Review: The Power Broker

I gave up around page 300 of this 1,200 page book by Robert Caro (1974). It’s not that it’s too long but that it’s too detailed. That is the point of an authoritative biography, of course, but I also just didn’t like its subject: Robert Moses.

Moses started off as the poor but smart kid who wanted to do good. Then he got “clever” at getting his way, and power began to corrupt his idea of good — as well as shielding him from (or allowing him to ignore) critical feedback.

The result, which grew and metastasized, was a series of policies and projects that served fewer and fewer of the citizens of the city and state of New York and more and more of the ideology of Moses. It’s just painful to read a book whose “narrative arc” goes from good to bad — and I’m a pessimist!

He was, famously, an iconoclast who had no problem destroying some of the best of New York’s public architecture. He was also a racist who saw no issues with destroying minority neighborhoods to build highways and offramps for suburban white commuters.

His most famous nemesis (he had many detractors, whom he often ignored, belittled and ruined) was Jane Jacobs — the author of a robust defense of the organic, bottom-up qualities of cities that was not just a treatise on urbanism but a direct rebuke to the likes of Moses. (She was busy with the campaign to stop Moses from driving a road through Washington Square in SoHo.)

Jacobs went on to influence many. Moses’s impacts were less benign but just as enduring: The destruction of quality urban living in a quest to model society to his narrow, bigoted vision. The fact that “others did it” in other cities is no excuse.

(Not-fun fact: Mark Rutte — the current, 4-time Dutch Prime Minister — says this is his favorite book. Fucking scary — even if he says “it’s not possible in Netherlands”.)

I give this book 4-stars for existing in its entire, incredibly detailed and insightful form; I just wish there was a 200 page version!

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Read: Europe’s cities are re-densifying (Amsterdam was 4x denser before WWII)
  2. Listen: Much of success can be traced to your birth month. (This is science, not astrology.)
  3. Listen: Refugees need kindnesses, not a “system”
  4. Read: More US cities are removing “minimum parking requirements“– thereby freeing space for other, better uses.
  5. Read: The Dutch “green revolution” runs into Dutch miserliness and profiteering
  6. A Dutch child adapts

H/T to BA

Published: Living with Water Scarcity (2nd edition)

I published the first edition of Living with Water Scarcity in 2014. It was a shorter (60% fewer words!) version of my 2011 book, The End of Abundance. It was also the first book that I started to give away for free.

Since then, the book has been translated into Spanish (very well), Farsi and Portuguese (not so well), and it’s been downloaded many many times. (I’ve sold over 750 copies via Amazon, earning an average of $3.50/copy in royalties.)

A few years ago, I started to teach about water using that book. Upon reading it for the first time in many years, I found some typos (horrors!), which meant I needed to make a revision. I also needed to pretty-up a few figures and add some clarifications, so now I was looking at something more like a second edition. Well then… I wrote a Preface to the new edition and — most important! — decided to get a new cover.

The original cover was a photo I took of a glass of water, with the title submerged (tricky paper-water dynamics). At the time, I wanted to emphasize two things: that the glass was more than half full (unlike my normal pessimism), and that it was indeed possible — easy even — to live with water scarcity. Sadly, this “message” was not as clear to others as it was to me, and any cover that fails to get the book’s content across (to some degree) is a bit of a fail. So time for a new cover.

After a contest between two designers with six designs, it was clear that Atanas Kondakov (@nkondakoff on IG/Twitter) had the better design, and I am super-happy with its playful but accurate imagery — note the frog’s hand! (Paperback buyers will enjoy a few more flourishes on the back cover 🙂

So, enjoy the book, recommend it to everyone you know, and let me know if you find any typos!

It’s available for $10 (or equivalent) in paperback, and free as a PDF.

(I will get to an epub version ASAP.)

