Sunday, July 1, 2012

By Ink Alone: China Airborne by James Fallows

China Airborne
James Fallows
Pantheon (May 15, 2012)

James  Fallows is a blogger and writer for The Atlantic and formerly was a speech writer for Carter while for years has been an eminent journalist. He's also an amateur pilot - this seems a bit ridiculous because am I also an amateur baseball player; no, I'm a baseball player, I just don't get payed for it. And Fallows really loves to fly and discuss aviation matters. He has spent many a pound of ink on his blog discussing ridiculousness of airport security and comparing that to the non-existent security measures of private airports.

In this book, Fallows uses the rapidly changing aviation situation in China as a platform to discuss how China is opening up and changing internally. As of most thing thats Fallows writes, it is extremely well written and eminently interesting. Fallows repeatedly pushed the point that there is no ONE CHINA. There are a million moving parts in China, only miniscule amounts of which we see in the west. There is amazingly skilled manufacturing process with incredible amounts of poverty. There are huge airports being constructed, next to small camps where people don't have electricity and running water.

Fallows discusses in this book how the military control of all airspace is a huge factor in limiting how China will grow - you can't just decide Tuesday morning to fly from Hong Kong to Beijing in your small jet; while in America, you can decide you want to fly from Seattle to Denver with almost no notice. Flying in China is incredibly dangerous because the infastructure doesn't exist; in much of western CHina, where flying would be a great advantage because the populations centers are so spread out, there are no location beacons, pilots are required to fly dangerously low to stay out of military air space and the terrain is quite rugged and intimidating.

The first three quarters of the books is fallows discussions with various aviation individuals in China, how they are trying to change the culture to encourage more private planes, how the people will adjust to flying more commercially. The last quarter of the book jumps into essays about China as a whole and its changing culture.

Overall, I thought the book was interesting. However, the only people I've recommended that they read the book are those who have lived or spent significant time in China because I want to know how much they agree with the book. Its a book that is not critical anyone read. Its interesting, but it won't change your life in any way.

Three out of Five Stars.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

By Ink Alone: Hollowing Out the Middle

Hollowing Out the Middle:  The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America
Patrick J. Carr & Maria Kefalas

Hollowing Out is about how the best, the brightest young people of rural America are leaving rural America and in droves. It details how the small towns that so many people in America think of as "real America" or where we trace our 'heritage" to are collapsing and dying out. The authors were apart of a study in the early 2000's that was detailing the issues of the teenagers and young adults. They had studied urban and suburban young people, the failures of the young people to excel, what held them back, what created poverty and want. But there was an argument the study had not delved into the needs of young adults and in the rural areas. So these two researchers, who are married, moved out to a rural Northeast Iowa town (which they changed the name to and changed the name of the individuals for anonymousness purposes) and lived for a period of time and dived into the culture that had made the town.

The authors lived in "Ellis" for a summer, and then they spent the following years interviewing those young adults who had left Ellis, Iowa, in Liberty County. It took them eight years to write the book, and it actually is a short book, only 170 pages long. It doesn't do much with statistical analysis, which I think hurts their analysis. There is no overall statistical analysis of what percentage of students fall into the different categories, no analysis of how this town of 'Ellis' differs from small towns, and probably the most important analysis, they neglect to do, how Ellis differs from larger school districts.

The main argument of the book is that high school students can be separated into three groups, Achievers, Stayers, and Returners. Achievers are the high intelligence, highly successful students who go off to college at a major city, receive a four-year degree, find a job in a major city and only visit the small town at regularly spaced intervals (Thanksgiving, Christmas and Funerals/Weddings). Stayers are students who never leave the small town; they latch onto a job in town after high school, or during and start working. They usually marry and start a family and work in blue collar or white collar unskilled labor. And last are the returners. These are the students who leave the small town; they head off to college or to the military or to a job with a long lost family member, but they eventually return to the small town because they miss it, or they don't connect with the outside world, or some other reason.

The authors argue that the Brain-Drain of small towns throughout rural America is because those Achievers, the top students, the brilliant futures of America are leaving the small towns behind. Moreover, those select citizens of the small towns, the teachers, the business leaders, the public officials are pushing those students to not only excel at life, but choose a life and a lifestyle that is not possible in small town America. Basically, the leaders of small town America are actively cannibalizing small town America.

The authors also argue that counter-intuitively, the leaders of small-town America are failing to help the Stayers. They aren't investing the time and effort in those students. When those students leave school and start their adult lives, they don't have the skills and knowledge to become productive citizens and the community is worse off for that.

