Thursday, March 22, 2018

Door to Door

Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation
© 2016 Edward Humes
384 pages

Are you interested in the Port of Los Angeles? Do you hate cars and find hushed reports of every auto death in a single day great reading?  Do you long for the day when you can sit in your Google or Uber shuttle doing your sodoku while it toodles down the road?  Well, here's your book -- Door to Door, a book which describes itself as being about transportation but which is mostly about the aforementioned port, with a few other essays grafted on, vaguely united in their common theme of complaining about cars and aging infrastructure.  What is here is enjoyable to read,  at least for people like myself who find  transportation fascinating, but it's not a good book; the organization and few topics chosen make it seem more like a collection of essays written by someone chiefly interested in Los Angeles.  I've read Humes before, in his Garbology, and according to my notes it was likewise a grab-bag of topics.

In the age of globalization, logistics is a growth industry. Even if robots take the jobs of cabbies and long-haul truck drivers,  the demand for consumer goods is such that more ships and trucks will be required to carry them.  At the Port of Los Angeles, which handles a third of all goods consumed in the United States (from bananas to smartphones),  the managers there are finding themselves in the position of the New York harbormasters in the late fifties:  the ships arriving are too large to handle easily.  When containerization first arrived,  they required infrastructure at so  different a scale than the old break-bulk shpping that it was  easier for cities like New York  and  London to build new docks altogether. But now the container ships have outgrown the commercial docks built especially for them.

The roads, too, are problematic, overburdened by the fact that  everyone drives everywhere; even highways built to link ports and industrial sections are now co-opted for ordinary through traffic, and the sheer number of cars makes it difficult for transit options like buses to take off. Why would people ride the bus when cars so so much faster? Some cities are exploring ways to create better transit efficiency, like creating bus-only lanes; logistics chiefs like a UPS director interviewed here believe a similar approach for freight traffic  would help the gridlock.  Humes deplores the relative spending of China, Europe, and the United States on transportation:  the US simply isn't keeping up, he says, with a gas tax stuck in the nineties and zero mass infrastructure ideas in the works.  If we are stuck with car-centered infrastructure, says Hume, the best alternative may to work to replace the consumer fleets with self-driving cars -- but cars that don't allow humans to take over, because the cars will eventually be better drivers than humans ever can be. And if you doubt that humans are crappy drivers, he has an entire chapter called "Friday the 13th" that tells the story of seemingly every single person killed in the US by automobiles that day.  (Auto deaths by year are usually around 40,000 in the US, averaging out  to 110 people a day.  Guns got nothin' on the automobile.)

A book called Door to Door: The World of Transportation should cover much more than it did.  The two paragraphs above give it far more organization than it had itself, because it was mostly about the port -- with odd chapters like the logistics of soda cans thrown in. There are better books written about infrastructure (Infrastructure: A Field Guide) better books written about transit  options (Straphanger), better books on shipping, ((90% Of Everything), and so on.  Again, this is enjoyable enough to read, it''s just not a good as a book on transportation.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Inevitable

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future
© 2016 Kevin Kelly
336 pages

No one can say where exactly a ball thrown in the air will land,  but at least on Earth it’s a certainty that a thrown ball will land.   Kevin Kelly,  formerly of Wired magazine, can’t  say exactly what the future will look like, but he is confident enough to predict what trends will continue based on present technology.   Our global civilizations have been radically transformed from the 1970s til now, but computers weren’t the catalyst for all the change we see around us. Networked computers were. By themselves,  the first computers were house-sized calculators and overpriced filing cabinets;  when they began exchanging information freely, magic happened.   What world-changing wonders can we expect from the current trends in technology?

First, says Kelly, is “becoming”:    In the late eighties, Zygmunt Bauman introduced the term liquid modernity to our sociological lexicon.  In previous generations, changes happened slowly enough that our societies were able to digest them and establish a new normal.   As the 19th gave way to the 20th century, however, the rate of change has quickened to the point that a new normal is impossible: societiy is revolutionized multiple times within a single generation, with the effect that there is no stable ground to be had, no new normal to be reached. Now our products are no longer discrete products, but services that are continually being changed -- think of Office 365, or even Windows 10. Windows 10 is rumored to be the last Windows, not because Microsoft is retiring from the OS business, but because Windows 10's frequent updates constantly add  new features that would have otherwise been developed and delivered in a new Windows.  Our phones, too, are not merely the device that came out of the original box: as we add apps and accessories, we change their nature.