Interesting stuff

  1. Move: Leaving the Twitter dumpster fire? The Guardian explains Mastadon.
  2. Read: Why are R campaign emails getting marked as spam? They send too many to anyone who signs up for ANY list. So, yeah. Spam.
  3. Listen: In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Malcolm Gladwell released his reading of a chapter on a similar abuse of vulnerable people by those in power: The British Army versus the Catholics of Northern Ireland. Those who have power should not abuse it.
  4. Watch (and weep): A satire on GoFundMe as the #1 source of American health care.
  5. Listen: Are elections biased in favour of running for office rather than  actually doing the job?
  6. Watch: At this point in the video (building a boat), the boatbuilder mentions “it’s been a good week. When we get faster, then we can knock off at 3pm.” It struck me that such a system strongly encourages workers to get more efficient, teach each other, etc. whereas the office system of “9 to 5” gives no such incentive. Why bother to work smarter if all you get is more work in the “working day?” Now I see where bullshit jobs come from. Related: Hunter gathers worked less and with more variation — another reason why we (their descendants) hate office “regularity.”
  7. Amazon is turning into the monopolist nightmare predicted by many, first with using other sellers’ data to push their own products (since 5+ years) and now with advertising EVERYWHERE on the platform (making it mostly useless, IMO). Time to find another “store”.
  8. Watch this discussion of the Ship of Theseus, i.e., what gives a boat identity if you replace all its planks?
  9. Listen: You should wash your clothes in cold water… with the right soap
  10. Read: “…because of how people actually use Twitter, the lines between “comedy club” and “town square” and “room full of monetizable user data that drive advertising revenue” aren’t always apparent.” Related: “From being asked to review every product you buy to believing that every tweet or Instagram image warrants likes or comments or follows, social media produced a positively unhinged, sociopathic rendition of human sociality. That’s no surprise, I guess, given that the model was forged in the fires of Big Tech companies such as Facebook, where sociopathy is a design philosophy.

Reviews: Moby Dick, Modern Times & Kon Tiki

Here are my comments on these three classics, in order of “publication.”

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; or, the Whale came out in 1851. It was not famous when he was alive but entered the American cannon after some time. All I remember from “reading” it as a teen (summer reading, IIRC) was “Call me Ishmael,” which is the first line of the book. That’s a pity as the book is truly a masterpiece in (a) its depiction of the American whaling industry and (b) its scintillating, sometimes surreal, writing. Unfortunately, I lost my notes in the ebook I downloaded (it’s out of copyright :), but there are gems — a la Shakespeare, Twain or Dickens — on every page. Take this bit about Ahab, the obsessive captain who carries an ivory leg in the place of that which the White Whale ripped off:

Soon his steady, ivory stride was heard, as to and fro he paced his old rounds, upon planks so familiar to his tread, that they were all over dented, like geological stones, with the peculiar mark of his walk. Did you fixedly gaze, too, upon that ribbed and dented brow; there also, you would see still stranger foot-prints—the foot-prints of his one unsleeping, ever-pacing thought.

But on the occasion in question, those dents looked deeper, even as his nervous step that morning left a deeper mark. And, so full of his thought was Ahab, that at every uniform turn that he made, now at the main-mast and now at the binnacle, you could almost see that thought turn in him as he turned, and pace in him as he paced; so completely possessing him, indeed, that it all but seemed the inward mould of every outer movement.

This is an amazing book in terms of writing and drama (the real event it’s based on — a whale sinking a ship — was tragedy embodied). FIVE STARS.

Charlie Chaplin released Modern Times in 1936. Although “talkies” had arrived, he decided to leave his Tramp character silent, as it helped the audience (and me!) focus on the non-verbal performance. The plot (in case you didn’t know) was the inhumanity of factory life and dehumanizing efficiency. (Chaplin was inspired by Gandhi, who opposed industrialization.)

The movie is funny, clever and still relevant. FIVE STARS.

