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.

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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!

 


What makes a city great? Toward a hierarchy of urban needs

April 3, 2014

A few years ago I created a conceptual model of national needs, shown below, based on Maslow’s hierarchy of (personal) needs. It has become one of the most read posts on this blog, indicating that our identification with both nations and Maslow’s framework both continue to resonate today, decades after their creation.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Some context: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, for individuals

Of course, it is difficult to map the idea of progressive needs of an individual cleanly to a political entity. Nations, like people, continue to evolve, and the role of nations in the world is changing too. Nonetheless, the idea of a hierarchy, in which basic needs must be satisfied before one can progress to a higher level of actualization and fulfilling one’s whole potential, can be applied to countries in various stages of development.

Since writing my National Needs post in 2010, a new country was created in South Sudan. It is still struggling (as indeed are many other nations) with the lowest level of securing territorial integrity and peaceful borders, and this remains its primary focus. The struggle for survival must come before feelings of security, esteem and morality.

Exon's Hierarchy of National Needs (Click for a larger version)

Exon [Smith]’s Hierarchy of National Needs, c. 2010 (Click for a larger version)

Yet there are other geographical entities with which we commonly identify, and which are becoming more and more important as centres of culture and economy as a greater percentage of the world’s population moves into them: cities. It is estimated that for the first time in human history, more people live in urban areas than outside of them, and cities are becoming important political players in their own right.

Since moving to California in late 2013 (and spending a lot of time on the Atlantic Cities channel), I have been thinking about how fundamentally important cities are. What makes them truly great? What makes them “cities” at all, in a sense apart from the obvious population requirements? For example, I live in San Jose, which is the third largest city in California, ahead of San Francisco in both population and area, and yet its own inhabitants curiously refer to San Francisco as “the city.” Why? What has to happen for a place to transform into a world-class city from a mere urban area?

So, as I am wont to do, I created a new model to explore the needs of a city, also along the lines of Maslow. I’m calling it the “Hierarchy of Urban Needs.” Note that I am assuming that this city exists within the context of a nation that ensures the rights and privileges of, as well as general governance over, its citizens.  Some discussion of the stages is below.

hierarchy1.pdf.001

Exon Smith’s hierarchy of urban needs (Click for a larger version)

Basic services 

At the most fundamental level, cities need key services delivered in an efficient and cost-effective way. (This is true even if such services aren’t necessarily paid for by the cities themselves, as is the case with, say, healthcare in Canadian cities.) This includes fire, police, and ambulance services; waste management; housing inspections to ensure both safety and affordability of housing; water treatment, and the like. For many cities, this means being able to control the tax base and be able to levy taxes on the population as necessary.

World-class cities will also have exceptional healthcare options and a focus on sustainability woven through even these fundamentals, such as extensive recycling and compost programs. San Francisco, for example, deploys teams to examine what its residents recycle properly and what they don’t so the city can mount better educational campaigns.

Of course, the basic running of the city must be free of corruption, and be able to pay its bills so it avoids a Detroit-like bankruptcy claim, or the succession of mayors Montreal has recently had.

Infrastructure

Historically, cities developed around major ports and, later, railway depots. Even today, no major cities exist without some kind of harbour, airport, train station or freeway linking them with the outside world. Inter-city transportation, undergirded by solid infrastructure, is a critical component of economic progress.

Cities with poor transit are at a huge disadvantage. Jakarta, a city of nearly ten million people, and the largest city of its size with no metro of any kind, has notoriously been working on an underground transit network for 20 years. Traffic congestion is thought to cost the city $1 billion a year. In another cautionary tale, it can take 12 hours to travel 40 miles in Lagos, Nigeria, and the way is fraught with crime and other dangers, a threat to legitimate trade.

Intra-city transportation is also a key factor, and how best to support the movement of people within a city is a subject of almost universal debate. Subways vs. light rail, bike lanes vs. car lanes, pedestrian-only roads and congestion pricing – these are major issues for all cities, and the thinking on public transportation keeps evolving.

