Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

I finished reading The World Without Us a month ago. Incredibly, every day something triggers a memory about something in the book. It stays with you. To imagine a planet without people, Weisman draws on virtually every realm of science from biology to astrophysics, not to mention a healthy dose of engineering, archeology, and social sciences. What would be the immediate consequences of our absence? Which man-made structures would last the longest? How long would it take for decimated animal populations to recover? Would another race of humans someday evolve?

On this speculative journey, the reader visits the New York subways, Houston's petrochemical plants, the "horse latitudes" where ocean trash languishes, the English birthplace of modern fertilizers, an Arizona nuclear power plant, and the radiation-poisoned -- but not lifeless -- area surrounding Chernobyl. Along the way, tour guide Weisman imparts fascinating tidbits. For example, when he describes how weather would break down the average house in the absence of a diligent homeowner, he notes that ceramic bathroom tiles will last the longest because they are chemically similar to fossils. Elsewhere, he describes how newspapers fill up landfills -- we think they break down quickly, but they last much longer buried without air or sunlight. While discussing the relative permanence of polymers, Weisman says "biodegradable" plastic bags don't really degrade completely; they just separate into minuscule particles of plastic. These plastic pieces do not break down, and they turn up in plankton and other small organisms.

Some reviewers claim the book says the world would be better off without us. Weisman never says that, however, so perhaps those people have guilty consciences. Also, science deniers need not apply -- evolution and global warming come up repeatedly.

The World Without Us is written in easy-to-understand language, which is important for a book that veers from chemical engineering to anthropology to oceanography. If the book has a flaw, I suppose it is its non-linear organization. Instead of a narrative moving from the present into a humanless world, the author jumps from topic to topic, shifting back and forth between now and the future.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the environment and our role in it. It does all the things a great book should: it entertains, provides a lot of information, and makes the reader think.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Lyrics of the Day

Bruce Cockburn week concludes...

If you've heard one Bruce Cockburn song on the radio, it was probably "Wondering Where The Lions Are" from 1979. Even his "big hit single" has an underlying sense of impending doom despite the pleasant, upbeat music. He wrote it after someone (a relative in the intelligence field) warned him that the USSR and China were on the verge of nuclear war. It describes his joyful realization the next morning that the war hadn't started. Also, he'd had a nightmare about lions, but then he had another dream where they were harmless.

Sun's up, uh huh, looks okay
The world survives into another day
And I'm thinking about eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me

I had another dream about lions at the door
They weren't half as frightening as they were before
But I'm thinking about eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me
And I'm wondering where the lions are...
I'm wondering where the lions are...
If you haven't heard "Wondering Where The Lions Are," well, even Cockburn's "hit" only reached number 21 on the Billboard charts. I'd say Cockburn is the best Canadian songwriter to be ignored in the U.S., but maybe Leonard Cohen deserves that title -- he hasn't had any U.S. hits. Incidentally, the same friend introduced me to the music of both artists, and no, my friend isn't Canadian.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Lyrics of the Day

Bruce Cockburn weekend continues...

I've never been a big fan of free verse. When I read it, I can't help wondering why the writer couldn't either rhyme or form sentences. Most Cockburn lyrics stick to a meter, even if it's sometimes endearingly clumsy (he'll squeeze in odd words or phrases at times). But "If A Tree Falls" is sort of Cockburn's 1988 experiment with rapping. Inspired by the clear-cutting of rain forests, he sings the chorus but speaks the rhymeless, rhythmless verses:
Rain forest
Mist and mystery
Teeming green
Green brain facing labotomy
Climate control centre for the world
Ancient cord of coexistence
Hacked by parasitic greedhead scam -
From Sarawak to Amazonas
Costa Rica to mangy B.C. hills -
Cortege rhythm of falling timber.

What kind of currency grows in these new deserts,
These brand new flood plains?

If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
Anybody hear the forest fall?

Cut and move on
Cut and move on
Take out trees
Take out wildlife at a rate of a species every single day
Take out people who've lived with this for 100,000 years -
Inject a billion burgers worth of beef -
Grain eaters - methane dispensers.
Although I am an unrepentant carnivore, that's one of my all-time favorite lines: "Grain eaters - methane dispensers." That really describes cattle in their most basic form, don't you think? An interviewer presumed this song was inspired by a trip to Brazil, but there is a clue in the lyrics: "mangy B.C. hills." That's a reference to British Columbia; Cockburn was thinking of the Pacific Northwest rain forests that he had visited.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Lyrics of the Day

Bruce Cockburn week continues...

