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BookLog: The World Without Us


The World Without Us provides an interesting paradox: In an effort to make us think about our impact on our planet, and how substantial that impact may be, Alan Weisman takes the approach of imagining our world should we no longer around to populate the planet. It’s quite a hook. Considering our species’ tendency towards navel-gazing, and our love of tales of disaster and tragedy, what could be more interesting than finding out what happens after we’re all gone?

Of course, Earth would do fine without us should we disappear, although some subtle scars of or evidence of our existence would remain as long as the Earth itself. Much of our built infrastructure would fall apart remarkably quickly, with much of it being reduced to rubble over the next century. (Only a few severely overbuilt structures, such as some railroad bridges, would have a chance of making it a millennium, still a sliver of time in geologic terms.) Weisman finds other items that would last a long time, but they’re almost always the exceptions.

In short, if we’re gone, our stuff will soon be gone as well.

Although occasionally prone to melodrama, almost forgivable considering the subject matter , The World Without Us generally came across as a well-researched and thoughtful work, albeit not one claiming to be scientific by any means. But while fascinating, about midway through I started finding myself thinking, “what’s the point of this?” In retrospect, I’m not sure what Weisman’s point actually was supposed to be. A book doesn’t have to have a point, of course, so I only mention this as it seemed the book appeared to be trying to make some kind of environmental statement. Obviously, I’m not sure it succeeded. Yes, we’re making a mess of our planet, but is it really a good idea to point that out by saying hey, don’t worry, Earth will be able to recover? Probably not.

Still, for anyone who’s curious as to how permanent our works really are, this is an interesting and entertaining read. 7/10.

Posted in BookLog at 10:39 pm

BookLog: Nothing Like It In The World


Nothing Like It In The World is one of those rare books where the story told is engrossing enough to make a reader forgive, at least temporarily, a writing style seemingly designed to annoy the reader. Focusing mainly on how the work was done, Stephen Ambrose’s detailed review of the building of the transcontinental railroad jumps all over the country, taking readers through back offices, government corridors and construction camps along the way.

Ambrose covers a lot of ground. Readers get to see the planning of the line, the political moves necessary to make it happen, the funding, and, for most of the book, the construction. The timing of many of the events can be a surprise. Chief among them is the construction of the railroad begin during the Civil War. While some politicians saw the road as a way to tie the country together, the central drive of most of those involved was to make money, the war be damned. It’s one of the first revelations in the book that’s almost astounding by today’s standards.

Most amazing about the railroad, though, is that for all practical purposes it was built by hand. The grade was laid by thousands of workers wielding shovels and wheelbarrows, and ties and rails were placed and fastened by hand as well. (Take a look at the photos on this page for an example of the Central Pacific’s handiwork.) Even the tunnels drilled by the CP through the Sierra Nevada mountains were done this way, mostly by Chinese workers with sledgehammers, massive hand drills and dangerous quantities of black power and nitroglycerin. And when I say by hand, I mean by hand; the vast majority of workers didn’t even use work gloves. Again, the modern mind marvels.

Other areas covered by Ambrose include the infighting among the boards of the two railroads building the line (most notably within the Union Pacific, who’s management group was often outright dysfunctional); the constant battle to acquire materials and get them to the end of track; the threats caused by indians, striking coworkers and the “hell on wheels” towns following the construction; and, towards the end, the often ridiculous duplication of efforts as the UP and CP raced on quite literally right next to each other. We get to see surveyors out in the wilderness they loved, even as they recognized their work will lead to its destruction. We get to see Californians be fully impressed by the work of the Chinese, who in the past hadn’t been considered to be capable of much. And we get to see the political shitstorm that followed the UP’s financial books getting cracked open.

It’s a great ride. Unfortunately, like the early railroad, it’s not always a comfortable one, for Ambrose seemed determined to prove that he was exceedingly adept at repeating himself. It got to the point that every time I read “it had to be done, and they did it” or “what _____ needed more than anything else was money” or “build it fast” I could practically feel my eyebrow twitch in response. Thankfully, the book ended before I could come unhinged, but in retrospect I would’ve preferred a little more variation throughout the book’s 400 pages. To be fair, there was some cause for the repetition–the building of the railroad, tie by tie, rail by rail, was nothing if not repetitive–but that doesn’t mean Ambrose should’ve aimed to drag us though a literary equivalent.

Complaints aside, I’d still recommend this book. It’s an engaging, detailed telling of a story that may be even more amazing now than when it actually happened. 7/10.

Posted in BookLog at 8:54 pm

BookLog: A Short History of Nearly Everything


What a fantastic gift Bill Bryson has given us with A Short History of Nearly Everything. It is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Bryson has pulled off a number of amazing feats with this book. For one, he’s taken a wide number of intimidating subjects–the origins of our universe, the rise of life, geology, biology, particle physics, and a bunch of other stuff you didn’t pay full attention to in high school–and made them accessible, understandable, and really, really interesting. Better yet, his work is detailed enough that even those who are occassionally prone to geeking out over long, staid pieces of scientific writing (a group I would incidentally consider myself a member) can find plenty to sink their teeth into.

