, they have a small propane stove, a few changes of clothes, some blankets, a bicycle, and a shopping cart.

The lifestyle of the average homeless person — dirty and unsavory as it may seem — is a rather eco-conscious one.

Some might rightly argue, that recycling itself is a sham, that 50 years ago, we didn’t recycle anything and the planet was better off for it. I will offer no arguments against that claim. In 1950 or thereabouts, 100% of soda bottles in the U.S. were reusable — remember: reduce, reuse, recycle, where recycling comes as a last resort — and we sent the bottles to be cleaned and refilled instead of using more energy crushing or melting them to produce a “recycled” product. Indeed, re-using glass bottles is much more eco-friendly than crushing and recycling them. But that is a story for another day, and today we are in the unfortunate circumstance of living in a system that sends tons upon tons of waste to the landfill.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States sends somewhere in the neighborhood of 82 million tons of recyclable materials to the landfill each year. By weight, that’s like taking every single car sold in the world this year, and throwing it into a giant garbage heap. One wonders how much more recycling would be sent to the garbage dump if it weren’t for the street collectors we see on the streets during the day, or rummaging through the local dumpster at night.

What would happen if we stopped looking at the homeless problem as a “problem,” but instead as a “solution.” To clarify, I’m not advocating that banks continue to push people out of their homes and into the homeless lifestyle, nor am I saying that it’s a positive thing to have people who are forced to sleep on the streets. Rather, I’m advocating that we look at the homeless population — many of whom willingly choose to live this kind of lifestyle — in a different way, that we help them do the work of recycling instead of making it more difficult or illegal for them, as is the case in multiple municipalities.

But if that all seems like too much work, the least we might do is respect them a bit more.

Much of the homeless population are the unlikely eco-heros of the urban sphere. The ecosystem impact of the local garbage rummager is not only far less than the average person, but is further offset by their cleaning up of our mess so to speak. These people — largely unwittingly and largely unrecognized — do our cities a service every day, and our standard repayment is often to look down on them, or perhaps to take pity and toss them a few coins.

So the next time  you walk out of a fancy restaurant towards your car and  you see a some unkempt person in ratty clothes collecting recyclables from the trash, perhaps you should fight that urge to turn your nose up in repulsion, and thank them instead.

After all, isn’t it the homeless person who should presumably be repulsed by the prodigal masses?

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]References and Further Research:

EPA United States Recycling Facts – EPA.gov (PDF)
World Car Production Count – Worldometers
Homeless Recyclers Screwed – PlanetSave.com
Pennywise, Dollar Foolish – YouTube


The Dark Future for America’s Brightest City

An Empty San Jose Center for Performing Arts (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The Frank Lloyd Wright designed San Jose Center for Performing Arts sits empty (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Like Many U.S. cities, the San Jose, California is in damage control mode, struggling with crippling budget shortfalls and making cuts in multiple areas. At an economic development meeting this week, it was said that although the police force lost over 60 officers to layoffs recently, the city still has over $3 million on their books sanctioned for art.

$3 Million to ART!?

Many would argue that any such superfluous funding should be cut before police officers are laid off, and that is precisely what the City of San Jose intends to do.

The Current Paradigm

The City of San Jose, as with any other large U.S. City, has a governmental structure built on a simple paradigm: tax the population and city visitors, and use that money to provide essential services. The issue with this paradigm is, has always been, and will likely continue to be in the way our government defines “essential services.” The standard fashion for defining these services, is to do so in a reactionary way. That is, to combat the negative things such as crime — which are seen as a fact of life — with a controlling force.

By this way of thinking, we have police to protect and serve, emergency medical services to save lives, and art to take us away from the dreary day-to-day grind. But isn’t there more to safety, health, and life, and don’t we have other options in creating a safe, healthy, happy environment in our cities?

The issue with reactionary definitions is that they do not address the source of the problems they seek to solve.

Reactionary thinking only serves to treat surface conditions, and often assumes that these conditions (crime, poor health, boredom) are unavoidable.

This type of thinking will lead to, at best, a constant struggle between affliction and methods of protection; at worst, and almost certainly eventually, it will send any society into an unending downward spiral.

As a case study, the City of San Jose has closed libraries, and shortened their hours in order to maintain budget that will save police jobs. This is a reactionary move; the city needs money to maintain police in order to protect us from the crime which they assume will always be there.

What reactionary thinking does not look at, however, is the root of our problems, such as crime, and where these problems come from. In doing so, our government not only ignores many causes of crime, but often inadvertently helps these causes, in turn creating a need for large numbers of police officers.

Unfortunately for us, this problem — creating bad things that we should have a reason to battle these bad things — is not a unique problem in our world today, or historically.

The former Citadel Canning Factory, turned Artist Community in San Jose, sits in the dark during a power outage (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The former Citadel Canning Factory, turned Artist Community in San Jose, in the dark during a power outage (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Reactionary thinking patterns do not take into account that extended library hours and engaging youth programs are things which keep crime rates at bay, that the more engaged youth we have, the less crime there will be, and that dollar for dollar, spending on preventative measures to stop crime before it begins is much more effective than fighting crime after it has had a chance to breed.

Part of the reason that this thought is not accepted so easily is that when we see immediate problems, we look for immediate solutions; and let’s be quite clear here, the correlation between library hours and crime is not an immediate one. This does not mean, however, that the tie does not exist. A seemingly small detail such as library closures is just one of the roots of the larger issue of crime; closures here and there, or even shortened hours are all actions which will give freely and plentifully to a slow but constant upswing in crime rates.

Into the Dark?

At this very moment, Charles Reed, the Honorable Mayor of the City of San Jose — along with like-minded leaders across the country — is unwittingly planting the seeds which have the very real potential to become immense root-systems of crime and civil unrest.

Historically, when civilizations have made the decision to cut arts, community, and cultural activities, those civilizations have seen crime rise and quality of life drop.

It won’t happen overnight of course, not likely until our mayors and government officials are long out of office. But as long as they balance the budget during the current term, our leaders can afford to let it be the next one’s problem.

If our leaders were to do the opposite at this juncture, to put more money into the arts and culture, to increase after-school programs and library hours, and to invest more in cultural facilities and festivals, the effect would also be the opposite. A slow, but unstoppable path would be paved to lower crime, safer streets, and better quality of life.

Let me be very clear in saying that if your goal is a safe, happy, and healthy city, the arts are not a nice-to-have, they are a must-be.

I understand it would be very easy to write off these words as not addressing the technical aspects of the problem at hand, as not being complex enough to fully realize the breadth of the situation. But in fact, these ideas supersede all of the technical aspects, and they do so because they are the building blocks on which these technical aspects are created in our society.

San Jose and other cities can continue to proceed with their plans to cut funding for the arts, close more libraries and cultural facilities, remove funding for parades, festivals, and cultural celebrations, and it won’t look too terrible next month, or even next year.

You won’t see the effect immediately, but with the final pen stroke that would cut arts and culture funding, the end result will already be irreversible. Citizens will leave for greener, perhaps smaller and more vibrant communities, crime in large cities will increase, and the police force will really need to grow exponentially in numbers to take care of the long lasting ill-effects of this budget “solution.”

