Daily Archives: November 10, 2009

Reading and listening

Three books I’d like to quickly mention…

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall: I saw McDougall on the Daily Show and heard about the Tarahumara while watching the show Last Man Standing.  This book came out during my fascination with my Vibram Five fingers (which I still think are amazing) and so may have been the target demographic for the book.  The author writes for Men’s Health and other magazines and you can definitely tell that from his writing style.  If you’re not a running enthusiast (not necessarily a hard core fanatic, just someone who enjoys running) the book might not appeal to you which is a shame because it goes off on two rather lengthy tangents that I think have a much wider appeal.  First, a discussion of how the running shoe-industrial complex came into being and has really bamboozled almost everyone with no proof that they improve a runner’s performance or prevent injury.  Secondly, is a great discussion about human evolution and an argument that humans have literally evolved to be running creatures.  Not running predators like cheetahs or wolves but rather persistence hunters.

John Dies @ the End by David Wong:  I picked this up on a whim and am very glad I did.  This book really defies any sort of summation but it is a horror-humor mix.  Allow me to quote one passage from the book to give you a feel for it:

A group of men carrying what had to be rifles stood around the vehicle, and John immediately reached out and punched the switch to kill his headlights.  Then it occurred to him that the lights suddenly going off might have been more noticeable.  So he punched them back on, thought he saw two of the men turn toward him, and then quickly turned the lights back off again.  Now he felt the stobing of his headlights was almost impossible not to notice; in fact, all of the men seemed to be looking up the hill at him.  The group might have either pursued him or raised their rifles to perforate his windshield had a gorilla riding a giant crab not leapt out of the woods and eaten two of them.

Dear readers, no amount of context would explain that paragraph.  The whole book makes you feel a bit disoriented like you’re just a bit thick and not getting it but its enjoyable enough to wait what passes for answers and resolution.  It elicited a dozen or so laughs out loud and a bunch of smirks so check it out if you want some light entertainment.

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman:  I’ve collected a small library of vegetarian cookbooks since going to the dark side way back in 1997 but this may allow me to throw all of them away.  It’s absolutely brilliant covering all the cooking basics, ideas for altering recipes and addressing all those vegetables you see in the supermarket and have no idea what to do with them.  The author assumes no cooking skill on the part (hence the instructions for making a green salad) but don’t assume the simple recipes are tasteless or boring.  I’ve done 5 or so meals out of this book so far (it’s massive at 800-900 pages) and each has been a hit.  In fact, I’ve officially made my wife a fan of cauliflower, something she swore she didn’t like at all.

Failed cities

Part 1

The Philadelphia Inquirer continues its special report on the failed city of Camden, NJ and I keep finding parallels between that and attempts to stabilize failed states or assist developing nations improve their standards of living.

Many aid projects in the developed world (and, increasingly China which I’m not sure is ‘officially’ part of the developed world)  are big, expensive infrastructure projects like dams, roads, resource extraction plants and such.  Such projects are usually announced with much fanfare, proclaiming millions (or billions!) going to a particular country.  Yet most of the money doesn’t go into the local economy at all.  Outside companies plan and manage the project, consultants and labor is imported.  Revenue gets funneled to corrupt local politicians or is siphoned out to the company(ies) that ran the project.  Not surprisingly, the estimated boom in economic activity doesn’t pan out and the country ends with little to show for all the money except (usually) being on the wrong end of a bad business deal.  How does Camden stack up compared with that?

The landmark 2002 Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act that put Camden under state control set aside $175 million for dozens of city projects. And none was larger, or more emblematic, than the $25 million expansion of the 10-year-old, state-owned aquarium.

Camden’s residents were told the recovery would help to lift them out of poverty. The state’s “strategic revitalization plan,” the recovery’s guide, even listed jobs as the No. 1 goal.  But it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, most of the bailout money, $99 million, was allocated to the aquarium and other “anchor” institutions: tourist attractions, universities, hospitals, and government agencies…only 23 percent of [the aquarium’s] employees – 28 percent during the summer – live in Camden. Before the recovery, the percentage of Camden residents employed there was 43 percent.

At Rutgers-Camden law school, the $11 million for an expansion project helped to increase the hours of free legal work students provide city residents from about 30,000 to 40,000 hours a year…But the school’s expansion led to only one new job for a Camden resident, a custodial position.

More than 40 percent of the population is living under the poverty line, and the tax base has shrunk.

Camden is the second most dangerous city in America and the poorest medium-sized city, according to national rankings. The city of 70,390 had 1,791 violent crimes in 2008, compared to 1,711 the year before the recovery began.

The central idea to the ‘revitalization’ scheme was to develop the waterfront area of Camden with tourist attractions, high cost condos and homes and perhaps some corporate headquarters.  All of which guarantee the residents of Camden nothing but low wage, service sector jobs.  The unspoken part of these revitalization plans is that if they can ‘gentrify’ the city they can then begin to squeeze existing residents out of the area.  Where they go is unimportant so long as it’s somewhere else.  At that point they become someone else’s problem and everyone can declare victory for ‘turning around’ a depressed city.

This story reminded me of a recent Planet Money podcast in which an author of a new book called The Aid Trap argues that aid based upon the Marshall Plan would be much better than our current system.  Specifically, focus on giving money directly to local, mid-sized businesses (from 1 to several dozen employees generally) which are the real generators of economic activity.  Of course, Camden also presents an opportunity to really think outside the box.  Why does it need to still be a city?  With over 1,500 properties abandoned and large tracts of land set aside  is there room to create a modern, self sufficient city-state?  Even if we don’t go that far, how about establishing a plan which will allow the citizens of Camden to take a greater role in their own urban regeneration?