Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Fighting Traffic

Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City
© 2008 Peter Norton
396 pages


Stroll into the middle of any American city today, and provided you are not in Detroit, odds are better than not you will be sent flying by a car. Streets are the province of the constant flow of automobile traffic, and anything else -- bicycles, horses, skateboards, pedestrians -- is most unwelcome. This is a comparatively recent development, however;  for most of human history,  streets were an integral part of the human landscape, the site of markets and ad hoc playgrounds. Fighting Traffic details how streets became instead traffic sewers, moving the most cars as quickly as possible, and does so with impressive heft. Its scope is more massive than its size, as in the course of rendering a social history of the urban fabric, Norton also details the shifting evolution of economic and legal  assumptions that policy became a manifestation of.

The automobile was a novelty in human history,  not just for its speed but for its cheapness.  Although horse-drawn wagons and carriages took up as much space per vehicle as cars, if not more,  horse teams were so expensive that their ownership was not universal. Even so, cities throughout history have had congestion problems and attempted to deal with them through legal means. Mass-produced automobiles, however, became so popular in the early 20th century that even the poor owned them, and  they flooded city streets. As their numbers increased, so to did the fatalities they inflicted, driven at speed by people unaccustomed to such power.  The rising spike in deaths prompted public outcry and attempts to bring the beast to heel -- and so began the war.  At the same time that concerned citizens were attempting to curb the car,  automobile owners and auto manufacturers were mobilizing to expand its horizons.

The battle that emerges throughout the two decades of the 1910s and 1920s has a fascinating cast of players who frequently switched sides on one another. The auto lobby first used citizen-groups like safety councils to begin shifting the responsibility of reducing fatalities to pedestrians. In urging for laws to define the rules of the road, they managed to turn ageless human behavior -- crossing the street -- into a crime called jaywalking.  The safety councils were unreliable allies, however, eventually insisting that the safety of the community was most imperiled not by ambling pedestrians, but the reckless speed of the drivers.  The nascent traffic control movement was then employed with good effect;  in the early days policemen were charged with keeping the roads in good order, but they were soon usurped by engineers. The changing world of the 20th century had come to favor their like; cities were now tied together by massive engineering projects like gas pipelines and water mains.  In the wake of their success, why not treat the streets like a public utility, one run by experts?   The reign of engineers would accomplish much in driving people out of the streets; the implementation of synchronized traffic signals so spurred the rate of traffic that pedestrians were forced by survival instinct to cower at the crosswalk until given sanction to pass by the new machines.  But tasked with making transportation more efficient, the engineers eventually stood their ground against the auto lobby:  cars, after all, are far from the most efficient mode of transportation.  They don't use space terribly well, and they require parking -- acres and acres of parking!    

The continuing and rising popularity of cars, however, made victory seemingly inevitable.  Not that cars had triumphed merely owing to the free market; they were, after all,  given a free hand and their roads public financing whereas the trolleys were stifled by regulation. Once cars took to the road in numbers, they effectively destroyed any room for other choices.  The book leaves off at the start of the 1930s, before traffic masters like Miller McClintock began their dream of "gashing through" the cities with auto-only highways,  but even so their triumph was accomplished in physical fact and in law and culture.  Fighting Traffic's history of the city's initial conquest by the automobile impresses with its thoroughness and organization;  Norton is almost lawyer, building a case point by point and constantly reinforcing it.  His ambition was not merely to deliver a history of the city's driven evolution, but to examine how opposing social groups overcome one another in the political sphere, using modes outside the law -- like the clubs' use of organizations like the Boy Scouts to shame pedestrians for not obeying their new signal masters, and of course the newspapers.  The scholarly bent makes it slightly daunting for lay readers, but it's worth digging into.

