Monday, June 30, 2008

So That's What's Causing It!

Wrapper of a chocolate bar labeled Climate Change Chocolate
First there was Endangered Species chocolate (I always wondered how chopping up endangered animals to flavor chocolate bars was supposed to help them), and now I see there's a chocolate bar that's taking credit for global climate change.

You never know what capitalism will think up next.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Names That Are Bad for Business

Storefront with early to mid-20th century sign that reads Harms Pharmacy
Lately I've been enjoying this great old sign, which was uncovered while the building awaits rehabbing. In the case of this long-gone drugstore, however, I can't help but wonder if its name may have contributed to its demise.

Which brings to mind a couple of other unfortunate business names I've run across recently:

Neon Tanning. All I can think of is that you come out glowing orange after a session at this place.

The Amish Wood Shed. I saw this on a small billboard along I-94 in Wisconsin. I understand the implied positive association between Amish and craftsmanship, but the only association I have with "wood shed" is as a place where you go to get a beating. So the mental image I get is of an Amish man getting ready to administer a dozen strokes with a hickory stick.

Maybe "The Amish Wood Shop" would have been a better name.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

I Suppose "Sick Leader" Didn't Sound Quite Right

Newspaper headline: Ill leader of SPCO will leave his post
I had to read this Pioneer Press headline three times (make that III times) before I realized the first word was "ill," as in sick.

Sometimes a sans serif typeface really does communicate less information than a serif.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Alison Bechdel

MoI don't remember exactly when I became a fan of Alison Bechdel's comic Dykes to Watch Out For -- I started reading it when it ran in the Minneapolis-based gay and lesbian paper Equal Time, then after that folded it continued on to a lengthy stint in Boston's Sojourner (until that folded) and now I read it in Washington's Off Our Backs (which often talks about folding but has managed to hang on so far).

The strip follows a cast of characters -- Mo, Lois, Ginger, Toni, Sparrow and Clarice, among a number of others -- through relationships, children, jobs, and politics. There are lots of jokes about academia, too, which I've particularly appreciated at certain points in my life. I've been following them around for about 20 year now, I guess, so in honor of that long history, I decided today to add Alison to my all-time favorites list.

If you didn't see it, her graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is well worth reading. (She grew up in a funeral home, hence the name.) While we all tend to think we've got dysfunctional families (what family, after all, is fully functional?) the book is likely to make you realize how functional your family is! Fun Home is an exemplar of why graphic long-form books are not comics, but are instead a new type of literature that fully integrates words and pictures.

Comic frame of child Alison reading a biography of Eli WhitneyThe reason I thought to write about Alison this week is that she just had a four-page, autobiographical comic in the books section of Entertainment Weekly, which you can see online here. (Hope they paid her well!)

Like Alison, I also read those "childhood of famous Americans" books, and even collect a few of them now. (I think I read the Eli Whitney book, too, but my particular favorites were about the Girl Scouts' founder Juliet Lowe, the Ringling Brothers, and Henry Ford.)

I played the card game Authors, too, although I don't think we were quite as into it as Alison and her crowd were.

Comic frame of child Alison rejecting the idea of reading a recommended bookI have a strong affinity with the adolescent Alison's aversion to reading anything recommended by someone else. I did the same thing, refusing to read books because my sisters or teachers recommended them. Weird. I paid for this later -- I'm still catching up on Jane Austen, although I finally read all of the Anne of Green Gables books, and I haven't ever gotten to the Brontes.

Anyway, here's to Alison Bechdel!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

How Many Go to Church in Minnesota?

I'm catching up on the daily papers now that I'm back in Minnesota, and I ran across a problem with a story from the Tuesday (June 24) Star Tribune called Politics and Religion: A Closer Walk.

In it, writer Jeff Strickler tells us about the recent findings of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in their U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Basically, Americans' beliefs and their effect on their political and community practice are more complicated than one might think, based on media coverage over the last few years. Big surprise.

The story was interesting, although a bit sketchy, so it's cool to go check out the details on the Pew Forum website as well. But the thing that got me was the graphic that accompanied the Strib article. I'll reprint it here so you can see what I mean:

Map of U.S. states labeling church attendance
The map puts Minnesota in the 41-50% weekly church attendance group, right? But if you look in the bar chart right above, it clearly says that only 38% of Minnesotans go to church at least once a week.

I have to say, this error made me doubt the whole map, and wish they had printed a darn table showing the numbers by state! Aren't you surprised that California has higher church attendance than, say, Oklahoma?

So I went and downloaded the Religious Landscapes report from the Pew Forum website and after digging around, found the page that was used as the data source (see the pdf of that page here). Well, it turns out that the Strib labeled their states incorrectly -- although the lowest- and highest-attending states are correct, the two sets in the middle, 31-40% and 41-50%, are switched.

