Thursday, May 30, 2013

Setting the bar high

There are a number of people I admire but right at the top of that list would have to be Jack Fitzgerald, my wife's grandfather. He was one of the nicest people I've ever met and would always greet you with a smile, and you knew he was sincere when he said it was good to see you. And he was one of those people that made a real and positive difference in the lives of others – LOTS of others! When he passed away a few years ago he was lovingly remembered by so many people who had been his students back when he was a teacher, coach, and principal, and many of those people were then in their 60s or older and had stayed in touch with him through the years.

But I can't think of Jack without also thinking of his beautiful wife, Doris. She was perhaps the classiest person I've ever known and Jack treated her like a queen. They were married on May 30th, 1942. The United States had entered World War II and I think he was in officer training with the Navy in Chicago at the time. If I remember the story correctly, she drove there by herself from California so they could be married before he was deployed.

But the reason I'm thinking of them today is that Jamie and I were married on their 50th anniversary. And as we celebrate our 21st – which would have been their 71st – I hope that I can always be as patient and kind and loving to my beautiful wife as Jack was to his. He set the bar pretty high, but that's where it should be.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Last winter's vegetable garden

Yes, I know it's nearly summer already, but I forgot to post some pictures on how my winter vegetables fared. Since our winters are pretty mild here in Southern California I planted a few seeds last November or December in some large pots.  And one really big benefit is that you don't have to deal as much with the usual pests of summer, although I still had some problems with caterpilars.

Who knew carrots came in anything but orange? They grew slowly, but grew nonetheless. I picked up a packet of seeds from Renee's Garden Seeds with orange ("Mokum"), purple ("Purple Rain"), and white ("White Satin") carrots. The longest were about 6" or 7". Unfortunately, the purple color was only in the skin, and if you peeled them they looked just like regular orange carrots, but they tasted very good. The most surprising one for me was the white carrots, which were sweeter than regular carrots. I planted another purple variety ("Purple Dragon") this spring which has the purple color almost to the center, but I really want to try some more white ones (and yellow, too).

I also tried parsnips, but they were even slower growing than the carrots. The first batch I planted didn't sprout very well so I soaked some more seeds overnight and they germinated much better.  I harvested a few of the bigger ones (above, and they really weren't very big) but left the rest in the pot and planted some more carots with them. I don't know if they'll be any good by the time I dig them out but I figured it couldn't hurt to try. (And if you've never eaten parsnips, you're missing out!)

I also planted some snap peas ("Sugar Snap" I think) on the small trellises I had left over from last summer's beans. They did better this year than the last time I tried them but still not as well as the first time. (Maybe I need to use an inoculant?)  The kids like eating them straight off the vine but I think I'll try regular garden or "shelling" peas instead next winter.

I planted some green "bunching" onions as well, and they did very well, although I forgot to take a picture. But they sure tasted good chopped up with twice-baked potatoes!  (Actually, I should have taken a picture of the twice-baked potatoes!)

This summer, in addition to the carrots I'm also trying some turnips – I don't think I've ever eaten a turnip before – as well as a different kind of green beans and zucchini.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Come Dancing

I'm not a fan of The Kinks (most of their music was before I started listening), but I love love love this song!  (Apparently, a lot of other people loved it, too, because it was their biggest US hit and reached #6 on the charts in 1983.)  Out of curiosity I looked it up on Wikipedia and it was written as a tribute to the singer's older sister.  In the song she has a happier ending than in real life – she gave him his first guitar for his 13th birthday and sadly died that night from a heart condition while dancing.  Supposedly the song is very "English" and emulates "a fairground calliope" (and I guess the video goes along with that) but I always thought it sounded Mexican, especially with the trumpets and the way he sings (maybe he's trying to sound like a child?).  So in my mind I've always pictured a Mexican family in Los Angeles back in the 1950s.  What do you think?

Friday, May 10, 2013

"Beautiful Tar, the outcome bright..."

Last Friday I posted a list of reasons why bottled water isn't a good idea. It was taken from a book about public water policy and mostly leaned on the environmental burden of plastic manufacturing and water distribution. One reason, however, was that because the bottled water industry isn't as regulated as municipal water (tap water) it isn't as reliably safe. The book gave a couple of instances of bad bottled water but said in developed nations – such as the good ol' US of A – tap water is generally safer. I probably wouldn't have thought twice about it except that I happened to be reading another book where that definitely wasn't the case.

As I said in the other post, water isn't just for drinking; it's also used in agriculture and energy production.  And manufacturing.  And the problem for manufacturing companies, especially chemical manufacturers, is what to do with the waste products. Disposing of it safely can get expensive and eat up profits, so historically companies just dumped it in a river and it was on its way to the ocean – or at least it wasn't their problem anymore. Of course, a river can only take so much before people start to notice... and complain!

Toms River was just a pretty little place near the New Jersey shore when Ciba-Geigy relocated their manufacturing there in 1949. They were moving operations from Cincinnati (and the Ohio River) where they'd been making fabric dyes from petroleum and tar products for years. Before that they'd made their products in Basel, Switzerland, along the banks of the Rhine River. They purchased a large piece of wooded property and built their factory in the middle, surrounded by trees and hidden from the outside. But they didn't dump all their wastes into the river – that would have drawn complaints. Instead they burned some of it (at night to reduce complaints from the town about the smell) and built holding ponds on the property. Unfortunately those ponds weren't lined and the wastes seeped easily into the sandy soil (the level sometimes dropping as much as five feet a day) and into the groundwater that provided the growing town's drinking water. But it wasn't just Ciba polluting the town and water. In an effort to keep disposal costs down, Union Carbide paid an unscrupulous contractor to "dispose" of their wastes and it ended up being dumped in a pit in the back corner of an old egg farm.

