The Quotidian

Evolving perspectives on evolving challenges

Wash, rinse, make art, repeat

by Kai Hsing

Can social change start at your local laundromat? We take a look at how one nonprofit is looking to rebuild communities by putting art into your laundry basket.

Sometimes an innovation is more successful because of where you’re trying to do it than how, or the realization that finding the right field to play on is as important as the finding the right game to play.

There are plenty of public art programs or organizations that provide arts experiences and education in public spaces, but at a time when drastic budget cuts in school systems across the country means the complete elimination of many arts programs in public schools, it seems that the need can never be met. Since 2008, the New York City Department of Education found that 32 percent of students in the system received absolutely no arts education, only 29 percent of middle schoolers are provided the minimum arts education as required by the state of New York, and only 4 percent of New York City elementary schools were even equipped to provide the minimum arts requirements.

What makes The Laundromat Project such an interesting organization is that they have brought public arts education to the most unlikeliest of places – the laundromat – and in that process have made it a successful touchpoint for those most underserved by the failure of the system. On second thought, why shouldn’t the laundromat be a place to create and experience art? In a city like New York, it is one of the few places where nearly everyone in middle-to-low-income neighborhoods not only goes, but has the opportunity to run into neighbors they wouldn’t otherwise. The laundromat has become the de-facto gathering place in many communities. Add to the fact that most people are generally unoccupied while there, and you have an ideal environment to engage people with art who wouldn’t otherwise do so.

Read the rest of this entry »

Foodies on a mission

by Kai Hsing

San Francisco’s Mission Street Food looks to blaze a path for food businesses with a social mission.


When former Bar Tartine cook Anthony Myint and his wife Karen Leibowitz set out to create a foodie distraction with which to occupy their spare time, they didn’t expect their taco truck sublet to turn into a local phenomenon with national attention. But thanks to their impeccable taste and timing (street food is in!) as well as with the help of the San Francisco Bay Area’s internet savvy and food-obsessed denizens, their Mission Street Food experiment has since grown into a twice-weekly food event that amasses crowds outside of an otherwise lackluster Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District.

The success of these nights has also transformed Mission Street Food into a serious charitable business, as more than $17,000 was donated to local charities during the part-time restaurant’s first 10 months of operation. Mission Burger, a lunchtime burger stand that Myint started inside the Duc Loi Supermarket a couple doors down from Mission Street Food, has also generated more than $2,500 in donations during its first three months of operation. Read the rest of this entry »

The locavore myth or why vegetarians will save the world

by Kai Hsing

As the real-world benefits of buying local and organic food prove to be negligible, is going veggie our only hope?

localvore-lgIf switching from incandescent to CFL light bulbs is a first step towards indoctrination into ‘San Francisco values,’ then eating locally is surely a close second, with a dedication from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma before every meal. But even amongst those who haven’t read Pollan’s ode to locally grown, traditionally prepared food that would make your grandmother salivate, there’s been an obvious renewed interest in farmer’s markets and organic produce with a pushback against the industrialization of the food industry in recent years.

On a certain level, this passion for foodie culture is a perfect example of DIY grassroots activism done right, with a populist message and tangible results that can be achieved quickly and cheaply. Nearly anyone can make a consumer choice to support local farmers, especially with the number of farmers markets in this country nearly doubling in the past decade. Or better yet, anyone can grow their own vegetables, a trend confirmed by the White House gardens started by first lady Michelle Obama earlier this year. There’s also the issues the modern food movement touches upon – ranging from health to poverty and consumerism – that are anything but controversial for either side of the ideological seismic fault you happen to be on. Read the rest of this entry »

Bombay or bust: outsourcing to save lives

by Kai Hsing

Is outsourcing medical services using digital technology the way to slash health care costs?

via Associated Press

via Associated Press

Let’s not forget that the ongoing discussion debate firestorm about health care is not only about ideology – however real or falsified – but also about fundamental economic costs. Wheether you’re for or against health care reform, most will agree that increasing health care costs by almost 10 percent yearly and having employees shoulder more of the costs is an unsustainable trend under any system.

So the question remains: just how are we going to reduce costs? Sure, there’s been lots of talk about increasing competition between plans, making generic drugs more available and eliminating many of the bureaucratic redundancies that siphon off more money than necessary.

For example, one of Obama’s main strategies to reduce costs is by creating a digital medical record system, which by some estimates could save $200 to $300 billion a year – though implementation won’t be easy. Having a digital database is long overdue and a no-brainer – it’s simply prodding the health industry towards the 21st century and in line with how the world works.

But what about more radical approaches that infuse technology into the actual care itself? Read the rest of this entry »

Do we pay too much for our cheap goods?

by The Quotidian

A new book examines the real price we pay to have consumer goods at relatively low cost – but offers few ideas to get us out of the mess.

One of the joys of an undergraduate economics education is the feeling that comes over you during your first or second year of having been inducted into a secret society – a sort of Harry Potter world with its own language, its own subculture, and its own special selection of intellectual tools. These are almost like little magic spells that allow you to see the world in a different way: as a world of hidden relations and counterintuitive mechanisms, a world that the Muggles can’t see though it’s right there in front of them.

Of course, this feeling is illusory, and soon fades – not just because real economics is a bit messier than the introductory stuff, but also because just about anyone can learn these basic tools and easily apply them to journalistic effect.

