Relax, It’s Just God

Title: Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious

Author: Wendy Thomas Russell

Completed: May 2022 (Full list of books)

Overview: My daughter has started asking questions about religion and I’ve been curious about how to discuss different aspects of it. Several characters in her favorite books fast for Ramadan so she is interested in trying to do it too… but she does not understand why they are fasting. The greatest benefit of this book was giving me time to reflect on my thoughts and some questions to ask myself about how I would like to discuss these topics with her. She sees a Lalibela Cross, Nataraja, Ganesha, and several Buddha statues around the house, but we typically only talk about these or any religion around the appropriate holidays. Religions are too important culturally and to the majority of the global population to not discuss it at all (no matter what we believe) and now I feel a bit more comfortable talking about them with my curious five year old.


  • As Kosmin observed, religious convictions fluctuate on a societal level in direct relation to a perceived need for external comfort. It’s the reason “comfortable” people tend to be less religious than those whose lives are in chaos. Kosmin cited affluent Japan, where some 84 percent of the population claims no personal religion, versus impoverished Haiti, where the figure is 1 percent.
  • I began to question the whole hell thing. I couldn’t fathom that nice people would suffer eternally simply for being born into other religions, or for being ignorant, or for having a skeptical mind. Any God that would do that wasn’t a benevolent God. And the God I knew was, if nothing else, good. So I lost hell, which also meant I lost Satan. And once Satan was out of the way—well, the dominos kept falling.
  • As a practical matter, it may help to think of indoctrination as a sort of halfway mark between simple suggestion and full-on brainwashing. It doesn’t require threats or abuse, but it does require a strong influence over someone—sort of like parental guidance on steroids. For the purposes of this book, you can be reasonably sure you’re indoctrinating your kids if you teach them the following: • Your way is the only right way to believe.
  • People who disagree with these beliefs are less moral, less intelligent, and less worthy of respect.
  • You can see right off the bat how religious people run the risk of indoctrinating their kids by suggesting that religion is synonymous with morality. But anti-religious people run the risk of indoctrination, as well, particularly when they suggest to children that people who believe in the supernatural lack intelligence or reason. In both cases, pretty strong judgment calls are being made,
  • If you’re not sure your child is “ready” to discuss religious belief, try playing a game called “Fact, Fiction or Belief” to find out for sure. Define fact as anything that’s true; fiction as anything that’s made up; and belief as anything that some people think is fact and other people think is fiction. (For purposes of this game, all opinions, preferences, and tastes can be considered belief.) Then make statements and have your child label them accordingly. For instance, you might say: “The moon is in the sky.” (Fact!) “You like to eat rocks.” (Fiction!) “Pink is the best of all the colors.” (Belief!) Remember: Don’t try to make things too literal or complicated, or to inject actual religious beliefs into your examples.
  • one side note to this subject of simplicity. The younger the child, the less you should talk. They will undoubtedly lose interest, and—frankly—their curiosity probably only extends so far. For example, if your three-year-old asks, out of the blue, “What is an angel?” he’s probably not asking for an essay on everything you know about angels. He wants the short answer. “An angel,” you might say, “is like a fairy with wings.” At five or six, your child might be ready for a few additional details: “Some people think that really good people become angels after they die.” Only later—at, say, eight or nine—will kids appreciate a more sophisticated answer. But, even then, remember to keep it simple:
  • When it comes down to it, “tolerance” is just a way of asking people not to be total dicks to one another.
  • the best way to make sure our children are both able and willing to organize and formulate their own arguments is not by telling them what to challenge, but by letting them challenge us. Linda Hatfield, parenting coach and co-founder of a Southern California-based parenting program called Parenting from the Heart, said the only way to truly empower children is to let them protest our decisions and opinions, take part in decision-making, and (a good amount of the time, at least) get their way.
  • Many religious storybooks are perfectly appropriate for secular families. Here are some of my favorites.
    • Amma, Tell me About Diwali! (2011), Amma, Tell Me About Holi! (2011) and Amma, Tell Me About Krishna! (2012) by Bhatki Mathur
    • The Best Eid Ever by Asma Mobin-Uddin and Laura Jacobsen (2007)
    • Between Earth and Sky: Legends of Native American Sacred Places by Joseph Bruchac and Thomas Locker (1999)
    • Bubbe’s Belated Bat Mitzvah by Isabel Pinson (2014)
    • Buddha by Susan L. Roth (2012)
    • Celebrate: A Book of Jewish Holidays by Judy Gross and Bari Weissman (2005)
    • David and Goliath by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers and Scott Cameron (1996)
    • DK Children’s Illustrated Bible by Selina Hastings and Eric Thomas (2005)
    • The Easter Story by Brian Wildsmith (2000)
    • Exodus by Brian Wildsmith (1998)
    • Guru Nanak: The First Skih Guru by Rina Signh and Andree Pouliot (2011)
    • How Ganesh Got His Elephant Head by Harish Johari and Vatsala Sperling (2003)
    • Joseph by Brian Wildsmith (1997)
    • The Legend of Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu and Demi (2007)
    • The Little Book of Hindu Deities: From the Goddess of Wealth to the Sacred Cow by Sanjay Patel (2006)
    • Meet Jesus: The Life and Lessons of a Beloved Teacher by Lynn Tuttle Gunney and Jane Conteh-Morgan (2008)
    • Muhammad by Demi (2003)
    • Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story by Hena Khan and Julie Paschkis (2008)
    • Noah’s Ark by Jerry Pinkney (2002)
    • Passover by Miriam Nerlove (1989)
    • Rumi: Whirling Dervish by Demi (2013)
    • The Three Questions (2003), Zen Shorts (2005), and Zen Ties (2008) by Jon J. Muth
  • But religious knowledge, like religious tolerance, doesn’t just happen. We parents have to make it happen. Unfortunately, saying the word “Hanukkah” once a year and pointing out burkas in the airport just doesn’t cut it. Knowledge requires context. Tolerance requires action. If we want our children to be interested in and respectful of those around them, we must knit a sense of interest and respect into our childrearing—today and throughout the year.
  • As long as you are raising your kids to be self-confident critical thinkers with a strong moral base and a genuine understanding of religious ideas, your kid is very unlikely to accept any closed-minded religious dogma as true.
  • If we define religion as something that helps us focus on what’s important, gives our life meaning, inspires us to be better people, then it’s fair to say that, in a way, we all have a religion. So what’s yours? Is it nature? Is it physics? Is it music? Art? Literature? Writing? Parenting? Yoga? Wine?
  • “Don’t tell children what they will need to unlearn later.”
  • Talking about decomposing bodies may, at first, seem ghoulish, but the actual science of death is not only fascinating to children, but can be comforting, too. Kids are still figuring out how things die (“Could I have caused it?”) and how it feels to be dead (“Will I be lonely?”). This is precisely why it’s so important to explain to kids how we humans work—how our beating hearts are what keep us alive, and that there is a difference between bodies and consciousness.
  • Sadness, Friedman told me, is such a healthy emotion at times of devastating loss. It’s appropriate. And trying to remove the sadness when someone is grieving is both inappropriate and unhealthy. To make his point, Friedman pointed to the emotion of happiness. Would we ever tell a loved one that they ought to feel less happy about a job offer because they might lose that job some day? Would we tell someone to not feel so good about their engagement because 50 percent of marriages end in divorce?
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Too High and Too Steep

Title: Too High & Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography

Author: David B. Williams

Completed: Apr 2022 (Full list of books)

Overview: Wow, I really enjoyed this book. It is staggering just how much the landscape of Seattle changed because people felt the geography and topography weren’t optimal. The mindset required to look at a 200’+ hill and think, wouldn’t it be better if that weren’t here is astounding. The history of the early city was fun to learn about as well. Having run all the streets discussed in the book, I could envision many of the areas that were transformed. Additionally, the talk about lowering Lake Washington and how that impacted Renton discussed most of the streets I cover on my daily commute. If you’re not in Seattle, examining the hubris of the city a century ago will still be interesting, but if you live here, it’s definitely worth reading to see how this place has been reshaped to fit a few men’s the vision of the city and what it could become.


