Review: Salt Sugar Fat

This 2013 book by Pulitzer prize winning author Michael Moss got a lot of attention when it came out — and it deserves it.

(Don’t confuse it with the 2017 cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat, which I also recommend!)

The subject is (ultra) processed food (the book’s subtitle is “how the food giants hooked us”), which are formulated with salt, sugar and fat as ingredients that make the food more attractive to consumers. These ingredients also help with baking, storage and product quality, but the main goal is more sales.

The book is long and detailed and horrifying, in the sense with which competitive food manufacturers (think Kraft, Kelloggs, Nestle, General Foods, and the rest) have fought for “mouth share” and lower costs, with each success putting more people closer to death.

Although I can hardly claim to have grown up with non-processed foods in the 1970s, I can easily say that these foods have gotten more and more dangerous for our health with each decade. (This book made me swear off “grocery-store cookies” — I was already off candy, soda and most prepared meals — as a risk to my daily well-being and long-term health.)

Perhaps none of these observations surprise you, and perhaps you also cook all of your meals, but the vast majority of Americans — as well as an increasing share of humans rich enough to “pay for convenience and taste” are not, and these people are suffering rom obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other “rich world” diseases. Note that they are not suffering or dying from being rich — they are dying from a food-industrial complex that has — with help from the US Department of Agriculture — flooded the market with worse foods, in larger quantities, than was the case in the 1950s.

What changed?

Women’s liberation has brought great good to the world, but it was also used as an excuse to make “food” that was more convenient than healthy.

Why didn’t these busy career moms just read the label? The USDA and food manufacturers did everything they could to hide ingredients (using many names for sugar), portions (a “single serving” of 3 chips out of a bag), and implications (scientists questioning health consequences for a fee).

So this is NOT the consumers’ fault, and it is definitely a case of market failure working together with government failure.

Not-so-fun facts:

  1. Big Food invented Betty Crocker and sponsored “baking with Fritos” type contests to push their products while killing the “cooking from scratch” skills that home economics teachers used to give.
  2. Almost every product has gotten less healthy over time — sugar added to cornflakes, soda that got supersized, adding fat inside of goods (think dry croissant with the same fat) to get us to eat more, etc.
  3. Lots of unhealthy foods (hotdogs, bologna) expanded sales by repackaging (Lunchables)
  4. Some candy bars are healthier than breakfast cereals (!)
  5. The soda industry spends $700 million a year on advertising soda; Americans spend more than $90 billion a year on treating obesity.
  6. Yes, they advertised to kids — all the time — but “heavy users” are the most profitable. So the fat and unhealthy get fatter and unhealthier.
  7. Yes, there are direct parallels between these foods and cigarettes and drugs. It’s not just “cast doubt on the research strategies,” but also physical addiction (it only takes a few weeks to wean yourself off excess sugar and salt). These parallels not accidental: Phillip Morris owns General Foods and Kraft.
  8. The industry routinely switches from one substance that people are trying to avoid to another that might be just as unhealthy — or worse, e.g., loading more sugar into “low fat” cookies.
  9. Cargill is a huge food processor, selling 30 types of salt, for example. They also bought a company that puts a band on your stomach — so they are making money from making a problem, then “fixing” it.
  10. We hit a limit with sugar and salt but not with fat.
  11. Most of the experts and executives that Moss interviewed for the book do not eat the foods they have investigated or that their companies sell.
  12. Kraft cheese used to be made from cow milk; now it’s mostly chemicals and “natural cheeze flavor” 🙁
  13. The beef industry — coordinated by the USDA — spends $2 billion per year selling America on more beef. The USDA’s nutrition center spends $6.5 million per year trying to get Americans to eat healthier. That’s a 500-to-1 edge for bad choices — and I’m not even counting advertising for sugar and salt.
  14. The USDA spent $111 million on “pink slime” beef (a highly processed product taken from the parts of a cow that nobody ever ate) to be served at public school lunches. The slimy beef was 1.5 cents/pound cheaper, so the government saved $1.4 million while dumping industry slop on kids’ plates.
  15. Offering a “healthy alternative” next to the traditional product increases sales of the latter (!), since people buy a bit of the healthy, then reward themselves by doubling down on the crap.
  16. The industry has pushed — and succeeded — at getting people to eat and drink everywhere, all the time. “Don’t spoil your appetite” has turned into “see you at the morgue” (42 percent of Americans are obese).
  17. Potatoes have natural sugars that are “highlighted” by frying, which is why people over-eat potato chips.
  18. Big issue: The newest weight loss drugs do seem to reduce appetite and help with weight loss, but they cost about $10,000 per year. The food industry will surely try to make its offer more attractive, to maintain sales, which will unhelpful for the people on those drugs but catastrophic for the people who are not on them!

