Saturday, September 29, 2012


Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse
© 2012 David Owen
272 pages

If only all big problems could be tackled with product substitution. We're consumers at heart, and our response to difficulties of all kinds usually involves consumption in one form or another. My car's a problem? Tell me what to drive instead. Wrong water heater? I'll switch. Kitchen counters not green? I'll replace them. The challenge arises when consumption itself is at issue. The world faces a long list of environmental challenges, yet most so-called solutions are either irrelevant or make the real problems worse. That's the conundrum facing anyone who yearns for "sustainability."

Green is in, but what if we’re doing it wrong – and our earnest attempts to be environmentally responsible are backfiring on us? Such is David Owen’s proposal in The Conundrum, in which he asserts that typical approaches to sustainability are only aggravating the problem, and confronts the reader with the possibility that we already know the most effective way to keep the climate crisis in check…the only question is our will to do it. That’s the conundrum.

Owen turned conventional environmental thinking on its head with his The Green Metropolis, which took an economical approach and asserted that cities were the most environmentally prudent technology on earth, for they allow each human being to use as little energy as possible. Cities are part of the solution, but here Owen is more concerned with driving home the extent of the problem.  In the past we have been concerned with using energy more efficiently, but this only allows us to use more energy.  The price of gas is an obvious example: when prices are high, we drive less. We have an incentive to do so. When prices are low, however, we drive more.  Attempts to make our current lifestyle Green are doomed to failure, because the living patterns of the first world in the 21st century are fundamentally energy intensive. The "little things" like using better lightbulbs or recycling cans can't overcome the fact that society as a whole has become utterly wasteful.* Even our attempts to free ourselves from using dirty ol’ fossil fuels only maintain the pattern: solar power plants might use renewable fuel, but the physical construction of the plants systems requires intensive processing of scarce resources.  Ultimately, he argues, the solution to our energy and climate problems is simple: use less energy.

While he doesn’t elaborate on what that entails (having already pointed out the resiliency of cities in a prior book),  readers must take a long, hard look at their own lives to see where waste has made itself a habit. Extravagance has become the norm in the west, where today’s gas station make more use of refrigeration units than the grocery stores of the 1960s.  Waste inherent in the built environment: because we have air-conditioning, for instance, we've stopped bothering to build homes that can mitigate. Our windows are to look out of, not to provide ventilation. Our shutters are plastic decor, not functional.

It remains to be seen if we will make the hard choices. Eventually we will have to: reality will leave us no alternative. I'd tend to recommend The Green Metropolis over this; it makes the same point in a broader context and proposes some solutions.


* Not that this means you should stop bothering. Conventional lightbulbs wasted over 90% of their energy as heat, so if you stick to using them you're only getting a dime of value for every dollar you send to the electric company, and not even that much if you take into account the increased expenditures for air cooling to compensate for all that heat...

Friday, September 28, 2012

No Logo

No Logo: the Case Against the Brand Bullies 
© 1999, 2009; Naomi Klein
544 pages

The political and financial turmoil of the past few years have seen a rising tide of anger targeted against the political power of wealthy corporations. Little wonder: since the crisis erupted in 2007, millions have lost their jobs, yet the corporate officers of these failing businesses continue to award themselves extravagant bonuses, in some cases with taxpayers' money.  And there is no help to be found in the government;  anti-corporate protesters in New York and elsewhere have been set on by police, and the Supreme Court has declared corporations to be "people", whose freedom of speech in the form of campaign donations should not be limited in the least. (And those actual people who express their own freedom of speech by impeding corporate actions? If their protests are judged to have caused $10,000 in losses, they are deemed domestic terrorists and join the 10% of Americans already in prison.) No Brand  is a sharp criticism of corporations, but one from a different era. First published in 1999, she scrutinizes brand corporations first for their business model, which emphasizes style rather than substance, before examining their invasion of public space and notorious legacy of abusive labor practices.

As a child, I scoffed at my classmates’ obsession with the Nike brand. My derision was born not of any preternatural consumer consciousness; my parents simply were not the kind to pay for overpriced t-shirts. For that is what they were; a Nike t-shirt is not made of magic cotton that repels water, heals wounds, or bestows upon its wearer +2 Armor. The same is true of its synthetic products, aimed toward actual athletes: while they may wick sweat and keep users comfortable, they do it no better than those manufactured by Champion or generic brands. Nike has never advertised its gear on the basis of superiority, like washing detergent. And yet early this spring, when shopping for athletic clothes, I went to Amazon and simply typed in “Nike”. I was interested in all manner of sports apparel, and Nike…was sports.

