Friday, December 26, 2008


Hope you all had a nice holiday. We spent it with my folks up near Kingman (yes, that Kingman ... the Kingman of Timothy McVeigh, Michael Fortier and other nascent nihilists). The weather was cold and rainy (with even some snow on the surrounding hills) but the house and company were warm. The food was great, though I ate, and continue to eat, too much of it.

Alex and the grandparents loved all their gifts, as did we. Between the wife and I, we attempted a more sustainable gift-giving balance for the gifts to each other. All of our gifts were 2nd-hand or fair-trade. I got her quite a few books that she had wanted from the Goodwill and a soap dish from world of good. I hit the jackpot with the books that she got me from the Goodwill:

Book of Lost Tales Part I by J.R.R. Tolkien

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Lazarus Effect by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom. Herbert, along with Larry Niven, are my two favorite sci-fi authors. Herbert, the author of the Dune novels, has had many other great novels and the world of Destination: Void are no exception. Lazarus is one of the 4 books set in that universe. I read all of these books as a teen but am trying to replace them all in hardback and re-read.

The King of Torts by John Grisham - I'm not really a fan of most popular novelists, but Grisham is an exception. They're always good page turners and Grisham usually has a liberal message in there somewhere.

Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House by Valerie Plame Wilson

Animal Farm by George Orwell - Classic novel that translates Stalinist Russia into farm creatures. Though I've read 1984, I've never read this and this is a nice hardbound edition.

William Shakespeare: The Complete Works - A very nice hardbound edition.

Two great books by our recently departed humorist, George Carlin:

Braindroppings - Carlin's first book and contains several of his most famous stand-up bits.

When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? - First of all, you know my wife (a Christian) must love me if she buys me this book. This book, and Carlin in general, skewers popular religion, albeit in a hilarious manner. Second of all, Wal-Mart refused to carry this book. There is no bigger enticement for me to get something than for it to be banned by Wal-Mart. This was Carlin's last book before he died.

Lastly, my son picked me up a book, The World of Chess by Anthony Saidy and Normal Lessing. I love chess and have probably 80 books about chess. This is a nice coffee table book with a history of the game and game annotations from the masters. Skimming through it, I was delighted to find a reference to The Turk, a chess automaton from the 18th century that was proven to be a hoax. It's got an interesting history and played famous people such as Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. It was mostly destroyed in a fire in 1854. What makes it even more interesting is that I've actually met the guy, John Gaughan, that currently owns and built the modern incarnation of the Turk (which I've seen). It even has the chess set from the original Turk. I wrote about our visit to his fantastic workshop a few months ago.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Lorax

If you are looking for a good gift idea for a kid, think about the Lorax by Dr. Seuss. It talked about the environment, in a language that kids could understand, before it was cool and has had a resurgence in popularity:

Published in 1971, at a time when Earth Day and the ecology movement were gaining counterculture traction, "The Lorax" addressed then-unconventional issues such as deforestation, pollution and greed. It was "An Inconvenient Truth" for children ...

Plus, it's a book that's been in print for awhile and you should be able to pick it up used.

Just a few lines from the book:

Way back in the days when the grass was still green
and the pond was still wet
and the clouds were still clean ...

business is business
And business must grow
regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.

I meant no harm.
I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.

I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons.
I biggered the loads of the Theends I shipped out ...

You're in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back."

All of the text of the book can be found here.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas with no presents?

Christmas with No Presents? by Colin Beavan

If Christmas is about presents, then in 2007, my little family and I had no Christmas. I mean, we had the caroling and the uncle playing the piano and the cousins running around with my three-year-old, Isabella, and the grandfather coaxing her to sit on his lap and the good food.

We had, in other words, an amazingly good time.

What we didn't have, though, was the average American's $800 hole in our bank accounts, gouged out by Christmas-present spending. Nor did we have the credit card debt still unpaid by June. Nor the forcing of smiles for gifts we didn't really want. Nor the buying of extra luggage to bring home those unwanted gifts. Nor the stressful rush of last-minute crowds at the mall.

