Democratizing energy policy

I should have posted this yesterday to mark Earth Day, but since we should be thinking about these issues every day – not just on an arbitrary Friday in April – here is a short video made by a German group, PowerShift, which offers a quick overview of some issues related to energy policy. The video focuses on the use of biomass (like trees) from developing countries to produce energy in the West, using the example of a German company which purchases rubber trees from a Liberia-based company, Buchanan Renewables (which is actually a cool company, worth checking out their work), to use in a power plant in Berlin which uses gas and biomass. The idea they present is that instead of perpetuating a cycle whereby rich countries use up resources of poorer countries to support their unbridled energy consumption, we should turn to smaller-scale, decentralized models of energy production.

Video is in German, with English subtitles (click “CC” at the bottom right of the screen to enable them)

I am not an expert in energy policy by any means – but I instinctively agree with the notion that we need to rethink our models of energy production. We are hooked on oil, gas and coal, and have developed unsustainable energy consumption practices. I fully support the efforts of those who are committed to thinking about new and innovative means to produce energy.

As individuals, I believe we have a responsibility to curb our own energy consumption as much as we can – it’s not so hard to turn off power bars connected to the wall, drive a little bit less, buy at least some of your food from local sources. Every bit makes a difference. Furthermore, we can also support the efforts of companies like the one presented in the video. Even simply talking about these alternatives, raising awareness among friends and family that a different way is possible, can go a long way toward shifting paradigms.

Green Books Campaign: Sunray: The Death and Life of Captain Nichola Goddard

This review is part of the Green Books campaign. Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco- friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.

When fellow blogger Tom Murphy suggested I participate in the Green Books campaign, I was drawn in by the idea of promoting books printed on sustainable material. As an avid reader, I tend to buy – instead of borrow – the books I read. At the same time, my eco-conscious self realizes that, in this day and age, conservation is important. The book I selected is printed on a mixture of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified material, recycled material, and controlled material – a small (too small, IMO) FSC Mixed Sources label in the front pages of the book identifies it as such. When I heard of the campaign, I didn’t really care what book I was going to review – I was just happy to participate in what I believe is a timely and important initiative. But my selection proved to be a wise one: Sunray – The Death and Life of Captain Nichola Goddard was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Captain Nichola Goddard

I’m new(ish) to Canada. I moved here in 2008, two years after twenty-six year old Captain Nichola Goddard lost her life as the first Canadian female soldier to die in combat. Valerie Fortney’s account was my first exposure to this exceptional woman’s story. In addition to bearing the infamous honor of being the first woman to perish during combat operations, Nichola was also the first Canadian officer to call artillery fire against enemy combatants since the Korean War – quite an accomplishment for such a young woman, whose experience in the battlefield only lasted a few months. But above and beyond these facts, Nichola’s story is not about being the “first”. It’s not merely about how she conquered gender barriers, or served her country with genuine commitment and enthusiasm. Her story is about idealism and dedication, searching and finding a path in life. Mostly, though, her story, as told by Fortney, is an intensely personal and intimate one; the portrait of a young, thoroughly modern, cosmopolitan woman whose life was cut short because a piece of shrapnel hit the base of her skull.

Nichola was born in Papua New Guinea, where her parents were working as educators, helping strengthen the local school system. Her parents’ work took their family to various places across Canada, and, as a child, Nichola lived in First Nations communities, learning new languages and discovering cultures most Canadian children only ever hear of in passing. Fortney interviewed over 80 people to paint this picture of Nichola, and it shows: from family friends in Papua New Guinea to teachers in the various towns she lived in and friends she made over the years, the author delivers an incredibly detailed and vivid portrait. Nichola’s parents were humanistic; her background and education, liberal. Her decision to attend Canada’s Royal Military College (RMC), and later, pursue a military career, was not an obvious one.

