Last-second shopping idea: give a great e-book (Reviews)

my books on my ipad
Screen capture my iBooks

So there are just hours to go until Christmas and the stores are jammed and closing soon, and what's a shopper to do? How about an e-book? The apple and kindle stores both have options to give a book as a gift. In the past year I have read quite a few e-books; I find them easier to annotate for reviewing and quoting (I used to have 30 post-it notes sticking out of every book) and it is a bit cheaper than buying (though not as cheap as the library!) Here are some that I read this year and can recommend.

Happy City/Screen capture

Happy City

If you want one of the best introductions to current thinking about what makes good cities, what Taras Grescoe called in his review, " an essential guidebook to the brightest manifestations of urban felicity", this is it. There is lots for the cyclists and pedestrians to love. If you have had enough of Jan Gehl and the Peñalosa brothers you can skim the first few chapters; if you don't know what I am talking about, you soon will.

We have been seduced by the wrong technologies. We gave up true freedom for the illusory promise of speed. We valued status over relationships. We tried to stamp out complexity instead of harnessing it. We let powerful people organize buildings, work, home, and transportation systems around too simplistic a view of geography and of life itself.

Straphanger/Screen capture


I can't get enough of Taras Grescoe. I reviewed his book Bottomfeeder years ago and learned how to eat; now he writes about cities and I have learned how to get around, and it is not in the automobile. Another must-read, and available in a three-pack along with Bottomfeeder and The Devil's Picnic, in which we learn how to drink.

But even if a zero-emission miracle sedan, running on tap water and yielding only lavender-scented exhaust, appeared in dealerships tomorrow, it would not solve the fundamental problem with cars. The automobile was never an appropriate technology for the cities of America. As a form of mass transportation for the world, it is a disaster.

Grescoe is also author of what I think is the best tweet on urbanism ever, that encapsulates it all in 140 characters:

Taras Grescoe/Screen capture

(He lives in Montreal, where they call the subways metros)

Law of the Jungle/Screen capture

Law of the Jungle

TreeHugger regulars will know the story of the endless lawsuits over damages caused by oil drilling in Amazonian Ecuador. I reviewed this book for Corporate Knights Magazine, but it doesn't appear to be online yet.

This is exciting. Really, who needs dry business books when you can read what might be an unputdownable John Grisham legal thriller. Except it’s real, the story of the $19 billion legal battle over oil spills in the rainforest of Amazonian Ecuador. Law of the Jungle is Paul Barrett’s telling of the tale of young lawyer Steven Donziger and his “obsessive crusade – waged at any cost” to bring oil giant to justice for its environmental crimes going back decades, when Texaco drilled the rainforest and left 400,000 barrels of oil in toxic ponds, poisoning rivers and the people who lived on them.

The Dirt on Clean/Screen capture

The Dirt on Clean

This is not a new book, published in 2007. However regular readers may know that I have a bathroom obsession and read just about every book I can find on the subject, and have read dozens. This is one of the best, a tour of bathing (or not) through the ages. It is well written, entertaining and just full of information. Our crazed obsession with cleanliness may be shortlived as we run out of fresh water:

Nothing, for example, would change our bathing habits more quickly and thoroughly than a serious water shortage. One thing is certain. A century from now, people will look back in amusement if not amazement at what passed for normal cleanliness at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Cubed/Screen capture


Ever wonder how you ended up in a cubicle? Nikil Savil explains the secret history of the workplace. Our open offices were supposed to be wonderful places where you are on the move, not changed to your desks. There was real thinking in this that went beyond just packing people into less space. My heroes George Nelson and Robert Propst at Herman Miller were thinking much bigger:

Propst was among the first designers to argue that office work was mental work and that mental effort was tied to environmental enhancement of one’s physical capabilities. To change a desk, then, was to change one’s entire way of being in the world. As George Nelson, one of Herman Miller’s most illustrious designers, stated loftily, “The Lord never meant a man to be immobilized in one position … These are not desks and file cabinets. They are a way of life.” Office design was coming into its own.