Therein lies the basis of Klein’s criticism.  Brand companies aren’t about quality, they’re about Ideas, and consumers are not paying money for superior merchandise but are instead buying into an image of themselves, of something they want to be. It’s a formula that has given religions and political ideologies success for thousands of years, and today it is the approach of almost every major corporation. But because their products don’t advertise themselves the way quality products might, these brand corporations have to push their product aggressively, and in the section “NO SPACE”, Klein details how brands are using not just conventional media, but putting up advertisements in schools. While parents might merely resent a company taking advantage of a financially struggling school system to hawk its shoes,  this branded invasion is literally dangerous when school cafeterias become hosts to McDonalds annexes and Coca-Cola gains exclusive distribution rights. Children become a captive audience to advertising; their values are those introduced not by parents or concerned teachers, but marketing execs who are grooming the next generation of consumers.

 Because the companies chiefly concern themselves with pushing their Image, and give little attention to the manufacturing side of things, rampant labor abuses escape their notice completely. The abuses are familiar to anyone conversant with the term sweat shop:  long hours, marginal pay, no rights, and no tolerance for anyone who resists the abuse. Even in countries which have something resembling human rights laws, they are often moot where corporations are concerned. In the Philippines, for instance, there exist economic development zones, little islands of virtually zero regulation where the only rules governing corporations are those they impose upon themselves. Shockingly, with their only motivation being profit margins, exploitation is rife.

But in the United States and Europe, citizens’ groups are working to give these companies another motivation. In “NO LOGO”, Klein covers the growth of activism against these companies, showing how boycotts and government actions have forced Nike and other companies to take responsibility for the labor costs involved in their products. This activism isn’t limited to aging hippies or idealistic college students, either: certain groups have met success in stirring up anger in decaying urban areas, among young black men who dream of making a success of themselves by wearing Nike shoes.

 No Logo is as mature a critique of brand corporations as one might ask for – sharply pointed, but not a screed. She builds her arguments up slowly and steadily, allowing the facts to present the case instead of passion.  The result is disturbing and damning, yet encouraging. Definitely a work to remember. (For those who have read the original, Klein updates it with a section that declares President Obama to be the first superbrand president...with the problems therein.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

This Week at the Library (25 September)

Germany's national holiday, Der Tag der Deutschen Einheit, falls this next Wednesday, so this week my reading will be oriented toward 'das Land der Dichter und Denker',  just as in July I celebrated the American and French revolutions. On the reading menu? Germany: Unraveling an Enigma and Five Germanies I Have Known. One is cultural examination; the other, history.

Late last week, Stephen Baker's The Numerati caught my eye. Its cover belies the remarkable content inside, as Baker addresses as how every facet of our lives is being converted into data and tracked. Our masses of decisions and feelings  are turned into bits that computers can analyze so that mathematicians can construct models that allow corporations to target us more accurately -- or 'serve us better', if you prefer. There are seven chapters, detailing the ways we are examined as workers, shoppers, voters,bloggers, potential terrorists, patients, and lovers.  Although Baker is rather optimistic about the future of our lives under the microscope, I for one  find that the idea of being tracked and scrutinized by economic powers stinks of predation. Baker takes heart in the idea that the Numerati, the mathematicians tied to the computers who use their analyses to construct models that predict our behavior,  aren't one monolithic elite. The political scientists are scrutinized as shoppers, and if they object to a shopping cart suggesting where they should go based on their purchase history, they can fight abuse within their field. I don't find this terribly reassuring, especially when it comes to labor issues. I recently read in Naomi Klein's No Logo how a certain coffee firm has realized how much more profitable it is to only call in most of their staff during peak hours, so that people are summoned to work at short intervals throughout the day instead of serving through a shift. The workers exist only for the employer's convenience: the modeling serves the managers' bottom line nicely, because they sell the same amount of merchandise but don't pay nearly as much for labor. The workers, on the other hand,  can't make enough to support themselves and don't have time to do anything productive during their little intervals. It's the kind of story that makes you sympathize with those kids throwing bricks in Seattle.

I have some interesting book reviews and comments lined up for this week -- Naomi Klein's No Logo, David Owen's Conundrum, and William Power's Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.

Teaser Tuesday (25 September)

The conversation cut off by another person's telephone ringing. The voice that trails away as eyes and brain tunnel into a screen. It's annoying when you're the victim, but then, don't you do the same thing yourself? You're in a real place with someone who means a great deal to you, say having lunch with a close friend or colleague or reading a book to a child. To all appearances, you're present and fully engaged. But your attention is provisional, awaiting the next summons from beyond. A faint vibration or beep is all it takes and off you go.

p. 52, Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, William Powers

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly event in which participants share excerpts from their current reads; it is hosted by MizB of ShouldBeReading.

The above is why I keep my cellphone turned off and only check it in the evenings. To everything its place and time..

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Raise the Dawn

Star Trek Typhon Pact: Raise the Dawn
© 2012 David R. George III
400 pages

The ending of Plagues of Night saw me stand to my feet in shock. Not since the Destiny trilogy has there been such a cliffhanger in Trek literature. Raise the Dawn sees David R. George finish what he began, with brilliant success.

