What Happened

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What it’s about: Hillary tells us what happened and what could have been.

Notes: 

  • I have to admit, my interest in reading this book was somewhat voyeuristic, the desire to get into the mindspace of a public figure who has been so endlessly analysed and dissected by the media. I wanted to know what she thought about the whole affair, the terrible day that Trump won the presidency, about how she would answer the question: “what happened?” The various stories circulating around that said the work didn’t pull any punches spurred on this avid interest in reading her book.
  • Well, I have to say it’s not as juicy as screed as it could be, but is actually a kind of post-fact manifesto, a wistful but detailed fantasy of the good she imagined she could have done had she won the presidency. It was a chronicle of her thoughts about being a woman in power, of her true passion of working on policies that would lead to the betterment of the children of America. Indeed, pretty much all the juicy bits, I read before actually buying the book.
  • That said, she is strident in her criticisms of the state of American politics and society in this age of Trump.  She doesn’t hold back in accusing the Russians of an all-out campaign to undermine American democracy and aiding the Trump campaign, and she has no compunctions in warning us of just how incompetent and unfit Trump is to be President, both from a personality and policy angle.
  • It’s hard to feel anything but sympathy for Hillary after reading the book – while she does get tied up in her own significance at times, it was still a surprisingly self-aware and engaging look at herself and the decisions that ultimately led to our present situation. Who can blame her for trying, appreciating the significance of her candidacy for millions of men and women in America? Should we blame her for losing to a buffoon, for her unpopularity, which was the result of decades of Republican smear tactics? For her emails, blown insanely out of proportion? For the media, walking hook, line and sinker into Trump’s shock doctrine and inadvertently pushing his brand even more into the American consciousness?
  • Ultimately, though, this book is the kind that will not have much lasting power. It isn’t a call to action or a manifesto, not a manual for revolution – it is just a journal of introspection, self-reflection and a wistful imagining of a what-could-have-been, a kind of cathartic exercise for Hillary, even (and she admits it, in the book). It is a book to be consigned to the background texture of history, fitting for a woman whose time in the spotlight is probably over, however unjustly.

Verdict: Equal parts what-if policy manifesto, self-reflection, and screed, What Happened gives an interesting and unique account of the election from Hillary herself, but doesn’t rise above its own self-preoccupation to deliver a strong message of hope and action for the American people, sorely needed in these times.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 pantsuits

 

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Spring Chicken

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What it’s about: A journalist plumbs science and pseudoscience for the secret to living a longer and healthier life.

Notes:

  • This is a book that, naturally, touches on something of abiding interest to everybody on the planet – how to stay youthful and healthy for as long as possible. It’s not just about keeping death at bay, but to increase your healthspan as long as possible. There’s also a brief meditation on the socio-economic and environmental impact of having a bunch of eternally-living folks around, which is a subject of another book, presumably one about the necessity of space colonisation.
  • Gifford’s wry, layman-peeking-in sort of tone lends an approachable air to the already intriguing subject matter. His attention is prolific, touching on nearly everything being done in the field, from the serious scientists to the celebrity hacks trying out dubious supplements like HGH (which, spoiler, are pretty dangerous and can even increase your chances of cancer or other age-related diseases.)
  • Gifford spends time as a volunteer in the massive Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Ageing, a decades-long study aimed at identifying all the external predictive correlates of senescence. He finds that it has as much to do with behavior as genetics (of course).
  • According to Gifford’s research, an important biomarker of senescence is inflammation, caused by senescent cells whose telomeres have depleted and hence are reaching the end of their replicative lifespan (telomerase activators are implicated in causing cells to go cancerous, so pumping yourself full of telomerase is not a particularly good anti-ageing strategy). Inflammatory compounds like cytokine contribute to all manner of age-related diseases, such as heart failure and dementia. Basically, it’s a catch-22. Left to their own devices, your cells either die (after becoming senescent) or become cancer (and you die in both scenarios). There isn’t any getting out of this bind – at least, not yet, with current technology.
  • There are, of course, certain people who possess certain sets of protective genes that guard against the effects of old age – and these lucky people can live to fantastically old ages even if they pursue all manner of bad habits. It seems that such genes are not selected for because there is no evolutionary pressure to privilege them – after all, such genes, whose effects only become evident in older folks, don’t really affect people’s chances of having babies.
  • Are there miracle medicines or interventions to extend lifespan? Gifford’s answer is, unsurprisingly, a “it’s too early to tell”. There are studies touting the restorative effects of rapamycin and metformin that have some scientific purchase (unlike HGHs peddled by aforementioned celebrity kooks) that may or may not have efficacy beyond the lab environment and/or horrible side effects. There’s also the creepy fact that blood transfusions from young to old mice (i.e. parabiosis) have restorative properties in the latter, due to some as-yet unclear property of young blood. But the biomechanical pathways for these substances are not well-understood as of yet.
  • That said, the good news is that there are plenty of behavioral modifications that most people can adopt to maximise their chances of living long and healthy lives. These include, naturally, losing weight, frequent exercise, and being educated, as well as having a positive outlook on life. One can also try some other, more drastic, lifestyle changes, such as intermittent fasting/caloric restriction and introducing physical stressors to the body from time to time, like taking dips in ice-cold water.
  • And so, whatever it is, after all that talk about scientific measures to reverse ageing, it seems like the age-old adage of “use it or lose it” still wins out in the end. Essentially, you gotta work hard for the life you want. Even if it means earning enough money to pay for frequent blood transfusions from broke Gen-Zers.

