Archive for January, 2008


I never understood the old man
who sat at the end of the diner counter with
a cup of coffee
saying nothing
reading nothing
just “trying to wake up”
until one grey and misty Tuesday I
stopped into a cafe to kill some time
and, feeling overwhelmed by
printed words and my own thoughts,
simply sat
with my coat on
and watched drops slide down
the dewy window.

Photo: foggy street by Mr. Babyman. san francisco, 1999.

No Bringing Beer to the US?

ALL HE WANTED WAS to bring back some sweet Czech beer to share with his friends in the US – but blogger Happy Scrappy was sternly denied and informed by airport workers in Prague that it was a “policy of (his) country” not to allow beer through.

I tried to reason with them, but they weren’t having it. “Policy of your country,” they’d keep saying. My country. My country. And oh, State Department: I was ashamed. Ashamed to be American. Ashamed that here I was, in this foreign land that had been so good and welcoming to me, and yet I cannot be more than a representation our silly, unwelcoming laws. I don’t even know what these laws are for. No beer? Really? What’s a terrorist to do, make the pilot drunk?

Read the rest of his hilariously angry letter to the State Department here.

Where We’re From…

AS SOON AS I HEARD the title I reached to turn up the volume. I was listening to a podcast released by Seattle’s KEXP when the DJ announced that the next song was called “Northwestern Girls,” sung by one-man-band and former Brooklynite Say Hi. It was a beautiful track and, despite a lack of much description of the song’s subject in the lyrics, the simple utterance of the syllables north-west seemed to resonate.

I grooved to the song a bit more than perhaps I would have if it had been named, say, Southwestern Girls, not because of some nostalgic or romantic reason (my fiancee is, in fact, a Midwestern girl) but because of something that is more subtly ingrained in the hearts of statesiders – regionalism.

The US is a big country. We may be tricked into thinking the nation is monocultural because of the homogenizing effects of mass media and nationwide chains, but deep down we feel the differences in texture, in speech, in values and in thoughts. I didn’t really notice this until – duh – I left the Northwest.

At my study abroad program in Korea I was not only thrown into the mix with Koreans, Dutch, Australians and Chinese, but also with Americans hailing from all corners of the country. Even as we acknowledged the vast differences in culture between our nations, we statesiders began to take note of the differences between our home cities.

Kids from the east coast commented on the relaxed manner of those from Southern California, while Northern Californians piled on criticisms of LA. Northwesterners got the dubious reputation of being “granola,” Midwesterners got called out for their flat pronunciation of words like “bag” and “Chicago,” and there was at least one terrible mix-up over slang terms (On the west coast to “kick it” means to hang out, in New Jersey to “kick it” means to have sex).

While this expression of regionalism was more playful than anything else, it was at least partly responsible for the bonding of new friends and even the creation of small cliques – where we were from became the common denominator.

The strange thing is that as soon as we returned home all notions of regionalism seemed to evaporate. Walking the streets of downtown Seattle I felt no immediate sense of connection to the people I passed, nor any inclination to give friendly acknowledgement – despite the fact that we all lived in the same community.

Of course we can’t expect to bond with every person in our home city simply by the virtue of cohabiting a few square miles; yet the idea that we might warmly greet a stranger from our hometown while traveling some foreign road but coldly pass the same person on a normal day warrants some reflection. We are not as disconnected as we think.

Photo: seattle dreams by Slightlynorth.

Endless Stream (of Bad Ideas)

“THE BULLDOZER” IS ALREADY making headway. Not yet fully ushered into office, South Korea’s President-elect Lee Myung-bak is pushing his grand scheme: a canal over 300 miles long that would connect the nation’s two largest cities, spanning the length of the country. The fantastical plan comes with an estimated 16 billion dollar pricetag, and a cultural and environmental cost that is barely foreseeable.

This plan, which many say is lunacy, was apparently a bedrock of Lee’s presidential campaign (I must have missed that amid the scandal talk). It now seems ironic that Lee, Seoul’s former mayor, was largely elected because of his presumed ability to defibrillate the economy.

Lee’s pipe-dream defies logic. For one, he claims that the project – an absolutely massive undertaking – would not draw on public money. (The cost would supposedly be equalled by the sale of gravel and other dredged materials, which seems unrealistic.) Another obvious criticism is that Korea is already surrounded by water, and the port city of Incheon is less than an hour away from Seoul.

Lee says that the canal would stimulate inland economies, but I’m fairly convinced that it would do more to erode them by drastically changing the nature of local commerce. A development boom, as Lee would like to see happen, would also have adverse effects on local ecosystems. An argument for the canal on the part of sustainability is also bunk. Korea is already connected by railways, and since when did motor boats not take fuel?

The question that must be asked here is, simply, why? We could venture a few guesses: a vested interest in the construction industry, who would be perhaps the largest benefactor from such an endeavour? a stab at making the history books? Either way it’s hard to believe that Lee has at heart the best interests of Korea.

Canal Plan Divides Korea (BBC, 2008)
A Grand Dream of pan-Korean Canals (IHT, 2006)

Photo: 청계천 강아지풀, by phploveme. seoul.

Beijing Cuts Bike Theft

RIDING AROUND THE STREETS of Beijing on a rented bicycle is one of my happiest memories. Beyond the charm of the hutong alleyways and the stunning array of sights, I loved the simple ease of coming and going: no helmets, no special gear and no heavy lock to carry around – just a mechanism to keep the back wheel from turning so my ride would still be there when I came out from the teashop.

