Sunday, December 29, 2002

It takes guts to defend pornography publicly. And because of that, the anti-porn activists have an advantage -- many who disagree with them are scared to admit it, fearing that people who dislike porn will stereotype those who like it and look down on them or even treat them badly. However, the Internet has made it both easier to find porn without embarassment and easier to defend porn -- I don't know if I'd be able to say that I like porn in front of, say, members of my family, but I can easily say it on this weblog.

Nadine Strossen's Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights took more guts to put out -- this woman is staking her professional reputation on defending porn. But she does it so well! Her main point is that anti-porn "feminist" crusaders such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon are really harming the feminist cause by asserting that women need to be protected by law from anything that might possibly be interpreted as sexual (since the "MacDworkinite" position is that anything depicting women's bodies must be objectifying them, anything about sex must be men viewing women as sex objects -- even gay male porn where there aren't any women involved, even lesbian women making porn for a lesbian audence -- and essentially that women are in the position of small children who are unable to give consent to, well, anything sex-related). Strossen shows what has happened when laws based on this position have been passed, both in the past when the assumption of women's "ladylike" natures was used to keep them from an expectation of enjoying sex, and in the present when Canada's laws based on Dworkin and MacKinnon's work, have been used to ban Dworkin's work from importation into that country. (Not surprising to me, since MacKinnon's Only Words was substantially more violent and disturbing when I tried to read it (I couldn't finish) than anything I have ever encountered in porn.)

Laura Kipnis' Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America takes a very different tack to defend porn (and in fact, I think, unjustly denigrates Strossen's book and her method). Kipnis talks about the (largely male) audiences for niche porn and the kind of people they are -- generally not the dangerous creeps that popular stereotype envisions. The most eye-opening section is that on the gay man who was entrapped by government agents into a supposed conspiracy to kidnap, rape, and murder a child, and is serving a prison sentence, though his only crimes are listening to the child-molesting "plans" of agents claiming to be hardened criminals and not risking his safety by refusing them to their faces. Kipnis' exploration of this and other attempts to manufacture crimes where none exist show that most anti-porn activists are merely working to outlaw things they aren't comfortable with, but she views some of these as class differences rather than female/male conflict, an eye-opening approach and refreshing to those who say that the feminist movement has ignored the experience of different socio-economic classes.

Both books make valuable, if very different, points that should not be overlooked when the issue of pornography is being discussed. It's a shame that the anti-porn activists who most need to hear these arguments would probably never pick up either book, but the pro-free-expression who do read these valuable works can at least build up their store of support for their side for future debate with the anti-porn side.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

I agreed to dogsit for my mom's Australian Shepherds before she found out that the female was going to have puppies. Of course, it would be an even bigger problem to board a nursing mother and about seven puppies at a kennel, so I didn't back out of the deal. I just started doing research. The stacks of books on caring for puppies are taller than I am, but I found that almost all of them assume that you are bringing home an eight-week-old, long since weaned, puppy from a breeder; very few actually dealt with the care of younger dogs.

Joseph Hartnagle's Australian Shepherds was the only breed-specific book I found that didn't assume you were buying a puppy from a professional breeder. I had better luck with general puppy books -- there was information on puppies starting from birth in Liz Palika's KISS Guide To Raising A Puppy; Gwen Bailey's The Perfect Puppy : How to Raise a Well-Behaved Dog; John Ross and Barbara McKinney's Puppy Preschool: Raising Your Puppy Right--Right from the Start!; Brigitte Bulard-Cordeau's Puppies; the Monks of New Skete's The Art of Raising A Puppy; and Daniel and Jill Pinkwater's Superpuppy: How to Choose, Raise, and Train the Best Possible Dog for You (which I was on the lookout for anyway, as a longtime fan of both writers' fiction for kids and Daniel's commentaries and essays, including those in the dog-oriented Uncle Boris In The Yukon). And looking at things from the mother's point of view, there was also a lot of useful information in The Book of the Bitch: A Complete Guide to Understanding and Caring for Bitches by J. M. Evans and Kay White. (I bet it wouldn't have come out with that title if it had been published in the U.S. rather than the U.K.!)

Reading all of those different sources showed me where the authors all agreed (and their minor differences) on what to do for the new pups, so now I feel fairly comfortable that I can take care of them for almost two weeks at a very important time in their lives (weaning will probably start while I'm with them, and early socialization can influence their reactions to people and objects in their later lives) without making any huge mistakes.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

Dilbert used to be funny. Back in its early days when it was about an engineer and his dog, and was rarely set in the workplace. I still have a few of the early books, such as the 1993 Dogbert's Clues For The Clueless, with the cynical Dogbert providing etiquette advice. But, as author Scott Adams said in a 1995 Washington Post interview, "I never had any integrity. This was always meant to be a business. My background is in business school, so I can't imagine not commercializing something." So when people started to identify the office-themed strips with their own lives, Adams took the strip in that direction until the portions I found the most amusing are all but gone. And frankly, if I did work for a large company, I'd rather not think about the subject in my off time.)

So Norman Solomon's 1997 The Trouble with Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets The Last Laugh caught my eye. Solomon spends most of his time explaining how large corporations seized on the strip to provide a bit of an escape valve for their workers and a "we understand" image for themselves by using Dilbert in their employee handbooks and ethics guidelines; the book argues that the strip really lowers employees' expectations for their workplace, and increases the tendency to blame individual people's stupidity rather than the highest overall policymakers for the things that go wrong or are exploitative in large business corporations. "Dilbert may be anti-boss. But so is Blondie," Solomon points out. I don't know if I feel as strongly as he does about the strip, but there are some very good points about how middle-class and middle-management-oriented the strip is, while ignoring other types of work and workplaces.

Sunday, December 01, 2002

21 Dog Years: Doing Time @, by Mike Daisey, is one of those books I end up reading large chunks of aloud to Jon or whoever else is around to hear. It is incredibly funny -- not the sort of bland, generic "business humor" that Dilbert often degenerates into, but a wicked and pointed story of life at a particular company with its (many) particular foibles -- as well as the weirdos who worked for it, perhaps because they couldn't get a job anywhere else. Including, of course, the author.

But despite the fact that it takes place at a particular company, the story is funny because Amazon is only an extreme example of what most technology businesses, and all jobs that require dealing with customers, are like. I used to work at a telecommunications company that was trying to branch off into internet hosting; I've been a clerk at a university bookstore and a fabric store; I taught university computer courses; and I now work taking people's hand-scribbled faxes and turning them into neatly laid-out newsletters -- I recognize so much about Mike's life at Amazon from ALL my jobs. He had the courage to get out of the job, to write about life as a wage slave, and the talent to make it worth reading -- that's just a dream for most people in jobs equivalent to the one he's writing about.

Thursday, November 28, 2002

I work for a company that does monthly newsletters, so when it comes time every year to prepare the December newsletters I get to see every sentimental or amusing Christmas story, every "origin of" or "this symbolizes" explanation, whether real or just urban legend (candy canes were not first made to represent Jesus!). And so, I'm usually pretty sick of Christmas before December even starts.