  • the Duwamish year began with the emergence of salmonberry shoots and fiddlehead ferns.
  • Few people before the early twentieth century considered the environmental or sociological consequences of grand projects such as building dams and canals, mining rivers and mountains, or harvesting forests. It is how the world operated; I doubt they foresaw our natural resources ever running out or even that such changes caused irreparable harm. Seattleites were simply doing what everyone else was doing.
  • The desire to be a world-class city has long driven the actions of many Seattleites, from bestowing the name New York Alki—or what we now call Alki Point—on what was little more than a nanospeck of civilization in 1851 to boasting about the city’s spectacular natural setting to making an ill-fated attempt at hosting the World Trade Organization in 1999. That kind of ambition is evident today in the city’s elaborate plan to replace the elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel and grand park.
  • the elimination of Denny Hill at the north end of downtown. Between 1898 and 1930, Seattleites washed and scraped away more than 11 million cubic yards of Denny, reducing a double-peaked, 240-foot-high mound to a pancake-flat tabula rasa. But this was not a lone hill-leveling. An additional 6 million cubic yards of dirt and rock were removed from where Jackson Street and Dearborn Street rose up steep hills.
  • By 1931, at least 75 million cubic yards of material had been moved by dredging, regrading, and filling. In trying to picture the amount of soil removed, an early reporter for the P-I wrote, “This would mean a total of 605,000 carloads, which in 40-foot cars would reach all the way from here to Broadway, New York, and more than half way back, and at twenty miles an hour would take the great trainload ten days to pass any given point on the route.” Now take this image and multiply it by six, because the P-I man was writing in 1909, when only 12.1 million cubic yards had been moved.16 This is a staggering number, especially when you consider that most of it was moved with small, relatively primitive machinery.
  • what we locals call hills. The best known of these are the famed seven that, according to local legend, Seattle was built upon. In order of highest to lowest elevation, they are Queen Anne (470 feet), Capitol (464 feet), Renton (412 feet), Beacon (364 feet), First (360 feet), Profanity (319 feet), and Denny (240 feet).6 In recent times, Magnolia (392 feet) and West Seattle (520 feet) have replaced Renton and Profanity in the city’s pantheon.
  • The Seattle Landslide Study reported that more than thirteen hundred landslides had hit Seattle since 1890.
  • When they did notice the beachcombers, residents tended to complain about them. The shanties, lean-tos, and sheds of the former were a “blemish on this fair and growing city,” wrote one observer in 1892. Others petitioned the city health officer to destroy what they called Shantytown, home to around five hundred people.
  • contrast to those forced to live on the tideflats and beaches, businesses that moved their operations onto these territories were often portrayed as entrepreneurs. For example, those who built a long wharf jutting out into Elliott Bay were called “enterprising citizens.”
  • At the time of the fire, Seattle’s population had exploded, reaching about thirty thousand.39 The rapidly growing city now had its first five-story building, eight sawmills, and—to ensure that everyone was happy—four breweries and five candy factories.
  • It was an osprey, a bird formerly known as the sea hawk and one never found far from water, which means never far from salmon.
  • Although we usually don’t consider it today, coal helped make Seattle the most important town in Puget Sound.19 With coal, the young community had a second economic driver beyond what every town in the Pacific Northwest had: that is, they all possessed a seemingly endless supply of first-rate lumber.
  • Because they lived in an era when men thought they could triumph over nature, Seattleites believed they could move forward as if the natural rhythms of earth and sea did not exist. Who cared if the tides came in twice a day, when you could drive a forest of logs into the ground and develop a platform for industry?
  • Even after the transcontinental railroads arrived, rail shipments within the state dwarfed those out of state. The local lines were, argued one economic historian, far more important than transcontinental railroads in explaining why Seattle became the major city of the state, and his argument had nothing to do with the unquantifiable effects, such as their facilitation of the physical growth of Seattle.
  • the importance of railroads to the city and the tidelands. For example, if, in 1912, you had attempted to walk east along or a bit north of Dearborn Street, you would have crossed at least fifty sets of tracks by the time you reached Fifth Avenue South.
  • Slicing through Beacon Hill may seem in modern terms to be completely foolish, unrealistic, and environmentally asinine, but in our predecessors’ eyes it was standard operating procedure and a sign of progress.
  • Construction began on the two sets of locks and the two sections of canal (Lake Washington to Lake Union and Lake Union to Salmon Bay) in autumn 1911. The locks’ gates closed on July 12, 1916, and thirteen days later Salmon Bay had risen to its present level of twenty-one feet above mean sea level. In late August, the barrier separating Lake Washington and Lake Union was breached. Water drained for four months, until the water levels equilibrated through the two canal sections, which together were a little over a mile and a half long.
  • Lowering Lake Washington by nine feet reduced the surface area by two square miles, shrank the shoreline by more than ten miles, and eliminated two islands.
  • The most significant postcanal ecological change took place at the south end of the lake, about nine miles by air from downtown Seattle. Before the canal opened, much of what is now modern Renton, including the massive buildings of the Boeing plant, the acres of surrounding parking lots, Renton Municipal Airport, and Renton Stadium, was once underwater or part of a several-hundred-acre marsh, according to my 1905 map.
  • the Cedar River. The river starts about five miles southwest of Snoqualmie Pass and flows through second-growth forest about twenty-five miles to a small dam, where about a quarter of the water gets diverted into pipes to become the main source of drinking water for Seattle.
  • the confluence of the Black and Cedar was the site of the first sawmill in King County outside of Seattle. Started in 1854 by three settlers, the sawmill lasted only two years. Across from the mill was an outcrop of black rock that may have been the earliest-recorded location of coal in the region. The land eventually ended up under the ownership of the Renton Coal Company, named for Captain William Renton, who helped finance the endeavor.
  • The gentle arc of Hardie Avenue Southwest follows what was formerly the route of the Black River as it meandered south. Farther down Hardie, the road continues under a set of railroad tracks, as the Black once did. The river then turned west and flowed south of the tracks to its confluence with the Duwamish River. As far as I can determine, Hardie is the only infrastructure left that provides a trace of the Black.
  • Joseph Moses, who was a member of the Duwamish tribe and one of the last to live on the tribe’s historic land in downtown Renton, offered a different take. “That was quite a day, for the white people, at least. The waters just went down, down, until our landing and canoes stood dry, and there was no Black River at all. There were pools, of course, and the struggling fish trapped in them. People came from miles around, laughing and hollering and stuffing the fish in gunny sacks.” In the words of Warren King George, the Black River is like “a bad scar that never heals up.”
  • the Cedar carries significantly more water than the Sammamish, which has the effect of increasing how quickly the lake water replaces itself. Before 1916, the residence time of water in the lake was five years, about twice the present rate. The twofold effect of dilution and fast flushing helped clear the lake more quickly than anyone had predicted.
  • “Lake Washington is essentially a poster child for how we can disrupt a system. It’s fairly remarkable that it’s not sterile with all that we have done to it,” says Kurt Fresh, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
  • This north extension of Union Bay had been a very popular spot for University of Washington students, for what was known as “canoeing wooing.”
  • industries did develop on the lake. Most were drawn there not by the newly exposed land but by the new connection out to Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps the oddest to appear was one established on Meydenbauer Bay, now one of the eastside’s more exclusive neighborhoods but formerly the winter base for what would become the last substantial whaling company based in the United States. Owned by William Schupp, who had made his money in insurance, the American Pacific Whaling Company had long been based in Westport, Washington, then known as Bay City, when Schupp acquired it in 1914. In 1918, he moved his fleet to Meydenbauer Bay to take advantage of the less damaging freshwater.
  • Not only was logging on the way out but so was coal. By the time McDonald was writing her articles, she could note that names such as Factoria and Coal Creek “must puzzle newcomers,” since few people realized the importance of coal to the eastside.37 Those names seem even more bizarre today, with nearly every vestige of the coal industry erased. The few reminders are features such as the coal adits, concrete foundations, and old railroad grades that dot Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park, but those fail to truly convey the importance of coal to the Seattle region.
  • The regrade, noted the Seattle P-I, was “endurable only for the sake of the promise of ultimate improvement.”20 Essentially, it was a typical Seattle transportation project.
  • One remnant of Moore’s clash with the city remains. Stand at the corner of Second and Virginia and you will notice something odd—each of the streets slopes down from you. No other intersection in the area of the former Denny Hill does this. Rising to 167 feet above sea level, the intersection of Second and Virginia is now the peak of the hill, or what one early writer called a “sort of terrestrial dunce-cap.”29 It exists because Moore’s legal finagling prevented any additional dirt from being removed (about eleven feet had been lopped off) despite Thomson’s goal of lowering Virginia. Moore’s hump was one of the few battles over regrading that Thomson lost; he was not happy about it.
  • An explosion caused by an employee thawing twenty sticks of dynamite in a pan over an open flame killed a nine-year-old boy.
  • By the time the contractors finished regrading the hill, the flume extended on pilings for 1,200 feet into Elliott Bay. It was an engineering marvel, since they had to use 125-foot piles, which they drove into previously dumped fill, in water that had been 200 feet deep before the regrades began.
  • In addition to desiring to regrade Denny Hill again, Bogue proposed to bypass Seattle’s hills, “which in other vicinities would be dignified as mountains,” via a series of tunnels.63 One would go under Lake Washington, another under Beacon Hill, and a third under the north end of Capitol Hill. The combined length of the tunnels would be five and a half miles.
  • self-dumping scows were mirror image top and bottom, with open decks that held four hundred cubic yards of dirt. Between the decks were two internal tanks, one on each side of the scow. A tug towed the full scow out into Elliott Bay, where a crew member pulled a rope that opened valves, or seacocks, on one side of the boat. Within three minutes, water filled one of the tanks, and the out-of-balance scow flipped over, dumping its load. No longer weighted down by the dirt, the scow rose high enough to drain the internal tank, which took about eight minutes. The tug then pulled the scow back to shore, ready for its next load.
  • As late as 1929, he was still offering plans for cutting down hills in Seattle. In his memoir he wrote dismissively of those opposed to regrades: “Some people seemed to think that because there were hills in Seattle originally, some of them ought to be left there, no difference how injurious a heavy grade over a hill may be to the property beyond the hill.”
  • Another reason for the willingness to level our hills was that Seattle had an unusually mobile population. Around 20 percent of men eighteen and older who had arrived in 1900 were still here in 1910, a rate significantly lower than the rate in other American cities.
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My rebar dragonfly

