Monday, September 18, 2017

A Burglar's Guide to the City

A Burglar's Guide to the City
© 2016 Geoff Manaugh
304 pages

There's really no resisting a title like that, is there?  Mind, it's not accurate;  this isn't a guide to how burglars read architecture, a catalog of vulnerabilities that homeowners and businesses can use to check their own weak spots.  The core message of the book, expressed repeatedly with great effusion, is that burglars see and use buildings differently from other people.  Manaugh goes into slight details, but his background as an art historian shows: he's more interested in the idea of burglars interpreting architecture than the details. Consequently, readers are given a great deal of entertainment as he delves into various cases, and even tries to learn skills himself (including lockpicking, from a cop),  but not much in the way of practical security information.

Burglary as defined requires architecture;   breaking and entering isn't possible with something to break into.   But burglars are connected to architecture at a deeper level, writes Manaugh; they are like the characters of The Matrix, who can read the lines of flowing green code and interpret vulnerabilties. They  are plugged into the Matrix of physical form and can manipulate it  at will -- and they do, using buildings in unexpected ways.  They will shimmy up rain gutters to access ledges, shove themselves through ventilation ducts,  take sliding doors off rails, or even carve through drywall to out-flank security alarms.  Some architectural manipulation can be quite elaborate, using the urban form itself.  Consider a case from Los Angeles in the 1980s: a group of  burglars with possible Public Works connections used that city's massive storm drainage system to tunnel into a bank and empty its vaults.   Few burglaries are so thought out, however; most are hasty and opportunistic. Even then, they can use buildings in ways they weren't intended: a massive oak door might be breached simply by breaking the glass windows framing it, then reaching in and opening the door.  Roofs hold back water; no one expects them to provide an entry for an thief.

A Burglar's Guide to the City abounds in interesting cases and general information. I had no idea that Los Angeles operates full time air patrols, for instance: I assumed police helicopters are so expensive by the hour that they're dispatched only in extreme situations, the kind that call for SWAT teams.  Easily the most interesting case for me was the story of Roofman, who used his study of McDonalds' basic building plan and operational policies to invade  and rob several dozen franchises. After being imprisoned, he escaped and took refuge in a Toys R Us, where he built a hiding place and carved into the empty building next door.   From there, surrounded by toys, he used stolen baby monitors from Toys R Us itself to observe employees and plan a  full heist. Fortunately for them, the random dropping-by of a sheriff's deputy foiled the Candy from a Baby stickup.

In short, this book was more fun than informative, but worth the time.

If you are interested in understanding your home from a security standpoint, I would suggest an ebook I read last year called "Kick Ass" Home Security, written by a retired police sergeant.  It's purely functional reading, like an instructional manual, but I found it helpful.  The essential lesson I remember, beyond any technical information, is that most burglaries are crimes of opportunity -- the less inviting you make your home to casual intrusion, the less likely you are to be burgled.

Friday, September 15, 2017

My Life with the Saints

My Life with the Saints
© 2007 James Martin, SJ
414 pages

The church I grew up in consistently referred to Rome as the whore of Babylon, so needless to say I didn't learn anything about saints. I knew Biblical personalities, sure, but was completely oblivious to the hundreds of men and women throughout the Christian era who served as outstanding examples, witnesses, or reproaches to the rest of us. I encountered a few in history books, like St. Augustine,  but they were more statuesque than human. The sole exception was Joan of Arc, who began as a figure from history but became (as I read various biographies) someone I felt an odd sense of affection for.  James Martin grew up Catholic, but his saintly education seems to have been almost as paltry as mine, discovering most of them as he attended seminary and trained to be a Jesuit. In the beginning, Martin notes that Catholics approach saints as both intercessors and companions; the latter approach inspiring most of this book.

My Life with the Saints mixes biography -- his, the saints, and others -- with spiritual reflection. In each chapter, Martin recounts his encounter with each personality, sharing how they shaped and informed his own spirituality while connecting their lives to people he has worked with through the years.  St. Francis,  "the fool for Christ", is revisited in the story of another 'fool', a priest who worked with gangs in Chicago and would try to disrupt fights by walking into the middle of the fracas, dressed in a blue-jean robe.  Martin mixes Biblical, medieval, and modern personalities, and includes a fair few people (notably Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day) who aren't "official" saints.   Although I purchased this hoping to meet a lot of obscure personalities, the mix meant only a handful were  completely new to me. Even so, I found Martin's meditations  refreshing, particularly the conclusion in which he remarked on the variety of the saints -- old, young, rural, urban, intellectual, hardy, mystical, rational -- and the hope that presents  to readers, that sainthood isn't limited to a superhero type.