The second big-ticket item in here is "cognifying", by which Kelly means using machine intelligence for everything. There won't be a master AI that controls every aspect of our lives, he says;  instead,  we''ll develop multiple machine intelligences for different suites of needs, and they''ll be utterly mundane -- and already are. When we execute a google search for recipes or ask it for directions, we are in fact helping train and  benefit Google's machine-learning algorithisms: we are teaching them what we're most likely to be looking for.  Those "Related Products" that Amazon helpfully shows you are also an early example of machine intelligence, as Amazon's database learns your shopping preferences and attempts to predict what you would like next.

Two more concepts from the book worth sharing quickly here are Accessing and Tracking. Tracking sounds obvious, but Kelley isn't just talking about website cookies or Google & Apple recording your movements through your phone's  GPS. By tracking, Kelly means that the door is open to quantifying every aspect of our lives.   People can already use their phone's apps to track how much they walk per day, how well they asleep, and record their diets;  they can already use phones to monitor their heartbeat;   phones in the near future will be able to monitor blood pressure and blood sugar, as well.  Cheap cameras and cloud storage mean that we can record more moments of our lives,  and later poke through them at our leisure as if they were files in a drawer.  The cloud is a key aspect of much of what Kelly covers, but it is especially prominent in the "Accessing" chapter, in which he writes that we're moving away from an ownership society. We no longer need to own a car;  we just need access to one. Apps and tech allow us to share resources,  and in some cases the resources are becoming so cheap that they can be offered for free: no one needs to  struggle with an ersatz Office clone when they can use the freely available OfficeOnline.

There are ten real concepts in total (there are two more chapters, "questioning" and "becoming", but they're less about content than thinking about our relationship with content), and the author purposely avoids mentioning any downsides. He takes it for granted that everything can be used to malicious purposes, but that would be another book entirely. (A book like Future Crimes II, perhaps...) I also liked the chapters on Interacting and Screening; one addressed the future mundane role of virtual reality and augmented reality,  in that games and movies will become more "real", and our travels in the real world will have a digital overlay adding more information -- the ubiquity of screens dovetails with that rather nicely. One disturbing possibility Kelly mentions is having glasses or ocular implants with different apps installed; one can read people's faces and match them to a driver's license database.   The other concepts in the book are extensions of minor things happening now, like remixing and filtering.

As someone who can be both entranced and repelled by the promises of technological -- completely fascinated on a abstract level,  distantly horrified at a human level --  I found The Inevitable enthralling reading.  The author is sloppy with language, however, using "socialism" and "collective" when 'cooperative' would have been more accurate. For some reason he thinks libertarian individualism is contradicted by Wikipedia , when it's merely individuals voluntarily working together toward a common goal.  Socialism makes me think more of involuntary mass actions, like taxes and slavery.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Testing, testing

Last week I purchased a new phone, one of those modern miracles that can order a custom sandwich, rent a car, check a flight, and read me a book while also allowing Google and the NSA to keep tabs on me.   I bought it for the camera, and today I finally had occasion to try it out when a friend of mine announced he was giving a private cemetery tour to an exchange student from Vietnam who had been staying with his daughter this past week.  Although I've walked the cemetery in question, I'd never heard my storytelling friend do his "ghost tour", and was more than happy to join them.  The ghost tour, which is part of the annual Selma Pilgrimage (a weekend of people touring fine historic homes, hosted by teenage girls in antebellum dresses), uses multiple locals playing the parts of deceased locals to tell the story of Selma. 

This won't be a complete tour of the Old Live Oak Cemetery, which has incredible stonework and an attractive layout, full of live oaks and magnolia trees, but I wanted to share a few photos and/or stories.

We rendezvoused at the "Pigeon House", a small structure in the middle of the cemetary that once was the residence of the caretaker, and was later used as a gathering spot for bands and picnics.  It's called the pigeon house because the eaves housed carrier pigeons. if you click to enlarge the picture you should be able to see the meshed-over cubbies where the pigeons lived.

