Monday, 8 October 2018

The making of many books

The Making of Many Books

"... Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.
-- Ecclesiastes 12:12 (NIV)

Okay, so I may have been consuming a bit too much content lately - a bit!

And I'm really feeling that I need to move from only reading to also writing. So to start, here's a little piece of writing on what I've been reading.

I've always been a bookworm, and I appear to have a bit of a book hoarding issue, according to my spouse. The last few years the accumulation of instances of the dead-tree format has slowed appreciably, as I've mostly switched over to consuming content in e- formats: ebooks (Kindle, Kobo, PDF, or web-based), audiobooks (checked out of the Toronto Public Library, or accessed via my beloved Scribd subscription - see and podcasts. All these download into the appropriate app on my iPhone or iPad Mini: Libby, Scribd app, and DownCast.

For audiobooks and podcasts, I've got a couple of nice Bluetooth wireless headsets that let me keep on 'reading' while I'm working around the house or the boat, commuting, or just vegging out. By keeping a selection of content in the audio queue and keeping the phone and the 'phones charged and handy, I get through a number of titles per week, week in and week out - on top of my actual reading of text off of screens.

So, great: no more ever-growing stack of unread / barely begun (physical) books on the nightstand - yay! Unfortunately the queue of "save for later" titles, both text and audio, continues to pile up in i-space, i.e. on the screen of my mobile devices. The concomitant 'book guilt' -- the sense that I was kidding myself about ever getting through all these titles I told myself I want to read -- well, that hasn't gone away. This is a special kind of weariness the sage of Ecclesiastes might find it hard to grasp, but the gist of 12:12 still applies.

I'm trying to view the backlog with a sense of opportunity - I'll never run out of choices for the next read! -- and to focus instead on what I am getting through. So what have I been reading?

 I'm consuming quite a lot of nonfiction titles this year:

  • History, especially of colonialism: 
    • Charles Mann's 1491 and 1493
    • Matthew Restall's When Montezuma Met Cortes (saved for later)
    • Alexander Anieves's How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism
  • Earth history: 
    • Peter Brannen's The Ends of the World 
  • Energy and climate change:
    • Paul Hawken's Drawdown
    • Chris Turner's The Patch
  • Agronomy(? - hard to name the category, but a great book): 
    • David R. Montgomery's Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization
  • Race in America: 
    • Kevin M Kruse's White Flight
    • Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me 
    • Charles M. Blow's Fire Shut Up in my Bones (mostly read)
    • Joan Walsh's What's the Matter with White People (begun)
    • John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me
    • W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Men (saved for later)
  • U.S. politics:
    • Peter Bremmer's Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism
    • Malcolm Nance's The Plot to Hack America
    • Steven Levitsky's How Democracies Die
    • Ellen R. Malcolm's When Women Win: EMILY's List
    • Katie Tur's Unbelievable
    • Luke Harding's Collusion
  • Biology / ecology (for an online biology book club):
    • Peter Marra's Cat Wars 
    • Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees
  • Science
    • Sharon Moalem's Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives
A few standouts in my 'save for later / really should get back to' queue:
  • Donald Boudreaux's Globalization
  • S. Niggol Seo's The Behavioral Economics of Climate Change (in progress)

All that U.S. politics, colonialism and climate change can be pretty heavy, even unsettling reading, so I try to pace myself by interspersing some fiction (especially right before bed!) I enjoy detective and spy novels, both classics and newer contributions. I've scoured the Scandinavian crime fiction scene, which offers a nice range of crime novels set in Nordic countries.

I've found several authors with fresh takes on each genre, based in different times and places in recent history:
  • Martin Cruz Smith (Arkady Renko, detective, USSR & Russian Federation)
  • Tom Rob Smith (Leo Demidov, detective, USSR)
  • Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch, detective, California)
  • Alan Furst (spy / resistance, WW II era)
  • Philip Kerr (Bernie Gunther, detective, Nazi Germany)
  • Charles Cumming (espionage, modern Britain)
  • Arnadur Indridason (Inspector Erlendur, detective, modern Iceland)
  • Henning Mankell (crime, Sweden)
  • Peter Hoeg (crime, Denmark)
  • Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Martin Beck, detective, Sweden)
Then for sheer escapism, there are always the 'pulp' or high-productivity U.S. action writers like:
  • Lee Child
  • Michael Connelly
  • Tom Clancy
  • Len Deighton

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

You are not the boss of me!

On Autonomy

"I don’t care what you say any more, this is my life /
Go ahead with your own life – leave me alone!"