Verdict: Engaging, accessible and soberingly wry, Spring Chicken educates and entertains while reminding us that the reins to our own health are entirely in our hands.

I give this book: 4.5/5 danishes

 

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty

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What it’s about: Dan Ariely takes us on a tour of human dishonesty and tells us that humans in general don’t rely on dispassionate cost-benefit analyses (expectation of reward vs penalty of being caught) to guide when they cheat. Instead, cheating is motivated by a number of things, including, most importantly, whether we are able to rationalise the cheating to ourselves such that we can maintain a positive self-image.

The list of such rationalisations might include: whether other people in your social circle or culture are doing it (social and cultural norms), whether someone else can benefit from it (collaborative cheating), whether there are a large number of ways to justify the cheating (creativity), the emotional disposition of the cheating person (willpower depletion), whether the person has done it before (the “what-the-hell” justification) and a few more.

Conversely, cheating can be mitigated using tried-and-tested methods to outsource the “moral compass” or remind people of the rules of the game, including through supervision, pledging or moral suasion.

Notes:

  • This book strikes me as one of those “I could’ve told you that” tomes that provide, at best, simple (lab-environment) experimental backing for well-understood but ill-defined social adages. Humans cheat when they can rationalise it to themselves. That’s essentially what the book says. Hardly earth-shattering to presuppose that we are not all amoral cost-benefit calculators.
  • But even the distinction between rational cost-benefit analyses and rationalisation isn’t quite as stark, because what constitutes utils to you might be different from me. If a person cheats because everyone is cheating, is that necessarily not a cost-benefit analysis borne from the quantification of the “everyone does it” excuse as an input in the cost-benefit calculator?
  • Ariely’s approach to substantiating his claims strikes me as a bit overreaching, because he writes as though his series of experimental protocols demonstrate the conclusive truth of everything. But his experiments are all carefully controlled and offer comparatively little in terms of payoffs and risks, and by and large he relies on a common pool of university students (although he does conduct experiments on other people from time to time). Are his models really extensible to real-world cheating, Bernie Madoff style? I’m not so sure yet . That said, his conclusions are quite parsimonious in that they are not extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence, and I don’t disbelieve in anything he claims through what I understand from my Jungian received folk-wisdom corpus of moral sensibilities.

Verdict: While written in an engaging and accessible style, this book doesn’t quite manage to conclusively prove its truisms beyond the four walls of the psychology lab. But it does provide a useful conceptual framework to crystallise the folk wisdom on how cheating comes about into something more academically rigorous.

I give this: 4 out of 5 worksheets full of matrices

Cooked

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Easily the most inspiring book I’ve read in a long time.

Michael Pollan’s Cooked gives voice to something I’ve felt for a very long time – that cooking is more than an act of self-sustenance, but one of creativity, mystique and self-empowerment.

There is a power to the act of cooking. It is ingrained into our history as a species. Cooking unlocked the nutritive potential of our food sources, enabling our ancestors to evolve more quickly and freeing up their time spent foraging and hunting to kickstart a civilisation. In modernity, it remains a last holdout of artisanship in the face of an all-consuming capitalist juggernaut, powered by the cold logic of comparative advantage.

There is therefore a nobility to cooking – it hearkens us back to our roots in the deep past, and is one of the few ways left for ordinary people to create something of value and worth with their own hands – a product that gives creative satisfaction to the creator, pleasure to the partaker, and binds us closer together.

With that frame in mind, Pollan explores four realms of cooking in this book, in four distinct parts related to the classical elements – fire, water, air and earth. Fire, naturally, applies to roasting and smoking. Water is the act of braising and making stews. Air is the act of baking, and earth is the act of fermentation, both in food and drink. There are, of course, overlaps – but in essence the division is a poetic and apt one.

