A few weeks ago, I watched a bad movie on Netflix—The Cloverfield Effect. This near-future science fiction film (distantly related to the original Cloverfield, an updated Godzilla-type movie) revolved around a disastrous attempt to generate unlimited energy in space, needed because the entire world was “two years from running out of all energy.” Yes, that’s really as stupid as it sounds. But Meghan O’Sullivan is here to tell us that just as stupid is the idea that we’re running out of fossil fuels, within any time frame that matters. And she is further here to tell us what that means, for our economy, our global position, and for the future stability of the world, both geopolitically and environmentally.
This book addresses what is, as far as the material comforts of the modern age, the central question of our time—can mankind have it all? The author, Charles Mann, does not answer that question, though I think his answer would be, if forced, “probably yes.” What Mann offers, rather than canned answers, is a refreshingly and relentlessly non-ideological work, comparing two philosophies of human development, embodied in the lives of two men of the twentieth century. The first, Norman Borlaug, engineered the saving of hundreds of millions of lives and won a Nobel Prize. The second, William Vogt, prophesied a global doom whose arrival date has been continuously postponed for fifty years, and then shot himself, whereupon he was forgotten until this book.
Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory is a mild corrective to the commonly found anguished certainty that America’s days of innovative scientific greatness are behind us. In its exploration of the might and works of Bell Labs, this book reminds us that genius requires the right cultural environment to flourish, and it addresses whether collective or individual genius is the mainspring of scientific advancement. Ultimately, Gertner’s account gives the obvious answer—scientific advancement stands on a three-legged stool, dependent on all of the broader culture, muscular group effort, and heroic individuals. Ayn Rand would not agree, but then, what did she ever actually accomplish? Today’s AT&T is the successor to the business created by Alexander Graham Bell in 1882. Before its breakup in the 1970s, the entire web of companies under the AT&T umbrella was called the “Bell System.” It included various regional telephone companies, later called the “Baby Bells”; Western Electric, which manufactured telephone related equipment; and, crucially for this book and for AT&T, Bell Telephone Laboratories, officially created in 1925. Being a monopoly always offered …
This outstanding book, by the anarchist-tending academic James C. Scott, might be (but isn’t) subtitled “Barbarians Are Happier, Fatter and Better Looking.” The author does not believe the myth of the noble savage—but he thinks the savage is, on average, a lot better off than the peasant. Scott’s project is to remold our view of the early days of civilization, erasing the sharp lines usually drawn to separate the first states from the social groups which preceded them, and dismissing the judgment that more organized is always better.
This title story of this book tells of Bob Kearns, tinkering inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, whose patented invention was stolen by Ford and other big automakers. The story was originally a 1993 New Yorker article, but was republished in this book as a tie-in to the 2008 Greg Kinnear movie of the same name. That’s just one story in this fascinating collection, though, which covers topics ranging from Nevada gold mining to the Antikythera Mechanism. The book is quite good—not earthshattering, but interesting, and certainly capable of giving the reader interesting discussion topics so he can avoid politics at the next cocktail party he has to attend.
I’ve always liked food history—maybe because as a small child I spent quite a lot of time reading The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire, a Time-Life cookbook my mother had, and from it learned quite a bit of history. Many, if not most, modern cookbooks contain large sections of history, and many food history books contain a lot of recipes, such as Anne Mendelson’s Milk. So there is significant overlap between the two genres. This book, Cake, by Alysa Levene, falls more into the history category and less into the cookbook category. It offers a largely successful blend of well-written data dump and mild social commentary—satisfying, like a cake!
How We Got To Now is competent enough, but it feels threadbare. It feels like a narrative designed to punctuate a picture show that is missing its pictures. It probably feels that way because it is that way—it was written to accompany a PBS television series (which is flacked on the cover of the book), and, unfortunately, without the moving pictures, the book doesn’t stand on its own very well.
Food City, by the late Joy Santlofer, shows us the amazing history of manufacturing, in this case food manufacturing, in New York City. Nowadays we don’t associate New York with manufacturing, but as recently as 1950, it was one of the largest manufacturing centers in the country. Reading about this lost past is a fascinating exercise, even if there is much less manufacturing in the city today.
This book failed in the two goals I set for it, either of which I would have accepted. It did not teach me anything new about drugs, and it did not teach me anything new about Nazis. Sad!
[This is a back-and-forth to a response to that portion of my review of Milk which suggested five specific reasons why any public policy advocacy position could be taken, only one of which was rational analysis, and indicated that the demand for action to combat anthropogenic global warming was distorted by those reasons, but without those reasons being adequately adverted to. Italics are my interlocutors; regular text is me. The interlocutor in the first set of responses is a different person than the interlocutor in the second set, who is different than the third. Each interlocutor is therefore identified by text of a different color.]