Elodie Todd Dawson,  sister-in-law to Abe Lincoln,  and partially responsible for the somber beauty that is Old Live Oak.  She and her family purchased the land and organized its layout, with the pattern of oaks and magonlias that creates bountiful shade even in the summer.  According to a local story, Elodie wore carefully-applied wax makeup and  never stood or walked in direct sunlight -- if she had to travel through it, she hiked up her skirts and double-timed her way into the shade. This was called "Elodie's Walk". Her husband commissioned a memorial statue of her for $7000 after death, disliked the hair, and commissioned another for $5000 more.  

Old Live Oak is one of the more spellbinding places in Selma ,between its oaks laden with Spanish moss, the field of stone, and the flowering bushes.

Obelisks and crosses predominate the graves here, but some are particularly ornate. 

(Note to self:  learn to crop images on phone before sending them to my cloud...)  This obelisk has been churched up a little.

A memorial to the fallen. An inscription reads,
 "There is grandeur in graves, there is glory in gloom."    

I first read those words seven years ago, when walking this cemetery and listening to the fallen leaves skitter in the wind, and they clicked. I've never forgotten the expression.  It comes from a poem called "Land Without Ruins"

If you are curious about the Ghost Tour, someone on youtube posted truncated clips of two of the performances. My friend is reprising a role in the first video as a local rogue named George Washington Gayle, who put an ad in a 1864 paper for someone to shoot Lincoln, and a young lady whom I don't know is playing Elodie, the woman whose grave I shared above.   

"Elodie's" accent is more than little exaggerated -- every actresses who does her lays on the southern drawl as thick  as they can.  

Thursday, March 15, 2018

City of Fortune

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas
© 2012 Roger Crowley
464 pages

In the north of the Adriatic grew a city built not on land, but upon the water -- whose fortune was earned in transit, by  running the ships that connected Europe with the Orient.  Already a powerful commercial entity at the time of the Fourth Crusade, Venice's actions there would catapult her to empire -- empire based on the broken back of eastern Rome, but empire nonetheless, and she would survive near-defeat and triumph again and again until finally she met her match in the Turks. City of Fortune is a history of the Stato da M√†r, the empire of the sea that existed wherever waters run.  A highly narrative history  that focuses on Venice's peak and fighting decline,  City of Fortune is a treat for students of European history as it tells the story of this most singular state.

This book was a particularly rare treat for me because I had no idea how it would end. I knew Venice was built from a swamp and maintained itself through trade, and that it was extensively involved in the crusades as the provider of transportation. I had no idea how powerful it was at its peak, however, and knew nothing of the circumstances of its decline.   The story of Venice is one not of Europe, but of the Mediterranean: Venice, the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Turks are its primary actors.   In the beginning Venice was technically a vassal of the eastern empire, commonly called the Byzantine, but  as it made its living by trade the city rarely behaved like a subordinate, frequently engaging in commerce with the constantly-attacked empire's enemies in the middle east. When the Church organized another crusade to redeem Jerusalem from the rising Turks, Venice would become the key agent in derailing the crusade, ultimately sending it to conquer Constantinople instead of Jerusalem, and solidifying Turkic rule in Judea instead of repelling it. Venice's entire economy and much of its citizenry were consumed by the contract with the west to transport their men and material to Jerusalem:  when the west balked at paying in full, Venice decided to use their armies to redeem its gold in other ways, by sacking some of its rival-neighbors.  When some ambiguity over the Byzantine succession presented an opportunity for regime change and rewards in gold, naturally Venice took advantage and carried the crusade toward  Constantinople. Things didn't go as planned, and....well, long story short the west conquered the city, fractured the eastern Roman empire, and left it easy pickings for the Turks as they continued to march west. 

For a time Venice would flourish in its ill-gotten gains:  from the ruins it turned its commercial holdings into a genuine empire, and the wealth of the ancients and the east would pour into Venice.  When like proud Athens it found itself in bitter wars with its neighbors, even being surrounded by a  Genoese fleet, it somehow rebounded. But  nations reap what they sow as well as individuals,  and Venice's empire of the sea was no match for the Turks' increasingly vast holdings in the middle east,  marching through Asia Minor and soon pushing around Venice for possession of islands and seaways.  Venice would attempt to organized a general European defense of the Med, but her own prideful pushiness made her a pariah -- and her attempts at lifting high the cross were laughed at, considering Venice's long history trading with Christendom's foes.   Venice would lose her military might to the Turks in battle after battle, but ultimately it was Portugal who would see the city fall from commercial dominance. Faced with the Turkic domination of the west, the closing of access to India and China, the Portuguese would find new ways east -- and  as the Age of Discovery dawned, Venice's brilliant star would dim. But that's a story for Crowley's other book, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire.

