Archive for the 'Life' Category

Eating Globally

Posted in Health, Life on November 29th, 2008

Having just finished Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of food and the benefits that accrue from eating locally. There is the obvious benefit of reducing carbon emissions, since there are massive amounts of fossil fuels burned to transport all the different foods to the odd ends of the world. There are also benefits that accrue from destroying the industrialization of food production, such as the reduction of groundwater pollution and decreased used of antibiotics in our food.

However I do not think it is necessary or even desirable to destroy the global food chain. There are great advantages in the quality of life in having different sorts of food available year round. While it might not be natural to be eating green vegetables in the middle of a North East winter, it is certainly much more healthy and enjoyable to consume a balanced diet throughout the seasons. Obviously steps need to be taken to reduce the carbon footprint of transferring goods around the world, but that is true in general and really applies to all expenditures of energy. The amount of energy consumed by humans is not going to drop; we just have to find cleaner and renewable ways of generating it

To get back to the food chain issue, it is a commonly held belief that eating locally is going back to the “good old days” of pre-industrial farming. So it was somewhat amusing to discover, as I started plowing through John Ferling’s massive history of the American Revolution “Almost a Miracle”, the following quote:

He thought Boston was attractive and its climate good, at least until his first New England winter set in. The food was superb. There was an abundance of seafood, including turtle soup, which he relished. Madeira and tropical fruit, also among his favorites, were consistently available.

Even in the late 1700’s, food was being shipped from the Caribbean up to the Northeast, setting the patterns now followed by fruits and vegetables migrating up from Latin America. There will always be a human desire for the exotic and the nonseasonal food; it has always been satisfied to the best of technology’s abilities. Tropical fruit might barely survive the sailing ship voyage up the American coast, but these days a freighter can have it here in plenty of time while a plane takes only a few hours.

Eating locally is a good, and probably a necessary, thing, if we are going to improve the health of both people and the land they live on. But advocating an absolutist position like a ‘hundred-mile diet’ is both unpopular and contrary to human desire. It is also contrary to all prevailing notions of world trade and exchange. Assuming our society (not American, but human society) does fall into absolute rack and ruin, international commerce will continue to broaden and grow. This is undeniably a good thing, assuming the associated environmental risk is both properly assessed and offset (the externalities of shipping goods around the world needs to be factored into their cost, as does the environmental impact of countries with overly permissive standards). A balance needs to be found that allows ecology to be preserved and even promoted, whilst still allowing us in the frigid north a taste of mango.

Campaign Contributions

Posted in Life, Politics on September 29th, 2008

I’m officially not giving any more money to political candidates until they all stop sending me fund-raising requests in the mail. Seriously, how many fucking trees do you need to kill before you realize, I ONLY GIVE MONEY ONLINE. Sending me an envelope will just increase the amount the nice san man has to haul away in recycling. This is the 21st century. Maybe a good rule would be–if people donate online, send them emails. If they send you checks in the mail, send them snail mail asking for more money. But none of you seem to get it. Darcy Burner is the only one of you who actually sends me e-mail, but she sends me snail mail too. Total Fail. So no more money for you guys until you figure it out. Sorry.

Reasons why having a little sister isn’t all bad

Posted in Life on August 19th, 2008

because she’ll grow up and say things like this to you:

man, if there was ever one word in a fantasy book review to make sure i’d never read it that word would be ‘ninjas’
‘Ninja-like Claw assassins’ is just over the line
i mean seriously, wtf
they’re probably all named something like christiano da’gaz’burgh and have swords that are painted black with a ruby in the hilt

Old Hobo Smell Update

Posted in Life on February 22nd, 2008

So in the end, I caved and sent my coat out to be dry-cleaned. I got it back the next day, not cleaned because the drycleaner claimed 1) the zip-in lining was ripped and 2) the zip-in lining zipper was broken and wouldn’t come out. From the position of the rip, it appeared to me that they ripped the lining trying to remove it and then once they had damaged my coat, gave up and sent it back to me. It also reeked of cigarette smoke. This was a lesson to me about trusting strange dry-cleaners. So I went ahead and put the coat out on the balcony of my hotel room overnight, which managed to eliminate most of the smoke smell and the hobo smell. The coat, however, is still not cleaned.

Old Hobo Smell

Posted in Life on January 9th, 2008

I am, contrary to popular belief, still alive. There has been little progress in actually getting closer to making this blog more than an occasional diversion, but I still have high hopes for the future.

