Jan 23, 2017

apartment hunting dreams

i went to look at a really promising apartment in the perfect neighborhood, almost as far West as you could get. the building was big, and wooden, but Flatiron-like: when I walked to the corner it wrapped right around, heading back almost in the same direction at a very acute angle.

it was colorfully colored, with big windows and big, like a city block.

i was to live on the second floor, but the whole thing was rabbitly warren like, and colorful.  there were high ceilings and an infinite showering of sunlight on hard wooden floor. the ceilings were slanted up against the roofline.  there was an elevator that i went to get in -- it wasn't so much a box as a concrete beam tied to ropes that jumped onto when the doors opened.  it started falling when you hopped on -- i just barely stopped myself from falling after you.

you stopped it in time, and came back alright.

i took the stairs.

and discovered the most magical small office with a dark-blue tiled with gilded accessories water closet, with a matching, rainbow-mosaic water basin.  the office next door had glass windows, and an antique wooden door with a delicate, intricately wrought brass handle (the lever type). in the bedroom next door, i was delighted to discover a fire escape just out the window, just like my first New York apartment, where I used to climb out to escape the oppressiveness of my tiny bedroom in the shared, oversubscribed apartment.

i climbed out to the roof, and then farther, onto a small spit-like platform to get a better look at the road and treetops, far below, and lost my nerve to come back from the edge.  i sat there paralyzed, feeling the edges of the platform i was on (no side rails, of course) looming close in my subconscious and my muscles too weak with fear to get up or even start inching my way towards the window I had crawled out of in the first place.   it was dumb, being stuck in a mental puzzle of 'what would it be like to fall' and too terrified to move, untrusting of my muscle's own, separate intentions.  curiosity is a hell of a drug.  i laid down, closed my eyes, and let the panic wash over me.

i made it back, eventually, after the wave subsided and i managed to forget to look down, and we explored the first floor where you, the realtor, lived and played on the staircase, knocking over the colorful pillows that had been stacked like stairs to reach the landing.  you weren't too mad at my carelessness, just exasperated.

i woke up to a grey sky and the soft-shusshing sound that cold wind makes when it blows strongly against the plastic wrap I used to patch up the A/C vent a few weeks ago.

Jan 7, 2017

a certain unwillingness

i still continue to discover things
thru you

one of which
i've most recently uncovered
as Jane would say
is a
certain unwillingness to

let go of the past

the past which
expresses itself
most pressingly

in my own preferences
in the present

Jan 1, 2017

A Year of Reading In Review, Vol. 2

Continuing from last year, here's the stats and short synopses of books that I read (or didn't read) this year.

According the Goodreads, I read 52 books for a total of 16,746 pages.  This is more than I read in 2015 (41 books, 15,048 pages), and averages out to 1 book per week.

This year I'm including all of the books that I decided not to finish reading, or that I started and am saving for later as reference or what have you.  The total number of pages read is off by a good bit, as the biggest book on my list is one that I didn't finish reading.

It's worth mentioning that the books listed here encapsulate only a small part of the total amount of reading I did in 2016.  I read 2-3 news articles a day (probably more), and subscribe to the New Yorker (which I read occasionally) and follow a number of people on Twitter, which is where most of the news articles I read come from.

I've also really enjoyed using Twitter as a way to follow authors that I like.  This year I started following David Deutsche (Fabric of Reality, Beginning of Infinity), Carrie Fisher (Wishful Drinking, RIP) and Nicolas Taleb (Antifragile) on Twitter.

Taleb's book Antifragile talks a bit about how things from the past are more valuable because they've managed to survive in our collective conscious for more than a few years. Based on the histogram of publication dates below, I'm reading a good deal of more recent work, which suggests that the absolute value of what I'm reading is probably fairly low, in that many of them won't survive being re-mentioned a few years from now.  On a whole, I'd agree with Taleb that this is a fairly accurate assessment.  For the chart, I've used the original publication date for a work, not the publication date of the edition I read.

