Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Garry Wills: Why Priests?

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Garry Wills has either done it again and written a great book or, if you're not in school and not that interested in scholarly stuff, not done it at all. I feel like once again I've been suckered by a title: "Why Priests? A Failed Tradition" totally plays on those of us who are interested in why the priesthood is, well, a failed tradition. The thing is that "Why Priests?" isn't really about the failed tradition, it's about how Christianity didn't prescribe priests and how that came later. So maybe it should have been called "Why Priests? A Made Up Tradition" or "A Tradition Destined to Fail" or "Christianity: A Priestless Tradition" or any such descriptive and not tricky title.

I love Garry Wills and was stoked to hear about this book. "Bomb Power" totally changed the way I look at things and Wills is really good at making otherwise unapproachable subjects approachable. Except when he's not. I read a lot of books like "Why Priests?" in college: they dive deeply into texts from the Bible and other early religious texts and they're great, if you are studying religion. I'm not studying religion anymore, I'm learning about it and trying to apply it to real life. Honstly, I gave up after 100 pages. If you're looking for a readable book on priests or Catholicism or anything like that, this isn't it.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

John Homans: What's a Dog For?

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Back story: I like to get books from the library (if you've ever read this blog, you're probably wondering why I always tell the same backstory). One of the awesomest things about the library is being able to put books on hold and have them miraculously show up at your branch. You get a notification by email that your book is at your branch and then you have two weeks to go pick them up. My branch is two blocks away, but quite small- none of the books I want are there. So periodically I request a bunch of books on my list. Usually they're some combination of very esoteric and new, popular-ish nonfiction. They trickle in and then come All At The Same Time. Last week 3 showed up at once. They included Garry Wills' new book "Why Priests," Shereen el Feki's "Sex and the Citadel" and John Homans' "What's a Dog For" which is also quite new. As I was checking the books out, the librarian told me that two had holds and couldn't be renewed. I realized I would have to read the books in overdrive if I had any hope of finishing all them in 3 weeks. I took a guess and started "What's a Dog For" first figuring that dogs are the most popular thing in the Bay Area. After I finished I thought to check the status of the books. This was the only book WITHOUT a hold on it. Classic move on my part. Anyway.

What IS a dog for? How has that changed over time? Why? These are fascinating, career-driving questions for people like me. John Homans' book is an attempt to answer these questions by someone who is, by all accounts, a casual pet owner. He does things like call his lab mix (a mix by his own description) a lab and attribute pure bred qualities to her over and over. He puts a rubber blanket on him when he euthanized his dog, prepping for the fluids that would flow- a practical thing to do but something those of us who Do Dogs cold-heartedly scoff at: What's a little post-humous release? He asks great questions and admits to anthropormorphasizing his dog. The last third of the book is devoted to a discussion that, brief and necessarily simplified discussion of animal welfare. (Complaint: doesn't clearly distinguish between animal welfare and animal rights. Man I hate a discussion of Ingrid Newkirk that doesn't say "animal rights is NOT animal welfare in big bold letters at least 17 times.) He does some serious research and generally presents it in a readable way.

As a dog person, I can't really tell you if this book would satisfy a lay person. For a dog person, it's a wash. The history and the science is kind of presented in a haphazard manner: back and forward through time and through perspectives. There is a LOT of ground to cover and the book covers it very quickly. Homans talks to all the right people, though he presents them all in a name-dropping type way: Temple Grandin, Turid Rugaas, William Koehler, Karen Pryor, the Baileys, BF Skinner, etc. I'd rather there was a little more time spent on each facet of the human/dog relationship which would mean giving up some of the accessibility of the book and gaining some depth.

There is an in-depth conversation of the human-dog relationship in terms of communication: it's clear that Homans really values the relationship between dogs and people. Dogs, you may have heard, are the only animals that we know of that can/do follow when humans point. I point at a toy and Rollie (well he's mostly blind) looks at it. I pointed at the treat on the ground that I dropped and Mac most definitely did look at it and gobble it up. Other animals don't do this, even apes. He talks about the important relationship of dogs to important people in animal science: Darwin and Goodall were both extremely influenced by their dogs. And he meets with the scientists who are now studying what it means to be a dog. The in-depth history, though, is pretty much that: historical.

I was hoping for much more about what happened in the last 100 and maybe even 50 years: How we got to the dogs in dresses stage. Why so many people are getting bit by dogs now, how we lost the understanding that, no matter how well we communicate with dogs, they are still dogs. But I think that an overview by a non-dog person necessarily can't have that info: this is not a book by someone who truly understands dogs but a book by someone who wants to understand the human/dog relationship. That's not a bad thing, it's just a different thing (not accurately represented in the title). It's a philosophical thing. Homans is asking questions about what it means to be human, as well. He talks about politics and class and how they are reflected in our breeding and treatment of dogs. This is wonderful and we notice it but don't usually say it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Simon Garfield: On the Map

Simon Garfield has written one of those charming books that were all the rage about 10 years ago- a biography of a thing. There were books about the tulip, salt, corpses and who knows what else. "On the Map" is very much a biography of the map. It has flashes of what I was hoping it to be: sort of a sociological analysis of maps and mapping and the "mind-expanding exploration of the way the world works" that the subtitle promises. "On the Map" contains a lot of cool tidbits and some cool pictures, but mind-expanding? Not so much.

