Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles by Ruchir Sharma

Breakout Nations is ostensibly an investment guide, but it’s really a snapshot of the world economy, particularly the emerging markets and those that are on the verge of “breaking out” or achieving the next level of income.  (Although the term “emerging market” is used in different ways in different places, for the purposes of this book it refers to nations in which the average annual per capita income is less than $25,000.)

You cannot talk about this class of nations- or the global economy itself- without talking about China.  China itself is an emerging nation and has driven the growth of many of the others, particularly those that are dependent on commodity exports.  While the political posturing around China tends to veer to extremes- “China is eating our lunch!” or “China is about to implode!”- Sharma takes, appropriately, the middle path.  Much of the low-hanging fruit has been grabbed in China, and much of that is dependent on demographics: while China was able to add about 90 million workers between the ages of 35 and 54 to the workforce in the last decade, in this decade they will add closer to 5 million such workers.  The smaller workforce translates into higher wages and thus higher prices, and that will almost undoubtedly lead to a shrinking of demand for their manufactured goods.  In other words, growth rates of 8 percent or more are most likely a thing of the past.  However, Sharma is more bullish on China (at least compared to the bears) in part because while many of the easy gains have been realized, there is still a need to modernize its manufacturing infrastructure, and those are the kinds of investments the Chinese governments have been keen on.  China will most probably cool, but reducing to 6 or 7 percent annual growth is a less dire scenario than reducing to 4.

China’s economy has been driven by manufacturing and it’s increasing output has been dependent on commodities from other countries.  While there were fortunes to be made from commodities, the rule seems to hold that an economy highly dependent on them is more likely to overheat and then eventually crash than one that isn’t.  Russia and Brazil are good examples of a such; they are living large right now but don’t have a cushion to fall back on when demand inevitably recedes.  Of all of the commodity economies Sharma profiles, only Indonesia seems to know how to work the dynamics to its favor, possibly because they were burned by the cycle in The Fifties.

Manufacturing has been considered the smart way to grow an economy from one level to another, but it’s far from a silver bullet.  While Taiwan grew significantly because of its manufacturing output, its weakness is that it never made the transition from a destination for other nation’s factories to a nation that had its own industries.  Against the prevailing wisdom at the time, South Korea did make that transition, fostering corporations that built innovative products (and subsuming those that weren’t competitive in the market).  And while many of the largest South Korean companies are family-owned, they tend to be professionally managed.  Of all of the countries profiled in the book, South Korea is the one Sharma seems to be betting will be the breakout.

Perhaps surprisingly, Sharma is a little more bullish on Europe than most economists although he, like many others, argues that the inherent weakness of a shared currency like the euro is that it leaves individual nations unable to adjust when circumstances demand it.  However, while many nations in Europe are going through a downturn, Poland and the Czech Republic are quiet standouts, in large part because they have paid attention to the fundamentals of a good economy, including putting money away to make strategic public investments.  

One has to wonder how the leaders of the European Union feel about their treatment of Turkey’s entrance application several years ago.  Certainly, the Turkish are probably relieved that they were denied.  The energy released when the Turks lifted their ban on open displays of religious culture corresponded with a vigorous economic revival.  While certainly based on manufacturing, it is more dependent on domestic demand than other similar economies and has gone hand in hand with domestic investment in infrastructure (and education).  However, a potential weakness is that its domestic savings is relatively low- 20 percent compared with 50 percent in China.  Another potential weakness is that Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, while a cautious economic steward, has been in power for a decade and has indicated that he would like to remain so, albeit in a different role.  It remains to be seen whether he will be more like a Putin or Wen Jiabao.  Of course, as Sharma notes, the leader who can effectively manage a country’s finances can usually get away with almost anything politically.

If investments are bets, Sharma is hedging on India.  While the large population and cultural dynamism are now seen as strengths, India’s political system, rightly charged with corruption and cronyism, is what is holding it back.  While any student of Indian history is reluctant to give Churchill credit for any insights, he did have a point when he noted that “India” was as desriptive of a political or economic system as “Europe”.  Certainly we are seeing that now as modern Indians seem more engaged in local than national politics.  Also, India, like many of the other countries profiled in the book, has been guilty of believing its own public relations campaign and presuming that it will be the next China.  The extent to which the Indian government can implement policies to make it so- even if it’s at the expense of its traditional clients- will determine the extent to which they can make their advertising a reality.

If there is a problem that the global economy suffers from as a whole, it is an unwillingness to tolerate the kinds of recessions that punctuated our overall trend of growth for the last 150 years.  Indeed, the emerging market miracles are a direct result of the stimulus the United States implemented to smooth out the dotcom bust of 2000 and 2001.  The low interest rates did exactly as intended and increased money available for investment.  Unforeseen, however, was the extent to which that money would flow into foreign markets, which led to the booms in these nations.  Easy money was key to growth for some, but intelligent policies are necessary if those gains are going to be maintained or built upon.  Those well-positioned to do that are the ones who will break out.

