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Review

“The Design of Everyday Things”

Don Norman

Unlike my usual book reviews, this wasn’t my first time reading the book. Last time, though, it was an assigned reading—I have this in print because it was provided as a textbook! And, as a textbook, it is both an excellent choice and a seminal text.

On both a first read and a reread, it holds up remarkably well. That tends to be an issue with the things that were formative to their field—eventually, they start to feel very obvious, because what was innovative has become a well-known trope. Not here, though; the only part of the book that felt noticeably dated was the couple pages that went into “the video phone” as a technology that hasn’t yet gotten big. That portion will need to be rewritten for the next edition.

Despite having been one of my textbooks, this doesn’t feel overly academic. I wouldn’t recommend trying to get through the whole thing in one sitting, but you won’t fall asleep trying to navigate through a sea of citations. If you’re at all interested in design as a discipline, check it out.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“The 99% Invisible City”

Roman Mars and Kurt Kohldstedt

Given how much I love the 99% Invisible podcast, it’s utterly unsurprising that I also enjoyed this book. There’s a lot of overlap between the two—to the point that, in a few places, I was reading going “yes, yes, I know, can we get to something new?”

Most of the time, though, the things being discussed in here were new information, and the exact sort of tidbit that keeps me listening to the podcast. It’s a very digestible book, with chapters divided into subchapters divided into subheadings, each of which can be independently read. Bite-size portions like that make it very easy to pick up and read a little bit while you’re waiting for something, and put back down once you’re back in action.

Overall, I totally recommend this book. If you’ve ever looked at a bit of architecture, or a weirdly-shaped park, or even just a street light, and thought “I wonder how that wound up being there, like that?” this is the book for you. Check it out.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“The End is Always Near”

Dan Carlin

If you aren’t familiar with the name, Dan Carlin is the creator of Hardcore History, which is nominally a podcast series. Personally, I’d argue that it’s a more of a series of audiobooks that’s published via a podcast feed; the average episode is somewhere in the area of five hours long. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you’re at all interested in history, it’s well worth a listen.

Having listened to the podcast prior to reading this book, I found it very easy to read in his voice. He’s got a slightly different tone he uses for asides, parentheticals; every time I followed an asterisk to get down to the footnote, I found my mind going to that same tone, and it fits perfectly. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that someone who speaks for a living managed to encode their manner of speaking into a book, but it works very well.

The general premise of the book is pretty well-aligned with the name: human history is a long series of events that stood a very solid chance of wiping out, if not our species, then at least our civilization. And, several times, the latter did happen—Assyria fell. Babylon fell. Rome fell.

For the most part, being a history book, it feels pretty timeless, but here in 2022, the chapter on previous pandemics has definitely aged. The points made are largely still valid, but one point that he hammers on—we have no frame of reference whatsoever for a civilization-scale pandemic—no longer holds true. Sure, we haven’t experienced something like the Black Death, wiping out half the population, but having gone through global quarantines, we can at least begin to imagine it.

That one caveat aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and recommend it to anyone who likes history. And existential dread. Give it a read.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Refuse to Choose!”

Barbara Sher

My friend Madi has been telling me to read “Refuse to Choose” for a while. (Well, not just me—recommending this book is something of a leitmotif for her.) And, at long last, I finally got to it.

Very early in the book, I had two very clear thoughts:

  1. I am not the target demographic of this book.
  2. Madi really, really is.

Which is a very interesting combination. I actually quite like how early on I was able to come to the first conclusion—we’re talking, “reading the first few pages while browsing in a bookstore” level. And there’s an honesty to that—Sher knows who she’s writing this for, and wants to make sure they know that the book is for them, pretty quickly. Which isn’t to say that I, as someone who, again, isn’t the target demographic, don’t find anything useful in this; at very least, it’s a solid insight into the way my friend’s mind works, and for that alone I’m glad I read it.

But further, for the people this book was meant for, wow is it ever meant for them. I could see, very clearly, just what made Madi love the book.

In short, this book is for and about what Sher calls Scanners. I’m not one—I’ve known since elementary school, if not earlier, that I wanted to Do Computers when I grew up, and I’ve never deviated from that. Scanners are the people whose minds don’t work like that—if they have that deep level of interest, it can change focus over time, or perhaps they have a handful of interests that all equally captivate them, or maybe (as Sher describes herself) you’re interested in everything. If any of that is ringing true to you, I highly recommend this book—it goes through some of the difficulties that you can find yourself facing, and provides some helpful tips for how to deal with them. (And, I want to stress, those difficulties aren’t “your brain is bad and you should feel bad, the solution is to Just Be Better”—it’s much more in the area of “society expects you to want to focus on one thing forever, and your brain just doesn’t work like that, so let’s go through ways you can make the world work for you.”)