So just as a I suspected -- people in California, New York, Florida, Oregon, and all the other states shown in green on the map are less likely to attend services than people in Indiana, North Carolina, Texas or Georgia.

Economics of Water in Kennebunk, Maine

I couldn't help noticing one of the letters to the editor in the Maine Sunday Telegram. It was written to respond to the story on Poland Spring's planned contract to buy water from the city of Kennebunk, which I cited in my earlier post on selling the last drop of water. Here's what letter writer Jack Reynolds of Portland had to say:

Poland Springs makes the math easy.

It'll pay $250,000 a year for the privilege of mining 250,000 gallons of water a day from the aquifer that supplies Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells.

Unfortunately, a little multiplication discloses that a great deal for Poland Spring falls a little short for the people of the tri-town area. Those 250,000 gallons of water a day work out to 91,250,000 gallons for each of the 30 years that Poland Spring's lease would run.

The 91,250,000 gallons deliver 963,500,000 16.9-0unce bottles of Poland Spring bottled water, selling for about $1.25 a bottle.

If the deal goes through, Poland Spring's parent, Nestle Waters North America, grosses $866,875,000 for each yearly lease payment of $250,000. That's about $.0003 for each gallon of the 250,000 gallons extracted daily from the local water supply.
Thanks for the math, Jack!

Of course, Nestle has other costs to cover when selling that $1.25 bottle of water:
  • the plastic bottle (which almost everyone -- except the Society of the Plastics Industry -- would agree we'd be better off without)
  • the cost of transporting the weight of all that water from place to place, despite the fact that folks could be drinking water from their local water system, and of course
  • the money they spend on labeling and marketing all that water so it's more appealing than what we can get from a public drinking fountain.
All that must cost them close to a dime a bottle. And of course a hefty chunk of that $1.25 is the retail mark-up, which probably accounts for half the price.

I guess it's a good thing they're getting the water essentially for free from Kennebunk, or they wouldn't make any money at all.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Flip of the Tongue, Part 7

A few more recent flips:

As heard on WCCO Radio: The host referred to trinkets of truth -- I would imagine she meant nuggets of truth. But I was bemused by her slip, and the idea that the truth could be found in cheap, insignificant baubles.

Self-conscientious -- when the speaker meant self-conscious. I like the idea of being self-conscientious; it would mean taking care of yourself, right?

Like shooting fish in the dark -- I am responsible for this wonderful mixed metaphor. It tumbled out of my mouth during a meeting when I was grasping for a way to say that a task would be difficult. I'll bet the fish in a barrel wish someone would turn the lights out.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Animal Farm

Funny illustration of bug-eyed farm animalsI heard on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday (June 15) that 55 percent of the corn and 88 percent of the soy beans grown in Iowa are used for animal feed. This was said during an interview with the head of an Iowa farmers' organization (he was talking about the recent flooding there, of course).

Isn't it amazing that such a large percentage of what Iowa farmers grow is used to feed animals, so that we, in turn, can eat the animals? It doesn't make much sense, really.

Using over half the productive acres in a state -- which could grow food directly for humans -- to instead grow feed for animals that will be eaten by humans seems like the hard way to go about it.

I think most people (myself included, for the most part) have no idea how our food systems work.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Monitoring Weight

They say that the camera adds 10 pounds, but the incorrectly formatted wide screen flat panels on display in airports across America add more like 75 pounds. Here are a couple of examples I saw on Friday while traveling to Portland:

Side by side photos of Michelle Obama in a purple dress
Michelle Obama, shown at left as she actually looked and at right as I saw her on CNN at the airport, looked quite chubby.

Scott McLellan on CNN looking pretty wide
Scott McLellan, who testified before Congress on Friday, isn't the most svelte guy in the first place, but the disproportional display really made it look as though he'd visited Appleby's a few too many times. (Check out the shape of the woman's face in the background -- she's been smushed!)

I suppose this means that everyone who appears on television will have to weigh even less than they do now so that they can appear normal even though they've been expanded 25 percent.

I realize this sounds like a candidate for the White Whine website. So be it.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Random Portland Photos

A bit of exploration in Portland (Maine) today. After a foggy, cool night, it became sunny and basically warm, at least in the sun.

Foreground a blue indigo plant, background a brick colonial house
This is the only recognizably Portland image I took today. This is the childhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as seen through a blue indigo plant. I went on the tour and learned a lot about Longfellow and his family, as well as hearing a nice overview of how people in early 19th century Maine lived. Shocking fact: Longfellow's wife died at age 43 of burns when her dress caught on fire while she was applying sealing wax to letters.

Storefront sign that reads Fotoshops in green sans serif condensed letters
Bet these folks were annoyed when that little program from Adobe Systems came out!

Hairy stems and blue flowers on a huge clump of borage plants
I went to the Farmers' Market in Deering Oaks Park and had some fresh strawberries and a moon pie. But I also saw these amazing borage plants. They were about three or four feet tall, even though they were growing in 4" pots. Guess that must qualify them as weeds, huh?

