A Massive Review of Weightlifting Programs

This isn’t a topic I ever intended to cover on this blog, but I’ve realised in packing up all my stuff that I have completed so many strength training programs that it’s worth reviewing them all in one place. I started lifting weights when I was 12 years old, with some old equipment in my parents’ basement, and I have never looked back. Though I started with light weights, by the time I was 18 I realised that I needed progressive overload, and I started to lift heavy. These days I love strength training (dare I say it?) even more than running, which is saying something.

I often reflect on how happy I am that the internet was not what it is today when I was growing up, as I think it would have made me more neurotic in those already insecure teen years. It wasn’t until the internet became more popular that I even realised some people thought it was weird for girls to lift weights, or that you would look ‘manly’ if you did. I can’t even imagine how weights could work that magic on my small frame, so I won’t even get into that nonsense. There are plenty of great posts around the web if you are looking for myth-busting on that topic, see these posts by Nia Shanks or JCD Fitness. (Though I would add that yes, it is possible for some women to get more muscular than they want to, but to me it seems that this is in part due to a belief that athletic equals bulky, see here.)

Until I was 26, I mainly did my own programming. At some point I just decided I wanted a bit more structure and needed to have a few less decisions to make every day. Especially during my PhD, I am happy to have some decisions already made for me (especially if the ego depletion hypothesis is correct).

Onto the reviews, in no particular order:

1. Strong Curves by Bret Contreras

Currently at the top of my all-time favourites list. If you haven’t hip thrusted, and you want to get stronger and build a better physique, this is the book. (source)

Strong Curves is a book with four different 12 week programs in it, designed by Bret Contreras, aka ‘the Glute Guy’; building on all he has learned about building strength, power, and shape in the glutes. It is perhaps my favourite weightlifting book, and certainly my favourite of those geared toward women. I have been lifting weights for more than half of my life, so at this stage I don’t look for books that promise big things. Rather I look for books that explain the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ behind programming, and this book certainly delivers that. It has solid information, and if you read Bret Contrera’s blog, the book and program will deliver exactly what you expect. If you haven’t read his blog, I suggest you check it out before buying this book. Not for women that want to just restrict calories, do leg lifts and “toning”, this is part of that new generation of weight lifting books that encourages women to lift heavy weights, with a very strong emphasis on the glutes.

For me the program was just what I needed, as I have a hip problem that benefits from a strong focus on the lower body, and incorporating big lifts along with single leg and accessory work. This book is also excellent value for money, as it provides several 12 week workout programs and a huge catalogue of exercises as well as nutrition information. I still use the exercise catalogue in the book for reference often, as Bret does a great job of explaining proper form. Even though I have been lifting weights for nearly two decades now, I started with the beginner program because I really wanted to focus on glute activation, and it was a great decision. Bret states that the beginning program can be used even by advanced lifters, and I found that was certainly the case. I have done all of the programs in the book, with one exception: the lower body only routine. I am still a bit nervous to neglect my upper body, but I am sure I will do it eventually.

The advanced program was where I got really strong; you will be amazed at how strong your glutes can get. I was putting all the weight plates I owned on the bar for hip thrusts. Bret has amazing progress photos on his blog. Some people put on a lot of size (the good kind), especially those who didn’t have much of booty to begin with. I have an hourglass shape, which means I’ve already got glutes and hips, so I didn’t put on size but had notable differences in the composition of my lower body.

2. Female Body Breakthrough by Rachel Cosgrove

I chose to do this program after reading Charlotte’s review over on The Great Fitness Experiment. I have little to add because I would merely be echoing Charlotte’s sentiments. This is an excellent 16-week program, and again it’s another book encouraging women to lift heavy weights and stop thinking they need to torture themselves with endless cardio. I found the volume of training to be good for me, although I did not drop cardio or yoga. Rachel is among those who discourages too much steady state cardio and encourages you to do high intensity interval training (HIIT) instead. She includes HIIT programs in the book. I continued on with both the program as written and three runs per week. The book does encourage you to fuel properly and train hard, which is great, yet it’s written in this ‘hey girlfriend! let’s have a chat!’ style. It’s cringeworthy, but Rachel is unapologetic about it. The information is quality, even if you don’t like the delivery. Just remind yourself that you only need to read through the text once, and then it’s all about the programming.  I didn’t experience massive changes in my body with this one, but I did it right after New Rules of Lifting for Women (see #4), so I think I just needed to mix things up because the two programs are similar.

3. STS by Cathe Friedrich

Cathe warming up in STS (source).
Cathe warming up in STS (source).

Remember Cathe Friedrich, one of the original home fitness video stars? I had no idea she was a strength training star as well, and when I stumbled on her STS program, I couldn’t find any reviews online at the time. I took a chance and bought it; sold by the fact that it had a squat and bench rack option in the final phase of the program and by the the fact that I could get an immediate download of all the DVDs. This 12-week program was one of the best I have ever done, and my progress photos show it (sorry, I won’t be posting those online!). I experienced a bigger difference in my physique than any other program I’ve tried, especially in my legs and arms.

The program includes 40 DVDs (!!), which can also be downloaded. You’ll be strength training 3 days per week for about an hour each session. It has three ‘mesocycles’ (phases), and the body part splits vary by cycle (although legs always get their own day). In the third mesocycle, you have the option of choosing the videos that use a squat rack, so you can lift heavier. The videos are professionally produced, building in the rest periods and telling you what % of your 1 rep max to complete (both of which vary over the three phases). It incorporates both compound lifts like deadlifts, chest press, squats, etc. as well as body part split exercises/accessory work. It has become mainstream in the fitness community to diss body part splits in favour of the big lifts, as they are less time efficient, among other disadvantages. However, the fact is that body part splits are effective in building a better physique. That’s why fitness pros use them. I never expected this quality of programming from someone who I thought was a step aerobic superstar. Shows how much I knew!

4. New Rules of Lifting for Women by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove 

The New Rules of Lifting for Women (NROLFW) is one of the most popular books for weightlifting ever, so I won’t say too much about it because there are tons of reviews online (example). The book has 6 months of programming, 3 days per week of full body workouts. The volume was lower than I was used to, but not too low and that just meant shorter workouts and more time to do other things.

The book is also packed full of information about why women should strength train, mobility, cardio, and nutrition, including meal plans by Cassandra Forsythe. For this reason I think it’s excellent for beginners, but it’s also great for advanced lifters because, of course, you lift with the weight and intensity that’s right for you. There are a lot of similarities between this and Female Body Breakthrough, which shouldn’t be surprising considering that Rachel and Alwyn are married. The benefit is that NROLFW is not written in that ‘hey, ladies’ style. Like Rachel’s book, they also recommend HIIT over steady state cardio, but I did both.

Even though weightlifting is one of my favourite activities, I find most fitness books off-putting, either because of the tone or because of the promise of ridiculously impossible to achieve results. I not only like Shuler’s voice, but I like how humble he is about both the research and the results one can achieve with weight lifting (hint: there’s no way you can promise everyone will achieve amazing results with a single generic program). The workouts in this book are solid, and though a lot of people complain about repetition, there’s actually just enough repetition to ensure you progress. Sure, they could have thrown in several dozen different workouts which makes some people feel like they are optimising “muscle confusion”. But then they wouldn’t have given your body time to improve at the workouts you are given. All in all, I would say this is one of the best fitness book I have read, particularly for female weight lifters.

5. LiveFit by Jamie Eason

Jamie Eason, creator of LiveFit Trainer, mother, co-host of Mission: Makeover, and once named the fittest model (source).

LiveFit is the most comprehensive and effective free program you can get. I won’t dwell on it because Janetha’s review at Meals and Moves is comprehensive. This is another 12 week program, and one where you will train like a fitness model, so that means body part splits and, in the latter stages of the program, high volume and intensity, with plyometrics. Like STS, I experienced big changes in my body with this one, although my progress plateaued in the third stage because I think that it was too much volume for me. The workouts can go for up to 90 minutes! And it’s not just waiting around for your next set. It’s pretty intense.

