Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee

Posted in Book, Conservation, Economic Development, Resources at 10:37 pm by justakim

Excellent journalist.

I’d first like to say that this author is amazing. In the first few pages, I was struck by how he could present these real figures with the familiarity one would expect of a fiction writer the characters they designed. This is my first McPhee book and it probably won’t be my last. If you’re at all interested in a good story and a glimpse at the environmental scene in the past, stop reading right now and go get that book. If you’re not likely to read this book, read on.

As many of you know, David Brower is a prominent environmentalist best known for his campaign to prevent a dam that would flood parts of the Grand Canyon. McPhee has arranged an elegant setup. He takes Brower out into the field with three of his adversaries. He uses these encounters to portray the nuances of the issues and beautifully illustrates the depth of these four people with background information along the way.

Round 1: Charles Park; geologist, professor, conservationist
Round 2: Charles Fraser; sustainable developer
Round 3: Floyd Dominy; farmer, dam builder, improver of farmland

There are some very remarkable things about these matches that really give the story a lot of depth and much to consider. One is that they all believed that they were doing good. Park thought that mined resources will benefit humanity and not using those resources would result in suffering. Fraser wanted to make nature available to a large number of people and to create something beautiful. Dominy saw the suffering of those hard working people who’d moved out west and could not make a living on their homestead and so from an early age, he built dams so that pioneers could survive. Brower himself wanted to preserve the land for its own sake and saw his cause as a war of attrition.

What was also intriguing was the amount of knowledge the opponents had. Park spent large portions of his year prospecting all over the world, and spends more time outdoors than any of them. Fraser, while not an outdoorsman, has already built a successful development with many environmentally friendly features way ahead of its time, and he has done his background research with an interest in history, recognizing the long record of human use in the area in question. Dominy is a native of the drought-prone areas and knows the needs and desires of the people.

The other thing that was so striking in these comparisons was how they all appreciated nature. No matter how vehemently they may be arguing, no matter how much they may irreconcilably disagree, when faced with the beauty of their surroundings, they would all pause, and enjoy the sight together. They all appreciated and admired the same thing. There is no ruthless destruction. There is no raping of the earth as it were. There were just different priorities.

It was very touching to have this vision of the environmental discussion of the past, and to be able to see the changes and similarities with the discourse of the present day. This portrayal brought respect and humanity to both sides that often gets washed out in the us-vs.-them mentality that often arises. And aside from being useful, it was beautifully written.


I’m Back!

Posted in Admin, Book at 1:31 pm by justakim

Nothing like a 12 mile all-day hike to put you in the mood to sit down and not move for the rest of the weekend! We did Mount Defiance, finishing our trip in the dark due to missing a trail. 12 miles, 10 hours. And then I log in and see a lot of 50-year-olds bragging about doing it in 3 hours! We even ran into one coming down as we were heading up. Crazy!

Despite being relatively pitiful, I feel good.

I had a lot of stray thoughts while the site was down.

We were busily ignoring the Olympics when it suddenly dawned upon us… August 8th, 2008. That’s a very very lucky number. No wonder they tried so hard to claim this one.

Wall-e was an excellent environmentally-themed movie. Even those most distanced from the environment appreciate it and understand responsibility. I got to see the silly inspiration for Wall-e in Short Circuit too.

Kent State is using electric cars on campus. Using electric vehicles in short range places like that is a great idea.

A friend sent me a link to EcoGeek which looks interesting!

I read a few things.

Encounters with the Archdruid: John McPhee is an amazing journalist that takes David Brower out into the environment with three of his adversaries, bringing the environmental debate of the times into a very personal setting.

Stumbling on Happiness: What we think we want isn’t necessarily going to make us happy so we should look to see how it made others feel as our best estimate as to how it will affect us. The book is sprinkled with Adam Smith quotes.

Freakanomics: There’s a surprisingly fun number of ideas in there, basically based on going out and checking the data to see for yourself how people act.


Kluge: The haphazard construction of the human mind by Gary Marcus

Posted in Behavior, Book at 11:54 am by justakim

It’s alright

I picked up this book expecting it to get somewhat technical about the mechanisms of the brain. However, it lacked the depth and substance I expected (in comparison to other recent popular science books). Parts of it relied upon summarizing very succinctly research findings (such as the chapter on chioce basedon Kahnaman’s work), and others seemed to lack many references at all as the author describes his theories without more than anecdotal evidence (the sort that he warns readers against).