Tensions were high between the Federation and the Typhon Pact before this duology, but however much the leaders of the Federation and Romulan Empire might wish to maintain the peace, other members of the Typhon Pact -- and certain blonde, notoriously villainous elements within the Empireitself --  are more bellicose, and their actions have already led to catastrophe. As the president of the Federation resigns herself to the fact that her heavily fatigued people are in for yet another conflict, the Romulan praetor makes a stunning move, one that confirms that the days of two-dimensional bad guys are over.

Trek literature has steadily been pushing the envelope since the publication of the first Avatar books. George doesn't just overturn the apple cart of the status quo;  since Rough Beasts of Empire, he's set it on fire. A few of Trek's characters have been going through the meatgrinder, and while that's been rough going for readers who feel for these characters, Raise the Dawn offers resolution.  All of the stresses introduced in the first four Typhon Pact novels have coalesced here, putting our characters through the fire, even as they battle private battles of their own, like Prynn Tenmei's struggle to let her father go, and Sisko's alienation from his family. Raise the Dawn continues to be expansive; like Plagues of Night, its characters are drawn from across the Trek verse, excluding only the Titan and Voyager crews. But George goes even further by playing with prophetic visions of the kind we saw in "Far Beyond the Stars" and "Image in the Sand"; characters seem to be inhabiting multiple planes of existence at the same time, interacting with one another when they can't possibly be doing so, and it's too brilliantly done to be confusing, except in a delighted way.

George's duology is a must read for fans of Trek literature. I have not been this mesmerized or moved since the Destiny series; only Full Circle has even come close.

Mudhouse Sabbath

Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline 
© 2008 Laura Winner
162 pages

Increasingly, Christian religious scholars are examining Jesus in the context of his Jewish roots. While the works I'm familiar with have done this primarily to understand his teachings as portrayed in the New Testament,  Laura Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath asks: how can Jesus' Jewishiness inform contemporary Christian spirituality? In Mudhouse Sabbath, she examines eleven aspects of Jewish spirituality and discusses how they can be applied more broadly. While her intended audience is Christians,  this slender work can be of some use to any person with a 'spiritual' bent.

Winner is in a unique place to write this book, because despite being Jewish and raised in the conservative tradition, somehow while  studying in England she became an Anglican priest. She writes in her introduction that upon conversion, she at first did away with all of the elements of her Jewish roots -- the practices and tools of her childhood faith -- but then realized she felt as though she was missing something. Restoring those practices in a new context  made sense to her after she realized that since Jesus was Jewish,  taking inspiration from practices that might have been his, even if the contemporary Christian faith has forgotten them,  would mean being more like Jesus.  In this slender little work she addresses the sabbath,  keeping kosher, mourning, hospitality, prayer, body image, fasting, aging, candle-lighting, weddings, and doorposts. Some elements are distinct to Judaism (Shabbat and nailing mini-Torahs to doorposts) while the majority address a given issue in a Jewish context.

Mudhouse Sabbath leaves me with mixed feelings: Christians should explore Jewish spirituality. They should explore Muslim and Buddhist spirituality, too,  and the reverse is the same. No religion, philosophy, or worldview on Earth has a monopoly on truth, and  few are entirely bereft of it. Our minds find strength in exploring diverse pools of thought: homogeneity is stagnation and death.  Mudhouse Sabbath focuses more on what Christians can learn from Jews, but the value of certain practices transcends all boundaries. I'm particularly partial to the idea of sabbaths, for instance, as an affirmation of human dignity. In the United States, we are feverish with activity -- working long hours, then filling our leisure time with scheduled activities. We are constantly "connected" to the larger world, never free to just rest.  I like the idea of people declaring: Enough!.

The slenderness of the volume prevents Winner from developing her ideas, though. She offers sparks of potential insight rather than a roaring fire of enlightenment. Take the chapter on kashrut, or keeping kosher. She doesn't advocate that Christians or anyone else start keeping two separate sets of cookware because pots that have contained milk can never, ever contain milk; instead, she looks at the broader application of food mindfulness, and her example is the value of eating seasonally instead of letting the supermarket fool us into thinking that tomatoes in January are perfectly appropriate. A more salient example would be that of over-consumption -- or more pointedly, a  given company's sanitary standards or labor practices, both of which are in dire shape in the United States.

Although Winner didn't flesh out her ideas as expansively as I would have liked, it may be enough that she prompts Christians to draw inspiration from a broader source, especially given that Christianity tends to be dominated by beliefs instead of practices, and Winner principally addresses ways of working spiritual themes, like awareness, into the fabric of everyday lives.  Actions are more substantial than beliefs and ideas; as Epictetus groused in his handbook, what we intend matters little. ("Your dumbbells are your own affair, O slave; show me your muscles!")

