Tag Archives: Book Review

Escape the Urban Book Review: Robert Kull’s “Solitude”

20 Nov

In February 2001, Robert Kull took the concept of “escaping the urban” to its logical extreme: he moved to an uninhabited island in the glaciated fjordlands of southern Chile and lived alone for a year. On purpose. The only companion he packed in was a cat named Cat – all other kinship he discovered while there. 

The non-fiction shelf of your local bookstore is full of what my agent calls “stunt books.” Authors place themselves in gimmicky and often preposterous scenarios to create a new frame for an old story: reading the entire encyclopedia, living a year according to a strict interpretation of the Bible, walking or biking or kayaking across a continent. Kull is less stuntman than hermit. His quest was the oldest: spiritual, not contrived drama, more Coptic guru than Bear Grylls.

Robert Kull, according to his own description, is an ex-woodsman, part time scuba instructor, Buddhist/New Age fusion acolyte and (now) successful PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. In 2000 he managed to convince his dissertation committee to allow him to spend a year alone in the wilderness to research the affect of prolonged isolation on the human psyche. He would be both observer and subject, and kept daily journals to study and record his activities, mood, and ramblings. Because Kull is missing a leg and likes to sit and meditate, those diary entries contain more stream of consciousness than action narrative. The intimate (but fortunately edited, though a more forceful slashing would have been welcome) daily log forms the bulk of this book, broken by various interludes to explore themes of technology, scientific inquiry, and the Big Mind of creation.

I was initially entranced by Kull’s concept, and my own longing for remote Patagonia. The book’s front half moves right along as logistical concerns dominate: choosing the right remote island, procuring gear and supplies, planning a year’s worth of meals, building a cabin in the raging wind and rain, finding and stacking firewood for the coming cold, exploring inlets and isolated pebble beaches to discover ducks, dolphins, seals and limpets.  

But as he settles in to a long winter of isolation, as anxiety gives way to comfortable introspection, Kull loses all readers except the most devoted (trite?) spiritual explorers. I stubbornly stuck around waiting for the moment he would snap, smear gratuitous psychological carnage across the page, a sign of solitary induced dementia finally evident. Instead, Kull forms friendships with Butter Belly Diving Ducks, sees reassuring spirit faces in the rock formations on the mountain sides, and only seems to dread the expected depression that will come with reintegration into human society. He finds pleasant Solitude, not Loneliness, and his self-indulgent self-criticism aside, seems more content counting shellfish on the shore than facing bustling Vancouver again.

Most disappointing, however, was that despite his constant introspection, Kull could never see the irony of his entire endeavor: the human society he shunned produced the technology that made his mission possible. Kull did not paddle out to an island and build himself a cabin out of the materials he found there. The Chilean Navy shipped in pallets of gear for him: lumber and nails and screws and plastic sheeting to build his cabin, solar panels and a wind turbine to make electricity for incandescent light and his computer and sat-phone, a rigid inflatable raft with two outboard motors. While Kull asks himself whether he is really alone if he can email his pseudo-partner any time he wants, he never contemplates whether he could have traveled to his island in the first place without two tons of stuff.

Self-help junkies, rapt meditators and quasi-spiritual investigators will enjoy Kull’s quest into the self and the occasionally interesting insights into life it provides. Wilderness enthusiasts will ask themselves if they could pull of a year near Tierra del Fuego, may experience a momentary twinge of jealousy, but ultimately will only wonder how this book ended up in the outdoor section of Barnes and Noble.

Book Review: The Longships

29 Jun

Your summer beach read doesn’t have to be the latest Top 10 disposable dreck, the literary equivalent of Ke$ha and Katie Perry. Challenge yourself just a little, and try on this entertaining romp: The Longships by Frans G. Bengtsson.

I am often humbled to learn that the “new” book I just “discovered” from a friend’s recommendation is actually classic beloved literature in its home country. The Longships is now nearly seventy years old and still immensely popular in Scandinavia. My first dog-eared paperback copy was appropriately loaned to me by a Danish friend when we studied together fifteen years ago in England, and viking voyages of exploration around Europe and Asia coincided with my own train rides across new lands. A nice symmetry, to be sure, but not required to appreciate the adventures of the Poet-Warrior Chieftain Red Orm, as I learned upon acquiring the newly released handsome New York Review Books Classic edition and re-reading it again for the first time this year.

