Monday, May 31, 2010

book review: farm hands

This weekend, I read Farm Hands, by Tom Rivers (a title with a clever dual-meaning that I didn't realize the first time I read it). It is a intriguing look at the amazing people and the hard work that are the backbone of the farm industry in Western New York. I am amazed at the courage of Tom (and his employer, The Daily News in Batavia, NY) for taking such an challenging, in-depth look at farm labor and immigration -- topics that are often a source of great controversy in this country. This book represents the kind of passionate, thoughtful journalism that is sadly lacking from the 24-hour TV noise that tries to call itself "news."

The book is a collection of articles that Tom wrote, documenting the his experiences as he volunteered for a wide range of farm jobs -- from milking cows to picking almost every kind of fruit and vegetable grown in the area. Working with crews from Mexico, Jamaica, and Haiti, his persistence in the face of such physically demanding work earned the respect of the workers and gave him a unique perspective on the difficulties of their labor and life. Despite his incredible effort, Tom was outpaced by the other workers, but they selflessly offered advice and, at times, they even went so far as to help fill his baskets with produce.

The culmination of the assignment was a new found strength of mind, which Tom used to shed his post-collegiate weight and take on marathon -- a challenge that he found to be less demanding than the daily marathon of farm labor.

Tom has shown a new light on the subject, highlighting the reality of how difficult the work is, and giving us a glimpse into the lives of the people who live in near anonymity as they provide the inexpensive food that we take for granted. The glib remarks made by talk-show hosts and immigration protesters don't stand up well against the truth of the situation -- this is very demanding work that most Americans are unable or unwilling to do, and our outdated immigration policies are in serious need of reform.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

my reasons for quitting facebook

I've decided that I'm going to quit facebook on May 31st, along with a bunch of other people, but I'm not entirely sure why. This post is an attempt to ferret out my real motivations from the dark corners of my head.

Reason #1: Privacy

Facebook has a really poor track record when it comes to the privacy of its users. Sensitive user data has been exposed because of bugs in the software, but more often the data leaks have been a result of their default opt-in policies. It seems that every time that Facebook makes changes to the site, they automatically opt-in all the users to make more of their data public. The end result is that most users are exposing private information without even realizing it. Try searching for "playing hooky", "divorce", or "cancer" on Facebook to get a sense of how common the problem really is. The end result is that people are sharing much more than they think.

All of these privacy concerns have been the center of the most recent uproar against Facebook, but I think that it is disingenuous for me to claim that this is the reason that I am quitting. Because I've been writing software and working with computers for most of my life, I am fairly diligent about minimizing how much information I expose online (enjoy the irony of the fact that I write this blog), and I also do a decent job of updating my privacy settings in Facebook to keep my information from being available to the whole world. At best, I could say that I am quitting to make a statement in hopes of getting Facebook to change, but they couldn't care less if I leave -- they have over 400 million users. Even if they lost a million people it would barely be a blip on the radar.

I'm not quitting because of privacy.

Reason #2: Utility

I could certainly argue that Facebook doesn't provide me with a lot of value. I am not a very social person, and I tend to prefer keeping a smaller group of close friends. Facebook tends to encourage the opposite behavior. It is a system that is trying to connect you with everyone that you've ever known. Still, there have been a few times where I needed to get in touch with someone, and the only way that I had to contact them was through Facebook. Addresses, phone numbers, and even email addresses are constantly changing, but Facebook makes it easy to contact people that I haven't seen in 15 years.

Facebook can be useful. That's not why I'm quitting .

Reason #3: Marriage

There is suggestion that Facebook is responsible for an increasing number of divorces. I'm skeptical of that claim, but there is probably some kernel of truth there. The temptation to rekindle some old relationship that has been whitewashed by years of separation has the potential to be a problem, and social networking sites certainly make it easier to reconnect with those old flames.

Still, I don't think that Facebook will be breaking up any happy marriages, and blaming it for causing a divorce is like blaming the Internet for pornography. Like any technology, it can be used wisely or poorly.

I'm not quitting Facebook out of a fear that it will hurt my marriage.

Reason #4: Time

I can't remember the last time that I logged in to the site to check the status updates of my "friends." Long ago I realized that the signal to noise ratio wasn't worth my time -- please don't take any offense (my status updates were as guilty as any). If Facebook could provide some more advanced filtering -- allowing me to hide: song lyrics, bible verses, farmville updates, who just friended who, beer pong photos, holiday greetings, who has a cold, etc -- then it would be much more substantive. The time spent scanning through updates in search of the important information was time that could be better spent offline: with family, real-world friends, outdoors, or reading a good book. Reading status updates felt (dare I say) more wasteful than time spent watching TV, and that's a pretty low bar to limbo under.

