Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Tracking the conscious carnivore’s worst enemy

In Thoughts on January 26, 2011 at 2:35 pm

One of the worst things about traveling is the food. Not once you’ve reached your destination—once you’re there, your friend takes you to a tapas place and orders a small plate of what he calls “Meat Candy.” Or  you happily discover a market that offers all things local, including a breakfast pizza topped with a sunny-side-up egg.

But while en route, it’s another story. Airport food is atrociously overpriced, especially for anything “healthy,” and fast-food makes up 99% of the offerings along our country’s interstates. Since I began eating only meat that’s been sourced appropriately (i.e. from small family farms that ensure humane treatment), fast food and most airport fare have been off the table. And I’ve never felt better. But a road trip is a conscious carnivore’s worst enemy. The only relief from the glow of the Golden Arches and hybrid KFC/Taco Bells are the occasional mom-and-pop sit-down restaurants—Uncle Mac’s, Kountry Kafe, Roadside Inn. Which might be local, but sure aren’t health-oriented or conscious of where their meat comes from.

So on a recent drive, tracing our way from Chicago to Kansas City, I was thinking about our limited options and mourning the loss of all the legitimately good restaurants we were passing by at 76 mph. Maybe there weren’t many, but there had to be a few, even along this route through the Midwest. And it struck me that both of us were missing out: we had to suffer shitty, mass-produced, cholesterol bombs and they had to suffer pathetically low customer traffic, since fast-food  crowded them out of the roadtrip market a long time ago.

If only there were a Yelp for highways. A site where instead of a zipcode or city, you put in an interstate number, or a Point A and Point B. And it would bring up all the great restaurants there were from Chicago to Kansas City. Hours, menus, reviews. All the fixin’s.

I didn’t mention my idea until our final day in Kansas City, brunching at Blue Bird Bistro, a spacious, gorgeously decorated, corner eatery in Westside, not two blocks from our friend Derek’s house. Over spinach omelettes and blueberry pancakes and “really good bacon,” with the 8 hours back to Chicago on my mind, I briefly laid out my idea. A Yelp for the road. Derek said, Go look at the story by the door. I tried to explain further. Go look at it, he said. I did. It was a story about a couple who wrote a book called Healthy Highways, which is also now a website. It’s a catalog of healthy, locally owned restaurants along major travel routes all across the country. The latest edition has more than 2,800 entries. Blue Bird Bistro was featured, since it’s right off the 670/35 interchange, hence the newspaper story framed on their wall.

My idea had been taken. But I was happy to have a resource. So I went to, only to find that it’s a jumbled mess. Not at all a functional, search-and-ye-shall-find Yelp equivalent. This was a cluttered promo site: ONLY $1. SHIPPING. No Matter How Many Books You Order. (US ONLY. BOOKS ONLY). Plus Discount Prices. Everything was highlighted in highlighter yellow. It felt like browsing through an infomercial. Not a single tab was a Search function.

The authors wanted you to buy their book. Well, that’s fine. But with about 6 months in between road trips (I’ll assume that’s fairly accurate for the average American young person working full-time), you’re only getting a few trips in before the book’s out of date. Four at most. And how can Nikki and David Goldbeck know about every healthy roadside place anyway? If a site was built, foodies could create pages when they heard about a new place opening up. Even better, if it was built from the official Yelp platform, existing restaurant pages could be duplicated, even just tagged as “Highway Proximal” so that it appears on the “Roadtrip” page, which could next to the “Events” tab (they’ve even left room!).

Just when I think I’m still on to something, a search turns up Looks like what I was hoping for. Well designed. Prominent search function. No highlighter.

It may not turn up anything in Hannibal, MO (which may or may not mean anything), but it does find Canteen Lunch in the Alley, in Ottumwa, IA. Anyone heading through Iowa on 34 or 63 should check that out.

“Many Mansions”

In Excerpts on January 21, 2011 at 10:43 am

Joan Didion has a knack for hearing the unspoken. A knack that has less to do with listening and more with living. Being around. Being out, and being in at the right times. Usually such people aren’t particularly skilled at this; it’s simply how life operates for them. It comes naturally, and this naturalness only enhances it. Bends life even tighter around them.

The essay “Many Mansions,” from The White Album, is a great study of our contemporary built environment, seen through the lens of a single residence: the home built for California governors by Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 1975. It was never finished; Jerry Brown refused to live in it when he took office.

