Monday, September 24, 2007

AP Bored, Sends Someone to Point Out Obvious

In the category of "Well, Duh," the AP has recently sent some otherwise under-utilized writers to "review" USGS coastal maps. In doing so they point out the bleeding obvious: historical locations will be lost if/when the tides rise.

While it might be easy to laugh at the AP for directing us to something so obvious that it hurts--that historical locales are in no way special--I do appreciate that they seem to be attempting to raise awareness. Sure, the story isn't particularly newsworthy. However, it does have a certain degree of activism attached to it, as if to say, "Seriously--this is what will happen." I question the validity of using the perennially underfunded historic site as a poster child. Then again whatever it takes. One would presume that eventually the AP will have something for everyone to relate to. Hopefully.

In related news, my love for Good magazine grows apace as I remember Meryl Rothstein's bit on Eve S. Mosher. An artist, Mosher put her paint (and a little GPS) to good use and is currently drawing a line around New York City that indicates what some have predict to be the catastrophic flood line. 10 feet above normal, the line--and the maps she has created--seem to be disturbing some people who would otherwise not have any overt stake.

Mosher's High Water Line project is available on-line.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Into the Skepticism

It's always dangerous to attempt to pre-judge a movie. Highly anticipated movies like Star Wars: Episode I can land with a thud. Before it was released into theaters, stories ran wild that James Cameron's Titanic would be the biggest flop in movie history; instead it was exactly the opposite, becoming the highest grossing film of all-time.

The point being one never knows how good a film will be, nor how successful it will be, until it gets in front of an audience.

I raise these points as a caution (mostly to myself) about the upcoming Sean Penn adaptation of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. I have no idea, of course, how good or bad the movie will actually turn out, but I am cautiously skeptical about Penn's ability to transform the spirit of Krakauer's book onto the screen.

The trailer for the film is now online (thanks to JS for pointing this out to me this morning) at Apple's trailer site, and I am less than impressed with how the movie is, at least, being marketed. I read Into the Wild for the first time earlier this week and while it's a very good book, it's one that doesn't read as the basis for the inspirational movie that the trailer sells.

Now, I am fully aware that trailers don't always represent the truth of the film, so I hope the film embraces the complexity of Christopher McCandless and his decision to go "into the wild" that the trailer forgoes in favor of the up-with-individualistic-loner-who-spits-on-the-capitalist-world take on McCandless. There's certainly some of that in McCandless, but what's so engaging about Krakauer's book is that McCandless resists any easy categorization. Instead of either celebrating or damning McCandless (though Krakauer is clearly tilted more to the former position than the latter), Krakauer's book is an attempt to figure out the totality of McCandless and his actions.

The inconsistency in McCandless is what makes him (and Krakauer's book) so interesting. He's unable to forgive the sins of his father's double-life, yet doesn't apply the same moral indignation to his literary heroes (notably Jack London and Leo Tolstoy): "Like many people, Chris apparently judged artists and close friends by their work, not their life, yet he was temperamentally incapable of extending such lenity to his father" (Into the Wild, 122).

Dennis Harvey's Variety review offers some hope; both that the film is Penn's best directorial effort and that the movie keeps a some of the incongruities of McCandless' story. Harvey also references Terence Malick's amazing The Thin Red Line as an influence, which is a good thing given that film's constant thematic of people simply trying to figure out who they are and what they're doing while not getting themselves dead. TRL is also about the disconnect between the individual and his nation and that's a theme of Into the Wild, as well, though here it's not about duty and war but rather cultural expectations.

Similar to Into Thin Air, Krakauer's book is as much about himself as it is about his subject. There's no reason to expect Penn to have made Krakauer a character in the film but it would have been a clever move.

I'll go see Into the Wild when/if it hits theaters around town, but I hope I leave the film more conflicted than inspired. There's much to admire about McCandless, but his story is a cautionary tale, as well. We can't forget that he's a kid and like many passionate youths (myself included, back in the day) he often comes off as a insufferable, derivative prig, speaking in absolutes to hide the troubled interior that's still trying to figure things out. What makes McCandless' death poignant is that his experience in Alaska might have allowed him to find answers and peace.

I hope that comes through in the film.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

God Said Protect the Earth--Or Else!

Well, Or at least one of his reps here on earth did for Him.

Pope Benedict XVI's closing message to a weekend of kid-friendly Catholicism was an urgent plea for the young Catholics to take the lead in conservation measures "before it's too late." Benedict pointed a number of times to humanity's role as steward and the sacred call to protect His creations that becoming environmentally friendly would respond to.

