Jury out on organic food

THE debate over whether organic food is better for our health keeps raging on as the conclusion of four decades of studies seems far from clear.

The controversy was back in the news last month when a large-scale study by researchers from Stanford University found organic foods no more nutritious than conventional products, though they did have fewer traces of pesticides.

Researchers, who reviewed 237 different studies, did not find organic meats were healthier either.

“When we began this project, we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organic over conventional food,” said Dr Dena Bravata of Stanford University, lead author of the study.

“We were definitely surprised it’s not the case.”

Researchers said they found conventional fruits and vegetables had more pesticide residues than their organic equivalents but that the trace pesticide levels were almost always within the range authorities allow.

In 2011, researchers at Britain’s Newcastle University reached different conclusions when they did a meta-analysis of combined data from the same 237 studies, which were done over the course of four decades.

Their research, which did not generate much attention, found non-genetically modified and pesticide-free fruits and vegetables had better nutritional value: among the standout findings, that they contain more vitamin C than conventional fruits and vegetables.

And so the lack of decisive conclusions to be drawn led to an interesting development.

The American Academy of Paediatrics on October 22 announced that no scientific study had been proven organic foods to be healthier. It recommended in a report that children eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables – whether they are organic or not.

“In the long term, there is currently no direct evidence that consuming an organic diet leads to improved health or lower risk of disease,” it said.

It was a potentially important idea, as many parents would like their children and especially babies to eat organic fruits and vegetables, but their high cost can be prohibitive for most.

“We do not want families to choose to consume smaller amounts of more expensive organic foods and thus reduce their overall intake of healthy foods like produce,” Janet Silverstein of the American Academy of Paediatrics said last week.

“What’s most important is that children eat a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products, whether those are conventional or organic foods,” she said. “This type of diet has proven health benefits.”

The report nonetheless found the studies indicated lower presence of trace pesticides in organic foods, while organic beef had fewer antibiotic resistant bacteria.

David Haytowitz, a nutritionist at the US Department of Agriculture, stressed that comparing organic and conventional products was complicated.

“It is very difficult to make a comparison because there are so many variables affecting the nutrient content of a crop…the growing location, the controlled practices etc.,” he stressed.

So “unless you do a peer study where you plant a particular crop organic and conventional side by side and be sure there is no cross contamination,” the comparison really is not a simple one.

David Schardt, chief nutritionist at the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, however said that could be beside the point. In his view, Americans choose organic foods for a range of reasons.

“Most people who start eating organic food do so to avoid pesticide or other contaminants in the food,” Schardt said.

That makes sense to Christine Bushway, head of the Organic Trade Association.

“Even though the pesticide and contaminants in conventional food remain technically at safe levels it still make sense for those families with kids or with expecting mothers to avoid them and …choose organic,” he stressed.

“The (Stanford report) says organic food has 30 per cent less pesticide and that is what the consumers is concerned about,” she said.

How to handle the aftermath of infidelity

DAVID and Gwen perched at opposite ends of the couch the first time they came to my office.

As soon as they sat down, David started talking about Gwen’s affair with her co-worker. He fluctuated between outrage and grief as he described his feelings since learning that his wife of two years had been unfaithful.

Gwen said that the affair ended months before David found out and that it “meant nothing to me”. She cried, saying that she didn’t understand how she got involved in “something so stupid”.

David bitterly reminded her that she had broken every promise they made to each other on their wedding day.

Gwen went on to say that David was demanding details about the affair, repeatedly asking questions she was not comfortable answering.

“He is fixated on the sex; wanting to know how often we were together and what it was like. Yesterday, he asked me if Larry was better in bed than he is. I keep trying to explain to him that it was not about sex.”

None of which was at all consoling to David. But it’s true that for women, affairs have little to do with sexual needs and everything to do with emotional needs.

The US National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago reports that 25 per cent of men and 17 per cent of women admit to having affairs while married.