Here are a few of Didion’s thoughts, each a testament to her ear for the built environment’s quiet subtexts and her keen synthesis of them.

“‘Flow’ is a word that crops up quite a bit when one is walking through the place, and so is ‘resemble.’ The walls ‘resemble’ local adobe, but they are not: they are the same concrete blocks, plastered and painted a rather stale yellowed cream, used in so many supermarkets and housing projects and Coca-Cola bottling plants. The door frames and the exposed beams ‘resemble’ native redwood, but they are not: they are construction-grade lumber of indeterminate quality, stained brown.”

She continues, cutting the meaning of the house open, a metaphysical cross-section:

“The place has been called…a ‘Taj Mahal.’ It has been called a ‘white elephant,’ a ‘resort,’ a ‘monument to the colossal ego of our former governor.’ It is not exactly any of these things. It is simply and rather astonishingly an enlarged version of a very common kind of California tract house, a monument not to a colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego, a case study in the architecture of limited possibilities…flattened out, mediocre and ‘open’ and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn. It is the architecture of ‘background music,’ decorators, ‘good taste.'”

The “architecture of background music.” What a great description for the ubiquitous non-places we encounter every day. If you want to read the whole thing, it’s only a few pages long; full text here.

Better superhighways

In Excerpts on January 19, 2011 at 11:58 am

London has succeeded in upping bike traffic by 70 percent:

“The city of London just announced that bike traffic is up 70% on two major thoroughfares in London proper and they are crediting it all to the opening of two bike superhighways last July. … The two open superhighways are just the beginning — 10 more will be installed in the coming years.”

When Chicago was asking its own residents for ideas on how to do the same, my suggestion was something like what London is doing.

Optimally, costs aside, I’d love raised bike trails, similar to but more extensive than the El tracks, to get bikers off the road altogether.


On myth, tourism, and ancient land patterns

In Thoughts on January 13, 2011 at 10:23 pm


Honolulu is a place that once experienced as a kama’aina—a local—somehow becomes shallower. Most places, especially cities, seep into your blood as you get to know them, infusing your DNA with their urban genetic code, but Honolulu serves mostly as the central construct of a Hawaiian myth, not one native to the islands, but written and passed down by the Bureau of Tourism.

If you visit O’ahu today, much of the splendor of the 20th century has been
co-opted by the maintenance of a cheap, glamorous facade. In Waikiki especially, the idea of a “beautiful island vacation” is built like a card house: the paper-thin layers of the hotels, restaurants (more kitsch than hand-crafted care), and beaches do little to hide the voids between, which are filled with chess-playing homeless, angry and increasingly addicted native Hawaiians, petty politics, and a near-total dearth of modernized infrastructure or contemporary culture.

It is a city that feels timeless. Not in the way jewelers want you to believe diamonds are timeless, but in the sense that it is unaware of time, and therefore unaware of any other place in time. It is not on the level of any other American cities, which vie to be cleanest, or greenest, or most innovative. It gives the impression it is always 20 years behind while also implying that things will never change at all—not in 20 years, or 50. I expect Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki’s main strip, will look mostly the same in 10 years and again in 10 more. The Hawaiian myth will continue to be told, planted in the minds of new generations, who will hold Honolulu as some idol in the not-too-distant future, someday attainable.


Honolulu’s sprawling built environment consists of 30-year-old high- and mid-rises and the light, airy, single-family homes of any other warm-weather isle. The city is contained within the avenue created by the mountains (mauka) and the ocean (makai). Its streets have been described as a bowl of spaghetti, plopped onto the city’s plate; there was little, if any, urban planning during the height of Hawaii’s boom, around the time Elvis made it famous and stayed in Kauai’s now abandoned Coco Palms. (To see the shell of this resort today, shuttered, falling apart, a relic of another time is fascinating—much could be written about it.)

It was a new resort that had gotten me thinking about Hawaii’s built environment a while back. I was editing a story about a developer planning a new resort on the Big Island (the one that is Hawaii). The story mentioned an old practice that early tribes used to distribute land. Because it was beneficial to have access to both mountain regions and the ocean, land was divided into long, narrow strips called ahupua’a. For the resort, the architects borrowed this idea, designing the space so that each guest had a view of the mountains and access to the beach. I don’t know whether to call that borrowing or bastardization—or simply today’s norm: taking ancient, often sacred practices that preserved the natural environment and ensured equitable treatment of all people and using them as “design elements” of an exclusive getaway for the hyper-rich.

