29 January 2009

Women for Obama, Obama for Women

Gail Collins is smart, thorough, thoughtful, and frequently very funny. In her column in today's New York Times, she explains why the legislation Obama signed today, guaranteeing fair pay to women and allowing a meaningful time frame in which to file suit in cases of discrimination, is so important for American society -- women, the children and spouses who rely on their income, and the ideal of justice for all on which our nation is founded.

28 January 2009

Valentine's Day Shopper's Guide

It's not on the scale of Christmas, but people give other people a lot of stuff on Valentine's Day. Some of the stuff is problematic just because it's stuff: more consumer goods that the recipient may not want or need, that may spend some time in the back of a closet before it goes the way of the landfill.

But other stuff is problematic in other ways having to do with war and slavery and pesticides. Here's a run-down of some of the major problems, along with a few solutions.

Conventionally grown cut flowers use tremendous amounts of water. If they're grown in drought-prone countries like Kenya, then the water they're watered with is not available to local folks who need it for food and washing. If they're grown in Europe or North America, then there's a lot of energy used to heat greenhouses, in addition to the water consumption. Moreover, since flowers aren't food, the use of pesticides to grow them is unregulated -- but it poisons the people working in the flower farms and runs off into the streams and the groundwater. A good roundup of the issues, with more detailed, was published by Treehugger.

Then there's jewelry. Diamonds are forever --from an ecological standpoint, what could be better? The problem: as the United Nations reports, diamonds are funding war. In Angola, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, rebel soldiers have used diamonds to buy weapons and prolong civil conflicts costing millions of lives. Similar problems are on-going in other African countries. Governments have proposed a certification process that will allow consumers to be sure they are buying diamonds that have been mined and sold legitimately, but diamond retailers have not followed the process universally or consistently. Gold mining also uses noxious chemicals to separate the gold from the surrounding minerals, at a hazard to the miners and to the environment.

One alternative: Green Karat, which recycles gems and metals, including gold and titanium, and also uses created stones.

Chocolate? Nearly half the world's chocolate is produced in the Ivory Coast, and various human rights organizations have reported on child slavery there and in other African countries that produce chocolate.

Chocolate produced without slavery is becoming increasingly widely available. Trans Fair USA is a major certifier of chocolate and other products such as coffee and tea, sugar, and herbs and spices. Look for the "Fair Trade Certified" logo when you buy chocolate for your sweetie this year.

While you're at it, switch over to fair trade coffee and sugar. Sip your morning brew relaxed in the knowledge that it wasn't produced by child slaves -- and that the farmers who grew the beans or the tea leaves received a fair wage for their labor.

23 January 2009

It's All In the Environment

Obama has a tremendous task laid out. I think he realizes that plowing money into the environment is one way to solve several problems at the same time. Green America makes several suggestions here for ways to support environmental change and economic recovery simultaneously.

The two most important items in the list, in my opinion:

Reduce, Reuse, Rethink. Recycling works, but it doesn't work hard enough. As long as our economy depends upon increasing consumption, recycling will only slow the flow of petroleum from the oil wells to the landfills, but it won't do anything to stop it.

Green Energy; Green Jobs. Moving to renewable resources of energy -- primarily sun and wind -- is crucial, but without reducing consumption we'll still be in the position of needing incredible amounts of natural resources just to produce all of the stuff we buy just so we can throw it away.

Use of renewable resources like wood and bamboo is, again, only a partial solution; we need significant long-term change in the way we think about buying stuff. Furniture should be for a lifetime, or even longer. (I'm very lucky. I'm typing this on a laptop computer that sits on a desk that came from my Great-Aunt Helen; she inherited it from her parents.) Shoes and clothing for a decade. (Can't say I'm doing that well there: I live, and walk, in the city, and I go through shoes in a year or two.)

It's an on-going project as I try to limit my long-term impact through decisions made every day.

20 January 2009

President Barack Hussein Obama

My Aunt Ruthie, 76 years old, a life-long resident of Maine, and a recovering Republican, who hated "Jimmy Peanuts" and voted for "Papa George" (but not, I don't think, for Ronnie or W), scolded me this evening for not having my class watch the inauguration this morning.

My mother, a recently naturalized immigrant from Germany celebrating her first inauguration as a citizen, has been glued to the television all day ... which speaks volumes, considering my parents can go weeks without ever turning the i-Box on.

The Offspring and his classmates watched the inauguration in the school auditorium.

I spent the day, the first of a new semester, teaching classes and meeting with students and others. Only later did I read the transcript of Obama's inaugurations speech, twice, and more. As a written document, it is very richly allusive.

Not much else to say: I am still in a bubble of euphoria at the reality of this new administration.

