Archive for the 'books' Category

Review: Tackle Box, With a Side of Overdue Research

The Wednesday before last I had dinner at the Tackle Box with a visiting Uncle.  Technically a first cousin once-removed by marriage, but let’s leave it at uncle.  He emailed a few days in advance requesting good seafood, and I found out about them through WaPo’s restaurant guide- best-reviewed not-gaspingly-expensive seafood restaurant in DC.

Perspective:  I don’t like fish.  Well, live ones that I have to look at or let be anywhere near me.  Fish are ugly and slimy and might bite me.  In theory, I’m ok with living fish far away from me.   I’m usually happy if they’re fried in chunks without visible fish-resembling portions.  And I just finished reading Taras Grescoe’s Bottomfeeder before I left for NZ, which describes plenty of the incredibly destructive and disgusting ways most seafood is raised and harvested around the world.  More on this later.  In conclusion, eating seafood was daunting before, and now I find it possibly revolting.

Still, I happen to like this Uncle, so seafood it was.  Luckily, the Tackle Box (a less ritzy version of it’s big-sister restaurant Hook) has a big old section of their website devoted to their sustainable fishing practices, with earnest promises that they source local and smaller fishing operations and change their menu based on availability, etc.

I don’t know of any way to make sure it’s true.  That’s one intimidating thing about seafood- oversight from the fisherman to the table is more often than not lax, and fish are often labelled incorrectly.  But their website does sound earnest, and a little googling doesn’t reveal any scandals.  So, tentative trust, Tackle Box?

I had the bluefish with the sweet potato fries and asparagus.  I enjoyed the asparagus- crisp enough, well flavored, and the sweet potato fries could have been less oily, but were pretty good anyway.  Bluefish tasted fine, had some pleasing darker portions of meat.  Again I have no real fish experience with anything but fried slabs of the stuff, so don’t rely on my palate.  Uncle seemed to like it.

Afterwards (tonight), I looked up the species to see about overfishing issues.  I started at Wikipedia, but that was silly of me:  if you want to know more about fish that are safe and sustainable for your eating pleasure, go straight to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch site.  They keep close tabs on this stuff, and they say Bluefish are a “Good Alternative” in their rating system- though they are overfished in the Atlantic and they contain lots of toxins, beign at the higher end of the food chain.  Whoops.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium rates fish choices as Best Choice, Good Alternative, or Avoid- and you can print out their pocket guides here or check out their website on your fancy internet phones.  A better choice at the Tackle Box would have been the tilapia- if it was farmed in the US.  Or the trout, if it were US-farmed Rainbow Trout and not so much the wild-caught lake trout.  The staff seemed very nice and informed- go ahead and ask them.

The more you know, hunh?  I’m printing out a guide for the next time Uncle comes into town.

Review: Karen Dionne’s “Freezing Point”

A few months (a lifetime) ago, I received a review copy of Karen Dionne’s Freezing Point.  Ms. Dionne also sent me a swag chapstick, if you recall?  It was excellent chapstick-quite worthy of the book with which it came.

The novel centers around Ben and Zo, two idealists who have moved beyond their most starry-eyed phases.  Ben is an executive in a global corporation, selling water for profit.  Zo and her husband are researchers in an Antarctic base.  A cracking ice shelf, a mysterious disease, and entirely too many rats later, they discover a common cause.

Dionne’s basic premises resonate- the privatization of water resources and the unintended consequences of messing with nature- and give this light thriller a weightier backbone.  Her plotting is plausible and only occasionally overwrought, her language use well-considered, and her details convincing enough for me.  Basically, if you intend to have a beer near a body of water this summer, read this book while doing so.  It’s enjoyable, fast, and illuminates its message without too much preachiness.  Plus it’s very helpful if you’ve ever wondered what life would be like if rats tried to eat everyone you knew.  Teaser!

If you’d like your own copy, you can find Freezing Point at Amazon.  Visit Karen’s website to read about her next book, Boiling Point (of course!).

P.S. Yes, the book’s cover blurb reads only “Gangbusters!”.  In case you are wondering, this refers to a radio show from the 1930s.  The opening sequence had a very intense and exciting series of sound effects, and inspired the phrase.  Some days I don’t think I’d know anything without the internet.

And Thursday Makes A Comeback!

Wow, today was looking rough, but now I’m at home, self medicating a cold with Otter Creek Winter Ale and peach tea (the herbal medicine aisle at Whole Foods confuses and frightens me) and watching that episode of The Office where Jim bikes to work.  That isn’t even the good part!