"Dust And Diesel" is a Stealing Fire song inspired by Cockburn's experiences in Nicaragua. He tells a vivid tale about traveling the Interamerican Highway:

Headlights pick out fallen sack of corn
One lone tarantula standing guard
We pull up and stop and she ambles off
Discretion much the better part of cars
Rodrigo the government driver jumps out
He's got chickens who can use the feed
We sweep the asphalt on our hands and knees
Fill up his trunk with dusty yellow seeds

Dust and diesel
Rise like incense from the road
Smoke of offering
For the revolution morning
I love the imagery in this song -- the corn and the spider. Another verse describes a "Smiling girl directing traffic flow/.45 strapped over cotton print dress."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bastard of the Day

The Pentagon is taking bastardry to a new level:
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) ― The U.S. Military is demanding that thousands of wounded service personnel give back signing bonuses because they are unable to serve out their commitments.

To get people to sign up, the military gives enlistment bonuses up to $30,000 in some cases.

Now men and women who have lost arms, legs, eyesight, hearing and can no longer serve are being ordered to pay some of that money back.
Can you believe this? Those bastards are burning up $11,000,000 per hour in this war, and they want to take back $3,000 from a wounded soldier because he is unable to return to combat for the last three months of his commitment. Are they afraid soldiers are going to throw themselves on top of IEDs just so they can pocket their bonuses without serving their full terms? Hell, the wounded deserve those bonuses more than anyone. Does the Pentagon try to get bonus money back from widows, too?

UPDATE 11/24/2007 - Keith Olbermann is reporting that the Pentagon says this was a mistake that should not have happened.

Lyrics of the Day

Bruce Cockburn week continues...

"Call It Democracy" is Cockburn at his angriest and most overtly political. It's probably the only song ever written about the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which promotes "development" in the Third World while serving the monied interests of the First World. I'm sure Bono likes this song.
Padded with power here they come
International loan sharks backed by the guns
Of market hungry military profiteers
Whose word is a swamp and whose brow is smeared
With the blood of the poor
North South East West
Kill the best and buy the rest
It's just spend a buck to make a buck
You don't really give a flying fuck
About the people in misery

IMF dirty MF
Takes away everything it can get
Always making certain that there's one thing left
Keep them on the hook with insupportable debt

See the paid-off local bottom feeders
Passing themselves off as leaders
Kiss the ladies shake hands with the fellows
Open for business like a cheap bordello
And they call it democracy
This song inspired me to learn about the IMF and what they do. If you're one of the naive masses who wondered after 9/11 why people in other countries would hate us, the IMF is one answer (in particular, see the Wikipedia subheadings IMF/World Bank support of Military Dictatorships and Criticism). Cockburn was singing about Central America in the 1980s, but it could just as well have been Africa, South America, or Asia.

A funny story about this song... The album came out in 1986 when Tipper Gore's PMRC was pushing for record labeling. When the sleeve for the vinyl LP was printed, not only were the lyrics printed on the back, but also the "offensive" words were highlighted in yellow! I think it was intended as a big middle finger to Tipper, something I wholeheartedly support (I had a hard time voting for Al knowing that Tipper would be First Lady, and I guess the Supreme Court agreed).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

It's a Bit Drafty in Here

Every so often, I go through my blog history and try to prune out the draft entries. Usually, a few are only a sentence or two long without being thought out, especially since Blogger saves drafts automatically now. I delete most of those. Others are rants that seemed important at the time but don't mean anything to me anymore. I kill those, too.

But when I read some drafts, I wonder why I never "pulled the trigger" and published them. For time-insensitive entries, I revise them and publish them with the current date. If they are tied to a specific time period, I make a few revisions and publish them to the original date. Regular readers won't see them, but they will make their way into the search engines so somebody may read them eventually.

For anyone who wants to read recently published old stuff, here are some that I put out last night:
February 16, 2006 - The Doors
June 05, 2006 - June: Time to Buy a Ski Mask
July 20, 2006 - How Not to Frame an Argument
December 03, 2006 - Roadtrip Notes
June 22, 2007 - Rand McNally Gets It Wrong
September 09, 2007 -Wisconsin Road Trip Revisited

Lyrics of the Day

Bruce Cockburn week continues...

"A Dream Like Mine" was inspired by a Canadian novel by M.T. Kelly. The book is about a Native American tribe trying to protect their land against corporate interests. Cockburn says

They're losing, so an old man of the tribe, kind of a shamanistic character, conjures up out of dreams a sort of eternal warrior figure to come to life to try and right the wrongs that are being done. The implication is that he is always in the background waiting to be called up when the need arises. It was that sense of community, that sense of an unbroken link to the past that caught my attention.
Cockburn was also moved by the Oka Crisis at the time. Never heard of it? It was big news in Canada but virtually ignored in the U.S., probably because the corporate media didn't want to give Native Americans any ideas. Basically, in 1990 the town of Oka wanted to expand its golf course onto land claimed by local Mohawks without their consent. The Mohawks formed a barricade and resisted against police and the army for several months.

