Washing bottles

February 7, 2009

Every time I think the environmental movement has managed to transcend the moralistic self-flagellation of its hippie past, I read something like this article — which, at length and entirely without irony, discusses the burning question of whether to wash out your mayo bottles before recycling them. So… the sea level could be rising like a meter per century, and you’re worried about whether your pickle jars smell fresh at the recycling plant? Can you say “doomed to irrelevance”?

Slow Food Nation

September 1, 2008

The first US Slow Food Nation event was this weekend, and I must report mostly disappointment. As many of us feared, it was an elitist food-porn extravaganza rather than a celebration of real American foodways or a call to action on better food for all. In its own way, Slow Food Nation ended up being the most powerful argument that a middle ground is NOT possible, and that Morris’s “swinish luxury of the rich” is incompatible with the true needs of the masses.

I visited both the Tasting Pavilions, at Fort Mason, and the more populist marketplace and garden in Civic Center Plaza. Let me note that pricing everywhere was bizarrely uneven and at times offensively so. The Tasting Pavilions cost $65, which entitled you to entrance and 20 units in “food dough” or scrip. You could buy more scrip at the rate of $10 to 5 faux dough. Prices inside were basically the opposite of the real world, in that expensive commodities (booze, coffee, tea) were less than 2 scrip, cheese and meat and ice cream were 3 scrip for decent to large quantities, and preserves were an outrageous 2 scrip — $6.50! — for a dab of jam or a couple scraps of dill pickle. Even in the marketplace, there were reasonable deals (Scott Peacock’s biscuits with country ham for $6, or a 10 lb flat of Frog Hollow Farm peaches for $20) as well as total ripoffs (cup of New Orleans iced coffee for $5.95).

Generally each booth at the tasting pavilions was a work of art (except for the completely lackluster wine booth), using materials and layouts that tried to highlight and suggest the beauty of each ingredient — wood-fired ovens for bread, antique beehives for honey, rows of different colored olive oils, floating black-and-white curtains for tea. Organization and line management were generally abysmal, especially in that you had no opportunity to ask any questions or see what you were getting until you were already at the head of the line; and they wasted way too much manpower having individual stations of servers, none of whom had time to talk to you anyway. The sole exception was the cheese pavilion, which was amusingly bovine: it was almost entirely staffed by middle-aged women, and they intelligently herded together all their offerings on a single plate which freed up the actual cheesemakers to roam the line giving out free samples and answering people’s questions. It was the only pavilion in which I saw true interaction between the producers and the consumers (or coproducers in Slow Food Nation parlance).

A striking thing about the tasting pavilions was how little of the offerings were actually American in the letter or the spirit of the term. The coffees and chocolates were all grown outside the country, and they were deliberately downplaying the processing part in favor of the growing part. The spirits were with one exception (Square One Vodka) all foreign made. The teas obviously were all from Asia. The cheeses and meats and ice creams were all produced in the country, but in almost every case (except country ham) they were deliberately trying to ape the products of Europe with their prosciuttos and gelatos and Edams.

There was also almost no ethnic or class diversity on display at Fort Mason for the paying guests. There was one Native American booth, but it was lightly visited; and I think there was one guy making naan. The pickle stand offered no kimchi or real chutney, which in India means something more like pickled veg or fruit (e.g. lime or mango pickle). Needless to say there were no stands featuring African-American or Latino foodways… although all the people I saw sorting recycling from garbage by hand were African-American.

The Civic Center outpost was supposed to be more populist and inclusive and educational. The gardening exhibit was the one attempt I saw to improve the daily diet of the common citizen. It was also the only vegetable-oriented thing in the whole place — the market vendors were all fruit or sweets or cheese purveyors. But let’s get real: how many people in the Bay Area are going to grow their own vegetables? Almost everyone lacks the time, space, or both. I salute the crap out of organizations like City Slicker Farms, a community gardening group in Oakland — but how are they not the token group in service to poor Black people that every San Franciscan needs to assuage the guilt of enjoying the epicurean life?