But sex isn’t the only symptom of infidelity. Cyber relationships and emotional affairs offer false promises of instant gratification without the guilt or risk of a sexual encounter. These pseudo affairs can be just as damaging to a committed couple, stealing time and energy that intimate relationships require.

Life’s daily challenges can undermine each person’s ability to focus on a primary relationship and to meet the needs of their partner.

Financial and physical hardships can significantly increase the risk of an affair. Stress affects a couple’s daily communication and the quality of their intimacy.

Financial problems and ongoing health issues also make it hard to relax and enjoy time together. Throw in worries about the kids, and you have a long shadow of tension and worry over every aspect of the relationship.

The newness of an extramarital relationship excites and distracts people from the mundane routines of life.

Disappointments and dissatisfactions fade into the background. The pleasure-seeking region of the brain gets excited and activated when a new relationship starts. Norepinephrine and dopamine surge through the body during the attraction phase.

Why does this matter? Understanding how the body responds to these temptations can help balance the seductive emotional high that follows flirtations with someone new. And it can help you understand why it never lasts for long.

What does last are the guilt and recriminations that follow an affair. Infidelity does not have to mean the end of a marriage, but it should mean the start of a serious re-examination of the relationship.

The following tips can help both of you deal with the aftermath of an affair:

  • Expect waves of extreme emotions. Whether infidelity is a deal-breaker or a chance to rebuild depends on the inner strength and willingness of both parties to explore the true meaning of the affair. There is no shortcut around the grief, rejection and anger inherent in this experience.
  • Handle the details with caution. Wounded spouses or partners will often demand to learn as much as possible about the affair. But specifics can cause more grief than relief, complicating the healing process.
  • Reach out for help if either of you starts to feel overwhelmed. Each partner can experience different forms of guilt over the breakdown of the relationship. The betrayal started long before the actual affair.

Barbara Rhode is a licenced marriage and family therapist in private practice in Florida and co-author of Launching: Parenting To College and Beyond.

What is the best time of day to run?

Will running in the morning provide any extra benefits compared to training at any other time of day?

Blackmores’ Online Personal Trainer and Weight Loss Coach Andrew Cate weighs up the pros and cons.

The benefits of a morning run

Have you been told it’s best to run before breakfast? While making sure you fit in a run at any time of the day is the most important factor, there are certainly some advantages to working out in the morning. These benefits include:

  • It helps boosts your metabolic rate at the start of the day, before you’ve eaten.
  • It may help to regulate your appetite for the day.
  • It can increase the consistency of your exercise program, as you’ll be less likely to put off morning exercise for other interruptions.
  • It’s a real ‘pick me up’, and makes you feel energised for the rest of the day.
  • It sets a good precedent for the day, and builds the foundation for a positive mindset which can boost your desire to eat healthier.

The research

There has been some scientific research to highlight the advantages of running before breakfast. One study, published in The Journal of Physiology, found that running first thing in the morning can be beneficial.

For the study, subjects ate a high fat, high kilojoule diet for six weeks, and were divided into a control group, an exercise before breakfast group, and an exercise after breakfast group.

All three groups ate an identical amount of kilojoules (around 12,600 kilojoules), although the two exercise groups distributed their kilojoule intake differently.

Training sessions were also identical apart from the timing, and consisted of a combination of cycling and running exercise for 60 to 90 minutes.

Only the group who exercised before breakfast gained almost no weight and showed no signs of insulin resistance (a marker for poor blood sugar control which can be a pre-cursor to diabetes).

There was no significant difference in changes to exercise capacity in all three intervention groups.

More: Are you running too much?

While these results are interesting, it is important to note that the subjects ate a very high-kilojoule, high-fat diet, and more research is needed before knowing if the same effects would be seen if subjects ate a more “normal” diet.

Lifestyle implications and when to run

There appears to be considerable weight loss benefits that can be gained from performing your running training before breakfast.