And if you, like me, aren’t a Scanner… well, it’s still worth a read, to help you understand the Scanners in your life. Check it out.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Becoming”

Michelle Obama

I really wasn’t sure what to expect, going in to this book. I’m not a big memoir person, and it did take me a while to really get into the book, but I’m glad I stuck with it.

I think the most useful takeaway for me, from this book, is that it humanized Michelle. It’s easy to look at the occupants of the White House and think of them as these far-off figures, something akin to demigods for how remote their lives are from mine. Which remains true—the experience of living in the White House is so different from any aspect of my life I can barely imagine it—but we are all only human.

What I enjoyed the most was hearing about the limitations that come with it. It’s one thing to fantasize about it: “imagine being part of the First Family, you get to meet so many interesting people and be so close to history as it’s happening!”1 But the reality is motorcades and secret service escorts. Knowing that any time you want to go out for dinner, you’re causing traffic jams and costing the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in additional security costs. Even something as simple as “I’m going to sit on the balcony to drink my morning tea” becomes a mess—because, as Michelle notes, sitting on the balcony for her meant the Secret Service closing off a nearby street from which the balcony was visible. You can’t use a portion of your home without it disrupting the lives of hundreds of other people.

Michelle’s story is inspiring, and tragic, and delightful; it is entirely, perfectly human. I absolutely loved this book, and highly recommend it—even to my fellow “not a big memoir” people. Give it a read.2

  1. I’ve long since abandoned the dream of the Presidency. Being responsible for the entirety of the United States sounds like a special circle of hell, and no amount of escapist fantasy can paper over the sheer, staggering, impossible weight that the President has to bear.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”

Bill Gates

I just have to begin by expressing my admiration for Bill Gates. Which still feels strange – I grew up on “Micro$oft” jokes and the image of Gates as the corporate Big Brother, a la Apple’s 1984 ad. Watching him go from icon of capitalism to the world’s foremost philanthropist has been interesting, to say the least. As a relevant aside, I highly recommend the Netflix documentary on his life, it’s fascinating, and works well to provide context on where he’s coming from in writing this book.

The book itself does what it says on the tin: it ends with plans of action for preventing the sort of global climate disaster that we, as a species, have been gleefully sprinting towards ever since we realized those funky rocks we dug up would burn longer than the trees we were chopping down. And the plans aren’t just “buy an electric car and vote for green energy;” not only are there more action items than just that, there are plans for people depending on which hat they’re wearing. Sure, you the consumer can buy an electric car… but you the citizen can write your legislators, and you the employer can invest in R&D, and you the local government official can tweak building codes to allow for more efficient materials.

The first half, or more, of the book is an accounting of what’s driving climate change, and it’s a fascinating overview. Your first guess about the largest culprit, in broad categories, is probably wrong.

And in the middle, there’s a great deal of discussion of the technologies we’re going to need to get through this transition. As a life-long nerd, that was the part I enjoyed the most; as someone who’s very sold on the importance and utility of nuclear power, my absolute favorite moment was a throwaway reference to “we should be building nuclear-powered container ships.”1

Here at the end, where I usually say “I enjoyed this book, and I recommend it,” I’m still going to do that.2 But beyond enjoying the book, it feels like the single most important thing I’ve read… possibly ever. The pandemic is the definitive crisis of the last couple years; climate change is the definite crisis of this generation. Go read the book. Buy a copy, read it, and pass it along to someone else to read. Take notes, and follow the plans of action that’re applicable to you. Let’s go save the world.

  1. I may have set some kind of land-speed record going from “what the hell” to “that makes perfect sense.”
  2. It’s not that I like every book I read, it’s that, as a general rule, I don’t write reviews of the ones I don’t like. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
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Review

“What If?”

Randall Munroe

A magnitude 15 earthquake would involve the release of almost 1032 joules of energy, which is roughly the gravitational binding energy of the Earth. To put it another way, the Death Star caused a magnitude 15 earthquake on Alderaan.

This is a fun book to recommend, because unlike most books, there’s a demo available online. Go read that, and if you like it, the book contains more. It also has a very literal subtitle: “serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions.”

Munroe has had a fascinating career to date, and I remain an avid fan of his webcomic. It was definitely a formative influence on the nerdier side of my sense of humor,1 and continues to make me laugh an average of slightly more than three times a week.2

This is a fairly good book for reading in small chunks – each ‘chapter’ is only a few pages long, and there’s no need to read them in any specific order.

All in all, it’s a fun read, and I definitely recommend it.