Today Obama outlined his proposed budget for the next year or so, and beyond all the other stuff I like (and don’t) about it, he’s proposing to pay for some of the new spending by starting a cap and trade system for carbon emissions.  Cap and trade programs haven’t worked so great in Europe, mostly because they tend to not limit the total amount of carbon allowed to be emitted very well, they just put a price on it.  However, a good program, with a stringent carbon limit that decreases over time, would go a long way towards assigning pollution a real cost in the marketplace, and prompting the profit-driven to care about it.  So this is a step in the right direction.  Give the market what it needs to do the right thing for now, eh?  Plus it just makes me happy when a government plans to have the money it spends.  Should be interesting to see how Congress actually sets up the carbon market.  Here’s a bit more from the NYT Green Inc. column.

Then, some of my plotting this week paid off!  I’d been asked to review a new eco-thriller, Freezing Point by Karen Dionne, and it came in the mail today. According to the blurb, the main characters are a well-intentioned environmental activist, a declared eco-terrorist, and an apocalyptic horror from deep within the ice: promising! I also got a little Freezing Point-themed natural lip gloss thing with it, which was a nice touch.  See, full disclosure, so you can decide for yourself if the lip gloss prejudices me to like the book (it does, but I read a paragraph in the middle and I think I’d like it by itself anyway).

On to Friday…

(P.S. As I was finishing this up, V. came by with more medication from The Dairy Godmother– gingersnaps and strawberry-rhubarb cobbler with custard.  Take that, head cold!)

The Daily Show on Energy Plans

The Daily Show has had an energy double header this week- Thomas Friedman on Tuesday and T. Boone Pickens, talking about their respective books.

Friedman is a reliably green opinionator for the NYT on Sundays and Wednesdays.  His book is “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”, and I believe it’s about how global warming sucks for the world, and what we should do about that.

Pickens’ is a very rich old man with a yen for natural gas and wind energy and such.  His “The First Billion Is the Hardest” is apparently about his plan for energy independence.  Also, he’s got a wonderful accent, so listening to him talk about trucks is soothing- it’s like he’s everybody’s adorable energy-planning grandpa.

Anyway, head over the the Show’s website to see Friedman and Pickens. I’m too tired to wrassle the video player over here for you tonight.

Review: Barbara Freese’s “Coal: A Human History”

I’ve been prevaricating on this review, because I wanted to say something profound about it.  I didn’t not enjoy reading it, but I’m not sure I got an informational return on my time.  So, briefly, here’s what stuck.

Coal  tells many of the little stories of people and events that make the history of coal way more interesting than it should be.  At times, it feel shallow, like the author is trying to jump from interesting bit to interesting bit, and spare us the boring parts underneath.  I’m a fan of the boring backbone of history, though, so we may disagree on this.

The first part of the book discusses when coal was first used, how it grew England, how it grew America, how it grew unions and anti-union sentiment, and briefly sketches the state of coal and the coal industry in America today (important, but dwindling, sort of).  The second bit describes her trip to China, and how it’s doing industrialization on its own coal power.  Vivid descriptions of pollution in London during the coal years echo recent reports of pollution in Beijing.

There are three things you should take away from this book:

1) Coal is very dirty, and it kills a lot of people at every stage of it’s production and use.

2) Without coal, the industrial revolution, growing of manufacturing economies, and wonderful increases in the standards of living for billions wouldn’t have happened/be happening. (Now juxtapose 1 and 2, and you see our dilemma).

3) We should try to not use coal for energy any more, since there are safer sources, but it is going to be very difficult to wean ourselves from it, much less convince the rest of the world to lay off.

Know that, and you’re solid.

The book is informative and well-written, but unless you make a concerted effort, or are just really into the industrial revolution, it’s very likely you’ll forget it on a table somewhere and not notice you haven’t read it for weeks.

One Reads Differently When Days are Longer

Grist published a list of 15 “light” environment reads for summer reading.  I imagine if you asked politely, though, you’d be able to read them any time of the year.  I haven’t read anything on the list, but a few look pretty good- “World Made by Hand” and “Trespass”  especially. Has anyone read any of them, or have any other titles to recommend?

I’ve Just finished “Coal: A Human History” by Barbara Freese.  It’s not quite “summer” reading, unless you’re way into dirty, smoggy history on clear, sunny days. I’ll go ahead and promise a review for later, complete with well-researched references to recent brou-hahas over new coal plants in VA and GA.

I’m taking “More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want” by Robert Engelman with me to WI (along with five other books and a stack of magazines to catch up on in the hammock, happy sigh), since the population aspect of environmentalism is one I don’t fully grasp, and I’m very interested to see how he works on it.  He did an interview about his methods and motives with NPR, which is where I heard about it in the first place.  I’m pretty stoked to see “feminist” (as if it doesn’t impact ladies and gentleman and everyone else alike) issues and environmental issues dovetailing.