There’s a diet that comes along this one, but I didn’t follow it. It’s a low calorie, body builder type diet and it would make me sad to eat that way. So I didn’t. And yet even just eating my normal diet – which is healthy but full of variety, based on vegetables, and full of flavour, unlike a bodybuilder diet – I was able to make big changes, which really surprised me. The longer you’ve been lifting the harder it is to make progress, and I do not have a naturally athletic body type. I don’t build muscle easily at all. In this program I was able to improve my body composition, as well as my strength and endurance.

There are several Facebook groups for women doing LiveFit, if you’re into that sort of thing.

6. Lean and Lovely by Neghar Fonooni

Neghar is one of my favourite fit females (here’s her blog), as she is among the few that don’t talk about ‘toning up’ or getting a bikini body; and has been open about her decision to actually gain a bit of fat in order to regain her sanity. I bought the Lean and Lovely program as soon as it came out. This is a program that is less about aesthetics than something like LiveFit, and more about helping you become more athletic, fitter, and stronger. Lean and Lovely is all available as a download and includes a training manual, nutrition manual, ‘sweat sessions’ guide, how-to videos, and admission to a private Facebook group.

Another 12 week program with three phases, there is also an optional primer phase for those who aren’t ready to jump right in. She recommends kettlebells, which are her favourite training implements, but you can do the program without kettlebells and just modify them to work with barbells and dumbbells. Since I only had a 20kg kettlebell, I mixed it up with other equipment when I needed a lighter or heavier weights. The workouts generally only took me about 30 minutes or so; but unlike some programs with short workouts, they aren’t just cardio disguised as weights. The use of kettlebells will get your heart rate up, but you are lifting heavy in this program, so it’s not just metabolic conditioning in disguise. That said, she does have finishers at the end of each workout and there are also optional ‘sweat sessions’ you can do on your days off weight training. There are also mindfulness exercises. While I didn’t do the mindfulness exercises, I think this would be appealing to people who want something more out of a weight training program. I’m in it for the fitness (and the stress relief, but that’s automatic).

Neghar Fonooni, an inspiration for anyone who wants to be fit and strong, mentally and physically (source).

This is a program that will make you strong and functionally fit. It’s solid programming and not at all gimmicky. I actually wished for a bit more volume, so I would sometimes add some of the short (10 minute) Lift Weights Faster workouts to the end of the sessions. I love that this program includes yoga, and I did do her videos a few times*. I didn’t follow the nutrition plan because it’s basically just paleo. I was a little bit surprised by that, but I guess I shouldn’t be because it’s so trendy. I like to live life on the edge and eat things like brown rice and legumes, which paleo tells me are poison, so it isn’t exactly my jam. All in all, though, this is a solid program that can be used by beginner, intermediate, and advanced lifters yet is also great for those that are pressed for time.

My main complaint about the program is that the PDF could be designed better. You’re scrolling endlessly and there aren’t clickable links to the relevant places in the guide or online. It’s so easy these days to create more sophisticated PDF products. I’d love to see her make the manuals easier to navigate (or offer a mobi version for Kindle, as it wouldn’t convert properly!).

7. Lift Weights Faster by Jen Sinkler

Lift Weights Faster is not just the excellent t-shirt and funny retort Jen Sinkler offers when people ask her what she does for cardio. It’s also a program available for download with a massive 130 workouts, extensive exercise library, user guide, and gear guide. Just as the title suggests, this is a style of exercise where you lift weights faster. Jen doesn’t care what you call it – I prefer metabolic resistance training – she just provides the reasons and the tools for you to do it. What’s great about this program is that the workout manual is so well organised. You can choose a workout based on the time you have available (from less than 10 to 30 minutes) and the equipment you have on hand (bodyweight, minimal equipment, dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, or a full gym).

Lift Weights Faster also now includes a ‘no assembly required’ workout manual and calendar that includes four 12-week programs for those who were overwhelmed by selecting their own. You also get membership to her site, where she demos various workouts and moves from the manuals, and her coaching is absolutely amazing. I honestly can’t say enough about how talented she is in explaining proper form to strangers on the internet. A skill that is much harder than most people think! Just have a browse of her site and you will see. On the membership site, you can also log your times and weights for some of the workouts, and they have a leaderboard. Great for those who are competitive.


I hesitated to review this because I haven’t done this program exclusively over a period of 12 weeks – or even for just a few weeks, for that matter. Rather, I’ve used it as an addition to other programs, and frequently use it while travelling since it has a lot of great workouts that only require bodyweight or minimal equipment. But that’s what prompted me to buy it. This was something I could use in addition to my regular routine, and if I wanted to focus more on it later, then I could.

8. P90X, P90X+, and P90X2 by Tony Horton

Yes, these are the classics that anyone who considers themselves a ‘serious’ lifter or coach loves to mock. True, muscle confusion is a nebulous, slightly stupid term, but the principle is legit and it works. I did P90X twice (not back to back), and I also did a short stint (maybe 4-6 weeks?) of P90X+. I actually really loved this program. It’s the reason I can do 10 unassisted pull up, which isn’t too shabby, and it’s the thing that really made me start to love lifting even more than running.

Like some of the other programs, I won’t review this in detail because others have done it better. There is much to be found

Tony Horton, apparently showing off for the Navy (source)
Tony Horton, apparently showing off for the Navy (source)

online, and again I’d recommend Charlotte’s review because she’s awesome and is a fitness enthusiast who has done many programs, much like myself. This is yet another 12 week program with body part splits, but what I remember the most from it is how strong my lats got. It’s got so many pull up variations that you will be amazed (and possibly confused). It has a lot of push-up variations, too, and I’ve seen many people imitate them since. In the first P90X, I hated the fact that you did the legs workout so often, especially since it kind of made Tony Horton’s whole ‘muscle confusion’ claim even more confusing. Tony Horton is entertaining – in a vain and sometimes tragic kind of way – but by my second time through the 90-day program, I had to watch it on mute. Hearing the same joke that many times is a threat to your sanity. But his humour and attempts to push you in the videos really do work, at least for a while. It’s a fun program, despite the fact that you’re working out about an hour a day, and it’s not easy. I don’t have much to say about P90X+, other than that it’s great value for money and fun.

As for P90X2…I hated it. I just couldn’t understand why he tried to make fitness so complicated, after focusing so much in P90X on variations of classic exercises like push-ups and pull ups. I guess you have to offer the people something new, but some of it seemed dangerous. I can’t even talk about the push-up on 4 med balls without getting angry. Again, I direct you to Charlotte’s review of P90X2, where one of her training companions actually quit. She even refers to that very push-up variation!

So I will defend P90X, and say it’s a solid program that can really ignite people’s passion for lifting weights. It can help people do their first unassisted pull up. It’s fun, and it draws on tried and true exercises. As for P90X2, I just don’t want to talk about it. I cringe even thinking about it.

9. Custom Programming by Tara at Sweat Like a Pig

All of these ‘out of the box’ programs are fine, but many people would argue that custom training is far superior. They are probably right, but not all of us have the money or mental energy for that! Tara’s programming is both effective and reasonably priced, especially considering that she will question you about all the important things (what you like/dislike, your level of experience, equipment you have access to, etc.). I won’t review this in detail because the plan is customised specifically to the client. I will say that I had Tara write two programs for me, and they were excellent. I still return to them now and again because their 6-week length sometimes is exactly the length I need in between major travelling events (which have been very frequent, as of late!).