  1. And, in writing that, I’m having fun imagining his reaction to reading that.
  2. Three new comics a week, and the average is above that because sometimes I wind up hitting the ‘random’ button a few times and laughing again.
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Review

“What Einstein Told His Cook”

Robert L Wolke

In my mind, the term for this genre is “popular science.” Or, possibly, “pop science.” (In this case, that’s also a pun on the subject.) Either way, it feels like a fun piece of beach reading – worth the time to read, which differentiates it from an airplane read,1 but not so heavy that you feel like you should be taking notes or pausing to take time to process.

For the most part, this book stands up pretty well, and the cover is minimal enough that the whole thing feels quite modern. Admittedly, it loses some of this with the occasional dated pop culture reference, and the final chapter, discussing the latest technologies, noticeably lags as a result of being, dear lord, almost two decades out of date.2

Still, though, it’s not like chemistry changes all that rapidly, and a lot of the explanations of how things work were quite neat. Give it a read.

  1. For my own ‘pop science’ injection: despite their pressurized interiors, the amount of oxygen in the cabin of a plane is lower than what your brain is used to, so as the flight goes on, you get a little oxygen-deprived, leaving your thoughts nice and fuzzy. There’s a reason Clive Cussler books are the ideal airplane books – they’re incredibly formulaic, so there’s less cognitive load.
  2. There’s a very serious discussion of the differences between mechanical and digital cooking thermometers, which is downright comical in the age of RFID-tagged disposable cups.
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Review

“Becoming Steve Jobs”

Brent Schlender, Rick Tetzeli

Moving backwards, there were three things about this book that really captured my attention.

Lastly, the discussion of what Steve Jobs was like when he wasn’t being… what everyone thinks of when they think of Steve Jobs. The authors reiterate, many times, that the image of Jobs as alternating between ‘a genius’ and ‘an asshole’ was formed when he was very young, skyrocketing to fame at the helm of Apple. Later in life, he’d softened, become better able to have constructive discussions with people instead of just tearing into them – but, to the detriment of his public image, he’d also gotten very good at keeping out of the public eye when he wasn’t being Steve Jobs On Stage. Nobody was really afforded the chance to publicize that newer version of Steve Jobs.

Secondly, I’d never realized how integral to Pixar he was. At most, I knew he’d been involved in the company, led it for a while at some point; I hadn’t realized that he was the owner, one of the original people who built the company out of an immense talent pool bought wholesale from LucasArts. My mental timeline of Steve Jobs, betraying my tech industry bias, went Apple-NeXT-Apple. Pixar was an immense thing to miss out on, and realizing how much he’d shaped both Pixar and, eventually, Disney has me even more respecting the impact Jobs has had on our society.

And firstly, I found myself, over and over, contemplating the scale of technological change that happened within the lifetime of the company he and Wozniak founded. I think about these comparisons a lot, so here’s some of my favorites:

  • A single AirPod has more onboard processing power than any given Apollo launch.
  • Every Apple Watch, even the glacially slow Series 0, has had more processing power than a Cray-2.1
  • You can fit the entirety of the original version of MS-DOS in the L1 cache of a single core of a modern i9.2
  • I’d have to do a lot more math than I feel like doing to confirm this, but it’s not unreasonable to say that the iPad Pro I’m writing this on probably packs more computing power than every Apple II ever sold, combined.

And, even more than all those “ooh, it can do lots of math even faster” comparisons, the thing that kept striking me – reading this, as I was, on an iPad Pro – was just the staggering technological capacity of everything I do with this device. It’s a multitouch touch screen, with a battery of onboard radios, enough storage space for every book ever written; it’s got a lovely keyboard and stylus, both of which attach using only magnets. This device is a miracle of modern technology, and I’ve gotten very used to it. Reading about the Altair 8800, with its toggle switches and LEDs, gave me just enough decontextualization to look at this magical slab of glass and think, wow. Wow.

After reading this book, I think that sort of moment is something Steve Jobs would’ve loved to see.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book, and I highly recommend it. It was nice to see a more balanced look into Jobs’ life, a more human side of the man who so indelibly shaped the modern world. Give it a read.