Not that most would necessarily find this to be “summer” reading, either, but seasonal reading never made much sense to me anyhow.

Review: Marvin Zimmerman’s “The Ovum Factor” and Interview

I was invited to review this novel a few weeks ago by Mr. Zimmerman’s publicist, and since I like reading as much as I like butter, here we go!

The Ovum Factor is Mr. Zimmerman’s first novel, which he introduces as an “eco-thriller”, inspired by his interest in the climate change debate.  The protagonist David Rose is a young, handsome, wealthy investment banker/researcher-type person who finds himself dissatisfied with his life.  He feels he is meant for some great purpose, but he’s only done what his family wanted him to do: studied hard, went to a fancy expensive school, got a high-flying finance job.  All he wants now is to find personal fulfillment.  Fortunately, the Voice Of Destiny begins to scream into his ear in the first chapter.

David is assigned by his bank to review the investment potential of a scientific project that aims to inject fetuses with a serum that will grant them superhuman intelligence.  During his investigation, he meets a girl, is pursued by various unsavories, travels the Western Hemisphere, and develops a spine. 

Zimmerman’s done a good job creating a sprawling plot and bringing it all together, and he does have a flair for the dramatic.  The chapters are short and punchy, and typically end at the right moment to make you want to turn the page.  The writing itself is sodden with cliches, however, and not in the good, campy way.  Of the characters, only David comes across as a fully developed person; everyone else is just a prod or a foil for his actions.  And even David seems to make decisions based solely on a wish for Fate Fulfilled, or “Why not?” reasoning.  His penchant for doing what he is told by mysterious strangers and fortune cookies reveals him to be a certain sort of person, for sure, but a frustrating sort of person to identify with in a novel that purportedly tackles serious scientific challenges and moral issues.

Enough about the literary considerations, though.  What makes Mr. Zimmerman’s work an “eco-thriller”, you ask? 

Spoilers ahead, yo.

David’s boss is a part of a private, powerful organization of intellectuals called the Omega Sentinels, who project that the world will be destroyed in the next 100 years by the ravages of climate change.  David’s boss also thinks that humans are so shortsighted, selfish, and unintelligent that they will never be able to come up with a solution to the climate crisis.  A serum that will turn fetuses into creepy-smart babies and super-humanly intelligent adults is the human race’s only chance for survival.  Ah, but of course.

Zimmerman offers a darkly pessimistic view of the state of the world, and a profoundly unsatisfying view of the way to fix it.  Aside from the glaring ethical problems of injecting fetuses with completely new drugs then saddling them with the hope of the world when they pop out (Zimmerman does mention that these issues exist before he blithely dismisses them), the story gives no credit to concerned citizens, environmental activists, or any of the thousands of small and large solutions that people are working on every day to deal with climate change and to live more sustainably.  Sure, by focusing on a fringe scientific effort and imminent doom, you can come up with a more thrilling book, but Mr. Zimmerman doesn’t give his most sympathetic audience enough credit.  His outlook alienates the readers that are concerned about climate change and dealing with the problem themselves, and reinforces the belief in climate skeptics or deniers that the environmental problem is too huge to be solved by real people anyway, so why bother?  I’ll drive my SUV down the block to get me some of that baby serum, and we’ll be cool.

I know that “inspiration for enlightened and helpful discourse” is not the only goal of a novel, especially a thriller.  I’m sure plenty of people who read The Da Vinci Code weren’t looking for a debate on the “Role of Women in Christianity” or “Historical Narratives of the Catholic Church”.  So I can’t fault Mr. Zimmerman for choosing the particular story particulars he did, any further than he meant this as an op-ed.  And it’s a lot more thriller than op-ed. 

The publicist graciously offered to relay any questions I had to Mr. Zimmerman, so here’s the exchange:

Q: In the book, the point of view of the Omega Sentinels is that humanity is doomed by climate change, and incapable of saving itself without drastic scientific intervention.  Is that [your] point of view as well?  If it’s not, how [do you] think that we can fix this climate problem?
A: My point of view on whether humanity will survive climate change? That’s a hard one. Obviously, I’m pessimistic since I envisaged a scenario where dramatic measures must be taken to avert calamity.

