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23 April 2010

One hundred and forty characters

Though I reluctantly participate in some forms of social networking I have not yet found love for Twitter.  I find it flagrantly absurd to consider that one’s every waking moment must be logged for all to consume, replete with asterisks, pound signs and asperands.  Furthermore, I find it illogical and impossible that anyone believes that they can effectively express oneself with any sense of clarity and completeness using only one-hundred and forty characters.
One-hundred and forty characters.  An arbitrary length determined by some mobile phone engineer as perfectly sufficient for human communication via text and adopted by an entire online community of people attempting to find meaning by narrating and documenting their meaninglessness - in one hundred and forty characters or less.  
I have only recently learned to text but I’m not good at it.  At all.  Even now that I have a phone with an actual miniature keyboard.  And it’s not only that the keyboard is too small even for those of lilliputian dimensions.  It’s because I don’t know how to say things succinctly. I once used the word “superfluous” in a text.  And I didn’t do it ironically. 
You might write, “I saw a cat.”  I would write,  “I glimpsed a creature of the feline persuasion.”
You might write, “There’s rain on the window.”  I would write, “I gather from the rivulets of liquid slinking like new tadpoles from the top of my window to the bottom that it is raining outside.”
You might describe someone as uptight.  I would describe that same person as so stiff and formal that Roman statuary break the bonds of permanent paralysis in stone to cover their exposed parts when she walked by.
You might describe someone as being in a hurry.  I would say they were moving in a manner suggesting a full bladder combined with the realization that they left the iron plugged in and placed squarely on a linen shirt.
Ernest Hemingway would spit upon my copy and then pour a stiff drink.  He wrote The Old Man and the Sea.  I would have written The Venerable Gentleman and the Briny Waves. No flowery adjectives for Hemingway; piss on them.  Make it short.  Make it mean something without really saying anything.
For sale: baby shoes, never used.
Hemingway would have made one hell of a Tweeter, though it is likely he would have refused to participate, citing the relentless banality of the world chronicled there.
And as far as authors go, I prefer the master of British wit, P.G. Wodehouse, to Hemingway, hands down.  After all, where Hemingway said, “There’s nothing to writing.  All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed,” Wodehouse said, “I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit.”  No contest.
In Wodehouse, one is not simply “fat.”  One is “a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say 'when!'” Or one fits into the “biggest armchair as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season.”
Wodehouse has a way with words that I admire.  That I emulate.  A way with words to which I aspire.  Wodehouse is a master of the kind of descriptive prose I adore.  The elegant insult.  The turn of phrase. 
One of my favorite Wodehouse-ian moments appears in Right, Ho Jeeves! - an exchange of telegrams between Bertie Wooster and his Aunt Dahlia which engages the reader in their relationship whilst simultaneously lampooning the telegram's penchant for minimalism, which makes it incapable of fully functioning as a medium of true communication.

Come at once.  Travers.
Perplexed.  Explain.  Bertie.
What on earth is there to be perplexed about, ass?  Come at once.  Travers.
How do you mean come at once?  Regards.  Bertie.
I mean come at once, you maddening half-wit.  What did you think I meant?  Come at once or expect an aunt’s curse first post tomorrow.  Love.  Travers.
When you say “Come” do you mean “Come to Brinkley Court?”  And when you say “At once” do you mean “At once?”  Fogged.  At a loss.  All the best.  Bertie
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.  It doesn’t matter whether you understand or not.  You just come at once, as I tell you, and for heaven’s sake stop this backchat.  Do you think I am made of money that I can afford to send you telegrams every ten minutes?  Stop being a fathead and come immediately.  Love.  Travers.

Suffice it to say, Bertie doesn’t come.  But he sends a friend; Gussie Fink-Nottle.  The aunt unleashes, again in telegram form;

Am taking legal advice to ascertain whether strangling an idiot nephew counts as murder.  If it doesn’t, look out for yourself.  Consider your conduct frozen limit.  What do you mean by planting your loathsome friends on me like this?  Do you think Brinkley court is a leper colony or what is it?  Who is this Spink-Bottle?   Love.  Travers.
Not Bottle.  Nottle.  Regards, Bertie.
Well, this friend of yours has got here, and I must say that for a friend of yours he seems less sub-human than I expected.  A bit of a pop-eyed bleater, but on the whole clean and civil, and certainly most informative about newts.  Am considering arranging a series of lectures for him in neighbourhood.  All the same, I like your nerve using my house as a summer-hotel resort and shall have much to say to you on the subject when you come down.  Expect you the thirtieth.  Bring spats.  Love.  Travers.
On consulting engagement book find it impossible come Brinkley Court.  Deeply regret. Toodle-oo.  Bertie.
Oh, so it’s like that, is it?  You and your engagement book, indeed.  Deeply regret my foot.  Let me tell you, my lad, that you will regret it a jolly sight more deeply if you don’t come down.  If you imagine for one moment that you are going to get out of distributing those prizes you are very much mistaken.  Deeply regret Brinkley Court hundred miles from London as unable to hit you with a brick.  Love. Travers.
No, but dash it, listen.  Honestly, you don’t want me.  Get Fink-Nottle distribute prizes.  A born distributor, who will do you credit.  Confidently anticipate Augustus Fink-Nottle as Master of Revels on thirty-first would make a genuine sensation.  Do not miss this great chance, which may never occur again.  Tinkerty-tonk.  Bertie.
Well, all right.  Something in what you say, I suppose.  Consider you treacherous worm and contemptible, spineless cowardy custard, but have booked Spink-Bottle.  Stay where you are, then, and I hope you get run over by an omnibus.  Love.  Travers.