  1. Surprisingly difficult to validate this comparison to my own satisfaction – the Cray-2 was in the era of “here’s how many FLOPS this baby can do,” but these days it’s just “what’s the GeekBench score?” and there’s no direct comparison between the two.
  2. I couldn’t find the actual size-on-disk of the original MS-DOS release, but based on the limitations of the file system, I can reasonably assume it’d fit.
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Review

“Grunt”

Mary Roach
I spent the entire time reading this book thinking that it was by the same person who wrote Combat-Ready Kitchen. Which was an interesting comparison to have in mind, as I quite liked that one, but “Grunt” was much more fun. While “Combat-Ready Kitchen” felt like it was trying to be ready for use as a textbook in a history class, “Grunt” was unabashedly written by a human being who likes to mention their human responses. I’ve got a great deal of highlights of comedic moments that Roach captured very well.1
As someone with precisely zero interest in joining the military, I think Roach is an excellent writer for this topic. Clearly she’s got a bit more experience in this area than I do — nobody who’s spent a week on a nuclear submarine doing research for a book can really be as clueless as she tries to convey — but she’s removed enough from it that she can be an excellent go-between. The feigned cluelessness doesn’t read as an affectation, it reads as making sure the genuinely clueless folks like me can follow along.
And it’s just an interesting subject matter. The Department of Defense has a spectacular research budget, which they put into doing all sorts of neat things. Nothing in the book focuses on the science of Exciting New Ways To Make People Dead; in fact, it’s almost universally focused on the opposite. I’m okay with my tax dollars going to research on reconstructive surgery and heat-stroke prevention.
I can definitely recommend “Grunt”. It’s a fun read, and the science is neat. Check it out.


  1. And a pent-up rant about just how bad the experience of trying to highlight stuff is in Apple Books. While the location of the highlight has a clear correlation to where your finger is on-screen, they’re not directly related in the way that we’re trained to expect from iOS. And god forbid you want to highlight something that spans across a page break – to date, the only way I’ve found to do this is to change the text size until they’re on the same page. Even Amazon does better than that, and their Kindle app has never not felt like an abandoned project. 
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Review

“Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies”

Nick Bostrom
This was, simultaneously, one of the driest and most terrifying books I have ever read.
Really, the conclusion summarized it well:

“Before the prospect of an intelligence explosion, we humans are like small children playing with a bomb. Such is the mismatch between the power of our plaything and the immaturity of our conduct. Superintelligence is a challenge for which we are not ready now and will not be ready for a long time. We have little idea when the detonation will occur, though if we hold the device to our ear we can hear a faint ticking sound.”

It is what the title says: a list of ways we can achieve superintelligence (including, I’d note, a discussion of the fact that it’s both necessary and inevitable), a harrowing discussion of exactly how many ways it can go wrong, and some things we can start trying to do to keep it from going all Skynet on us. Or, as is more likely, wiping out humanity without really noticing, because we were a convenient source of raw materials.
Like I said: terrifying.
But valuable. I’m also convinced this book should be required reading for any AI course. And, y’know, a good chunk of the population beyond that: I count AI as one of the three most likely existential threats out there.1
So hey, want to somehow be a little bored and scared out of your mind at the same time? Read it.


  1. I’ve got it tied with “Global War, Nuclear” and “Climate Change.” Lower on the list are “A Pandemic With 100% Transmission Rate and 90-Plus Percent Lethality” and “Something From Space.” 
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Review

“The Plutonium Files,” or, “‘it’s a good thing we’re the good guys and the laws don’t apply to us,’ they said”

Eileen Welsome
I’m not sure what it says about me that all of my nonfiction reading is about the Cold War, but here we are again.
The funny thing about this book — and there isn’t much of that, because it’s a detailed account of some truly horrible things — is what did and didn’t stick in my mind. A lot of the book was about trying to humanize the victims of the experiments, and that aspect didn’t really land for me. The actual experiments, what was done, did stick, to a degree; having just finished my read, the ones I most remember are the prison experiments in Oregon and Washington, the radioactive iron supplements at Vanderbilt, a bit about the total-body irradiation experiments, and, of course, the titular plutonium trials. Some of the accidents also stood out to me — there’s a discussion of a man who took a plutonium criticality to the face, and the summary of how thoroughly screwed you are by that is that, when he threw up on the floor of the hospital an hour or two later, after they’d cleaned the floor, they had to get out a geiger counter to check if it was safe for anyone to walk there. (He didn’t survive; to add insult to horrible injury, his body was then parceled out to labs around the country, without the permission or knowledge of his next of kin.)
There were also a couple figures, dropped in as part of an anecdote in the portion of the book about the pilots who flew planes through mushroom clouds to measure their effects, that lodged in my head pretty effectively.
The first set of tests after WWII ended were called Operation Crossroads. The second of these was an underwater detonation; I’ve heard the story before that, during the explosion, a Japanese battleship was thrown — 30,000 tons of metal, launched out of the water. (I’ve been trying to confirm this story in writing this, but haven’t found any clear evidence either way, so I’m going to call it apocryphal and move on.)
This story, though, was from the Castle series, Castle Bravo, the first thermonuclear weapon test. 15 megatons of TNT; while it wasn’t a useable weapon — the device was the size of a small building, and had to be constructed in-place on the ‘target’ island — it was mind-boggling in scale. Because, 15 megatons of TNT, that’s… a number. But what the book described was a 20-mile-wide column of water and mud, 45,000 feet tall. Again, mind-boggling in scale, but slightly easier to conceptualize; just imagine a mountain, and then… make it taller.
The figure that truly got to me, though, was the statement that it took hours for the water and mud to finish falling back into the ocean. Hours.
These nuclear tests were also so bright that test animals, 350 miles away, got retinal burns from looking directly at it.
It’s a scale of destruction that I can’t fit in my mind. Humans aren’t equipped to think about this sort of thing.
And it’s not the scariest part, is the thing. Sure, you can erase a city in the blink of an eye.
This is where the book shines: it’s about the radiation, and just how scary and insidious it is. I’ve mentioned before that people aren’t afraid enough of nuclear war; at risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say it again. Write your Congresspeople, and advocate for disarmament, everyone.