However, research has shown that there may not be any additional benefits in terms of improved exercise capacity.

Ultimately, individual runners can use this information to judge for themselves the best time of day to exercise, in order to suit their training goals and circumstances.

On the one hand, runners who wish to shed body fat may benefit from training before breakfast. On the other hand, runners who wish to improve their speed and endurance may find training in a fed state more effective.

This may also involve ingesting kilojoules during longer runs, such as a sports drink.

In fact, if you run for an extended period (say more than 90 minutes), it’s likely you will be able to push yourself harder after consuming kilojoules, and you will get more physical rewards out of training.

There’s also nothing wrong with experimenting with different training techniques to see what impact it has on your results.

More: Foods to make you run faster

Dr Michael Gelb shares his tips for a healthy mind

MENS sana in corpore sano” is a Latin phrase coined 2500 years ago by Socratic priests.

But its meaning (a sound mind in a healthy body) is just as effective today, according to a leading US creativity and innovation expert.

Michael Gelb is set to visit Australia next week as part of the Mind & Its Potential conference in Sydney with his mantra: “Generate positive, creative change in daily life.”

And his recipe is relatively simple: eat well, exercise regularly and think positive.

“Our attitude affects our immune system on a moment to moment basis,” Gelb said “And our physical posture and facial expressions dramatically influence our moods.”

He recommends mindfulness and routine along with regular exercise to strengthen circulation and helps keep a flow of oxygen to the brain.
“Your brain is about 2 per cent of your body weight but it uses more than 20 per cent of your oxygen. Walking, swimming, cycling, dancing, yoga, weight-training and Tai Chi are all beneficial.  The key is to find something that you love and do it every day.”

Gelb also suggests a healthy diet and meditation.

“Meditation serves as a daily ‘tune-up’ for the mind and body,” Gelb said.  “It’s a very efficient way to gain the physiological benefits of concentrated rest (20 minutes of meditation offers the same benefits as three hours of restful sleep).

“Regular meditation also improves reaction time, memory, immune strength and most importantly ‘perceived well-being’. That’s a fancy way to say ‘happiness’.”

These are his top five tips

1. Embrace the notion that your brain is designed to improve with use

2. Devote a minimum of 15 minutes each day to learning something new.

3. Exercise every day

4.  Don’t eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

5. Meditate

Fancy hot dogs are coming to Toronto in a big way

Pizza Hut will be stuffing its crusts with wieners for the next six weeks and just last Tuesday this city’s latest stab at a gourmet hot dog joint opened on College Street to brisk business and much enthusiasm.

Toronto is having a hot dog moment.

“Looks like this will be the next new thing,” says Dinah Koo, owner of Fusia Dog, the year-old, haute hot dog storefront in the Entertainment District.

“This is a good thing. The hot dog is making inroads. It’s been lonely out there all alone.”

From Oct. 15 to Nov. 5, Pizza Hut chains nationwide are tempting palates — or grossing them out — by offering the hot dog pizza. They’ll stuff a small hot dog into the crust of any pizza, but recommend it in The Ultimate. A special slice created around the hot dog, it boasts tomato, bacon, red onion and jalapeno nacho cheese sauce.

It’s a combination that won tremendous applause in London, England last year, Pizza Hut spokespeople say, noting it sold out in just three weeks and had radio hosts halfway around the world wagging their tongues and campaigning for it to come to Toronto.

The pizza, which retails for about $17, comes with mustard and ketchup dipping sauce.

“It’s taking people’s two favourite foods and combining them,” Beverley D’Cruz, Pizza Hut’s marketing director, says. “It’s the whole hot dog experience on a pizza.”

That whole experience is exactly what restaurateur Angelos Economopoulos is out to create at Fancy Franks Gourmet Hot Dogs — although at the opposite end of the hot dog experience spectrum.