I shudder to think what Wodehouse would make of our sound-bite society.   I also wish like hell he were still around; Bertie Wooster and Aunt Dahlia could have some marvelous tiffs via Twitter.

DTravers  @WoosterB regret to inform you that Spink-Bottle unable to fulfill required duty.  Skype at once.
WoosterB @DTravers Skype down.  Connection not functional.  Jeeves on the case.  #verygoodjeeves
DTravers @WoosterB Poppycock. If you can twat, you can skype. Need immediate assistance w/Spink-Bottle’s newts  #sheturnedmeinto
WoosterB @DTravers Could not believe you not even if I knew you were telling the truth. #whatho.  
DTravers @WoosterB  Abysmal chump. It is young men like you who make a person with the future of the race at heart despair #uselessnephew

And so on.  Of course, with only one hundred and forty characters the insults are less poetic.   And less epic.  And much less amusing.   Difficult to find meaning in a sea of # and @ and /.
Ergo, I embrace words. And rococo description.  And redundant adjectives.  With my writing, I shall rebel against an entire culture learning to express itself in the most abridged way possible.  I refuse to abbreviate.  I spurn text-speak.  Categorically.  And emphatically.
And I think even Hemingway would have shuddered at lol, omg, and “you” replaced with u.
BTW?  7,806 characters: the equivalent of about 56 tweets.  #verbose.

22 April 2010

Exponential Growth

I am no mathematician or scientist.  I hear the term "exponential growth" and I fade into a painful reverie that includes all of the math and science teachers who ever looked over their glasses at me, exasperation brimming in their throats, as I brought a paper up to their desk with yet another question.  The definition - Exponential growth occurs when the growth rate of a mathematical function is proportional to the function's current value - clears nothing up for me.

This week, I watched Earth Days on PBS, a documentary about the development of the environmental movement.  Dennis Meadows, the author of The Limits to Growth, the 1972 book decrying the consequences of a rapidly growing world population and finite resource supplies, began to discuss the concept of exponential growth using a tablecloth as an example;  

Most of us don’t have an experience of growth the way it’s impacting the planet because you get up every morning and look around and it seems to be pretty much as it was yesterday. Our species just naturally tends to assume that change happens more or less linearly: one, two, three, four, five, six. Like that. But in fact, the problems that are causing environmental deterioration arise out of exponential growth, which is where instead of going up by a constant amount over some time period; it goes up by a percentage over some time period.

I’ve tried to illustrate what this means with a very simple example, I bring out a tablecloth, is show it to everybody. I fold it four times. So I am doubling the thickness of the tablecloth four times. And I let everybody see it, and I say suppose that is half an inch thick, not much. If I were to fold it another 15, 16 times, how thick would it be? Now I can’t actually, but suppose I could do that. When you keep doubling the tablecloth, of course it is growing exponentially, and after 21 folds it’ll be about a mile thick. If I double it another five or six times, it extends out past the edge of space. Continuing that process, rather quickly it gets you amazingly big numbers. With just 39 folds, it is already shooting past the moon. That is how quickly you get to very large numbers when a process grows exponentially.

This video is another visual example of exponential growth; the chain reaction set off by the action of one item involving itself with another.  Which involves itself with another.  And so on.

This morning, I woke up and thought about Earth Day.  I've thought about all the changes I've made to the way I live my life with regards to my health and the health of the world in which I live.   I thought about how some of those changes are second-nature now and some are still a struggle.

Then I thought about reusable bags. 

Only a couple of years ago, checkers at various stores looked at me cross-eyed when I held out my reusable bag and, trying to inject levity in what was an uncomfortable situation because of their judgmental raised eyebrows, said, "Trick or Treat!"   I still say "Trick or Treat" but now the person behind me has their own bags, too.  And the person in front of me apologizes for having forgotten theirs in the car.  

Exponential growth.  In a fit of hubris, I can see that someone like me, having the guts to go into Target with my reusable bag, caused someone else to have the guts to do the same.  And then that someone else inspired someone else.  And so on.

These are not heroic actions; it used to be uncomfortable and rather embarrassing to walk into a huge chain store with a reusable bag.  But it was never brave.  Strangers laughed or rolled their eyes.  Some of the more crotchety and cheeky folks had the gall to lecture me; "One person cannot make a difference.   And you're holding up the line."   I would smile and say, "Maybe not.  But it doesn't hurt to try.  Sorry to inconvenience you."

But it isn't uncomfortable anymore.  Bringing your own bags is now the acceptable norm.  Even the crotchety, cheeky people are doing it.

How did that happen?  Exponential growth.

We often hear the term applied to unfathomable concepts.  Or used by preachers of doom to scare us into a sense of paralyzing fear.  But why can't we rehabilitate it and use it to help us make our small changes meaningful?

Think of one of your small gestures to improve the world around you.  Now think of one person you may have inspired to do the same.  Now think of the people that person may have inspired.   And so on.

Exponential growth.

Some days - most days - all days - the problems of the world seem too insurmountable to fix.  So we stop doing even the small things.  Because the small things are useless.  The small things are futile.   The small things cannot possibly make a difference.

But they can.  The potential for exponential growth makes our small gestures mammoth forces.  Agents of change.  A recipe for a better world.

What did you do today that has the potential for positive exponential growth?

Book Review: The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King
by T.H. White 

I began re-reading a favorite from childhood because I didn't remember anything about it but I always smiled when I saw the cover so I must have enjoyed it at least a little before I went senile and lost all vivid memory of anything.