Nonetheless, Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle For Christmas was new and informative, as well as quite interesting. Nissenbaum discusses the true history of Christmas in the United States, rather than the vague Victorian images most Americans have. The Puritan settlements' governments, for example, did their best to ban Christmas celebrations, both for the theological reason that the Bible gives no date or season for Jesus' birth, and the practical reason that the primary way people celebrated the holiday was to go a-wassailing -- essentially trick-or-treating for alcoholic drinks and the best food the better-off could provide. This often degenerated into drunken carousing. The Puritans did not succeed in completely suppressing the holiday, but American authors of the 1800s tried another method and managed to get rid of the less respectable aspects, turning Christmas into a household celebration. Santa Claus and Christmas trees are traditions for which these well-traveled writers are more responsible than immigrants from Europe, though both are based on European traditions.

The commercialism we complain about in modern Christmases also turns out to date from the 1800s -- the advertisements for holiday sales that the book reproduces differ from current ones only in that they are printed in newspapers rather than spouted over TV and radio. Author Catherine Maria Sedgwick's letters from the 1820s and 1830s mention so many of the problems that still plague Christmas: finding the right presents, the accumulation of useless gifts (particularly in the children's toy cabinets), spending money, finding time to shop, things getting broken, package delivery being late, people opening gifts too early, and trying to keep the children from thinking of Christmas only as a time when they got presents. Weirdly enough, the one place where Christmas stayed relatively non-commercial during the early 19th century was on Southern plantations, where the slaves held the place of the peasant farmworkers who were fed by the rich in previous centuries; Nissenbaum's chronicles of slave and post-Civil-War freedmen's Christmas traditions (and the conflicts with what the white people around them wanted) are also not what Americans imagine when they think of Christmas Past. These truths about this holiday's history are not sentimental or miraculous like the Christmas stories that have become standard, but they are fascinating and provide a useful view behind the facade of Perfect Christmas that it's easy to accept.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

I'm usually fascinated by books that explain a niche field one would think about without prompting. So Don Foster's Author Unknown: On The Trail of Anonymous (later republished with a different subtitle) fit the bill -- analyzing the words and their use in various texts to determine who probably wrote them. My undergraduate degree is in English, so I've certainly done plenty of analyzing texts, but that was always "What did Shakespeare mean by this?" rather than "Did Shakespeare actually write this?" Foster's methods of finding out whether a particular poem is by Shakespeare are not those of the many people who have insisted that some completely different person than the actor from Stratford wrote the works now known under the Shakespeare name. Instead of arguing that the Bard didn't have enough education to have come up with the complex references in the plays, or digging through them counting every fifth word to try and find a confession of another name as the author, Foster actually analyzes the word and grammar choices of the disputed work and known works to compare them.

"So what?" those not interested in literature might say. Well, a bit of publicity for identifying a poem as definitely Shakespeare got people asking if he could figure out the identity of the "Anonymous" credited as the author of Primary Colors out of the many politicos and journalists who had the exposure to do such a pointed skewering of the Clinton campaign. Foster's description of the comparisons he did here show how hard it can be to disguise one's writing habits and makes it seem odd the author (journalist Joe Klein) wasn't obvious all along. Like the stories of Sherlock Holmes, it all seems terribly obvious once it's been explained. Foster's dissections of the Unabomber case, the documents of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and even more literary issues (was Thomas Pynchon writing outrageous letters to the editor in a northern California paper? Has the authorship of the famous poem "A Visit From Saint Nicholas," a.k.a. "The Night Before Christmas," been mis-attributed for more than a century?) kept both me and my boyfriend reading (in fact, he may have been annoyed that I had the book at the dinner table, since he was the one who checked it out of the library).

Friday, November 15, 2002

"Great cookbooks are more like novels than like home-improvement manuals. What these culinary bibles tell you to do is far less beguiling than the thought of a world in which things might be done."

Anthony Lane, critic

This quotation (repeated in Janet Theophano's Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives Through The Cookbooks They Wrote) certainly explains why I spend more time leafing through The Joy Of Cooking grimacing at the recipes for walnut ketchup than I do actually making things following its recipes, and why I have a box full of recipe cards out of which I have actually cooked perhaps five dishes. But after reading Eat My Words, I'll never look at cookbooks the same way again. Theophano's studies of not only centuries' worth of cookbooks published in print, but hand-written collections and recipe-scrapbooks with pasted on the pages of old accounting ledgers, reveal just how much can be revealed about a person (or a family) by their preferred instructions for making food (and the other things that are considered to fit into the same collection). Though men have been chefs and written cookbooks as long as such a form has existed, the ones written by women in the Western world have been more everyday; it has been the women who have been charged with getting the household fed until perhaps the past few decades, if not still. It would be very difficult to get a book's worth of information about men's lives from male-authored cookbooks.

One doesn't usually think about the social issues and assumptions implicit in a cookbook. They may be compiled to preserve tradition, handing down ingredients and methods to a younger generation or spreading them to a new audience. People are truly wedded to some foods; I have been scouring used-book web sites to try and find my mother a replacement copy of the same edition of the Betty Crocker Cookbook that she has had since the 1960s (and which is barely a sheaf of loose pages now). The story of the Chinese-American woman dictating the process of preparation of the foods she ate growing up to her daughter and husband, who could write them down in English, gives us not only the foods (and the etiquette of eating them) but references to family arguments over the best translation of the name of a dish -- truly a way to step into another world, but one which has familiar elements. On the other hand, cookbooks and related works can try to change the world -- the manuals for running a household of the 1800s attempt to shape servant-employer relations, and the 1940s collection of African-American cooking attempts to dispel stereotypes about what black people cook and eat. These presage such books as Diet For A Small Planet. There can even be elements of fighting back, as in the compilations of recipes put on scraps of paper by inmates of World War II concentration camps -- their memories could take them away from their near-starvation.

Oddly enough, I picked up Eat My Words before I had started The Garden of Eating: Food, Sex, And The Hunger For Meaning by Jeremy Iggers. This one isn't nearly as easy to read as Theophano's -- more academic analysis, despite fewer pages -- but it mentioned another cookbook with a huge influence, Julia Child et al.'s Mastering The Art of French Cooking. Iggers credits this book and Julia Child's TV show "The French Chef" with essentially starting a revolution in American eating habits in the early 1960s -- ethnic food, gourmet food for ordinary people, and in many ways a new world of variety (at least in restaurants). Of course, he goes on to talk about all the other changes in the past few decades -- ever-increasing amounts of processed food, social changes that changed where people eat, and ideals of beauty that make high-fat food more guilt-inducing for some people than any "sin" by Judeo-Christian religious ideals. Although there's a lot of interesting information in The Garden of Eating, things I didn't know before, I didn't finish that book with a different way of looking at everyday items. Theophano's Eat My Words did make run-of-the-mill items seem new for me, and I hope its influence lives on the next time I'm browsing my grandfather's cooking magazines or the bargain racks at Barnes & Noble.