Sign reading Having zipper problems? We expertly repair
What I love about this sign: Its combination of threatening, mid-2oth-century anti-Communist propaganda artwork with such an innocuous message. Seen on Congress Street near Monument Square.

Sign reading, Monastery of the Precious Blood
I saw this on State Street while walking back from the Farmers' Market. It struck me as odd, but I realize it's one of those things that you wouldn't even notice if you were from here, because then it would be normal.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Cutting Down the Last Tree, Selling the Last Drop of Water

Cover of Jared Diamond's book CollapseI'm finally reading Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In it, he chronicles the historical and archaeological record of lost societies such as Easter Island, the Anasazi, the Maya, and the Vikings of Greenland. He also looks at how some societies have come back from the brink of environmental collapse, such as Iceland, and (in the part I have yet to read) what may become of our world today, particularly as things are playing out in Haiti, China, Montana, and Australia.

A recurring question in the book so far is, How can a people let the degradation of their land go so far that their society collapses? This question becomes even more specific: How can someone cut down the last tree and not realize that it's clearly not a good idea?

I was reading the book on a plane today on my way to Portland, Maine. When I arrived I picked up a copy of the local daily, the Portland Press Herald, and on the front page was a story called "Critics gear up for vote on Poland Spring deal." Basically, Kennebunk, Maine, is on the verge of signing a contract to sell the water from their aquifer to Poland Spring (that bottled water brand with the green label, which is based in Maine, although the company is now owned by the international food conglomerate Nestlé).

According to the Herald,

The proposed deal with Poland Spring would give the water bottler permission to draw up to 250,000 gallons per day from district-owned land in Wells.... Poland Spring would pay the water district a per-gallon rate that is twice what the district charges other commercial customers. The payments are expected to total $250,000 per year to start and could grow to as much as $750,000 per year...
It seems Poland Springs is experiencing 10 percent growth in sales per year, and they need more sources of water to meet the demand from people around the country who have to have water encased in plastic.

The Herald goes on to write that the water district superintendent "said the additional income from Poland Spring would help the district address a $5 million deficit and meet the rising costs of energy and water treatment chemicals."

This reminds me of the discussions that are starting to happen about "sharing" water from Lake Superior with the southwest and other dry areas of the country that have become so built up, despite lacking certain necessities of life (like water).

And with our cash-strapped city governments, if someone just coughs up enough money, we'll sell our last drop of water and cut down our last tree. Then, later, someone else will wonder how we ever could have been so short sighted.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Peter Collects Children's Books

The other night I stumbled across a blog called Collecting Children's Books, and knew I had found a place where I would be spending a bunch of time. Right off the bat, I saw that its writer, Peter, had written about Sylvia Louise Engdahl, one of my favorite young adult science fiction writers.

And tonight I found his post about all of M.E. Kerr's books, from the classic Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack to her most recent titles (which I have not read). And he even mentioned her writings under other names, which I had just learned about recently. I haven't read much of her more recent work, but I am a big fan of the early stuff. So I guess I should get to it and read everything else!

Peter has also written about his affection for ex-library titles, although he doesn't go as far as I would in actually preferring them in most ways. I know I am not a collector's collector... I don't mind the stickers and rubber stamp markings. I enjoy thinking of the schools, libraries and even churches where some of my books have come from, and the kids who read the books. And the books all have heavy-duty bindings, so they won't fall apart.

It looks like Peter started his blog in December 2007, just after I started this one. When I first thought about starting a blog, I was planning to call it Book By Its Cover, and I intended to focus on my obsession with young adult fiction, reminiscing about books I loved, and particularly spotlighting illustrators and cover art that I think is under-recognized. I still plan to do that a bit, but reading Peter's blog makes me realize how little I know!

Peter has visited the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, and reminds me that I should take more advantage of the fact that I live about five miles away from it (not just to see the recent Ellen Raskin acquisitions that I mentioned recently).

Peter's blog is obviously being read by people in the children's book industry, since I've seen comments on his posts from Newbery-winning authors. I can see why -- I feel an urge to comment on at least half of his posts myself. It's like finding someone who's read all the books you read at an impressionable age, and at last you have someone to talk to about it!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Car Bike Peace

I saw this cool poster from Twin Cities Metro Transit today.

I wonder where they distributed it? The one I saw was on a wall at Transit for Livable Communities -- where it is likely to be seen by people who already agree with its message.