10. Full-Body-Licious by Flavia Del Monte

I don’t like the names of a lot of these programs, but this one is among the worst. I cringed every time I had it open on the computer. However, not one to pass by a fit female trying to sell women on the virtues of weightlifting, I thought I’d give FBL a try anyway. The program comes as a digital download, including demonstration videos and a bunch of bonuses you can get, including nutrition info. I of course didn’t follow the nutritional plan (Sensing a theme here? What can I say? I know what I like and what I don’t). The program is circuit based and intense, and fairly high volume. It’s only five workouts, each of which you do once per week, and then she recommends doing steady state and HIIT cardio as well. With warmup and cooldown, you are talking about 60 minutes, 5 times per week, plus the cardio.

I loved this program at first, but I quickly felt over-trained. Although each of the five workouts has a different body part that is emphasised more than others, you are still working your entire body, five days per week, at a high level of intensity. I ended up retaining a lot of water, which is what happens when I workout too hard. I found the repetition too much after 6 weeks, and moved on to Strong Curves. To be honest, I didn’t love this program. It wasn’t right for me, and the quality of the downloads wasn’t great. The videos weren’t that helpful, and the style of training didn’t really work for me. Plus you end up getting endless emails from Flava, which you can of course unsubscribe from, but I find that a bit annoying when I compare it to the other programs I’ve joined. None of them send out so many emails.

11. Body Earned by James Wilson

Body Earned is an odd one because, at least when I bought it, you purchase it by emailing James Wilson and you get some word files. I think now it’s more formal if you go here. Like some of the other programs, you can also join a private group on Facebook. I heard about this one from a blog I used to read, and that’s how I think it made the rounds. It is based on James’ work with fitness professionals, and is not all that different from LiveFit or FBL, but again not right for me. It’s high volume and focuses on burning a lot of calories per session. Just like FBL, it made me just look a bit puffy and retain water. Results may vary, of course, but for me I’ve found it’s actually more effective to lift heavy weights for lower reps instead of trying to get a massive ‘pump’ like a body builder and moving quickly onto the next exercise. It’s not all about the calorie burn. Plus, the Facebook group made me sad, as it’s full of women who expressed a lot of anxiety around food and the classic body builder definition of ‘clean eating’.

For other reviews of Body Earned, click here for a male perspective and here for a vlog from the aforementioned blogger who introduced me to it.

12. 12-week body transformation by Michelle Bridges

Michelle Bridges is not just a trainer, but a brand in Australia. She is Australia’s Jillian Michaels. As a result, the 12-Week Body Transformation is professional, and it has a lot of resources behind it. That means you get not just a 12-week exercise program (from which you can choose a wide range of goals, both strength and cardio based), but also a detailed diet plan and a bunch of resources you can tap into. You can customise the plan to so many of your preferences, and you get support from specific staff members who are focused on your particular plan. There are a lot of pre-season tasks that you can complete to help you be more successful. I don’t think I’m necessarily the audience for this, however, as I think this is for people who want to be motivated to be healthy. I chose the program not focused on weight loss, but on building muscle. It was a bodybuilding split sort of program, so I went back to isolating my biceps and triceps for the first time in a while. I didn’t see much changes in my body. I think I’m just not the target audience for this one. It’s a program that would do wonderful things for people who want to get fit; but for those that already have a good base level of fitness, I don’t think it’s as helpful. That said, you get an enormous amount of resources for the amount of money that you pay, even if the price tag seems a bit steep. She has staff, and they engage with you. You don’t just pay money and then walk away; you join a community. A great program for beginniners and those that need ongoing motivation from others. It just wasn’t right for me.

13. Miscellaneous programs 
I have also done various programs geared more towards women who want to ‘tone’, like the 30-Day Shred by Jillian Michaels and the Tone it Up by Karena and Katrina. I don’t have much to say about the former, but I do feel like the latter is overhyped. I feel like these workouts are geared toward a different audience, and not me. The Tone it Up workouts didn’t offer any strength gains, physique changes, or any of the mental and physical benefits I normally get from working out. These programs tend to use light or no weights and are thus probably great for beginners, but for me they just didn’t do much. I felt like an idiot doing them, too, as they are sold on the premise that you can look like the southern Californian beach babes who sell them. The trick to getting the results shown for the Tone It Up guide is in following the nutrition guides, which will have you on a low calorie diet and eating 5 tiny meals per day.

I am currently doing the Bikini Body Guides by Kayla Itsines, and I like these workouts because they are short and require minimal equipment, which is great when you are moving across the world. However, the program is more like cardio dressed as strength training and the programming isn’t balanced. The program doesn’t focus on your back at all but has a heavy focus on abs, which makes me think it’s just setting people up for injury. It also includes a lot of plyometrics, which isn’t for everyone. It’s certainly not great for my hips, but the low volume of the program has meant I haven’t felt over-trained. People rave about her programs, but I think they aren’t that well designed and find the progress pictures on her Instagram shocking (so I won’t link to them). Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but I hesitate to even say this is a strength training program or good for very fit people, even if it’s sort of billed as such. The Nutrition Plan offers a vegetarian option, but it has fish in it which…isn’t vegetarian. This program is very expensive for what you get, and again, it’s food restriction that will get you the results she showcases on her site.

Summary Table

Here’s a summary of the programs. Bear in mind that this is based on memory, as all my books and training logs are packed and about to be shipped. If you spot an error, I’ll be happy to change it. As for time commitments, green is about a half hour a few times per week. Yellow is 45 – 60 minutes a few times per week. Red is 60 to 90 minutes and/or 5 times per week strength training.

Simple snapshot of programs
Simple snapshot of programs

Given my intro about weights and ‘bulky’ women, I should probably share what I look like, after all these programs. I am notDSC09493 destined to have big muscles, nor am I destined to look as athletic as my brain sometimes wants. Ultimately, I just want to be fit and healthy, and I have achieved that. Weights, running, and yoga are also what keep me sane; I am convinced I would be a very anxious person if I stopped taking the time to exercise.

I always take before and after photos, but I am not keen to share half-naked pictures online. So I’ll just add a picture of me in my favourite running skirt: happy and healthy. If I flex, I look stronger than average, but if I chose to, I can just look normal like this. Given all the benefits of exercise, my hope is that women will stop being afraid of what getting strong will make them look like, and just get in the gym.

* As an aside, I love yoga and do it every day My favourite site for yoga classes by far is YogaDownload.com. Unlimited class downloads for a really low price, and the quality of classes are excellent. They range from 10 minutes to 2 hours, with most landing in the 30 to 60 minute range, which I like. I have done most of the classes on there, and have loved so many.


Revisiting the Problem of Place

Long ago, I wrote a blog post I called A Problem of Place on my old blog, which I re-published here. I wrote that post soon after my move from the US to Australia. As I near my big move from Australia to the UK, this post is re-visiting the idea of place, but from a much different perspective. It’s a bit self-indulgent, so forgive me in advance; but this is what happens when you are sequestered in your house, contemplating another global move and finishing your doctoral thesis.  

The Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, Michigan. I went to junior high and high school in a town near here. I feel no particular attachment to any place in this area.

I’ve said so many times in my life that ‘home’, for me, is linked to those I love, not particular places. I have no sentimental attachment to any one place on this planet as my ‘hometown’. In fact, I generally refuse to answer that question and love to list my hometown as “Anytown, USA” because I grew up in a few small towns in the Upper Midwest of the United States. These towns are interchangeable with many other small American towns (to me), and I feel no particular connection to any one of them.

When I hear others talk about their hometowns –  or when I have the privilege of seeing them revisit them – I am part envious, part fascinated, and part baffled. The rose-coloured hue of their reflections make sense, even though I don’t look upon places in my own past in the same way. Of course we’re going to remember the good things. Of course we’re going to think things ‘were better when’. It’s just human nature. I wear rose-coloured glasses sometimes too; I just don’t remember the good things about places as much as I do about people. Maybe that’s just because I’m an introvert, and there are few people I have become really close to over the years, so I hold those people close to my chest.