19 January 2009

Reading For The Love Of It

Stanley Fish has written a rather sobering blog post in the Times about the end of liberal education. Commenting on a recent book by Frank Donohue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Fish writes:
The for-profit university is the logical end of a shift from a model of education centered in an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration to a model that begins and ends with the imperative to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment.
His point, however, is that today's entire higher-education universe, with its reliance on adjunt and temporary faculty and its insistence on assessment of outcomes, is part of this trend. From where I sit as an associate professor of English and the director of a small MA program in literature, I often think he's right.

Fish doesn't think there's a way to reverse this trend. I'm probably spitting in the wind when I talk to sophomores in a survey of literature from Homer to Shakespeare about reading for the sake of ... reading.

Then again, there have always been technical schools and vocational schools. It may be that the majority of institutions are going the way of utilitarian education. But among my students, there are still a few who are studying simply for the love of literature. It's because of those that I am still in this profession.

The Offspring has been a bit nervous and clingy lately, and I suspect it's a result of the immense milestone he's just accomplished: going from being a reader of words to being a reader of ideas, narratives, information. Last night, I was trying to help articulate for him that while reading opens up many new worlds for him, any transition so big is also a bit stressful. His response:

"I LOVE reading."

Asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, George Mallory famously replied, "Because it's there." We need the utilitarian folks. We need the builders of bridges (literal and metaphorical). But we also need those who seek knowledge and experiences just for their own sake.

I hope Fish is wrong.

17 January 2009

Minus Eleventy Degrees

Wool socks, snowpants, fleece jacket, boots, parka, hat, mittens, take it all off, go pee, put it all back on and this time remember to smear a little vaseline over the two square inches of exposed facial skin.

The Mate is in France (me, jealous? why noooo!), and that means I have to bundle up The Offspring first thing in the morning and again last thing at night so we can go out and walk the dog.

It's one thing to go out in the middle of the day with the sun shining when the temperature has actually, however briefly, reached its high for the day. It's another entirely to have to take the kid out in the dark with the wind up.

I have a new respect for all the parents in Minnesota and and Utah and northern New England who have to do this for six months straight: NYC gets the occasional cold snap, but usually the winters are fairly mild. On the other hand, they might also have a backyard so they can just put the dog out, rather than having to descend five flights and then wait for him to do his thing.

Defining Screen Time

Last week, I said I wanted to cut back on screen time. A few days later, I was on the late train home and I picked up a Times and a WSJ left behind by other customers. After some time reading, I started to wonder: how is this different from screen time, when screen time is spent reading "the papers"?

A quick internet search suggests that what many people are thinking of when they say "screen time" is time spent in front of the television, watching network programming or videos, or playing video games. But you can now do all of those things on a computer.

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute defines screen time broadly as "screen media time, including TV, DVD, video games, and non-school- or non-work-related computer and Internet use."

The Mate edits video, teaches on-line classes, and watches movies relevant to his work (as an independent filmmaker) on his computer, which is attached to two different monitors, one huge and the other enormous.

I write email messages and syllabi and sometimes even an article, develop on-line course components for traditional as well as hybrid courses, and read email messages.

I also read blogs and news humor sites, play spider solitaire, and play around on Facebook. Clearly these things are "screen time," and it's hard to know how much time I spend doing those things at the computer because it's easy to surf away from work and do something else, especially when I'm writing something that's giving me trouble of one sort or another.

I also read the news, almost exclusively on sites related to print media like The New York Times. I write on this blog. I shop for books and clothing. And I'm not talking about the on-line equivalent of window-shopping: I know what I need and I go to a web site or two and when I find it, I order it. Very utilitarian. But these seem to be gray-area applications. Screen time of the sort that people say leads to idiocy and obesity? Even if I'm reading people's blogs, how different is that from reading a magazine, of whatever intellectual stripe?

Update: Now, someone's come up with software that lets you surf the internet on your idiot box. This is the sort of thing that gives me technology fatigue: what I wrote this morning is out of date by evening.

16 January 2009

We Need Peace, Not War

I've been following the news in Gaza with increasing horror, but have felt incapable of meaningful response.

The on-going attacks on Israel can't continue, yet Israels' attacks on Gazan civilians, possibly using white phosphorus bombs in violation of international law, are a horrifying response.

Naomi Klein calls for boycott of Israel, drawing an analogy between the current situation there and apartheid in South African. I'm not sure that's right, though.

The only thing I've read recently that rings true is Paul Kaye's essay in The Guardian commenting on the "dark fog" in which his family moves following his mother-in-law's death in Israel. Kaye writes:
At Shuli's funeral last May, her son Jonathon, my brother-in-law, gave a speech. Where are the doves?" he asked. "What is this land worth without someone with a vision? Nothing. Without doves it wasn't worth the struggle."
That's all I know. We need peace, not war.

12 January 2009

Still Trying

Okay, even as I wrote that it's too hard to go out walking because it's always dark, cold, and wet, I knew it was an incredibly poor excuse. So I shut off my computer and went out for a walk. I left at 9 at night; it was dark and cold, and when I got outside I discovered freezing rain coming out of the sky. By the time I got home, I was crusty with ice. But still I enjoyed the walk. And I got out again yesterday, and again today. I'm going to try to go thirty days without missing a single day.