Without presents, you see, we didn't have the sensation that I, at least, normally associated with Christmas-the stress. And without stress or presents, it's not Christmas, right? But of course it was. It was the best of Christmas, the part that, research shows, makes people happiest. It was all the upside without the downside ...

... as Christmas 2007 approached, the more pressing question for us was, did the season's huge consumption of resources add to the Christmas experience or detract from it? Since one-sixth of all American retail sales (and as a consequence, a hefty proportion of our national planetary resource use) occurs during the holiday season, it's a question worth asking.

Despite the fact that people spend relatively large portions of their income on gifts, as well as time shopping for and wrapping them, such behavior apparently contributes little to holiday joy.

I've already told you enough to let you guess how my little family's experience played out, but you may be surprised to learn that our findings are backed up by bona fide psychological research: Even though oodles of presents at Christmas is the dominant American paradigm, it turns out that people who spend less and have less spent on them at Christmas actually enjoy the season more.

This, anyway, is the conclusion of a paper published in the Journal of Happiness Studies by researchers Tim Kasser of Knox College and Kennon M. Sheldon of the University of Missouri-Columbia. After studying the Christmas experiences of 117 individuals, they found that people who emphasized time spent with families and meaningful religious or spiritual activities had merrier Christmases.

"Despite the fact that people spend relatively large portions of their income on gifts, as well as time shopping for and wrapping them," the researchers said, "such behavior apparently contributes little to holiday joy." In fact, subjects who gave or received presents that represented a substantial percentage of their income, Kasser and Sheldon found, actually experienced less Christmas joy.

Of course, this makes perfect sense. We all know in our hearts that treasuring meaningful experiences and spending time in valued relationships-at Christmas or any other part of the year-make us happier than getting more stuff.

But try telling that to the grandparents at Christmas time!

Try living out these lofty principles when the rest of your family and friends are swapping presents at the same rate as ever. You may find "bah humbugs" shouted in your direction more than once. That's problematic, particularly if you're hoping to inspire more sustainable lifestyle choices in other people. Nobody will be convinced by dogmatism or Grinch-like behavior.

The trick to a happy, sustainable, non-consumptive Christmas was not, we discovered, to ignore the expectations of the people we celebrated with. We didn't want our loved ones to feel bad. Those who expected presents should get them, we decided. Gifts, after all, are associated with the exchange of love.

For us, the answer was to buy presents that did not require the exploitation of large amounts of planetary resources. My mother was very happy with the two massages she got. My father and his wife enjoyed the gift certificate to the fine dining, local-food restaurant in their neighborhood. Friends appreciated the theater tickets we bought them. And unlike those unwanted trinkets one sometimes buys for the "person who has everything," our sustainable gifts, we felt, actually improved the recipients' lives.

Still, my wife, Michelle, worried very much that it would be hard for Isabella if all the cousins had presents to open, but she didn't. Try saying, "The research says you'll be happier with less," to a three-year-old. So Isabella's Aunt Maureen contributed toys that her children had outgrown, and we wrapped them for Isabella.

When present-opening time came, Isabella didn't care whether the present she was opening was for her or not. She didn't even want the presents. She just wanted to open them. She didn't want something to have later. She wanted to participate now. And when her Uncle Joe started playing the piano and singing, she got bored with the present opening anyway and went to sit with him on the piano bench.

Much to our surprise, she didn't even want to take her cousins' old toys home when the Christmas vacation was over. She'd already had her presents. What was important to her was what turned out to be important to us: the singing, the charades, the laughter, the time spent with family, and of course, the celebration.

We're nowhere near where the people in this article are, in terms of controlling consumption, but this year, more than any other, we've really tried to think a lot about what we're doing with our Christmas spending.

We've certainly gotten presents for Alex but most are educational or don't cost much. He's a good kid that doesn't really long for all the gadgets you see on TV. He'd rather read a book. Between the wife and I, we've settled on some items from the local thrift store, and maybe one other item in the $50 range.

