Big Chicken: Poultry, antibiotics, science and politics

Big Chicken, by science journalist Maryn McKenna starts off with a scientific detective story, tracing how experts at the Center for Disease Control tracked down the connections between outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections and animals that are dosed with large quantities of growth-promoting and preventative antibiotics. The book explores the history of how newly-discovered antibiotics became the foundation of industrial farming, allowing animals to be grown rapidly in very close quarters in large quantities at lower cost. Antibiotics became such a staple of industrial agriculture that farmers have been dosing non-sick animals with quantities of antibiotics larger than are used in all of human medicine.

It was not only the scientific discoveries and the dwindling power of antibiotics to defeat resistant bacteria that led the industry to back away from practice of routine antibiotic use, and the relationship between science, politics, and industry varied widely in different parts of the world. England backed away early, thanks to research in the 50s and 60s – a few key scientists who held leading administrative positions, and had prestige to influence legislation – and a shocking plague of hoof-and-mouth disease that instigated national reflection about meat-raising practices. In France, cultural values of good-tasting food have taken higher priority than low-cost, high-volume production of bland poultry and meat. In the Netherlands, it took til the late 90s and 2000s for the change to take hold; farmers turned toward highly efficient poultry production without routine antibiotics once evidence mounted that farmers themselves had become carriers of antibiotic-resistant infections that they picked up from their animals.

But in the United States, the poultry and meat industries pushed back hard, using sophisticated and well-funded PR and lobbying tactics of denialism familiar from the tobacco industry’s pushback against evidence of the health hazards of smoking and the fossil fuel industries’ pushback against evidence of the environmental disaster of climate change. Big Chicken does a good job of explaining the tight control that a small number of poultry producers hold over farmers, who raise strains of animals provided to them, using feed mixes provided to them, using finances provided to them. in an industrialized version of the traditional sharecropping system. The meat industry successfully staved off regulation for decades until executive orders from the Obama administration which have taken effect only recently. Unlike many other Obama-era executive orders, the rules protecting against antibiotic resistent bacteria haven’t yet been reversed by the Trump Administration as far as your blogger can tell.

According to Big Chicken, what promoted change before legal reform took hold was consumer advocacy. Consumer preference for healthier poultry and meat started with counter-culture practices, and then niche market players like Whole Foods. Driven by a growing upswell of consumer concern about the risks to human health caused by massive antibiotic doses (and other health risks of factory farming), major poultry producer Purdue Chicken and major retailer Chick-fil-A took the lead in reducing antibiotic use and finding other means to profitably raise and distribute chicken without mass doses of antibiotics.

However, Big Chicken touches on the tale of successful consumer advocacy only lightly – there are other stories told elsewhere or yet to be told about the consumer advocacy initiatives that led the industry to start to pivot away from some of the harmful practices of factoring farming. The book does an excellent job of recounting the history of science and technology that led to antibiotic overuse, and provides an interesting cross-cultural analysis of how different parts of the world moved away from antibiotic overuse, including grim and fascinating reporting on the industry structures in the US that, despite the grave risks to human health, kept most growers from changing their practices until recently.

Aphrodite and the Rabbis

Aphrodite and the Rabbis, by Burton Visotzky, professor of Midrash at Jewish Theological Seminary, explores how Rabbinic Judaism, the dominant strain of Judaism for 2000 years after the destruction of the temple, developed in a matrix of hellenistic Greco-Roman culture under the Roman empire.

Examples: Hellenistic literary scholarship was based on study and commentary of the 24 books of Homer; the Rabbis used very similar modes commenting on the books of the Hebrew Bible; and they even shoe-horned the count of books in the canon to equal 24 in order to parallel the Homeric canon. The Passover seder was modeled directly on the hellenistic “symposium”, an intellectual seminar and feast interspersed with alcohol, dishes with dipping sauces, and music.

In focusing on what Rabbinic Judaism inherited from Hellenistic culture, Visotsky does not explore what is different. The symposium evening ended with courtesans entertaining the guests; that is not part of the Passover haggada. The book shows interesting literary similarities, but does not attend to the dramatic and presumably deliberate difference in which the Rabbis assertively avoid structures based on categories and sequence; the Talmudic forms are relentlessly digressive and associative. The book tells stories of interactions between Rabbis and various Roman figures; but stays away from the extensive talmudic material about avoiding contact and familiarity with pagans and the props and rituals of paganism.

The book provides evidence that Jews in the Roman empire were much more familiar with Aramaic and Greek than Hebrew. And it shows how early synagogue architecture was extraordinarily similar to the temples and churches down the street in Roman empire towns; and how the synagogue art was strikingly similar, including ubiquitous images of the Zodiac, and even images of Zeus/Apollo riding his 4-horse chariot across the sky.

synagogue mosaic beit alfa

In describing the material culture of Jews in the Roman empire, though, the book has very little information about how Jews lived outside of the Rabbinic academies, even how much connection there was (or wasn’t) between the elite scholars in the academy, elaborating ideas about normative ritual practice; and what Jews actually did. In one of the apparently few areas where there is evidence, the book inventories synagogues to assess how many follow the Rabbinic dictum to face toward the East, toward Jerusalem. The result is inclusive.

Last and least, the tone of the book is informal and jocular, which this reader found mildly distracting. Overall, I would recommend the book for those who are interested in the subject matter.

Visotsky argues that even as the Talmudic era Rabbis define themselves politically and religiously in contrast to the dominant culture, they were at the same time deeply shaped by the culture.

Great Good Place: How the decline of walking ruined community (and American bars are too loud)

Just read Ray Oldenburg’s sociology classic “The Great Good Place”, which names and praises the “third places” where people go between home and work. Oldenberg makes the case that these places are essential for people to relax and nurture social connections, and that the rise of auto sprawl and the loss of walkable neighborhoods all but ruined them.

Like Jane Jacobs’ classic work, the core thesis seems powerful and right.  However, the books arguments are highly anecdotal and suffused with credibility-sucking nostalgia; the content on the role of gender and sexuality makes manifest the iffiness of his method.


The book describes the neighborhood taverns, beer gardens, cafes, and corner stores where many people used to stop for a while between home and work and spend time with a group of regulars, across class and age boundaries, with relatively low barriers to entry, the beverages as largely an excuse to socialize, and with conversation as the main entertainment.