Monday, October 07, 2002

Wayne Wadhams' Inside The Hits: The Seduction of a Rock and Roll Generation is an interesting book about the production and studio magic that went into many rock classics and pop hits, but it ultimately proves that a person's reaction to a song is personal and unique. Chances are that any reader will find a few tracks to which their reaction is completely different than Wadhams' -- unlike him, I certainly wouldn't consider Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" to be "a dark, creepy record from the get-go," for example. But then, he says Paul Young's "Every Time You Go Away" has "the power to bring me close to tears on every listening," where to me it was just a tolerable-but-bland pop song. To each his own.

A bigger problem comes from the contradicting "facts" given -- for example, the list of signature elements for the Pointer Sisters' "Automatic" ends with "Ruth's incredible studio-altered vocal," but on the next page it says "it's hard to believe, but she actually did the vocal straight, with no processing." Well, which is it? The Beatles section particularly got on my nerves (since I've read a stack of Beatles bios at least a yard high). On three or four occasions, he refers to the song "I'm Only Sleeping" as "I'm Only Dreaming," and in discussing the 1965 song "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" says that John Lennon's "mother had recently died." (Recently being, in real life, 1958.) Sloppy fact-checking at best, and there are enough of these mistakes to ruin the book's credibility for me at least, despite the truly interesting view into the recording studios of so many songs.

Friday, August 30, 2002

America needs more people with the guts and persistence of Judith Levine. Her book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex cuts through the jungle of beliefs about protecting children found in the modern U.S., and shows when current tactics do no good or actually harm. Censorship, child sexual abuse, sex education, abortion -- it seems like the cry of the past two decades' controversies has been "won't somebody think of the children?" (sometimes as a front for keeping adults from doing whatever is supposed to be harmful to minors).

The chapter on sexual abuse is particularly interesting to me, since my grandfather molested me. Levine points out the wide gap between the way molesters are portrayed in hysterical media accounts (which is most of them) -- scary, murderous strangers -- and the reality that family members are the most common molesters. (I do wish, though, that she'd said that real knowledge about sex allows children to know when something is abusive, instead of having to try and figure out vague references to "bad touch.") Her section on child pornography points out the ridiculous tendency to pass even more laws against things that are already illegal, with new laws that chill non-sexual activities and children's common sexual exploration ("playing doctor"). In the past, I've written letters to such publications as Reader's Digest when they printed articles that downplayed the incidence or trauma of sexual abuse, and I maintain a list of child abuse resources that are aimed at children -- I don't think anyone could say I don't consider sexual abuse a wrong that needs to be addressed. Yet I agree with Levine's point that most of what's been done on the issue is no help. The consequences of these laws and the atmosphere they create are as disturbing as the fears that led to their enactment -- incidents like the nine-year-old described by a social worker as a "budding sex offender" for poking his sister's buttocks with a pencil, or an eight-year-old girl whose elementary school noted "sexual harrassment" in her record after she wrote a note asking a classmate to be her boyfriend. Consent needs to be the issue -- there is a great difference between pre-teen boys assaulting their female peers in swimming pools and kids of the same age exploring what feels good together.

"Unfortunately, legislators and the courts have been behaving like freaked-out moms and dads discovering a thirteen-year-old in flagrante on the living room couch." That description is from the chapter on statutory rape, but it applies to nearly every other topic covered. The attempt to draw an unambiguous line between acceptable and harmful that can be used for all situations does not work, and Levine points out the greater success of countries such as Holland, whose laws allow a shifting balance between teen self-determination and the authority of their parents. The comparisons of the comprehensive sex education common in European countries and the abstinence-only programs common in the U.S. also shows the failure of the assumption that teen sex is completely preventable.

Particularly unusual in this book is the discussion of pleasure -- probably because it really bothers adults that minors might do sexual things purely because they're fun, despite the amount of material that's out there for those over 18 on making sex more fun. Despite the fact that collections of people's erotic fantasy such as Nancy Friday's, and books of true erotic reminisces such as Virgin Territory feature the erotic thoughts and actions of teens, written by the adults they became, hardly anyone dares to suggest that current teens will always have the same desires. Especially if they're talking about girls. My diaries prove that teen girls can think about sex -- however, since no one ever censored my teen reading, I was probably a lot better informed about sexual desire than most teens. (Frankly, I credit that reading with saving my ability to see sex as a positive thing, instead of the fear my grandfather forced on me.) Levine does talk about other ways that teens can get real information, from the Internet to their parents, and how difficult it is to sort out actual information from prejudices in all those places. The book definitely supplies ideas on how to handle everything from preschool "good touch" to teenage partner sex, and these ideas also have side effects like reducing sexist attitudes (and heterosexist ones) and even decreasing STD and pregnancy risks.

Yet Levine had difficulty finding a publisher. That says something about how truly messed up this country is about sex.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

I've been to the top of Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the eastern U.S. It would have been the summer of 1982, right before I started 4th grade and ballet lessons -- I remember because it was cold enough at that altitude that I put on my leotard and tights under my shorts and shirt for some extra warmth. But even an easily bored child like me enjoyed the view that nature provided.

So the one chapter "On Top of Mount Mitchell" in Charles E. Little's The Dying of the Trees: The Pandemic in America's Forests hit me especially hard. Little says that by the late 1980s, a view of the mountain showed only "a line of bare dead trunks tipped this way and that like a blasted stockade fence at an abandoned garrison." The die-off of the majority of the trees there came within less than a decade, due to extreme concentration of pollution straight from the tallest smokestacks; in other places the book covers, it came more slowly. It's not just one thing -- forests are harmed by air pollution, logging, prevention of natural fires, global warming, imported insects, and other causes. This makes it easy for people to say, "Well, it's not all because of pollution," or whatever behavior they don't want to change. But a book like this paints a very depressing total portrait of how many different things humans have done combined to cause dead trees, forest fires that bake the soil into clay, and global warming climate changes that even the skeptical scientists say have a 60% chance of getting worse. (The non-skeptics say 90%.)

If you're the sort of person who sees human economic activity as more important than environmental concerns ('the livelhood of loggers is more important than preserving the spotted owl' viewpoint), then the section on the maple syrup industry and the decline of the trees it relies on may convince you that forest problems do hurt human economy too. (As well as the dying trees leading to decreased tourism in the Blue Ridge Mountains and other National Forests; the saguaro cacti of the Southwest, the sabal palms of Florida, or the giant redwoods of California draw visitors or contribute to the atmosphere that tourists want, and all are suffering in places.)

"Three trees shading a house can cut air conditioning bills by 50 percent" -- now there's something for Sun Belt residents like me to think about! But the apparently healthy trees around homes aren't really the problem; people do something when gypsy moths or drought appear to be affecting the plants of urban/suburban areas. It's the larger forests that can die off unnoticed.

