economy, 'technology', public space, San Francisco past and present, class, books

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I’ve been reading Robin Shulman’s entertaining book “Eat the City” about the history and practice of growing food in New York City. I’ll be appearing with her in discussion at SPUR on September 13, so they kindly sent me a review copy. She opens the book with a long chapter about honey and beekeeping in New York, following a guy who has built a business out of maintaining various hives, collecting swarms when they appear, and generally being a successful entrepreneur while cultivating his rugged individualist curmudgeonliness. Shulman’s prose is a pleasure to read, she wastes no words while spinning beautiful and charming stories.

San Francisco's Alemany Farm adjacent to Interstate 280.

Food continues to be the main way in for a lot of folks to a practical transformation in the here-and-now. They can change their eating habits, they get involved in gardening or shopping with local farmers at a farmers market, or gleaning and foraging for wild herbs and fruits in their city neighborhoods. (An inspiring example I came upon recently is the Peterson Garden Project in Chicago.) It’s also an escape of sorts, a way to carry on working at pernicious jobs for high-tech companies or biotech companies while establishing a self-righteousness derived from “at least” doing your best to eat well and support artisanal production (this is the basic goal of the Slow Food movement, at least in the U.S.—in Italy where it started it has deeper roots in working class and traditional proletarian farming communities). My pal Rebecca Solnit writes about the dual nature of the current renaissance in urban agriculture in “Revolutionary Plots” in the latest Orion magazine, highlighting other mutual friends at the Alemany Farm while also decrying the easy withdrawal it provides to the affluent foodies that are sustaining the gentrifying restaurant boom in our neighborhood. Meanwhile Brazilian friends are busy with a series of projects, including urban horticulture and seed exchange picnics and a “have less, live more” festival.

Bernard Marszalek, in a recent Counterpunch posting (condolences to all on the passing of Alexander Cockburn, a friend who I hadn’t known well but always enjoyed in spite or because of his orneriness) addresses the oft-invoked model of the multinational cooperative Mondragon, a Spanish-based corporation that encompasses dozens of enterprises all owned and run by the workers themselves. Naturally a lot of people look to Mondragon as a hopeful model of another way to live and work in the world as we know it:

The statistics of Mondragon’s success ($17bn. sales in 2011), number of employees (83,569) and international expansion (94 subsidiaries in 17 countries), means that Mondragon must navigate global trade, which generates 70 percent of its income, with a keen awareness of the opportunities to make profitable investments, not unlike a traditional corporation. The savvy managers of this vast economic conglomerate put to shame the corrupt corporate CEOs, worldwide, who create wealth by controlling politicians and manipulating financial markets.

We have come to expect corporate malfeasance, however, when we come across a corporation abiding by a higher standard, we need to temper our enthusiasm and sharpen our critical faculties. MC abides by outstanding principles regarding the dignity of work and the betterment of their community, but when the corporation enters the arena of international trade, these ethical premises are challenged by the bottom-line mentality. This conundrum cannot be ignored. Every worker cooperative must deal with the marketplace and its diktats and limit, to the best of its ability, their corrosive effects on daily operations. Mondragon, since it contends with these issues on such an immense scale, attempts to balance the real world’s ethical comprises with their internal values with increasing difficulty. Its overseas investments, for instance, are motivated solely by financial concerns; they do not invest to create cooperatives with the 15,000 workers they employee in other countries.

Taking a much longer look, 300 years in the future, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel 2312 posits that “the Mondragon” is an interplanetary political force based on mutual aid and solidarity, one that has grown to the point of being the biggest, most coherent political ideology in the galaxy! Imagine that! More »

Bicicrítica in Madrid

Everyone was super friendly... lots of waving!

Madrileños, probably almost 3,000-strong, take to the streets on the last Thursday of every month for their Bicicrítica, or Critical Mass... it was wonderful!

