Book Review: How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein


How the States Got Their Shapes (2008) by Mark Stein is exactly what the title says it is: a state-by-state description of how the borders of the fifty states were laid out (even Hawaii, which is more complicated than it looks).  Some general observations show how the US government tried to create all states of equal size.  The east coast states don’t count because they were laid out by kings and English charters.  That the rest of the states are not of equal size is due to a variety of factors: topographical borders that make more sense, confliciting land claims, land awarded to states for land lost to other states (seemingly an endless cycle), and sometimes just plain bad surveying that held up.

Still the efforts of the government can be seen in the borders.  The parrallel at 36°30′, which originated in error as the border between Virginia and North Carolina spreads across many states as far west as the Texas panhandle because it become the barrier between slave & free states after the Missouri Compromise in 1820.  The government also created tiers of states with equal height (North & South Dakota, Nebraska, & Kansas) or equal width (Washington, Oregon, North & South Dakota, Wyoming, & Colorado) that create some shared qualities even if there’s not equality of square mileage.

Some of my favorite facts learned from this book:

  • New Hampshire gained land from Massachusetts because the king wanted to reward good Anglicans at the expense of the Puritans
  • There’s a little piece of Delaware across the Delaware Bay attached to New Jersey!
  • The easternmost counties of West Virginia actually wished to remain part of the Confederacy but they were occupied by Union troops and attached to the counties that seceded from Virginia
  • The corner cut-off from Utah is due to a mountain range that makes a right angle at that point and thus would have made the valley it surrounds inaccessible from the rest of Utah
  • The Great Lakes states had the borders modified and adjusted several times mostly to allow all the states to have a window on the lakes
  • There are islands in the Hawaiian chain that are not part of the state (including Midway) even though islands to their east & west are part of Hawaii

Unfortunately, the writing is a bit dry.  There are some good stories to be told about the colorful characters who influenced the creation of the state borders, but Stein sticks with just the facts. It also suffers from repetition and overuse of rhetorical questions (“So why does the northern border have a chunk missing?”).  Each chapter also ends with kind of morality lesson about what the particular state’s borders can tell us, and its pretty corny.  This book may work better as a reference book than as something to read cover to cover.  On the other hand, as a nerdy ten-year old I would have ate this up, so it may be good for kids too.

This book has inspired an idea though, based on my childhood home state Connecticut and its claims of land from sea-to-sea.  I think it would be great to travel across the United States only within the boundaries of land once claimed by Connecticut.  One could visit some interesting landmarks such as the New York oblong, the site of the Yankee-Pennamite Wars in Pennsylvania, and Case Western Reserve college in Ohio.  West of there I guess one would have to look for evidence of Nutmeggers in in westward expansion.

Author Stein, Mark, 1951-
Title How the states got their shapes / Mark Stein.
Publication Info. New York : Smithsonian Books/Collins, 2008.
Description xv, 332 p. : maps, 24 cm.

Three Years


Today marks three years since the last time I played kickball.  Funny thing that.  I played kickball fairly frequently in the days leading up to Sept. 17th, 2005, and enjoyed playing on that date as well (although my team had our butts kicked big time).  I even received a kickball as a gift.  One would think that I would have played more kickball since then.

Of course, three years ago today was the day Susan & I joined in matrimony.  We’ve spent those years doing things like figuring out to use our other wedding gifts (like the toaster), playing UNO, becoming homeowners, laughing, arguing about ridiculous topics, practicing hypnobirthing, having a baby, chasing after that baby whose learned to walk at 10 months, loving the baby, and loving one another more and more each day.

Happy anniversary Susan!

Previously: Two years

Constitution Day


Commemorate September 17, 1787 – the day when 39 delegates signed the US Consitution – by learning more about the United States’ system of government:

If you haven’t done so already, this a good occassion to register to vote in the upcoming national election.

Book Review: Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky


Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008) by Clay Shirky is yet another book about the effect of social networking on the internet.  And a pretty good one at that, kind of like Groundswell without the business management emphasis.  Shirky’s main point is not so much that new technologies are changing the world, but that they are allowing people to collaborate in ways that weren’t possible before so that they can change societal and cultural norms (and by extension the world).  It’s a good and highly-readable summary of what’s going on in the world today.

I found in a Library Thing review this great webibliography of resources related to the book: http://mymindonbooks.com/?page_id=562.

Shirky, Clay.
Here comes everybody : the power of organizing without organizations / Clay Shirky.
New York : Penguin Press, 2008.

Book Review: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a difficult book to review.  I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t really understand all that this book is about but have hopes that reading it may have broadened my knowledge some and will be an incremental step in understanding similar works in the future.  Not that I can predict the future, that appears to be something that NNT feels strongly about.

Here are a few other things that Nassim Nicholas Taleb doesn’t like:

  • ludic fallacy
  • Platonicity
  • pompous academics
  • the bell curve (this won big points with me)
  • the narrative fallacy
  • financial consultants
  • and, putting things into categories (oops)

The idea of the black swan is that there are events that are rare & hard-to-predict with huge impact in just about every endeavour including science, finance, and mathematics.  The name comes from the belief among Europeans in past centuries that all swans are white because all the swans ever observed were white, a theory busted by the discovery of black swans in Australia.  Black swans may be beneficial or disasterous but have in common that people will generally ignore theses outliers until they happen and then try to create a reason for their happening.