It's not a happy book, but it's an important wake-up call -- one that I wish every politician could have been assigned as reading material (as well as executives of logging companies and polluting industries). The book is seven years old now; I hope that it and other pleas for the forests are listened to before they take on the same historical value as eyewitness descriptions of the dodo and the passenger pigeon hold.

Thursday, August 01, 2002

Most people have heard the story of Helen Keller: blind and deaf from disease as a young toddler, unable to communicate with other human beings for years until teacher Anne Sullivan devoted the time and effort to finger-spelling words into her hand while exposing her to the object they represented. The incident of her first understanding that these motions could mean something that existed in the real world, the water flowing from a pump while Sullivan spelled "w-a-t-e-r," is well-known. But we think that in this day and age, children all have a chance to learn a language as soon as they are mentally able to, even if it is signed rather than spoken.

Susan Schaller's A Man Without Words proves that this modern world isn't so helpful to everyone. Schaller went as a sign-language interpreter to adult-education classes for the Deaf and encountered three people who were physically and mentally grown yet unable to express themselves in language or understand it, whether signed or spoken. One of them, Ildefenso, became her special student; the book tells his story, how a grown man who had supported himself as a farm worker and traveled from Mexico to the United States and followed the U.S. harvests learned his first language (American Sign Language). Later she meets some of his friends, who still have to use pantomime and the signs they create on their own to communicate with others instead of a pre-existing method. The idea that this is possible in modern North America (and indeed, Schaller says the people in the Deaf communities she has asked often say they know of people born and raised in the U.S. without learning any language until their teens or adult years) is mind-boggling, but their ability to learn their first language at those ages is something entirely new for developmental psychologists to consider. Most examples of first-language learning are based on either hearing children's normal development or extremely odd cases ("The Wild Man of Aveyron" and others deprived of human contact throughout most of childhood) without considering people who grew up among humans without a shared language. This book and the work it represents need to be heard about by psychologists, teachers, and anyone with an interest in language.

Thursday, July 11, 2002

I've recently commented on a couple of books that annoyed me at first but went on to be very interesting to read. Now I've come across one that annoys me persistently: Lionel Tiger's The Decline of Males: The First Look at an Unexpected New World for Men and Women . The author is the originator of the concept of male bonding (in Men In Groups, 1969) Unsurprisingly with this history, the book is very pro-male, sometimes to the point of bordering on being anti-female. Near the beginning, he says "while equality has by no means been achieved, more women earn more money than ever. More males earn less." Then any time that earning power is mentioned later (frequently), increases in female income and decreases in male income are harped upon until it would be easy to get the impression that women now earn significantly more than men.

One of the major points in the book is the changes wrought in society by effective contraception. Certainly, birth control has allowed huge changes in sexual mores, but Tiger argues that contraception itself directly caused a rise in the rate of both single motherhood and abortion because: "If men were not certain than the pregnancy was theirs, then they abandoned the relationship and the unexpected pregnancy." How is that supposed to be the result of contraception? Men had no better way to know if they were responsible for a pregnancy before modern contraception than they did afterward (until the advent within the last decade of DNA paternity testing -- thirty years after the Pill and IUDs). He claims men know if a woman is using a diaphragm (Our Bodies, Ourselves and every other source I've found say the male generally can't feel if a woman is using one) so that he can discount the availability of contraception through the diaphragm for quite a while before the Sexual Revolution or the increase in children born to unmarried women. He continues throughout to claim that women's ability to control contraception makes men less certain of children's paternity, seeming to have confused the unfairness of women leaving men out of the decision to conceive a child (or abort one that has already been conceived) with some kind of mistrust of women's fidelity which seems to come out of left field, without ever providing real support of the connection he makes. He even states that contraception "has more influence, in my opinion, than changes in moral standards, religious enthusiasm, the vaunted family values," which rules out the idea that he means to say that contraception led to more unmarried sex which led to unmarried parents, but left out a middle step.

This is the first conclusion not supported by the evidence provided, but not the last. In a discussion of grooms' eagerness to receive dowry payments from brides' families in India, Tiger says, "And because of demographic changes largely associated with amniocentesis and abortion, there is an excess of potential brides over potential grooms." You mean parents actually choose to bear girls, whose future husbands they will have to pay dowries to? Funny, in most locations where children of one sex are selectively aborted, it's the expensive girls. I can't find any evidence of there being so many more marriageable women then men in India; most of the population statistics indicate that there is 1.07 man for every 1 woman there. Doesn't sound like a bride excess to me.

Not that all the arguments in the book are so objectionable. His sections about welfare rules (which generally will not aid married couples with children, only single parents) discouraging people who would get married if it wouldn't cause a financial penalty make sense, as well as his point of how ridiculous it is to expect a welfare mother to put her kids in daycare to go work caring for other people's children -- why not pay her the same amount to take care of her own children (making her family more affluent than if she worked, since it is no longer necessary to pay for daycare out of their available money). He also cites a study saying that young child mothers become more motivated and better workers when they go to work after their children are in school -- having a child certainly forces one to learn to focus one's energy.

He points out that modern society, post-"women's liberation," has effectively "liberated" men from the responsibilities of being sole family breadwinner (or in some cases from feeling responsible for their children at all) while women have ended up with additional obligations, but he seems to think this only results in fulfilled women and dispirited men. I certainly wish that fewer children were raised by single parents, but blaming women as having made men superfluous will not lead to children being raised by couples. I find his views on falling birth rates and the anomie of unattached men particularly interesting in light of the next book I picked up: The Age of the Bachelor: Creating an American Subculture by Howard P. Chusakoff. In the introduction to this book, it states, "In the late nineteenth century, when their numbers and proportions had seemed to grow almost out of control, bachelors had become a serious social problem. Social analysts expressed heightened distress not only over the crime and disorder attributed to unmarried men but also the possibility of 'race suicide' linked to the falling birth rates that were attributed to declining marriage rates." Maybe men outside the traditional nuclear family are causing societal problems, but Chusakoff shows that social commentators have made that assumption before.

Another time when Tiger seems to show an ignorance of human past ways of living is when, speaking on pornography, he says, "Once upon a time the mysteries of the body and its private behavior tantalized the ignorance of the young ..." Sure. Only in families rich enough to afford privacy -- sex and the body weren't much of a mystery when poorer people lived in dwellings without bedrooms for closing off the rest of the world. Frankly, a lot of this book's arguments, though supposedly based in biology, seem more as if the behavior of 1950s Americans is considered to be the natural baseline.

Tiger even brings up the story of Jesus' birth, due to its status as the basis of the biggest American holiday, saying it is an example of how men (i.e., Joseph) are supposedly marginalized. The popularity of the holiday is supposed to reveal society's preoccupation with the mother-child link and getting the community rather than family and particularly fathers to support it. He even says, "There are evidently no family members -- no sisters, cousins, aunts, brothers -- to call on for shelter and succor." Apparently Tiger never read the part of the story where Joseph and Mary are away from home (because Joseph has to go to the city of his ancestors). It's not like a telephone call from Bethlehem to Nazareth was an available solution.