With a shiny new balanced budget and dwindling support for arts and culture, the road to the downfall of our cities might be relatively quick. The recovery however — even in simply returning to today’s vibrant, culturally rich landscape — will require a hard many decades.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Further Research and Reading:

The Leading Innovative Cities – Forbes
Cultural Facilities Plan Update – City of San Jose (PDF)
Art Facts for At-Risk Youth – Americans for the Arts (PDF)


When Cycling is a Crime

Cyclist in a painted roadside lane in Campbell, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Cyclist in a painted roadside lane in Campbell, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Riding a bicycle on the side of a busy street with traffic buzzing past at 35-50 miles-per-hour; it is one of the most uncomfortable, undesirable ways to get around town for the average person, yet many cities encourage it. Not only that, they are also proud of their accomplishments in painting white lines on the sides of main roads.

Even leading bicycle-friendly cities in the U.S. such as Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco exhibit the same bicycle infrastructure  inadequacies. Yet many planners and riders alike in the U.S. are under the impression that a bike-friendly city plan begins and ends with lines painted on the side of a busy road, riverside paths used for recreation (but not as commute routes), and fragments of good separate right-of-ways that do not create useful routes.

In fact, none of these elements make for a bike-friendly city; they only maintain a car-centric city in which bicycles are both a marginalized and dangerous form of transportation, along with a nuisance to drivers.

Cyclists who care about their safety, as well as motorists who are weary of driving next to bicycles should put their cities on notice: Cycling is not share the road signs, it is not a brand new riverside bike path, and it is certainly not lines painted on a road built for cars.

Cycling is a complete infrastructure, it is a dedicated system, and it is a culture; and it is something that most U.S. cities sadly do not have.

Dr. Bernhard Ensink, Secretary General of the European Cyclists’ Federation — a man who you might hear a lot about around these parts — reminds us about the dangers associated with high-speed traffic and on-road bicycle lanes. Dr. Ensink states that in a car/bicycle collision at 20 mph the cyclist has a 5% chance of death; raise that vehicle speed, and the chances of death rise sharply from there, with an 80% chance of death by the time you reach 35 mph.

Safety in Helmets?

Many think it’s not infrastructure, but helmets that are the answer, yet while the U.S. already has one of the highest percentage of riders wearing helmets (an estimated 1 in 2), it also has one of the highest cyclist fatality rates (110 deaths per billion km traveled.)

The Netherlands, by comparison, sees only a small number wearing helmets (1 in 1,000 riders), yet it has one of the lowest percentages of bicycle-related fatalities (17 deaths per billion km traveled.)

The reality is that, helmet or not, nearly all of the people who die in bicycle accidents are being killed by motor vehicles. Bicycles have no business being next to motor vehicles and vehicles have no business traveling next to bicycles.

Despite the logic, statistics, and common sense which would tell us otherwise, we seem to think our system is quite reasonable. Someone from Amstersam, however, might tell us:

“A 3,000-kilo SUV traveling 55kph beside a 10-kilo bicycle traveling 15kph? Are you Americans fu***ng nuts?” — Jaques Brissot, a Frenchman living in Amsterdam.

Okay, well if it’s not helmets, what do the Dutch have that we don’t?

Digging Deep Roots

Bicycles in Amsterdam, Netherlands (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Bicycles in Amsterdam, Netherlands (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

For starters, the Dutch have a proper infrastructure, a safe and dedicated system, and a deep-rooted culture of cycling.

Deep roots must start somewhere, and for the U.S. to grow them, we must realize that, if the majority of bicycle lanes are placed alongside fast moving traffic, people will ride their bicycles less, and fatal accidents will happen far more often. This is especially true if said lanes are not separated from traffic, not respected by traffic, and not given their own infrastructure including the bicycle traffic signals common in much of Europe and Asia.

This is not an issue we can squarely blame on any one entity, both the government and people alike have made the current system acceptable; the government by their actions, and the people by their collective inaction. A few mid-sized cities in the U.S. have become unsung heroes, Boulder, Colorado being one of the notables in the fact that they have a large network of bicycle-only roads, underpasses for safe cycle and pedestrian passage, and they spent 49% of their transportation budget on bicycle, pedestrian, transit and transportation demand management projects during 2007-08.

Boulder successfully changed their way of thinking about the bicycle, and was able to make it a viable transit option.

If we want to make a positive change on a large scale, more citizens and municipalities must begin to look at bicycling in a completely different way, as a healthy form of transportation, a serious form of transportation, and quite frankly, as a big part of the future of local transportation.

Bicycle Boulevard Concept for the Alameda, San Jose, USA (design: Patrick Lydon, illustration: Chiaki Koyama | sociecity)

Bicycle Boulevard Concept for the Alameda, San Jose, USA (design: Patrick Lydon, illustration: Chiaki Koyama | sociecity)

As citizens, we must demand from our cities, that if a person chooses to keep themselves and the planet healthy by riding a bicycle, they should no longer be punished for their efforts in this cruel way, essentially gambling their lives each time they ride. Proper bicycle infrastructure is a necessity for the health and safety of citizens, there is no other way to say it, and there should be no excuses to squirm out of that fact.

We are moving forward into a new found “green” age, and if our world civic and business leaders would like to come along for the ride and support green transportation, they must also make the pledge to do it smartly by placing cycling as a priority, not an afterthought.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Resources:

Bicycle Crash Facts – Bicycling Info
The Boulder, Colorado Multimodal Transportation System – Bicycling Info
Getting Cyclists to Use Helmets – Wall Street Journal
Bicycle Fatalities Data and Map – Mercury News
National Bike Helmet Use Survey – U.S. CPSC


Editor’s Note: When this article was published on Nov 29, 2011, it incorrectly noted that Boulder spent 49% of their transportation budget on bicycle infrastructure. This number also includes pedestrian, transit and transportation demand management projects.

In Los Angeles, Who Needs a Car?

Interstate 10 in Los Angeles, Looking East (photo: Downtowngal, CC BY-SA)

Interstate 10 in Los Angeles, Looking East (photo: Downtowngal, CC BY-SA)

This week’s startling fact (11/28/11):

The folks at 24/7 Wall Street have released a study which ranks major U.S. cities based on people’s ability to get around without a car.

Public transportation availability is, logically enough, noted as a major factor, as the study notes “The Los Angeles metropolitan area runs more than 500 bus lines, covering 96% of neighborhoods. Similarly, San Jose covers nearly 96% by running about 100 bus lines. Although these cities do not have exceptional levels of rail service, residents can avoid owning automobiles by relying on city buses.”

And so they have come to what seem like a surprising conclusion:

Los Angeles is one of the best cities to live without a car.

Then Again… this study leaves out other statistics, like the 91% of L.A. households that own one or more cars. And beyond statistics, there are qualitative measures: inefficient routes leading to 30 minute vehicle trips that take 2 hours by transit, lack of transit hubs, questionable on-time service, etc…

To its credit, Los Angeles is making strides in public transit, but unfortunately for this particular 24/7 Wall Street study, there are simply not enough cities in the U.S. that do public transit correctly to warrant a list of “Best U.S. Cities to Live in Car Free.”