When a neighbor offers you 12x 20′ pieces of 1/2″ rebar, you need to find interesting things to do with it.

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Title: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

Author: Charles C. Mann

Completed: Apr 2022 (Full list of books)

Overview: Last year I read 1491, the book that tells the other half of the story. It was an enjoyable read, but long enough that I wasn’t interested in diving into the second half right away. Like the first book, this told a story of an interconnected world with exchange taking place globally in a way that feels far too modern to have started over 500 years ago.

It was a good read, but certainly felt more like a book I should read rather than a book I was excited to read.


  • Much as rich nations like Japan and the United States today buy little from sub-Saharan Africa, China had long viewed Europe as too poor and backward to be of commercial interest.
  • Across the street from the monument is another, more popular park, named after José Rizal, a writer, doctor, and martyred anti-Spanish revolutionary who is a national hero in the Philippines.
  • Ruddiman’s idea was simple: the destruction of Indian societies by European epidemics both decreased native burning and increased tree growth. Each subtracted carbon dioxide from the air. – (A potential cause of the mini ice age around that time)
  • So critical to European success was the honeybee that Indians came to view it as a harbinger of invasion; the first sight of a bee in a new territory, the French-American writer Jean de Crèvecoeur noted in 1782, “spreads sadness and consternation in all minds.”
  • Every year about 225 million people contract the disease, which even with modern medical care can incapacitate for months. In Africa it afflicts so many people so often that economists believe it is a major drag on development; since 1965, according to one widely cited calculation, countries with high rates of malaria have had annual per capita growth rates 1.3 percent less than countries without malaria, enough to ensure that many of the former lost ground to the latter.
  • The implication is mind-boggling: people who fled to vivax country would have been better off staying home with the bubonic plague.
  • On the simplest level, slaves were more expensive than servants. In a well-known study, Russell R. Menard of the University of Minnesota tallied up the prices in Virginia and Maryland of slaves and servants whose services had to be sold after their masters’ deaths. In the last decades of the seventeenth century, the average price of a prime-age male African slave was £25. Meanwhile, the servants’ contracts typically cost about £10.
  • Publicly outraged by bondage and with no domestic slave industry to protect, the English were Europe’s least likely candidates for slavemasters. In consequence, the English colonies initially turned to indentured servants and largely avoided slaves. Indentured servants comprised between a third and a half of the Europeans who arrived in North America in the first century of colonization.
  • Adam Smith predicted in The Wealth of Nations that laborers would see the available land around them and leave their jobs, “in order to become landlords themselves.” They would hire other workers in turn, who would “soon leave them for the same reason they left their first master.” Not for more than a century did other economists fully draw out the implications of Smith’s idea. If employers constantly lost workers to the lure of cheap land, then they would want to restrict their freedom of movement. Bondage was the inevitable end result. Paradoxically enough, America’s wide-open frontier was, from this perspective, an incitement to slavery.
  • For Europeans, the economic logic was hard to ignore. If they wanted to grow tobacco, rice, or sugar, they were better off using African slaves than European indentured servants or Indian slaves. “Assuming that the cost of maintaining each was about equal,” Curtin concluded, “the slave was preferable at anything up to three times the price of the European.” Slavery and falciparum thrived together.
  • Accentuating the gap, wealthy Carolinian plantation owners could afford to move to resorts in the fever-free mountains or shore during the sickness season. Poor farmers and slaves had to stay in the Plasmodium zone. In this way disease nudged apart rich and poor. Malarial places, the Rutmans said, drift easily toward “exaggerated economic polarization.” Plasmodium not only prodded farmers toward slavery, it rewarded big plantations, which further lifted the demand for slaves.
  • From the beginning the Union army was bigger and better supplied than the Confederate army. As at Bull Run, though, the North lost battle after battle. Incompetent generalship, valiant opponents, and long supply lines were partly to blame. But so was malaria—the price of entering the Plasmodium zone. During the war the annual case rate never dropped below 40 percent. In one year Plasmodium infected 361,968 troops.
  • Manila was thronged by missionaries, heads afire with the zeal to bring the Roman Catholic church to Asia. They forced Filipino and Malay natives to adopt the cross, but this was a side project. The true goal, at least at the beginning, was to conquer and convert China. Believing that Cortés (conqueror of Mexico) and Pizarro (conqueror of Peru) had needed only small bands of committed men to seize entire empires for Christ, these clerics and soldiers initially imagined that a few thousand Spaniards could repeat these feats in China.
  • In the textbooks, government appears mainly as an outside factor that imposes tariffs, quotas, levies, and so on, influencing the outcome of private trade, often reducing the net economic benefit. But the state does this because trade has two roles: one highlighted in economics textbooks, where private markets allow both sides to gain economically, and one that rarely appears in those textbooks, in which trade is a tool of statecraft, the goal is political power, and both sides usually do not win. In this second role, the net economic benefit of trade is much less important than the political benefit to each side, and the government interventions that exasperate economists can be useful, even vital tools to achieve national preeminence.
  • two British inquiries in 1839 intimated that the average Irish laborer’s per capita daily consumption of potatoes was twelve and a half pounds.
  • When farmers plant pieces of tuber, rather than seeds, the resultant sprouts are clones; in developed countries, entire landscapes are covered with potatoes that are almost genetically identical. By contrast, a Peruvian-American research team found that families in a mountain valley in central Peru grew an average of 10.6 traditional varieties—landraces, as they are called, each with its own name. Karl Zimmerer, now at Pennsylvania State University, visited fields in some villages with as many as twenty landraces. The International Potato Center in Peru has sampled and preserved more than 3,700. The range of potatoes in a single Andean field, Zimmerer observed, “exceeds the diversity of nine-tenths of the potato crop of the entire United States.”
  • France was especially slow to adopt the new crop. Into the fray stepped nutritionist, vaccination advocate, and potato proselytizer Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the Johnny Appleseed of S. tuberosum.
  • the average yearly harvest in eastern England from an acre of wheat, barley, and oats was between 1,300 and 1,500 pounds. By contrast, an acre of potatoes yielded more than 25,000 pounds—about eighteen times as much.
  • the potato can better sustain life than any other food when eaten as the sole item of diet. It has all essential nutrients except vitamins A and D, which can be supplied by milk; the diet of the Irish poor in Smith’s day consisted largely of potatoes and milk.
  • Before the potato and maize, before intensive fertilization, European living standards were roughly equivalent with those today in Cameroon and Bangladesh; they were below Bolivia or Zimbabwe. On average, European peasants ate less per day than hunting-and-gathering societies in Africa or the Amazon.
  • Textbooks commonly present American history in terms of Europeans moving into a lightly settled hemisphere. In fact, the hemisphere was full of Indians—tens of millions of them. And most of the movement into the Americas was by Africans, who soon became the majority population in almost every place that wasn’t controlled by Indians. Demographically speaking, Eltis has written, “America was an extension of Africa rather than Europe until late in the nineteenth century.”
  • But obtaining the wealth of the Americas would involve subjugating people who had committed no offense against Spain. As Fernando and Isabel saw it, Indian lands were not like the Islamic empires whom they and their royal ancestors had fought for centuries.
  • Isabel didn’t agree. Slowly growing angry, she watched shackled Taino trickle into the slave markets of Seville. In an outburst of fury in 1499 she ordered all Spaniards who had acquired Indians to send them back to the Americas. Death was the penalty for noncompliance.
  • Cortés’s first ranch hand, possibly the first cowboy in the mainland Americas, was an African slave. Thousands of others followed.
  • At the time many Spaniards believed that parents passed on their ideas and moral characters to their children, with the effect amplified by the atmosphere of the home. A mother who was born Jewish or Muslim somehow would instill the essence of Judaism or Islam in her offspring, even if she never exposed them to the religion. If the children lived in a family with Jewish or Muslim customs like not eating pork or frequent bathing, the inner stain would be darker and more ineradicable. Conversely, the stain was reduced, though not eliminated, if the child had a Christian parent and ate Christian food and learned Christian habits. In this view, Africans were to be feared not because of their African genes, but because their ancestors had embraced the immoral heresy of Islam, which would lodge in their descendants’ hearts.
  • American history is often described in terms of Europeans entering a nearly empty wilderness. For centuries, though, most of the newcomers were African and the land was not empty, but filled with millions of indigenous people. Much of the great encounter between the two separate halves of the world thus was less a meeting of Europe and America than a meeting of Africans and Indians —a relationship forged both in the cage of slavery and in the uprisings against it. Largely conducted out of sight of Europeans, the complex interplay between red and black is a hidden history that researchers are only now beginning to unravel.
  • Because labor was the main form of property in West Africa, rich West Africans almost by definition owned a lot of slaves. Plantations were rare in that part of the world—coastal West Africa’s soil and climate typically won’t support them—so big groups of slaves rarely were found working in fields as was common in American sugar or tobacco plantations. Instead slaves were soldiers, servants, or construction workers, building roads and fences and barns. Often enough they did almost nothing; wealthy, powerful slave owners kept more slaves than they needed, in the way that wealthy, powerful landowners in Europe would pile up unused land. In addition, much slave labor consisted of occasional work performed as a tax or tribute.
  • Yanga’s people were presented with their own domain: San Lorenzo de los Negros. Later renamed Yanga, honoring its founder, it was the Americas’ first sunset town: Europeans were legally prohibited from staying the night there. Yanga and his descendants prospered so much that local Spaniards eventually paid them the ultimate compliment and moved in, ignoring the ban on whites. As a result, the town of Yanga is now almost completely “Mexican.”
  • the same malaria and yellow fever that had done so much to promote African slavery here helped Africans to destroy it. Napoleon, his hopes for a Caribbean empire in ruins, sold the United States all of France’s North American territories: the Louisiana Purchase.
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Go Loud For Local