You can read The Longships for the action, battles and pillaging good fun. You can read it for insight into the world view of tenth century Europe and the vikings who harried it. I recommend, however, that you read it for the humor. Can bashing someone’s head in be laugh-out-loud funny? It is when Bengtsson is at the helm.

Perhaps the tale’s most fascinating attribute is how the clever turn of phrase survives the translation. Deft wordsmiths are required on both sides of the writer/translator divide for sarcasm and dry wit to survive the process. But survive it does, in spades. As an example, here are typical thoughts on the hazards of long voyages:

Toke said that the thing that troubled him most was the fact that the ale was now finished. He was, he assured them, not a fussy man, and he reckoned he could stomach most things when necessity demanded it, not excluding his sealskin shoes, but only if he had good ale to wash them down. It would be a fearful prospect, he said, to envisage a life with out ale, either on sea or ashore.

Or the challenges of fighting a duel to the death during winter:

 “It is not the fighting that worries me,” said Orm, “but the cold. I have always been a man of delicate health, and cold is the thing I can least endure. Nothing is more dangerous for my health than to go out from a hot room, after heavy drinking, into the cold night air. I do not see why, to please this Sigtrygg, [that I after I kill him] I should have to endure being racked with coughs for the rest of the winter…my mother always used to say that they would be the death of me if I did not take good care of myself.”

At last King Harald said: “I am sorry to see that young men are growing soft nowadays. They are not what they used to be. The sons of Ragnar Hairy-Breeks never bothered about such trivial considerations as their health or the weather.”

Gems like these pervade the book, and augment would already be a harrowing tale of Orm’s capture, sale into slavery, travels throughout Arabia, escape, sacking of the English coast, personal growth into responsible Chieftain, and final quest to steal Bulgar gold hidden deep within feudal Russia. While this is no deep character study, Orm and his compatriots are not two-dimensional caricatures. When Orm is wounded in a duel he sinks into deep melancholy that he will never sail and sack again. We may not share the specifics of his anxieties (sacrifices to sea gods for Weather Luck and defending against brigands burning down his farm), but worries build genuine endearment and interest in his ultimate fate. Throw in Orm’s love of composing the perfect poem for each battle, birth, or drinking game, and you have a genuinely compelling character that keeps the pages turning on your summer vacation. I’ll leave you with such poetry, to whet your appetite for more:

In my throat there is a feeling
Of dry rot most unblest.
Do physicians know the healing
For me, that ale is best?
Thirsting I rowed for many a year,
And thirsting did good slaughter.
All praise to thee, Gorm’s gracious heir!
Thou knowest my favorite water.

Escape the Urban: What To Do Memorial Day Weekend

22 May

The rain and chill in the air may indicate otherwise, but summer is right around the corner. Next weekend is already Memorial Day, leaving you precious time to make plans for a long holiday outdoor adventure. Don’t have a clue what to do with your time off? Never fear – Escape the Urban will hook you up:

Go for a bike ride: For a close trip, do the classic trek from Delaware Park to the Erie Basin Marina via Scajaquada Creek, or ride along the Niagara River to get a new appreciation of Niagara Falls. If you want to venture further out, try the Chautauqua Rail Trail, from the shores of Lake Erie up the bluff to Mayville and beyond. Or, for more ideas, pick up a newsstand copy of Buffalo Spree (*cough* shameless plug *cough*) where I offer a couple more biking options, including one along the Niagara Wine Trail.

Take a hike: Drop down into the Niagara Gorge at Devil’s Hole, a great little hike for kids too. You can also drive out to Letchworth, and skip the well trodden western side of the park to enjoy the solitude and fresh perspective from the wilder eastern rim. Or, if you are in the mood to escape further, make a weekend of it by camping in Allegheny State Park, or brave the black flies at secluded Good Luck Lake in the Adirondacks.

Break out the kayak: The northern ‘Dacks are a bit flooded right now, so you may want to skip a flatwater weekend out there. In that case, go rent an open topped rig from BFLO Harbor Kayak and explore the Buffalo River and downtown’s canals and harbors. Memorial Day weekend marks the start of Jason Schwinger’s third season at the Commercial Slip.

Go whitewater rafting: The season on Cattaraugus Creek is almost done, but great rafting will remain for some time on the Genesee. Call up Adventure Calls Outfitters (*cough* second shameless plug *cough*) quick to make reservations while you still can.

