History Through Rose-Coloured Glasses

November 12, 2014

Rarely have there been so many meanings so definitively associated with the same colour.

From the innocence of childhood to the sexy, all-night glow of Las Vegas neon, pink has a colourful and controversial history associated with noble and common, demure and gaudy, masculine and feminine. And it wasn’t even known as “pink” (in English) until the late 1600s, centuries after its purported opposite — blue — really arrived on the scene, both linguistically and in the popular consciousness.

Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XV

Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XV

Some have argued that pink’s “golden” age was in the eighteenth century, when it was the mode for high-fashion ladies of the French court. At that time, of course, they were among the only people who could afford the expensive dyes that coloured the fabrics they wore. Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XV, popularized pink amid a bevy of other pastels that were favoured in the Rococo period.

Pink continued to be associated with the rich and royal until the twentieth century, when chemical dyes allowed for its more widespread use in clothing that could be washed repeatedly without the colour fading or washing out. It was also around this time that pink transitioned from being largely a pastel hue associated with the innocence of children to a more bold, exotic shade. The new dyes allowed for the creation of deeper and darker versions of pink that spread around the world in the fashions of the 1920s.

The new and the neon

Buildings started to be sheathed in rose around the same time. In the 1920s and 30s, at the height of the Art Deco movement, vivid colours emerged as an alternative to the drab sameness and deprivation of depression-era interiors. A splash of bright paint could change the tone of a whole room. And with a focus on modern, technologically-enabled streamlining of form, the architecture and products of this age contrasted both with the ornate and intricate styles from earlier in the century and the contemporary countertrends of European functional Mies Van der Rohe-style block modernism.

Pink on pink at the Hotel De Anza, a classic example of Art Deco in San Jose, California

Pink on pink at the Hotel De Anza, a classic example of Art Deco in San Jose, California

Art Deco was colourful and accessible — and immensely popular. This was particularly the case in America, where, as architectural historian Robert M. Craig puts it,“Art Deco was jazzy, bright, sexy, loud, and visually appealing.” It was everywhere: from department stores to movie theatres to the new motels that had sprung up all over the country to provide for a growing motoring class.

Pink walls and pink fashions were a way to stand out and be noticed, and thus the colour was increasingly used in advertising, from splashy storefronts to the neon signs that dominated the landscape starting in the 1920s. In this way pink came to be associated with both the egalitarianism of commerce and material things: stylish perfume bottles, vacation homes in South Beach, new living room walls. Marilyn Monroe wore a notorious pink dress on the cover of the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Elvis’s famous pink convertible, purchased in 1955, was seen as the height of post-war luxury and is featured at Graceland.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (in pink) -- Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 movie poster.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (in pink) — Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 movie poster.

Flight of the pink flamingos 

Pink is everywhere in California, as it is in many places where there are beaches, single-story construction, and a touch of the exotic. It is the colour of soft sunsets (because of Rayleigh scattering, in which only the longer rays on the visual spectrum, in the red-yellow colour range, reach the eye), and flowering plants. And in its heyday in 1950s, it represented the triumph of modernism and new frontiers.

Then its meaning shifted again. From being the bright colour of the future, it became the gaudy holdover from a bygone age. The lights of Las Vegas started to look a bit too commercial, too fake. Pink houses now stand out, “island[s] of whimsy in a sea of drab conformity,” and as such aren’t always viewed positively by the neighbours. Gradually pink started to represent the Miami Vice-like excesses of the 1980s or the wastefulness of neon tube lighting, first patented almost 100 years ago.

Nothing symbolizes the pink backlash more than the popular conception of lawn flamingos. Elegant and exotic, flamingos can be found across the globe in warm and wet areas, from India to Chile. The first pink lawn ornament was created in 1957 and was a smash hit. But by the late 1960s, the negative image of the plastics industry and the “unnatural” look of giant pink birds on the lawn led to a spiralling decline in their popularity. Now, of course, they are popular again, an ironic wink and nod to the kitsch of an earlier time.

Gentlemen prefer … pink?

This was not, however, the greatest reversal in the popular perception of pink. It is perhaps surprising today to imagine that pink was for most of its history considered a very masculine colour. Contrasted (as it always is) with blue, pink was seen as more stimulating and active, appropriate for clothing young boys, and the soft daintiness of blue more appropriate for clothing young girls (think: Cinderella’s dress at the ball). It remains a symbol of strength to this day in Japan, where it is associated with cherry blossoms, said to represent fallen warriors.

In nineteenth-century Britain, when military might was shown with red uniforms, boys wore pink as a kind of lesser red. And let’s not forget that the standard map of the British Empire is coloured pink, symbolizing the strength and breadth of British power, from the Cape to Cairo, and Whitehorse to Wellington. The old pink maps cemented the idea of empire in the popular consciousness of the time, creating what Linda Colley, (my favourite) scholar of the British Empire, has termed “a sense of absolutely uncomplicated, uncompromising power.”

Imperial Federation Map of the British Empire, 1886

Imperial Federation Map of the British Empire, 1886, by John Charles Ready Colomb

Pink now, of course, is considered near-exclusively feminine. It is often used idiomatically to refer to women’s or gay rights issues, as in “pink-collar” work, or “the pink economy.” And it has been helped in this image by marketers for almost seventy years, who both helped to shape tastes in colour and hew to common perceptions of them. Pink was a target during the 1970s with the feminist backlash against the confines of gendered clothing. As women started to dress in a more unisex and stereotypically masculine way, pink was eschewed. As an interesting overview in the Smithsonian notes, there was a time in that decade when even major retailers such as Sears Roebuck didn’t sell pink baby clothes, for girls or boys.

