January 30, 2014

Recent Books I've Read and Enjoyed

I read a lot. It is a way for me to relax or learn something new. Most everything is from the library, though occasionally I will buy a Kindle download if that is the best way to get the book. It is rare for me not to have three or four different books stacked by the bed or in my office, each in some stage of completion.

The recent post asking for suggestions on topics for me to address included several requests for book-related posts. So, here is a list of what I have read in the last few months. Maybe there is something here that will interest you, too.

Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz. A fascinating look at John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, an incident that many say was the trigger for the Civil War.

A Confederate in the Attic also by Tony Horwitz. I just finished this look at the Civil War through the eyes of contemporary citizens of the American South. Even though the war ended over 140 years ago, for some in Dixie the struggle continues. This book was a real eye-opener for this lifelong Yankee.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Unlike his spy or espionage novels, like Eye of the Needle, this is a 1200 page historic epic set in twelve century England. It involves Gothic cathedrals, religious leaders, commoners, war, titantic struggles, evil, and love that cannot be stopped. I found this book absolutely enthralling. Mr. Follett says it is the best thing he has ever written.

Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. All about "choice architecture," or the ways in which society can nudge people to do what is best for them. I found it somewhat disconcerting and unsettling. It is a rather slow read and gets quite technical for us non-scientific types.

The Sixth Man by David Baldacci. I have read at least half a dozen of David's crime mysteries. His plots are always intriguing and his writing is first rate.

The Everything Store by Brad Stone. This is the biography of Jeff Bezos (I learned his last name is pronounced Bay-zos), the founder and maniacal force between Amazon's quest to be the on-line store for everything. Working for the company sounds miserable, but the drive and determination of its leader is worth learning about.

California Fire & Life by Don Winslow. Another mystery writer I recently discovered. His style is sparse and sardonic, his dialogue snappy and fun. In this book you will learn more about arson and setting fires than you thought possible.

You Gotta keep Dancing  by Tim Hansel. Probably the best book I have ever read about dealing with pain, not with medicine, but with your mind and attitude. This is the book to read if you are faced with chronic pain and don't know where to turn.

The Waterworks by E.L. Doctorow. This one was tough for me to complete. It is historical fiction but written in a way that produces a slow narrative and story that unfolds at a glacial pace. He is a very well respected author but I struggled.

Storm Front  by John Sandford. Another mystery author I enjoy. This is his latest. It involves Israeli spies, archaeological relics, Minnesota, and enough twists and turns to keep me riveted.

One book that I have tried to read before and couldn't, I tried...and failed again. I know War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is considered a classic and one of the best books ever written. But I just couldn't stay motivated to wade through all the Russian names and detailed descriptions of their parties and life.

Recently, I learned of two web sites that look perfect for book nuts like me:

Goodreads is a site with thousands upon thousands of recommendations, based on previous books you've enjoyed, in every category under the sun. I could get seriously lost here.

Library Thing is a place to keep lists of what you have read and what is on your shelves. The other 1.7 million members help you decide what to add with reviews and conversations about books.

OK, what about you? What has kept you up well past bed time or enthralled as you watched the snow pile up outside your window on a winter's day?

January 27, 2014

Something A little Different From Me

A few weeks ago I was approached by a freelance writer based in England. He wanted to submit a guest post on a topic important to him that he thought Satisfying Retirement readers might find interesting and important.

initially I told him I avoid most guest posts for various reasons but I would review what he wanted to submit. I was impressed, not only by his overall writing but also the passion he brought to his subject.

With the broadening of the focus of this blog for 2014, he was writing about a subject that never would have fit previously, but now I felt it did. I don't consider myself a wild-eyed environmentalist, but I do have a concern over what damage we are doing to our planet. I would like to think we will leave this earth in livable condition for my grandkids and their grandkids and their...well, you get the idea.

While this post makes a reference to global warming I ask that you take in the overall message he is trying to make. I'd like to avoid comments or reactions to this post to center on the debate about global warming and man's culpability in that issue. If you'd like, substitute the phrase, climate change. But, that isn't really the point of the article.

I realize what follows isn't what you normally find on these pages, but I believe it is a message all of us must hear. We may come to different conclusions and we may disagree with what he is saying, but considering all sides of an issue before reaching a conclusion is our responsibility.

OK, enough of the disclaimer. The author's name is Zeke Iddon. He is working with a company that is pioneering the technology behind turning plastic waste into readily usable fuel. This guest post is focused on the growing problem of plastic waste, particularly in our oceans and waterways, the misconceptions and realities of the problem.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Facts, Misconceptions, and What We Can Do About It

We’re living in a world in which information and ideas are both instantly accessible and travel at lightning speed. The benefits of this have been far-reaching on both a small and large scale; from being able to freely blog and attract an audience around common interests (Satisfying Retirement being a prime example) to the kind of open communication that lead to the rise against various forms of oppression around the world over the past few years.