In the last chapter of the book, the authors identify remedies to bring back the life of the small town America. These vary from creating better jobs that the high achievers would want to more bars and clubs and coffee shops, the third place locations that young adults with disposable income like to spend their time and money. They also briefly talk about changing agribusiness society that dominates rural America, but their discussion is so brief its almost an aside, and that is sad as I think this is the biggest issue.

I do think that their descriptions of the three types of young people in small town America are very accurate. I myself am an Achiever (well, to some extent). I went 1,500 miles away for school, and have since worked in three states and did a spell overseas. Many of my classmates perfectly fit the descriptions of the various students that the two authors identify. I also don't completely accept the premise that the town leaders - teachers, business leaders, and other parents are the ones who choose which students become achievers, stayers, or returners. That, in my mind, is selected by the parents and the family of the young person in question. The town leaders perhaps reinforce it, but that path was long created before the student was malleable by his or her teachers.

But that does create a second problem, why are those teachers allowing certain students to not succeed. Why do the teacher over-invest their time and resources in these successful young people and not invest it in those who are failing? The obvious reason is that teachers - like everyone else - like success, they like being rewarded for their effort. And that effort is much more likely to be rewarded by a successful student that someone who only will hate a teacher for pushing them to study or give effort when everyone else their entire life has told them they weren't capable.

My problem with the book is that they never ask the more important questions:

Should America invest in small towns and stop by the Brain Drain to the cities? What benefits for American society as a whole does a prosperous rural America provide? Doing a Cost/Benefit analysis of the resources it would take to save small-town America, would that money provide better benefit in urban and suburban community development programs? The authors never ask those questions. I think that is the biggest failure of the book.

We must remember that the rural areas of the Midwest are not naturally populated. Few people choose to in the great grasslands prior to the coming of the railroads and the Homestead Act. Then people came in droves, they found their own land and started farming. Towns grew up around the farmers as they needed supplies and those towns continued to grow as their growth attracted merchants and light industry. Light industry shifted to heavy industry. As farmers became more efficient, farms got larger and larger and pretty soon we began to lose our farmers to large agribusinesses that destroyed the environment and forced the farmers off their land. Farmers couldn't compete with the efficiency of industrial farming. Light and heavy industry began to leave the rural areas as meat packing plants consolidated and grew to enormous size.

Our society has decided that we won't pay high prices for food and that we won't pay high prices for our tools and appliances. Our society has decided that farmers and their need for a living isn't valuable. We have decided, as a culture, that environmentally destructive agribusiness is the only way America can live. Those industries that were made in the rural heartland - John Deere factories and Maytag - but now come from Vietnam, China and Taiwan. We as a society have chosen that the life style of rural America - a life style we all claim to revere - is not worth the costs.

I am from rural America - I grew up in rural Northwest Iowa. I understood the culture that the authors describe, the importance of the last name and family heritage. I left my home town in search of a different life. I found it and I love the life I found. I have since returned to rural America after losing my job (now in Kansas, not Iowa) and I don't like it. I yearn for the city life, the culture of the city. When I accepted this job back in the rural areas, I didn't realize what I would be giving up.

Those high achievers that leave, those people like me; its not that we don't like our home towns, we do. I miss parts of Okoboji. But I detest parts of it too. I detest the cultural limitations of those that stay. The authors talk about the distrust of outsiders and the forming of the community into cliques. I noticed that here in Hays. When I normally introduce myself in Hays, I usually only use my first name, because that's just how I am. But people always - always - ask my last name. They want to know my heritage, as if that has any impact on my interactions with them. It is often frustrating; I want to explain to them that 'I didn't give you my last name because my heritage is not important.' But because the history of your family ties you to that location, it is important.

The long time residents of small-town America love it for its culture; 'you can let your kids play in the street' or you know your neighbor. I detest the culture that culture that hates outsiders, that has an always soft racism. That believes that Gays and Lesbians are a lesser people. A culture that is obsessed in high school sports. A culture that glorifies hunting and guns. I don't want to live in a world where the thing to discuss over the office watercooler is high school sports and the 12-point buck that Jack shot with his new 12-guage. I don't want to live in a world that is gossiping about the new black guy and his white girlfriend that moved in across the street from you. I want to live in a world with a myriad of different cultures - I want to walk through Koreatown, and Chinatown, and Little Italy. The culture of these towns is closed and is driving away those of us who like new experiences.