Got to ride in Madrid’s Bicicrítica last night, a long luxurious ride all over town. It was very familiar of course, as Critical Mass rides are from place to place. Lots of “types” that I know from San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere… But here in Madrid they did two things that I haven’t seen for a while, or ever before: 1) they stopped a helluva lot to keep the mass tight. The most surprising part of this was the regular stopping for pedestrians to flow across the street, even when it divided the ride a bit and left it open to infiltration by cars. Mostly it didn’t happen, although I did see two different cars sneak across the ride in clever ways, one by weaving behind one of the small breaks quickly, and another by having the passenger get out and convince a bunch of cyclists to let the car that his wife was driving through. I don’t know what he told people, but it worked. They let that car through, and none others, in the Plaza de Bilbao. One time we waited at the front of the ride for a good 10 minutes at a crosswalk and every time a pedestrian, or a few, would cross, everyone would burst into wild applause. It was hilarious!

Applauding pedestrians in Madrid!

The other thing I hadn’t seen before was not just a bike lift, but a full-on bike wave. From the very front of the ride, everyone at a pause would squat down low and then at a certain moment the front would rise up with bikes in air, followed by the next group and next one and so on, just like a “wave” in a stadium…. it was quite fun! Here’s a video:

La Ola Madrileño

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Touring the Tidy World of Scandinavia

The sun stays up a lot later in Scandinavia... this is Stockholm around 11 pm on June 20.

Just finished 17 days of family travel in Denmark and Sweden, visiting the prominent locales of my mother’s youth around Copenhagen, my father’s family in rural western Sweden, and a long list of castles, museums, gardens, and restaurants. We ate ridiculously well and spent many nights in fine hotels, all thanks to the generosity of my dad, who decided to throw caution to the wind and make this trip a memorable blow-out. Adriana and I, my parents, and Francesca managed to share a small-ish station wagon and two hotel rooms in various configurations during these two weeks and it went about as well as any of us could have hoped. That said, it was also occasionally claustrophobic, and everyone spent at least a day being rather irritable and grouchy. Still and all, we did quite well!

My mom grew up in the building behind, top floor just to the left of the yellow awning...this is in Klampenborg, Denmark.

A quick tour on day in Copenhagen on their free public bike.

I took hundreds of photos along the way, and realized as I was going that I wasn’t going to be able to blog daily, partly because when we got to the end of each day I was always pretty tired (jet-lag is a bitch, and driving most of the way also took its toll). Also, we had such a crazily intense push to finish “Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20” before we left that I was quite spent and just needed to be on vacation. So here instead is a long entry full of photos and captions to capture some of the experiences I had along the way.

It is endlessly satisfying to arrive in Copenhagen to the seas of bicycles everywhere! Here are countless bikes parked outside the main train station.

Routine bike traffic on Norrebrogade.

I was reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel “2312”, all 561 pages of it, during these days and it was somehow quite a good complement to the tidy landscapes, the endlessly satisfying design that shapes everything about life in Scandinavia, from bathrooms to bike lanes to museums and public squares. Robinson’s book, titled with the date 200 years in the future, is broken into many short chapters, some of which are lists and fragments and excerpts from ‘future histories’—I liked them as much as the actual story (itself divided into multiple threads). One short side chapter was on a future historian’s analysis of the epochs that start more or less now, and reach to the period two centuries later when she was writing. I thought labeling the period we’re in now, starting more or less at the dawn of the 21st century and carrying on until about 2060 as “The Dithering” was probably spot-on, though a bit discouraging too, realizing that if accurate, I’m only going to see things keep deteriorating over the years I have left… of course another great concept in Robinson’s book is that longevity has been greatly extended, so characters are living between 130-200 years pretty routinely, all taking various hormonal and other therapies to arrest the aging process. Turns out in his future that bisexuality and balanced gender hormonal complexes are key to life extension. He does a pretty interesting job of creating characters outside of the usual boring gender binaries that dominate science fiction, and puts these newly complex possibilities into a larger scientific revolution of life extension.

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