For about the last decade, March has meant mustache time… and rarely a standard mustache. For example, this year I’m going with a question mark design: Years ago, some friends had a tradition of growing mustaches for the month. I … Continue reading

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Entangled Life

Title: Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures

Author: Merlin Sheldrake

Completed: Feb 2022 (Full list of books)

Overview: In college, my partner took a mycology course. One evening I arrived home to hear, “Quick, jump under the covers with me. I want to show you something.” I was somewhat disappointed to learn the thing I was being shown was a fungus that glows in the dark and under the covers was the only place in our apartment that was dark enough to see the glow. This book contained a lot of similarly nerdy fascination with all aspects of the fungi world from fermentation to composting cigarette butts to breaking down nuclear waste to planning subway lines. Since that memorable evening under the covers, I’ve grown to appreciate fungi much more and thoroughly enjoyed learning about what they are capable of doing. This was an fun read… but I’d still be disappointed if my surprise is a glowing fungus.


  • A number of these radio-tolerant species even grow toward radioactive “hot” particles, and appear to be able to harness radiation as a source of energy, as plants use the energy in sunlight.
  • Other species of fungi create their own microclimates: Spores are carried upward by a current of wind generated by mushrooms as water evaporates from their gills.
  • In 2017, researchers reconstructed the diets of Neanderthals, cousins of modern humans who went extinct approximately fifty thousand years ago. They found that an individual with a dental abscess had been eating a type of fungus—a penicillin-producing mold—implying knowledge of its antibiotic properties.
  • Our perceptions work in large part by expectation. It takes less cognitive effort to make sense of the world using preconceived images updated with a small amount of new sensory information than to constantly form entirely new perceptions from scratch.
  • Someone got up to talk about a group of plants that produced a certain group of chemicals in their leaves. Until then, the chemicals had been thought of as a defining characteristic of that group of plants. However, it transpired that the chemicals were actually made by fungi that lived in the leaves of the plant. Our idea of the plant had to be redrawn. Another researcher interjected, suggesting that it may not be the fungi living inside the leaf that produced these chemicals but the bacteria living inside the fungus.
  • THE HUMAN SENSE of smell is extraordinary. Our eyes can distinguish several million colors, our ears can distinguish half a million tones, but our noses can distinguish well over a trillion different odors. Humans can detect virtually all volatile chemicals ever tested. We outperform rodents and dogs in detecting certain odors, and we can follow scent trails.
  • Some fungi have tens of thousands of mating types, approximately equivalent to our sexes (the record holder is the split gill fungus, Schizophyllum commune, which has more than twenty-three thousand mating types, each of which is sexually compatible with nearly every one of the others).
  • The methods fungi use to hunt nematodes are grisly and diverse. It is a habit that has evolved multiple times—many fungal lineages have reached a similar conclusion but in different ways. Some fungi grow adhesive nets, or branches to which nematodes stick. Some use mechanical means, producing hyphal nooses that inflate in a tenth of a second when touched, ensnaring their prey. Some—including the commonly cultivated oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)—produce hyphal stalks capped with a single toxic droplet that paralyzes nematodes, giving the hypha enough time to grow through their mouth and digest the worm from the inside. Others produce spores that can swim through the soil, chemically drawn toward nematodes, to which they bind. Once attached, the spores sprout and the fungus harpoons the worm with specialized hyphae known as “gun cells.”
  • When hyphae felt together to make mushrooms, they rapidly inflate with water, which they must absorb from their surroundings—the reason why mushrooms tend to appear after rain. Mushroom growth can generate an explosive force. When a stinkhorn mushroom crunches through an asphalt road, it produces enough force to lift an object weighing 130 kilograms.
  • Hyphae can also sense the texture of surfaces; one study reports that young hyphae of the bean rust fungus can detect grooves half a micrometer deep in artificial surfaces, three times shallower than the gap between the laser tracks on a CD.
  • If the head of a flatworm is cut off, it sprouts another head, brain and all. Flatworms can also be trained. The researchers wondered whether, if they trained a flatworm to remember features of its environment and then cut off its head, it would retain the memory when it has grown a new head and brain. Remarkably, the answer is yes.
  • The ‘basic set’ of partners is different for every lichen group. Some have more bacteria, some fewer; some have one yeast species, some have two, or none. Interestingly, we have yet to find any lichen that matches the traditional definition of one fungus and one alga.”
  • it is no longer possible to conceive of any organism—humans included—as distinct from the microbial communities they share a body with. The biological identity of most organisms can’t be pried apart from the life of their microbial symbionts.
  • Evidence of religion, complex social organization, commerce, and the earliest art arises within a relatively short period in human history around fifty to seventy thousand years ago. What triggered these developments is not known. Some scholars attribute them to the invention of complex language. Others hypothesize that genetic mutations brought about changes in brain structure. For McKenna, it was psilocybin mushrooms that had ignited the first flickerings of human self-reflection, language, and spirituality, somewhere in the proto-cultural fog of the Paleolithic. Mushrooms were the original tree of knowledge.
  • OPHIOCORDYCEPS AND OTHER insect-manipulating fungi have evolved a remarkable ability to cause harm to the animals they influence. Psilocybin mushrooms, as a growing number of studies report, have evolved an astonishing ability to cure a wide range of human problems.
  • In one study, researchers found that a single high dose of psilocybin increased the openness to new experiences, psychological well-being, and life satisfaction of healthy volunteers, a change that persisted in most cases for more than a year. Some studies have found that experiences with psilocybin have helped smokers or alcoholics break their addictions. Other studies have reported enduring increases in subjects’ sense of connection with the natural world.
  • Mycorrhizal fungi are so prolific that their mycelium makes up between a third and a half of the living mass of soils. The numbers are astronomical. Globally, the total length of mycorrhizal hyphae in the top ten centimeters of soil is around half the width of our galaxy (4.5 × 1017 kilometers of hyphae, versus 9.5 × 1017 kilometers of space).
  • Most surprising was the way that the fungus coordinated its trading behavior across the network. Kiers identified a strategy of “buy low, sell high.” The fungus actively transported phosphorus—using its dynamic microtubule “motors”—from areas of abundance, where it fetched a low price when exchanged with a plant root, to areas of scarcity, where it was in higher demand and fetched a higher price. By doing so, the fungus was able to transfer a greater proportion of its phosphorus to the plant at the more favorable exchange rate, thus receiving larger quantities of carbon in return.
  • The fungi that live in plant leaves and shoots—known as “endophytes”—can have similarly dramatic effects on a plant’s ability to make a life in a new place. Take a grass from salty coastal soils, grow it without its fungal endophytes, and it won’t be able to survive in its natural salty habitat. The same goes for grasses growing in hot geothermal soils. Researchers swapped the fungal endophytes that lived in each type of grass so that coastal grasses were grown with hot geothermal fungi and vice versa. The grasses’ ability to survive in each habitat switched. Coastal grasses could no longer grow in salty coastal soils but thrived in hot geothermal soils. Hot geothermal grasses could no longer grow in the hot geothermal soils but thrived in the salty coastal soils.
  • One species of mycorrhizal fungus, the thick-footed morel (Morchella crassipes), actually farms the bacteria that live within its networks: The fungus “plants” bacterial populations, then cultivates, harvests, and consumes them. There is a division of labor across the network, with some parts of the fungus responsible for food production and some for consumption.
  • Plants that were connected to the aphid-infested plant via a shared fungal network ramped up their production of volatile defense compounds, even though they had not encountered the aphids themselves. The plumes of volatile compounds produced by the plants were large enough to attract the parasitic wasps, suggesting that information passing between the plants through the fungal channel could make a difference in a real-world setting.
  • Eliminate Google and Amazon and Facebook overnight or shut down the three busiest airports in the world, and you’ll cause havoc. Selectively remove large hub trees—as many commercial logging operations do in an effort to extract the most valuable timber—and serious disruption will ensue.
  • In Mexico City, used diapers make up between five and fifteen percent by weight of solid waste. Researchers have found that the omnivorous Pleurotus mycelium—a white rot fungus that fruits into edible oyster mushrooms—can grow happily on a diet of used diapers. Over the course of two months, diapers introduced to Pleurotus lost about eighty-five percent of their starting mass when the plastic covering was removed, compared with a mere five percent in fungus-free controls.
  • A material made from the outer layers of portabello mushrooms shows promise in replacing graphite in lithium batteries. The mycelium of some species makes an effective skin substitute, used by surgeons to help wounds to heal. And in the United States, a company called Ecovative Design is growing building materials out of mycelium.
  • alcohol was part of nature if the honey had fermented “by itself,” and part of culture if humans had placed the honey to ferment in an artificially hollowed-out trunk. (It is an interesting distinction; by extension, Macrotermes termites and leaf-cutter ants made the transition from nature to culture tens of millions of years before humans.)
  • The evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin pointed out that it is impossible to “do the work of science” without using metaphors, given that almost “the entire body of modern science is an attempt to explain phenomena that cannot be experienced directly by human beings.” Metaphors and analogies, in turn, come laced with human stories and values, meaning that no discussion of scientific ideas—this one included—can be free of cultural bias.
  • Why would the ability to metabolize alcohol arise so many millions of years before humans developed technologies of fermentation? Researchers point out that ADH4 upgraded at a time when our primate ancestors were spending less time in trees and adapting to life on the ground. The ability to metabolize alcohol, they speculate, played a crucial role in the ability of primates to make a living on the forest floor by opening up a new dietary niche: overripe, fermented fruit that had fallen from trees.
  • the “drunken monkey hypothesis,” proposed by the biologist Robert Dudley to explain the origins of humans’ fondness for alcohol. In this view, humans are tempted by alcohol because our primate ancestors were. The scent of alcohol produced by yeasts was a reliable way to find ripe fruit as it rotted on the ground. Both our human attraction to alcohol and the entire ecology of gods and goddesses that oversee fermentation and intoxication are remnants of a much more ancient fascination.
  • in a suburb of Cambridge. Residents’ apple trees overhanging the road were dropping their fruit into the street. Local youngsters used them as missiles. Windows had been broken and cars dented. In an inspired political gambit, a residents’ association had provided a community apple press to manage the problem and reduce waste. It appeared to have worked. Community violence was pressed into juice. Juice was fermented into cider. Cider was drunk into community spirit.
  • I later discovered that we were “scrumping”—a dialect word of West Country provenance, originally used to describe the collection of windfalls, and later, the taking of fruit without permission.
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Title: Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm

Author: Isabella Tree

Completed: Jan 2022 (Full list of books)

Overview: Thanks to my wonderful friend Kate for recommending this book. As I started, it felt like a love letter to nature very similar to Sand County Almanac which I read about 20 years ago after going on a month-long snow camping with Kate. Two chapters later, the author started quoting Aldo Leopold to make many of the same points she was making. It was inspirational to hear there is still so much hope for nature to return to farmlands and support many of the species that have been missing for decades. At other times, it felt like a lot of lists: people involved in the project; species that have recolonized their farm; species they wish they could still recruit. Along with her enthusiasm for the work that borders on the same energy of crypto-bros, there were a few sections I wish went a little faster, but overall a very enjoyable read. It also reiterated points made in several other books I’ve read recently about the importance to our mental health of spending time in nature.