I recently sold my iPad, not because I didn't like it; I liked it too much. It is a great device that I would recommend for most people in place of a laptop. The problem was that I found it too enjoyable. It makes it easy to lose an hour or two: surfing, playing games, watching videos, listening to music, and looking for new apps. It was gobbling up the precious commodity of free time.

Facebook can be a real time killer, and that is one of the reasons that I am quitting.

Reason #4: Authenticity

Humans are very social creatures, and this instinct for cooperation is one of the biggest keys to our success as a species. Even social hermits like myself find great joy spending time in the company of friends, but I can't help but feel like these social networking sites are perverting our natural desire for intimacy with other people. Calling everyone a "friend" and exchanging glib messages has all the benefits of vending machine food -- many of the "friendships" on Facebook are the social equivalent of empty calories.

One of the keystones to a real relationship is shared experience. Much of who you are as an individual is wrapped up in stories from your past: that time you got stranded on the lake in a leaky boat with a broken motor and took turns paddling back to shore, or when you got together on that hot summer day to go ice blocking. Do you have any fond memories of that time you read someone's Facebook status, or saw those stranger-filled photos from that party that you didn't attend?

In the end, Facebook has done for relationships what TV has done for storytelling. It has stripped out all the nutrition and substance, and it gives us little more than a sugary experience which temporarily satisfies us but ultimately leaves us hungry.

That is the real reason that I'm quitting Facebook, because I'd rather spend time developing real relationships with the people around me.

Final Words

If any of that resonates with you, maybe you'll join me; but even if you don't quit on May 31st, try taking a few days off. Push away from the keyboard (and put away the TV remote while you're at it), and go spend some more time with your family and friends, creating some new stories. At the very least, review your settings and make sure that you aren't giving away too much of your privacy.

So farewell, Facebook "friends." I hope that our paths cross again in the real world, so we can actually be friends. Until then, best wishes, and thanks for not ignoring me.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

book review: the omnivore's dilemma

Warning: I'm taking a new approach to my blog entries: fast and furious. In the past I have edited and re-edited so many times that I end up spending an hour on a few paragraphs. So, until my brain catches up to the new writing pace (if it ever does) expect some less coherent writing and more spelling mstakes.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is one of the best books that I've read so far this year. It tries to answer a seemingly simple question: "Where does our food come from?"

The most intriguing part of the book is the first of the book's three sections; it deals with the topic of industrial corn. It is eye-opening and disheartening to learn how government subsidies have distorted our agriculture in such a way that corn can be sold for less than it costs to produce it. This artificially reduced cost has led to corn being used in virtually everything -- more than a quarter of the items in the typical grocery store contain come form of corn. And since corn is so cheap to buy, it is also used to feed cows, instead of the grasses that they have evolved to eat. The cows inability to process the corn leads to illness which is treated by giving them antibiotics.

Take a moment to "digest" the insanity of this...The government is using our tax dollars to artificially lower corn prices, making it the cheapest food for cows, but this makes the cows sick, which we "fix" by stuffing them with antibiotics. Then we eat the meat, which makes us sick and adds to rising costs of health care.

On top of this, since the corn can be bought for less than the cost of growing it, the people raising the cattle don't grow their own corn, they buy it. So the normal balance of a farm, between animals and plants (using the manure to feed the plants and the plants to feed the animals) has to be broken, and we end up with massive corn growing operations and CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). These CAFOs have a huge number of animals which produce a lot of waste, but they don't have any crops, so the manure becomes a pollution problem instead of a fertilizer. At the same time the huge corn farms don't raise any animals, because it would be to costly to feed them the corn they were growing, and then they have to buy fertilizers -- which were plentiful and cheap from the chemical surpluses after WWII. Plus since the corn subsidies are so high, the farmers have to grow as much corn as they can, reducing the variety of foods they produce.

As a result of some policy change during the Nixon era, the agricultural subsidy program that was helping to balance the seasonal over and under production of crops was been turned into a wild incentive program that hurts:
  • the farmers by driving down costs
  • the animals by force feeding them corn
  • and the consumer by producing food filled with corn byproducts and antibiotics

It seems like the only people that are really winning here are the companies that sell the corn seed (which the farmers are legally prevented from reusing -- that's another whole crazy mess), and more importantly, it's helping the food producers that are using corn to: feed the cattle, sweeten the soda, and mix into every product they can. Essentially, the government is helping the big food companies buy their ingredients.

We've become dangerously disconnected from where our food comes from, and it is insane to believe that the production of the food doesn't have an effect on our health. If you don't have time to read this book (which you should) at least watch the movie Food Inc. which covers much of the same information.