Living in a material world

2011 Color of the Year, "Honeysuckle"

2011 Color of the Year, “Honeysuckle”

The shift toward the ownership of colour could be said to have begun with the Pantone Institute’s codification of colours for matching purposes in the late 1950s. In recent colour analyses of brands, pink is considered warm, sensitive and nurturing, commonly used in products or campaigns targeted at women, such as Cosmopolitan and Victoria’s Secret. And that most enduring lightning rod of femininity, Barbie, naturally has her own shade. Barbie pink (Pantone 219C) has been associated with everything Barbie from the very beginning, including a fuzzy pink bathroom scale released in 1965 that was permanently (and controversially) set to 110 lbs.

Love in pink. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chris Goldberg.

Love in pink. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chris Goldberg.

And yet pink remains an aspirational colour, just as it was when Madame de Pompadour wore it at the French court. In 2011, Pantone chose Honeysuckle (18-2120), a bright variation of classic pink, as its Color [sic] of the Year, citing its “confidence, courage and spirit to meet the exhaustive challenges that have become part of everyday life.” It is a colour for the zeitgeist, a necessary perk in the dark days of our latest recession, with its many pink slips. According to Leatrice Eisema, Pantone’s Executive Director,”In times of stress, we need something to lift our spirits. Honeysuckle is a captivating, stimulating color that gets the adrenaline going – perfect to ward off the blues.”

So often viewed in opposition to something, pink can nonetheless be understood as a world unto itself. Whether seen as high or low, kitschy or elegant, soft or strong — or all of the above — it seems doubtful we’ve reached peak pink. Who knows what it will signify next?


For the love of the car: how our desire for autonomy has taken us — and our cities — hostage

October 30, 2014

One bright March morning, a seventy-year-old man set out from New York City Hall, aiming to walk across the United States to San Francisco — in 100 days. He encountered terrible roads, uncooperative weather, and more than the occasional blister. But, as a professional pedestrian, this was his life’s work: walking, often more than 50 miles a day.

The walk occurred in 1909, and is the subject of a marvellous new book by Wayne Curtis titled The Last Great Walk. The man was Edward Payson Weston, who was credited with the rapid rise to fame of pedestrianism as a career choice in the late nineteenth century.

Highway crossing

How could someone attempt such a feat today? Sadly, even with an iron will and an uncommon constitution, it would be near impossible to replicate. The land along the route has been parceled out and privatized nearly the whole way, and most of the roads Weston walked are now interstates or other major highways. We’d probably just drive it instead.

Bipedalism has yielded to the speed, convenience, and autonomy of four wheels. But what have we lost, in gaining the automobile?

Treading lightly upon the Earth, then taking over

Obviously, the environmental concerns are well-known. Single-passenger cars emit over 10 times more greenhouse gases (through their production, use and disposal) than bicycles do in their lifetimes. Add to that the sheer cost of having one, two or more cars per household (the North American average is about $10 000 per year) and the toll on our bodies of sitting at a wheel rather than moving on our own steam. It’s a huge cost.

In a book designed to introduce children to various modes of transit, Brazilian architect, mayor and urbanist Jaime Lerner characterizes the auto (“Otto”) as a grumpy and irascible character. “He is invited for a party, he never wants to leave. The chairs are on the tables, and still drinking — and he drinks a lot. And he coughs a lot. And he asks always for more … He’s very demanding person.” Demanding: more freeways, more parking, more space. (Accordion the bus, in contrast, can carry 300 Brazilians “or 275 in Sweden.”)

What’s wrong with this picture? Imagine planning your parties around someone like Otto – drunk, egotistical, demanding. And yet this is exactly what we have done with the automobile. We have planned our lives around it. We keep building more and wider roads to manage congestion, when more roads only lead more people to take up driving, which exacerbates the problem. And we’ve paved paradise, everywhere, to put up parking lots that are underutilized to the tune of billions of dollars, covering land that could be used for parks, residential buildings or open public space.

Yet living without a car is still an unusual (and in some places suspect) lifestyle choice. Few would give up their wheels, even with the downsides, because of how we’ve planned our cities and neighbourhoods, often without reasonable alternative transit options. We’re trapped in our car dependency.

old Ford sharpened

It’s ironic, because when they first came on the scene in the early 1900s, cars were heralded as freedom on four wheels, a return to democracy after the previous century of rail tyranny. Unlike trains, which were fixed to specific routes that may or may not have led to where you wanted to go, automobiles could be driven door to door. They were touring vehicles par excellence that would allow unparalleled access to the corners of the world. In a car you could get as close to nature as you wanted. You could drive right into a national park and appreciate its sublime beauty. And thus automobiles were seen as a way to feel closer to nature.

Gone too were the days of segregated rail cars by class, the luxury of the Pullmans with their route-specific china and flatware contrasting mightily with the wooden benches of third class. Automobiles would be available to all comers. (Never mind that the only people who could afford cars in their first decade or so had to be wealthy enough to lay out the cash for the machine in the first place, then have enough time to spend fixing its inevitable breakdowns, or paying someone else to do so. In this way they were the early-twentieth-century equivalent of Tesla owners driving from one battery swap station to another.)

VW Ad 1980s

Democratic, autonomous, “natural.” It didn’t work out that way.

Ego-pods

We all know cars are a status symbol. Having one at all still signifies independence, and the type further distinguishes the economizer from the sport racer from the lover of luxury. Cars became a $1.7 trillion business because, like all consumer goods, they form part of the image we want to project to the world. They feed our egos.

Transit by automobile has proven to be a significant factor in dividing societies. Consider commuting: for most of human history, people lived where they worked, or very nearby. A daily commute in the nineteenth-century was more likely to take those who could afford it further from their workplaces into better neighbourhoods. But even then communities remained relatively heterogeneous because it was difficult to go any serious distance on a daily basis.