I personally think the biggest problem with American food — which affects everyone, rich and poor and middle-class — is that very few people seem to know how to cook vegetables in ways that are truly delicious. If you don’t want to eat vegetables in the first place, you won’t grow them in your garden or seek them out in the farmer’s market or look forward to their seasonal arrivals. You certainly won’t eat enough vegetables, and your health will suffer. Meat is good, cheese is delicious, fruit is yummy, good bread is a miracle… but I think vegetables are the key. I would have loved to see someone like Scott Peacock — who learned everything he knows from Edna Lewis — talk about Southern vegetable dishes, which are truly American, affordable, and appealing to all — as well as very very slow! I would have enjoyed meeting farmers from a CSA, and hearing them talk about how they manage to fill their members’ boxes every week with a variety of vegetables. I would have liked seeing a tasting pavilion dedicated to corn or beans or tomatoes. If Slow Food Nation doesn’t do those things, if they succumb to the allure of celebrity chefs and food-stylist layouts, then who will?

Cycling in Portland

July 31, 2008

Portland loves to tout itself as the cycling capital of America, and it definitely deserves the title… but a recent visit there hinted that if this is the future of transportation in America, we’re all in for a bumpy ride during the transition to a less auto-centric nation.

On a vist to Portland last week I observed more bikes being used for everyday transport than I’d ever seen in any American city. A very wide range of ages, ethnicities, body shapes, genders, and pricepoints were to be found among the cyclists there. It seemed like every business had a full rack of velos chained up outside — especially the plentiful bars, lounges, and pubs that make Portland the Chicago of the west (and I mean that in the most devoutly complimentary way). Even strip clubs had full bike racks!

But why do bikes — which are legally vehicles — not get to park like vehicles? Cycling advocates love to point out that a single car parking space can yield 10 – 12 bike parking spaces. In theory, very true… but in practice, I can’t remember EVER seeing an automobile parking space converted to bike parking. Instead, bike parking is invariably carved out of pedestrian space. You can easily find any number of popular Portland watering holes where the sidewalk tables are plunked down in the middle of full bike racks! Is it going to kill the municipality to turn actual car parking into bike parking instead of taking up valuable sidewalk space? What if every block of every city had one less parking space and one more bike rack? Even in Bike City USA, that idea doesn’t seem to have occurred to the city planners. [Update: I learned from this blog that Portland does create bike parking by subtracting car parking! Good on ya, fellas!]

I am also sorry to report an enormous proportion of scofflaw cyclists on the streets of the Rose City. It seems like you can’t be outside for more than 10 seconds without seeing someone riding on the sidewalk, riding against traffic, blowing through a stop sign or red light, not signalling, or turning onto a busy street at a very high rate of speed. All that stuff would be illegal or seriously inadvisable if you did it in a car. It starts to look suicidally dumb if you do it on a bike. From what I could tell, bike people were quick to cop an attitude too… like just because car drivers do stupid shit, that makes it OK to “retaliate”. There were reports in the papers of road rage incidents on both sides, and of both cycling advocates and cops trying to inject some common sense into the maelstrom.

I was surprised how few bike lanes there appeared to be in the central part of the city — and the ones there were tended to be on the narrow side. Of course, I live in Bike Lane Heaven: the bike lanes near where I live in the South Bay are often nice and wide, and sometimes go on for many miles. What Portland seems to have instead is a system of streets parallel to the main drags, which are de-facto “bike first” or maybe “car last”. It’s definitely a different paradigm than I’m used to, and I have no real idea what mix of the two will end up being dominant on the nation’s streets. Seems like if possible the bike lanes are preferable, but the alternate routes are easier to retrofit in places with narrow streets. In the end we’ll all have to learn to share the roads though, and the sooner the better.

When all is said and done, I think Portland really is the future of transportation, for better and worse. If you haven’t visited lately, you really don’t know what you’re missing.

San Francisco transit maps

February 17, 2008

Most cities go to a tremendous amount of trouble and expense to figure out how to best serve the people with a public transit system that is both comprehensive and comprehensible. New York, London, Paris, Chicago… look at maps of their public transportation systems, and a clear picture emerges of easy routes between the popular parts of the cities in question. For any of these cities, you could print a credit-card sized map that would let visitors get around within a half mile of any point they’d be likely to want to visit.

Look at a map of San Francisco’s public transportation system, on the other hand, and… oh guess what, you can’t even really see the whole thing on one page because there are 4 different major providers (not including cablecars, ferries, and long-distance transport). And the four providers never meet in a single point, unlike the carefully planned nexuses such as the one underneath New York’s 42nd Street. And there is hardly a single route that is even remotely visually comprehensible to a normal person.