Read a Book: If we get rained out, or you’re too tired to do much other than relax on the couch, try one of these outdoor reads. Aldo Leopold’s classic Sand County Almanac provides witty insights for each season, including drizzly springs. It may look like light reading, but each phrase packs a wallop of thought. If you’d rather dream of adventures further afield, cross Europe via mountain range in Clear Waters Rising, or join Shackleton and Scott on their expeditions to the South Pole in one of these offerings. Beach reading need not always be the latest mass market paperback.

I will be doing several of these myself next weekend, and since I expect most readers of this column will be out and about, and not huddling next to their computers, I’m taking the time off from writing. Enjoy the start of summer, and see you on the other side.

Biking along the Niagara River on Squaw Island

Escape the Urban Book Review: The Northern Forest Canoe Trail Guide Book

17 Apr

In the dark, cold space between prime outdoor seasons, a fire to warm the shins while the wind howls and snow flies, or the occasional nordic ski or snowshoe on brilliant blue and white days, can take the edge off the worst of the wanderlust. Similarly, there are times when the rolling hills of Western New York fail to satisfy, the ski runs feel short, the whitewater small, the cliffs less craggy, the panoramas less sweeping. The cure for both afflictions are the same: a little dreaming and planning for the next Big Trip, a more epic expedition for which weekend local excursions serve as effective training and preparation.

I find the planning for a Big Trip almost as enjoyable as actually being out in the thick of the act. My best partner in such fire-side winter daydreaming is a good guide book, the encyclopedic report on mastering an area or trail. In this regard, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail guide has been a good friend and companion these last several months.

The NFCT itself earns epic status. At 740 miles long, from Old Forge, New York to Fort Kent, Maine, it is big, and winds through some of the wildest places left in the northeast – reminiscent of, and a tribute to, the voyageurs who traveled the same path nearly 400 years past. After starting at the southwest end of the Adirondacks, it takes advantage of some of the best small boat flatwater in the world in the Raquette, Long and Saranac Lake sections, before crossing Lake Champlain into Vermont, sneaking into southern Quebec, and nipping through New Hampshire on the thin northern end. Here, though, you are only half done, as the trail spends half its time in the utter humanlessness of rugged western Maine, terminating at the last homely house at the far northern tip of the American eastern wilderness. Despite this massive scale, the NFCT is also amazingly accessible – five hours from driveway to paddle in the water from most of Western New York.

Photo courtesy northernforestcanoetrail.org

I have only traveled a short section of the NFCT myself, along Stony Creek and the accompanying ponds, north from the old hamlet of Axton Landing to the Indian Carry portage that connects to the Saranac chain of lakes (Segment 2, Map 8-20). If the whole trail is like that small section, then months of utter zen await the lucky kayaker who runs the whole gambit. Waterways are best experienced when in a craft well proportioned to its size. I often feel lost in my kayak in the Niagara River or on the Great Lakes – the vista is too sweeping and wide for a such a small, slow moving boat, and you never feel like you are making headway; better to be on a sail boat when plying larger water. Conversely, this section of the NFCT was perfectly kayak sized, the wild close and intimate. My paddle nearly reached from one side of the stream to the other in some places, as the slow moving creek wound back on itself like a coiled rope, between pined ridges and among water lilies and swamp grasses. And then, a breakout into the open pond, an horizontal view of mountains and stony banks, loons bobbing for fish on the mirror surface. My heart aches as I remember that warm late-summer day. 

The official NFCT guide, newly published less than a year ago, contains everything a comprehensive handbook should: thorough descriptions of the route, tips for negotiating tricky passages, sidebars of both natural and human history along the trail, and photographs that whet the appetite and induce a piercing longing for the sore backs and cramped legs that come from hours in a boat. It also provides an elevation and weather guide, to allow for planning of portages around rapids and dams, and predictions of when streams will be rushing but buggy (May and June), warm but perhaps low (July and August), or reliable but cool (September and October). If I have one complaint, it is that the maps, while broadly complete, are lacking in detail. This guide is meant to be used in conjunction with large maps also available from the non-profit organization that has worked to assemble the easements, clean and steward and promote the water trail the last 11 years. I do not begrudge them the desire to raise a little money selling you additional materials, but as a lover of maps, I could spend hours just pouring over foldout charts, imagining what lies beyond each bend and lake.  

Ten days ago it was snowing on my car’s kayak carrier, newly installed in preparation for the breaking Spring. Today, the sunshine is rushing into my writing office in a waterfall of hope. Time to get outside and do it.

