Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

The long road to Oslo

This is the first Rational/Contemporary post from outside North America. Unfortunately, it may be brief because my voltage converter doesn’t work with my laptop and I’ve only got so much battery. Hopefully I can buy an adapter soon. Also unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures to share since I’ve spent most the previous 22 hours in airports and airplanes and apparently they have a thing about taking pictures in airports these days.

Which is too bad, because I really wanted to take a picture of the underground walkway/tunnel in the Frankfort airport. It had this great 2001 aesthetic with curved white walls backlit with color-changing lights, and for some reason it played spooky retro-futuristic sound effects (to complete the Disneyland Space Mountain effect?).

Anyhow, I’m glad I successfully navigated 4 flights and two trains without a hitch. Although two of those planes required sprinting through the terminal with all my stuff, hardcore1. So I’ve got several layers of dried sweat in addition to the usual baggage.

Although I spent some time studying the phrasebooks, my first attempt to say anything in Norwegian utterly failed. I think it’s pretty hard to know how it sounds without hearing it. The hardest part about traveling for me is the constant reminder of what a linguistic retard I am. I feel ceaselessly awful about coming to other countries and expecting them to speak my language.

On a brighter note2, I’ve been riveted by Jonathan Saffran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, and that had kept my going through many traveling hours, as I’m sure it will continue to do on the 6 hour bus ride tomorrow.

Norway is beautiful, from what I have seen so far, which admittedly isn’t much but I have to put in at least one observation here. More when I have them.

  1. Mostly not my fault: the bus to the Pittsburgh airport was a half an hour late. Then the flight got delayed on the runway so I was already late for the connection when we pulled up. []
  2. Sort of, it’s actually an extraordinarily sad book. []


Diet and Global Warming

A paper recently published in Earth Interactions looks at the climate impacts of various North American diets, and in particular the greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts of meat consumption. I saw a poster for this research at AGU in the fall and was somewhat surprised by the findings. After much data-gathering and plenty of assumtions, the authors make the case that the difference in GHG emissions between the average American diet and a vegetarian diet is large — on the order of the difference in emissions between driving an SUV and a sedan.

More generally, animal-product consumption at typical American rates results in GHG emissions of 1-3 tons-CO2-equivalent per year per person. This is in the same range as driving larger vehicles (the consumer activity most commonly associated with climate impact), e.g. 3.6 tons/year difference between a hybrid and an SUV, 1 ton/year between a Camry and a Prius.

So if the whole country went vegan, how much GHG emissions would we avoid? About 6%, it seems. A huge quantity, to be sure, but clearly not the sole solution to climate change. But the point is taken that, on the scale of typical choices that consumers have personal control over, diet is right up there with vehicle choice and home energy efficiency as one of the most important.

Some other interesting tidbits fall out of the analysis. For instance, if one is going to eat a quantity of animal protein, the best type from a climate perspective is poultry. Slightly better than dairy and eggs, and significantly better than fish. Red meat is unsurprisingly worst — by a factor of 2.5 or so (see Figure 3). Still, the usual ethical hierarchy of meat consumption is upset. The emissions for fish are especially surprising since there are none associated with its production. Apparently the high emissions are due to the increasingly large distances that fish are transported.

In any case, I’m sure most of us were generally aware that meat consumption has environmental impacts. We’ve heard figures about how many pounds of grain, how many gallons of water, how many acres of land, are required to produce a pound of beef. Many have made the argument for vegetarianism in terms of resource conservation and availability of food for a growing population. But this is the first analysis I have seen specifically on climate impacts, and it challenges a few of my long-held notions about diet ethics.

As I have written earlier, Vaclav Smil’s book, “Feeding the World” had convinced me that the energy-optimal diet contains some meat, since not all livestock are competing with humans for primary energy. Seafood is the best example of this: there is more food available to a world that eats seafood than one that doesn’t. Hence, perhaps, the prevalence of pesco-vegetarianism. Again from an energy-efficiency perspective, consumption of dairy and eggs makes sense as a source of high-quality protein. But from a climate-impact perspective, things are more complicated. There is a strong case for veganism, if anything, and generally, less meat of any kind is better. And of course, red meat is still the worst.

Smil discussed some evidence that consumption of a small amount of animal protein has had significant health benefits historically (he suggests an optimum of eating meat twice a week or so). The authors of the climate and energy paper devote a section to surveying the health risks of high-protein diets, and assert that vegetarian diets are at least as safe as typical mixed diets. They do not contradict, necessarily, that moderate consumption of animal protein has benefits. Overall, however, I’m less sure of the best diet for good health and a clean conscience since reading this article.


Feminism redux

It could reflect only my previous ignorance, but I feel like Feminism and women’s issues have been getting a lot of play lately. We had Mareen Dowd’s urban-white-successful-girls’ lament1 about how hard it is to find a husband. Then there was Linda Hirshman’s article in the American Prospect describing the “Opt-Out Revolution” (educated women dropping out of careers to be stay-at-home moms) and decrying the brand of feminism that says this is okay if it’s their choice (“choice feminism”). It was an excellent article, if extreme in it’s view that educated women ought always to put careers first, and try to marry dumber, younger, less successful men to make sure they continue to be the bread-winner.

