Book Report: Engineering the City

This book, Engineering the City showed up as an book, probably because I liked Brian Hayes' book Infrastructure so much. I kinda wish I'd paid more attention to the details of Engineering the City before I went to the hassle of requesting it through the LINK+ inter-library loan program. Not that it was a lot of hassle, but... Well... This book is for ages nine and up. I bet it's a very nice book for what it is. But. I went a ways through it, and it wasn't telling me much I didn't already know.

There was some new-to-me material--a few sentences about the history of construction of a harbor at Ostia. (The Romans built a couple of breakwaters, which were nice but not enough, so they built another one.)

The builders of the transcontinental railroad got a bonus built on mileage--before the "golden spike" was driven, there was a period of time when they were building parallel tracks, because the senate hadn't yet said "hey, we're only paying for one railroad, you west-bound builders and you east-bound builders have got to meet somewhere". That's neat stuff.

But I don't want to wade through a quick explanation of where rain comes from. And another quick explanation of something else I already have heard. And another and another.

Probably a darned good book for someone ages 9+. But not for me, I stopped partway through.

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Book Report: The Berkeley Pit

Cousin Eric was in town this weekend. There was some sight-seeing. One place of interest was Berkeley. My parents pointed out some places of interest for the Free Speech Movement: here was the place where folks stood atop the police car. Ah, Berkeley history, the subject of The Berkeley Pit.

It's a history of Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue; it's a story of a place turned toxic; it's a story of liberals ripping each other apart. It's "an historical novel", a story of Berkeley that reaches from the 60s to the 80s.

One of the story's protagonists is from Butte, home of The Berkeley Pit, a huge abandoned pit mine, a superfund site, a hole in the ground full of toxins. In perhaps a dozen years, enough water will leach into the pit to overflow, sending out an evil flood to poison Montana's water supply. Where did the Berkeley Pit come from? Our protagonist found out by studying his family history. Butte was a copper mining city. It wasn't always a pit mine. But when the copper started to run out, the mining companies dug the pit--tearing down the city itself to dig.

The protagonist comes to Berkeley and sees the same thing happen again. Folks in Berkeley and Oakland, trying to make the world a better place. It's the time of the Free Speech Movement. There is a resource to be mined here--a community of people willing to act. But as time goes on, saner voices are shouted down by those who don't care what the protest movement does but know that if they protest something then they can lead that protest.

The narrator--not to be confused with "the protagonist" (OK, really, the book has more that one protagonist, depending on how you count these things)--is strange. She is a writing teacher; she encourages her students to write clearly, strongly, not hold anything back. And yet we know she does this herself. When corresponding with our protagonist...

I saw no need to send Harry bad news from here, bbut perhaps I should have mentioned, for instance, the first murder in People's Park. Instead I wrote him about our "Writers' Campus Sit-in" for divestment in apartheid South Africa... I sent him a photo of my grand-daughter, but I never sent the Daily Cal photo of two middle-aged "progressive" city council members grinning in fierce defiance at constituents (including me and my neighbors) who had defeated another of their misbegotten schemes.

It's painful to write about the sometimes-bad results of our well-intended acts. You try a lot of stuff; it doesn't always work out. It's not nice to face the fact that your stuff didn't all work out well, to tell other folks about it. But if we don't do so, others follow in our footsteps.

Years pass; hippies retreat to their houses. A few street people are still good-hearted free spirits, but they are mostly crowded out by thieving addicts and kids playing at homelessness. That guy who used to live in a communal hippie squat is now running a crack house.

Along the way: the Black Panthers, Peoples Park, the rise of AIDS. Oh, and the hard life of Berkeley bookstores: this book goes well with The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah, the Codys keep showing up.

A bleak book and a darned good read. Check it out.

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Book Report: The City & The City

It is a new book by China Miéville. It has a creepy premise, and is very paranoid. There are two cities which occupy the same geographic space. How do they coexist? Citizens of each city have to pretend not to notice the other city. Anyone caught noticing the other city gets disappeared by a mysterious force called "Breach." I rather liked this book. I thought I'd figured out its final twist about halfway through. But I guessed wrong; there was less end-twisting than I expected. Which is fine! It's not like you're going to come to the end of this book and say "I expected one more gratuitous complication. It is supposed to be a thriller, right?" No, no, really, there was plenty of complexity here; complexity, paranoia, and magic.

