Podcasts of the Week: Planet Money & Decode DC


Two podcasts this week with a shared theme:  the people who work to sell you food (that’s largely bad for you).

The first is Planet Money (Episode 700: Peanuts and Cracker Jack) which spent a night at Fenway Park to learn of the economy of concessions vendors at a Red Sox game.  There’s a draft for products and sections of the ballpark and then it’s up to each individual to use their skills to sell as much as they can.  The mystical Jose wears #1 on his back for his marketing skill.  Surprisingly, vendors don’t seem to make much money for their efforts (although I supposed no one would have a job that’s only about 4 hours 81 times per year as their sole source of income).

http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2016/05/06/477082513/episode-700-peanuts-and-cracker-jack

More sinister is this week’s Decode DC episode (Episode 139: Big Sugar’s Secret Playbook) where tobacco industry marketing and legal tactics are used to get you eating (and paying for) more sugar in your diet.

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Book Review: Ninety percent of everything by Rose George


AuthorRose George
Title: Ninety percent of everything : inside shipping, the invisible industry that puts clothes on your back, gas in your car, and food on your plate by
Publication Info: New York : Metropolitan Books, 2013.
Summary/Review:

As the title implies, freight shipping is important, but overlooked.  The author looks into the industry which appears to be impossible to regulate and awfully dreary at best for the sailors, yet surprisingly compelling.  The heart of the book is George’s journey on the giant container ship Maersk Kendal from Rotterdam to Singapore by way of Suez. Apart from her own journey, George explores the hardship of the sailor’s life and those who depends on them, shipwrecks, the effect of shipping on whales, the merchant marine during war, and Somali pirates.  It’s an interesting glimpse into a vital part of human life that can be beyond the brain’s capability to comprehend.

Recommended books: Trawler by Redmond O’Hanlon and The Invisible Hook by Peter T. Leeson,

Rating: ***

Book Review: The mom & pop store by Robert Spector


Author: Robert Spector
Title: The mom & pop store : how the unsung heroes of the American economy are surviving and thriving
Publication Info: New York : Walker Pub. Co., c2009.
ISBN: 9780802716057

Summary/Review:

This Library Thing Early Reviewers free advance review book is a tribute to independent business.  Through historical discussion – including the business of the author’s own family – and through case studies of independent shops around the country the author tells the story of the success and importance of “mom & pop stores.”  Spector’s writing is an unabashed booster but despite his unbiased approach it remains convincing.  Spector also isn’t the best writer, but many of the stories of the individuals, families, and groups who go into business on their own are inspiring.

Recommended books: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs and Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights by Thom Hartmann
Rating: ***

Book Review: Made To Stick


Author: Dan Heath & Chip Heath
Title: Made To Stick
Publication Info: Santa Ana, CA : Books on Tape, p2007.
ISBN: 141593553X

Summary/Review:

This book is basically a guide for people who want to get their ideas across to other people and will be a useful managers, teachers, advertisers, and anyone else with a good idea who doesn’t know how to share it.  The Heaths discuss factors such as the Curse of Knowledge where experts know their field so well that they can’t explain it to outsiders.  There are also tips on creating stories, often with surprise elements, to capture the attention of your audience.  The best parts are the many examples such as teacher Jane Elliot’s “Eye of the Storm” method to teach children about prejudice, urban legends, Subway sandwich shops’ Jared campaign, the “Don’t Mess With Texas” effort to reduce littering and the best car commercial ever.  It’s a good, quick, and intstructional read for anyone needing to learn how to better communicate their ideas.

Recommended books: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex by Jeffrey Kluger, and Freakonomics by Steven Levitt
Rating: ***

Book Review: FREE: the future of a radical price by Chris Anderson


Author: Chris Anderson
Title:FREE: the future of a radical price
Publication Info: New York : Hyperion, 2009.
ISBN: 9781401322908

Previously read by same author: The Long Tail

Summary/Review:

I downloaded Chris Anderson’s latest book as an audiobook from iTunes.  The price I paid was … FREE!  The entire book is based on the concept that in an era when much content is cheaply reproduced, that Free is a good idea for many producers, marketers, and business.  In fact, Anderson argues that it is a good way to make a lot of money.  Not everything is free of course, Anderson proposes many models most avidly the Freemium model where a basic service or product is given away in hopes of luring customers to the premium version. Anderson calls on historical examples and current practice to support his theory.

It was an interesting book and a good follow-up to The Long Tail.  I’m said to say that I misplaced my notes, otherwise I’d have more to say about this book.   It’s already stirring up some good debtate.  Read Malcolm Gladwell’s review and Anderson’s response for starters.
Recommended books: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (ironically), Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, Fire in the Valley: The Making of The Personal Computer by Paul Freiberger (for a more in-depth story of the dawn of the information age).
Rating: ***

Book Review: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2004) is Malcolm Gladwell‘s psychological and sociological investigation into the human ability to make quick decisions.  This power – which he calls thin-slicing – can be both advantageous and dangerous.  For good or for ill, Gladwell contends that we humans make snap judgments all the time and this book is way of becoming conscious of this quick process.