  • On its own, a plant’s ability to extend its roots to explore for nutrients is limited. Partnerships with mycorrhizae expand that capability exponentially. 90–95 per cent of terrestrial plants in all ecosystems on every continent have mycorrhizal relationships. A single bluebell, for example, may be colonized by eleven or more species of mycorrhizal fungi, most of which have not yet been scientifically described. Without them, a bluebell, with its short, thick roots, growing in soils where phosphate is typically available at less than 1 part per 10 million, would die.
  • mycorrhizae alert plants and trees to the threat of pathogens, and to predation by insects and herbivores. They can even stimulate the release of chemicals from the tissues of a tree to attract predators for the particular pest assailing it. And they can alert trees to provide intensive care for ailing individuals or vulnerable offspring, supplying them with a boost of nutrients as though plugging them into an intravenous drip.
  • Fungi, often maligned as the harbingers of death for trees, are more often decomposers of deadwood than they are parasites, explained Ted. Rather than causing a tree to die, they rid it of the useless burden of dead tissues, breaking them down and creating another reservoir of plant nutrients accessible to the roots. In the process they convert the tree into a hollow cylinder, creating a stronger, lighter structure that can withstand hurricane-force winds – as testified by the ancient hollow oaks in Windsor Great Park that survived the storm of 1987, while younger, solid trees blew down.
  • ‘In Africa you have vast herds of ungulates grazing together in the landscape. There are predators, of course, but population density itself is not regulated by predation.’ The size of grazing herds is driven primarily by the amount of food available. In times of plenty, with good rains and lots of vegetation growth, populations explode. In seasons when there is less to eat – notably, for Africa, during the dry season and droughts – they fall.
  • ‘In particular, people believe these deaths are numerous and “unnatural” because there is a fence around the reserve preventing the animals from migrating in search of food – but cyclical die-offs happen even in the migrating populations of Africa. And in places where animals cannot migrate – like the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, which has the highest density of predators in Africa – the dynamic is the same. Starvation is the determining factor. It is a fundamental process of nature.’
  • In the Second World War the renowned forester Herbert Edlin noted that even during the Battle of Britain, over a long, dry summer, not one incendiary bomb, capable of burning through concrete, started a fire in woodland. In Carpenters Wood, part of Bisham Woods in Berkshire, the crater where a plane full of explosives came down in 1944 is still visible, marked by a memorial to the airmen that died. The explosion was heard tens of miles away. But the surrounding trees, including beech, just a hundred yards from the crash site did not catch fire.
  • Our word ‘acre’ – related to ‘aecer’, the Old English for acorn – originally denoted an area with oak trees. Someone who had the right to ‘acker’ pigs – to fatten them on acorns – was called an ‘ackerman’ or, in German, ‘Ackerbürger’.
  • Now, when ancient and medieval texts describe a place as ‘forest’ the modern reader visualizes a closed canopy, when in reality it was anything but. ‘Historians of modern forestry’, says Oliver Rackham, ‘often fall into the trap of assuming that it is the successor of the medieval Forest system, but the two have little in common but the name.’
  • it drills into the ant mounds, breaking into the galleries and gathering up ants with a flick of a tongue four inches long and coated with glue. At rest, in order to fit inside the bird’s head, the tongue coils behind the skull, over the eyes and into the right nostril. The adult collects ants for its nestlings too – in astronomical amounts. In one study, carried out in Romania, seven green woodpecker chicks consumed an estimated 1.5 million ants and pupae before leaving the nest.
  • There are about sixty species of native dung beetle in the UK, we learned. Unlike African dung beetles, which are famous for rolling away dung balls up to fifty times their weight over long distances, some using the Milky Way to guide them, most of our dung beetles are tunnellers – pulling the dung down into the soil to nest chambers that can be up to two feet deep, either near or directly underneath the dung site.
  • Almost all the purposes for which coppice and scrub had been used in the past were suddenly satisfied by cheap plastic alternatives and over the second half of the twentieth century 90 per cent of traditional coppice in the UK disappeared.
  • We have become a nation of gardeners, more interested in exotic flowers than natives.
  • The tabloids revel in headlines about invasions and attacks and aliens taking over the world. But scientists increasingly argue that the impact of non-natives is vastly exaggerated and largely a matter of perception. Studies show that even Himalayan balsam – large, flowery and conspicuous as a new arrival – ultimately has negligible effect on the diversity and composition of riverbank vegetation, and is positively beneficial for native pollinators.
  • Are exotics responsible, or are they merely taking advantage of instabilities caused by pollution, climate change and habitat degradation?
  • in Wales, studies at Pontbren in the Brecon Beacons have proved that, by simply removing the sheep and planting trees, the rate at which water infiltrates the soil is sixty-seven times greater than on pastures tightly grazed by sheep, where their stiletto hooves compact the soil.
  • in the 1600s, there are estimated to have been at the very least 60 million beavers in the continent of North America, from the Arctic tundra to the deserts of northern Mexico, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with beaver dams every hundred yards along most small rivers.
  • Worm casts on their own provide a kind of super-fertilizer – a manure that holds up to five times the nitrogen, seven times the soluble phosphate, three times the magnesium, one and a half times the calcium and eleven times more potassium than the surrounding topsoil.
  • He estimates that restoring the world’s 5 billion hectares (19 million square miles) of degraded grasslands to functioning ecosystems could return ten or more gigatonnes of excess atmospheric carbon to the terrestrial sink annually. This, he claims, would lower greenhouse-gas concentrations to pre-industrial levels in a matter of decades.
  • Fresh air, long considered a tonic, is not just about avoiding pollution. Toxicologists are discovering that air provided by nature is loaded with microbes produced by plants, fungi and bacteria that are beneficial to health and boost the immune system.
  • studies showed that even comparatively effortless pastimes like listening to music or watching TV are not as effective as nature at clearing the mind and recovering the powers of direct attention.
  • In our case we are part of a family tradition that does not consider the land a saleable asset.
  • We travelled the world to see wildlife. We campaigned to stop the felling of rainforests and the building of dams. Yet we were blind to what we were doing in our own back yard.
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A Brief History of Motion

Title: A Brief History of Motion

Author: Tom Standage

Completed: Dec 2021 (Full list of books)

Overview: Last book of 2021 and first book after transferring my book notes over to my public website. I enjoyed the way this book complimented many of the topics from Strong Towns and showed how close we were on several occasions to having either a car-free society or cars that ran on something other than fossil fuels. Overall it was a good read. I’ve also read “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” by the same author. He does a good job telling stories but sometimes the stories jump from one point to another with seemingly little connection. Still a fun tale.


