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


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


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

Inventing the Enemy


Umberto Eco, who passed away last year, was one of a rare breed: a man of letters in the classical sense, a semiotician, essayist, literary critic and author, most famously, of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum.

In this collection of essays, Eco demonstrates his wide-ranging breadth of interests and intellectual pursuits. Meditations on Wikileaks accompany long exigeses on Victor Hugo’s works. Semiotic forays into the myriad meanings of fire rub shoulders with a satirical account of a society whose laws are overly-literal readings of traditional proverbs.

The two essays that start and end this collection are probably the most accessible to a contemporary audience. The titular essay Inventing the Enemy seems at first your standard-issue tract about the human propensity to view the world through a Manichean lens and makes enemies of the Other, but rather than decry this tendency, Eco suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t fight the urge and instead go find appropriate enemies to channel our opprobrium at – preferably non-human threats like global warming. Outrage, rightly channeled, can be a wonderfully productive force.

Thoughts on Wikileaks is an assortment of observations about that famed incident, ending with Eco pointing out the irony of technological progress – that as we go forward, the future starts to look awfully nostalgic – for, in an age where technology makes things more transparent than ever before, the bread and butter of international espionage will have to go back to its Cold War-era, cloak-and-dagger roots of dead drops and furtive encounters in dark alleyways.

Not everything is on the same level of accessibility or interest to the general reader of his works. One essay, a vitriolic critique of James Joyce entirely pieced together from the reviews of several Fascist tracts directed against it after its publication, left me nonplussed; it is scarcely more understandable even when you realise from some research that Eco was known as a seminal scholar of Joyce. Another essays deals in some length with a fellow named Camporesi, who Eco (understandably) assumes the reader is familiar with.

Unlike some other essay collections I could name (cf Wallace), though, Eco does not attempt to drown you in a deluge of facts and verbiage as a testament to his own erudition. His essay on Victor Hugo is a case in point – as long as you know him as the man who penned Les Miserables, you should be able to follow and be entertained by Eco’s surprisingly engaging essay on how Hugo made use of the literary device called bombast to make his works immortal.

Eco also professes an almost endearing fascination with fictitious worlds, whether astronomical or geological. His essays on fictitious cosmologies and lost islands inspire a fascination with the earnest falsities of the past, of those who struggled to fit capricious reality into their own wistful image.

I suspect that, with Eco, there is that pedagogical instinct present in his writing, or perhaps just a writerly good habit – Eco never fails to educate even if his subject matter exists just outside the skein of one’s lived experience. He writes like an avuncular, chain-smoking professor that knows he’s a bit out of your depth, but with a twinkle in his eye, pulls you in anyway.

I give this collection: 4 out of 5 insula perditas

How Not To Be Wrong


How Not to be Wrong is an entertaining and erudite guide to some of the ways in which math features in aspects of everyday life.

A chief challenge in math pedagogy is how to make its endless drill sets and lofty theorems relatable to the average student. In this book, Jordan Ellenberg has ventured to show just how interesting and useful math training can be, not just as an abstract set of rules for manipulating numbers, but, as he puts it, an “extension of common sense by other means”.

Ellenberg’s main preoccupation is extending mathematical thinking to relatable examples in everyday life – and this causes his writing to converge around a few broad themes or sections. There’s the injunction not to fall prey to the tendency to think linearly – i.e. that more of a good thing is necessarily always better, or vice versa. When you assume that we should cut taxes because Sweden is doing so too (i.e. our Laffer curve is straight), or treat ratios and percentage figures as truths without regard for sample size or non-positive fluctuations that, summed up, make up the overall delta, we’re thinking linearly.

Then there is an extended discussion on risk and uncertainty, and the differences between them. Risk is quantifiable in terms of expected return, and that quantifiability comes from the fact that things whose risk can be measured can be iterated upon multiple times – like a lottery or successive throws of the dice. Uncertainty is when the likelihood of something cannot be quantified – like the existence of god – and one’s decisions made in under such uncertainty inevitably require that one make certain axiomatic assumptions about likelihood and perform Bayesian inference on top of it, accounting for all possible permutations of outcomes, and in this sphere, math isn’t much help.

There’s also discussion on the vast, complicated and gnarly field of statistical inference – of ascribing too many things to causation when the seeming correlative effect is just a statistical artefact. These include regression to the mean and Berkson’s fallacy, which are essentially just perceptual artifacts that stem from our cognitive biases.

Berksons’ fallacy was especially interesting to me: it is essentially the generation of spurious correlations by the unconscious elision of data points from our sample set. For example, you might wonder why trashy books are so popular, or why old music was so much better. That’s because, when thinking about them, you don’t consider the universe of trashy unpopular books or lousy old music, and so in your mind, the sample size resolves itself to the set of trashy popular books, unpopular meritorious books, and a small subset of good popular books that you regard as an outlier.

Ellenberg also touches on Condorcet’s paradox, which is basically a statement implying that group preferences can be irrational even when individual preference is rational. This points to the impossibility of creating a voting system that can perfectly capture the will of the majority – just because there is no singular will of the majority. If there are more than three choices on a particular ballot, different voting systems will lead to wildly different outcomes based on the way the systems tally the votes to produce a single winner.