So, may Winner's sparks be enough to ignite a few ideas in those who read his.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Moon Shot

Moon Shot: the Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon
© 1995 Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton. Introduction by Neil Armstrong
383 pages

The Apollo program has been in the news as of late given the death of Neil Armstrong, who with Buzz Aldrin was one of the first men to land on the moon, but my own reading in this subject for the past couple of months was prompted by seeing From the Earth to the Sky, which I've since begun to watch again*.  Moon Shot stands apart from the books I've read previously -- Lost Moon, A Man on the Moon by going beyond Apollo. The authors,  Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, were among the "Mercury Seven", the first Americans chosen to be astronauts, but they were both  medically grounded midway through that first program and spent most of Gemini and Apollo running the astronaut office and flight crew operations. Eventually, they both got their chance to fly, and this is the story of the space program up to 1975, framed by their careers.

 Although the Apollo program would seem to be the star (the book begins with a storied retelling of Apollo 11's landing),  Moon Shot is really "Alan and Deke's book", so the content focuses on Mercury and Gemini, then Apollo 14, and then Deke's triumph when in his early fifties, doctors were finally convinced that the cardiac arrhythmia that grounded him during Mercury was finally resolved and he was able to fly.  In a way,  Moon Shot is the story of the first and last men of Apollo:  Alan Shepard was the first American in space, and Deke Slayton flew the last Apollo module into space, powered by the last Saturn rocket, where he docked with a Soyuz capsule and shook hands with his Russian counterparts, among them Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space.  While there are a great many Apollo histories and astronaut memoirs out there, this is the first I've seen that features Apollo-Soyuz, and follows NASA beyond the last moonlanding mission.  Fittingly, as a tale told in part by a man who participated in Apollo-Soyuz, there are brief sections which give the Russian cosmonauts their own chance to speak, perhaps motivated by the way the sight of Earth from space reduces men to tears and makes them realize how fragile life is, and how stupidly trivial our perceived differences are. By Moon Shot's end,  American and Russian spacewalkers are comrades and fellow explorers -- friends, not foes.  The writing is strong and lively, and given the privileged perspective of the authors -- as  two of the first astronauts, and then the chiefs of the program --  Moon Shot is a very worthy contribution to Apollo literature. It doesn't rival A Man on the Moon for treatment of Apollo itself, but has more extensive background and sees the space race end properly in brotherhood.

* Twelve episodes which are gobsmackingly amazing. Wonderful music, outstanding visuals and acting -- what an accomplishment.

Empire of Illusion

Empire of Illusion: the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
© 2009 Chris Hedges
232 pages

Do we live in a world where images are more important than reality, where perception has supplanted substance? Chris Hedges thinks so, and in Empire of Illusion he deplores the death of authenticity in literacy, education, love,  happiness, and politics.  The result is a singularly disturbing work which provokes deep thought, even though it doesn't established a common cause and answer the obvious question of why things have deteriorated so.

Hedges' title prepared me to think he would be building a case here against some malignant factor in American society while detailing its deprivations, the end result being a call to arms that would allow us to make meaningful change. Instead, Hedges shocks the reader with five separate exposés and leaves us to consider the ramifications. It's almost dispiriting, especially the end piece, "The Illusion of America", in which he mourns the death of civic government to corporate corruption and imperialism. Other essays only examine facets of life, elements which can be isolated and repaired -- but the problem is foundational. All this is delivered with considerable skill:   one can't read more than two sentences without being stung by some scathing rebuke or despairing observation.  This is dramatic prose, and the horrors he reveals almost seem gratuitous -- especially the chapter on the Illusion of Love, which took on the pornography business. I've read some gruesome works before, like Eugene Sledge's memoirs of the Pacific War, but Hedge's look inside smut left me feeling sick in a way I can't remember; exploitation doesn't do justice as a description.

Empire of Illusion is a distressing work, partly because it's meant to do and partly because we're left with no answers. Hedges believes American society is doomed. Politics is utterly corrupt, the educational system only promotes the failing status quo, and those elements in society worth caring about are powerless at the present time.  Perhaps there's no singular cause,  but Hedges' work makes me think of James Howard Kunstler's comment in The KunstlerCast that it was interesting that architecture became cheap and contrived -- cartoonish is a word he uses only as an insult --  at the same time that television was beginning to dominate the American mind,  "pushing its ethos on us".  I think, too, of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, and of Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. Both works attributed a decline in literacy, in thoughtfulness, the expression of substantive ideas to the media of television and the Internet, and I wonder if those media play a larger role than Postman or Carr ever attributed to them.

Although the central criticism is one worth considering, this isn't a book I'd be enthusiastic to recommend. Compelling and on the mark as Hedges is, it is more shocking and disheartening than constructive.