This is one area in which San Jose currently struggles but has big plans for the future. My theory is that older cities, built before car use was predominant, have an easier time planning for pedestrian and bike access. Those (like San Jose) that were built after the advent of freeways and a Cadillac for every nuclear family tend to struggle to retrofit density in the downtown core when its points of interest are already quite far-flung.

And yet. San Jose is a critical location for high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as a hub for transportation around the San Francisco Bay (linking to San Francisco and Oakland), and has reserved space downtown for new transit links. It is planning for increased density to accompany the new transportation. Hopefully use of public transportation within city limits will also increase, because at the moment the city is hugely dependent on the car. Inefficient public transit routes poorly serve the population, resulting in, for example, 78% (!) of San Jose commuters travelling to work in single-occupancy vehicles.

Central Park

Infrastructure also includes sewers and other large-scale public works, including parks and other green space. More and more research indicates that green spaces make for happier communities, and many major cities can be identified by their parks alone (e.g. Central Park, Golden Gate Park, Bois du Boulogne, Sanjay Gandhi National Park). As I’ve said before, I love sewers, water mains and bridges, personally, and think more campaigns should be fought around securing funding for them. The recent, tragic gas explosion in Harlem only underlines the need to think the way the Victorians did about how cities really run and how we can leave a legacy for the future that is perhaps not glamourous, but that is critically important. One of Toronto’s great strengths, as is the case in many other cities, is the numerous cranes on the skyline building new architectural wonders (as well as a few duds). Would that we could focus on what lies beneath the soil as well.

A brief interlude on mayors…

Thinking about these lower levels of needs, it strikes me that the level of a city’s discourse (and thus position on this hierarchy) can often be seen through the lens of its mayoral elections. Toronto’s 2010 (as most likely will its 2014) election centered on the issues of transportation and waste in providing city services, leaving little room for discussion of higher-order issues (such as, ahem, drug use among elected officials). New York’s 2013 election, in which Bill de Blasio won almost three quarters of the votes, turned largely on issues of income inequality and pre-kindergarden education, the next level in my hierarchy. And the major issues of London’s 2012 election, won by incumbent Boris Johnson and his hair, were the economy, tackling crime, public transportation, and affordable housing.

Boris, Campaigning on Transit

Boris: Campaigning on Transit

It makes sense that the basics need to be taken care of, and continually improved upon, before a successful cultural scene can take root, in the same way that humans must be fed and watered, feel physically and emotionally safe, and feel a sense of belonging before they can achieve self-actualization.

…and then back to the hierarchy: Educational and research institutions

A strong educational foundation at every level is critical, and a well-educated population requires relative equality in the quality of schools. This is one of the main reasons cities should not fund their schools through neighbourhood taxes (and thus subject schools to the vagaries of house prices), as many cities in the United States do.  A well-educated citizenry contributes more to the economy than a poorly-educated one.

The presence of leading research and teaching institutions draws in talent and sows the seeds of innovation, which is why “cluster economies” such as Silicon Valley are the next big thing, because they focus research and development into localities with populations educated enough to feed them with employees. Every one of the world’s greatest cities has a leading university at its heart, without exception – this cannot be a coincidence.

Diversity is the key here. Cities built around just one industry are like monocultures: potentially dominant for a short while, but vulnerable to disastrous decline. Take any of the grand old cities in the Rust Belt: Buffalo, for example, was one of America’s greatest cities one hundred years ago, built on a strong grain-milling and shipping/railroad industry. After almost a century of decline, it is, well, no longer great – but it has managed to slow the decline by diversifying into the education and medical fields. Glasgow, once the premier city of Scotland, faced a similar decline due to its emphasis on a resource-based economy and de-emphasis on education.

Robust arts, sports and cultural scene

This stage is where the jump occurs from a merely livable city to one that is great. A safe, well-run, working city is lovely, but a city with a thriving cultural scene is one to fall in love with. In fact, social offerings, a broad category encompassing art, music, sport, religion and other community activities, are among the most significant contributing factors to residents’ feelings of attachment to their community. This is even above security or the state of the economy.