My envy comes from hearing them describe the little things: the smells, the colours, the small adventures, the view that a particular landscape is ‘right’ or ‘home’. A part of me wants that feeling. I am promiscuous when it comes to my love of landscapes, and can see beauty in many. I can’t imagine why someone would say Michigan is where the trees are the right height.* This is where bafflement comes into play. What does it feel like to attach so much value to a particular place? I watch and listen like an anthropologist studying a little-known culture, and I’ve been mentally taking notes for a lifetime.

To me John Forrest is the quintessential West Australian landscape. It can be stark, scrubby, and dry, but I love it.
To me John Forrest is the quintessential West Australian landscape. It can be stark, scrubby, and dry, but I love it.

The other day, when walking through John Forrest National Park, I had what felt like a revelation: this is the first time that I have felt an overwhelming sadness in leaving a place. I have been spending as much time as I can outside over the past few months, trying to soak up every last Australian landscape. A lot of that hiking has been alone, which has been exactly what I’ve needed. Because being alone has meant I can stop as much as I like to admire a tree, a rock, a lizard, a grasshopper, or a flower. Or just soak up the smells and, yes, even the sounds of loud Australian birds. There have been big things, too, like the echidnas, Tasmanian devil, platypus and (most importantly) wombats that I saw on my recent Tasmanian Bucket List Tour. These have all been moments that I have relished. Moments that I have wished I could prolong and am already wishing I could return to again.

Echidna searching for love on the other side of the road.
Echidna searching for love on the other side of the road.

Yet it has been the cumulative experience of the small moments that have had the greatest

Wombat on Maria Island.
Wombat on Maria Island.

impact, and that have led to the realisation that I am going to miss this place. Normally when I move, which I have done many times before, I think mainly about the people I will miss, and how I will keep in touch. I think about that here, too, but the keeping in touch doesn’t seem so unattainable now. In my eighth year as an expat, I realise that it’s not so difficult. But perhaps there is no surrogate for a place that you have grown to love.

When I talk about missing Perth, there’s a part of my brain that shouts at me:

A healthy Tasmanian Devil on Maria Island (they've established a healthy population there!)
A healthy Tasmanian Devil on Maria Island (they’ve established a healthy population there!)
I've been told by many people that eucalypts aren't as beautiful as other trees. But look at that form!
I’ve been told by many people that eucalypts aren’t as beautiful as other trees. But look at that form!

“Perth is just a bunch of suburbs!”. Of course that’s not what I am talking about when I say I will miss this place. I am talking about big, beautiful eucalypts. Whimsical grass trees. Morton Bay fig trees, with roots that seem set on conquering entire post codes. The smell of lemon-scented gums. Stubborn, strong-willed wombats just a short plane ride away. The bluest, sunniest skies I have ever seen. Where I am going, there is no replacement for these things. And I don’t know how to mourn for that loss because I’ve never experienced it before. I’ve never felt so much attachment to a place, and it feels like such an unlikely turn of events for the woman who never understood how a place and not a person could feel like home.

A weekend trip to Snowdonia is within my reach.
A weekend trip to Snowdonia is within my reach.

So herein lies the challenge: my person who is home….he is already in Liverpool, which will soon be my new residence. At the same time, there is still the pull of a new place that has become home, on the other side of the planet from my new home. I don’t have a way to reconcile those two opposing feelings, and I don’t have an eloquent way of discussing them, either. Whenever I discuss my hesitance to move to Liverpool, I feel like a petulant child. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and I am grateful. I love the UK, and I will be able to look out my window and see Wales, one of my favourite places on the planet. I can visit Europe for the weekend. When I talk about my reluctance to move, I am often dismissed. My fears of not getting a job in my field are unfounded, I am told. I will build new professional networks, I am advised. My dissatisfaction with the weather will pass, I hear.

But those things are not the crux of the issue. Those are the superficial things that make me feel anxious. The things that I can find words to discuss. This other feeling, about leaving this place, that’s a more difficult feeling to express, and one that doesn’t have an easy answer. I will visit Australia, of course. My in-laws live here. I may (I hope) move back here one day. I am an Australian citizen. Yet none of these things can remedy this new, unfamiliar ‘problem of place‘, where it’s not a matter of thinking a new place can solve all of my problems, but of wondering why I’ve become so attached to this one.

I don’t have a conclusion or an answer to this. Maybe being an expat and living in many different places across the globe – or even, perhaps, within a single country for some – will inevitably lead to a mixed bag of feelings ranging from statelessness to intense connection to places. This, despite the fact that you are neither stateless, nor do you belong to any particular place. When you are an expat, people will always remind you of that fact. My voice and my place of birth means I am painted with broad brush strokes, forming the outlines of what it apparently means to be “American”. I never really was, or will I ever be, accepted as Australian or or as any other nationality. So why the feeling in the pit of my stomach in leaving? It isn’t patriotism. No, I wouldn’t know what that feels like.

It’s more like mourning the loss of a loved one. So I suppose, just as people can be home, places can be loved like people. I get it now. Sort of. At least I am starting to get the gist, just as I am saying goodbye.

Photo by my dear friend Lavida, who has moved to New York. http://www.lavidarose.com/photo-shoots

—– *Okay, that was a political ploy by Mitt Romney. But the sentiments are not far off from those expressed by people when talking about the landscapes they call home.

Whither scenic beauty?*

I am currently doing my PhD field work, which involves interviewing people about the governance aspects of landscape-scale biodiversity conservation. Driving through a number of different landscapes over the past 5 weeks has reinvigorated my interest in the ways aesthetic preferences affect the way we interact with landscapes. At first aesthetic preferences seems a rather in banal aspect on which to place my focus. However, such preferences influence our perceptions ecosystem health and the conservation actions we think are required (or not required) in a landscape.

My interest in the topic was sparked when I first moved to Australia. I was given a similar disclaimer every time someone took me out into the bush**: “It takes some getting used to.” After walking around for a bit, they would tentatively ask, “So what do you think?” I always responded that I thought it was beautiful. I tend to prefer “messy” landscapes to “tidy” ones, and the Australian bush tends to fall into the former category.

John Forrest
John Forrest National Park in Western Australia
Burned area in Wireless Hill Park in Perth.
Atherton Tablelands
In the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland. Those are termite mounds between the trees.
Valley of the Giants
Valley of the Giants in Denmark, Western Australia

Both personally and professionally, I have found that many Australians, even those born and raised here, have aesthetic preferences that align much more with their European heritage than the realities of the Australian environment in which they live. On settlement, the intention in many places in Australia was, in fact, to create a ‘Little England’, despite the fact that the environments are wildly different. This includes Tasmania, where one of my case study regions is located (see, e.g. 1). The Australian bush generally doesn’t fit the European aesthetic. The trees are often messy, woodlands are often too open or too dense and shrubby, the landscape is often burnt, and for much of the year it can look pretty dry. Though many of our ecosystems in Australia qualify as among the most biodiverse in the world, you have to know what you’re looking at to realise that. There are exceptions, of course, and I have included some of those exceptions in this post. What really gets me thinking, however, is the way our aesthetic preferences affect the way we perceive and manage landscapes, particularly when there is a mismatch between these preferences and the dynamics of the ecosystem.