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Review

“The One Device,” or, “I’m amazed this man didn’t get arrested”

Brian Merchant
It’s rather fitting that I’m writing this review on my iPhone. Parts of the book were written on an iPhone, I suspect, and the author mentioned that a good deal of the interview recordings and photos were made on his iPhone.
Structurally, the book is interesting — there are two through lines, and they’ve got the same writing style but different feels. The more story-like one is the historical aspect, going from the beginning of the project through to the keynote where Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone. And it’s a story, for sure: there’s a narrative to it, characters being introduced, politics and inventions, failures and triumphs. It’s the best telling of the story I’ve read so far, though admittedly I don’t think I’ve actually sat down to read the full story before.1
The other part is more of the ‘now’ aspect, which explores the impact of the iPhone as a product, focusing on the manufacturing process. The author tells how he… made his way into the Foxconn plant where iPhones are assembled; predictably gets hacked immediately after arriving at a hacker convention; goes on a claustrophobic tour of a tin mine; under-details an agoraphobic tour of the salt flats that produce most of the lithium used in the iPhone’s battery; and a few other stops along the way.
All told, it’s an interesting read. Some of the historical context was new to me—the history of ARM was inspiring, for example—and while I already knew a lot of things—photos of those lithium flats are pretty striking—I’m glad I took the time to read it. If you’re at all interested in the history, I can recommend the book.


  1. Creative Selection is on my list to read, so I’ll get there eventually. 
Categories
Review

James Baldwin’s Collected Essays

James Baldwin
This is ostensibly supposed to be a book review in the way I normally do them, but that doesn’t feel like the right way to go about it. For a variety of reasons, really: firstly, because most of what I review is fiction, and this was only partially that, if at all; and secondly, because it’s just a different sort of book than I usually do.1
James Baldwin was, I’ve learned, a Figure in the civil rights campaigns. To be honest, before I started the project of reading this book, I hadn’t really heard of him. The first references I got to his work were as quotes in essays I proofread for a friend of mine; it took me a while to catch on to the fact that I was seeing the same name come up over and over. (That friend went on to write a thesis about Baldwin; I believe it’s available online, and I’d recommend reading it, if only so you get a better look at Baldwin’s work than I’ll be able to give here.)
The Essays cover a variety of things, but the core component is the relationship between Black and White in America. Which I’m hardly qualified to talk about; again, I’ll point you to that thesis, or just directly to Baldwin’s writings, because both are far better takes than anything I can come up with.
Content aside, Baldwin is a great writer, and a powerful speaker; if you get a chance, check out some of his speeches, they’re certainly on YouTube by now.
The one caveat I’ll give this book is that you shouldn’t plan on finishing it in one sitting, or even a handful; it’s a book that demands effort. Even just from the physical standpoint — it’s 800-plus pages, in the edition I have, fine print on the Bible-like thin paper. It demands endurance, and you can’t really power through it like I tend to with books; after, at most, 100 pages, I had to put it down and give my brain time to process through things, because after a while you start to feel like a river is pouring through your head, in one ear and out the other.
Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t read it, because you absolutely should. I’m glad I put the time into it, and I suspect I’ll be budgeting time for another run at it again sometime in the future.2


