General

Turister

Problemet med storbydestinationer er skandinaver, specielt svenskere.

Overalt støder man ind i disse tørklædeflagrende, Instagram-flashende, SLR-bærende, skinny jeans-droner. De er selvfølgelig for gode til ‘turistattraktioner’ og kaster sig istedet imod alt der lugter lidt af ‘street art’ og ‘flea market’. Som lemminger med fast arbejde/studie.

Det er efterhånden ikke til at komme til på mit lokale blomstermarked, fordi Johan fra Stockholm lige skal have et close-up af liljerne til bloggen (‘STHLM Urbanism’ eller et lignende idiotisk navn udtalt på svengelsk), mens gadesælgeren på sit fineste cockney råber “that won’t feed my children!”

Hvorfor er det at disse markeder med letfordærvelige ting – kød, blomster, frugt, grøntsager – tiltrækker folk, der suger næring gennem en telelinse de alligevel ikke kender funktionaliteten af. Borough, Broadway, Williamsburg, La Boqueria. Du tager sgu da aldrig dit Canon med ned i Fakta for at forevige dÃ¥serne med tun?

Kunne vi ikke vende tilbage til en verden, hvor turister var turister med hang til turistattraktioner, turistplaner, turisttøj, keramikudgaver af Eiffeltårnet, mavetasker og bobby hats lavet af plastik? En verden hvor turister var andet end Sodermalms/Vesterbros/skovmandsskjorte-vibskov-kusmi-lands forlængede tentakler?

Mest af alt gør det ondt, fordi jeg nok selv er en af dem. Fy fan!

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Lest we forget.

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My first week on a fixed-gear bike

The Pista[Click above for more pictures]

I got my Pista a little over a week ago and I have been riding it ever since. These are my experiences so far:

It is a beautiful, retro-looking bike and people ask all sorts of questions about where I got it and why on earth it has no gears.

Not being able to coast is much more difficult than first anticipated, which means I still find myself cautious – bordering panicking – when going fast downhill or having to negotiate bumps in the road. Not being able to keep your feet in a level position can be a little nerve wrecking. On the other hand, once you get used to pedaling non-stop, you do notice an emerging symbiotic relationship between the bike, the road and your body. It requires a lot of energy, though, in the beginning I felt exhausted after spinning around for a mere 20 minutes.

The second major difference, having ridden only crap bikes for the past five years, mind you everything gets stolen around here, the drive-train efficiency is absolutely shocking. In addition to this, the stiff frame and the race geometry make for a virtual speed-machine, and a silent one at that. I am used to bikes making a lot of noise, clonk! clonk!, but this is like a stealth fighter in comparison. Nevertheless, this is also a cause of some anxiety since you only realise how fast you are actually going once you start overtaking cars, even before rush hour kicks in.

In conclusion, it has been a bit of a mixed experience to date, but I am sure that another couple of months in the saddle will make my initial fears go away. There is a much more appreciative essay on riding fixies here.

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Plagiarism Inc. (Oxbridge Essays)

I am currently having a little quarrel with a UK company, Plagiarism Inc. (for legal reasons I should probably state that this alias was made up by me), selling essays to students who are too incompetent, lazy or rich to write them themselves.

A bit of background; I, along with several other DPhil students at the Saïd Business School, were approached by the ‘Head of Recruitment’, offering us work as ‘writers’. (more…)

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A little less rotten

I knew Steve Jobs was reading along all the way, obviously he learned a lesson from my previous post.

Apple might not lose out on my immense buying powers just yet…

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In the footsteps of Thubron

It looks like one of my longstanding dreams is finally coming true, I am going to Siberia.

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What makes a city crappy

I just returned from a three-day stint in Paris which is less than three hours away from London on the Eurostar. Taking the train is so much more convenient than flying and you avoid the hassle of checking in xx hours in advance and paying the same amount of money for travelling to the airports as you spend travelling between them.

Needless to say, Paris is a beautiful city, but what is it that makes a city stand out?

