Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Teaser Tuesday (28 May): Sugar, Sugar

First, the food companies themselves are hooked on salt, sugar, and fat. Their relentless drive to achieve the greatest allure for the lowest possible cost has drawn them, inexorably, to these three ingredients time and time again. Sugar not only sweetens, it replaces more costly ingredients -- like tomatoes in ketchup -- to add bulk and texture. For little added expense a variety of fats can be slipped into food formulas to stimulate overeating and improve mouthfeel. And salt, barely more expensive than water, has miraculous powers to boost the appeal of processed food.

P. xxviii - xxix, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

I just started this today, and upon seeing these words in the introduction they seemed worth sharing. I've become something of a pure-foods guy in recent years, though I do have a weakness for peanut butter and graham crackers. So far this book is making a decision to abandon processed foods completely look more and more attractive.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Invisible Heart

The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance
© 2001 Russ Roberts
282 pages

The Invisible Heart is an oddly sweet argument introduction to the thinking behind classically liberal economics, taking the form of a dialogue between one Sam Gordon, an economics professor, and Laura Silver, an idealistic English instructor who has just begun working at the same private school as Sam. The two hit it off immediately, even though Laura thinks economists are soulless cretins obsessed with money at the expense of the noble expressions of the human spirit, like art and safety regulations. Sam is a lonely, embattled man, and he wants desperately to be understood by Laura, who -- despite not sharing Sam's  views -- finds his earnest passion fascinating.  And so as a year transpires, the two chance to meet time and again; first accidentally, and then as their friendship develops, deliberately. Their relationship is fed by argument, for the book is an extensive argument for libertarianism.

Laura is, by virtually everyone's meter, a liberal:  she's very much concerned about the poor and oppressed. She believes firmly in safety regulations, minimum-wage laws, environmental protections -- the state exists to right the wrongs created by capitalism, to curb the abuses of the free market. Sam, in contrast, is a "classical" liberal who believes the freer the market, the freer the people. He takes Adam Smith's notion of an invisible hand at work in the marketplace for granted: let the market work, and things will sort themselves out. Companies that produce bad products will go out of business; businesses that don't pay well enough won't be able to find workers.

Although Sam's view is partially pragmatic --letting things flow naturally is considerably easier than trying to engineer everything --  he's also driven by principle. People shouldn't meddle with the lives of others, and they certainly shouldn't try to justify their interference by using the state to do the meddling. Sure, seatbelts are a great idea -- but making it illegal not to wear a seatbelt is an abominable one.  What right does the government have to tell people how they may or may not use their own property?  Sam also points out that meddling always has unintended consequences: when the Baptist ban drinking on Sundays, the moralists may cheer -- but so do the bootleggers, because now they can charge a premium for hooch that day. By the same token, when the state mandates the use of scrubbers to clean factory emissions,  the manufacturers of those scrubbers give a cheer.* Why not simply fine companies that emit noxious fumes and let that be an incentive for them to find their own best way of eliminating emissions, rather than forcing them to buy a particular product, and thus enrich only a few?  Spread the wealth around -- embrace competition.  Environmental protection, incidentally, is the one area where Gordon isn't so much a free marketeer, but still manifestly libertarian. He believes firmly in personal responsibility, which is why he wears seat belts but hates the idea of making other people wear theirs. But whereas a driver choosing comfort over safety only endangers his own life, a company dumping waste into a river or into the air hurts everyone. They should take care of their own messes -- but care should be taken in making them do it, as with the scrubbers example.