While Sharma backed up almost all of his assertions with data and statistics, I was surprised that this didn’t have better footnotes.  In spite of the copious statistics, this was a compelling if not “easy” read.  Recommended for those who have been following current affairs.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Arab Spring Dreams, edited by Nasser Weddady and Sohrab Ahmari

“If you do not confront the truth, you cannot be a good writer.  And the truth is not simply facts: truth is what lies behind the facts.  Hold up a mirror to your society and yourself... Every fresh Bin Laden tape is headline news, but the voices of the young essay writers must also be heard.  The pursuit of happiness is not a right only for people in the West.  People in the Muslim world need to reclaim their rights, and young Americans need to stand in solidarity with this civil rights struggle.”  (p. 100, Azar Nasfi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran)
Don’t let the name fool you- the essays in Arab Spring Dreams were written before the Arab Spring began.  However, the young writers of these essays are the immediate precursors of the Arab Spring Revolutionaries, and by the end of the book you’re going to ask yourself not how the uprisings began in the first place but why they didn’t begin much sooner- and in more places.

All of the essays were written by people in the Middle East and North Africa under the age of 30 and were submitted for the “Dream Deferred Essay Contest on Civil Rights in the Middle East”, sponsored by the American Islamic Congress (AIC).  The contest is the brainchild of Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, who lamented that young people were given incentives to radicalize for religious extremists, but that young liberals in that region didn’t have the same opportunities to organize.  This contest is in part a means to open those avenues.

What unites all of the essays is the recognition of the writers that the world they inhabit is cheating them of something that should be theirs.  Some of the essays touch on the larger problems: Female Genital Mutilation, Homophobia and institutionalized Sexism.  But the ones that I found particularly touching were about the small, daily grievances.  Those of us who can drive may think it’s annoying but quaint that women in Saudi Arabia aren’t allowed to- until we are told that this often means that boys of 11 or 12 become chauffeurs for the women in their family.  For those of us who aren’t religious, the differences between Sunni and Shia observance may seem at best academic- until we read how those differences becomes the bases for childhood taunts and adult arrests.  And while we may say that the cultural prohibition against marrying before you’ve achieved financial independence has reasonable economic roots, we might rethink that when we hear about a young couple being threatened with an arrest and then blackmailed into a bribe because they were caught cuddling under a tree.

Some of the essays imagine a future in which someone breaks the status quo- whether of a sexual norm or in defiance of the current political regime- and does so openly.  The most hopeful essay of the bunch, perhaps, imagines Egypt in 2013, after a revolution has overthrown the oppressive government.  This was written before 2011, and while the narrator is grateful for change- particularly the freedoms of the press and the marketplace- he notes the work that continues to need to be done.  The hopeful part is that the narrator is willing to do it, however difficult it is.

The essays aren’t clever, and most of them are written simply.  It would be impossible to read one and not immediately understand the point the author is trying to make.  Any one of them should put to rest the myth that people in this region- or in the Muslim religion- are somehow incapable of appreciating or not ready for liberal democracy.  The editors discuss that myth and its origins at length at the end of the book.  Anyone who has ever argued that an essential, “authentic”, monolithic Islamic character will doom freedom in the region to failure should be given a copy of this book.  They also point out that our own civil rights struggles were met with “outsider” objections that efforts in the Middle East and North Africa are meeting with now.  Both complaints are just as hollow.

The book is not bitter, and at the end the reader is offered both practical solutions to help and a chance to dream.  Read up on the civil rights movements in the region; enter the American half of the Dream Deferred Essay Contest and follow relevant organizations and individuals on social media.  Do you want to do more?  Start a blog, as Jane Novak did for Yemen.  Initiate a dictatorship study so the world won’t be caught by surprise at the next revolt.  Protest at an embassy.  Organize a labor rights campaign in the Middle East for migrant workers, a concert in Benghazi for human rights, a book fair in Damascus (when the civil war is over), or an interfaith conference in Mecca.  Or whatever else should be done.

It is safe to say that every government in the world- as well as every foreign policy analyst- was caught off-guard by the Arab Spring.  Why should one young Tunisian man’s indignation of being slapped by a police officer unleash a storm of protest and topple regimes?  Because similar things happen every day to too many people in the region.  And the analysts were wrong- people don’t accept that, however long it goes on.  All of them are waiting for an opportunity to end it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The power of story

When my children were little and we went to the library, I would read to them.  (That’s what you’re supposed to do in the library, right?)  Regardless of what I would read, within two minutes I would have at least two other children sitting by me, and usually the ones who had been making the most noise.  They would be so into what I was reading- whether it was a Disney story, bugs or Pokemon- that I felt like the Pied Piper.

I took my younger children to the library yesterday for less than an hour.  Within five minutes, my son, age eight, was reading a book with a little girl about three.  They were reading a guidebook to the Justice League of America, and the little girl could not get enough.  “Why is he mad?”  “What is he doing there?”  “Why did he do that?”  “Why is he the bad guy?”  She was intensely curious and satisfying that curiosity was the most important thing.  My son has always been good with younger children, and he patiently answered her questions.  I, meanwhile, watched in awe.