  1. I’ve reviewed one other collection of essays, that I can remember: “The Control of Nature”, which I adored. But that was also different; the essays were about Man’s relationship to Nature, and not Man against Man and Society, or whatnot. I dunno, I’m trying to remember terminology from the last literature class I took, which was either three or four years ago, depending on how you count things. 
  2. And, tacked on here as a footnote because I couldn’t leave it out, but I also couldn’t work it in anywhere else: a couple people who’d read his work before had lead me to believe that he was queer in the way that Shakespeare was — rumored or hinted at, but never really confirmed one way or the other. I can only assume, from that stance, that they hadn’t read the last two essays in the collection, because the final essay includes a description of a young man that begins with “We were never lovers: for what it’s worth, I think I wish we had been.”
    The essay before is even more explicit, I’d say, in that it devotes several pages to talking about Baldwin’s experiences in what are, today, equivalent to gay bars and bathhouses; perhaps my favorite part is the little editorial note at the end that consists of the year it was published and the fact that it was first published in Playboy
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Review

“The Control of Nature,” or, “there’s nothing like finding out 100,000 tons of concrete has no foundation left whatsoever”

John McPhee

I’ve actually had this book for quite a while; one of the essays in it was required reading for a class I took, oh, two years ago or so? Something like that. I quite enjoyed the read at the time, but somehow never thought to read the other essays in the book. I found it again in the whole mess of moving out of campus housing after graduation and decided to toss it into the to-read pile, and I finally got around to it.1

And I’m glad I did; while “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” wasn’t quite as fun to reread as it was to read the first time around, the other two essays were both just as enjoyable on first read as I’d hoped. McPhee’s writing style is beautiful; very visually descriptive, deeply informative, and with well-timed flashes of humor throughout.

I’m going to split this review up a bit and include some excerpts from each of the essays, to try to give you a sense of not only McPhee’s voice, but also the content of the essays.

“Atchafalaya”

The first essay, “Atchafalaya,” follows the US Army Corps of Engineers and their work on the Mississippi River; it’s far more involved than I’d ever thought, and the project is fascinating.

On the outflow side—where the water fell to the level of the Atchafalaya—a hole had developed that was larger and deeper than a football stadium, and with much the same shape. it was hidden, of course, far beneath the chop of wild water. The Corps had long since been compelled to leave all eleven gates wide open, in order to reduce to the greatest extent possible the force that was shaking the structure, and so there was no alternative to aggravating the effects on the bed of the channel. In addition to the structure’s weight, what was holding it in place was a millipede of stilts—steel H-beams that reached down at various angles, as pilings, ninety feet through sands and silts, through clayey peats and organic mucks. There never was a question of anchoring such a fortress in rock. The shallowest rock was seven thousand feet straight down. In three places below the structure, sheet steel went into the substrate like fins; but the integrity of the structure depended essentially on the H-beams, and vehicular traffic continued to cross it en route to San Luis Rey.

Then, as now, LeRoy Dugas was the person whose hand controlled Old River Control—a thought that makes him smile. “We couldn’t afford to close any of the gates,” he remarked to me one day at Old River. “Too much water was passing through the structure. Water picked up riprap off the bottom in front, and rammed it through to the tail bed.” The riprap included derrick stones, and each stone weighed seven tons. On the level of the road deck, the vibrations increased. The operator of a moving crane let the crane move without him and waited for it at the end of the structure. Dugie continued, “You could get on the structure with your automobile and open the door and it would close the door.” The crisis recalled the magnitude of “the ’27 high water,” when Dugie was a baby. Up the alley somewhere, during the ’27 high water, was a railroad bridge with a train sitting on it loaded with coal. The train had been put there because its weight might help keep the bridge in place, but the bridge, vibrating in the floodwater, produced so much friction that the coal in the gondolas caught fire. Soon the bridge, the train, and the glowing coal fell into the water.

One April evening in 1973—at the height of the flood—a fisherman walked onto the structure. There is, after all, order in the universe, and some things take precedence over impending disasters. On the inflow side, facing the Mississippi, the structure was bracketed by a pair of guide walls that reached out like curving arms to bring in the water. Close by the guide wall at the south end was the swirling eddy, which by now had become a whirlpool. There was other motion as well—or so it seemed. The fisherman went to find Dugas, in his command post at the north end of the structure, and told him the guide wall had moved. Dugie told the fisherman he was seeing things. The fisherman nodded affirmatively.

When Dugie himself went to look at the guide wall, he looked at it for the last time. “It was slipping into the river, into the inflow channel.” Slowly it dipped, sank, broke. Its foundations were gone. There was nothing below it but water. Professor Kazmann likes to say that this was when the Corps became “scared green.” Whatever the engineers may have felt, as soon as the water began to recede they set about learning the dimensions of the damage. The structure was obviously undermined, but how much so, and where? What was solid, what was not? What was directly below the gates and the roadway? With a diamond drill, in a central position, they bored the first of many holes in the structure. When they penetrated to basal levels, they lowered a television camera into the hole. They saw fish. (28-30)

“Cooling the Lava”

The next essay is set in a very different clime: a volcanic eruption in Iceland, with occasional detours to a similar eruption in Hawaii. The way he describes these immense forces is amazing; it feels as if he’s trying to make sure you feel the same sense of awe that he does.