What should “we” do to address the slow suicide on our plates? More information does not help. Taxes on sugar, salt and fat can be useful. But the only real solution is industry-wide regulation to ban or limit substances, so that manufacturers are not tempted to add more sugar and take sales from rivals. Will Fox news (with help from sponsors) decry the “nanny state”? Yes — but a nanny who keeps you alive is better than the baby-sitter who kills you while you sleep.

I give this book FIVE STARS. Anyone interested in what they eat, misbehaving big business and government corruption should read this.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Analyzing Politics: Rationality, Behavior and Institutions

My colleague lent me this book to read as a means of understanding one of our courses: “Decision Making Processes”. (The 1997 first edition is by Shepsle and Bonchek — who was a PhD candidate — but the 2010 second edition is only by Shepsle, who is the main author.)

Since I was trying to orient my understanding(s) to the book rather than read in detail or learn new concepts, I skimmed sometimes and skipped Part IV (political institutions), so my “review” is more like a set of reactions.

I think this book is really useful as a primer on political economy, i.e., the ways in which power and wealth are re-distributed. The book does this by building on “rational man,” to look into group choice (voting), cooperation and collective action (participating), and institutions (rules that oblige, restrict or permit).

Shepsle’s definition of “politics” is broad, as it should be (p 13):

For the purposes of our discussion, I will take politics to be utterly indistinguishable from the phenomena of group life generally. It consists of individuals interacting, maneuvering, dissembling, strategizing, cooperating, and much else besides, as they pursue whatever it is they pursue in group life.

We are all embedded in many groups in which such “small-p politics” are important — just as we are embedded in many “commons” — and most of those commons are governed (top down but more importantly peer-to-peer) by these politics.

This book is very strong at characterizing situations and explaining strategies that may (not) work in them. Special interest groups, for example, may be easier to defeat if they can be isolated (or isolate themselves)  into small groups that do not join together to oppose the majority. This strategy can work with an indirect reform. A tax on carbon imports, for example, will raise opposition from foreign oil firms but not domestic oil firms. With the subsequent fall in competition, and thus higher prices, the goal (lower carbon consumption) will be met, even as domestic firms get bigger profits, which can be taxed as such.

I’ve been a fan of zero-based budgeting for decades, but I do agree that there’s a weakness if agencies get to propose entirely new budgets every year and legislators do not bother to question every line item. Inertia is more efficient in such cases of asymmetric information (and effort).

What is public interest? Who gets to identify it? This summary (p 193) is worth a read

Group decision making may depend upon individual preferences and may reflect individual preferences, but it depends upon and reflects much more besides. First, as I have mentioned throughout these chapters, individual preferences do not announce themselves. They are not transparent or self-evident. Rather, they depend upon the disposition of each individual to reveal preferences sincerely or strategically. Second, even if the disposition to report preferences honestly or not were of no consequence, the fact remains that there are many procedures by which to reveal preferences and combine them into social outcomes — procedures that produce profoundly different social outcomes.
To these considerations I must add one more: Collectivities are unlike individuals in the sense that their “preferences” rarely add up in a coherent fashion. For nearly any method of group decision making that we would find minimally acceptable on grounds of fairness, the group outcome often violates the central notion of coherence (transitivity). In important ways, the actual outcome of group choice is arbitrary. So much depends upon the frictions of institutional minutiae — the order of voting, who gets to make motions, and who gets to decide when enough motions have been made.
We might even become dubious about the idea of a public interest. A public has no identifiable interest if its preferences are either incoherent or overly idiosyncratic. [snip] We must understand, when we judge a political outcome, that it is often the result of split- second coordination by some temporary majority that exhibited coherence for a nanosecond before “morphing” into some new political entity – hardly a firm foundation on which to build a philosophy of public interest.

Small groups struggle with cooperation; large groups struggle with collective action. Where is the line between small and large? It’s defined by the Dunbar number (around 140 people), which means that cooperation can emerge when people “know each other,” but not when the group gets too big. In those cases of collective action, other incentives and institutions are required.

