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Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate (Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past)
Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate (Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past)
by Marina Rustow
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $54.86
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5.0 out of 5 stars Stories of Jewish unity (and sometimes not so much), January 31, 2015
I had always thought that Karaites and rabbinic Jews were mortal enemies, but this book shows that (in the pre-Crusades Middle East) that this was anything but true. First of all, Rustow shows (based on Cairo Geniza documents) that there were really three major halachic communities in many places: Karaites, rabbinic Jews who followed rabbis based in Iraq, and other rabbinic Jews who followed rabbis based in Israel. We owe the tradition of non-anonymous, grammar-oriented Bible commentaries to the first group, the Talmud (and most modern halacha) to the second, and the Masoretic text of the Torah to the third.

Karaites were more likely than other Jews to hold high office in Cairo (the capital of the Fatimid caliphate in the 10th century), so Rabbanites often needed favors from them; for example, rabbinic leadership at the highest levels was appointed by the caliphs, and Karaite courtiers were often helpful in this regard. Rabbanites and Karaites married each other, prayed in each other's congregations now and then, and contributed money to each other's yeshivot (religious schools). I found a chapter on marriage contracts to be especially interesting; where Rabbanites married Karaites, marriage contracts often specified how to negotiate religious differences (usually specifying that each spouse had to respect the other's stringencies, but, surprisingly, saying little about how to raise children).

On the other hand, rabbinic leaders had to fight with their own side's zealots; for example, in 1029 a mob of Rabbanites in Jerusalem agitated to excommunicate the Karaites, but were stopped by the leadership. The gaon (essentially, chief rabbi) of the Israel Rabbanites wrote, in words that ring true even today: "[Should we excommunicate] those who spread gossip? But most [engage] in gossip! .. anyone who performs magic? But many-- both men and women--- do it! ... Are there no commandments left for us to uphold except [those dividing Rabbanites and Karaites]?"

The book concludes with a comparison to 12th century Spain, where Rabbanites sometimes suppressed Karaites. Why was there so much less religious tolerance in Spain? Rustow suggests that 1) most Jewish courtiers were Rabbanites and Karaites were few and powerless, and 2) because of the constant wars between Christians and Muslims, the rabbinic majority felt that "any successful attack on rabbinic tradition and its exclusive legitimacy would render Judaism and the Jews vulnerable to the attacks of Christians and Muslims."

Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns
Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns
by Victor Dover
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $79.29
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5.0 out of 5 stars impressive detail, January 29, 2015
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Although other books have discussed ways to make streets more pedestrian-friendly, this book is exceptional in its level of detail. For example, other commentators emphasize the importance of street trees- but Dover and Massengale explain what types of street trees and why. Other commentators explain why narrow streets are better for pedestrians than wide ones- but Dover and Massengale explain how wide streets can be tamed and made into more welcoming places, and use many specific examples.

The Homevoter Hypothesis: How Home Values Influence Local Government Taxation, School Finance, and Land-Use Policies
The Homevoter Hypothesis: How Home Values Influence Local Government Taxation, School Finance, and Land-Use Policies
by William A. Fischel
Edition: Paperback
Price: $22.37
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4.0 out of 5 stars not flawless but provocative, January 5, 2015
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The “homevoter hypothesis” of this book is that local governments make land use decisions based on the views of the typical homeowner. Because a house is a large and illiquid investment, a “homevoter” (Fischel's word for a home-owning voter) often focuses not on maximizing property values, but on reducing the risk of a decline in property values. As a result, homevoter-dominated local governments shun new residential development (especially apartments or anything that might bring in poor people) or commercial development near housing, because even if those developments aren’t going to reduce property values, why take the chance? In addition, homevoters prefer small suburbs to consolidated regional governments, because larger governments might favor the broad public interest in new housing over homevoters’ neighborhood concerns.

Generally, Fischel seems to think that this is fine. For example, he thinks that homevoters are likely to maximize environmental protection, because pollution is bad for property values. Fischel rejects “environmental justice” claims based on the proximity of polluters to poor neighborhoods, reasoning that these neighborhoods benefit from cheaper housing, bigger commercial tax bases and closer proximity to jobs. Fischel also defends use of local property taxes to fund education, because good schools help property values, so homevoters will be willing to support high property taxes in order to improve schools.

