Good Reads: From plant factories, to a hiking granny, to the Great Recession

This week's roundup of Good Reads takes a look at urban plant factories, why popular causes succeed, the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail alone, who the real estate crash impacted, and historic draft picks by the St. Louis Rams.

By , Staff writer

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    Eaton & Eustis Co., a produce center in Chelsea, Mass., sells US-grown produce.
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Next time you sit down to a meal, imagine the journey that your food has taken. The “average American meal travels around 1500 miles from farm to table,” reports The Economist. “In the US, processing, packaging, transporting, storing and preparing fruit and vegetables requires about four times as much energy as growing them in the first place. And around the world, up to a third of fresh food spoils in transit.”

Why waste so much energy and food, asks Caleb Harper, founder of CityFarm at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. His lab designs energy-efficient farms inside existing city buildings. Unlike rural farms, these “plant factories” don’t need large swaths of land to grow food. Instead of sprawling outward, they build upward. Many layers of plants, each just a few feet tall, stack on top of one another. Machines do much of the gardening, with sensors keeping watch, pumps circulating mineral-rich water, and special lights emitting only the red and blue wavelengths necessary for photosynthesis.

How to jump-start your favorite cause

If you believe in a cause, support it early. A new study by Stony Brook University in New York supports the idea that early success (whether in terms of money, reviews, or attention) can have a bigger effect on a project’s outcome than the quality of the ideas behind it. “People tend to give resources to people who already have them,” Arnout van de Rijt, the study’s coauthor, told Quartz reporter Nick Stockton. “What we really wanted to do is to see how pervasive this tendency was, of ‘success breeds success.’ ”

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To test this, his team selected more than 1,000 nascent projects across the user-driven websites Kickstarter, Epinions, Wikipedia, and Change.org. The researchers doled out money, five-star reviews, and signatures to a random sampling of the campaigns.

On average, projects that the team supported early on saw significantly better results. Campaigns on the crowdfunded website Kickstarter, for example, were almost twice as likely to get additional supporters after the researchers contributed compared with those in the control group. In a follow-up experiment, the team gave additional support later into a campaign, but those donations had much less of an effect on the final tally.

Granny on the Appalachian Trail

Emma Gatewood was the first woman to walk the Appalachian Trail alone. She started the 14-state hike at age 65.

In his new book, “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail,” which is excerpted on Longreads.com, Ben Montgomery describes how Ms. Gatewood set out in 1955 without a map, without a sleeping bag, and without telling any of her 11 children or 23 grandchildren.

“If she told them what she was attempting to do, she knew they’d ask Why?” writes Mr. Montgomery.

Why the real estate crash hurt more

When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, $6.2 trillion in household wealth evaporated. When the housing market crashed five years later, it wiped out about $6 trillion in real estate value. While the two events seem similar in terms of dollars lost, they had very different effects on the overall economy. The dot-com crash started a mild recession, but consumer spending actually went up during that time. Meanwhile, the housing crash led to the Great Recession, which saw one of the largest drops in consumer spending in American history.

The difference, according to Amir Sufi and Atif Mian on FiveThirtyEight.com, lies in who was affected by these losses. The dot-com crash hit primarily the rich, while housing cut across a wider section of the United States. More important, however, is how different economic classes took the punch. “The poorest homeowners had very large mortgages, whereas the richest had very small ones relative to the value of their homes,” they write. The poorest homeowners “had $30,000 in net worth in 2007, and almost nothing in 2010. When home prices collapsed, they bore the brunt of the shock. The wealthiest homeowners, on the other hand, saw only a minor decline in their net worth. The dollar amount of the loss was large, but they were basically back to their 2005 level of wealth.”

Historic pick by the St. Louis Rams

The St. Louis Rams picked Michael Sam in the final round of the National Football League draft, making him the league’s first openly gay player. Mr. Sam, who was named defensive player of the year in the collegiate Southeastern Conference, announced he was gay in February, launching a debate about how he might be received by fans and teammates.

“I think it’s widely known that every locker room has a number of gay individuals,” Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told Sports Illustrated.

The Rams’ choice seems fitting, not only because Sam is a senior at the University of Missouri (just 120 miles west of the city), but also because of the team’s history. In 1946, the Rams broke down barriers by hiring Kenny Washington, the first black player in the modern NFL.

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