NNT (he calls himself by these intials, btw) writes in a style mixing an essay-style discourse with narrative stories, often rather silly.  He also has kind of an arrogant, sarcastic tone that can be off-putting, but mostly I liked it since what he writes is pretty interesting.

Taleb, Nassim.
The black swan : the impact of the highly improbable / Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
New York : Random House, c2007.

War of the Worlds video


Catching up on a request from a friend to share a promo video for the 70th anniversary of the War of the Worlds broadcast which will be held at the David Sarnoff Library in Princeton, NJ. This video is worth watching simply for the kickass theramin theme music.  Sure the visuals are dull, but the event should be fun, so if you’re in New Jersey on October 25th, check it out.

Previously: Radiolab podcast about War of the Worlds

Book Review: The Driftless Area by Tom Drury


September’s pick for the William & Mary Book of the Month Club is The Driftless Area (2006) by Tom Drury.  It’s a thin novel with awfully large type that should really be considered a novella at best.  The content isn’t so hot neither.  It’s a rather dull, dreary book which lacks internal logic and features stiff, unnatural dialog.  It’s supposed to be a heist caper although that plot feels tacked on.  It’s also kind of a ghost story although I can’t tell you how without a major spoiler.  The Driftless Area reads like someone went to the Iowa Writers Workshop and learned to write a technically proficient book, but one with no soul.  I tried to like this book, I really did, but sadly there is no try, only do or do not.  And I do not.

The driftless area by Tom Drury.
New York : Distributed by Publishers Group West, c2006.

Book Review: Terra Incognita: Travels In Antarctica


Representing Cold for the Book-a-month Challenge is Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita: Travels In Antarctica (1996). Just for kicks I’m going to make it the Around the World for a Good Book selection for Antarctica as well.  As the subtitle states, this is a travel book to the forbidding, ownerless continent at the southernmost part of the planet.  For the most part that means visiting scientific research station.  I’m surprised how many research stations exist and how many people live and work there.  The stations seem well out-fitted (all of them have a bar) and served by frequent flights.  Wheeler even flies to the South Pole which feels a bit anticlimactic.

Among the vast deserts of ice are the well-preserved huts of the early explorers of Antarctica’s heroic age.  It’s hard to believe that they still stand with the explorers’ provisions still on the shelves.  Wheeler visits these historic relics and weaves the stories of Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen, Mawson, Cherry-Garrard and Byrd with her own.

The last portion of the book where Wheeler spends a season on the ice with an artist at their own camp is particularly impressive.  I give this book high marks for insight and originality.

Terra incognita : travels in Antarctica by Sara Wheeler.
New York : Random House, 1996.

Boston By Foot Tour of the Month: Ashmont Hill


I pretty much summed up this tour of Ashmont Hill in my previous post, but now I’ve added my photo album of pictures from the tour.  I had the captions vetted by one of the guides, so they should be historically illuminating as well as pleasant to look at. Check it out, now!!!

What I wrote in the previous post still stands:

The tour covers both a public square and a quiet, leafy neighborhood with gorgeous houses, none of which are substandard.  The architectural styes include Gothic Revival, Tudor Revival, Colonial Revival, Queen Anne, Stick Style, Shingle Style, and Italianate.  Homes of architects, educators, and a prominent politician – John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald.

Additionally, residents of the neighborhood came on the tour and invited people inside their houses for a special treat.

If you missed the tour, it will be offered again next year on a date to be determined.

Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Trolley Line


I arrived early for a tour in Ashmont and with nothing better to do, I got my geek on and rode the Mattapan-Ashmont High Speed Trolley Line. I’ve lived in Boston for nearly ten years and have wanted to ride this special trolley line for almost as long.  Granted, the previous time I tried the line was closed for the day, and it was closed completely for renovation for a couple of years, but I’ve been delinquent regardless.

What makes the line special to transit geeks like myself is that it uses PCC Streetcars, a sturdy design manufactured from the 1920’s-1950’s.  It also has an exclusive right-of-way, hence the “high speed” designation.

The ride was a joy.  The PCC Streetcars seem to have a more spacious interior and run more smoothly than the Green Line light-rail vehicles (although a couple of time the car jerked violently from side-to-side). The ride is scenic passing through a cemetery, along a Neponset River wetlands, past old warehouses in Milton and through many backyards (I’d love to have a trolley line in my backyard).  The trolley drivers don’t come to a full-stop at the stations unless someone requests it, but they do a kind of rolling stop.  I was amused when the trolley operator stopped to talk with the driver of the car coming from the opposite direction.

The viaduct turn-around at Ashmont reminds me of a roller coaster at an amusement park.

I thought the MBTA logo looked old-fashioned but the route maps are pretty much up-to-date.

The trolley at the Mattapan terminus

Two off-duty trolleys at the Mattapan yard.

More on the Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Trolley Line at NYC Subways.

Previously: Mattapan Trolley Returns