Monday, March 31, 2008

Book Review: Hitchens and Rand

I finished reading Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Eh. I guess it was OK. I think I liked it more than Dawkins' similar book and less than Harris', but I can't be certain that my opinions aren't dependent on the order in which I read them, there's less convincing to do and I've already heard a bunch of the arguments before. Just like Dawkins went into tangents on his area of expertise (evolution), Hitchens goes off on his (men of letters). I guess details from the lives of Jefferson, Paine, Descartes and others are more interesting to me than the minutia of evolution, but I also thought the writing jumped around more than necessary.

I also finished listening to Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead on tape. It was ridiculously simplistic. And by that I mean I think of it what David Cross thinks of Scott Stapp, the lead singer of crap-band Creed. (This opinion is best summarized by paraphrasing the hidden track on Cross' comedy album It's Not Funny. "Awful, evil, sellout, fraudulent, 10th grade suburban white girl bull----. I swear, that guy hangs out outside a junior high school girls locker room writing down poetry he overhears. 'What? I will take you higher? OK, good.' Simplistic pseudo-spiritual bull----.") Did I mention I met David Cross on the subway once? I think I'm going to read some older Russian novels next to make up for Rand.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Yesterday Was Saturday

I spent the last few days in Truckee having a great "what the hell am I doing in grad school?" time climbing Castle Peak, hiking through abandoned train snow-sheds, and attending the Pacific Crest Trail Association's TrailFest. In the 6 years since I've hiked the AT, I'd never once been to any of the typical hiker parties. This wasn't quite the hiker-reunion I'd hoped it would be, although it was fun and I did see several hikers I hadn't seen in a while. Hopefully I'll also be able to make it to the PCT kickoff (AKA the ADZPCTKO) or the ALDHA-West Gathering (AKA the ALDHA-West Gathering) this year.

My friend approaching a false summit.

Me on the summit.

On the PCT just south of Castle Pass.

Now I'm back in Berkeley. I puked this morning, and now I have to grade a bunch of papers. Sweet.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

It's Not Saturday

I thought it was Saturday something like eight separate times today. Why is the farmer's market going on? Why did we get the coupon packet in the mail? Why is All Things Considered on? Because it's Tuesday. I just don't normally get to run for 10 hours on weekdays. I bought a permit so I can legally run on trails on the east side of the coastal hills on EBMUD property, so I thought I'd break it in with 40 or so miles. Here's my route on the gmap pedometer.

I saw 20+ wild turkeys, a bunch of deer, two feral former pet cats, one possible bobcat, and one small snake.


Mt. Diablo, site of the 50-miler in April

Wild Turkeys

Briones Reservoir and some out of focus flowers

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Arg

I received a citation for supposed violations of sections 21453(a) (red light) and 27400 (wearing headphones) of the California Vehicle Code today. On my bicycle. This page seems to indicate that the fine can be lower for bikes than for cars, but it's up to the municipality, and Marcus says that he's been told by a Berkeley police officer that Berkeley hasn't set them any lower for bicycles. So I'm facing a possible, I don't know, $361 plus $275.

Up until then it was pretty good day, because a professor liked my research idea even though it was about sports.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I'm Making Tomato Sauce from Scratch

Beefsteak tomatoes seem to be good for that, since they're humongous and peeling a bunch of small tomatoes is really annoying.

Regardless, I just finished reading Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. I was pretty unimpressed. I feel the same way about it as I felt several years ago when trying to read CS Lewis' Screwtape Letters and Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species. All the while, you sort of know that it's good, but you've already heard all the good lines before, so there's not enough new to really excite you. Same with Animal Liberation. Michael Pollan did a really good job of distilling the kernel of truth and summarizing it in Omnivore's Dilemma. AL was originally published in 1975, and updated in 1991, but it's definitely outdated again. I didn't think it was organized very well, either.

I'm not saying I disagreed a lot or disliked the arguments, I just didn't think it was a great read. Basically, the book says humans shouldn't engage in speciesism, i.e., discrimination against animals; speciesism is just as indefensible as racism or sexism. There's a chapter on animal research, with descriptions of horrible Draize tests and LD50 tests, and a chapter on bad practices of the meat industry (meat.org or more humorously, The Meatrix.) Then there's stuff about how horribly inefficient eating meat is, and how it's totally unnecessary for good health, and of course a lot about the ethics of it. I found it all pretty well-reasoned and convincing (and now think that in addition to being vegetarian I should probably make sure my eggs and dairy come from free-range/organic/sustainable farms) but I think it's pretty clear that Singer is a better ethicist and philosopher than he is a writer.

