Walkable City by Jeff Speck

Our built environment is killing us — sprawl contributes to obesity and cars are lethal. Despite all the politically charged crime narratives, car driving makes suburbs less safe than cities.

Urban planners can do something about it, and they know the solutions. But old habits die hard — of free parking and wide drivable streets. Change the narrative.

That’s from the influential 2012 book by urban planner Jeff Speck called “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.” The book was part of a wave of research and urban championing that empowered a new generation of policymakers, designers, planners and community leaders. I’ve long seen it referenced by other authors I read, and the publisher released a 10th anniversary issue, so I finally circled back and read this well-regarded read.

The reissue was mostly the original book, though it included a new preface and other updates, including pandemic references. I dug into the treacherous claims about safety and where we live, which are personal and messy — because we’re more often scared of sharks and burglars than car crashes and obesity, the far more prevalent threats to our well-being.

To pick up Speck’s claims: About 25,000 people were murdered in the United States last year, according to the CDC — and of course that’s not all in cities. Nearly 40,000 people die in cars each year, though that isn’t all in the suburbs either. More directly to Speck’s point, as many as 500,000 American deaths each year may be attributed to obesity-related causes, according to one respected analysis, which are far more prevalent among people who don’t do much walking. Altogether, Americans are dying in rural places faster than urban ones, according to a 2022 analysis.

Whatever the case, Speck contributed to a foundation of urbanist thinking a decade ago, and I dug into the work. Below I share my notes for future reference.

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The Moundbuilders of the Eastern Woodlands

The so-called “moundbuilders” of the Eastern Woodlands in the present-day United States were among the most complex cultures of pre-European societies. Yet growing archeological evidence remains under-recognized in American life.

That’s from anthropologist George Milner’s 2005 book “The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America.”

I’ve read about an array of Amerindian communities, but the moundbuilders, which appeared to be densely populated from Ohio down to Louisana, mostly west of the Appalachian mountains and east of the Mississippi River, especially interest me. This is the first book I read dedicated to this civilization, though they get referenced often in other places. Below I share some notes for my future reference.

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Quantum Supremacy by Michio Kaku

Newtonian physics works for most of our everyday experiences. But for the biggest systems we encounter, we need Einstein’s theories of relativity to make sense of spacetime.

Neither, nor does our own intuitive understanding of the world, work at the smallest scale we understand. This is the quantum level, where electrons can be at two places at the same time, transmit information faster than speed of light and instantly analyze infinite paths between two points.

As Danish physicist and Nobel laureate Neils Bohr (1885-1962) wrote: “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory does not understand it.”

And much like we didn’t understand all the ramifications of the atomic age before we developed nuclear weapons, governments and companies are busy investing in the military and commercial implications of the potentially radical advancement in quantum computing.

That’s the timing from prominent physicist and science communicator Michio Kaku in his 2023 book “Quantum Supremacy: How the Quantum Computer Revolution Will Change Everything.”

By no means exhaustive, I picked up the book for a primer on the technology my work overlaps with. Below I share my notes for future reference.

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Tabula Rasa: John McPhee

Retirement projects are completed as a final act. Better to let them linger.

And yet, last year, celebrated longform writer John McPhee, who has published dozens of books and hundreds of articles for New Yorker, published his retirement project: Tabula Rasa, a collection of essays that chronicle stories he never completed.

Contrary to most of my reading of late, I didn’t take many notes. The whole book reads as a light treatise on life, with his wit and wording. A few points that stood out to me now:

  • From Draft No 4: “Editors’ habit of replacing an author’s title, with one of their own, is like a photo of a tourist head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong”
  • In 1967, he published a book on and called Oranges, which came to define his style: irreverent longform that dabbled in reportage and writerly cultural assessment
  • He developed a friendship with Bill Bradley, after writing a celebrated New Yorker profile and follow-on book
  • Of pharma copywriters, he notes: They create catchy brand names and unnecessarily complicated generic names so it’s harder to market after a patent expires

Philadelphia’s 1844 Nativist Riots: Ken Milano

My bicycle commute from where in live in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood to my office in Old City runs down Kensington Second Street. Little sign remains of the violent riots that took place there 180 years ago between Irish immigrants and so-called nativists in 1844.

