Suppose you wanted to figure out where you were on earth. You could make a fair guess at your north-south location between the North Pole and South PoSuppose you wanted to figure out where you were on earth. You could make a fair guess at your north-south location between the North Pole and South Pole -- that is, you could determine your latitude -- by waiting for the sun to reach its highest point, then determining the angle from the horizon to the sun, then doing a bunch of math. But where you are on an east-west line -- that is, to determine longitude? This is much harder.
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time relates the story of longitude and how the problem of determining longitude was solved. It begins with a particularly disastrous British naval accident in 1707, after which Parliament established an X-Prize of sorts for methods to accurately determine longitude, to be administered by a Board of Longitude. The story then follows the two methods contending for the prize: those based upon examination of the positions of astronomical bodies, and those based upon accurately tracking the time at one's home port. (Knowing the time in, say, Greenwich would provide the time offset to a known longitude. From there simple division into twenty-four hours would reveal longitude of precision determined by the timekeeping method.) The story particularly follows John Harrison, the eccentric autodidact who built the first truly accurate seaborne clocks, and his efforts to win the prize; but it also tracks the efforts of the leading scientific minds toward an astronomical method. Behind all this lie the politics of the Board of Longitude, in particular its excess of faith in astronomical methods, and disdain for chronometric methods, as the latter took the clear lead.
This book is a popular account of the problem of longitude: if you're looking for an academic account of the story, look elsewhere. (And perhaps be wary of too easily accepting its assertions as fact: Wikipedia claims that the book unhesitatingly repeats a couple myths concerning the 1707 naval disaster, suggesting that perhaps not all facts this book relates are certainly so.) For that it remains entertaining throughout, giving a nice survey of story and its developments. It's definitely worth a read to get an idea of how ship-based navigation worked in a time before GPS and modern communication aids, and accurate clocks on every wrist (or phone, these days) -- which is to say, not always well.
In closing I'll say one thing: I'll never see the card with the sextant on it in 7 Wonders quite the same way again....more
What's to say? It's the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, in their original forms. TheWhat's to say? It's the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, in their original forms. The only adjustment is that portions of the Constitution and amendments changed by subsequent amendments are bracketed and footnoted to indicate which amendment changed them. (So, for example, the Eighteenth Amendment [instituting Prohibition] is bracketed and noted as repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment. Have you ever noticed the alcoholic beverage amendments were 18 and 21? Quite the handy coincidence!) This is an excellent portable version of the original, unmodified text of these foundational documents.
This booklet also includes a brief preface by Roger Pilon of the inestimable Cato Institute, which publishes this booklet. The preface lays out some of the historical background for the Declaration and Constitution, and it discusses their aims and goals. (I wish the preface had also discussed the context and purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment, given how fundamentally it altered our constitutional structure. Given a desire to keep the preface short, and the complexity of the topic, this absence is understandable. But it's still unfortunate.) Not surprisingly given its Cato provenance, the narrative presented is one of a broadly libertarian, limited government of enumerated powers. In any case it's easily ignored by the reader who disagrees with it, and it doesn't make this edition any less useful than any of the other pocket Constitutions out there....more
(Disclosure: I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2008, so I have a fair bit of direct experience with the Appalachian Trail and with thru-hiking. Bu(Disclosure: I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2008, so I have a fair bit of direct experience with the Appalachian Trail and with thru-hiking. But I hiked it southbound, not northbound, and the two directions have very different social characteristics. So I'm better-informed than average concerning this book's subject matter -- but I'm also missing personal experience of some of the context, and I'm relying on the words and stories of many other people along the A.T. when I hiked it to understand northbounder culture. So, caveat lector. And as a personal note, this book despite its biases probably played some part in my deciding to thru-hike the A.T. So when I think of much of the content of this book, I do so with some nostalgia.)