My current concern is that my trenchcoat has somehow acquired the smell of old hobo. I am not sure where or how this happened, though I feel it was some time in the last month. I need to get it cleaned, however my hotel charges 13 dollars to dry clean an overcoat. Is is really worth $13 to not smell like an old hobo?

Dangerous things

Posted in Life on September 4th, 2007

Shirt woot is a dangerous, dangerous thing. Ten dollars is pretty much the perfect price point for a t-shirt. They offer a new one every day, the number available is limited, forcing you to buy right away, and shipping is free. Even if over 80% of their designs are crap, they’ll be making a cool $40 off me each month. It is a good thing I continue to find consulting work, because I need it to fund my t-shirt habit.

Small stories and politics

Posted in Life, Politics on March 17th, 2007

There is another component, besides informational complexity, that explains why small stories are used: increased informational availability. There is more information available today than there has been in the entire course of human history and we are generating it at an ever increasing rate. There are more scientific studies, books, lectures, papers, experiments, philosophical tracts, esoteric websites in existence now than any one person could ever digest. There are probably more words written in a single week than a person could read in a lifetime. Which means that it becomes increasingly hard for anyone to know something about everything. There was a time when someone could be a “Renaissance Man,” excelling in all the scholarly fields. That is impossible now. It is becoming increasingly hard to even excel in a single field: people are not physicist anymore, but astrophysicists and theoretical physicists.

This has greatly increased the need for “small stories” in every facet of our lives. There is simply not enough time or brain-cycle capacity to absorb everything or even a tiny subset of everything. There is a lot of talk about the decreasing attention span of today’s youth and our need to have constantly changing stimulation Is that a reflection of some sort of deficiency in us as people or just a result of trying to keep up with the massive amounts of information that exist these days. Cable news stations are criticized for reducing everything to sound bites. But, really, what are their options? If you take the time to provide the full context for every story, including all pertinent prior events, you’d never get through the “news” in an entire day. There are more things that happen every day than could possibly be talked about.

That is not saying that cable news is a good thing. It is saying that it is an inevitable thing. As more things happen (and our society is currently increasing the number of things that happen every day) you have less time to talk about each of them. Less time to talk means you have to lose complexity, turn a real story into a “simple story.” It is this process, of condensing information into its most basic component, which is where problems start.

Smart people understand the process. They know that no one has the time to know the real story. So if you craft your press releases and your interviews in ways that are easily compressible, your message will be transmitted better. It is a process that Republicans have come to understand much better than Democrats. The reason that John Kerry was Swift-Boated is that he tried to turn it into a discussion, even though discussions do not get reported on. People do not have the time to know everything. They have to worry about their job, their kids, their sports teams, their investments, their TV shows, their music, their car, their mortgage, their health, their dinner, their marriage, their college education. Where in that is supposed to be the time to study all sides of the issues and reach an informed conclusion?

It is often argued that being informed about is important, where can be health, or retirement, or politics, or rasing children. But there is more conflicting information about all of those than anyone could read in a lifetime. How do you choose what to read? How do you educate yourself as to how to properly educate yourself about things that are too complicated for you to have the time to educate yourself about them? When a person is faced with deciding between two messages, one that says that John Kerry is lying about being a war hero and one that meanders about trying to explain why he doesn’t want to talk about, which do you think is going to win? It doesn’t matter which is right.

That is reality. This will never change. We will never have more time and less information. The history of human civilization tends towards complexity in all things. It may suck, it may be unfortunate, it may lead people to wring their hands and gripe about the old days. Doesn’t matter. It isn’t going to change. What is now important is learning how to craft small stories that tell the story you want to tell. Small stories that cut to the heart of your issue in the way that you want. Because no one has time to read all the small print all of the time.

Small Stories, part 1

Posted in Life on March 17th, 2007

Just finished reading “What we believe, but cannot prove” a collection of essays by prominent thinkers about theories or hypothesis that they consider true but have no factual evidence to support. It’s an uneven book. Some of the authors are apparently trying to prove how clever they are by playing word games with the question itself (What is something that you believe but cannot prove?). Others write about things which are so scientifically specific as to be rather meaningless to those of us without advanced astrophysics training. There are some that are quite excellent. And some which are odd.

One of the odd ones is from Jean Paul Schmetz who believes but cannot prove that most of the things that students are taught in Economics 101 are false. I find this interesting because I thought that everyone already knew this. The idea that what is taught in Economics 101 has any bearing on how economics really works or that the people teaching it actually believe what they are teaching is one that does not hold a lot of credence. There was an excellent article that I found a while ago (which I think I have currently lost) which talked about just this situation: where students progressing through economics curriculum learn that everything they had initially studied really doesn’t work.