It's hard not to like Sam, even if you disagree with him, as Laura does. He's a nice guy; like Laura, he wants a better world, but unlike he thinks he should be brought about in an organic way -- that it should emerge from the bottom-up, from the marketplace, rather than being forcibly constructed by states, from the top down.  His arguments sometimes seem counter-intuitive;  he defies expectations. Although an economist primarily concerned with self-interest, Sam isn't himself particularly focused on wealth. One of his arguments with Laura is over the question: are teachers underpaid? Sam thinks not. Yes, their salary is considerably less than most others, but they're compensated in different ways. They have the summers off, for instance, the work becomes easier with time, and they have the chronic joy of seeing "lightbulbs come on in students' heads". If they were truly underpaid, the school would be unable to find people to fill the positions. Besides, he says; it's so much easier to be content with what you have.   Epicurean simplicity isn't what I would expect from an advocate of capitalism, the ethos of which seems to be MORE!

Although I, like Laura, don't quite agree with all of Sam's arguments, it's difficult not to find his earnestness compelling. His principles are outstanding, but it's easy to argue for the free market when you are protected from the fray. The Invisible Heart's author, Russ Roberts, is essentially Sam Gordon: a genuinely nice and fantastically interesting fellow who teaches economics, though at the university level. How can a university economist, safely ensconced in an 'ivory tower', feel comfortable telling people struggling to get by on a minimum wage that said minimum is a bad idea, as it prices those willing to work less out of the market?  And it's easy to say that a factory that didn't pay enough won't find workers, but that's preposterous: when unemployment is high and people are desperate for food, they will accept despicable conditions because they have no other options. There isn't competition for employment in a one-factory town.

And yet despite these reservations, The Invisible Heart stirs me. I wish I'd purchased it instead of borrowing it through the interlibrary loan system, because it's one I'm going to want to revisit. If you want your assumptions questioned, if you want your mind to be provoked into thought by someone who disagrees with you but who is so nice about it that you feel more invigorated  by the challenge than insulted, this is a book to read.  Although about economics, the 'dismal science', Invisible Heart is anything but dismal, freely using poetry, literature, and philosophy to explore the meaning of life.

* For a more real-world example:  I couldn't help but think of reading about a politician who advocated mandatory drug testing who turned out to be bankrolled by the manufacturers of the testing supplies. Baptists and bootleggers...

EconTalk, the author's podcast.

A Chain of Thunder

A Chain of Thunder
© 2013 Jeff Shaara

‘Twas at the Seige of Vicksburg,
Of Vicksburg, of Vicksburg,
‘Twas at the Seige of Vicksburg,
When the Parrott shells were whistlin’ through the air...

July 4th, 1863 was an unfortunate day for the Confederate States of America. Even as Robert E. Lee limped away from the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, where some of his finest, long-victorious troops were butchered and turned away,  General John Pemberton was preparing to surrender the City of Vicksburg to Ulysses S. Grant. With it, the Mississippi river would be controlled entirely by the Federal army, and the western rebelling states cut off from the rest of the south.  Chain of Thunder is the story of the battles and the siege that led to that surrender, the story of the fall of Vicksburg as told through the generals and soldiers of both armies...and usually for for Shaara, through the eyes of a civilian woman. The follow-up to Blaze of Glory, which covered Shiloh, it's second in Jeff Shaara's new Civil War trilogy, covering the western theater.

Although I generally expect a good tale from Shaara, a novel about Vicksburg gave me pause; how exciting can reading about one army waiting for a city to grow tired of starving be?  After a slow start, though, Chain of Thunder proves a worthy sequel.  The book is not entirely about the siege; Shaara covers both armies as they maneuver and fight in a series of skirmishes around Mississippi, as the Federal army moves doggedly toward Vicksburg and the Confederates try time and again to thwart their progress. The skirmishes are all one-sided, in part because the rebels are cursed by a divided command:  Pemberton, commanding on the ground, is subjected to opposing orders from Jefferson Davis and General Johnson, Pemberton's superior.  But whereas Jefferson has given Pemberton a general order ("Defend Vicksburg at all costs") and leaves the decision up to him how to do it, Johnson insists on trying to command the battle from long-distant Tennessee. Not only does Pemberton have to figure out whose orders to obey, but his own subordinates have opinions of their own, and by golly if Pemberton isn't going to do what they think is best, they'll take their troops and go home.  Pemberton had the misfortune to be born a Yankee, and is thus regarded by all of the characters as suspect. His wife may be a southern belle, and he may claim to be fighting for her honor and defense, but the only people south of the Mason-Dixon who believe him are her and Jefferson Davis.