Jam

Today most North Americans commute an average of 30 minutes per day, and mostly by car. The ability to cover a greater geographical distance day-to-day has resulted in “privatopias,” communities segregated by economics, politics and other affinities. In the Bay Area, reports of 60-mile commutes (almost 2 hours each way in traffic) to work a minimum-wage job in an area that doesn’t support its employees being able to live there are not uncommon. So we end up with communities segregated so much they barely interact, and know so little of each other it becomes easy to forget they even exist. Contrasted with the interactions or even just exposure that walking, biking or transit can provide, it’s easy to see how automobiles increase social distance.

Of course, California has a historic and well-known car dependency. Where I live, in the downtown core of one of the ten largest cities in America, automobiles are still the undisputed kings of the roads. Sidewalks end abruptly, and without warning. Properties are evaluated by their distance from local freeways (the more quickly one can get stuck in traffic the better, it seems). In the lead-up to an interview with the local public transportation agency, a friend received directions to the nearest parking lot.

The light from the oncoming big yellow taxi

Yet things are looking up. With over 50% of the world’s population now living in cities, forward-thinking planners are building better non-automobile transit options every year. The rise of the so-called sharing economy and with it companies like Uber, Zipcar and BikeShare mean people no longer need to privatize the utility of time and place, and can have a more flexible relationship to cars without ownership. Every year more parking spaces are turned into “parklets,” even if just for a day, to show the alternatives to having huge swaths of land dedicated to parking spaces. People under 30 are buying fewer cars than their 1980s equivalents. And not owning a car is a kind of new status symbol, one that shows a sense of environmental acuity.

Park(ing) Day

But until we take to the streets — literally — to make them what they used to be, public ways for all and not just a place for four-wheeled speeding bullets, the dominance of the automobile will continue. It’s worth remembering the ways traversed by our pedestrian hero Edward Payson Weston, who completed his 4000-mile walk to San Francisco on schedule, even while taking Sundays as rest days. Some years later, he was hit by a taxicab in New York City, and never walked again.

So consider not taking the car today. Take a walk and smile at a fellow traveller. Ponder how healthy it is to be outside using your feet. Fall in love with a building detail you can only see from the pavement.

Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.


The rise of lottery professions and why it’s so hard to get a decent job

May 4, 2014

In early September 2002, a young singer named Kelly Clarkson won the inaugural season of a new reality competition called American Idol. Her first single set a new record for fastest rise to number 1, vaulting past the previous record holders from 1964, the Beatles. Her rise to fame was categorized as meteoric, the kind of rags-to-riches story so beloved in America, and one that would be repeated, with more or less success, over the next 12 seasons and in several other similar contests.

Kelly Clarkson is fabulously talented, and also the beneficiary of a windfall. After years of struggling, she rose to the top of what has traditionally been known as a “lottery profession,” one in which there are many aspirants, very few of which succeed, and the rest do menial jobs in the hopes that one day their “big break” will come.

Often it never does. There are thousands of talented singers who never appear on our TV screens and never get Grammy awards because they are unlucky. They don’t win the professional “lottery.” (And in some cases it is a literal lottery: I’ve been to Idol auditions in Canada that have random draws of ticket stubs to determine who is even allowed an audition at the first stage.)

The concept of a “lottery profession” is usually applied to the performing arts – dance, acting, singing – and the literary ones – novel and poetry-writing – as well as sports and other fields in which aspirants need to be exceptionally talented, and also distinct, to an extent. And in these areas it has only become more difficult to succeed in the last hundred years.

The Poor Poet (Der Arme Poet), by Carl Spitzweg

 

Breakaway: how the best of the best get more market share

Chrystia Freeland writes in Plutocrats of how communications technology and economies of scale have made famous people even more famous. In the nineteenth century and before, a singer’s reach (and therefore income) was limited to those who could pay to afford a seat in a theatre; today, she can make money from records, huge live shows and merchandise. An early twentieth-century soccer player was limited in income by those who had paid to see the match – which is likely one of the reasons we don’t hear about many famous professional athletes pre-twentieth century – while today his face is on Nike ads and jerseys and he earns millions per season through licensing deals to see him on television getting yellow-carded.

And where the limited reach of a theatre or soccer pitch allowed a greater number of quite talented individuals to succeed, the limitless reach of television and the internet allow the über-talented to divide greater spoils amongst a much smaller number. Why bother going to see the local hotshot when you can watch Lionel Messi?

 

A Moment Like This: the lottery gets bigger

The trouble is, artists and athletes aren’t the only ones risking their livelihoods on a proverbial lottery ticket anymore. There are more new “lottery professions” all the time, often emerging out of professions that were once solidly middle class, able to support a family, with good salary and benefits. To give but a few examples:

  • Investment banking and stock trading, formerly quite boring, now require numerous credentials (CFA, MBA, etc.), and a good network in the right places, to get into;
  • Law work is now frequently outsourced to the developing world with intense competition for fewer and fewer spots at top firms in the West;
  • Tenured positions in academia, as I’ve already written a lot about, are quickly being eliminated with little hope for current Ph.D. holders;
  • Fire fighters have a 15% chance of acceptance at the local fire training academy, and most fire-fighting professionals have second jobs;
  • Medicine, nursing and social work programs accept fewer applicants for even fewer jobs, despite more demand for these professionals, instead hiring temporary foreign workers;
  • Even teaching, that bastion of middle-class professional employment, is a tough job to get these days, and, as anyone who has done any teaching will tell you, it ain’t a glamourous or lucrative gig.

Some of these changes are the effects of globalization, of course, which has pulled many in the developing world into the middle class even as it has displaced work from North America and Europe. The result is intense competition for what are really quite banal professions with long hours and few perquisites. After all, we are talking about work here, and while many of us can hope to enjoy what we do, more people still think of a job as more a way to make money than a calling.