A little preachy, to be sure. (Get it? He's the Pope!)

Amusingly, though, some attendees were non-plussed by Benny's message, given the mountains of plastic bottles and trash the weekend had produced--even though they were all given recyclable goodies and a hand-crank cell charger. Said one participant, "It's a good idea here, because there's so much garbage!"

No word yet on whether the young lady was excommunicated for her sassy mouth.

Bonus Pope Fun Fact: Green is the liturgical color of hope in the Catholic church. Coincidence?

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Kiss Your Tide Goodbye

The innovators at Chinese company Haier have recently put into production their version of a washing machine that doesn't require detergent and is creating some buzz. The machine, WasH20, amplifies the autoionization properties of water molecules to clean clothes. The more basic hydroxide solution allegedly pulls stains right off apparel, while the acidic hydronium ion solution steralizes the clothes. Since it doesn't do much in the way of adding pretty "moring rain" or "lavender poodle" (or whatever) scents to the clothes, traditionalists still have the option of using soap as the machine is a hybrid.

The most interesting part about the machine, however, is the response many bloggers are having: it's some kind of hoax. Tech blog makes it sound like this is as crackpot an idea as the electrolysis car. The washer, however, makes real sense (if only because it's going into production--we've been waiting like 80 years on the car). The big deal with the bloggers seems to be that people are misunderstanding the science that runs it. For one, unlike most posters are saying, the machine makes hydronium ions (like I mentioned) and not H+, the incorrect shorthand they teach you in high school chemistry to get you by. Also, I am not sure why all these people seem to think the the clothes will smell the same as when they went it (i.e. stinky). Various combinations of bacteria and their wastes are the reason your clothes smell in the first place--sterilizing your clothes will kill the perpetrators and make inert the smellies.

Granted,since I don't live in France I haven't seen the machine in action, but I know I have a better grasp on the science here than these bozos. (If the machine worked by electrolysis, it would blow up your clothes, more than likely. Go read a science book.) Bottom line here's a good idea in the works, and a way to reduce phosphate contamination. Though to be fair, there are a bunch of organic, non-phosphate detergents out there that smell nice at competitive prices.

As always, though: the bad news. (And it's not the price--the thousand bucks they want is pretty standard for your higher quality units, plus you don't have to buy the detergent.) For now Haier only has plans to sell the washer in France. Of course, it should be worth the wait--check out the link in the bottom corner for customizing options ("Personnalisez-moi"). It looks like doing laundry in an converted Formula One racer.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

"For People Who Give a Damn"

That's the tagline for a new slick publication to hit the market (nationally at your local Barnes and Noble, it seems). Good has at it's center the idea of sustainability (environmental, or I wouldn't be talking about it here) housed in a magazine that's meant to be a little bit hipper than your run-of-the-mill enviro-rag. Beyond the usual articles, they have fiction and a few comics poking people into figuring out how to make the world a more ecologically tolerable place to live.

The current issue--Sept./Oct. on their six-a-year schedule--focuses primarily on the concept of design. One article looks at the educational pluses a sustainable school carries along with it, showing how the school itself, with all its new fangled gizmos, can be a teaching tool. Another looks at how so-called "high concept" design in advertising is putting a fresh face on environmentalism, in this case in a water resource project for low-income families in rural Alabama. Also, apparently willing to bite the hand that feeds most environmental causes, the article "Against Philanthropy" argues just that--giving money to charities often times only helps support exactly that which you're fighting against. It's a short piece, but the point is well taken: do your research.

Of course the editors at Good don't seem too convinced about that particular argument. As a mater of fact, right now all new charter subscriptions will have all of their $20 donated to one 12 environmental charities of the subscriber's choice. (Take note, MBQ: one is Oceana.)

To reiterate, you do good right off the bat and they reward you with a magazine subscription that seems to have a promising future ahead of it. And, even beyond the print magazine itself, they run quite a few other features on their accompanying website, including many of the print features and a blog with newsy tidbits, polls, and adorable pictures.

Pretty good deal, especially since it was money I was going to give to some of the same organizations anyway. For one, at least, I'm in.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Green Grow the Searches

In contrast to all the other endeavors these guys have cooked up (at least in terms of pimping themselves on their own sites), mega-engine Yahoo! has finally moved their environmental foray, Yahoo! Green, from the beta-stage to the prime time with very little fanfare.

There's not too much that one might call new in the Green features--there's a dedicated columnist and a counter of carbon savings--but for the most part the site is a portal that provides other Yahoo! content in aggregate (news, Yahoo! Answers, chat).

