Perfect purpose

July 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm | In yulelogStories | 1 Comment

Seems I’ve been too buried in my house project to get a weekly links post together this Sunday. Instead, I’ll just point to an article on my old hometown’s newspaper site: B.C. teens, twenty-somethings turn to Botox for forever 21 look. It made me wonder about a bunch of things.

According to the article, more and more very young British Columbia women are getting Botox treatments. They have no wrinkles, and their use of the procedure is mostly prophylactic – to ward off the wrinkles that may appear decades from now. (Botox’s use as an aid in the fight against acne is mentioned, although I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work, exactly, unless facial mobility contributes to zits. Maybe someone can enlighten me here? Edit: the google to the rescue, first result for “can botox prevent acne” is “may also prevent breakouts by decreasing skin’s oil production.” Note: “may” – and besides, does oil production cause acne? Didn’t think so…)

Anyway, I was really struck by this:

For some, plunging a Botox-filled syringe into a young woman’s skin poses more emotional risk than physical, and speaks to an insidious undercurrent of superficiality coursing through west coast culture [emphasis added].

“At age 13, what is it preventive of?” asked Dr. Gayle Way, a Vancouver-based psychologist. “The big fear is that, ‘oh my gosh, I’m going to turn 30.’ Is it happening more in B.C. because we’re kind of the California of Canada? Could be.”

The part about an insidious undercurrent of superficiality coursing through west coast culture struck me.

Some things I noticed in my ten years here:

My former Victoria dentist has a thriving business administering Botox and fillers. Booming industry.

If you have misaligned teeth in BC, chances are you’re not just going to get braces. You’ll instead get your jaw broken (and reset) to produce an ideal, perfect result. (Your dentist or orthodontist might suggest it even if your teeth aren’t misaligned at all. You may have a “shy” chin, prompting him or her to suggest a radical intervention.)

Victoria friends told me of their daughters or their daughter’s friends who were getting their breasts augmented, apparently a fairly common procedure among the BC teenage set.

I find this fascinating, if totally creepy: imagine the weeks of anticipation leading up the operations, the shock to the nervous system of full anesthesia, the potential of risks, the inevitable pain, the healing, the possible complications…

All this, done for perfecting beauty…

I live in New England now, and can’t help but think that people here don’t hold with that kind of folderol. Maybe it really is more of a West Coast thing?

But is the pursuit of perfection all bad? Perhaps not (although surgeries and Botox are pretty far out there, imo – and, sure, ymmv). For another angle, consider other aspects of life where West Coasters excel at pursuing perfection, …while New Englanders lag behind, it seems mostly because they couldn’t care less.

Take food. Sometime in 2007, Tourism Victoria (motto: “Victoria – full of life”) came up with an ad campaign that touted the city’s “orgasmic” culinary delights. (The links have all but disappeared; however, see this post on Vibrant Victoria to read part of Shannon Moneo’s article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail about the branding campaign.)

I challenge New England cities to promote themselves as having an orgasmic food scene. Not gonna happen. In a land where Dunkin’ Donuts (in Canada, think Tim Horton’s) still dominates coffee culture and where Starbucks is considered by (too) many to be “fancy” coffee, the artisan, hand-made approach to what you put in your mouth is mostly alien. “Handmade” – or rather: homegrown – might come up as a traditional staple in the summer months, when going to a farm or downtown farmer’s market to buy either berries, corn, cider, or – rarely – baked goods, amounts to contact with artisanal food production. But it doesn’t seem to survive past the harvest. Once the cold weather returns, you get in your car and drive to the supermarket.

Not so in orgasmic Victoria, or in Vancouver – or in Portland Oregon, another city I know reasonably well. Perfection is sought around food – whether it’s the best damn pie in the universe, or amazing coffee, or quirky, fabulous restaurants, or “how I wish we had them here because they’re not your average soulless chain and have great stuff and super-friendly staff” supermarkets.

