2009 August 9
For the past few weeks I’ve been traveling in China and not been up to any work. I did manage to experience the total solar eclipse in Shanghai, however. I use the word “experience” because it was cloudy and raining so it would be a little inaccurate to say that I “saw” it, but it was impressive all the same. I’ll post some pictures in a few days when I get back to Berkeley.
I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma during the many long train and plane rides in the trip. I thought it was pretty good. Three notes:
- Scientifically, I was interested in the argument that chemical fertilizers represent a large petroleum-based energy input into the food chain that’s a historical novelty. Pollan mentions that modern farmland is idle for maybe half the year, when its monocultured crop is out of season. Traditionally- managed farmland is planted year-round and hence collects about twice the solar energy per year via photosynthesis. This difference in energy input is possible because modern farmland benefits from the additional energy input of chemical fertilizers, which do the job of nitrogen-fixing plants in traditional farmland. These fertilizers are a hidden, nonlocal, and petrochemically-based source of energy that you don’t see in traditional agriculture.
- Long before I read the book, its title bothered me because it wasn’t obvious what the omnivore’s “dilemma” was — what is the “omnivore” choosing between? “Dilemma” clearly means “two lemmas”, two possibilities. It turns out that this is a pure misnomer. The effect described by the term (which is not originally Pollan’s) is apparently also known as “the omnivore’s paradox”. It refers to one stress of being an omnivore: if you can eat anything, you have to spend a lot of time worrying about what to eat. (Whereas koalas, to use one of Pollan’s examples, just know to munch on eucalyptus all day.) I guess I’m a little pedantic but this confusion over the title (also knowing the capsule summary over the book) actually discouraged me from reading it to a small extent.
- Someone has probably posited this before, but there’s probably a kind of 90-10 (or maybe even 95-5) rule for popular nonfiction books of the form of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: ones like Blink, Stumbling on Happiness, and so on. Specifically: 90% of the major content can be summarized in 10% of the words. I don’t want this to sound like a criticism: it’s important to build these arguments in detail, and a lot of the import of these arguments doesn’t settle in until you’ve seen them approached from many angles. But I do wonder whether there’s a 100-20 corollary to the rule (you could fit 100% of the content in 20% of the space). One relevant point is that the “natural” size of published books along these lines is around 200 pages. If you researched a topic, wrote it up, and finished with a 50 page manuscript, you’d pretty much have to add 100 pages of extra material to get something of publishable length. If you had a decent grasp of your topic, this material certainly could be useful and interesting, but in a sense it’s still filler.