Seems like it should be posted more widely... wherever people who drive cars hang out. At shopping malls? The DMV? Or maybe at the Back to the Fifties road rally at the State Fairgrounds?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Stealing from the Stela

I got an inadvertent laugh out of this nation + world brief from today's Star Tribune:


Henge fund swindler considered a fugitive

A federal marshal ruled out suicide in the disappearance of a missing hedge fund swindler whose sport utility vehicle was found abandoned...
Many academics have tried to figure out how Britain's Stonehenge was constructed without cranes or other modern equipment, but I don't think any scholars have ever looked into how its construction was funded, let alone whether the funds were swindled. This is quite a scoop for the Star Tribune.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Ellen Raskin

Ellen RaskinThe recent Kerlan Collection newsletter held some exciting news about one of my all-time favorites: One of the recent acquisitions for its huge and fascinating collection children's literature works is an unpublished manuscript by Ellen Raskin called Mouse, Witch, Shades of Gray, as well as Raskin's "Ideas Notebook."

I have no idea what those pieces contain, but I would love to see them.

Raskin is probably best known for her Newbery-winning juvenile novel The Westing Game. She also wrote The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues and Figgs & Phantoms, both well worth reading.

Illustration of Mrs. Carillon with Tina and Tony
My personal favorite among her books, though, is The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). The book is just as bizarre as the title sounds, with an unexplainable plot and wild characters. It is enlivened by amazing illustrations that combine typography and imagery, and believe me, they tie closely to the plot, since Raskin did them herself.

Cover of A Wrinkle in TimeThis multiple set of talents is not surprising, if you look into it a bit -- Raskin was a successful designer and illustrator before she began publishing novels. She designed the original cover of A Wrinkle in Time (also a Newbery-winner) as well as the covers of over a hundred other books.

I had the good fortune to run across a copy of Leon/Noel at a used bookstore a number of years ago. I was excited enough just to see it sitting there in hardback with the original cover.

Ellen Raskin signature and sketch of Mrs. CarillonBut then I opened it up and saw that it was signed, and not just signed, but Raskin had done an impromptu sketch of the book's main character, Mrs. Carillon, as part of the signature.

Charlotte, for whom the book was signed, obviously had no idea how cool her book was. I think I paid maybe $5.00 for it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Research Today

I can't help it, I'm a dedicated reader of the "To your good health" column in the Pioneer Press. Snooping other people's medical problems... I know, it's a bad habit.

But check out this question from Saturday's entry:

My stepdaughter has a 7-year-old son with physical and mental problems. She was told he has Asperger's disorder. I can't find any information on this. Is it hereditary? Is there a cure? Do vitamins and diet influence it?
My first reaction to this question was, How can you not have heard of Asperger's? And then I thought, Even if you haven't heard of it, how could you say you "can't find any information" on it? Putting "aspergers" into Google results 1.77 MILLION hits. If you asked any librarian to help you find information on it, s/he wouldn't even have to look it up. If you read a newspaper, you would know what it is at least generally.

But then I realized that this person must have absolutely no idea how to begin doing research of any kind, and doesn't have access to the Interweb. If you looked up Asperger's in a dictionary that's more than 10 years old (or in a printed encyclopedia), you wouldn't find it, because it only came into common usage around 2000 or so, if I remember correctly.

And it's not the easiest word in the world to guess the spelling of, either. If the doctor didn't spell it out, I can think of a bunch of creative alternate spellings. (Although Google still finds those misspellings and suggests the correct spelling.)

Anyway. Just one of those moments that makes me realize how divergent my experience is from many other people's in the age of the Interweb.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Medeterenian Dizzastur

I saw this sign today while in South Minneapolis. Wow. I don't know where to start.

Probably with the unintelligible spelling of Mediterranean. I know that's a hard word to spell, but really, couldn't someone have used a dictionary before committing it to back-lit plastic for all time, and making all of us look at it?

Then there's the typography and "design." I am just aghast. Three typefaces -- one from Star Trek the Next Generation (which seems oddly appropriate since the design is probably from another planet). Then the semi-unreadable "GRILL" complete with flames. And finally the stretched-until-it-almost-breaks irregular sans serif with the unfortunate misspelling. All tricked out in yellow and orange at random intervals and thrown onto the sign in no organized way.

And finally the illustration (aka clip art). It's visually weak (almost invisible from across the street) and marginalized by the layout, and anyway, what does its graphic style (and the type of waiter represented) have to do with the rest of the sign or the type of restaurant it is? It's a grocery store, for god's sake, with some take-out food.

One of the great losses of American commercial culture (if such a phrase isn't an oxymoron) was when sign-making stopped being a craft that was taught and instead became a cheap commodity that any dummy with a computer could do.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Wasted Paper by the Ton

Photo of a landslide of phone books and yellow pagesI am not generally a big fan of Star Tribune writer James Lileks, but the headline on his column today caught my eye because I have often thought the same thing.

I'll quote the first couple of paragraphs, too:

Phone Books: Paper Slabs of Nostalgia, Delivered to Your Door

This was the week the phone books came out: 967 pounds of unrequested pulp. I know some people still use the phone book, and don't like dialing up AOL and e-mailing that Craig fellow with the list, or whatever kids do today.

