Life is an experiment

Friday, August 24, 2012

Transforming Streets back to Gathering Spaces: A Crucial Challenge of Our Times

Life in cities, despite the fact that they surround us with people, can be a lonely experience. How could this be?

Compare the following two photos:

The top photo is Strøget, a 100,000 square meter car-free pedestrian zone in Copenhagen, Denmark. This is an ordinary scene in Strøget terms, but look at it again. See the father handing something to his young child, groups of friends sitting next to the fountain, a crowd gathered around entertainment, some folks enjoying a stroll by themselves, people walking in and out of shops. Look at all the people. Who wouldn't enjoy being there?

Contrast this merry scene with a typical one endured by North American residents. The lower photo is a street in my neighborhood, the Inner Sunset in San Francisco, looking down 9th Avenue from Judah Street to Irving Street. Cars are everywhere, barely a person in sight. Nobody's hanging around, enjoying the place. A wrong step in this scene could be instant death. This is normal for us.

Compare the photos. How does it make you feel? Is there a better way to live than the picture of 9th Avenue? How about our children? Do they deserve a place to play freely in the heart of their communities or do we need to drive them a mile away and supervise them? How about you? What scene would you rather be in? Strøget or 9th Avenue?

Don't tell me that it's not possible for a scene like the lower one to become something like the upper scene. Strøget was a regular car zone until 1962 when the regular holiday street closure was quietly extended. Merchants initially cried bloody murder but business quickly improved and soon some shop owners were claiming it had been their idea. In the next 30 years, the car-free area greatly increased in size and now 120,000 - 250,000 people use the space every day.

Try telling the businesses and residents on and near Strøget if they would rather the streets full of cars or full of people. It's not hard to guess what they'd say.

Pedestrianizing streets in the hearts of our neighborhoods is a central challenge of our time. It is a crucial goal for people who live in and near places like 9th Avenue. If just one community pulls it off, other communities will follow suit. The more this happens, the more people will wake up from the car-induced coma of the 20th century and realize that we deserve better than this. We deserve gathering spaces in the streets and we deserve them now.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sky-high Street Use Fees are Harming our Communities

"The current [street use permit] system in San Francisco is destroying community — it’s that simple. It’s harming people psychologically and physically, it’s harming business, it’s harming everybody."

This is the message behind a recent story published by Streetsblog, for which I was interviewed. This is a great article and I recommend checking it out.

The article is written in the context of the Inner Sunset Sundays community street events, in which I'm a co-chair. We've had a terrible time with insane City fees, as high as $25,000 for four events on one block. I don't know how it's going to turn out with the fees but we're pushing on anyway in the hope that, somehow, we're going to make it through.

A scene from the Inner Sunset Street Fair 2011

The fees that San Francisco charges us to use our own streets is a disgrace. Last year, we had to pay $9,000 for a one-day community street event, the Inner Sunset Street Fair 2011, a huge undertaking for volunteers with limited resources and experience. Without getting into the nitty-gritty, for most of the fees, you get nothing. For instance, a $400 fee to amplify sound goes to the Entertainment Commission. They give you nothing in return. In other instances, you get something (such as traffic control officers) even if you don't want or need it, or you get something that you maybe want but there is no logic to the amount you pay. It is a broken, clunky system and communities pay the price.

I know a lot of lonely people in San Francisco. Some of them see therapists and take depression medication to deal with their isolated lives. Community street events and regular gathering spaces would make a huge impact on well-being. But right now we can't do that because of City fees.

City fees are harming our quality of life. It is time for a reform. Mayor Lee, SF Board of Supervisors, and other elected officials: On whose side do you stand?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Don't let institutions hijack your life

You can tell when an institution has hijacked someone's mind, mouth, or body. Just think of the last time you were approached by an employee at a chain store or heard a politician speak. Don't let it happen to you; make sure your thoughts are your own, don't let your mind be institutionalized.

A strange and unsettling message flashed before my eyes recently. I was at the Google Headquarters and came across the slogan "Think With Google". Does this unsettle you? It does me. This blog entry is inspired by Google's slogan.

It's hard work keeping in check all the scary things in life. There is a thin line between us and unemployment, homelessness, loneliness, unpopularity, restlessness, guilt, and sadness. In a world of bigness and scale that dwarf and intimidate the everyday person, most of us run to larger entities: institutions, be they corporations, governments, authorities, religious bodies, associations, unions, or other kinds of organization.

Today, with the help of its frontline agents - experts, scientists, priests, presidents, etc. - the institution has so utterly consumed the individual and community that many of us have forgotten ourselves. On our behalf and in exchange for money and allegiance, institutions feed, clothe, transport, build, entertain, facilitate communication, counsel, inform, persuade, teach, police, judge, and punish us.