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Comic Report: Ex Machina (the first several collections)

When I first heard about the comic book "Ex Machina", I stopped paying attention too soon. I heard that the protagonist is a superhero who can talk to machines. And those do what he says instead of beeping and complaining about syntax errors and/or blowing their stack or.. Yeah, they just do what he says, like they understand. I rolled my eyes. Yeah, I understand that the very fact that I read superhero comic books... I understand that I'm not allowed to roll my eyes at one more goofy premise... But I couldn't help it. And I stopped paying attention. So I never caught on to the fact that the protagonist is also the elected mayor of New York City.

But then I did. (Amazon recommendations recommended the series to me, so I took another look.) And then I bought every old collection I could get my hands on. This is a fun comic book!

This is a fun premise for a comic book, as long as you don't take it too seriously, and this book doesn't. There's more crime-fighting than budget-balancing going on here. The book skims over urban issues without getting bogged down in details. Society changes, the city changes with it--and in this comic book, most folks are inclined to be reasonable. Yes, I said reasonable... in politics... hey, quit laughing at me! Yes, I guess I'm reading escapist literature for people who follow politics. Cut me some slack. It's just a comic book.

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Book Report: Un Lun Dun

Before I launch into a complain-y whine about a book, I want to remind myself that there are good things in life. Yesterday was a good day. (I didn't even have to use my A.K.) There were good comics at the comic book store: Phonogram, Castle Waiting, The Boys, and a new-to-me League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (but apparently it's been out long enough for Jess Nevins to annotate, so I could just enjoy all the references without having to hunt them down). At the Ferry Building, I thought I was just stopping off for bread and coffee, but saw clumps of folks clutching orange pieces of paper and running around looking intently for something. I shadowed some of them and it quickly became obvious that these folks were playing in the Great Urban Race. One pair of them let me look at their question sheet in exchange for directions--it made me glad I wasn't playing. Lots of trivia, a substitution cipher--tangentially close to my thing, but not my thing. But after I'd finished drinking my coffee, I ran into Joe Fendel, who was playing, plus his brother. Then on the subway ride home, I ran into Bryan Clair's parents, and we chatted a bit. Living in a big city, you don't really expect to run into people you know, but it's fun when it happens. At home I took care of some errands, so I even felt kind of productive. So, those are good things.

Anyhow, book report. Anyhow, Un Lun Dun. Yeah.

This book, about a girl who is swept up in a world of horrific adventure in a not-quite-London which exists parallel to real-London, is nevertheless not Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. It's better than Neverwhere was. But I'm nevertheless not willing to forgive it for being another book about a girl who is swept up in a world of horrific adventure in a not-quite-London which exists parallel to real-London.

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Book Report: A Far Country

Scouting game locations for a puzzle hunt, e.g. BANG 19, is time-consuming but fun. It's a good excuse to go out on a tour of not-in-front-of-your-computer. Plus, since you're trying to find places that are good for puzzle-solving, you spend most of your time in comfortable places, carefully observing: is this place quite comfortable enough for puzzle-solving? Is it perhaps even more comfortable than that previous place? Don't rush to any conclusions, now. Loiter a little longer if you have to. Not all places are so comfortable, of course. These places are not so good for puzzling and/or visiting; you might want to read about them, though.

You saw my book reports about Shadow Cities and Planet of Slums and thought, "I dunno if I want to read some rant about mass migrations of third-worlders from rural land to urban slums... maybe I'll just wait for the novel." Your wait is over, Daniel "The Piano Tuner" Mason has written that novel; it's named A Far Country. A family is torn apart, clings together. Country folks make their way through a city which works by its own rules. Life in a shantytown. Bleak, bleak, bleak. People take risks and harm passes over them. People play it safe and fate crushes them. And yet... the story is compelling. I read it through, not even put off when Magical Realism reared its ugly head.

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Site: New Photos for the Lyon St Page

Last week, a few folks headed over to Pete's place to watch the movie "Appleseed Ex Machina", which was pretty good. Pete lives in the Marina district. Thus, this was a chance for me to once again walk the length of Lyon St, from Haight to the Marina, with my camera. I'd done it before, back in 2003, but Lyon St. has changed meanwhile.

Thus, my old "Lyon St Oct 2003" page is now Lyon Street Oct 2003 (and Jul 2008). It includes a graffito depicting a human, a graffito so realistic that it triggered Google Streetview's face-blurring:

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Book Report: Invisible Cities

I am back from Los Angeles. I have seen more art museums recently than... than is perhaps healthy. The stench of artsy-fartsiness clings to me still. I'm digging out from underneath a backlog of everything, but meanwhile I can share a book report I wrote a few weeks back about an appropriately artsy-fartsy book: Invisible Cities

It's a little surreal novella by Italo Calvino. Marco Polo describes strange cities to Kublai Khan. There's enough weirdness in here that you want M.P. and K.K. to represent things. M.P. travels, then reports to K.K., who doesn't travel. So does M.P. represent sensation and K.K. represent reflection? Or does M.P. represent experience and K.K. represent wisdom? Or.... or... well, you can project quite a few things onto that, really, choose one that appeals to you. So I'm not sure what this book is supposed to mean, there's possibilities to choose from. But I know I enjoyed reading it.