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London coffee shop

Oldenburg makes devastating arguments about the ways that automotive culture has greatly diminished third places.  Low density, spread out single use zoning puts people outside of walking distance from commercial establishments and gathering places; so there are no “locals” where you’ll run into a regular cast of characters.  Even successful places are patronized by roving groups of known friends, rather than stable sets who can assimilate newcomers.   The corporate chains and malls that displaced local convenience stores, casual restaurants, and other gathering places are focused on efficient turnover of anonymous customers, and don’t provide the time and space for idle conversation.

Without the influence of a patient and hospitable patron, and a stable group who can entertain themselves endlessly with animated conversation over a beer or maybe two, and single sex or family crowd, bars become places for heavy drinking, with loud music, fads for entertainment, and pickup pairing.

Interestingly, Oldenburg’s attention to street life focuses on commercial establishments that extend onto the sidewalk, where people sit, eat, drink and chat.  He does not focus on the semi-public domain of stoops and entrances where residents and proprietors hold court with passersby, which are Jane Jacobs tropes of healthy urban socialization and maintenance of social norms.

Without third places, people do 90% of their drinking and the vast majority of their entertainment within the walls of home; diminishing the mental health benefits that come from a broader social network, and putting excessive pressure on marriages. The age segregation of contemporary life, car-dependence, and pervasive scheduling makes life particularly dull and stressful for suburban youth and teenagers.  The decline in the status and health of street life can be seen in the rise of terms such as “streetwise” meaning aggressive, self-protective and cynical, and the importance of activities at keeping kids off the street.

The depiction of “wholesome” “decent” tavern norms has a fair amount of “no-true-scotsman” about it. The centuries of urban life in which there have been commercial drinking establishments include numerous geographically distributed instances of culturally prevalent alcoholism and alcohol-fueled financially harmful gambling and violence. Prohibition was a mistake, but the temperance movement wasn’t driven by the zeal to ban taverns where men relaxed and chatted for an hour over one or two drinks.

The examples of social leveling, where physicians would spend time talking politics and sports with plumbers, seem real enough, but the book ignores the boundaries of ethnicity, sometimes religion, and especially race that would get the wrong kinds of people violently excluded. Not to mention, Oldenburg’s attraction to third places comes from a particularly situated class perspective – one reason he is so fond of third places is that they are more relaxing than stuffy cocktail parties where one must dress up and be on one’s best behavior, says the college professor who presumably is obligated to attend numerous cocktail parties.

The theorizing about gender is where the anecdotal method is most obviously saturated with cultural perspective.  Oldenburg argues that one important role served by a third place providing is a relaxing single-sex refuge from heterosocial life (although some species of third place, such as the German beer garden, were populated by men, women, and children. The single sex socializing is important, says Oldenburg, for both men and women – various cultures have men only and women only spaces that are important for social life.

While Oldenburg acknowledges a need for female-only space, his language often takes a male perspective, e.g. “customers and their wives.”   The book is replete with cavalier and confident statements about gender, such as “parenting is largely mothering”, “women have more spare time than men”, and “women don’t like snooker,” but unfortunately female guests must be allowed to take a turn.   (I wonder what my female friends who are billiards aficionados think of snooker, which I had barely heard of). The assumptions about the lives of women are particularly class-coded – working class women always worked and never had idle time.

The book’s anecdotes about the disjoint sets of male and female interests are contradictory. One grown woman recalls that her interest in politics was stoked by adult conversations at the local soda fountain.  At a “third place” in the UK, a woman who is passionate about cars is steered away from the men talking about cars to the women, because she will disrupt the natural male bonding around cars, and is best directed toward more feminine subjects of conversation.


Oldenburg deplores and bemoans a tendency toward companionate relationships with the growth of the college-educated professional class. “College men started to take their women took their women on hunting, fishing and boating trips” which ruined the ambience of the all male gatherings.  The reason that mixed gatherings are unwelcome is that because with the tension that is necessary for sexual attraction, it is “impossible to relax with the opposite sex”, especially the forced mixing at dinner parties, and even a night out with one’s own spouse.


Meanwhile, all-male gatherings have no harmful effects.  “Male groups encourage men to view women as sex objects but not treat them this way,” as we surely know from fraternities and technology conferences.   The interest of women in gaining access to the all-male clubs that are key venues for business and political networking is described as “The blood lust of feminists seeking to invade or destroy.”


And, Oldenburg assures us, homosocial bonding has no connection to homosexuality. “Eroticism is almost always absent in all male groups”, and rather, “homosexuality becomes common when male bonding is weak.”   Pause for laughter.


Oldenburg’s observations and assessments about gender are full of culturally situated stereotypes, not to mention rampant sexism.  The dominance of dubious assumptions about gender raises questions about other observations in the book.  Unlike the work of, say, Jan Gehl, which is based on meticulous observations of social life in public places, and a long history of design experiments to affect the social life in public spaces, Oldenburg’s book is full of one-off personal observations and retold anecdotes.


Because of Oldenburg’s strong opinions and heavily anecdotal methods, I would also wonder about counter examples where car cultures may have created functioning third places – what diners, beaches, and other car-dependent locations still fostered informal socializing with regular participants.  The book is also wholly secular; there may be evidence and arguments about the relative roles of churches and synagogues in fostering regularly attended gatherings that nurture social ties (although Charles Marohn of Strong Towns argues that suburban churches also weaken the third place nature of community events).

Thinking about the book, I wonder whether bike party rides count as effective third places. They’re not daily, but with test rides there are weekly events, they involve casual socializing with people across a range of ethnicity, income, and age, with alcohol etc as social lubricants, and sets of regulars who are open to newcomers. They use suburban people-unfriendly arterial roads and parking lots, and convert them into sociable parades and festivals.

Interestingly, a quick Google search shows that in addition to planners, Christian bloggers have apparently taken up consideration of Oldenburg’s work.  Church folk wonder whether religious institutions can provide “third place” style gathering spots, or bring church practices to “third places”, or possibly compete with secular places.


Oldenburg himself is dismissive of the ability of online services to play the role of “third places”, and stresses the need for in-person interaction.  However, this perspective neglects the increasingly common interaction of online settings, where people can chitchat and meet virtually through others with similar interests and mutual friends, and in-person gatherings that spring from online discussion.


While Oldenburg’s methods are highly qualitative and culturally situated there is some good evidence that Oldenburg got key points measurably right – greatly reduced time spent socializing informally outside of the home; the dramatic increase in the structure of children’s lives and reduction of outdoor self-directed free play.


When the book was written in the 90s, Oldenburg writes that the planning profession had paid negligible attention to community spaces.   The government was well established in the business of creating outdoor parks for recreation, but played minimal roles in creating spaces for urban socializing.  (Oldenburg omits discussion of the compulsory and largely disastrous civic and office plazas created in the second half of the the 20th century. William Whyte’s detailed study of the success factors for public plazas in New York City is the exception that proves the rule).


