Landscapes shaping people

July 27, 2009

I just started reading River Town, by Peter Hessler, and thought this passage right at the beginning was interesting.

I often heard remarks like this, [that all the women of Fuling had a reputation for being beautiful due to being from an area with both water and mountains, or that people there had bad tempers because it was hot and there were mountains,] and they suggested that the Chinese saw their landscapes differently than outsiders did. I looked at the terraced hills and noticed how the people had changed the earth, taming it into dizzying staircases of rice paddies; but the Chinese looked at the people and saw how they had been shaped by the land.

-Hessler, 6

This reminded me of conversations I’ve had at various points with people from the Midwest. I am from the East Coast (or the Southeast, if you are one of those people who strangely thinks the East Coast only extends as far south as DC, or possibly Virginia,) specifically the piedmont area of North Carolina, and I am very used to being surrounded by hills and trees. In the days when I was frequently having to drive home from Iowa or Michigan during school breaks, I had a definite sense that “home” did not start until I entered the Appalachians and was surrounded by forests again. By contrast, several friends who grew up in the plains stated that they would find it a little scary not to be able to see for miles around. Hills and too many trees would give them claustrophobia. Whereas I found the first description of the plains in the Little House on the Prairie books terrifying and never really understood why they moved out of the Big Woods.

Read the rest of this entry »

Blogroll Addition: Jetson Green

May 8, 2009

I admit it, I have a bit of a… thing… for the modern green architecture movement. I spent the beginning of this week at home sick, unable to do anything but lie on the couch, and as a result I ended up watching a lot of HGTV. Perhaps too much. But they have some fascinating shows about building green! I’ve become fascinated with the show “Extreme Living,” which features truly gorgeous green homes that very, very lucky people actually get to live in.

Anyway, all that TV-watching had me primed for yesterday, when I spotted a press release about the Clayton Homes pre-fab i-house. The press release only had one picture, though, and I wanted more, so off to Google I went, which led me to this article at Jetson Green,* which indeed has much better pictures. It also has very distracting links to other articles… and that is how I lost an entire day to browsing their archive and all the attendant links therefrom. An entire, very enjoyable day. An excellent way to get addicted to their offerings is their compiled list of 40 Innovative Green Homes of 2008.

So there you go. I figured it was only my duty to pass on this excellent source of distraction to all of you, so I will now add Jetson Green to the blogroll, and you may visit it as often as you wish.

*Having now revisited the site, I have also discovered that the Clayton Homes virtual tour of the i-house is back up. It appeared to have collapsed yesterday under the weight of all the attention various news sources turned on it.

Vote for Laura Masterson and local food

October 31, 2008

In Portland, Oregon, Laura Masterson of the 47th Avenue Farm is an urban farmer and advocate for local food, food security, and soil management. This year she’s on
the Multnomah County ballot as a candidate for East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, Director, Zone 2, as I learned from a friend in Portland who enthusiastically voted for her.

Those of us who don’t live in Multnomah County can’t do that. Luckily, there’s another way for us to support Masterson and the causes she represents. In addition to running for public office, she’s also one of 11 finalists for the Dreamers into Doers Award, which is apparently a $10,000 award sponsored by the website which honors an entrepreneur or activist who has turned her hobby into a business or nonprofit organization. Not only can anyone vote, we can vote multiple times — once a day until voting closes on November 18, in fact. Of the eleven finalists, she’s currently in third place.

Unfortunately, voting requires making an account on, which is annoying, but at least it’s not very hard. From the Dreamers into Doers page, click “meet the finalists”, then click “vote” next to Laura’s name. If not signed in, you’ll be asked to register/sign in at that point.

Please do vote — early and often! — and pass it on.

Life in the Hutong

September 22, 2008

Hutong 2

Central Beijing used to be filled with hutong—single story courtyard homes on narrow lanes. They started in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) but the current structures mostly date from the earlier part of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Expansive compounds, where several branches of the same family had multiple courtyards have since been divided and subdivided into small, cramped apartments. The hutong neighborhoods are known for their communities and for their historic architecture.

They’re also known because the Beijing government is using eminent domain and razing large swaths of them in order to build fancy high rises in their quest to become a modern metropolis.

China watchers mourn the loss of Beijing’s old-world charm.

Lonely Planet: China (2008) says:

“Hutong may still be the stamping ground of a quarter of Beijing’s residents, but many are sadly being swept aside in Beijing’s race to manufacture a modern city of white tile high-rises. Marked with white plaques, historic homes are protected, but for many others a way of life hangs precariously in the balance… Old walled courtyards are the building blocks of this delightful world. Many are still lived in and hum with activity. From spring to autumn, men collect outside their gates, drinking beer, playing chess, smoking and chewing the fat. Inside, trees soar aloft, providing shade and a nesting ground for birds.”

It of course, glosses over the extreme (but picturesque!) poverty of the situation: Read the rest of this entry »

It’s great to be back at Goodwill

August 6, 2008
'goodwill' by bluecinderellee on Flickr

'goodwill' by bluecinderellee on Flickr

I love Goodwill. I worked at Goodwill stores for two summers when I was 18 and 19, and I learned a lot about each aspect of running the store. More importantly, I learned how to shop there. Before Goodwill, I’d never much cared for shopping, and shopping in thrift stores seemed particularly unconducive to the “get in, get what you want, and get out” approach that I’d thought was the only tolerable way to go about it. But after working at Goodwill and seeing how carefully donations were inspected and sorted (a lot of stuff doesn’t make the cut), I stopped seeing the store shelves as a disorganized dumping ground for junk and started seeing them as a lovingly curated collection of potential treasures. Very reasonably priced treasures. And my 20% employee discount didn’t hurt either.