It was nice in that it got me thinking about evolutionary effects on the brain and how different aspects might be (or appear to be) less than optimal, but the arguments were not as convincing as they could have been. Either there is more evidene from the field of psychology that the author did not bother to elaborate on and reference, or there isn’t much evidence to support his ideas at all.

It was worth reading, not so much buying.


The Drunkard’s Walk: How randomness rules our lives by Leonard Mlodinow

Posted in Behavior, Book at 11:08 am by justakim

A fun read.

This is a popular science presentation of statistics and statistical history focusing on the effects of randomness and our reactions to it. It is relevant in that many of these statistical and misinterpretive situations appear in economics and environmental science and is a very unintimidating introduction to the subject.

While the ideas in this book are not that extraordinary or revealing to anyone who’s taken a statistics class, this book shines in giving real-world examples of applications and misinterpretations. It was interesting enough to read even if there was nothing particularly new.

It is true that there have been many books on the subject, and the author goes into exceedingly thorough detail, but it’s well presented for what it is, and is far more engaging than many of its peers.

I actually hadn’t run into the Monty Hall problem until a couple weeks ago. Poor Marilyn,


Interpretation in Education

Posted in Book, School at 8:47 am by justakim

for my advisor,

The Wizard of Numbers

the spell is provocation
that lights the mind ablaze,
curiosity takes expression
and clears that foggy haze.

there is no greater motivation
than your internal need,
to find yourself the answer;
to want is to succeed.

the magic revelation
is what you learn is real
and all those sterile concepts
might have their own appeal.

so cast the spell of provocation;
evoke and you might find
one of those precious moments
where mind and soul align.

I dedicate this to my advisor, who turned one of those unpleasant subjects into something I pursue with great interest. Merely with unspoken faith in my abilities and supporting the opportunity to see something for myself, a difficult and painful activity was transformed into a surmountable, and dare I say enjoyable, challenge.

With this reminder of how interpretation impacts my life, I would like to present the principles of interpretation.

In the book Interpreting Our Heritage, Freeman Tilden laid out the original principles of interpretation; the art of presentation. His intent was to write a guide for the park service to improve how they portray natural and historic resources to visitors both in displays and in presentations. His principles have long been the building blocks from which the park service designs visitor centers, interpretive talks, displays, and various other forms of communication.

I consider these principles in many contexts; books, presentations, poetry–just about any situation where I am attempting to present something or it is being presented to me. It hadn’t occurred to me to view teaching in the interpretive framework until just recently despite the fact that I learned of this in an environmental education class. So here they are, the groundbreaking framework for understanding how we convey what we know to an audience.

I Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

If the material does not have relevance to the student, it will be difficult to explain. How do you convey something if you do not appeal to common ground between the teacher and the student? An extreme case of this is when you’re trying to teach material and the students don’t have the math prerequisites. Once in undergrad, I was using a book with differential equations and I thought they were doing some sort of derivatives… not very useful.

A less extreme example would be working in econometrics without examples to give solid meaning to the motions being made. The stronger the connection to the material being used, the less sterile the experience will be.

II Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based on information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.

A list of facts has little value on their own. Anyone can memorize numbers, quotes, equations, and get nothing out of it. A list of facts may test your memorization skills, but is not conducive to learning and developing new understandings. Interpretation gives these items context and meaning.

III Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical, or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.

Teaching skills are teachable to an extent, and each teacher has a unique style. I’m sure that most people are not naturally good teachers from day one, nor does your first day destine the rest of your teaching career. It is, however, not a clear-cut skill where precise execution is possible.

IV The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

This is the magic: you may be able to teach a student a subject they have no interest in, but they can go much further if by provocation, they do so of their own. I cannot stress the difference it makes between trying to learn something and wanting to know something.

V Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A given piece has little relevance on its own without a role in a greater whole. Even if a focus is a small piece, context should be provided to give it relevance.

People are also not so divisible and learning does not happen in a vacuum.

VI Interpretation addressed to children (say, up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

You can teach kids about economics so long as you understand what experiences they do and do not have.

These principles may seem simple and straightforward, but it is that same simplicity that makes the Art of War profound. There is far more to art than a few guidelines. This is just the first, the original framework from which more complex understandings can be built.