Since then, however, the planning and design professions have accelerated study of public places and have started to seek to foster lively public space, and civic participation in the creation of public spaces, on a more regular basis.  The Project for Public Spaces, founded to build on Whyte’s work, has developed a global practice in the field in recent decades, and cites Oldenburg as an inspiration.   Jan Gehl’s firm has been influential in transforming places around the world, including Copenhagen, Melbourne, and New York City.


With these practices, the role of the public sector is to foster the places that can foster social interaction. Outdoors, this includes human-scaled plazas with detail fostering social interaction, and sizeable sidewalks taking space back from vehicles.   For indoor spaces, the public sector is starting to play a role in fixing the policies that caused third places to decline – once again allowing mixed use zoning, and walkable densities, so people can live near coffeeshops, restaurants and convenience stores; and changing vehicle parking laws so that driving and parking does not make it unpleasant to stroll by a neighborhood place.


The revival of big cities and small city downtowns, and neighborhood design encourages optimism about the opportunity to gradually bring back third places.  As of Oldenburg’s sequel, it didn’t seem like much progress had been made – the Great Good Places he was able to find in a late 90s anthology were , However, the drastic shortage of increasingly popular walkable places is causing gentrification, and raises the risk that until and unless the shortage is filled, the social and civic capital available to people with public places will be less available to lower income people exiled to exurban sprawl.

Ephemeral great good places

Recently read Ray Oldenburg’s “Celebrating the Third Place“, a book of case studies intending to provide instances of the type of “Great Good Place” that he praised in the 1990s classic about “third places” between home and work.   I’d never read the original, and found that it was unavailable for an impulse read on kindle or a nearby library, but the sequel was on Kindle.

“Third places” in Oldenburg’s “Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day” are personally comforting and valuable for social and civic life, according to Oldenburg’s argument as reflected in the sequel.   They provide places for people to socialize outside of racial and class hierarchies.   But they were in deep decline, in an era of suburbanization, with chain stores focused on customer turnover, public spaces minimized and privatized, and people preferring to stay at home with television and videogames, before the internet provided even more attractions to screens indoors.

Great Good Place

The case studies in “Celebrating” include a garden supply store, a couple of bookstores, a record store, several coffee shops and restaurants, a couple of bars, a passport photo shop with a homegrown book club, an open air market. Plus, an essay arguing that prison served as a third place for the author and his fellow inmates.   The chapters are contributed by people involved in the places, describing the atmosphere, staff, customers and community, origins, triumphs and challenges.  And stories about how the connections made at these places enriched participants’ lives.

Out of the places in the book, only a few are still in business after twenty years.  A declining mall in the Seattle area that was rehabbed around surprising concepts of common space, performance art, ethnic communities and branch offices of public services.   A bookstore in a resort community.   A fish taco local chain under new management.

Some of the businesses are in sectors – books, music – that were hit hard by digitization (after all, I got the book on Kindle, and there are no longer local bookstores that would have this sort of older classic in stock).   Most were small businesses depending on the founders; they closed because of hard times, or the founders moved on.   The repurposed mall is still in business; the founder’s kids are apparently taking over the business and adding housing to the mix of uses, which is a good sign of increasing durability?

What does it mean, that this type of place deemed essential for social and civic life is so ephemeral?   The profiled places are mostly independent food service businesses, which are notoriously risky and short-lived.   Chains from the era of the original “Third Place” book – Starbuck’s, Applebees – are still going strong, with institutional management and funding.   Upon reflection, two independent “community institution” cafes near where I live – Borrone in Menlo Park and Coupa in Palo Alto, are established family businesses with multiple family members, and have been going strong since the days of Oldenburg’s books, although I don’t think they would meet the criterion of a third place where people meet folk they don’t already know and build ties.    It’s possible that the book had a selection bias in favor of less stable businesses.   The chapters were provided by voluntary contributions; and perhaps chapters were contributed by proprietors who were seeking marketing help by being included in the book?

Our society and economy provides more solid support for corporate chains than indies; corporations do a somewhat better job of transmitting organizational life past the tenure of founders; multi-generational family businesses are more rare. This has benefits in addition to drawbacks; blood ties aren’t the only ways to get business stability, and children can pursue their own interests rather than being stuck in the family trade.

Perhaps there is a flaw in the romantic concept of an independent business, which has difficulty building stability?  Perhaps there is unappreciated strength in the old-fashioned forms of civic institutions – the Elks and Lions and so on – and the churches and synagogues that provide community spaces across decades and past the tenure of individual leaders.

There are continual cultural ebbs and flows across history; escalated by capitalism but endemic in the evolution of cultures.  Food drink, and types of restaurants; games and other types of  secular socializing all change over time and their places and organizations change. That was one of the fallacies of Robert Putnam’s 1995 essay “Bowling Alone“, which in the same time frame as Oldenburg lamented the loss of civic and social institutions in a suburban and privatized world, but also fallaciously equated the decline of old-fangled associations like bowling leagues and Elks Clubs with an absolute decline of social association.

This is not even to start to engage the questions about the relative benefits and drawbacks of online social networks and their relationships to social capital.

Another question about the ephemeral nature of the “third places” profiled by Oldenburg. Do actual public spaces do a better job of supporting social connections over time than these small and fragile private spaces.   Suburbanization separated people physically, replaced public squares and markets with tightly controlled private malls, and minimized the role of streets in fostering social activities.

Scholars and intellectuals starting with William Whyte and Jane Jacobs, and practitioners including Jan Gehl and the team at Project for Public Spaces created a discipline to study and recreate public spaces that people enjoy and use.  The Open Streets movement started with Ciclovia in the 1970s in Columbia to recapture streets for people.   Places revived by Jan Gehl and his team have been thriving for decades.   The plazas, avenues, and waterfront promenades reinvigorated by these placemaking activities don’t depend on any single business – they benefit from rules that foster (and don’t prohibit) multiple sociable activities in proximity – food carts and trucks, performing artists,  outdoor games.  As public spaces, they foster activities that don’t require money to participate, and don’t have a rigorous turnover requirement to make a profit (although gathering many people together in shifting assortments provides an economic boost).

On reflection good number of the shuttered businesses were physically isolated, in keeping with the suburban and exurban norm. The garden store in Western Mass sat alone on a highway exit; the gym in Atlanta requires people to drive to a place to get exercise; one of the cafes/performance spaces was in a repurposed church in a changing neighborhood (also raising questions about whose sets of social institutions Oldenburg was primed to see).