The remaining wiggle room for individual autonomy is tiny. We may have many options but they are all options facilitated and often created by institutions, options only available in the diminishing spaces where institutions don't directly command our actions, such as the daily 9-5. Now in the age of the internet, institutions such as Google are rewiring our very brains. We are becoming institutionalized animals.

Studying the history of the growing concentration of power and of the conquest of peoples at home and abroad, it has become clear to me that behind every source of power and wealth is a crime. All institutions survive by conquest - conquest of land, of bodies, of minds. Some invaluable books that touch upon this subject include "Discipline and Punish" (Michel Foucault), "Rebels Against the Future (Kirkpatrick Sale)", "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television" (Jerry Mander), "Civil Disobedience" (Henry David Thoreau), and "Deschooling Society" (Ivan Illich).

Yes, there is nuance here. Of course, many institutions and their agents do perform good acts. I know many wonderful organizers and activists making the world better inside institutions. Many institutions are powerful forces of good. I myself am a member of institutions critical to my pursuits.

My point is not that "institution = bad", but that we must be careful of our relationship with institutions. We must not get so institutionalized that we lose our ability to criticize, question, and to think and act independently; we must not become slaves to institutions. We must understand that the role of institutions should only go so far - they must not consume everything. If they do, we must push back.

At the same time, let us be clear: Institutions are the only way to indoctrinate, conquer, and control masses of people. The history of many institutions, especially governments, are of bloodshed. And even seemingly benign institutions derive their power from earlier conquests made by other institutions.

Advice for resisting institutional control

It is time for us to question the institution's very nature and how it controls our lives. In whatever ways we think appropriate we must work to resist institutional excess, to be free.

Here are just some ideas for resisting institutions. But these are my ideas... come up with your own.
  1. Think for yourself
  2. Watch less television, use computers less
  3. Re-skill yourself, make things for yourself
  4. Question rules and laws, if necessary break the ones you think are wrong
  5. Purge yourself of any addiction created and fostered by institutions
  6. Consume less "news" and other mediated information
  7. Leave some doubt for anything you can't verify for yourself, even if it comes from an expert or authority
  8. Interact with people directly and avoid mediated communication through the internet
  9. Get to know your neighbors, build community, try to resolve things without instutitions
And most of all, remember: Nobody reigns over you. You need have no ultimate allegiance to any company, association, government, country, or institution of any kind. You are a person and you are sovereign of your own life.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Time to rethink our email use

Here's a proposal: Let's work together to bring in a new golden age of polite and sensitive etiquette. And let's start by discussing email.

This blog post is sent from the heart. I'm done with receiving impersonal, insensitive, and clumsy emails (and no, I've not been perfect either). It's my wish that we think hard about our communication habits and end this situation where we are constantly letting each other down.

Email has been with us, the general public, for little over 15 years and in every passing minute thousands of people are emailing something that they shouldn't be. For sensitive matters, by emailing rather than picking up the phone or meeting in person, we are degrading our relationships.

I have learned this the hard way, both as a perpetrator and as a victim. On my side, using email I've tried to deal with a decades-old dispute with a sibling, conveyed emotions to a recently ex-ed girlfriend, and taken weeks of back and forths to arrange a simple meeting. Other people have emailed me to complain strongly about an event I organized, typing sentiments they'd never have spoken to my face; to criticize what I'm doing with my life; and, perhaps worst of all, to announce they were pregnant or getting married (those were from relatives - for shame!).

What happens when email screws up our conversations?

  • Both sides misunderstood what the other person meant.
  • Neither party could empathize with one another.
  • We typed things that we wouldn't say to someone's face.
  • It took us so long to go back and forth that we either left things unresolved or we got more wound up.
  • Someone inferred that the other side didn't care about them because the latter used email instead of a more personal medium.
Email is a poor medium for sensitive exchanges
  • Typing takes a lot more effort than speaking. Thus, we often leave out a lot of information.
  • People are physically isolated and lack the exchange information provided by body language and voice.
  • Email uses standardized text, which lacks the personal touch of a handwritten letter.
  • It can take a while to send and receive messages, which can increase frustration or misunderstanding.
Given those constraints, it's no surprise that it's easy to mess up with email.

When is email an appropriate medium?

There are certainly things email does well...
  • Transferring information and data
  • Recording something in writing to be referenced later
  • Non-sensitive information when it's hard or impossible to meet in person or use the phone
  • Addressing many people at once with an appropriate message
Advice for using email properly
  • Never send an email when angry
  • Avoid email when the subject involves feelings or important news
  • Proofread emails before sending to check if there is any content that could be misunderstood
  • Identify the recipient's communication preferences - maybe they prefer particular media on certain days/times
  • If it seems like an email exchange is not going well, switch to another medium
And perhaps most important of all: Use email as little as possible.