Now that I've made it through the thick tome, I realize that, as a child, I only read the first book of the four included;
Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind. I enjoyed all four, The Queen of Air and Darkness being my least favorite, as it deals with parts of the storyline that depict borderline child abuse, poor behavior and violence, three of my least favorite things.

T.H. White does a laudable job re-tooling the Arthur legend for "modern" audiences. His writing style is almost Wodehousian, with amusing asides and comments in a thinly veiled author's voice. White uses much anachronism (Pellinore wears glasses, the Tower of London exists, etc.) and twirls the timeline of the story around with great freedom, highlighting that there is no one actual myth. The Arthur legends are of dubious origin and every treatment of them is slightly different in detail. But the big lessons remain and though White's main purpose as he tells the story is to highlight the big lessons and morals, he has no qualms about entertaining the reader whilst doing so. I laughed out loud as much as I put my book aside to think for a moment.

A great read.

I dog-eared pages that included passages that made me think and ended up with a good many folded corners. A selection;

"Only fools want to be great"

"Learn why the world wags and what wags it"

"The destiny of Man is to unite, not divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees"

"There is no excuse for war, none whatever, and whatever the wrong which your nation might be doing to mine - short of war - my nation would be in the wrong if it started a war so as to redress it. A murderer, for instance, is not allowed to plead that his victim was rich and oppressing him - so why should a nation be allowed to? Wrongs have to be redressed by reason, not by force"

"Unless you can make the world wag better than it does at present, King, your reign will be an endless series of petty battles, in which the aggressions will either be from spiteful reasons or from sporting ones, and in which the poor man will be the only one who dies."

"Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers, burn down the Temple at Jerusalem, and fix the blame on Pontius Pilate. On the contrary, he made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people"

"There is a thing called knowledge of the world, which people do not have until they are middle-aged. The seventh sense. It is something which cannot be taught to younger people, because it is not logical and does not obey laws which are constant. At this stage we begin to forget that there could have been a time when we were young bodies flaming with the impetus of life ... there was a time when it was of vital interest to us to find out whether there was a God or not. There were times when we wondered with all our souls what the world was, what love was. what we were ourselves. All of these problems and feelings fade away when we get the seventh sense. Middle-aged people can balance between believing in God and breaking all the commandments, without difficulty. The bodies which we loved, the truths which we sought, the Gods whom we questioned: we are deaf and blind to them now, safely and automatically balancing along toward the inevitable grave"

"The world is beautiful if you are beautiful, and you can't get unless you give"

"She turned to him with a face of composure and relief - the efficient and undramatic face which women achieve when they have nursing to do or some other employment of efficiency."

"Perhaps man was neither good nor bad, was only a machine in an insensate universe - his courage no more than a reflex to danger, like the automatic jump at the pin-prick. Perhaps there were no virtues, unless jumping at pin-pricks was a virtue, and humanity only a mechanical donkey led on by the iron carrot of love, through the pointless treadmill of reproduction"

"Perhaps, so long as people tried to possess things separately from each other, even honour and souls, there would be wars forever. Perhaps wars only happened between those who had and those who had not. As against this, you were forced to place the fact that nobody could define the state of 'having.' A knight with a silver suit of armour would immediately call himself a have-not, if he met a knight with a golden one. Perhaps war was due to fear; to fear of reliability. Unless there was truth, and unless people told the truth, there was always danger in everything outside the individual. You told truth to yourself, but you had no surety for your neighbour. This uncertainty must end by making the neighbor a menace. Perhaps wars happened because nations were like people - they had feelings of inferiority, or of superiority, or of revenge, or of fear. Suspicion and fear: possessiveness and greed: resentment for ancestral wrong: all these seemed a part of it. Yet they were not the solution. He could not see the real solution." 

21 April 2010

Book Review: Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture
by Ellen Ruppel Shell 

I will never shop again.

I am thrifty. I hate to spend money. Though I have tried not to become dependent on big box stores, I do go to Target and Whole Foods on a fairly regular basis. I love a good deal. But how much do my good deals really cost?  
Cheap educated me. And though my initial statement was a blatant exaggeration, it is solidly true that I have spent most of my mental energy while reading this book trying to formulate a plan to cut all of my ties to the world of discounting.

Sound crazy? It probably does. And that's why America is so effed up. We have no idea the damage we are doing, to ourselves, to our economy, to people in other countries we'll never meet, by rejoicing at a deal on cheap merchandise. As Shell writes in the opening note to readers, her warning, "Cheap fuel, cheap loans, cheap consumer goods do not pave the road to salvation. On the contrary, our Faustian pact with bargains contributed to the worst recession of two generations. The economics of Cheap cramps innovation, contributes to the decline of once flourishing industries, and threatens our proud heritage of craftsmanship. The ennoblement of Cheap marks a radical departure in American culture and a titanic shift in our national priorities."

See, we didn't used to be Cheap. When chain stores, CHAIN STORES, took their first wobbling steps on American soil, people were outraged. Anti-chain protesters in the 1920s represented almost 7 percent of the nation's population. A Shreveport, LA radio man, William Henderson, warned that chains would have the "... ruinous and devastating effect of sending the profits of business out of our local communities to a common center, Wall Street ... We have insisted that the payment of starvation wages such as the chain-store system fosters must be eradicated."

Obviously, Henderson and the 7-percenters lost. Chains took hold. Then came the discounters. Chains weren't enough profit and then Eugene Ferkauf came along, pioneering the low-margin, low-service, high-turnover model that our discounters still follow. Merchandise sells itself and employees are eminently replaceable because they are no longer experienced sales professionals but, rather, low-skill merchandise stockers and checkers. So down went wages. But logic said it was ok that wages went down because prices were going down too. So onward.