  • The Horseless Age, a magazine founded in 1895 to champion the new technology, proudly declared that “in cities and in towns the noise and clatter of the streets will be reduced,” because of cars’ rubber tires—yet it is still difficult today to hear yourself think on Broadway. The average speed of cars in central London today is 8 mph, the same as it was for a horse-drawn carriage in the 1890s, belying predictions that cars, taking up less space on the road, would reduce congestion. Road accidents are a major cause of death and injury worldwide. Huge areas of land are devoted to parking, even as cars sit unused, on average, 95 percent of the time—making cities as much dormitories for cars as habitats for people.
  • Their cultural significance is apparent from the appearance of “wagon graves,” which have a wheel buried in each corner, so that the grave itself forms a kind of wagon, carrying its occupant into the afterlife. Such graves first appear on the Black Sea plains around 3300 B.C.E. The distinctive tradition of wagon nomadism in this region persisted for thousands of years; it is mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.E., was adopted by the Mongols in the thirteenth century C.E., and survived into the modern era.
  • On the Via di Nola, for example, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, 89 percent of the wear marks are associated with right-side driving. Visual depictions of Roman funeral processions and chariot races, on funerary urns and in mosaics, also indicate a preference for driving on the right. This preference may have been practical in nature. Most people are right-handed, and when driving a cart or wagon being pulled by two or four horses, a right-handed person will prefer to sit on the left-hand side of the vehicle, or on the rearmost, left-hand horse, to be able to reach all the animals with a whip held in the right hand. And when sitting on the left, it is easier to drive on the right because it puts the driver close to the center of the road, providing better visibility of oncoming traffic and of vehicles passing on the other side of the road. For the Romans, right-side driving also had positive religious connotations. They likened life to a forked path where the virtuous choice was always on the right, and when entering temples and other buildings, they tried to ensure that their right foot was the first to cross the threshold.
  • American standard gauge (4 feet 8.5 inches, or 1.43 meters) does closely match the average Roman gauge (derived from wheel ruts) of 1.4 meters. But ever since the first wheeled vehicles emerged, their gauge has been consistent, falling in the range of 1.3 to 1.6 meters, with an average of 1.45 meters.
  • Facing the threat of the expanding Ottoman Empire, Hungarian commanders adopted a new tactic: arranging wagons on the battlefield in a ring and chaining them together to form a wagon fort, a mobile defensive fortification that could resist cavalry charges. The wagons, equipped with gunports, also acted as protected platforms from which men could fire a small cannon or an early form of gun called an arquebus. This cutting-edge combination of wagons and gunpowder weapons made armored knights on horseback look suddenly old-fashioned. And that may explain why men across Europe decided that riding in fancy wagons was not so embarrassing after all—provided they were referred to as coaches, a name borrowed from the country where this new idea had emerged.
  • experiments starting in the 1780s, John McAdam, a Scottish engineer, refined this approach with his proposal that roads be surfaced using small, sharp-edged stones made from crushed rock, rather than rounded pebbles. The straight edges of these small stones caused them to pack together more tightly as vehicles passed over them, rather than being scattered. McAdam’s approach, which became known as a macadam surface, was formally adopted in Britain in the 1820s and spread to other countries. (The treatment of macadam surfaces with tar, patented in 1902, led to the word tarmac.)
  • As its name indicates, the omnibus was open to all. It became a symbol of democracy, with good reason. Though omnibuses were mostly used by middle-class riders, some cities introduced subsidies to extend access to the poorest workers. Those who took advantage of these cut-price or “commuted” fares became known as commuters.
  • Railways had made possible the transport of people and goods at unprecedented speeds. But rather than liberating cities from their dependence on horses, they increased it.
  • unlike trains, which offered high-speed travel subject to a strict timetable and between fixed points, bicycles could go anywhere. Granting riders unprecedented autonomy and freedom, bicycles came to be seen as agents of wider social change. This was not simply because women cyclists challenged the impracticality of Victorian clothing and took to wearing trousers or bloomers instead. Beloved of suffragettes and socialists, bicycles became more broadly associated with personal emancipation and social progress. American civil rights campaigner Susan B. Anthony declared that the bicycle had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”
  • there were concerns that frequent cycling would lead to the development of “bicycle face,” a deformation of the features, or “cyclemania,” an unhealthy obsession with cycling at speed. Scandalized Victorians also worried that cycling made women infertile, loosened their morals, led them to develop overly masculine musculature, and generally threatened the natural order of things.
  • In a speech in 1906, Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, worried that loutish motorists were fanning the flames of resentment toward the rich: “Nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of automobiles. To the countryman they are a picture of arrogance of wealth with all its independence and carelessness.”
  • In 1908 Octave Mirbeau, a French writer, satirized such complaints from motorists: “How frustrating, how thoroughly disheartening it is that these pigheaded, obstructive villagers, whose hens, dogs and sometimes children I mow down, fail to appreciate that I represent Progress and universal happiness. I intend to bring them these benefits in spite of themselves, even if they don’t live to enjoy them!”
  • from 1914 Ford paid $5 for an eight-hour day, about double the industry’s going rate. Strange as it may seem, paying higher wages was yet another way of cutting costs and improving efficiency. In 1913, the year before the $5 wage was introduced, 71 percent of Ford’s new hires had left within five days. Paying higher wages reduced employee turnover, and hence the amount of time needed for training. Ford claimed that “the payment of five dollars a day for an eight-hour day was one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made.”
  • GM became the world’s largest company altogether. At its height it accounted for more than half of America’s automobile market, and more than 10 percent of its national economy—making it far bigger, in comparative terms, than any technology giant today.
  • The first traffic light was installed on Westminster Bridge in London in 1868, to improve the safety of pedestrians. John Peake Knight, a railway engineer, invented a set of semaphore arms, mounted on a tall post on the bridge, that could be raised and lowered manually by a policeman. Raised arms meant vehicles and horses had to stop “to allow the passage of Persons on Foot”; lowered arms meant vehicles and horses should exercise caution and “pass over the Crossing with care, and due regard to the safety of Foot Passengers.” Crucially, the arms were accompanied by colored gaslights for visibility at night: red for “stop,” and green for “caution”—the standard colors that had been adopted for signaling on railways in the 1840s (along with white for “all clear”). This pioneering traffic light did not last long, however. Less than a month after its installation, a gas leak caused it to explode, injuring the policeman operating it, and it was removed soon afterward.