I understand. If you want one, you should have one. But for some, having a human being physically schlep the ginormous phone book to your door is like having someone show up at your house with a slab of ice over his shoulder. Hello, I'm from the previous century. Need anything? No. Well, could I print off the Internet for you? No.
Unbelievably, it is not possible to tell the phone company that you don't want phone books delivered to you.

This is, of course, because of the Yellow Pages, with their "guaranteed" circulation, for which advertisers are expected to pay dearly and yearly. I have not used the Yellow Pages in at least five years. And it just about breaks my heart when that big pile of paper shows up on my doorstep.

The only good thing is that I can donate it to the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, where the pages are used to clean ink off of presses. Which means MCBA doesn't have to buy virgin paper to accomplish the same task.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Flip of the Tongue, Part 6

Five nuns praying, one with thought balloon that says We're trying!A few more mangled usage examples I have come across to go with the earlier eggcorns:

Try to make amens -- I love this one, because it brings together the idea that making amends is almost a religious (or more loosely construed, moral) obligation.

Gay as a doorknob -- One of my daughter's friends was watching Project Runway and pronounced this succinct assessment of one of the designers.

Ahead of the curb -- This was on the comments from a blog. The writer was talking about Apple being ahead of the curve with the iPhone. Guess being ahead of the curb is better than being kicked to the curb.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Revenge of the Wonder Spot

We've got flooding in the Midwest, and one victim is the water from Lake Delton, Wisconsin.

Photo of drained Lake Delton with wrecked houses in the background
For those not from these parts, Lake Delton is the companion city to Wisconsin Dells, which is the Midwest's little bit of Las Vegas kitsch, smack dab in the middle of Wisconsin. Lake Delton is home to a funky diner, a decent vegetarian restaurant (called the Cheese Factory), and numerous family-owned resorts -- which, until a few days ago, had waterfront property.

According to the Milwaukee Journal:

On Sunday, man-made Lake Delton covered 267 acres and held more than 600 million gallons of water. On Monday, it was all but drained within two hours after the shore gave way, less than a quarter-mile from the dam that controls the lake. The breach created a ferocious current as the water tumbled into the Wisconsin River 40 feet below. The failure destroyed homes and dealt a blow to an important piece of the Wisconsin Dells-area tourism industry just as the high season was about to open.
Heavy rains are to blame, of course. But I have a different theory about the real cause.

On a recent trip to Madison, I made a stop in Lake Delton to show my traveling companions (who were Dells neophytes) one of the few actually cool things in the Dells area: The Wonder Spot. To my shock, we found that the Wonder Spot was no longer there!

Some quick research showed that it was taken down in 2007 by the Town of Lake Delton to make way for a road. Probably so they could build some more resorts or vacation homes on the now-empty lake.
The Wonder Spot sign
Opened in 1952, the Wonder Spot was a true "roadside attraction" in the original sense of the word. It was just a little gift shop on the main drag in Lake Delton. You would walk down some wooden steps from the shop into a wooded ravine, until you reached a small shack built on the hill. After that, it got a bit odd.

The folks who ran it talked a good game about it having abnormal gravity and so on, as you can see here. But basically, the shack was built perpendicular to the hill, but appeared to have been built "plumb," or upright. And so when you got inside it, your eyes told you that things were defying gravity. It was pretty convincing!

Photo of a man walking on an angle across the floor of the shack
Anyway, it was all great fun in a mild, pre-Disney World kind of way that I appreciated.

So I like to think that the hole that drained Lake Delton was the revenge of the Wonder Spot, reversing gravity one final time.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Discover 05/08 and 07/08

I've been neglecting my homages to Discover magazine of late. Here are a few items that caught my eye in recent issues.

May 08 was a "better planet special issue," featuring the cover headline "How Science Will Heal the Earth." The issue started off a bit oddly, with a two-page ad for the new Chevy Tahoe Hybrid... Chevy is proud to report that in two-wheel-drive mode, this behemoth gets 20 mpg city and 14 mpg highway. Gosh. Makes you wonder how bad the mileage is on the regular one, if they're so proud of those numbers.

Envirofit logo over photo of a scooter spewing exhaustBut compared to the many scooters, motorcycles, and motorized rickshaws that have two-stroke engines, maybe the Tahoe hybrid isn't such bad thing. In a story called "Better Air," writer David Kushner reports that a single two-stroke engine produces "pollution equivalent to that of 30 to 50 four-stroke automobiles." In response, a small business called Envirofit in Colorado has created a retrofit kit that decreases emissions from the two-strokes by 90 percent, and raises fuel efficiency by 35 percent. Better yet, because the kit saves the owner the expense of fuel and oil, the cost is recovered quickly and actually nets out as much as $600 in the owner's favor.

