Archive for the 'Reading' Category

Jon Kabat-Zinn video on YouTube

March 17, 2008

There’s a great video by Jon Kabat-Zinn on meditation and mindfulness over at YouTube. Kabat-Zinn wrote my favorite book on meditation, Wherever You Go, There You Are. The video continues some of the wonderful ideas in the book.

The Wild Shore – Kim Stanley Robinson

February 10, 2008

The Wild Shore is the first volume of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias Trilogy. I read the book because, perhaps because after reading The Long Emergency I was in the mood for dystopia. What was a wonderful surprise, though, was that The Wild Shore tells a beautiful, sad story of life in 2047, after the US has been attacked and isolated by the other world powers.

Although Robinson wrote the story in 1984, other than a few references to the Soviet Union and the Cold War, it feels very contemporary and new. The book tells the story of Henry Aaron Fletcher, a teen-aged boy who lives with a handful of other survivors in a small fishing village in what is now San Onofre, California, as he and the others are contacted by a larger settlement in San Diego, and have to decide whether to join with the San Diegans in uniting in an American rebellion and facing the other countries, or continue by smaller measures.

There is real beauty in the story. The most compelling character is Tom Barnard, the oldest person in town, and one of the few who remembers the world before the fall of America. Tom is a teacher in the town, and tries to guide his community in a better way. At one point he realizes that “[y]ou can’t teach what the world has taught you,” that, despite trying to help his villagers preserve the literary and cultural heights of the old America while living peacefully and pastorally, he can’t convince them not to rail against the rest of the world for their poor plight.

There’s a sadness in the inevitability of such a realization, and a real sadness in the events of the story. But there’s also a hope in seeing the world persist, seeing people band together and survive, seeing love and community and deliberate living succeed on even a small level. I was surprised how much I liked this book, and look forward to reading the rest of the stories in the trilogy.

The High Cost of Free Parking

January 31, 2008

Been reading and thinking a great deal about what’s wrong with the way we build our cities, spurred by Kunstler‘s great books. Reminded me of an article I read a few years back about The High Cost of Free Parking. The article I remember was an op-ed piece from the SF Chronicle, written by the UCLA Professor Donald Shoup. Upon further research I found that he had written a book, which unfortunately is not at my library, and seems a bit too expensive for my blood. But he also wrote a NY Times op-ed piece, as well as a very good article in Salon.

Here’s the argument against free parking. There is obviously no such thing. Someone pays for it everywhere. Your employer does at work, leading to a lower salary for you. Your merchants do when you’re shopping, leading to higher costs. You do at home, leading to higher housing costs. But beyond the immediate costs (lower salary, higher shopping and housing costs) there are subtler costs as well. I happen to live in a community that, despite being fairly affluent, has commercial spaces populated solely by stunningly ugly strip malls. For miles and miles. Until you just want to move away and go somewhere else.

Moreover, we pay the cost of free parking whether we use it or not, leading to essentially an increased cost for public transportation, pedestrians, and cyclists. Why should I ride the bus if I’m already paying for a parking space at the mall? Back in my conservative Republican days I used to criticize public transportation, because these systems never broke even and were always subsidized by local governments. What I’ve come to realize since then is that driving itself is subsidized by governments on the local and federal level. We pay a great deal for highway interchanges. We pay a great deal for free parking. And we pay a great deal for what the automobile culture does to our cities and towns.

I moved from a place, Pasadena, California, that is a case study, literally, of how to handle downtown parking. When I moved to Pasadena in 1988, the Old Town area was nearly deserted. It had recently been designated a historical district, but its commercial spaces were empty. They had a law that required the facades of the building to be preserved during renovation, which meant that it was much more expensive to revamp the old buildings than tearing them down and starting afresh. Thank God. In any case, Old Town was filled with nothing but a movie theater and a great bagel store, and I looked enviously at Westwood and Burbank citizens for living in a hipper area. But slowly it came back, ultimately becoming the coolest Southern California shopping district. They have very limited parking spaces, regulated by parking meters, which encourages people to walk, ride, or take the bus to get there, rather than drive. As a consequence, it is a walkable downtown, and has a higher density of cool shops and restaurants, since each one doesn’t have to be surrounded by a sea of parking spaces.