The people who work in these stores and restaurants seem ok with their jobs – most of them will tell you that they’re really artists or creatives who are just doing “this” to pay the rent. But they’re happy to be doing this, because they know that they’re part of something with a purpose. I can’t say I’ve seen too much of that back in New England, where there doesn’t seem to be a purpose to creating the perfect cup of coffee or the perfect fresh handmade pie or the perfectly stocked market with drool-worthy delis and well-informed, helpful staff.

I guess the article raised at least two questions for me. What are you going to perfect? (Yourself? The local economy? An aspect of the culture?) And what’s the relationship between perfection and superficiality? (That taunting sentence, about the “insidious undercurrent of superficiality coursing through west coast culture”…)

It’s true that (for the most part) New Englanders don’t seem to know from foodie culture – and don’t bloody care, either. I won’t go into detail about the drabness of the small local supermarkets, which don’t seem to bother keeping up, or the blandness of the large chain supermarkets, which don’t seem to care and where staff is mostly indifferent. A culture where Kielbasa is considered ethnic and a jar of Mama Mia tomato sauce is considered home cooking. But New Englanders are genuinely much nicer than West Coasters (who are surface-nice). The West Coast does seem superficial, compared to New England.

Maybe a search for perfection is a race, and a bit of a hallmark of people who can be indifferent to other, less-worthy seekers. But injecting a bit of purpose-driven perfection-seeking (especially around foodie culture and artisan entrepreneurship) might not be a bad thing. As long as the injection isn’t delivered via a needle…

Image from Random Order’s website of their perfect pie.


The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

July 22, 2012 at 5:30 pm | In links | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)
  • Rethinking food shopping:
    In most places today, at least in many Western countries, shopping is a chore; our food system has stopped being about food, and has become entirely about convenience. Food spoils, meaning that we used to have to shop at markets every few days; freezers and preservatives have freed us from those constraints, but in the process food has become disconnected from the natural cycle of daily life–and, thus, the communities of people that we shared our markets with. “There’s a lot of talk about food deserts today, but what many neighborhoods really have are place deserts,” says PPS’s Steve Davies. “As a result, we’re seeing a movement back to this idea of the Market City, with markets acting as catalysts for creating centers in neighborhoods that have lost their sense of place.”

    tags: markets food_security farmers_markets project_for_public_spaces communities

  • Even if big agri-business was perfect (and of course it isn’t), this is such a great use of space and well worth replicating:
    Rising energy costs and concerns about food security have led some Canadian entrepreneurs to reconsider and reimagine local farms. Farmland has long since been paved over, but there’s plenty of space for rooftop greenhouses.

    Lufa Farms is on the verge of an urban greenhouse-building spree. It proved its concept in Montreal, breaking even on operations earlier this year, and is negotiating Series A financing to build at least four more multi-crop facilities in Canada and the U.S.

    Being successful in cold Montreal, the “most hostile” environment for a greenhouse, proves that the model will be sustainable closer to the equator, said co-founder Kurt Lynn. The tricky part is turning a profit by scaling a “farm” to the right size and carefully managing energy efficiency.

    tags: lufa_farms greenhouses montreal farming smartplanet

  • Bang on.
    Oddly, most economists see their subject as divorced from morality. They liken themselves to physicists, who teach how atoms do behave, not how they should behave. But physicists do not teach to atoms, and atoms do not have free will. If they did, physicists would and should be concerned about how the atoms being instructed could change their behavior and affect the universe. Experimental evidence suggests that the teaching of economics does have an effect on students’ behavior: It makes them more selfish and less concerned about the common good.

    tags: bloomberg luigi_zingales economics business b_schools ethics morality

  • Great speech.
    Very few problems can be solved by the private sector alone. Those of you who will engage in private or non-NGO careers to effect needed change will leverage that change many times over if effective government is your partner. It is simply too important to leave it entirely to others.

    The task is immense. Public sector work needs to generate pride again, as it once had. Public sector rewards must increase, including financial rewards. Why are teachers paid so relatively little in the U.S.? Because while our rhetoric respects teachers, our values do not match.