Once the rebels are pushed back to Vicksburg itself, the tempo changes; the city is a fortress, and not even Grant can take it.  He thus digs in for a siege while anxiously looking behind him in case Johnson wanders in with another army. Pemberton's only hope is the possible arrival of Johnson, and it is that hope that prompts him to try to endure the siege. The action doesn't disappear during these long weeks of waiting:  in addition to scenes from the home front through a young society lady turned nurse (think of an orphaned Scarlett O'Hara, but considerably more pleasant), readers are treated to a duel of sharpshooters. Chain of Thunder is less dominated by combat than Blaze of Glory; instead, Shaara follows up on the stories of his characters as introduced in the Shiloh novel; the conflict between Johnson, Pemberton, and Davis, for instance, and the evolution of William Sherman's total-war thinking. The book defends the characters of both Pemberton (dismissed as an faithless incompetent) and Grant (regarded as a sometimes drunkard) while making a few attacks of its own, like unexpected swipe at the modern anti-vaccine movement.  I found it rather enjoyable on the whole.

Oh, well will we remember
Remember, remember,
Tough mule meat, June sans November,
And the minie-balls that whistled through the air!

("Twas at the Siege of Vicksburg", ACW song performed by Bobby Horton.)

The Most Glorious Fourth

Friday, May 17, 2013


© 1949 George Orwell
326 pages

1984 needs no introduction. Written in 1949, it envisioned a world of constant surveillance, perpetual war, and a state with  complete control over people’s minds. Concepts from it – “Big Brother”, “thought police”,  and “doublethink” --  appear in pop culture from time to time.  Written as a warning, it has gone unheeded. Today, systems of surveillance are more sophisticated than ever, featuring “SmartCameras” that  track automatically and signal if they exhibit ‘aberrant’ behavior; meanwhile, SmartPhones like the iphone from Apple allow anyone’s location to be tracked – and governments like that of the United States engage in widespread warrantless wiretapping.   Such rampant invasions of privacy are condoned in the name of National Security or convenience, and one wonders when people will say “Enough!”

            I read 1984 back in high school, and it was the first work I ever read without an encouraging ending. I found it depressing, and it had that same effect this week, even though what was coming.  If you have never read it, or if it has been a while since experiencing the story,  it’s one of a man named Winston Smith, who thinks he is the only sane man in the world. Like many others in Airstrip One, an area of a global empire once known as England, he lives a bleak, depressing life. The buildings around him are decaying, the food is terrible, and  most manufactured goods are shoddy if available at all. And there are no arts to feed the soul, to give the mind relief from the universe – no culture, no science, not even honest laughter.  Smith is miserable, and so is everyone else – but he’s seemingly the only man who knows he is miserable, who knows that life can’t be this bad on accident. But then he chances to find a kindred spirit, and his spirits begin to soar…until they’re captured again, and ground up like so much beef chuck.

            What strikes me most about 1984 is the utter inhumanity that people are subjected to.  Every aspect of life is Controlled:  there is no spontaneity. Even the English language is being steadily reduced, a mighty oak turned into a utility pole stinking of resin. English in its altered form, “Newspeak”, is an engineered tongue, crafted carefully with the intention of making seditious – free and expressive – thought impossible.  Virtually everyone live under the constant view and orders of the Telescreen, which not only spews forth propaganda, but issues orders. Under such scrutiny, people live behind masks, constantly managing their faces and preventing any kind of expression, even unguarded eyes, from betraying them to the telescreen. Everything sacred to the human experience – music, family life – is broken and its remnants put to use: children, for instance, spy on their parents.  Little wonder that Winston’s greatest acts of defiance comes in having sex in a field:  such passion is impossible to govern, which is why the Party seeks to destroy it completely.