Bill Bryson decides to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Starting from near nil backpacking experience, he and his friend Katz stumble their way north up the trail, suffering the usual travails of such a trip: bad weather, unappetizing food, undesired company, and of course physical unpreparedness and simple exhaustion. But, it being Bill Bryson, these rather ordinary obstacles (for a thru-hiker) turn into a rollicking account of their tackling of the trail. Neither actually hikes the entire trail -- they give up on the ideal of hiking it entirely after about 200 miles as I recall -- but Bryson strings together enough sections of it in subsequent months to be able to claim to have hiked a substantial portion of it. Along the way, Bryson interweaves a discussion of the US national park and forest systems, and of Appalachian Trail history more generally. And it's all presented with his customary humor.
If you're looking for a book that talks about the thru-hiker experience -- the real thru-hiker experience, of someone who walks the entire distance (more or less) and suffers only as someone backpacking a couple thousand miles will do -- this book is not for you. Serious backpacking of the sort needed to finish a thru-hike involves a lot more application of yourself to living in the outdoors than these two clowns (stated with all love) are willing to supply. (Not that there's anything wrong with that -- no reason everybody has to be thru-hiker-crazy. :-) ) That said, an Appalachian Trail thru-hike can involve a lot of the craziness Bryson and Katz encountered along the way. Northbound hikers in particular form a pretty spirited community, consisting of the people who you wonder how they manage to hike given how hard they party along the way, the people who enjoy themselves when they can but still progress steadily, and the people who are in it to win it and hike it. (Southbounders tend to be a bit more focused, because they start with the hardest terrain of the trail, and generally they're more aware what they're getting into. Plus there are fewer of them, and fewer large gatherings of them. But this doesn't mean the bonds of community are any less tight-knit -- and perhaps they're even more tight-knit.) So this is not an entirely inaccurate portrayal of thru-hiking -- just a highly colored one that exaggerates the importance of the colorful characters and downplays the importance of the unwashed masses (pun intended) who exhibit mostly solid technique and perseverance (but still manage to have their fun along the way, too).
So then: if you're looking for a humorous, quite distorting gloss on thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, this is the book for you. If you're looking for something more realistic, there are plenty of other thru-hike memoirs to read (although I can't speak to their quality, having not read any myself). And if you just want to read about trail life and you're not concerned about getting a fully-polished presentation, Trail Journals will give you access to journals of many past hikers, and realtime updates on present hikers....more
This book covers the Vietnam War and its aftermath from the perspective of the soldiers in one of the companies there, Charlie Company. It deliberatelThis book covers the Vietnam War and its aftermath from the perspective of the soldiers in one of the companies there, Charlie Company. It deliberately has exactly one focus: it concentrates on the men and their personal experiences there and after, and it completely ignores the geopolitical situation. I suppose that's an entirely different story, but I would have liked to have a little more of it than the book presented (which, as I recall, was only about half a page in the preface).
That said, the book covers that angle well, from a wide variety of individual perspectives. (A book that examines only the human costs, while ignoring any potential benefits in the broader picture, does present a trap to the unthinking reader -- of assuming the war was entirely unjustified and pointless. This is particularly the case in a book that’s likely to tug on heartstrings. But with care by the reader that problem can be avoided.) There are soldiers who considered deserting to Canada rather than be drafted, soldiers who thought it was their duty to country to go and serve, soldiers who believed in the war throughout it, soldiers who never believed, soldiers who believed initially but lost faith over time, and so on.
A few messages shone clearly through the numerous stories and anecdotes. The usual message about the psychological health of soldiers — that some emerge unscathed and some do not — that the strongest ones coming in emerged most unscarred, while those not so emerged with more scars — were predictably present
Most important however was this: the strategy, insofar as what there was could be called a strategy, was nonsensical. Soldiers were to act as a retaining wall, perhaps gaining ground for a moment but quickly relinquishing it, fighting battles without conquest or significant, permanent gain. The enemy we were fighting might retreat from the momentary goal, but it would retreat far enough to remain behind the metaphorical line we had drawn — and we would stop. We both would regroup to fight again (minus our and their casualties, but more important asymptotically less some of our will but a lesser proportion of theirs), and battles would repeat in different locations with little change in strategic advantage. This inability to take the battle to the enemy was apparently a product of the geopolitical situation, and my interpretation is that this, more than anything else, was why we lost the war. Nearly every soldier, pro- or antiwar or apathetic, at one point or another said that he believed if they’d been allowed to fight they could easily have won, and none said otherwise; the same held for commanders.