Part of the problem, I have since learned, is that local zoning regulations require a certain number of parking spaces per commercial enterprise. Both Kunstler and Shoup agree that it is these zoning regulations that doom us to a suburban wasteland, and that they should be uniformly dumped in favor of a more intelligent consensus of what makes a livable, workable downtown area.

People pretty much agree on what constitute cool places to live. Very few people prefer West Covina to Pasadena or Pleasanton for any reason other than real estate prices. We need to start understanding the factors that make Pasadena and Pleasanton charming places to live, and rewrite our community laws to encourage these type of growth.

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Kunstler’s Home From Nowhere

January 29, 2008

Since I liked The Long Emergency so much, over the weekend I read Home From Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler’s follow up to his earlier magnum opus Geography of Nowhere. Very good book. Where The Long Emergency focused on the economic implications of suburban sprawl, particularly its non-sustainability, Home From Nowhere focuses on the social implications, on how suburbia is turning us from citizens into consumers, how it is sterilizing our culture and alienating our children and neighbors. Rather than simply bemoan the problem, Home From Nowhere also suggests ways that we can reclaim charming, meaningful places to live. Everyone enjoys vacationing in places like Nantucket or Paris or Boston, where one essentially has to abandon one’s car and proceed by foot or by bicycle. Kunstler urges us to dare to dream that we can actually live year-round in a community of this sort. Kunstler talks about how the zoning laws in place essentially all across America almost require us to develop single use “pods” rather than mixed use space where offices, storefronts, and residences coexist (which was the way that all towns were designed before World War II). He cites successful development projects, most notably Seaside, Florida, where developers were able to create charming, affordable mixed use communities. And he describes the New Urbanist movement of neotraditional urban design, that strives to reinvent the way we create cities and towns. Very good read.

Here’s an article Kunstler wrote for the Atlantic Monthly that summarizes some of the points in the book.

The Long Emergency

January 24, 2008

We like our scares compartmentalized. The Exorcist is fun because we can turn on the lights after watching the movie and remind ourselves it is fiction. We can threaten ourselves temporarily with a monstrous threat to everything we love and hold dear, and then return to our old life, without truly risking that which we cherish.

Just finished the scariest book I’ve ever read, The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler, about the impact of the end of cheap oil on our society. An excerpt of the book is available at Rolling Stone, for whom Kunstler writes. To quote:

Most immediately we face the end of the cheap-fossil-fuel era. It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as the necessities of modern life — not to mention all of its comforts and luxuries: central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lights, inexpensive clothing, recorded music, movies, hip-replacement surgery, national defense — you name it.

Kunstler’s point is that we are near, or have already passed, the peak of global oil production. This means that we have used half of the oil our planet contains. However, since the rate at which we are using the oil has been, and will continue to, rise exponentially, we will use the second half much faster than we have used the first half, in only 20-30 years, by some estimates.

If the end of cheap oil merely meant that we have to drive less it would be incovenient but survivable. But what makes Kunstler’s predictions terrifying that the core of our modern civilization depends upon cheap oil. We live in suburbs where we can’t walk anywhere. We eat more apples flown in from Chile than grown in the farmlands 50 miles away. The green revolution that produces so much food itself depends upon fertilizers and pesticides that derive from petroleum. We commute hundreds of miles to work each week. We live in deserts and thus require irrigation and air conditioning to survive.

One of the characteristics of our insecurity is that we ridicule anyone who points to the end of the good times as an unstable nutcase. Jimmy Carter, who told Americans to put on sweaters and turn down their thermostats, to drive slower so as to conserve fuel, was a laughing stock. Heck, I thought he was ridiculous, but, then, I was all of 12 years old. But he will go down in history as the first (and, to date, the only) President to understand the danger the oil boom poses to our civilization. We simply don’t want to hear that access to Wal-Mart hair driers (to pick one of Kunstler’s favorite whipping boys) might cause the erosion of our way of life and ultimately our civilization. Perhaps the scariest part is that Kunstler doesn’t seem like a nutcase now, what he says makes real sense, which means that culturally we’re already feeling the beginnings of the Long Emergency.

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Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

January 23, 2008

Recently finished Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. The book, and the movie of the same name (which I have not yet seen) is about Chris McCandless, a young man who, upon graduating from Emory, gives away his possessions, rechristens himself “Alex Supertramp”, drives and then hitchhikes across the US, finally to disappear into the Alaskan wilderness.