Reading the book from a formerly rural perspective was also interesting because my home town, Okoboji, is rural and is partially a farm based community - but it also is much more cosmopolitan than Ellis. Okoboji is a tourist trap in the summer due to its lakes. It also has families moving in and out over the years so it doesn't have the same level of clique-ness that develop in many small towns. But my current residence in Hays, KS is also a very interesting comparison. Hays is one of the few towns in western KS to be growing. Hays has many of the problems that Ellis (note, Hays is in Ellis county, and their is a town about 12 miles west of Hays called Ellis, when I refer to Ellis, I'm referring to the renamed town in Iowa the authors' studied) are present in Hays. The residents of Hays graduate high school and head off to college, some attend here at the state university and some head east to the Kansas colleges. But they don't return to Hays after college.

How is Hays growing you ask? By cannibalizing the small and quickly shrinking small towns of western KS. We'll take a quick look at my company to understand the cannibalism. I work closely with six people whom are all about my same age (25-35); three female and three males. Two are married (not to each other) and the other four are single. But of the six, only one is originally from Hays. All graduated from Ft Hays (the local college) but they came to Hays from the surrounding small towns for their degrees. They like the "big city" of Hays and stayed. They liked the life of this town. They will never return to their small towns - there are no high intelligence jobs there. They have no desire to live that kind of life. So even as we have a town that is successful investing in itself, is growing, it is still one of the most destructive forces on the smaller rural towns.

In their concluding chapter, the authors provide some prescriptions to solve the hollowing out of America. Their main pints are equalizing the investment the town fathers place in the achievers vs. the stayers; sustainable immigration practices; sustainable agricultural practices; infrastructure development that would bring smart young intelligence based workers to rural America; and a better use of community college and high school to train those young people staying to create better jobs.

All of these prescriptions are possible solutions. But the most important solution is barely mentioned and is given less than four paragraphs in their conclusion. Rural America is the food producer. It is a society based around farming and agriculture. Yet because of the massive industrializing of agriculture we are driving away jobs and thus the reasons for people to live in the rural areas. There is a reason for the overwhelming push towards industrialization: we demand cheap food. America pays the lowest percentage of its income towards food in the developed world. Farmers have been squeezed for years because Americans refuse to pay for the costs of their food, so farmers are forced to sell out to large processors that can create more food. Yet these large industrial processors aren't paying the true costs, the environmental damage they reek on the world is destroying the rural areas as well.

We as a country need to make a choice to be willing to pay more for food, and to ensure more of that food goes to the farmer. If farmers are able to reap more $/acre farmed, there can be fewer farmers and thus more of them and more people living in rural America. We already know our food supply is extremely unhealthy for us. The level of pesticides and herbicides necessary to keep mono-culture farms yields high is ruining environment for neighbors and friends downstream. Our foods - full of fat and salt - have made us the least healthy country on the earth. We have people die every year from food pathogen scares that would be avoided with a non-industrial production of food.  

Sunday, February 20, 2011

By Ink Alone: Born to Run

Born to Run:  A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen
Christopher McDougall

I'd heard a little about this book, and it kept coming up as a recommended book in my amazon queue. I kept thinking about downloading it to the Kindle, but then I was like, nahh, I have too much other crap to read.

Then, someone at work said they had a copy and weren't reading it, so I asked to borrow it. I finished it in two days. It is one of the best reads as I have every had. It has great writing, hilarious story-telling, and probably the most imporbable main themed story I could imagine.

I explain the gist of the book like this:  think of the best Onion story you'd ever read; one that is so ridiculous and over the top and plays silly stereotypes to the edge, and you are just waiting for the joke, the punch line, that sentence which makes you laugh. This book doesn't have that joke, it gets better. It is so ridiculous that at times you can't believe these people actually exist. You can't believe that you had never heard of them.

The story follows writer McDougall as he tries to investigate the Tarahumara Indians of Northern Mexico who hide away from the western world and who have not adopted any western cultures norms. However, they are among the healthiest people in the world, and they can run like nothing in the world. Running a marathon, or running down a rabbit is nothing to them. Its a brisk walk in the morning.

McDougall finally treks to Mexico and surviving canyons of death and drug lords, meets them. He also meets another American who years ago left the real world to learn how to run and live with the Tarahumara. Blanco Caballo (the white horse) has survived for years at the edge of the Tarahumara, not really a part of them, and also, probably crazy.

After McDougall finds the Indians, and meets Caballo, he writes up an article and forgets about it. Until Caballo tries to start a race of the great Ultramarathon runners (100 miles or more) and the Tarahumara. Caballo only can access the greater world via a dialup modem thirty miles away from his hut. But he recruits (with McDougall's help) some of the greatest runners in America and they finally, after much tribulation, raceteh Tarahumara.

Of course, the story above is kind of silly. McDougall's writing is what makes the story. The way he can relate the story, bring to life these different people is amazing. Its one of the more amazing books, even if you don't like to run. And if you don't, you'll want to start after you finish.

Five Stars!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009