Political entrepreneurs can help overcome collective action problems (e.g., everyone free rides). They are needed if smaller groups want to grow in numbers and influence. One way to motivate people in these groups is to favor “experiential behavior” (a consumption activity) over “instrumental behavior” (an investment activity), since consumption (e.g., going to a political rally) provides a direct benefit that investment (e.g., what’s the chance my attendance will make a difference in the polls?) cannot. Thus, we have a social or psychological answer to the paradox of voting.

I strongly recommend this book to any one interested in (academic) social sciences as well as (reality) political dynamics. A good complement would be Buchanan and Tullock’s Calculus of Consent. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: A Civil Action

I grabbed this 1995 book by Jonathan Harr because it was about a lawsuit over water pollution in Massachusetts.

It was a bit of a slog, in terms of reading, but nothing like the slog that the plantiffs’ lawyers went through to bring their case in the early 1980s.

Harr was “lucky” to get interested in the case in its early stages, which meant that he was literally the “fly on the wall” for much of the story’s development.

The case revolves around trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination of groundwater, which is — the lawyers claim — linked to a cluster of fatal cases of leukaemia.

Most of the book is about the (intentionally) drawn-out legal battle between prosecuting lawyers for the victims (working on contingency) and defence lawyers for the large corporations (billing by the hour).

And it’s painful to read about all the manoeuvres of the defence (many legal, most unethical) as they try to obfuscate, delay and deny the guilt of their clients — guilt that was proven and admitted under a subsequent EPA investigation.

“Real life” can be very messy, and Harr does an excellent job at tracking the many details and emotions of the many participants in the case.

As an economist, I see this book as a rebuttal of the ease with which we call out “externalities” and advocate for “polluter pays” policies when those polluters have plenty of money, lawyers and sympathetic legal and political systems. Justice is just not that easy, which is why it’s so often absent.

I give this book FIVE STARS for boiling down such a complex case.

Addendum (5 Sep): Just another story about a company trying to dodge responsibility for polluting groundwater  (with PFAS).

Here are all my reviews.

Review: The Wisdom of Our Hands

I picked up this book (subtitled “Crafting, a Life”) as a follow-on to Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I loved.

Doug Stowe is a wood-worker (shop class is about motorcycles), craftsman and teacher, and I — as an amateur wood worker — was happy to learn some lessons on wood, but also craft and life.

I made some notes while reading:

  • Your hands and brain cooperate when working (or speaking, if you’re Italian :), so lean into that fact.
  • Humility is a necessary when doing crafts — and living life. With humility, you can learn and you will want to meet strangers, to get their help.
  • If you always make “the same thing” different, then you let yourself develop and evolve. That’s true for Stowe’s wooden boxes, but also for telling stories, making bread, or riding a bike.
  • Be patient and plan ahead with solid (vs manufactured) woods.
  • Don’t compete with machined perfection; highlight wood’s imperfections.
  • Here’s an interesting article on Handmade landscapes in China.
  • “Nature deficit disorder” strikes those who stay in artificial environments.
  • Every tool takes time to learn; mastery means it’s an extension of your hand.
  • Tacit knowledge is, by definition, impossible to “pass on” — it’s only gained by first-hand experience.*
  • Materials and tools are easy to get; technique takes time and effort.
  • Craftspeople can work in two modes: certainty or risk. Risk is when you try anything new; certainty comes from repetition.
  • Attention over haste, lest you “hurry up so there’s time to fix mistakes.”
  • As you gain experience, you learn which steps can be dropped on the way to the same results. I always like the idea that lazy people are clever workers, as they are always looking for shortcuts. This method can backfire of course 🙂
  • “See one, do one, teach one.”
  • Kenntnis (German) means learning by doing (first hand).
  • People are more satisfied with rewards earned through work. Rats too.
  • Academics probably underestimate the value of learning with your hands, which means that they may not be helping students learn very well.
  • Here’s an article [pdf] that Stowe wrote for teachers
  • As products/services get more “user friendly,” they are harder to learn or understand, which can leave users helpless. (Compare a paper map to a digital guide.)
  • All of us, young and old, benefit from having unstructured “potential spaces” that let us explore and try new things/ideas.
  • Confidence (and humility) comes with success, failure and overcoming failure. Don’t try to short-circuit that process.
  • The Swedes did not have problems with depression (seasonal affective disorder) in the centuries when they worked on crafts over the winter. Industrialization took away that “time waste” and left them with nothing to  do, which led to depression.
  • “Poverty is your greatest treasure” — an easy life corrodes your sense of worth and mission. (This is not a call for throwing people on the street, but a warning that a common goal — wealth for example — may not be that valuable.
  • A new start can lead to fast results when you’ve already practiced the wrong way of doing something 🙂
  • Mistakes? No… those are design opportunities!
  • A world of cheap, anonymous stuff is not as nice as one with crafts made by people you know.