Michelle organized an adopt-a-family for Christmas through her church with items donated by her co-workers. They did this in lieu of a Christmas party. And the workers enjoyed it more.

Every year, I remember the dinners out with friends and family or the parties we attended. But I don't have the slightest clue where a particular gift may have came from. The gifts I do remember are generally books because the giver usually gives it some thought ahead of time.

I liked this sentence from the above article, "The trick to a happy, sustainable, non-consumptive Christmas was not, we discovered, to ignore the expectations of the people we celebrated with." Nobody likes insufferable do-gooders who are constantly judging you or making you feel guilty. You can change your own habits and lead by example instead of preaching. After all, we're as hypocritical as the next person. I'm consistently impressed by the things that others are doing. For example, we have friends who have had used book exchange birthday parties where every kid gets something instead of a normal birthday party where only one kid gets something (bring a book ... take a book). Pretty smart. We might have to try it on Alex's next birthday.

Anyway, don't be a humbug, but also don't blow hundreds of dollars on each other just because you think it's what you are supposed to do. People will forget what gift you got them but they will remember having fun with you or the thought that you put into something.

Just this last weekend we went to the Green Holiday Arts Festival. We bought several handmade reusable cloth Christmas gift bags that are pretty nice.

Have fun. Make something. Buy local and green as much as you can. Go out to dinner with friends. If God is your thing, celebrate that. If Christmas is just a good excuse for spending more time with friends and family, celebrate that. If anybody tries to tell you the real "reason for the season", politely ignore them. The "reason" is whatever you think it is. Just don't assume that it is the same reason for everyone else. And there is no "war on Christmas". There should be a war on stupidity, but that's a subject for another day.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Political Song of the Day

Pandora's great. I have a Peter Gabriel channel in it and was listening tonight and that channel played this song. I had Momentary Lapse of Reason by Pink Floyd when it first came out and played the crap out of it. While sympathizing with Floyd snobs who disregard post-Roger Waters releases, I don't fully agree with them. I've always been a huge David Gilmour fan ... he's one of my favorite guitarists. And this album is a great showcase of his talent. Song highlights including Learning to Fly and this one, On the Turning Away, an indictment of Reagan-era materialism and self-importance. I think it's still relevant today.

On the Turning Away by Pink Floyd

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won't understand
Don't accept that what's happening
Is just a case of others suffering
Or you'll find that you're joining in
The turning away

It's a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting its shroud
Over all we have known
Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that were all alone
In the dream of the proud

On the wings of the night
As the daytime is stirring
Where the speechless unite
In a silent accord
Using words you will find are strange
And mesmerized as they light the flame
Feel the new wind of change
On the wings of the night

No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away
From the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share
Its not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there'll be
No more turning away?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Life is tragic ...

Bored and looking a for blog post topic, I came upon this site that randomly spews out famous philospher and writer quotes. The result - the following quote:

"Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have." -- James Baldwin

I don't know James Baldwin well, but it seems like a pretty good quote. He seems to be saying that we all waste a lot of time with things that don't ultimately add to the enjoyment of our lives. Those things being religion, racism, war, nationalism, materialism, etc. We're born and we die ... those are the absolutes. The other things are just filler. We'd be better served by trying to enjoy that time we do have.

Having lived as a black and a homosexual in at time where either one of those things would have left one ostracized, Baldwin certainly could speak from experience on how society dwells on things that are not really important.

The fight to pass Prop 8 in California and 102 in Arizona by the Mormon church seems to hit upon two of the time wasters - "steeples" and "taboos". Are those people who have given to their time and money to take something away from someone else really going to have better lives? Or will they be there in their final days, lamenting the "fact of death"?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Book Reviews

All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson

I just finished reading All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson.

