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.

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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.

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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.

Addendum (Oct 2023): Read Mowat’s 1957 article on his father’s boat obsession.


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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.


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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.

Notes:

  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.

Review: Coffee: A Global History

I got a copy of this 2018 book by Jonathan Morris because I wanted to learn more about the topic (in the same vein of Salt, a book I still need to read). I chose it from a list of similar titles because I wanted a “straight” story, and Morris is an historian.

Edit (30 May): See comments for caveats!

Well the book delivered, in some expected and surprising (good or bad) ways:

The first chapter has a clear description of the many steps between plant, bean and cup. Dry but useful for those of us unaware of all the work that goes into a cup.

The next chapters trace the development of coffee growing, trading and drinking, starting in the Islamic world (coffee came to Yemen from Ethiopia and spread from there), expanding as a colonial good (slavery included), an industrial product (Americans drank a majority of the world’s traded coffee from the 18th century), global commodity (Vietnam challenges Brazil) and specialty beverage (hipsters unite!). The book ends with some slightly wonky recipes.

Here are 41 (!) interesting things I learned from this book (quotes in italics):

  1. Coffee was “put on trial” in Mecca, with the prosecution claiming it was a drug that — like alcohol — intoxicated. The defense claimed its effects helped one get closer to Allah. They won, somewhat due to the judges (imams) already being addicted to coffee.
  2. The coffee house’s appeal lay in providing the first legitimate public space for socialization among Muslim men. At night, convention demanded that decent people should eat at home, so the only places open were those with dubious reputations – the wine taverns and establishments selling boza, a mildly alcoholic malt beverage made with fermented cereals.
  3. The advent of the coffee house created possibilities for new forms of social interaction. Previously, entertaining others would have involved inviting them to one’s house, providing a banquet, probably prepared by servants, and entailing the display of possessions (and probably wife), all of which created a distinction between host and guest. Now one could meet peers at a coffee house, and exchange hospitality on a more equal footing through the simple expedient of buying each other cups of coffee.
  4. The coffee houses’ success reflected a shift in the social and political structures of the Ottoman Empire. The centralized, hierarchical administration model gave way to a society in which power was fragmented, elites divided and religious and secular ideologies contested. The coffee house, where one could address anyone directly and engage in open conversation, became a symbol of this new culture.
  5. Part of Ataturk’s programme for Turkey’s modernization during the twentieth century’s first half was converting it into a teadrinking country, substituting a beverage made from locally grown produce for an expensive import.
  6. Europeans often sought to rescue the beverage from its Muslim associations by reimagining its past… The Englishman Sir Henry Blount claimed it was the Spartans’ black broth drunk before battles. By locating coffee among the ancient Greeks, they effectively claimed it for European civilization, and reminded contemporaries of coffee-drinking Christians within the Ottoman borders. There is, though, no evidence that Pope Clemente VIII tasted coffee and baptized it as a Christian beverage in the 1600s, although the story’s widespread circulation suggests those with a stake in the coffee trade wished he had done so.
  7. Regulations protecting the apothecary trade [!!] probably account for the late appearance of the first café allowed to serve coffee in Venice in 1683.
  8. …adding milk to the coffee, with customers using a colour chart to indicate their desired shade. This was the origin of the Kapuziner, a beverage the colour of the Capuchin monks’ tunic. As well as sweetening (or perhaps masking) the taste, milk symbolically transformed the black Muslim brew into a white Christian confection.
  9. The term ‘virtuosi’ described gentlemen possessed of intellectual curiosity about cultural novelties, rarities and the fledgling field of empirical, quasi-scientific enquiry associated with figures such as Francis Bacon. As virtuosi were not courtiers, they were free to learn about new phenomena and discuss them within the so-called ‘penny universities’ – the price coffee houses charged for a dish of coffee.
  10. Coffee’s association with the coffee house may have held back its adoption in the home. The coffee house was essentially a male environment in which talking to strangers was encouraged. The only women present were either serving or ‘servicing’ the customer’s needs. The Women’s Petition against Coffee – a 1674 condemnation of both coffee and coffee houses on the grounds that they kept men away from the home and rendered them impotent – was probably sponsored by brewers keen to recapture lost customers, but it played on this gender division.
  11. Women might take tea together, either at home, or publicly in tea gardens where the open-air settings conferred a visibility, rendering them respectable places for ladies.
  12. The 8,000-plus gin palaces in London outnumbered coffee houses by some eighty to one.