Back to my tomato sauce.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Eleven Books, 6 Easy Hours

Things I Love Right Now:

The Earned Income Tax Credit. Hooray for a negative income tax rate for working five months out of the year!

Things That Bug Me Right Now:

Filing your federal taxes on turbotax.com isn't actually free, despite the numerous signs saying that it is, unless you start the process from irs.gov or taxfreedom.com. I forget this every year and have to go back and do it all over again.

I was hoping to run the Pirate's Cove 50K next Saturday, but I couldn't get next Saturday off and had yesterday free instead, so I picked a random route through Tilden and Wildcat Parks for six or seven hours yesterday. I felt great, but I almost killed myself on the bike ride home. I took a really sharp turn, but was still trying to crank it to beat a light, the pedal hit the ground, bouncing me off the pedals and throwing the bike in the other direction towards the cars waiting at the light. I managed to get one hand on a brake a couple inches before I would've flown across the hood of the pickup first in line, earning the thumbs up from the frightened driver watching it all play out. That part and the fact that I listened to The Fountainhead on my iPod the entire time were the only bad parts.

I couldn't resist buying another book (The Last Season, Eric Blehm) at Cody's, but I feel less stupid about buying a large number of books that will take me years to get around to reading because I finished reading Wallace Stegner and the American West by Philip Fradkin. It was a pretty good biography. Not super-amazing or anything, but good. It did clue me in on some other Western authors I should probably check out some time (Terry Tempest Williams, Mary Austin), plus some Stegner stuff I hadn't heard about (The Wilderness Letter).

Monday, March 10, 2008

New Words to Help Popularize

I would like to popularize two words/phrases. The first is "hobophobia," meaning to be scared of homeless people. I heard this word in a funny story involving sleeping by the train tracks in Mt. Shasta City from a guy on the CDT, and I thought he made it up, but you can find stuff about the condition all over the web. Heck, you can even purchase a VIP treatment program. Maybe it's even in DSM-IV.

The other term is "b'n&m'n" or just "b&m'n," which are both short for bitching and moaning, i.e. complaining. I'm doing a lot of it today since I have a cold and have to grade a bunch of papers.

Ten Books, Five Easy Pieces

Cody's, the best local bookstore, is moving across town and every single book is 40% off, so I made three separate trips and bought 10 books this weekend. Also, I had my second photo-shoot with Timothy Archibald, the photographer that Backpacker magazine has hired for the CDT yo-yo article that will be out in June or July. Five Easy Pieces is a fantastic movie. I am coming down with a cold. Thanks a bunch, Amy. This NYTimes article about rich tourists paying to be shown around slums in developing countries raises some interesting questions, but mostly just makes me glad that I'm not old and aloof and scared to go places without a guide.

Also, I hear rumors from Malaysia that I'm an uncle again. So "Hello, [Ntabi Elizabeth Rand]. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies — 'God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.' "

Ntabi means happiness in Sesotho.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Taking Only Two Classes Doesn't Keep Me Busy

I'm bored, so I thought that instead of studying for my test on Thursday, I'd write short reviews of all the books I've read lately.

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, Wallace Stegner--Pretty good. I really enjoyed the account of Powell's first run down the Colorado, but the accounts of his second and third journeys are significantly less interesting, and so are the middle years when Powell was doing his Native American anthropological studies. However, it got interesting again towards the end when Powell ran the USGS and tried to get western states to be not-stupid by making political boundaries conform to watersheds and to have the government ensure settlement, irrigation canals, and dams were built in sensible places based on the limited water in the arid west. He generally failed at getting many of his ideas turned into law, but he certainly seems vindicated by all the water problems in the west today.

