Sat, 09 Sep 2023

Carmageddon by Daniel Knowles: A Brief Review


Daniel Knowles’ Carmageddon: How Cars Make Life Worse and What to Do About It is an entertaining, lucid, and well-written “manifesto” (to borrow a term from the author) aiming to get us all thinking a bit more about what cars do to society, and how to move on to a better outcome for all.

The book alternates between historical context and background, lived experience (as the author is a foreign correspondent who had the opportunity to travel), and researched content. It is refreshingly free of formalities (no endless footnotes or endnotes with references, though I would have liked occassional references but hey we all went to school long enough to do a bit of research given a pointer or two). I learned or relearned a few things as I was for example somewhat unaware of the air pollution (micro-particle) impact stemming from tires and brake abrasions—for which electronic vehicles do zilch, and for which the auto-obesity of ever larger and heavier cars is making things much worse. And some terms (even when re-used by Knowles) are clever such bionic duckweed. But now you need to read the book to catch up on it.

Overall, the book argues its case rather well. The author brings sufficient evidence to make the formal ‘guilty’ charge quite convincing. It is also recent having come out just months ago, making current figures even more relevant.

I forget the exact circumstance but I think I came across the author in the context of our joint obsession with both Chicago and cycling (as there may have been a link from a related social media post) and/or the fact that I followed some of his colleagues at The Economist on social media. Either way, the number of Chicago and MidWest references made for some additional fun when reading the book over a the last few days. And for me another highlight was the ode to Tokyo which I wholeheartedly agree with: on my second trip to Japan I spent a spare day cycling across the city as the AirBnB host kindly gave me access to his bicycles. Great weather, polite drivers, moderate traffic, and just wicked good infrastructure made me wonder why I did not see more cyclists.

I have little to criticize beyond the lack of any references. The repeated insistence on reminding us that Knowles comes from Birmingham gets a little old by the fifth or sixth repetition. It is all a wee bit anglo- or UK-centric. It obviously has a bit on France, Paris, and all the recent success of Anne Hidalgo (who, when I was in graduate school in France, was still a TV person rather than the very successful mayor she is now) but then does not mention the immense (and well known) success of the French train system which lead to a recent dictum to no longer allow intra-Frace air travel if train rides of under 2 1/2 hours are available which is rather remarkable. (Though in fairness that may have been enacted once the book was finished.)

Lastly, the book appears to have a few sections available via Google Books. My copy will good back from one near-west suburban library to the neighbouring one.

Overall a strong recommendation for a very good and timely book.

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Sat, 02 Feb 2019

The Incomplete Book of Running: A Short Review

The Incomplete Book of Running

Peter Sagal’s The Incomplete Book of Running has been my enigma for several weeks now. As a connection, Peter and I have at most one degree of separation: a common fellow runner friend and neighbor who, sadly, long departed to Colorodo (hi Russ!). So we’re quasi-neighbors. But he is famous, I am not, but I follow him on social media.

So as “just another runner”, I had been treated to a constant trickling of content about the book. And I had (in vain) hoped my family would get me the book for Xmas, but no such luck. Hence I ordered a copy. And then Amazon, mankind’s paragon of inventory management and shipment, was seemingly out of it for weeks – so that my copy finally came today all the way from England (!!) even though Sagal and I live a few miles apart, and he and I run similar neighborhoud routes, run (or ran) the same track for Tuesday morning speedwork – and as I noticed while devouring the book, share the same obsession for FIRST I tried to install onto my running pals a decade ago. We also ran the same initial Boston Marathon in 2007, ran many similar marathons (Boston, NY, Philly) even at the same time. But bastard that he his not only owns both my PRs at a half (by about two minutes) and full (by about four minutes) marathon – but he also knows how to write!

This is a great book about running, life, and living around Oak Park. As its focus, the reflections about running are good, sometimes even profound, often funny, and show a writer’s genuine talent in putting words around something that is otherwise hard to describe. Particularly for caustic people such as long-distance runners.