He also makes reference to classical mythology: the arrows of love shot by Cupid, "son and companion of no less a star than Venus herself," the goddess of love. "But wait ... Cupid is an infant!" Not in classical mythology, he's not; he's a beautiful youth of the type seen in Greek statuary. The depiction of Cupid as a chubby baby on Valentine cards came millennia later. How can I trust the analysis of a man who can't even get accurate versions of stories to be found in any number of general reference works?

Men may be getting a raw deal in Western society, but this book sure doesn't do much of a job of explaining it.

Tuesday, July 09, 2002

Kate Fillion's Lip Service: The Truth About Women's Darker Side in Love, Sex, and Friendship (originally published with a different subtitle) is another book that annoyed me for two chapters and then started challenging me in a more interesting way. The opening chapters on friendships between women and and women's competition in workplaces left me at best cold because they really didn't describe anything in my life. Though oddly enough, the words "Breaking up is not supposed to be one of the scenes in the drama of female friendship, which is why there is rarely a sense of closure and why the pain is always such a sharp, sour surprise" would need only the removal of the word "female" to describe the loss of one of my best friends and a more recent fight with another male friend. I suppose this supports Fillion's general point that women and men are a lot more alike than generally thought, but somehow limiting her discussion to only female friendships and competition doesn't feel like it's helping explode the myth of differences.

It wasn't until the later chapters that the book became thought-provoking; this is the part of the book that talks about sex. The role of sexual stereotypes in office affairs, consensual seduction, date rape, and many other sexual situations is revealed to still be very strong, but not in the way one would probably expect. People's belief in the "men want sex and will do anything for it; women only have sex because it's part of a relationship" dichotomy causes a lot of self-deception. Men consenting to sex they're not really interested in because a woman says to them (or they say to themselves) "Aren't you a real man?" Women persuading themselves that they must want a relationship because they're so physically attracted to a man. The ruination of good male-female friendships because she assumes he wants sex. There are many other misuses of the power that sex brings because of its associations, and prevailing views interpret them all with women-as-victim -- whether it's because she's supposed to be frail and inferior or because society's patriarchal structure opresses her. Neither chauvinist nor feminist views really tell women they have the freedom to make their own choices and the responsibility to deal with their consequences.

The most difficult part of the book is the section on date rape. Fillion argues that a large portion of the incidents labeled "date rape" by social science researchers should really be considered "unwanted consensual sex" -- going ahead and choosing to have sex with a partner when you were originally not interested in doing so, something that studies asking for more details on "unwanted" sex found was just as common for men to do as women. The idea is a hard one to swallow after years of date rape statistics and scenarios (and particularly so for me because I've done so much reading on child sexual abuse, where it's felt in both law and psychology that a child's consent isn't valid beccause he or she isn't old enough to understand what they're consenting to). However, adults are certainly able and allowed to consent to sex, even if it is for what others might consider the wrong reasons -- this is part of taking responsibility for one's own choices. Counting an incident of consensual sex as a rape, when no force, threat, or intoxicant was involved, seems pretty ridiculous to me, especially if you'd only call it rape when the persuader is male and the consenter female, but not when it's the other way around.

Throughout the book, the scenarios from real life really help explain what's going on emotionally for both the women and the men in the situations, without painting either side as the sole cause of the problem. It's one of the most pro-equality, rather than pro-female or pro-male, books I've read on the relations between the sexes (though as I said, the earlier sections which focus on women have a different tone and did not engage me as much). It's definitely food for thought for the modern person, feminist or not.

Tuesday, July 02, 2002

I know side effects and unusual reactions to medication. It seems to run in my family; my mom takes about one-eighth the standard adult dose of her allergy medicine and it still makes her sleepy. Me, I dealt with antibiotics (erythromycin) that make me throw up; birth-control pills that kill my libido and make me depressed and nauseated; and constipation from the antidepressant (Effexor) that I take. But I've at least been able to decide whether the treatment was worse than the problem. The latter portion of Robert Whitaker's Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill made the biggest impression of any part of the book because it dealt with side effects of antipsychotic drugs and the people to whom they are given, who are often not in charge of their own medication.

The earlier sections of Whitaker's book deal with the history of mental health treatment, particularly in institutions, since the 1700s. The Quaker-inspired "moral treatment," where there was essentially no biology-based medical treatment but just counseling from a sympathetic doctor and as pleasant an environment as the institutions could provide, stands as a lone bright spot in the list of supposed treatments of the past; more common were things like strapping the patient to a board and spinning it in circles, or cocooning the patient in wet sheets so that they could not move (even before the drying sheets shrank and stiffened) for hours. We'd like to think that treatment has gotten more humane and more effective in the past forty or fifty years, but Whitaker argues against both, with some pretty impressive evidence to back him up. World Health Organization statistics show that developing countries, where only 15.9% of schizophrenics are given antipsychotic drugs as opposed to 61% in developed countries, have substantially better rates of complete cure or remission for those schizophrenic patients. In addition, those neuroleptic drugs, the antipsychotics used for decades, often cause side effects that are basically a chemically-caused Parkinson's disease (you know, that thing Michael J. Fox has). And the stories of drug manufacturers using all kinds of unethical methods to make their new drugs seem more effective and safer than older ones, when studies show that the new products are no better than (and sometimes much less helpful than) those drugs already in use (the same ones that already have such unpleasant side effects). The viewpoints of patients are also given, bringing one to question whether the zombielike state they say that antipsychotic drugs induce can really be considered an improvement. This is definitely a book to make one reconsider whether the years since One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest have brought any improvement in treating the mentally ill.

Friday, June 28, 2002

Sex in the Future: The Reproductive Revolution and How It Will Change Us by Robin Baker annoyed me at first. Not that the predictions of how technological advances in the area of reproduction will change society weren't interesting. But the attitudes in the book sometimes annoyed me with their insistence on biologically determining everything, with no room for change. Examples: "If there is a risk of suffering, the preprogrammed psyche will surface and destroy even the most determinded of 'open' relationships." Tell that to the people at "...we should not exaggerate the male role in parenthood." I think a lot of fathers would disagree with that one. Particularly those who raised kids by themselves.

The predictions and comments on current life are usually surprising, such as the one about how child support and paternity testing are helping the decline of the nuclear family, but they do make sense given their starting points. The science fiction scenarios throughout the book show the issues that could arise, though I was disturbed at the number of them that involved women conceiving the children of wealthy men just for the child support and other creepy situations. (However, they were probably no more unsettling than one would find in a science fiction anthology -- one just doesn't expect them in a mostly non-fiction work.) There is a lot of information on current situations such as fertility technology or the creation of Dolly the cloned sheep, but so much is covered that it's difficult for much of the technical stuff to sink in. Overall, it's a fascinating book for those interested in the ethics of reproduction technology, though one rather hopes some of Baker's predictions don't come true.