I may re-read this at some point to see if stewing on the ideas make them more helpful. At the moment, two weeks after finishing it, it still leaves me feeling numb.

The Age of Absurdity, Michael Foley
Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brain, Nicholas Carr

The Sun's Heartbeat

The Sun's Heartbeat: and Other Stories from the Life of the Star that Powers Our Planet
2011 pages
290 pages

Consider the sun. For thousands of generations, it has loomed over our kind, radiating heat and light down from above, illuminating our lives and stimulating growth. The ancients worshipped the sun, and not without cause:  its description as the giver of life is more literal than poetic.  Such is the strength of the sun that it crosses a chasm of 93 million miles in only eight seconds, and its every fluctuation can have dire consequences for those of living on Earth.  It is all-important, almost mythical -- and only in the 20th century have we truly begun to understand its reality. An inspiration for divine perfection and stability through the ages, the sun is a writhing, chaotic ball, containing energies that stagger the imagination. In The Sun's Heartbeat, Rob Berman reflects on the importance of the sun -- on how our understanding of it has matured through the ages, and how utterly mesmerizing it still is.

We know, of course, that life is impossible without the sun:  the food chain rather depends on it. But how many people appreciate that life as we know it wouldn't even exist without solar energy? Not only is the sun the source of all our energy, but its cosmic rays stimulate the mutations that make evolution possible. And even more fundamentally, our atoms were forged through the life and death of stars:  their pulsing cores turn basic elements into the heavier ones which constitute the planets and ourselves.  Neil deGrasse Tyson, a prominent American astrophysicist, writes that this knowledge makes him want to grab people in the streets and ask -- "Have you heard this?" Berman shares the same excitement about the sun, the same giddy enthusiasm: solar science is clearly kind of awesome to behold.  While his zeal for communicating can be a little awkward of times, like an high school teacher using teenage slang, it's expressed perfectly in the chapters on the aurora and eclipses.  His description of totality is taken with such care that all the fear, reverence, and wonder of the ages is reborn on the page. This is the peak of a work that abounds in captivating  pieces on the history of solar science, starting with Galileo peering at the sun through a telescope and discovering its spots.  Berman conveys to the reader an understanding of the sun framed through a history of our questions about it, and the approach succeeds wonderfully. Its slight weakness in organization is more than overwhelmed by the fascinating information and the passionate way it is presented.

Storms from the Sun: the Emerging Science of Space Weather,  Michael J. Carlowicz

Friday, September 14, 2012

Books in the News

"Fuel Efficiency Standards Have Costs of Their Own", New York Times
11 September 2012

Synopsis:  while President Obama has been successful in forcing manufacturers to adopt stricter fuel efficiency standards, in the long run  this isn't truly helpful, because it doesn't change drivers' behavior. Americans' problem is not that they use oil too messily: their problem is that they use too much oil, period. Energy economists in the article recommend that the US adopt gas taxes increases more on par with those of Europe: only high prices at the pump will adopt drivers to abandon gas-guzzlers.

Related to: The Green Metropolis, David Owen

In The Green Metropolis, Owen also stresses the need to make Americans aware of how truly expensive our auto-dominated society is by raising the gas tax: he also emphasizes that we can't consume our way out of environmental consequences. We can no longer afford wasteful lifestyle, or be content with the consolations of  greenwashing. In the book, Owen advocates adapting to the energy demands of the 21st century by abandoning sprawl for walkable cities, where we can likewise ditch cars.  He takes an economical approach to environmentalism, which I think carries a stronger argument. Experience it in brief in an interview titled "Your Prius Won't Save You".

Relatedly, The Economist has a series of articles on on how people are already adapting by biking more, including one published on 8 September claled "Vive la révolution"

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

This Week at the Library (12 September)

About a week ago, ten inches of rain were dumped on my hometown in 24 hours, leading to widespread flooding. Various services around town were disrupted, meaning the people who -- inexplicably -- journeyed to the library in the midst of the downpour found it with only intermittent Internet access, with leaks in the roof and library folk running around trying to cover books and equipment. And on top of this, a hamster escaped. Twice.

Seriously, it made headlines.  As the director said, "From the sublime to the ridiculous." I have managed to do some reading, though, in between the water-treading and hamster-chasing.

I read two books within a day of starting them: Summer of my German Soldier by Bette Green, which is a bit of teen fiction about a lonely young Jewish-American girl who befriends a German POW, who makes her realize she does have worth, despite the opinion of her parents, and makes her look beyond simple prejudice. It's a sweet story, albeit a trifle sad. The other was a Star Trek book -- the sequel to Plagues of Night -- which I'll give full comments to later.