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Book Report: Infrastructure

Wow, Infrastructure is a great book. You should acquire it and read it. (Here, by "read" I mean "look at the photos". But you can read it, too, if you like.)

It is photographs of "infrastructure": mines, mining equipment, steel mills, utility poles, electrical transformers, dams, power plants, smokestacks, cooling towers, insulators, water towers. There is text explaining what these things are, what they do, and how that determines what they look like. There is industry, there is engineering, there is design, there is beauty.

This book is dangerous to read; it warps your thinking. I keep looking up at utility poles instead of watching where I'm walking.

  • A Becherian typology of water towers, and then a collection of outliers, of playful water tower designs.
  • The process of modern corn milling and its uses
  • The mystery of the fake cattle guards
  • The Rowan Gorilla III
  • Why you pulverize coal before you burn it (with a photo of the gleaming machine that does it)
  • two smokestacks: one venting visible steam, one venting invisible poison gas. Which one do the neighbors complain about?
  • The evolution of the windmill
  • power line splicing sleeves, dampers, and especially Stockbridge dampers
  • Live-wire guys and hot sticks
  • fire department callboxes don't work like you think they do
  • GEO vs LEO communication sattelites
  • Two paragraphs about Botts Dots "In California I once watched a road worker inspecting the Dots with a go-cart. Riding an inch or two off the road surface, he tested each Dot by banging it with a rubber mallet. The ones that rattled or moved were marked for replacement."
  • An illustrated list of bridge truss designs
  • Intermodal freight: history, modern practice.
  • The controversy of re-spraying landfill leachate

That's not all of the topics; that's just a few I picked out while flipping through pages.

This book is a survey; it doesn't dive into any of these topics in depth. But, wow, the breadth. I learned about all kinds of new things to obsess about. You will too. Go read.

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Book Report: Planet of Slums

Seriously? They used Erlang? On purpose? What's that you say? The mic is on? We're rolling? We're on the air? Oh! Ahem. It's time for a Book Report.

This book by Mike "City of Quartz" Davis is about slums, shantytowns, favelas. You might think that sounds familiar; this book covers similar territory that Shadow Cities did.

This book doesn't spend so much time in any one community; instead it looks at world-wide trends. There was a huge population movement towards slums. If you think of slums as a good thing (at least relative to rural poverty), you might be hopeful; if you think of slums as a blight, you might despair. But Davis points out that the rate of population shift has slowed. Probably these poor people have already occupied the land that was easiest to adapt; there's fewer opportunities for those who come now.

But of course even the land that's already been taken over is not good. Toxins, lack of clean water, predatory landlords.

Davis is mad at the World Bank for promoting privatization of basic services. Some of this is valid, some seems misplaced. Some of the countries he's discussing are/were kleptocracies. It was dumb of the World Bank to expend effort on privatization in these places, but the citizens of those countries would have been screwed even if the their governments retained control of those services.

It can be a hard slog wading through Davis' rants. Trying to help us grasp the disparity of wealth between the world's rich and poor, he writes

Global inequality, as measured by World Bank economists across the entire world population, reached an incredible GINI coefficient of 0.67 by the end of the century--this is mathematically equivalent to a situation where the poorest two-thirds of the world receive zero income, and the top third receives everything.

...but instead of helping me see the wealth gap, this just suggests that GINI isn't an accurate measure: since the bottom two thirds of the population don't have zero income, GINI must be broken?

Still, an interesting book. Seeing how countries fight their poor citizens with bulldozers and riot police... well, these stories don't usually make it into the news. Where Shadow Cities gave a better idea of what it's like to visit one of these slums, Planet of Slums gives more background on the trends at work, the mammoth size of this change.

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Book Report: Invisible Man

Yesterday, I went to a game party at work. I won a couple of games, which was more than my share. You might think that means I'm a brilliant strategist, until you find out what games I won (and how). There was Syzygy, where I drew many many wildcard tiles. Lucky, lucky. And there was The Great Dalmuti, wherein I won the original low-card draw, thus setting myself up for a big advantage in the game proper. Lucky, lucky. Maybe I'm a lucky person. When people ask me if I really believe I'm a lucky person, I point out that I was born a white male in the USA; then they don't know what to think. So that makes two of us. Ah, race. Race race race.