Escape the Urban Book Review: A Sand County Almanac

16 Jan

The world does not need another book review of Aldo Leopold’s classic ecological love song, “A Sand County Almanac.” Its author has already taken his place in the Parthenon, a select evolving lineage of naturalist writers: Thoreau begat Muir, Muir begat Leopold, Leopold begat Carson. The small, insightful observations of a year in a shack in the rolling mixed Wisconsin woodlands, the Almanac finds beauty and meaning in the footprints of mice in the snow and the rings of a felled oak tree. It has inspired several generations of environmentalists, scientists and artists alike, who revere and point to it as the genesis of their work. 

So instead of singing its praises with my small voice, let me instead point you towards a specific passage, Leopold’s own Forward from the first edition, for our deliberation and discussion.

I reproduce it in its entirety here, as Leopold’s prose is so tightly packed with nuance and meaning, any abbreviation eliminates the context and mood required for understanding. Although copywrited, I set it down here as it is freely available for your perusal at Amazon:

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.

Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher “standard of living” is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important then television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.

These wild things, I admit, had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast, and until science disclosed the drama of where they come from and how they live. The whole conflict thus boils down to a question of degree. We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not.

Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture.

That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.

These essays attempt to weld these three concepts.

Such a view of land and people is, of course. subject to the blurs and distortions of personal experience and personal bias. But wherever the truth may lie, this much is crystal-clear: our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy. The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them, or even to turn off the tap. Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings.

Perhaps such a shift of values can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild and free.

Aldo Leopold

Madison, Wisconsin, March 4, 1948

I find the date of that Forward shocking – it was written not just before today’s hyper-kinetic Information Age, or the consumerism that blossomed in the 1970’s and ’80’s, but even prior to the post-war building explosion, the laying of the Eisenhower Interstates, and baby-boom driven materialism and sprawltopia. In an arguable Golden Age of cities and urban spaces, Leopold sees mechanization destroying the empty wild.

One is forced to draw, or perhaps choose among, several contradictory conclusions from the age and content of Leopold’s pleas. First, perhaps, that Leopold is a visionary who saw a battle looming before his time. Those who look to him as a Founding Father probably fall in this camp. Second, hopeless discouragement at the futility of the environmental movement, and that the dream of changing American culture is fool-hardy at best. And (or) third, that environmentalists are fear-mongers, carping hysterically in every epoch about the dangers to a planet that endures despite predictions to the contrary. There are certainly more televisions, mechanizations and bathtubs now than 63 years ago, and we’re doing just fine, thank you very much. 

Or are we?

The debate over Climate Change – its political divisions and incessent marketing – sucks the oxygen out of progress on environmental policy issues that are plainly understood and indisputable: habitat destruction, threats to endangered species, toxic waste emissions, clean water and air. These are issues that do not require easily mocked apocalyptic predictions or inappropriate meteorological evidence that can be easily dismissed as fear mongering. They are simply measured and spoken of. Our world’s population growth, sprawl and desire for more bathtubs leaves less room for the plants, animals and ecological processes that renew our air and water. We must find space for them to ensure space for ourselves. 

By that measure, while we are not doing fine, we are better than we have been in the not too distant past. Between Leopold’s writing and today we hit a low apogee that I hope we do not repeat. Our world does not need a double dip environmental depression.

So I do not see Leopold as a unique visionary: for as long as man has lived next to man, we have sought solitude from the hurly burly. I also not see him as a environmental Nostradamus, scaring us to change or else declaring the end as nigh. Instead, I see him as an eloquent laborer whose task has proven larger and more difficult than perhaps he and other naturalist progenitors initially realized. Rolling the ecological rock up the hill is not futile – there have been small victories along a long path. American culture is perhaps finally generally aware of its impact on the earth, and more and more of the general public is looking for ways to tread more lightly. That our collective choices are still generally harmful, or that “green” marketing is more about the color of money than of earth, does not mean progress has not been made. An ecologically mindful populace, one that makes a thousand small environmental lifestyle decisions a day, is a slowly molded vessel, and the creation of such a thing is still worth pursuing, 63 or 163 years later.

Escape the Urban Book Review: Clear Waters Rising

21 Nov

I often find myself reaching for a travel book when traveling myself. While I may be physically crossing oceans or deserts, my mind is conducting a parallel journey through mountains and forests in the book in my lap. So if your Thanksgiving week involves a long flight or drive, consider taking a mental walk from Spain to Istanbul in this Escape the Urban book selection. 