Through Fortney’s account, though, we understand how this intelligent, open-minded and caring young woman rationalized this decision. Over the course of the book, the reader comes to know Nichola almost as a friend. Some of the details – such as how she  met her husband on the first day of training at RMC, and how their courtship unfolded – could have been found in a diary. Her reflections on her education at RMC, her first posting as an officer in Manitoba, her constant efforts to overcome gender barriers are told in an intimate and engaging way. Sunray, though, never feels voyeuristic or prying, in spite of this level of detail. Instead, you come to know and appreciate Nichola, the “warrior poet who could dance, sing, write, fight, run and jump.” (p.282)

Reading this book in early November, as Remembrance Day activities are taking place and every person I see on the subway is wearing the red poppy, made it even more significant. It reminded me of all the young women and men that our governments send to the frontlines of wars we’re not sure we should be fighting. Regardless of one feels about war, we need to acknowledge and pay tribute to the people who are out there, like Nichola, trying to do the right thing and putting their life on the line in the process. We don’t live in a perfect world, and not every soldier is as exemplary as Captain Goddard was. If, like me, you feel disillusioned by the politics of war, Sunray is a book for you. It’s a powerful reminder of the human dimension of war, as well as an exceptionally intimate glimpse into the life of a fascinating woman.

Favorite Books

Today on Twitter, I asked “what’s your favorite book?” There are two reasons for this: one, I am going away on a week long vacation, and two, I have actually read all the books in my bookshelf here in Toronto. The last book I read was Diary of a Bad Year, by J.M. Coetzee – it was an astonishing, unique mix of fiction and non-fiction. It’s structured with parallel story lines – literally – each page is divided into three sections: one is Coetzee’s non-fiction piece (“strong opinions”, they are called), and the two other are Coetzee and the female protagonist’s dialogue and inner thoughts. Fascinating. Check it out.

Anyway — I would love to build a list of favorite books. I am lucky to follow and be followed by some pretty great people on Twitter, each with their own passions, interests and – presumably – taste in books. As the daughter of a publisher, I’ve always been surrounded by books and literature, though I let reading fall by the wayside at some points – life and work get in the way, sometimes. I’m making a conscious effort to read as much as possible, and using downtime (commutes, waiting rooms, etc.) as opportunities.

And if you’re still not convinced to pick up a good ol’ book, consider this: [r]eading …is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage.” (This quote comes from an article Bonnie Koenig shared on Twitter the other day about the importance of reading)

Twitter friends have responded to the bleg, and here some favorite books:

– @Bonniekoenig: The Eight and The Magic Circle by Katherine Neville (Bonnie notes these books are good vacation reads)

@fubarista: All Our Relations by Winona LaDuke

@viewfromthecave: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (I adore – seriously – DFW, but I like his other books so much more)

@viewfromthecave: White Noise by Don Delillo

@laurenist: English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

@tmamone: Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

@timothythompson: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

@johnness: Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

@lrakoto: Le métier d’homme by Alexandre Jollien

@lrakoto: Nudge by Sustein & Thaler

@tertsheminator: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

@saratu: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (read it, loved it)

@saratu: The Believers by Zoe Heller

@justineabigail: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (have not read the book, but really loved the movie – as hard as it was)

@karlincharge: House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

@northernpikefly: Cider House Rules by John Irving

@naheedmustafa: Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb

@davealgoso: Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

@thecjmview: Outside Lies Magic by John Stilgoe | The Giver by Lois Lowry | Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (read this one, and loved it too) | In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

@ubriacopriscila: The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

@endeavoringe: East of Eden by John Steinbeck | Bee Season by Myla Goldberg | Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem | Waiting by Ha Jin

@tmsruge: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

@debelzie: The Deep Field by James Bradley

@saundra_s: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (classic, fun read)

@parrav: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (excellent) | Dune by Frank Herbert

@intldogooder: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

@KPMcDonald : Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (unforgettable) | Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

@davidweek: Where were you last Pluterday by Paul Van Herck | The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut | The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

@ithorpe: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

@sonjasugira: White Teeth and On Beauty by Zadie Smith | Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri | White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty | The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

@meowtree: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz | Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight Game and A Street Smart Song: Capoiera Philosophy and Inner Life by Nestor Capoeira | Memory of Fire Trilogy by Eduardo Galeno

@idealistnyc: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn | The Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce

@pamelascully:Emergency Sex by Cain, Postelwait, Thomson | Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michael

