#Trypod: Favorite podcasts

March is “Trypod” Month, where podcasts are asking enthusiasts to recommend their favorites. I only started listening to podcasts last summer, but I already have several favorites. One of the reasons I took so long to try podcasts was that I hadn’t heard of many. I tried out my first podcast after reading an interesting episode, and now I’m hooked.

Podcasts are great companions to life’s chores that occupy the hands but not the brain. I listen to podcasts when I do the dishes, when I fold clothes, and when I work in the garden. I love to learn, and this way I can learn at times I couldn’t before.

I listen to quite a range of stuff, as my favorites list will show. I’m also eager for new oddball recommendations.

BackStory: American history from the experts

On BackStory, three University of Virginia professors of history discuss a topic as it has played out through American history. (In 2017, they switched to four professors.) Topics include the history of church and state in America, the history of scandal, and the history of infrastructure, among others. Backstory delights in illuminating the bizarre and exciting about history, while connecting these topics to the present day. And with professors of history, you know you’re listening to real, researched history. Hooray!

Myths and Legends Podcast: Delightful myths from around the world

Narrator Jason brings good cheer to myths, legends, and fairy tales from around the world. Whether it’s the Norse Volsung Saga, Native American stories about giant skunks that can fart you to death, or Russia’s Baba Yaga, who’s home stands on chicken legs, Myths and Legends is guaranteed fun once a week. And that doesn’t even get into the weekly creature segments, like the butter cat, who steals butter from the neighbors for his master.

Russian Rulers History Podcast: Russian rulers, history, and culture

I’m a long-time Russian history enthusiast; if you aren’t this might not be your cup of tea, but it’s one of my favorites. The host isn’t a historian, he just likes Russian history, and does a good job telling it. Nothing flashy, just the history of this massive and enigmatic country, from the time of the Kievan Rus through the present day. The first ~130 episodes cover the Russian rulers, but from there it branches out. There is a massive archive for this podcast, and it’s one of my favorites for doing chores.

Science Magazine Podcast: The week in Science from America’s premier science publication

It’s hard to find good science journalism. That’s why the Science Magazine podcast is so spectacular. Beyond being informative, Science Podcast is fun. I understand my corner of science well enough, but I didn’t have a good insight into advancements in biological studies, for example. Everyone’s read about hair-brained sounding science studies, like making shrimp walk on treadmills (yes, this is real!); the podcast reveals how these strange studies are often really clever ways to answer tough questions. Science Magazine is a product of AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science), of which I am a member and highly recommend.

Stuff You Missed in History Class: Miscellaneous history from around the world

My gateway podcast. Missed in History focuses on the topics given short shrift, often focusing on women, people of color and history from Asia and Africa. Everything that isn’t commonly taught history is fair game, from the Montgolfier brothers who invented the first hot air balloon, to Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori school, to a history of Rhodesia. This means the podcast leaps around from week to week, but it also means that if one topic doesn’t suit your fancy, another will. Missed in History also has years of archived episodes.

Nature Podcast: the week in science from the UK’s premier science publication

Science and Nature are the top publication venues in the physical sciences. And Nature has a podcast as well! Nature does a wider variety of podcasts within the main podcast–it features a monthly science fiction story and a monthly roundtable discussion, in addition to the weekly review. Nature also did a series called PastCast that discussed historical publications in the journal. The journal goes back to 1869, so there’s a lot to work with. Nature also focuses more on science in the international community.

Springtime!

Western springtime is different. In the east, March is “in like a lion, out like a lamb.” In New Mexico, it’s been warm and lovely since the start of the month, but soon, our spring winds will begin. Like many Americans, I think of spring as a damp, green, thawing time of year. Here, it  is dry and abrasive. Here, it was 8% humidity yesterday.

The grass is growing, my herbs are returning, and I have been itching to garden, itching to have a few square feet of lush, green eastern spring. Over the years, I have chased the spring blossoms, from lenten roses and crocuses to irises and peonies. In Virginia, I wandered Thomas Jefferson’s garden each day, seeing the new blooms and progress. This year, I’m working on my own garden. That means that, at this point, I don’t have many new images to share. I don’t know how to make mulching and pulled weeds look very beautiful. But in the spirit of what I hope to grow, here are some of my favorite spring images from years past.