What follows is a quick overview of the book, a rating (out of 10) and a quick explanation of where and how I came across the book to read (where possible).  These are roughly ordered, with no guarantee of time period.


Looking back, there's a few themes.  I continued an interest in urbanism, especially things related to Jane Jacobs.  I finished out books written by Jane, culminating with the publication of an anthology of previously unpublished works that was released this October.  Some of the essays I had already read on my trip to Boston this March to look at her archives at Boston College.

After reading Mari Kondo's classic on cleaning, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I got way into interior design and space making.  It's not listed here, but I also took out a subscription to Architectural Digest and Architectural Record.  In some small way, I do think that this is an extension of my fascination with Jane Jacobs and her exploration of space-making on an urban scale.

There's also a number of books on New York City, that reflect the work I did to be certified as a tour docent for the Municipal Art Society's Tour34.  While we covered a lot of material in class, I did some extra reading to get better grounded in the history of the area.

My top picks from this year: 

Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs
The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsche
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Mari Kondo

Book Synopsis & Hot Takes

Capitalism: A Ghost Story Arundhati Roy 2014

Activist's account of the devastation that globalization and a stronger centralized state has brought to the impoverished in India (and the impact that it's had on the Indian landscape as well).  A great alternative account for understanding some of the geo-politics shaping India today.  Made a good companion reader for the other book I read about India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Picked up at a bookstore


The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science Kenji Lopez-Alt 2015

This book makes pretty good reading, although it doesn't feel as thoroughly done as the Joy of Cooking is.  Sometimes the sections feel disjointed, and it's not as comprehensive with regards to the recipes offered up.  Overall though, I loved the scientific approach to cooking that Kenji takes, and his photos of his processes are really insightful.  Great present for anyone you know that likes cooking.

Twitter recommendation (via @marcprecipice who tweeted about the book release)


Cities and the Wealth of Nations Jane Jacobs 1985

It feels like eons since I read this but, it turns out I just finished it in January. One of Jane's best books on the implications of local trade and global economy, I highly recommend this.  You'll get more out of this book if you read her other work on city economy first (The Economy of Cities).  If you're looking for a first book to read though, start with Death and Life.

Sought out by me after reading The Economy of Cities


Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics Jane Jacobs 1992

This is another one of the books that I read this year that keeps haunting me.  Written as a dialog between dinner party guests, it's a philosophical investigation into two types of morality that Jacobs uncovers in her extensive readings.  It puts the motivations of different political groups into stark contrast, and helps to highlight what *exactly* makes the mafia such an unethical organization.


Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing  Ursula K. LeGuin 1998

A practical guide for improving your writing.  Each chapter is devoted to a different exercise or technique, with exercises to follow.  Probably best done in a writing group.  I think I would have liked this better if I didn't find LeGuin's writing to be sub-par.

Personal recommendation (C. Marc)


Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity Katherine Boo 2012

Personal account following the story of a family in a Mumbai slum.  Really great portrait of the economics of poverty in the 'dark' economy of a city.

Found in a book shop while picking up books for Christmas 2015


Monster: Living Off the Big Screen John Gregory Dunne 1997

Personal account of a screenwriter and his journey to write a screenplay for Disney on the life of a newscaster.  It takes them 8 years and 11 drafts.  It's a really great insight into the world of movie making, something I'd never really heard of before.  It's shaped the way I think about movies and TV shows, to be honest.

Amazon recommendation?


The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes--and Its Implications David Deutsche 1996

One of the best books I read this year.  The super-sharp Deutsche lays out a high-level overview of the 4-strands of human thought, and provides some clues as to how they might all be linked together.  Also lays out his theory of the multiverse in layman's terms.  Mind-boggling and riveting.

Personal recommendation from a friend who doesn't remember recommending it to me.  Maybe he recommended it in a different universe?