This paradox segues into a broader point about math – that it provides the fundamental structure of formal reasoning to tackle more intractable questions in life, even if it can’t provide the answers. In other words, math can show you how not to be wrong, and you can use it to decide how you define how to be right. We can’t use math to demonstrate if god exists or not, but we can base our decision of what epistemological position to adopt by using the tools of Bayesian inference. We can’t use math to create a perfect voting system, but we can use Condorcet’s paradox to assure ourselves that none such is possible, and therefore define our democratic process based on which trade-offs we’re more willing to make. Math itself, or at least its formal frameworks, cannot be proven to be self-consistent, as Godel’s Theorems show. But there is scope to set the starting points for it to be useful in as wide a variety of fields as possible.

And Ellenberg is able to demonstrate how interconnected math is, in terms of the ways in which mathematicians have been able to use theorems from one field to answer questions in the most unexpected of fields. One particularly elegant example that Ellenberg invokes is the use of plane geometry – Fano plane – to determine the smallest subset of lottery ticket number combinations necessary to maximise your expected outcome in a Transylvanian lottery. The whole thing is too involved to express here but the gist is that the Fano plane is a simple geometry created from a few basic axioms – one of which is that any two line segments can share at most one point – which also can represent the set of combination of lottery numbers that cover the largest subset of expected lottery outcomes, because the essential property of those numbers is that they share as few numbers with as few other numbers as possible, in order to maximise their spread.

What I think is Ellenberg’s biggest achievement with this book is to combine his mathematical expertise with a kind of cross-disciplinary wisdom – showing how math applies to a myriad of judiciously-selected fields and examples. Ellenberg even has a keenly literary sensibility, name-dropping David Foster Wallace and Ted Chiang and often quoting beautiful passages from mathematically-minded literary greats. Ellenberg’s wide-ranging scope fills his work with a sort of erudition that puts paid to the notion that math doesn’t intersect with human experience, and his wit and style place him as an exemplar of the ability to do math and write about it in a way that captures the imagination. It does require a fair bit of work to go through, especially in some of his more involved thinking exercises, but I think that the book is better for it.

In all, How Not to be Wrong isn’t a self-help book that instructs us on its titular subject matter, but it is an arresting look into math’s utility in different fields in human experience, one that is as illuminating as it is entertaining.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Transylvanian Lotteries

Both Flesh and Not


Not for first-timers.

Both Flesh and Not is a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace, an American writer and essayist of uncommon lingual prowess and checkered reputation. Wallace wrote about pretty much anything that caught his fancy and did so in a way that was as incisive as it was meandering – a kind of stream of discourse that wended its way like a one-sided conversation, dotted here and there at the banks nuggets of insight that were sometimes liable to be lost in the onslaught of obscure, precisely-used words, complex, multi-clausal sentences, and footnotes that took up half the page.

DFW’s essays were therefore not what you’d call easy reading. Free from strictures of structure and bursting with erudition and, at times, a sort of classist self-entitlement to verbiage, trusting in the ability of the reader to keep up, DFW wrote as he thought educated people should like to be written to – and his definitions for what constituted one were strict. But his essays could be surprisingly forgiving.

To continue the above metaphor, to truly grok one of his essays is to engage in a sort of mental whitewater rafting, mastering every treacherous turn of phrase while resisting the allure of breaking your flow by glancing at one of the infamous footnotes. But stray from the path of DFW’s frothy, exhilarating prose and come back and more likely than not you’ll just continue on for the ride – reading about whatever it is DFW has set his sights on. DFW’s essays were more often than not exercises in modular logical flows rather than discursive monads.

That said, however, this freewheeling style lends itself  better to topics of general interest. DFW’s other collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, was an eclectic collection on the most variegated of topics – 911, culinary ethics, conservative radio talk show hosts, pornography, McCain’s campaign – as I recall, a breathtaking journey over the skein of the American lived experience. DFW, writing for a more general audience, was DFW as his best – able to extract filaments of deep insight from places intimately part of some shared cultural fabric.

By contrast, Both Flesh and Not is a more targeted affair. More than Lobster, it is a compilation of essays, many of which first found themselves in literary journals, where DFW writes for a more well defined audience. In that context, DFW goes the opposite direction, wending down into narrow corridors of interest, indulging in his own, specific geekdoms that coincide with the geekdoms of the readers – Wittgensteinian philosophy, number theory – in ways that could alienate a more general audience interested in more of the same from Lobster. The longest pieces are the most symptomatic of these, while the shorter, more general ones are oftentimes too short to count.

There is a literary bent to these – many are book reviews of esoterica long neglected, some meta-pieces about the art and experience of writing, and, most interestingly, quirky and highly instructive usage notes for 24 common and uncommon words (of which I dearly wish there had been more).

The hit rate of these essays for the generalist is iffier than one would expect, and many would not probably put DFW in good stead in the first impressions of the newbie reader. DFW’s review of the philosophical book Wittgenstein’s Mistress, for example, is so suffused with obscure references to philosophy and literature as to muddle the discourse – and over a book which calls itself “experimental” (read: few would have read it).

There is some interest in the collection itself in the sense that its essays are arranged chronologically – one would expect to be taken on a bit of a tour of 1980s America through 2007. In many ways it is an interesting journey – from DFW’s slightly stiff, clearly developing voice in his early works to his oddly moving ode to Federer as a young man, to his concerns over trading security for liberty in late 2007 – but the evolutionary flow is curtailed by the many atemporal pieces, written in the timeless ivory tower of the literati-philosopher complex, that avail themselves of little contemporary or historical interest to the reader.

The upshot is, DFW’s greatest virtues are less on display in this collection than one would hope. For a much better showcase of his essaying talents, consider Consider the Lobster as your starting point. Both Flesh and Not seems an exercise for DFW’s more devoted readership.

I give this 3.5 out of 5 hot dogs