            How, in 1949, did Orwell manage to predict such supremacy of institutions and machines over men?  He had witnessed elements of both already, at work both in totalitarian and democratic states during World War 2, but considering how primitive television was in those days the domination of the telescreen in his work is remarkable. What would Orwell make of the dominance of computers and the internet in our lives, wherein we expose so much of our private selves thinking we are safe…when in reality,  every search query into a Google box, every click of the mouse, can be monitored and saved into a database?

            1984 is a short work, barely three hundred pages, but it speaks volumes about the human condition. It's never been more important to read than this day and age.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Botany of Desire

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World
© 2001 Michael Pollan
256 pages

     Meander through your garden and ponder the meaning of life; such is the advice of Michael Pollan, who in The Botany of Desire asks what four domesticated plants (apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes)  might tell us about ourselves. Although he describes his subject as human-plant coevolution, the final result is more philosophical than scientific. In truth, it’s a little of both – a surprising read that makes the average garden even more interesting.

            Pollan’s four chosen examples allow him to explore the subjects of sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. The first section on apples is the most ‘scientific’, as he establishes fruits’ sweetness as not some happy accident, but an evolutionary strategy: animals that eat fruits swallow their seeds – and later deposit them in a pile of fertilizer. That sweetness appeals to us because it’s a signal: here lies energy-giving glucose, lots of it. Pollan’s treatment of each subject isn’t a straightforward “The relationship between plants and human evolution is THIS and THAT” --  Pollan strolls,  exploring side roads that somehow connect to one another. The section on apples introduces Johnny Appleseed,  praise for the merits of apple reproduction (each apple contains five radically different seeds: that great variety has allowed apple trees to thrive in different climates), and the introduction of a dichotomy that becomes a running theme: that of Apollian order and Dionysian wildness.

            Tulips inspire a discussion of beauty, with a history of tulip mania in Holland thrown in; Holland is also the stage for much of the discussion of marijuana. In that section, readers are treated to the comic tale of Pollan growing marijuana in his home garden in pot-friendlier times, then acting like a panicked sitcom character when his firewood delivery man, who doubled as a police chief, stopped by the homestead. This section is the most philosophical, since Pollan uses it to muse on consciousness. The final chapter, on potatoes and control, will be familiar ground to those who know Pollan’s usual subject. Here he revisits a topic introduced with the apples, the problems endemic to monocultures, and examines both the Irish Potato Famine and GMOs.  Each account is a mixture of history, science, philosophy, and personal anecdotes, and in this final section Pollan records his attempt to grow a potato that was engineered by Monsanto to produce its own insecticide, the “New Leaf”.  That astonished me: both that an author who despised GMOs and nutritional science for taking over food  would allow such things in his garden, and that Monsanto would allow the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a contributor to Food, Inc to play journalist with their magic potatoes. But Botany of Desire was written in 2001, possibly before Pollan had established his reputation as being critical of industrialized agriculture.

            Botany of Desire is fun reading for a foodie: it doesn’t have the teeth that Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food had,  but it’s also happily missing the anti-science tint that marred both of those. As usual, he provides plenty of food for thought.

Reefer Madness, Eric Schlosser
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser
In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan

Garbage Land

Garbage Land: on the Secret Trail of Trash
© 2006 Elizabeth Royte
335 pages

Where does the garbage go? In an impressive attempt to answer that most pressing question of modern life, Elizabeth Royte spends a year following her trash to landfills, incinerators, recycling centers, municipal compost dumps,  and even water treatment plants. As she learns how waste is handled, managed, and (sometimes) reclaimed, Royte puts the lessons learned into effect in her own household.  Subjecting her kitchen rubbish bin to a weekly weigh-in, she strives to emphasize the “reduce” aspect of environmentalism’s mantra: reduce, reuse, and recycle.  The result of her study is the best book on garbage you’ve never read, one that follows the entire waste stream and offers ways households and nations can stop wasting so many resources while  simultaneously producing so much garbage.

