Tag Archives: book

Bicycles are the True Emergency Transportation

Over vacation I read Ronald C. Rossbottom’s When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944, which is a great read for anyone with an interest in World War II and the experience under occupation.

The dependence of the population of Paris on bicycles during the occupation was what really stood out to me. Go figure, since I am a big proponent of bicycles and am amazed how little attention this resilient transportation method gets during disasters.

One of the first major adjustments for the people of Paris was that private automobiles were stolen by the German occupation authority. Buses were converted to wood gas and the Metro service was curtailed for various reasons—security, increasingly intermittent electricity, etc. Bicycles filled the mobility void.

Despite being used in activities to harass the occupation authority “there was no way to forbid them, or Paris would have ceased to function.” [Page 113]

As the war continued and the European continent under German occupation was increasingly isolated supplies of rubber and metal necessary to maintain bicycles became scarce. The loss of a bicycle through disrepair or theft was devastating to the average Parisian who depended on the quaint transportation method to travel to work and procure food.

If history is prologue, not to say we are under the immediate threat of occupation from a hostile government, then we need to consider the value of the bicycle as a tool for emergency preparation.

You Must Read—Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade

Hard as I try to imagine the cars that this rubble once was, I can’t. It’s like standing in a supermarket meat section, staring at a package of hamburger and trying to imagine cows. [Page 229]

We, as consumers in Western countries, do not really recycle. We harvest. When we dutifully put our recyclables in one bin or seven, depending on the country’s recycling norms, we are just harvesting the raw material for the people who really recycle our old bottles, cans, Christmas lights, and so on. For most of us that bin of nearly-trash is out of sight and out of mind while we have assuaged our green guilt for another day.

9781608197910The words at the top are Adam Minter’s, who brings childhood memories of being the son of a scrapyard owner and a unique perspective to Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, so it is surprising that sometimes he cannot see the trees for the forest when it comes to scrap. It speaks to the transformation that our end products go through once they leave our possession and become “trash.” I, like the author, am hesitant to call anything trash after reading this book because somewhere, usually in a developing economy hungry for jobs and cheap raw materials, has found a way to extract something of value for either reuse or recycling from our refuse.

Adam Minter’s father and grandmother ran a scrapyard in the Twin Cities, which sparked a lifelong interest in the colorful world of scrap. The story, like so many nowadays, really comes to fruition in China where the author details the workshops and companies that hoover material in the United States and other countries to fuel China’s economic growth. Without the recycling of scrap from the developed Western countries it is quite possible that China would not be enjoying the amazing economic growth of recent history.

It’s stunning the value that can be gleaned from surprising places. There are workshops in China that specialize in removing the copper wire from string lights. You know, those little twinkly lights that hipsters love to decorate patios with, have some copper but it’s wrapped in a lot of nearly worthless insulation. I say nearly worthless because someone figured out that slipper makers could use the plastic for the soles of inexpensive shoes.

The story about the recycling of cars surprised me the most. I always assumed that cars were recycled, but there was a period when rising wages post-World War II combined with a boom in the sales of cars created a situation where more cars were being junked than could be economically broken down into recyclable parts. Millions of cars polluted the landscape until someone came up with an effective way to shred the cars into little flakes of metal. It was only recently that we finally caught up to the backlog of cars that were abandoned and that was perhaps a function of the economic crisis that slowed the retirement of older automobiles. Also interesting was the fact that the average junked car has $1.65 in loose change. How come I can never find that money when I am looking for meter fare?

The thing that nagged at me the entire book was the thought of how much stuff was buried in landfills across the United States. Before it was economical to shred cars or mechanically separate mixed metals or strip metals from electronics that trash was probably buried. It’s just sitting somewhere, interred until we could figure out a way to economically mine and process the material. Are we sitting on billions of dollars of buried waste?

Junkyard Planet is a trip into a world most of us will never see or consider because we have no access or concept of how the scrap economy functions. Heck, most of us could not tell you where the closest junkyard actually is located unless we repair cars or have a predilection for odd Instructables that require things like washing machine motors.

You Must Read—Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal

Product profitability is as much a necessary consideration for food companies as how their products taste. [Page 195]

We all pretty much acknowledge that the majority of food in the modern American supermarket is crap. For every little display of broccoli or kale there are twenty linear feet of Hamburger Helper and its generic equivalents. If you ever want to be depressed about what people eat spend five minutes watching frozen pizzas fly out of the coolers on a given day. It’s amazing.