Source: 24/7 Wall Street – The Best Cities to Live in Car Free

Why We Need an Unhealthy Population

Why We Need Unhealthy People (photo illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Why We Need Unhealthy People (photo illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Recenly, a photographer friend Wei Hwu gave me a huge cake, it was left over from a photo shoot she had earlier in the day. With the cake sitting on my kitchen counter, I realized it didn’t really fit in its container with the lid closed. So I did the only logical thing: I started eating until it fit.

This cake was slightly mangled – it had a rough photo shoot – and was swimming in frosting at certain places, while naked in others. During the process of eating it, I realized my personal quandary of cake eating: I don’t like it when there’s too much frosting, it overpowers the cake, but when there’s too little, I crave for more. Like most people, I desire balance. I attacked the cake with relative precision in terms of how much cake accompanies how much frosting.

Although not all of us are quite as OCD about their cake eating as I, we all have the desire for balance to varying extents.

We humans require a certain balance in the things we directly interact with, and the things we directly consume.

In this way, we are connected with our environment and the resources we consume, just as, for instance, plants are connected when they take nutrients from the soil.

Which brings me to one Andre Woodward, a rather unique artist I had the pleasure of meeting a few months back.

Andre Woodward's "A Common Balance: Impossible Dream'n" (Photo, Patrick Lydon)

Andre Woodward's "A Common Balance: Impossible Dream'n" (Photo: Patrick Lydon)

Andre, artist in residence at Montalvo Arts Center, has a habit of growing plants in very strange conditions and contortions, perhaps most famously encasing the roots of small trees in concrete to form sculptures. Living sculptures. The first plants he created about five years ago are still healthy, he simply ‘waters’ the concrete blocks. It’s a slightly disturbing yet amazing sight.

During his experiments with these plants cast into concrete, Andre noticed something very special: plants won’t grow too fast if there are not enough nutrients to sustain themselves. It seems self-explanatory, but the point here is that, even though these plants  – Andre uses ficus and maple in particular – are placed in what look like dire situations, they don’t die. Instead, they simply cut consumption, living on a rather conservative diet.

Humans used to be much the same way. Recently, however, something has disrupted this balance and we are growing to insanely unhealthy proportions.

But We’re Living Longer!

Some organizations such as the United Nations, seem to think all that a statistic of primary concern is length of life, and thus applaud nations who can keep their people alive the longest. Yet even though our lifespans are much longer than they were decades ago, they are also riddled with far more shiny-new health problems. We’re seeing people live to be 80 and 90 years old, yet they have a constant need for medication their entire life. We’re seeing people who have serious mobility issues by the time they are 30 years old and they end up spending the majority of their adult lives in a wheelchair or hospital bed, not from unfortunate physical accidents, but from circumstances which could be helped simply by proper eating habits.

Long life does not equal quality of life.

All for Sugar and Sugar for All

Remembering the profit-margin banner under which our corporate world functions is important at this point, as in the U.S. in particular, researchers point fervently to sugar (and high-fructose corn syrup) as the main ingredient, not only in diabetes, but in obesity.  Dr. Robert H. Lustig believes he has pinned the issue with our current obesity epidemic squarely on fructose.

Essentially, the market found a sweet, cost-effective substance that was readily available and could make even the most horrible cardboard diet crackers taste good… and they poured it into just about everything we ate.

In his speakings on fructose, Dr. Lustig would have us know that not even our own government understands the real causes behind the obesity issue. In fact, he claims that in our quest for the perfect diet in the U.S., we’ve been attacking the wrong enemies altogether. Lustig’s surprise hit 1.5-hour lecture (with nearly 2 million YouTube views) shows us how our sugar and fiber intakes are unbalanced, and how even chomping down on fat might be preferable to eating anything laden with sugar and its unfortunate cousin, high-fructose corn syrup.

While he’s at it breaking down the role of sugar as a poison, Lustig also pokes some huge holes in current thought when it comes to obesity. Most amazingly — amazing because it seems so simple — he notes the fact that the U.S. government built decades of health education and diet recommendations on a thought process that does not even hold up to the most basic logic. It’s a “duh” moment for anyone watching.

Yet whether sugar turns out to have been the magic bullet or not, our own critical eye and mind remains the key in rounding that corner to a more healthy lifestyle. Corporations are not inherently evil entities, but we must remember that large parts of the industries who feed us and who treat our diseases are focused on profit first, and handling public backlash second; and the most successful ones can do both simultaneously.

Tell Me What to Eat!

Through a combination of advertising onslaughts — and according to researchers such as Dr. Lustig, through the prevalence of sugars and high-fructose corn syrup in our diets — we’ve lost the ability to control our eating habits. If we were one of Andre’s plants, our roots would have destroyed the concrete and reached out down the street for some burgers, coke, and fruit juice.

And this is exactly how the market needs us to be.

If major food and drug companies could help it (and they are trying), they might just enjoy seeing the entire world as a bunch of obese, diabetic, terminally ill beings who live relatively long lives in pain and are profusely medicated.

Why would any food or pharmaceutical company wish ill on you and I?

It’s nothing personal, it’s just good business. What use is a healthy, fit world to companies who sell unhealthy food, or to companies who sell drugs to combat the effects of unhealthy food? The majority of these business entities would catastrophically fail if all of a sudden we became a healthy, responsible, controlled population.

We are not, and the green-eyed thrive on that fact.

At last count, there were about 238 million Americans (about 70% of the country) who abide by advertisements, clean off their plates, empty their soda and juice cups, and are now categorized as overweight or obese.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]More Information and Research:

CDC Obesity Statistics – PDF
United States Census Quick Facts – Web
Health Affairs Report: Who’s Paying for Obesity? – PDF
Dr. Robert Lustig: Sugar, the Bitter Truth
 – Video


Photo Illustration Credit: Patrick Lydon, with works by Mikael Häggström, FatM1ke, Erich Ferdinand, James Heilman, MD.

Occupy San Jose tents in front of City Hall

What Public Space Must Be: Public

photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity

Planetizen recently released their list of the Top 100 Public Spaces in the U.S. and Canada — Normal, Illinois, New Haven, Connecticut and Detroit, Michigan topped the list — and we’d like to take a second to think about what the meaning of public space really is, and what makes these public spaces truly great.

Great public space begins of course, with great design. Yet no public space can flourish without the people who use these parks, plazas and paseos. For any public space to be successful, it is absolutely necessary for that space to emphasize a collective community ownership, and the inevitable pride that comes along with that sense of ownership.

After all, the public are essentially the collective owners of any public space.

Cities across the country can and do enable various methods of “community responsibility” for public spaces, whether it be upkeep, gardening, information services, or event organization. When cities give their citizens this power, the space transitions from a well-designed piece of land to an active gathering spot for community.

The unfortunate case in most of these spaces, however, is that cities take control of everything: they regulate, require payments, force informal gatherings to be planned and permitted, and generally make citizens feel like it’s not their space. When public spaces are managed in this way, not only do the people loose their sense of ownership, but also of connection and pride.