Woolworth's got into the act with Woolco, a chain that pioneered the "oversized, free-standing store with acres of free parking and the promise of one-stop shopping for a wide selection of merchandise at the lowest possible price." Shell continues, "The beauty part was this: By cutting back on customer service and most other frills, discounters not only saved money but created the impression that their merchandise was cheap due not to low quality but to low overhead." While this was partially true (wages being low, real estate in the middle of nowhere being sold at an incentive) quality levels sank dramatically; because the discounters were so big and powerful, they started pressuring suppliers to lower prices. And suppliers did this by squeezing more out of less. And quality, and craftsmanship, inevitably suffered.

But who cares if my toaster blew up? I'll just go to the Woolco and buy another one. Onward!

And so it goes. No one listened in the late seventies when Jimmy Carter railed against the direction America was taking; "...too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption ... (the) piling up of material goods leads to an emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose." But that wasn't Carter's zinger. The zinger, the whole reason for Cheap, in my opinion, is this; Americans have "a mistaken idea of freedom [as] the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others."


Cricket. Cricket. Cricket.   Did someone say something?

And onward.

Shell writes, "Harvard cultural historian Lizabeth Cohen has pointed out that mass market consumption offers the facade of social equality without forcing society to go through the hard work of redistributing wealth. Low prices lead consumers to think they can get what they want without out necessarily getting what they want - or need. The ancient Roman phrase for this is panem et circenses, bread and circuses, the art of plying citizens with pleasures to distract them from pain. Today, low prices are the circus."

Some Americans are, at this very moment, writhing and foaming at the mouth due to President Obama's "socialist" agenda. Put Carter's zinger together with Cohen's astute observation and one comes closer to seeing the reason why.

So we're ok that Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott Jr. took home in his bi-weekly paycheck in February 2009 what his average employee would earn in a lifetime. We don't get angry when Scott states that retail doesn't have a responsibility towards its employees; it has a loyalty to low prices, all the time, no matter what. And to get these low prices, one has to do more than treat employees like indentured servants; one has to cut quality, safety, environmental responsibility and human dignity. As Shell puts it, "As citizens, we recognize this 'collateral damage,' deplore it, and frequently decry it. But as consumers we habitually downplay and ignore it. We rail against exploitation of low-paid workers in Asia as we drive twenty minutes to the Big Box to save three bucks on tube socks and a dollar on underpants. We fume over the mistreatment of animals by agribusiness but freak out at an uptick in food prices. We lecture our kids about social responsibility and then buy them toys assembled by destitute child workers on some far flung foreign shore. Maintaining cognitive dissonance is one way to navigate a world of contradictions, and on an individual basis, there's much to be said for this. But somehow the Age of Cheap has raised cognitive dissonance to a societal norm."

We've lost our sense of thrift. We've lost our patience; we want something, we get it now. We don't care where it came from or that we can't pay for it. Now. Now. Now. Cheap. Cheap. Cheap. Shell writes, "A thrifty person does not drive miles to save three bucks on tube socks. A cheap person might. ... Cheap is about scratching the itch, about making real the impossible dream of having one's cake and eating it, too."

So the world is, in the words of a salesclerk at Bergdorf Goodman as he watched customers pawing through a discount bin of handbags, "off its axis." We've lost touch with the provenance of our furniture, our clothing, even our food. Craft is hard to find now. Shell writes, "Craftsmanship cements a relationship of trust between buyer and seller, worker and employer, and expects something of both. It is about caring about the work and its application. It is what distinguishes the work of humans from the work of machines ..."

Cheap things resist involvement. We'll put an IKEA bookcase out on the curb because it's easier to buy a new one than disassemble and move an old one. Cheap encourages disposable. Disposable encourages waste. So we don't fix small appliances anymore. We don't even know how. We throw them away and buy new ones. Because we can. Because they are Cheap.

And recession just encourages Cheap. Wal-Mart's sales have increased substantially during the current economic downturn; discounters profit when America hits bottom. "Poverty in America is market potential unrealized," said Andrew Young, a Wal-Mart spokesperson. This may explain why Wal-Mart lobbies not only against unions but against health care reform and other worker protections. The poor benefit the discounters just as much, or more, than the discounters benefit the poor. Though whether Cheap benefits the poor is a loaded theory ripe for arguing, which I will not do here.

And then there's food. Coming straight off Michael Pollan's writings, I was ready for the food issues. Food farmed, harvested and processed in enormous quantities and sold at very low prices is probably not, in the strictest definition, food. Low prices cause low overhead which causes lack of oversight, which causes contamination, infestation and infection. Add to that; goverment subsidies help agribusiness keep prices low; but they also help agribusiness squeeze the small farmer out of business and create a monopoly where consumers don't have an alternative to the low-quality, high-quantity food they create. And as bad as it is in American, it's worse overseas. Pulling people off the farm floods city centers with the unemployed (who are desperate enough to take jobs standing knee-deep in noxious clothing dye to make my 2 dollar tshirt ... but I digress). These displaced workers often end up in the United States, too, stressing our welfare and unemployment system. But we won't pay for them. Or even help them. Even though our penchant for cheap food put them there.

Broad swath I just cut, admittedly. But the pattern is unavoidable. And we just won't see it. We refuse to see it. Because we don't want to pay too much for anything. Because that wouldn't be fair.