The university installed [the seismometer] on Einar’s farm about a year before the Heimaey eruption, its primary purpose being to sense the threats of Katla, an unusually dangerous volcano only fifteen miles away. Hekla is in the area as well—the stratovolcano that appears in early literature as one of the two mouths of Hell. Groans from dead sinners have been heard in the crater. But Hekla is out in the open, observable under the sky. The baleful Katla is covered with ice It lies under Myrdalsjokull—a glacier field of two hundred and seventy square miles. When Katla erupts, as it has about twice a century, it creates a vast chamber of water under the ice. When the water reaches a critical volume, it lifts the ice cap, and one or two cubic miles bursts out as a violent flood—a blurt of water twenty times the discharge of the Amazon River. The outwash plains these floods have left behind are as desolate as the maria of the moon. A town, villages, and farms lie between Katla and the sea. (113-114)

While I’d probably call “they saw fish” my favorite line of the whole book, probably the best example of his sense of humor comes from this description of a golf course:

In 1801, it came down off Hualalai, a lesser volcano eight thousand feet high, and poured into the sea. There on the leeward side of the island, where rainfall is ten inches a year, the lava has remained essentially unchanged. Resorts have sculpted it like movie sets, landscaped wit imported soils. The bunkers of designer golf courses are not concave and full of sand but—lovely in the green surrounding turf—solid black islands of undisturbed basalt. Use your wedge on that. Your hands sting for a year. If a long approach shot lands on one of those, it bounces to Tahiti. (152)

Finally, from a portion of the book where I could feel myself mentally adding a few things to my bucket list:

The rock, being essentially glass, was very sharp. It was also hot, particularly where a tube lay below and molten lava was running there. We came to a skylight and inched toward it. Steam swirled above it but did not close off the view—of the racing orange currents of an incandescent river. By an order of magnitude, this was the most arresting sight I had ever seen in nature. The time spent gazing into it could not be measured.

Gradually, I began to think. Out of curiosity, I asked Christina if we were looking down into the near side of the tube or were standing over the middle and looking at the far side of the tube.

“The far side,” she said.

If my legs still had knees in them, I was unaware of it. (155)

“Los Angeles Against the Mountains”

The last essay of the book is the first one I read. It was interesting; at the time, I found it fascinating, and since that first reading I’ve come back to it again and again in my mind.

Los Angeles is overmatched on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on the other by very high mountains. With respect to these principal boundaries, Los Angeles is done sprawling. The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on earth. Their loose inimical slopes flout the tolerance of the angle of repose. Rising straight up out of the megalopolis, they stand ten thousand feet above the nearby sea, and they are not kidding with this city. Shedding, spalling, self-destructing, they are disintegrating at a rate that is also among the fastest in the world. The phalanxed communities of Los Angeles have pushed themselves hard against these mountains, an act of aggression that requires a deep defense budget to contend with the results. (184)

It follows the Los Angeles Flood Control District, or, as the locals call it, Flood. Now, controlling floods seems like it’d be easy in Los Angeles, the city of perpetual doubt, but that’s far from the truth; not only is there the occasional bit of torrential rainfall, but also something much more difficult: rockfall.

Many people regard the debris basins less as defenses than as assaults on nature. They are aesthetic disasters. To impose them on residential neighborhoods has been tantamount to creating a Greenwich full of gravel pits, rock quarries at either end of Sutton Place. The residents below Hook East were bitter when the basin was put in. Months later, the bulldozer tracks were still visible, they said, meaning that nothing had happened—no debris had come, and not even enough rain to obliterate the tracks. So why had the county used taxpayers’ money to build something so obviously unnecessary? A form of answer came when the basin overfilled in one night. Afterward, people criticized the county for not building basins of adequate size. (246)

What was most interesting to me, though, wasn’t just the concept of trying to fight against these rockfalls; it was the interrelationships between everything.