 

People Like Us: what happens to the “winners”

Who holds the winning tickets? Extraordinarily talented, hardworking and lucky people like Kelly Clarkson and Lionel Messi. Those who inherit wealth. And those who are connected in the right ways. This is a self-perpetuating circle, with fame and money increasingly intertwined.

Success in one area seems to imply expertise in another, which is why we have a rise in parenting and home-making literature from people made famous by playing characters on TV and in movies. Famous actors try their hand at everything from making wine to formulating foreign policy. Just look at Dancing with the Stars, that barometer of cross-professional fame: it has deemed this season alone that comedians, “real housewives,” and Olympic gold medallists and will make money for them, ostensibly as dancers. Previous contestants include politicians, scientists, and athletes galore.

Science! …and cross-promotion.

The links here are fame and money, and while using either to get what you want in a new realm is nothing new, the potential reach of both (and opportunity to make more of each) has exponentially increased. And there is a new opportunity for unprecedented fame from the patronage of modern plutocrats, witnessed by the pantheon of celebrity chefs, celebrity dog trainers, and celebrity litigators. The über-rich want the best, and the best take a disproportionate slice of the industry pie.

 

Thankful: the rise of corporate patronage

So what happens to all those quite talented people who would have played to full theatres two hundred years ago? (Apart from making YouTube videos, that is.)

I’ve been thinking for years now that the “high” arts (theatre, ballet, classical music, dance) depend on wealthy patrons for survival, much as they did before these became popular attractions in the modern period. Those patrons today are largely corporate sponsors, instead of wealthy individuals, and the companies get cultural cachet and corporate social responsibility bonus points while the performers gain a living.

The trend goes beyond the arts. In Silicon Valley (and elsewhere in the US), corporations and wealthy benefactors are extending their philanthropy beyond traditional areas of giving. Mark Zuckerberg sponsors New Jersey school districts. Mike Bloomberg helps municipalities with their tech budgets. The Clinton Global Initiative finances green retrofits in the built environment. As the public sector falls apart, we become more dependent on the proclivities of wealthy people and the companies they run, for better or worse.

Your discretionary income at work!

 

Don’t Waste Your Time: what happens to everyone else

Those without a good corporate job or corporate patronage can still have interesting weekends. The last twenty years have seen a rise in hobby culture. Not just for hipsters anymore, farming, knitting, and brewing are all things to count as hobbies as it becomes harder and harder to actually make any money doing them. Assembly-line economics prompted a decline in bespoke items in favour of cheaper, ready-to-use/ready-to-wear equivalents, and with it the near-demise of artisan production. Hence, hobby culture has taken over. Many people today have side businesses that were once considered a main income stream, such as making crafts (e.g. through Etsy), photography (helped by the rise of Pinterest and Instagram) or self-publishing. I suspect this trend will only increase as 3D printing becomes more popular.

And for everyone else holding tickets and waiting for their numbers to come up, there is retail. The old stereotype of underemployed actors waiting tables persists because it is still true, and some are servers forever. In some industries and some places (for example, grocery cashiers in Toronto), service jobs are a means to an end, some spare cash earned while in school. In others, like much of the United States and suburban areas generally, people work in retail and/or service (the largest category of employment in North America) because they have no other option.

The result is a proliferation of companies pushing a “service culture,” a movement toward glorifying the customer experience everywhere from fast food to discount clothing stores. And while there is a long history of service as a noble profession (for example, in high-end restaurants), and giving clients what they desire is a laudable goal, claiming a service mandate while maintaining a pay gap between customer-facing employees and top management of 20, 80 or 200 times is deceitful, the false empowerment of the economically disenfranchised.

All of the above trends reflect a growing inequality in the workforce, one that becomes ever-more entrenched. Inequality is a major hot-button issue in politics at the moment, and a number of initiatives have been proposed to combat it, including raising the minimum wage. The long-term success of any solution, however, requires recognizing that the ability to earn a living can’t depend on holding a winning ticket.

 


7 Things I’ve Learned About History Since Moving to the Land of the Future

April 25, 2014

“Why on earth did you study history?” I was asked last night, and on many days since I arrived in what is perhaps the world’s most future-oriented place. What answer can I give to an engineer or venture capitalist who can’t rotate his perspective enough to look backward, or see the importance of doing so? I usually say that I love to explore the rich context of our modern world, so much of which was influenced by the past. Or that history, like all the humanities, is a mirror that shows us a different version of ourselves.

But such answers will not satisfy many people here, and in wondering why, I realize I’ve learned a few things about history and its uses since learning the way (to San José):

1. America ≠ California and American History Californian History.

I write a lot about nationalism, because it is one of the ways we identify as part of a group, with shared history. I feel very Canadian, and not very Ontarian at all because I don’t see Ontario’s history as disconnected from that of the Canadian historical narrative. So I assumed it would be very “American” here, like places I’ve been on the East Coast and Midwest.

I was wrong.

The United States, though a young country, seems to be very aware of (certain parts of) its history. After all, how many other countries refer so frequently to and preserve so faithfully the intentions of their founding documents? America has an acute sense of its founding myths, and the historical reenactment culture here is an ongoing source of fascination and delight. (Who wants to be that Union solider who gets shot the first moment of battle and lies on the field the rest of the day in period costume? Is there a hierarchy, and does one get promoted each successive year based on seniority until eventually he is General Lee, or is it merit-based and depends on how well you keel over in your fleeting moment of glory? Such pressing questions.)