After all that background, here are some lyrics:

When you know even for a moment
That it's your time
Then you can walk with the power
Of a thousand generations

When you've got a dream like mine
Nobody can take you down
When you've got a dream like mine
Nobody can push you around
I love the line about walking with the power of a thousand generations. This song is from Nothing But A Burning Light, the most recent Cockburn album I have purchased. Since it's from 1991, I have some catching up to do!

Politics Where You Least Expect It

I was reading a blog entry at The New Republic's site when I came across this comment from "epackard-02":
Has anyone else seen the Charmin commercial where the red bear wants the *strong* Charmin and the blue bear wants the *soft* Charmin.

Subversive, I tell you.
That's the funniest political observation I've heard in months. So was Mr. Whipple a Republican?

UPDATE - I wrote the above before learning that Dick Wilson, who portrayed Mr. Whipple for decades, died on Monday at age 91. Here's some interesting stuff from the AdAge obituary:
Mr. Wilson also received an unusual stipend from [Procter & Gamble] -- complimentary rolls of Charmin shipped each month. He made the "Guiness Book of World Records" for the longest-running TV character with 504 ads, and a 1979 poll (conducted for P&G) pegged him as the third best-known American behind Richard Nixon and Billy Graham.
And I know he was better-liked than at least one of those guys (that poll doesn't say much for President Carter, does it?). Wilson also did a lot of television and movie work (read the list and try to think of a TV series he wasn't on in the 1960s and 1970s).

Monday, November 19, 2007

Lyrics of the Day

Bruce Cockburn week continues...

Stealing Fire is one of the best albums I ever found in the cut-out bins. The first Cockburn song I ever heard on the radio (I've heard a total of three, all on WXRT) was "If I Had A Rocket Launcher." I only caught some of the words, and my teenage mind decided it was a cool song about how this guy wants to blow up a bunch of people with a rocket launcher. I even started a mental list of people I'd like to shoot with a rocket launcher.

Of course, Cockburn, being a generally peaceful dude, didn't mean for the song to be taken that way. When I bought the album, the song's true meaning became obvious. Cockburn spent time in Central America in the 1980s and saw the ravages of civil war firsthand. "If I Had A Rocket Launcher" speaks of the frustration and powerlessness he felt in the face of the armies.
Here comes the helicopter -- second time today
Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away
How many kids they've murdered only God can say
If I had a rocket launcher...I'd make somebody pay
On the Rio Lacantun, one hundred thousand wait
To fall down from starvation -- or some less humane fate
Cry for Guatemala, with a corpse in every gate
If I had a rocket launcher...I would not hesitate
Since Stealing Fire is my favorite Cockburn album, we'll come back to it later this week.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Lyrics of the Day

I've been listening to some Bruce Cockburn concerts this weekend. Cockburn (long "o", silent "ck") is a brilliant Canadian songwriter whose work is under-appreciated in the U.S. Not coincidentally, his songs are often politically at odds with U.S. policies. Since he has over 35 years of material to draw from, let's do "Bruce Cockburn week" for LotD...

Our first selection is one of my all-time favorites, "The Trouble With Normal." It was written in the scary days of Ronnie and Maggie, but it's eerily topical in the post-9/11 world:
Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it's repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs -- "Security comes first"
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse
Those words capture the essence of the USA PATRIOT Act, wiretapping, Guantanamo, etc. so well. And the person in the street is the average American, naively accepting it all in the name of safety. All three verses of "The Trouble With Normal" are packed with meaning like this one, but I don't want to over-quote.

Note: The second album below is a compilation of many of Cockburn's most popular songs. Although I don't have that particular CD, most of the songs I'll feature this week can be found there. One song on that disc that I haven't heard is "My Beat," which is about riding his bicycle around Montreal.

Bastard of the Day

I got an e-mail recently from someone wishing to exchange links with my copywriting Web site. While this seemed like a friendly gesture that supposedly would boost my search engine ranking, I smelled a rat. First of all, he offered to put my link on a page that I could not access from elsewhere on his site; I can't see how a search engine spider would ever even find it.

But the most galling thing was the content of his site, which was written in broken English -- it was encouraging businesses to outsource their copywriting to India! I yelled so loud at my screen that my wife thought something terrible had happened. One major reason I abandoned information technology was the outsourcing of work to Indian companies at rock-bottom rates. In fact, my later years in IT were devoting to fixing the garbage those cut-rate Indian programmers generated.