My own hope is that we still have time to correct everything that has contributed to this problem. But the clock is running down and we have to act decisively and immediately. The reason I wrote The Ovum Factor and continue to write novels on this theme is because I feel people have to be sensitized to the scale of the threat. Only then will they adjust their lifestyles and stop contributing further to it

At the same time, I’m a great believer in human resilience and will. Once we find the will to act, I’m hopeful that we’ll find the solutions.

I’m not sure his book will have the galvanizing impact that he intends, simply because the solution he poses is so extreme, but I admire him for trying.  It’s not easy putting your thoughts out there to get kicked around, so more power to him.  I hope he keeps at it.

If you’d like to read any excerpts or more about the book and author, check out his website.  The real deal is for sale at Amazon and a bunch of other retailers.

Tossed and Found Sale

Yesterday I went to the remnants of the “Tossed and Found” Junior League Sale in Crystal City with a house mate. The game was, we could buy a garbage bag for $35, and then whatever fit in it was ours. Plus everything that didn’t fit was 75% off (making possible our new wine rack), it being the last of the sale, and we got a free TV with thebutton down garbage bag.  It had a tag on it that said it worked, so that’s cool, I guess.
purple camp shirtyellow blousebow ties

napkinshankyblue sweater

This is what I came away with. A couple blouses, a shirt for the Gentleman Friend- the grey one, the purple and yellow are for me. Some bow ties (just in case). A set of green napkins and a red cloth handkerchief. I’ll either use those to cut down on throw-away paper, or sew them into something. And a big ugly blue sweater, with decent-looking yarn and continuous seams. That’s going to get unraveled, and knit into something more awesome.

Last, but certainly not least, I found a pile of books. Apparently, someone named Tom, according to a couple inscriptions, had a big thing for Russian and Eastern Europe. I share this pas(obses)sion. tossed booksI snagged a copy of the novel form of Ashes and Diamonds with screen shots from Wajda’s movie on the cover! Karamzin’s letters from Europe! Pardon me while I salivate. (Do you share this love? Would you like to? We should talk!) Plus, I found a nice copy of Lessig’s Free Culture, Backlash by Faludi (to catch up on my 90s feminism), and a beat-up copy of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by TE Lawrence. And just last week I wondered if I had anything to read. (The answer was yes, I made a pile after the last used book sale I plundered. But still.) Anyway, let me know if you want to borrow anything. Or if you have access to a copy of “A Generation”, because netflix hasn’t got it, and I’ve seen Kanal and Ashes, and I’d like to complete the trio.

Also there was one more thing but it is part of a larger plan for a secret awesome costume, so I’ll post it later.

Handmade update:  Finished the white dress alteration.  Have knit 6 more inches of the scarf since the last post.  About five feet to go…

Sunday Special: The Skeptical Environmentalist

I keep wanting to start off by calling it “interesting” since no other pale word sums it up better, but it’s actually not that interesting. It’s not entirely Lomborg’s fault: he’s a statistician, and he hasn’t written a book, he’s written a statistical review. He quotes numbers from concerned environmentalists (and Lomborg claims to have once been one of them) and then looks up the data to present it in graphs to show whether or not the envirotypes are credible and should be as worked up as they are. His answer is, almost uniformly, that we have no environmental problem, and actually everything is on average just fine.

So his book is long, and in general it’s just a bunch of numbers and charts. I won’t argue with them- others have better than I can– plus, that’d make me as boring as him. I will point out, though, that he very confidently estimates that the price of oil will stay between 20$/barrel and 27$/ until 2020, and certainly not go above the high estimate of 30$/ before then. Good for a morning chuckle! And good for a reminder that data projections are helpful if nothing about the world changes.

His extensive use of footnotes breeds trust, but it’s not difficult to notice (even sleepily on the bus in the morning) that he only provides the answers to very specific questions- he’s massaging his message as much as he claims the environmentalists do. He also does a nice job of painting every concerned environmentalist as some kind of foaming-at-the-mouth, fact-ignoring nut job, which isn’t so much the case, but the normal helpful types don’t make for good debunking. I’m pretty sure he didn’t do it to be sneaky: I think he actually believes his work would help the environmental movement move forward- considering the debate that followed it, maybe he did.

Also, I skimmed the entire chapter on global warming- he was writing in 2001, so I’m pretty sure whatever he has to say about it today is different, given the 2007 IPCC report.