This stage of course includes both major municipal institutions such as museums, symphonies and ballets, but also spontaneous or smaller-scale, citizen-led activities. Being able to participate in a Sing-A-Long Messiah or see an independent movie at a film festival is as important as having the Bolshoi nearby, and also makes the arts more accessible to a wider population. Having Old Trafford around the corner is great, but so is the local curling league.

Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art

 

An arts and culture scene, moreover, is a key driver of tourism, which in turn feeds the economy on general feeling of being in a place worth being. (Just imagine Paris without the Louvre, or New York without the Empire State Building.) Older cities naturally have an advantage here because of the in-built history in ancient cathedrals, palaces or public art, but some newer cities have benefited by investing heavily in creating an arts scene. Doha, once little more than an oily afterthought, is planning for the time when its resources run out by creating a strong film industry and thriving place for modern art. It is also newly host to a major international economic forum, and will host the 2022 World Cup. (Probably.)

Openness to influence; becoming a symbolic beacon

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free !

These words adorn the base of the Statue of Liberty  and represent what I have spoken of before, being a city of the imagination. These cities are the subject of books, films, Broadway musicals, and countless daydreams, and have a romance and level of impact that serves to draw people to them, for a visit or for good.

These cities, in turn, receive their tourists and immigrants in a more or less accommodating way, taking from them the best of their cultures and using that to strengthen and further diversify the metropolis. Cuzco, Islamic Seville, and the Florence of the Medici were all historical examples of the power of such “mixing bowls” of culture: out of their cultural milieu came the starting point for a massive empire, the Golden Age of exploration, and the Uffizi Gallery. Modern equivalents spring to mind precisely because they have this pull on our hearts and minds.

The last two levels of the hierarchy are quite iterative: the greater the cultural scene and economy, the greater draw a city has for immigrants, who then enrich the culture further. It is difficult to find a world-class city without a large percentage of immigrants, who bring with them new traditions, great ideas, ambition, and excellent food. It is in fact difficult to overestimate the importance – both historically and in the present day – of immigrants to cities’ successes, which is why openness to influence and disruption may be the most important trait a city can have.

 

So there’s the model. I’d love to hear your thoughts!


The Empire Strikes Back … with Hammers

March 4, 2014

This is a post about curling.

It is also a post about colonialism and the sadness and rhetoric that accompanies the sunset of an empire.

Toward the end of the 2014 Olympics came the men’s curling final, a dramatic showdown between Great Britain and Canada. Watching in Europe, as I was, meant coverage was courtesy of the BBC and commentary by two storied skips from the grand Team GB of yesteryear. (Let’s put aside the fact that, like most British curlers, the commentators and players were all Scottish, because they all displayed a sufficient amount of “national” pride to be considered British. I will get into the whole Scottish nationalism affair later.) The stage was set: the Canadian women had beaten the female British team in the semi-finals and gone on, undefeated, to win the gold medal the day before. There was an enormous amount of pressure from home on the Canadian men to repeat their gold-medal successes of the 2010 and 2006 games. The tension was palpable.

Canada ended up winning a lopsided 9-3 for the gold.

Now, the Canadians were the odds-on favourites in this match. Despite curling being a Scottish sport originally, Canada is its foremost powerhouse nation. Since curling was introduced to the Winter Olympics in Nagano 1998, Canada has won medals in both the women’s and men’s tournaments every time. Only Sweden comes close. This particular team GB was also very good – they have won several World and European Curling Championships – but I doubt many people would have bet on them for the gold.

Our Boys Aren’t Like That

And yet, to listen to the BBC commentary, the victory was Britain’s almost by rights. The callers were making a valiant effort at being neutral at first but later abandoned the impartiality to lament the way the game was going for “our boys.” But what was most fascinating to me, as a student of nationalism and empire, was the language they used. I’ve written before about how the Olympics brings out the very best/worst in our jingoistic selves and allows the media and advertising to fall back on hoary old national tropes (the whole #wearewinter Canadian twitter campaign being just one example – do they not have winter elsewhere?).  But I had never seen this rhetoric play out between former imperial power and its precocious colony before. According to the BBC, the Canadian team was (and please say this with a Scottish accent in your heads, because I assure you it’s better) “a wee bit too aggressive,” “quite loud with their calls” and “not as polite as some of the other teams.” At one point, jokes were made that the Canadians’ shirts were too tight — or perhaps their biceps were too big? It was all just too masculine for Britain! “Our boys aren’t like that.”