 

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Book Review: The Snail Darter and the Dam (Zygmunt Plater 2013)

Rating: 5/5

In  The Snail Darter and the Dam, Zygmunt Plater describes his famous legal battle over Tennessee’s Tellico Dam, which he argued all the way to a 6-3 US Supreme Court victory in 1978. Plater and local activists  argued that the dam would threaten the endangered snail darter fish, a violation of the recently-passed Endangered Species Act. The media covered it as a case of environmentalism run amok, but the ESA appeal was a backdoor to stopping an unsound project. Despite the court victory, a congressional finding that the dam project was financially unsound to finish even at 95% complete, and the fact that the dam would submerge some of the oldest human artifacts in the country, the dam was completed and stands today. The Snail Darter and the Dam details the grueling work of grassroots activism and the hazards of bureaucracy and entrenched interests.

WHY THIS BOOK?

This summer, I read Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, a tale of water administration. Before moving west, I had no idea what skullduggery surrounded the history of water rights. Reisner’s description of the Tellico Dam battle, though brief, was intriguing. Snail Darter was written so recently by a member of the legal team, a different perspective than that offered in Cadillac Desert.

THE GOOD

Snail Darter is the story of a young law professor who follows sound and sober reason and is battered by our bureaucratic institutions. He loses his job, and works himself to exhaustion trying to achieve the impossible: getting members of the bureaucracy and government to see a deeply-flawed bureau project for what it is. He fails.

Snail Darter is the story of a region’s struggles against the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The Little Tennessee River was one of the last free-flowing rivers in the backyard of the energy bureaucracy behemoth. It was one of the last fly fishing rivers in the east. It was the site of Cherokee settlements dating back over 10,000 years, many with religious significance. It was fertile farmland. In spite of this, the TVA wanted to build a dam that wouldn’t even supply power. It was originally pitched as a way to grow an industrial city anchored by Boeing. After Boeing backed out, the TVA continued to fight for their pointless and destructive project. The locals fought the dam starting in the mid 60’s. Lawyer and author Zygmunt Plater joined the fight in 1974.

Conservatives like Sean Hannity, Antonin Scalia, and George Will still invoke the snail darter as a symbol of environmentalism run amok. How ironic—the darter was the last means for locals to halt an impractical dam foisted upon them by a federal bureaucracy.  As Plater tells it, the darter was only successful in holding up the dam because of the deep unsoundness of the project. At last, there was a mechanism to force scrutiny upon the insane project, a back door by which to achieve oversight. Opposition to Tellico Dam should have been bipartisan—it was porkbarrel without economic upshot.

People don’t remember that part of the story because the media failed. Walter Cronkite called the lawsuit “frivolous.” Respected giants like the New York Times and ABC framed the lawsuit as an intractable conflict between economics and environment rather than covering the project’s flaws. They failed to cover the situation of farmers like Nell McCall; only 3 of her 90 acres would be submerged by the reservoir but the TVA would buy her out at suppressed prices to sell to the industrial city that no longer had tenants. If we think that media is flawed today, unable to give nuance and factual coverage, well, it’s nothing new.

Plater describes the support of grassroots organizations in Washington, DC. These are the counterparts to the lobbyists of K Street, devoted and passionate people who sleep on couches or at their desks waging an unfunded but righteous battle. Plater received extensive help from Anne Wickham of Friends of the Earth, Dave Conrad of America Rivers, and others.

Snail Darter describes the “Iron Triangle” that supports bureaucracies like the TVA. In the Iron Triangle, congress, bureaucracies, and interest groups support one another in the advancement of projects, each reinforcing one another’s weak points. For Tellico Dam, connected members of congress supported the TVA, which was supported by private construction companies. These three groups can mobilize money, media, and attack dogs that a grass roots organization can’t hope to oppose. In the case of Tellico Dam, the Iron Triangle triumphed over a Supreme Court ruling, economic inviability, and a hostile president, leading to the dam’s completion in 1979.

irontriangle

From Wikipedia: the Iron Triangle, showing how congress, interest groups, and the bureaucracies have interwoven incentives.