Now this guy expects me to help him get work for Indian copywriters. Why would I want to encourage my potential clients to hire Indian hacks instead?

Interesting New Books

I have a bunch of reviews to write, but first, here are a couple of new books I found on AlterNet that I haven't read yet.
  • The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs - The mostly agnostic author (he's Jewish "in the same way that the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant") writes down every law he can find in the Old Testament and tries to live by them in modern times. This is relevant because a huge percentage of Americans claim to do just that (except Christians use the comparatively lax New Testament instead of the Old). Although the book is written and classified as humor (a detail lost on some Amazon reviewers), Jacobs learns a lot about spirituality along the way. In the end, he finds virtue in sacredness, regardless of whether there is a God. See this AlterNet article for more.
  • Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves by Andrew Szasz - This book looks at the green consumer phenomenon and suggests that we are feeling a false sense of goodness from buying organic and such. His argument is that buying green products is a self-centered act that has little impact on the environmental destruction that made those products viable in the first place. In other words, just because my veggies are free of chemicals doesn't stop farmers from dumping chemicals on crops for everyone else, and buying bottled water doesn't keep polluters from spewing toxins into Lake Michigan. I suppose it's "the American way" to turn activism into just another flavor of consumerism. Reviewer Erin Wiegand is quick to point out that shoppers shouldn't think buying green is meaningless, just that we should realize that it is only a small part of solving our environmental problems.

I'll probably put The Year of Living Biblically on my Christmas list. I expect it to be entertaining along the lines of Joe Queenan's My Goodness. On the other hand, although I agree with the premise of Shopping Our Way to Safety, I don't feel a need to read about it in depth.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Brief Visit to Hell

My wife's cousin is having a baby soon, and somehow it fell to me to procure a gift for the shower.* I don't have kids, I don't want kids, and I don't particularly like kids.** Consequently, I would rather shop for feminine hygiene products (and I have) than for baby gifts.

Friday night, I drove to the nearest Babys "R" Us, which appropriately is located beside my least favorite corporate villain, Wal-Mart. I entered with trepidation. Although I wanted to complete my mission quickly, the bright lights and unfamiliar merchandise overwhelmed me. I fell into a daze.

Fortunately, the registry business is huge at Babys "R" Us. Therefore, it merits lots of square footage. Right in front where no one could miss it was a long, curved table with several comfortable chairs. A woman behind the table stood ready at a computer. I told her the mother's name and that I didn't want to spend a lot, and she printed the registry for me with only the items under $50.

Okay, this shouldn't be too hard. I picked out two $12.99 items to fit our $25-30 budget. Aw shit, where the Hell is this stuff? Confronted with aisle upon aisle of assorted baby goods, I felt like an illiterate in a bookstore.

I tried, I really did. I was even in the right department, but I couldn't find a darn thing. Shit. Maybe I'll get something else on the list instead. I started walking toward the back of the store. Then it hit me. Oh my God, somebody give me a knife! I'll do it now! No, I wasn't feeling suicidal. I've been putting off that damned vasectomy for too long. I swear, someone should open a clinic right next door to Babys "R" Us.

Fortunately, an associate recognized the mix of horror and confusion on my face. He set aside a couple of stock carts and asked if I needed help. I replied that I had no clue what I was doing here, but (pointing at the registry page) I was looking for these. Then he not only told me where the items were, he walked over there with me and picked them off the rack. I was done shopping in two minutes, and I thanked him profusely.

After a very short wait in line, a friendly clerk rang up my purchase and sent me on my way. So although every fiber of my being resisted Babys "R" Us, I have to admit they have really great customer service. But I still hope I never have to go there again.

* Since I work at home, I leave the house as frequently as the post-Vegas Howard Hughes. But I love to listen to CDs in the car. So whenever an errand comes up, I figure the quality CD time -- in this case paired with a visit to the Corner Bakery for a club panini --makes it worthwhile. Besides, this effort excuses me (as far as my wife is concerned) from having to attend the shower, a fate slightly worse than being post-Vegas Hughes' favorite enema giver (Hughes needed help with his plumbing due to codeine addiction -- and yes, he did have a favorite enema giver). When I heard my wife R.S.V.P. on the phone, I could barely suppress my laughter as she said, "Um, no, I don't think Dave will be able to make it that day." Yeah, I'll be washing my hair or something.