The “third place” that seemed to be the most well established after 15 years was the semi-public space in the revived Seattle area mall, which has had a changing assortment of businesses over the years, plus common space supporting music, performing arts, outdoor chess, and just hanging out.

So maybe the stability of “third places” depends in no small part on the existence of actual public space, and the flow of a critical mass of people in the transect between public space and highly social private third space?

All of these are questions.  Some of you reading may have more knowledge and more insights, or more questions. Comments are welcome.

For peterme who wants to know whether I recommend the book.  The book itself isn’t great, but raises a lot of interesting questions.  At some point I’ll go read the Oldenburg original.


The New Nature of Maps

By the time I got to read the New Nature of Maps, a book of essays on social theory of cartography written before the author’s death in 1991, any shock value it might have had was long gone, but the book  asks some questions that are still relevant for the understanding of maps.   The decades since the essays were written have brought substantial change  in the nature of maps, and some of the author’s speculations have proven prophetic.

Apparently in the 1980s when cartographic scholar JB Harley was writing the essays in the book, it was the norm among academic students of maps to consider the materials that they studies to be objective scientific documents; or if they fell short of that standard, to be evidence of the incomplete development of scientific methods of mapping, or evidence of the distortion, misuse, or mere incompetent assembly of map-like information by propagandists or poorly educated non-professionals.

In a series of essays, Harley applies ideas from postmodern theory – Foucault, Derrida, and other thinkers – to show how maps can be considered historical texts that encode the power relations of the society in which they were produced.

The essays examine the images, forms and margins of maps to reveal these power relations.  The centrality of Jerusalem and the Holy Land in Judeochristian premodern maps; the prominence of the seats of dukes and princes, bishops, archbishops, and abbots in maps of reformation England, with special symbols for the increments of clerical and aristocratic hierarchies, depictions of the growing colonial empires of Europe, with blank spaces for areas uncontrolled by Europeans or censored for purposes of commercial monopoly; and side illustrations demonstrating the inferiority and subjection of local populations; all of these these structures and forms encode the power structures of the societies, they do not merely depict objective facts about the land and seascapes.

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A chilling chapter on maps of Colonial New England shows how in earlier maps, Native American places and place names were portrayed; as colonial conquest continues, the native places and names gradually disappear.   In other Colonial maps, Harley pays close attention to the “cartouche” symbols that communicate the  sponsors and the values behind the maps, and observes that that the principal English encounter with slaves was in the West Indies. (If encounter is a sufficient euphemism for mass murder).

In an introduction that praises and critiques Harley’s work, the editor of the book of essays points out that maps have also played roles in helping the powerless, in addition to documenting and promoting military and socio-economic power.   Just a few examples from recent reading: maps have also been used since the 19th century by public health professionals and social reformers to reveal information and promote policies intended to help the sick and unfortunate. Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map, published in 2007, tells the story of a pioneering doctor’s use of a map to pinpoint the source of a cholera epidemic;  Susan Schulten’s Mapping the Nation, published in 2012, describes the growing use of maps in 19th Century America to visualize patterns of data about subjects including agriculture, race and slavery, poverty, epidemic disease.

Schulten shows how abolitionists used maps of slave populations to evangelize opposition to slavery – the opposite of Harley’s hypothesis.  Schulten tells the story of a famous map, created by the United States Coast Survey that used data from the 1860 Census that revealed the geographic distribution of the population of enslaved people in the South, providing insight into the the political dynamics of secession, as well as the sheer scope of slavery. Lincoln contemplated the map often during the Civil War, and the map appears in the famous painting by Francis Carpenter depicting the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Map showing distribution of enslaved population

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The relationship between maps and power includes another dimension that Foucault might, but Harley and even editor Andrews don’t consider.  The social science applications of maps, nominally intended to help the poor, the unfortunate, and the sick, can also be used as instruments of increasing bureaucratic control, creating new forms of institutional and psychological oppression that complement or supplant mere physical oppression in industrial society.

In considering maps as a tool for the powerful to represent the dominance of the powerless, Harley doesn’t consider examples of maps created by the power structure but used for subversive purposes to fight power.  A map created in the 1960s as part of a regional planning process predicted the seemingly inevitable filling in of San Francisco Bay, with areas all around the bay targeted for new development and road-building.  This map seems to bolster Harley’s thesis. Created by professionals who presumably saw themselves as objectively representing current and future disposition of land, the map represented a power grab in which real estate developers displaced much of the wetland habitat that remained. But the map was discovered and perceived with dismay by environmentalists. The visual became the centerpiece of a massive and eventually successful organizing campaign to save the bay from landfill and development.

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In considering maps as instruments of political power, Harley underplays the role of maps as instruments of commercial power.  The essay on “Silences and Secrecy: The Hidden Agenda of Cartography in Early Modern Europe” tells the stories about policies censoring map data about economically valuable secrets – the Straits of Magellan, African watersheds, and the entire emerging global marine maps of the empires of Spain and Portugal.  These secrets were simultaneously commercial and military, so they bolster Harley’s hypothesis of maps as enforcing political power.

The chapter on “Deconstructing the Map” cites a scholarly essay on the Official State Highway Map of North Carolina for 1978, that reports on the images used on the reverse of the map next to the index; a Cherokee woman making jewelry, a zoo animal extinct in the wild, the state bird (cardinal) and state insect (honey bee), ferry schedule, a ski lift, a sand dune (but no cities). [Harley doesn’t, but might have interpreted the image of the native woman as the latest in the colonialist series; she is not a representative of a group of people, but a species that may or may not be extinct].  The highways are visually dominant, the towns are graphically subordinate.  Harley interprets these symbols as creating a mythic geography for North Carolina, insisting that “the roads really are what North Carolina is about” and “idolizing our love affair with the automobile.”  The tactic of seeing and foregrounding the marginal images and using them to reveal meanings that the creators may or may not have consciously intended is a classic technique of postmodern literary analysis.

North Carolina Points of Interest

Harley does not go far enough at revealing the role of maps in creating the romance and dependence on the automobile as a commercial product and the center of a ubiquitous system of consumption.  The American Automobile Association was created in order to market new uses for the automobile, and to foster businesses serving people traveling by automobile.  AAA maps did not just document but helped create the commodification of the countryside; the spread of spectacle-filled tourist attractions along highways like a linear series of PT Barnum exhibits; the emergence of fast food restaurants to standardize and over-write local food traditions; and the growth of highway intersections as hubs of commerce, replacing pedestrian main streets, and making it nearly impossible to engage in commercial or social activities without a car.