California Republic

California is not, however, America. It is, as the t-shirts say, “California Republic,” with its “Governator” and strange direct democracy and fiercely independent, contrarian streak. Very few people here identify as “American” so much as “Californian,” and they don’t seem to share the same historical touch points. More common are nods to the Spanish and Mexican roots of the region, through the missions and street names, or a focus on the history of global trade and cosmopolitan capitalism.

2. People have a different definition of “history” in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley is a whole other animal altogether (a shark, perhaps?).

In a place where the next iOS release, must-have gadget or earnings report is breathlessly anticipated, “history” becomes something that matters mostly in your browser. “Legacies” and “artifacts” are usually bad things to Valley dwellers, being outmoded or standing in the way of progress. The tech industry does not look kindly on the past – or rather, doesn’t think much of it at all, an indifference which is, as we all know, much more the opposite of love than dislike.

San José then…

Silicon Valley isn’t kind to its physical history either. The historic orchards and cherry trees that once ringed San José have been paved to make way for sprawling, two-story rental accommodations and carefully landscaped corporate lawns. Giant redwoods are regularly felled to allow for a better view of the advertisements on the side of buildings (seen from the freeway, of course). Dome-shaped Space Age cinemas one frequented by Steven Spielberg are in danger of being torn down, likely so newer, bigger malls can rise up in their places.

Even churches, those bastions of beautiful architecture, look like something out of an IKEA catalogue, all light wood and glass – nary a flying buttress in sight. It’s a full-on assault of the past by the present, in the name of the future.

3. Transience produces ambivalence and a lack of investment in the past.

Many people are new here, as the region’s explosive growth in the last 30 years can attest. Others are “just passing through.” So a lot of people feel disconnected from anything greater than their jobs or family/friend networks here, and there is a pervasive sense of rootlessness.

So why bother to invest in their communities? Or care what they used to look like? So goes the logic and thus the “San José Historic District” encompasses a single square block, with fewer than ten historic monuments. These are mainly just buildings that have survived – earthquakes, vacancy and neglect. This website catalogs the “boneyard of unwanted San José monuments” that are slowly crumbling away near the freeway and very shiny corporate HQ of Adobe.

Santa Clara County Courthouse

The courthouse, crumbling in disrepair. San José is falling down, falling down, falling down…

It’s not all that surprising though when you consider that…

4. …it is personal history that fosters pride and connection.

Perhaps I and others feel disconnected from the history here because so much of historical connection depends on identifying with who made the history in the first place. Several recent studies from the British Commonwealth (Britain itself, Canada, and Australia) and the US indicate that museum attendance increases where a greater percentage of the population identifies with the ancestry of the area. That is, if you are of Scottish origin in Toronto, you are more likely to be interested in a museum about Canadian history, which was largely architected by Scots, than if you are a Native Canadian whose world was essentially trampled on by those same Scots. You’re likely still less interested if you are a recent immigrant to Toronto from Bangladesh. Feeling as though a part of you helped to make a place what it is makes it more real and more interesting. Rightly or wrongly, you feel as if you have more of a stake in the future because “your people” had more of a stake in the past.

Even people that grew up here can barely recognize it, so feel as though a part of their past has been taken from them. Wherefore the cherry blossoms and apple orchards that used to dot the landscape of the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight”? One woman told me her family used to live bordering a fruit farm, and moved six times as the farms were paved over by housing divisions, until “we lived backing on to the mountain, and there were no farms left.”

…and San José now.

And yet, I can only feel that history is critical, from my experiences in Toronto where historical consciousness, like love and Christmas, is all around.

Thus:

5. History is often the most beautiful part.

I used to love walking through downtown Toronto because every so often a beautiful Art Deco or neo-Gothic gem would emerge amid the drab tower blocks of the 1960s and 1970s. Variations in architectural style provide interest and colour in an otherwise monotonous world of glassy office towers and utilitarian apartment buildings. Grand plazas, churches and monuments make statements about what is important to a place, and what it values.

What do these people value? It is worth cherishing and celebrating the few beautiful examples of history that exist here.

Like this one!

 

6. Historical traditions provide comfort.

This surprised me. History, of course, is about customs passed down as much as it is about actual events or physical buildings. Traditions ground us and give us some consistency in a world that changes rapidly. This is part of the reason weddings, funerals, and general church-going still exist. We need traditions to mark the big events in life.

We also need traditions to mark out who we are and how we should behave. To take a small but non-trivial example I wrote about recently: our clothing sends out signals about who we are and what we expect from life. There are no standards of dress here, at work or at play. Twenty-five-year-old men dictate the business ambiance, so beards, flip flops and holey t-shirts abound, and you can’t find a restaurant in California fancy enough that you can’t wear jeans.

It is utterly unconventional, which is perhaps just a bit the point. Wearing jeans to a meeting with someone in a suit will instantly destabilize them. It’s the same idea with non-standard working hours, perfected by the tech industry, and turning work into play (both the work itself and the space in which it is done). Even the critical and traditional accent in “José” has all but disappeared, which leads me to wonder if people in future will think this city was pronounced as something that rhymes with “banjos.”

It is groundbreaking to blow up established norms, but also somewhat unsettling. And history is necessary, if only to have something to conscientiously reject.

7. Culture clusters around history.

Life without history would not only be ignorant and untethered, but very boring.

People often view San José and its surrounds as soulless, and it’s easy to see why. One need only look at the cultural draw San Francisco has on the region to appreciate why places with deep roots are attractive. Most of San Francisco’s biggest tourist attractions are historical landmarks. What would the City be without the bridge, cable cars, Alcatraz, Haight-Ashbury, the Ferry Building, or Pier 39? Just a bunch of expensive apartments and hills, really.

History infuses places with meaning, and communities gather to add more layers. So next time someone asks me why on earth I would bother to study history, I think I will tell him that it’s because I care about beauty and culture and connection to the people and places around me — and that if he wants to live in somewhere even half-decent, he should too.

