Saturday, December 14, 2013

Books! Books! Books!

It's been quite a while since I made any nerdy end-of-year-best-of lists on this blog, so consider this a catching-up. Here are some of the best books I've read over the past few years (links go to my reviews on goodreads). For fiction, the best thing I've read is George Saunders. Yes, believe the hype -- he's really good. However the most purely entertaining book I've read in long while is The Lies of Locke Lamora. Totally fun. For non-fiction it's David MacKay's book on sustainable energy, which is available for free from his website if you're interested. Enjoy!

  1. Tenth of December: Stories, by George Saunders
  2. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  3. Crónica de una muerte anunciada, por Gabriel García Márquez
  4. A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin
  5. State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
  6. The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
  7. Embassytown, by China Miéville

    Honorable Mention: True History of the Kelly Gang, Zeitoun, The Curse of Chalion, Wise Man's Fear, Sandman 4: A Season of Mists

  1. Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air, by David MacKay
  2. Tropical Nature, by Adrian Forsyth & Ken Miyata
  3. Bitter Fruit, by Stephen Schlessinger & Stephen Kinzer
  4. Sustaining Life, Eric Chivian & Aaron Bernstein, eds.
  5. El País Bajo Mi Piel, por Gioconda Belli
  6. Nicaragua: Surviving the Legacy of U.S. Policy, by Paul Dix & Pam Fitzpatrick
  7. The Code Book, by Simon Singh

    Honorable MentionCollapseThe Heart of ChristianityWith The ContrasIn The RainforestHoly GroundFood Politics, Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Dying on the Inside

"The Other Shoe" by F*#^&d Up, from their punk-rock opera David Comes to Life. I think you would call this type of music post-hardcore (?). At any rate the singer has a super-hardcore-y voice, which might not be for everyone. But the guitars! Man, the guitars on this album are pretty cool. The music is this propulsive swirl of echoey, chiming sound. It's so dense I couldn't process it all the first or second or third time I heard it. And the singer's voice doesn't much help you figure it out. But eventually the melodies pop out like one of those magic eye things. It's a grower. There's supposed to be a storyline to the album (as you can kinda see in the video), but after the first few songs or so it's not entirely clear what's happening. ("Queen of Hearts" is another favorite from the album.)

Thursday, August 01, 2013


A few cool and random things I found on Wikipedia of late:
  1. "The highest unclimbed mountain in the world in terms of elevation seems to be Gangkhar Puensum, 7570 m (24,836 feet). It is in Bhutan, on or near the border with China. In Bhutan, climbing of high mountains has been prohibited since 1994."
  2. The Most Recent Common Ancestor of every human being living today may have existed as recently as 300 BCE, according to a statistical demographic model published in 2004. (see also Carl Zimmer)
  3. "The Chipko movement or Chipko Andolan is a movement that practiced the Gandhian methods of satyagraha and non-violent resistance, through the act of hugging trees to protect them from being felled. [...] The landmark event in this struggle took place on March 26, 1974, when a group of peasant women in Reni village, Hemwalghati, in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, India, acted to prevent the cutting of trees and reclaim their traditional forest rights that were threatened by the contractor system of the state Forest Department." Perhaps I need to hand in my Dirty Hippie card for not having know this already.
  4. Aaron Burr, our nation's 3rd VP, was even weirder than I remembered. In addition to the whole duel thing, he was later charged with treason by Thomas Jefferson, the president he had served under. "According to the accusations against him, Burr’s goal was to create an independent nation in the center of North America and/or the Southwest and parts of Mexico." He was acquitted, but still, weird. Not even "Diamond Joe" Biden can top that.
  5. "Night Doctors, also known as night riders, night witches, Ku Klux doctors, and student doctors are bogeymen of African American folklore who emerged from the realities of grave robbing, medical experimentation, and intimidation rumors spread by Southern whites to prevent workers from leaving for the North."
  6. "The Molly Maguires was a 19th-century secret society composed mainly of Irish and Irish-American coal miners. Many historians believe the "Mollies" were present in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania in the United States from the time of the American Civil War until a series of sensational arrests and trials that occurred between 1876 and 1878."
  7. "Pink Panthers is the name given by Interpol to an international jewel thief network [...] which is responsible for some of the most audacious thefts in criminal history."
  8. "The [Cave of the Crystals]' largest crystal found to date is 12 m (39 ft) in length, 4 m (13 ft) in diameter and 55 tons in weight." By the way, the photos from this cave (via National Geographic) are ba-na-nas.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Why Can't We Give Love One More Chance?