The book was a great pleasure to read—and possibly only the second book in a decade or longer that I “inhaled” cover to cover in one sitting this evening as it was just the right content on a Friday night after a long work week. This was a fun and entertaining yet profound read. I really enjoyed his meditation on the process and journey that got him to his PR – when it was time for mine by now over ten years ago it came after a (now surreal seeming) sequence of running Boston, Chicago, New York in one year and London and Berlin the next. And somehow by the time I got to Berlin I was both well trained, and in a good and relaxed mental shape so that things came together for me that day. (I also got lucky as circumstances were favourable: that was one of the many recent years in which a marathon record was broken in Berlin.) And as Sagal describes really well throughout the book, running is a process and a practical philosophy and an out and occassional meditation. But there is much more in the book so go and read it.

One minor correction: It is Pfeiffer with a P before the f for Michelle’s family name as every viewer of the Baker Boys should know.

Great book. Recommended to runners and non-runners alike.

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Sat, 28 Jan 2006

BHL, as reviewed by the NY Times

Having lived in France for a few years in the early nineties, it was hard not to notice BHL. Also called Bernhard-Henry Lvy. In France, if you are somebody, you get called by your initials. BHL, the philosopher turned into a media-savvy writer and journalist was just about everywhere. Even I ended buying one of his tomes. [For those unaware of the cult of BHL, compare the very lengthy and admiring French Wikipedia article with the disclaimer-sporting short and sceptical English counterpart, or even, for completeness, the barely existing German one.]

Well, fast-forward a dozen years and who marches onto Jon Stewart's stage at the Daily Show this Wednesday: Bingo, BHL himself. In the usual uniform: suit, spotless white shirt, perfect hair, though less of it than in the days. In rather passable English he gets to plug his new book on travelling the States. Of course, it's tough to be French and to write about the US as de Tocqueville is the inevitable comparison...

So tough that the comparison has to turn into a take-down somewhere. Today's NY Times has a review of said book that is so highly entertaining that I cannot help but recommend it most highly, even if you never heard of BHL before. If the Times is this vitriolic, I can't even begin to imagine what a review in the WSJ would do to the poor man...

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Thu, 09 Oct 2003

Curveball by Jim Albert and Jay Bennett

I recently finished reading 'Curveball: Baseball, Statistics, and the Role of Chance in the Game' by Albert and Bennett. A truly remarkable book. If you are, as I am, into quantitative analysis, and lean towards empirics first, then you will enjoy the book. It introduces a number of really useful statistical concepts truly in passing. Readers will hopefully get 'it' without feeling being spoon-fed. In fact, there is virtually no algebra in the entire book. Most analysis is done by simulation (which I really dig) -- a reasonable model is hypothesized, data is generated by simulation according to the hypothesize model (and parameters), and if not apparent conflict is seen between the originally observed and the generated data, the model is retained. This book could be used as the basis for a truly neat statistics / data analysis course.

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Sun, 17 Aug 2003

Moneyball by M Lewis

Gee, what an entertaining read. Even though I know diddly squat about baseball, this was a fun read, and very intriguing. A hearty David-vs-Goliath story of how Billy B. of the Oakland A's outsmarts everyone else in professional ball despite the fact that he has no resources, in particular of the financial kind, other his few merry men. Endearingly written. I may actually end up watching a non-playoff ball game one day... Highky recommended.

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Sun, 10 Aug 2003

Bowling Alone by R. Putnam

We had bought this a while ago in paperback, and it was sitting around. I was always tempted by it -- something from a pol. sci. academic written for the general public, on a timely topic. Took a while to get started, and an even longer while to finish, but it was worth it. Nice book, persuasively argued and covering many relevant aspects of the discussion. Yet it feels at the same time somewhat dry and repetive, and could at time do with a little more rigour. Following old-school social science habits, it is amply footnoted but even then somewhat short of detail (e.g. on the many cited regression analyses). Still recommended.

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Sat, 08 Mar 2003

At last

Finally got a chance to finish Lessig's 'Future of Ideas'. An impressive piece of work, surveying the technology, the public policy framework and the legal background. I had started it before Eldred / Ashcroft was pronounced so clearly in favour of extending copyrights, and that aspect made for stark rereading. Lessig is fairly pessimistic, and I'm afraid he may be correct.

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