I fancy myself a writer, but really I’m a storyteller.  I have a need to tell stories and, hopefully, communicate the ideas within them that other people can recognize in their own.  Original stories- meh.  We’re not getting graded on our originality; we’re being judged for our truth.  

If I want to tell a good story, I have to listen to other stories.  (As I’ve grown older, I’ve found it easier to stumble onto other people’s stories live; maybe because of that I’ve become pickier about the other modes: is this book/movie/radio piece/article touching me as deeply as what I might hear in person?)  When I find a really good story, something magical happens: I can relax and put myself in it.  I can do that because the story- even if it’s a complete fiction- is true.  I, too, become hypnotized.  

Everyone needs a good story, whether they retell it or not, because a good story tells you a little about how the world works.  Like the three year old my son read to yesterday, we want to make sense of everything- and we want to understand where in everything we fit.  We ask the story questions, and if we retell it, we do so with some of those answers in place.  The story has beginnings and endings, but it’s also a conversation.

Yesterday I watched my son take part in that.  Truly one of the proudest moments I’ll ever have as a parent.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Tainted Love by Erin Cawood

Tainted Love is the debut novel by Erin Cawood.  It follows Faith McKenzie from 1978 to the late 2000s.  When we first meet Faith, she’s a 20 year old student nurse who is beginning a career just as she’s beginning a romance with Calvin, a psychiatrist ten years her senior.  Cawood does a good job explaining why events that we shrug about in the 2010s were much more serious in the late seventies.  By then end of the year, Faith and Calvin are married new parents.

We know from the beginning that Faith’s story is not a happy one, and we see the slow decay of her marriage as Calvin goes from charming and understanding new father to a controlling husband who is unpredictably abusive.  Faith is a perceptive woman whose internal alarms ring frequently as her husband’s violence escalates, but she’s all too willing to believe Calvin’s excuses and justifications.

By the middle of the story, the only dignity Faith has left is that which she derives from her children.  Her conviction that her husband, despite his abuse toward her, is a good father, is what keeps her in the marriage.  It is when she sees that he is also a failure as a parent that she finally has the strength to leave.

Faith’s journey to find herself as she evades her violent husband is the heart of the book.  Is she paranoid to worry for her life?  Is it possible to make friends while running from her past?  Will she ever be able to provide her children with the financial security their father did?  And is it possible for her to find true love after 25 years of abuse at the most intimate level?

Readers should be warned: this isn’t a happy story, and it doesn’t have a happy ending.  The cycle of abuse Faith suffers rings true: disbelief, injury, apologies, justifications and forgiveness until it repeats and all interactions are shadowed with fear and self-doubt.  Cawood did an excellent job showing how an intelligent, empathetic woman could find herself trapped in such a situation- and how she could finally leave.

This is the first book in Cawood’s upcoming series, Valentina Secrets.  I look forward to reading the next installation.

Full disclosure: I met the author last year and have been hosted on her blog.  I received an advance review copy of this novel.  Please note this did not influence my review.

Friday, October 26, 2012

More on Student Debt

My main character doesn't have a lot of money but does have a lot of ambition.  Like many young people, she's made the decision to pursue a college education to make sure she has a solid foundation as an adult.  The specter of debt and a life spent paying it off is one of the motivations behind what some might consider a really questionable choice.

With that in mind, here are some schools she would not attend.

My character is not white, and unfortunately non-white students are disproportionately affected by the high cost of college.  Note: my character is part Asian, not Latino or African American.  However, while that group is not the focus of this study cited, they note here:

The foreclosure crisis wiped out economic gains made by many minority families and set in motion the largest stripping of their wealth in American modern history. The average Latino family lost two-thirds of its wealth between 2005 and 2009, while Black and Asian families lost more than half of their wealth.
Not surprisingly, these families rely more on college loans, and increasingly on riskier private loans, to offset losses in home equity and dwindling savings.

In other words, the losses and threats may not be as deep, but they are still a concern for many Asian American families.

The story I've written is not about how to fix higher education in this country because, as far as I'm concerned, that would be a boring story: demand legislation providing funding for higher education institutions.  Also, not everything here is about the desperation a tuition bill can cause.  But it is about a person who, like many in her generation, is trying to dot every i and cross every t without ruining her future in the process.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Student debt grows

The high cost of college is the elephant in the room for my main character.  Her resolution comes after a lot of heartache, but it's a fairy tale compared to what real-life students and graduates go through.  Here's the latest about how much student debt is going up.

Not surprisingly, they note here that students in the Northeast were among those with the greatest debt- but so were students in the Midwest.  Students in the West and South have the lowest.

The implied advice hasn't changed: go to a less expensive state school.  However, those aren't the bargains they used to be as higher education has been cut almost across the board in all states.

The article notes that private student loans account for a fifth of student debt.  Consider my heart chilled.

There are things that can be done to prevent high debt: attend a state school, do some of your work at a less expensive community college, work over the summer (if you can find a job while unemployment is high).  But frankly, all of them seem like bandaids when state support is being reduced.

