Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Decline of Friendship in America

Is friendship in decline in America? New reports indicate that the answer is yes. As more Americans drive more cars more often to more homes in the suburbs, to relax in front of more big-screen televisions in more supersized living rooms, or drive to more suburban shopping centers where the chances of real social interaction are reduced more and more... they're finding that they have less of one thing: friends. More materialism, it appears, produces fewer valuable social interactions, fewer true friends, certainly fewer soulmates. You can be materially rich while spiritually, morally, and socially poor.

I can definitely trace the connections here: Fewer friends, more republicans. Friends don't let friends vote Republican -- but what about those people who don't have any friends? Yup, hard to stop them from going to the dark side. More computers, more computer programmers, more 16-hour days -- fewer social opportunities, fewer relationships, fewer friends. More republicans.

How to reverse this decline? I could think of a thousand ways, and most of them are nothing new. Stop building isolating suburbs that construct a friend-free antiseptic, antisocial environment. Stop building communities for cars. Start building communities for people. Start investing more in transit, in transit-oriented development, in tree plantings, in pubs, in coffee houses, in plazas, in squares, in parks... in concerts, concert halls and band practice areas. Stop the war on culture, and start the rennaissance of community.

Is beer the answer? Do people make friends when they walk to their neighborhood pub a couple of times a week and drink a locally-brewed ale or lager? Sure, beer is a social lubricant -- but can it also assist with creating more meaningful, lasting friendships, rather than just aid in finding drinking buddies? Perhaps yes. Or, perhaps it just creates the environment, the setting, where friends can meet to maintain their friendship, which is certainly more important, and really gets down to what we're talking about here. Americans probably already know plenty of people who should be their friends, but they just haven't talked to them in years. If they would just ask them to meet at the pub for a pint a little more often, perhaps the situation could be remedied... especially if it's within walking distance of home!!!

See below for the full original story from the SacBee. Note that, while carpooling may make you happy, I think it's just a neat little band-aid solution, and I fully stand by what I say above as the more effective long-term remedy!! So, move to a walkable neighborhood, buy a building in a nice, accessible location where other people nearby can also walk to it, and start up a microbrewpub. It could help us save America from ourselves!


begin newspaper article:
Sebastian Mallaby: The decline of friendship

Story appeared in Web section, The Sacramento Bee

WASHINGTON — The question about loneliness is: Why do people do this to themselves? Why do Americans, who reported an average of nearly three close friends in 1985, now report an average of just over two? And why does one in four have nobody with whom to discuss personal issues?

This is the age of Oprah and MySpace, of public emoting on television and the Web. Apparently people watch "Friends" but don't actually have many.

When the new loneliness numbers appeared Friday in the American Sociological Review, some experts cautioned that the problem can be overstated. Americans say they feel close to an average of 15 others, according to Barry Wellman and Jeffrey Boase of the University of Toronto.

But there's a difference between extensive networks and deep ones.

If you get sick, stressed or just plain sad, you are going to want the sort of friend you can rely on. Maybe you'll be able to convert an acquaintance into a soul mate when you discover you need one.

But this just-in-time approach to emotional crises isn't always going to work. Look at the way the slow decline of friendship has been mirrored by the rise of emotional problems. Over the past half-century, the prevalence of unipolar depression in affluent countries has jumped tenfold.

People's myopia on friendship is like their myopia on saving. They know that jobs are insecure, that a health problem can cause bankruptcy, that retirement is fabulously expensive; but the household savings rate has fallen below zero.

Equally, people know that spouses aren't immortal and that divorce is common. But nearly one in 10 — a much higher share than in 1985 — reports that their husband or wife is the only person they confide in.

People are taking these financial and emotional risks even as they neurotically avoid other risks. Today's consumers buy bike helmets and ski helmets and antibacterial soap; they fret about partially hydrogenated fats and consume less tobacco than their parents. But by some reckonings social isolation is as big a risk factor for premature death as smoking.

You can see how this American isolationism sets in. Modern society creates the tools that allow you not to save — if you have to pay for the kids' college, you can refinance your home — while doing little to change the basic need to save for old age and misfortune. In the same way, modern society creates tools that extend your casual networks — e-mail, instant messaging, social-networking Web sites — while doing nothing to remove the basic need for soul mates.

Meanwhile, people work more hours. They commute longer because they've moved to the exurbs in search of larger homes; they've got spacious entertainment rooms but no mental space for entertaining.

And then there's the subtle effect of the culture. "Family time" is endlessly extolled, and lovers emit poetry and song about every facet of their relationships. But when was the last time a rock singer or a new man waxed lyrical about friendship?

Yet the biggest reason for American loneliness, and perhaps the clue to some kind of cure, lies in path dependency. People know that tending to friendship is important, but their behavior follows the path created by countless other decisions — and friendship is neglected. Social science experiments reveal lots of behavior of this kind. People who agree with their doctors that they need hip replacements seldom get around to having the procedure. There are ways to beat path dependency, however. Another experiment has shown how undergraduates who agree to get a tetanus shot seldom actually do so, but if you make them an appointment and hand them a map to the clinic, the odds that they'll comply leap tenfold. Savings habits are equally sensitive to slight tweaks in incentives. Invite workers to sign up for 401(k) pensions and many will procrastinate. Tell workers they are part of the program unless they opt out and the participation rate rockets.