Still, lots of good info here and you don't have to look around. Besides, if you have to have an aggregate, better this than Yahoo! Kitten Punching. Or, and I'm not kidding, the other new product they're working on.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Where Stalks the Cat of Death?

So here's a weird little story from the Boston Globe that seems perfect for a Sunday morning. The article is about a cat named Oscar that shows up at your bed when you're going to die.

Oscar is the "mascot" for the dementia unit at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. Adopted by the Center as a kitten in 2005, Oscar is confined to the dementia unit, but seems to have pretty close to free range inside the ward. According to the article:

"When death is near, Oscar nearly always appears at the last hour or so. Yet he shows no special interest in patients who are simply in poor shape, or even patients who may be dying but who still have a few days. Animal behavior experts have no explanation for Oscar's ability to sense imminent death. They theorize that he might detect some subtle change in metabolism -- felines are as acutely sensitive to smells as dogs -- but are stumped as to why he would show interest."
Oscar is the subject of an article by Dr. David M. Dosa, a geriatric specialist and an assistant professor at the Brown University School of Medicine in the New England Journal of Medicine, called "A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat."

I was hoping for something a little more scientific about the article, but the Globe story is where the scientific theorizing of Oscar's activities get the most ink. Possibilities raised were a general sense of empathy, or being drawn to a change in the patient's metabolism or "mental aura." I'm not sure how a scientist defines "mental aura," but it was a Tufts scientist who said it, so I'm printing it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Border Buggers Wildlife

Reuters is reporting today that the US-Mexico border fence--the literal one, not that crazy laser one they proposed--is harming the ecosystem that transcends the political borders between these two countries. Not for the first time, mind you--I had this bookmarked months ago, but the link died. Especially at risk are ocelots and, not intuitively, butterflies.

The border fence itself is moronic, from both a practicable policy standpoint and an ecological standpoint. What's next? A moat and black knight patrols? At least the butterflies could skitter across. At this point, though, those backing the fence seem too entrenched to let it go and look for other, more manageable solutions. Until then, looks like the wildlife will have to wait for amnesty programs or file and wait for work permits.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Protesters are Stupid

If I had to pick one reason why conservative political organizations are 100 times more successful than liberal political organizations it would come down to the difference between lobbying and protesting. An oversimplification, to be sure, and I don't mean to ignore the ever-important economic factors that are always in play, but there has to be a reason why conservative extremists like the NRA can keep semiautomatic weapons legal and liberal extremists like PETA have a hard time correctly identifying which fashion designer to hit in the face with a pie.

Was that a cheap shot? Yes, it was.

Make no mistake - I have no love for the NRA, but when they're on my TV they're serious, focused, and usually effective at achieving their goals, while every time I see PETA (whom I also have no love for) on my TV there's some celebrity taking her clothes off to protest the fur trade.

My abhorrence for the ineffectiveness of the public protest was brought home again on Friday as PETA protested outside the offices of the NFL in New York City in an effort to get Falcons' QB Michael Vick suspended.

It isn't their desire to see Vick suspended that I take issue with (though I think the NFL has taken the correct course in not giving Vick a major suspension; right now the burden of what to do with Vick rests with the Falcons, not the league) nor their right to protest. If they want to make hollow displays of genuine outrage, I'm all for their right to do it.

I just wish they weren't so damn stupid about it all.

Honestly, while I take the political passions and issues of concern to PETA with the utmost seriousness (whether I agree or disagree with them), and while I believe that the bulk of PETA's membership takes those same issues with the utmost seriousness, I don't understand the always-present cutesiness that accompanies the public protest. Pies, clever phrases, nude celebrities ... it's not hard for me to see why some people think they're a crank organization.

Dog fighting is an incredibly serious issue, as I'm sure PETA would agree, so why are they standing outside the NFL offices carrying signs that read "Sack Vick"?

Are we trying to get things done or are we trying to be clever with words? When the group hits Atlanta on Monday they'll also be carrying signs that read "Tackle Cruelty."

F***ing stop.

It's this silly mix of perceived cleverness and desperate attention grab that absolutely drives me crazy about PETA in particular and protests in general. Signs and chants ... to take a deadly serious issue and boil it down to semantic cleverness, I just don't get it. I don't. You're not going to change the world through a neat turn of a phrase; or if you are it's going to be a bit more than "Sack Vick." Why would an organization that uncovers such serious issues as Columbia University's history of animal abuse bother sending 50 people to New York to carry signs that they know won't sway the NFL?

For the publicity?