-- 'My Life' by Billy Joel

 A young child sees that their present is limited, constrained: “Eat your veggies! Don’t touch! Bedtime!” They look forward with longing to a future where they outgrow these constraints.

Children see that their parents know what is good for them, and that they must mature before they’ll be ready to take over making decisions for themselves. Kids feel impatient to reach the plateaus where they demonstrate competence at particular daily tasks – “Let me do it!”

They perceive that reaching the goal of showing they’re ready and able to do things for themselves is the doorway to a special freedom, what we call “autonomy” – deciding for yourself about your own affairs. At first this includes choices like what to wear today, having an allowance to spend as you choose, deciding what friends to socialize with; learning to ride a bicycle, then later how to drive. Eventually a young adult must take on more responsibility for decisions about their future: what courses to take, where and how long to attend school, college, university, and grad school; how late to stay out; when to try drinking; whom to date and eventually whom to marry; when to move out, rent a place, buy a bike, a scooter, perhaps a car.

Family, friends and colleagues will continue to weigh in with opinions on these choices if permitted, but ultimately an adult has the final decision and responsibility for their choices.

The importance of autonomy underlies many of our civic values and political ideals. A central facet of why slavery is wrong lies in its denial to enslaved persons of their autonomy. We recognize that all human persons have an inherent right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as each person sees fit. It’s not for me or you or anyone else to tell a person how to exercise their autonomy. We do still place demands on adults, in the form of laws, customs and social norms. These are justified as necessary to allow us all to coexist in society without interfering with one another’s own rights. You’re free to go to a bar and drink, but if drink makes you pugnacious, the freedom of movement of your fist ends where my nose begins. One challenge for government is fully protect citizen’s noses from their fellow citizens’ fists, imposing only the minimum of constraint of everyone’s freedom.

Living in society today places many limits on yours or my self-expression and autonomy: we have to stop at red lights; refrain from theft, murder, arson or extortion. More positively, we have to work for a living and pay taxes, and we depend on our fellow citizens to produce and sell us whatever we need to buy to live our lives: food and drink, fuel, electricity, news, things to read and shows to watch… you or I can’t produce all of these alone, and we each have to go along with what everyone else chooses to offer for sale and what price they ask.

So we each have a core right to autonomy over ourselves in our life choices – but none of us is autonomous in the sense of Robinson Crusoe, or Matt Damon in The Martian (and even they relied on tools and materiel salvaged or left from the vessel from which they were marooned, originally stocked by others.) Autonomy over one’s life choices cannot depend on self-sufficiency in isolation from society. No man is an island, as Donne wrote, and we recognize autonomy as a right against interference by others in ongoing interaction with those others, not in isolation. Yes, you are free to exercise your autonomy to live as a hermit, go camping in a remote wilderness, or cast off solo in a well-stocked boat, but the point is that you need not do any of those things to remain autonomous. The right to autonomy is a right to live in society, in mutual inter-dependence —for food, for employment, news and ideas, stories and relationships— yet free from compulsion or coercion. Nobody else can dictate your life choices. It’s all on you.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

If you are not black

If you are not black in America, don't go saying America is now "post-racial." If you are not black, you can't know what Black Americans experience - not truly. You can try to put yourself in a Black person's shoes; you can read black authors and journalists, and listen to commentary of black thought leaders. You can spend some time reading Black Twitter. I've also included links to twitter accounts of authors I recommend below.

If you are not black, and find black perspectives unfamiliar and perhaps off-putting, just keep trying. What you really don't want to do is to try to portray whites as 'victims' of anti-white 'racism,' or to push the hashtag #AllLivesMatter. Just ... don't. Instead, read more. Listen. If you're on twitter and are not black, there's a good chance you haven't followed many women of color. Find some, give them a follow, and see who they #FF. 

If you view the world through TV, there are current and recent documentary series such as Soledad O'Brien's Black in America series on CNN, and W. Kamau Bell's United Shades of America.

If you view the world through books and the written word (and/or audiobook), there is a wealth of choice.

I've read and can recommend:

Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns (well rendered in audiobook by narrator Robin Miles) (Twitter: @IsabelWilkerson )

Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me (Twitter: Ta-Nehisi Coates)

Kevin M. Kruse's White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism

Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow  (twitter: @thenewjimcrow)

Andrew Young's An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America

Charles M. Blow's Fire Shut Up in My Bones

Other things I'm interested to read on race in America include:

Cameron McWhirter's The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America (Twitter:

Ijeoma Oluo's So you want to talk about race (Twitter: @IjeomaOluo )

Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race (Twitter: @renireni )

Kamau Bell's writings (Twitter: @wkamaubell )


I'm also looking for a good book on the race riots of the 60's, and on the L.A. riots of 1992 - send recommendations to @jimprall on twitter.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Planes, trains, and ...