I recommend this book to teachers and craftspeople, and wanna-be-craftspeople, since we all can use a little more wisdom and we all have the hands to make that possible! FIVE STARS.

*In my recent paper on teaching water economics, I wrote: I am using “first hand” in the sense of touching or doing something directly (e.g., irrigating a field). Second-hand learning comes from watching someone irrigate a field. One learns third hand by reading a farmer’s irrigation journal. Fourth-hand learning occurs when reading a text book author’s description of how farmers irrigate.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Stoner

A colleague recommended this 1965 novel by John Williams because it concerns academic life.

The novel is set in Missouri. The protagonist — William Stoner* — grows up on a lonely farm. He goes to university to farm better but falls in love with English literature and decides to stay.

All he wants to do is read and research early-modern literature and bring out the best in students, but — surprise — there are selfish people in the way.

I had to put the book down a few times, as the assaults on Stoner sometimes reminded me of assaults that I have endured from others.

At one point Stoner says “it doesn’t matter” — and then realizes that’s TRUE. Selfish and narrow minded people are always going to be around us, burdening us with their problems. The question is how you deal with them:

Edith [his wife] would burst into anger at either or both of them. And Stoner looked upon it all—the rage, the woe, the screams, and the hateful silences—as if it were happening to two other people, in whom, by an effort of the will, he could summon only the most perfunctory interest.

It doesn’t matter is a good place to start, and I have felt better a few times in the past year by giving up on projects or ideas. It’s good to have other options to take, other people to relate, other hobbies from work.

(Others have said this is an existentialist story. I can see that.)

Why was Stoner attracted to the academic life?

It’s for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear. We give out the reasons, and we let a few of the ordinary ones in, those that would do in the world; but that’s just protective coloration. Like the church in the Middle Ages, which didn’t give a damn about the laity or even about God, we have our pretenses in order to survive

But bad as we are, we’re better than those on the outside, in the muck, the poor bastards of the world. We do no harm, we say what we want, and we get paid for it; and that’s a triumph of natural virtue…

Academics should read this book. FIVE STARS.

*The expression “stoner” — as in high on drugs — dates from the 1930s, but (I think) it became popular after this book was written.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float

I can’t remember who recommended this book to me, but I am glad they did, because it’s funny, sweet and about a lot more than a boat who wouldn’t float.

Farley Mowat published this book in 1969, based on adventures that took place a few years earlier. His plan was to motor and sail a boat from Newfoundland to the Caribbean, but that didn’t happen.

On the down side, the boat was not cooperative, sometimes to the point of making Mowat question his sanity. On the up side, the care and support he received from the interesting people of Newfoundland helped him overcome (and sometimes forget about) those challenges. I’ve never visited Newfoundland, and it’s the butt of many Canadians’ “newfie” jokes. This book helped explain the very different culture there (Newfoundland only joined Canada in 1949), as well as appreciate how people got by before the collapse of the cod fisheries (dated to 1992) ended a way of life that had worked for around 500 years.

I’m not going to make any other notes, but I recommend this book to anyone who’s struggled with a boat, a motor, or fishing villages. It’s also an excellent “time capsule” of life in Newfoundland. FOUR STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance

Douglass North’s 1990 book, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, is required reading in the introductory course for our Governance, Economics and Development major.

Although I have read some of North’s other works, I only now have read this one. I am glad that I did but a little sad that I only “got to it” now.

That’s because this slim book (150pp) does a great job at explaining what institutions are, why they matter, and how they change. How can North do this? Decades of experience and thinking about the topic.

Let’s go over some highlights.