But Americans spend less for food than do citizens of any other developed nation; and few people at the McDonald's drive-thru ever stop to think about that 99 cent burger they just ate (in their car, but I again digress). How on earth can anyone possibly raise a cow, feed it, butcher it, process it, freeze it, truck it across country and reheat it for 99 cents?  Then there are the environmental effects of the agribusiness system (most tellingly disgusting is one process for eradicating manure; liquifying it and spraying it into the air, letting it fall where ever it falls). Then there are imports from countries with even less oversight and care than we have here. But really. How can it possibly be cheaper to buy garlic imported from China than garlic grown in California if I live in Missouri? But it is. And we buy. But we fail to ask why or process the idea that it cannot possibly be a good thing in the long run. Cognitive dissonance again.

Perhaps by now you are thinking that it would be too expensive to change the system; after all, we are all on a budget and we need affordable goods. Ok. Robert Pollin, professor of labor economics, did a study just for you. If the wages of apparel workers in Mexico were raised by by 25 or even 30 percent it would raise the price of a shirt in the United States by 1.2 percent. A 30 percent raise for a worker would cause a $20 shirt to cost $20.24. We won't stop to pick up a quarter in a parking lot but we'll keep half the world in indentured servitude for that same quarter. Less one penny. Cognitive dissonance one more time.

But we are caught in a cycle. And we need innovation.

"What is happening is that we are creating low-income workers who become low-wage consumers who seek low-priced goods. Stores are built strategically to cater to these low-wage earners, filled with products that are there for the single reason that they are affordable. This is diabolical strategy, an evil strategy. What it comes down to is one group of workers eating another while the big boys in corporate sit back and watch the carnage." Robert Bruno

"Henry Ford is lionized for connecting the dots between worker prosperity and profitability. He understood that when workers are paid enough to purchase the fruits of their labor, companies thrive and communities prosper. When workers no longer have the means to buy what they make - or, for that matter, what other decently treated workers make - companies fail and economies crumble." - Ellen Ruppel Shell

"The discipline of the capitalist is the same as that of the frugalist. He differs from the latter in that he has no regard for the objects through which productive power is acquired. He does not hesitate to exploit natural resources, lands, dumb animals and even his fellowman. Capital to such a man is an abstract fund, made up of perishable elements which are constantly replaced. The frugalist takes a vital interest in his tools, in his land, and in the goods he produces. He has a definite attachment to each. He dislikes to see an old coat wear out, and old wagon break down, or an old horse go lame. He always thinks of concrete things, wants them and nothing else. He desires not land, but a given farm; not horses or cattle and machines, but particular breeds and implements; not a shelter, but a home ... He rejects as unworthy what is below standard and despises as luxurious what is above or outside of it. Dominated by activities, he thinks of capital as a means to a particular end." Simon Nelson Patten - 1905

So onward. As frugalists. As consumers who demand different, better and more fair. Pay the extra 3 bucks for the free trade products, the produce from your local farmer, the eggs from your local chickens, the milk from your local dairy. Start there. And onward. 

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
by Michael Pollan 

This was exactly what I thought it would be; an exploration into from whence our food comes. As William Inge wrote, "The whole of nature is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive."

I can sum up this book in the convoluted phrase "You are what you eat. AND you are what what you eat eats too." This was the big enlightening discovery of
In Defense of Food but it is detailed very completely here. Corn. And more corn. And still more corn. Why corn? Because we have a lot of it. So we designed a system based entirely around our surplus. Even though that system makes very little sense.

"As productive and protean as the corn plant is, finally it is a set of human choices that have made these molecules quite as cheap as they have become; a quarter century of farm policies designed to encourage overproduction of this crop and hardly any other. Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country but not carrots ... guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest."

The most useful section, in my opinion, was the section describing Pollan's time on Polyface farm, a "pasture-based, beyond organic, local market farm, mimicking natural patterns on a commercial, domestic scale." A brilliant way to farm. Brilliant because nature is built to function in a complicated symbiosis and much of our agricultural history has been spent manufacturing shortcuts to that symbiosis, to no good end except having more and have that more really be less in the long run. Cheap industrial food is subsidized so that its real cost is not reflected in the supermarket. So we buy cheap food. And the government supports this, making it hard for farms like Polyface to function (weighing it down with rules, regs and roadblocks).

But it makes so much sense. Using manure and compost instead of artificial pesticides and fertilizers (pests are nature's way of telling you you're doing something wrong) in a delicate dance of cows, pigs, chickens, plants, forest, all working together. It's an intense way to farm but completely sustainable. “We don’t need a law against McDonald’s or a law against slaughterhouse abuse—we ask for too much salvation by legislation. All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse.” Joel Salatin (owner of Polyface).

I rather lost my way in the third section, regarding hunting and gathering. But perhaps that is just because I'm not quite ready for that yet. I'm ready to continue to change my eating habits (kicked fast food and mass produced food some time ago ... now trying to be much more local and sustainable, which means kicking my Whole Foods habit, which is extremely difficult) but I'm not ready to try and opt out to the point that I'm interested in hunting wild boar. Not yet, at least.

What I really want to read is a concise "how to buy food" based on discoveries and research revealed in this, and other, books about our American propensity to support unsustainable systems. I thought
In Defense of Food would be that book. It was not. I'm still waiting ... ;)

"You have just dined and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity." Emerson

Book Review: The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape

The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape
by James Howard Kunstler

A rant. Pure and simple. But a rant with which I, mostly, agree.

Kunstler demonizes our history of development in America in a very readable, if sarcastic and snarky, prose. Written 15 years ago, the complaints are still with us today; why does America feel so ... so ... wrong?