    And for those of you who do go into politics, go with your eyes open but your values firm. For today—in most countries, certainly in the U.S.—it is ugly. There is too much preening to the rich and often ignorant, narrow-minded and prejudiced, while there are few rewards for dedication to the dispossessed who for at least some are still unlikely even to vote, let alone contribute to your campaign.

    Public governance needs your extraordinary talent, reach, ambition and problem-solving skills. Much of what you do will be frustrating. But if you stick to it, while preserving your values, the personal satisfaction and pride you will have will surely compensate for the pain and slog getting there.

    Just as young people were animated by the Civil Rights movements in the 60s, perhaps your generation can animate a movement to make government trusted and respected again.

    tags: elliot_gerson usa politics socialjustice aspen_institute

  • Why really dense crowds are dangerous (physics, my dear Watson, physics…):
    …21 people died at Love Parade inside a crowd that had essentially been standing still. There was no real crowd rush or dramatic “stampede.” And this is the heart of the mystery to non-scientists as to how such a thing could happen.

    “Why do people think it’s panic that causes crowd disasters?” Helbing asks. “They just cannot understand how it can happen that people can die although nobody is behaving in a ruthless way.”

    Traditionally, we’ve explained such disasters as resulting from the forces of a panicked crowd (or, worse, an angry or violent one). “But these are just the forces that are transferred from one body to the other,” Helbing says.

    tags: crowds density socialtheory atlantic_cities

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Plans for Salem’s Harbor Power Station: Realpolitik or Missed Opportunity?

July 9, 2012 at 7:54 pm | In cities, green, health, innovation, jane_jacobs, land_use, leadership, NIMBYism, politics, power_grid, real_estate, resources, silo_think | Comments Off on Plans for Salem’s Harbor Power Station: Realpolitik or Missed Opportunity?

Last year, when I was still in Victoria BC but considering a move back to Boston’s North Shore, I read about the impending closure of the Salem Harbor Power Station and immediately thought,”Wow, what a fantastic redevelopment opportunity!” Suffice to say that my optimism may have been premature.

Bedeviled by a Dirtball

The Salem Harbor Power Station is one of the region’s dirtiest coal- and oil-burning power generators. For six decades, the plant has occupied sixty-two acres of prime waterfront real estate, cutting residents off from all other historically and economically significant maritime uses on shore. Its hulking facility, topped by two smokestacks that pierce the skyline, has visually dominated the coastline not only for its Salem neighbors, but also for folks in Beverly and Marblehead.

(Photo, above, from Dominion’s website)

Zombie Infrastructure

And it has spewed tons of pollutants into the air. As the Denver Post put it in an article about these many long-in-the-tooth dirty power plants, “Utilities dragged feet”:

These plants have been allowed to run for decades without modern pollution controls because it was thought that they were on the verge of being shuttered by the utilities that own them. But that didn’t happen.

Indeed. The Salem station was one of those zombie economy necessities that refused to die: a lot of people shrugged and accepted it as an unavoidable evil that had to be borne. After all, the region is famous for being bedeviled, right? The struggle to force either a clean-up or a closure of the Salem station was epic – but now it’s finally happening.

Or is it?

There’s a dearth of information about how the situation went from “the plant is closing” = “really new opportunities” to “the plant is dead” = “long live the plant,” but some weeks ago, the latter option grew in strength when the station’s current owner, Dominion, began negotiations to sell the property as-is to New Jersey-based startup Footprint Power. The latter wants to operate a natural gas-burning power plant at the site. Admittedly, natural gas burns cleaner than coal or oil – but wait! There have been hints that the backup fuel could be …diesel oil. Because, you know, depending on the markets, natural gas might become too expensive and we’d have to go back to something a little dirtier.

It seems zombies are hard to kill dead.

Why has there been no recent public input on the plans?

