Before we all forget people haven’t always had handheld devices that could instantly position them on Earth within a few feet, it would be instructive to recount how incredibly difficult this feat is, especially on open water. The grid references for location, latitude and longitude require basically two inputs: the sun’s position and exact time.
As you can imagine, latitude was mastered first, but creating chronometers accurate enough to help sailors fix east-west positions stumped clockmakers for centuries. The wealth of the New World raised the stakes for solving the longitude problem, and a most unlikely hero rose to the daunting challenge. Read more.
It would be easy to dismiss a sociological study published in 1992 as irrelevant today. Indeed, many of the insights winnowed by the meticulous research of Sonya Salamon in “Prairie Patrimony: Family, Farming and Community in the Midwest” should be seen as foreshadowing more than headlines.
Still, this masterwork rivals Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” as a milestone in cultural documentation. Beginning with ethnic history and cultural context, the book provides helpful understanding of the dominant moral standards and ethical framework of Midwestern farm communities. What readers might find eerie is how the unspoken but widely assumed standards of virtue for individuals and communities have remained remarkably intact over time. Read more.
In titling his book “Against the Grain,” Yale anthropologist James Scott pulls off a double play. Not only does his account of how early states and agriculture developed sharply disagree with textbook dogma, but his criticism of the mixed blessing of switching to grain-based diets after sedentary ag became common will rankle many farmers who have long believed all civilization was solely about fixed food sources.
Scott offers convincing historical and logical arguments that the progression from hunting and gathering took far longer and yielded mixed results. Indeed, sedentary agriculture was not just based on domesticating plants and animals. Anthropology can demonstrate it changed humans, as well. Read more.
If you are familiar with the character Ron Swanson from the TV series “Parks and Recreation,” you already have a fair idea of who Nick Offerman is in real life. An avid woodworker, he combines his sly, dry humor with gorgeous photography, funny stories and actual woodworking advice to subtly introduce or reinvigorate the passion woodworkers celebrate in their craft. Read more.
Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen has offered practical arguments concerning modern economies over a wider range, and in more readable prose, than almost all academic or political voices.
“Complacent Class” adds to that body of work, but it’s not at the top of the list. Disjointed and dispiriting, this investigation into his popular themes of stagnation and misguided policy has one big point: Americans are just too comfortable to do the work necessary to rev up the economic engine. He references evidence such as assortative mating (marrying like partners), slowing geographic mobility and residential self-segregation to make a forceful case for our lost ambitions. Read more.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse has established himself as an engaging albeit puzzling star in Republican politics. His most recent book, “The Vanishing American Adult,” is a blend of well-written prose, social commentary, challenging ideas and quiet omissions.
The examination of how coming of age in America went off the rails, culminating in a generation marked by permanent dependence, is documented with anecdotes, personal experience, quotations and scant data.
As a former university president, he draws heavily on that brief tenure to challenge our entire process of forming adults. From parenting to the scope of education to employment, there are few areas he finds acceptable. Read more.
A collection of letters from a Gilded Age wealthy meatpacker to his coming-of-age son, “Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to his Son” by George Horace Lorimer is witty and absolutely crammed with the kind of common-sense capitalism many Americans are looking back on with great fondness.
It is refreshing to read, although the relentless folksy metaphors and aphorisms soon become distracting. Few sentences go by without passages such as, “Marriages may be made in heaven, but most engagements are made in the back parlor with the gas so low that a fellow doesn’t really get a square look at what he’s taking.” Read more.
If you can’t get away to somewhere warm this winter, you might as well experience Australia vicariously through Bill Bryson’s curiously hilarious account, “In a Sunburned Country.”
Readers familiar with his Appalachian adventure, “A Walk in the Woods”—later made into a passable movie—will know what to expect as Bryson visits Down Under. Sixteen years after reading this, I still remember his core impression of Australia: It has more ways to kill you than any other continent. Read more.
Since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, interest in the politics of populism has surged. Frequent references are made to the Andrew Jackson administration (1829–1837), and Meacham’s biography is a good place to begin. Like Trump, Jackson reached the White House by appealing to the common man of the day, over the heads of established leaders.
Other similarities of personality and practice are documented in this detailed but somewhat incomplete account. Jackson’s training and military career, which enabled his popular appeal, are given short shrift. Read more.
As senior economist for The Economist magazine, Ryan Avent has more than sufficient literary skills in hand to tackle perhaps the largest problem facing modern societies: What if there is not enough work for all people? With clear and witty prose, his book “The Wealth of Humans” describes with data and anecdotes how jobs from pipefitter to paralegal are relentlessly disappearing as technology continues an exponential advance. His descriptions of the incursion of artificial intelligence into the territory of knowledge-workers such as radiologists, educators and even computer programmers outline the rapidity and scope of our core labor problem. Read more.
Those of us raised in the Midwest seldom experience several competitive sports such as skiing because of geography. A story such as “The Boys in the Boat,” in the hands of a skilled writer, can open up a new world of athletics and uncover the atmosphere of competition in another crucial time—the build-up to World War II.
Drawn from humble backgrounds, nine remarkable young men demonstrated every
virtue imaginable in their quest to compete at the highest level in a truly elite sport. From the art of making a world-class boat to the brilliant coaching required to defeat legendary collegiate rivals, the world of rowing opens up for unfamiliar readers. Read more.