9781451666731But why does American food seem to suck so much? It’s something that Melanie Warner, a freelance writer based in Colorado, tries to answer in Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal.

Ironically, our journey into the processed food wasteland began about the same time that people were beginning to fear what was in their food. Who can forget the image in The Jungle where a worker falls into a rendering vat and the processing continues. I bet that was on tasty canned hammed.

Science and industrialization came to the rescue. Basic ingredients like oat and wheat were steamed, rolled, flaked, puffed, baked, and generally abused until these processed foodstuffs were packaged and shipped off to America’s growing supermarkets. In an era when mass culture was taking off it was even better that such products could be advertised nationally on television sets.

Too bad all of that abuse rendered the foundation ingredients essentially nutrition free. So much so that nutrition had to be added back into products like bread. Make bread from whole grains and it is full of vitamins. Make it into Wonder Bread and you need to fortify the hell out of it.

The most telling fact about the reason why so much of our food is processed comes late in the book. In the same section where the quote at the top of this post is located, Warner writes:

Simple items like cheese, frozen vegetables, and chicken breasts have gross margins ranging from 15 percent to 30 percent. Breakfast cereal and snack chips, on the other hand, command margins up to 70 percent; soda and sports drinks offer a ridiculous 90 percent.   That is why you see a constant barrage of ads for Gatorade and nothing for frozen blueberries. [Page 195]

The margins commanded by processed food are important because it not only drives the profitability of the manufacturers, but it dictates where investment dollars will flow. An investor, faced with an opportunity of similar potential success, will choose the project with a higher gross margin unless compelled by some other motivation outside of profit. By and large, our investment community is driven by the profit motive.

The post-World War II fascination with science and “progress” led us, as a collective whole, to believe that we could be separated from nature in so many ways. Our food could be made better by the intervention of man, but in the process something vital was lost and our food became little more than empty calories that expanded our mid-sections.

This fascination also led us, again as a collective whole, away from the kitchen for a variety of reasons. Some of the statistics Warner cites about the amount of time spent preparing meals prior to the processed food revolution are staggering:

Over the last seven decades, home cooking in America has plummeted. In 1927—the pre-TV dinner era—the average woman spent an unimaginable five to six hours a day preparing meals for her family. By the fifties, the food industry claimed that a housewife relying on convenience foods could fix her family’s meals in an hour and a half less, which is still an eternity by today’s standards. [Page 206-6]

There are a lot of reasons for our decreasing cooking time, primary among them is the migration of women into the workforce, but it is an even more insidious death spiral. As subsequent generations come of age, they will not have the institutional knowledge of how to cook and, therefore, cannot pass those skills down to further generations. Even if a person wants to cook there is a learning curve that must be mastered. At some point will we lose the common knowledge of how to operate in a kitchen? God, I hope not but I am not going to place a bet on the positive side of that ledger.

Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. Is a short read—thankfully not over pedantic at just over 200 pages of text—that illuminates some of the drivers behind the development of our modern processed food complex.

You Must Read—Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming

If you spend enough time around researchers or market analysts you will learn one adage—it’s not what a company says that is important, it’s where a company puts its money that matters. This is not just about “following the money” per se, but trying to determine where a company thinks it is wisest to invest for the most return.

9781594204012As you read McKenzie Funk’s Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming it is readily apparent that there are a lot of people all around the world who are betting on a very different climate in the near term.

Whether it’s the coming thaw in the Arctic that will allow for reliable shipping through the famed Northwest Passage or the inevitable fight that will occur over the oil and minerals long buried beneath ice choked landscapes there are companies and governments betting on that future. It is telling that they are not betting on a future where the potential warming stalls out and the landscape looks like it does today. How does that make you feel about international climate accords? Thought so.

The business of global warming is actually pretty frightening. As wildfire season begins again in the American west—if it ever really ends anymore as persistent drought is the rule of the day—insurance giants are turning to private fire companies to protect high value properties. It’s a libertarian’s wet dream in warmer world. Private fire companies pale in comparison to what the business of water in a hotter and drier world looks like. Parts of the world will also get wetter, but the amount of potable freshwater will decline so it is not really a net gain.