  13. By 1720 there were in the region of 280 cafés in Paris, rising to around 1,000 in 1750 and 1,800 in 1790, serving a population of approximately 650,000
  14. The Low Countries witnessed an even more rapid adoption of coffee among both sexes and throughout the classes. Coffee-making equipment was frequently found among probate inventories of lower-class and middling households in eighteenth-century Amsterdam. As early as 1726 it was claimed coffee ‘has broken through so generally in our land that maids and seamstresses now have to have their coffee in the morning or they cannot put their thread through the eye of their needle’
  15. Regular shipments from Java to Holland began in 1711, enabling Amsterdam to establish the first European coffee exchange. In 1721, 90 per cent of the coffee on the Amsterdam market originated in the Yemen; by 1726, 90 per cent was supplied from Java. Deliveries from the island continued to increase until the middle of the century, but tailed off as new plantations in the Caribbean took over. The Dutch were partly responsible for this. In 1712 they introduced coffee to Suriname, a colonial enclave on the northeastern coastline of mainland Latin America, bordering the Caribbean Sea. Exports began in 1721 and surpassed those from Java by the 1740s. In Suriname, cultivators had no option but to produce coffee – the crop was grown on plantations tended by slave labour.
  16. [After Haiti won its independence,] over a thousand coffee plantations were destroyed… Although new farms were established, the coffee trade was effectively lost because European states and the USA shunned Haiti for fear of legitimizing black rule.
  17. The first drip-brewing apparatus appeared in the early nineteenth century.
  18. The Dutch colonial authorities … required peasant households to set aside a portion of their land or labour to cultivate commercial crops sold exclusively to the state. The autobiographical novel Max Havelaar, penned by a former administrator in 1860, showed how peasants starved while the Dutch indulged their indigent lords. By the 1880s, 60 per cent of Java’s peasant households were forced to grow coffee. Tending to the trees took up 15 per cent of their time, yet generated only 4 per cent of their income, due to the low fixed prices.
  19. Hills Brothers, a San Francisco company, introduced vacuum-packed coffee in 1900.
  20. Coffee cemented its position as America’s national beverage during the early twentieth century as consumption reached 5 kilograms (11 lb) per capita. The United States now imported well over half of the world’s coffee supply, and roasters positioned their brands as inherently American with names such as ‘Buffalo’ and ‘Dining Car Special’. 
  21. By the mid-1870s more than 75 per cent of the coffee consumed in the United States came from Brazil. NB: Coffee got a huge boost during the US Civil War, when it was given to troops to improve morale.
  22. This ‘valorization’ of the coffee price orchestrated by Brazilian authorities [restricting supply to increase prices] was a significant moment in coffee’s history: it was the first time producer countries had dictated trade terms to consumer nations. It caused outrage in the U.S… The São Paulo state started an agency to organize coffee interests, which was subsequently transformed into the national Instituto Brasileiro do Café (IBC).
  23. To increase consumption of coffee — a crop whose production Brazil dominated — the IBC opened Brazilian coffee houses around the world. I visited on in Alexandria in 1997:
  24. El Salvador, vagrancy laws were used to force native populations from their lands and turn them into labourers on plantation-style estates. This generated a class of coffee oligarchs, effectively controlling the country, creating inequalities and conflicts that persisted throughout the twentieth century. In 1932 a revolt of impoverished coffee workers resulted in the Matanza (massacre) of tens of thousands of indigenous Salvadorans by government forces.
  25. Advertisers played on consumers’ lack of confidence about coffee. Coffee was regarded as representing the house-hold to outsiders, so they created anxiety about its quality. Getting it right was presented as vital to domestic harmony – no new bride wants to live in a ‘home without success’.
  26. Munitions workers proved more productive when allowed the new ‘coffee breaks’. These were introduced throughout the military. The practice spread into post-war civilian life, with around 60 per cent of factories adopting it by the mid-1950s. This was partly a consequence of the Pan-American Coffee Bureau’s heavy promotional campaign in favour of workplace coffee breaks. It also advocated ‘coffee breaks on the road’, arguing that coffee kept drivers alert in an increasingly motorized America.
  27. Immediately following the Second World War, U.S. consumption levels per capita reached an all-time peak of over 8.6 kilograms (19 lb) per person for those over ten years old. Latin America was producing 85 per cent of the world’s output and sending 70 per cent of it to the U.S., where coffee was now consumed in virtually every household. The concept of the American ‘cup of Joe’ – a term for ‘ordinary coffee’ that first appeared in the 1930s – was firmly established. This presented as a thin-bodied, weak-flavoured coffee served in a comparatively large volume to accompany meals. Its taste [dz: sic] profile reflected the blandness of the Brazilian beans at its base, the over-extracted coffee that resulted from brewing with a percolator, and the parsimoniousness of American housewives with the quantities of coffee they used.
  28. Kenyan government retained the Coffee Board’s central auction system, whereby exporters purchased lots classified according to cup characteristics, and growers received the average price for their class, thereby rewarding quality. By contrast, in newly independent Tanzania, coffee was sold by the Coffee Board in homogeneous lots, and quickly lost its reputation.