The May issue also included an article called "The Paper Trail," in which Discover analyzed its own carbon footprint. This included a wonderful information graphic that made the whole process of producing the magazine very clear. The part I found most amazing was that 66 percent of their carbon is emitted in making the paper used to print the magazine. The second largest amount was the magazine's "afterlife" -- because statistics show that only 20 percent of the magazines are recycled, while 80 percent end up incinerated. (Not at my house! They're all saved for posterity in a pile. ; - )

The July 08 issue has a wonderful little short called "Tech Against Toxins," which briefly reports on several recent discoveries:

  • a type of bacteria that loves to consume the chlorinated wastes from dry-cleaning fluids and paint thinners,
  • a fungus that oxidizes pesticides and PCBs, leaving them benign,
  • a process that converts the fly ash from coal-powered electric plants into bricks that soak up toxic mercury from the air.
Finally, there was this little ditty from July's closing story, "20 Things You Didn't Know About Oil": Those fuel tankers we all pass on the highway "may be carrying 4,000 gallons of gas, which, if in a crash, can explode with the energy of 200 tons of TNT."

Gee, thanks!

Monday, June 9, 2008

What the Heck(er)?

I appreciated David Steinlicht's post about the Denny Hecker bus ads.

It seems Denny -- one of our local car dealers -- can't make up his mind about this environment thing.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

You Say Cotoneaster

I was browsing at my neighborhood garden club's plant sale yesterday, and came across a plant that was labeled like this:

In case you can't read that sideways stick, it says "Katoniaster Bush." I wasn't looking at it too carefully, and at first I just ignored it. But when I saw a second plant labeled as such, I realized I had no idea what the plant was.

I must have read the word out loud to myself, and then I made the connection in my head. It was meant to be:


Which is pronounced phonetically: cut - OH - nee - aster.

The pronunciation of plant names is a constant amusement to me. I myself had originally thought that "cotoneaster" was pronounced (quite reasonably, but incorrectly) as the sum of its two parts: cotton - easter. But I was disabused of that notion some time ago, and have been taking its spelling for granted ever since.

So it was fun to be reminded of its absurdity by the creative spelling on view at the plant sale.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Resist the Feed

Cover of FeedJust finished M.T. Anderson's 2002 young adult novel Feed. It's a quick read, but not an easy one, taking place in some relatively near future U.S. where most people have been wired from birth to the web (called the "feed"). This means they have incessant advertising patter in their heads, all geared directly to their actual needs and whims. As well as instant access to every bit of information that's online (so no one really has to learn anything, including writing and reading), and the ability to chat, watch videos, and listen to music.

Because the story is told in first person from the point of view of a teenage boy, we (the reader) are not aware right away of many facts about the world he lives in. For instance, he talks about visiting the moon for spring break, buying anything that strikes his fancy, and I'm thinking, where does the money come for all this? He seems to have no awareness of the need for money. Is this a post-scarcity economy because of some brilliant invention?

No. We find out soon that his family is actually very rich, and that some 30 percent of the population in the U.S. doesn't even have the feed because it is cost prohibitive. The world still has its haves and many more have-nots, including the digital divide.

Anderson's imagined world is like our own, cranked up about 500 percent. The oceans are dead, meat is completely genetically engineered to the point where it comes from farms that grow it as if it were plants, and the people who live in the cash-insulated suburbs have no awareness or interest in anything outside of shopping and entertainment. Meanwhile they are covered with lesions (which even manage to become fashionable) to the point where their skin starts to fall off.

Why do I read things like this, you may wonder, and I wonder myself sometimes. There are a lot of wonderful satirical moments that illuminate our present day consumer culture. And I particularly enjoyed (while cringing at the same time) the dialect spoken by the characters, clear evidence of Anderson's facility with language.

It's a classic cautionary tale, right down to the final clarifying speech given by one of the characters' fathers near the end:

"You've done your duty. Why don't you go along and play your games?" said her father. "We're the land of youth. The land of opportunity. Go out and and take what's yours."
"I'm not a jerk," I said.
"We Americans," he said, "are interested only in the consumption of our products. We have no interest in how they were produced, or what happens to them"--he pointed at his daughter--"what happens to them once we discard them, once we throw them away."
Possibly a bit didactic, I suppose. But it makes sense in the emotional context, where the narrator is just beginning to recognize the mess in which he and the world are mired. It is clearly too late for them, but because we know we are not as far gone, it may not be too late for us to resist the feed and everything that goes along with it.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Michael Pollan

Gardening glove hanging from a tomato plantGeez, I love Michael Pollan. Talk about a person who fulfills the role of the public intellectual.

He had an article called "Why Bother?" in the April 20 Green Issue of the New York Times (which I only just saw today... guess I need to keep up more). (You have to "join" the Times site to see the article, but it's free except the fact that you have to give them a bunch of information about yourself.)