For each part, Pollan interviews and works with masters of each of the four crafts – pig smokers,  sous chefs, bakers, homebrewers, and “fermentation fetishists”, talks about the historical, scientific, nutritional and creative aspects of each process, and eventually describes his attempts to recreate some of what he has learned in his own kitchen. Pollan’s enthusiasm is infectious, his research far-ranging, and his exhortations to try it yourself compelling. For each foodway, he portrays the food, when properly made, as something transcendent in tastes and smell but also nourishing and sustaining from a nutritive, cultural and psychological standpoint. And then, he walks the talk and tries to make it himself – drawing the book back to its fundamental thesis – the need to cook for yourself to reap the multitudinous benefits of the act.

Reading Cooked didn’t change my mind about anything – because I was already convinced of cooking’s value in achieving fulfillment. But it did open up a new dimension of things that I was previously unfamiliar with, and showed me just how interesting the art of food-making can be. The chapter on breadmaking, for example, taught me that it’s possible to make a loaf of healthy, delicious bread in the style of world-class bakeries like Tartine in your own home, using varieties of bacteria that you can cultivate in your own kitchen. The chapter on braising underscored the point that you don’t need expensive cuts of meat to create rich and sustaining stews. The chapter on fermentation taught me the cultural depth that can be found in each culture’s use of bacteria to alter their food to impart unique (and sometimes acquired) tastes and smells.

In essence, cooking, itself, is something that ties us back to our cultural and biological roots, while opening up whole new worlds of experience in the comfort of our own homes. Michael Pollan’s Cooked is, if anything, just about the best tome to evangelise that message. It’s certainly inspired me to want to try all that he does, and more.

I give this book: 5 out of 5 lactobacillus starters

Lost Japan

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Lost Japan, written in the 1990s at the start of Japan’s lost decade, is at once a heartfelt elegy to old Japan and an impassioned diatribe against many aspects of the new.

Alex Kerr is one of the few non-Japanese figures to have really broken into the rarefied sphere of cultural and national discourse within Japan. An avid collector of Japanese art and connoisseur of traditional Japanese arts such as kabuki and calligraphy, Kerr has written and spoken about the slow loss of Japanese natural and cultural heritage to relentless development.

Kerr’s Lost Japan, originally written and published in Japanese, was well-received in Japan, winning the Shincho Gakugei literature prize for best work of nonfiction in 1994. It is easy to see why: Kerr’s passion for Japan shines through and sweeps the reader into its expansive wake. Kerr pierces through the often inscrutable veil of Japanese art to reveal the core of what makes them so compelling to him.

There is an added autobiographical layer to the book – which deals with Japanese culture through the subjective lens of Kerr’s lived experience. And his anecdotes are always entertaining, and almost fantastic in their vividity. Kerr paints himself as an inveterate socialiser, making friends up and down Japan with his vivacity and the novelty of being a Westerner who can’t get enough of esoteric Japanese culture. Perhaps the most well-remarked of his achievements is the restoration of an old house in Iya valley, at great financial, time and social expense – in his twenties! I read also with incredulous interest Kerr’s many forays into art collecting – which made him somewhat of an asset to an American real estate magnate with a passion for Asian art, who later recruited Kerr, among other things, as a sort of art buyer for his collection, after a ten minute conversation. Kerr’s eclectically-lived life lends the book much of its human interest.

That said, Kerr often comes across as opinionated in a way that precludes argument, especially when it comes to his views on the modern cultural course that Japan appears to be taking with respect to the traditional arts. To Kerr, Japanese culture is mired in a decadent stage – with traditional arts losing their essence in their bid to attract a new audience, and with the true inheritors of culture – translators of the essence of the culture into the future – finding fame only outside of Japan. While this may or may not be true of the specific traditional arts, it is perhaps a bit of a reach to claim that Japanese culture is entering a state of general malaise.

Kerr makes other interesting claims, such as that Kyotoites have wilfully destroyed much of their urban heritage and replaced it with ugly and hypermodern glass and metal edifices in their Sisyphean task to show themselves as good as Tokyo – a resentment they have carried since the Heian era, having become a sort of provincial backwater since their heyday. Kyoto tower and the JR Kyoto station being two such examples. Kerr is not a fan of how Kyoto appears to have commoditized much of its traditional cultural heritage, manicuring it and touristifying it in a way that ultimately detracts from their original purpose of instilling a meditative atmosphere. While this may have some anecdotal validity – anyone who has visited Kyoto in peak tourist season would agree that Kyoto inspires rather the opposite of zen-like calm – making such arguments smacks of a certain propensity to generalisation and over-narrativization that doesn’t sit well with me.

Kerr’s commentary on the state of natural Japan finds a bit more purchase with me, although it is a rather unexpected thesis in the light of Japan’s many points of natural heritage. But I can somewhat see where Kerr is coming from – in Japan, these landmarks seem to exist in bubbles. There is much care in curating an experience – but what lies outside the remit of that experience seems to be open season for unfettered construction.

