Friday, April 26, 2019

Book Review: Prisoners of Geography

I really enjoyed "Prisoners of Geography" by Tim Marshall. It's a great introduction to modern-day geopolitics, which I was terribly in need of. The overall thesis is that so much of geopolitics comes down to simple geography. 

The good soils, waterways, and climate of France, Germany, and England help to explain their consistent hold on power. The US is not going to decline, as we always feel inclined to say, because we are in just about the most fortunate geographic position a country could ask for. Brazil will never be a major international power, despite its size, because of its jungles, poor soil, and un-ideal waterways. Russia is about to make a big play in the arctic to obtain fossil fuels. This is made possible partly because of technology (ice-breaking ships) and largely because of increasingly navigable waterways due to climate change. The great powers of China and India have long been at peace largely because they're separated by the Himalayas, and the Chinese occupation of Tibet was carried out largely to ensure this. Africa is a mess for a hundred reasons (colonial legacies for starters), but geography may be the central. 

It's not always geography; political systems can hold countries back, too. The author writes that Argentina is blessed with good geography, and Argentinians could have a standard of living on par with Europeans if it wasn’t for lousy politics.

A hypothetical: What are the countries that have been blessed with good geography, but bungled it? On the other hand, which countries did the most with the least?

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Campus Galli in Smithsonian Magazine

Andreas, a carpenter: “I hate pressure. We made a big mistake of the wooden monastery because our preparation was not finished, and then we were stressed. Our work is complicated. [We didn’t have] enough time to concentrate. If you work very concentrated, you have a better work as an end. I will return to the work and work slowly. I like the quality.” 

I have an article out in this month's Smithsonian Magazine, on a strange architectural project called "Campus Galli," a living history open-air museum for which they're using ninth-century tools, methods, and materials. They say Notre Dame will be re-built in 5 years. Think about an architectural project that might take 100.
I volunteered there for about a week, working with the basket-maker, rope-maker, and stonemason.
The longer version of this article would have included a call for a 21st Century revival of craftsmanship, a reflection on all of us whose jobs are going to be made obsolete due to automation, and the need for strong communities and a larger sense of purpose. I only had 1,800 words to work with, but I'd like to think that this tiny article has found a way to hint at all of the above.

Some photos from my stay... 

This woman is an office worker who volunteers as a stonemason at Campus Galli. She told me that at her office desk she begins her day with a stack of papers on one side of her desk, and at the end of the day the papers are on the other side. Dissatisfied with not being able to see the product of her labor at the office, she comes to Campus Galli so she can. Here, she's driving a pole into a stone, which will eventually divide the stone into smaller pieces.

Michael, a carpenter: "It's about respect of the materials. Working with simple tools, not machines and a lot of noise."

Daniel, a carpenter: “For me, it’s mainly the craft. In carpentry today, we set up things a machine builds. Here, I can really work in my craft, think about how to build the things. It's quite a special building site because a monastery is quite complex. Lots of different buildings. Lots of different ways to build them. There’s a connection between the science and the craft.”

Martin, the potter: “We have so many different people from different backgrounds, different motivations. [When] they get their Medieval dress, they all look the same or very similar. You don't know why this person is here. We have volunteers, students, old people, families, craftsmen, or [people who] work in an office. Also, unemployed people who get used to work again. You put your dress on like a monk, and then no one can see whether your parents were noble or slaves.”

Maga, the basketmaker: “In the twenty-first century, people are looking for money. They don’t take care of the community. Here, I like the community, the people in [the] barracks.”

Inside of the church

Lars, the shephard: “I studied computer science and nature science, combining biology and computer science. I noticed I was sitting inside with a computer and not going outside. I have to be outside. I want to try new things.”

Nicole, the vegetable gardener: "[I like] to work in the fresh air, not in the factories."

Julian, a carpenter: "You have a lot more time here to make quality, and to get to know the wood before your eyes. [You can] develop a capacity. In the twenty-first century, you have a lot of different types of machines. It's cool, but I'm not developing a capacity to read the wood, to work with it. I was fascinated by this, and by the community."