This issue isn’t a new one, yet it has rather unceremoniously been brought to the foreground in recent months as the “Occupy” movements begin to invade public spaces in cities across the nation. With large amounts of citizens now attempting to “live” in local parks and plazas, local governments are reacting in unusual ways, handing out citations, locking citizens in jail, even taking to tear gas and firearms with tragic results.

The Occupy Wall Street folks represent a rather extreme case of  community ownership, yet what local governments are doing in reaction by kicking protesters out of these spaces, teaches the public a lesson: you do not own public land.

Of course the public owns public land you thick-as-a-brick politicos! The public are the people who these blasted spaces are built for, and the public are the people who pay for these spaces with their tax dollars!

Even if your ‘average’ occupier as portrayed by news media looks a bit disheveled, and perhaps is in need of a hot bath, they must be respected in their attempts at staging peaceful assemblies, tent cities and all. For tough guys like Michael Bloomberg, the subject has become a platform for showing off Mayoral brute force instead of trying to work with occupiers to ensure they use the space safely and cleanly.

We don’t have to agree with the occupiers, but we must agree that our public space is communal, and for the sake of our cities and public spaces around the nation, both the occupiers and the local governments must realize and respect this.

What is public space, without public use?

Burgers to the Grid: Fat-Powered City

From Burgers to the Grid (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

From Burgers to the Grid (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

What is the largest source of stored energy in the U.S. today?

Is it in battery bays adjacent to wind-power facilities? The undercarriages of the 1 million Prius vehicles on our streets? The coal mines and oil reserves yet to be tapped into?

Or is it in the bellies of 238 million overweight and obese Americans?

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, U.S. citizens either eat or waste an average of 3,600 calories per day, that’s 1,600 calories over the 2,000 calorie recommended daily allowance. Because calories are essentially energy (which soon get converted into fat) we began to wonder: What if we were able to convert all of that excess caloric energy into power? Perhaps we might do well to introduce America’s renewable energy needs to our bellies.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek statement of course, but looking at the numbers, if that extra 1,600 calories were converted into energy, that would make (1,600kcal x 317,000,000 Americans) = 185 trillion kcal. Convert those kcals to joules and you come up with a figure of around 250 Million Gigawatt/hr of power.

All told, Americans eat or waste enough excess food-energy in a single year to provide power to 7.95 Billion households, or enough to power every house in the U.S. For 70 years at current power consumption rates.

Of course, the results of these calculations would only be possible if every American burned off all of the excess calories they ate (about 4-5 hours of cycling per day) and if those calories were able to be directly (losslessly) converted to energy. It is at this point that any vision of an electricity grid powered by cyclists at the gym begins to seem impossible at worst, and unlikely at best.

There are glints of hope, however: using bicycles for power (either for direct mechanical power, or to produce stored energy) is not a new idea. We’ve been powering everything from lightbulbs (electrically) to blenders (mechanically) with bicycles for quite some time, and recently, a few students at MIT even developed a bicycle-powered laptop.

MIT ‘innovation’ aside, a very small amount of time, research and funding has gone into making human-power energy generation technology more efficient, especially when compared to other ‘sustainable’ energy creation methods.

Store Calories to make Fat, or Burn Calories to make Energy? (Illustration | sociecity)

Store Calories to make Fat, or Burn Calories to make Energy? (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Using human energy for electric power would do more than just provide exercise and energy however, it would give Americans an important reason to come together for a common goal and, of equal importance, would help us attach a tangible activity to our consumption.

Conceptually, the idea has much in common with projects such as the Victory Gardens during WWII, also a lot of manual work, yet hugely successful on many levels. Given proper intellectual and financial resources, human-power could be a big win for the United States, perhaps making us one of the leanest, greenest nations, instead of the fattest and most wasteful.

While powering all of the houses in the U.S. for 70 years may not be possible, just visualizing those 185 trillion calories as watts gives us a very real glimpse at the amount of raw excess energy (yes, food is energy) that we put in our mouths each day.

So then, until our local neighborhood bike generator farm arrives, perhaps we should just start making smaller plates?

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]More Research:

The Nutrition Transition to 3020 – Schmidhuber/Shetty (pdf)
Population Clock – U.S. Census Bureau
Installed Capacity of World Power Plants – Steam Tables Online
Household Energy Savings – Silverman/U.C. Irvine
U.S. Energy Consumption – U.S. Energy Information Administration


Silicon Valley introduces the ZERO1 Garage (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Silicon Valley: Where Art and Technology ‘Get it On’

Photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity

On a recent night, I found myself invited to an empty, cavernous building in downtown San Jose, California. Several floodlights were either hanging from the steel-reinforced wood rafters, or standing alongside the walls, allowing the light to sneak across the crevices in the old brick and mortar. A red carpet was set atop the unfinished concrete floor, leading a mixed crowd of creatives (artists) and business executives (suits) from the double doors to a grouping of tables in the center of the room. A podium fronted them.

The whole setup felt like a super-secret consortium, and in fact, it kind of was.

On this night, Joel Slayton announced to dozens of prominent Silicon Valley business leaders and a global cast of artists and curators, the opening of the ZER01 Garage. This building, in the heart of San Jose’s SoFA Arts district, will be Silicon Valley’s ground zero for art, creativity, technology, and business innovation; a place where great minds of these often-separated disciplines come together to solve the world’s great problems.

Silicon Valley Art and Technology Figures meet at the introduction of the ZERO1 Garage (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Silicon Valley Art and Technology Figures meet at the introduction of the ZERO1 Garage (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Or, at least, that’s the gist of what Slaton, Executive Director of San Jose based ZER01 wants to build here.

The evening was filled with food, wine, a face-off discussion between technologist Harry Saal and new media artist Scott Snibbe, and several passionate exchanges between art leaders and business leaders as to what, exactly, the ZER01 “Garage” should be.

Near the end of the night, the 40-some-odd attendees had formed individual working groups, each coming up with tag lines for Silicon Valley’s future permanent home of Art and Technology. The results varied widely, from “A Safe Place for Failure” to “Where Art and Technology ‘Get it on’ in the Garage.”

However you spin it, the general consensus was the same: the ZERO1 Garage is all at once a bold, promising, risky venture… and in the spirit of the Silicon Valley startup, that is exactly what it needs to be in order to succeed.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Take a Deeper Look:

CADRE Lab / San Jose State University
SoFA Arts District 


Images From ZERO1 Garage

Reflections on the City

Empire State (photo: Raymond Yeung | sociecity)

New York, the greatest most populist major city in America. So how did the shiny star of capitalism come to this?

Corruption and police brutally, streets filled with potholes and trash, a subway system that equates to an uncomfortable cheap thrill from a traveling carnival, astronomical disparity between social classes paired with high unemployment, blunt racism and prejudice. All the things you would see in classic sci-fi dystopian stories are emerging in this city.

Is it greed and corruption?

A mayor who secured a third term in office by changing the law, a Department of Sanitation run by questionable characters, (to this day recycling trash is still considered a joke on the streets,) a militarized police force that takes advantage of an already broken system with gun trafficking, ticket fixing and senseless violence.

Is it the age of the city and its antiquated bureaucracy?

