Category Archives: book

Review of Dave Barry’s new book “Best.State.Ever.”

29093310The best thing about humorist Dave Barry’s new book is the title. With a mocking and adolescent tone, the title has literal and interpretive meanings that allow us to giggle about Florida truly as the best of states, the worst of states, and a quixotic state of mind. The book neither proves nor disproves a literal achievement of “best state” (a game showing waiting to happen) but it does entertain in typical, good-natured Dave Barry fashion.

As a fellow Floridian, I enjoyed following Dave’s drives around the state to storied tourist attractions and aging oddities, but much of it was old news. The most revealing chapter covered a retirement community in central Florida (shocking, I know) where people dance until they die (Best.Twist.Ever.). Although sarcastic and knowingly hyperbolic, Dave laughs while still managing to empathize with his subject of old people in a fish bowl. They are too easy to catch and throw back, yet there’s some charm and whimsy to this fish tank, where Dave would never want to live—but now he understands why so many do.

img_2954Other chapters have him driving to Key West to get drunk (shocking) and to Weeki Wachee Springs to see real mermaids (bucket list material). These chapters are like shooting fish in a barrel—they’re just too easy, and they’ve become clichés. Old-school, unfiltered Florida is obviously “the best.” Where’s today’s Florida of competitive commercialization? He visits the trendiest of night clubs in South Beach and gives it too much credit. Boring. I wanted him to rip it like he did in his Miami Herald column on Santa’s Enchanted Forest, a pathetic Miami attraction and multi-layered oxymoron, which deserves an annual reading.

The book “Best.State.Ever.” is fun and fluffy. I certainly agree that Florida deserves the crown for info-tainment, and I challenge any other state to even try to snatch the title. Such mind games are a breezy, harmless distraction from the actual state of our states.

It’s also refreshing to have PG-rated humor in an X-rated world. Our states hold great potential for humor, but our nation is really pushing the boundaries. Considering the state of U.S. politics, the book Dave should be writing right now is “Best.Nation.Ever.” We are killing it.  quote-a-printer-consists-of-three-main-parts-the-case-the-jammed-paper-tray-and-the-blinking-dave-barry-121-5-0562


Digging Miami, Part II

As a follow-up to the book review, here are my Cliff Notes of Digging Miami’s interesting tidbits.

It is quite startling to read that the mouth of the Miami River has been occupied for at least 2,500 years, yet we still insist on saying that Columbus “discovered” America and Ponce de Leon founded Florida (this year marks 500 years, and publicity for tourism is in full swing). How can you discover something that has already been found?

The Miami Circle remains mysterious.

The Miami Circle remains mysterious.

Descriptions of the Tequesta people indicate that they were quite adept at living alongside the dual watery worlds of the swamp and the ocean, and Carr states that by canoe they could navigate a wide swath of South Florida within hours. And to think that in Miami today, we still don’t have a water taxi.

The Tequesta settlement in Miami persisted until 1761, when Uchises Indians forced them to flee to Key West and eventually to Cuba. By 1763, Spain lost Florida to England.

Some ancient Tequesta paths have become today’s busiest highways. The ever-congested 836 Expressway follows the canoe trail that used to connect central Miami to the Everglades. Even the new Intermodal Center near the airport was built on top of a prehistoric village. I hope someone erects a sign.

I also learned that the highest natural point in Miami-Dade County is 19 feet above sea level. This sand mound is called Madden’s Hammock, and it is composed of fine-grained quartz, like beach sand. Many of its skeletons were raided by curiosity seekers.

Lastly, there’s a much more recent Bahamian cemetery (abandoned around 1940) that has been re-discovered in Lemon City, just a few miles from my house, so I plan to visit the memorial placed there in 2011 and review it for my Park Patrol column. Visions of Poltergeists danced in their heads…

By the way, this is South Florida we’re talking about–the end of the road on the East Coast. If Native Americans originally migrated from a land bridge between Asia and Alaska, how long did it take them to arrive in Miami? Did they push onwards to Cuba, or vice versa? Great mysteries indeed.