Related:



Monday, July 21, 2014

This week: Huck Finn and a world at war


Without intending to, this past week I read two science fiction novels that both concerned human genetic engineering, neither featuring it in a positive light. I read The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh after watching "Space Seed",  The Wrath of Khan, and Into Darkness in succession, and realizing I'd never finished the trilogy.  I may start on volume II this week, but my priority will be finishing Huckleberry Finn and starting on my WWI read for July, which will be Castles of Steel.   Earlier in the week I finished the remarkable Antifragile, and this weekend I've been working through Fighting Traffic, with the effect that my to-be-read list is...quite reduced.  That's the good news. It will be some weeks before I completely vanquish my foe, however, as Castles is quite the contender at 800 pages -- not to mention that the final two are both science books, and considerably more technical than what I've been going through.  All in good time, though.

To Be Read Takedown Challenge

Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (7/18/14)
The Vikings, Robert Ferguson (6/7/14)
Power, Inc; David Rothkopf (6/14/14)
An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage (7/8/2014)
Small-Mart Revolution, Michael Shuman (7/12/2014)
The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond (5/29/14)
Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton (7/21/14)
Earth, Richard Fortey
Good Natured, Frans de Waal (6/27/14)
Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Rise and Fall of KHAAAAAAAAAN! Volume I

Star Trek Eugenic Wars: the Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, Volume I
© 2001 Greg Cox
520 pages

Ah, how well I remember the 1990s -- neon colored plastic pants, frizzy hair, and that gang of genetically engineered supermen starting World War III in a bid to gain total command over Earth and institute order out of chaos...

..no?  Star Trek's canon ran into a bit of a problem as it aged, as in the 1960s it predicted things that not only never happened, but bear no semblance to what happened. Not only did Earth not send a manned mission to Saturn in the 1990s,  but by the end of the 20th century it had confined space exploration to robotic probes sent to planets. Still, not all the failed predictions were losses for humankind; we gave the civilization-destroying Eugenics Wars a total miss. Or did we? In The Eugenics Wars: the Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh,  veteran Trek author Greg Cox attempted to reconcile the events of "Space Seed" with our own history,  grounding Khan in the real-life events of the 20th century.   Framed by Captain Kirk consulting the historical records in preparation for an encounter with a planet of genetically engineered humans (rather like TNG's 'Masterpiece Society', complete with a domed colony),  the principle characters are of course Khan, and the mysterious Gary Seven.   When Seven realizes there's a group of mad scientists with an underground base in the middle of nowhere hatching a plot to create a tribe of supermen, he decides that such a thing definitely falls under his job description of preventing humanity from destroying itself.  It takes more than a team of cosmic secret agent men to take down Khan, however, and in the end Seven finds more than he bargained for.   Since this first novel primarily concerns Khan growing up and deciding to pursue evil mastermindedness as a career,  the real artwork is yet to come -- however will Cox create a war that kills millions out of the 1990s?  Even so,  the big events of the novel,  like the use of a nuclear power plant contained within the mad scientists' lair, are tied into real-world events smartly.   There's a lot to like about this novel; the dead-on use of Seven and Khan, the subtle connections to the Trek canon (including appearances by Ralph Offenhouse, Grumpy Robber Baron Extraordinaire), and the utterly fun historical shenanigans. Frenzied action scenes take place across the globe, from New York to India and even Lenin's tomb.   For Trek fans, this is a must-read.

Volume II should be quite a treat.

Related:
From History's Shadow, Dayton Ward. Another impressive and fun  integration of ST canon and real-world history.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Allegiant

Allegiant
© 2013 Veronica Roth
544 pages

 "Sure as I know anything I know this, they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people…better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave." (Serenity



Divergent ended in one caste of future-Chicago’s society attempting to wipe out another in a bid for power; Insurgent ended with the resistance mounting a counterattack on that caste’s headquarters. Tyranny gives way to tyranny, however,  and soon our plucky heroes find themselves outside of Chicago altogether, venturing into the wilderness beyond it, through the shattered remnants of a world that once was. The finale to the Divergent series regains the first book’s strength, as Tris and the others finally find answers to questions that have only become more mysterious throughout the books. There are the usual action scenes, of course, and Roth’s characters grow up faster here than at any other time, having to make decisions with momentous consequences.   As the overall story is finally revealed, Tris discovers that her city is the result of genetic engineering gone wrong,  and Roth plays with the idea that certain kinds of power in human hands – the mind-control, the various serums that have been used, and the engineering – are wholly unwise. What is most striking about Allegiant, however, is not the world it creates or the issue it addresses, but the unexpected ending.  I wouldn't have expected such boldness for a young adult novel, and it's sad yet faintly apropos.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Small Mart Revolution