Fittingly, Philadelphia’s riots are quietly forgotten, while similarly-timed violence in New York City was turned into a book and then a 2002 movie called Gangs of New York. Sparked from a dispute around bibles in schools, a few dozen people died and perhaps hundreds were wounded in the most intense few days that May.

That’s the focus of the 2013 book The Philadelphia Nativist Riots: Irish Kensington Erupts, written by local historian Ken Milano. I’ve read Ken’s other books — and exchanged a few emails with him through the years. I appreciate his thorough and thoughtful approach, so I have most of his books in my collection, and have gifted them to friends. I only now read this one. Pick up a copy yourself.

The riots had a real impact. Milano argues that the riots contributed to the 1854 consolidation, in which Philadelphia city (and its law enforcement system) annexed surrounding counties, inspired the development of the parochial school system and was directly responsible for the founding of La Salle College, which was originally located across the street from where a church was burned.

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I read 56 books in 2023

Gosh, that was a lot.

How? Well, a baby waking up at 5am ended up resulting in my reading way more than usual. Poor sleep all around, come to think of it, so in some sense I hope I don’t read this many books again. I also gave up most TV weeknights, though I already didn’t watch much. Find all my reading notes here, and see the list below.

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Dawn of Everything: how to understand the origins of inequality

Any complex society requires a state, and so any society that doesn’t have a state must not be complex. This circular logic doesn’t hold against the archeological and anthropological record. Mesoamerica, Crete and certain Mongolian periods aren’t exceptions but examples of alternative ways to structure societies in which we ought to listen.

That’s the broadest thrust of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a sprawling and intellectually ambitious 2021 book by anthropologist and activist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow. I took most of a month digging through it.

The authors finished the book in August 2020, and sadly Graeber, radical coiner of the slogan “We are the 99 percent” and author of Bullshit Jobs, died a month later due to complications between pancreatis and the covid-19 pandemic.

The 600-page book started as a project to answer where inequality comes from. In the end, the pair aimed to complicate any narrative we have about how societies got structured the way they are. For example, they argue the transition to agriculture was no revolution, but a transition that took thousands of years, and may have finished more because of ecological change than anything. The post Ice Age-thaw slowed and climates stabilized, resulting in less glacial melting and rivers shifting, some 7,000 years ago, after many urban centers had formed. As they conclude: “Extensive agriculture may thus have been an outcome, not a cause, of urbanization.”

Whatever the case, the pair want much more variety in how we all can choose to live. Get the book, it’s a thinker. Below I share my (excessive) notes for my future reference.

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When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic

Kids who graduates with high marks at high-achieving schools were later put into a high-risk category for mental health disorders.

Something felt off, so journalist Jennifer Breheny Wallace wrote ” “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic-and What We Can Do About It.”

I read it as a parent, so my notes are scant but the point is clear: Pushing kids for academic achievements can reverse course years later. Better to encourage a healthy and happy relationship with learning. Trouble is that short-term outcomes look good for pushing kids — grades go up — but on the longtail, they’re less happy.

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Writing for Busy Readers

More words add nuance but clutters central message. Which is your preference: the details or the point?

It isn’t always one or the other, but if you’re writing for busy readers and broader audiences, you ought focus on the point. That’s among the themes from a new book by Jessica Lasky-Fink and Todd Rogers called “Writing for Busy Readers: Communicate More Effectively in the Real World.” Add it to a helpful collection of writing about writing that I enjoy.

They have a nice simplified chart here on a site of resources. Below I share my notes for future reference.

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Born in Blackness by Howard W. French

The so-called Age of Exploration wasn’t driven by Europeans chasing goods from Asia, a continent with which they had tied for centuries. European developed modern navigation and empire-making in pursuit of the gold-rich African empires that were beginning to open.

That set off the last 400 years of history, including the modern, caste-making of race, simplifying all African peoples into a single “black” category. That’s from the 2021 book by longtime journalist Howard W. French called “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War.” (A review here)

Below find my notes for future reference. I didn’t take as thorough notes as I often do because I found myself reading with a near-toddler but it’s a start.

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