  1. Most neo-classical economics (the kind that most people are taught) ignore institutions (“the rules of the game”) by assuming that they work flawlessly or don’t matter. Such a view is naive in a real world where there are (transactions) costs to making and enforcing deals, where everyone tries to change the rules to benefit themselves, where people are desperate to migrate to different institutional settings, and so on.
  2. Institutions change quickly (pick-up basketball) or slowly (Buddhism), as they influence (and are influenced by) the costs and benefits of our choices.
  3. Here’s a thought exercise for the classroom:
    1. Two students from different countries (or groups) spin the wheel.
    2. The wheel has many elements of life (religion, foods, job mix, weather, etc.) and the wheel stops on one of them.
    3. The two students then “switch” that element between their countries, e.g., a French student and a German student swap “institutions of lunch” or “institutions of greetings.” What happens next? How does that change people’s interactions? How does it spill over to other institutions? How has that element evolved over time?
    4. Discuss.
  4. “Organizations” are groups of people, united around a goal. People often call these “institutions,” e.g., “Harvard is an institution of higher learning,” but it’s better to keep these words apart — as we should with “risk” vs “uncertainty.” So Harvard is an organization, and it has institutions (funny names and all that), but those institutions change in different, bottom-up and top-down ways in comparison to “the  organization.”
  5. “Institutions alter prices… and thus ideas, ideologies and dogmas.. playing a major role in the choices individuals make” (p22).
  6. There’s a tension between formal rules and informal constraints — two elements defining “the rules of the game.” Think about gay marriage, cannabis legalization, fair play, etc.
  7. Those who make rules often seek their self-interest. Those rules may be neither fair, nor efficient. Rules on race, migration, access to education or medical care, and so on.
  8. The smaller the transaction costs of making and enforcing a deal, the closer is market efficiency to the neoclassical, “frictionless” standard.
  9. North offers a “two-year wait” for a telephone as an example of a transaction cost. The book was published in 1990, so it was probably written  before the Berlin Wall fell. In command economies, one of the biggest problems (in terms of quality of life) was high transaction costs, but the same is/was true with monopolies in market economies. I remember how MCI disrupted AT&T’s long-distance (LD) monopoly in the 1980s and 1990s. The cost of LD calls dropped radically (here’s a discussion). The arrival of mobile phones, with their radically cheaper fixed network infrastructure, and VOIP, which can use the internet as a LD backbone, dropper prices even further. Today we make free video calls around the world as if that’s perfectly normal!
  10. The agent of change, the entrepreneur, alters relative prices. This process is usually incremental — so en garde, citoyens! The French Revolution began in 1789. Louis XVI was guillotined in 1793. In 1799, Napoleon and two others ruled in a triumvirate, and he crowned himself emperor in 1804. So that was around a decade without an absolute monarch, and it wasn’t until 1870 (the Third French Republic) that the country was firmly on the “liberté, egalité, fraternité” path.
  11. Path dependence is a real problem when it “locks in” an inefficient system (e.g., weights and measures in the US). Change is difficult because of the higher transactions costs of coordinating diffuse players with varying preferences (radical, conservative, indifferent). A player can bring change by paying all costs themself and then sharing the benefits with others (a subsidy to the public good, as I discuss in my book on the commons), which is more frequent than economic theory (homo economicus) would predict but less frequent than we need (e.g., sustainability transition or ending poverty).
  12. Efficiency in political markets is hard to achieve without universal sufferage, simple (one-item) laws, and strong feedback from voters to representatives. Democracy is better than autocracy, just as direct democracy is better than representative democracy, but both (improvements) require real commitment from voter/citizens.
  13. The lack of participation among voters in many democracies is not necessarily a clear sign of indifference. It’s often a sign of giving into path dependency, a feeling that many politicians encourage to retain power. (The expression “après moi, le déluge” seems to fit here, but its meaning and use has evolved since Louis XV said it in 1757.)
  14. Economical and political models are built on a mass of institutions, which makes it hard to transplant systems among countries. This “obvious” point wasn’t obvious enough when so many former-communist countries failed convert to market democracies. They are getting closer now, but that process (as North would have predicted) is taking decades. (The same can be said of South American “democracies” that adopted variations of the US constitution around 200 years ago!)
  15. “Marxist theory is deficient…” [remember, this book was written around when the Berlin Wall fell and the CPC ordered the Tiananmen massacre] “…because it entails a fundamental change in human behavior… technological change [a là capitalism]  as the key to utopia is likewise deficient…” The key to human flourishing is cooperation (pp 132-3).

I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the social sciences (especially economists!) and anyone devoted to human flourishing. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Kitchen Confidential

I picked up this 2000 book because I’d seen Anthony Bourdain on a few episodes of his series (and heard about his 2018 suicide).