Kon Tiki (1948/1950) is Thor Heyerdahl’s telling of his expedition to sail on a pae-pae raft made of balsa wood logs (named “Kon Tiki” after the god of the sun) from Peru to the South Pacific. Heyerdahl wanted to prove that it was possible to sail (ahead of the trade winds) from east to west, and thus show how the Polynesians could have migrated (or fled) from South America. (This hypothesis seems to be only partially supported by facts.) Here he describes how they introduced themselves to the Polynesians after 101 days at sea:

An uneducated but highly intelligent gathering of brown people stood waiting for me to speak. I told them that I had been among their kinsmen out here in the South Sea islands before, and that I had heard of their first chief, Tiki, who had brought their forefathers out to the islands from a mysterious country whose whereabouts no one knew any longer. But in a distant land called Peru, I said, a mighty chief had once ruled whose name was Tiki. The people called him Kon-Tiki, or Sun-Tiki, because he said he was descended from the sun. Tiki and a number of followers had at last disappeared from their country on big pae-paes; therefore we six thought that he was the same Tiki who had come to those islands. As nobody would believe that a pae-pae could make the voyage across the sea, we ourselves had set out from Peru on a pae-pae, and here we were, so it could be done.

After 600 pages of foreboding in Moby Dick, I was much happier to read this shorter, more hopeful, and real story. What I found fascinating is how the six Norwegians were constantly surrounded by fish, sharks and dolphins — all of which they killed and ate with ease, due to their abundance. Someone told me that Heyerdahl’s grandson made the same voyage more recently (2006, I read on wikipedia) and saw only one shark on the whole way. That reality indicates that it may be impossible to “catch your food” on such a long voyage. Tragic.

I also give Kon Tiki FIVE STARS.

Addendum (Oct 2023): Plastiki sails…

How lucky we are to have such books and films!

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Watch this guy explain crypto pump and dumps
  2. Listen: Malcolm Gladwell tells how a principled scientist stood up to political bullies (USA 1980s)
  3. Read: Of Course Instant Groceries Don’t Work (like they didn’t last time)
  4. Read: Moneyball-for-Everything Has (destroyed) American Culture. I see this with music, auto-tune and streaming hits (rather than discovering the B-side).
  5. Read: The drug trade has wrecked Amsterdam (legalize it!)
  6. Listen: The Boston Tea Party wasn’t about liberty, but smuggling. (I always say the US was founded by bankrupts; I should have included drug dealers — culture runs deep!)
  7. Listen: The LSAT (admissions test to law schools) doesn’t identify good lawyers
  8. Listen: What happens when a layman takes on the Vatican [on birth control]? 
  9. Study: The USGS just debuted a complete remaking of the water cycle diagram—with humans as headliners
  10. Read two fascinating articles on local digital territories and taking them back from the global bureaucracy/technocracy: “Protocols created for the World Wide Web don’t take into account the possibility of local digital territories, and the possibility that these territories might not exist online today or may not need to in the future. In the past decade, the complete takeover of the Internet by corporate actors has made it obvious that the global network’s original vision of being a democratic space has been co-opted by huge centralizing for-profit platforms.” The magazine publishing these articles uses the decentralized web.

Review: The Consolations of Philosophy

BZ recommended this short book by Alain De Botton, which was released in 2000. Although I tend to lose patience with most philosophy books (too many weird words debating too many obscure concepts), I found this book to be just deep enough — and just superficial enough — to hold my interest to its (not-so-bitter) end.

What I found most useful (or accessible) were the short stories and biographical sketches of the philosophers (in bold) that De Botton offers in the course of describing their thinking. The social awkwardnesses and missing relationships Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, for example, explain both their thinking and (to me) my lack of connecting to their thinking.

But let me get to my highlights and spell out a few more things:

    • Epicurus and friends escaped the people they didn’t like by setting up a commune where they could eat, sleep, think and argue without interference or censure. “If we have money without friends, freedom and an analysed life, we will never be truly happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy.”
    • “It is in the interests of commercial enterprises to skew the hierarchy of our needs, to promote a material vision of the good and downplay an unsaleable one… Unfortunately, there is no shortage of desirable images of luxurious products and costly surroundings, fewer of ordinary settings and individuals. We receive little encouragement to attend to modest gratifications – playing with a child, conversations with a friend, an afternoon in the sun, a clean house, cheese spread across fresh bread.”
    • “Rich people could be admirable, but this depended on how their wealth had been acquired, just as poverty could not by itself reveal anything of the moral worth of an individual.”
    • “One would never imagine that a good pot or shoe could result from intuition alone; why then assume that the more complex task of directing one’s life could be undertaken without any sustained reflection on premises or goals.”
    • “Pottery looks as difficult as it is. Unfortunately, arriving at good ethical ideas doesn’t, belonging instead to a troublesome class of superficially simple but inherently complex activities. Socrates encourages us not to be unnerved by the confidence of people who fail to respect this complexity and formulate their views without at least as much rigour as a potter.”
    • Socrates was right: “The correctness of a statement cannot, the method suggests, be determined by whether it is held by a majority or has been believed for a long time by important people. A correct statement is one incapable of being rationally contradicted.”
    • “Socrates would naturally have conceded that there are times when we are in the wrong and should be made to doubt our views, but he would have added a vital detail to alter our sense of truth’s relation to unpopularity: errors in our thought and way of life can at no point and in no way ever be proven simply by the fact that we have run into opposition… It may be frightening to hear that a high proportion of a community holds us to be wrong, but before abandoning our position, we should consider the method by which their conclusions have been reached. It is the soundness of their method of thinking that should determine the weight we give to their disapproval.”
    • Important advice in an age of social media (the book is from 2000!): “We seem afflicted by the opposite tendency: to listen to everyone, to be upset by every unkind word and sarcastic observation. We fail to ask ourselves the cardinal and most consoling question: on what basis has this dark censure been made? We treat with equal seriousness the objections of the critic who has thought rigorously and honestly and those of the critic who has acted out of misanthropy and envy. We should take time to look behind the criticism… They [critics] may have acted from impulse and prejudice, and used their status to ennoble their hunches. They may have built up their thoughts like inebriated amateur potters.”
    • “Rage is caused by a conviction, almost comic in its optimistic origins (however tragic in its effects), that a given frustration has not been written into the contract of life… We will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful.” — cue Carlin.
    • “If you wish to put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen. Seneca wagered that once we look rationally at what will occur if our desires are not fulfilled, we will almost certainly find that the underlying problems are more modest than the anxieties they have bred.”
    • “The wise man is self-sufficient in that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them.”
    • You are not the center of the universe: “Behind their readiness to anticipate insult lay a fear of deserving ridicule. When we suspect that we are appropriate targets for hurt, it does not take much for us to believe that someone or something is out to hurt us. Abject interpretation: The builder is hammering in order to annoy me. Friendly interpretation: The builder is hammering and I am annoyed.” [I find this last bit particularly useful, as it’s much easier to forgive or overlook behavior that’s not directed at you.]
    • “Of course, there would be few great human achievements if we accepted all frustrations. The motor of our ingenuity is the question ‘Does it have to be like this?’, from which arise political reforms, scientific developments, improved relationships, better books. The Romans were consummate at refusing frustration. They hated winter cold and developed under-floor heating. They didn’t wish to walk on muddy roads and so paved them… Unfortunately, the mental faculties which search so assiduously for alternatives are hard to arrest. They continue to play out scenarios of change and progress even when there is no hope of altering reality… for Seneca, wisdom lies in correctly discerning where we are free to mould reality according to our wishes and where we must accept the unalterable with tranquillity.” In other words: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” — Wygal (1933).
    • “[Montaigne:] To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing, we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads… Misplaced confidence in reason was the well-spring of idiocy – and, indirectly, also of inadequacy.”
    • Social media? “What is the use of those high philosophical peaks on which no human being can settle and those rules which exceed our practice and our power? It is not very clever of [man] to tailor his obligations to the standards of a different kind of being.”
    • “The Spanish had butchered the Indians with a clean conscience because they were confident that they knew what a normal human being was… Perhaps we should remember the degree to which accusations of abnormality are regionally and historically founded. To loosen their hold on us, we need only expose ourselves to the diversity of customs across time and space. What is considered abnormal in one group at one moment may not, and will not always be deemed so.”
    • “We may share judgements with friends that would in ordinary company be censured for being too caustic, sexual, despairing, daft, clever or vulnerable – friendship is a minor conspiracy against what other people think of as reasonable.”
    • “Those who do not listen to their boredom when reading, like those who pay no attention to pain, may be increasing their suffering unnecessarily. Whatever the dangers of being wrongly bored, there are as many pitfalls in never allowing ourselves to lose patience with our reading matter.”
    • “In Montaigne’s redrawn portrait of the adequate, semi-rational human being, it is possible to speak no Greek, fart, change one’s mind after a meal, get bored with books, know none of the ancient philosophers and mistake Scipios. A virtuous, ordinary life, striving for wisdom but never far from folly, is achievement enough.”
    • “They [Italian thinkers] were curious, artistically gifted, and sexually vigorous. Despite their dark sides, they laughed, and many of them danced, too; they were drawn to ‘gentle sunlight, bright and buoyant air, southerly vegetation, the breath of the sea [and] fleeting meals of flesh, fruit and eggs’. Several of them had a gallows humour close to Nietzsche’s own – a joyful, wicked laughter arising from pessimistic hinterlands. They had explored their possibilities, they possessed what Nietzsche called ‘life’, which suggested courage, ambition, dignity, strength of character, humour and independence (and a parallel absence of sanctimoniousness, conformity, resentment and prissiness)… These were, Nietzsche implied, some of the elements that human beings naturally needed for a fulfilled life. He added an important detail; that it was impossible to attain them without feeling very miserable some of the time” Nietzsche was a bit of a downer, which is maybe why he never had a serious relationship and went crazy before he died?
    • Thus I question some of his “insights” — i.e., “no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation.” Although one cannot dispute his love for — and inspiration from — exploring mountains.
    • Nietzsche: “Christianity and alcohol have the power to convince us that what we previously thought deficient in ourselves and the world does not require attention; both weaken our resolve to garden our problems; both deny us the chance of fulfilment.”
    • What of Schopenhauer? According to his mother, “You are unbearable and burdensome, and very hard to live with; all your good qualities are overshadowed by your conceit, and made useless to the world simply because you cannot restrain your propensity to pick holes in other people.” Not the first time a philosopher had trouble with the ostensible recipients of his wisdom.