On June 26, Andrea Fox of Green Drinks of Greater Salem moderated a discussion of current plans for the station. The three presenters – Healthlink‘s Jane Bright, State Rep. Lori Ehrlich, and attorney Jan Schlichtmann (whose work has often focused on environmental issues) – questioned the plans now on offer. Schlichtmann in particular pointed out that, while there was a surge of interest initially in what would happen to the site, the recent negotiations between Dominion, Footprint, and Massachusetts politicians have effectively put a kibosh on any further public input. The Green Drinks discussion was essentially meant to breathe some life into the conversation. It seems that as soon as the corporation(s) decided on a course of action, the people rolled over and went quiet.

The lone voice speaking in favor of Footprint Power’s plan was Shelley Alpern, a Salem resident and member of SAFE – the Salem Alliance for the Environment (but she made it clear that she wasn’t speaking on SAFE’s behalf). Alpern’s cred as an environmentalist goes way back, so it was surprising to hear her question the vision for a sustainable redeveloped waterfront site and instead pleading Footprint’s case.

The arguments at Green Drinks revolved around the following:

  • how much will it really cost to clean up the brownfield site? Some put the price tag at $75m, others argue that this number is inflated and meant to scare people into accepting Footprint’s option, lest the alternative be “the padlock” (meaning the site just gets shuttered and turns into a decaying eyesore versus a toxic waste spewing eyesore). See also Speaking alternatives to power
  • is the lifecycle of natural gas really that much better than coal or oil? Sure, it’s cleaner (somewhat) and currently cheaper (somewhat), but no one knows how the markets are going to shape prices in the future, near or far. And what about the externalities and costs consumer don’t directly see when the natural gas is extracted, such as the enormous environmental cost of fracking? What about the dangers of putting pipelines, which will inevitably break down and leak, through watershed areas? There are already pipelines running from Nova Scotia in Canada, through Beverly, and into Salem. What’s their “lifecycle”?
  • will Footprint Power keep its promises? Some stakeholders have been told by Footprint that a natural gas-burning plant might need to use diesel fuel as a back-up; some were told that the existing plant might have to stay on for some time (vs being dismantled). Other stakeholders have heard no such thing when they sat down with Footprint – but we’re dealing with corporations, and with energy corporations, to boot …not exactly always the white-hat guys.
  • what of the missed opportunities to develop something truly amazing?

That last point – missing opportunities because vision is lacking – strikes me as the most compelling. Rep. Ehrlich made the case in a Marblehead Reporter op-ed on May 14, 2012, Vision still lacking at Salem power-plant site (also available on her website, here). The column sparked a flaming letter-to-the-editor in response, Get over the aesthetics; think clean energy, whose author compared opposition to off-shore (and backyard) wind turbines to a kind of la-la-land NIMBYism that wants a “pretty” picture without facing the inescapable reality of our energy needs. His point was that Ehrlich and those who think like her are in la-la-land because we pussy-foot around the fact that we still need to get our energy from somewhere, while he is a realist who understands that Footprint’s proposal is the region’s best bet.

I think it’s a false choice.

Macro / Micro

Consider for a moment perspective. What the critics, especially Ehrlich and Schlichtmann, have is a fine-grained, close-view perspective. It reminds me of Jane Jacobs‘s analysis of neighborhoods at the street level. She looked at the details and decoded what she termed a street ballet, understanding that how people use a thing (a street) – and how they are able to use it – determines the whole, irrespective of how much planning-from-above tries to predict outcomes. This was pretty much in opposition (at the time) to the thinking of professional planners, who believed that streets must be rationally planned (preferably according to the needs of the automobile) and that buildings, placed according to mostly “ideal” reasons, would determine uses. If Jacobs had a micro view, the planners of the day had the macro view.

It strikes me as ironic that the micro-view is actually the Big Picture “vision” view, and that the macro approach, which tries to account for a larger perspective, has a blind spot about the “users” or people on the ground. The Realpolitik view defaults to the macro – and I count Alpern’s approach here. Expert knowledge about hydro-fracking regulations in Bulgaria and Pennsylvania is good to have, but it’s not enough to impel local people to act differently. Local inertia is a strong force, and if you build another power plant, you will have another power plant. For another sixty years. But if you give the people who actually want change the power to control their destinies, they can move the rest of us out of our inertia. That’s the claim mocked by the letter writer who thinks a power plant alternative is la-la-land thinking – but what is the alternative? Another planned-from-above mega-project that repeats many of the same patterns established by the old project?