When I was a teenager, I worked as a busboy at a few restaurants, so I was aware of some of the habits of workers in the business — late shifts, frequent moves, casual relations — but Bourdain took most of these “habits” to extremes, mostly because it suited his personality 😉

Indeed, he reflects at the end of the book on how lucky he is (was) to not be dead, given his drug habits, risk taking, and overall quest for the new, the weird and the outrageous.

This book made his reputation, which was only enhanced by later television shows, and I can see why, as Bourdain is a natural storymaker and storyteller.

I’ll offer a few tidbits from the book, but it’s definitely one of those books that needs to be read to be appreciated:

  • Eat out Tuesday-Thursday, to get the freshest food… and staff.
  • In a business where your word is your honor, keep your word.
  • Cooks take on insane loads of work at short notice. Preparation, efficiency and practice matter a lot (“prior preparation prevents poor performance”).
  • The 70s and 80s in New York took place on a different planet than today.
  • His career was fail, success, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, success. The guy went through a lot of shit, often due to his own behavior, but he kept going. That’s enthusiasm.
  • His suicide at 61, like that of Hunter S. Thompson (one of his idols) at 67, makes me think it was a combination of “life is not worth living” and a fuck-it attitude. Suicide is a serious (one-way) decision, but I can see how some people are more inclined — without invoking a breakdown in mental health.

I recommend this book to anyone (assuming they’ve not already read it!) who’s passed through the swinging doors separating those who eat from those who feed. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig published this book in 1974. The first time I tried to read it, I was around 21-22 and didn’t get it. The second time (26 years old?), I finished it, but I don’t think it really “sank in” as all I remember was that it was rough going. This time around, I am 53, and it made more sense.

(It also made more sense to me because Pirsig is writing from the perspective of a motorcyclist and “retired” academic — two areas that I only started to understand in my mid 30s, i.e., after doing grad school and owning a Honda 250.)

This is not a book for young people, as its narratives (or philosophical discussions) concern growing up, life decisions, and learning to find your place accept your reality — topics that make more sense as you get older and have more experiences to compare with Pirsig’s thoughts as he and his son (around 10 years old) ride a motorcycle from the middle of the US to California.

The plot of the book (spoilers!) combines three threads: A road trip with a son who was traumatized by his father’s insanity (it’s not until well into the book that Pirsig clearly says that another character — Phaedrus, who went crazy in his quest to understand quality — was his earlier self); a zen guide to taking one’s time to understand the ebb and flow of a motorcycle as machine; and a philosophical quest to understand why he went crazy. This structure worked for me because any single thread would be too intense (or trivial) without the other threads to add context and help the reader absorb the philosophical stuff, which I didn’t always get.

Before I get to some more details on what I enjoyed about the book, I do want to point out how unusual this book is, in terms of genres. Pirsig’s manuscript was rejected by numerous publishers (typical problem, since they are always trying to figure out marketing) before one editor gave him a green light — not just to consider the manuscript, but also to develop the book (it took 6 years). That was another age.