@akhilak: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri | Dry by Augusten Burroughs | The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein | Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte | Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder (loved it – as well as Strength in What Remains)

@giantpandinha: Aya by Abouet and Oubrerie

@shotgunshack: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (love this book – she’s a great author)

@michaelkbusch: Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar

@talesfromthhood: Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco | Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins | Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman

@texasinafrica: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

@bill_easterly: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

@postcardjunky: Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow | Light Years by James Salter | World’s Fair by E.L. Doctorow | Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell | Jump by Nadine Gordimer | African Laughter by Doris Lessing

– @transitionland: Country of my Skull by Antjie Krog | The Keys to my Neighbor’s House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda by Elizabeth Neuffer | 4000 days by Warren Fellows

@abmakulec: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand | The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

@keshetbachan: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak | Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy | The Jewish Dog by Asher Kravitz (which is so far the only book I could not find on Amazon)

– Special Canadian edition: recommendations from @nobauerm and @janereitsma: Generation X by Douglas Coupland | Larry’s Party by Carol Shields

@janereitsma: Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

@nobauerm: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon | Life of Pi by Yann Martel

@karinabthatsme: Speak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

@lithaca: Half the Sky by Nick Kristof | Creating a world without poverty by Muhammad Yunus | 100 years of solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (if you have not read this yet, do yourself a favor and pick it up now. Epic)

I’d like to add to this list, and keep it growing. What’s your favorite book? Leave a comment, or send me a tweet @penelopeinparis.

Things I read you should read too

I’ll admit it, I have a bad habit. When I find a multi-page article on the web that I want to read, I’ll usually send it to my partner with the e-mail subject “Print please.” My mind is rarely settled enough to read over 2,000 words in one go online – I find that I get distracted by e-mail, Twitter, other news stories… The result of this is that we have a growing collection of printed articles, that we collect in a binder, by category (nerdage – I know.)

Some of these are older features, but since they’re not straight-up news items, I think you’ll find them still relevant and interesting. You’ll notice that I tend to read a lot about the American neo-conservative movement. I don’t know why specifically, but I find the personalities of people like Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin endlessly fascinating. Their mode of thinking is so far removed from mine, I might as well be reading an account of alien life. Anyway, in an age where people have little time or patience for long form journalism and books, I continue to enjoy turning off the computer and delving deeply into one subject. Without further ado, here is a list of things I read you should read too:

Sarah Palin: the Sound and the Fury. From the October 2010 edition of Vanity Fair, an in-depth article which looks at Palin’s modus operandi. You have to hand it to her for being one of the scariest politicians in the United States. This profile is interesting because it looks beyond the “bloopers” and paints a picture of a woman who knows what she wants, and is determined to get it. The journalist had a hard time getting people to talk about her; there is obviously a fear of reprisal.

Small Change, by Malcolm Gladwell, in The New Yorker. This particular article has been making the rounds in the past week or so, so you may have already read it. If you haven’t yet read the whole thing, I really encourage you to. In it, Gladwell talks about “why the revolution won’t be tweeted”, and he contrasts the civil rights movement – its depth, its seriousness, its commitment – to online activism. Having just finished reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography, I thought his choice of examples (the sit-ins at lunch counters in the South) were pertinent. Nevertheless, as much as I agree with Gladwell that creating real change – like the civil rights movement did – requires more (much more) than a few clicks of the mouse, I think he fails to see the point that Twitter, Facebook and other social media are actually advocacy and activism tools. There is no doubt in my mind that nothing will replace the courage of individuals who challenge authorities  and the status quo, but I think you’d be hard pressed to make that point without acknowledging the capacity of social media and web-based tools to support and enhance these activities. Anyway, a great read. (PS. My Canadian friends like to remind me that Gladwell is Canadian, so I’ll just throw that in)

Frat House for Jesus in the September 13 issue of The New Yorker. This is a fascinating piece on the role and influence of a non-denominational “prayer group” which dozens of key American political figures belong to. Did you know that a bunch of conservative law makers lived in a house together on C street in DC? John Ensign, who was the chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, got in trouble with his “frat brothers” when he had an extra-marital affair. The Fellowship – the name of this secretive group – is powerful politically, in and outside the United States (the Fellowship apparently organized a secret meeting between the Congolese president Joseph Kabila and Rwandan president Paul Kagame in 2001.) A fascinating piece, which shows just how much American political life is influenced by religious thinking.