Can Americans be prodded to invest more in friendships? It's hard to imagine American companies organizing regular Japanese-style drinking sessions for the staff; it's hard to believe that a French-style cap on working hours would do more than encourage yet more lonely Web surfing. Twenty years ago, remarks Princeton's Eldar Shafir, a concerned European might have prescribed an emergency program of cafe construction: a reverse Marshall Plan for cappuccinos.

But now Starbucks has run that experiment for us. American caffeine addicts demand lattes to go — or to sip as they enjoy the company of Wi-Fi-enabled laptops.

But there's one antidote to loneliness that is at least intriguing. In an experiment in Austin, Princeton's Daniel Kahneman found that commuting — generally alone, and generally by car — is rated the least enjoyable daily activity, but commuting by car pool is reasonably pleasant. Measures that promote car pooling could make Americans less isolated and healthier.

So here's my slogan for 2008: Gas taxes make you happy.

** end of newspaper article ***

endnote from Garlynn:

OK, I can go with that slogan, but we'd better use those gas taxes to build transit, build transit oriented communities, and encourage more pubs and microbrews in this country! More small businesses and more town centers, fewer chain stores, less driving and fewer "suburbs" that lack a sense of place. That's how we're all get our friends back. And it could cut down on the sheer numbers of those pesky republicans, too!!!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Pedestrian Scrambles and Signal Timing

Over at, we've been having a discussion about the relative merits of adding a flashing yellow cycle to left-turn signals. The yellow cycle would allow cars to make a left turn fromt he left-turn lane to the extent permitted by oncoming traffic; if traffic was too heavy, they would still get the normal left-turn-green arrow. Frank Dufay raised the issue, however, that the blinking yellow arrow, while it might be good for drivers, could raise the issue of additional pedestrian/vehicle conflicts in the crosswalk that vehicles turning on the blinking yellow would cross.

I didn't want to to muddy the issue too much, but I did want to ask how the pedestrian scramble (all-pedestrian light cycle period) might fit into the blinking-left-turn scenario.

For a while now, I've been of the belief that downtown Portland should re-time all of their traffic signals. I see two options:

One: Green lights would be for cars only, to allow for faster clearing of intersections and turn traffic. However, the green period would be shortened slightly, and a pedestrian scramble cycle inserted, during which no automobile movement would be allowed, but pedestrians could cross any direction they pleased.

Two: half of every green light period would give the OK to pedestrians. The other half would give a RED hand to pedestrians, to allow for turning movements of cars. There would then be an additional cycle, the pedestrian scramble, during which no automobile movement would be allowed, but pedestrians could cross any direction they pleased.

Perhaps downtown might not be the best first place to try this, (Broadway/Weidler or another basically stand-alone couplet might be more appropriate), but the reasons that I suggest it are these:

1. Pedestrian scrambles would seem to be the safest way to get pedestrians across the street. There are no turns on red allowed during the scramble cycle, so there is no potential for ped/vehicle conflict as long as everybody plays by the rules.
2. Initiating the scramble cycle at every intersection in a grid would allow for the entire grid to be re-timed at once. This would mean that, as you were driving along, you would still get greens as you progressed from one intersection to the next (assuming, of course, that you drove at the proper speed and congestion was not an issue). However, following behind the green cycle for cars would be an all-red cycle for cars -- the scramble cycle, when pedestrians would go for it.

I think there are two potential variations on this theme:

a) The lights cycle green for cars heading north/south, green for cars heading east/west, then the pedestrian scramble cycle.

b) The lights cycle green for cars heading north/south, then pedestrian scramble, then green for cars heading east west, then a second pedestrian scramble cycle!!

I've only ever seen the first option used in the real world. I'd love to see the second option tested in a high-pedestrian-volume area like downtown Portland!

Finally... bicycles. As I see it, bikes could go on either the appropriate green cycle for cars, or, if they were careful and slowed down, they could also traverse the intersection during the pedestrian cycle, if they did so at pedestrian speeds.

If pedestrian scrambles became the norm at every signalized intersection, then I think the blinking yellow light left-turning issue would become a moot pedestrian safety consideration. I think it's a great idea to reduce motorist dwell time and reduce congestion at left-turn signals.

Barring the pedestrian scramble, however, Frank does raise a good point about the added potential for ped/vehicle conflict.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Dangers of Fluoride in Toothpaste?

OK, so let me just get one thing straight: The reason that I'm writing this article is that I've been confused by the proliferation of non-fluoride toothpastes on my natural supermarket shelves lately. I thought that fluoride prevented cavities and was good for the teeth?

...and then my favorite flavor of Tom's toothpaste, which used to come in both fluoride and non-fluoride versions, now only comes in a non-fluoride version.