Funk’s book is not just about the business of global warming, but the radical restructuring of our complex civilization that may occur because of climate change. Some places will witness sea levels rise more than others because of plate tectonics, ocean sub-floor, etc. It’s not fair because the places most likely to be dramatically affected are the same places that emit very little carbon on a per capita basis. No one in Bangladesh is responsible for global warming.

Apparently there are winners in this global reordering as Greenland will likely move closer to independence based on the fact that it has rich resources which will become viable for extraction as glaciers melt into the sea. Greenland’s gain, Denmark’s loss, and the world is just screwed in general.

The one real takeaway from Windfall was that the people who are most likely to see their lives washed away are the poorest and least responsible for the changes brought about in the Anthropocene. Rich people in the developed western world will build flood barriers and desalination plants and move to higher ground, but there are billions of people who cannot. How chaotic will our future be when we have displaced hundreds of millions if not billions of people? That is really scary.

You Must Read—Too High To Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Revolution

Let me get this out of the way right off.  I do not smoke marijuana.  I never have in the past and I have no plans to in the future.  However, I do support ending the current criminalization of all forms of cannabis—medicinal, recreational, industrial or otherwise—and moving to a constructive regime of regulation.

My support is derived from the fact that I was witness to the ability of cannabis to ease the suffering of a cancer patient.  My mother suffered from terminal lung cancer that spread tumors throughout her body in the final months of her life.  Morphine and other painkillers made her sick, more so than she already was given her health.  A decent amount of smoked cannabis, provided in secret by a compassionate nurse as Iowa has no provision for medicinal cannabis, gave her relief.  It was one of the things that allowed my family to enjoy time with the person we knew as my mother before she passed.

I also support ending the current drug war because it is the silliest policy position that our country has taken since allowing slavery to be codified.  The drug war only benefits the prison industrial complex, politicians who grandstand as being tough on crime, and police departments that are starting to look increasingly like paramilitary units in some third-world dictatorship.

9781592407613Given the recent legislative changes in Colorado and Washington, I wanted to dive into the topic.  I turned to a writer whose irreverent tone and keen observational eye I enjoyed in prior books and journalism.  You may know Doug Fine from his earlier work Farewell My Subaru,  which is another book you should pick up whether you like goats or not.  Fine brings the same qualities to bear in Too High To Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Revolution.

This genre of writing—I mean to say, writing on cannabis or marijuana—too often falls into two tropes: stoners or criminals.  Sometimes, it combines the two.  It’s easy to break out some references to the classic Reefer Madness, find a few Cheech & Chong comparisons, and belt out some Bob Marley.  However, as Fine teases out in his book the truth is somewhat more complicated and it is definitely not well demarcated.

There are criminals and stoners associated with cannabis.  That is not in question.  Increasingly, however, there are people carving out a new mode of operation that is above board, regulated, and most importantly integral to the communities in which they exist.  Fine chooses to explore this new way in Mendocino County, California.  This region of California, along with Humboldt and Trinity Counties to the north, has been at the forefront of marijuana issues for decades.  With the passage of California Proposition 215 in 1996, which paved the way for medicinal marijuana, the industry exploded.  Although estimates are impossible to verify due to the underground nature of most of the marijuana economy in northern California even the most conservative figures place the value of cannabis north of $1 billion.  That’s right, billion with a B.

With that as a backdrop, Fine centers his book around the efforts of a new grower to Mendocino County—Tomas Balogh—and the birth of the Kama Collective .  This is not a grower carving out a plot of land in a national forest.  In Mendocino County the growers register with the county sheriff under the auspices of the 9.31 Zip-Tie Program.  Under the program growers are entitled to have 99 plants, chosen to avoid breaching the number of plants the federal government considers intent to distribute, and are inspected for compliance.  In turn, the growers pay $8,500 per year in fees.  If you want to know how ingrained and accepted cannabis cultivation is in Mendocino County consider this: when rippers, people looking to steal cannabis crops in the middle of the night, are seen on property it is common for the property owners to call the police.

The system, as described by Fine, works because everything is monitored and regulated.  If everything sounds rosy, remember this sad fact: the federal government still maintains that cannabis is a very dangerous drug and continues to maintain its classification as a schedule 1 narcotic.  This means that, unlike morphine or other pharmaceuticals that are abused on a wide basis, cannabis has no medicinal value.  Tell that to the people who swear by its efficacy.  Tell that to Charlotte Figi.  If a mainstream dude like Dr. Sanjay Gupta can have an open and honest discussion about the merits of cannabis, why can’t the entire U.S.?  Oh right, there is a lot of money involved in fighting the “drug war.”  Just say no, man.