** I don't hate kids; I'm not that much of a bastard. But I do hate my in-laws when they drop unsubtle hints about grandchildren. Anyone who knows my ambivalence toward kids ought to realize I'd make an awful father. If birth control didn't exist, I'd be a virgin. And while I'm being overly dramatic, curse you Jennifer for getting me into this ridiculous footnoting habit.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lyrics of the Day

Bicycle tourists are treated differently from the rest of the traveling public in the United States. Jennifer's tale of a lousy weekend in Carbondale brought back some not-so-fond memories from my cross-country bike tour. While some people were intrigued and asked lots of questions, others simply shunned me. Many assumed I was poor because I wasn't driving, treating me with the same disdain afforded to bums and homeless people. For every person curious about my journey, another acted like I didn't exist. Even off the bike, my lycra cycling shorts and brightly colored jersey marked me as an outsider.

A touring rock musician, at least one who isn't famous yet, has similar experiences. Rather than one of the obscure genres I usually draw from, today's lyrics are from classic rock -- Bob Seger's "Turn The Page:"

Well you walk into a restaurant,
strung out from the road
And you feel the eyes upon you
as you're shakin' off the cold
You pretend it doesn't bother you
but you just want to explode.

Most times you can't hear 'em talk,
other times you can
oh, the same old cliches,
"Is that a woman or a man?"
And you always seem outnumbered,
you don't dare make a stand

Oddly enough, I only felt lonely in the presence of others. I never felt that way while I was riding my bike all day, and at night in my motel room, I was happily occupied with route planning, writing my journal, or watching TV. But in a restaurant, a store, a museum, or a train, I never felt like I belonged. Even people whose job was to be friendly were not always so. Convenience store clerks would eye me suspiciously. Motel clerks would get upset when I didn't write down a license plate number on the registration form (though I had already told them I was on a bicycle). Waitresses could hardly be bothered to come over to my table (and they knew I was there because everyone had stared at me as I walked in).

Sometimes I could go to my motel room and forget about it, but other times it really bothered me. I was used to traveling alone, but I was not accustomed to being a pariah. When it's just a weekend, as in Jennifer's case, it is frustrating and annoying. But dealing with 11 weeks of alienation and passive hostility became almost as challenging as pedaling the bike 3,000 miles.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Role Model

Today's Tribune article about the opening of the I-355 extension says:
Officials predict it will attract retail malls that could transform New Lenox into "the Schaumburg" of the southwest suburbs.
Is that supposed to be a good thing? Schaumburg has only one redeeming quality, and even that is rather dubious.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Lyrics of the Day

I've been listening to my two Fred Eaglesmith CDs this week (I keep meaning to get more, but my CD wish list is pretty long these days). One of my favorite Eaglesmith songs, "Alcohol and Pills," was recently covered by Todd Snider (no slouch himself as a songwriter). The song is a retelling of a common theme: performers who overdose (see also Robbie Fulks' bluntly titled "She Took a Lot of Pills (& Died)"). Eaglesmith begins with Hank Williams, moves on to Elvis Presley, and then name-drops Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons, and Jimi Hendrix just for good measure. The third line of the chorus is my favorite:
Alcohol and pills, it's a crying shame,
You'd think they might've been happy with the glory and the fame
But fame doesn't take away the pain, it just pays the bills,
And you wind up on alcohol and pills
People are driven to create for all sorts of reasons. Some are chasing fame or fortune. For others, strange as it may seem to those who crave stardom, it really is just a way to pay the bills.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Bastard of the Day

Did you know that Exxon never finished paying for the Exxon Valdez environmental disaster which occurred 18 years ago? Check it out:
The Supreme Court's recent decision to hear ExxonMobil's reasons to void the $2.5 billion punitive award in the Exxon Valdez case hit the town of Cordova, Alaska, hard. This small coastal fishing community -- my hometown -- along with the Alaska Native villages in Prince William Sound have borne the brunt of the largest crude oil spill in America's waters; a spill that took place more than 18 years ago, but one that continues to hold the region hostage. The second painful blow was the high court's decision to not even hear our reasons why the award should be restored to the full $5 billion that a jury of peers decided was necessary to punish the corporate giant back in 1994.
Here's some more rotten news...
It shouldn't surprise anyone that Exxon paid $2.5 billion for its cleanup and another $1 billion for penalties. But, it might surprise people who live outside Alaska to learn that taxpayers, not Exxon, paid a majority of that bill.
You always knew those unctuous bastards were going to weasel out of paying their fair share.

Just a few days ago, ExxonMobil posted a profit of $9.4 billion for the past three months! And those greedy bastards can't cough up $2.5 billion -- or even the full $5 billion -- for destroying the economy of an Alaskan fishing village? Do these oil people ever sit up at night wondering why everybody hates them? Surely they know.