Thus the message I took most strongly from this book was this. When deciding whether to go to war, consider the objective, but also consider what you're willing to do to achieve it. If you're required not to fight your hardest to take the battle to the enemy, that is a substantial problem for winning a war. Maybe the benefits are there even if you're only willing to fight half-heartedly. But doing so has both short-term and long-term effects. Wars must be entered into carefully, and only after lengthy deliberation.
Bill Bryson writes a book about the home -- specifically his home, but generally about what happens throughout the home in all its various rooms, andBill Bryson writes a book about the home -- specifically his home, but generally about what happens throughout the home in all its various rooms, and the history of how each room developed and on people's lives within the home. It's a fascinating little bit of cocktail-party history. Unless you're extremely well-versed in day-to-day life throughout history (and particularly British history, although a fair bit of attention is paid to American developments that affected the home, and how Americans experienced it -- perhaps as a nod to a particularly large audience intended to read it), you'll learn quite a bit about how the home is constructed, the ways various rooms have increased and decreased in importance, and how we have made it livable over time. Perhaps best of all, the book includes a substantial bibliography and index, so if you want to recall some particular detail or explore it further, it's easy to do so.
One thing I did note in reading this book. In essence the book is one long celebration of man's ingenuity at shaping the place he lives to best suit his needs and at inventing amazing ways to make life better, both inside and outside the home. Which is why I found the last couple pages of the book rather remarkable as an alarum for the problems of global warming, resource overuse, overpopulation, and similar issues. The book has heretofore celebrated human accomplishment and ability to overcome obstacles; for example, the story of how London's sewage system was created is a tribute to humans' ability to overcome their circumstances' limitations. Assuming the descriptions of the previous horrid system are accurate, who would have thought London could reasonably sustain so many people as it has come to sustain? Yet it does, and does so far more amicably with respect to sanitation and the environment. On the same point, one of the book's focuses is upon the substantial contribution to intellectual progress made by 19th-century English clergymen. Yet in considering Bryson's closing arguments, isn't he also ignoring the substantial negative example of another clergyman, Thomas Malthus, most famous for his argument that population growth would doom the world well before the current day? We should certainly spend time on the problems that will vex us as world population continues to grow and become more prosperous. But we should not assume that we can only take things as they are, without our having the ability to change the rules of the game and remove limitations on what we can achieve. It's quite strange that Bryson overlooks this, despite having spent the rest of the book doing precisely the opposite....more
If you want to understand the Constitution, you should read the Federalist Papers. They present, at great length, the rationale for discarding the ArtIf you want to understand the Constitution, you should read the Federalist Papers. They present, at great length, the rationale for discarding the Articles of Confederation and adopting the Constitution. You really can't claim to understand the Constitution, how it works, how it fits together, and how it was intended to fit together without reading these articles. (I picked this up on the recommendation of Justice Scalia, and he was absolutely right about this being a must-read to understand the Constitution.)
(A quick note on this particular edition of the Federalist Papers: while it self-describes as an "enriched classic", it is not especially enriched. As is proper, the book includes a copy of the Constitution and its amendments -- although strangely it omits the 27th Amendment despite being published well after its ratification. [There is no included copy of the Articles of Confederation, unfortunately -- I'd definitely have found such a copy helpful, particularly since I had no other access to them when reading the book.] A notes section which explains the cultural and historical references scattered throughout the papers. A brief 7-page "Interpretive Notes" section discusses the context for the Federalist Papers. A "Critical Excerpts" section discusses early reactions to and scholarship concerning the Federalist Papers up to the present day. And there's a couple pages of questions and a few suggestions for further learning for the interested reader. Does this spare additional material really an "enriched classic" make?