Landscapes are inherently social. Not only because most have evidence of human intervention, but also because the

Standing dead trees in the Tasmanian Midlands. Does this decline mean we should more urgently attend to issues in the landscape? Or does it send a signal to you that the system is too far gone?
Standing dead trees in the Tasmanian Midlands. Does this decline mean we should more urgently attend to issues in the landscape? Or does it send a signal to you that the system is too far gone?

way we perceive them has implications for the way we interact with them. Aesthetic preferences are an important component of that perception. For non-experts, scenic beauty serves as a surrogate for ecosystem health. If we think a natural area is beautiful, we are more likely to view it has healthy. Sometimes beauty comes from our perception that the place is “pristine” or “untouched” (though we are very bad at assessing whether or not that is the case). Downed wood from logging is one of the most influential variables in lay people’s perceptions of forest health (e.g. 2). But we aren’t entirely consistent with the way we interpret signs of human influence. We also interpret some signs of management (e.g. weeding, thinning of understorey) as “cues to care” that indicate a forest has a caretaker and is therefore healthier (3). “Messy” ecosystems, like some of those that I have shown in this post, are not only under-appreciated aesthetically, but we often have trouble translating such chaos into ecosystem function.

Landscape-scale is the focus of my research because it is the scale at which many major threats operate. The term is nebulous and defined differently by landscape artists, planners, and ecologists. However, let’s settle for now on a notion of a landscape as something that does not extend beyond our “perceptible realm”, as humans have great difficulty engaging in other scales of interest (4). Why is this important?

At this scale, landscape perception thus becomes the key process for connecting humans with ecological phenomena. Particularly relevant to this paper, aesthetic experiences evoked through perception of the landscape powerfully and regularly engage people with ecosystems. This implies that landscapes that are perceived as aesthetically pleasing are more likely to be appreciated and protected than are landscapes perceived as undistinguished or ugly, regardless of their less directly perceivable ecological importance.Aesthetic experiences may thus lead people to change the landscape in ways that may or may not be consistent with its ecological function. (4: p. 960)

Does this grassland invoke the same feelings you would have in a forest? What if you knew it was an endangered grassland?
Does this grassland invoke the same feelings you would have in a forest? What if you knew it was an endangered grassland?

For the sake of brevity, I won’t discuss all of the literature on this. I want to just focus for a moment on my thoughts and experiences, as this is the benefit to having a personal blog, after all! In my experience, there are many people who do not appreciate the biodiversity values of Australian landscapes unless they fit a particular aesthetic mode. This certainly seems to be the case where I live, in Perth, and I have heard time and time again from people who think our bush is “pretty average” *** This in spite of the Southwest corner of Western Australia being a biodiversity hotspot. Yet the key, I think, is actually in that classification itself. Biodiversity hotspots are identified as such not just by virtue of their  biodiversity values, but the fact that those values are under threat. But you won’t see WA residents coming out in droves to protect their local patch, even if they will come out to protect an iconic bit of wilderness that is much more aesthetically pleasing. Are the threats perceived as less threatening because we are underwhelmed by the bush? I don’t know, but I do wonder.

In the Tasmanian Midlands, we have a critically endangered ecological community (i.e. the Lowland Native Grasslands). Yet if you ask most Tasmanians about this region, many will tell you that it’s the agricultural wasteland between Hobart and Launceston. Though many of the landholders recognise what they have, many others perceive a landscape that is highly modified and a bit of a lost cause at this point. On a research field trip to the region, I heard one person refer to conservation in the Tasmanian Midlands as “conservation for connoisseurs”. Like a fine food or drink that may not taste great to an unrefined palate, the midlands landscape may not look like a landscape worthy of our protection and resource investment. It may just look like a region full of sheep and poppies with few “natural” values left, and there are certainly problems with ecosystem function in this landscape. But the fact is that this does not mean the biodiversity values are gone, and that many of these are actually an important part of the social and economic viability of that landscape. Does the fact that it doesn’t look like some of Tasmania’s other, more iconic landscapes make it less worthy of protection?

By Lake_Pedder_From_Mt_Eliza.jpg: JJ Harrison (http://www.noodlesnacks.com/) derivative work: Pointillist (Lake_Pedder_From_Mt_Eliza.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Scott’s Peak from Lake Pedder in Southwest Tasmania: JJ Harrison (http://www.noodlesnacks.com/) derivative work: Pointillist (Lake_Pedder_From_Mt_Eliza.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The relationship between aesthetics and biodiversity conservation policy and management is complicated, but I do think it is important. Biodiversity conservation is, and probably always will be, normative. And non-expert judgments of ecosystems often hinge on aesthetic perceptions, as these drive our connection to iconic places. This has very obvious implications. Destruction of grasslands don’t bring people out in droves; but forests do…certainly in Tasmania. It may also be more difficult to convince people to invest in these less conventionally “beautiful” landscapes, especially in times of limited resources in which the iconic landscapes like the TarkineKimberley, and the Great Barrier Reef are under threat and worth of protection as well.

My point here is not that we shouldn’t protect iconic landscapes, nor is it that we should favour messy landscapes because they are the underdog of conservation. My point is that we cannot trust that our perceptions of an ecosystem can tell us about its value. Just like many of our other sensory experiences, I think we operate under an illusion of scenic beauty and need to challenge our natural inclinations. Though I do not operate under the misguided assumption that knowledge cures all environmental ills, I do think that we should pause before jumping to conclusions about the ecological value of a landscape in the absence of knowledge about its function.

I personally love the Tasmanian Midlands landscape, but I also saw it for the first time on a research trip with knowledgable guides. Perhaps I would have felt the same way even if the circumstances were different. I don’t know. There is one thing that I do know for certain, however, and that’s that the adage to not judge a book by its cover doesn’t just apply to people. My move to Australia has taught me that things of great value can often be found in the most unassuming packages.

Near Tunbridge Township Lagoon in the Tasmanian Midlands.

*The title of this post comes from an article that seeks to find a balance between expert-driven landscape planning that leans heavily on biophysical aspects of the landscape and perception-driven approaches that favour socio-cultural perceptions (5).

** In Western Australia, all forest seems to be referred to as “the bush” but in other places in Australia, I more often hear the words forest and woodland. Not sure if there are regional differences, but “the bush” is kind of a signature term in Australia.

*** In Australian terms “pretty average” generally means not good at all…just inoffensive I guess. For example, if you go out on a blind date and your friends say “was she hot?” and you say “she was pretty average” that basically means you weren’t attracted to her. Australians also often use it when they dislike something, but they don’t want to whinge. Example: “What do you think of the way X government programs is run?” They may say, “It was pretty average” but when probed further will offer a string of reasons why it was, in fact, below average.

Barron Falls in far north Queensland
Barron Falls in far north Queensland

1. Boyce, J. 2008. Van diemen’s land, Melbourne, Vic.: Black Inc.

2. Nassauer J.I. 1995b. Messy ecosystems, orderly frames. Landscape Journal, 14: 161-170.

3. Ribe R.G. 1991. The scenic impact of key forest attributes and long-term management alternatives for hardwood forests. In: McCormick, Larry H.; Gottschalk, Kurt W., eds. Proceedings, 8th CentralHardwood Forest Conference; 1991 March 4-6; University Park, PA. Gen. Tech. Rep. NE-148. Radnor, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station: 34-54.

4. Gobster, P. H., Nassauer, J. I., Daniel, T. C. & Fry, G. 2007. The shared landscape: What does aesthetics have to do with ecology? Landscape Ecology, 22(7), 959-972. See a copy free here.

5. Daniel T.C. 2001. Whither scenic beauty? Visual landscape quality assessment in the 21st century. Landscape and Urban Planning, 54(1): 267-282.

Individualism, Hierarchy, Solidarity, and Fatalism

I was sorting through some old emails today, and I came across a discussion from a few months ago between me and other researchers. One of them had suggested it would make an excellent blog post, but none of us ever wrote one. So here I am. I am sharing my personal thoughts on the matter, not theirs.

The discussion was prompted by a lecture given by Matthew Taylor, CEO of the Royal Society for the Arts. You can listen to it on the ABC’s* Big Ideas podcast or online here. You can also read an article he wrote on these issues here.