Goodwill stores are all over the U.S. and Canada, but I was living in middle America when I worked there, and so I tend to associate Goodwill with that part of the country. Maybe that’s one reason I never went to Goodwill during the three years I spent living in Portland, Oregon. But as of six days ago, I’m back in the Midwest — Bloomington, Indiana, to be specific — and I’ve got a limited budget, a new apartment to furnish, and some free time. Where do I go? Do you even need to ask? In six days, I’ve already made three Goodwill trips. It’s great to be back. Here’s what I’ve found so far, all of it essentially like new:

Read the rest of this entry »

Blogroll Addition: GreenCouple

February 5, 2008

Geek Buffet’s own terrorfirma has started a new blog,, where he writes as his alterego, Will, along with co-blogger and fiancée Maggie. You can get a taste by reading Will’s cross-post below, Globalization is Green, and then check out the rest of their posts to date. They started posting in January, so the archives aren’t too daunting. Read them all!

They cover an interesting range of topics, from global economics to personal decisions about where to live, all with a focus on living green. Maggie’s personal and professional interest in eating both green and local promises to inspire any number of interesting posts related to food from them both. Will has already produced several good posts on some of the more personal economics of living green as well, such as alternative gift-giving and the pros and cons of purchasing “green energy” from the power company. I look forward to more!


Globalization is Green

February 5, 2008

[cross-posted from, where my fiancee and I talk about how we’re trying to live green(er) together]

The Undercover Economist by Tim HarfordI’ve stolen this counterintuitive title from a section in Tim Harford’s interesting economic book (and who thought that phrase would ever be used?), The Undercover Economist. The book as a whole is a great overview of economic thinking applied to a variety of topics, from finding a good used car to pricing coffee. Near the end, Harford attempts to debunk the idea that trade protectionism prevents globalization from damaging the environment. I find most of his arguments very persuasive, although there might be more arguments against globalization that he doesn’t cover. Hardford identifies three main anti-globalization arguments: a “race to the bottom,” transportation costs, and the idea that economic growth inherently hurts the planet.

Read the rest of this entry »

How many children are ethical?

September 21, 2007

This has been an interesting couple of weeks for considering the ethics of reproduction. Last week, it seemed like there were suddenly people everywhere talking about how it just might be a great idea if Americans (and everyone else in the world, really) were encouraged, or possibly required, to have only one child.

As near as I can tell, a lot of the discussion got started with this article: Global Swarming: Is It Time for Americans to Start Cutting Our Baby Emissions? It is, in its turn, a review of the book The World Without Us, which is mostly about what the world would be like, environmentally speaking, if all the people disappeared. How long it would take the Earth to “recover” to a pre-human level, so on and so forth. But the author doesn’t really want to wait for people to suddenly become extinct; he’d like to see us start doing something that might conceivably save the planet in a way that people could still be around to enjoy it. The article summarizes his call for action like this:

Let’s cut the birth rate to one child per couple, for a few generations at least. The population would dwindle by about 5 billion people over the next century, he says, ensuring the habitability of the Earth for the 1.6 billion who remained. At that point, they could all reap the rewards of a more spacious planet, sharing in “the growing joy of watching the world daily become more wonderful.”

Read the rest of this entry »

That Made in China label

September 17, 2007

Don’t you just love vilifying China?

Growing economy? (Check) Massive trade imbalance? (Check) And Commie to boot? (Check!)

Were you really surprised when they started poisoning our puppies? It’s a vast, Chinese, pink-o commie conspiracy against the American way of life people! Wake up and smell the green tea!

Well, ok, no. It’s not. But when it comes to buying things, why are we so anti-China?

You have books such as A Year Without “Made in China” by Sara Bongiorni and massive fear-induced boycotts of all Chinese goods, so maybe we do think it is a commie plot.

Oh! But Jennie! They all work in sweat shops! And only make 57 cents an hour! And their pet food/toys/toothpaste ARE all being recalled for poison/lead paint/whatever… China’s cutting too many corners! Chinese products are bad!

Well, no. They’re not.

Why are we blaming China for something that is fundamentally the fault of industry? American industry?

Read the rest of this entry »

Getting back what you put in

June 10, 2007

Several weeks ago, I packed up all of my worldly possessions and moved them nearly 750 miles from Southeast Michigan to central North Carolina. Part of this process involved driving a seventeen-foot U-Haul truck, fully loaded and towing my car on a trailer, through the mountains. I found this process to be highly unsatisfying, but also thought-provoking.

For perspective, U-Haul lists this vehicle as being more than eight thousand pounds empty. Fully loaded, it weighs in at just about fourteen thousand pounds. In addition, the trailer is more than two thousand pounds empty, with a more than three thousand pound car riding on top of it. The effect is a fourteen thousand pound vehicle with a five thousand pound sea anchor hanging off the back. Driving a vehicle this size through the mountains is enough to make anyone develop a multiple-personality disorder. Going uphill, I would simply lay the accelerator flat against the floor, then listen to the engine roar even while the speedometer steadily dropped beneath the sheer mass of the vehicle behind it. Going downhill, I’d stand on the brakes and try not to think about the feeling of the massive, dead weight of the trailer cramming itself up into the small of my back.

Each time I rode the brakes down a hill and then listened to a huge, gas-guzzling engine wheezing as it struggled to heave itself back up the hill, I found myself thinking about regenerative braking. Even though it would not be the kind of thing that is even included on a vehicle of that type, such a thing felt like it would be exactly what I needed. I spent several hours thinking about the efficiency of regenerative braking systems.

Read the rest of this entry »