This trip I finished two items of media I think are quite good and worth talking about.
I loved Gleick's Chaos and enjoyed his Feynman biography; once again The Information - is really squarely up my alley. Gleick's ambition is vast and the sheer thickness of this book is a testament to how many things he tries to bring together to tell the story of how we came to live in a world of information, dominated by information, where reasonable people think that everything in the universe is in fact information. Where did that notion come from? Where did the idea and term 'information' come from, and how did it come in the very short span of under 70 years to rewrite fields from biology to cognition to finance - to say nothing of its possible effects on physics.
It is in telling these stories - from Maxwell's Demon to the telegraph and its predecessors - that Gleick is at his best. His stories of Shannon and Turing and their peers are engaging reads and he does a good job of connecting the historical dots. I read several of these chapters aloud to the family.
If the book has a weakness, it's the last two chapters where Gleick turns his eyes on the modern world, taking Wikipedia as a focal point. The collaborative encyclopedia dwarfs all previous attempts at knowledge collection; by some information measures it contains more information than all other knowledge collections in all of history previous. It's certainly worth talking about but I don't think we (in media res) understand it and its impacts well enough to tell the kinds of neat stories that we can tell about the past. Gleick sort of wanders from talking about how pages enter and exit Wikipedia to some vague pronouncements on human knowledge.
Still, in a book of 15 chapters and an epilogue, having two weak sections is a pretty good batting average. This book is well worth the time, whether you're a deep geek or not.
The IMDB page for Food, Inc calls it "An unflattering look inside America's corporate controlled food industry." That's putting it mildly. This movie touches on everything that is wrong with our nation's corporatized food production system, from its exploitative abuse of immigrant labor to its utter domination of the Washington entities that are supposed to regulate it and keep us safe. We see the way it callously and systematically kills people with poisoned meat and toxic produce and the way it uses the legal system to club farmers and growers into financial ruin. This is a good movie to watch if you never want to eat anything bought at a supermarket approximately ever again.
The movie does a good job of mixing large-scale philosophical points with important personal stories. You see how meat-packing went from a terrible job to a great one - which used to pay about as much as an auto assembly-line worker, which had benefits and a pension, etc - to today's grinder that takes in poor people by busing them hundreds of miles, cheats them of wages and benefits, and dumps them back on the street when they inevitably become injured or otherwise unable to work.
You also see how a mother can lose her previously healthy son to e. coli and become a food-safety advocate only to be frustrated at every turn by big-money corporate interests that don't actually give a shit if your child gets poisoned by their hamburger so long as their stock price goes up. Then you get to see how those same corporations manage to get laws passed that forbid that mother from expressing herself; that is, she isn't allowed to state her opinion publicly for fear of being sued. And lest you think it's only poor moms that get this treatment remember this is the same set of companies that sued Oprah Winfrey, costing her almost $1 million in legal fees before she won.
There are some positive voices in the movie. You get to watch a passionate and articulate farmer raise his chickens by hand and then slaughter and gut them in the open air as he tells you how this practice nearly got him shut down by the FDA. He only survives by the grace of lab tests that showed his by-hand open-air methods produced 1/3 as much contamination as the industrial factory methods that are FDA-approved (and if you can watch those segments of this movie will put you RIGHT off eating mass-produced poultry products).
No such good fortune comes to the soybean farmers who dare to try and save their own seeds, a practice forbidden by Monsanto, which has managed to twist patent law into a near complete monopoly on soy production. If you're thinking going vegetarian is going to save you from Food, Inc think again. Michael Pollan does appear quite a bit in the movie but he doesn't have a lot of warm and fuzzy things to say to make you feel better. Instead you get to listen to him and Eduardo Peña (a union organizer) talk you through an employer-controlled INS raid on workers that conveniently targets those with seniority at the plant - i.e. those who might be potential union leaders - while leaving those who hired these people untouched.
The movie seems to be aware of just how depressing these facts are, closing with a note that you vote for this system, generally three times a day. If you vote with your dollars for grass-fed beef, or are willing to pay $3/dozen for eggs raised by a man who lets his chickens roam in the dirt and catch their own antibiotic-free feed, then you are potentially having an impact on the system. This point is hammered home by Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farms, who gleefully sells through Wal-Mart. Yes, he agrees that Wal-Mart is bad in many ways, but he can quote you facts and figures showing how every ton of organic produce that Wal-Mart sells saves so many tons of carbon emissions, how it reduces pesticide use by many tons, and so on. Practically, what have you done to help the environment that compares with this?
If food is corporate, Hirshberg argues, then we need to bend the corporations to do what they do best - meet market demands. Wal-Mart didn't decide to go organic because they suddenly realized how evil factory farming is; they went organic because they discovered there was a real demand they could meet. If you generate that demand with your three votes per day then other corporations will want your dollars and will change. Or so the argument goes.
My takeaway is that the most useful thing we privileged people can do is stop patronizing fast food establishments. McDonald's is not only the largest buyer of beef, but also lettuce and tomatoes and apples now. It's in their interest to have absolutely uniform and identical product everywhere and they will influence suppliers in that direction, whether it's healthy or not. When your only value is "efficiency" you get a system like we have now.
Food, Inc doesn't spare us - we sit with a family that has to make the choices between spending $140 on medication to help Dad control his diabetes or spending that same $140 on more healthy foods. In the end they opt for the dollar-menu fast food items because those items are filling and fit the family's budget. Yes, this means the children might also develop diabetes but that's a worry for tomorrow. Today's worry is how to keep everyone going in an environment where the healthy calories are expensive and the bad calories are cheap because the Food Inc corporations have been so heavily subsidized to make it this way. So don't tell these people that they shouldn't be eating at McDonald's but look instead to your own family's choices, if you are able to afford to do that.
(Actually I expect most of the people reading my LJ already don't eat at McDonald's but this movie is aimed at more than just us and I think it's part of the message the filmmakers want to send.)