For example, take the concept of externalities. Freshman economics students discover that only some small subset of the costs and benefits of a transaction are explicitly reflected in the price. Read the rest of this entry »

The peanut butter and jelly solution

by Kai Hsing

Can a single individual make a dent into homelessness in America? Here’s how a growing movement is tackling the problem – with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in hand.

Homelessness is a major problem in America – it’s estimated that 3.5 million people in this country are without a home at some point during any given year. Here in San Francisco, there may be as many as 15,000 homeless people in the city at any point during the year – giving the city the distinction of having the highest rate of homelessness in the U.S., despite the fact that the City of San Francisco spends at least $108 million annually on direct services for homeless people.

But how can a single person make a difference within all of this? That’s where the Peanut Butter Plan comes in. Started by 826 Valencia programs director Jory John, the growing movement asks participants to gather all your friends to make peanut butter sandwiches – that cornerstone of any good American diet – at least once a month to hand out directly to those in need. A loaf of bread, peanut butter and jelly can feed a dozen people while costing you only about $10-20 and a bit of your time. Read the rest of this entry »

What ‘cash for clunkers’ could have been spent on

by Kai Hsing

With the program’s environmental and economic benefits nearly negligible, billions could have been better spent encouraging more people to buy cars that make a real difference – plug-in hybrids.


Much of the discussion around the “cash for clunkers” fervor is as polarizing as the politics involved – you either dismiss the program as a failure in both theory and practice or you declare the program a success while rejecting criticism of the program as GOP firestarting. With further consideration, one realizes that the cash for clunkers program actually has a lot of moving parts to consider before disassembly – unlike what they’ve been doing to the clunkers themselves.

On one level, cash for clunkers could be deemed a success – the program has so far increased sales in its brief period of activity, with Ford posting its first sales increase in two years and the overall industry posting its best month of 2009. The overwhelming popularity of the program has also been lauded as a measure of its success (or irresponsibility), with $1 billion exhausted in $4,500 increments in just one week.

Despite the fact that the Ford Focus (mpg: 24 city/35 highway) has been the top-selling one of the top-selling vehicles among those who traded in their “clunkers” for new cars, a closer look reveals that six out of the 10 best-selling anti-clunkers were from foreign automakers. Read the rest of this entry »

The revenge of Thomas Edison

by Kai Hsing

The banning of incandescent light bulbs has been seen as a major victory for the environmental movement – but now they’re making a comeback. Here’s why.



The quintessential, iconic action of the contemporary green movement has been changing your light bulb from the warm, soft rays of the 19th-century incandescent light bulb to the super-efficient yet somewhat muted compact fluorescent (CFL) bulb. Making the switch is an obvious choice, no matter if your priorities are economical or environmental – a CFL bulb promises savings of more than $30 over the course of its longer lifespan while also slowing the emission of greenhouse gases due to its reduced energy use.

One could see the CFL bulb as forming a sort of subliminal trinity for optimists and changemakers worldwide – switching to the new bulbs is demonstrably world-changing and cost-cutting at the same time, as well as being able to affect sweeping legislative changes in a relatively short amount of time. Unsurprisingly, the EU and Canada are on track to phase out old-school incandescents in the next few years, and even the U.S. is in the mix with a 2012 target date (though Venezuela and Cuba beat us all by banning them back in 2005). Read the rest of this entry »

Why only Apple can save General Motors

by Kai Hsing

The problem with American automakers is not that “liberals” prefer buying foreign brands, but rather that American automakers have a severe design and brand image problem.

Since my last post, I began thinking about my own personal consumer choices and how many of them could be considered “American.” While there is much acrimony about the supposed decline of America as a brand in the world (both commercially and politically), I think that there is still a ways to fall before we hit rock bottom.

Charles J. Brown of Undiplomatic wrote in the Huffington Post recently about, among other things, the problematic perception that American brands enjoy among “lefty/coastie/academic community” liberals. We’re all probably guilty of it in some way or form – it is, as Brown asserts, as part of our self-image as “lattes, Whole Foods, yoga, and Mac laptops.”

Mentioning Apple is interesting, primarily because they are arguably one of the most successful American companies both in terms of their sheer profit and cultural cachet. Apple is unequivocally successful not only in terms of their sales, which remain strong even in these difficult economic times, but also in the fact that they evoke strong positive emotional feelings among these supposedly anti-American liberals. Read the rest of this entry »

Buying patriotism in the age of transparency

by Kai Hsing

Obama’s push to “Buy American” should make us all realize the need for real, raw information to be made readily available to consumers.



Going to work today, I took a train made by an Italian company that was assembled here in California while sipping Ethiopian coffee and reading a book printed in China – a now almost-cliché scenario replicated across communities throughout the U.S. with any combination of products and origins. Whether it’s a car instead of a train or Mexico instead of China, it’s nothing new to say that our economy has long been inevitably and inextricably global.

Which is why President Obama’s push for all of us to “Buy American” seemed to be a rather tired rhetorical device aimed at placating the xenophobic masses. Indeed, we all know that conditions of a globalized economy can be questionable at best, but there will be no return to a feudalistic retrofuturism anytime soon.

But what has changed in our lifetime is that global capitalism has gotten so complex and shape-shifting that we’ve long needed a redefinition of what “Buy American” really means.

A recent article in the New York Times that tried to sort out the anguishing identity crises of labeling automobiles as “American” or “foreign” found that:

… “domestic content” is not domestic at all. For the purposes of the window sticker, the government has decided that domestic content will include parts made in Canada. Under the North American Free Trade Act, domestic is even less clear because it also includes Mexico.

Read the rest of this entry »


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