The best answer I've heard so far: invest in higher education institutions to lower the cost of attending college in the first place.

Friday, October 12, 2012

What I'm Reading, What I've Read and What I Want

I used to review a lot, but for a couple of reasons I've stepped away from it.  I still read a lot, but for the most part I'm not sharing my thoughts on everything, especially if they're on balance negative thoughts.  I consider it a little bit of a luxury to not have to be overly critical.  (If I said I'm a Virgo, would you understand?)

But I don't want the world to think I've stopped reading.  Even if I haven't had time to sit down for a proper review, I can at least give a shout out to what's on the table where I keep my books.

  • Oxford Messed Up is the story of a Rhodes scholar who suffers from OCD and her path to wellness and love. A lot of Van Morrison music.
  • Daughter of Time Young widow Meg thought the 21st century was filled with challenges.  Will 13th century Wales be any better?
  • A Thirty Something Girl Hope Jackson's thirtieth birthday is anything but welcome after she's lost pretty much everything she ever thought she had.  Things you can get back and people can come into your life, but does any of that help when you can't let go of your mistakes?
  • Molly Hacker is Too Picky!  Finding Mr. Right is hard; looking for that person when all of your friends plus the town's busy body thinks it's their job to "help".
  • Resurrecting the Street is an account of how the Government Securities Markets came back after 9/11.  As much a story about what happened that day to the people as to the infrastructure.
  • The Gargoyle After a man who had no inner life and made money off of his looks is burned in a fire, a mysterious, eccentric woman arrives at the hospital to help him recover.  It's a love story that will delves into history and mysticism.
  • Self-Printed If you're contemplating self-publishing, this is an excellent guide.  This is not a get-rich-quick scheme; rather it's a make a develop-a-reliable-long-term-income-stream book.  There is quite a bit of technical advice about how to publish on Kindle and Smashwords, with all of the attendant problems that can arise.  If you end up deciding that you want to hire someone else to do this for you, you're not alone.

What I'm waiting for with bated breath

What I Really, Really want more of

  • Good economic history. Please, don't even breathe Niall Ferguson's name in my direction.  This is the kind of stuff of my dreams.
  • A grown up book about solar power. There's a fair amount for kids, but I want something I can sink my teeth into- history, applications, goals- the whole shebang.
  • An Asian country's economic outlook, and preferably one that reflects that Asia is not a monolith.
  • More on education policy, including K-12 and higher education.  I'm picky though, and do NOT recommend Diane Ravitch unless you'd like to hear all of the reasons I can't stand her.

Don't Even Bother Recommending

  • Anything by Emily Giffin.  Her bullying- ahem, her husband's bullying- this summer soured me on anything she may ever write.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Some of my thoughts on reviews

You may have heard about certain authors paying for reviews on Amazon.  I'm sorry- they paid for positive reviews on Amazon, because in the New Publishing World, authors live and die by their Amazon reviews.

I stopped reviewing on Amazon last year.  I discussed why here, but it comes down to the fact that even Amazon is gaming their own system.  I'll repeat what I said in that post: it has nothing to do with the people who have been reviewing on Amazon since before Amazon reviews were some kind of currency.  I haven't checked the Top Reviewer forums, but I know that in addition to a little head banging, there's got to be some serious laughter.  Because, well, algorithms aside, someone is paying someone for a review.  Lame.

Other people have talked about it from the author's point of view, and I'm not going to bother giving links to people who have argued in favor of it.  (But I am going to say, dude, if you really think getting a review copy of a book- to review- is compensation- for a review!- you need to go back to Logic 101.  And trust me, if I gave it a 1- or 2- star review, the book wasn't compensation.)  I want to talk about reviews from the Reviewer's point of view.

When I review I try to look at it from the reader's point of view.  What do I want when I read a review?  At the very least, a review that explained itself.  I don't want to see an extended summary of the plot, and I don't want to see someone gush, spew or otherwise explode with emotion.  You can tell me you cried, laughed or wanted to throw the book against the wall, but if you can't give me any details that help me understand why, I don't care.  Everyone is entitled to opinions and anyone is free to put them on a website or blog as a review, but if you can't explain why you felt that way, you're not adding much to the discussion.

That, in essence, is what I try to do.

In case you were wondering, no one ever paid me ever for a review I left on Amazon about anything.  (Okay, my kids really liked one of the toys I reviewed- but I left a four-star review for that because it was so difficult to use and required a lot of adult supervision.)  I was honest there and am honest here.  More importantly, I explained myself.  I can't prove anything, but I think that's why my reviews were well-received.

Someone is probably thinking that my criteria may be reasonable for a single review- or even reviewer- but what if you're seeing literally hundreds of short "I hated it" or "It's the best thing since canned beer"?  Maybe they're just two sentence reviews, but if hundreds of people agree, isn't that worth something?  To which I will say please see the links above.  I can only guess, but in my estimation, authors- and publishers?- are counting on that presumption when they pay for people to leave positive reviews... of something they've never read.