 

Canadian curling skip Brad Jacobs: too much muscle mass for Britain!

Canadian curling skip Brad Jacobs: too much muscle mass and yelling for Britain!

 

Uncouth colonies! How dare you go to the gym and yell at the rink and celebrate your victories! It was a distant echo of the accusations that have always been aimed at settlement colonies, like Australia and Canada – and internal colonies, like the untamed “Wild West” within the United States – as justifications for the continuation of central control. Australia, incidentally, has never shaken off its image as the raucous outpost of empire “Down Under.” (Google suggest says: “Why are Australians so…” “Racist? Obnoxious? Violent?” Notably masculine traits, and not in a good way.)

It is odd that the British should still be falling back on this language. Perhaps sport commentary, like holiday foods, preserves tradition longer than the everyday. After all, it is hardly news that the games that originated in the former imperial capitals have since spread around the world and been mastered by foreign nationals to a far greater degree than those in the home country. Golf, a typically Scottish exercise in hitting objects with sticks, has been perfected by Americans like Tiger Woods or Fijians like Vijay Singh. Cricket is now the almost exclusive realm of South Asians. And then of course there is (sigh) soccer, an originally English sport which is now dominated at the international level by South Americans and Southern Europeans, much to my biennial chagrin.

Rugger for the Empire

Perhaps the general British population is now past the point with these sports that they feel they should win, as the original players. But that is patently not the case with every sport. For comparison, I thought a look at another English game – rugby, a product of the Victorian English public school system – would be interesting. Rugby spread about as far as the former settlement colonies of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (though really not much further, to look at the top teams), and my hypothesis is that British commentary would deem those foreign players rough and aggressive as well. Indeed, a short search of British news outlets finds the formidable NZ All Blacks masters of “thuggery” and the English team still fending off accusations of being hampered by its antiquated class system and uselessness on the pitch. One author, a former English international rugby player, talks about how the “relentless,” “ruthless” All Blacks laughed at him and assaulted his manliness when he twisted his knee, and how a recent match between the Aussies and the All Blacks was “a frightening gauntlet thrown down to all the players in the northern hemisphere.” You can’t make this stuff up.

 

The New Zealand All Blacks: "all things dark and Kiwi"

The New Zealand All Blacks: to the English, “all things dark and Kiwi”

 

It is competitive and familiar and has overtones of parent-child conflict. This same language was appropriated by the colonies themselves to justify their independence from Mother England: “You’re right: we are stronger and healthier and more willing to get our hands dirty, so we’ll have that control of our own government now, thank you.” Canada and Australia in particular used the physical superiority of their young men as indications that the centres of empire should shift to these places where willing hands were stronger at carrying its mission forth. As one former Canadian Governor General once said, “It is in climates and countries where the white man may multiply…that we must look for the strongest elements of Empire, and it is only at the Cape of Good Hope, in British North America, and in Australasia that we find these conditions realized.” And so it was that British men became stereotyped as effete weaklings more interested in their cravats than the serious business of governing a plurality of the world’s population.

And we’re still talking about it, a century later.

Hammer Time

In curling, the team that gets to throw the last stone (and has the opportunity to win points) in each end has the “hammer.” At the moment, the imperial hammer lies with the United States. And yet, Olympic jingoism was muted this year in the US, with various news outlets decrying the “step back” from previous triumphs, with fewer medals and some surprise podium shut-outs. Much national hand-wringing and poor sportsmanship ensued, perhaps signs of an empire uncertain of its own strength.

A sign of decline? Stay tuned for accusations of China’s uncouth aggression.