  1. A motorcycle exposes you to your surroundings in an entirely different way than a car (qua capsule).
  2. Maintenance is not just following steps 1-23; it’s awareness and care.
  3. Some people are convinced that their perspective is reality. Others, with their own perspectives, would disagree. That’s how we get generation gaps (Pirsig mentions the Beats and Hippies), and those clashing perspectives change reality before we know it.
  4. Romantics may disparage classicists in terms of culture (think “wind in your hair” vs “change the oil”), but classists pursue their own beauty: “to bring order out of chaos… everything under control. Its value is measured in terms of the skill with which this control is maintained” [p64].
  5. Don’t work on a motorcycle in the heat and sun. That will muddy your concentration and impede the rational thought process essential to caring for a machine whose every part is in its place for a reason — even if that “reason” is sometimes a bit crazy (I had two MGs!)
  6. I have a paperweight on my desk — piece of my old BMW’s suspension. It used to steady my car; now it’s holding Zen open.
  7. “The solution to problems too complicated for common sense to solve is achieved by long strings of mixed inductive and deductive inferences that weave back and forth between the observed machine and the mental hierarchy of the machine found in the manuals. The correct program for this interweaving is formalized as scientific method” [p97].
  8. The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you don’t actually know” [p98] … because we humans are apt to jump ahead, which is when Nature makes a fool of you.
  9. Experiments are useful because they test hypotheses, which helps us understand what we know, and — more important — what we don’t.  Richard Feynmans’s version (1974): “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
  10. Nature does not provide hypotheses. Humans do. Nature provides the data to test those hypotheses.
  11. Sometimes we forget, when romanticizing primitive man (hunter gatherers and all that), how our use of reason, which has vastly improved our quality of life, makes it easier to be romantic about a “life styles” that were nasty, brutish and short.
  12. A physical university cannot teach, like a physical church cannot bring spiritual comfort. The “real” university is the body of reason that allows our minds to connect, dialogue and discover. The “real” church is a spiritual connection with our community.
  13. The university — as a “Church of Reason” — is vulnerable to interference by those who prefer life be guided by (self-interested) ignorance. They can close the building, but they cannot stop scholars from rejecting superstition in favor of rationality.
  14. “The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time the material’s right.”
    “Sounds like art,” the instructor says.
    “Well, it is art,” I say. “This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural.” [pp 154-5]. For more on hand-mind coordination, see my review of Shop Class as Soulcraft (and soon, The Wisdom of Our Hands).
  15. “Education” is imitation. Repeat what you’ve been told to get a good grade. If you use your creative imagination, then you risk getting a bad grade. Grades get in the way of real education.
  16. If schools and universities eliminated grades, diplomas and certifications, then (merely extrinsically motivated) students would drop out. Those who remained would pursue knowledge, experiences and other means of feeding their intrinsic desires, i.e., pursuing quality. Here’s a long excerpt on those ideas [pdf], which are the most important ideas I took away from this book.
  17. What’s quality? We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it. If students and beginners can recognize quality, but teachers cannot define it, then what’s the purpose of teachers?
  18. Everyone wants more quality around them. Many people are willing to pursue it — even at a cost — due to the pleasure of the process as much as the achievement.
  19. Without a definition of quality, you can ignore (or do away with) all the experts and critics. I endorse this idea as a means of circumventing gatekeepers while allowing for the discoveries that follow when someone we know turns us on to something cool they’ve found — like this book!
  20. Many examples of knowledge (e.g., geometry) are not important for being true as much as for being convenient, i.e., helping you solve problems or understand.
  21. Facts are fun, but then they pile up into regular patterns… and then we start looking for exceptions. Harmony arrives when we can arrange facts and exceptions into patterns that resonate with reality.
  22. One can improve a dynamic system (e.g., life, a motorcycle, a conversation) by pursuing quality. That pursuit will never end; it will only evolve and respond — just like the dynamic system of interest.
  23. “Gumption” — that store of energy you need to overcome setbacks when working on motorcycles, writing blog posts, or re-engineering civilization — is not fixed. It depends on your attitude towards learning from mistakes, your dedication to quality, and your ability to concentrate on what others will disparage as “a waste of time.”
  24. People with gumption get shit done; those who whine about effort or “bad luck” usually quit before they get going. (I associate gumption with “flow;” “grit” seems to be used in the sense of “quiet suffering.”)
  25. “On any mechanical repair job ego comes in for rough treatment. You’re always being fooled, you’re always making mistakes, and a mechanic who has a big ego to defend is at a terrific disadvantage. If you know enough mechanics to think of them as a group, and your observations coincide with mine, I think you’ll agree that mechanics tend to be rather modest and quiet. There are exceptions, but generally if they’re not quiet and modest at first, the work seems to make them that way. And skeptical. Attentive, but skeptical, But not egoistic. There’s no way to bullshit your way into looking good on a mechanical repair job, except with someone who doesn’t know what you’re doing” [p 297]. Ideas also echoed in Shop Class and Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (review coming soon!)
  26. Logos (“rationality”) is not superior to mythos (“mythology”) but subservient. That relation is evident in the ways in which people privilege belief over fact (e.g., religion, sports fans, second marriages). It’s the reason culture matters. It’s the rejoinder of economists (“Forget your data! I have theory!”).
  27. The whole logos/mythos debate is as old as the words’ Greek origin, and I find it a useful idea, in terms of understanding “irrational” people (who presumably see me as soul-less). This discussion of assisted suicide is based on those different perspectives, with “autonomous liberalism” and “gifts-based liberalism” lining up with logos and mythos, respectively.
  28. Quality (in Phædrus’s view) drives mythos, in the sense that we need mythos to justify the pursuit of quality when it “doesn’t make sense” according to logos.
  29. Technology, objectivity, criticism use logos to bury mythos. Along the way, we become too critical of ourselves and others, which leads to isolation and loneliness. The pursuit of quality, art or pleasure from your surroundings  can make people more open and generous towards ourselves and others.
  30. Aristotle, the father of black-and-white classification, is the enemy of quality. And his works, with their outsized impact on “Western” mythos, explain scientific advances as well as psychological misery in cultures that value order over creativity.
  31. Although people find cities stressful in the ways they commodify work, living and everything else, cities can also be inspiring for the ways they connect not-so-rational people. Diverse cities are attractive; efficient cities have no soul.
  32. From a distance we can understand that value of a thing, but that distance also separates us from participating in its value: “He [Man] had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth — but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of equal magnitude: an understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it” [p 360].
  33. “The Church of Reason, like all institutions of the System, is based not on individual strength but upon individual weakness. What’s really demanded in the Church of Reason is not ability, but inability. Then you are considered teachable. A truly able person is always a threat. Phædrus sees that he has thrown away a chance to integrate himself into the organization by submitting to whatever Aristotelian thing he is supposed to submit to. But that kind of opportunity seems hardly worth the bowing and scraping and intellectual prostration necessary to maintain it. It is a low-quality form of life” [p373].