In the article, Pollan takes on one of the questions that haunts anyone who's trying to be "part of the solution": What does it matter if I do my part to counter global warming, when we all know that there are lots of people who won't? And that I probably even have, as Pollan puts it, "an evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger" who does the opposite of every change I make.

I have to admit that the answer to the "why bother?" question is partly existential -- basically, he's saying we should bother because it's the right thing to do. But Pollan also speaks eloquently on the possibility of the viral nature of setting an example, and pulls out a few choice Wendell Berry quotes about our need to unspecialize our lives and our endeavors.

One primary way of bothering that Pollan advocates is growing some of your own food, the ultimate in "eat local." From this, he says, "You quickly learn that you need not be dependent on specialists to provide for yourself — that your body is still good for something and may actually be enlisted in its own support." In doing so, he goes on to say, "you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen. Chances are, your garden will re-engage you with your neighbors, for you will have produce to give away and the need to borrow their tools."

More and more in my neighborhood, I see people growing vegetables, frequently in the most public parts of their yards, even their boulevards. (Probably because that's where the most sun is, given the recent demise of so many trees from Dutch elm disease, but still.) To make a generalization based on observation of their homes and cars, I don't think they're doing it to save money -- I think they're doing it to be part of the solution, too.

I put in a tomato and a pepper plant for the first time myself. I know it's not much, but it's a start.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Wasted Energy

This from Bill McKibben's Deep Economy, explaining why the centralized generation of electric power is a misbegotten approach:

Those big [power] plants are usually off by themselves in the hinterlands (if you've seen one, you know why). When they burn coal, an enormous amount of the energy is wasted as heat that simply goes up into the air; one recent British study indicated that 61 percent of the energy value of the coal just disappears. Another 4 percent vanished in the transmission process, because shipping electricity through those long networks is inherenently inefficient. And another 13 percent was wasted because people were using inefficient refrigerators and dryers and other appliances in their homes.
When you add up those percentages, you find out that 78 percent of the power generated is not put to any real use by anyone.

If that's not an argument for decentralizing power generation, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Building with Clay

I stopped in for a quick visit to the Northern Clay Center's current exhibition, called "Architecture and Ceramics: Material, Structure, Vision."

I had seen a cool photo of one piece accompanying Mary Abbe's review of the show in the Star Tribune -- it was an architectural model of a hypothetical building for the Northern Clay Center itself, based on the pots of artist William Daley, and done as a collaboration between Daley and his architect son Thomas Daley.

When I saw the photo, I had assume the model was ceramic, but it's not -- it's a very nice, regular-materials architectural model.

All of the works in the show are interesting, but the ones that really caught my fancy the most were by Dan Anderson.

Anderson's pieces range from tea sets (like the one above) that look like groups of industrial or agricultural buildings, to objects that are almost recognizable as pots, like the one at right, but that are still decorated with motifs of aging commercial culture.

I love the faded colors and generally aged look Anderson captures in his glazes.

I'm a sucker for models and miniatures in general, but the melding of the form with with ceramics was particularly appealing.

The show is up through June 29.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Water Facts from the Heifer Project

The Heifer Project puts out a very good magazine, called World Ark. The May/June issue just arrived and I read a large part of it... more than I read of most magazines I see.

Water was one of the focus points of the issue, so here are a few facts that caught my attention.

Average amount of water used by each person in China, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. (the vast majority of which is used to raise the food we eat).

Average number of miles walked by women and girls worldwide to haul water for family use: 4 (carrying 5 gallons on average)

Percentage of sewage that is dumped untreated into surface water in developing countries: 90
Percentage of industrial waste that is dumped in the same countries: 70

And one final water fact that has stuck with me since I read it long ago (this was not from the World Ark issue):

Amount of water needed to raise one pound of beef: approximately 2,500 gallons (source). Versus the amount of water needed to raise one pound of potatoes, corn, soybeans, etc.: 60 to 240 gallons (source).

Monday, June 2, 2008

Too Many Caesareans

I couldn't help noticing the confluence of two stories about Caesareans in recent weeks.

First there was the one about the increasing number of late-pre-term Caesareans. Basically, an increasing number of babies in the U.S. are being born by Caesarean in the 34th to 37th week of gestation, rather than at full term. These aren't multiple births, either -- the numbers reflect only "single births." From 1996 to 2004, the number of premature deliveries increased 1 percentage point, up from 9.7% of births to 10.7% of births. Of the premature births, 92% were by Caesarean.

I couldn't picture the scenario, even though I believe the statistics. Are women increasingly likely to march into their doctors' offices between 34 and 37 weeks, screaming "Get this baby out of me now!" ?

In general, the number of Caesareans is at an all-time high. It had dropped a bit in the early to mid-1990s, but now it's back up over 30% of births. (Experts bandy about different numbers for the "ideal" Caesarean rate -- the rate that means women are getting a c-section when it is medically necessary, and not when it is for other reasons. The World Health Organization puts the percentage between 10 and 15, but others put it lower while others say it's not possible to put a number on it at all.)