This whole review business is an imperfect thing.  That's exactly what you'd expect from a system that's dependent on opinion, and stars don't really change that.  Imperfect is one thing, but dishonest is another.  If I'm paying someone to not only to give an opinion but to express a specific one, that's not a review, that's a scam.  Fortunately, this is one of the easier scams to suss out.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Review for Hades: Lord of the Dead by George O'Connor

There are a couple of myths I can't stop thinking about, and one of them is the myth of Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter and wife of Hades, lord of the realm of the dead.  She is everything from a symbol of the transition from childhood to adulthood to an explanation for why the seasons change (well, at least in temperate climates).  In more obscure (older?) stories, she also plays an important role in the story of Dionysus, which makes sense in light of the cycle of life/death/rebirth that both divinities embody... but that might be another story for another day.

Every version of the story that I have ever read features a young girl who is completely without agency.  For the most part, Demeter doesn't have any either.  She reacts in rage, but ultimately she must comply with the will of her brothers Zeus and Hades (and in some versions even Poseidon).  This myth embodies the tension between men and women in the ancient civilization and to some extent also our own.

If anyone else has ever been bothered by that, you're going to love George O'Connor's version.

Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, Demeter grieves and the earth turns barren, Helios tells her about the collusion between Zeus and Hades, Persephone comes back but only for half of the year.  Yada yada yada- every major plot point you remember is there.  It's what O'Connor fills around them that makes this delicious.

Ask yourself: how many young girls want to be so tightly held by their mothers?  What kind of a goddess is willing to destroy mankind in vengeance for the loss of her daughter?  And if someone were offered a throne, how many people would willingly say no?  Sunlight is warmer than the underworld, but sometimes warmth is stifling.

It's not all Hades and Persephone's love affair.  As O'Connor hinted a few months ago, we also get to see why Tantalus is related to the word "tantalize".  Importantly, O'Connor isn't just throwing that in here because we're talking about Hades and Tartarus.  In most versions of the myth, Demeter's behavior is, um, anti-social because she's distracted by her search for her daughter.  I loved the way O'Connor followed the strings of those two stories about starvation, human sacrifice and cannibalism.  In this version, Tantalus is an indirect contributor to the resolution of the story, and it makes sense.

At the risk of being presumptuous, I'm going to disagree with O'Connor's characterization of Hades as "emo".  For me, that conjures up images of a darkly dressed Hamlet moping through his palace, unsure of what to do next.  Hades is darkly dressed, and we could argue he mopes.  But Hades, too, has agency, and here it is as meaningful as Persephone's.  And what good is a myth if it doesn't provide us with meaning?

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Review of Avatar: The Last Air Bender- The Promise Part 1

I am not a hardcore sci-fi or fantasy person.  What I've come into contact with in those genres are inescapable cultural phenomenons.  Some of it I like (Star Trek!) and some of it I could live perfectly happily without (Star Wars).

Add Avatar: TheLast Airbender to the list of things I do like.  If you're unfamiliar with the animated Nickelodeon series, it's the story of a world where people are born into states dominated by elements.  (Yes, the network that brought us Sponge Bob Square Pants and Fairly Odd Parents also gave us one of the finest anime-inspired series ever.)  Some can "bend" or control the elements and are called "benders".  The Avatar, the one person who can control all of the elements, is reincarnated after the death of the previous Avatar and into the next element in the cycle.  The states are the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes and the Air Nomads.  At least, they're used to be Air Nomads; after the Avatar was born into the Air element, the Fire Nation killed all Air Nomads in an attempt to establish world domination.  Fortunately, they just missed Aang, the twelve-year old Avatar, who had run away from home and wound up trapped in a glacier.  The story picks up 100 years later, when the world is dominated by the Fire Nation and Aang is miraculously rescued by Katarrah and Sokka, adolescent siblings from the Southern Water Tribe.

The three season series is as much about Aang accepting his responsibility as The Avatar and acquiring both the skills and the wisdom to defeat Fire Lord Ozai as it is about the slightly older Prince Zuko, Ozai's banished son.  His quest is for redemption, first from his father, then from his own conscience.  He is easily the most fascinating character in the well-drawn cast (pun intended).  His conflicts run deep and are symbolized by his power-mad father and his wise uncle Iroh.  We discover later in the series that his dual nature goes back even further: he is the great-grandson not only of Sozin, the Fire Lord who started the world war, but also Avatar Roku, the avatar who immediately preceded Aang.

The Promise, Part1 picks up after Aang has defeated Ozai by depriving him of his ability to bend.  (FYI, that's something most avatars can't do, but that's how bad ass Aang becomes.)  Aang, Zuko and Earth King Kuei take upon the task of removing the Fire Nation from their colonies in the Earth Kingdom as the first step toward healing the wounds of the long war.  Zuko, however, is tormented by his memories of his last encounter with his father who refused to tell him where his mother was and taunted that Zuko would need his help to be a good ruler.  Upon reflection, Zuko asks Aang to promise him that if Zuko becomes like his father, he will put an end to him.  Aang is horrified, but reluctantly agrees.