I'd prefer to give Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies a regular review, but it is plainly obvious that I am not going to find the time anytime soon, especially given that I can't seem to help reading books even when the pile of books I want to review is high enough to appear as a radar blip. My guilt is alleviated by the fact that despite its quality, this is not a book that will be read by a mass audience.  Sure, I wolfed it down, but I'm contemplating three books on garbage and waste management and wondering if two out of the three will suffice to meet my needs. My own reading tastes are a bit...eccentric.

Essentially, Consuming Power examines the way American choices regarding technology -- specifically, which technologies to use, and in which ways -- shape society. It's short for the timespan it covers, but dense; the word muscular comes to mind. Nye wastes no words: : every sentence carries with it the meat of facts or analysis. He has grievances with those who believe certain technologies always have particular effects on society, like the introduction of the automobile  leading to a society whose transportation infrastructure is wholly oriented toward cars. Human choices created the highways and subsidies cars thrive in, and human choices eroded the rail networks that once tied the nation together. The choices we make regarding which technologies to invest in dictate our future actions, however: the United States will be hard-pressed to move away from an automobile-oriented system if even it badly wants, and needs to. Other nations -- which made different choices  regarding the automobile -- have more options.

While this argument has its merits,  I think Nye overestimates the role of human choice. We seem to be a species dedicating to following the path of least resistance: if a technology allows us to do a thing, and it occurs to us to do it, we'll happily do it without sitting down and thinking terribly long about the consequences. Geography and history had more to do with Europe's different approach to cars than human choice: Europeans couldn't sprawl around sloppily because they don't have an entire continent of land to waste.  At the same time, this criticism reinforces Nye's other argument, that choices dictate future choices.  Once arrangements have been made for one system, it's difficult to adopt to another. Europe would find it difficult to impose suburban sprawl on itself. While Nye doesn't have an obvious agenda, he's plainly not impressed with the way Americans have so limited themselves and their future energy options. The course of our energy history, it seems, is have put more eggs into fewer baskets.

Consuming Power is a strong read for those interested in American economy, industry, and energy.

"I think maybe good changes will come when our leaders are better and there aren't any evil dictators," I said.
Anton nodded. "There are those who would agree with you. But leaders don't usually spring forth to impose their will upon a helpless people. They, like department stores, are in business to give people what they think they want."

(Summer of my German Soldier, p. 142).

"No one is more keenly aware of advertising's ubiquity than the advertisers themselves, who view commercial inundation as a clear and persuasive call for more -- and more intrusive -- advertising. With so much competition, the agencies must spend more than ever to make sure their pitch screeches so loud it can be heard over all the others. David Lubars, a senior ad executive with the Omnicom Group, explains the industry's guiding principle with more candor than most. Consumers, he says, 'are like roaches -- you spray them and spray them and they get immune after a while.'"

p. 9, No Logo. Naomi Klein.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (11 September)

Tuesday's the time for teasing...

A typical Kernaghanism is to compare and contrast the plush living conditions of the dogs on the set of 101 Dalmatians with the shacks in which the Haitian workers live who sewed Disney pajamas decorated with the movie's characters. The animals, he says, stayed in "doggie condos" fitted with cushy beds and heat lamps, were cared for by on-call vets and served beef and chicken. The Haitian workers live in malaria- and dysentery-infested hovels, sleep on cots, and can rarely afford to buy meat or go to the doctor. It is in this collision between the life of brand and the reality of production that Kernaghan works his own marketing magic.

p. 352, No Logo. Naomi Klein.

Prior to leaving for Haiti, I went to a Wal-Mart store on Long Island and purchased several Disney garments which had been made in Haiti. I showed these to the crowd of workers, who immediately recognized the clothing they had made...I helped up a size four Pocahontas T-shirt. I showed them the Wal-Mart price tag indicating $10.97. But it was only when I translated the $10.97 into the local currency -- 172.26 gourdes -- that all at once, in unison, the workers screamed with shock, disbelief, anger, and a mixture of pain and sadness, as their eyes remained fixed on the Pocahontas shirt....In a single day, they worked on hundreds of Disney shirts. Yet the sales price of just one shirt in the U.S. amounted to nearly five days of their wages!

p. 353, No Logo, Naomi Klein. Quoting Charles Kernaghan.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Most Glorious Fourth

The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg, July 4th, 1863
© 2002 Duane Schultz
447 pages

When the American Civil War began in 1861, no one imagined that it would devastate the countryside for four long years. All the attempts to bring the war to a quick end, in one decisive battle,  failed, turning the war into one of attrition. Most of those failures were those of the Union army's, and for the first two years of the conflict it seemed as though the Union might actually remain broken. But then, on the Fourth of July in 1863 -- the anniversary of the nation's birthday --  two battles came to an end. In the west, the Federal siege of Vicksburg ended in the surrender of the city to General Grant; in the east,  General Lee sent the pride of his army to be slaughtered on the center of the Union lines in Gettysburg -- ending his invasion of the north, and crippling his strength.  Either battle might have marked the turning point of the war: together,  they were death knell of the ill-born confederacy. The Most Glorious Fourth is the story of the struggles that culminated on that Independence Day, but not one that celebrates the turning point of the war: instead, using Abraham Lincoln as a grounding figure, Schultz paints the day as a mixed blessing -- both a triumph and a tragedy as a missed opportunity to end the war in 1863.