Curiously, for a century or so there existed a lovely hotel in downtown Selma modeled after the Places of the Doges in Venice.  The building was destroyed in the late sixties to  make room for city hall.  A pox on politicians!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Star Trek Vanguard: Declassified
© 2011 Kevin Dilmore, David Mack,  Marco Palmieri, and Dayton Ward
404 pages

At the edge of Federation space, at its shared border with the Klingons and the Tholian Assembly, lies trouble.  The area known as the Taurus Reach brims with mineral-rich planets supporting humanoid life,  but has remained curiously uninhabited for eons. The Tholians regard it with fearful reverence,  as if something is buried there that should remain so.  Here enter Vanguard Station,  a Starfleet starbase intended to oversee the colonization of the Taurus Reach  -- and more secretly, a lab to examine its buried secrets. The ST Vanguard series has combined excellent characters, intriguing scientific mystery and steady drama for five books.  Now, in Vanguard Declassified, we find four more stories of intrigue, set throughout the first four books of the series. Three of the authors are familiar for their contributions to Vanguard, but Marco Palmieri is better known as the editor who is responsible for spearheading the Star Trek Relaunch.

In “Almost Tomorrow”, the Klingons enter the scene for the first time, and a spy is revealed. This features our favorite Machiavellian Vuclan, T’Pyrnn, and a sex scene that’s more awkward than most because she has a malevolent ghost in her head who wants to possess her lover. Oh, you wacky Vulcans.

“Hard News” features a world-weary but determined journalist and his girl Friday, developing a story that will expose a connection between the Orion pirates and some Starfleet intelligence ops. Word to the wise, making Orions grumpy is a bad idea. They’re not Klingons and you won’t see them coming, green skin aside.

“The Ruins of Noble Men” is a  story set in two different time periods; in one, a Vanguard ship is dispatched to a suddenly isolationist colony world  to convince them to come back to the fold. The colony is hiding a secret, though, and  in attempting to establish meaningful communications with them Captain Desai finds herself thinking about an episode from her former boss-lover’s youth, when he had an usual run-in with a Klingon named Gorkon.  (Casual Trek fans may remember Gorkon as the assassinated chancellor in The Undiscovered Country.)

The last story, “The Stars Look Down”, is by David Mack and involves a secret mission to land on a Gorn-controlled world, infiltrate one of their ships, steal/copy data and compromise the original, then get out before the Gorn reprise Cestus III.   Features Quinn, a smuggler-scoundrel in the cut of Han Solo or Mal Reynolds,   along with his SF intel partner Bridy Mac.  This being a David Mack story, there’s intense drama and tragedy. (If you find yourself in a David Mack novel, pray that you are a one-page extra character who is not important enough to matter, either as a tragic death or as a plot driver. Be the guy behind the desk who nods to the main characters as they are running into action. It’s just not safe otherwise.)

The four stories span the entirety of the first five Vanguard books, and between then feature most of the favorite characters from the series.  All four are  enjoyable tales; I was most partial to “Hard News” because of the unsusual first-person perspective and the general story:  I like the pre-ENT Orion pirates. They got a little weird after ENT, with pheromones making people slaves and such. Fewer sex slaves and more organized crime, please, thank you.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Short rounds: of cybercities and medicinal ectasy

Recently I've read a couple of books that I wasn't particularly impressed with, but  they weren't stinkers enough to merit one of those rare-but-fun-to-write negative reviews.  They're in that "I can manage a paragraph of mixed interest and disappointment" grey zone.

 This had some interesting topics, from growing kidneys to developing Geordi's VISOR from Star Trek, but I was not impressed at all with the author's grounding as a science journalist. Trust and regard sailed out the window when he hailed the average increase of height and bodymass following industrialism as proof that humans can evolve much more quickly than previously expected., that's proof that our present geneset can do more when it has better materials to work with, i.e more access to different kinds of food, and less work to do fighting off vicious diseases. Have the South Koreans evolved past their primitive ancestors in the north, or are their shorter northern cousins just malnourished? Kotler also referred to a cure for cancer as a vaccine. Cancer isn't a microbe you fight off with antibodies! Sure, maybe he was dumbing things down to increase potential leadership, but forgive me if I don't take the chapter on medicinal ecstasy too seriously after that.. (In the last part of the book, he explores ecstasy and LSD's potential in helping people deal with end-life terror, as well as PSTD. Steroids are also billed as an anti-aging  superweapon, but by that point I wasn't really taking the author too seriously.