Royte opens with a chapter on the history of waste, quoting Susan Strasser’s Waste and Want: A Social History of Garbage. Strasser's account demonstrated how, in an era where households were regarded as productive places themselves, and not just dens of consumption, people found uses for virtually everything -- feeding scraps to chickens and pigs,  burning rubbish for fuel, using their sewing talents to repurpose aging clothing. The account also illustrated the trends that create such so much waste today, like the emphasis on sanitation that led to paper cups and pigless streets, as well as the rise of the consumer economy, fueled  by goods created with a short design life.  Royte's account, however, is not a history of how waste came to be, but how we handle it today.

She tracks first her regular garbage,  tagging along with sanitation men on their route and learning the ins and outs of their occupation, before meeting with the corporate executives of waste management firms and getting an idea for the large-scale practicalities: how does one design a sanitary landfill, for instance? It's not simply a question of digging a hole and throwing rubbish in: in fact,  modern landfill cells are elaborate, hermetically sealed tombs to our waste, horrifically expensive but still not quite up to the job of preventing noxious chemicals from leaching into the soil.  Although some garbage CEOs are proud of their dumps, others are secretive, and Royte's attempts to get a first-hand look at them involve canoing around perimeters and sneaking through fences in the wilderness.

Royte next examines composting, both in households and by cities. Composting organic wastes like kitchen scraps (barring meat) not only removes them from the trash can, but puts them to use: if tucked away properly,  scraps can be broken down into garden soil and put to use growing more food. Royte adopted composting herself, with mixed results.  She then moves on to recycling: some cities and states have mandatory recycling, and others only encourage it. Recycling proved more problematic than she expected: while paper was a straightforward affair,  "recycling plastic" seemed to mean nothing more than "dumping plastic in another hemisphere".   With the kitchen exhausted, Royte took on the bathroom, following the waste stream down the toilet, learning how liquid and solid wastes are reclaimed or otherwise dispose. Here she emphasizes the waste of using clean water to dispose of waste, and introduces the reader to people who are rethinking plumbing: one man has redone his pipes so that grey water ("gently used" water, the kind used when rinsing dishes and so forth)  collects behind his house for use in watering plants; another has constructed a toilet that turns our own biological waste into compost. The book ends with the rise of anti-waste movements, with sections on the "ecological citizen" and the zero waste idea.

Although most people consider garbage to be an 'icky' subject,  accounts like Royte's should command our attention not only because of how much needless waste we produced, but because of how much more the human race is expected to produce as the 'developing world' continues to develop and demand the middle-class lifestyle of the developed world, with all the buying and throwing away that entails.  Garbage Land takes readers on an adventure, sometimes exciting and sometimes disgusting, and is commendable for its depth. Waste and Want was only a history; Gone Tomorrow only covered landfills. Garbage Land combines the best elements of both and adds to them inquiries into composting, recycling, and bathroom waste.

Flushed! How the Plumber Saved Civilization
Waste and Want: A Social History of Garbage, Susan Strasser
Gone Tomorrow: the Hidden Life of Garbage

Thursday, May 9, 2013

BTT: 50

Booking through Thursday asks this week for readers to turn to page fifty of their current read, and share the first fifty words. As luck would have it, my book started a new chapter on page fifty...

New York City was not unusual in shunting quantities of noxious waste to its backyard. Every American city, up until about the middle of the twentieth century, dumped its rejects on nearby scraps of low-value land -- usually in swamps. In 1879, a minister described the situation in New Orleans to the American Public Health Association:
Thither were brought the dead dogs and cats, the kitchen garbage and the like, and duly dumped. This festering, rotten mess was picked over by ragpickers and wallowed over by pigs, pigs and humans contesting for a living from it, and as the heaps increased, the odors increased also, and the mass lay corrupting under a tropical sun, dispersing the pestilential fumes where the winds carried them.