Telling the story of these two struggles at the same time is difficult, given their varying scales. The Vicksburg campaign lasted months; Gettysburg was a three-day affair. The whole of Gettysburg -- all of the skirmishes, movements, what-if questions, stunning decisions -- took place during three days where Vicksburg was a foregone conclusion. Schultz tries mightily, though, and manages to make it work for the most part.  The spotlight is somewhat split: Vicksburg takes center stage in the first half of the book, while Gettysburg dominates the second half.  Schultz's approach is more casual than one might expect from a serious history of the period; at times, it reads almost like a novel, complete with dialogue.  It's definitely more popular history than scholarly, but that's no serious detraction.  Readers completely unfamiliar with the history of the war, but nonetheless interested in these two battles, will be served ably.  The section on Vicksburg isn't as detailed or harrowing as I expected:  Schultz is strongest when addressing Gettysburg.

Ultimately, Schultz's recommends itself not because of the military narrative, but for the way he demonstrates the human side of war and reflects on the battle's aftermath. While it' s not a social history of the war,  nor does it use the harrowing experiences to criticize the conflict,  the recurring role of civilians was refreshing and illustrates that the costs of war are not limited to those who volunteered to go into danger. At Vicksburg, mothers are forced to flee with their children into caves to take refuge from the shelling of the city, while living on increasingly-scarce rations: in Gettysburg,  not only were the food and goods of the town in demand by both armies, but the town itself became a battlefield. One woman rebuked a Confederate sharpshooter from trying to use her attic as his nest, realizing he would draw fire upon her home. Her concern was not unjustified, for Gettysburg did claim its civilian casualties.  And rather than exulting in the days' triumphs, Schultz reflects on the day as one that was ultimately disappointing. Abraham Lincoln, who is seen throughout the work  visiting the telegraph office to find out if there's any news of the fate of his army -- and the nation -- is not overjoyed to learn that Vicksburg has fallen, thus giving the Union complete control of the Mississippi and dividing the Confederacy on the same day that Lee's invasion was repulsed. Instead, he is disappointed at his newly-appointed general (Meade)'s lack of tenacity. Instead of seizing the opportunity to crush or trap Lee, Meade licks his wounds for days after the battle. By the time he orders the army into action, the Army of Virginia had stolen across the Potomac to the safe retreat of the south.  Schultz's work is the first Gettysburg history I've read which doesn't end with Lee's defeat,  but follows the action of his and Meade's army in the days that follow.

The Most Glorious Fourth is an easy and engaging read, obviously of interest to American Civil War aficionados.

Top Ten Books to Read This Autumn

This week, the Broke and Brookish inquire: what are your reading plans for the fall?

At the start of the summer, they posed a similar question, and looking back it seems I read most of the books I'd intended to read, the exceptions being Steven Saylor's The Seven Wonders and Charles C. Mann's 1493: Discovering the World that Columbus Created. I'm still very much interested in them, but they get edged out by flashier works.

1. Space Chronicles, Neil deGrasse Tyson

Space...the final frontier. Why did we go there? How did we do it? Should we keep going?  Why aren't we already?  The successor to Carl Sagan in terms of being  America's top science booster, Tyson's latest book is (You probably guessed that.) I haven't read many of his books, but I listen to his podcast weekly...and if I ever go to New York, my first stop will be the Hayden Planetarium to meet him, so I'm looking forward to this.

2. Engines of War by Christian Wolmar

Wolmar wrote a captivating social history of railroads, and as it turns out he's authored a host of books on trains, recently issuing a book that focused entirely on American railroads, called The Great Railway Revolution. Engines of War looks at trains and their use in...well, war. (Again, you probably guessed that.)

3. Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse, by David Owen

Turns out when you increase the efficiency of using energy, people use more energy. Whoops.  You can get the jist of this book in Owen's interview, "Your Pirus Won't Save You".

4. Star Trek Typhon Pact: Brinkmanship, Una McCormack ;  Star Trek Voyager: The Eternal Tide, Kirsten Breyer

These will actually be new releases. Brinkmanship is, as some might be able to guess from the title, basically the Cuban Missile Crisis in space. The Eternal Tide will be the latest in Beyer's exceptional run of Star Trek: Voyager titles. This one features Janeway on the cover, so I figure there's a chance she'll be returning from not-really-being-dead, sort of like Sisko in Unity. And if Janeway's coming back...all will be sunshine and roses.