 

THE BAD

The subject matter is depressing. But as a meat eater has an obligation to understand that his steak once belonged to a cow, I’d argue an American has an obligation to learn about the making of law. It’s ugly. And in Snail Darter, a totally awful project is built for the vanity of a few removed bureaucrats, over the protest and struggle of hundreds. But they wouldn’t have succeeded if more people had cared when it mattered.

OVERALL

Snail Darter peeks inside government and bureaucracy. It shows what happens when media fails to be the fourth estate. 40 years later, the snail darter controversy remains misunderstood.

Today, we hope the media will be vigilant and informative; we hope it will stand up to government apparatus if it abuses people. Snail Darter suggests a certain pessimism to that hope, but it also provides an instruction manual for how accountability can work. In Plater’s tale, grassroots organizations interacted with congress and tried to inform the media. Donations to organizations like the ACLU and SPLC have skyrocketed recently. That’s encouraging.

I’m not a law buff, but Snail Darter was engrossing. If you are American and have ever liked a nonfiction book, I recommend this one.

Ten Favorite Images of 2016

Better late than never! I took a little hiatus from photography for the last few months. Now that I’m back in the saddle, it’s time to pick out my favorite ten images in the past year. (Here’s my 2015 list, which focuses a little more on technique.) This year I continued my western travels, learned about lighting (not shown here), and got really into HDRs (shown excessively here).

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Great Blue Heron in Florida

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Bisti Badlands in Northwest New Mexico

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Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wash in Northwest New Mexico

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Sierpinski tetrahedron

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Eagle’s Nest Lake near Taos, New Mexico

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Looking towards Pike’s Peak in Colorado

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St. Elmo, Colorado

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White Sands, New Mexico

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Three Sisters Volcanos in Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Night sky in Taos, New Mexico

Rain in the land of fair weather

It’s raining in California. A lot.  I’ve lived in the midwest, the mountains, the desert, and the northeast, but California weather is weird. Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert (which I reviewed here) details how California’s precipitation comes in 30 year cycles. Since we only have 150 years of modern weather records, that’s 5 cycles of rain. That’s not much data. So it causes havok. In 1916, San Diego hired a guy named Hatfield to literally make it rain. Just as he started work, it rained torrentially, and Hatfield had to flee a lynch mob. (Below is the Backstory Podcast segment on this story.)

I visited beautiful Balboa Park (home of the San Diego Zoo) in endless rain. I braved bus stops without awnings and big puddles. Because San Diegans live outdoors so much, only one restaurant had indoor seating, and was full of dripping puddle people like me. It was a harrowing adventure for one from the desert. I took a few rain-speckled pictures and fled back to the museums. I was lucky they weren’t outdoors too!

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Book Review: Santa Anna of Mexico (Will Fowler 2007)

Rating: 4/5

Will Fowler’s Santa Anna of Mexico is about Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the six-time president of Mexico. Santa Anna partook in most major events in the first 40 years of Mexican independence. Americans might know his as the cruel Mexican general of The Battle of the Alamo in Texas. He was a charismatic and wily man, entwined with and representative of the problems of early Mexico. He is hated today in Mexico, with no roads or statues to his honor; Fowler presents a complex man living through complex times.

WHY THIS BOOK?

  1. Santa Anna pops up in southwestern history. He was the general at the Alamo. He lost a leg in the Pastry War. He conned James Polk during the Mexican-American War. Eventually, I had to read his biography.
  2. Although the United States has only two neighbor countries, I know almost nothing about the history of either.

THE GOOD

Go look at the heads of state of Mexico on Wikipedia. For the first 30 years, only one lasted his whole term. 19th century United States sometimes seems dysfunctional; we’ve got nothing on Mexico. How did Mexico turn out so differently? This book helped me understand that a little.