I found his analysis of pesticides and organic farming intriguing- he pointed out that, since pesticides and intensive farming methods increase crop yields, a return to organic farming would lead to mass starvation (or require huge conversions of land area to farming). Are the organic pop tarts I bought Tuesday then a bad idea? For global reasons, not the other more obvious ones- and yes, they were pretty good, thanks. First, organic farming is such a limited endeavor- small market, sometimes expensive product- so that starvation isn’t an issue from mass conversion of farms for now. Second, he only uses large scale farming as an example, whereas it would probably do people good to grow their own vegetables (and it’s cheapest to grow organic foods, since you don’t have to really do anything to them but pay attention)- through community gardens, balcony gardens- spaces that may be carved out in urban and suburban areas. Local, personal, and small-scale food production makes the supply of food more robust, and could add much to the diet of low-income types who may not have a decent vegetable selection at a store nearby, or even the money to purchase relatively expensive-per-calorie foods. So organic farming could be just what some groups need, as opposed to a looming threat to everybody’s welfare. And he doesn’t mention- since he didn’t know- that recent study results indicate that organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown types.

One thing that bothered me about the very foundation of the book is that, while at the beginning, Lomborg claimed to have been concerned about the environment himself, he makes judgments throughout the book based entirely on cost analysis, presumably because he’s trying to be very objective about things, and costs are the only way to be objective. Now, cost analysis is not such a bad thing, and it can be wonderful- but it leads him to conclusions divorced from sense.  For instance: the amount of waste produced by Americans isn’t a problem, since it’s cheap to throw things away and we have a place to store it (he demonstrates how all of our trash from the 20th century would fit in a portion of Woodward County, Oklahoma). I’m pretty sure those irrational, subjective residents of Woodward County would find that to be ridiculous. And I’m even more sure that citizens of Italy could tell Lomborg a thing or two about how trash disposal is easer to make sweeping generalizations about than do. More than that, though, it’s not just the cost, or lack thereof, of throwing stuff away that matters. Waste is evidence of a design flaw- it’s a mistake in the system. That we tolerate it is more an indication that society is unbalanced than that society is wisely minimizing cost. To top it off, Lomborg offers no hints on how things will work when China and India and other hugely populous developing nations get to be as prosperous and wasteful as Americans.

One of his main points is that there are bigger problems left than global warming and pollution, and spending money on areas like poverty and hunger will do more good for more people than spending money on global warming or pollution. For some proposed solutions, that’s certainly the case. And he does make a strong argument that chemicals in our environment cause more fear than harm.

He’s had years of critiques, and he’s posted responses to some. The wikipedia site has some great general review and links to arguments for and against his work- honestly, I’d recommend just reading that and skipping the book all together. It’s worth noting that this work was charged with scientific dishonesty by a Danish research ministry- he wasn’t found guilty of intentional dishonesty, since it was determined he had no training in environmental science or the issues he discussed- but it opened up a whole can of worms, including appeals and scientists signing petitions for and against the book and so on.

The arguments about the book are much more interesting than the book itself, so unless you love slightly outdated numbers, skip it. He’s written a newer one- Cool It- in 2007 so maybe that’s more relevant.

Reading List

A couple weeks ago, an article from the NYT outlined a few new books on ecothings. Three were highlighted for their emphasis on pragmatic solutions and lack of partisan bickering (well, relative lack…Newt).

Two of the three books I’ve discussed here- Gingrich’s A Contract with the Earth and Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s Break Through.

Actually, speaking of Break Through, I finished that a month ago and never found time to review it for you. So:

Break Through spends about 280 pages outlining in detail why, based on sociology and history and economics and street life in Brazil, the authors are very very right about environmental policy and why environmentalists are very very wrong and also negative, angry people. They talk a lot about Brazil. There’s not a whole lot of explanation of their actual policy or anything- other than Thinking Positively and Treating the Crisis as an Opportunity. Also, we must Deal First With Related Issues (this has something to do with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and they mentioned like one or two bills that they were working on or approved of that were related to this. I was really hoping for a book with 1/2 of the extra examples and four times the practical policy advice. They focus on what government should do, but not on people making them do it. This is a theoretical framework with references to Brazil, which is a start, I suppose.

All in all, the book was a good read and framed a lot of issues well. The examples are interesting and the analysis fresh and totally sensical. I’d recommend it if you are at all interested in environmental policy. If you want to borrow my copy, it’s available.

With respect to Newt, I haven’t read his book and I don’t intend to. If anybody does and it says anything interesting (ie, about anything other than tax cuts for everybody! and no emissions caps) then let me know, otherwise I’m going to assume I’ve got Gingrich pegged.

The third book is by Bjorn Lomborg, Skeptical Environmentalist. Now, “skeptical environmentalist” could mean a lot of annoying things, but he’s written a few books already and they’ve gotten some solid reviews. Apparently conservatives tend to like him, so I’ll let him substitute for all the Newt I’m not reading. I’ll let you know how he rolls once I find him and crack the cover.

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