In sum, I preferred the Romans (Epicurus, Socrates, Seneca) and Montaigne to the Germans (Nietzsche and Schopenhauer). I give this book FIVE STARS as an interesting read on a tough subject.

Here are all my reviews.

Interesting stuff

  1. Read this interview — and gripping story — of a female sailor whose struggles against a dangerous ocean were not helped by the chauvinism projected on her.
  2. Read How the U.K. Became One of the Poorest Countries in Western Europe
  3. Read Should you wash your hands? Yes. Does it matter for respiratory viruses (Covid)? Not as much as we once thought.
  4. Read: Why (and how) is English such a different language?
  5. Think: Are three mega-cycles (Technological, Political and Revolutionary) coming into synchrony around now? What does that mean for us? Fun times ahead!
  6. Read: An academic journal gives up on the pretense that “peer review” reflects a nuanced conversation among authors and reviewers (it’s more like a strategic negotiation) and goes for publication of the article and its critiques. Sounds like a good step towards my idea of “An auction market for journal articles.”
  7. Read: To win the war in Ukraine (by reducing Russia’s profits from fossil fuel sales), it makes sense to end daylight savings madness, which — an academic has calculated — increases winter energy consumption. I concur (since 2010, if not earlier).
  8. Read: “Europe’s geography may have been determined by its wars, but you can’t understand it solely through lines on a map. The ink refuses to stay where you put it; it bleeds across the page, just as people have roamed and traded across the continent, have marched, or fled, or found new homes”
  9. Read: AMTRAK’s “California Surfliner” train may fall into the rising seas.
  10. Read: No limp guns! “The NRA responded to national concerns over the waning of “masculine virtue” by founding its youth programs in 1903, aimed at urban and suburban boys

H/Ts to AR and PB