Clear Waters Rising, by Nicholas Crane, does not appear on this week’s best seller list. It is easily available online, but does not currently hold a reserved place at the local bookstore. Good travel books, while never exactly timeless, as they document a specific journey at a specific point in history, are at least accessible at all times, and Clear Waters fulfills that mandate.

Mr. Crane’s grand plans are geographic, not literary. A natural explorer, and nearing his 40th birthday, he decides to walk across Europe in the most difficult way possible – by staying in the mountains for the entire journey. Cape Finisterre to the Golden Horn, via the Cantabrians, Pyrenees, Cevennes, Alps, Carpathians and Balkans – ten thousand kilometers and almost a year and a half. The scope is immense, the effort epic, and the resulting book is naturally accessible, funny, fascinating, and moving, without any artificial narrative imposed for effect.

Crane pays particular attention to the little details, the small individual challenges that make up such a journey. One such delightful snippet is the choosing of gear to lug across the continent. Several paragraphs are devoted to the wonders of the wide brimmed Herbert Johnson “Traveling” trilby hat – warm in the winter, cool in the summer, shades the eyes and keeps out the rain. Should be take three socks or four? If he takes three, he can always wear one fresh sock, one old sock, and wash the third. But if he takes four, he can wear fresh socks every day, and put the spare pair on his hands as gloves. Never mind that he is crossing the continent via mountain, and will be above tree-line and in freezing conditions regularly.

Clear Waters Rising is a history lesson, a travel journey, a snapshot of rural Europe, and an ode to alpine majesty. It is populated by humble shepherds, sweeping vistas, the occasional major city, and all the while, the indefatigable Mr. Crane, hard working everyman and self-depreciating traveler. Wonderment is the only regular theme this book needs.  

Buffalo can be a dreary and small place, especially cooped up in our homes as winter sets in – no sweeping vistas or overlooking mountains to draw the spirit up and out. I pick this book up every once in a while to be re-inspired, renewed, redreamed, and have my achievement meter reset.

Author’s Note: Escape the Urban will be taking Thanksgiving weekend off, and so should you. The next article will appear on Sunday, December 5th.

Escape the Urban Book Review: Race to The End

3 Oct

Few real life tales of adventure combine the daring, danger, and sense of wonder like the exploration of the Antarctic at the turn of the last century. A race among imperial nations. Competing teams. Larger than life epic figures with egos to match. Courage and bravery. Death in the frozen wasteland.

I, for one, am smitten with the stories of Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen. And while Shackleton’s story has grown more popular in recent years, a temporary exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York provides a new spectacular backdrop to discuss the exploits of Scott and Amundsen as well.

To review, in the early twentieth century, global empires were competing for power and prestige, and the North and South Poles had yet to be conquered. It was still a golden age of exploration, as new river routes were being discovered, jungles penetrated, mountains summited, and sheets and ice at the ends of the earth beckoned. Into this maw stepped British explorers Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Both personified the English temperament of that time: proud, stubborn, defiant, and resolutely sure of the primacy of the British race and method. That attitude would ultimately be the end of Scott, with Shackleton also falling to wanderlust years later in the waste.

Scott led an expedition to the Antarctic to find the South Pole in 1902, with Shackleton as an assistant. They turned around on December 21st, 1902, at 82 degrees, 17 minutes, further south ever reached by man, but still deliriously far from the pole. That failure would drive each for the next decade, in an effort to outdo the other.

Shackleton returned in 1908 -09 on the Nimrod, and ultimately achieved the next furthest south, 88 degrees, 23 minutes (and incredibly, at over 11,000 feet in elevation), or 97 miles from the geographic pole. This story is often overshadowed by Shackleton’s later and more famous expedition: the failed voyage of the Endurance and the heroic rescue of his men trapped in the ice. But the earlier Nimrod story is told in a relatively new book, Shackleton’s Forgotten Expedition, by Beau Riffenburgh.  

Despite not attaining the geographic South Pole, Shackleton achieved a great many successes: the first summit of the volcanic Mount Erebus, the discovery of the magnetic south pole, and the collection of significant geological and cartographic data. He also refused to take the advice of European explorers, and made significant mistakes that would be echoed by Scott, with far more dire consequences. He did not take the time to learn to use sled dogs and skis, and instead used ponies and men in standard boots to pull the massive sledges. The ponies died of the cold, broke legs, fell in crevasses, and needed to be put down and eaten instead of towing their loads. Shackleton brought an automobile as a test vehicle, which failed spectacularly, but became popular with the British public.