The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day
The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton
The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Mark Twain

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Infrastructure: A Field Guide

Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape
© 1999, 2014 Brian Hayes
544 pages

Here at last is a book for those of us who constantly gaze out the car window at the fixtures on utility poles, or drums mounted in the sky above the telephone building, and wonder: what are those and what do they do?  Chris Hayes offers in his introduction that there are many books for understanding the various kinds of trees and birds we see around us; his hope is to help readers understand the built environment which can be beautiful in own right. Hayes'  field guide is not a dry catalog of pipes and antennae, organized alphabetically. Instead, he offers a narrative laced with humor that explores the built world, system by system -- beginning with mining raw resources and ending with waste disposal.  In between are covered farming, waterworks, power production, the power grid, telecommunications, roads, bridges, railroads,  aviation, and shipping.  Hayes' writing combines history and description,  allowing the reader to understand not only how things work,  but how they got that way. Photographs abound, most of which were taken by the author himself and include unusual shots.

The fact that this book has gone through three editions indicates it has been a success with readers, and I'm not surprised.  We live in the midst of and are sustained by systems built with human hands, but which few understand. There's enormous appeal in opening the hood on modernity  and gaining even a little knowledge as to how it all works, especially when systems link together. Although this is a guide to the 'industrial landscape',  Hayes' writing brings a strong humanistic touch. The book is about the world humans have created for ourselves, for our needs;  reading the built landscape  is an act not just of technical analysis, but of human interest.   Admittedly,  there are topics in the book harder to appreciate; mining, for instance, usually happens far from where we live.  The majority of this book, however, is the stuff of everyday: traffic lights, radio towers,  food, and highways.  Although I've  done a good bit of reading on infrastructure, Hayes' book was full of interesting facts and stories. For instance,  in the early 1980s a network of eight radio towers were set up to aide in global navigation: one of the stations was maintained by the US Coast Guard in the middle of Nevada. The system only lasted ten years before being supplanted  totally by GPS.

I referred to Kate Asher's The Works as a dream of a book, and I can only repeat the statement here:  it's a gorgeous and helpful piece of work.

Hey, look, it's the Very Large Array!

The Works: Anatomy of a City, Kate Ascher
On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems That Make Our World Work, Scott Huler
Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Andrew Blum
The Grid: A Journey to the Heart of Our Electrified World, Phillip Schewe
Divided Highways: Building the Interstates, Transforming American Life, Tom Lewis

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Black Ice

The Black Ice
© 1993 Michael Connelly
336 pages

A body discovered in a sleazy motel on Christmas Eve connects a handful of otherwise dead cases, and sets Detective Harry Bosch against his own department, culminating in the pursuit of a half-chance to Mexico.  The case was never supposed to be Bosch's;  when a cop suspected being bent showed up missing his face, all the department wanted to do was sweep the victim quietly under the rug. But Harry Bosch was the detective on duty when the call came in, and damned if he's going to be kicked to the side.  As is usual, the solitary brooder -- Bosch opens this novel like seemingly every other, sitting by himself and listening to jazz --  can't stop the feeling that there's more to the story, can't stop looking even when everyone else is telling him to drop it.  Several unsolved cases, suddenly parts of a puzzle that he can see the outlines of as he digs, point to a drug lord in Mexico who is pushing a new product in Los Angeles. That's where Bosch ultimately goes, teaming up with a Mexican officer who is an outsider in his own apartment, and their joint investigation leads to fireworks in the Sonoran dark.  While I haven't read a Bosch novel since 201l,  the character is just as compelling as he first was:  a child of the street turned cop thereof,  forever butting heads with the politicos who run things as he pursues justice on nothing more than his gut instincts, black coffee, and the help of rare friends -- usually women.  Characterization is strong here, both as Connelly is developing Bosch (this is the 2nd Bosch novel) further, and giving him interesting enemies, allies, and hybrid creatures to wrangle with.  Interestingly, early on Bosch encounters Mickey Haller -- of Lincoln Lawyer fame, but not made a lead character until that novel's debut in 2005. 

Irma a wash-out

From the St. Augustine Record -  Castillo de San Marcos

If I hadn't known that a tropical storm was passing by last night, I would not have guessed it.  I knew all of the excitement would be on the east side of the storm, but after sunset we received absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. A little wind, scattered showers...our ordinary low-pressure systems are more exciting.  Bizarrely, we experienced more wind and driving rain when the hurricane was near the Florida-Georgia-Alabama borders than we did when it was approaching us. The greatest effect was a dive in temperatures, and the fact that the rain smelled like seawater; our electrical service never blinked.  The city closed a lot of its services (schools, libraries, etc) yesterday, so I spent it reading either Michael Connelly's Black Ice, or Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape.

All's well that end's well, at least for the deep south. Florida and Cuba's Irma experience was altogether different!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Isaac's Storm

Isaac's Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
© 1999 Erik Larson
336 pages

First news from Galveston just received by train that could get no closer to the bay shore than 6 mi  where the prairie was strewn with debris and dead bodies. About 200 corpses counted from the train. Large steamship stranded 2 mi inland. Nothing could be seen of Galveston. Loss of life and property undoubtedly most appalling. Weather clear and bright here with gentle southeast wind.