The Age of Engines

How we got so far into the Anthropocene era

For the past two centuries we've been digging up coal and burning it. We've burned coal for space heating--far more convenient than firewood!--and to fire steam boilers for locomotives, pumps (first, to de-water the coal mines and get even more coal), power turbines, and smelting steel.

For over 100 years we've been drilling oil and then gas wells, piping the gas to market (heating, industrial processes, fertilizer), and refining crude oil to gasoline, kerosene, and heavier oil, while burning the oil distillates in cars, trucks, SUVs, motorcycles, taxis, buses, ships, trains, planes, tractors, ATVs, jet skis, dragsters, Indy cars, rally cars, funny cars, monster trucks... A lot of 'sports' entertainment relies on the excitement value of seeing which powerful gasoline engine will carry which daredevil competitor the fastest--or jump the farthest over other, less gigantic vehicles. I looked at photos and TV shows of a whole lot of these internal-combustion powerhouses. Every boy in my school drew pictures of 'cool' cars, and collected HotWheels(TM) toy cars. The coolest of all had to be Sizzlers - tiny battery-powered speedsters we raced around the FatTrack(TM) until they needed recharging. (Hey, electric vehicles in the 70's!) 

The fossil fuel sector is an historic stand-out: it transformed our global society into a hyper-connected, always-on-the-move rat race/traffic jam. Today we routinely catch flights halfway around the world, hop 14-storey cruise ships (all you can eat!), and order a lot of stuff online which was built far away, perhaps shipped by vast container ship, rail and/or tractor-trailer to the Giant Warehouse. Then it was packaged up just for us, barcode labelled and dispatched to us - perhaps by air freight, then onto a delivery van right to our door (or if you still go to 'stores,' the whole chain still worked to get your cornucopia of products onto the store shelves.)

Think of how many internal combustion engines were needed in that supply chain--then consider how many times a day items are loaded up and sent via whatever fossil-fueled vehicle. There are now well over a billion internal combustion engines worldwide--hundreds of millions of passenger and freight vehicles, plus tractors, mowers, pumps, generators, ...

Modern civilization is exquisitely dependent on the internal combustion engine.

Is this a problem?

Two distinct issues arise when we reflect on the vast scale and breathtaking rate of growth of the fossil fuels and the hardware in which we burn them: 'peak oil', and the greenhouse effect. I'll get into the issue of greenhouse gas emissions later; here, let me first focus on fossil fuel limits. First, these resources cannot be infinite, and a day must come when we can no longer go on increasing the volume produced. This is summed up in the concept of 'peak oil': that we must face the inevitability that the earth will eventually stop yielding as much oil (and gas and coal) as we have been demanding. The best case for geological limits on oil extraction that I've seen is Ken Deffeyes' book Hubbert's Peak. Here's a good review of Deffeyes' recent work. The website offers readers plenty of info on this viewpoint.

For a while, the concept of peak oil started to take root, impacting investors and even the world of policy. But it has always been held at bay as a 'fringe' movement. The powerful fossil fuel sector wanted no part of coming to terms with this, and free market fundamentalists clung to the blind faith that whatever we are going to need in the future, the 'magic of the marketplace' will always deliver it, somehow. Talk of ultimate limits remained anathema to this mindset.

Many more of us, mostly not wedded to such extreme ideology, still choose not to take the step back to look at these questions. The economy is ticking along, utterly reliant on ever more oil wells. It has to work. Don't ask me whether future generations will have the luxury of carrying on burning fuels as we've always been able to do -- too much for me to think about!

After a brief spell of very high oil prices, where it appeared that the 'peakers' may have been vindicated, oil prices fell as hydraulic fracturing methods came into play on a large scale. The U.S. is less dependent on imported oil than it has been in many decades.

One might try to point out that this new technique only delays the inevitable reckoning; that 'fracking' for oil is a lot more intrusive and disruptive to local residents, and it too must at some point hit a peak beyond which it can grow no further and must over time start to decline. So far, though, the extra time that fracking has bought the U.S. has pushed these considerations far off the front page, or the top-of-mind. Trump's EPA Administrator Scott Priutt feels justified in seeking to cancel established regulations setting fleet fuel economy improvement targets for the coming years. Go ahead, keep making and driving gas guzzlers -- we'll just keep fracking til we've got wells on every block.

What, me worry?