Of course, there are the monuments, the people, the language and the history, but there are a couple of mundane indicators that deserve a mention, too:

Indicator 1: Billboards
There is nothing uglier than billboards! People spend time complaining about graffiti and other ‘disruptive’ elements in the city sphere yet it seems that it is acceptable to ruin public spaces as long as someone makes money on it. Every morning, on my commute to London, I notice the incredibly ugly nature of suburbia with huge ads everywhere. Shiny teeth, cheap flights, and must-have cars simply do not resonate well on the backdrop of run down council estates and litter floating everywhere. I bet there are not many marketing directors living in those areas anyway. This is one of the things I like best about Oxford, you hardly see any billboards.

Indicator 2: Chains
Although the French obviously have a problem or two with arrogance, I would prefer this to the usual treatment in the usual chain in the usual city in the usual country. I hate when I sense that the person taking your order is just the public interface of an industrial unit whose foremost aim it is to satisfy the shareholders, whether it is about making sure that all dishes conform to the tightest of standards, you ‘upgrade’ your meal or buy bottled water (“would you like xx to go with that?”).

Ritzer, an esteemed sociologist, put this incredibly well, in his book, the McDonaldization of Society (1993), when he talked about chains as rationalised systems that practice simulated forms of enchantment. Indeed, the principles guiding the preparation and serving of food ought to differ from that of manufacturing cars.

I remember working at a petrol station once: we actually had a mirror in the back so we could practice smiling (I think I laughed rather than smiled for all the wrong reasons).

Take a stroll down any high street in the UK and you will find nothing but soulless outlets of ghostly corporations, including but not limited to Ask, Zizzi’s, Bella Pasta, Angus Steak House, Nando’s and, of course, all the usual American suspects. Oxford’s recent Castle development takes the prize. Here, the Oxford Castle, which used to be a prison, and its surrounding buildings were converted into a leisure area comprising bars, hotels and restaurants. If you go there for a culinary treat, you might choose any city in Europe instead – it is just the makeup of the conveyor belt that is slightly different. One can only imagine the tremendous, long term impact this must have on Oxford as a brand (“…and then, amidst all the boring colleges and libraries, they had this really cool place called Krispy Kreme!”).

Despite the fact that the French have done a better job at resisting these attempts to homogenise their culture, it almost makes me cry (that was a rhetorical statement) when I see Parisians queuing up inside Starbucks in order to buy an Italian-style Ethiopian caramelised latte with strawberry syrup, frozen chocolate wafers and low-fat blue berry bananas on top (TM). I am equally enthused about Ben & ‘we-are-oh-so-ethical’ Jerry’s putting up franchises to compete with the local crepe outlets.

What the market wants is what you get, libertarians would argue – the market was never a neutral mechanism, never will be and should not be treated as such, I would respond.

Show me a city that does not conform to any of these standards and I shall put it in a favourable position on my where-to-settle-in-the-future list.

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Oxford City Council – a tale of hypocrisy

In the early autumn of 2006 I wanted to start a rickshaw company in Oxford, The Oxford Student Rickshaw Company, having seen how similar initiatives have been highly successful in Copenhagen, London, Barcelona, and Edinburgh.

Conducting some initial research made me aware that Oxford was actually the first city in the UK, in the late 90s, to have a rickshaw company in operation. Learning from previous mistakes, which led to its insolvency, mainly on the cost side, I looked into existing business models, insurance policies, safety requirements, sponsorship, and tricycles. Also, I started writing a business plan, had meetings with the Oxfordshire Business Enterprise, whose help was very worthwhile, and, finally, I selected a small group of fellow students, whom I thought would be able to contribute in materialising the plan.

So far, so good.

I then approached the Oxford City Council to inquire about what was needed on my part. I expected this to be a mere formality given the Council’s strong policy statement towards reducing congestion in the city centre, as outlined in the air quality action plan. Here are three of the suggested measures:

-reduce vehicle emissions
-promote changes in travel behaviour
-limiting access in central areas only to cleaner vehicles by establishing a low emission zone (LEZ)

I also referred to the Transport Committee’s scrutiny into the future of London’s pedicabs (February 2005) which to date is the most comprehensive assessment of pedicabs conducted in the UK. It found rickshaws were popular with tourists and useful for short journeys. In line with this, I believe that Oxford, a city with a huge influx of tourists, would benefit from alternative ways of exploring the many attractions and sites of interest. As such, it was not meant as a traditional taxi service but rather a convenient way of getting a guided tour.