This is over fifty words, but who could cut short such a description? This from Garbage Land: on the Secret Trail of Trash, by Elizabeth Royte.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

This week at the library: the cosmos, Jane Austen, zombies, and the Middle Way

-- Minireviews -- 

Some zombies like to lurch about groaning for brains. Some zombies like to ride the escalators, listen to Frank Sinatra, and daydream about their past life. That's R,  a zombie who has forgotten most of his life, even most of his name.  R is of the mobile damned shambling around a ruined Earth, living in a hive of the undead in an abandoned airport. He sometimes goes into the remains of civilization to find someone to nibble on. Brains are especially fun, because eating them allows the diner to experience the memories of the dined-upon. It adds a bit of color to the zombies' dreary, grey not-lives. But when one young man dies saving his girlfriend's life and R munches down on his memories of growing up with her, R unexpectedly develops a crush -- and instead of turning her into a second course, he totes her home and hides her from his moribund brethren.  Such is the beginning of Warm Bodies, a novel of the living and the damned, and the bridge between them.  I checked it out not because I like zombies, but because a friend of mine -- a mature, knows-how-to-manage-her-time-well friend -- stayed up all night reading it. While the premise intrigued me, the humor and earnestness of a zombie yearning for more, even love, snookered me completely. I read it in one sitting, as it's the kind of novel that doesn't let you go away: it continues to rise in intensity until the very end.


With Warm Bodies out of the way, you know now that the title does not refer to my reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies again. My Jane Austen reference was to The Jane Austen Book Club, a novel  which covers the stories of five women and one man who get together once a month and discuss a given Jane Austen novel, each taking it in turn to host. As a guy who has read Pride and Prejudice, I thought it might be fun to see another fellow go through it. His responses aren't all that remarkable. I hate to admit it, but this is the rare instance wherein a book doesn't compare favorably to its movie  Admittedly, I saw the movie before reading the book, and in fact read the book after finding out it was the source for a money I thought hilarious. (The Austen-reading man is developed far better in the movie: he's a riot: I screamed in laughter at the faces of the women as he, an SF buff, tried to compare the plot of an Austen title with the development relationship of Luke and Leia through the original Star Wars trilogy.  Great movie, all-right book: I might have enjoyed it better had I actually read more than one Austen novel. It made me feel guilty, actually..

I also read Buddhism without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor, which wasn't as ferociously compelling as I thought it might be, possibly because I've taken Buddhism's extrareligious applicability for granted for a few years now.  Batchelor treats Buddhism as a practice in response to certain realities, and invites readers on meditations to cultivate a sense of compassion within them. Batchelor's philosophical explanations sometimes seemed like vague esoterica (the chapter on emptiness, for instance), others were eye-opening, like the section on no-self. He compared us to clay spinning on a wheel:  the thing that emerges is the result of a lot of actions acting in concert: the constituency of the clay, the pressure, the wheel; there is no ideal Pot that will suddenly materialize there. The same is true for us: there is no ideal Self floating around inside us, or out in the ether: we as beings are being constantly created by drives internal and external.

And on a final note, a book I need to re-read because it's been a few months since I finished it:  The Universe Within reveals the profound connectivity of the universe, exploring the ways our biology has been shaped by astrophysics and geology. But it's not actually about us: his account demonstrates how all of nature is bound together in cycles -- water evaporating into the air, then returning as rain; sea crust being formed at ridges, and dissolved again in volcanic explosions --  and how no field of science can exist without connection to another. A rock can tell you about physics, chemistry, and biology.  Had the book been about the interconnectedness of the sciences, it would have been a triumph. It's supposed to be about how these processes have shaped human beings, though, and the human connection is added in only tangentially at the end.

Today I also received two books through interlibrary loan: Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, which examines human-plant coevolution, and Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte.  I'm looking forward to both:  Pollan is a weird author in that I'll finish his books regarding them too problematic to recommend, and yet I never stop thinking about them. Neither The Omnivore's Dilemma nor In Defense of Food are never far from my mind.

Look for more food books as the spring matures!