The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World David Deutsche 2011

I read this much later in the year, but it's so close in themes to The Fabric of Reality that it made sense to list it here.  Great book and more updated, but I liked Fabric better.  He really expands on the theme of 'explanations' in this book -- every scientific theses is backed or discovered by evidence that proves an explanation. Explanations are created by humans, not by the evidence.

I went looking for more Deutsche after Fabric of Reality


How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie 1936

I read this book a few years ago, but it's the sort of thing that's worth looking back at from time to time.  It's got practical advice on how to treat other people, and ways of being an effective communicator/salesperson.  Personally, I find How to Talk So Children Will Listen.. to be more actionable, but I find Carnegie's stories and pointers to be a good reminder of how people work.

Book club with some lady dev friends


Georgia O'Keeffe Georgia O'Keeffe 1974

A printed selection of Georgia O'Keeffes works.  It wasn't nearly as riveting as the other book of her work, Georgia O'Keeffe: Art & Letters.

Found through a search looking for more of her work, inspired by reading Georgia O'Keeffe: Art & Letters.


Growing Artificial Societies: Social Science From the Bottom Up Joshua M. Epstein, Robert Axtell 1994 -- Did Not Finish

This is a dissertation write-up of an experiment building an 'AI' society from basic principles, adding more complex rules to the agents until an entire society has been formed. Not as interesting as I'd hoped it would be -- the rules were interesting from a microscopic level but there didn't seem to be much that would contribute to drawing broader conclusions that were more applicable to designing human systems.

Personal recommendation (B. Newbold)


Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other Sherry Turkle 2011

A researcher gives an account of the things she's learned about how humans and robots interact and grow together.  I found the delivery very dry, and the conclusions not very insightful.

Personal recommendation (K. Rahjerdi)


Mindfulness in Plain English Henepola Gunartana 1992

Great book on what it means to be mindful, with some practical advice on how to meditate and what to focus on.  I don't meditate as much as I should, but reading this book helped put me in the right mindset to get a lot of of the few times that I do.

Recommendation from an email chain


The New Voice: How to Sing and Speak Properly  Alan Greene 1981

A friend of mine sent this to me when I let him know that I was struggling with my singing career.  I had just tried out for a solo for the choir I sing in, and had been rather devastated by the recording I made of it.  This book helped me realize how much of sound production is really mechanical -- that making good sounds is a matter of training and muscle exercises.  I can't stress enough how helpful this book was.

Personal recommendation (A. Broussard)


Functional Unity of the Singing Voice Barbara Doscher

This book covers the most up-to-date knowledge of how the body makes sound, from a very scientific way (even going so far as to list the anatomical parts involved) but in an approachable manner.  I found the discussion on tonal composition and vibrato particularly cool.  (Apparently no one really knows what causes vibrato).

Recommended to me by my voice teacher (J. Schneiderman) after I told her about The New Voice


All Who Go Do Not Return Shulem Deen

Memoir of an ultra-conservative Hasidic Jew who leaves the community.  Based in upstate New York and Brooklyn.  Great look inside of a culture that I encounter regularly but don't know much about (I live in Brooklyn).

Gift from a friend (N. Bergson-Shilcock)


Bleeding Edge Thomas Pynchon 2013 -- Did Not Finish

Novel about tech startups in New York City.  The style of writing was too self-referential for my tastes, so I quit around the 20% mark.

Personal recommendation (B. Newbold)


The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt  Albert Camus 1951

Famous novel by Camus about the nature of revolt.  I didn't get past the 10th page.  The style of writing felt very dated.

Found at a bookstore.


Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth A.O. Scott 2016

This book wasn't very well written and I found it hard to discern the point of it.

Amazon recommendation


A Burglar's Guide to the City Geoff Manaugh 2015

An account of burglars written in a journalistic/semi-autobiographical style.  Made more mentions to other works that give accounts of interesting heists than it spent time actually talking about the heists.  I had high hopes that it would be more of a practical guide to breaking and entering than it was.

Amazon recommendation


Wishful Drinking Carrie Fisher 2008

Personal memoir of the early life of Carrie Fisher, growing up as the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and her beginning career as Leia in Star Wars.  Entirely witty and very endearing.  Carrie died in 2016, so it made reading her novel earlier that year feel oddly prescient.