As I started reading The Invisible Man, I thought I knew the gimmick: a story about an invisible man which pokes fun at the social invisibility of African Americans at the time. But that wasn't it. This book is about the politics of race. It doesn't even seem to be about invisibility--its protagonist is a public speaker; people act on his suggestions.

In the end, I enjoyed this book but it took a while after I finished it to figure that out. As I read it, I waited for it to turn into a book that matched its title. When the protagonist goes to work in a paint factory and works with chemicals he doesn't understand, I was so ready for the mysterious accident which would... Don't trust the title; don't trust the prologue; they seem like foreshadowing; they are not really, not unless you're willing to jump through some hoops. There is "invisibility" in that people care more about the protagonist's roles than about him as a person--but that's not the main thing going on in the book.


It's funny in places, sad in others. It is nightmarish in places and it achieves some of that nightmarish effect by lingering overlong in scenes; those bog down, but you can skim them. It talks about politics, about great causes pulled down by petty squabbles. If you're in the mood to read an Important Book, this would be a good one; don't worry that you'll miss things if you skim the horror-ish bits.

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Book Report: Poor George

Apparently Bernd Becher, industrial site photographer, died last week. Dammit. I would prefer that tragedies be restricted to fiction, please.

Poor George is bleak. Nobody knows why they do the things they do. Everybody suffers. All effort is futile. Everyone is doomed and unhappy. I love books like this. If you do, too, then you'll probably like this book.

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Book Report: Garbage Land

Yesterday was all errands, errands, errands. Except that one of those errands was "Return Garbage Land to the library." and since that library was in Berkeley, I made a couple of fun side trips.

I went to the Tauba Auerbach art show at the Jack Hanley gallery, featuring art based on anagrams, a game of telephone, overlapping letters, letters and digits ordered by frequency... a code-lover's feast. There were two piece of art next to each other--one a phonetic alphabet ("alpha bravo charlie") that I knew, but next to it one that I didn't ("allah born cee divine equality"). When I got back home and did some internet research, I found out that this second alphabet wasn't actually used as a phonetic alphabet. It was the Supreme Alphabet, a sort of mnemonic used by an offshoot of the Nation of Islam. Probably my favorite pieces were those that had overlapping letters, but those didn't inspire any research. Mostly, they made me want to have some free time try copycatting that work using some other fonts.

In Berkeley, I stopped off at a sort of artificial grotto by Moffitt library. There I noticed a couple of green plastic champagne glasses concealed in a pile of leaves. I dusted them off and put them into my backpack. Better late than never, I guess.

Yes, I picked up some trash. Maybe that's a good segue for finally getting around to talking about the subject of this book report: Garbage Land.

In this book, Elizabeth Royte follows her garbage around. She visits landfills, tipping stations, a garbage-choked creek, recycling stations, sewage treatment plants. She rides in a garbage truck, canoes past a landfill, visits Berkeley's Urban Ore. She worries about compost and considers whether consumer recycling is worthwhile. This book is pretty interesting and I recommend it.

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Link: We have Metonymy and They Are Ours

The Brain Fist webcomic is often funny.

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Book Report: Shadow Cities

This book, by Robert Neuwirth, changed the way I think about the world. It's about slums, squatter cities, shanty towns, favelas. It's about people who build on land they don't own. It's about people who rent land from people who don't own that land. It's about governments trying to help homeless people--things that work, things that don't. If people are living in shanties without sewer connections or electricity and you kick them out--are you helping them or harming them? Before I read this book, I would have said "You are helping them, in the long run." Now--now I don't know what I think. This book shows you the way that people live in communities governed, not by title deeds, but by anarchic agreement. This book talks about property versus possession. This book made me think.

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Book Report: Metropolis

I am sick today. I lost my voice. So it's a bad day for conversation. But a good day for napping, blogging, and reading. Out of sympathy for my plight, I think you should read Metropolis.

Go read this novel by Elizabeth Gaffney right now.

It's a romance. It's a heist/caper. It's a gangland saga. It's a musical (without the music).

There's a museum of freaks, beasts, and oddities--on fire, including a tiger tiger burning bright. There's a secret tunnel in the sewers. There are canes decorated with silver monkey heads. There's an unwanted pregancy which was obviously tossed into the book as an ill-disguised excuse to show off the author's research into birth-control options in 1870s New York--and it's so interesting that you don't mind. There is a character with the last name "Undertoe".

Go. Get. Read. Now.

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