The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition
© 2007 Michael Shuman
285 pages



Independence has long ceased to be the American credo, supplanted by another: efficiency. Throughout the 20th century, small businesses supporting towns and families were devoured by larger firms, big businesses who gave little back to the communities they colonized other than an infrastructure burden and a handful of jobs. But Michael Shuman holds that it ain't over yet, and in The Small-Mart Revolution this entrepreneur argues that the titans have achilles' heels and citizens still have a choice.  A combination of economic study and political jeremiad, Revolution is concise and feisty.

Shuman establishes a dichotomy early on; this is a story of TINA versus LOIS.  TINA is the there-is-no-alternative mentality, the approach the United States has taken on in the modern age; it is the path of chasing and relying on big businesses for jobs, of sublimating the local economy to the globe. LOIS is the alternative, the locally-owned, import-substituting approach. Shuman begins with arguments for LOIS against TINA;  not only do big firms invariably disappoint those who hunt them,  accepting tax breaks and infrastructure put in on their behalf, only to skip town when another city offers an even better deal -- but the money they produce is lost to the host community. A Wal-Mart store forwards its take to Bentonville, Arkansas;  it doesn't invest it in local banks, and most of the wealth is spent elsewhere. Money spent at a local firm, however, owed and staffed by locals, is subject to a multiplier effect.  There are other considerations, like the folly of depending on fragile systems for vital resources. Why should a town rely on food shipped in from California when its own fields can produce enough to support the population?  Shuman is not blind to David Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage -- that given communities and places are better at doing some things than others, so towns that have fields and mineral deposits might be better off plopping down a mineral-using factory on those fields and having the food shipped in from a place that only has food to specialize in. This makes perfect sense when thinking about people who want oranges in Michigan; the cost of growing them in greenhouses would be prohibitively expensive when they can buy from Florida and California.  But why should people in Alabama buy pork from the Carolinas when only a generation ago, farms that incorporated livestock and agriculture were the norm?  There are factors other than cost to consider, writes Shuman;  shipping food from one side of the continent to the other is a waste of resources and an abusive of the environment, but the chief fact remains that we can't rely on the world's perpetual stability. Sooner or later a  wrench is going to be thrown into the global economy; it may be a financial crisis or peak oil,  but disruptions are inevitable. Centralization can be efficient up to a point,  but decentralization is the option for health and safety.  Reinvigorating local economies will not only restore vitality to our communities, but is prudent for national security as well.

All that is easy enough to say, but how is it to be done? Sure, a city in Alabama can buy local food --but local shoes? Local computers?   For Shuman, the purely-local economy is a hopeless ideal;  he doesn't wholly condemn big businesses, either,  but regards dependence on them as folly. If lessons can be taken from their business practices, so much the better, but his mission is to restore vitality to local communities, an impossible task without restoring the local economy. After making his initial case, Shuman offers advice on how citizens, small businesses, public officials, national leaders, and even globally-minded persons can rely on and expand local economies.. Chapters are committed to each, and end with a list of actions each kind of activist can pursue.  Individual steps are obvious; visit farmers markets, use local hardware stores, invest money in credit unions -- but business owners can ally together in cooperatives to gain some of the advantages of the Goliaths without compromising themselves or their places. Shuman also explores territory outside the usual advice by urging people to invest locally,  something not easy given legal structures that favor the New York exchange.  Dismantling the obstacles to helping big business flourish, from zoning laws to financial support for corporations that are wealthy enough to pay for their own parking lots, is also key.