I can't remember if I found this randomly, or if I found it because I started following Carrie on Twitter


Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking  Gabriella Coleman 2012

Great first-person account and analysis of the Debian community.  Written in the style of an anthropological study.  It's a really good portrait of what Free vs Open Source software terminology means.  I found it gave a good background for the Google v. Oracle lawsuit that happened this year, as well as grounding some of the discussions that I overheard while attending the mentor summit for the Google Summer of Code.

Personal recommendation (B. Newbold)


The Works: Anatomy of a City Kate Ascher 2005  -- Did Not Finish

 Pictoral study of the systems that keep the city of New York running. Really great, but a bit dry as it lacks an overarching narrative (that's by design).  I haven't finished it, but found the section on the steam system of the city really great.

Found while searching for books on urban areas


When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods & Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age Justin Kaplan 2006

Survey of the history of the Astors.  I found it hard to keep all the Jacobs and Waldorfs straight, but a pretty good read nonetheless.

Required reading for class


The Santa Claus Man Alex Palmer 2015

Story of a man who created the Santa Clause Association in New York City in 1915 and his eventual downfall as a con-man.

I think my roommate recommended this -- he knows the author.


Conquering Gotham: Building Penn Station and Its Tunnels Jill Jonnes 2007

Book that recounts the story of Alexander Cassatt and the building of Pennsylvania Station in NYC.  Great book, with good details and background on the characters.  I use information from this book a lot during my tours of Penn Station.  It doesn't focus so much on the eventual destruction of the building, but on the genesis.

Amazon recommendation (I was looking for info on Penn Station)


The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station  Lorraine B. Diehl 1985

This book memorializes the late Penn Station that was built by Alexander Cassatt in 1911.  It's got great photos of the destruction and final years of Penn Station before it was demolished in 1965.  The prose isn't top quality, but the photos are outstanding.

Amazon recommendation (I was looking for info on Penn Station)


The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark John Tauranac 2014 -- Did Not Finish

I read this to have more info to tell people on my tours (I give tours and the Empire State Building is one of the landmarks on it). It wasn't very easy to read, so I gave up about 1/4 of the way through it.  I saw the author speak at a class I took while in training to become a tour guide. His presentation was as disjointed as the book itself.

Personal recommendation (T. Mineau & J. Tauranac)


Macy's: The Store. the Star. the Story  Robert M. Grippo 2009

Big picture book that tells the story of Macy's the department store. Fun and informative.  I read this to get better background on Macy's to have more information to talk about during my tours (I became a docent for 34th street tours given by MAS this May).  Fun fact: one of the Strauss brothers was responsible for making pasteurized milk the standard for commercially sold milk.  Two of his children died from unsanitary milk.

Found via Amazon, while searching for books on Macy's


Programming Erlang Joe Armstrong 2007

I've been wanting to learn Erlang for a long while now, and I finally spent some time this summer going through Joe Armstrong's book on it.  I read a number of different books on Erlang; this was by far the best in terms of helping to build a solid understanding the reasons for the OTP APIs.  If you're going to learn Erlang, start with this book.

I sought this book out, having heard Joe Armstrong talk a few years ago


A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction Christopher Alexander, et al. 1977

This book attempts to highlight the components of buildings, towns, and homes.  The central idea being that when designing a new building or part of a community, you can decide what elements (as illustrated in this book) to include.  For each component it gives considerations and limitations.  It's well intentioned, and the premise is compelling, but in practice it was a bit of a dry read.  Which make sense, as it's meant to be used as a reference book.  Overall, the tone and writing style felt very dated.

Unknown, maybe a Twitter recommendation?


Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right Jane Mayer 2016

Read this book.  It's an indepth look at the far-right's plutocrats and the mechanics they've been using to infuse money into the political field for decades.  It tracks the money behind the Tea Party (and why it seemed like a grassroots organization).  A frightening and very necessary read.