Fischel thus attacks attempts to equalize school finances between property-rich and property-poor towns; as he points out, property-poor towns are not always full of poor people, since troubled urban areas often have fairly strong commercial tax bases. Although he admits that the data on this issue is ambiguous, he further claims that in pro-equalization states, many towns spend less on education and thus suffer from weaker schools. But if I understand Fischel correctly, he does not seem to think that increased state subsidies to poor cities did not improve education. But how can it be the case that more spending is good when tax money goes to rich suburban schools, yet not so good when it goes to poor schools? More broadly, Fischel doesn’t seem particularly interested in failed municipalities- poor cities that, despite having adopted zoning decades ago, don’t seem able to preserve property values or retain middle-class residents.

Fischel does admit in the last chapter or so that homevoters are likely to underprovide transit-accessible housing and housing for the poor. Given the popularity of homevoter-oriented zoning, he does not propose aggressive remedies for these problems, but instead endorses a variety of modest proposals that are more politically feasible but may be only slightly helpful. For example, he proposes improving education for the poor by creating “public-school supplements” for low-income families, payable directly to the public schools of their towns of residence. Ideally, suburbs will be willing to allow low-income housing in exchange for the extra money.

Designing Urban Transformation
Designing Urban Transformation
by Aseem Inam
Edition: Paperback
Price: $51.25
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars OK I guess, December 23, 2014
This book is dominated by case studies of successful planning and architecture projects, including examples as diverse as the Pompidou art museum in Paris (which the author claims revitalized the surrounding neighborhood), a park in a Brazilian slum, improved sanitation in Karachi, the Big Dig in Boston. I didn't find anything objectionable in this book, but I'm not sure I learned very much I didn't already know.

In My Father's Court
In My Father's Court
by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.12
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5.0 out of 5 stars got better as it went on, December 20, 2014
This review is from: In My Father's Court (Paperback)
At first glance, these stories (about Warsaw right before World War I) seem almost overly nostalgic and sentimental. But the last few stories (about famine in Warsaw during World War I, and then about the author's migration to the epidemic-ridden countryside) pack more of a punch, showing the precariousness of life before modern sanitation.

Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (Inside Technology)
Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (Inside Technology)
by Peter D. Norton
Edition: Paperback
Price: $20.70
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars how an industry took over the streets, December 11, 2014
Before the 1920s, streets were shared space- pedestrians, horses and cars intermingled on major streets, while children played in minor ones. But as automobile speeds kept rising, thousands of pedestrians were slain. As a result, by the early 1920s, the automobile industry and related industries such as the auto parts, tire and rubber companies (or, as some industry representatives called them, "motordom") were on the run. Because of autos' bad public relations and the difficulty of driving in congested downtown traffic, dealers sold 12 percent fewer vehicles in 1923. And yet a decade or two later, American streets were being torn up in order accommodating the automobile, and street laws were changed to limit pedestrian access. How did this happen? Norton explains how motordom hijacked local government in a variety of ways.

First, motordom decided to take over the street safety issue. While much of the public understandably blamed cars for dead pedestrians, motordom began a public relations campaign of "blaming the victim", by mounting anti-jaywalking campaigns and persuading cities to enact anti-jaywalking ordinances. For example, Packard (one of the early car companies) built an imitation tombstone resembling some cities' monuments to child pedestrians killed by cars. However, its tombstone was marked "Erected to the Memory of Mr. J. Walker: He Stepped From the Curb Without Looking." In this campaign, motordom often had the support of local media; car companies advertised heavily in local newspapers, and occasionally used the threat of lost advertising revenue as a club to bring newspapers into line. Newspapers printed AAA press releases as newspaper stories, and motordom launched an accident news service that took accident reports supplied by newspapers, recast the reports to reflect the news service's own views about the accident, and then created statistics that shifted the blame for accidents to pedestrians. AAA also funded safety campaigns in public schools, designed to tell children that streets were for cars and not for children.

