Archive for February, 2017

Review: Roads Were Not Built for Cars

Friday, February 17th, 2017

Carlton Reid has done some impressive research into the relationship of bicycles and modern transport infrastructure.  It is a surprisingly rich relationship.  The first automobiles adopted the power chain and wheel technologies from bicycles (as did aircraft as well, of course).  Beyond that, bicycles were a driving force behind paving roads across the US and Europe.  Roads Were Not Built For Cars is Reid’s presentation of this.

He does an excellent job of research, but his presentation didn’t bring the situation to life for me.  It’s unfortunate, because the facts at issue interest me considerably.  Reid presents both facts and conjecture that are surprising – did Nazi Germany whitewash England’s cycling contributions to automotive technology for political reasons? – but if he shaped it all into a narrative, I didn’t make it there.  I didn’t finish the whole thing.

Review: Playing Through The Whistle

Friday, February 17th, 2017

Even if I weren’t connected to it, I’d have to agree that Aliquippa, PA is a remarkable place.  It has placed a steady steam of players into the NFL, been the source of two landmark Supreme Court labor decisions, given us the Pink Panther theme music, formed Mike Ditka, and produced my parents and grandparents.  The demographics and population of the town has also reflected the rise and fall of large scale manufacturing in America.  S. L. Price beings the place to life in Playing Through The Whistle in a way that’s engaging and consistent with my limited experience with the town.

As a sportswriter, a look at the football history of Western Pennsylvania raises your eyebrows. Just listing the stars – Hall of Fame members – who grew up and learned to play within 50 miles of Pittsburgh is startling.  A deeper look reveals a steady stream of both successes at all levels and strong prospects that don’t pan out.  There are a lot of factors that can distort the reality and the perception of that record, but as a writer it’s a story that must make you drool.  Price clearly couldn’t resist, and captures that duality.

I’m glad he couldn’t.  He digs in to the stories of the residents, the stars, and the history of the place and presents it dynamically. My experience reading the story of the place – so far – is certainly colored by my tenuous connection. Seeing names in print that I would hear as a kid visiting the place made a lot of the narrative real to me.  Beyond the names, the rhythms and emphasis in the stories from residents sound like the stories I’ve heard.  It’s remarkable to hear the tenor of them change in the years after my parents left.  I remember hearing my grandparents decrying many of the events that Price describes.  It’s enlightening to hear the events from a reporter with only a professional attachment to the place and compare them with how decades-long residents talked about them.

Even without that sort of history, Price balances the backdrop of the region and the specifics of the town admirable.  His research – historical and interviews – are remarkable.  Beyond the facts, he brings the place and the story to life. Coming into the area through the remarkable sports successes makes the other historical discussions accessible to a readership that might not usually look at history.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Little Brother

Saturday, February 4th, 2017

As a regular BoingBoing reader, I’ve heard a lot about Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.  It’s a book targeted at young adults that is pro-technology and pro-activism, both of which are of interest these days.  I found it kind of a mixed bag.

The technical discussions are all refreshingly sound. Doctorow does a really nice job of boiling tech down into (what I imagine are) easily digestible bites.  He also is adept at pulling out the parts of the technology that are relevant to privacy and risk in our modern surveillance state.  He tells the reader what’s important in clear engaging prose.

From what I know about participating in protests and activism in general – which is mostly second-hand – he seems to do the same for protests and attracting unwanted attention as well.  The catalyst for Little Brother‘s plot is that a bunch of kids get swept up in a government sweep during a crisis, and he pulls no punches about what can happen.  His honesty on this front is one of the book’s real strengths.  Even though the events come to a conclusion, he’s clear that that is a messy conclusion.  Being a lightning rod for powerful forces – or being in the wrong place at the wrong time – can permanently change a person’s life.  Activism has stakes, and he never shies away from relating them.

Honestly the worst part of the story is the fiction.  His intention seems clear to me.  He’s using a (lightly) fictionalized account of a government response to a terror attack in San Francisco to take readers through his primers on activism, technology’s role in it, and great places to eat in the mission district.  It’s a fine structure to hang a book on, and I suspect he can cite relevant reports for the majority of the details and incidents.

For me, though, his characters never quite breathe enough. Their roles as symbols or framing devices always stick out just a bit awkwardly.  As I say, there’s much to like about the factual content, research, and explication here.  I never get lost in the story, though.