Review of dirty book, Digging Miami

Digging Miami by Robert S. Carr, 2012, University Press of Florida4206

The first archaeologist of Miami-Dade County has penned his account of discovering the Miami Circle and other impressive pre-historic artifacts in the most urbanized part of Florida. It also turns out to be one of the state’s most ancient areas, as it has been inhabited continuously for thousands of years.

The book’s title, Digging Miami, and its cover photo of the Miami Circle caught my eye. The Circle became a park in 2011, and the site was unknown until 1998. While not fully understood, the Miami Circle sits at the mouth of the Miami River where it feeds into Biscayne Bay, and this strategic site is also where modern-day Miami began. The Circle is attributed to the Tequesta Indians who lived in South Florida until they went extinct after colonization (learn more here).

While full of interesting facts, the book suffers somewhat from the lack of a continuous narrative and diversions into archaeologist talk. For people unfamiliar with pre-historical Florida, it may be hard to follow the jumps between periods and locations, and for non- archaeologists, it gets difficult to remember which site is meant by “8DA11.” Named sites are much easier to envision.

What was enjoyable was the sense of discovery that accompanied many digs and especially those of gravesites. So many bones are buried beneath the skyscrapers of downtown that you start to worry about ancient curses arising to engulf the buildings or the sidewalk where you are strolling.

The book makes me excited to visit the Deering Estate again because of major finds on that property that may still be inaccessible to the public (I’ll have to work my contacts for an insider’s tour).

Everglades Hunt - Tequesta, by artist Theodore Morris

Everglades Hunt – Tequesta, by artist Theodore Morris

Although a strong and ancient connection to the sea should not be surprising, given Miami’s location, it’s quite dramatic to read that South Florida was one of only two places in North America where Native Americans “developed complex chiefdoms based on marine resources rather than agriculture” (p. 245). The other location is the Pacific Northwest. On the East Coast, this is it.

This book is recommended for people who want to discover a history of Miami that is completely opposite of its current tourism and television-based image. It is hard to imagine how people lived here when the Everglades licked at Miami’s doorstep and Miami Beach was an impenetrable mangrove swamp. But they certainly did, and the best evidence we have is in the dirt.

Tomorrow: Nuggets of Intrigue from Digging Miami


Pets gone wild in Florida, where reptiles relocate

chameleon from Oman

A veiled chameleon from Oman, now breeding in Florida.

A surfer-looking dude who wrassles gators for a living (and on TV) gave an awesome show-n-tell tonight in my FIU graduate seminar on current environmental topics, complete with two chameleons he had caught this week. Christopher Gillette caught these Old World, non-native reptiles  near Everglades National Park, where they are clearly breeding, so you can bypass the pet store and catch one yourself (if you can ever find these masters of camouflage). Actually, if you find such an exotic creature, dial 888-IVE-GOT1.

While visually appealing, these critters do not belong here, and they hunt the native birds, lizards, and other fauna who deserve a fair chance to survive. Such exotic pets all too frequently invade into Florida’s moderate climate and put other species on the path to extinction. Invasive species are considered the second major threat to land-based extinction, after deforestation. 

Of the 138 established exotic reptiles and amphibians in South Florida documented by Gillette and a team of researchers, 123 trace directly to the pet trade. About one-third are lizards, like the Cuban brown anole that is out-competing the native green anole. In addition to lazy pet owners who willfully dump their overgrown or unwanted pets, mass importers of reptiles often dump unwanted specimens, and Gillette has documented this process at Broward’s Strictly Reptiles. Gillette says he has been threatened and even shot at during his excursions to collect specimens and evidence of wrong-doing. For the full, sordid story, check out the book The Lizard King (yeah, there’s a drug connection).

“These people don’t like what we’re doing,” he says about the pet trade. When referring to the bullet holes in his car, he notes that “biology is fun.”

The two main problems with these often beautiful and fascinating creatures is that they spread diseases and they can be poisonous. The well-established cane toads of Florida have killed many a curious dog.