“The New Nature of Maps” quite reasonably incorporates maps within the realm of social history, and imports techniques used to study other sorts of texts and artifacts-as-texts.  If Harley’s observations seemed shocking at the time to the community of professional cartographers who saw themselves as purveyors of objective truth about the spatial world, it does not seem shocking today to anyone with basic literacy in social science and intellectual history.

While the Harley does utilize the techniques of paying attention to margins and metaphors, he does not travel very far down the path of Derridean deconstruction in which any supposed meaning of an artifact unravels under questioning about the nominal intent and integrity of the authors.  Before Harley, Jose Luis Borges had already portrayed those anti-representational forms, where space and time are self-referential, paradoxical, and perpetually deceptive, in his classic short fictions. This may be just as well, since once the joke is told one knows the punchline.

The essays in the book were written in what turned out to be the waning days of paper maps whose creation was dominated by professional mapmakers.  In a chapter on the ethics of cartography, Harley writes that “the social history of maps – unlike that of literature, art or music – appears to have few genuinely popular, alternative or subversive modes of expression. Maps are preeminently a language of power, not of protest.”  Scholars of labor, civil rights, environmental and other movements may know of more examples of the use of maps for liberation and subversion that Harley also missed, in addition to the ones I was able to come up with off the top of my head.

Since 1991, when the field of geographical information systems was in its infancy, the ubiquitous digitization of maps has created much broader opportunities for citizen-created maps and for political organizing using mapped data, with user-created layers using commercial platforms (Google Maps), and open platforms where even the base data is contributed by civilians (OpenStreetMap).

The democratization of map skills has make the artifice of map creation more transparent.    Twenty years ago it took some effort and insight to decipher the icons used in printed maps, such the ecclesiastical miters and croziers that were used to represent seats of church power in Reformation England; to decode the system so as not to take the symbol set for granted.  Today, when you upload a spreadsheet of data points to populate a Google Map, the tool asks you to pick as set of icons to represent the values, or add your own icon set.  The selection of layers to display on a map can be controlled by the user, so it is more clear that layers reflect communication choices. Many more people are being trained on the rhetoric required for map creation.

Harley wrote “cartography is too important to be left only to cartographers (p. 203); the words have proven to be prophetic.   People are creating maps for popular culture (e.g. bike party rides)

Bike Party Route

and for political resistance (see this project documenting Ellis Act Evictions in San Francisco).

Ellis Act Evictions


Harley’s observation about copyright is particularly prescient in the age of digital maps.  The chapter on the Ethics of Cartography starts with a bit of doggerel about the enclosure of the British commons – “The law locks up both man and woman/Who steals thegoose from off the common/But lets the greater felon loose/Who steals the common from the goose.”   Anticipating the arguments of Lessig and others, Harley opposes the  assumption that maintaining proprietary map data should be considered an ethical responsibility of mapmakers, and contends instead that data about the physical world should be considered part of the intellectual “commons.”

The rise of digital geospatial applications creates new opportunities for popular creativity and protest, even as it creating new opportunities for commercialization and surveillance.   In the chapter on ethics, Harley writes, with some exaggeration that “cartographers create a spatial panopticon.”  Today, San Jose City Council Member and Mayoral Candidate Sam Liccardo’s proposal for the City to have access to private surveillance cameras for law enforcement purposes.  That’s not even counting the use of mobile phone data for ubiquitous surveillance by the NSA and others. The panopticon is already here.

Google Maps, Yelp, and other commercially-sponsored geospatial apps brings advertising into every decision about and experience of navigating the world; and Google Glass offers to bring commercial information within one’s field of perception.  In “The New Nature of Maps”, JB Harley was able to utilize the techniques of social theory to decipher ways in which “the map is not the territory.”  When geospatial information appears as an overlay in one’s field of vision, it will become more difficult to critique.

For @peterme, I enjoyed the book in large part because of the many examples decoding maps across European and American history, and also because of the opportunity the book presents to reflect on changes in mapping since the book was written.   I read the segments on theory fairly lightly with the background knowledge that this was an argument that had since been won; readers who are more interested in the nuances of philosophy may get something different out of the book.   Recommended for people interested in the subject matter.




Life Between Buildings and Cities for People

Where the new “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck talked about creating walkable streets, the classic Life Between Buildings, sees streets as one part of the public realm outdoors in between the buildings.

Jahn Gehl’s Life Between Buildngs isn’t new at all. First published by the Danish designer in 1971, when stark modernist architecture and city planning were painfully fresh, but Scandinavia and other European areas were just starting to recover from the mistakes of car-centric design and building-centric architecture. Cities for People, published nearly 30 years later in 2010, largely recaps Life Between Buildings, but adds some interesting material about new developments in the intervening decades.

For Jan Gehl, walkability (and later on, bikeability) are important, but only a small fraction of what is needed to make a place livable, where people enjoy spending time out of doors, between buildings, and socializing with others.

In cities following Jan Gehl’s practices, the success of a public place is assessed, not just by the number of people who travel through on foot or by bicycle, but the people who stand and sit a while to watch and socialize.

Gehl shows how traditional cities, and new developments that are created with sensitivity to traditional principles, create spaces that respect people’s physical, sensory, and social capabilities. Places that are compact enough so that people can see and hear each other – people recognize each other from about 55-75 yards away, can detect emotion at 24-27 yards and can hold a conversation starting at about 7.5 yards. Places where people can casually observe the flow of passers by and social interaction. Where there are “soft edges” between private and public space, where people can interact.

soft edges

Where there are comfortable spots to stand and to sit, especially along the edges of a space. Buildings and public spaces that are designed to respect the local microclimate instead of creating wind tunnels or ovens.

Siena informal seating

Growing up, I experienced some of the most notorious failures of mid-20th century public space. The desolate, wind-swept plaza in front of the well-loathed Brutalist monstrosity of Boston City Hall, and the various empty plazas in front of boxy towers in Center City Philadelphia seemed to indicate that plazas were bad ideas, and efforts to liven them up with goofy art were exercises in pretension; but it’s not so; well designed public places attract street life year-round, and not only in genial climates.

Picture 37

Following the principles for successful outdoor places, including locations that may seem to a Californian to be uninhabitable 9 months out of the year. By designing a place well, and then including heat lamps, awnings, windscreens and blankets, places even in cold climates have people sitting outdoors nearly all year round.

heatlamps for year-round sitting

Gehl’s practice over several decades in Scandinavia and cities around the world has involved measuring social life in city spaces and showing it is possible to improve continuously with ongoing observation and refinement. The image below shows a chart of “staying” activities in downtown Adelaide including standing, sitting, children playing, cultural activities, commercial activities, and more.