These hot dogs are glammed up and adventurous. Frankie Goes to Buffalo smears hot sauce and blue cheese on a panko fried wiener, Franko Fancy-Aano is a wiener wrapped in prosciutto and drizzled with balsamic Dijon mustard. Chick peas, carrots and coconut curry top the Fancy Massala dog.

The College St. restaurant itself screams urban-chic.

The mural on the building’s exterior was painted by ultrahot artist Andrew Kidder, a.k.a. RCade, who is responsible for some of the art at hipster taco spot La Carnita. Inside, the ceilings are high. There’s a long distressed wood and iron communal table slicing the lofty, rectangular restaurant in two so patrons — adults and kids, when lifted on by an adult — can sit while they eat, a novel concept in hot dog dining.

A trendy barn door separates the storage area from the open kitchen, where a raft of staff, all wearing cool, but understated Fancy Franks ball caps, busily deep-fry French fries and dress hot dogs with arugula, gruyère, extra-virgin olive oil and jalapenos — depending on the order, of course.

“It’s a whole new look, style, design,” says Economopoulos. “It’s like what’s been done for the gourmet hamburger.”

Economopoulos, who is tall and cuts an imposing, but friendly figure, has a decade-long history as a fine dining restaurateur, he says, but he’s adamant the Fancy Franks brand stand on its own.

Economopoulos, a father of three, owns Local Restaurant and Lounge on the Danforth and last year sold Trapezzi Supper Club, which was close by. Fancy Franks is his first foray into fast food and he’s been thinking about the wiener for more than two years.

In the name of research, he sampled hot dogs in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, top hot dog consuming cities, according to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, trying to figure out how to make Torontonians crazy for a gourmet version of the tubular meat sandwich. (In 2011, Americans spent $1.7 billion on hot dogs. There are no corresponding Canadian figures.)

It’s been a hard sell in the past.

Picton’s Buddha Dog, which opened in Roncesvalles Village in 2007, closed with little fanfare three years later according to Now magazine. Frankz Finest Hot Dog Palace, near Yonge and Dundas garnered lacklustre reviews and didn’t last.

Koo, who tops one of her signature dogs with kimchi and wraps it in a paratha rather than a bun, says Fusia Dog is “plugging away.”

Torontonians have only been able to commit their love to “street meat” at the hot dog stand, a ubiquitous fixture in the downtown core.

This “low quality” product is giving the hot dog a bad rap at a time when people are increasingly conscious of what they’re putting in their mouths. That’s one challenge Economopoulos has to overcome, he says.

Fancy Franks’ dogs are made from locally sourced, top quality beef, fashioned the “old school way” with lamb casings, so they “snap” when bitten. Toppings are fresh and from neighbouring Kensington market.

“I don’t think anyone’s done it right before,” Economopoulossays, of why haute hot dogs have never taken off in this city. “Until now.”

Loblaw cuts 700 Toronto head office jobs

The decision by Loblaw Companies Limited to chop 700 jobs from the payroll in administration and at head office in Brampton on Tuesday was met with mixed reviews from analysts and investors.

After the announcement, shares rose 84 cents and closed at $34.72.

Loblaw has been upgrading its supply chain technology and infrastructure and while the job cuts may reflect greater efficiencies, Perry Caicco, managing director, CIBC World Markets, warned investors against applying the savings directly to the company’s bottom line.

“Notwithstanding that these job cuts probably reflect a demand from the parent company to generate some return on the outsized capital spending on

systems, it is highly unlikely that these actions will directly boost earnings,” wrote Caicco in a note to investors on Tuesday.

“The recent history of the company suggests that some of these job cuts will

be replaced by equally expensive outsourcing, and that the company will

struggle to re-assign eliminated roles in a productive fashion. In other words,

we believe the risk of poor head office execution and service to stores will be high for at least 12 months.”

Caicco said some portion of the cuts will likely reduce expenses, a necessity in light of the surge in growth in the grocery sector in Canada.