The Vick story is hot right now, so PETA's protest gets them in papers and on TV sets across the country today. Maybe that's why they do it, but is "Sack Vick" the message they want to get across? If so, why? It's a generic message read on its own. I'd rather see them carrying signs that read "Vick Tortures Dogs" because then the focus of the message is on the issue. Such a message would help brand Vick as the bastard he is (allegedly ...) and keeps the victims of Vick's abuse - the dogs - at the fore of the story.

I simply don't see protests of fifty people with cutesy signs moving the needle. PETA would better serve their cause taking a cue from the takedown of Don Imus or the scare tactics of the NRA. It's not about getting your name in the paper, it's about getting your target's name in the paper, rebranded in such a negative light that no one wants to be associated with that target. It's not about winning the the hearts and minds of millions of Americans; it's about winning the select few hearts and minds that can get things accomplished.

PETA's form letter urging the NFL to suspend Michael Vick can be found here.

The Humane Society's letter can be found here.

The ASPCA's press release on the Vick indictment can be found here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Sailing Sachs's Current

I sat down to read Aaron Sachs’ recent book The Humboldt Current as a pleasure trip. Meaning I left the pencil behind to just read straight through its pretty dense 358 pages. In short, what I found was an outstanding book that presents some great research and poses far-reaching implications.

The thesis, if it could be boiled down to one sentence is this: “Ecology would have been unthinkable outside the context of nineteenth century exploration” (Sachs 346). Here Sachs doesn’t use ecology to mean the scientific principles of interdependence—that would exist with or without humans and their exploration—but instead the human-mapped science cum political movement (as proto-environmentalism) dealing with interdependence. In short, exploration—for exploration’s sake—based in natural history produced a meaningful science of ecology that in turn spurred the political action of conservationism. Using Humboldt’s grand theory of interdependence (Haeckel didn’t coin the term ecology until after Humboldt’s death) outlined in his five-volume life’s work, Cosmos, as the center, Sachs explores the growth of an environmental consciousness in Humboldt’s American disciples that was set apart from the resource-use frenzy of the day.

(Why Humboldt, by the way? Because almost everyone in the country, including Jefferson whom Humboldt met when he was 35 on his only trip to the States where the naturalist was received like a rock star, adored this guy. Even 10 years after his death in 1869, in towns across the country, there were parties and speeches celebrating Humboldt’s 100th birthday.

Sachs constellates five main figures in the book: Humboldt, and the Americans J.N. Reynolds, Clarence King, George Wallace Melville, and John Muir. Using the main compass points to point to their geographical areas of interest, the book breaks easily into four parts that are themselves something like concise biographies (Melville and Muir are paired in “North”). Each, despite their bad raps as promulgators of Manifest Destiny and the gospel of wealth, shared a Humboldtian love of natural history that put knowledge of interdependence over commercial possibilities. Reynolds’s quest for the South Seas Expedition, for example, was about looking for the open seas at the South Pole simply because it would be nice to know how ocean currents worked, despite his having to cop to a commercial sealing and whaling expedition to get him there in the end. King, first head of the USGS, spent his early years hiking the American West to measure altitudes and gain some kind of spiritual insight, despite living the later years of his life a cattle man and land speculator. Melville (up past the Bering Strait) and Muir (into Alaska in his complicated and often forgotten piece “The Cruise of the Corwin”) sailed and traipsed around Alaska despite being pegged as a power-mad, piss-poor sailor (Melville) and promoter of wilderness tourism for man’s sake alone (Muir). If interdependence is the message, then for Sachs the mode of exploration is borne out by travel narratives. All were best-selling authors and made a good buck on the lyceum circuit (save Muir who came too late and grew an orchard). Sachs’s close-reading of these travel narratives make up the heart of the analysis. A careful reader, his point is well taken and that nuance he provides at the level of the word is excellent. It’s through this analysis that he paints a picture of the whole of the 19th century as a good deal more environmental than we normally give it credit for—meaning more than Thoreau and G.P. Marsh.

The book itself, like all good histories, is also a great compendium of factoids and anecdotes about historical figures and episodes. For example, King caught some grief for climbing the wrong mountain. Henry Adams apparently really did know everyone and is all over the second half of this book. Sachs also outlines the political intrigues that rocked the funding of a number of voyages, pointing out the beginnings of the commercially funded trip. He supplies some social history, following the public’s furvor over buying out runs of Humboldt’s works and the ways in which invoking Humboldt could turn a vote in Congress. Sachs does some close reading of Emerson (he says he’s not a Humboldtian), Thoreau (almost the ideal Humboldtian, he gets an epigraph for every single chapter), Poe (a Humboldt plagiarist), and the other Melville (himself stealing from Reynolds). Welcomingly, Sachs, in the Mocha/Moby Dick sections supplies all the generic whale-as-symbol readings, but also that whales also do strange things sometimes in the real world. Who knew?!?! He also digs into American visual culture, hitting up a number of painters, as well as the emerging photography of the time. As far as interdisciplinarity goes, this guy does it all. Scholars in American Studies take note.