The story picks up one year later.  Although Zuko's guards believe he's paranoid, he's proven correct when a young Fire Nation colonist from the Earth Kingdom makes an attempt on his life.  He returns her to her father, who chastises him for not protecting his people in the colonies.  Zuko is enraged until he meets the man's wife- an Earth Bender.  He realizes that his would-be assassin is also an Earth Bender who is loyal to the Fire Nation like her father.  After a tour of the city, Zuko realizes that everything isn't as clear as it had seemed to him and Aang a year ago.

Aang and his friends are outraged when Zuko calls off the return of the colonists without any explanation.  When Aang and Katarrah confront Zuko in the colonial city, Aang comes close to keeping his "promise" to Zuko until Katarrah makes the same realization that Zuko did: it's not that simple.  Aang and Zuko grudgingly agree to meet with the Earth King to discuss a resolution to the problem of the colonies.

When the story leaves off, Zuko visits his father in prison to ask for guidance.  The last frame is of Ozai's smile.

I wouldn’t recommend this for someone who didn’t already know the basics of the animated series and hadn’t seen at least a few episodes.  The reader needs to understand the struggles both Aang and Zuko endured to defeat Ozai to appreciate the disappointment both feel on different levels when they realize that that the work doesn’t end once the fighting stops.  As we see when we read history- or current events- most people are shades of grey.  Frustrating at times, but it makes for a much more interesting story than black and white.

This is the first of three graphic novels set to bridge the 70 year gap between the end of The Last Air Bender series and the upcoming Legend of Korra, the story of the Avatar who follows Aang. From what we've seen of the previews, we know that Korra is a Water Bender from Sokka and Katarrah's tribe who is trained in all of the elements except Air.  The beginning of the story is about her journey to get training from one of the few Air Benders in existence.  In this case, Tenzin- a son of Aang and Katarrah. Interestingly- maddeningly- little so far has been released about the fate of the Fire Nation or Prince Zuko. In other words, if you want to find out, go buy volumes 2 and 3 of The Promise.

For $9.99 per copy, I should probably say no.  However, I'll not only get them, I'll probably get them the first day they're out.  If you're a fan of The Avatar: Last Air Bender series, I recommend you do the same.

Friday, January 27, 2012

An Interview with Susanne Freidberg, author of Fresh: A Perishable History

Whether a devout vegan or hardcore carnivore, almost all of us want to know how fresh our food is (or was).  But what does it mean for food to be fresh?  How does food stay- or in some cases, become- fresh?  And what, exactly, does freshness do for us?

Susanne Freidberg’s Fresh: A Perishable History takes on those questions.  The reader will discover quickly that there are few definitive answers.  So how did freshness become so important?  

Ms. Friedberg kindly agreed to speak with me about some of the early history of modern fresh food, the local food movement and how much our quest for freshness has altered our food system and even our food.

Would it be fair to say that your book documents part of the story of the creation of our modern food system?

In a word, yes. But many books have told that story. My point in Fresh was to show that freshness—a food quality that we tend to consider natural and naturally appealing—is in fact a product of this modern food system. I also wanted to show how freshness came to be valued as an antidote to the ills and downsides of modern industrial life. I don’t just mean antidote in the nutritional sense, though I think it’s significant that in the 1920s fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products were called “protective” foods. Freshness also became associated with other qualities that early 20th century consumers felt nostalgia for, such as purity and vitality.

What were some of the concerns about the healthiness of refrigerated and frozen food?  Once refrigeration and freezing became acceptable technologies, what were some of the supposed health benefits of shipped foods?

In the early days of refrigeration—meaning the 1870s and ‘80s—consumers often had good reason to distrust the foods it touched. For starters, the technology itself was not very reliable, due to erratic temperature control and poor insulation in cold storage warehouses. But the bigger problem was how merchants used the technology to store goods that were already bad, such as rotten eggs, or fish unsold at the end of a market day. It was easy enough to blame cold storage itself for the poor quality of whatever came out of it. The problem with this kind of scapegoating was that consumers came to believe that refrigeration really was the source of harm. They thought that even if the food looked, smelled and possibly even tasted fine, it might actually be somehow spoiled. This notion faded after the first decade of the 20th century, but even then consumers were suspicious of merchants that used refrigeration to manipulate the availability (and price) of seasonal foods.

Eventually shipped fresh foods came to be valued for the variety and vitamins they added to the middle class daily diet. The popularization of vitamin science in the 1920s provided support for the idea that consumers needed fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products everyday and ideally all year round. So did consumers’ growing preoccupation with calorie-counting and staying slender.

You write the story of a number of different foods: beef, milk, eggs, fish, lettuce and fruits- even, in a way, the story of ice.  I'm guessing a lot of people reading this will be as surprised as I was to learn that eggs used to be a seasonal food.  Which food yielded the most surprises for you?

