Review: Smogtown

August 23rd, 2020

My adopted hometown has a smog problem. It’s not alone in this now, and it wasn’t the first – a prize that probably goes to London – but the city’s public struggles with unbreatheable air defined the problem for a lot of Westerners. In Smogtown, Chip Jacobs and Michael Kelley survey the highs and lows of that struggle.

The broad lines of the history are pretty easy to understand. LA’s industry expanded explosively to support US invlovement in the second World War, the subsequent rebuilding of Europe and Asia, and the Cold War. Among the many features that drew industry to the area was the lack of regulation of industries. There were a lot of workers here, more were easy to pull in, and the landowners running the government were much more interested in expanding and selling new workers homes than in controlling conditions in the plants that employed them.

Eventually, as with London and Bejing and other industrial cities, the smog came home to roost. Even during WWII, clouds of smoke became thick and noxious enough that Angelenos believed they were under attack. Mind you, the place was already pretty jumpy. As occurrences became more frequent and severe, the local governments began to take some action. The resulting ballet between the various strong personalities and economic forces is pretty interesting to see play out. Not much happens until land sales become threatened and then industry and auto ownership owners push back.

It surprised me how strongly citizens weighed in with resistance to various measures. I would not have expected Angelenos to be as attached to backyard incinerators as they evidently were. And Jacobs and Kelly do not neglect the corruption opportunities offered by the emergence of a refuse management industry – just another shakedown for organized crime.

I was also surprised by how much we had to learn about smog sources and how to rein them in. It took a fairly long time to home in on cars as a pollution source, for example. And though sulfuric acids are more noxious the particles from cars matter, too.

And then there’s the repetition of the industrialization cycle when the ports of LA and Long Beach expanded in the 80’s and 90’s. There’s a lot of diesel particulates there that are tied to people’s livelihoods.

Overall an engaging history of air pollution here with a satisfying scope.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The O. Henry Prize Stories 2017

August 7th, 2020

I haven’t caught up with the O. Henry Award winners in a while, but I always enjoy taking the temperature of the American/Canadian literary scene. Short stories are one of my favorite forms because they reward craftsmanship. The difference between a short story I like and one I don’t is so often a tight editing. Except when it isn’t, of course.

The O. Henry winners are always well crafted. What I noticed in this collection was that there were a lot of slice-of-life works here. Some almost down to the point of character studies. Many attacked perception and humanity, though that may be my current worldview.


Review: James and the Giant Peach

July 25th, 2020

Ah, Roald Dahl, you delightful ball of contradiction.

James and the Giant Peach holds a special spot in the hearts and memories of some friends – and my sweetie – and I’d never read it. No one ever articulated what they love about the book. I can see why.

Peach is a ramshackle meandering tale of magic entering a young boy’s life in inexplicable ways. Beyond that, it’s winningly free of convention or moralizing in ways that kids’ literature of the time is usually not.

Dahl’s world is full of both wonder and horror that is equally arbitrary and non-sensical. James’s life is turned upside down when a rhinoceros eats his parents (a patent impossibility) and the relatives who foster him are casually cruel in ways that rise to abuse, if not torture. Then a complete deus ex machina appears offering change. That James screws up. And we’re off to the races.

It never gets any more logical in theme or plot, but there’s something to like about the resulting story. The characters are lively in ways that simpler takes are not. The tone keeps the setbacks at arms length while letting the sun dapple the victories. I can see why no one can explain where their affection comes from, but I do feel it.


Review: What Is Art?

July 18th, 2020

A friend pointed me at Tolstoy’s extended essay on the nature of art and I found it thought-provoking, though I didn’t agree with much of it. Primarily I enjoyed watching the result of a disciplined and deep intellect grappling with an abstract, important, and interesting question.

From the beginning he is careful to define and motivate the question. He’s not interested in a purely navel-gazing assessment of art as an activity, but as a societal investment. Taxes can be used to support it, for example, but beyond that larger works of art require societies to be structured to create the time and resources for artists to work on art. That implies them working less on pure survival so some people will have to shoulder that burden.

Considering the issue from that position – what artistic activities are worth paying for as a societal cost – puts many an interesting slant on it. His motivations tend away from the frivolous and toward the edifying. His ideas of edification are motivated from his religious convictions, so we have some disagreements.

Overall, this is a formidable work that I expect I will think much more about.