This is in short quite an interesting book, of considerable interest to those concerned about the wellbeing of their communities, especially their economies.  While no community will ever stop participating in the global economy so long there is wind to fill the sails of ships,  providing more needs locally is a surer course to  curbing high unemployment and staying adaptable than TINA. Prudence is demanded, but Shuman offers ways we can restore communities without falling too much afoul of economic reality.

Related:
Strong Towns, Chuck Marohn. His blog has commented on growing local jobs rather than
Human Scale, Kirkpatrick Sale
The work of Wendell Berry, especially Home Economics
Suburban Nation,  Andres Duany et. al
Eaarth, Bill McKibben

Monday, July 14, 2014

This week at the library; Huck Finn and the British crown

            Try as  I might,  none of the French-related books I investigated this week struck my interest, so for the first time since starting the tradition,  my Bastille Day reading is a nonstarter. C’est la vie.  On the bright side, last week I knocked off two books from my To Be Read list – An Edible History of Humanity, and The Small-Mart Revolution.  That means I’m officially closer to closing the list than opening it, because only four books remain.  Next up will be Fighting Traffic or Antifragile


Additionally, I read through Insurgent, the second in Veronica Roth’s SF dystopia. Set in a future-Chicago divided into five castes or factions, each with its own value-ideology, the first book saw evil statist scientists use computers to take over the minds of the warrior elite, using them to nearly wipe out the reigning religious caste in charge of politics  The lead character Beatrice Prior was raised in that religious caste and left it at her coming-of-age to become a warrior,  but she escaped the mind control and managed to prevent the worst of the slaughter, In Insurgent, she and the escaped warriors are refugees, being hunted down by the scientists and regarded with terror and suspicion by most of land, who think them a band of murderous outlaws. Fighting abounds, as the main characters adjust to their new roles as the dogged resistance, uncertain of what to do. Eventually they mount a dramatic assault against the baddies' fortress, but not to crush, kill, and demolish; Tris wants to find out why the big bad chief scientist is behaving so axe-crazily for.   It's thrilling, but all the bloody mayhem and psychological torture just left me feeling tired. Although this series predates the NSA's power-mad information accumulation,  the fact that the technocrat's chief power is the information she hides  means the computer center takedown at the end was rather satisfying. 

This week I'll be thoroughly enjoying Huck Finn, and hoping that the big brown envelope on a colleague's desk is my interlibrary loan copy of The Men Who Lost America.  Reviews for The Small-Mart Revolution and Good Natured should appear this week.

To Be Read Takedown Challenge 

Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Vikings, Robert Ferguson (6/7/14)
Power, Inc; David Rothkopf (6/14/14)
An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage (7/8/2014)
Small-Mart Revolution, Michael Shuman (7/12/2014)
The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond (5/29/14)
Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton
Earth, Richard Fortey
Good Natured, Frans de Waal (6/27/14)
 Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Daily Life in Early America

Daily Life in Early America
193 pages
© 1988 David Freeman Hawke




            Daily Life in Early America examines up-close the new world European colonists were discovering and recreating for themselves.  A social history, focused on daily life, the author begins first in England, reviewing quickly what work and social customs the colonists would have been accustomed to.  It begins and continues as a study in variety, for there was no ‘average’ English colonist; manners and means of living varied widely from county to county, even before they combined with German and Dutch settlers on the North American seaboard.   Although I read this as background for Independence Day readings,  early America well and truly means early.  Hawke tells the tale of men creating a civilization from the wilderness, often borrowing largely from the disease-vanquished native cultures which collapsed or retreated following exposure to European guns, germs, and steel. Although they attempted to recreate what they left behind in North America, creating a  New England on the model of the old,  the challenges and opportunities presented by the vast frontier spurred the evolution of a different culture. Covering everything from floor plans to the art of war, from superstition to politics, Daily Life in Early America delivers an abundance of information in lively style. This is definitely an author to look more into..  

Related:
Life in a Medieval Village,  Life in a Medieval City, Daily Life in a Medieval Castle, Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages;  Frances and Joseph Gies