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.