That was the last straw. I could no longer keep myself in the dark about fluoride. I had to have answers. I vaguely understood that fluoridated water was a BAD THING, but the dentists have been waxing poetic about the wonders of fluoride for my whole life, so surely I should keep seeking out fluoride toothpaste in order to keep my dentists happy (or, paradoxically, at least keep my dental bills down)?

So, I decided to try and figure out why people dislike fluoride and say you shouldn't use it in toothpaste.

Apparently, fluoride is slightly more toxic than lead. It's a by-product of the aluminum manufacturing process, and is produced in rather large quantities. The attempt to market it as a health-improving product began in the 1930s/40s. In larger doses, it can actually produce tooth and bone decay, as it is non-biodegradable, and in excess can produce a condition called fluorosis, which is basically the reaction of the body to the toxin. Most experts agree that drinking fluoride in water is a very bad idea, and that fluoridated water should *not* be consumed. Living in cities (like Portland, OR) that do not fluoridate their water is, then, a GOOD THING.

However, the evidence as to whether the amount of fluoride contained in toothpaste is enough to be harmful seems to be inconclusive, as long as you don't swallow your toothpaste. Most web sites, when addressing that particular question, quickly change the topic to talk about the dangers of water fluoridation. Fluoride in toothpaste (very small amounts) can cause the teeth to better resist the acidity of the mouth, prolonging their resistance to tooth decay.

Fluorine is a gas, and in nature it will be found bonded with other substances, forming compounds such as calcium fluoride. Fluoride is a compound (a salt) that occurs when fluorine ion bonds with another agent. Calcium fluoride is the most-common naturally-occurring form of fluoride, and in small amounts it is not toxic. To the extent that calcium fluoride is the compound used in toothpaste, then, that toothpaste is probably not harmful if not swallowed.

Howers, the salts used in the fluoridation of water supplies, and potentially in some commercial toothpastes, include sodium fluoride and fluorosalicic acid. These are industrial by-products from manufacturing operations, and until the dental benefits of fluoride were popularized in the mid-20th century, their primary uses were in rat poision and insecticides.

OK, so here's where it gets interesting. I would expect Tom's of Maine to use Calcium Fluoride in their toothpaste, since it is the aknowledged least-toxic variety of the stuff.

However, when I look on the back of my Tom's Gingermint toothpaste, I see that it actually contains Sodium monofluorophosphate, 0.15% w/v fluoride ion.

That sounds a lot more like sodium fluoride combined with phosphate (soap) than it does calcium fluoride.

Hmm... so, perhaps there is something to this fluoridated-toothpaste-is-bad nonsense after all.

The remaining question is, what alternatives to fluoride exist that can successfully counter the effects of plaque acids on the teeth?

One potential answer is the amino acid arginine. In conjunction with calcium carbonate and bicarbonate, it is being marketed as CaviStat, an anti-cavity alternative to fluoride.

Another is... get ready for this one... the ionic activity produced by the reaction of two differing metals in combination with the saliva in the mouth. A toothbrush impregnated with two separate discs of magnesium and copper will generate an electrical current in the mouth between the two nodes.

"The magnesium copper metal combination generates a voltage of 0.8 – 1.8 and an electric current of 2 – 1200 mA in water, in addition to H 3 O 2 - negative ions. Bacteria in the mouth may be sterilized by voltage over 1.3, which creates an electric sterilization effect. This electron activity helps remove dental plaque from areas where conventional toothbrushes cannot reach.

"Stains and discoloring can be reduced by the Hydroxyl (H 3 O 2 ) negative ion’s surface-active effect."


The sweetener Xylitol can apparently also be used to reduce plaque and fight cavities. It is a sweetener, not a toxin. However, due to its unusual chemical structure, it attracts micro-organisms with its "sweetnesss," and then actually starves them, allowing the mouth to remineralize damaged teeth with less interruption (according to

The bottom line is that fluoride is a poison that helps to kill off all the bacteria in your mouth when you brush your teeth, both the beneficial bacteria and the harmful ones that promote tooth decay. To the extent that a small amount of poision may be good for promoting dental health (and to the extent that it already occurs naturally), this may be OK.

However, there's no good reason to ever ingest fluoride, as its only benefits are when it is applied topically. Allowing it to pass the throat/mouth barrier is just inviting your kidneys to be over-worked by processing this toxin.

As to which toothpaste to purchase? That's your own decision. I don't see any easy answers, but at least we may know which questions to ask, and at least at this point, the marketplace is providing many non-fluoride toothpaste and dental health options for us. Our job is to pick the one that is best suited to keeping our dental bills low, without harmful side effects.


Monday, June 05, 2006

Save The Internet!!

Congress is currently under huge pressure to change the way the Internet is regulated. Large corporations would like to be able to pay/charge to have higher-priority access to their data, thereby regulating free internet access to a second tier of service quality.

There is a large resistance movement to this effort, devoted to the cause of "Saving Internet Neutrality." However, it is proving difficult to get the word out about this effort, as shown in this video starring Moby (also available here), which lobbies ordinary citizens to Call Congress Today and Tell Them to Save the Internet.

Congress, of course, can be reached at 202-224-3121 and saying your zip code to get your representative.