Some might see Lost Japan as a sort of “whitesplaining” for Japanese on the ills that plague their country, dictated by a foreigner with a slight know-it-all attitude with respect to things. I certainly felt whiffs of that emanating from Kerr’s prose, even as it is suffused with genuine passion for things Japan. Kerr’s sometimes scathing tone stems from that passion, however, and while I do think that Kerr could have been more circumspect and sensitive in issuing his pronouncements, it is a bona fide attempt at raising Japanese consciousness of the ways in which they are losing their natural and cultural heritage. It has been almost 25 years since the book was written, though – so I’d be interested to see how, if at all, Kerr’s thesis would change today – whether or not there is now more conscious husbandry of Japan’s cultural and natural heritage.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 restored thatch roofed houses

The Rise of the Robots

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Despite its rather sensationalist-sounding title, The Rise of the Robots presents a grounded and rigorous argument for why we should regard technological unemployment as a looming threat to the viability of our existing economic structures.

The disintermediating effects of digitalisation and automation are a well-known discourse by now, at least in my circles – and there’s little doubt that it will lead to disruption and displacement of jobs. It has happened before, of course, with every preceding technological revolution – from the steam engine, to the assembly line, to the Internet. In the preceding cases, the normal mechanisms of capitalism have proven robust to such changes – technology destroys old jobs, but fosters new ones, and increased productivity gains have raised the total wealth levels of the population by redistributing gains through increased wages and lower costs of mass-produced consumer necessities.

The question on everyone’s minds is whether this pattern of creative destruction will hold true for digitalisation and automation. Does automation have the same job-creative potential? Or will it make vast sections of the workforce fundamentally unemployable? Ford methodically lays out the arguments for the latter. He starts by giving an overview of the coming landscape, arguing that automation is different because it can replace mental, not just physical work. Over some chapters, he looks into case studies of how digitalisation and automation might impact employment, not just in terms of lower-skill jobs, but white-collar and even professional jobs, such as in the healthcare sector, as well. For healthcare in particular, Ford argues that healthcare costs will not be driven down by automation even as healthcare jobs are replaced by robots, meaning that nobody really benefits from the scenario other than hospital owners.

Throughout, Ford retains a conservative stance with regard to the technology – he usually tries to ground his accounts in what is already possible. He does sometimes speculate on what could be possible in the longer term, such as generalised AI and the Singularity, but he doesn’t rely on them as the basis for his main arguments. To him, the technologies that are available today and are on their way to cresting the technology adoption curve already have the potential for massive economic disintermediation. And while new technologies do create new jobs, the kinds of jobs they will create are not at scale to offer employment to a majority of those affected.

Such disintermediation may manifest in even more extreme income inequality than we see today, with owners of automated systems and digitalised platforms acquiring the vast bulk of the value from technology, while the rest of the masses rendered superfluous by technology eke out a meagre living from the limited number of jobs left in the market.

But lest the cloistered tech elites think that they’re safe, existing economic structures may collapse in the face of technology. The global economy is driven by aggregate consumer demand, and if the masses are out of a job, then there will be far less consumer spending on the goods that are presumably produced by them, for them. Some might argue that productivity gains will drive down the price of consumer goods commensurately with wage levels, and thereby increase purchasing power, but it is unclear if the values of non-technological assets like land or debt would fall as well. Even if price levels did drop universally, it is hard to spend on goods when you have no income, as opposed to a lower income, if there are just not enough jobs available on the market. As such, automation and digitalisation could lead to a long depressive spell driven by the collapse of consumer demand.

Like many other prophets of technological unemployment, Ford points to a Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a simple, economically efficient, and administratively unburdensome way of apportioning the productivity gains from automation to consumers – a way to plug the collapse in the demand-driven economy. Ford sketches out a brief vision of how it could work, be paid for, and ways in which UBI can be calibrated in order to retain the incentive to be economically productive. While this vision needs more work to flesh out, and is probably unviable in the near term due to existing political and economic paradigms, it’s an appealing one, at least on paper. In the nearer-term, Ford does propose moving to a taxation regime more focused on capital rather than labor, and exploring a more socialist model of capitalism – where workers are compensated not via controlled wages, but by share of stock in the company.

Essentially, productivity gains through technology will create a world where not everyone needs to work, but existing economic structures that mandate that working is a prerequisite to economic reward, and uses apportioned rewards to power its own growth,  will collapse when technology makes it so that not everyone can work. The Rise of the Robots makes a compelling, detailed and grounded case for this thesis, and although reading it in 2017, when such discourses are far more widespread than before, can feel like you’re being preached to about matters that you’re already familiar with, the book is a great summary of the arguments and an excellent primer for the less informed – and crystallises the case for UBI in a persuasive but economically sensitive way.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 techno-feudalist societies