If my thoughts about this book are all over the place it’s because my head is all over the place on this issue and I intend to spend a lot of time in the future investigating the potential of the “green revolution.”  In the meantime, just grab Too High to Fail for a perfect introduction into the potential future state of cannabis in our society.

You Must Read—Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer

I think about beer a lot.  If you visit here with any frequency that will come as little surprise, but I am also somewhat academic in my love of beer.  Years of formal training as a historian have led me to dive into a topic’s historical underpinnings more so than the average bear.

9780156033596When I came across Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer I was excited because here was a historical text dealing exclusively with beer.  Other good books—Daniel Okrent’s excellent Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition and Andrew Barr’s Drink: A Social History of America in particular—deal with the larger issues of alcohol in American history, including beer, but fail to really focus on the golden liquid.

As it is a story about American beer it starts in the nineteenth century as German immigrants came to the U.S. and founded breweries.  The names are familiar right off the bat: Best, Pabst, and Busch.  The story of American beer is really about the titans of the industry for the first one hundred years or so.  These men and the breweries that bore their names were the shepherds of what constituted American beer into the 1970s.

It is amazing how precarious the situation was for many of these brewers as they grew from regional brands into the largest breweries in the world.  That is something to think about for a moment.  American beer before the craft beer renaissance was much maligned by every other beer culture in the world for producing pale swill that barely qualified as beer.  Yet, it was American companies who were pushing the boundaries of technology and technique more than anyone else to expand beer’s reach.  Granted, the pushing of boundaries was all about domination of markets.

Ogle is exhaustive in her look at the rise of the major brewers through the 1950s, but the book falls somewhat short in describing the rise of the craft beer movement starting in the 1970s.  It is nice to see Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Brewing Company get credit for being one of the first to pioneer what meant to be a craft beer maker.  Other California craft brewers Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing Company are also profiled while Jim Koch’s Boston Beer Company, the brewer of Samuel Adams, gets a lot of attention.

However, this felt like a Clif Notes or highlights version of the story of the craft beer movement in the U.S.  There is so much to the story of craft beer in the U.S. that to focus on a few of the well-known examples feels like a cop out.  Again, it is American brewers who are pushing the boundaries of what is possible when it comes to beer whether it’s the crazy genius of Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head Brewery or the fact that it seems like every street corner of the Front Range in Colorado is home to a new brewery.  Small purveyors are revitalizing what had been a moribund industry and, in any cases, revitalizing the communities in which they choose to operate.  This is no small part of the story about craft beer in the United States.  The small purveyors are really about being part of a place.  I like to think about it like terroir, the French concept of a “sense of place,” for beer which is not something you hear of very often.  However, these brewers are producing beers that define or are defined by the places in which they are made.  It’s a result of all the factors that go into a small brewer that is not possible when scaled to something like an AB-InBev or other macro-monstrosity.

What would be interesting would be an update on the book as the major U.S. breweries have entered into ownership or partnerships with foreign breweries, leaving the craft beer makers as the only “American” brewers left standing anymore.

Regardless of my quibbles with the book’s treatment of the recent craft beer movement there is much to recommend Ambitious Brew.  To understand how we got to this moment in time, it is necessary to understand how American beer came to be.

You Must Read—Meat: A Love Story: Pasture to Plate, a Search for the Perfect Meal

Eat less meat.  Eat better meat.  (Page 258)

Meat is central to our idea of food.  It is primal.  A person’s position on meat—somewhere along the well-defined spectrum of vegan to Texan—defines so many other food beliefs that it is difficult to imagine a discussion about the future of food, or the present for that matter, without delving into meat.

9780425227565Susan Bourette’s Meat: A Love Story: Pasture to Plate, a Search for the Perfect Meal seeks to forge a conversation about meat’s place in the modern discussion about food.  In the prologue, the author writes:

The carnivores are back.  It’s like a bitch-slap to all those reedy, high-minded herbivores who have demanded nothing short of a bloodless revolution, dictating the parameters of the discussion, decreeing the rules for years.  Now it’s the meat-eaters who have wrested control of the food debate.  (Page 5)

No doubt.  Sometime during the past decade, vegetarians and their various sub-categories of various extremes have ceded control over the debate about the future of food.  It’s not about finding a tofu-based alternative to bacon, but finding bacon that comes from pigs raised and slaughtered in the best way possible.  The debate is over what is best now.