Staying activities in Adelaide

California design practice values open green space, and does a good job with private spaces for outdoor eating and drinking, but don’t as often create successful social public spaces. One challenge may be caused by our society’s failure to care for and accommodate the mentally ill and very poor; public spaces and public seating are often heavily used by people who are delusional and aggressive, the spaces then fail to serve other needs.

There are also design flaws. Palo Alto’s Lytton Plaza had a recent redesign to make it more social, but made the classic mistake of sprinkling tables throughout the plaza, rather than focusing seating around the edges; the seating in the middle fills up last.


Gehl’s observations and insights explain why the row house front porches were so appealing. His insights explain what is disturbing about new potentially friendly little townhouse complexes in my neighborhood that are built around a stark, empty, superwide driveway for the big firetrucks, rather than porch/garden/courtyard.

big driveway

What is missing in the new townhouses on my block, with narrow steps heading to the front door, but no good place to stand and chat with a neighbor.


What is rather creepy about the forlorn tables hidden in a corner or of the Safeway parking lot, where an employee might grab a furtive break, or a visitor might rapidly eat a sandwich before escaping back to her car.

safeway seating

Gehl’s Cities for People is a newer take on the same subject. Much of the book rehashes the earlier material close to verbatim. Cycling is a major addition; in the decades since the earlier book, Copenhagen emerged as a world leader in cycling for transportation, with bike commute mode share of 37%. Cities for People also has a handy glossary of techniques to create people-friendly places, and a few tasty charts from Gehl’s studies of street life in Scandinavia, documented in the out-of-print Public Spaces Public Life.

Gehl’s perspective, that outdoor spaces between buildings can be enjoyable for everyday social life in most climates, is richer and more about human senses, psychology and sociology, than Speck’s excellent but more utilitarian book. Speck focuses on how our streets fail to enable necessary activities (things we have to do); Gehl spends even more time on how to make outdoor spaces successful for optional activities (things we want to do) and social activities (interactions with others).

Get one or the other of Gehl’s books (but not both) for a broader perspective about what outdoor urban spaces can be, and for insights on how spaces can be improved.

Justice in the City: The Babylonian Talmud and Los Angeles Zoning

I recently read “Justice in the City“, a book that mines the Babylonian Talmud, the cornerstone text of Rabbinic Judaism, for ideas related to urban social justice issues. The book addresses issues of homelessness, labor, and criminal justice. In each of these sections, the Talmud has principles and examples that can be applied to the topic. Disclosure: the author is a friend.

Poverty and homelessness

The book cites Talmudic sources on tenants’ rights and the responsibility of a city to care for its residents. There are sections describing a landlord’s timelines to give notice prior to eviction, which are longer in the rainy season and in large cities where the housing market is assumed to be tighter. There is an obligation to provide a traveller with a bed and bedding for the night, and an an obligation for city residents to pay regular assessments to feed and shelter the poor.

The book extends these concepts to current conditions where there are large numbers of homeless all the time; specifically calls out cities including LA that invest more in criminalizing outdoor sleeping than providing shelter; and infers an obligation for city residents to seek solutions. In a political culture where libertarian ideas denying civic obligations have an insidious hold, it is refreshing to read sources that consider in a nuanced fashion the obligations to those who need support.

Economic justice and zoning

The book’s first chapter examines a Talmudic case where the building of a gate house for a housing compound is criticized if it prevents the residents from hearing the voices of the poor. The author generalizes the principle, “we can set up our living spaces – our houses, or neighborhoods, and ultimately our cities – so that we are open to the demand of the Stranger.”

Yet, when the book talks about house cleaning and child care work, it refers to “those who care for your children and clean your house.” The readership of the book, in this sentence, is assumed to be middle class or wealthy people who can afford childcare and house cleaning services. The book advocates for the obligation to hear the voices of those in need, and in favor of justice for people who live across town in differing circumstances.

But why do the poor live far away from the middle class and the wealthy? The examples in the book focus on the author’s community of Los Angeles. Like many areas in the US, Los Angeles has a high degree of income segregation, which has been reinforced at a deep level by land use policies that separate uses and regulate density levels, keeping larger, more expensive single family homes away from less expensive multi-family units. These zoning codes separate the wealthy from the poor as effectively as explicit discrimination.

Legally mandated development patterns where houses, schools, workplaces and stores are far away from each other and reachable only by car, impose disproportionate costs on lower income people. In recent years, Los Angeles has increased investments in transit, started to improve pedestrian infrastructure, and is increasing infill development. Justice in the City puts zoning and land use policy in the context of traditional Jewish ethics.

Restorative Justice

The book has an interesting chapter on Restorative Justice, drawing on material from the Jewish tradition in which crimes that cause damages, including theft and assault, are handled with restitution rather than with punishment. The biblical text “an eye for an eye”, is definitively understood in the rabbinic tradition as referring to monetary compensation. Not only that, traditional sources grapple with the problem that quantifying damages has the potential to be undignified for the victim whose worth is calculated.

The practice of “restorative justice” is a potentially promising alternative to our punishment-focused criminal “justice” system. The author not only discusses the subject in theory, but has been active as a mediator in a restorative justice practice.

The obligation to protest

The least satisfying section of the book is the section in Chapter 2 which discusses the obligation to protest injustice. The book cites powerful classic stories about the obligation to protest the unjust actions of the powerful, even in cases where victory is unlikely.

But the author frames the choice to protest as a binary; should one only protest if one expects success, or should one protest even when one believes that protesting will have no effect? Yes, there are cases where one should certainly protest injustice even when there is no hope of change in the near term. But most political situations are not that stark.

Perhaps in a hierarchical community where there is a single authority figure, advocacy consists of making an appeal to the authority that is approved or denied. But in contemporary democracies, an activist participates in a range of situations; some where victory is nearer to hand, and others where longterm groundwork is needed before change can happen.

The book is not arguing in favor of political martyrdom. Paraphrasing Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the author urges that utility should have a vote, not a veto. Whether to emphasize this point depends on the context of the the issue and the community. Where the issue is very difficult and the community passive, this is an important point to make.

However, there are a wide range of issues where this focus can be misleading. I fear that the book may valorize the pattern where an activist stands up to object to a wrong; the protest is not heard, and the advocate goes home, disappointed but self-satisfied in being in the right. Sometimes this pattern indicates that the activist has not done the necessary groundwork in building support, educating decision-makers, and influencing public opinion in order to have a good chance of winning.