The history of eggs contained the most surprises, because I also didn’t know they used to be seasonal. Nor, it turns out, did most people I told about this, including those of older generations. But if you think about it, other birds lay eggs seasonally, so why wouldn’t chickens?  It certainly makes evolutionary sense, in that chicks hatched in spring would be more likely to survive than those hatched in fall or winter. Similarly, many of the ways that people used to procure fresh foods—walking beef cattle hundreds of miles to market, keeping dairy cows in the middle of cities, transporting live fish by barge (still practiced, by the way, in East Asia)—might now seem surprising to us, or at least extreme. But they were in fact practical adaptations to the highly perishable nature of highly desirable foods. Given the constraints, in other words, they made sense. Refrigeration and rapid transportation have changed what we consider commonsensical about freshness.

There are things that make locally grown food attractive (particularly supporting local businesses in a weakened economy), but is that a realistic option for everyone?  Can everyone afford that? If they could, is that going to provide sufficient food for everyone?

As a geographer, one of my first questions is always: what scale? If local means 50 or 100 miles from market, then no, an entirely local food supply is not a realistic option for New England, among other places. Alongside the climatic limitations (even many ardent locavores would prefer not to give up coffee and olive oil!) are spatial ones, especially if the average American diet continues to include a lot of livestock products. That said, increasing the proportion of fresh foods sourced locally would be viable, given adequate infrastructure and support for farmers. Such support might include government loans or subsidies to make farmland more affordable in densely populated regions, because this is currently a big obstacle (and one of the reasons local food sometimes costs more).

So some re-localizing and re-regionalizing of food supply is certainly possible and— if fuel prices continue to rise—likely. But I don’t think it should be a top priority for food system transformation (and I say that as a longtime farmers’ market shopper). For one, there’s now abundant evidence that local food does not always have a smaller environmental impact. For another, while it’s appealing to support local businesses—especially businesses run by people we come to know and care about—it’s not entirely clear why their proximity makes them automatically more deserving of our support than businesses elsewhere. The idea that nearby farmers treat their land and workers better than do farmers elsewhere—well, it may often be true, but it also reflects what we like to think about an imagined local community, and what we fear about the distant and unknown. We often hear these days how important it is to know where your food comes from. Well, I’d prefer to know that I could trust my food regardless of where it comes from. Or, to put it in less pie-in-the-sky terms: Getting to know food producers can be educational and socially satisfying. But the health and wellbeing of people, animals and the environment—wherever they are—should be protected by laws; they should not depend on our figuring out who seems like the most trustworthy farmer at the market.

Along the same lines, measures to promote local food will not by themselves do anything about the sharp geographic inequalities even within our own country, not to mention across the world.  Would a more just food system be one in which the immense disposable food income of New York City only flowed into the Hudson River Valley? That’s an extreme example, but the point is, I think it’s dangerous to assume without questioning that “local” means greener, fairer, healthier, or better, period.

What would you like to see readers do with what they learn from your work?

Question their assumptions about what they think is fresh, and why that matters.

For more on food, globalization and nostalgia, please see my interviews with Charles Mann and Pankaj Ghemawat.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

An Interview with Charles Mann, author of 1491 and 1493.

Charles Mann, science journalist and author of the paradigm-shifting 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, graciously agreed to speak to me about globalization, immigration, race, disease and food.  As with all good works of history, his books provide as much insight into our present as they do into our past.

Charles C Mann
We used to believe that when the Europeans got to the Americas they found an Eden with abundant flora and fauna and not too many people.  The best part was that the people and the rest of nature lived in this magically harmonious state.  What you show in 1491 is that there were many more people and the plant and animal species weren’t as numerous because those people did a good job of controlling them. 

They were outstanding land managers by and large.  This was a technology that the original Americans were quite good at, and better in some ways than Europeans.  That’s an entirely different thing than saying that they lived in a timeless harmony with nature, like perfect Sierra Club tourists.  Nobody really knows how many people were here, but [for many years] the most widely accepted estimate for the population in North America, north of the Rio Grande, in 1492 was about 900,000.  I think it’s fair to say that almost nobody believes this anymore.  Typical estimates [now] are 10 to 15 million, and that’s a whole lot different than 900,000.  Although that makes North America less populous than Mesoamerica, that still leaves plenty of room for human imprint on the landscape. 

Do smaller numbers alleviate guilt about what happened?

The logic seems to be: if there are only 900,000 people, much of the landscape is empty, so it’s okay if we move in.  That’s a little bit like saying that it’s more okay to take over part of someone’s land out west if they have ten acres than it is someone in Massachusetts if they only have an acre.  Under our laws, it’s equally bad no matter what you do.  [Native] property right systems were different from ours, but they certainly had a clear idea that this was their land in ways that are similar to ways we think about our land.  The fact that they were thin on the ground wouldn’t be a defense. 

But the destruction of those civilizations wasn’t as much through war but more through diseases.

[Diseases were] a weapon we didn’t understand or control.  Neither side did.  Both of them understood the disease as manifesting somehow the will of the heavens or the spirits.  The English people saw that the natives fell to sickness and said to themselves in essence, “Wow, God must really like us!”  Native people made the exact same calculation but from the reverse and said, “Wow, we must have done something wrong.” 