There's something to be said for providing the unvarnished text, with explanatory notes that are informative but not interpretive; it's much easier for the reader to form his own opinions, uninfluenced by the biases of a commentator, when the Federalist Papers stand on their own. This is for the most part the strategy this book follows. Yet I would not call this book, for following that strategy, an "enriched classic". If you're looking for analysis of each paper in context with the papers themselves, this is not the book for you.)
The entire series is long, consisting of 85 papers of various lengths. Yet it's well worth reading and slogging through, even if you have to contend with the 1780s style of highly-educated writing to do it.
That said, I would strongly recommend not attempting to read it the way one might read any old book, starting at the beginning, reading a bunch at a stretch, then reading a bunch more at a stretch, until the entire series is read. Instead, read a paper at a time, then spend some time to think it over. Consider the arguments and how they fit together; look at how they relate to the modern day; consider what was missed in the initial analysis. Giving each article the time it requires will make this book take considerably longer than the average book of 630 pages (not including text after the articles) would take. But it's worth it.
(For a little context, I started this book a couple weeks before an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, expecting at some point to finish it and leave it in a shelter for some other hiker to read, at which point I'd pick up another book and do the same thing, as many times as it took to finish the hike. I didn't even finish this book over those 139 days of hiking, only on the flight home -- it's that dense and worthy of thought. And it's not like I was distracted by other reading, either: I only read one other book in full during that time, plus a couple hundred pages of another. And even reading with that deliberateness, I'm sure I'd get more out of it if I spent the time to read it again.)...more
Libertarians Levy and Mellor survey the Supreme Court's cases from approximately the last eighty years to pick out the dozen cases having perhaps theLibertarians Levy and Mellor survey the Supreme Court's cases from approximately the last eighty years to pick out the dozen cases having perhaps the worst effects. I note libertarian particularly, because these "dirty dozen" would in no way be a consensus pick among any well-informed cross-section of society. You should be aware what you're getting here. If you're looking for something to agree with instinctively, wholeheartedly, and unreservedly, this is probably not the book you're looking for.
If you're well-read in Supreme Court jurisprudence, their selections will mostly be familiar. If you're less well-read, some of their selections will be familiar, but many will be obscure. The cases aren't the ones that engender vocal complaint (although a few are in the list: Korematsu v. United States as the decision enabling internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, Kelo v. City of New London as the recent decision permitting eminent-domain transfer of property from one private party to another for no public use, and Grutter v. Bollinger as the slightly-less-recent decision permitting use of race in the public college admissions process); notably, you won't find Roe v. Wade or Bush v. Gore on the list, although the authors go out of their way to explain why each was not included.
The authors' criticisms range from the reasonably predictable and somewhat commonplace to the utterly esoteric. Resort to the non-delegation doctrine as a legal principle, for example, is highly unusual these days, to say the least. The authors instead concern themselves with what is "right", regardless whether it is or isn't popular (as you might expect of a book published by the Cato Institute). This book is a voice in the wilderness, not a populist polemic. One advantage of this tactic is that, because you won't approach these cases with quite the same tired arguments you'll hear day in and day out among pundits and the chattering classes, it's easier to seriously approach the arguments and consider them on their merits: not simply on who wins or loses the political battle of the day. One disadvantage is that it's not always easy to slog through the sometimes-arcane legal principles expounded.
Because this book doesn't hew to any particular party line, pretty much everyone is likely to find something to like in the criticisms presented here. Liberals will enjoy the civil-liberties criticisms; conservatives will enjoy the expansion-of-government criticisms. Yet beyond that, each will find criticisms that are discomforting or even disagreeable. The way the authors associate Korematsu with the modern-day case of Jose Padilla will leave many conservatives feeling uneasy. Similarly, the textual redefinition involved in Kelo may give liberals some pause where the textual redefinition in Wickard v. Filburn did not. Perhaps this unease will give both sorts of readers pause to more deeply consider their existing assumptions and convictions. This is a strength of the book: it makes you think about the reasons why you believe what you believe.
But it's only a strength if you're willing to approach each criticism with an open mind. And that's a broader note to make on the book: if you approach this planning to believe it's an ideological screed, you'll get much less from it than if you approach it assuming each argument is honestly made....more