Deep waters, old uses

Schlichtmann made the truly relevant point that Salem’s history was built on maritime industry. The current site of the Salem Harbor Power Station is Salem’s only deep-water port – what passes for the city’s tourist harbor is a shallow pond, incapable of harboring bigger vessels. The original coal-burning plant was built on that prime spot because of the deep harbor, which allowed ships to offload coal. It’s an incredibly shortsighted move willfully to dismiss an opportunity to reclaim that harbor for what it represents (Salem’s fantastic seafaring history). All around the industrialized world, cities are reclaiming waterfront that was savaged by mono-uses (waterfront freeways, power plants, factories, etc.), and reintegrating them into a more sustainable urban fabric. Why should Salem shut itself out from that renaissance?

Well, because we need energy. But consider this: ISO New England has said that there’s no longer any need for a power plant in Salem. As Ehrlich noted in her column, “The old plant is barely running, and ISO, the region’s reliability-cautious grid operator, said that power production on that site is no longer needed. Why such an enormous plant?”

More references

For more images of the Salem Harbor Power Station, see Healthlink‘s photostream, here.

For an informative PDF, see Repurposed Coal Plant Sites Empower and Revive Communities.

Sierra Club, Victory! Salem Coal Plant Announces Closing.

ArchBOSTON forum discussion (brief) here.

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

July 1, 2012 at 10:40 pm | In links | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)
  • So true:
    I have long maintained that creating policy around emissions gets the problem backward, by focusing on what comes out of the tailpipe instead of what goes into the engine. We should be incentivizing solutions, not penalizing emissions, because carrots harness human desire and ingenuity, while sticks merely arouse resistance. Further, it makes no sense to simply clamp down on fossil-fuel emissions without replacing the displaced energy. This is why I have advocated a feed-in tariff as the best policy approach, over alternatives like cap-and-trade.

    Now that some 50,000 people have flown home in disgust (generating an estimated 300 tons of CO2 in the process) after the Rio summit, perhaps we can put an end to this futile search to get a world of 6.8 billion people to agree on a single target. Perhaps we can finally start focusing our attentions on solutions that work, right now, at home.

    tags: environment green chris_nelder smartplanet energy conservation

  • Makes sense:
    The research suggests that a more substantial network of slower, narrower streets would benefit areas with high concentrations of older adults. And though this would mean more intersections – shown in the report to slightly increase the amount of crashes – the safety improvement would “greatly outweigh” any disadvantages, according to the authors.

    It’s expected that nearly 50 million people will be aged 75 or older in the U.S. by mid-century. Urban designers may want to start un-designing strip malls, big boxes and super fast streets now before the crush. The reduction of these types of urban design elements may help to prevent the premature death of seniors, today and in the future.

    tags: atlantic_cities pedestrians stripmalls malls infrastructure seniors safety traffic_safety

  • This is really inspiring. I can think of a community (mine!) where I’d love to see something like this happen…
    In 2011, [Iso Rabins] started making plans to open the Forage Kitchen, an all-in-one space for food entrepreneurs—in effect, the first coworking space for food.

    Like the Underground Market, the Forage Kitchen will be an incubator for small businesses—a place where entrepreneurs can produce their products legally and affordably, get advice and support from other business owners, and find new markets for their goods.

    tags: iso_rabins forage foodies entrepreneurship incubator food startups

  • Amy Hoy excerpted passages from “Henry Ford: My Life and Work” – must read. So much of what Ford says could be applied directly to startup and VC “culture,” but I also found this statement about the nature of money so wise:
    Money is not worth a particular amount. As money it is not worth anything, for it will do nothing of itself. The only use of money is to buy tools to work with or the product of tools. Therefore money is worth what it will help you to produce or buy and no more.

    tags: henry_ford amy_hoy money finance startups capital

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