I made an appointment with a representative from the City Council who failed to show up, however, a colleague of his was kind enough to lend me some of his time. Although very sympathetic to the idea, he pointed out that under the current regulation a tricycle carrying passengers would necessarily need to obtain a so-called hackney carriage license. This license, dating back to Victorian times, is the same sort of permission you would need to operate a black cab. In juxtaposing black cabs and tricycles in legal terms, a rickshaw is thus considered no different from a noisy, high polluting, carbon-emitting, two-tonne vehicle made out of steel(!). Furthermore, the licenses are strictly limited and, of course, administered by the taxi organisation, and, just to make the final blow to my plans, each license – if, hypothetically, I would be able to obtain one – would set me back £50K.

In other words, despite all the good intentions aired by the City Council, there is very little room for any sort of sustainable transportation alternatives in the city centre. I should perhaps add here that City Sightseeing Oxford is running a service with around 4 double deckers, as a minimum, constantly touring the streets of Oxford. Most of the time, they are empty or carrying less than two handfuls of passengers.

In an attempt to start a dialogue regarding these absurd policies, I wrote a long, polite email to my contact, the one who failed to show up, asking:

a) Why and when the City Council chose to revise its procedures, basically outlawing rickshaws by juxtaposing them with black cabs?
b) Whether it would be possible to re-consider the decision?

Shortly hereafter, I received a short reply advising me that if I wanted to take this further, I would need to ally myself with a lawyer.

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Why I hate musicals

This is a complete off the record post, prompted by Kathrin’s note on the topic of musicals. And it is raining outside.

One of the few things I hate unconditionally – alongside cheese, of course – is musicals. Musicals represent the lowest of thought, the poodle of dogs and, I predict, will rightfully be considered so within a few generations of human evolution, conscious and physiological, in the same way that we consider burning witches a thing of the past.

One of the questions I have always wanted to ask people who are enthusiastic about this sort of thing is why it is appealing to you to have someone, who is clearly on some kind of ‘look-at-me-I-am-exaggerating-everything’ drug that has yet to be classified as illegal, dancing/singing/talking to you like you were a baby with no cognitive capacity of your own. A vulgar display of spoon-feeding.

Other instances of common lowest denominators come in the shape of awfully unsurprising narratives, a complete lack of subtlety, and the obligatory oh-so-forgiving audience of muppets (‘because we have paid a ridiculous amount of money for a West End show it MUST be good’).

I told you, it is raining outside.

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Winds of change

Our conceptions of what it takes to lead a sustainable life, if one were to think of such issues, is about to undergo dramatic changes, I predict. The rise of new media, for lack of a better word, has demonstrated how traditional hierarchies can be radically altered within a very short time span; the line between users and producers of information is no longer clear-cut, leading to a myriad of convergences in the way materials and the social make up the fabric we refer to as society. I have no doubt we will all want to create; we will all become engineers within a not too distant future.

Today’s geo-political climate, along with the tendency to focus on the local origins and global impact associated with the consumption and production of goods, will similarly redefine the way we think about energy issues; on the one hand, we will continue down the ‘bigger-better-faster’ track, e.g. building more efficient wind turbines by improving existing designs. On the other, we will witness a demand for sophisticated yet mundane products, energy sources which are small, local and customisable – tomorrow’s iPod does not need to be charged in the conventional way, and who said you cannot turn trousers into power generators?

In contrast to the ‘mega projects’, such as off shore wind farms and solar panels hidden insofar as possible, these new technologies will take on a pivotal role in the shaping of new cultural regimes; they will serve as symbols in reproducing new economies of fashion, either by their absence or presence.

A bit of empirical grounding:

The (stolen) pictures above show The Quiet Revolution, a small-scale, vertical axis wind turbine developed by the London-based environmental design agency XCO2. Not only does it produce energy, by incorporating light emitting diodes it is also a means of communication, designed to be put in the foreground in making up hip urbanscapes.

The Freedom Tower, to be built upon New York’s Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, is set to host the world’s tallest wind farm, making it a flagship project for proponents of urban windmills. Link to the article in Nature here. [update: I see they have been abandoned in the updated design]

Hippyshopper boasts a comprehensive range of ingenious devices, ranging from the waterless washing machine, over solar bags, to glowing bricks.

If I were working here, I would think very carefully about my R&D strategies.

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