  29. It took Nestlé research scientist Max Morgenthaler over six years to come up with a palatable soluble coffee [Nescafe].
  30. At a trade fair in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1957, a Nescafé representative mixed instant powder and cold water in a cocoa drink shaker, creating a thick foam. Diluted with more water and served over ice, it proved very refreshing. The company began promoting this new use, which was adopted by young Greeks, becoming a symbol of the outdoor lifestyle. Frappé became Greece’s national summer beverage [much to my chagrin].
  31. Applying pressure to the brewing process speeded up the extraction time, enabling a fresh cup of coffee to be prepared ‘expressly’ for each customer. The first commercially produced machine was the La Pavoni Ideale. I have a La Pavoni Europiccola, which I was able to date to 1992. What a machine!
  32. During the 1998-2003 “coffee crisis” [pdf] in which supply far outdistanced demand due to the entry of Vietnam into the market and break down of coffee quotas among producers, many Mexican growers gave up and attempted to illegally enter the U.S., often perishing in the attempt. Political conflicts intensified, with peasants in Chiapas, the centre of Mexican coffee production, supporting the Zapatista guerrilla movement’s rebellion against the government. Even in Vietnam, some farmers were forced to sell possessions to satisfy debt collectors. Poverty levels in the Central Highlands reached 50 per cent, with 30 per cent of the population suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Robusta’s price fell from 83 cents in 1998 to just 28 cents in 2001. 
  33. The paradox that the so-called ‘latte revolution’, characterized by the rapid growth of coffee shops charging premium prices, coincided with the coffee crisis, provoked criticism of consuming ‘poverty in your coffee cup’. Others, though, saw this new phenomenon as an opportunity to recast coffee as a ‘specialty beverage’, facilitating its de-commodification, and the generation of greater revenues throughout the value chain.
  34. Independent roasters saw their numbers fall from around 1,500 in 1945 to 162 in 1972. To survive they evolved an alternative business strategy. Rather than price, they would compete on quality, enabling them to increase profit margins on their beans. Their approach suited a consumer economy in which different social groups had started using their purchases to convey messages about their lifestyles, values and tastes. These might include demonstrating sophistication or wealth; adherence to ‘alternative’, anti-corporate values; or a preference for ‘authentic’ artisan goods. Hipsters had entered the chat.
  35. Schultz trumpeted Starbucks as an exemplar of a ‘third place’ between work and home in which – as the sociologist Ray Oldenburg describes it – informal contacts between unrelated people create a sense of community. Behavioural studies, however, find little evidence of conversations being initiated between strangers: the attraction of the coffee shop lies in being surrounded by people without having to engage with them. The continuing advances of digital technologies – the laptop computer, the mobile phone, the wireless Internet connection – allow individuals to continue working, or engage in social media conversation, while ‘consuming’ the coffee shop ambience.
  36. Starbucks wanted to brew the same beverages consistently, hence Swiss super-automatic push-button espresso machines replaced the traditional Italian equipment in 1999. Celebrities were paid to be ‘found’ and photographed sipping coffee from branded takeaway cups. Starbucks maintained itself as the hegemonic brand within the coffee shop sector, and was so dominant that it effectively defined what consumers understood the coffee shop concept to mean.
  37. The first wave of mass-market roasters had ‘made bad coffee commonplace’. The original specialty operators ‘started destination shops with small roasting operations . . . serving espresso’, but their format was eclipsed by second wave giants such as Starbucks who ‘want to automate or homogenize specialty coffee’. The third wave would pursue a ‘no rules’ approach to crafting outstanding coffee.
  38. The third wave can best be described as a form of transnational ‘subculture’, with its own mix of philosophies, iconic brands, fanzine-style publications and key influencers. The Internet has made this possible, enabling micro-roasters to find customers around the country – so-called ‘prosumers’ – to discuss the best ways to customize their machinery, and connoisseurs to read the latest coffee reviews online. Watch James and find out 🙂
  39. In 1988 Solidaridad, a Dutch religious organization, established the Max Havelaar label – named after the novel denouncing the colonial coffee trade in Java. It started purchasing from producer cooperatives, initially in Mexico, and marketing the coffee in Germany and the Netherlands… In 1997 Fairtrade International was established to unite the various national schemes.
  40. By 2013 around 40 per cent of coffee’s global production was in accordance with some form of certification standard. Enthusiasts have argued that this represents one of the greatest triumphs of imposing social responsibility on global capitalism. Critics say this is a triumph of public relations, enabling the coffee industry to simultaneously monetize consumers’ ethical concerns while engaging in ‘virtue signalling’.
  41. Proudly independent? JAB, the Luxembourg-based private equity company whose portfolio of coffee brands includes JDE (Jacobs Douwe Egberts), has also invested in specialty, acquiring Peets and the ‘third wave’ chains Intelligentsia and Stumptown, as well as Keurig.