Saturday, May 4, 2013


earth: making a life on a tough new planet
© 2010 Bill McKibben
253 pages

Oh, we're in trouble.  For two decades, forward-thinking politicians have made noise about climate change. "We've gotta do something to save the world for our grandchildren," they say. But the consequence of our actions as a global society are no longer the future's problem. The future is here. We're living on a new Earth, one considerably more unstable and less congenial to our kind of life than the one which has existed for hundreds of thousands year prior. This new Earth, which McKibben dubs eaarth, won't be kind to us, or anyone else. Life as you know it is over, and the sprawling governments of Earth can't possible adapt quickly enough. The good news is, there there are no solutions, there are ways to minimize the damage. After establishing how utterly up the creek we are, McKibben delivers an impassioned case for the revival of localism and citizen-led change.

Change will come regardless of our attitude, but we're really not ready for the four horsemen of the developing climate catastrophe -- pestilence, drought, flooding, and famine. We're starting to run out of the energy we use to make changes, including the kind of changes responding to this new eaarth requires. This is doubly problematic considering how much we rely on petroleum, now peaking,  to keep our global food network going, trucking food hither and yon and processing it into all manner of fun things with unpronounceable ingredients.  Starvation isn't imminent: it's now. The amount of food per acre is decreasing, while the rate of malnourished is on the rise -- and somewhere in the shadows of history, a vindicated Thomas Malthus laughs bitterly.

Chaos is going to be the new normal; we can't fix it, we can only ride out the wave, but maybe if we start early enough we can find ourselves someplace worthwhile when all is said and done. In the second half of his work, McKibben offers ideas as to how we can keep people feed, maintain a functioning electric grid, and stay online.  McKibben advocates a more fine-grained approach: instead of having great big farms of monocultures, grow different kinds of foods everywhere you can, using ecology to work for your behalf: eliminate waste  by turning it into compost. Stop using gadgets that constantly drain power, and start generating your own by covering the roof with solar panels and turning streams into little hydropower plants. People all over, and especially Americans, have to start doing this because the national government is now completely dysfunctional beyond blowing up kids in Pakistan or spying on its citizenry:  the changes to be made have to be made by us.

eaarth is simultaneously alarming and invigorating.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Chimpanzee Politics

Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes
©  1983 Frans de Waal
256 pages

Back in the 1970s, primatologist Frans de Waal conducted one of the first extensive studies into the social structures of chimpanzees.  Chimpanzee Politics is the result,  establishing facts now taken for granted, namely that chimpanzee populations are organized by rank, which for males influences how successful they are are spreading their genes. It also illustrates their startling intelligence, both social and physical;  de Waal witnessed chimpanzees collaborating to overcome obstacles, like electrified wire wrapped around the base of a tree that could provide a bounty of food in leaves,  as well as engaging in Machiavelli-level manipulation to increase their status within the community. Admittedly, some of this is subjective, but only some, and de Waal's ideas were confirmed by other researchers' observations of different populations, like Jane Goodall's Gombe Valley project.  Chimpanzee Politics makes for fascinating reading if you've an interest in our fellow primates:   de Waal's work indicates that  leadership, even in a  sheltered environment like the zoo enclosure in Arnhem where he did his work -- comes with responsibilities, like keeping order.  Alpha males haven't simply brute-forced their way into the top of the sexing order; they're seemingly expected to protect the weak against the strong and settle disputes.   de Waal also points out that leadership in a chimpanzee tribe isn't limited to brute force: he demonstrates how an older, deposed chimpanzee was able to maintain a position of immense influence by continuing playing two young contenders for the seat of power off of one another. It's rather like a game of Survivor, with less whining and more fur -- and instead of being voted off, you get beaten senseless. de Waal's study did have its limitations: the chimpanzees did not interact with other tribes, nor did they compete for food, so important aspects of the equation are missing.  He did compare his experiences with those of Goodall's, however, and his general conclusions aren't at odds with those she reached in Through a Mirror.