Oh wait…

US News Reports of Chinese Aggression

US News Reports of Chinese Aggression


Nations of Extroverts and the Friendliness of Americans

February 3, 2014

Picture this: a bus full of people, mid-day on a Tuesday. A passenger with a seeing-eye dog chatters away about her experiences to the lady beside her, who also has a dog. She then asks a family visiting from Italy what sights they have seen in the area. Further back, two men joke about how their knees are too old to bend sufficiently to fit into the seats. When one gets off the bus, he shakes the other’s hand, saying “Pleasure to meet you!” An elderly couple asks a young, pregnant woman about her children and say “God Bless!” to every passenger that exits the bus.

This is a typical bus ride in San José, at least in my experience riding public transit. Far from scowling at the lack of elbow room, passengers seem to use their proximity to other travellers as an excuse to strike up a new friendship, or at least pleasant conversation for the duration of the ride. On my way back from a book club once, a man told me about his opinion of every Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje book he’d read after finding out I was a recent transplant from Canada.

It’s all very unusual for me, and left me wondering: why are Americans so friendly? Several transplants I know from Europe think it must be false, that a waitress in a restaurant can’t genuinely care whether you liked your cajun pasta or had a good day – but is it?

To get a sense of whether there might be a national character at all, and if that might explain my transit experiences, I looked into what is often referred to by psychologists as the “Big 5 Inventory” personality test, or “five-factor model,” which measures the following traits:

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

My hypothesis was that Americans might, on a stereotypical, national level, score highly on the extroversion and agreeableness scales. Many have noted that at least two thirds of Americans are extroverted (see, for example, Susan Cain’s excellent book and TED talk on Introversion), and high levels of extroversion have also been correlated with traits such as assertiveness and individualism, other behaviours oft noted as common to Americans.

I wasn’t the first to have this idea. I recommend watching this short video, which maps out the Big 5 by nation:

It’s a fascinating study, and largely confirms that Americans are likely to be, on average, more extroverted than people from other nations, and more agreeable. They are also more calm and “hardy” than the average, and able to withstand setbacks, and are extraordinarily conscientious and disciplined.   These would all seem to be important traits for immigrants seeking to build new lives and a new nation.

The French, to take a comparison, are among the most introverted nations on the map. They also tend toward disagreeableness and prefer stability and routine to variety and new experiences. (Interestingly, they are very organized and conscientious, even more so than their German neighbours, which may surprise some in European politics.) An individual with these traits would undoubtedly find the can-do friendliness of the stereotypical American quite unpleasant, and the American, in his turn, would find the reserved Frenchman similar to the fellow below (which I found while searching for “American perceptions of French people”):

Image

It would also seem that my experiences in Argentina were not abnormal: Argentines, according to this video, also tend to be disagreeable, yet quite calm and emotionally stable, enjoying variety. This would explain the tendency we noticed to shrug in an irate fashion and bemoan the state of the economy with no expectation of it changing, then stomp off to dance a tango.

It may also be possible to explain the friendliness of Americans as a lack of the formality and respect for hierarchy that characterizes many Old World nations. There is no easy correlation with any one five-factor model trait here, but it would make sense that a society founded on principles of extreme meritocracy would support individuals bypassing the usual deferences common to aristocracy and other Old World power structures. If all men are created equal, why not say hello to those tourists on the bus?

A side note

Their friendliness doesn’t spare Americans the derision of the world in other areas. Keying in “why are Americans so…” into a search box does not yield very friendly autofill results: “stupid” and “ignorant” are the most common hits.

This perception might also be explained by the Big 5 model. In the “Openness to Experience” dimension, Americans score at a fairly average level. Examples of this trait include being “intellectually curious, open to emotion, interested in art, and willing to try new things.” (Denmark scores highest on this trait. Might explain Lego, The Little Mermaid, and vikings.)

Certainly, Americans are inventive and curious. However, many have also noted a national pride that can extend to an inward focus, a lack of interest in or awareness of the world outside its borders. The persistent and oft-debated data point of fewer than a third of Americans having passports would support an argument for isolationism.

Why bother to travel, though, if everyone will only respond to their friendly overtures with disagreeableness and scorn? Fortunately, there is a place where, according to this map, the locals are even more friendly, sympathetic, and kind, perhaps so much so that they’re willing to forgive some old bad blood and show American tourists around…

Russia.

Have fun at Sochi.