History, paved over

History, paved over


Tasting Notes: A Scientific Justification for Hating Kale

April 17, 2014

There is a new East-West arms race, and it is full of bitterness. Literally.

Since moving to the West Coast, I have been struck by the preponderance of bitter foods and beverages. The coffee, beer and lettuce producers here appear to be locked in a bitterness arms race with each other to see who can make the least palatable product, with no clear victor. It seems that the West Coast version of all of these products (think: dark-roast Starbucks, exceedingly hoppy pale ales, and kale) are significantly more bitter than their east coast counterparts (think: more traditional lighter roast coffees, lagers, and Boston Bibb).

Hops: beer’s bittering agent, liberally applied on the liberal left coast

What’s going on here? Are people’s taste buds addled from years of sipping California’s notoriously strong Cabernets? Is our future all about green smoothies and kale chips? And what are picky eaters (like, ahem, this blogger) to do?

It turns out I am not alone in opposing such bitterness, and the evolution of taste is on my side. And, moreover, the future may be friendly.

A taste of history

Humans can taste five distinct flavours: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (otherwise known as “savoury,” the flavour of cooked meat, among other things). And each of our taste buds contains receptors for each of these  flavours, so taste sensation is not concentrated in certain regions of the tongue as previously thought but dispersed throughout. For example, we probably lick ice cream cones because they are too cold to eat with our teeth, not because sweet receptors are located at the front of our tongues.

We can also taste all five flavours simultaneously yet distinctly; if you were to eat something that contained all of the flavour elements, you would taste each in turn (and probably not enjoy it very much – I can’t imagine what such a food would taste like). Tasting is a multi-sensory experience, in fact. As any aspiring sommelier will know, flavour is produced both by the five taste sensations and the olfactory receptors in our nose, which give foods and drinks a much more complex and multi-layered profile. Temperature, texture, and auditory inputs such as crunch also influence our experience of “taste.” No wonder we love to eat.

Humans have such developed tasting abilities because we are omnivores with varied diets, and require a plethora of nutrients found in many foods to survive. Other animals do not require such diversity of nutrients, so cannot taste such variety. Pandas, who have evolved to eat almost exclusively bamboo, cannot taste umami. Cats and chickens “lost” the ability to taste sweetness at some point in their history.

How sweet it is

It is thought that our fondness for sweet foods was among the first tastes to be developed, because we need simple sugars as a fundamental building block of nutrition. Today healthy sugars and sweet tastes come from fruits and breads. Salty food indicates the presence of sodium (or lithium, or potassium), and a certain amount of sodium is necessary for our bodies to function, since humans lose salt through sweat.

Sour foods, such as lemons, are typically acidic (in the chemical sense) and a sour taste can signify that food is rancid. Sour is also good, however: humans need a certain amount of Vitamin C, found in sour foods, to survive, so our taste buds developed to seek this flavour out. An emerging theory is that our sweet and sour tastes evolved simultaneously from exposure to fruit, which contains both tastes. Both flavours are also present in fermented foods and cooked meat, the former being important in providing good bacteria to aid digestion and the latter in being more easily digested than raw meat.

Bitterness is the most complex receptor, and it is thought that humans can perceive 25 different kinds of bitterness. Bitter foods are frequently basic (again, in the chemical sense), and bitterness is an innately aversive taste. Babies will turn away from bitter foods – such as leafy green vegetables – just as they will naturally gravitate toward sweet ones. As one article I read succinctly put it:

“Many people do not like to eat vegetables—and the feeling is mutual.”

Bitter melon. Shudder.

Evolutionarily, our aversion makes sense. Plants secrete pesticides and toxins to protect themselves from being eaten. Even now, if we taste a strong bitter food, our bodies behave as though they are preparing to ingest a toxin, activating nausea and vomiting reflexes to protect us. Pregnant women are particularly sensitive to bitterness because their bodies are hypersensitive to the baby’s health. It is also now thought that small children have some justification for hating brussels sprouts and other green, leafy vegetables in that their younger taste buds are particularly sensitive, and averse, to bitter flavours. Picky eaters vindicated!

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … Supertaster?

A relatively recent theory that has the tasting world abuzz (ataste?) is the discovery of so-called “supertasters,” individuals with a greater number of taste receptors (the typical number of taste buds in humans can range from about 3 000 to over 10 000). Some experts also theorize that supertasters may have normal receptors, but more efficient neural pathways to process the tastes. They are more likely to be female, and of African or Asian descent, and some estimates put them at 25% of the population.

Supertasters are particularly sensitive to bitter flavours present in such foods and drinks as grapefruit, coffee, wine, cabbage and dark chocolate. They are also thought to be more sensitive to sour and fatty foods, which means they are usually slim, but their aversion to vegetables makes them more susceptible to various cancers. And they are most certainly susceptible to the ire of their parents, friends at dinner parties, and anyone else who tries to feed them.

Like an evil mutant flower.

Leaving a bitter taste in our mouths

So why would anyone, supertaster or no, desire to eat foods that humans have convinced ourselves over millennia are toxic and therefore to be avoided?

In fact, many scientists theorize that we only learn to like bitter foods after seeing the other positive effects they can have on us, often pharmacological ones. Consider coffee, which makes us more alert, and wine, which makes us more relaxed. This can be the only reason anybody with taste receptors eats spinach or kale, right?

A fondness for bitterness seems, in my entirely unscientific analysis, to centre on warmer regions, where these foods are traditionally grown, such as coffee, olives, grapefruit, and bitter melon. See, for example, a traditional Mediterranean diet pyramid, which contains several bitter foods.