While I would say that there is no part of the book that fails, there are some small portions that don’t quite seem to fit neatly into the scheme. In these cases it seems that Sachs is bound by the academy’s code of dealing with race, class, and gender and is working toward the hat trick. Class and race issues do, admittedly, fit fairly squarely into the work here on a one-by-one basis. Reynolds, for example, was a farmer’s son trying to make it in the world; the study of natural history, as Sachs points out, was a way to transcend the Ohio farm of his youth in 1820. King married an African-American maid in secret for fear of being disowned by friends and family, the pressure ruining, to a degree, his health and happiness. Additionally, each person profiled in the book has a messy, complicated relationship to the native peoples they encounter. You can see in Sachs’s profiles how each one vacillates on the savage-civilized question and where to put some kind of ethical superiority. In the end, it’s all still open to interpretation, though those fully committed to the Humboldtian project embraced a kind of “unity in diversity,” at least on the page.

The part that doesn’t jibe, however, is the time spent with each man addressing the deep and complicated homosocial possibilities that the explorers encountered on their journeys. Sachs makes clear that exploration brings men together in exceptionally close ways, especially in contrast to the urban Victorian world. However, never at any time does he call any man homosexual, nor does he find compelling any evidence that they had admitted it to others or themselves (at least in their writing and letters). He does admit the complexity of applying a presentist lens to 19th century characters and their language—how difficult it is to parse not uncommon declarations of love between men as merely 1850s locutions or deep sentiment, how hard it is to know precisely what people mean when they express themselves to one another at all? These portions are interesting in and of themselves, but I’m not sure they add anything to the larger argument of the book (there’s no “eco-homo” argument, to pun on Nietzsche). Of course, I can’t fault him for trying a trifecta—writing on environmental topics with literal place taking a central role isn’t terribly fashionable. He might as well give his stodgier readers something to nibble on.

But the point that piqued my interest beyond the high quality scholarship was that Sachs wrote in a much more vibrant way than many other writers, in history or elsewhere. I think this is due in large part to the high caliber of his academic training and also his practice from years as an environmental journalist before starting graduate school (i.e. getting corrupted). What makes Sachs stand out is that he is willing to drop into the first-person and talk about his trips to visit archives and the places where these people traveled themselves. He’s not willing to sit around in the ivory tower—he’s got to hit the ground, and that makes his work stand out.

Not that this method’s been without trouble for him. In a short anecdotal essay on the History News Network, he remembers his initiation into the world of academic writing: getting canned by an unnamed two-time Pulitzer-winning historian for using the first person (four times in 139 pages) in his senior thesis at Harvard.

"With all due respect to my interlocutors, I have been asking for 15 years why it is that academic historians insist either on erasing their personas or on turning to the ridiculously royal-sounding "we" or the awkward, self-deluding formality of "the author," but not once have I gotten a compelling answer. Needless to say, then, ever since I received that first Reader's Report, I have been trying to use the first-person singular in my historical writing as often as possible. This practice has generated its share of rejection, scorn, and misunderstanding, but it has also allowed me to maintain a sense of self in the all-too-impersonal world of academia..."

Thank God he ignored the criticism. His Current isn’t rife with digressions into the first-person, certainly not to the point of distraction; when he does it, the personal only adds to the writing. It, too, adds to his own investment in this work is personal. Unlike many forgettable first books, there is no, as one colleague put it, “sound and fury, signifying tenure.” Sachs likes what he does, but also has a careful eye for analysis that makes this a good academic work. That makes the “Acknowledgments” a tasty treat at the end of the book—9 full pages of him divesting the names and tales of everyone who helped out along the way. Because there is an actual person behind this book, it’s no wonder that it wasn’t published by the University of Wherever, but by mainstreamers Viking/Penguin.

All in all it’s a great book that begs to be read slowly, for pleasure. If you can take anything from the work, it’s that when thinking about ecology in the U.S. it would be wise to think about Humboldt—the Einstein of his day in terms of celebrity, Sachs says. Though we forget Humboldt (Sachs says it’s a result of the rise of specialization and lab work instead of teamwork and fieldtrips at the turn from the 19th to 20th century) it might be in our best interests to go look him up again as the environmental problems we’re facing become more complicated. Or, in a more Humboldtian fashion, interdependent.