Sophie, a carpenter apprentice: “I didn’t want to do textiles. I wanted to be cutting trees. Shaping the beams. I started to tell other female volunteers, you could do that. I really like to learn craft. In other places you can’t really learn so many different crafts. Here, you can make mistakes and everyone is okay with it. You have a master who will tell you the next step. It’s more individual.”

That's me

Jens, a stonemason: "I have worked on many old churches. I like to keep them alive. Make a stone, fit it in. When I’m gone, the stone is still there." 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Backpacker Radio Podcast

Today I'm on Backpacker Radio, talking about my books and the right to roam. A description from their webpage:
In today’s episode of Backpacker Radio, Smiles and I sit down with author Ken Ilgunas. To put it simply, Ken is a guy who marches to the beat of his own drum. We talk at length about his time hiking the length of the Keystone XL Pipeline both where it was developed and supposed to be developed, where had to not only trespass for much of this hike, but knock on complete strangers doors for help on many occasions. He shares his take on public vs. private land, why we should have hiking access on private land, the threats to public land, and how this is handled in other countries. Ken also shares about his time living out of his van, before #vanlife was even a thing. We close out the show with a new thru-hiker of the week, some Trek propaganda, and a new segment, two lies and a truth. This is another juicy show. So strap in.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Game of Throne preview (and reviews)

With friend and fellow blogger David Dalton, I'll be, for the next couple of months, co-writing blog posts at the Into the Woods blog to review each Game of Thrones episode for the final season. Here’s our assessment of last season and thoughts on what’s to come. For this week’s entry, our impressions couldn’t be more different.

Monday, April 8, 2019

"Us" is not a good movie

[I watch a lot of movies, and I dislike many of them, but I only feel provoked to publicly review them when reviewers seem to have their heads up their butts. (Us got 94% approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)]

Jordan Peele’s Us was disappointing. *Spoilers*

1. There’s a tonality problem. My take is that Peele, the auteur, wants the film to be deeply meaningful and disturbing (meeting one’s underworld doppelgänger as a critique of modern society), but Peele, the entertainer, wants it to be a lighthearted and entertaining family-horror feast (with lots of comedic relief, none of which works too well). The tonal mismatch prevents it from committing to a proper mood and movie. Because Us doesn’t leave a clear emotional impression, the movie resigns itself to utter forgettability. (Peele’s Get Out found a much nicer balance between eerieness and humor, but Get Out has its own problems, which I’ll get to in a second.)

2. Us is incoherent. How do the doppelgängers feed themselves? (Rabbits will not provide adequate nutrition, and where do the rabbits get their nutrition?) How do the doppelgängers clothe themselves? Why don’t they all climb the escalator and escape? Why does the mom character seemingly have no memory of being switched when she was eight years old? How are the doppelgängers stronger and faster and more agile, despite having lived in dark, confined spaces (without proper nutrition) their whole lives? What is the symbolic meaning of the hands across America performance art? Isn’t the genocide, that the doppelgängers just carried out, good enough? Who would win in a battle of 300 million scissors versus 300 million guns? (You might say, “Don’t be so harsh, it’s just a movie!” but movies with impossible plots, such as The Matrix, take pains to make sense.)

3. This film says nothing. I think it wanted to say something about how privileged Americans are living off the backs of the underprivileged, and I think that’s a good message and an interesting subject to explore. But the film doesn’t fulfill its mission. It seems like all the symbols (rabbits, scissors, pruning gloves, red overalls) were more random than meaningfully symbolic. I don’t know much about Peele, but I get the sense that he truly wants to write good, important, lasting films, but the bulk of Us and the last fourth of Get Out are mindless, silly slashers that take away from Peele’s ideas and his team’s adept cinematic craftsmanship. (I’d say 2/3rds of Us was spent running, hiding, killing, and escaping—none of which was memorable or all that scary.)

I believe this is another artist’s “sophomore slump,” which almost always results from the inflated ego of an artist whose first project was a smashing success, and his benefactors who want to cash in on a hot name. Us could have spent another whole year in the hands of the screenwriters.

Jordan Peele is a good director, but let’s hold back from calling him the next Hitchcock. I think the best thing he could do is go indie. His ideas are fresh and inventive, but they are squandered when he caters to the masses, mixing in the lowbrow with the high.