A Mediterranean traditional diet pyramid

Perhaps more significantly, though, scientists have discovered a link between eating bitter foods and socioeconomic status. One study in France found that men who ate a greater variety of bitter foods were more likely to be well-educated and have a lower body mass index (BMI). Women who ate a greater variety of bitter foods also had lower BMIs and were less likely to have diabetes.

It would seem that bitter foods today pose less of a threat of toxicity and yield great health benefits (well, perhaps kale more than IPAs). Likely this rational reasoning is behind the West Coast health food craze, and indeed why bitter foods are more commonly consumed for their health benefits where populations are more educated and wealthier, as a whole.

Science will continue to play a factor as well. We may know in our heads that Brussels sprouts are good for us but still dislike the taste. Food producers will likely try to engineer foods to keep the benefits without the drawbacks. In fact, many foods are already “debittered” by the food industry, from oil to chocolate to orange juice.

So good news for West Coast dwellers, supertasters, children and those averse to toxins everywhere: one day you may be able to have your kale chips and eat them too — happily.

Kale: the world’s ugliest vegetable?  It’s coming for you!

 


How people we hardly know cause us to have more serendipitous, lonelier, busier lives 

April 11, 2014

Imagine you live in a small town, circa 1750. Your daily life is spent working – maybe farming, or maybe you make shoes or are a teacher. You eat, drink, sleep, look after children, and socialize. Your social circle consists of others in the same class and gender, for the most part, and you will most likely spend your whole life living with, farming with, marrying into, reproducing with, and dying with the other families that live in your village.  You know these people really, really well.

Perhaps someone in your family emigrates – to London, or to one of the settlement colonies, say – and so you spend a bit of time every month writing letters to them, but know that it’s a bit pointless, because anyone who had moved more than a few hundred miles away would likely never come back. Every so often a traveller or vagrants will come by, and sometimes people will move in or away, but for the most part social circles are set. There is no networking to change your lot in life, or make new friends, just living.

Now imagine the richness and diversity of your current social circle. It is probably more like a multi-national organization than a village. It probably includes people living in several countries, from different backgrounds. It is probably quite large. You probably don’t know many of them very well, but may spend a lot of time, like I do, writing emails, talking on the phone, or communicating in other ways with them. I spend much of what time I have leftover in my day feeling guilty that I haven’t spent more time writing more emails or making more phone calls. When I lived in Toronto, I must have had 25 people at any given time that I had honestly been meaning to “catch up” with for about six months. Now I live further away, it is even more important (and time-consuming) to keep up links with everyone back “home.” (I am that immigrant mentioned above! Doubly so. So many letters.)

Of course, this doesn’t even include time spent on the more common definition of “networking” – the kind that makes me want to take a shower – which is to purposefully make connections with the hope of them being useful at some point hence, in a search for a new job or piece of advice.

Network Proliferation

The abundance of methods of communication and social networking technologies has made all kinds of networking almost unconscious, but quite time-consuming. Modern networks are kept alive by either the acceptance of an inferior means of communication (email, letters, FaceTime) as satisfactory grounds to sustain them, or the faint hope of a better way of interacting occurring again in the future. But it appears that quality decreases even as time spent increases, and we are left accepting many more threads of connection without time to forge many into lasting companions.

If we are being honest, it is highly impractical to spend so much time maintaining friendships with friends of friends, those who live outside of our immediate geography, or people who were major players in our lives years ago but no longer cross our minds very often. So why do we do it? What is so inherently appealing about having far-flung networks of others who share our interests and experiences?

I see the main points of the cost-benefit analysis as follows:

  • The social inclusion high. With the breakdown of actual barriers of geography through telecommunications and easier global travel, and imagined barriers of social class, we are much more likely to find others who share commonalities with us. And most of us are willing to spend time and energy building a social circle of like-minded peers, over and above the time and energy required to simply exist in the world with those who may not necessarily (e.g. colleagues, extended family members, baristas at the coffee shop, the mailman, etc.).
  • Imagined future benefits. Slightly more self-serving, but no doubt also a factor is the potential usefulness of knowing an old travel companion who lives in Auckland, NZ in case you ever need a place to stay, or a contact in the federal government in case of a future career change. This is, basically, the only reason LinkedIn exists.
  • Guilt. It’s harder to terminate a relationship than keep it vaguely open-ended. It is much easier to have friends from elementary school connected by a thin thread on a Facebook feed than acknowledge that there is no real reason to be part of each other’s lives. In this case the cost may be low (provided they don’t constantly spam us with game requests or multiple smarmy medical school acceptance status updates), but it also makes me wonder if our village-dwelling ancestors were more comfortable with saying goodbye and just letting go of outdated relationships.

Dunbar redux

There are very real advantages to having large, loose networks of connections, but the cost of all of this network upkeep is time and anxiety. According to a well-known study by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the optimal size of a human’s social network is about 150. This number refers to how many people we can cognitively sustain stable relationships with, and is directly related to the size (and thus functionality) of our neocortex. (For a fantastic and hilarious illustration of Dunbar’s number, see this piece.)

Dunbar’s number has obvious applicability to real-world organizations, but has more recently also been found to apply to our online social networks, in the number of people we frequently interact with online. But with ever-larger networks to maintain, something has to give: the quality of the relationship, the amount of time humans are willing to spend communicating with others, or a shift in our physiology so that we are able to cognitively adjust to a greater size of stable connections.

It seems that quality is the first thing to go. A 2007 study showed that Facebook has many positive social attributes, in that it enables us to “keep tabs” on others very easily, thus “convert[ing] latent ties into weak ties,” increasing the serendipity factor in our lives. As is already widely known, however, it also carries costs. The constant identity curation necessitated by Facebook and similar social networks is exhausting. We want to project an image of ourselves as (relatively) happy, successful and social. It’s stressful, and it also makes us lonely.