I hope these thoughts and excerpts inspire you to pursue quality, which is good for your soul. Want more? Read this book. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Review: Becoming Trader Joe

This 2021 book by Joe Coulombe (with assistance from Patty Civalleri) tells how Coulombe transformed a few markets into the Trader Joe’s juggernaut that so many of us “overeducated, underpaid” folks adore.  These folks are now called Bobos.

Joe was going after exactly that demographic in the 1960s, because he wanted to avoid head-to-head competition with the big chains.

The book is sharp and witty — it reminded me of Alchemy, another book by a maverick who continually undermines the conventional wisdom.

I’m not going to give my typical list of quotations in this review. Instead I will summarize a bit:

  1. Anyone in retail management should read this book. Joe has a lot of experience in making the unconventional the norm, often for entirely wrong reasons.
  2. Joe decided to pay his staff very well, and then he had to find ways to generate enough cash to make payroll. Luckily, his well-paid employees made all of that possible.
  3. Trader Joes (TJs) started off as a liquor store with a huge range of booze. That was profitable when alcohol laws were so weird. Then he shifted (too far) into health foods. Finally, he “got it right” by emphasizing high volumes, own brands, and low prices. (“Retail” comes from retailler, French for “cutting into pieces.”)
  4. His low prices were often the result of taking on “weird” products and packaging sizes, but also by taking the entire harvest/production. He made those profitable by minimizing the number of SKUs (stock keeping units) and maximizing volume. They didn’t need to refrigerate products that were selling too fast to go bad!
  5. The “Fearless Flyer” newsletter had a lot of information and advice, and it helped TJs shift these weird products to customers. “Normal” supermarkets were wrapped up in discounting with coupons and depending on advertising subsidies from manufacturers. What a shit show.
  6. My favorite product (mentioned in the book) is Heisenberg’s Uncertain Blend of coffee, which bagged all the “beans that got away” at the big roasters. Customers never knew what they were getting, but they were paying half the price of “standard” beans 🙂
  7. My economist friends will appreciate (or run in fear) from Joe’s emphasis on surprises and discontinuities, as in “focus on discontinuities in supplies” to get deals… and rush customers to “buy it before it’s gone”!
  8.  Joe is a humble guy in this book. He admits mistakes when he doesn’t need to. That’s a good sign of respect for his employees. He’s also old school in terms of avoiding excess bureaucracy and political correctness. I am also ok with that.
  9. More on discontinuity: Because TJs got started in wine, they had to deal with different vintages from different manufacturers. Some were good, some were bad, but all were different. When TJs turned to foods, they were ready to sell “too large” eggs and other non-homogenous commodity products. Customers loved the hunt… and the low prices. (Joe is a huge fan of Grocery Outlet, another discontinuous retailer I love.)
  10. Joe has an excellent sense of real estate — for his shops and also his shoppers. Lots of excellent insights that delivered exceptional profitability.
  11. His ideas on “double entry retailing” (demand-side factors such as location and price need to balance supply-side factors such as employees and landlords) are really interesting as a means of stimulating creative thinking, i.e., if one side changes, the other has to compensate. How?
  12. Joe sold TJs to Aldi (Nord) in 1979 and stepped down in 1988. He did a lot of consulting and turn arounds before he really retired. He died in 2020 after what was a massively successful career (and what appears to be an equally happy personal life). RIP.

Great read. FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.