The story is at the same time breathtaking and sobering. Sobering because, like many, I have too become tempted after reading too much Kerouac and Thoreau, push off and wander the earth. In fact, now a husband and a father in my 40’s, I find myself regretting my attachment to safety in my earlier travel, wishing I had actually taken that train ride through Mexico, or taken a courier flight to Hong Kong like I had planned. In this, I share a great deal with Krakauer, and the personal history that Krakauer adds to McCandless’s story, brings considerable depth and insight into what motivated the boy.

The book is wonderful, and I highly recommend it.

The Promise of Sleep

January 22, 2008

Recently finished The Promise of Sleep, by William C. Dement, who is perhaps the world’s leading researcher on sleep. Dement’s point, which he makes over and over again, is that people need more sleep than they regularly obtain, and this sleep debt causes many of our modern ills.

Dement points out that most people don’t realize that the Exxon Valdez spill was caused not by the drunken captain, as most people think, as the captain had left the bridge hours before the crash, but by a younger mate who had only 6 hours of sleep in the previous 48, and thus is more attributable to sleep debt than to drunken sailing.

However, I find little of practical value other than the point that “Americans need more sleep” in the massively long book, and, after several hundred pages, I felt like Dement was asking a bit of the reader to continue a book that has only a single message.

But maybe my objections come because this is a message that I don’t want to hear. The remnants of the graduate-school “sleep is no substitute for a good cup of coffee” mentality still in my system, or the hope that maybe polyphasic sleep could turn me into a superhero. I think to these hopes, Dement would tell me to grow up, and to make time for what is one of the most important human activities.

US Through the Back Door

January 21, 2008

I’m a big fan of Rick Steve’s Europe Through the Back Door and Asia Through the Back Door books. These books opened up a whole new world of travel for me, when I was a starving graduate student, letting me know that travel didn’t have to be expensive and luxurious to be fun and broadening. Through these books I’ve found little cheap hotels in Paris, and managed to learn my way around that city long before I could afford a room with a shower.

Inexpensive travel is something I’ve also loved in Paul Theroux’s travel books. But why does travel have to be foreign? Of late I’ve enjoyed driving cross country, rather than flying, to visit family. It takes a little longer, but flying in the post-9/11 world has become an ordeal. The only drawback are the sterile, expensive hotels that one is limited to. There must be a good guide to travel in the US, a place that points one to colorful and cheap hotels in interesting cities.

For example, some time ago, $70 became the default price for hotels in the US. Are there decent hotels less expensive than this? Or, by trying to save money, does one fate oneself to lumpy beds and rooms that smell of stale cigarettes? Maybe it’s the graduate student mentality that never went away, but $70 seems a great deal of money for a bed and a shower.

If anyone knows of such a guide, please leave a comment below.

Gary Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories

January 20, 2008
Recently finished Gary Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories, which is about the history of low-carb diets in America. Taubes wrote a terrific NY Times article, What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie? several years ago; this book is the follow-up to that article.
The book is extensive, meticulously researched, and very well written. However, I guess I was more interested in what I should be eating rather than a sociological investigation of US nutrition policy. To that end, I found Taubes’s Times article more to my liking than the book. But there is little doubt that if one is indeed looking for that type of sociology, one would have to look very hard to find a better source than this book.

Tunnels by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams

January 20, 2008

Just finished reading Tunnels, by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams. The book has been billed as the next Harry Potter series, which, I have to say, makes me more skeptical than encouraged.

Will Burrows is a boy who likes to dig tunnels in and around his English hometown. In fact, exploring tunnels is essentially the only thing he has in common with absent-minded professor father, with whom he excavates abandoned underground structures. He has less in common with his mother, glued to the TV, or his impossibly efficient little sister Rebecca. When Will’s father disappears, presumably into a tunnel, Will follows with a friend, Chester, to find him.

The book is wonderful, dark, creepy, scary at times, but in a way that gets one to pull for the protagonist Will, and makes me hungry for more from the series. Regrettably, we will have to wait until Spring 2009 for the next installment, titled Dirt. Reminds me a little bit of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, in its depictions of an alternate world below ours.

Here is the official website for the book, and here is a nice fansite, Topsoiler.