Consider the power of these thoughts though. Teaching is an art form where you take knowledge and show what it means. The material has to be made accessible by connecting to what the student already knows. Getting your students excited about a topic can do so much more than a technically excellent presentation.

This is perhaps a different wording from the evaluations filled out at the end of every class, and the way we describe ‘good’ or ‘bad’ teachers, but does it not convey why a teacher is successful or not? The ability to interpret is what it comes down to. This describes the general strengths and weaknesses of a teacher and suggests that there is always a way to improve one’s teaching ability.


Fooled by Randomness

Posted in Behavior, Book at 6:44 am by justakim

It took me a while, but I finally finished this book by Nassim Taleb.

It’s a decent book about how randomness is misinterpreted and how that leads to false assumptions in the market that can ruin you. Just because the market’s been going up for the last 20 years doesn’t mean it’ll always go up.

He gets into a few non-market examples as well, like the OJ Simpson trial, and some history about behavioral economics.

However, the main reason why it took me so long to finish the book is that he is extremely arrogant and spends an incredible amount of time insulting everyone including the reader. Yes yes we bought your book sir. Hope you didn’t intend on a second round of this game.


Notes on Biodiversity

Posted in Book, Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Energy, Health, Pollution at 12:29 pm by justakim

There is a new book explaining how the loss of biodiversity will impact the discovery and development of new drugs. What makes this notable is that this is not just E.O. Wilson’s Discovery of Life. This book, Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity is composed not by environmentalists or entomologists, but by medical doctors at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.

The book demonstrates the value of biodiversity in previous discoveries, and covers several areas that show promise for new drugs, including cases where the species went extinct before the drug potential could be realized, and more cases where this may yet happen. Time to put a few frogs aside. It looks like it has a solid overview of what biodiversity is, why it matters, and what affects it. The book will be out in June.

One species that was not on the list for drug potential is the finless porpoise. While it has a pretty wide range along the coast, there is only one freshwater population that lives in the Yangtze River and two connected Poyang and Dongting Lakes. In addition to habitat degradation, a recent study finds that they are suffering from high levels of pollution.

While the focus of this study was on pollution, the situation is quite precarious. Dongting Lake relies on overflow from the Yangtze River and it swells and shrinks with the seasons. The Three Gorges Dam, which was built upstream of the lake, also has the function of flood control. Regulated flow and trapping of sediment must have drastically changed the functioning of the lake.

What makes this news so unpleasant to me is that I didn’t even know they existed. The extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin was pretty much expected when the Three Gorges Dam project began. It is probably more significant to lose a species than a population, but I was not aware there was much else of note. To lose something only as you learn it is there…


Energy at the Crossroads: Global perspectives and uncertainties by Vaclav Smil

Posted in Book, Energy, Pollution, Resources at 11:50 pm by justakim

Save yourself some pain–skip if you can.

In the first two chapters, Smil lays out a whole laundry list of details about energy, how much there is, how efficient it is, how much we use, comparisons, etc. Unfortunately, the textualized spreadsheet goes on for quite some time. It would have been a faster, more pleasant read if the words were omitted and the numbers were left behind.

In the third chapter, Smil demonstrates with a spectacular array of examples that forecasting is wrong unless it just accidentally got it right. Instead of making poor guesses at what might happen and acting on it, we should decide what will happen, and aim for it.

4 and 5 are more details about nonrenewable and renewable energies respectively. He takes the approach of considering overall potentials and constraints, which sadly is not often brought up. For instance, it’s going to take a whole LOT of land for biomass to meet current fuel demands.

Chapter 6 was almost pleasant. Energy efficiency will help us a lot, but not enough. Take care of your planet, you’re stuck with it. Invest in renewables but don’t buy into all the hype. Get real: we won’t last forever on coal.

This book has… grown on me somewhat since I started reading it. There is valuable information in this book, it’s just hard to access, and possibly not worth the trouble to find it. I am adverse to skipping anything and a slow reader, so your mileage may vary here. I have my doubts however, that anyone will read this book unless it’s necessary that they do so. That analogy about not seeing the forest for the trees does not quite fit here. Forget the trees–it’s more like a note was taken down every time two trees’ branches crossed.

I also found out that the speed limit was lowered to 55mph during the Carter administration to conserve energy… That explains a lot.