I recommend this book for its strengths in presenting facts and history in a unified, sensical analysis. I recommend The Coffee Trader for readers looking for more drama. FOUR STARS.


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Review: The Geography of Risk

I bought this 2019 book (subtitle: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts) by Gilbert M. Gaul on the recommendation of Chris Daly, a Jive Talk guest.

The book, in short, explains how land developers on the East Coast of the US have — with government support — built more and more housing in places that are less and less safe from storm surges, “rain bombs” and river flooding. Rising risk, in other words, is getting worse not just with the increasing impacts of climate change but also the increasing share of housing built in unsafe locations.

Here are some excerpts (italics) and my notes:

  1. The mayors and politicians like to call hurricanes ‘natural’ disasters,” he said. “But in my opinion, there’s nothing natural about them. They are man-made. Barrier islands are always moving. Beaches are always eroding. It’s only a problem when you put a house there.
  2. Those houses are… backed by an array of federal and state programs that provide inexpensive financing and tax breaks; offer heavily subsidized flood insurance; underwrite roads, bridges, and utilities; and distribute billions more in disaster aid to help beach towns rebuild after hurricanes and floods—setting the stage for a seemingly endless loop of government payouts. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that without the federal government, the coast as we know it simply wouldn’t exist.
  3. In the 1950s, the federal government covered just 5 percent of the cost of rebuilding after hurricanes. Today, it pays for 70 percent. And in some cases, it pays for 100 percent. It is no accident that the federalization of disasters coincided with the explosive development at the coasts.
  4. The “reclamation” oxymoron (why “re-” when the land was always under water?): In the 1940s and 1950s, there were no environmental rules, let alone building codes or master plans to guide development. If a developer had a few dollars (it literally required only dollars), he could buy the rights to the land beneath the marsh, fill it with mud and dirt, and erect a house on top.
  5. The [New Jersey shore] mayors liked the idea of widening their beaches, especially if the state was going to pay. But they hated Hughes’s proposed ban on new development and giving large swaths of their beaches back to the public. There was too much money at stake, and restricting development threatened their tax bases. The debate shifted away from retreating out of harm’s way to getting the federal government to pay as much as possible toward the recovery.
  6. The Ash Wednesday Storm [of 1962] powerfully recast the politics of coastal disasters, sharply expanding federal aid and leading to the creation of new programs, including government-backed flood insurance several years later, not to mention helping to instill a growing expectation among Americans that the federal government would always be there to rescue them after hurricanes, floods, and other disasters, including aid for beach resorts and second homes. In this sense, the Ash Wednesday Storm represents a pivot point in the evolution of the nation’s coasts, shifting some of the risk of rebuilding from private homeowners to the public, and encouraging a dangerous and costly pattern of building, damage, and rebuilding in harm’s way.
  7. The story of New Jersey’s failures to manage building at the beach and along its coastal waterways mirrors the larger story of the nation’s coasts. Time and again, private interests and money have trumped sound environmental policies and public interests, whether it is restricting access to the beach or limiting risky development.
  8. Kahrl blames “coastal capitalism,” along with the powerful forces of segregation, for driving away African American families and transforming the coasts into “whites-only summer destinations — and dead communities in the off season.
  9. Instead of focusing on climate change, policymakers should address “the ever-growing concentration of population and wealth in vulnerable coastal regions.” The researchers then pivoted to the question of risk. “Rapidly escalating hurricane damage in recent decades owes much to government policies that serve to subsidize risk,” not to mention “political pressures that hold down [flood insurance] premiums in risky coastal areas.”