Although not an easy book, “The Master Algorithm” by Pedro Domingos is a great brain exercise for farmers on winter days. The central theme is ambitious, a One Ring of machine learning: a master algorithm that rules all other algorithms to create self-learning machines.
Most of us think of computer programming, in which humans writing rules in code that instruct computers to generate correct answers, as the key to the future. But machine learning is reversing that idea. Instead, “learners” takes masses of data (such as the kind farmers are accumulating on every acre), match it up with the correct answer, such as yield, and let the machine figure out the program that can predict those outcomes. The result is already reality: the U.S. Postal Service let machines learn how to read addresses with this data-fed technique, for example. Read more.
Although this day serves as a special demonstration to show off, it is emblematic of the astonishing effort of thousands of workers, mostly despised immigrants such as those from China and Ireland, who built the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. Whether boring through the granite of the Sierras or spanning rivers with 85-ft. timber trestles, muscles did almost all of the work. You and three coworkers pick up a 560-lb. rail and run forward to drop it in place on the ties. Then you run back for the next. Repeat. By 7 p.m.*, you have laid a record 10 miles of track, each of you carrying 125 tons of steel, adding track at a rate of 240 ft. every three minutes. Read more.
Author Mark Kurlansky is noted for these single-topic deep dives, and this one—titled “Salt: A World History”—is just as tedious, surprising and trivia-laden as his others. Look on Amazon for fuller details, but I’ll say this: it’s more than you ever wanted to know about salt, but you’ll keep reading anyway.If you read many of my book reviews, you might detect a sporadic theme: where food comes from. From the origin and provenance of chickens and pigs, we now take on the ubiquitous mineral additive known as salt.
Although producers complain about consumers ignorant of where food comes from, it might improve our status as informed commenters if we could speak knowledgeably about some ingredient other than what is in our fields. For that matter, how much do we know about where food comes from? Read more.
At first glance, this book is very silly. Yet after a little study, you realize it is brilliantly silly.
Using only the ten hundred most commonly used English words (yes, “thousand” is not one), and stick figure drawing, Munroe does a remarkable job of explaining things such as nuclear power generation, human cells, the space station, car engines, the U.S. Constitution, plate tectonics and pencils. Although it is great for children, it is remarkably helpful and entertaining for grown-ups, as well. I confess I finally understand how undersea drilling works, but I can only explain it like a third-grader. Read more.
It will be a while until my next book review is published, so I’ve selected a door-stopper titled “The Empire of Cotton: A Global History” that should last through the summer. Historian Sven Beckert’s often dense but very readable history of cotton cultivation and processing is truly global. Like other books on chickens and pigs I’ve written about this year, a commodity can be portrayed as the driver of world events if you line up the facts very carefully. Beckert, though, makes a powerful case for cotton, especially its domination of economics in the 19th century.
One of the most disturbing themes he raises is cotton’s plausible link to violence throughout its long history. Such violence includes forcible colonization, land expropriation, naval warfare to control trade, child labor and, of course, slavery. The demand for cotton cloth has contributed to some of the worst chapters in human history. Read more.
OK, I’ve waded through the history of chickens and grappled with superforecasting. It’s time for some fun reading. Only the sci-fi spy-thriller novels that make up “The Nexis Trilogy” are just plausible enough to haunt your ideas of the future—a post-human future. A widely respected computer scientist, author Ramez Naam has a background at Microsoft in everything from web browsers to artificial intelligence (AI).
His vision of singularity, the point at which humans and technology merge, is grounded in today’s already unsettling developments (e.g., computers winning “Jeopardy!”). Even better, his character development, intricate plot lines and polished prose depict the computer techno-world like John Grisham does the legal system. Read more.
In his 2009 book “Expert Political Judgment,” author Philip E. Tetlock made a powerful case for two conclusions about political forecasting: first, that simple mechanistic rules beat experts, and second, that the more famous the experts, the worse their predictions become. He painstakingly demonstrated over decades and thousands of predictions that such prognostications are essentially no better than random guesses.
For his latest book “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction,” Tetlock teamed with coauthor Dan Gardner to apply the same meticulous methodology to see if it’s possible for people to get better at forecasting. His Good Judgment Project selected thousands of volunteers, each of whom made hundreds of predictions, and scored them precisely. (Full disclosure: I was chosen to participate but dropped out after a few months when I learned I: 1) wasn’t very good; 2) wasn’t getting better; and 3) lacked the time to compete.)
The research identified dozens of superforecasters, whose scores rose far above simple luck and other Good Judgment volunteers when answering fiendishly difficult questions such as, “Would Chinese action in the South China Sea result in a fatality by X date?” Read more.
As farmers have specialized, some of our shared history of crops and livestock has faded. “Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig,” by Mark Essig, does a remarkable job of rooting out (heh) the long history of pigs and human civilization, concluding with a reasonably fair accounting of the economics and ethical issues roiling pork production today.
Essig’s style is witty and engaging, even as he packs copious, curious details of our tumultuous relationship with swine into every paragraph. Perhaps more than with any other domestic species, human interaction with pigs has been a tumult of appetite and revulsion. Read more.