The basic premise of the lecture is that three sources of social power – individualism, hierarchy, and solidarity – need to be present for society to function. He also mentions fatalism as a fourth force, but this is largely set aside in the lecture. All three are fairly self-explanatory: hierarchical power comes from those who have (or think they have) authority to tell us what to do, solidarity originates from the groups to which we belong and share values, and individualistic power has its origins in our desire to survive and succeed. As he succinctly puts it: I’ll do what I’m told (hierarchy), I’ll do what everyone else is doing (solidarity), and I’ll do what I want to do (individualism).

In thinking about how to tackle “wicked problems”, Taylor suggests that we approach them from a design perspective, rather than a policy perspective, using these forces as a lens through which we view potential solutions. In other words, we can leverage on these forces in designing solutions to the complex problems that trouble society.

A quick note for context: The term “wicked problems” refers to complex policy problems that cannot be defined completely and for which most solutions are less than optimal (Rittel and Webber 1973). Many environmental problems fall under this umbrella.

These forces often operate all at once and generate friction when they meet. Taylor uses the example of climate change, which I think is an excellent one. People often firmly commit to one of three paths: individual ingenuity and technology will solve the problem, world leaders sign off on treaties to bring the world community in line, or we need to all chip in and collectively change the way we live. Fatalism, of course, is the view that it’s all made up; or if it’s not, we’re all screwed. The topic of my PhD, biodiversity, could also be similarly parsed into these four categories: individual management and conservation of the remaining patches of habitat will save us, we must join together and connect these patches across landscapes, or the government should command from on high that no actions that threaten the remaining biodiversity will be tolerated. A more fatalistic view would say that extinction has always occurred and is inevitable, thus we should stop trying to prop up some of these species just because they are cute and cuddly.

This post was seriously lacking in pictures, so here’s a kookaburra thrown in for good measure. Photo: Kookaburra and frog (2), 24 May 2009 via Flickr, Richard Taylor, CC BY-SA

Quite rightly, I think, Taylor argues that we need all three to solve wicked problems, but that in today’s society they have become unbalanced. I will leave you to listen to the whole lecture if you please, rather than rehashing it all here, but it did prompt a few thoughts about how this intersects with my own research and thinking about institutions. First I’ll clarify what I mean when I say “institution”. Institutions are the rules, norms, and strategies that shape the behaviour of individuals and organisations. They can be formal, like policies, but they are often informal, like the practice of heckling the opposition in parliament. They can be abstract, like marriage or economic markets, or more concrete, like policies on paper. Think of the way you run your household. Those sets of household rules and norms (unspoken and spoken) are institutional arrangements. Institutions organise our lives and make things predictable. But in doing so they are also embedded with those four forces that Taylor discusses in his lecture.

Starting with this view, Taylor’s approach offers an interesting way to think about designing institutions. I am a firm believer in the idea that we need to tailor solutions in the problem we are trying to address. That said, calling it “the problem” is incomplete, as problems are understood from multiple perspectives. Individualism, hierarchy, and solidarity are but one way to shed light on these different perspectives. They aren’t the categories that I will be using, but they are indeed very useful ways to think about the problem. Both those who cause environmental problems and those with the capacity and/or authority to solve them often view the issue quite differently. The former may adopt an individualistic view, and the latter a hierarchical view. I suppose Taylor’s view is not an earth shattering take on the matter. In fact, it’s quite intuitive. Still, it can be a useful or enlightening way to prompt policy makers to think about solutions that align with each of these categories, rather than handing down a solution from on high (which sometimes seems the easiest option). The idea is that we get to the heart of the problem, rather than pushing down with force.

Taylor advocates for a design approach to solving wicked problems, so the real quandary for me in all of this are the embedded assumptions in the word “design”. Though my research falls under the umbrella of institutional design, I have not yet fully come to terms with what it means to design institutions. In part its a tacit implication of a god-like designer, but more so it is because the term can be a bit misleading at first glance. Although we can design policies, and identify leverage points that can change behaviour, there are limits to our ability to “design” solutions. Societies are of course complex systems, and once a solution enters into this system it can evolve into something quite different than intended. There is a range of perspectives on the limits of design.  I personally fall into the camp that says any attempt will be incomplete, but that the best you can probably do is indirectly design solutions to complex problems by finding the important leverage points. Though design is to some extent possible, the idea is just that institutions do not emerge fully formed from a design process, but rather they take on a life of their own and evolve.

I think Taylor partly addresses the limits to design when he discusses at one point how his approach to solving complex problems gets to the heart of the problem but that it is incremental, rather than in search of a “once and for all solution” which is what politicians might want. He noted that all of the different solutions are going to interact and that we need to be flexible as we make changes and adjust as we go, like moulding a clay pot.

If you listen to the lecture, I highly recommend listening all the way through the questions from the audience. These were quite revealing. It seemed several people were rather unsatisfied because they couldn’t see how his ideas would work in practice. There was a very enlightening part of the question period that illustrates this (and the notion of that institutions evolve in ways we might not have intended) very well. At one point, someone lamented the decline of traditional institutions, and suggested that liberal values are eroding those institutions that are seen as inequitable or unpalatable to modern sensibilities (e.g. church, marriage). This has become a familiar refrain in modern media.

Though it frustrates me that people adopt such a static view of social institutions, I do understand the origins of the fear. We have a very difficult time seeing innovations in the institutions we know so well because these institutions help shape our thoughts.

Iron cage
The imagery of an “iron cage” is often used to describe how institutions tend to become homogenous. Photo: Framed rebar, 15 Sept 2007 via Flickr, BY-YOUR-⌘, CC BY-SA

When familiar institutions are under threat, we also panic for a number of other reasons, besides not knowing what comes next.Though institutions like marriage evolve over time, many of these changes are slow enough that they don’t feel threatening. When a faster change emerges,  there is often a sense that we are approaching unknown territory. It can feel as though these familiar institutions will dissolve completely, and we will be left in an institutional void. What will replace the old institutions? People often seem to fear the worst, i.e. that they will be replaced by nefarious institutions that threaten civil society. Perhaps this is because we haven’t known life without these traditional institutions, and we think they are the only ones that can bind society together. Or perhaps we just cannot imagine what could replace them because our innovation is stifled by the familiar. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, I suppose.

For the record, I think a lot of the panic about erosion of our institutions is overblown. I personally don’t think institutions like marriage or the church are under threat of extinction, but they are going to evolve and change, just like most things in life. Even if we do allow liberal values to change them, however, they likely won’t be unrecognisable or completely new.  Returning to environmental problems, the green economy will not be a completely unrecognisable economy to us. Many of the same patterns of behaviour will still be there, even if the inputs and outputs change.

Design Frame
The past provides a frame for designing the future. Photo: Framed tower 8 July 2009 via Flickr, greckor, CC BY-SA

In the world of institutions, nothing is every completely new or completely traditional**. We will always have a design frame shaped by our past and our present. Institutions can be designed, but it’s difficult for us to undertake the activity of design without viewing it through a frame that has been shaped by past and current institutions.

Hypothetically, it is possible that we could decide to completely dismantle all environmental institutions to solve complex problems like climate change and biodiversity loss and decline, but it is unlikely that we will do so. And if Taylor is correct, then design is not only shaped by current and past arrangements, but it also shaped by those four forces, implicitly even if not explicitly. I may still struggle with the attachment of the word “design” to solutions for wicked problems, but I do like that he has brought sources of power to the fore, and highlighted their role not only in complex problems but also in their resolution.

* For Americans, that’s Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the ABC in America. It’s like PBS.

** This comes from the concept of bricolage. For an excellent discussion of bricolage, I highly recommend this book by Frances Cleaver:

CLEAVER, F. 2012. Development through bricolage: Rethinking institutions for natural resource management, London: Routledge.