  10. While disaster aid provides humanitarian benefits, they wrote, it also serves “to promote risky behavior in the long run… A smarter approach would be to build smaller, cheaper houses, he suggested. “That’s what they do in the Philippines and Taiwan, which are battered every year by bigger typhoons. You see a handful of fortresses built for a Category 5 [typhoon]. Everything else is a shanty, plywood shacks so poor people can go out there, nothing of value. Every few years, they blow away, and so what? It’s a pretty smart adaptation, actually… As the population and wealth of the United States has increased in coastal locations, it has invariably led to growth in exposure and vulnerability of coastal property along the U.S. Gulf and East coasts.” 
  11. In the last two decades [2000-2020], hurricanes and coastal storms have caused over three-quarters of a trillion dollars in damage at the coast—far more than earthquakes, tornadoes, and wildfires combined. That represents a nearly sixfold increase from the prior two decades (1980–1990 2000).
  12. The report that White delivered to the Johnson administration in 1966 was ambitious yet cautionary. Yes, a government-backed flood insurance program was feasible, but only under a number of strict conditions. First, insurance had to be closely linked to rigorous land-use policies limiting future development in floodplains. Second, the government had to price its premiums at levels reflecting the actual risk of flooding; anything less would be fiscally reckless. Third, the government shouldn’t offer subsidies to policyholders, because they would distort the market and incite even more risky development. And fourth, the government should test its program in one or two markets to see whether it worked before offering flood insurance nationwide. These conditions were ignored.
  13. Floods are an act of God; flood damages result from the acts of man,” White wrote in the task force report. “Those who occupy the floodplain should be responsible for the results of their actions…
  14. Over its troubled fifty-year history, the National Flood Insurance Program has lost $40 billion, including claims from Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017. No investor-owned insurance company would be in business with such poor risk management.
  15. Krimm speculated that private insurance agents may have sold flood insurance to owners of beach houses [second homes] without the government’s knowledge to boost the overall number of flood policies… Curiously, FEMA officials told me they don’t know how many second homes they insure. In 2015, a spokeswoman informed me that they don’t track the data that way and that it would be expensive to run a computer search to identify the beach houses.
  16. Craig Fugate suggested to me that it may be time for the federal government to get out of the flood business… “You know who our biggest opponent was who got this killed? It was the National Association of Realtors. What the hell? Are you that wedded to selling property in the flood zone? They said it would be detrimental to home sales. Property values would plummet.” Just another case of privatize the profits, socialize the losses. Indeed, this recent article says “Accounting for flood risk would lower American house prices by $187bn.”
  17. The Army Corps of Engineers didn’t set out to be in the beach-building business. For years, the engineers fought efforts to add beach repairs to their mission statement. But eventually, coastal interests won the engineers over, thanks in part to the efforts of an engaging and persistent lobbyist from New Jersey who convinced them that beach erosion wasn’t only a local issue; it was a national threat.. that have cost the taxpayers $32 million for each mile of NJ beach in front of millionaires’ mansions. The Corps has no problem with this, as they like building things.