I also read Stegner's Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West back in November which I really liked; it was my first introduction to Stegner's thoughts on water (or the lack thereof) in the west, and I've been eating it up since.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan--OD was very good and IDoF wasn't that great. OD tracks the history of four meals (actually, it was either three or six meals by my count: the main ones being processed corn from McDonald's, sustainably raised stuff from a farm, and self-hunted/gathered/gardened stuff ) and describes the greater effects of our eating habits on ourselves and the world. I was totally convinced and the book has helped turn me into a food snob. I now buy the large majority of my food from either the produce or bulk aisle of Berkeley Bowl or the 3x weekly farmer's markets in Berkeley and avoid things like high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and anything I can't pronounce. This is after subsisting on frozen pizza-like products for most of my adult life. (Wait, I'm an adult?) Friday I made a salad with a bunch of wild miner's lettuce I picked on a trail run.

IDoF wasn't that great because it seemed unnecessary. Reading OD gives you the same sort of dietary advice, but in the form of interesting stories, and IDoF gives you a repetition of the same info, but without interesting stories. It also spends a lot of time telling you how nutrition science is bad science and we should believe neither the "fats are bad you" hypothesis or the "carbs are bad for you" hypothesis, but then it dwells way too long on the "omega 3" hypothesis, even though we're not really supposed to believe that one either. I totally agree with the "Eat food. Mostly Plants. Not too much." advice, I just think that all you need to do is read this very good NY Times Magazine article that he wrote, and you'll get the point.

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins. Before I read it, other people told me he was just as preachy as fundamentalist theists, just from the other side of the argument. I disagree with that, but I can see why people don't like this guy. I think his ideas are based on evidence, but he's pretty sarcastic about it. This really didn't bother me that much. (If this is surprising to you, you must not know me very well.) What I did dislike about the book was the dense textbook-like discussion of the minutia of evolution, particularly in regards to reasons why humans might have evolved into the species we are--with most of us believing in the supernatural. He delved into some of the same depths when he dealt with cosmological issues, and I enjoyed that, so maybe that's just my preference for one field of science over another and not anything to do with the quality of writing. In general, when he wasn't amusing me with sarcasm, his style was fairly dry; the lyrical or poetic phrases were mostly in quotes from Bertrand Russell. ("Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.")

Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris. I liked this one more than Dawkins' book, and I think more than Harris' first book. Sure, it was only 100 pages long, but it seemed more applicable to the real world than some of Dawkins' technical scientific chapters.

Hatchet, Brian's Winter, and Brian's Return, Gary Paulsen. I decided to re-read this children's classic, and I read two sequels to it that didn't exist when I was a kid. They are kids' books, so there wasn't much to them, but I did enjoy the latter two that I hadn't read before: Winter because survival in winter just seems more interesting than survival when you don't have to worry about hypothermia, and Return because it's about the kid deciding to deliberately leave society and go live in the woods again rather than being forced there by a plane crash. To the extent that a kids' book can discuss that issue, it did OK.

Also, I listened to some books on tape: The Truth With Jokes by Al Franken (Loved it. Hilarious. I hope he wins the Senate seat in Minnesota.) and 1776 by David McCullough (Very good. It was really interesting to see how the luck of good or bad weather or other circumstance determined victories in the early part of the war, and it was interesting to learn more about an American war that I actually feel really good about.)

Now I'm listening to Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, which is totally ridiculous. I read most of it right after high school but decided it would be better for me not to finish it because I was buying into the objectivist philosophy a little too much (plus the S&M weirded me out). I'm really liking it, but I realize how completely ridiculous it is. All I can think to compare it to is porn. Entertaining with a totally ludicrous plot. Just as cable installers and cheerleaders probably do not really behave the way they're portrayed in porn, I don't think most people are sniveling, conniving, sell-out slaves to the opinions of others or that "all men with passion are hated," but I do have to admit, it's totally addictive to think of yourself as the one true Howard Roark genius in the world, with everyone else either out to get you and/or stupid.

Oh, and it's totally not important, but Farewell My Concubine (basically, the story of an androgynous dude who gets ticked when his buddy gets a girlfriend, also, the worst movie Gong Li has ever been in) and A History violence (dialogue worse than Batman Forever or Congo) were the most disappointing movies I've seen recently. I Am Legend also disappointed, but 3-iron was very good. The two main characters speak one total word in the entire film (the supporting cast does talk a little) but it's sort of eery and beautiful because of it.