Blog Revival and a Few Book Reviews: Introverts, Decisions, and Critical Thinking

I plan to revive this blog soon, and write more about thoughts that are related – but perhaps tangental – to my research. I will soon be conducting my fieldwork for my PhD thesis, and although I won’t be able to share specific details about that, I know the experience will prompt many thoughts that will be worth sharing. I am looking forward to getting off the computer and back into the world. I’ve spent months developing a conceptual framework, so I’ve been knee (mind?) deep in theory. Time to return to practice. 

For today, however, I’m just going to share a few reviews from Goodreads that I have written in recent months. If you’re a book nerd like me, you should really try out that site. You can see all my reviews at http://www.goodreads.com/saraheclement.

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/book/photo/8520610-quiet

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

As an introvert who loves books, spending time reading a book about introverts was blissful. I really enjoyed this book, just as I suspected when I first stumbled upon Cain’s Ted talk. It was thoughtful, well-written, and entertaining. More importantly, it has helped alleviate some of my guilt about who I am. Like other introverts Cain discusses in the book, I am prone to guilt, particularly guilt about my introversion and a deep-rooted sense that my personality is somehow “wrong”. Cain offers a wealth of advice not only for introverts, but also for extroverts who undoubtedly deal with extroverts in their lives or even want to cultivate the more introspective elements of their personality. Without knowing it, I have developed many of the coping techniques for introverts that Cain discusses in the book, so it was good to see that I was on the right track; but there was also plenty that was new for me. For instance, when performing a task, introverts divert more of their attention to monitoring how that task is going than extroverts do. I just thought that was a peculiar quirk I had – a need to always know where I am going and what I have done so far. I was also a bit put off by the title “Quiet” because I am an introvert, but no shrinking violet like I thought the name implied. Then I realised, like so many others in the book, I have developed an extroverted character that I play in social situations, but at my core I crave quiet to think and perform my best.

Cain manages to strike a good balance in this book. As I said, there is a wealth of information to help introverts as well as extroverts, and it would be great if more teachers, bosses, friends, and partners of introverts would read this book. There’s research, but this is more a pop psychology book, so that research is interwoven with many personal stories of people she knows and people she interviewed. It’s a fairly quick read, yet she covers the topic in sufficient depth and breadth. She doesn’t denigrate extroverts in the process of discussing the qualities of introverts. Her central thesis is a reasonable one: that we’re living in a society too heavily skewed towards extroverts, and we need to also provide environments in which introverts can thrive. Any introvert who has worked in an open office plan or attended a networking event knows just how painful this extrovert bias can be, and while we can certainly hone our acting skills and pretend to be extroverts, to do so without “restorative niches” is exhausting. But this book is about so much more than this simple thesis, and I would highly recommend it to anyone; but particularly to other introverts that may not entirely embrace, understand, or nurture this aspect of their personality.

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/book/photo/3860977-how-we-decide

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

I bought this book on a whim when I was browsing in the psychology section, mainly because this was the only book (besides Kahneman’s most recent) in that section that was not a ridiculous self-help book. I’m not sure what’s happening to the psychology section of book stores, but I do know that this was an excellent impulse buy. I really liked the way this book was organised. Each chapter built on the previous one, taking the reader through a really compelling narrative about how we decide – exactly as advertised. He does an excellent job of weaving personal narratives with the research, which really made the information about the way the brain works easier to understand and absolutely fascinating. One of the things I enjoyed most about the book was that he has restored some of my faith in my brain! This may sound a bit odd, but after reading books like Mistakes Were Made and Invisible Gorilla, you start to get a bit flustered with just how wrong you can be. This book was a good counterbalance to the effect of reading those. Although he does discuss the weaknesses of the way our brain regions interact when making a decision, he also discusses many of the strengths and provides really clear, tangible ways that we can protect ourselves from errors and play on those strengths. It’s not an academic work, so the referencing is not very good (just a Bibliography and no in-text citations or footnotes). It didn’t bother me that much, but because I read books like this for the curiosity factor, it does make it difficult to follow up on particular passages that piqued my interest. I imagine that if you were in this field of research, the lack of referencing would annoy you, but I’d say this book isn’t directed at you, rather it’s for the curious layman who wants to know more about what’s happening inside his/her head when making decisions.

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/book/photo/10045680-how-to-become-a-really-good-pain-in-the-ass

How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Asking the Right Questions by Christopher diCarlo

I admit that the title of this book got me. As an American living abroad, I already feel like a pain in the ass a lot (“Americans are so loud!” “Why do you always ask so many questions?”), so I figured it would be fun to learn new, more constructive ways to irritate people with my probing questions. Unfortunately, this book didn’t really deliver.

This would be a really great book for teaching critical thinking to high schoolers. The writing is clear and easy to understand, and it covered the most basic and important aspects of critical thinking. It’s systematically written, and it’s very clear where diCarlo is taking you. However, the style of writing wasn’t for me, as it seemed more like an essay for university than one with a compelling, interesting narrative. It was almost robotic at times, then he would throw in a pretty decent joke, so I don’t think he’s completely humourless! I just think his personality doesn’t come through in the writing, and even though it’s a book about a serious topic, I think a more compelling narrative would have made the book much better. His paragraphs are also unbearably long in parts, mainly because they cover more than one point. This not only makes it more difficult to read, but it doesn’t make sense given how clear he is in most of the book. He also has a habit of repeating the same points over and over again. In several places he actually has almost an identical sentence written with slightly different wording, right in a row! The only reason I can think of for this is that he teaches undergraduates, and he must be used to having to flag his point really obviously and repeatedly to make sure it gets through. I’m a very slow, careful reader, however, so this drove me insane.

The illustrations in this book are weird. They are often of everyday objects, and it’s difficult to find the method in the madness behind how these were selected. When there are relevant illustrations that are useful, they sometimes just threw me off. In his discussion of the “Onion Skin Theory of Knowledge” for instance, he is actually talking about pre-existing theories that many authors before him have discussed. Using systems theory to explain the relationship between natural and cultural systems is not new, and I found it a bit odd that he didn’t reference any of these authors. There are entire disciplines devoted to this sort of perspective! (e.g. human ecology)

At the beginning of the book he asks you to answer ‘the five big questions’ and then you’re supposed to answer them at the end. They were interesting, but it would have been better if he had either phrased the questions more accurately or set them up better. I personally misinterpreted a few. For instance, “why am I here?” was actually “why is the universe here?” and “what am I?” is actually “where did humans come from?” or something to that effect. If he had explained that this was to get a sense that this was about whether you believe in natural or supernatural origins of life, that would have changed my thinking, but I thought the questions were more about ontology and epistemology.

All that said, I am giving the book a fair rating because I think it’s a really good guide to critical thinking, and I think it will be a useful book to keep around as a reference. I recently heard an interview with diCarlo, and I must say I am looking forward to his next book which is on free will. But I think with that book I will have a look through before buying to see that it’s written in a style that is…well…more my style.

Cookbook Series: Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry


The collection.

As promised, here’s the first installment of my series of reviews of the cookbooks I own. First up: Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry. It’s fitting that this is the first cookbook I will review, as it’s my favourite (or at least in my top three – don’t make me choose!). Why? So many reasons…

  • The recipes are unique and creative, and fulfill a unique niche not filled by my other cookbooks. He doesn’t just recreate soul food. He puts new twists on old recipes, and encourages you to create your own twists on family classics. There’s even a space to write and re-create your own family recipe.
  • Terry is a man after my own heart, as he has a recommended song to accompany each recipe. Food and music! Together! As they should be.
  • The recipes are, in general, perfectly balanced between healthy and decadent. While his recipes are often healthier twists on many soul food classics, he’s not afraid to use the ingredients required to replicate the richness of these dishes.
  • There is a recipe for black-eyed pea fritters that are amazing. Although I’ve just linked to the recipe, I assure you that the creation of this recipe, all by itself, is reason enough to buy this cookbook and support this chef. (And don’t wimp out and bake them. Fry them. Trust me.)
  • His recipes are generally foolproof. Some chefs are more scientist than artist, but Terry is definitely an artist. I have a feeling that he sees his recipe as a template that can be played with, and every time I have played with the template it has worked out well. For people that don’t like to follow recipes, that’s great news. Of course it’s also worth noting that his recipes are brilliant as written as well.
  • The ingredients lists and the recipes are short. Not too much detail, nor too little.
  • He has a whole chapter dedicated to ‘zero waste watermelon’ in which he uses every part of the fruit. Brilliant, and I know some other bloggers would agree that there’s a certain genius about finding a way to use every part of this fruit.