  • In a speech to a medical conference in 1937, a leading German surgeon, Martin Kirschner, argued against the reimposition of speed limits. Even though he admitted such measures would save many lives, he maintained that impeding the progress of the automobile would threaten “our societal relations, our wealth, our industry, our agriculture, the ability to defend ourselves, our international standing, in short, of our whole civilization and culture.” Instead, he argued, he and his colleagues should focus on developing new approaches to trauma surgery as a way to reduce the death toll. This indicates the extent to which the adoption of the car, and the resulting danger posed to life and limb, had already come to be seen as an unfortunate but inevitable fact of life—an attitude that still prevails today.
  • Oslo raised parking charges and tolls to enter the city, established car-free zones around schools, and shifted some city-center deliveries from vans to electric cargo bikes.
  • Officials in Oslo talk of cars being treated as “guests” or “visitors, rather than owning the streets.” Cars are not banned entirely, but drivers crawling through the city center are made to feel like interlopers.
  • Perhaps the most striking example of the shared-space philosophy is in the Dutch town of Noordlaren, where a primary school was adjacent to a road where drivers tended to speed. The wall between the playground and the road was removed, and the playground was extended across the road, forcing cars to drive (carefully) through the middle of it. Amazingly, this eliminated speeding without causing any accidents.
  • This half-hour commuting distance may sound arbitrary, but an analysis of urban layouts by Cesare Marchetti, an Italian physicist, suggests that one hour is, on average, how long people are willing to spend traveling to and from work each day and has been for centuries. (Some people’s commutes are much shorter or longer; this is an average across a whole city’s population.) Marchetti suggested that this time limit defined the size of cities. No ancient walled cities, he found, had a diameter greater than three miles, so assuming a speed of 3 mph, walking to the center from the edge of such a city, or back again, took no more than half an hour. Faster means of transport, starting with horsecars, let cities expand as this half-hour average travel budget allowed people to go farther. Marchetti’s analysis found that the city of Berlin increased in size precisely in accordance with improvements to the speed of transport. Before 1800 its radius was about 1.5 miles, and as faster means of transport were introduced, starting with horsecars and streetcars, its radius expanded in direct proportion to their speed.
  • It is true that a GM-backed company bought some streetcar operators that were later shut down, but it did so only when the decline of streetcars was already a foregone conclusion, with the aim of ensuring the operators would switch to GM-built buses.
  • America’s highway-construction boom came to an end in the 1970s, as opposition mounted and the notion of “induced demand”—the realization that new road capacity attracts more cars—became more widely known and accepted, under the mantra “you can’t build your way out of congestion.”
  • A study published in 2014 analyzed the density, connectivity, and layout of street networks in twenty-four California cities and related them to local health outcomes. It found that more compact and connected street networks, which promote walking and cycling, were associated with lower levels of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Other studies have found that Americans who live in “walkable” neighborhoods weigh, on average, six to ten pounds less than those in less walkable neighborhoods.
  • winding suburban streets that are meant to reduce speeds and improve safety, meanwhile, seem to have the opposite effect. Curves encourage faster driving than right-angled turns, and wide streets with houses set far back give drivers a sense of space that also encourages them to accelerate. The most dangerous areas for pedestrians, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are no longer downtown streets but “newer, sprawling, southern and western communities where transportation systems are more focused on the automobile.” In short, suburbs.
  • in his 1925 book, The Revolution of Modern Youth. Advice on dating etiquette abounded in magazine columns; dating many partners was a way to demonstrate one’s popularity, and opting out of this contest by going steady with a single partner was frowned upon.
  • In 1897 the bestselling car in the United States was an electric vehicle: the Pope Manufacturing Company’s Columbia. Electric models were outselling both steam- and gasoline-powered ones.
  • in 1862 a tax on alcohol of $2.08 per gallon was introduced to fund the Civil War. This tax was intended to apply to beverage alcohol, but there was no exemption for alcohol produced for use as fuel. As a result, another hydrocarbon product—kerosene derived from crude oil—became the dominant fuel for lighting almost overnight, and many of the small distilleries that had produced fuel alcohol went out of business. The tax on alcohol was left in place after the Civil War as a temperance measure.
  • American engineers also concluded that alcohol was the most promising substitute for gasoline. “This fuel, far from being controlled by a monopoly, is the product of the tillers of the soil,” noted the Horseless Age with approval. Government agencies agreed: alcohol could potentially create a valuable new market for American farmers, by allowing them, in effect, to produce feed for cars instead of horses. Furthermore, noted Motor magazine in 1904, alcohol “is much cleaner, less odorous, and freer from danger of explosion” than gasoline.
  • in America, all efforts to exempt such “denatured” alcohol, or to repeal the excise altogether, starting in the 1880s, had failed. In part this was because Standard Oil and its allies, keen to protect their own sales, argued that a repeal would cause an increase in drunkenness.
  • One GM researcher concluded that alcohol was the “most direct route … for converting energy from its source, the sun, into a material that is suitable for a fuel.”
  • Cars offering rides in this way came to be known as jitneys, after a slang term for the nickel. Some drivers picked up a few riders while driving to or from their places of work. But an economic slowdown, which had begun in 1913, made operating a jitney an attractive option for those who had lost their job but owned a car and wanted a quick way to make a little money.
  • Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral. —Melvin Kranzberg, American Historian
  • In America the proportion of the population with a driving license declined between 2011 and 2014, across all age groups. Young people are either qualifying to drive at a later age or not doing so at all. Since the 1980s, the proportion of Americans with a license has fallen from 46 percent to 25 percent among sixteen-year-olds, 80 percent to 60 percent among eighteen-year-olds, and 92 percent to 77 percent among those aged twenty to twenty-four, according to researchers at the University of Michigan. Young people are also qualifying to drive later than they used to in Britain, Canada, France, Norway, South Korea, and Sweden. Even in car-loving Germany, the share of young households without cars increased from 20 percent to 28 percent between 1998 and 2008.
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First month of fermenting