  18. By building in harm’s way, humans had created a “self-inflicted problem,” an internal Corps history notes. The nation’s shorelines were now viewed “as a recreational resource and a producer of profit. Increasingly, the ocean generally, and the waves in particular, became depicted as ‘enemies’—threats, which had to be controlled to the greatest extent possible.” According to the Corps history, Smith and the ASBPA were maneuvering to get the engineers involved in beach repairs. “Rather than seeing coastal erosion as a natural phenomenon and taking full cognizance of this fact when developing shore sites, some other explanation was sought … to account for this force which was now destroying valuable property.” Colonel Earl Ivan Brown complained that private interests were looking to the federal government as a “source of easy money … to force the federal government to assume the burden of shore protection.
  19. There is a beach economy. But it is different from the one depicted in the studies. Most of the money is associated with real estate and construction [not “community”]. The tourism jobs touted in the studies—retail clerks, cooks, dishwashers, lifeguards, waiters—are seasonal and low-wage. Meanwhile, many beach towns are losing year-round jobs as populations tumble and barrier-island resorts transition from places where people live and work to seasonal communities of second homes and investment properties. 
  20. Tampa is the proverbial disaster waiting to happen…Hurricane Ian (2022) was a powerful Category 5 Atlantic hurricane which was the third-costliest weather disaster on record, and the deadliest hurricane to strike the state of Florida since the 1935 Labor Day hurricane.
  21. The entire coastline of the Netherlands is smaller than Florida’s. At least half the nation was at or below sea level. The Dutch couldn’t retreat to higher ground because, well, there was no higher ground. Rising water and powerful storms posed an existential threat. So they planned accordingly, spending billions each year keeping water out of their cities. There was even a national tax to pay for water defenses, though no government flood insurance. If a community decided to build in a floodplain, it had to pay for its own defense, unlike Americans, who richly subsidize risky development and then lurch from disaster to disaster. Dutch engineers also continually reassess their approach. Lately, they have begun to shift away from building barriers, levees, and surge protectors in favor of using green spaces, parks, and other public land to harbor floodwater until it recedes.
  22. This is fine: In the last three years alone, Houston had twice thrice experienced five-hundred-year rainfalls.
  23. This being Texas, there was no such thing as zoning and, for decades, very few rules governing building. Crucially, there were also no federal flood maps until the 1980s, by which point developers had already filled many of the wetlands, prairies, and rice fields with town houses, condominiums, and suburban housing tracts… Harvey underscored how the risks at the coast are not limited to waves, storm surge, and wind. Torrential rainstorms fueled by rising temperatures and the oversaturated atmosphere are becoming increasingly common, and not only in Houston. Even if the engineers armor the nation’s coasts, that won’t save Houston, Charleston, Miami, or New York City when the next rain bomb stalls out there, unleashing the next epochal deluge.
  24. North Carolina had enjoyed a reputation as a national leader in coastal management, even embracing rules limiting oceanfront development. But after conservative Republicans took control of the state capitol, the politics turned ugly, and they began rolling back rules. In 2012, they criticized the committee’s findings on sea-level rise as unfriendly to business and rejected the science as unproven estimates—even though the report closely mirrored the estimates of esteemed national panels. What next? A ban on gravity?!
  25. How did you defend so much shoreline and so many houses? You could begin by restoring the lost marsh and wetlands, as they were doing in Louisiana and Mississippi. You could elevate the houses and roads. Or you could try to prevent the water from getting into the bays by constructing huge steel gates and seawalls, as was currently being planned in Galveston and New York City. But the cost was enormous. A single gate in front of a small inlet could easily run $100 million, while the tab for a far larger wall, such as the proposed Ike Dike, could cost upward of $31 billion. The engineers could spin out their solutions. But someone was going to have to pay.
  26. What is the best way to fix thousands of miles of broken, vulnerable shorelines? One of the attendees, a Corps engineer no less, had scribbled across the top of his questionnaire “Stop spending money and leave.”