Riffenburgh’s prose is exhaustive and insightful. In matters of controversy or dispute, he does side with his protagonist. But he provides a magnificent backdrop for the story, discussing the politics of the Royal societies sponsoring the expeditions, the competition with Scott, and the financial and scientific constraints Shackleton was under while landing and wintering at Cape Royds. By the end, one finds Shackleton remarkable not just for his exploits, but for his leadership that achieved so much with no loss of life. This care for the men under his command kept him from reaching the pole, but puts him in stark contrast to Scott.  

The story of the English Scott and Norwegian Amundsen is ably told in the gorgeous companion to the breakthrough exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, Race to The End: Amundsen, Scott, and the Attainment of the South Pole, by Ross D. E. MacPhee. In a story that captured the popular imagination at the time, Scott and Amundsen set off at similar times in 1911 to race to the pole. Scott retraced Shackleton’s route, still in competition with his one-time protege, and made all of Shackleton’s mistakes. Amundsen parked his ship closer to the pole, and made a relatively easy sprint in and out, beating Scott by a month. The race embodied British and European prejudices and culture at the time: Scott, in his unflagging trust of the strength of the British man, ignored thirty years of cold weather exploration knowledge, and stuck to man-hauling of overloaded sledges as his primary means of transportation. Amundsen used skis and tough sled dogs, and so not only covered more miles per day, but expended less energy doing it. Resolute British pride contends that while Amundsen made it out first, he never made it all the way to the pole, and it was actually only Scott that planted his flag in the correct location. The debate continues on some level still today. What is not disputable is that Amundsen lived through his expedition, while Scott and his party died of starvation in their tent in a five day blizzard, only eleven miles from one ton of food they had depoted.

 As if the story of Scott and Amundsen is not compelling enough, MacPhee’s illustrated book wins the day. Containing color photographs of pieces of gear currently on exhibit, reproductions of telegrams and journal entries, and fold out maps and pictographs, the book is a mini-museum in and of itself. As beautiful as the story is riveting, pick up the book to prepare yourself for the museum experience, which runs through January 2011 in New York.

One Year Anniversary

11 Jun

One year ago, Chris and Marc gave me an open mic, a soapbox, and no constraints.

In that time I’ve written 128 posts, or one every three days, which sounds about right. It’s a great arrangement: they don’t pay for the content, and I don’t pay for the platform and the chance to touch, affect, educate and influence tens of thousands of readers every day – many times more than if I started my own blog at stupidcrapnoonecaresabout.blogspot.com. Its a joy to walk around all day with a writer’s mind, constantly scripting the next column in my head as I observe and consider.

Over the last year, I’ve tried to stick to a couple topics. A big one is the idea that The Grass is Not Always Greener. In Buffalo, we don’t know how good we have it, and mistakenly believe that our problems are unique and that other areas of the country are unequivocally better. I believe this stems from a) our insulated culture that considers a visit to Grandma in Ft Lauderdale “travel”, 2) the fact that all our cousins have moved to Charlotte for “better jobs” (that they may or may not still have) and iii) our “brain gain” is below average, so we have little new blood and new ideas.

To do my small part to remedy this, I have written a series of columns noting successes and failures from different areas of the country as I travel there. I’m not trying to knock anyone down, but simply round out the picture so our collective view of the rest of the country is not so rose colored. In the last year I have written good and bad about Portland, Tacoma, Texas, Savannah (twice), Toronto, Chicago, North Carolina, the Dry Rot Belt, Tennessee, El Paso, Las Vegas, Austin, Central Washington, and Northwest Florida. Maybe as a city we can learn a thing or two, or at least appreciate what we have a little more.

I have covered politics, both near and far. I was originally brought on as a voice of the Sane Right, or as I like to call it, the Reasonable Center, considering the pinko Leftists that inhabit this site. When I started a year ago I imagined that a big political story would be the regrouping of the Republican Party in the political wilderness, with a thoughtful reworking of priorities and platforms. Obviously I was way wrong.

The day-to-day back and forth and political infighting has begun to bore me already, so I’ve tried to stick to bigger picture concepts: a three part series on the conservative case for universal healthcare, Ignorance, the Supreme Court, the culture divide between North and South, how Donn Esmonde is often wrong, what we get for our taxes in WNY, the harm unions have caused our society, and quirks of history.