Of course, its not like the professors are maliciously lying to these students. It is more that they are telling them “small stories.” It’s a concept that I ran across in an Elizabeth Bear novel I just finished (Worldwired, great book). Small stories are the stories we tell to children to explain things in simple, often “not-quite-true” fashion. A small story is telling a child that gravity is the force that keeps us from floating away off the Earth. Which is true in a fashion, but it really does not accurately describe what gravity is. But it does give a child a reference point for understanding and reassures them that they’re not going to float away. Of course, it gets more complicated when you have to explain things like balloons and airplanes, escape velocity, and the concept of gravity wells in the space-time fabric. So small stories never tell the whole story or even the right story, but they allow someone to grasp a concept enough to move forward.

In Worldwired, the concept is expanded from stories for children to the idea of stories that are told between adults who work in highly complicated fields who otherwise couldn’t talk to each other. How does a xenobiologist talk to a space pilot? How does a xenobiologist talk to an astrophysicist? As knowledge becomes more specialized, communication has to become more general. Stories needs to be smaller and smaller in order to be easily accessible. How does a scientist with thirty years of experience in a field, whose entire course of reasoning is based upon a foundation of basic knowledge, explain derived inferences to someone who does not even understand the basic foundation. That’s what small stories are about.

Amazon Wishlist

Posted in Books, Life on March 17th, 2007

When I started last year, my Amazon wishlist was around 180 books. I read around 75 books last year and I’ve polished off another 20 something this year (I’d have exact numbers if I want ed to go turn on the computer with the list on it, but that’s too much work right now). That’s almost 100 books read in a year and three months. Probably 70 some of them were off the wishlist (the rest were presents, re-reads, books borrowed from my sister or my mom, one book lent by a friend, etc.) Which means all things considered, my wishlist should be around 110 books. It is currently at 240. In the same period of time that I read 70 books off the wishlist, I managed to add 130 books to it! This is clearly going to be a problem.

I have a suggestion: everyone should stop publishing books for the next half year so that I can catch up.

Marriage on the decline

Posted in Gender, Life on March 6th, 2007

Marriage as an institution has been a hot topic of debate as of late. Most notable has been the increasing struggle over gay marriage, but there has also been the somewhat quieter decline in the number of people getting married. While the divorce rate has stabilized (and actually decreased slightly) lately, part of that may be due to the fact that fewer people are getting married.

The WaPo recently ran an article on the decline of marriage, especially among the lower class. The Post points to statistics showing that increasing it is college graduates with high incomes getting married, while everyone else is resorting to co-habitation.

There are a couple odd statements in the article. One is this:

Married couples living with their own children younger than 18 are also helping to drive a well-documented increase in income inequality. Compared with all households, they are twice as likely to be in the top 20 percent of income. Their income has increased 59 percent in the past three decades, compared with 44 percent for all households, according to the census.

Now, the article has already explained that fewer people are getting married and that only rich people are getting married. If that is the case, then the truth isn’t that married couples are making more money thereby increasing income disparity. It is that poorer people aren’t getting married, which means that the average wage of married couples is going to go up. The Post seems to have put the horse behind the cart here, missing the point of the very demographic information they are quoting. What is true that the increase in income disparity has increased enough (and one real way that it has increased is that earnings among the lower and middle class have been dropping) that only people riding the crest of the wave feel like they are stable enough to risk getting married.

Which I think is probably the largest part of this decline. Stephanie Coontz writes about the changing attitude towards matrimony in her book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. One things that she highlighted was that the goals behind marriage have substantially changed from being financial partnerships to being love matches. The result is an increasing sense of unhappiness with marriage: if getting together with someone is about true love, rather than ensuring a higher standard of living, then the grounds for complaint are greatly increased. It is easy to measure financial security. But assigning a value to emotional satisfaction is a much harder and more fraught exercise. One that is continually open to ‘the grass is always greener’ syndrome, among other things.

The change that Coonz highlights here is, I think, reflected in the declining lower class marriage rate. Marriage used to be about financial stability. The new perception of marriage is that it is about love and that love is fleeting. While marriage is not expensive, per se, divorce can certainly be and alimony most definitely is. Since marriage is now considered much more transient it make sense that only people who have the financial stability to survive a divorce are getting married.