Monday, June 10, 2002

"Difficult to put down" is not a common description of books on evolutionary genetics, but Bryan Sykes' The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry definitely humanizes the process of analyzing DNA and determining the relationships between people, now and thousands of years in the past. Sykes tells the story of how he went from working on the genetics of inherited bone diseases in the early 1980s to extracting DNA from bones found in archeological sites, along with a short history of the discovery of DNA, blood groups, and other inherited characteristics that make tracing genetic relationships possible. Sykes was one of the researchers who identified the bones found in 1991 in Russia as being those of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, and three of their children, by comparing their mitochondrial DNA (inherited only from one's mother) with those of the living relatives (mitochondrial DNA also disproved the story of "Anna Anderson," supposedly the escaped Princess Anastasia).

Breaking his shoulder changed a three-day stay on the Pacific island of Rarotonga into several weeks' visit, and spurred Sykes to research the DNA of Polynesians and produce some very heavy evidence on the Asian side of the anthropological argument over whether the Pacific islands were settled by people from Asia or from the Americas. The next research problems were even greater -- are modern humans descended from a single line of beings that came out of Africa, or did several groups of pre-humans evolve separately into modern man in different locations? Is modern humanity a descendant of Neanderthal man, the Cro-Magnons who seem to have overrun them, or both? And did hunter-gatherer humans in Europe die out while new waves of farmer humans from what is now the Middle East overwhelmed them and took over the land? Sykes makes the scientific techniques used to answer these questions very clear (even for people like me who haven't had a biology class in the fifteen years since high school) and comes up with surprising answers. The book's title comes from the conclusion reached in his European research that 95% of those with European ancestry are descended from one of seven women (in fact, 47% from a single woman). For the entire world, 33 of these "clan mothers" have been discovered, though Sykes admits that many regions need a lot more research done. It is even hypothesized that every human being now alive is descended from a single woman, the "mitochondrial Eve." Since the examination of the mutations that occasionally take place in mitochondrial DNA allows an estimate of when these "clan mothers" lived, Sykes also creates fictionalized stories of their lives, which are rather more interesting for the idea of the way of life during different parts of the Stone Age than the made-up personal details.

For the relatively well-off who are curious, Sykes has even started a company with a web site at which, for an amount I'd consider rather hefty, will analyze your DNA and tell you which of these women you are descended from. I suppose it's a good way to support their research (and keep new genetic samples coming in) but most of us will probably have to stick with reading the book.

Monday, May 13, 2002

When does history merge into the present? I'm big on reading about the actual people of the past rather than a list of dates, and recently I've been on a royalty binge. Victoria's Daughters (Jerrold M. Packard) led to Michael John Sullivan's A Fatal Passion: The Story of Victoria Melita, the Uncrowned Last Empress of Russia, one of Queen Victoria's granddaughters, which brought up the rather weird (to me) point that there are still heirs to the Imperial throne of Russia. Tsar Nicholas II with his wife and children were killed by the Soviets, but descendants of Nicholas' cousins still exist and are still given the title of Grand Duke (or Grand Duchess).

Obviously I knew England still had a monarchy -- it's difficult in the English-speaking world to escape news coverage of the English royal family. But I've always found the royals of the past and the power that they wielded to be more interesting than the current ones who seem more hemmed in by their symbolic role than anything else.

It's just odd, though, to think of those descended from royalty and nobility, bearers of titles no longer recognized in the countries that once granted them. They may be only great-nephews and -nieces of those who actually ruled, but they are the people who would rule if there were still monarchies.

It's even weird to think of kaisers, tsars, and kings as forming part of a time with remotely modern technology. Gordon Brook-Shepherd's Royal Sunset: The European Dynasties and The Great War goes over the roles of European rulers in the causes of World War I, and frequently mentions governments and rulers sending telegrams to one another, and even Edward VI of England giving Franz Josef of Austria his first ride in a car. It underlines the humanity of royalty in a way that even Henry VIII's six wives or Peter the Great's passion for boating never could.

So The Royal Families of Europe, by Geoffrey Hindley, was an interesting peek into the present lives of royals. Prince Nicola Petrovic of Montenegro is an architect in Paris, but apparently 200,000 Montenegrins came to see him on his trip to his family's homeland on 1989. Dr. Otto Habsburg of the family which used to rule Austria and Hungary (but now a German national) was elected to a seat in the European Parliament; his son is a program director for a Hungarian TV station. Louis Ferdinand, a younger son of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, worked for the Ford company in the U.S. for a while, though he later went back to Europe and married a daughter of Grand Duke Kyrill, who would have been next in line for the Russian throne.

Reading about the marriages between members of the royal families particularly boggles the mind -- that same Louis Ferdinand's will designated one of his grandsons as his heir because all his sons except that grandson's father had married women of low rank. One of the disinherited sons challenged the will in court, but Germany's Supreme Court ruled against the challenges.

King Simeon of Bulgaria (living in exile in Spain) even has a website where you can send him e-mail! (I wonder if a monarchy in exile runs to the same number of assistants who would take care of correspondence, or if Simeon actually reads his own e-mail.)

The ones who do still reign in Europe are described in Laure Boulay and Francoise Jaudel's There Are Still Kings: The Ten Royal Families of Europe as largely performing a businesslike function of signing papers and making public appearances. There's nothing wrong with that -- both books on modern monarchy credit the royal house of Belgium with a major part in holding the country's two ethnic groups together under one government -- but it's a far cry from most people's visions of kingship or queenship. Fascinating to know, yes, but a little bit of magic leaves the world, even for an egalitarian American like me, on finding out what the 20th century did to royalty.

Thursday, May 02, 2002

Agnostic that I am, I picked up Mark Pinsky's The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family mostly out of curiosity. I'm the type of Simpsons fan who can parrot entire conversations from the show, and I didn't really see what pro-religion message could be gotten from my favorite show.

However, Pinksy showed me a lot I hadn't noticed about the show, probably because I'm entrenched in my own beliefs. Once it's pointed out, it becomes a lot more obvious that The Simpsons is one of the few TV shows to deal with religious faith at all. How many sitcoms ever show their characters attending religious services or praying? And yet these are important parts of many people's lives -- this animated show is here more realistic than most live-action ones. The show certainly makes fun of religion-related topics at times, but it makes fun everything else, too. Is religion being mocked when Homer Simpson cries out "I'm not normally a praying man, but if you're up there, please save me Superman!"? Or is it the naive attitude of many who look at the supreme being they believe in as only there to make things better for them?

The Christian part of the book also brought home to me the difference between belief in salvation by faith and by works. I had certainly known about this distinction, but the book's examples made things much clearer, (in a similar way to my mother and I referring to Gone with the Wind when discussing social interaction -- fiction can be more instructive than reality). Of course the faith/works issue brings up many more questions for me -- if, as Pinsky says, The Simpsons usually represents an Old Testament-based religion with more emphasis on works than faith, why does the show ring so true in comparison to real-life Christians who claim that belief in Jesus is salvation? If that belief is salvation, then why are numerous Christians (at least a very loud minority) campaigning to control others' behavior?

