Drive Time

I was a guest on a radio talk show this afternoon, Drive Time with Sam and Annabelle on TBS 101.3FM. It was a last-minute invite from a friend and I went in cold. For my segment my friend asked me “personality test”-style questions, and as soon as I would utter a complete thought (1-2 sentences), he and the co-hosts would jump in and riff improv-style.

I could barely keep up. These guys are incredible talkers, really quick on their feet. They make it up on the fly, every day, in front of a massive audience. Listening on the radio vs. sitting in the room and (barely) participating is, I suspect, like the difference between watching a pro tennis match and being on the receiving end of a 150MPH serve. I left both humbled and inspired.

Citizen Science: Geiger Counting in Japan

Today is the one year anniversary of the terrible tragedies of Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. There have been recent fears brought on by high levels of radiation found in fish around the reactor, but how safe is Tokyo? I am visiting Tokyo for a few days and brought my geiger counter along, so read on to find out.

The first order of business was to secure a 9V battery for the device, which has sat unused in its box since my wife bought it last year. This was more challenging than it should have been due to my rusty 20-year-old Japanese, but led to a nice walking tour of Shinjuku around my hotel.

Battery secured, I fired up the device. It is easy to forget that the consumer electronics industry benefits from fierce competition to provide simple and intuitive user interfaces to its products. The geiger counter industry apparently does not. While the device is pretty simple, consisting of just three switches, three buttons, and a display, it was not obvious to me which settings to use and how to interpret the results. The product manual wasn’t much help either.

When I turned on the Audio switch, the device clicked just like in the movies. Every click made my heart jump a little. It was clicking once or twice every second, but wasn’t going nuts. I crossed my fingers and hoped that things were safe.

I put the device on the floor and set the mode to “mR/hr”, which measures milli-Roentgens per hour. It started at zero and just kept going up, up, and up. 0.001, 0.006, 0.009, 0.010, 0.013 … all the way to 0.026 at its highest. I moved the counter from the floor to the table and the readings went down, fluctuating between 0.009 and 0.013. Was this good? Bad? I scratched my head and consulted the Internet.

The most useful site I found was the Health Physics Society’s answer to the question “How many mR/hr (alpha,beta,gamma,or x ray) could be considered unsafe for continuous exposure?” There are two different answers, one for radiation workers and one for the general public. At first that seemed really strange to me, but it’s because the general public contains people of all ages and levels of health. Duh.

Right, right, get to the point already. I know. Here’s what they say:

The limit for radiation delivered in addition to the natural background radiation to individuals of the general public is 500 mrem in any one year and 100 mrem/yr on a prolonged basis. If we interpret continuous exposure as 8766 hours per year (24 hrs/day x 365.25 days/yr), 100 mrem/yr translates to 0.011 mrem/hr or 11 microrem/hr. This would be in addition to the natural background radiation which is quite variable but which averages about 300 mrem/yr or 34 microrem/hr

I believe that the device is measuring the absolute radiation, in which case the readings are well below the limit of .046 mR/hr, and is even below the “natural background radiation which averages .034 mR/hr. Hooray! I am safe being here for a few days, and so are the people of Tokyo who are exposed to this continuously.

I am curious to test fish here myself, but don’t want to freak anybody out. Perhaps I’ll take some sushi takeout tomorrow and see how it looks.

Land Grab: Novel Adaptations of Public Space

My mom’s cousin lives on a houseboat in Portland’s Columbia River. Like most houseboats everything is small, including a deck that’s just large enough to hold a table for four. If it were a normal house, extending the deck would be a multi-day project possibly involving permits, demolition, and construction. On the houseboat they simply tied on a floating pontoon and doubled their deck space. I remember having a small “Aha!” moment when I saw that – on the water, structures don’t need to be as fixed as they are in the “real world”. Recently I’ve been seeing similar adaptations of space happening closer to home.

The Kogi BBQ truck and its long line of adoring customers. (astrobuddha @ Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The first space adaptation is the rise of the food truck. Once sources of cheap and barely edible chow and nicknamed “roach coaches”, the food truck has recently re-emerged as a mobile source of hip, innovative street food. In 2009, the success of LA’s Kogi BBQ truck ignited this trend , serving “korean bbq tacos”, tweeting its location as it drove around the city, and attracting block-long lines of hipsters and hipster-wannabes curious to see what all the fuss was about. While novel at its outset, this innovation quickly spread and there are now many of this next-generation food truck serving a diversity of foods in many metropolitan areas. It has become such a fixture in San Francisco that there are events like Off the Grid SF, in which a group of trucks gather in fixed spots on a weekly schedule and provide common seating, like an outdoor food court.

The food trucks’ creative reappropriation of space is not without side effects. The SF Chronicle recently described how some restaurants are having trouble competing with food trucks that drive into their neighborhoods and steal their business. The article and its heated comments pulled at my sympathy for local businesses who are more heavily taxed, regulated, and rent-burdened than food trucks and who are struggling in this difficult economy. It also stoked my appreciation for what the food trucks have to offer and general disdain for businesses that are unable to adapt to changes in the market. This food truck-restaurant tension left me feeling conflicted for a day, until a possible solution hit me.

A second space adaptation that’s going on in San Francisco is the emergence of Parklets, reclaimed parking spots with public seating and/or vegetation, approved by the city of San Francisco and erected/maintained by private parties. It occurred to me that Parklets can be a key weapon for restaurants to fight back against their mobile invader counterparts.

An SF parklet turns street parking into a comfortable lounging space. (sfbike @ Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Parklets range from functional spaces to artistic expressions. In Noe valley, there are several multi-spot parklets with tables and chairs to enjoy snacks from the local eateries. In Mission, my favorite parklet contains dinosaur topiaries lovingly maintained by a resident:

A triceratops topiary in the "Deepistan Parklet" on Valencia St in San Francisco.

Parklets are the urban version of the houseboat pontoon-deck. They are quick to set up, novel, and create attractive community space, drawing people to the business district. What’s more, they take away parking spots from food trucks!1 🙂

One catch is that Parklets are public space, so there is always a possibility that a food truck can benefit from the Parklet phenomenon even more than the restaurant that sponsors it. Imagine a strategically placed Parklet sponsored by a food truck… local restauranteurs would flip!

Either way, it’s exciting see these trends in transforming public space and am heartened by everybody involved: both on the side of businesses for making this happen and city government for encouraging it. I’ve previously lamented the lack of progress among US local businesses, especially compared to the ultra-competitive Korean market, where everybody is constantly angling to make a buck or carve out a new niche. Food trucks and Parklets are a breath of fresh air and will hopefully lead to further innovations and improvements in the US local business landscape.

Like an ice cream truck for neat freaks, this shop on wheels cruises around Seoul, selling brooms, toilet plungers, and other household supplies, broadcasting its wares by loudspeaker.

Know of any other good examples of public space adaptation? Share in the comments!

  1. They also take parking spots away from drivers, which sucks for drivers when parking is already at a premium, but is great for pedestrians. []

The Honey Badger

With the recent death of Steve Jobs, there has been much introspection online among my friends and in general about the desire to achieve greatness and create a legacy, to “put a dent in the universe”. There has also been another great message to come out of it, which is to “be yourself, with passionate intensity”. It’s all very inspiring, but at the same time sounds like a lot of pressure. Enter the Honey Badger. Aside from being funny, there’s something to be said for simply being yourself at whatever pace suits you:

Image courtesy of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.