This is not on the level of Michio Kaku. It's more like Newsweek fluff pieces.

Next up, Smart Cities! Ooh, cities meets the digital world, two of my favorite topics. This should be outstanding! ...well....not quite.  The cover is lively, sure,  but the book is more conceptual than practical  in that the author spends most of his time talking about the city as a living machine in abstract, or weighing top-down city government approaches against apps created by ordinary people.    I wanted to read about different ways smart cities were happening, but they're only mentioned from time to time as examples of the more elevated debate.  I think I learned more about a smart transit system from Straphangers, in its chapters on Paris' metro card, then I did here.  Sure. there are mentions of apps for citizens to report problems, and mentions of how other apps can bring the city more to life by leading users to bars and places they've never heard of, but these are only teases.  I bought this book last year, started reading it, quickly lost interested, and mounted another assault this week only to find it wasn't really a hill worth that much worry.  

Ah, well.   They can't all be life-changing books. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

This Is Your Brain on Parasites

This is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Brains and Shape Society
© 2016 Kathleen McAuliffe
299 pages

Are you under the influence?  There’s a chance that you may be, even if you haven’t darkened the door of a bar in years. Our bodies are home to a multitude of microbes,  many of them allies of a sort:  in exchange for a moist roof over their heads, they help us digest food, or take up space that would otherwise be available to the disease-causing riff-raff.  Other,s however, are the riff-riff, and they can exert a bad influence on those who let them hang around.  By and large we’re familiar with bacteria that can cause disease, but there are microbes which have more subtle effects --  seemingly causing shifts in our mood, our metabolism, and our ability to think and process information. This is Your Brain on Parasites argues for a parasite-centered perspective on health and evolution,  told in four parts.    She opens by establishing the ubiquity and variety of microbes,  moves to demonstrating how some species can directly manipulate other species’ behavior,  argues that human beings’ mental/emotional state can be likewise influenced by microbes, and finally argues that much of human civilization is indirectly driven by parasites in that an obsession with cleanliness has driven us to create religions, laws, etc.

Whew! That’s a lot to take in in one book. The first two sections are paths well traveled, from 10% Human to Gut. The second section addresses an utterly fascinating aspect of nature, the ability of some species to manipulate others. The creatures documented here aren’t all microbes: parasitic wasps show up hijacking spiders and roaches and putting them to work, the first as a shelter-creator and the second as a beefsteak on the hoof.  The mechanisms for manipulation are not always known. Microbes aren’t comic book villains with glowing towers: they do their work with secretions of chemicals,  sometimes using our own bodies to produce it for them.  By subtle means can one parasite prompt grasshoppers to move en masse toward bodies of water, drowning themselves  Part of the difficulty of studying parasites is that their manipulation of one host is only one part of their life stage, and they usually have a series of hosts to go through to get back to where they can spawn. One parasite common to humans arrives  in the intestines, matures, works its way to the exit, raises hell to make us itchy, and then relies on a probing finger scratching the itch to carry their young out into the world to restart the cycle.  That’s more indirect manipulation, but the author also includes cases in which the presence of certain bacteria are strongly correlated with instances of depression, and others with dangerous, near-deadly behavior.

The last part, attributing everything from sanitation to religion to racism on human attempts to ward off parasites, is...interesting, but an example of how specialists in one field tend to view everything from their particular angle.   The fact that religious dietary laws often barred the very species which carry the most risk for internal parasites is insightful, but  human culture and evolution are rivers fed by many streams. Attributing the motherload to parasites, or cooking, or power, usually tells more about the author’s interests than the actual subject.  On the whole, however,  This is Your Brain on Parasites smartly marches through a lot of linked territory and makes itself of interest to general science readers.

  • Parasite Rex, Carl Zimmer. A more in-depth treatment of parasites in general, and an inspiration for this book according to the author.  I read this back in 2008 but that was back in days when I posted one great big wall of text about every book I'd read in that week, and few of the 'reviews' were more than the same kind of abstract you'd find on an Amazon publisher' s description. 
  • I Contain Multitudes, Gut, 10% Human