Life is short; is it really best spent sitting in front of a computer?

Written by a man obviously in front of a computer but who spends less time on it than he used to.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Inner Sunset Community Hall event - April 13th, 6:30pm

Dear Inner Sunset friends and neighbors,

A group of us are proud to be co-organizing a new kind of neighborhood event. It's for several kinds of people... those who only want to socialize, those who want to discuss something neighborhood-related, and those who want to do both. Join us!

Read on...

On Friday 13th April, Inner Sunset Park Neighbors is excited to invite you and the entire neighborhood to the first Inner Sunset Community Hall at St John's Rec Hall. Come enjoy a community potluck, socializing, games, music, and other surprises. The event will also feature an optional open discussion portion - if you'd like to form a group discussion around anything neighborhood-related, you can announce it on the mic with the other discussion-starters, sit down, and get talking.

If you'd like to have fun, eat, socialize, and nothing more (just like at the holiday party) - join us! Or if you'd like to participate in a discussion, you'll have a great time at the Community Hall too. Or you can do both! Read on for full details...

Inner Sunset Community Hall
Potluck and optional neighborhood discussions
St John's Rec Hall, 1290 5th Avenue @ Irving
Friday 13th April ~ 6:30-10pm
Bring a dish to share plus plates and utensils ~ Think of a discussion topic, if you're interested
Everybody welcome! Kids and families encouraged

More details

The Community Hall event has 2 parts:-

1. The social part
  • Bring a dish to share plus plates and utensils.
  • There'll be music, shrinky dink name tag-making, games, and more.
  • Kids and families are especially welcome.
2. The discussion part
  • There's no pressure to join a discussion but if you'd like to start one, or just listen in, you can.
  • Here's some examples: "We want to discuss how to have a block party" ~ "Who wants to start an Inner Sunset parents' group?" ~ "Join us to share your ideas for the next Street Fair" ~ "We're from UCSF and want to share our plans for the Parnassus Campus"
  • Discussions take place at the same time as the potluck; they're in smaller groups and are informal, lively, and friendly.
  • Here's how it works:
    1. At the start, the facilitator invites everybody who wants to start a discussion to get in line and announce their discussion item on the mic (10 seconds each).
    2. Each person then forms a discussion group in a certain part of the hall.
    3. Anybody who wants to join that discussion can walk over and sit down.
    4. At any point, participants can get up and join another discussion to see what else is going on.
    5. At the end of the session (no more than 1 hour), all groups record essential points and next steps on a form and ISPN posts the form elsewhere for those who couldn't attend.
  • Discussions must be related to the Inner Sunset; be polite, productive, and positive in nature; encourage team-building and camaraderie and be suitable to be overheard by people of all ages. Violators will be ordered to take it outside!
If you have any questions about the event, please contact Adam at

Whether you're there for fun, to discuss something you're passionate about, or a bit of both, please join us on April 13th. It'll be a great evening.


The Inner Sunset Community Hall Team

Monday, March 19, 2012

Make Your Own Name Tag

A while ago, this blog discussed the significant benefits of remembering people's names. We also looked at a few tips to better memorize names. Wearing your own name badge on a day to day basis can be a useful part of the mix - your name is learned much more quickly and forgetful people only have to look down a little to recall it! This tool is highly recommended.

It's easy to make your own name badge; there are many options, including using shrinkable plastic for durability. For those living in or near the Inner Sunset, we're having a name badge-making event at the farmers' market on April 1st. We've bought all the supplies so you just need to show up. Here's the full details...

Inner Sunset Name Badge-Making Event
at the Inner Sunset Farmers' Market
The parking lot on 9th Avenue between Irving and Judah
Sunday April 1st, 9am-1pm

We'll see you there! And if you can't make it and would like advice on making your own name badge, feel free to email me at

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Let's awaken our intersections

Throughout history, intersections were not only traffic crossroads but also places for people to cross paths, exchange news, gather, and build community. Nowadays, only the transport function remains in most intersections; the other roles have been buried.

The organization City Repair in Portland has made huge strides in fixing our broken intersections. Through "intersection repair", local communities reclaim intersections to create a sense of place, slow down traffic, and emphasize that intersections are shared spaces for people and vehicles.

Community members achieve this by painting intersections with stunning designs and creating functional spaces characterized by benches, tea spots, book exchange cupboards, noticeboards, and so on.

I hope the pictures below inspire you. To my fellow community members - let's do this!