As we were flying back to the mainland a few weeks ago, I noticed that Honolulu has retained an echo of the long-vanished ahupua’a. Responding to the topography, just as early tribes did, neighborhoods stretch into the foothills, like fingers from the palm of the city. They rise up the ridges, narrowing to points and cutting off abruptly as the slope becomes too steep. In this way, the city reaches from makai to mauka in long strips much like the ahupua’a, divided by the valleys, which remain undeveloped. Seen from the air (as in the top photo), it is as if white tentacles of built environment stretch toward the center of the island while green claws reach down toward the sea. Seen at night, the valleys disappear into the night, and the houses appear to float on invisible slopes.


Across the island from Honolulu and Waikiki is the North Shore, a haven for native flora, fauna, and unspoiled vistas, populated by locals and transplants, hippies most of them, surfers all. It’s a must-see for tourists, but there aren’t hotels, so it’s the quintessential Hawaiian day-trip: set out early from a Waikiki car-rental, get to Hale’iwa (North Shore’s only real town) by mid-morning, hit Waimea by noon, and wind your way back to Honolulu in time for happy hour.

The reason people have to leave early is because there’s only one road to North Shore, an old two-lane that circles the entire island. By mid-morning it slows to a crawl. The obvious, or increasingly “logical” solution would be to build a bigger highway, perhaps a four-lane freeway that skirts Hale’iwa and takes a more direct route to the tourist hot spots: Exit 49 Hale’iwa, Exit 51A Turtle Beach, Exit 51B Waimea. As it is now there are no exits because the road goes to everything, one stop at a time.

But this is actually a great example of how old infrastructure naturally limits use and therefore helps preserve treasured areas. Aside from the immediate, localized destruction it would cause, a highway would also suddenly make North Shore that much more accessible. Beaches would become more crowded, overrun with tourists; Hale’iwa would be inundated with throngs of pedestrians (whose cars would fill the few parking spots in minutes); and the hubbub of the city would inch ever closer.

There’s much more to say about Hawaii, even just this last time spent there. The coincidence of—on this particular trip—finally reading Joan Didion, who we discovered spent much of her time at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, just down the street from where we stay when we’re in Waikiki. Or the sheer size and ‘Third Worldness’ of the homeless villages constructed from spare parts and found objects that stretch on for miles along the Waianae coast, on the far west side of the island, a place that feels like the edge of the world.

Commodities traders and industrial archaeologists

In Excerpts on January 13, 2011 at 5:46 pm

From Nicola Twilley, GOOD‘s food editor, on their newly launched Food Hub:

We believe food is too important a topic to restrict the conversation to the usual suspects. You’ll be as likely to meet a commodity trader, a synthetic biologist, or an industrial archaeologist as a chef or food activist on the GOOD Food hub. We promise to bring you a really exciting diversity of perspectives and a variety of voices, because both a neuroscientist and dishwasher have something interesting to tell us about what food is—and what it could be.

I like that.

More from Nicola here.

Organic circuitry

In Excerpts on January 11, 2011 at 3:08 pm

An addendum to the previous post. Real-world hyperlinks are on a number of minds:

“If we would make circuits on living entities, they would perform differently according to the environment or the homeostatic state of the substrate.” Translation: These orgatronics could rely on the natural processes taking place within the organic matter itself for power, or even interesting new functionality.

The wooden circuits picture above really do work. And I love the idea of technology reading and responding to natural, climatological events. The current ideas surrounding an “Internet of things,” however, sound hopelessly mired in the digital doldrums—at least for now.

Where will we link to next?

In Excerpts, Thoughts on January 6, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Blair Kamin, a man whose writing is well worth the Pulitzer he won, reviews Hyperlinks, a new exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago:

“…A provocative new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago argues that a new kind of hyperlinking is under way — not online, but offline, in the homes and other places we inhabit every day.

It all sounds very sci-fi, but there’s just enough real material in “Hyperlinks” to keep us from rolling our eyes. One of my favorites (above) is an inventive response to the dangers of riding a bike on city streets, especially at night. Two Massachusetts-based designers, Evan Gant and Alex Tee, attached a lighting device to a bike’s seating post. The gizmo uses green laser lights to project two lines with a bike symbol onto the street — in effect, a virtual bike lane.”