The problem is that we are separated from our food in a way that would have been almost unimaginable decades earlier:

Yet for most of us, meat is a mystery.  We know less about how it arrives on our plates than ever before in our history.  In part, this can be traced to urbanization, a population disconnected from agriculture and major corporations investing in the industrialization of meat production.  But something more is at play: our knowledge of foodstuffs is gleaned from a reading list of ingredients on the back of the package and not from hands-on experience.  (Page 41)

Jamie Oliver did a smashing job of showing how disconnected our children, and therefore our future adults, are from food when he asked a classroom of kids what various fruits and vegetables were in whole form.  Pictures of fairly common vegetables—I am not talking about alien looking kohlrabi here—went unrecognized.  Meat is not an animal to most people anymore.  It is a shrink wrapped slab of protein on a foam tray in a refrigerated case at the supermarket.  It is always been said that no one would eat meat from the major U.S. suppliers if they saw first-hand what the conditions were like for the animals and the process of factory slaughter.  Bucolic it is not.

Meat comes to our table as part of a larger system.  Like anything in modern agriculture, the meat on your table is the end result of a lot of actions and actors.  Therefore, the way in which the meat is raised from day one is important:

Turns out, we not just what we eat but also what our animals eat.  It’s welcome news in this puritanical age of culture that has dissected gastronomy into minute bits and bites of fat grams and trace minerals.  At a time when we think of the dinner table as a booby trap, jerry-rigged with potential landmines and enemies.  When our first question is not “Is it good?” but “Is it good for me?”  (Page 164)

If you treat the animals right and feed the animals good food then the questions of “Is it good?” and “Is it good for me?” can be answered in the same positive “Yes.”

Some of the vignettes in Meat are odd.  Obviously, the foray into raw meat dining in the high country of Colorado counts as odd.  This is not a story about paleo diets, but pre-fire diets.  Given what we know about dangerous microbes—our knowledge of beneficial microbes is pretty small—there is something to be said for utilizing the cleansing power of fire.  I am not a total advocate of pasteurization, but I do not subscribe to some pre-pasteurization ideal in that everything bad with the world comes from our obsession with cleanliness.  Some destruction of microbes is good for our health in the long run.  Sorry to bust your bubble cave people in Aspen.

I also find the piece about whale hunting in Alaska off-putting.  It’s annoying when practices are defended as cultural tradition, therefore somehow immune from criticism, even if the larger world finds the practice abhorrent.  In general, we do not accept barbaric practices on cultural tradition grounds when it comes to concepts like slavery or infanticide or…pick something that seems like it is from Game of Thrones.  Sure, the killing of whales for sustenance has a long history in the native peoples of the Arctic but times change.  Whatever, I feel like I am screaming at the wind on that one.

At times, Bourette’s prose reads like a burgeoning treatise on the gender issues surrounding meat whether it’s regarding the whale hunt in Alaska or the hierarchy on the line in a Houston kitchen.  These are easy tropes for a writer to insert—little woman in the big, bad world of meat—but they do little to advance the central tenant that meat is a central component of our food system regardless of gender.  I suppose that the imagery is just loaded with gender stereotypes because of societal conditioning—the man of the house carving the turkey or tending the grill—making it almost impossible to write about meat, or food in general, without falling prey.  Michael Pollan was accused of gender “baiting” in his most recent book because when we hear the words tradition, kitchen, and food together people automatically assume it is a diatribe about female abandonment of the domestic arts.  Whatever.

The most salient point in the entire book is not reached until near the end:

The secret of boudin is the secret of all good food.  You can watch, you can learn at the hands of the master, but the fact is that all good food is rooted in time, place, and culture.  It is idiosyncratic, unique, and expressive of the place where it’s made and the people making it.  The closer the food is to the place, the more it defines its makers and eaters, the more intense its flavors.  (Page 248)

This is something I have tried to explain to people for years.  Some foods just fit a time and a place that does not necessarily correspond to its absolute place in the culinary world, as if such a ranking were to actually exist.  No one is going to place loco moco at the top of the food pantheon, but on the first morning in Hawaii no other food puts me on “island time” quite like the gut busting local favorite.