Santa Anna’s biography is a great way to learn the (ridiculously complex and confusing) early history of Mexico. Santa Anna’s personal history parallels his country’s history. Fowler splits Santa Anna’s career into four stages: Hope (1821-28), Disenchantment (1828-35), Disillusion (1835-47), and Despair (1847-53).

Fowler portrays a complex Santa Anna. Santa Anna is blamed as the man who lost Texas, the man who lost the Mexican-American War (ceding half the country to the US), and the man who signed the humiliating Gadsden Purchase (ceding some more land to the US). He was also the Hero of Tampico, fending off a Spanish invasion, and the hero of the Pastry War, in which he lost a leg. In the Mexican-American War, he returned from exile in Cuba and valiantly fought when all others seemed paralyzed by infighting. The man had more lives than a cat. He was incredibly opportunistic, but he was also brave and believed in Mexico.

Fowler also describes Santa Anna as a caudillo. The caudillo, or strongman, is a political tradition in Latin America tracing to Spain’s colonial policies. The caudillo amassed money, land, and influence regionally; if his region was nationally influential enough, he would be nationally influential. Santa Anna became the caudillo of Veracruz, the large and crucial port of Mexico.

Donald Trump has been called the “Yankee Caudillo” in Latin American press. There are parallels. Santa Anna attacked the political parties as corrupt; he claimed to stand apart from the evils of partisanship and to fight for the people. Santa Anna stayed relevant with his wealth in Veracruz; likewise Trump stayed relevance with his global brand. Both men were constantly near power, but able to claim a mantle of purity. Like Trump, Santa Anna preferred to campaign (this time in the military sense). Santa Anna rarely held power for more than six months because he didn’t care to govern. (This is in contrast to other caudillos who held power for extended periods of time.) My understanding is admittedly superficial, but learning about Mexico’s politics gave me another perspective on American politics.

THE BAD

I struggled with the first few chapters. I was constantly consulting Wikipedia or a map. If you know little Mexican history, this book is absolutely readable, but it’s challenging.

OVERALL

Santa Anna is absurd, but Fowler explains him well. Santa Anna’s antics are so intimately a part of Mexico’s early struggles for democracy.

Santa Anna, like Mexico’s early failure, is so tragic. What could Mexico have accomplished if only they had achieved the stability of the early United States? Were the United States lucky to have achieved stability from the very beginning?

Finally, the caudillo concept provides insights into much of Latin America, and perhaps into the United States.

Black History Month Reading List

One of the joys of science fiction is imagining life through other lenses. Until recently, I had overlooked the richness of lenses present in contemporary society and history. In the spirit of that joy, I challenged myself to a reading list for February’s Black History Month.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (nonfiction)

The Warmth of Other Suns details the Great Migration, when over 6 million African Americans migrated from the American South to the north, looking for opportunity and fleeing oppression. From 1915 to 1970, this quiet movement reshaped our country; before the migration, 10% of American blacks lived in the north, after, 50%.

This 530 page book (over 600 with the post matter) sat on my shelf for months, looking intimidating. Finally I picked it up for Black History Month. In 4 days, I’m already over 400 pages in. It’s so well written and relatable.

Binti by Nnedi Orakafor (science fiction)

Science fiction has long been a bastion of white dudes, as demonstrated by the Sad Puppies tantrums of 2015. In addition to being exclusionary, this is unfortunate because it goes against the calling of the genre to explore the human condition. The genre has shortchanged minority protagonists and it spends too little time in the vast non-white areas of the world.  A new generation of science fiction authors has brought great stories to these underserved settings and perspectives.

Nnedi Orakafor is part of the afrofuturism movement in science fiction. I read a short story by her several years ago, and it stuck with me. I’ve been meaning to read a longer work of hers, and now is the time.

American Uprising by Dan Rasmussen (nonfiction)

America’s largest slave uprising is largely forgotten today. Well-rated and about an unfamiliar topic—sounds perfect.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola (folk tale)

Amos Tutuola is a famous Nigerian writer of folk tales. This book has been on my shelf for years. I started it once, but then got distracted and set it down. The style is a little challenging, as it’s unfamiliar, but it’s time to read Amos Tutuola.