With the pet trade as the clear culprit of most infestations, solutions must target them and their customers. Some cities offer “amnesty days” to owners who no longer want their exotic pets. Pet stores should do the same and teach customers how to prevent escapes.

Some pet suppliers are known to release breeding populations into the wild, so that they can later collect the young and sell them, thereby avoiding the cost of importation. Once they are caught, they should never be allowed to import anything again. These are crimes against nature.

It’s 2050: Do you know where your children are?

Children, for your future safety, step away from the equator. Move in an orderly fashion towards the poles. We have our stardate set on the year 2050, and things are very different around here.

In this current year of 2012, we are waiting to get past the Apocolypse in December, as foretold by the Mayans, after which we can settle into a 47-year lull until we hit the next big year of hyperbole. While the year 2020 sounds cute and looks very stylish, there’s nothing quite like a mid-century to get the predictions flowing. Enter 2050, the year when everything converges/distintegrates/rolls over and plays dead. If nothing else, it gets us half-way to 2100, when most of today’s readers will be dead, but never mind, as the planet might be useless anyway.

World in 2050

The book about the New North.

Unless you live in Greenland. Business will be booming due to a warmer climate, allowing for settlement on the formerly icy tundra, and the new wealth from oil will be pumping out of the Artic. (Not one to miss out, China already plowed through the North Pole this year and has applied to become an official “Artic” nation. They must know something).

In his lauded book The World of 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civiliztion’s Northern Future, author Laurence C. Smith predicts the “new north” will rule the world, with Russia and Canada emerging as the biggest winners. The 2010 book tops the list of more than 1,500 books with some connection to 2050—some more histrionic than others. Smith’s approach is as measured as one might expect from a Guggenheim Fellow who hails from the UCLA department of geography. It’s a matter of latitude, without the attitude.

And it has pictures! The photo that freaked me out was of a dead bear in 2006, later confirmed as the first known hybrid of a grizzly and a polar bear. A polzy bear? A grizlar? It seems so wrong, but the bears are apparently down with the swirl. For those of you too dense to make the real connection, the changing climate has brought them together.

Polar/Brown Bear adult hybrid. Rothschild Museum, Tring, England.

Polar/Brown Bear adult hybrid. Rothschild Museum, Tring, England.

The statistic that freaked me out was the so-called population bomb that will bring the world from 7 billion people today to more than 9 billion in 2050. Every day, the world’s net population increases by more than 200,000 people—as if the entire population of Reno cloned itself every day. Talk about your Reno 9-1-1. As we have been told by Thomas Friedman, the world is getting too crowded, too hot, and too connected for its own good. Tick tock tick tock . . .

To these three ingredients, Smith adds a fourth dimension, called “resource demand,” or in other words, people treating the world as their own personal Wal-mart with no spending limit. Just imagine . . . how many people would get trampled on Black Friday, if Wal-Mart announced that, exactly at 5 a.m., . . . everything would be free.

Instead of focusing on the inevitable chaos, Smith draws attention to the potential winners that have previously been stuck under the permafrost. All that melting water will be extremely valuable (he calls it “blue oil”), because the hotter portions of the planet are also predicted to become drier, thereby leaving billions of people in the dust. In the year 2050, mass migration is so in.

The USA does pretty well because of Alaska, and Scandinavia also reaps the benefits from years of socialized medicine and mandatory education. But the new BRICs will be RC Cola—Russian and Canadian. Put them together, just like the grizzly and the polar bear, and you have a recipe for world domination by the Rus-Cans.

Now you know where your children are in 2050, eh? They are employed near the North Pole in Murmansk—installing air conditioners.

WAGTD Book Review: World on the Edge

The burgeoning field of apocalyptic literature has much to learn from the non-fiction field of WAGTD, which is my term We’re All Going To Die. Because when it comes to the end of the world, well, it’s the only logical conclusion. #WAGTD. Tweet all about it!

World on Edge

Does anyone hear this iceberg crashing?

The current issue of E—The Environmental Magazine has a review of the book I just finished, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, by the president of the DC-based Earth Policy Institute, Lester Brown, age 78. The guy has 26 honorary degrees, so when he speaks, intellectuals listen.