The transit map is notoriously unparseable, a jumbled mass of spaghetti with routes every block in the downtown area but only a few lines going to some of the most popular entertainment districts in the city. Take one of the most straightforward routes, the MUNI 38X bus aka “Geary Express”. For the entirety of its route through downtown San Francisco it doesn’t run on Geary or even the next street… instead it runs on Bush (3 blocks away) in one direction and Pine (4 blocks away) in the other. Meanwhile the 38 and 38L buses run on Geary! How the heck would any visitor or casual transit rider be able to figure this out?

It’s especially incredible because San Francisco as a city seems to be so strongly united in valuing green causes, the visual display of information, and anything that reduces traffic and parking problems. Half the people I know up there are Ralph Nader-loving, Critical Mass-participating, urban planning-hobbyist designers! I generally believe that people get the government they deserve, but it seems so incongruous to me that San Francisco ended up with such a horrible public transit system.


June 11, 2006

My college buddy Patrick, who lives in Madison, recently started a political blog called LeftRightLeft with his brother Brian. I love blogs with strong concepts like this one: it’s the sort of thoughtful, intra-family version of Crossfire that I bet a lot of people wish they could have with their nearest and dearest. I love how the design enhances the concept, but secretly I wish I could have an RSS feed. 🙂

World peace redux

April 16, 2006

I read in the paper today that the Pope prayed for world peace at his Easter Mass. Does the Pope pray for world peace EVERY YEAR? That hasn’t been… a notably successful strategy. You can tell he isn’t a very good manager because he picks vague, unrealistic goals and doesn’t plan a clear path to success. The Pope needs to start thinking outside the box, man.

If I were him, I’d pray for something more tangible — like more funding for science. Cause instead of just hoping against hope that world hunger will go away, wouldn’t it be WAY COOLER if someone would actually invent one of those machines on Star Trek that can make yummy food out of any old carbon source? Throw in some yucky biomass, and get back loaves and fishes! How much more Christian can you get? And since sooner or later someone probably WILL invent such a machine, the Pope could totally get in front of that noise by praying for it first!

Some other stuff with tangible benefits would include praying for someone to figure out how to reverse global warming — that will save hella lives down the road. Maybe better earthquake detection would be cool too. And even on the world peace front… hey, getting rid of dependence on petroleum would be a good start, you know? Then if the Pope were willing to get a little controversial, he might throw in some stem cell research to rid the world of chronic diseases… although I dunno, that one might be over the line. But any of this stuff would probably do more actual good for the world than waiting for a world peace that never comes.

The New York Times has just completed a week-long series on social class in America. A lot of it is pretty obvious — getting a factory job instead of going to college is not the road to security in the future — and generally the whole things shrieks “Give us a Pulitzer cause we are so socially relevant!”, but there are some cool factoids. Like apparently the measure of social class is now in services more than goods, including the services of a full-time stay at home mom — so hiring a babysitter to pick up your kids from school indicates a lower class position than having the mom pick them up herself, which indicates a lower class position than having the mom and a full-time nanny pick them up. Heh.

The most interesting thing about this series for me at least is a little Flash app they cooked up where you can input four variables — occupation, education, income, and wealth — and figure out your own class position! I chose “computer programmer” as my occupation, which apparently puts me in the 65th percentile of classy jobs as measured by an entirely unscientific process — in the lower half the of second quintile of all jobs, below grammar school teachers and “commercial drivers” whatever those are. But if I were to call myself a “computer software engineer” instead, I’d instantly shoot up to the 77th percentile of occuptional prestige. And if I said I was a DBA, apparently I’d be third best out of all occupations, beaten only by those pesky doctors and lawyers! Hand me that MySQL manual, quick!

It’s pretty awesome when the newspaper of record reveals itself to have such a shaky grasp on the concept of class that they seriously use polls of occupational prestige — basically going up to a bunch of average people and asking them to rank a bunch of job titles — to measure it. The entire week-long series barely mentioned actual wealth: its creation, its visible signs, its transmission, its loss. Instead the NYT dwelt on epiphenomena such as the fact that cruises used to be for the wealthy (at some time before living memory) but are now for the middle class. I was sort of looking forward to the series because it is such an underdiscussed topic in the media, but I’ve learned yet again that the media is hardly the place to learn about complex social topics. If this is the best they can do, I’ll take the blogs of the numerous academics who write on this topic any day.