Of course, if you don't feel like America is "wrong," you'll hate this book. But Kunstler is operating on his strong feeling that it IS wrong. And will continue to be until we start building on a human scale, rather than on a scale based on the automobile. In the 1960s, Lewis Mumford said of "development" in America; "the end product is an encapsulated life, spent more and more either in a motor car or within the cabin of darkness before a television set."

And this is what's wrong. And it is because of our history. America was founded without an aristocracy to support the arts and architecture. It also was founded on the concept of freedom to take the land; manifest destiny. Endless land, so why the hell should we cram together in a city?

At first, this worked out ok because transportation possibilities required things to be central; rivers, canals, railroads. There were towns with centers and then outlying farms. Then industry arrived and factories started to make our cities undesirable. Then elevators arrived and our buildings got taller and taller. And slums spread. And the rich took flight and the cities started to die. Kunstler writes, "In America, with its superabundance of cheap land, simple property laws, social mobility, mania for profit, zest for practical invention, and Bible-drunk sense of history, the yearning to escape industrialism expressed itself as a renewed search for Eden. America reinvented that paradise, described so briefly and vaguely in the book of Genesis, called it Suburbia, and put it up for sale."

Early suburbia were attempts to return to Arcadia. And during the railroad/horse/carriage era, this worked for a while, but then the car came along and made Arcadia Suburbia, with all the gardens, lawns and turrets, multiply at a rate that they became stage sets rather than bucolic settings. Some people lost faith in Arcadia and embraced Modernism, which, according to Kunstler, was just as bad, because Modernism "dedicated itself to the worship of machines, to sweeping away all architectural history, all romantic impulses, and to jamming all human inspiration into a plain box."

Modernism became prominent with the help of Stalin and Hitler, who both loved traditional architecture and ornament and neoclassicism. Therefore, in the land of the free, there would be no whiff of Fascism or Nazism or Communism and, therefore, no neoclassicism.

So American space began to be less about forms and more about symbols. Communication. Advertising. Vast developments of decorated cinderblock sheds connected by miles and miles of soulless concrete passageways and fronted by acres of asphalt for the parking of those machines that enabled one to travel the miles required of our new landscape.  Then postmodernists started ironically referencing nature attached to the concrete paradise; plywood butterflies on garage doors, rusticated facades, fake windows. "Here, you nation of morons, is another inevitably banal, cheap concrete box, of the only type your sordid civilization allows, topped by some cheap and foolish ornament worthy of your TV-addled brains."

And it happened because America became so enamored of the automobile. Kunstler writes, "There was nothing like it before in history: a machine that promised liberation from the daily bondage of place. And in a free country like the United States, with the unrestricted right to travel, a vast geographical territory to spread out into, and a nation tradition of picking up and moving whenever life at home became intolerable, the automobile came as a blessing. In the early years of motoring, hardly anyone understood the automobile's potential for devastation - not just of the landscape, or the air, but of culture in general." The car would simply make it easier to live in either the city or the country. No one expected it to alter the arrangement of things in both places. But Ford made the car supremely affordable and city planning boards were dominated by realtors, car dealers and others with interest in making the world a better place for cars, not humans. The car, or, rather, the combustible engine, made life better for the farmer but it also, in Kunstler's words, "destroyed farming as a culture (agriculture) - that is, as a body of knowledge and traditional practices - and turned it into another form of industrial production, with ruinous consequences." The farmer turned to machines but machines cost money, so they also turned to mortgages. And without horses, there was no manure, so farmers had to buy fertilizer. And as farming changed from crop diversification to monoculture, they had to purchase pesticides. And soon it was too much for the individual farmer. Agriculture was dead. Agribusiness was born. And now all we eat is corn.

But that's another story. Or is it?

Meanwhile, city planners were betting the bank on the automobile culture and building miles upon miles of concrete for use by individual automobiles. No mass transit was developed in conjunction because the entire industry was controlled by one man, Robert Moses, and he thought mass transit was a bottomless pit. "Mass transit does not produce profit. It is a social good, but a financial loser."

So highways cut through cities. Suddenly impervious walls of concrete made it impossible to get from one place to another on foot. America began to dance to the tune of the automobile and, as a result, lost its sense of human scale. And lost its soul.

In the midst of this was the depression, which created the FHA, which created the financing schemes that favored suburbia over urbia. FHA would guarantee loans for houses that were new, outside dense cities. It red-lined much of our inner cities; drew an imaginary line around dying neighborhoods and said, "Don't even think of buying here because this part of town is heading down the tubes and we don't back losers." Another knife in the dying back of urban life.

Then World War II came and when it went, Levitt made housing even more affordable. Kunstler writes, "Classes of citizens formerly shut out of suburban home ownership could now join the migration ... The American Dream of a cottage on its own sacred plot of earth was finally the only economically rational choice ... but this was less a dream than a cruel parody. The place where the dream house stood - a subdivision of many other identical dream houses - was neither the country nor the city. It was noplace. If anything, it combined the worst social elements of the city and country and none of the best elements. As in the real country, everything was spread out and hard to get to without a car. There were no cultural institutions. And yet like the city, the suburb afforded no escape from other people into nature; except for some totemic trees and shrubs, nature had been obliterated by the relentless blocks full of houses."

But people moved there and the infrastructure supported the moves; in 1956 Congress approved the Interstate Highway Act, which saved the economy from recession and called for 41,000 miles of new expressways, 90% paid-for-by-the-federal-government. The highways then created more patchwork "development," which created more highways ... and on and on.