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin tells the story of how a cluster of children in Toms River (actually named Dover Township) developed cancer, and the medical sleuthing that was able to point the finger at the toxic wastes being generated nearby. And for a fairly lengthy book (460 pages) it's pretty hard to put down. Fagin covers not only Toms River but also the history of how links to cancer were uncovered along the way – and it's a fascinating story. I found his explanations of how cancers happen (there are about 150 different kinds) as well as the history of the chemical industry very interesting, not to mention disturbing – the part about "salvation" in the title is misleading, since there wasn't much of it in the story. The science gets a little technical, but not overly so. And it's plain from the beginning who the bad guys in this story are, but Fagin does a good job explaining why it's so difficult to prove blame in such cases (even if his telling doesn't always feel very balanced). And as for blame, Fagin makes it clear it wasn't just the chemical companies – plenty of people from politicians to plant workers were perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to what was going on.

(One of the more ironic twists is the story of Reich Farm where Nick Fernicola dumped Union Carbide's toxic waste.  The family wanted to sell the egg farm but allowed Fernicola to "store" the drums of waste for $40 a year to help pay the property taxes.  Instead their property became a "Superfund" site and they're still trying to sell it.  Fernicola never even paid them the $40.)

But as for me, I guess I have faith in the local water company because I'm still drinking tap water at home.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Friday, May 3, 2013

Why bottled water is a bad idea

Normally I write a more straightforward review, but this time I thought I'd take one small aspect from a book I recently read and highlight it. This is adapted from "The seven sins of bottled water" on page 115:
  • Plastic bottles are made from petroleum and the manufacturing process creates some really nasty chemical wastes. Some 50 million barrels of oil are used to manufacture over 3 million tons of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, each year. The process also uses lots of freshwater – 17.5 kilograms of water for each kilogram of PET – which polutes a lot of water and generates significant amounts of hazardous air pollution. Also, consumers of bottled water possibly expose themselves to chemicals such as bromate, antimony, and phthalate DEHP (which has been linked to obesity and infertility).
  • Most states do not collect a 5 cent deposit on water bottles to encourage recycling and 88% are thrown away instead of being recycled. When they go to landfills significant levels of toxic chemicals eventually end up leaching into groundwater.
  • The water is pumped far from where it is sold – sometimes distant places like Fiji or France. Huge amounts of energy are used to treat the water, fill and cap the bottles, and then transport it. The distribution process also creates needless pollution as trucks and barges move it around the country or world. On average, bottled water uses 2,000 times the amount of energy that goes into delivering tap water.
  • Bottled water doesn't always come from places where water is plentiful. Groundwater rights and entire stretches of rivers have been sold to multinational corporations and created severe local water shortages – often in third world countries where the rights of the poor are seldom protected. Even in the U.S., corporate licenses have been granted to operate high-capacity wells, which lowers the water table for individuals dependent on personal wells. Some local communities have objected to the sale of their water but rarely with success.
  • Bottled water may be a healthier alternative where public water supplies are unsafe, but in developed nations such as the United States the tap water industry is regulated and more reliably safe. Bottled water is mostly unregulated and often fails independent tests for contaminants such as arsenic.
  • The bottled water fad is due in part to clever marketing which plays upon mostly irrational fears and portrays it as fashionable, convenient, and healthy. Minorities and recent immigrants in the U.S. have especially been targeted and are 3 times more likely to purchase bottled water for their children. Some experts worry this exposes children to greater dental health risks since bottled water usually does not contain flouride.
  • 50% of bottled water is actually just tap water, although it can be as much as 350 times as expensive!

Actually, Water by David L. Feldman is mostly about public water policy – the part about bottled water was only a few pages. It's published by Polity (I received it from Amazon Vine), which is primarily an academic publisher of books on social sciences and politics. I wasn't even going to review this book on my blog until the other day when I was kidding my friend Neil about his ever-present bottles of water and I think he took me a little too seriously. Honestly, I recognize that it's convenient and a healthier option than soda, but I also understand that it's not without drawbacks. (But I'm not an anti-bottled water activist or anything – I'm just reviewing a book!)

And the book explains that water isn't just for drinking or uses around the house; it's also essential in agriculture, manufacturing, and energy production. And unfortunately, we don't have an unlimited supply of freshwater and many around the world don't even have reliable access to clean (potable) water. Existing sources are becoming increasingly contaminated by polution, and salinity levels (the amount of disolved minerals, not just salt) are rising due to overuse. And it brings up many interesting questions: Is access to water a basic human right? Is it ethical for corporations to exploit publicly owned natural sources of water for profit? What policies should communities and governments have toward this necessary and sometimes scarce resource?

Professor Feldman looks at these questions from a public policy standpoint. He addresses our attempts to control water, from efforts to mitigate floods to moving it to distant locations (usually for irrigation). As a textbook it is fairly straightforward and easy to read, and it's mostly dispassionate with the pros and cons of each issue evaluated. He uses examples from all over the world, although there are a number from California where I live and where water issues are more important than we usually remember. As a general reader, however, I would have liked more information about being a wiser consumer (I saw no mentions of gray-water systems). Still, it's an interesting book that made me to think more about the bigger picture.