The first choice is whether to protest, but it is usually as important to consider how to protest. I know from experience outside the book that the author has a history of practical advocacy that has made a difference on difficult issues. But in this section the book, protest is not treated with the same level of nuance as other topics in the book, nor the level of nuance that the author presumably utilizes in his own activism.

Labor and the role of tradition

The book cites Talmudic sources about the responsibilities of employers to employees, including obligations to pay a prevailing wage in the community and to follow local work practices. The book also observes the difference between pre-modern employer/employee relations, and modern practices in the age of labor unions. Since the emergence of corporate employers and labor unions, rabbis and scholars have extrapolated to modern conditions and support collective bargaining for wages and benefits.

The application of traditional principles to modern conditions raises important questions about the role of traditional ethical disciplines and practice in democratic societies. One of the Rabbis cited on the validity of labor unions was the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, a country in which an Orthodox Rabbinate is granted a monopoly on certain aspects of family and ritual law, with various problematic ethical consequences.

For those who agree that theocracy is a bad idea, there needs to be an alternative understanding of the role of applying and extending ethical traditions, in the broader context of a democracy. This implies a competitive market for ideas, a political framework of organizing and persuasion, and a role that is advisory rather than authoritative.

How does the book work for a broader audience?

The readers of the book are not assumed to have any faith commitment. The readers are assumed to have some familiarity with the tradition of western philosophical ethics; the book quotes sources including Rawls, MacIntyre, Searle and others.

The book definitely comes from a liberal political perspective, and I have no complaint with that. There are ancient Jewish communal traditions assuming that communities have shared responsibility to pay for education, and to care for the poor. The classic Jewish texts do not assume that people are poor because they are undeserving, nor that hunger is the appropriate and impersonal result of a free market.

Overall, I appreciate the attempt to use Jewish sources for perspective on contemporary ethical issues. However, as someone with a fair amount of Jewish background who shares many of the author’s political beliefs, it is hard for me to predict how this book will come across to people with different backgrounds. I would be interested to learn how the book reads to people who are interested in social justice and ethics but come from other ethical traditions.

The Option of Urbanism – financial causes and market remedies for sprawl

Unlike many critics of suburban sprawl who approach the topic from social, environmental, and public health perspectives, Christopher Leinberger comes to the topic with a business perspective. An academic and think tank scholar at Brookings, Leinberger is also a real estate developer. This perspective enables him to identify some of the financial causes of sprawl, and some financial incentives that might help to reverse it.

In The Option of Urbanism Leinberger explains financial reasons that sprawl escalated in the 90s. After the savings and loan financial implosion in the 80s, real estate finance was taken over by Wall Street investment firms from failed local and regional banks. To create liquidity in the real estate market, investment banks in the early 90s floated public offerings of Real Estate Investment Trusts which hold portfolios of real estate assets which were worth trillions by the mid-2000s. Faced with the need to scale their operations to finance large volumes of development, analysts created a list of standard “products” that could be evaluated, approved and traded. These “products” include Neighborhood Retail Centers (the ubiquitous shopping mall), Power Centers (malls anchored by big box stores), luxury gated developments, and garden rental apartments visible from freeways.

The Ubiquitous Shopping Center

Developments that were “nonconforming” to these cookie-cutter templates were difficult to finance, so developers churned out endless square miles of single use developments that make it impractical to walk, bike, and take transit. Leinberger tells several stories of REIT CEOs who lost their jobs, or passed up more urban development because of concern that nonstandard development would harm their stock price.

Leinberger’s business perspective also helps him see the market gap caused by the dominance of sprawl. Repeated market studies show that there is a big gap between the number of people who want to live in walkable neighborhoods near where they work and shop, and the the number of people who have these choices available. A sign of the market demand is the increasing housing prices in walkable urban areas, resulting in displacement of lower-income residents. Leinberger believes that enterprising developers eventually fill the gap between demand and supply. Leinberger sees the greatest interest in financing walkable urban development in private investment funds free of Wall Street pressure. He believes Wall Street analysis will learn how to evaluate urban options, once they have a track record of financial success. However, it will take decades for the market to catch up and provide enough urban options for people who want them.

This perspective is promising, although there are a few things it doesn’t explain. It would be possible to create financial templates to evaluate urban developments as well. However, the templates also require proven store brands, putting small local businesses at a disadvantage, and reinforcing bland sameness everywhere. Leinberger believes that diversity can be added back, but given the financial mechanisms he describes, it isn’t clear how.

A related concern that Leinberger doesn’t address is building life cycle diversity. The large investment packages favored by developers and investors result in large developments, with all elements the same age. One of Jane Jacobs’ early insights about urban neighborhoods is that they contain buildings of different ages, supporting a mix of incomes and business types. Large developments age and become run down all at the same time, and if they are rehabbed, they are upgraded all at once also. Leinberger does make the case that it will take several decades to meet the pent up demand for urban spaces – perhaps by that time there will be enough variety of ages at the development level to support diversity.

In addition to meeting pent-up customer demand, the book calls out another benefit of walkable urban development. Today’s single-purpose commercial development has a profitable life of only 7-10 years. By contrast, Leinberger argues, walkable urban development has a longer useful life, and is a better match for pension funds, life insurance policies, and retirement funds with long term investment needs.

The book calls out another financial drawback of sprawl, this time for local governments. The costs to build roads, sewer, and water systems to serve sprawling suburbs are higher than the costs of serving more compact areas. According to a regional planning study for Salt Lake City, Utah, the metro area would save about 25% in infrastructure costs ($4.5 billion) over 20 years if somewhat more compact development. Historically, however, property taxes, user fees, and development impact fees have been assessed per unit, regardless of whether the unit is in suburban areas with one dwelling per acre, as in urban areas with multiple units per acre.

Like many other critics of sprawl, Leinberger also calls out zoning codes that mandate vast parking lots and prohibit mixed use neighborhoods where people can walk to work and to stores. Jurisdictions can update zoning to allow mixed use, greater densities, and efficient use of parking, but there is a long time lag, since zoning codes tend to be updated at a frequency of decades.

The picture that emerges from this book is an optimistic one. There is an unmet market demand for urban living, and businesses will evolve to meet the need. There are sources of friction slowing this evolution, including Wall Street investment formulas and zoning codes, but these can evolve over time as well. Over the past 60 years, the pattern of development was very heavily suburban, but the pendulum is starting to swing back.

Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit and Peninsula Transit dilemmas

Recently I read Jarrett Walker’s excellent new book Human Transit, which encapsulates the ideas that Walker shares on his transit planning blog. The book clearly frames the decisions that shape public transit systems, as well as some of the common misconceptions that mis-shape public transit.

The book sheds light on some of the dilemmas that afflict the transit system in our area, which doesn’t work much like a system.

1) Frequency is Freedom. When the media describes Caltrain electrification, they often describe the benefit as “faster service.” They leave out improved frequency to more stations. Jarrett Walker explains that media – and decision-makers – who are more familiar with automobiles often over-estimate the benefit of travel speed for transit systems. When you drive a car and can leave any time, the improvement that means the most to you is greater speed. But if you take transit that comes once an hour, the biggest improvement you need is greater frequency.

Speed isn’t irrelevant. When Caltrain added the “Baby Bullet” that made the train more competitive with driving, ridership went up overall. In San Francisco, Muni’s big problem really is speed – Muni travels an average of 8mph, slower than an ordinary bicyclist.

When people tout the benefits of BART, they describe it as “convenient” or even “fast”. But the BART trains aren’t particularly speedy – they are frequent. They arrive every 5-20 minutes, depending on the station and time of day. A rider can take the train with little or no advanced planning, and use transit most of the time.

Walker has popularized “Frequent Network maps that highlight, for riders and agencies, which parts of the transit network offer frequent service, and therefore useful service.

frequent network map

2) Ridership or coverage? The way that Walker frames this dilemma sheds light on the perennial problems of Caltrain and SamTrans.

Walker explains that a transit service needs to decide how to balance goals for ridership, and for coverage. To optimize for ridership, a service identifies where large numbers of people start and where they go, and designs routes that connects most people with their destinations. To optimize for coverage, a transit service attempts to serve as much of the geographic area, as possible, and to space stops as close together as possible.

Optimizing for a coverage goal can provide service to people who have no other travel choices. But the resulting service will be very slow and roundabout, uncompetitive for people who have other choices, and a burden for people whose time could be used with family or work.

Optimizing for ridership will have the best direct financial return (serving the most passengers per service/hour). Where there is high peak use, a plan to optimize ridership might provide service only at the height of rush hour. This type of service doesn’t address equity goals. It also may not maximize the larger economic benefits of transit, where people choose to live and work, and locate their businesses in areas with convenient transit.

With the Baby Bullet and its peak-centric service, Caltrain is oriented more toward a “ridership” goal.

With its service for schoolkids, elderly riders, and frequent stops in urban locations, and service to suburban locations, SamTrans is oriented toward a “coverage” goal. But since it is hemorrhaging cash, and expected to be bankrupt in 2015, this goal is clearly unsustainable.

What is the most frustrating is that Caltrain and SamTrans are not seen as parts of a single transit system helping riders get from point A to point B. Instead, they are seen as high end and low end products in a product line – a Cadillac and a Geo Metro.

Which raises another issue:

3) Connections or Complexity. Conventional wisdom holds that “riders won’t transfer”, and therefore transit services are designed to have convoluted and inefficient routes, which are not time-efficient for riders or cost-efficient for agencies.

Actually, experience around the world shows that riders will transfer if the schedule and stations are designed properly. IF – you can walk across a platform onto a waiting train or bus, and quickly head toward your destination, if you can transfer without financial penalty, if you can easily find directions from Point A to Point B without hunting among multiple maps and websites – then a transfer is pretty painless and a trip can be useful. A system designed with a grid is more efficient at getting people from origin to destination than a system.

transit grid

Unfortunately, because of the Bay Area’s fragmented transit system, we often do not have good transfers. Connect time isn’t optimized, and riders need to pay a premium because they are using different brands.

The MTC’s Transit Sustainability Project, designed to analyze and improve the efficiency of Bay Area transit, looks only at the point-to-point efficiency of individual major lines. The effectiveness of feeder service to support the first and last miles to and from the trunk service is not considered. It’s like looking at the arteries and veins of a circulation system without the capillaries that feed digits and organs.

In order to improve the connectivity of the system, the Bay Area doesn’t need to consolidate into One Big Transit Agency. There are several metro areas in Europe that have many cities, similar to the Bay Area. They have different local agencies, but a single coordinating agency that consolidates fares, schedules, and marketing across all of the agencies.

Walker doesn’t have pre-packaged answers for every transit problem. Instead, he lays out clear principles of transit system design that can be used to help jurisdictions make better decisions.

I highly recommend the book to anyone who is concerned about the ways that our transit system underperforms, and ways to make improvements.


Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell (Dennis Bray, not Rudy Rucker) is a short clearly guided tour on the analogies between biology and computing. Bray walks the reader through the protein-driven algorithms that generate complex behavior even in single-celled organisms without nervous systems, biological sensory mechanisms, cellular communications, and the basics of neurons.

The book raises thought-provoking questions – how much is computing merely a familiar analogy like clockwork in Descartes time, and how much is information processing a fair way to understand what happens in a biological system. How much of a difference does it make that biological life is carbon and liquid-based, and computing is silicate and dry? How much of a difference does it make that bio life is self-powering and self-replicating, unlike robots which depend on extrinsic mining, metallurgy, electric power generation. How much of a difference – seemingly large – between the elegant, simpler, and fragile creations of human engineers – and the convoluted, nuanced and fragile works of evolution?

Wetware is not particularly technical. An interested reader can follow up to find much more about any of the subjects it touches in more detail. One of the things that I liked about the book is how it avoids the occupational hubris that affects some works in the field. Bray calls out Wolfram, of course, but also Stuart Kauffman and Rodney Brooks for overconfidence about the relationship between their simulations and biological life. Bray falls prey to this a little bit in his chapter on neural networks, a field where he has done some professional work. Neural nets are useful algorithms loosely inspired by the biological model, but the intermediate steps in biological circuits which support multiple inputs and connections don’t seem that much like the hidden layers of neural nets to me.

Bray does a good job of writing his sentences with subjects, verbs, and connected referents which makes it easier to follow complicated multi-step processes. This may seem elementary but is not as common as it should be. By contrast Nick Lane’s book on Mitochondria, which is as far as I can tell brilliant, is harder than it needs to be. Not because it uses some technical terms and walks the reader through live debates and contrasting theories – it’s fair to ask the reader to think – but because his sentences don’t parse, and the reader needs to read them twice and then guess what “it” and “this” refer to. I need to reread Lane’s book to understand it better before I write about it.