But the tasty frosting–and, really, the thing that so sets the book apart from others like it–are Bryson’s wonderful descriptions of how we came to know everything we do. The book is awash in stories about brilliant minds stymied in their efforts to get their ideas and findings published, only to be forced to retreat into obscurity and then later suffer the added indignity of watching others get all the credit. Bryson lays out plenty of stories where people were given due credit, of course, but from looking at how petty and backstabbing the greater scientific community has been from time to time, it’s kind of amazing that we actually know anything at all.

In a way, that’s kind of in line with the greatest theme of A Short History: We are remarkably lucky to be here. To paraphrase Bryson, when we look at our history, we’re looking at a knife edge. Every single one of us is the product of an unbelievably long chain of ridiculously improbable events. But here we are, and we get to use our oversized brains to enjoy things like Bryson’s book.

Yay for us. Highly recommended.

Posted in BookLog at 7:41 pm

BookLog: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell


Blink by Malcolm Gladwell is an interesting little book, a quick read that can either give one new ideas on the power of snap judgements and quick decisions, or maybe validate one’s approaches to decision-making that have not been thought about in a formal way. It’s mostly successful in making it’s case, but unfortunately does not give readers much in the way of suggestions as how to utilize what they’ve read.

The basic point of Blink is this: Snap judgements, often culturally derided for not taking all available information into account or ignoring major seemingly-significant factors, can be extremely useful when paired with the appropriate background knowledge or within a strict decision-making framework. With some notable exceptions, they often can be more successful and correct than decisions based upon lots of thinking or mounds of data.

If that sounds boring, it’s not. Gladwell gives plenty of examples of the appropriate use of snap or information-constrained judgements, ranging from a hospital’s process for identifying if someone is having a heart attack (with greater success than previous look-at-all-the-data methods) to a researcher figuring out whether a young married couple will last more than a few years (with a startling degree of accuracy). In doing so, he gives readers a greater awareness of different, successful methods of making quick judgements, so they may be able to start to find them in their own life and work. What Gladwell does not do is provide a formalized framework for identifying when such approaches may work, and it may be in that area that his book falters.

Granted, it’s probably unfair to ask for that much considering Gladwell seems to have just scraped the surface of this subject himself. But it’s absence in Blink does set off my BS meter somewhat, the exact kind of warning to which Gladwell wrote that we should pay attention. In some ways, Blink comes across as a bit of a potemkin village, all examples but without a strong core message. Maybe a core message isn’t necessary in this case, though. I still found it an interesting and even a useful book.


Gladwell also provides a few cautionary tales about snap judgements used improperly, most notably the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx. While that story in particular works well as a warning, and is followed by some examples of changes or approaches that could have prevented the tragedy, Gladwell again does not give readers a framework for identifying and mitigating situations that may arise in their own lives. As with the other cases, it may not be fair to expect Gladwell to do such a thing, but it does feel like more of a glaring omission in this area. If, indeed, the answer is just trial-and-error until we find something that works, Gladwell should at least say as much.

But, for the most part, these are just grumbles. I’d still recommend the book. (And if you can help me figure out why it occasionally sets off my BS Meter, I’d really like to know.) 7/10.

Posted in BookLog at 10:46 pm

BookLog: The Death and Life of Great American Cities


Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities is one of those books I’d always meant to get around to reading, and now that I’ve done so, I thoroughly regret not doing so earlier. I have a few quibbles with it–while I agree that odd intersections make things interesting, I believe the grid is one of the greatest features of American cities–but for the most part find it a fantastic work, and highly recommend it to anyone curious about how effective large cities grow and thrive.

Much of the recent criticism I’ve read of the book and Jacob’s philosophy centers around the belief that her ideas are outdated, that they were OK for a half century ago but aren’t really relevant to a society where people move around a lot, cities are increasingly losing families for young couples and empty-nesters, and industrial jobs are replaced by knowledge or service work. At best I think these criticisms are missing the point, at worst I think those pushing them are being disingenuous. (While I have seen academic criticism, most of it has come from news articles where some developer or architect is justifying some huge development project they’re involved in.)  If a city does turn into a place that’s just for the wealthy, retired, or young and childless, how can it retain the mix of life and cultures that made people want to move there in the first place? This book better illustrates than anything else that I’ve read that a disappearance of families, children, or industry is not just a demographic shift that should just be accepted but a serious warning sign that demands attention.


For what it’s worth, I’ve found that this book works nicely with How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand, in which Brand explains in detail the value of the kinds of buildings Jacobs frequently spends time defending. It also works well with a trip to Toronto, arguably the most effective large city in North America, which happens to be the place Jacobs currently calls home.

Posted in BookLog at 7:25 pm

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