Walmart is in the midst of adding 4.6-million square feet of retail space to operations in Canada by the end of January 2013. More than half of the projects will involve supercentres providing a full range of groceries. Target will be selling groceries in stores opening in Canada next spring.

The family-owned Longo’s is also expanding in carefully selected prime locations in the GTA.

Loblaw Companies Limited is Canada’s largest food retailer, with more than 1,000 corporate and franchised stores, including Loblaws, Zehrs, T&T, Fortinos, Provigo, No Frills and the Real Canadian Superstore. The company employs about 138,000 full- and part-time workers.

In the past 12 months, Loblaws has opened 14 new stores across Canada, creating 2,000 new jobs.

The investment in infrastructure at Loblaw – trimming 250 separate systems down to something manageable – began in 2009.

“It’s a huge job, particularly when you’ve got to keep the old systems running to keep doing business. It’s like changing the engine on a car while the engine is still running,” said retail analyst Ed Strapagiel.

“This year, 2012, is when most of their system conversion takes place. There will likely be teething pains, so add a few months to work the bugs out. I think most professional stock analysts understand this. I think they think Loblaw is doing the right thing, but they would prefer to see it go faster.”

Kenric Tyghe, an analyst with Raymond James Securities told Bloomberg news he viewed the move positively.

“With their new systems capabilities, certain HR requirements are now redundant and hence the job cuts,” he said.

Vicente Trius, president, Loblaw Companies Ltd., broke the news to employees this morning, according to Loblaw spokesperson Julija Hunter.

The changes will take effect starting Tuesday and should be complete within three weeks. The company expects to take a one-time estimated $60 million charge in the fourth quarter as a result.

“We feel really confident in our direction,” Hunter said, adding that the job reductions will make the company more competitive, eliminate duplications and allow the firm to focus more on the customer experience.

“We’re managing costs where it makes sense.”

The transition will not be fully in place until the end of 2014.

Loblaw is a subsidiary of George Weston Ltd., which is sitting on $3.6-billion in cash. A spokesman for George Weston Ltd. said in September that the cash will be used in part to refresh its North American bakeries and Canadian Loblaw stores.

It’s also looking to make acquisitions.

Loblaw saw its profit drop 22 per cent in the first quarter of 2012. Second quarter net earnings per common share were 57 cents, down almost 19 per cent compared to the same period in 2011.

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart—the Best of Their Reunion Pics!

Did anyone really think Robsten wouldn’t survive a little cheating scandal?

Of course not. Since word of their much-anticipated reconciliation broke this week, the Twilight twosome seemed to go out of their way to publicly flaunt their reunion. Yep, Christmas came early for the Twi-hards.

Rob and Kristen back together—on Breaking Dawn Part 2 poster!

So, in celebration of their momentous recoupling, we’ve rounded up the best pics of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart getting back together.

The first sighting, of course, came Saturday night, when R.Pattz and K.Stew hit up a friend’s birthday party together at Chateau Marmont. On Sunday, they were back together at Ye Rustic Inn in Los Feliz.

Rob and Kristen move past cheating scandal—but not quite ready for PDA

And by Monday, wearing similar baseball caps, Robsten headed to lunch together with some pals in Hollywood.

The Rob and Kristen road to reconciliation has been a process over these past few months.

Check out Robsten’s road to reconciliation timeline

A source told E! News, however, that Rob “decided to forgive her. He’s justifying it by believing her story that it was a one off mistake and will never happen again.”

On behalf of Twi-hards everywhere, we certainly hope he’s right.

Lance Armstrong steps down as head of foundation, gets dropped by Nike

In his first acknowledgment that his personal brand has been damaged by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s voluminous account of what it characterized as “serial cheating” throughout his cycling career, Lance Armstrong resigned as chairman of the Livestrong Foundation he created to help cancer patients, he announced Wednesday.