When fire comes, it puts the nutrients back in the ground. It clears the terrain for fresh growth. When chaparral has not been burned for thirty years, about half the thicket will be dry dead stuff—twenty-five thousand tons of it in one square mile. The living plants are no less flammable. The chamise, the manzanita—in fact, most chaparral plants—are full of solvent extractives that burn intensely and ignite easily. Their leaves are glossy with oils and resins that seal in moisture during hot dry periods and serve the dual purpose of responding explosively to flame. (209)

It burns as if it were soaked with gasoline. Chaparral plants typically have multiple stems emerging from a single root crown, and this contributes not only to the density of the thickets but, ultimately, to the surface area of combustible material that stands prepared for flame. Hundreds of acres can be burned clean in minutes. In thick black smoke there is wild orange flame, rising through the canyons like explosion crowns. The canyons serve as chimneys, and in minutes whole mountains are aflame, resembling volcanoes, emitting high columns of fire and smoke. The smoke can rise twenty thousand feet. (210)

If you walk in a rainstorm on a freshly burned chaparral slope, you notice as you step on the wet ground that the tracks you are making are prints of dry dust. In the course of a conflagration, chaparral soil, which is not much for soaking up water in the first place, experiences a chemical change and, a little below its surface, becomes waterproof. In a Forest Service building at the foot of the mountains Wade Wells keeps some petri dishes and soil samples in order to demonstrate this phenomenon to passing unbelievers. In one dish he puts unburned chaparral soil. It is golden brown. He drips water on it from an eyedropper. The water beads up, stands there for a while, then collapses and spreads into the soil. Why the water hesitates is not well understood but is a great deal more credible than what happens next. Wells fills a dish with a dark soil from burned chaparral. He fills the eyedropper and empties it onto the soil. The water stands up in one large dome. Five minutes later, the dome is still there. Ten minutes later, the dome is still there. Sparkling, tumescent, mycophane, the big bead of water just stands there indefinitely, on top of the impermeable soil. Further demonstrating how waterproof this burned soil really is, Wells pours half a pound of it, like loose brown sugar, into a beaker of water. The soil instantly forms a homunculus blob—integral, immiscible—suspended in the water.

In the slow progression of normal decay, chaparral litter seems to give up to the soil what have been vaguely described as “waxlike complexes of long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons.” These waxy substances are what make unburned chaparral soil somewhat resistant to water, or “slightly nonwettable,” as Wells and his colleagues are won’t to describe it. The the wildfires burn, and temperatures at the surface of the ground are six or seven hundred centigrade degrees, the soil is so effective as an insulator that the temperature one centimetre below the surface may not be hot enough to boil water. The heavy waxlike substances vaporize at the surface and reconvenes in the cooler temperatures below. Acting like oil, they coat soil particles and establish the hydrophobic layer—one to six centimetres down. Above that layer, where the waxlike substances are gone ,the veneer of burned soil is “wettable.” When Wells drips water on a dishful of that, the water soaks in as if the dish were full of Kleenex. When rain falls on burned and denuded ground, it soaks the very thing upper layer but can penetrate no further. Hiking boots strike hard enough to break through into the dust, but the rain is repelled and goes down the slope. Of all the assembling factors that eventually send debris flows rumbling down the canyons, none is more detonative than the waterproof soil.

In the first rains after a fire, water quickly saturates the thin permeable layer, and liquefied soil drips downhill like runs of excess paint. These miniature debris flows stripe the mountainsides with miniature streambeds—countless scarlike rills that are soon the predominant characteristic of the burned terrain. As more rain comes, each rill is going to deliver a little more debris to the accumulating load in the canyon below. But, more to the point, each rill—its naturally levees framing its impermeable bed—will increase the speed of the surface water. As rain sheds off a mountainside like water off a tin roof, the rill network, as it is called, may actually triple the peed, and therefore greatly enhance the power of the runoff. The transport capacity of the watershed—how much bulk it can move—may increase a thousandfold. The rill network is prepared to deliver water with enough force and volume to mobilize the deposits lying in the canyons below. With the appearance of the rills, almost all prerequisites have no sequential occurred. The muzzle-loader is charged. For a full-scale flat-out debris flow to burst forth from the mountains, the final requirement is a special-intensity storm. (212-214)

And, again, there’s always that sense of awe, for nature and all the forces involved. But he tempers it well with human stories:

The Harkness house projected from the hillside and had a carport beneath the master bedroom. The debris tore off the master bedroom with Sara and the baby inside. The bedroom fell on the family station wagon. With the bedroom on top of it, the station wagon went down the driveway and on down the street. In what remained of the house, the twins and their sister Claudine were unhurt. Sara and the baby came to the end of their ride unhurt. The station wagon suffered considerably. When the bedroom was taken off it, the car was twenty-six inches high. (263)

At this point, if you’re still reading, I think it’s safe to say you’re as interested by these clips of the essays as I was by the whole things. I can absolutely recommend that you give it a read.

  1. Technically it was the second item on the pile, behind Baldwin’s “Collected Essays”, but that’s a rather dense book that I’ve been working on for a while, and I needed a bit of a break.