Hopefully I can get down to see the whole show myself soon. And despite what Kamin says, I’m kind of excited about the 185 products (including beer  and cigarettes) made from a single pig.

Gypsies, yurts, and French land planning

In Thoughts on January 5, 2011 at 10:14 am

Treehugger is not known for groundbreaking journalism, but this story caught me eye. There are so many issues bundled in this one piece that it’s kind of mind-boggling.

In the south and southeast of France hundreds of people have bought or built their own yurts and they are part of growing movement of those who want to scale down their life style and their consumption. Live a simpler life, closer to the land.

But France recently passed new legislation in order to facilitate the ramped-up removal of gypsy groups (who are deported to Romania and Bulgaria). Given that the bill makes certain temporary living installations (like yurts) illegal, non-gypsy yurt-dwellers are worried.

One woman explained her and her husband’s reasoning for yurts:

“We’re integrated into society, but we find it healthier to live like this rather than in the flat we were renting before.” The conflict has caused great dismay in the village as the yurt dwellers call for calm and the freedom to live a quiet life.

The issue:

It has become a cause celebre in the press, as they debate whether it is an “installation”, like a tent or a “construction,” subject to urban rules. The mayor denies that his decision has anything to do with the new proposed crime bill. Instead he says that it is outside the law to inhabit self-constructed buildings such as the yurt.

As I said before: so many issues wrapped up in this debate.

How do we organize towns and cities in a rational, efficient manner while also allowing for alternative housing like yurts? How do we make room in society for still-nomadic groups like Romas instead of calling them “a menace to society” (French President Sarkozy’s words) and inventing new laws just to get rid of them?

Essentially: how do we walk the line between “organized” civilization (city-managed storm-water management, sewage, etc) and healthy, simple lifestyles that, in the end, will be different for different people and in different regions?

When the feet roam, so do our minds

In Excerpts, Thoughts on January 1, 2011 at 12:31 am

Wendell Berry, Steven Johnson, Will Self, and Geoff Nicholson inhabit very different spheres.

(The first is a Christian and agrarian thinker born in 1934, the second a Wired contributor and ideas expert born in 1968, the third and fourth Brits who were born 8 years apart in the late fifties/early sixties and have made names for themselves as writers.)

Yet they all agree on the value of walking.

Nicholson, in the introduction to his correspondence with Self in The Believer, writes:

While living in London and New York, two of the great walking cities, I’d walked every day as a way of getting around, and as a means of urban exploration. Later, when I settled in L.A., a city where nobody walks, I continued to walk as best I could, but it was an effort, a deliberate decision to go against the prevailing culture. It seemed unnatural, an act of protest or eccentricity, but I wasn’t protesting anything and didn’t want to be willfully eccentric. I just wanted to walk.

Berry uses walking as an example of how enormous problems require small, simple solutions, which are often wondrously pragmatic:

“If a city-dweller walks…to work, he has found the simplest solution to his transportation problem—and at the same time he is reducing pollution, reducing the waste of natural resources, reducing the public expenditure for traffic control, saving his money, and improving his health.”

The body is not the only thing improved by a long walk. Johnson, in his 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, explains a less noticeable benefit to regular walks. His main idea rests on the fact that ideas come when the brain is allowed to put things together in novel ways. And how do you do this?

“One way is to go for a walk. The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. The…stroll removes you from the task-based focus of modern life—paying bills, answering e-mail, helping kids with homework—and deposits you in a more associate state.”

And then Self, responding to Nicholson’s questions about whether walking can be addicting, like drugs (with which Self has significant experience), offers perhaps the most intriguing view of the pedestrian way:

“I have to concede that the 4/4 rhythm, the sense I have on long walks—both urban and rural—of being rather disembodied: a head floating above the ground; the meditational aspect, whereby I allow my mind to “slip its gears”—all of these do seem akin to the kind of altered experience I sought in drugs. The bizarre thing is that while walking can produce these effects more reliably, I don’t feel driven to it too compulsively… yet.”

Tellingly, Self’s description alludes to Johnson’s assertion that our mind “slips its gears” while out walking, is allowed to roam as we ourselves roam.

Unfortunately, I’m currently in Hawaii, and unable to walk to my next destination: Chicago. But rest assured, though winter is in full force there, I’ll be out for a stroll soon.