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and many of its defenders claimed that it is too costly to give one of the oldest, most well-used metro systems in the world a much needed facelift, and stared down any opposition with fare hikes; but fare hikes happened anyway. Meanwhile, over half of the disability claims made by MTA retirees have been discovered to be fraudulent, with employees collecting more in pension than salary when they worked.

Is it diversity?

Any diverse society with wide ranging views forced to live together, forced to contradict or tolerate one another’s ideologies, is likely to generate conflict. Many immigrants brought with them valuable insights, but along with those insights came prejudices as well. Long time locals often resisted new comers, demanding them to become assimilated with established social and culture behavior while overlooking their very own irrational prejudices.

New York is a place where ideas constantly clashed, it’s a place where no one can ever reach consensus and there is no majority. Perhaps people here have lost respect for democracy, perhaps they have lost respect for work in general. There is an aura of bitterness, disgruntledness, a constant feeling for a need to do less, out of spite. Even the most casual observations of subway stations and streets of NYC will reveal just how much respect people have for public property.

Perhaps the lack of a homogeneous social construct fostered an ever-diluted culture fueled by greed and materialism. Social diversity is a grand concept even the Romans embraced, but the level of diversity we are experiencing is generating a new phenomenon, and it is indifference.

Rarely do individuals or groupings of individuals feel obliged to care for individuals or other groups. Everything in our society is compartmentalized, linked together only by necessity of commerce. This is mine, that is theirs, and what’s not mine exclusively I have no responsibility for.

The most challenging and counter productive occurrence in a diverse society is when these various groupings of people all claim to have a solution for conflict, to bring peace and harmony to society, when they are really plotting to make life easier for themselves by wanting others to change.

The people of Occupy Wall Street are an interesting addition to this ever increasing social divide. Perhaps unwittingly carving out yet another social identity with a pretense to change the world, yet with questions as to their own goals and execution. To the elite, they look like bitter, lazy and uncompetitive workers who want to do less while receiving more compensation.

In societies with an overpowering majority — China, Germany, Mexico — a homogeneous culture with homogeneous morality and social expectations fostered cohesion, a society where there is shame, where people have fear of being ostracized, and where people have a basic level of respect for one another, for human life.

To a large extent, in America there is no such thing.

Here, anything goes: invent your own religion, invent your own science, invent your own morality, it’s all covered by freedom of speech, even if one wishes to be a completely irresponsible moron.

NYC is a prime social experiment of what will happen when all the people who think they are better than everyone else come together and are forced to live with people who they either dislike or have no concern for.

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Read more:

American Exceptionalism
LIRR scandal NYPD scandal
New York City Demographics
Electoral College


Does America Need a “National Diet?”

In Japan they have a big, ugly, imposing government building — as most of these buildings tend to be — called the National Diet Building. This building is not home to some special “Diet Ministry,” it houses the Japanese legislature, but seeing it in a recent Tweet by @MarketUrbanism reminded me of the several months I spent in Japan. During that time, I was astounded by many aspects of Japanese culture, the kindness, the uniformity, the overall sense that this country was one big well-oiled machine, and finally, by their overall slimness and youthful appearance.

The people of Japan are arguably the healthiest in the world, and rather in-arguably the people with the longest lifespans and the slimmest waistlines.

National Diet Building of Japan (Photo, Wiii)

National Diet Building of Japan (Photo by Wiii, CC BY-SA)

In America, we don’t have a big, ugly, imposing “Diet” building, but we do have a government that handed out about $57 billion in subsidies to corn growers over the past 10 years. I make this point not because corn is making us fat, but because the majority of these subsidies helped farmers grow ‘inedible’ corn used to produce cattle feed and the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that ends up in just about every sweetened food product imaginable.

So indirectly yes, corn is helping to make us fat, and as a result of our eating habits — specifically our HFCS and sugar intake — we are the most obese developed nation in the world with 68% of Americans overweight or obese, and our lifespans are one of the shortest.

To be fair, many factors go into maintaining a healthy population, and Japan has genes, strong tradition and an anti-fat law on their side. But while Americans may never be as slim as Japan, we certainly weren’t always this obese, either.

According to Dr. Robert H. Lustig of UCSF Medical Center in his epic 90-minute lecture Sugar, The Bitter Truth, it was only since that magical, cheap, highly-available HFCS (invented by the Japanese, interestingly enough) was brought to market, that our bellies started to grow, and our cases of diabetes started to skyrocket.

Japan invented the stuff, but steered clear of it for the most part, while America embraced it. While many are on a warpath against HFCS, according to Lustig it is used by our bodies in exactly the same way as sugar, which is to say it is ‘equally as bad’ as sugar. He asserts that the only real evil of HFCS is that it is so amazingly cheap, it has begun to appear in everything we eat, from hamburgers to fruit juice.

There is obviously a need to reverse our eating trends and our massive sugar/HFCS intakes, and for decades the U.S. government has unfortunately been attacking the issue with varying amounts of misinformation (eg: one cup of fruit juice does NOT equal one serving of fruit as I learned in grade school.)  One wonders if more strict government policies such as those in Japan might be our only way out of this seemingly unstoppable  indulgence.  Admittedly though, our government has to first understand the problem, and with that I wish them much insight, diligence, and luck.

Perhaps they could just build a National Diet Building?

[box type=”download” style=”rounded” icon=”http://www.sociecity.com/wp-content/uploads/go_icon.gif”]More Research on this Topic:
Life Expectancy - Google Public Data Explorer
Health and Obesity Statistics – Nation Master
Obesity in Japan – Liberation Wellness
Corn Subsidies – Environmental Working Group
American Corn Refiners’ Association Website
Overweight and Obese Facts – CDC[/box]

Changwon: Why the Bicycle isn’t About “Saving the Planet”

Bernhard Ensink speaks in Changwon, South Korea (photo | sociecity)

Bernhard Ensink speaks in Changwon, South Korea (photo | sociecity)

This Saturday in Changwon, Bernhard Ensink, Secretary General of the European Cyclists’ Federation claimed that the attitude of young German adults is changing, that they are less inclined to feel the need or even ‘want’ for a personal automobile, and more inclined to want the latest iPhone. According to Ensink, a staggering 80% of young Germans believe that people don’t need a private car anymore. His words have striking relevance, not just in Germany or the EU, but throughout industrialized nations around the globe.

It was a finding echoed most often during the EcoMobility World Congress, there a very real change in mindset happening, and a distinct movement away from the car in most developed nations.

Whether it’s gasoline, electric, hybrid, ethanol, nitrogen, or CNG, cars as a form of transportation have already hit or will soon hit peak usage in most developed nations, and the numbers are slowly shifting towards human power and public transit.  Although the “eco-conscious” wave might have helped us get here, in the end it’s not only about saving the planet, not about less CO2 emissions, not about global warming; it’s about a better quality of life for every human being, and the cities and transportation methods necessary to achieve that quality of life.

When examining multiple quality of life issues, transportation comes up in relation to nearly every single one of them and can have a very negative or very positive effect. EcoMobility enforced that notion, and it’s apparent that may of the world’s transportation leaders have found their field to be most relevant to daily life improvements. And as Eric Burton notes, compared with other large-scale changes, transportation is not so difficult a change to make… out of all the technological improvements which touch our day to day life, transportation is the easiest to impact.