I pick on Facebook, but we use the same techniques to keep up appearances across networks with all of our weak ties, and this is facilitated by not being near people for sustained periods of time in person. And it isn’t just in our personal lives. Image production has become an increasingly useful skill for knowledge workers who have to justify the value of their work through self-promotion or “personal branding,” either within an organization to get that excellent performance review, or to win more business as a sole proprietor. Such conscious displays of our better sides (I won’t go so far as to say artifice) would have been impossible to keep up in the village with so many strong ties and so few weak ones.

Back to the village…

Perhaps it is a symptom of our modern greed that we expect to have so much capital interpersonally and intellectually, as well as physically. Since we have “progressed” beyond the village, we can now create and maintain more opportunities: opportunities for more knowledge about the world, more interesting friends, better social activities, and better jobs. This is good news if you don’t want to be a shoemaker who sees the same 50 people every year for the rest of your life, but bad news if you want to have an empty inbox and be ulcer-free.

I see it as a social manifestation of the “paradox of choice” (a book I highly recommend for anyone feeling swamped by choice). Having more options actually makes us less happy, because the stress inherent in choosing between them, and the time it takes to do so, often outweighs the potential benefits of a better choice (if there even is a better choice). More weak ties naturally means more choice, and more stress.

So maybe those who withdraw from frequent socializing are (intentionally or not) limiting their options, and maybe they are happier for it. They moved back to a slightly bigger village, and they’re enjoying the lifestyle.


25 Reasons Today Is a Great Time to Be Alive

June 22, 2011

Amid all the morose and maudlin whinging about how we are losing our sense of self, our ability to self-moderate, or more generally our minds, merit, and money, today I offer up a list of things to get excited about in 2011.

Here are 25 reasons life (and mine specifically) is better today than it would have been…

250 Years Ago

25. I can reasonably expect to live longer than 33 years.

24. In my life, I’ve visited over 10 countries on 3 continents. And among my friends, I’m not well travelled. In 1761, people rarely left their hometown, let alone the country.

23. Last night I heard superb music by 10 different composers, played by a world-class orchestra, for under $30. (And I waved a Union Flag while doing it! “And did those feet, in ancient time…”) In 1761, only a fraction of the population could hear such music – and not cheaply.

22. Indoor plumbing! Sewers! Need I say more?

21. I can buy a great book for under $5; in 1761 it would have cost the equivalent of about $1000.

100 Years Ago

Hunger Strikes Among Suffragettes

20.  As a woman, I can choose who runs my country/province/ city (at least in theory). And I didn’t have to be jailed and force-fed by a tube in order to have the right to do it – all I had to do was reach majority.

 19. I didn’t die of chickenpox, infection, or the flu when I was a child, as many children did in 1911.

18.  I do laundry by putting a bunch of clothes into a machine, pouring in some liquid, and pressing a few buttons, instead of spending two days with the household staff, soaking it, wringing it out repeatedly, and stirring it around in crazy chemicals with washing bats. It’s like magic.

17. Electricity — in my home! Amazing.

16. In one of my history classes we watched 1900 House, a documentary in which a family of six lived as they would have in 1900 for three months. A memorable take-away? Modern shampoo is a hell of a lot more effective than egg yolk and citrus. “I just smell really, sort of, omlette-y.”

50 Years Ago

15. I did not have to promise to obey my husband when we got married.  In fact, I didn’t even have to get married to get all the legal benefits of a long-term committed relationship.

14. I can wear pants! and shorts! And neither is prohibited by law.

Katharine Hepburn, a pants-blazer and personal heroine

13. I can eat any kind of food I want to, and could probably find somebody from its country of origin to talk to about it. Every day just walking down the street I see a greater degree of diversity than at any other time in history, all in once place, living (relatively) harmoniously together.

12. I can choose whether or not to spawn, with near-certainty that my wishes will be protected by law and the wisdom of modern medicine.

11. A century old saying has it that “horses sweat, men perspire — ladies merely glisten.” But when I go to the gym, I can sweat all I like, and feel healthy doing it. Moreover, certain terrifying Amazonian female athletes step it up a notch by adding a soundtrack.

25 Years Ago

10. I live in the charmingly-labelled “Rainbow Village” area of Toronto, where I can watch men walk down the street holding hands, or carrying impossibly tiny dogs wearing designer hats in large purses.

9. I can find out what’s going on in any part of the world in under 10 seconds, at the click of a button.

8. I feel reasonably secure knowing that many heinous crimes are solved using DNA evidence. Bonus: I can watch any of the fascinating procedural dramas stemming from said advancements in forensic science. Bring it on, Grissom!

7. I can listen to “Tarzan Boy” over and over and over again without having to rewind, ever.

6. It’s exciting that people are taking steps to protect the environment more than at any other time in modern history. Or, at least, they’re aware of how to protect it.

10 Years Ago

5. I can press a button on a machine and be talking to my grandmother, 3500 miles away, in under 10 seconds. For free. (And I feel like God every time I do it. Think about it: your computer is calling someone else’s! This is the kind of thing they dreamed about in SciFi movies 50 years ago.)

4. I can access the Internet everywhere I go. Want to know if the restaurant I’m walking by is any good? I can read reviews. If I’m lost? I can get directions. Wondering if it’s going to rain? I can check the weather. Instantaneously.

3. Buying a home during a recession meant we got an insane deal on our mortgage.

2. I can watch things like this all day if I want to:

1. I have a place to share my latest thoughts, pictures, or links to rambling blog posts with my closest friends, and get feedback from any or all of them, immediately. Communication is more frequent than ever before. I can feel like part of  a community without even having to leave my desk. (Or put on the pants I was so excited about earlier.)

What are you excited about in 2011 that you would add to this list?