Then it was 1973 and the Arab oil embargo, for a brief, shining moment, made America rethink the oil-hungry system of life it had built. The country entered a stagflation. Jimmy Carter made his famous malaise speech, chiding America for its stupidity. Kunstler writes, "Carter told Americans the truth and they hated him for it. He declared the 'moral equivalent of war' on our oil addiction, and diagnosed the nation's spiritual condition as a 'malaise,' suggesting, in his Sunday school manner, that the nation had better gird its loins and start to behave less foolishly concerning petroleum. The nation responded by tossing Mr. Carter out of office and replaced him with a movie actor who promised to restore the Great Enterprise to all its former glory, whatever the costs."

And Reagan got lucky. Really lucky. The oil cartel fell apart and failed to keep prices jacked up. Poorer nations got in the act and undercut prices even further and oil became cheap again. So all the ideas of investing in alternative energy were dropped. We were still a great, sprawled, oil-hungry nation and would continue to be so. Oil will always be cheap and available. Right?

So we continued to develop our idea of paradise; roads, parking lots and buildings designed for ease of auto access. Kunstler writes, "Travel is now incessant and inconsequential ... The road is now like television, violent and tawdry. The landscape it runs through is littered with cartoon buildings and commercial messages. We whiz by them at fifty-five miles an hour and forget them, because one convenience store looks like the next. They do not celebrate anything beyond their mechanistic ability to sell merchandise. We don't want to remember them. We did not savor the approach and we were not rewarded upon reaching our destination, and it will be the same next time, and every time. There is little sense of having arrived anywhere, because everyplace looks like noplace in particular."

Our buildings relate poorly to other buildings and don't create a sense of community. Our towns go and go and go and go and you can't do anything without turning the ignition on your car and driving for ten minutes. The failure to own a car is "tantamount to a failure in citizenship, and our present transportation system is as much a monoculture as our way of housing or farming." Our national economy has become so gigantic that local economies cease to matter. And when local economies fail, local communities fail. So instead of a main street we have far-flung houses, a Wal-Mart and the Kum-and-Go. Regional planning is viewed as unAmerican; you can't tell me what to do with MY land. Public realm ceased to exist; everything was private. Cars, fences, large yards, all designed to ignore the neighbors right next to you. If you want a public realm, you have TV (and, now, reality TV). We leave work, drive out of the parking garages after spending an entire day in a cubicle staring at a computer, drive home surrounded by other people but entirely alone, drive into our attached garages and sit down in our TV rooms and stare at another glowing screen until it is time for bed. Then we get up the next morning and do it again. Is that really the American dream?

Kunstler writes in his book-ending Credo;

"We will have to replace a destructive economy of mindless expansion with one that consciously respects earthy limits and human scale. To begin doing that, we'll have to reevaluate some sacred ideas about ourselves. We'll have to give up our fetish for extreme individualism and rediscover public life. In doing so, we will surely rediscover public manners and some notion of the common good. We will have to tell people, in some instances, what they can and cannot do with their land. We will have to downscale our gigantic enterprises and institutions - corporations, governments, banks, schools, hospitals, markets, farms - and learn to live locally, hence responsibly. We will have to drive less and create public transportation that people want to use. We will have to produce less garbage (including pollution) and consume less fossil fuel. We will have to reacquire the lost art of civic planning and redesign our rules for building. If we can do these things, we may be able to recreate a nation of places worth caring about, places of enduring quality and memorable character."

Book Review: My Family and Other Animals

My Family and Other Animals
by Gerald Durrell 

I loved this book. Usually, when one uses the word "pleasant" one is trying to come up with a polite way to not really weigh in with any force of emotion or feeling. But this book is honestly pleasant. Durrell has a wonderful way of sketching his amusing, quirky family, his adventures as a boy living on the Greek island of Corfu and his adventures with the animals he finds there, the peasants and convicts he befriends and the carefree life he is allowed to live.

Though Durrell is, ostensibly, a "nature" writer, his depictions of the people surrounding him are poignant and touching. And highly entertaining. Even the buildings in which they live come alive ("The villa was small and square, standing in its tiny garden with an air of pink-faced determination").

The whole feel of the pleasant idyll of the book can be summed up in the quote below;

"Gradually, the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen. Each day had a tranquility, a timelessness, about it, so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us, glossy and colourful as a child's transfer and with the same tinge of unreality."

Book Review: A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present

A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present
by Howard Zinn 

This is a history book intended to tell the stories that don't get told. It isn't centered around typical heroes or presidents or nationalistic jingoism. It tries to tell the "people's history"

Yeah, it's biased. Zinn admits as much.

Yeah, it's negative. Zinn admits as much.

And, yeah, if it's the only history you read, you come away with one viewpoint and, perhaps, a bit of bile in your mouth. But it shouldn't be the only history you read. It should be the history that helps balance the prevalent "Go America!" tellings that dominate our schools and our bookshelves.

I don't agree with everything Zinn stands for but I am so glad to have his history; one that focuses on the lost stories, the stories that reveal our leaders as human, fallible and, in the end, unable to change the world for the better. The stories that we didn't hear the first time around and probably wouldn't have heard if it weren't for Zinn's history. The class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality and national arrogance that shaped our nation right alongside the victories, the ideals and the lofty accomplishments of our heroes. The stories that question Roosevelt, a hero of the social left, as stringently as they question Reagan, a hero of the conservative right.

It shouldn't be shocking to me that most of the stories highlight how greed runs rampant; economic inequality is the hidden menace that manifests shielded by more obvious issues of color and gender. If you look for a reason why the downtrodden were trodded down, you usually find greed. Business, wealth and profits.