Annie Lennox and David Bowie singing "Under Pressure" from the 1992 Freddie Mercury-AIDS benefit. This concert was right in the middle of Queen's post-Wayne's World, post-Vanilla Ice bump in popularity, and I remember MTV hyping the hell out of the concert. I suppose it wasn't exactly the moment when HIV and LGBTQ issues went super-mainstream in the music industry, but probably not too far off. And us high schoolers watching at home got to see Elton John and Axl Rose rocking out together. It wasn't hard too hard to imagine a more inclusive, homophobia-free world after seeing that.

Plus, I *think* it was the first time I saw David Bowie perform. And he was pretty good, but Annie Lennox steals the show, naturally.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Hugo Chávez

After reading a lot of misguided criticism of Hugo Chávez I am feeling the temptation to write a full-throated defense of the Venezuelan presidente. I'm going to do my best to resist that temptation since I'm not an expert on Venezuela. But it does seem like this is one of those moments where the U.S. media is really missing out on a key part of the story.

Many of the media reports of Chávez's legacy pay lip service to his popularity and his programs to help the poor, but then segue to vaguer criticisms about the economy, or start quoting political scientists about how Chávez is still bad even thought he allowed fair elections. The platonic ideal of this type of criticism has to be this sentence from a 2007 NYT op-ed by Roger Cohen:
"Certainly, the oil money Chávez has plowed into poor neighborhoods (at the expense of an oil industry suffering chronic underinvestment) has reduced poverty. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America said last year that the extreme poverty rate had fallen to 9.9 percent from 15.9 percent."
To be sure, he may have reduced extreme poverty by almost half, but won't someone please think of the oil industry? Bloomberg makes the same rhetorical move in this article. The point is not that these criticisms of Chávez aren't valid (maybe some are, maybe some aren't), but rather that poverty reduction and political inclusion are really, really big deals. All the rest is a second-order correction.

There is tremendous, widespread and deeply-rooted poverty in Latin America. We see it here in Nicaragua every day and I can only imagine that one would see similar scenes in Venezuela. For centuries most Latin American countries were ruled by a thin crust of elites, and no one in power really ever gave a damn about the poor. Not enough of a damn to matter, anyway.

From time to time, the poor would organize themselves into peasant movements or unions or political parties. Very often this would provoke a violent reaction from the local elites, or from the U.S. who spent much of the 20th century "intervening" in one Latin country or another. Occasionally the violence against the poor would reach shocking levels, such as in El Salvador in the '80s. It seems likely that the U.S. had a least some involvement in the failed coup against Chávez in 2002. It's hard not to see that as merely the latest in a long line of shameful U.S. adventures down south.

But Hugo Chávez did give a damn about the poor. Now you may say he cared even more about his own personal power and maybe he used populism as a tool and maybe he was a corrupt bastard to top it all off. Probably all true. But it wasn't all just talk and promises. He actually did divert the gusher of oil money in a direction it doesn't usually flow (including here to Nicaragua), and even more important, he took the people seriously and invited them to become a powerful force in Venezuela. That matters, and explains quite a bit about his enduring popularity in Venezuela. But of course, you won't read too many testimonials from poor Venezuelans in the U.S. press. Take a minute to peruse Andrew Sullivan's round-up of reactions to Chávez's death, here and here, and try to find those voices.

Still, my support is merely half-throated because I'm still uncomfortable with the way movements for social change tend to latch onto charismatic men. My unease with Chávez is similar to my unease with his good friend, Daniel Ortega, and other self-appointed protectors of the revolution. I love their policies but I worry about their politics. Revolutionary idealism has this way of curdling into power for its own sake.

Chávez's detractors are not wrong to care about the health of democratic institutions like a free press, fair elections, a stable constitution, an independent judiciary. We gringos tend to place a lot of faith in institutions because we have had decent luck with ours (more or less). But the corruption of democracy didn't start with Chávez, and by including more Venezuelans in the political process may just help bring the day closer when we have social justice and robust democracy at the same time. Perhaps it's worth remembering that the social change in Venezuela was and is bigger than its presidente, and is continuing still.