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Good Reads: Mexico City cleans up, avoiding 'truth,' and a rare visit to North Korea

This week's good reads include Mexico City's bike-sharing and walkways, the gap between information and understanding, outsourcing personal chores, and a young American's insights on the 'hermit kingdom.'

By Staff writer / January 30, 2013

New metrobus lines in Mexico City have helped to ease traffic congestion.

Bernardo Montoya/Reuters/File

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Mexico City has long had a dark cloud hovering over it – both literally and figuratively – when it comes to traffic woes and vehicle emissions. As recently as 2011, residents of Mexico’s vibrant capital city reported “enduring the most painful commute,” according to a report in National Geographic. “Based on factors such as roadway traffic, stress levels, and commute times, the city scored worse than 19 cities, including Beijing, China, and Nairobi, Kenya.”

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So it might come as a surprise that this megacity, home to 20 million people and more than 4 million vehicles, was recently selected to receive the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s Sustainable Transport Award.

National Geographic describes Mexico City’s progress, noting that over the past two years the city has taken great strides to become more pedestrian-friendly with car-free walkways and plazas, new bus lines, a bike-sharing program, and a system of parking meters.

Sure, traffic still exists and air quality isn’t perfect, but anyone who has been to the bustling metropolis knows the hurdles the city has had to confront and what great progress must have been made to entitle it to an award of this sort.

Avoiding the truth

“In the three or four decades after 1490, the human experience on planet Earth arguably changed more than it had since the Year One,” writes Todd S. Purdum in Vanity Fair. And the life-altering changes that took place – from international exploration connecting the Eastern and Western Hemispheres for the first time to the creation of movable type – may have been the most revolutionary years civilization has seen. Until now.

“[W]e know almost everything” today, Mr. Purdum notes. That’s thanks in part to a second round of radical change that started a few short decades ago and continues in full force. Changes such as the “ricochets” of money and people around the world, and the simplification of information sharing via the Internet. But our newfound knowledge and interconnectivity doesn’t necessarily mean we understand our environment or “The Truths” that confront us.

Unlike our forefathers – who may not have had enough information to understand that the “sweating sickness” (malaria) that suddenly plagued coastal England was linked to the slave trade, or who couldn’t foresee that the printing press might also launch freethinking and religious wars – we aren’t in the dark. We have overwhelming amounts of information that wash over us daily that we can’t seem to process.

Consider the lasting debate over global warming, despite the volumes of real-time proof.

“Fixed cameras can capture the melting of glaciers through time-lapse photography, but they can’t quell the doubts of climate-change deniers,” Purdum offers as one example.

The chore of no more chores

Have you ever dreamed of coming home from work and having that pile of dirty laundry miraculously washed and folded? Or of having that book that’s been taunting you from your bedside table read in time for your next book club meeting? You, dear reader, are not alone.

“Oh, to be rich and powerful,” Patricia Marx writes in the opening of her New Yorker article “Outsource yourself: The online way to delegate your chores.” Ms. Marx takes her readers through a humorous journey of “test driving” the world of online services. There, “Task Rabbits” (errand runners) and “virtual personal assistants” can be hired to do everything from writing a brief history of outsourcing in the US for an article (hers) or even to read Proust and come up with insightful musings to impress book club friends (hers again).

There are numerous websites and Internet communities dedicated to outsourced work. But, as you might imagine, Marx’s adventures reveal that after spending time soliciting errand runners for simple tasks and then sifting through bids on these chores, it might just be quicker to do them yourself.

Turn up the heat, North Korea

Sophie Schmidt, daughter of Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, tagged along in January when her father took part in a nine-person US delegation to North Korea, organized by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Ms. Schmidt, a grad school student, made a number of enlightening observations about the “hermit kingdom” on her blog, Sophie in North Korea.

In a post titled “It might not get weirder than this,” Schmidt writes, “Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments.” She notes under “Top Level Take-aways” that “Nothing I’d read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.” It was also extremely cold and none of the sites they toured – schools, malls, and government buildings – were heated, despite frigid temperatures. 

“It is quite extraordinary to have the Honored Guest Experience in such conditions: they’re proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.”

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