It really is mind-expanding to think about how people before world exploration saw the world. I'm not just talking colonizers, I'm talking people in general. Think about it: you lived somewhere and knew the geography of the place, but what else was there? Could you picture the next place over? Did you want to picture the next place over? If you lived on the coast, did you imagine what the coastline looked like, beyond the immediate waves? I have a sense of the shape of California, but really, it's the shape on a map. When I'm standing with my toes in the water, the only shape I REALLY know is the shape that's as far as I can see to my left and to my right. The earliest maps would have given me a path to follow to get me where I needed to go, but not a picture of the shape of the coast. This is really astonishing to me, and maybe sociology isn't the right word: it's almost philosophical.

Another mind-blowing example of how maps change how we think (or maybe better, how we think changes how maps operate) is the mobile-phone/GPS style map, or "me-mapping." These dynamic maps now move with us: we are the center, literally, of the universe. I pull up my phone to figure out where I am when I'm lost or disoriented, click a button and whoosh, I'm located on the map. I can then orient myself on the map and get directions, if I want, to where I want to go. No more finding myself on the map- the map finds me. In a way, this is stepping back to that primitive spot on the beach: the only place I really know is the spot on the coast that I'm standing on. In a sinister way it's erasing everything else. Now that I do have the capability to know everywhere else and the shape of the coastline, instead of orienting myself to that geography, I'm orienting the geography to myself. Scary, creepy and self-centered. We are losing our ability to find our way around because we follow the arrow or the voice in the GPS. We are losing our sense of perspective, our place in the world.

Garfield doesn't lay this out very well, and maybe that is a benefit of the book: he gives us the history and then lets us fill it in, as I've done here. He gives us lots of stuff to tell our friends: did you know that Nicaragua blamed Google Maps for their invasion of Costa Rica? Yup. Apparently Google Maps had the borders wrong and they wanted them set straight. Also, Bill Clinton gets bonus points for lifting restrictions on GPS satellite technology in 2000 when he said the Cold War is REALLY over, enough is enough. And he presciently warns that we are unreasonably dependent on GPS:
GPS is now such a significant part of our lives that the effects of failure would be catastrophic. Malfunction would be a blow not just to the digital cartographer and the iPhone user, it would be as if the world's entire harvest of electricity, oil and gas had run out at the same time. The loss of GPS would now affect all emergency services, all systems of traffic control including shipping and flight navigation, and all communications bar semaphore. It would affect the ability to keep accurate time and predict earthquakes. It would set the guidance and interception of ballistic missiles to haywire. What would begin with gridlock at road intersections would very rapidly tun the world dark, and then off. Everything would stop. We would be practically blind. We would not be able to stock our shops and feed ourselves. Only those who knew how to plow a field like they did in the middle ages would have a chance.
Wow. So what do we do? Learn how to triangulate again? Keep AAA maps in our cars, if we can find them? Keep growing food in our backyards? (My tomatoes won't last me very long.) It's not really clear that we can or should go back. It is clear that maps and mapping have an immense influence in who we are and where we're going (dude, stop me), even if kids never fight to fold a map or try to read a street name that's been worn out in the crease of a map. Even if my boyfriend can't find his way around without a GPS and I have to give my volunteers printed directions to their destinations, there's mapping involved. Garfield does a good job of describing this and how we got to this point. The book is quick and readable and food for thought if you know how to get there.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Mischievous Animals

A quick and dirty flashback newsy item.

A fatal dog mauling in Los Angeles is getting press in Los Angeles because the owner of the dogs is getting charged with murder. This is big news. First, I need to say that it is tragic that the woman died before moving to the next part. The big news for me, though, is that LA is charging the dog owner: holding him responsible. Undoubtably the dogs will pay with their lives, but it sounds like the owner will suffer as well. For years in my past life as an animal control officer I pushed for the use of Penal Code 399, "Felony Mischievous Animal." This law says that if you have an animal and you know that it has "mischievous" tendencies, you better be responsible. If not, you can go to jail. It means that animal control (or the police) can put someone on notice so that the "I didn't know" excuse doesn't fly. It basically gives law enforcement a way to stop blaming the dogs for doing things that their human owners can prevent (like killing innocent people). While I was still an officer, we did actually charge someone with a felony using PC 399. The felony was reduced to a misdemeanor, but this is much better than "just" euthanizing the dog.  This I believe was the first time we had done this in my jurisdiction, maybe ever, but certainly in recent history.

I am REALLY impressed with LA for doing this, and further, for the Los Angeles Times for their reporting. Sure, the articles are titled "Pit bull killing" and "Pit bull owner charged..." but they discuss the importance of charging the owner and talk to reasonable, non-biased experts like the good people at the National Canine Research Center. Loving pit bulls doesn't mean that this kind of awful, tragic event doesn't happen. It means advocating for a fair, appropriate response, including what Los Angeles is doing and focusing on the right part of the story like the Los Angeles Times has done.