And in a further blow to Armstrong’s reputation, longtime corporate sponsor Nike announced it was terminating its contract with Armstrongbut would continue supporting the Livestrong initiatives.Nike is the foundation’s most substantial corporate partner, marketing a line of athletic apparel and equipment that bears the Livestrong brand. Nike was also the creative mind behind the wildly popular Livestrong wristbands that since 2004 have generated roughly $80 million in proceeds.

Those associations will continue, as least for now. But Armstrong himself will no longer be compensated as a Nike athlete in the wake of USADA’s scathing report, his public personae deemed too tainted even for a company that has remained loyal to, and in some cases cultivated associations with, athletes with controversial images.

USADA’s 202-page report, which was backed by more than 1,000 pages of supporting documents and testimony and made public Oct. 10, asserted that Armstrong achieved all of his record seven Tour de France championships “start to finish” through doping. It relied on the testimony of 26 witness, including 11 of Armstrong’s former teammates. And it included detailed, first-hand accounts of Armstrong not only taking banned substances such as EPO and undergoing blood transfusion but also pressuring teammates on the U.S. Postal Service cycling team to dope, as well, and threatening those in position to testify against him.

After initially reiterating its support of Armstrong, Nike reversed course and severed ties with the athlete Wednesday — one week after the report’s public airing.

“Due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him,” Nike’s statement read.

In announcing he was stepping down as chairman of the Livestrong Foundation, which last week claimed that donations increased after USADA on Aug. 24 stripped Armstrong of his Tour de France titles and banned him from the sport, Armstrong noted the organization’s global reach and effectiveness in helping roughly 2.5 million people affected by cancer.

But, he noted, he had decided “to spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career” by stepping down as the foundation’s chairman, ceding the role to vice chairman Jeff Garvey.

Armstrong, 41, won all seven of his Tour de France titles after surviving his own battle against testicular cancer.

According to crisis management specialist Ashley McCown, the USADA report was simply too damning for Armstrong’s association with either Nike or his foundation to continue.

Stifled West Bank economy drains Palestinians’ hopes

Market vendors at a stall in Hebron Old City

Passers-by linger in front of the window displays on a main shopping street in central Hebron but seem reluctant to enter the stores. In the old market, vendors call out their wares but are largely ignored.

The city is the largest in the West Bank and a major commercial and industrial hub, accounting for about one third of the West Bank’s GDP. Recently it was also the scene of some of the worst violence during Palestinian economic protests.

Locals blame the discontent on high unemployment, low wages and the rising cost of living as well as the heavy burden of consumer debt.

“Our economy depends 100% on customers and as you can see, now the customers have no money,” says Ayman, a tour guide.

As the global recession plays out, the Palestinians are not alone in facing such woes. Yet, as a recent World Bank report highlighted, there are some unique factors that also hurt their economy.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) relies on international aid but has seen a recent shortfall in donor funding, the World Bank says, while the Israeli occupation of the West Bank sets obstacles that “constrain investment, raise costs and hinder economic cohesion”.

Worryingly for the international community, committed to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, there are now many ordinary Palestinians who conclude that the 1993 Oslo Accords should be scrapped.

“We need to go back 20 or 25 years before Oslo. The basic rules of this commitment are so bad for the Palestinian people,” says Amr, who runs a market-stall in Hebron.

Settlement growth

The interim peace agreement produced the current zoning of the West Bank where the main Palestinian urban areas are under the administrative and security control of the PA, but 62%, known as Area C, remains under full Israeli control.

Protests in Hebron
Economic protests in Hebron last month were some of the largest in the West Bank

Jewish settlements have rapidly expanded in Area C in the two decades since the Oslo Accords were signed. The World Bank warns that this restricts the fertile land and water available to Palestinians.

In Hebron, there is also an Israeli military presence to protect about 500 settlers who live inside the city. A survey by Israeli human rights groups in 2007 found that in the area they occupy over 1,800 businesses and warehouses had closed since the start of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising. This was due to movement restrictions and some military orders.