Freedom, What is it Good For?

Early on in the conference, Ensink took us back to 1919, where the average ‘safe walking distance’ for a person was around six miles. That is to say, mom would generally tell her sons: Going fishing boys? Just make sure you don’t walk too far that you can’t make it back before dinner time.

Safe Walking Distance (illustration | sociecity)

Safe Walking Distance (illustration | sociecity)

By 1950, the distance viewed as safe for walking had been reduced down to 1 mile, mom would now say: boys, I don’t want you crossing the main road to hang out with those filthy Lehman kids, and be sure to make it back in time for dinner.

Today’s average, safe walking distance? It’s around 300 yards, or to the end of the block. Mom is now saying: if I can’t see you kids from the window, you’ve gone too far, and come in for dinner when I blow the dinner whistle.

Kids want to rome, explore, learn, and parents want them to be safe doing it, the same limitations apply to elders who can no longer drive, who stand at the doorstep of their home, looking out at a system which fails to help them meet simple needs such as walking to the store on their own.

Gil Penalusa, Director of 8-80 Cities makes the point in the very name of his organization, asking us to think of an 8 year old, and think of an 80 year old, both of whom are very close to you, then ask if you would let them walk across an intersection to the store alone. If your answer is yes, you live in a walkable city. If the answer is no, you must ask, why not, and what improvements should be made so that your neighborhood is more safe, and more walkable?

In essence, everyone deserves to be able to answer yes to Gil’s question. How free do we really feel if we can’t safely walk further than the end of our street?

From Vehicle Traffic to Crime

It’s interesting that many people’s minds will jump to crime as the culprit, as the cause of this shortened ring of safety. But you can’t blame the the smoke for pollution, and while crime may be a factor, it is not the root cause of our inability to walk through a neighborhood.

The root cause is 100% in the design flaws of the modern city, or more specifically, cities designed for the car. Humans, bikes, and rail be damned, they are all afterthoughts in most city design.

Our cities are currently geared towards one thing: a 1.5 Ton metal box hurtling down a street at 45mph, carrying a single person 1/2oth its weight. The problem with this design? We are not a society of cars, we are a society of people who unfortunately have chosen to embrace the automobile as our main method of transportation.

Nubija Bike System Tour, Changwon, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang | sociecity)

Nubija Bike System Tour, Changwon, South Korea (photo: Suhee Kang | sociecity)

The needs of the person and the needs of the car are not synonymous, and by design, the city must return to servicing the needs of the person first.

To anyone looking in from outside our society, our reliance on the automobile would seem completely ridiculous, but we have grown up with the fact that is is ‘normal’ and thus it has become an acceptable part of life for us. However, many of us are now challenging this thought, and asking ourselves “would I rather drive a metal box that weighs 20-times my weight and be confined to that box for 99% of my travel, or would I rather reject the car and move about freely through walking, bicycling, and public transit for 99% of my travel?”

We’re beginning to ‘get it’ finally, and as most acts of cultural re-programming go, it starts with our youth. Attitudes are changing, and the sticking point is now largely in infrastructure.

But this new infrastructure won’t build itself, and it won’t appear for the good of the citizens alone, it must be demanded by those who want a better quality of life.

Today, the question isn’t if, but when today’s school children, university students,  housewives, and commuters will stand up and force our cities and our transportation industry to change for the better.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]For More Information:

EcoMobility Alliance: http://www.ecomobility.org/
Nubija Bicycle System: http://nubija.changwon.go.kr/english/english.htm
European Cyclists’ Federation: http://www.ecf.com/
8-80 Cities: http://www.8-80cities.org [/box]


Dumulmeori Four Rivers Alternative Farm Plan

South Korean Four Rivers Project gets “Organic Education”

Despite a heavy downpour of rain, and with their fate still resting on a court ruling November 9th, it was mostly smiles and celebration in South Korea’s Dumulmeori farmland this weekend as hundreds came to watch 25 bands play on 3 stages. The Dumulmeori Music Festival is part of a bid to create awareness for a new way of thinking about farming and riverside ecology in the midst of a controversial river construction project.

The Dumulmeori farmers are in a perilous place, representing what is essentially the last piece of land holding up completion of the $19 Billion Four Rivers Project.

Although South Korea’s Minister of Environment, Yoo Young-sook, says the project will “secure abundant, clean water… and pass on a beautiful ecology and a future of sustainable development to the next generation,” you’d be hard pressed to match those words to anything in the government’s plan at Dumulmeori.

The organic farmers at Dumulmeori say it’s all lip-service, claiming that the environment — at least around their piece of the river — does not suffer from flooding and is actually cleaner than the proposed government standard.

Dumulmeori Organic Farms Music Festival, Korea

Dumulmeori Organic Farms Music Festival, Korea (photo: Suhee Kang | sociecity)

The interesting part of this story — and the part which may help farmers reach an accord with the government — is that the piece of land at Dumulmeori is not slated for dams, weirs, habitat-reclamation, or other water-control type development.

Instead, Dumulmeori is targeted for an amusement park, government-managed parkland, and bicycle paths; not exactly the type of development that would be highlighted as part of a “green vision” for the South Korean mega-project.

Working with architects, urban and regional planners, farmers, and community members, the Dumulmeori group have come up with an interesting alternative solution that blends the current organic farmland with educational public farming facilities and bicycle/walking paths.

The plan that the farmers bring to the table is not so much a compromise, as it is an innovative use of one of South Korea’s few remaining riverside treasures. It’s the kind of plan other countries could use as a rubric.

Dumulmeori Farm Alternative Model

Dumulmeori Farm Alternative Model

Standing between Dumulmeori’s natural riparian corridor and its lush green farmland, the view of the river and surrounding land is spectacular. One could imagine groups of International eco-tourists, and local school children arriving at Dumulmeori to learn about natural river ecology and organic farming methods, all while taking in the famous vistas at this point of confluence where the Han River begins.

The farmers feel that their forward-thinking 100+ page plan is a good bit more appropriate than the current development plan of a ferris wheel and roller coaster, and my feeling is that you’d have a hard time finding anyone who disagrees with their sentiment.

For the sake of the beautiful slice of land that is Dumulmeori, hopefully the South Korean Courts, along with President Lee Myung-bak, agree, too.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]For More on Four Rivers and Dumulmeori Farm:

The Four Rivers Project and the Future (Korea Herald Article)
Restoration or Devastation (Science Times Article)
South Korea’s Four Rivers Project (sociecity)
Court Backs Farmers over River Scheme (UCA News)
Dumulmeori Organic Farm Committee [/box]


Artisans from Arrazola, Oaxaca in Mexico sell pieces in San Jose

The Art of Sustainable Art in Oaxaca

(photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

In Spring 2006, Dr. Kathleen Roe and a group of her students from the San Jose State University Health Sciences program were traveling in Oaxaca, Mexico. In need of accommodations after a last minute schedule change, the group was introduced to several artisan families who agreed to house everyone for the night. It was an exchange that turned out to be the most fruitful of their trip.