The death of Betty Friedan stirred up the feminist discussion once again and propted Salon editor-in-chief Joan Walsh to enter the fray with “Feminism After Friedan“, which criticizes Hirshman’s absolutism and tries to find some balance in the debate over whether educated stay-at-home moms can be consistent with feminism.

Meanwhile, there was the Samual Elito confirmation. And, spouting bullshit about the “war on boys”, some conservatives are advocating affirmative action for boys entering college (the poor blokes aren’t the majority anymore), and aparently some colleges are already subtly practicing it. What’s more, they tell us all this education is only going get women a harder time finding husbands and raising families, and thus being happy.

There’s significant evidence that men don’t like women who are smarter. They don’t like women who are more successful. They don’t even like women who are funnier.2 What an astoundingly insecure lot we are. Yet somehow, marriage makes people happy (though kids, apparently, do not).

There’s a thorny conceptual challenge at the heart of this mess, which, like many feminists and humanists, I’m still struggling with to develop an opinion. It is fair for women, even successful and educated ones, to want a family and the fulfillment it offers. Unlike Linda Hirshman, I don’t think the workplace is necessarily a greater place for human expression than the home. Betty Friedan asserted that housework could not require enough thought or energy to challenge women. She seemed to think of life as essentially progressive, and that moving forward, leaving one’s mark on the world, is the full expressions of one’s humanity. Work is implicitly a progressive activity in her view, whereas home life is about living vicariously through the progression of your family. But there are a lot of jobs that are no less inane than tending house. And a lot of people feel raising and providing opportunities for their children is the ultimate progressive act.

On the other hand, if more women choose to accept traditional roles, fewer women are able to choose at all. There is still clearly a battle raging for gender equality, less so in the workplace and more so in the home, if one agrees with Walsh. Women seem to be in the position now of having career responsibilities and family responsibilities (or at least of desiring both), creating a tension that doesn’t exist for men, who have not been expected to shoulder much of the family burden. Conservatives advocate a “separate but equal” approach to gender roles. They say “family is what you really want; give back the career.” And those who “opt out” appear to agree. But this approach leads in a dangerous direction. We’ve seen how well separate remains equal before.

I expect there is some new organization of society which will eventually solve this problem — when there is a critical mass of stay-at-home dads, or when technology and labor reorganization (e.g. day care) have so reduced the burden of homemaking that neither parent is expected to stay home. And I would love to see what gender differences look like in absense of social conditioning (how much does biology really matter?). But I tend to believe Hirshman’s claim that feminism is stalled. How do we move toward this new paradigm? And how can women balance their lives in the mean time?

I hope for comments.

  1. “What’s a Modern Girl to Do? New York Times. October 30, 2005. [Lexis-Nexis]
  2. Strike previous three statements and replace with statistically precise and rhetorically clumsy analogues. []


Solar houses and the new modernism

Interior: University of Michigan Solar Decathlon house

An article in this month’s Urbanite Magazine (an interesting special issue on the suburbs) reminded me of the Solar Decathlon, a competition among universities to build a solar-powered house to be judged on a variety of criteria. I toured CMU’s house while it was under construction a couple years back. I think it’s a great contest and I really like most of the designs that resulted. Check out the photo gallery.

I’m glad to see that modernism is alive and well in almost all of these designs, and by extension I assume it is alive and well in today’s architecture and design students. Read the rest of this entry »



One of the two characteristic limestone peaks over the town of Banff

When I mention that I’m staying in Calgary to someone who knows the place, the next question is usually “Have you got up to the mountains?” Motivated chiefly by the shame that would accompany the “no” after having spent an entire summer here, I made a last-ditch effort on my last weekend in town to see the mountains for real. I hopped the early Greyhound up to Banff intending to spend the day, but not entirely sure how. The hike recommended to me was 6km from town and purportedly arduous, so I rented a bike. After a cruise on the trans-Canada highway, I set up the mountain.

It turned out to be one of the most challenging hikes I’ve taken, with a 900m climb in first hour and a half, and steep, loose scree on the decent. The landscape near the peak had a stark, alien beauty that gave me pause. But overall, I would say that hiking alone, while appealing as a sort of raw, personal challenge, is not very fun.

Bike on the wildlife fence

I got a tip from another biker and on the way back found a trail back to town that mostly avoided the highway. It required scaling this fence with the bike, which I was rather proud I could do having just been trashed by 14 km hike. It also took me by this great view across the lake to the limestone peaks above Banff.

After a break back in town, I still had many hours before the 9:00pm return bus and a mountain bike, so I hit some bike trails. I realized before long that I wasn’t up for much climbing, but there were some easy trails near town that were flat and fast. Somehow mountain-biking alone is fun, or at least on this occassion seemed as fun as going in a group.

Still having time, I tooled around town for a while, had dinner, and played tourist. Banff is an interesting aberration of a town existing inside a national park. The population of 60,000 or so is supported essentially by tourism. The avenues and multiple indoor malls filled with chain stores throb with throngs of Asian, European, and domestic (would-be-)outdoors-enthusiasts. [Insert favorite tourist-trap commentary here.] I caught the bus back and then biked home from the bus station around midnight, tired as hell.

Downtown Banff  

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