“The Old City has been badly affected because of clashes and the Israeli soldiers coming overnight. Many people have moved out because they don’t feel safe,” says Omar al-Hroub, owner of a jewellery store.

The local governor, Kamal Ahmed is not surprised that Hebron residents have been venting their frustration.

“When we signed the Oslo Agreement we promised many things – freedom, ending the occupation, an independent state and a very good economic situation. It was supposed to take five years, but nothing happened,” he says. “For this reason they are angry.”

Fear and loneliness in China

A section of the printing plant run by the communists in Northern China. Photographs of Stalin and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt are seen on the walls. Mao Tse Tung rules the area with an iron fist and as a consequence the area is in fact a state within a state.

What kind of society will China’s new leaders inherit? China has developed at unimaginable pace, lifting millions out of poverty. But as part of a series of viewpoints on challenges for China’s new leadership, Gerard Lemos, who conducted research in the mega-city of Chongqing, says it is easy to overlook its lonely underbelly.

An old man was hanging upside down in the public square. His feet in traditional cloth shoes were over the parallel bars from which he had suspended himself, for what were presumably his morning exercises. He was fully clothed and in a padded overcoat to combat the spring chill.

I saw this when visiting a factory community in Beijing in 2008. On the face of it, this was a peculiar act to perform in a public space, but people walked past taking no notice. In such traditional Chinese communities, this public square served as a communal living room; most of the people around are friends and neighbours. Not being surprised by the unusual behaviour of your neighbours is an aspect of intimate community life.

But this kind of sight will become rarer as a changing China sees the fragmentation of these communities.

When I was a visiting professor at a Chinese university I was asked by the government’s civil affairs bureau to find out people’s fears and dreams to help the authorities better understand the risks of social unrest.

In the Mao era factory units, between the smoky brick factories and chimneys and cramped, dark flats was a bare concrete public space like the one where this old man was exercising.

Because people lived in such uncomfortable and overcrowded conditions, these public spaces were claimed by residents taking exercise, spontaneous groups performing tai chi or playing Chinese chess. Old men would take their caged songbirds out for some air and a change of scene.

But this way of life is disappearing, in the cities and in the countryside. For many in China isolation is a new experience brought on by economic transformation. In the neighbourhoods where I worked in Chongqing and Beijing, loneliness was spreading like pollution.

The new leadership scheduled to be announced in November will not just have to address failing economic growth and foreign policy dilemmas such as regional territorial disputes, but also the absence of a social safety net, the consequences of the one-child policy and the unhappiness of migrants to cities and factories.

High-rise isolation

For many in China isolation is a new experience brought on by economic transformation.

From the 1950s to 1970s people were allocated to factory units for life by the Party authorities. Megaphones blared propaganda continuously. Workers had to sing Maoist songs, wear uniforms and participate in daily group exercises. Party officials were everywhere and permission was needed for everything, including getting married or moving house.

But there was an upside. The residents were promised a job for life, a free school and clinic. The intention was they stayed in one place all their lives, though the Cultural Revolution threw that into turbulence. Over time living side-by-side turned neighbours into families and families became communities, however hard their lives.

Since the 1990s the factories have been closed and demolished. Farmers’ land near cities is being sold for development into high-rise flats.

One ex-farmer in Chongqing whose land had been confiscated told me: “My land being expropriated [changed my life. I wish] to have my own land and to live my life as a peasant farmer.”

Another was worried about where he would live now that his land had gone: “[My greatest worry] is having no place to live. [I wish] to have more living places built for the peasant workers.” Another said: “[I wish] the urban residents who have just changed from rural residents could all get employed.”

In fact, longstanding residents are evicted from their homes and given a small flat and minimal financial compensation in the least desirable accommodation. Either there is no public space or it is far away and soulless. Employment prospects for ex-farmers are poor or non-existent. There is nothing to do except stay indoors, watch TV or gamble on the stock market – now, some believe, approaching a national obsession.