Review: The Grid

July 16th, 2020

The Grid is a is a wide ranging introduction to the changing power industry. Gretchen Bakke covers the relevant technical and economic elements that shaped the power grid and the power industry at the right level for interested laypeople of many backgrounds. It is a timely and interesting topic as the grid itself has been almost static for so many years and is now being rattled by changing technology and regulation.

Bakke has a point of view and bias, for sure, but the book overall is not sensational or anything like it. It makes for a sound primer on a difficult area.

The writing is a bit dry and very clear. I don’t have a great passion for the book, but I think it’s rewarding.


Review: The Bicycle Diaries

June 27th, 2020

The Bicycle Diaries was an unexpected gem.

This is a discursive window into David Byrne‘s thoughts, tied together by some connection to his experiences commuting by bicycle in cities around the world. I’m generally interested in people’s bicycling impressions, so I decided to check it out.

Byrne turns out a fascinating and thought-provoking collection of essays about bikes, art, human nature, urbanization and gentrification, music, and a few more topics I can’t recall at the moment. These are organized by the cities in which his commutes sparked the thoughts. They’re too well written to be off-the-cuff, but each one gives the impression of sitting down with an articulate friend in a coffee shop or bar and catching up. Though he usually starts from bicycling, he often winds up somewhere unexpected, which is the way many of my rides go, too.

That kind of format only works when the author has interesting things to say, and Byrne does. I found him surprisingly honest and forthright. He puts some ideas and observations on the page that a more timid author would shy away from for fear of offending people. I found all of his thoughts worth chewing on, even when I disagreed or quibbled about how he expressed them. My only regret was that I couldn’t actually converse with him.

A must.

Review: Spying On The South

June 19th, 2020

Tony Horwitz is one of my favorite writers on rural America. Michael Perry and Bill Bryson tell a romantic story of small towns that I do bask in, but Horwitz is less varnished. Everyone has a bias, but I find that Horwitz presents people he meets as people with all their faults and merits. It’s a bracing reminder that we share the country with human beings and not position papers.

Spying recounts another Horwitz trek across the country, stopping and talking with people. He has a knack for highlighting the most personal and historical areas he finds.

He hangs his book on following the route of Frederic Law Olmsted who wrote a series of articles about touring the South before the Civil War. He mostly walked the road and just talked to people and wrote. Journalistic standards were more lax then, so Horwitz assesses those stories skeptically. Olmsted was a staunch abolitionist and he both documented and supported efforts to overturn slavery on those trips. He’s an unreliable narrator, but an interesting route generator.

Most of Spying is Horwitz working his interviewing and exploring magic, and I enjoyed it. There is a surprisingly long section where he reprises the plot of City Slickers while seeming completely oblivious to that movie’s existence. Skip it if you don’t want to see a non-Jack-Palance cattle drive without the cattle. Overall I learned a lot and enjoyed the book.

Strongly recommended.

Grap release

June 10th, 2020

If you’re looking for another harbinger of the End Times, consider this grap release. The changes are minor, but the code is now available from github.


Review: Station Eleven

June 6th, 2020

Station Eleven comes with an excellent pedigree. Emily St. John Mandel’s novel was nominated for many awards – winning several – and got a shout out from the folks at Make Me Smart. It’s partially based in a post-pandemic world, which resonates with the current times pretty strongly.

Even without the timely topical resonances, it’s quite a good book. She’s written a nice combination of plot-driven mystery in the vein of Crash or Magnolia, post-apocalyptic page turner, celebrity send-up, and meditation on the role of art in societies both pre- and post-industrial. That’s a lot of balls to keep up in the air, and she does it with brio.

The structure is impeccable and the writing is quite lively. There’s a lot to like here, but beyond the resonances with my current safer-at-home perspective, it never caught fire for me. That’s strange and frustrating for me to conclude. Analytically, I can point at a lot of great features of this book, but nothing brought it alive for me. I guess I chalk it up to the magic of art. If it does sound like something you’d life, do give it a try. As I say, I think it’s very well done. It may pop for you in a way it did not for me.


Review: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

May 24th, 2020

Carlo Rovelli wrote a series of short essays on physics for the European press recently that Seven Brief Lessons collects. They are very short – a few pages each – but do a remarkable job introducing and motivating the ideas for a lay audience. I think I have a reasonable grasp of physics for a lay person and I got a couple new insights on the ideas and their importance.

If you’re even mildly curious about physics, these are a nice introduction to some of the exciting and evolving areas. They’re small enough to read in a few minutes each, which makes Seven Brief Lessons is a tasty physics appetizer.

Strongly recommended.