From a New Yorker review.


On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City Alice Goffman 2014

Personal account of living in a predominantly black neighborhood, from the perspective of a white woman who integrate herself with a group of black men.  It's a great narrative that explains the plight of the black population in relation to the police.  I found that it really put the Black Lives Matter movement into perspective, particularly in relation to the over-policing and catch-22 situations of illegitimacy and being hunted for warrants that being a black males seem to find themselves subjected to.

The New Yorker?


Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities Witold Rybczynski 2010

I came across this while looking for  criticisms of Jane Jacobs' theories on city planning.  This book does an uneven survey of city-planning trends, with small jabs at Jacobs.  It felt very much anchored in a 'planning is good' way of thinking, and didn't offer up much in the way of critical thought in its dismissal of Janesian urbanity.

Amazon search


Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs Robert Kanigel 2016

Biography of Jane Jacobs. Does an adequate job, but I found the tone and editorializing off-putting. Largely misses her greatest contributions to the field of economics.

Gift from a co-worker (N. Bergson-Shilcock)


Beyond Backpacking: Ray Jardine's Guide to Lightweight Hiking Ray Jardine 1992

If you've ever wanted to get into ultra-light backpacking, nothing beats R. Jardine's book.  One of the original lightweight backpackers, Jardine talks through how he and his wife managed to cover 50-60 miles a day on long treks.  I'll give you hint: it's all in the number of pounds you bring with you.  Practical and eye-opening, with some good anecdotes, this book is really good.

I bought this book a few years ago, when preparing for a cross-Sierra hike but only cracked it open this September when I was contemplating an Appalachian trek.


The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast! Josh Kaufman 2013

This basically amounted to a listicle of advice with personal anecdotes detailing how the author applied them.  Instead, I'd recommend reading anything that Scott H Young has written -- his blog on completing MIT's coursework in a year and learning how to make realistic portraits in a month is really phenomenal.

Recommendation from another Recurser


The Peregrine J. A. Baker 1967 -- Did Not Finish

Sometime this year I got mildly obsessed with the film director Werner Herzog.  He has a film school with a required reading list, and I set out to read some of it, starting with the Peregrine.  This is man's novel about tracking a peregrine falcon.  I got close to 20% done with this, before I realized it wasn't something I was really interested in reading.  I may come back to it when I'm not feeling so much pressure to read other books.  (During this time period I was trying to finish up a bunch of books on NYC to get approved as a tour guide).

Required reading, W. Herzog's Rogue Film School


Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration David Kelley, et al 2011

Great how-to manual for building collaborative spaces drawn from lessons learned at the d.school, Stanford's design studio.  I used this a lot when heading up a re-organization of the Recurse Center space in NYC over the summer while I worked there as a facilitator.

Personal recommendation (N. Bergson-Shilcock)


Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace Nikil Saval 2010

This book purports to tell the history of the office, but does a better job of describing work trends in and around NYC. There's a good deal of side-tracking into films and gender norms. It was great side reading to learning about the history of NYC architecture and a good overview of Taylorism's impact in the early 1900's.

Personal recommendation (A. Jones)


Antifraglie, Nassim Nicolas Taleb (@nntaleb) 2012

Hard to read because, as he admits in the book itself, Taleb shuns editors.  I'm sure he's got a good reason for it, but it makes him exceedingly difficult to read.  This book was great, and eye opening, lack of coherency aside.  I'd highly recommend it.  As an aside, I started following Taleb on Twitter shortly after reading this book, and got to see him in person a few days later when he gave a talk at a Bloomberg Quant BBQ.  His speaking is highly reminiscent of his writing (highly digressive), but he's doing cutting edge work on the consequences of large tail probabilities (or something. I didn't quite follow)

Gift from a friend (C. Eidhof)


Interaction of Color Josef Alber 1971 -- Did Not Finish

This book is a phenomenal resource for learning about color theory.  It's a hands on, practical demonstration of how color interactions can be used to varying effects.  I've found it really instructive for work I'm doing on interior decorating at the moment.  I haven't finished it yet because it's a bit dry, and I feel like I should be doing the exercises that each chapter presents.