Another thing I love is that he tends to consistently use a core group of ingredients, so if you want to make his recipes, you’re not left with orphan ingredients. So many cookbooks send you hunting for random ingredients that you’ll never use again, even if you do like them. With this cookbook, expect ingredients like greens, black-eyed peas, cornmeal, root veggies,  thyme, cayenne and coconut oil to make repeat appearances, along with many other staples of most vegan kitchens like tofu, brown rice, quinoa and tempeh. He also made me fall in love with some ingredients (celeriac) and bemoan our limited selection of produce with a few recipes (why don’t we have plantains…why only ‘cooking bananas’, which are not plantains at all???).

A list of my favourite recipes from this book, to get you interested in checking it out:

  • Blackeyed pea fritters with hot pepper sauce (as previously mentioned – I’ve m
    Blackened Tofu with Succotash Salsa, Christmas 2009. Not winning any awards for photography, but it was delicious.

    ade these more times than I can count).

  • Quinoa cornbread (a twist on traditional cornbread with whole quinoa and a bit of quinoa flour)
  • Roasted plantain pieces with garlic-lime dipping sauce
  • Crispy okra strips with Lime-Thyme Vinaigrette
  • Celeriac sauce (with everything – or the coconut tempeh in the book)
  • Roasted red potato salad with parsley-pine nut pesto (and I don’t even like potatoes all that much!)
  • Sweet Sweetback Salad with Roasted Beet Vinaigrette
  • Grits (all of his recipes for grits are amazing, but my favourite are the creamy grits with cajun-spiced tempeh)
  • Black. Brown. Green. Granola.
  • Blackened tofu slabs with succotash salsa (I convinced James we should have this on Christmas along with the requested hot, stodgy meal. Who wants to eat roasted potatoes and gravy when it’s over 100 F/40C outside???)
  • Baked BBQ blackeyed peas (by far my favourite baked beans recipe – quite different than traditional baked beans).

Honorable mention goes to the tempeh, shitake mushroom and cornmeal dumpling stew because James loved it. Dumplings can even make James – a tempeh hater – eat tempeh. And he would probably add the roasted potato and mixed greens gratin, which was pretty tasty even to me, who is lukewarm on the subject of potatoes. One thing to note, though, is that for those of you who prefer photo-heavy books, don’t look to this book for ‘food porn’. It’s a simple book in terms of its graphic design, and I personally like that. Buy this book for the content, not the aesthetics. Also, if you are afraid of spice (are you crazy??) note that his recipes would be delicious even with the hot spices omitted. Just don’t tell me about it.

For more on Bryant Terry, listen to this great interview from 2009 on Animal Voices, check out his webpage, or even read about his own favourite cookbooks here on 101 Cookbooks.

Work has been crazy lately and will be for the next few months, so expect more posts like these, which are quick and easy to write and don’t require much brain power after a day of exercising the mind at work.

Climate Science Rapid Response Team

A common source of irritation for me is terrible science reporting, particularly in relation to climate change. If you were to follow mainstream news sources, you would think scientists are in an utter state of confusion over climate change, and that they just can’t seem to agree on even the most basic concepts. If you were to read right-wing publications, then you would think that climate change is nothing more threatening than a part of your ‘regularly scheduled’ climate cycle…a left-wing conspiracy to bring the economy to a screeching halt. And if you were to read left-wing publications, you would notice a tendency to consistently raise the intensity and volume of the threat. In other words, it’s hard to find accurate, unbiased reporting on the latest studies that includes all of the pertinent details you need to understand what the researchers are actually saying. As a consequence it is difficult to make heads or tails of what’s going on.

Photo source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/babasteve/5432661883/sizes/z/in/photostream/

One of the reasons that the reporting is so bad, in my opinion, is that science stories don’t always make good news. They certainly don’t all naturally make excellent headlines that will excite people, and this is exactly what news outlets need to make their headlines stand out amongst the potentially thousands that people come across each day. This means reporters have to find something gripping in any story they report on, and in climate change studies I find this is often not even the main take-home point of the original study.  In fact, it is not uncommon to seize upon a single interesting line in the discussion section (which can be speculation….it is of course, for the purposes of discussion) and run with it. For this reason, climate science can seem as confusing as rocket science, and with as many contradictions as nutrition and health  (wait…is tofu good for me this week, or not?). This is particularly the case f you don’t follow up on stories or only read the big key messages. For instance, I noticed many people were confused by reporting on climate change and the Great Barrier Reef a few years ago. One week you would read all about the bleaching is dying a slow painful death because of climate change, and you would hear what a dire situation we will have on our hands in a few years. Within a month there would be another story where people would read about reefs recovering 10 times faster than we thought they would, yet this is still bad news in the context of climate change as it is due to a unique combination of factors.

And let’s be honest, how many people have the time or inclination to sift through it all and understand exactly what the latest research is saying? I can see why people would be confused, whether they are trying to follow along or not.

It is on topics like this – topics that are big, relatively new, and the subject of much current research – where many of us begin to notice inconsistencies or contradictions on what seems like a daily basis. If you are like me, you will often have a hunch that the reporting is getting it wrong, or at the very least leaving out a big pieces of the story that are essential to the narrative. Yet most of us don’t have access to journal articles, or the time to read the reports that are often released on this topic. So what to do?

Ask a climate scientist who is familiar with the research, of course.

What, you don’t have a friendly local climate scientist you can turn to?

This is one of the reasons I got so excited when I was listening to a (not so) recent Point of Inquiry podcast interview with John Abraham and Scott Mandia about the Climate Science Rapid Response Team. I am decades late on finding out about this (in internet terms…a year is like a decade on the internet, right?), but I am excited nonetheless. Here is a team that will not only field your questions, but they have enlisted 135 climate scientists that will provide a prompt answer:

The role of this endeavor is to provide highly accurate science information to media and government representatives. We believe that scientists have an important role in communicating the science directly with the general public. We encourage questions from recognized media sources and from governments. We will work hard to ensure that all questions are answered as promptly as possible. [Source.]

As Chris Mooney points out in the interview, scientists aren’t exactly known for their media savvy or their quick responses, so this fills an important gap. For the most part, I think it’s fair to say that the narrative on climate change has been created primarily by news outlets, politicians and well…people other than climate scientists. As a highly politicised issue, scientists are not exactly well-placed to address the mis-reporting and are – rightfully so – loathe to engage in the ideologically-driven dialogue. Scientists are often criticised for their inability to communicate their work to the public, so it’s hardly a surprise that we’ve ended up with a mis-match between what science says, the media reports and what the public believes.

If you have the time, I would highly recommend listening to the Point of Inquiry Interview, which you can download on iTunes or listen to here. One of the things that stood out for me the most was the distinction between being an advocate for science education and an advocate for taking specific actions. I think the scientists here have struck a good balance: they are seeking to clarify misunderstandings, inaccuracies, and sometimes muddled reporting whilst not advocating for a specific policy response. This is a tough balance to strike, but I am happy to see that they recognise that it is possible to be an advocate for science without compromising their integrity as scientists.

Now, if only people would post more questions….

You can read the enquiries and public responses here.