I strongly recommend this book to anyone living on the coast, or a river, or where rain falls (so, yeah, everyone). US taxpayers need to know their taxes subsidize vacation properties. US homeowners need to know risks are not “priced in.” US citizens need to know government policy is not protecting them. “Do your own research” (read this book) because US politicians are screwing over most citizens. FIVE STARS.


Addendum (Aug): For the California equivalent of this story (subsidies to leave near fires, rather than floods),  The Case for Letting Malibu Burn (originally from 1995).

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Review: Slouching towards Bethlehem

I ran across this book while on holiday in California. I had heard of Didion (1934-2021), but I did not know she was “an observer of California in the 50s and 60s.”

This collection of short stories (“Slouching towards Bethlehem” is one) provide  interesting snapshots of life in places where I lived decades later.

Didion’s lovely writing is the highlight of this book, so here are some quotations:

  • The future always looks good in the golden land [Southern California], because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers. –“Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” (1966)
  • By July 8, the conventional tensions of love and money had reached the conventional impasse in the new house on the acre lot at 8488 Bella Vista, and Lucille Miller filed for divorce. Within a month, however, the Millers seemed reconciled. They saw a marriage counselor. They talked about a fourth child. It seemed that the marriage had reached the traditional truce, the point at which so many resign themselves to cutting both their losses and their hopes. — “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” (1966)
  • She [Joan Baez, who grew up in Palo Alto (!)] could reach an audience in a way that neither the purists nor the more commercial folksingers seemed to be able to do. If her interest was never in the money, neither was it really in the music: she was interested instead in something that went on between her and the audience. “The easiest kind of relationship for me is with ten thousand people,” she said. “The hardest is with one.” — “Where the Kissing Never Stops” (1966)
  • That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules. — “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38” (1967)
  • All of these [wedding] services, like most others in Las Vegas (sauna baths, payroll-check cashing, chinchilla coats for sale or rent) are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot. — Marrying Absurd (1967)
  • Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss. — “On Keeping a Notebook” (1966)
  • …the most disturbing aspect of “morality” seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation. Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned these factitious moral burdens. There is something facile going on, some self-indulgence at work. Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, things have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with “morality.” Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there. — “On Morality” (1965)
  • “On nights like that,” Raymond Chandler once wrote about the Santa Ana [winds], “every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” That was the kind of wind it was. — “Los Angeles Notebook” (1965-67)
  • I remember once, one cold bright December evening in New York, suggesting to a friend who complained of having been around too long that he come with me to a party where there would be, I assured him with the bright resourcefulness of twenty-three, “new faces.” He laughed literally until he choked, and I had to roll down the taxi window and hit him on the back. “New faces,” he said finally, “don’t tell me about new faces.” It seemed that the last time he had gone to a party where he had been promised “new faces,” there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men. — “Goodbye to All That” (1967)

I recommend this book to someone with an interest in American culture and good writing. FOUR STARS.


Here are all my reviews.