So fruitful in fact, that Dr. Roe and students have been back to the same pueblo every year since, holding health education fairs, clinics, and taking part in a multitude of cultural exchanges.

Today I enjoyed a lecture by Dr. Roe, and afterwards met with two of the artists from Arrazola at Mezcal, a Oaxacan Restaurant in San Jose, California, where they shared their artworks with locals.

Artisans from Arrazola, Oaxaca in Mexico sell pieces in San Jose

Artisans from Arrazola, Oaxaca in Mexico sell pieces in San Jose (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

The artisans — from the small pueblo of Arrazola in Oaxaca, Mexico — are a collective of families who use their skills in woodcarving and intricate painting to produce beautiful, flowing pieces called “alebrijes”. These artworks are the main form of income for the pueblo and as such are often a family affair, involving the skills of a father, mother, and children to produce each unique and imaginative animal sculpture.

What really sets Arrazola apart from other artisan communities in the area, however, is the Ecoalebrije Artisan Association, a group of 18 artisan families who take their conservation and sustainability efforts very seriously.

Because native Copal trees are used as the source of wood for alebrije sculptures, the artisans are very active in maintaining a ‘sustainable’ forest. Families in the Ecoalebrije Artisan Association tend to small Copal trees at their homes throughout the year, eventually planting them in the nearby forest when they are old enough, ensuring a constant supply of locally sourced wood for the artisans.

Because these brightly-colored alebrijes carvings are created in such an eco-conscious manner, they’ve even been given a special name by the pueblo: EcoAlebrijes.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded” border=”full”]For More on the Artist and SJSU Project…

EcoAlebrije Artisan Association
San Jose State University / Arrazola, Oaxaca Intercambio
San Jose State University Department of Health Science
San Jose State University – Salzburg Program[/box]

Introducing: Heads or Tails

Raymond Yeung: Heads or Tails

As this is the first Heads or Tails column, I thought it interesting to reflect on the very idea of a coin toss, on randomness and how this very simple act of decision-making ties into our everyday lives.

Many mathematicians and great thinkers have found ways of explaining randomness, yet to this day it is a subject generally lacking the level of attention and understanding it deserves.

From a personal perspective, the reason why randomness is so important to me can be attributed to the many failings I have experienced, and how I was taught to accept a deterministic worldview.

From pre-school to the war room, randomness ultimately determines the outcome of one’s decision.

Yet, it’s had to accept. Most of us like to think that we are presented with choices, and that our free will is what determines our future, but how were those choices given to us in the first place? Who — or rather, what – determines the choices that any of us have? While some turn to religion for that answer, perhaps the real truth lies in mathematics.

The Coin Toss

The coin toss has come to be a standard, a way to determine the outcome dilemma with fairness, but is it ever fair? Coin tosses are only a matter of probability. If enough trials were conducted a pattern can be observed; the ever so slight weight difference between heads or tails will ultimately determine the probable outcome of a toss. So is randomness just a way of convincing oneself of fairness, of convincing oneself that these concepts which are too grand or too minute for our minds to ponder can be used to base fairness upon?

At one point or another, a great majority of people on Earth have supported some type of sports enterprise, professional or otherwise. In Leonard Mlodinow’s book The Drunkard’s Walk the merit of the coach is closely looked at, with the merit of the team often being attributed to the coach, and solely to his tactics. Individual players are seen as mere pawns in a more complex game of attack and defend; failure is equally weighted on the shoulders of the coach. But there can be many variables in a game of this or any kind, from the temperature of the game floor, to players’ psychology, all the way down to the coin toss. Each of these variables determines who gets possession of the game piece.

In business, too, from hiring to making sound company decisions, randomness is never far away. CEOs are coaches of the business enterprises who are often the sole recipients to all the praise and blame in what is often a lucky/unlucky or timely/untimely decision. While coaching tactics and pressure are only small part of the unpredictable yet probabilistic reality, many consider them important in judging success or failure.

This predominant way of thinking that we are in control cannot be attributed to any single person; we are all helplessly taught to think this way.

The very languages we use train us to look at the world and express what we see from a limited, singular, self-centered perspective.

Our very being calls for us to accept the idea that free will is the master and that chance is a servant of this free will, often ignoring possibilities that are hidden away by our pride.

This way of thinking has contributed to a growing sentiment of entitlement and highly exaggerated expectations as to what should be expected of life. Everything we experience has some kind of beginning and some kind of foreseeable end, even if it is abstract. Most of us would like to apply this deterministic world-view to our own lives, thinking that if one follows the footsteps of a happy or successful person then he or she can become happy and or successful as well.

This might sound rather silly, but the fact is that very few people take random chance seriously. On a grander scale, the world is full of probabilistic mechanisms and our ability to fully understand them will help determine probabilistic success or failure. It may sound as though we are helpless pawns of cosmic consequence, but let this not be an attack on humanity’s free will, more so than a way of thinking to encourage better use of our abilities to interpret probability and chance.

In the end, probability and chance are two sides of the same coin, and our perception of these concepts will ultimately determine our paths.

The Corporation: When Jim Buys Janet

Hostile Corporate Takeover of a Person (Illustration: Patrick Lydon)

(Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Corporate personhood. It’s an idea that politicians and court justices alike have traditionally touched only with a very long stick, yet recent corporate transactions have sparked newly heated debates on the personified corporation, most of it centering around political influence, responsibility, and ownership. Today we’ll take a journey through the last of these three concerns.

From a employee’s point of view, when a company is ‘bought out’ by a group of investors, confused questioning often takes place along the lines of: why do we owe these people millions of dollars, why must we pay for the privelage of being ‘owned’ by investors we didn’t ask for, why are all of my friends fired?  It’s a rough ride for many,

In the spirit of the ‘corporate personhood’ idea, the following story illustrates the path of a typical corporate buyout, with one twist…

Because corporations are treated as ‘persons,’ in many respects, we’ll take a look at the process of one corporation buying another… using people.

Jim Buys Janet

Jim likes the looks of Janet, so one day Jim sets up a meeting in which he offers to buy Janet.

Janet says ‘no thanks buddy,’ and adds ‘I would cost you $50 million anyway, you don’t have that kind of money.’ True, Jim only has $5 million, but being a crafty businessman, he is not to be deterred so easily.

The next day, Jim rounds up four wealthy friends who each agree to put $5 million in the pot to buy Janet. But that’s still just $25 million, only half of what Janet claims she is worth.

So Jim goes to the bank, and he takes out a loan of $25 million to cover the rest.

With $50 million in hand, Jim and his friends conduct a ‘forced buyout’ of Janet, first buying everything she owns and then buying her outright. Janet, along with her possessions, are now ‘owned’ by Jim and his friends, and not only this, but she is also now in debt to the tune of $50 million, plus interest.

