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Reading Blog - May 2023

Tags: books

This month started out strongly, but having caught covid and spent some free time preparing for future trips, I only finished two books.

The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats (Daniel Stone, 2018)

Picked this up after Lost Feast. Stone, a former agricultural researcher and DC reporter, tells the story of David Fairchild. Meeting a wealthy traveler (Barbour Lathrop) diverts Fairchild's studies from slides of crop fungi and pests of Europe, into collecting global plant cuttings and seeds for use on American farms and orchards. Avocados and many popular cultivars were passed from Fairchild to the Department of Agriculture and then put into practice. Some finds took on new life later (quinoa) or fail to impress growers (even a tasty variety of mango must grow reliably). Funding made it possible to travel a broad swath of the earth (in the steamship era) and new techniques allowed for cuttings to survive the trip to colleagues in DC and Miami, where they had recruited colleagues to handle re-planting and evaluation.

Fairchild is difficult to pin down to one archetype. He was from Kansas, far from elite circles, but with connections (his father was president of the agricultural college, and worldly professors stopped by the house). His ideas and advocacy took the field to new heights, but he was more of an early and well-funded explorer than a rebel. A multitude of smaller explorations eventually added to and overtook many of his finds. Some plants (avocado) were already traded outside the US, and others (zucchini) were "found" in the US - they just needed better distribution.

Fairchild's DC years include meeting Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, and Charles Marlatt. Though he was best man at Fairchild's wedding, as an entomologist he became obsessed with bugs and fungi which would be introduced by importing plants. Their public disputes over DC's cherry trees and other work led to dueling National Geographic cover stories.

The book can feel dated. Lathrop's interest in Fairchild is contextualized a bit - he would travel with young men and stay at a social club in San Francisco. From Fairchild's side we learn that he was in awe of Lathrop's celebrity (naming a daughter Barbara Lathrop), that their personalities were at odds, and that Fairchild's engagement and settling down went over awkwardly.
Then there is a comment about rising patriotism after victories of 1812 (?) and 1865, without delving into reconstruction, sharecropping, and the upcoming pellagra epidemic.

Note: early on I was confusing Fairchild with an explorer who had tragically drowned in China. I spent some time searching with Google, then tried ChatGPT, which gladly reported George Ernest Morrison, Edgar Snow, and George Forrest all drowned in China, then moved on to Percy Fawcett (who disappeared in the Amazon). This process convinced me to add 'botanist' to my original search, which was the game-changer to finding Frank N. Meyer, who appears later in the book.

The First Fifteen: How Asian American Women Became Federal Judges (Susan Oki Mollway, 2021)

Judge Mollway, the first Asian-American woman appointed as a lifetime term federal judge under the Constitution's Article III, writes about her and her colleagues' experiences. She was appointed in 1998 and the next Asian American woman would follow only in 2008. As the book was being finished in 2020–2021, she reached out to incoming women beyond the first 15, but they were not interviewed in time.

Throughout the book Mollway is mindful of several firsts, such as the first Asian-American man to be a federal judge (Herbert Choy), the first Chinese or Korean or Vietnamese women, judges in term-limited systems (federal magistrates, Guam and the Marianas Islands), and representation for Native women. In some cases incoming judges did not know their own 'firsts'; Cathy Bissoon did not publicize her Indian heritage, and only learned from a colleague's congratulatory phone call that she was the first South Asian woman to be an Article III judge.

Mollway notes that she and several other early Asian men and women came from Hawai'i and California, where there is a larger community and Asian representation in leadership. At one point she refers to a study that there's also an inflection point when women are >15% of the workers in an office.
In recent years there is a 'She Should Run'-type network of merit selection committees, experienced judges, the NAPABA Asian-Pacific professional org, and a few experts who reach out to attorneys from non-majority backgrounds to apply for state and federal judgeships. Then it's up to the candidate and their Senator to send their name and recommendation letters to the Justice Department. In some cases a candidate will have a positive meeting with their Senator but remain in limbo; this might require support from prosecutors and law enforcement, closer connections with Asian community groups, or an insider to ask questions (one candidate had a red flag from a witness committing perjury early in their career - the presiding judge ultimately wrote a letter in support).
Mollway also interviews several qualified women who decided not to apply for a judgeship. Despite the perception of imposter syndrome, they shared tangible concerns about family, relocating, being able to speak their mind, etc.

The confirmation process is its own labyrinth. Mollway's nomination did not move from committee to the Senate floor for 2 +1/2 years due to her position in the Hawaiian ACLU and the 1996 election. Potential judges receive an ABA rating, but NAPABA (among other orgs) has noted biases in ABA ratings, and presidents Bush, Trump, and Biden have not sought them out before announcing nominations.

The book could serve as a historical document before one of these judges gets nominated to the Supreme Court. At least three (plus a husband! talk about a power couple) are mentioned to be on presidents' lists.

Side tangent: because federal employees cannot go on strike, their issues are mediated on the Federal Service Impasses Panel

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