To me, that's the bottom line; greed. Human greed spoils any idealistic social structure, whether it be communism, socialism, capitalism, democracy or even anarchy. Eventually someone gets greedy and starts to take advantage and then it all snowballs. The Greed Domino Effect, as it were. When I read Zinn's history, I read stories about how the people who were crushed by greed tried to fight back. And I remember that, in my own life, I should try to ignore the dictates of monetary success and greed and, instead, try to live a life that, at the very least, does no harm.

And while I realize that any teller of history has an agenda and, ergo, a grain of salt should always be handy, Zinn's history is one of the few that has daily reminded me to try to be a better person. And if I aim higher, maybe I can be a better person who helps other people learn to be better persons. And beyond that, maybe if enough of us try to be better people, we can help in largely significant ways; we can work together to help "America be America again - The land that never has been yet - And yet must be - the land where every man is free." (Langston Hughes)

And if that is this book's only redeeming quality, it's well worth the read. 

Book Review: World Without End

World Without End
by Ken Follett 

I think Danielle Steele might have written parts of this; she must have at least been responsible for the overwrought plot and the ridiculous, unnecessary sex scenes. It was bawdy and endless, just like every Steele book I read as a blushing 12 year old. I also kept imagining Richard Chamberlin as Merthin, as the plot just kept going and going like the Thornbirds miniseries. There were about seven-hundred and fifty climaxes and denoument. Just when a character was happy, he or she would be destroyed or detoured. I felt like I was reading a medieval soap opera and, though readable and entertaining, for the last 600 pages, I just wanted it to end.

And then it finally did. But, sadly, not with the sentence with which I predicted it would end; "Caris sneezed."

Book Review: Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America

by John M. Barry 

Fantastic book. Nominally a telling of how America handled the devastating flood of '27, more-so a book about how politics, ego, stubbornness and pride can always get in the way of good policy. And usually does.

Barry first tells the story of two men who tried to direct policy on how to control the Mississippi; Humphreys, with a huge ego that over-shadowed his logic and Eads, with political power but no influence over the Army Core of Engineers. This section ends with the kicker that what the Army Core of Engineers decided to implement as control policy (levees-only) was the ONE thing that both Eads and Humprheys agreed was a bad idea. And it was literally the only thing they agreed on. Yay Army.

Barry moves on from there to a sketch of a Delta plantation owner who was the force and power behind most, if not all, decisions in the Delta, including how to keep the black population there to work the fields. Though Percy was fairly enlightened as to treating blacks like humans, his bottom line was still economics. He treated his people well but he made decisions based solely on how to create a non-slave society in the Delta that still had the constructs of a slave society.

Next, Barry wanders over to New Orleans and describes the inbred, ingrained, odd Mardi Gras krewe society of New Orleans, a town in which the mayor and the council had no power and five white men sat in a smoke-filled room and made decisions. No Jews, no Blacks. Just rich white guys who cared only about their banks. And their Carnival krewe standing.

Barry then presents a brief sketch of Percy's son, Will Percy (who is a poet of some reknown). Will Percy didn't start out on the same page as his father regarding the place of the Negro in the south.

Which makes what happens next all the more devastating. The damn thing floods. And floods biblically. As the flood is coming down the river, New Orleans and the men in a smoke-filled room convince the governor of Louisiana to dynamite a levee that will flood St. Bernard and Plaquemine's parish, though they knew before they burst the levee that New Orleans would escape un-flooded. But the businesses that kept New Orleans afloat didn't know and the city's economy was tanking. So they flooded out poor sharecroppers just to create, or re-create, investor confidence in the city. And though they signed an agreement to pay claims and damages, they paid out in a niggardly and begrudging fashion, taking people to court. The folks in this parish lost everything and most got no more than $200.

In Greenville, Mississippi, home of the Percys, the son, Will Percy, sent for boats to get the blacks who had fled to the levee, the high ground, off the levee. His father, LeRoy, convinced the men who supported Will in this decision to withdraw their support; if the blacks left, who would work the fields when the Delta emerged from under the raging waters? So though the steamships were ready, they left the levee with only 33 white women and children. The blacks were forced to stay on the levee and sleep in the mud and muck in a make-shift camp because the economic success of Greenville, Mississippi depended on keeping blacks on the Delta.

Meanwhile, President Coolidge, who seemed to care nothing about the victims of the flood, appointed Herbert Hoover to handle the disaster. Hoover shined and paved his way to the presidency, where he applied the same ideals of engineering society, to no avail as the depression blanketed the country. But on the way to the presidency, Hoover used and abused the president of Tuskegee University, Robert Russa Moton, who approached white-black relations with the underlying philosophy that "...the moral force of honorable behavior would ultimately compel white men to behave honorably as well." Hoover used this philosophy to his own end, by baiting Moton with the golden ring of a new reconstruction, which would help blacks find training and education and jobs, as a reward for Moton's support and political strength. Hoover never implemented the plan and Moton, who had campaigned heartily for Hoover, lost face in the black community, clearing the way for the more radical ideas of W.E.B. DuBois and the NAACP.

And in Louisiana, Huey Long was elected governor and proceeded to dismantle the power brokers all over Louisiana, ushering in a new order, just as filled with corruption as the old one, but with different faces in charge.

Fascinating. And instructive. And heart-breaking.

"It is so much easier to believe than to think; it is astounding how much more believing is done than thinking." James Kemper, civilian engineer on the Mississippi in the 1920s

"No civilization based upon unrestrained self-interest can endure." Herbert Hoover