Recommendation from an email chain


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing Marie Kondo 2011

This book changed my life, and got me interested in the theory of interior design.  Since reading this book, I've cleaned up my home space. It made it easier to start throwing things away, like books that I started and am not going to finish, or even books that I'm probably not going to finish.  I've never been as organized as I am currently.  But enough about me, this book is delightful.  What makes this book so powerful isn't the suggestions on how to be tidier (which are good) but the philosophical shift that she asks you to make while going through your personal belongings.  I tried talking to my sister about this book, but she said it was too much mumbo-jumbo for her.  So maybe it's not for everyone, but it's made me much happier.

Personal recommendation from a friend (H. Cooper)


Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed James C. Scott 1998

This was one of those books that started off really slow, but reached a great conclusion. Scott traces the rise of organizational systems to a need for 'visibility' by the state, and presents a compelling case for less transparency at an organizational level.  It takes an unforeseeable twist into championing local determination (as opposed to specialization and bureaucratized decision-making).  It felt very much like a conclusion that Jane Jacobs would have approved of.

Twitter recommendation


Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs Jane Jacobs, et al. 2016

I was really excited to get this book, the final set of speeches and unfinished drafts of books that Jane Jacobs had been working on at her time of death, and wasn't disappointed. The editors did a great job of setting the speeches, articles, and essays of Jane's into a coherent framework, and their introduction to the book was some of the best writing I've seen on her.  Her earlier writings were good, but it was the unfinished drafts that I was most excited to get my hands on.

Personal recommendation (N. Storring)


Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure Maxwell Gillingham 2006

Step-by-step book that gives you an overview for revamping either your entire living space or a single room.  Lots of great tips for making your space more livable.  One of my favorite is probably the suggestion to buy fresh flowers for your home every week.  The 'therapy' is based on 8-weeks of planning, preparing, and doing.  Offers good tips on how to pick a contractor, budgeting for work, and setting up a deadline to ensure the work actually gets done.

Personal recommendation (A. Hanlon)


Domino: The Book of Decorating: A Room-by-Room Guide to Creating a Home That Makes You Happy  Deborah Needleman, et al 2008

I picked this up based on the strength of the Amazon reviews (I was looking for books that might have good examples of living space arrangements).  Overall, really disappointing.  I found the book's style to be quite outdated or at least not remotely near my personal taste.  Probably the only thing that I got out of this was ideas for hall entryways (always include a mirror).  What a bummer that my current apartment doesn't really have space for a mirror.  Would not recommend to anyone.

Amazon search


The Traffic Power Structure Planka.nu 2016

Interesting outline of the inherent power structure in transportation decisions, but there's not much in the way of a counter-proposal to the automobile.  I was really hoping for more concrete suggestions on how to change the existing power structure.

Found while browsing a bookstore


The Things They Carried Tim O'Brien 1990

A memoir of the author's time fighting in the Vietnam war, but also a great study on great writing.  One of the better written books I've read in a long time.

Gift from a friend (S. Elbien)


The Book of the Unnamed Midwife Meg Elison 2016

Fictional tale told about the diary of one of the few women left alive after a plague kills 99% of the human population.  Decent, but not outstanding.

Personal recommendation (D. Minnear)


Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games  Ian Bogot 2016 -- Did Not Finish

Personal essay type book on the power of games.  Purports to tell you how to make life more enjoyable in a 'game' like fashion, but spends more time waxing philosophical than giving practical tips to defining your own games.  As with most books that I found disappointing, this one promised more than it delivered.  Might be good if you're interested in philosophical ruminations on the meaning of life (I'm not)

Amazon recommendation



‪some days I remember the lies you told me and i laugh at both of us‬ ‪at me, for wanting so badly to believe you‬ ‪at you, for having t...