Ostensibly the culmination of the "Bridge" trilogy (the 2nd of which I'd already read, Idoru, but I've not yet read Virtual Light. They are not so much sequels as successive novels chronologically set in the same environment and sharing many of the same characters.

Like most Gibson works, you're exposed to a world that seems to be in the near future and has a lot of elements of our current world. He's so meticulous in the details and almost poetic in his writing style. It always takes me a few chapters in a Gibson book to get in the rhythm of it. But once I do, it's hard for me to put them down.

All Tomorrow's Parties explores the technologies that are just in the process of emerging and have not yet formed the world that is familiar in novels like Neuromancer. It's not necessarily the same future as that of Neuromancer but seems to indicate a move in that direction. The book also delves a lot into the nature of data patterns, a subject that occurs in a lot of his books, most notably Pattern Recognition.

One of the things I like about Gibson is the Blade Runner dirtiness to it. Even though his stories are about computers and virtual worlds, there is a real world earthiness to them. And a lot of punk and underworld references.

There are other "cyberpunk" novelists, but Gibson is by far the best and generally considered the original. About the only other author of this genre that I really read is Neal Stephenson. I've heard good things about Bruce Sterling (who has collaborated with Gibson) but have not had the chance to read him yet, though I do have a few of his books.


Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I've come really late into the graphic novel genre. I was by no means a comic book kid growing up. I was a sci-fi kid and just didn't get the attraction of comic books. Naturally assuming their subject matter to be that of Saturday morning cartoons, I dismissed them out of hand. Kinda figured that only goobers who didn't like reading words bothered with 'em. Considering how much of a social outcast I was, I probably shouldn't have been casting aspersions.

With Watchmen being made into a movie and with the film success of renderings of graphic novels such as 300, V for Vendetta (also by Moore), Sin City, etc., I figured it was time. And from all that I had read, Watchmen was the perfect place to start.

The Watchmen refer to a group of superheroes in an alternate America. Where it diverges from a lot of superhero stories is in the development of the characters. These are deeply flawed people who don't always have the noblest of intentions or methods. In the same manner that Unforgiven deconstructs the Western, Watchmen is very much a revisionist comic.

It has a very unique narrative style that intersperses the main story with fictional supporting documents. Almost like a case file or dossier.

There are a lot of political and sociological elements in the story and like V for Vendetta, you can certainly find elements common with our current world, even though this story is over 20 years old.

Comic book readers certainly don't have to be told about Watchmen. I'm sure they've all read it. But if you are new to the graphic novel and comic book area, take a look at this one. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Walking in your footsteps ...

"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." -- John Muir, naturalist and found of Sierra Club

I don't really want or need anything for Christmas (maybe some books) but I think the holiday season will be my justification for finally getting a new pair of shoes. I've been shopping around for about a year for a decent pair of shoes that are sustainable in one fashion or another. We were just at Van's tonight to get Alex a new pair of shoes and I saw these bamboo soled shoes that I liked:

"hemp-infused gum rubber outsoles and natural cotton jute foxing ... water-based glues sans inks"

Simple Shoes have a few pairs I like, most notably these:

"organic cotton canvas uppers ... lined in certified organic cotton ... outsole used to be a car tire ... 100% post consumer paper pulp foot forms"

I hadn't heard a lot about EcoSumo products, but these seemed nice:

So far, these three are the leaders in the clubhouse. Hopefully Santa will be kind to me this year.

Understandably, a lot of people can't afford shoes like these but it looks like some of the discount retailers are soon going to be offering affordable sustainable alternatives -- Payless to offer sustainable line.

"Fifty million years ago
You walked upon the planet so,
Lord of all that you could see
Just a little bit like me

Walking in your footsteps

Hey mr. dinosaur
You really couldn't ask for more
You were gods favourite creature
But you didn't have a future ...

Hey mighty brontosaurus
Dont you have a lesson for us
You thought your rule would always last
There were no lessons in your past ...

Walking in your footsteps....

They say the meek shall inherit the earth..."

Walking in Your Footsteps -- The Police