As its name implies (at least to me) the book spends more time dealing with Christianity on the show, but does not completely neglect other faiths, since major characters Krusty the Clown and Apu are Jewish and Hindu, respectively. There's not as much reference to the beliefs of these religions in the show or in the book -- the chapters on Judaism and Hinduism mostly deal with their interface with the U.S.'s Christian-majority culture. One wonders what an Israeli or Indian cartoon who with the same irreverent attitude would be like.

So the book really does rather well as an overview of religion in American life in the past few years. It won't convert any Simpsons fans who weren't already religious, but it points out examples to help people like me understand the mindset of the faithful, and it might make humor a little more palatable for those not inclined to see any kind of faith as a laughing matter.

Monday, April 22, 2002

Heavy metal has this reputation for being dumb and attracting dumb fans. So it confused lots of people to see me reading heavy metal magazines in honors classes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially as I didn't dress the part. A book that mirrors my experience is Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman. Despite the title, most of this book applied perfectly well to my Florida experience as a metal fan. This is a fun read for anyone who appreciates the era when pop-metal bands were all over MTV but the people who considered themselves true fans complained that real metal was nearly ignored. And it was truly great to find out that I'm not the only metal fan who also liked the B-52s (Klosterman actually has an explanation for that seeming oddity).

Monday, April 08, 2002

I've grown up listening to blues-influenced rock music, but it's relatively recent that I've sought out the artists who are considered pure blues. In addition to listening, I'm reading, and I particularly enjoyed Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B.B. King by B.B. King with David Ritz. Ritz's presence is invisible until he speaks out in the final chapter, and so this book is not just a story of one musician's life, but a social history of most of the 20th century in the United States as it touched that musician, from families sharecropping in the Mississippi Delta to the influence of foreign rock'n'roll in the 1960s (and the 1980s when King did "When Love Comes To Town" with U2). And unlike many biographies, there doesn't seem to be any effort to portray personal relationships as sweetness and light, or blame others for financial problems -- it's all told in a very straightforward and personal manner.

So after that, Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century by Charles Shaar Murray is rather a disappointment. Of course, it isn't claiming to be an autobiography, but the voice of the well-educated music critic gets on my nerves when I'm reading about the bluesman who "doesn't read too fluently." It gets even more annoying when the book switches back and forth between the colloquial Southern English (my home tongue, being raised in South Carolina) of extended quotations from Hooker and his family members, and the much fancier wording of the author. To me, blues, like any music, is about feeling, and calling Hooker a "master raconteur" doesn't really feel like praise of his ability to put across a story. I admit I haven't finished the book yet, but it doesn't seem to likely that Murray's style will change that much in the rest. I don't think I'll be seeking out other music biographies by the same author.

Saturday, March 23, 2002

What is money? What is art? The answer to the first question seems a lot more obvious than the second, until you read Lawrence Wescher's Boggs: A Comedy of Values. This book tells the story of J.S.G. Boggs, an artist who is best known for drawing very-nearly-exact reproductions of paper money bills and spending them in exchange for items one would normally buy with those "actual" paper bills. He even gets change back in "official" money. The book chronicles nearly fifteen years of Boggs' work, including his being put on trial in England for reproducing Bank of England notes, and harrassment by other governments for counterfeiting. But the fascinating part is the exchanges -- the people who won't take Boggs' drawings as a medium of exchange, and the people who will, and the reasons both give. (Such as the Orthodox Jewish-run establishment which says it won't take the drawing because graven images are forbidden by the Ten Commandments, though it does accept normal money.) Is it counterfeiting if you make it clear that the drawings aren't "real" bills, and you never intend to pass them as such? Does it matter that the drawings have sold to collectors (after Boggs "spends" them) for several times their "face value"?

If I sent the artist a letter asking if he'd like to exchange a drawing of his for, say, a knitted blanket or a handmade Christmas ornament, what makes that technically "barter," but the exchange of a U.S. government-issued bill a "sale"? Would that be different if I exchanged my handiwork for bills in Euros or yen or Australian dollars or some currency legitimized by the government of a country I have never visited and have no immediate plans to? All these freaky questions are evoked by reading this book, which contains discussion of not only Boggs' work but that of other artists who have involved money in some way in their creation, and the history of money as well. It is a rare work that explains art in a way that makes sense to the rational part of my brain, and such supposedly rational pursuits as economics and law start to seem nonsensical in comparison to art after reading this book. And I do mean that as a compliment.

Friday, March 15, 2002

Economics. History. Art. No matter which of these subjects piques your interest, The Art of Money by David Standish as something for you. Pictures of paper money from around the world and covering quite a few decades (centuries, for American money), all nicely captioned to tell you why there's an ancient Greek sculpture on Ireland's ten-pound bill; what's up with the apparently abstract design on one side of the Swiss ten-franc bill; what countries put lizards on their money; and when the United States had bare-breasted women on money. Stories about inflation, the genesis of using paper instead of coins, and the political results of England keeping English money out of its North American colonies -- and amusing remarks by the author sprinkled throughout. This is the closest thing to an economics book that I've ever found interesting -- probably because it's not dry theory but colorful reality -- dig the near-photographic image of the sea turtle on the money from the Comoros Islands!

Thursday, March 14, 2002

I'm a suburban girl who generally thinks of plants as being nice landscaping or the source of my spring allergy problems. There are a few flowers I can identify, but that's about it. So David Attenborough's The Private Life of Plants really gave me a new view on plants; they're not just things to be stepped on or provide a visual break from buildings, but living beings that are just as interesting as animals. TV networks such as PBS, the Discovery Channel, and obviously from its name, Animal Planet, supply tons of nature documentaries on the animal kingdom, but the documentary film that this book accompanies (also called The Private Life of Plants) uses time-lapse photography to show that plants live in motion, even if it's too slow for the normal human eye to see. But even the book is terribly well illustrated, with just the right still (or series of stills) to show the pebble plant of Africa which avoids being eaten because it looks exactly like a rock, the various types of pitcher plants which evolved ways to catch bugs in little reservoirs of liquid, and the fungi which grow on your local trees. (Yes, I know a fungus isn't a plant, and Attenborough points this out too, but due to such things as lichens, which turn out to be fungi and algae working together as one organism, the book does wander into fungi in some places.) In a very readable manner, avoiding biologist jargon, the book really explains the incredible variety of plants on the planet; the ways, from commonplace to peculiar, that they manage to survive; and the way that plants, other plants, animals, fungi, and even humans work together for mutual benefit.

Thursday, March 07, 2002

I just finished Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death Revisited. Despite being 29 and in good health, I'm certainly thinking about what should be done with my body when I'm dead now, and I can't imagine that anyone could read this book without the same thoughts. The ridiculous coffins, "services," and other things that funeral homes routinely charge inflated prices for are detailed in the book, along with the self-serving doublespeak that the funeral and cemetery industries put out to protect their profits. You will go "That's outrageous!" at some point, guaranteed. But you will probably produce many wry snickers, as the depressing subject matter is well relieved by Ms. Mitford's sense of humor.