I exaggerate, but it will be kind of awesome.

5. The Sun's Heartbeat:  And Other Stories from the Life of the Star That Powers Our Planet, Bob Berman

I figure I'll want a science read (or four) after finishing Twilight of the Mammoths, and this  should have all of the wonder of astronomy without the mind-screwiness of physics.

6. Tributes

As per my custom of celebrating various peoples near their national holidays, this fall I'll be reading books relating to both German and English culture, around 3 October and 5 November. I already have my English books picked out, if not purchased, and while I won't spoil the entire set, Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island will be among them. Germany has proven to be a bit more difficult; most books on it tend to relate to one of the world wars, and I dislike the way they dominate its reputation. Germany: Unraveling an Enigma seems promising, though.

(And yes, I know Guy Fawkes Night isn't England's national holiday. It's as close as I can find, though.)

7. Edwardian Europe

It's been a while since I visited my university stomping ground of Europe in the early 20th century. Around Armistice Day, I may read a Great-War related work (La Feu, Henri Barbusse) or a general history, like Philip Blom's The Vertigo Years.

8. Either Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash or Gone Tomorrow: the Hidden Life of Garbage.

It's so terribly difficult to decide!

9. The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan

A look at the other side of plant domestication: specifically, Pollan examines how plants have used us to benefit them.

10. Leftovers

I'm still intending to read the new releases by Mann and Saylor, of course.  The first is a history of early globalization and the second, a series of mystery short stories, each based around one of the Ancient Wonders of the World.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Plagues of Night

Star Trek Typhon Pact: Plagues of Night
© 2012 David R. George III
388 pages

The dust had scarcely settled after the last great Borg War when the battered Federation found itself facing yet another threat when numerous hostile species on its borders created the Typhon Pact, a confederacy that soon entered into a Cold War with the gravely wounded Klingon and Federation powers. The first four Typhon Pact novels (and a fifth work, a novella) each explored one of the constituent members of the Pact while at the same time establishing the new polity as a potent force to be reckoned with. Those tales of espionage and politics set the stage, and now David R. George has delivered the first Typhon Pact 'epic', one which spans the quadrants and involves the Enterprise-E and the far-flung crew of Deep Space Nine.

After the events of Star Trek: Destiny, billions were dead and the Federation utterly exhausted, and yet no relief was to be found. In the wake of such calamity, six powers hostile to the Federation and ringing its borders sought strength in unity. They created the Typhon Pact, a confederacy of scum and villainy, and  changed the map forever. The Federation and its greatest ally, the Klingon Empire, were soon engaged in a "cold war" with the Typhon Pact. The first four novels of the series each focused one of the constituent members of the Pact (the Breen, the Romulans,) while following the opening power plays between the two polities. Tales of espionage and political wrangling followed, and the stage was set. David R. George has delivered the first Typhon Pact "epic", one which spans the quadrants and involves both the Enterprise-E and the far-flung crew of Deep Space Nine. Plagues of Night is the opening act, ending on a cliffhanger that saw me stand to my feet in astonishment.

The Federation and the Typhon Pact are not, technically, at war, but both strive to maintain the balance of power that will keep the peace -- through means that threaten it, like covertly attacking one another's shipyards to steal data.  Although the Typhon Pact novels established the Pact as a potent force to be reckoned with, they aren't simple villains. Each power has its own ambitions, and the leaders of the Romulan Star Empire dearly want peace.  Plagues of Night uses the events of the first four novels (especially Zero Sum Game and Paths of Disharmony) to establish rising tension between the Federation and the Pact,  and both the RSE and Federation leaders want to prevent said tension from erupting into open war.  But the achievements of diplomacy -- trade agreements and a joint scientific mission into the Gamma Quadrant -- are threatened to perversely turned into the spark of war when things go terribly wrong.

In addition to creating a thriller of a scope we've not seen since the Destiny books, George provides the long-awaited return to the Deep Space Nine cast of characters.  The DS9 relaunch was seemingly abandoned when Destiny came onto the scene: there's a five-year gap between the last DS9 book and the events of that magnificent trilogy.  Readers were teased with what might have happened in the meantime in Rough Beasts of Empire, and here the station takes center stage under its new commanding officer, Ro Laren. Character growth in Plagues of Night centers on Sisko, who is still grappling with the aftermath of decisions he made after Unity. Abandoned by the prophets,  and fearful for his family's safety, Sisko is a man without a friend -- tremendously lonely. And bless his heart, it's going to get worse.

I purchased this book online, and I figured after I read it I'd buy the second book. I couldn't wait. Yesterday, I drove an hour or so to the nearest bookseller and hunted down a copy of the conclusion. I...cannot wait.  

Star Trek Typhon Pact on TvTropes