In other news, mystified by the difficulty I was having showering in time to beat the pink toy egg timer, I finally timed it. It gives me one minute, fifty seconds. No wonder it seemed ... really short. The Offspring suggested I turn it over and give myself two rounds, which seems like a reasonable solution, and I can try to get bonus points by finishing before it's halfway through the second time.

10 January 2009

Creating New Habits

Leo Babuta writes at ZenHabits that you shouldn't make resolutions but instead create new habits. Take ten minutes a day for thirty days to establish the new habit, and by that time, he writes, it should be established.

Well, before stumbling across that web site, I made three resolutions.

Less shower time. Yes, I'm doing that in ten minutes a day. Lessons learned so far: use the facial scrub outside the shower, and do only the final rinse in the shower. Also, there's no way I have time to wash my hair and condition it. Plus the hair is getting long enough it takes time to rinse out the shampoo... time for a hair cut.

More exercise. That lends itself well to ten minutes a day, but I haven't been doing all that well. It's dark, it's cold, and it's wet outside a lot of the time at this time of year. Besides, I'm aiming for 30 to 60 minutes a day.

Less screen time. How do I get less screen time in ten minutes a day? Working with the computer turned off is not necessarily all that effective, since email and other on-line things have become such entrenched tools of my work as English professor and scholar with low-level administrative responsibilities. But I'm trying to limit solitaire games, surfing, and the like. At least the election is over.

Right now, I'm going to get less screen time and more exercise simultaneously by turning off the computer, putting on crazy layers of clothes, and going out for a walk in the snow-covered streets.

05 January 2009

Three Ideas for a Greener New Year

1. Make one round-trip drive to work per week.

I commute 65 miles one way to work. I go to the office three or four days a week and work at home the rest of the time. Last semester, I averaged two rounds trips a week by car, by staying in a hotel near the office and/or riding the train. In order to get the average down to once a week, I'll have to ride the train more often. Careful thought about scheduling is in order.

2. Less screen time.

I don't own a television, but since we got high-speed internet access at home, I spend a lot of time staring at the computer. I want to move the computer off my desk, so that in order to use it, I have to move someplace else. The computer is a laptop, but the printer has to go with it, which complicates the move somewhat.

3. Shorter showers.

Somewhere in the house there's an egg timer; I'm going to move it to the shower and use it to time myself in there.

4. More exercise.

Not a green plan, but an important one. Last fall I was up to running three or four days a week when I got felled by bronchitis. I'm back to walking 30 minutes to an hour a day, most days, and will start running again tomorrow. Commuting by train rather than by car includes a two-mile bike ride, but I don't need to take the most direct route.

That's enough. Do I have any readers who want to share three green resolutions for the coming year?

What Can We Do Without?

[I'm deleting my other blog, ecologicalshopper, because I barely have time to keep up with one blog. Here's what I think is the best post I put up over there, from July 31, 2007. The rest is about to disappear into the ether.]

In "Default Settings and Modern Lifestyles," Chinese writer Yu Aiqun muses on the things she has learned to take for granted. Things like daily showers, multiple electric and electronic appliances, running water.When I was a child, my home had a refrigerator, a stove, an oven, a toaster, a mixer, a blender, a crock pot, and a dishwasher; a television, a record player, and a radio, a few clocks, a dehumidifier, an electric typewriter, two telephones, an electric razor, one car, and a fan. My brother and I got the fan at our bedtimes; after we were asleep, my parents moved it to their room.Today, for my family of three, we have a refrigerator, a stove, an oven, a microwave oven, a toaster, a mixer, a combination rice-cooker and slow cooker, a blender, a cuisinart, a dishwasher, and an electric kettle. We have a television, a DVD player, two computers, cable modem, wireless router, several printers, two radios (one hand-cranked for power), a portable DVD player, several clocks, two cell phones, two air filters, two air conditioners, two fans, a nebulizer, an electric hair-trimmer, and one car.And we have tried to minimize. We live in 1000 square feet, give or take a wall or two, and we are deliberate about keeping our possessions to a minumum. Once The Offspring reaches a certain age (I don't yet know what that is), I'm sure we'll be buying another cell phone and another computer.What can we do without? I'll have to think on it.

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

I live in a two-bedroom apartment with nine light fixtures, a desk lamp, and three bedside lamps. That's twelve light bulbs in all, and as each of the old incandescent bulbs has died, we've replaced it with a compact fluorescent bulb. Still, I've kinda been thinking that the whole hullabaloo over replacing incandescent bulbs with fluorescents seemed like a lot of energy for a relatively small payback.

Then, over the holidays, I was sitting on someone's living room couch one day, and counted twenty-two light bulbs. With that kind of wattage in use, I suppose switching to compact fluorescents would have actual impact.