1491 is about the Americas, but 1493 is about the post-Columbian world.  We think about post-1492 as a European story, but it wasn’t just the Europeans.

Obviously, the Europeans had a directive role.  But if you look at it with a different lens, you see different things.  If you look at it demographically, you’d see that before Columbus Europeans were largely in Europe, Africans were almost all in Africa, Asians were almost all in Asia, Indians were almost all in the Americas.  After Columbus, the human species gets tremendously jumbled up.  You end up with places like Argentina and Australia dominated by Europeans, Brazil dominated by Africans and Chinatowns all over the world.  The driver of all of this is the slave trade, and what you would see if you were a biologist or an ecologist is this huge die off in the Americas followed by this enormous wave of Africans coming from Africa with Europeans playing a peripheral role.  From that perspective what you’re seeing then is a meeting of Africa and the Americas rather than Europe [and the Americas]. 

We’re taught that there are large numbers of Africans in the New World, but we think of them as cattle or sheep.  We don’t think of them as actors.

And they were actors.  That’s something that we really have trouble with for a couple of reasons.  One is that most people in this country are of European descent, so naturally we tend to think that our ancestors were the most important.  The second thing is that a lot of what the Africans did they did out of sight of the Europeans.  The relations they had with the native populations were something that was deliberately done outside of the European purview. 

Not that those groups had an automatic affinity for each other, but as you describe in 1493 they saw that in some cases that they had good reason to work together.

In some cases, and in some cases they didn’t.  In some cases they cooperated at a distance, like the “Red Seminoles” and “Black Seminoles” in Florida where they set up parallel societies.  In some cases they completely mingled with each other, which is mostly the case in Brazil.  In some instances one society would be more dominant, and you find this in the case of the Cherokee.  Lots of Africans became Cherokee, and they essentially preserved Cherokee society.  In the coast of Ecaudor in the Esmeraldas, you had an African society which many native people joined and essentially became Africans.  In some cases they just fought.  In the Yucatan, the Maya, who were never really subjugated by the Spanish, lots of Africans said, “these look like good people,” and they declared that they were Maya, but the original Maya didn’t like that.  There was lots of tension between the “Red Maya” and the “Black Maya”.

As an Asian American I felt vindicated when I read about the amount of Asian activity in the Americas, specifically Chinese and Fujianese.

By Chinese we’re speaking very broadly.  The biggest complement [in the Americas] were the Fujianese who weren’t Han [the dominant ethnic group in China], although there’s tons of Han involved.  The other thing that makes this difficult is that a lot of the readily accessible records are Spanish.  They didn’t know who these people were; they called them all “chinos”.  [Asians] are busy, active partners in this world that we’re all creating willy-nilly together.

And you don’t usually have that many people migrate without some significant interbreeding or intermarriage.

That certainly happened in Latin America.  This is another area where American historians have been timid.  There is a tendency to think, “English people didn’t do this.”  This just isn’t true, and this is the reason we’re finding all sorts of surprises when people get their genes tested. 

Why is it that in Northern North America we are predominantly a European people with a smattering of Americans? 

Right after the Civil War there was a huge wave of immigration from Europe to the United States.  That is when Europeans really became dominant, in the latter part of the 19th century.  It begins with a lot of Irish that come in the 1840s and 1850s, then continues for a couple of decades.  The Germans come in the 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, then the Russians.  That’s when the United States takes on a strongly European character.  As the country becomes more “multicultural”, it’s really tending back toward its origins. 

The second part is that the US is split apart by the malaria line [which corresponds to the Mason-Dixon Line].  There’s a dramatically different demographic history in the southern part of the east coast than the northern part.  In places like Brazil, if you were a plantation owner, you had to import all of these foreigners because Europeans wouldn’t go.  In New England, Europeans could go and probably wouldn’t die.  New England is a weird outlier among all of these colonial societies because they were a European majority in a way that most other parts of the Americas were not.  Because a lot of American historians come from New England, people have a natural tendency to look around them and imagine that what they’re seeing is true everywhere else. 

Have you noticed the nostalgia people have for a “pure”, back-to-our roots history?

There’s all kinds of nostalgia, but they hearken back to an imagined past.  I experience it when I grow vegetables in my garden, and some part of that is some imagined simplicity in the past. 

Like the myth that we had food security until modernization and globalization interfered? 

The average 17th century European did about as well as somebody from Zimbabwe today [see A Farewell to Alms for more].  It’s really striking to see that Europe couldn’t feed itself for centuries upon centuries.  Then globalization happens and they get the potato and maize.  It’s hard to be glib about globalization when you think about this. 

For much more on these topics- plus slavery, agriculture and how the Columbian Exchange just might have caused the Little Ice Age- please pick up a copy of 1493 today.  The younger reader in your family will also enjoy Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491, co-authored with Rebecca Stefoff, which covers much of the material in 1491 in a way that younger readers will appreciate.