Thin Cities [Free Verse]

There are cities where
the veneer of normality 
is so thin

that it feels as though
one could fall through
at any time,
into the true city.

New Orleans,
Tokyo after midnight, 
parts of Prague & Bangkok

I can't say what's beneath
the veneer,
but, oh, does part of me
 want to know!

These are places 
better visited than lived in,
for their magic cannot 
survive extended proximity.

BOOK REVIEW: A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh

A Burglar's Guide to the CityA Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This is a book about how people exploit the architecture and infrastructure of cities to abscond with other people’s property. Manaugh shows us both how the masterminds of burglary think outside the box “Ocean’s Eleven” style, as well as how the dim dull-wits and junkies botch burglaries in hilarious ways. In the process, the author also shines a light on the ways in which the law enforcement community has had to update its technological and tactical capabilities to counter these threats.

The book contains seven chapters. The first chapter lays the groundwork, particularly through discussion of the aforementioned extremes. On one hand, there is George Leonidas Leslie, an architect turned bank robber who would build accurate mockups in order to accurately rehearse robberies, and–on the other hand–there is the guy who used a ghillie suit disguise in a rock and mineral museum (which, not unsurprisingly, featured barren rock displays [down-playing vegetation] such that the guy stuck out like a guy in a ghillie suit in a rock display.)

Chapter 2 details what Manaugh learned about burglary and the fight against it through his interviews with law enforcement, and—in particular—the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) helicopter unit.

The next chapter focuses on how different types of buildings are violated by burglars, and apartment burglaries are prominent in the discussion. This isn’t just about how they breach the building, but how they discover when no one will be home.

Chapter 4 is entitled “tools of the trade” and it reflects upon the skill-set that Hollywood suggests is associated with burglars—i.e. lock-picking and safe-cracking–but which constitute a less common set of tactics than one might think. Burglars usually favor the messier / quicker approach of busting walls and locks.

Chapter 5 deals with a number of issues under the rubric of “inside jobs” but one of the most intriguing is its discussion of those who don’t break in at all, but rather who hide inside the target building awaiting closing time.

The penultimate chapter is about that ever-present concern of burglars, the getaway. And sometimes the secret is what Black Widow says in “Captain America: Civil War”: “The first rule of being on the run is walk, don’t run.” The final chapter is a wrap-up, including a conclusion to the George Leonidas Leslie story that was brought up in the first chapter.

There are notes and citations at the end of the book. There are no graphics. I think this book could have benefited from graphics. However, the author displayed such skill with language and story-telling that I didn’t seem to notice (or care) at the time of reading. I suspect Manaugh didn’t want to present too much detail for fear of being seen as an actual manual for crime, which this clearly is not.

I found this book fascinating, and think you would enjoy it if you have any interests in cities, security, civil engineering, architecture, or just have a healthy curiosity about how buildings and cities work.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: City P.D. Smith

City: A Guidebook for the Urban AgeCity: A Guidebook for the Urban Age by P.D. Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Desmond Morris wrote about the rise of super-tribes—groupings of people in which it was no longer possible for every member to know every other. Morris controversially proposed that super-tribes facilitated the growth of many behaviors that are considered weird, perverse, or aberrant. The fact that the seedy underbelly of society resides right under the greatest concentration of noses is one of the reasons we find cities fascinating. But it’s not the only reason. (Smith touches on but doesn’t dwell on the seamy side of the city, including sidebars on gangs and red-light districts.) The tremendous challenges of governance, distribution, transportation, and security that arise when people are packed together are huge.

Smith gives a fascinating overview of the past, present, and possible future of the city. We learn about a time when the most advanced cities in the world weren’t New York, London, or Tokyo, but instead were Sumer, Tenochtitlan, or Angkor. (A nice feature of this book is how much ground it covers geographically. Smith brings in examples from ancient Alexandria to modern-day Mumbai in addition to those from cities–such as New York, Tokyo, and Paris–that might first pop to mind when one thinks of a city.) The reader is shown a city as an organism that has to get food and workers to its heart while expelling a massive accumulation of wastes. Cities require homeostasis as much as does the human body.

The book has eight chapters that discuss topics such as the rise of the city and how it was tied to human endeavors more generally (e.g. on the agricultural front), the development of neighborhoods, the challenge of transportation in an ever-growing community, how cities manage to be exemplary of both wealth and poverty at the same time, how the masses are entertained given the free time that arose from specialization and regulation of the labor market, and what the future of cities might bring. It’s topically, rather than chronologically arranged (though the discussion of the rise of the city is early in the book), and the organization works though it’s not necessarily what would spring to mind if one were outlining such a book.

I found this book fascinating. It’s full of interesting information and uses graphics and sidebars to good effect. If it can be called a micro-history (the subject of the urban world being so encompassing), it’s among the most interesting micro-histories that I’ve read. Whether it’s churches, Chinatowns, or coffee houses, this book lends insight into the nooks and crannies of the modern metropolis. The sections on subway systems and skyscrapers are among the most fascinating sub-chapters. (It just occurred to me that the last sentence could be taken in some sort of freaky, sexual way. That wasn’t my intention. I just find the engineering challenges of such infrastructure to be intriguing.) From gladiatorial combat to the birth of libraries, there’s something in this book to pique a reader’s interest.

I’d highly recommend this book for readers of non-fiction, and in particularly those who enjoy micro-histories.

View all my reviews


Taken in September of 2014 in Bangkok

Taken in September of 2014 in Bangkok

This is a bridge over the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.