Generally, after a takeover such as this, several things change for Janet:

  • Janet’s life is now under the direction of Jim and his friends
  • Janet must get rid of any friends that Jim and his buddies don’t like
  • Janet must make new friends with Jim, his buddies, and their friends, even if she detests them
  • Janet is on the hook to pay back the bank $25 million plus interest, this is the amount that Jim loaned from the bank to buy her
  • Janet is on the hook to pay Jim and friends back the $25 million in cash that they used to buy her, plus she must give them a significant return on their initial investment

Sounds like a pretty raw deal for Janet, but here’s the clincher: if Janet defaults on her obligations, doesn’t work hard enough, or is in any way displeasing to Jim and his friends, Jim can legally: kill her, take $25 million back (minus funeral costs), and walk away from the $25 million in loans that he initially made, making Janet’s friends and family pick up the tab instead.

Most people would never wish for the above scenario to be played out for anyone they know, yet this happens between corporations every day.

And it will continue to happen in the foreseeable future, as United States corporations — due to their extreme monetary sway and intense lobbying efforts — enjoy a wide range of legal protections and tax loopholes which were not available to them previously.

Not only have corporations strayed quite far from their original roots as providers of goods and services, but they’ve been given rights of individuals, while shedding responsibilities along the way.

Reconsidering the role of the modern corporation is where America finds itself today, and individuals are asking what rights corporations should be afforded, and how best to govern — or not govern — them.

In demonstrations this month in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, and other cities around the nation and world, it is becoming apparent that the general population is realizing something particularly dangerous for corporations: in the end, these corporations exist firstly to serve the general public, not to serve CEOs and investors.

[box type=”download” border=”full” icon=”http://www.sociecity.com/wp-content/uploads/go_icon.gif”]Useful Links

New York Times: The Rights of Corporations
Stephen Colbert: Corporations – Let Freedom Ka-Ching
III Publishing: The History of Corporate Personhood
Forbes Magazine: Why Occupy Wall Street is More than a Protest
Washington Post: A Primer on Occupy Wall Street


The Typical American Farm, Fred Meyer Grocery (Photo: Lyzadanger)

If Humans Had Roots to Eat By

(Photo: Lyzadanger)

The supermarket is the new farm. And what a colorful field-day of sweet seduction it is.

Although humans have always maintained the ability to rationalize food supply vs consumption, there several slight glitches in our system as it stands today, beginning with a rather large glitch: we have no roots.

What does it mean to have no roots?

While we still maintain a direct connection with what is on our plate, what is in our kitchen cabinet, or what happens to be on the shelves at the  supermarket, the connection rarely goes deeper than this. It does not reach under the soil, so to speak.

Unlike plants, we are no longer truly connected in any direct sense to our sources of our food. We have effectively been uprooted by a culture of convenience built on processed, packaged foods and supermarkets.

Despite standardized government labeling, the average person in the average city or town still has little opportunity to see what is really in their food, let alone where it comes from, the scope of resources used to create that food, or how their eating habits affect the future of human sustainability. The human-food connection is nearly extinct, and it’s causing all sorts of problems ranging from health issues to environmental issues.

Plant Food Sources v. Human Food Sources (Graphic: Patrick Lydon)

The conventional idea that our food comes from the supermarket, or from a glorious green pasture, is a shiny and colorful falsehood that separates us from reality.

The truth, of course, is that our food comes from a delivery truck, which comes from a distribution center, which comes from another truck from a processing plant, which comes from a slaughterhouse, which comes from another delivery truck from a farm, which gets its feed from another farm that gets its seeds from a global manufacturer, and gets its antibiotics from another global manufacturer, most of which are essentially held hostage by rather large and wealthy corporations such as Monsanto.

This scenario is a bit heavy on the doom and gloom perhaps, but there is an amazingly bright side to this story, and it is in the choices you have, and the power you wield as a consumer of food. For now, you, your friends, and your neighbors still have the ultimate power and say in what you eat.

Here are a few simple solutions for a human/nature re-connection that are available to us, namely:

  1. Researching where food comes from and what is in it for yourself instead of trusting the shiny ‘healthy’ sticker on the package
  2. Buying more local food (see link below for help finding local producers)
  3. Growing your own food when possible

[box type=”download” style=”rounded” border=”full” icon=”http://www.sociecity.com/wp-content/uploads/iconplant.gif”]Useful Links:

Take Part Food Blog – http://www.takepart.com/food
The Eat Well Guide – http://www.eatwellguide.org
Local Harvest Finder – http://www.localharvest.org
What is Organic? – http://www.nongmoshoppingguide.com/what-is-organic.html
The World According to Monsanto – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YH4OwBYDQe8[/box]

[box type=”note” style=”rounded” border=”full” icon=”http://www.sociecity.com/wp-content/uploads/question.gif”]What are your favorite sources for local and healthy eating?

Share your answer[/box]

Group “Occupies” San Francisco Financial District

In a move echoing that on New York City’s Wall Street, a small yet international group of people stood their ground outside the Bank of America Building in San Francisco today. It was the sixth day of their financial district ‘occupation,’ a movement that is happening in concert with groups in New York, Madrid, London, Sydney, Tokyo, and other international finance centers.

The demands of the San Francisco group are simple: end corporate control of government.

It is the belief of this group that corporations in the United States are circumventing the democratic process by literally buying their way to political candidates, laws, congress members votes, and even entire elections. Of the protest so far, we have seen that:

1.) Politicians, the corporations, and many members of the general public already know all or part of the above statement to be true.
2.) Corporations, in support of their interests, remain active on the issue.
3.) The public remains largely inactive.

San Francisco Financial District Occupier (photo: Patrick Lydon)That final point is what has pushed this small group into action, yet it’s also what continues to make them a small group, at least for now.

Judging from the reception on the streets of San Francisco where police, bankers, lawyers, and the like were all showing support, it’s plausible that the efforts of these Occupy Financial District groups could reach a critical mass.

And therein lies both the problem and the solution.

Coverage from the mainstream media in the U.S. is – perhaps not curiously – absent, even after a group of 9,000 reportedly attempted to storm Wall Street last weekend, and even while thousands continue to camp out in or near financial districts throughout the world.

Unfortunately, these groups of protestors are finding that a movement which seeks to diminish control of large corporations can’t so easily rely on the social networking tools of large corporations to further their message.

Corporate giants such as Yahoo! came under fire this week after blocking emails that mention “Occupy Wall Street”.

Yahoo! apologized for the erroneous filtering, but the damage had already been done, as the company effectively blocked 100% of Yahoo-based email communication during the movement’s most critical first days.

Cable Car riders get a taste of the San Francisco Financial District Occupiers (photo: Patrick Lydon)

It’s obvious and even understandable, that large corporations would rather not see this movement gain strength, much less see it happen by way of their own devices.

For now, the coming months will see this rag tag assembly of citizens and others like it occupy the world’s financial districts, hoping to slowly build larger and larger groups of concerned citizens.

But is the general public ready to bring this nonviolent-yet-radical war to the doorsteps of banks and corporations?

The coming months should give us that answer.

As long as our Tweets aren’t blocked.



Starts Friday, 9/23/11, 7pm
Union Square, San Francisco
The group is hosting a Family Friendly sit-in and protest. This protest is ongoing through December and members will be continually occupying / camping in Union Square until then.

For More:

Occupy SF Homepage http://occupysf.com/
Occupy Wall Street (New York City) https://occupywallst.org/
AdBusters (organizer) http://www.adbusters.org/campaigns/occupywallstreet