Newt Gingrich: the indispensable Republican in the September issue of Esquire. The journalist spent a lot of time speaking with Marianne Gingrich, Newt’s former wife, so the piece is focused on Gingrich’s “last fit of empire building.” The article tries to make it seem like Gingrich is building up his election machine for 2012, but, to me, the article makes him seem like a rather irrelevant old politician. The interview with his former wife makes the piece particularly interesting and (seemingly?) honest.

Being Glenn Beck, in the October 3rd NYT magazine. Let me just say, this man is frightening. He’s clearly had to deal with a lot of personal issues over the years, and this is a man who’s come back from the brink – he might actually have fallen off and climbed back up, which explains his particular brand of “Idontgiveashitwhatpeoplethink.” (“You get to a place where you disgust yourself. Where you realize what a weak, pathetic and despicable person you have become”, Beck tells the journalist) In this epic article, he’s compared to Oprah; “Like Winfrey, Beck talks a great deal about himself and subscribes to the pop-recovery ethic.” Here is one review of the piece in Gawker, but I highly recommend you read it if you’re at all interested in contemporary US politics and trying – like me – to understand the appeal of Beck for American people.

An Army of One, in the September 2010 issue of GQ. This one is the story of whacky Gary Faulkner, the American man who took it upon himself to hunt down Bin Laden (or “Binny Boy”, as Faulkner likes to call him) in the mountains of Eastern Pakistan. His story is pathetic, in the true sense of the term. The delusional, possibly insane, Faulkner has been on a mission for the past five or six years to find Bin Laden. At times, it seems he’s just frighteningly crazy – his dreams told him he needed to reach Pakistan “without touching the ground”, so his first couple of attempts to go to Pakistan (from the US, mind you) involved twenty-foot boats he was planning on taking all the way across the Pacific and Indian oceans, to Pakistan, presumably. Another time, he tried to use a hand-glider (really.)  His whole story is so fascinating – and sometimes hilarious. I think one of my favorite nuggets from Faulkner’s story is the notion that once he found “Binny Boy”, Faulkner would be able to share Ben Laden’s dialysis machine. Apparently, both of them are diabetic.

– Finally, I highly recommend you check out “My relentless pursuit of the guy who robbed me“, in Salon. A very different story than the ones I link to above, this is about a woman whose purse gets stolen, and she manages to track down the thief through a combination of online and offline sleuthing. It’s well-written and the writer has such fire in her belly, you just root for her throughout, cheering her on as she perseveres. She seems awesome, and I just started following her on Twitter.

I also read several really good books recently, that I hope I’ll have time to really review at some point soon. But if you’re in need of reading material for your commute, I highly recommend the following: Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder (who wrote Mountains beyond Mountains), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (she’s married to Jonathan Safran Foer, and it shows), Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African soldier by Alexandra Fuller. And I’m currently reading Diary of a Bad Year, by JM Coetzee, which is shaping up to be an excellent read.

Have you read anything particularly interesting recently?

Free elections in Guinea

From the AP:

Among the millions who traveled by bicycle, foot and wheelchair to vote Sunday was Ouma Kankou Diallo, a 39-year-old teacher.

“A lot of people said this would never happen,” she said after slipping her ballot into a clear plastic urn at a seaside primary school within sight of the military barracks where Camara was shot. “But it has happened and we will forever be grateful. For us, this is a kind of dream.”

For the first time since independence in 1958, Guineans went to the polls yesterday for the first round of a free and fair presidential election. Results won’t be known for another few days, but it is widely expected that a second round of voting will take place in mid-July if none of the 24 candidates emerge with a clear majority in this first round.

The BBC reports that Guinean expats in Monrovia lined up for kilometers to take part in the historic vote.

I’m thrilled for Guinea, and hope this marks the beginning of a new era in the country’s history.