On September 8th, 1900,  Galveston, Texas lost its bid to become the greatest city in Texas, the New York of the West. It became famous for another reason, however: the near-total destruction of the city and the deaths of at least six thousand of its people made the Galveston hurricane the deadliest to ever strike. It remains the United States' greatest natural disaster, despite challengers like Katrina and the San Francisco Fire of 1906. Isaac's Storm renders a history of the disaster, largely through the eyes of a Weather Bureau scientist who failed to predict it -- to his own tragedy. A mix of history and science, Isaac's Storm is narrative history that reminds readers of a more optimistic time -- and of the dangers of that optimism.

I first learned of the Galveston hurricane through a novel, strangely enough, a criminal thriller/western set in the city's seedy underbelly shortly before another hurricane struck the city.  The thought of a metropolis-in-the-making having its life snuffed out has stayed with me ever since, but the storm's anniversary -- coinciding with three hurricanes brewing in the Atlantic -- brought the event to mind recently. Isaac's Storm mixes all kinds of science and history together; Larson doesn't just stick with Isaac Cline, but in the opening chapters darts hither and yon across the hemispheres to tell stories that contributing to our understanding of tropical storms and hurricanes. Although Isaac Cline was a dedicated and intelligent scientist, he believed (based on studying reports from places like Bengal) that Galveston Bay was inimical to hurricane strikes, that the topography of the Texas coast discourage and dampened them.  Unfortunately for the residents of Galveston, a warning about the hurricane from Cuba was dismissed by American authorities, who regarded the Cubans as excitive and superstitious.  Larson regards the Weather Bureau of 1900 as overly confident in its own abilities to predict the weather with exactitude, despite its able use of a telegraphic warning system that was leaping the oceans.

There were portents during the day that something was in the offing. Although the barometer rose at times and the skies didn't have the "signature color" that preceded hurricanes (brickdust red, apparently), the rising swells that kept crashing into the beach were unusual. By the time night fell, those swells were ever-larger and wiping out the infrastructure build near the beach -- docks, gazebos, even a trolley trestle. Throughout the late afternoon and early evening,  rising water flooded the city, but the full fury didn't smash into Galveston until after dark.  Perhaps that contributed to the appalling death toll, making it harder for people to navigate through the sudden ruins of their city and avoid danger. A lot of deaths were caused by people being struck by debris, though building collapses were another factor -- as were drownings. Isaac and his children managed to escape, but his pregnant wife never emerged from the ruins of their house, nor did the dozens of other people who had taken shelter there.

Although the book is ultimately about a harrowing disaster, as narrative history Isaac's Storm is easy on the mind, and I appreciated the look into the beginnings of weather services in the United States...even if they weren't even aware of the Gulf Stream yet.

The shaded blocks were destroyed as storm surges swept in from north and south.  Even the few unshaded blocks in the center were heavily damaged, according to Larson.

Eye of the Storm

Eye of the Storm: Inside City Hall During Katrina
© 2007 Sally Forman
260 pages

Although Hurricane Katrina was not the biggest disaster to ever hit an American city, it was New Orleans' greatest crisis -- posing a near-existential threat to the city, and forcing unprecedented measures from its leadership.  Sally Forman was the Communications Director for Mayor Ray Nagin at the time of the storm, with duties that involving trying to steer him away from shooting his mouth off. During the storm, she became an unofficial aide de camp, working to keep members of city hall in touch with one another, and with the county, state, and federal officials who were moving to help New Orleans at varying glacial paces. Eye of the Storm is her memoir, one that portrays NOLA's City Hall doing the best it could under intense pressure with diminishing resources. Forman does not shy away from self-criticism, though her target is always herself and never the office of City Hall.  Civic leaders were proud to have evacuated 80% of the city given that such a general evacuation had never been ordered before, and in their prompt decision to declare martial law after reports began arriving about lootings, police shootings, and violence in the Superdome. Some failures of hurricane response owed to lack of foresight: no portable generator for the City Hall office,  buses not removed to ground high enough, and bus drivers not included in the evacuation exemption. Some owed to the murky jurisdictional disputes between city, state, and federal officials: Nagin expressed his frustrated at not knowing, really, who had ultimate authority since he'd declared martial law, but now FEMA and the National Guard were operating on their own.  Forman ends the memoir with a list of lessons learned.

This is not a full Katrina history by any means, but one of interest to those curious about how municipal governments can react during a crisis.  Unfortunately, Mayor Nagin seems to have acted better during the crisis weeks than during recovery, since he was indicted and made bankrupt by corruption charges.

Hurricane Katrina Through the Eyes of Storm Chasers, Jim Reed and Mike Theiss
Rescue Warriors, David Helvarg
Disaster 1906, Edward F. Dolan