The book isn't perfect. Since the original version was published more than 30 years ago, some parts of the book have been updated, but others have not, so one is constantly jumping from 1960s prices to 1990s, or left unsure which time period "now" refers to. However, it is useful to read about the effects of the first book, such as the story of President Kennedy's death and funeral arrangements by people who had read the first version and were trying to avoid unnecessary items and inflated prices, not always successfully.

Even if you don't choose to read the book, take a look at The Funeral Consumers Alliance web site or look for a local Memorial Society in your area, for comparison shopping if nothing else. Even if you actually want everything the funeral industry will try to sell you, a little advance planning will keep your family or friends from having to make some quick decisions at a time when they're not thinking straight.

Saturday, February 23, 2002

In the U.S., no one thinks of farms in Saudi Arabia. We think of only deserts and a few cities, the little bits shown on the videotapes from the Gulf War. Martha Kirk's Green Sands: My Five Years In The Saudi Desert talks about a lot of things, but the premise is that technology could bring those sands to support wheat fields. Her husband, Terry Kirk, was hired in the early 1980s to manage farms owned by a rich Saudi, so that they could grow the wheat that was heavily subsidized by the Saudi government. They were perhaps too successful, as more wheat was grown than could be used or stored.

But Martha's story of coming to Saudi Arabia from Texas, to be with her husband and supposedly to computerize the farm's records, is interesting not for the technology (although the means used to bring wheat fields and even fish farms to the middle of the desert are fascinating) but for the tale of being an American woman with her head uncovered in a land where nomad women cover all but their eyes, and city women cover even those; being a Christian in a place where stores are not legally allowed to be open during the prescribed times when Muslims pray (although the book does not delve much into the author's faith; nothing to offend an agnostic like me); and of course, being a foreigner in a land very far from home.

Little things, such as the items Safeway can't carry in Riyadh or the picture of transporting a camel to market in the back of a pickup truck, give a much fuller picture of everyday life in Saudi Arabia than any impersonal summary of conditions could. Since the Kirks lived some distance from cities or even towns, the Bedouins around their farm are given just as much or more attention as the urbanized people, and the contrast between the rich farm owners' lifestyle and that of the laborers from Pakistan and Sri Lanka who work on the farm is quite telling. The book makes you think about your own lifestyle: could you manage under the conditions of the nomads, or even of Martha Kirk without the things Westerners are usually accustomed to having (such as flush toilets)? I'm not sure that I could, and by American standards I don't live that lavishly.

But many Americans will be pleased to know that birthday cakes and chocolate chip cookies seem to have been a hit with people of every nationality. <grin>

Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Anyone living in the modern world has probably grumbled to themselves that modern conveniences can be distinctly less convenient at times than living without them would be. Now there's an entire book on the subject, and how dealing with short-term, catastrophic problems can often just lead to less-intense but longer-lasting problems.

A "revenge effect" is the ironic, unintended effect of some action or technology, according to Edward Tenner in the book Why Things Bite Back: The Revenge of Unintended Consequences. Examples of revenge effects are:

  • Bacterial infections are harder to cure now because of wide use of antibiotics -- the bacteria that have survived despite modern medicine are resistant to common antibiotics.
  • Filter-tip cigarettes often increase nicotine intake because smokers inhale them more deeply.
  • Telecommuting often ties workers to their work more closely because work can be done at any hour of the day or night.
  • Car alarms can sometimes lead to a car being damaged by angry neighbors who want the alarm noise stopped.
Tenner notes, "A revenge effect is not the same thing as a side effect. If a cancer chemotherapy treatment causes baldness, that is not a revenge effect; but if it induces another, equally lethal cancer, that is a revenge effect." (He also notes "reverse revenge effects", where something unintended but positive happens, like a former artillery range becoming a thriving habitat for animals because artillery shells and waste make humans leave the area alone.) The book is a truly interesting read both for its information (how much environmental damage did cleaning up after the Exxon Valdez oil spill cause?) and its new way of thinking; the reader is really encouraged to view the world from different angles by seeing the unexpected consequences of everything from time-saving devices to advances in medicine.

Thursday, February 07, 2002

American schools are not the greatest at covering history. The "social studies" courses that elementary and middle schoolers get jump hither and thither such that out of six years of them, I only remember three of them imparting any information (two years of American history starting with the explorers and never getting past the American Revolution; one year of "world history" which didn't get past the Roman Empire). High school, even in the International Baccalaureate program, spent two years repeating the previous courses, albeit with more detail (and we got to World War II in American history). A semester each of government and economics and, quite unusually for the U.S., a year of Latin American history.

So, like most people who come out of these schools, my knowledge of other times and places is sketchy. One book that really helped with that deficiency is Robert K. Massie's Peter The Great: His Life And World. This 900-page Pulitzer Prize winner is not just a book about Peter the Great of Russia, though its details on the life of that ruler are fascinating. It is a history of Russia for several decades before Peter's birth, a biography of Charles XII of Sweden, an overview of the Great Northern War which involved most of Northern and Eastern Europe over ten years. And despite all that, it reads like a novel, sucking you in until you have to find out what happened next, even if you already knew. This book is a great way to get a feel for Europe in the late 1600s-early 1700s, and will make you want to find out more.

Thursday, January 31, 2002

I recently read some criticism on the Usenet newsgroup alt.peeves of the Larry Niven/Jerry Pournelle/Michael Flynn novel Fallen Angels (one of many with that title, but this is the 1991 science fiction book which you can read online at Baen Books). The Usenet post argued that the future in which the novel is set is ridiculously inconsistent. Glaciers cover most of Canada and into the U.S.; the city of Winnipeg is ice-free due to a heat/power beam from space, but the same effort is not made anywhere else? I have to agree that there are holes in the setting, and certainly the persecution of people who like technology seems an awful lot less likely since the Internet has become part of so many people's lives.

Yet if you can engage your suspension of disbelief, Fallen Angels is a whole lot of fun. The idea of underground science fiction fans fighting government, bandits, and the new Ice Age to rescue two space station residents from their crashed ship will appeal not only to those active in SF fan organizations , but to anyone who doesn't consider themselves normal and who's willing to see stupidity made fun of. The extreme nutcases of the environmentalist, feminist, New Age, Christian fundamentalist and other movements are portrayed as the cause of all problems (though it sometimes does irk me that the book rarely points out the existence of more moderate views in many of these movements). The science fiction fans (not necessarily the only remaining technophiles, but the only ones who can use SF references to identify one another) turn the rescue of two "Angels" into hope for all humanity's future, and give an example of the power of community, despite the peculiarity of the community. (And, of course, those readers who are SF fans will also have extra fun identifying references to other works and picking out the characters who are based on real people.)