I’ve talked about development, focused on CanalSide, Buffalo as an international city, rebranding and the importance of perception vs reality. I’ve even talked a bit about hockey and have done two book reviews on random topics I find interesting.

In the next year, I hope to add another topic to my repertoire: the environment and the outdoors; in Buffalo and abroad, the policy, clean up, and recreation too. I’ve tackled the subject a couple times, discussing the message FAIL of many current advocacy groups, the FAIL of the Niagara Greenway Commission, BP Oil Spill FAIL, and some great kayaking in Buffalo Harbor; I hope to do a lot more.

Thank you again, Chris and Marc, for allowing me the opportunity to write for free. Thank you to the commenters who raise my ire by having the audacity to argue against my perfectly crafted rhetoric. And most of all, thank you to the silent readers, who check in often, and of which I have many more than I deserve. I look forward to another great year.

Nothing New: Book Review of Feynman’s “The Meaning of it All”

13 May

Editor of Newsweek and boy genius Jon Meacham is fond of using quotes of famous people as a substitute for original discourse. One of his favorites, that he manages to work into most conversations, is “There is nothing new under the sun.” The quote is ironic because it come from Ecclesiastes (that’s the Bible, for my unschooled or unsaved brethren), and is at least 2500 years old itself. I guess history has been repeating (or rhyming) for some time now.

In contrast, President Obama, Buffalo visitor, is fond of the word “unprecedented.” Every crisis this country faces seems to be unprecedented, to the point the word has lost meaning. Having an unprecedented crisis is convenient, because it provides political cover to do something new, rash, or unpopular. But that doesn’t make the crisis itself actually all that novel.

I tend to fall in the Nothing New Camp – to imply that your own personal experience, or the era in which one lives, is truly unprecedented seems the height of hubris and self absorption to me. It is easy though, to fall in the Unprecedented Camp; note my last column, where I noted the unprecedented merging of ignorance and choice. But occasionaly one has an obvious reminder that our current problems are as old as time.

My latest reminder came in the form of a slim book I just finished, The Meaning of it All by Richard Feynman. A consolidated transcript of lectures given at the University of Washington in 1963, this book is more a rambling of Feynman’s varied thoughts than a coherent idea from beginning to end. But what a variety of thoughts they are! And if I stood up and read the book verbatim at the upcoming TED event in Buffalo, I would be praised for my cutting edge thinking and timeliness.

Richard Feynman – physicist, Nobel winner, philosopher, and flamboyant bongo player – was to the ’60’s and ’70’s what Carl Sagan was to the ’80’s and Stephen Hawking is to today: the approachable scientist. Feynman did not study the cosmos directly, however, which added to his already mysterious reputation. Feynman was a particle physicist, and inventor of Feynman Diagrams, which describe and predict particle decomposition and transformation at the subatomic level. As most regular people are not conversant in muons and bosons, his research was immaterial to his appeal: provocative charisma and intellect.

Feynman’s greatest contributions lie in the inspiration for science in the masses, the sparking of interest and debate, a fascination in what Feynman described as the process of  “finding things out.” One can not read Feynman without re-attaining that sense of childlike wonder in the universe; the fact that it exists at all, and the joy in figuring out how it all works.

In The Meaning of it All, however, Feynman takes his scientific acumen and applies it to history, politics, religion and the role of a citizen scientist in the world. He takes on the difference between science and technology (applicable already in 1963), the relative value of the Russian and US systems of government, the importance of Doubt to democracy, how proper scientific skepticism can (but not has have to) breed atheism, and host of other such topics as his brain ruminates on issues of the day. His conclusions are straightforward and to the point; for instance, on advertising:

The conclusion from all the researchers is that all the people in the world are as dopey as can be, and the only way to tell them anything is to perpetually insult their intelligence. This conclusion may be correct.

The source of many arguments on this site often come from this basic premise.

More than any specific topic, though, the truth that rings through this series of lectures is the fresh insight it provides, 47 years later. In the first several pages Feynman bemoans the insulated state of today’s universities, the lack of general insight of the world in the supposed intelligentsia, the threat technology potentially poses to the world, the spectacular duality of world poverty and luxury, and the challenge of transporting helpful new technology to the Third World.

There is nothing new under the sun. If you want an insight into our world in 2010, read Feynman’s lectures from 1963.