According to the Guardian, China has made cycling an even more carefree experience by halving nationwide incidents of bike theft:

The country, home to a world record 460 million bicycles, has also cracked thousands of bike theft gangs, police officials told a news conference Web cast at

“We strongly smashed illegal bicycle theft activities and constrained the growth of new cases,” said Ma Weiya, vice-director of the police social security management department. (…)

The government has introduced a system of identification numbers and buyers must register their bikes using their real names as part of efforts to curb widespread theft.

Even as China’s auto industry booms with the availability of low-cost models, this crackdown comes as part of a larger effort to get China’s urban-dwellers back on bikes for the sake of air quality.
Correction: An earlier version of this post suggested that many hotels offer bicycle rentals; after further information gathering it appears the service may not be so widespread. However, Beijing Bicycle Rental Services has rental stations available all over the city – near hotels, subway stations, and business parks (CCTV, TravelMole).

Photo: Beijing Bicycles, by Keith Marshall.

Transported Through Sound: Cornelius

JANUARY OF 2005 WAS A STRANGE time. It was abnormally warm and sunny in Seattle that month, but nevertheless I felt awash in a kind of loneliness. I had just gotten back stateside from South Korea; in stuttered, jetlagged dreams I saw the streets and friends I’d left behind. Moreover, my girlfriend was on the other side of the ocean. I spent a lot of time cruising the streets on my skateboard, kept company by my headphones.

It was in this period that I discovered (rather behind the curve) the work of Cornelius, aka Keigo Oyamada. A Japanese musician who uses a mash up of sampled beats and instrumentals along with his own organic riffs, Cornelius creates waves of sound that are at once lush, enlightening and playful. The first track I heard of his was a beautiful remix of “When I left You,” by the Avalanches; the song took me on a 5 minute and 38 second flight through the most poignant memories of my time in Seoul, and then dropped me through the clouds, leaving me in love.

Most music that we listen to has the ability to connect us to a place and time – usually to where we first listened to it, or to that time when we first really heard it. But Cornelius’ music thrusts you into a nebula of emotions and memories, magically and without effort; Oyamada’s occasional vocals gently reverberate within you, and your thoughts are swept off into the distance.

Cornelius plays in Chicago tonight at the Metro. More info at The Chicago Reader

Photo: translation, by puja. seattle.

The State of Transit, Worldwide

CHICAGOANS RECENTLY WON THE battle against major cuts to their mass transit system – and a good thing, too. Last Thursday I sat on a packed bus running down Division street and saw many anxious faces as an automated announcement informed riders that the bus route they were on, and many others around the city, would cease to exist if funding was rejected.

Yet the Chicago Tribune reports today that the fight, nationwide, is far from over. Officials released a report commissioned by Congress on the state of transit in the US and, unsurprisingly, things look pretty grim. The report calls for massive improvement; among the suggestions are the rebuilding of roads, the freight rail system and urban mass transit, and embarking on new efforts to lessen congestion. The catch? A $225 billion investment annually over the next half-century. Needless to say, tax opponents jumped on the issue.

Wired blogger Alexander Lew explains why ignoring mass transit options will degrade the quality of our cities – from a different approach. Lew says that, contrary to the perception of mass transit as the vehicle of the poor, access to transit actually drives up property values and has the potential to revitalize run-down neighborhoods. (In this vein he also argues, in a positive light, that mass transit has aided the gentrification process. Pick your side of that debate – I won’t do it in this post.)

Meanwhile in Los Angeles there is much talk of turning carpool lanes into toll lanes on 85 miles of three freeways as a way of encouraging citizens to use mass transit. The so-called “congestion pricing” will demand higher tolls when traffic is bad, and may even try to charge drivers more for each person in the car; it’s unclear how such a system would work. Critics say that would essentially punish people for carpooling. I have my own doubts about whether a toll system would make things better, but it’s an idea. (More info on LA mass transit here.)

As I blogged about here earlier, Seattle’s mass transit system is looking up – a trolley system serving the downtown area recently opened, and the light rail between Seatac International Airport and downtown will open in 2009. At the same time, King County Executive Ron Sims criticizes the area’s roads and transit package for its shortcomings, but then is short-sighted himself.

Beijing will run its subway system longer hours during the Olympic games, and may even run it 24 hours during the opening and closing ceremonies. But will they really ban all those cars? If they do, might Bejingers decide that they want to keep those blue skies and dust off their bicycles? We can hope.

And in Seoul, as part of President-elect Lee Myung-bak’s sweeping motions to create a tighter government, it was announced today that Seoul Metro will cut its payroll over 20 percent by 2010. The metro branch runs lines 1-4 of the Seoul subway system. Lee’s nickname, “the bulldozer,” given during his time at the Hyundai corporation, may take on a more negative connotation as his actions come to be viewed as increasingly brash.

Neil Fraser at the City of Johannesburg posts two articles on the walkability of cities written by Washington Post columnist Neal Pierce. Fraser says that in South Africa a pedestrian is struck by a motorist every 78 minutes, and that the nation drastically needs to reevaluate its transit options.

And finally, just for fun, Strange Maps posts a map drawn up by Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928) showing what a “Slumless, Smokeless City” would look like.

Photo: metro woman, by Extra Medium. tokyo.

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