The book’s second half spells out Plan B to rescue the Earth (Plan A is WAGTD), and he totals up the cost to exactly $185 billion per year. This total splits almost evenly between social programs, like adult literacy, and environmental restoration. He makes a sound argument that both have to happen simultaneously. And the cost sounds reasonable when compared to the U.S. military budget of $661 billion per year and the world’s military budget of $1,522 billion per year. We can afford this.

Those numbers make sense, but the book is oversaturated with statistics. Some jump out, such as a proposed pricing of gasoline at $15 per gallon, but many other numbers related to crops and irrigation flew over my head. I do catch his drift about food security creating conflict. With a hotter planet and shifting climate patterns, many countries will be left without the means to feed themselves, and they will not sit still.

While many doomsday scenarios focus on water, Brown’s version targets soil as our most precious and threatened resource. How can we save the soil? Climate change is expanding deserts, so reversing that trend would be his primary defense. His main solution is switching to electricity for most needs, such as transportation, and deriving electricity from wind and other sustainable sources. In his Plan B, nuclear and coal are dead, and wind replaces oil as a primary source.

Boy in Ghana tears apart foreign computers.

This book offers very levelheaded doomsday advice. He makes it sound as if these transitions will happen, sooner or later, just as the Berlin Wall was destined to fall. His polemic puts the burden on national governments and international agencies to enact Plan B, and he calls for a mobilization to equal the efforts of World War II. Does this guy actually live in present-day Washington, DC? He thinks our current leaders will propose to spend money and work together to help save the lives of people living overseas? Maybe they will, once they realize they are saving their own hides.

Brown has two more books coming out within the year, an autobiography and one titled Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food. Clearly obsessed with agriculture, Brown didn’t quite clue me in to one of this century’s biggest problems: how are we going to feed 10 billion people? Actually he did: Plan B sees population peaking at 8 billion within 30 years, and that’s not too much more than the current 7 billion, right?

Today 1 billion people are malnourished. Tomorrow another 219,000 mouths will be asking to be fed. You do the math. These numbers have got me on the edge.

Book Review: The God Species, by Mark Lynas, 2011

*** 3 stars *** A great overview of where we are environmentally, but weak on solutions.

This National Geographic book was a gift, as I doubt I would pay the $25 for the hardcover, but it is worth a look-see. The title refers to the power we have to affect the planet for good and for ill. This book offers quite a bit of hope by positing that we still have time to think and act globally to fix the mess we’ve created, mostly unwittingly. But now that the problems are known, we need to put our wits to work.

God species

If I eat this book, do I save a tree?

The nine chapters of The God Species follow the nine physical boundaries that humanity must not cross. These boundaries were developed in 2009 by a panel of elite scientists, and the good news is that they say we have only crossed three of the nine boundaries so far. Of course climate change is one of the three and remains the wild card that could upset the whole game, or in other words, the human species.

The other two boundaries crossed are biodiversity loss, or the extinction rate, and levels of nitrogen, as in fertilizer. I agree with his proposal for expanding urban populations in order to preserve large stretches of undeveloped land—and aquatic preserves—for the millions of other species on earth. Rivers suffer greatly from nitrogen run-off, but the solution here was not so clear. I learned that very few plants can remove nitrogen, so preventing excess fertilizer would seem the place to begin.

The author tries to be “controversial” by being pro-growth for both the economy and the population, because he believes humans at any population level can find the technical means to balance the environment. That’s where he lost me. Although I do agree with his ideas of spreading wealth via development, I don’t see how humans could multiply their numbers and their use of resources indefinitely. Are you promoting boundaries or infinity?

I do appreciate the attempt to show that hope exists for more people to arise out of poverty without inevitably destroying the planet. Humans have always impacted their environs, but today we recognize that the impact is global and potentially irreversible. We have entered the Anthropocene, the age of man, where changes are happening more rapidly than ever before. That’s the scary part—we can see our foot on the accelerator, pushing down, down, down, but we also seem unwilling to give up our addiction to speed. For a visual example, check out