Second, motordom created its own "experts" to lobby city officials. The Los Angeles auto club created a "Traffic Commission" headed by a local car dealer, which hired Miller McClintock, a Harvard graduate student, as a consultant. Before being hired by the car lobby, McClintock favored more efficient use of existing streets, and wrote that widening streets would merely attract more traffic. After going on the motordom payroll, McClintock endorsed wider streets and created a new traffic code for Los Angeles, which fined jaywalkers and rejected limitations on downtown parking. Studebaker (a car company) then hired McClintock to establish a foundation which trained engineers how to design cities for cars. The Studebaker-subsidized engineers then went to work in cities throughout the country, presenting themselves as impartial experts. After Studebaker suffered financial difficulties, the auto industry as a whole took over the institute, paying stipends to its "students" to cover expenses.

Third, motordom took over the federal government. Herbert Hoover, then the Secretary of Commerce, believed in letting industries participate in drafting regulations. So he created a committee to draft a model traffic code. Most of the committee was dominated by motordom, so they drafted a model ordinance, the Uniform Vehicle Code, which codified its views.

Fourth, motordom got a guaranteed revenue source from the state and federal governments: the gas tax, which was used to carry out motordom's agenda of wider, faster streets.

The Hamlet
The Hamlet
by William Faulkner
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.24
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3.0 out of 5 stars not completely unreadable, December 2, 2014
This review is from: The Hamlet (Paperback)
This book is more accessible for the average reader than Faulkner's, The Sound And The Fury- by which I mean that after a few pages you can figure out what is going on, even if you have to fight through a jungle of prose to get there. Nevertheless, I can't say that I really enjoyed reading it.

If I Only Knew Then...: Learning from Our Mistakes
If I Only Knew Then...: Learning from Our Mistakes
by Charles Grodin
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars mixed bag, fast read, November 22, 2014
A group of short essays- mostly by Grodin's show business friends and their friends, mostly about mistakes they made. I can't say I learned anything earthshaking, but some of the stories were moving (others less so, of course).

My favorite: Alan Alda's story about how, when questioning scientists for a TV program, he was so overprepared that he got in the way of the scientists instead of (in his words) "letting the other person change me." My least favorite: a story about someone who missed an opportunity to buy a condo, urging readers to "Buy something as soon as you possibly can"- a moral that seemed non-stupid when the book was written (2007) but in much of the U.S. now seems about as wise as "get your government to invade Iraq as soon as it possibly can."

When Bad Things Happen to Good People
When Bad Things Happen to Good People
by Harold S. Kushner
Edition: Paperback
Price: $7.32
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars not bad, not completely persuasive, November 22, 2014
This book explains a variety of theories addressing the question quoted by the book, and ably criticizes some of them. However, I'm not sure Kusher's solution (that God is not all-powerful and therefore cannot stop pointless suffering) is any better. How can a non-powerful God even be God? The question seems to me to open up quite a can of worms.

Moses in the Sinai
Moses in the Sinai
by Simone Zelitch
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.12
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5.0 out of 5 stars a fun-to-read portrait of a somewhat imaginary world, November 18, 2014
This review is from: Moses in the Sinai (Hardcover)
This is not intended to be a typical novelization of Scripture; as the author notes "this novel is scripturally accurate only in coincidence with my imagination." But it is close enough to be interesting to people who find Scripture interesting as well as to those who don't. Most of the novel is similar to the Torah... yet a bit different. Instead of groaning under Egyptian oppression, the Hebrews are so terrified of the Sinai wilderness that they worship Pharoah and happily comply with an order to kill their baby boys (because they have been told that a baby boy will lead them out of Egypt into this wilderness, where they expect to starve to death). Instead of being a normal person who just happens to hear the voice of God, Moses is a mystic who comes across as a little bit crazy yet just barely sane enough to lead. Miriam is more a supernatural figure than a person. Aaron and (occasionally) the Pharoah are the only real voices of normalcy.

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