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In a similar manner, knowledge about the environment (and our place in it) has been greatly enhanced over the last decade or so. We’re becoming increasingly aware of how our lifestyles and resource consumption affects the world around us, but there is a problem here: it’s not always easy to quantify this impact in any tangible way.

The Gulf Stream rising in temperature by a couple of degrees doesn’t mean much to the everyday Joe, and nor do statistics on atmospheric molecular changes. What does speak to us - as humans beings - are emotionally-charged images which drive the point home.

For global warming, examples include pictures of lone polar bears struggling across melting ice floes, or virtually opaque smog choking a large city.

When it comes to the issue of plastic waste, no finer image sums up the scale of the problem than that of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:

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The photo depicts a single rower fighting through a dense soup of discarded plastic, extending as far as the eye can sea. When the image came to the fore sometime around 2008, it ran wild in the media as the ultimate portrayal of how much plastic we consume and the knock-on affect the resulting waste has on our delicate oceans. Moreover, scientists as far back as the late 80s had held suspicions that the Pacific ‘
gyre’ was out there, but this image was the final confirmation the world needed…

… although there’s a few things we need to clear up here.

That Isn’t The Pacific Ocean

A powerful image it may be, but it’s not a picture of the Pacific Island Garbage Patch. In fact, it’s a harbor in the Philippines and according to biologist Miriam Goldstein (who is actively studying plastic waste in the North Pacific): “
That picture of the guy in the canoe has been following me around my whole career!” She adds, “We’ve never seen anything like that picture. Never seen it personally, and we’ve never seen it on satellite [imagery].”

That doesn’t make the problem any less real, of course, but it does speak of the fact that the public at large isn’t aware of what the North Pacific Gyre actually is.

Plastic is Biodegradable

One of the most common charges against plastic (or, we should specify, the kind of synthetic polymer that is used for shopping bags and packaging) is that it never breaks down when left to the elements. This isn’t strictly true; in fact, the molecular chains of polymers are rather weak, which is why we can only recycle unwanted plastic products a few times before they lose their strength.

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The problem occurs after the product breaks down – via UV rays from the sun in landfills or by tidal and microbial forces in the sea – to microscopic pieces. This is when biodegradation becomes difficult, and it’s the reason why there is not a gigantic mountain of plastic bottles floating around the Pacific.

Sure, it’s less dramatic. But it’s also a more severe problem; plastic bottles are easy to scoop up. A vast soup of barely visible particles, however, is not.

Microplastic Debris Doesn’t Kill Animals

Images of seals and other marine life caught up in plastic waste are distressing and depict a very serious issue regarding marine pollution, but it’s a different issue to the one presented by the North Pacific Gyre.

The aforementioned soup doesn’t directly kill marine life, and much of it actually thrives on the microscopic debris. And herein lies the rub; this throws the ecosystem way out of balance, and we all know how delicate a system it is.

So What Can We Do To Combat This?

Not only is the North Pacific Gyre a big – and growing – problem, but it’s not the only one. There are five major gyres (of which the one in the North Pacific is the biggest), so the pressure is on to come up with a solution.

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As the planet is wont to do, it is likely that it’ll eventually heal itself and scrub out the damage caused by the gyres over time… but only if we stop adding to it.

Somewhat unfortunately, change of this nature will only come at a governmental level. Plastic waste dumping by marine traffic is a hugely contributing factor, so tighter regulation and policing is needs to be enforced by global governments.

In addition, more investment into plastic waste processing is needed on a national level - very little of our plastic waste is sent to recycling (only around 5% in the US), and very little of that is
actually recycled. And as we’ve mentioned, plastic can only be recycled a few times before it loses its tensile strength and inevitably ends up in the exact same place unrecycled plastic finds itself. Only a few alternative options – such as the Poly2Petro process of turning it back into oil – exist as a replacement for what is clearly a broken system, and it’s high time we investigated their viability.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do on an individual level. Recycling is still better than not, and better still is trying to reduce the amount of plastic products we choose to buy in order to address the problem at source.

And lastly, raising consciousness to these issues is a powerful weapon in the fight to clean up our oceans…

… if nothing else, do feel free to share this post wherever you’re able.


Thank you, Zeke, for your thoughtful and comprehensive overview. He has cleared up several misconceptions and incorrect information that I had always accepted as truth. The idea that the microscopic remnants of plastic is a problem, in addition to the obvious plastic bags blowing around the neighbourhood, is news to me.

I invite reader comments that add to the discussion.