Well, we’re now a little over a month into my Year of Fermenting and so far, it’s been going great. We’re starting to sample some of what we’ve made, we’re coming up with plenty of ideas to keep trying throughout the year, and (so far) only one cupboard in the kitchen stinks… and as long as we don’t open the cupboard door, you can’t really notice. So at this point, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on what we’ve attempted and how it’s gone.

First up was a Brown Ale brewed on New Years Eve with the yeast pitched just after midnight (I wanted to start the year in correct mindset). I brewed a brown ale and someone suggested adding hazelnuts to make a Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar clone. I sounded good so I looked around to see what others had tried and found that most people throw in a small amount of “hazelnut flavoring” when they keg it. The next time I was at the store, I wandered down the coffee isle and noticed hazelnut flavored syrup which it turns out is not what they meant by hazelnut flavoring. Oh well. I added a little to the keg before realizing what I’d done wrong then decided to just add a little syrup to each glass when filling pints. Turns out, I like the brown ale, but I’m not a huge fan of the hazelnut so I’ll call this ferment a success with a lucky accident.

Next up, I tried rice beer made with some qu balls we got a year ago at a local Asian market. I steamed some sticky rice, waited for it to cool and added a crushed qu ball. There didn’t seem to be enough liquid so I added a bit of water and eventually the rice started to break down and ferment. One site I saw recommended blending the rice and liquid once fermentation finished so I tried it… Not an approach I’ll try again. Still a pretty good drink but the small amount of rice-free beverage that floats to the top is definitely the best part.

After making a tasty ginger beer, I decided I needed to try something that wasn’t a beverage. We got some serrano peppers and decided to make hot sauce. I used the same technique I’ve used for kimchi (add the peppers and garlic to a jar with salt equal to 2% of their weight and mash it until enough liquid comes out to cover the peppers). It smelled so good while it was fermenting. I kept getting a hint of the peppers and wanting to eat them all. After about two weeks, I blended it all. It was a little too thick to pour so I added some cider vinegar. I’ve been putting it on everything recently and really love the flavor. Next time I’ll skip the vinegar and serve it with a spoon. The vinegar just dilutes the flavor a bit.

We’ve never been big fans of cauliflower in this house. It’s ok, but the only time we usually get it is in the fall to make cauliflower/garlic mash (like mashed potatoes). Well, a few weeks ago our veg box arrived with cauliflower which then sat in the fridge for a week or two. Finally I decided we weren’t going to use it for anything else so I might as well try lacto-fermenting it. I made one large jar with cauliflower, garlic, peppercorns and 3% brine, plus one smaller jar that also had some scotch bonnet powder and Korean chili flakes. They both fermented for a little over a week. We’ve been eating them for less that a week and both jars are almost empty. Cauliflower is on our list for the next veg box.

Finally, I wanted to try something with a longer ferment. I found several different techniques for fermented tofu. Some significantly stinkier than others. I went with a less smelly version and have had it going for about three weeks. From what I understand, after about four weeks, it will have the flavor and consistency of a soft cheese. I can’t wait to try it.

I’ve got many ideas for other fermentation experiments but I’m open to other ideas. Any suggestions for what to ferment next month?

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Ferments of 2021

For several years now, I have challenged myself to do something all year. I’ve done a year of running (twice), one of biking/not driving, and one year of getting into open water once a week. This year, I’m trying something different. I recently got more into fermentation so I want to make a new ferment every week of 2021. It might be beer or kimchi or vinegar or ??? The only rules (so far) are that I can’t count the same recipe twice and it must ferment for at least 48 hours. Below is a list of what I’ve fermented so far and I will continue to update it so I have a central location to track my progress.

  • Week 1 – Dec 28 to Jan 3: Hazelnut Brown Ale – Brewed Dec 31 and pitched just in time for the start of the new year. It was racked on 12-Jan and should be ready by the end of the month.
  • Week 2 – Jan 4 to Jan 10: Sweet Rice Qu – Steamed sweet rice with a Chinese yeast ball or qu thrown in. After a few days, it was still too dry so I added more water. A week into the fermentation, the rice started to breakdown, release water, and start bubbling.
  • Week 3 – Jan 11 to Jan 17: Ginger Beer – Grated 8oz ginger into one gallon of water and boiled for 15 minutes. After flame-out, I added one more gallon of cold water and strained it onto three cups of turbinado sugar. Once cool, I pitched 4oz of ginger beer we made with ginger bug.
  • Week 4 – Jan 18 to Jan 24: Lacto Tofu – Put cubed tofu into 1 qt jar. Added Korean pepper flakes, sesame oil and salt. Filled jar with water and a splash of juice from previous kimchi batch
  • Week 5 – Jan 25 to Jan 31: Serrano/Garlic Hot Sauce – Sliced serranos and garlic into a mason jar with 2% salt (by weight). Crushed the mixture with a muddler until enough juice comes out to cover the mixture. Also, I’m using a Fermentation Spring & Lid. These make it so easy to keep everything submerged.
  • Week 6 – Feb 1 to Feb 7: Lacto Cauliflower – Mix cauliflower with whole garlic and whole peppercorns. Ferment for a week in 3% salt brine. Also made a smaller batch with scotch bonnet powder and Korean chili flakes (kimchi-style?).
  • Week 7 – Feb 8 to Feb 14: Kimchi – Purple cabbage, carrots, onion, rainbow radish
  • Week 8 – Feb 15 to Feb 21: ESB – Time for another beer. This one will be the first I try to put some into cask-style containers for true British beer
  • Week 9 – Feb 22 to Feb 28: Habanero hot sauce – Got a pound of habaneros decided to make two sauces. About 3/8 lb plus 1 apple and 1 lemon. The other was 5/8 lb habaneros plus ~12 cloves garlic. Both at ~3% salt brine. (Also made more lacto cauliflower… so good)
  • Week 10 – Mar 1 to Mar 7: Plum vinegar
  • Week 11 – Mar 8 to Mar 14: Over night sourdough
  • Week 12 – Mar 15 to Mar 21: Sauerkraut
  • Week 13 – Mar 22 to Mar 28:
  • Week 14 – Mar 29 to Apr 4: Kimchi variation
  • Week 15 – Apr 5 to Apr 11: Celery Root kraut
  • Week 16 – Apr 12 to Apr 18: new version of lacto-cauliflower
  • Week 17 – Apr 19 to Apr 25:
  • Week 18 – Apr 26 to May 2:
  • Week 19 – May 3 to May 9:
  • Week 20 – May 10 to May 16:
  • Week 21 – May 17 to May 23:
  • Week 22 – May 24 to May 30:

Update: I’m continuing to ferment a lot more food that I had previously, but not doing a new ferment every week. Most of my ferments are slight variations on earlier ones. There is a lot of slow sourdough, hot sauce, lacto-cauliflower, and sauerkraut/kimchi. They are too tasty to not make. I’m also making hard cider with apples we picked in our neighborhood. I will continue to update this when I do new, unique ferments.

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