Greedy man in a hungry world/Screen capture

A greedy man in a hungry world

Not my usual kind of reading. Rayner is a food writer and critic at the Guardian, and wrote an article that I objected to here in TreeHugger. He left a long and thoughtful comment suggesting that I read the whole book and get the context, and he was right, I ate it up. I called it in my review "a fast, funny, informative read that hasn't changed the way I think about food, but is certainly making me think twice."

It's time we had a close look at all of the assumptions we have been fed about the world of food. We need to stop reacting emotionally, and start thinking realistically. We need to read the numbers, understand the maths, focus on the science.

Made in the USA/Screen capture

Made in the USA

I reviewed this for a book club I belong to, and it has never been published, so here is the whole thing:

Every review of Vaclav Smil's work starts with a quote from Bill Gates: "There’s no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil. With his vast knowledge of science and energy, history and business, he brings new insights to every topic he examines." Indeed, the University of Manitoba professor emeritus has written about subjects as diverse as eating meat or peak oil. His latest book, Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing, looks at the impact of not only the decline of manufacturing in western economies, but of what gets made and how.

Smil first has to make the case that manufacturing actually matters, in an era where most people have written it off as old-fashioned and undervalue its importance. He notes that Boeing, one of the few companies that still is a major manufacturer in America, that actually makes things, has a market valuation that is half that of Facebook, a service business that nobody really needs. Instead, Americans need useful stuff; "serving potato chips is not as good as making microchips."

Smil scoffs at the idea that the off-shoring of manufacturing doesn't matter as long as the back of the iPhone says "designed in California" and quotes Andy Grove of Intel fame:

"You could say, as many do, that shipping jobs overseas is no big deal because the high value work- and much of the profits- remain in the US. But what kind of a society are going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work- and masses of unemployed?"

Smil also points out that if you have a nation that no longer actually makes flat screens or batteries, then eventually even the high-value work might disappear as America loses the skills to actually put things together, particularly those things we actually need to live.

"I am not endowing manufacturing with any superior attributes, I am simply recognizing the obvious: we could obviously do quite well as an affluent civilization without a myriad of modern services, but our physical and mental well-being, from being able to access food and shelter and to receiving health care and having reliable transportation, rests on an assured supply of a myriad of manufactured products."

Smil thinks that's a lot more important than "boasting about the exploits of a new dog on a Facebook page."

Smil describes the story of US-China trade as one of “ineptitude, dissembling, the toleration of massive intellectual property theft” and complains about American companies that earn excessive profits on the backs of the underpaid and underhoused workers in a police state. However the Chinese advantage is diminishing , and some businesses are returning, looking for shorter supply chains and quicker turn-around times. Unfortunately this isn’t creating very many jobs; the fundamental problem is really the change in manufacturing processes that mean that there are fewer people needed to make things in the first place.

"The most important long-term threat to manufacturing is a steadily advancing robotization. Businesses relocating from China to the United States or abandoning plans to move to China have found that the best way to keep their costs low is to minimize labor costs by redesigning their products so that the assembly can be done by increasingly cheaper robots."

Smil's recommendations range from fixing the education system to changing the tax code. But he despairs about the dysfunctional political system, the increasing partisan polarization, the legal system, the failing infrastructure, the increasing income disparity. It all seems impossible to fix when people won't even recognize the problem; He "has not seen, so far, enough commitment and resolve even to acknowledge full the severity of the accumulated challenges."

Smil tries unconvincingly to come up with a positive ending; “as a livelong critical observer of American society I am well aware how it has repeatedly demonstrated its impressive capacity for renewal”. That is hard to believe; this is a profoundly depressing book where one is almost cheered by Smil's giving even odds on America figuring it out; those seem high.

Tags: Books


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