Archive for July, 2017

Review: The Utopia of Rules

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

I forget how The Utopia of Rules came to my attention – probably from Warren Ellis’s excellent newsletter – but I found it interesting in a very niche kind of way.  David Graeber is a scholar, specifically an anthropologist, and an activist.  He’s got a crust of old school Marxist academia that comes through in his thinking.  If that puts you off, you’ll hate Utopia. In fact there are lots of reasons that one might hate the book, but I seem to have threaded the needle and come out the other side having gobbled up some ideas.

The possible offputting factors include the dry topic, the academic writing style, the navel gazing nature of the whole enterprise, and the quaintly academic worldview from which it’s all undertaken.  The enterprise in question is an erudite assessment of what modern bureaucracy says about the anthropology of Western European & American civilization.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed Graeber’s execution.  He’s an academic and writing for a group of academics I probably wouldn’t be a part of if I were an academic, but he writes clearly and engagingly within those confines. I found plenty to disagree with, though overall I enjoyed having my ideas challenged.  He convinced me of some points as well.  Overall, I now see bureaucracy as an important phenomenon in Western Civilization practically and philosophically.  In and of itself that’s an interesting idea for me and was well worth reading the book.

Review: Street Smart

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

If you have any interest at all in the ideas driving the redesign of urban centers for walkability, bikeability, and other support for non-automotive transport, Street Smart is required reading. Samuel Schwartz, the author, is a major driver in the field and Street Smart is exactly the sort of book one would expect a passionate engineer to write on such a topic.  Me motivates his points from personal experience and then delves deeply into the theory and existing practice of each of the topics in great detail.  The topics are also well footnoted, but not exhaustively so.

Schwartz’s credentials are impeccable – in addition to working as a traffic engineer for decades, he coined the word “gridlock” – and he’s clearly a supporter of reform and restructuring.  He’s not a zealot, though.  At many points in here he tactfully points out that some advocates of different transport technologies – say, cyclists – are too vociferous or rigid in their thinking.  He seems like a very intelligent and fair advocate to me.  He writes persuasively and well.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Norse Mythology

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

This is another one of my capsules that says more about me than about the work.

In his introduction, Neil Gaiman describes being led to Norse mythology as a kid in elementary school by Lee and Kirby’s brilliant 70’s Thor comics.  We both found the Viking halls of legend to be surprisingly flawed and human places.  I don’t know if Greek mythology as told by and to laypeople became more whitewashed as the ancients became the basis (or the heroes) of the Enlightenment or if some other process sanded the edges off Zeus and his cohorts.  Greek myth always feels more symbolic and consistent.  Norse stories feel more like a campfire story than a fable, and the characters correspondingly more complex.  Because of how I was led to them and that humanity, these stories have a special place in my heart.

Norse Mythology is master storyteller Neil Gaiman retelling many of the same tales that enthralled me as a kid.  Gaiman breathes life into any fantasy, holds the stories with the same affection, and has great human stories to start from.  For me, it couldn’t be better.

A must.