Graph showing increase in caesareans, decrease in VBACs
VBAC, in case you don't know, stands for vaginal birth after Caesarean, which was increasingly encouraged as an option in the mid-90s, but has recently become almost impossible to do because hospitals and doctors are discouraging it for fear of its fairly rare complications. In effect, this loss of the VBAC option means that if a woman has a Caesarean, she will have to have a Caesarean for any future births ... which, of course, is part of what feeds the overall rate increase.

The second story I saw was in the New York Times. It told about a Colorado woman who applied for individual health insurance and was turned down because she had had a Caesarean. Basically, it counted as a pre-existing condition, and unless she was willing to be sterilized, the company (part of Minnesota-based United Health) wouldn't insure her.

Three blurry women dancingDo you think the people who run the website have heard about this? I found their site while looking for information on the "ideal" Caesarean rate. Featuring a snazzy graphic of three blurry women dancing on what appears to be a beach, headlined with the words "Your Baby Your Body Your Choice," the site is in direct opposition to the stance taken by the College of Midwives, who point out quite reasonably that a Caesarean is major abdominal surgery with its attendant complication rates, that it delays mother-child bonding since the mother is recovering from surgery, and that it costs twice as much as vaginal birth. The Elective Caesarean site gives prominent placement to "celebrity caesareans" and talks a lot about "birth trauma."

Emergency c-sections are one thing, of course, but there is a high rate of elective c-sections as well, which I have to say I just don't understand. It seems akin to the idea of plastic surgery -- women who are willing to suffer to be beautiful. In the case of c-sections, I guess it's a willingness to suffer to control the birthing process.

If the women who elect to have c-sections knew that they might not be able to get health insurance because of it, I wonder if that would make them think twice. The Colorado woman pointed out that had she known the insurance company would not insure her, she would never have applied since being turned down for health insurance will go down on your permanent record, as the song says. Every time she applies for insurance in the future, she will be asked if she has ever been denied insurance, and she will have to say yes.

(A final note: I am not saying that the Caesarean is a bad technology in general, of course, but it's bad when it's misapplied.)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sunday at the Weisman -- WPA Art of Minnesota

Exterior of Weisman Museum, all stainless steel and shiny
For a Sunday jaunt, I took a short trip over to the Weisman Museum on the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota. If you're not from here or you've never been to the campus, the Weisman is an undulating, stainless-steel clad building designed by Frank Gehry in the early 1990s. Some people think it's the ugliest building on earth, but I like it.

Until the Weisman was built, the University's art collection and gallery space were stuck on the third floor of Northrop Auditorium in an un-air-conditioned space that few people every visited. It was the poor step-child of the huge institution, sitting on an enormous pile of wonderful artwork. When the Weisman opened, the art gallery and its collection were instantly transformed into a glittering Cinderella in one of the most visible locations possible.

Title of the show in black letters on exterior window
Their current exhibit showcases about a hundred pieces from the collection. All of the works were created by artists employed by the U.S. government during the Depression under the Works Progress Administration or Farm Security Administration. Basically, the deal was that taxpayer-supported museums could buy the artworks for the cost of the materials used to make them. The art is actually owned by the people of the United States (as represented by the federal government), but the museums hold them in perpetuity.

There are a lot of wonderful pieces in the show, including photographs by the biggest names of the time (Dorthea Lange, Edward Weston, Ben Shahn) and some really great abstract paintings, but the works that caught my attention the most were the very local paintings of the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses.

Two were of the same bridge over the railroad tracks in Dinkytown, just north of the campus:

Dinkytown bridge and surrounding buildings, grain elevators in background
Above: Dewey Albinson, University Bridge, oil on canvas, 1934.

Dinkytown brige face on, part of the block to the north is visible
Above, the same bridge at about the same time but from a different angle and by a different artist: Elof Wedin, Fourteenth Avenue, oil on canvas, 1934.

I'm not totally sure what location is shown in this next image. When I saw it, I thought it was the 10th Avenue Bridge (the one that is right next to the collapsed 35W bridge), but now I'm not so sure. While the 10th Avenue bridge was built in 1929, the bridge in this picture looks like it's made of metal, while the 10th Avenue bridge is clad in concrete.

But it is reminiscent of the way the 10th Avenue bridge runs high above the river flats, which to this day are inhabited by University buildings that live in the bridge's shadow.

Bridge high above a small building at the river side
Above: Glen Ranney, Twin City Sewage Station, oil on fabric, 1936.

There were several other paintings in the show of specific buildings on the Minneapolis campus, and one that depicted the rolling hills of the St. Paul campus with no buildings at all, except a barn in the background.

While I was expecting to look at some beautiful paintings today, I wasn't expecting to see such locally inspired work. It was a welcome addition to the show.