While I find some of Gladwell’s conclusions hard to swallow, I do enjoy many of his stories and anecdotes.  Examples of what stands out in my memory include:

  • The Warren Harding problem – totally unqualified candidate becomes President because he looks “presidential” to many voters
  • Coca Cola executives changed the formula of Coke because it was losing in blind sip tests to Pepsi, but it turns out that sip tests are a poor judge of the full sensory experience of drinking an entire serving of Coke from the famous bottles or its red cans.
  • Consumers often hate new products because they are unfamiliar (examples include the Aeron chair and All in the Family) and thus it can be tricky to make judgments on a product from consumer testing
  • Project Implicit is a test which shows the associations positive and negative that are made of people due to their race.  (I took a test and got the result  “Your data suggest no difference in your automatic preferences for White people vs. Black people” of which I feel rather sanctimonious about).
  • In improvisational theater, improvisation arises entirely out of how steadfastly the participants adhere to the rule that no suggestion can be denied
  • Comparisons between autistic people and the overstimulated brain of a police officer in hot pursuit of a suspect both lack the ability to interpret facial and behavioral cues.  Gladwell takes us into the failures of judgment that led to the killing of Amadou Diallo and how officers following proper police procedures can protect themselves from this “temporary autism.”

All in all this was an interesting book, definitely entertaining to listen to while working on mundane tasks.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. Hachette Audio (2005), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD

Stadium Naming Rights


The recent hullabaloo over CitiGroup’s 20-year contract to name the New York Mets new ballpark has reminded me of some ideas regarding stadium naming rights. Corporate naming of venues is a trend already unpopular with sports’ fans but not really all that new.  After all, the oldest surviving ballpark in baseball was named to promote the owner’s Fenway Realty Company. So I’ve put together a list of guidelines for stadium naming rights that may help future sports franchise, building management, and potential sponsors.

  • First, if the company owns the team and/or stadium, then naming is a no-brainer.  It may even pay off in the long run as fans in Chicago would be aghast if Wrigley Field ever changed names while in St. Louis, the Busch name transferred over to a new ballpark even though the chewing gum and beer companies are no longer tied to these franchises.
  • If the company doesn’t actually own the team, they should at least be a major employer with a long history in the city or region where the stadium is built.  Heinz Field in Pittsburgh and Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts are good examples. Although if your company processes nuclear waste you may want to consider other options of advertisement.
  • If a stadium has been known by a certain name for years, fans will still call it by that name regardless of your attempts to rebrand it.  San Francisco’s Candlestick Park has been labeled numerous ghastly corporate names over the years but fans still call it Candlestick Park, and it is once again officially so.  A better approach is portmanteau renaming  like Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver or the classy callback of TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, although those names fail on other grounds.  Specifically:
  • Companies in the banking, telecommunications, and energy industries are right out.  These industries are too unstable for the long-term naming that sporting venues deserve with their frequent mergers, failures, and often ridiculous renaming of these companies.  I’d also rule out any company with .com in their name since they should know by now how to distinguish between what’s a proper name for a company and that company’s url.

So that’s my take a sensible approach for stadium naming rights.  As for CitiField, despite what some congress members have to say, I do believe that despite the support of taxpayer money, CitiGroup has the right to spend their advertising dollars for as long as they remain a company.  If the deal does fall through though, I think Gil Hodges Field has a nice ring to it.

Book Review: The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson


The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (2006) by Chris Anderson has been so discussed, cited, and praised the past few years that listening to the first few chapters I almost felt that I knew it all already.  The basic gist is that businesses can profit from selling just a few units of lots and lots and lots of different products instead of just focusing on selling lots and lots and lots of units of a few “hit” products.  On a graph, the traditional hit economy appears as a short head, while the niche economy appears as a long tail, thus the origins of the term.  Anderson’s original article on The Long Tail is still online at Wired (Issue 12.10 – October 2004) and is worth reading for a summary of the theory behind this book.

Anderson contends that the Hit Economy is actually unusual in economic history.  Examples of the hit economy include Casey Casem’s American Top 40 (which I listened to devotedly as  child), television programing dominated by three networks, and blockbuster films.  All were designed to appeal to a lowest common denominator to attract as many people as possible with the outlets for production controlled by a few.  Prior to mass broadcasting culture was regional, and thus the things people bought as well.   Today, internet communities are gathering around common interests in niches similar to the old regional cultures although the people using them are geographically disparate.

While Anderson credits the internet with providing the resources that allow the Long Tail to flourish, he also provides a history of the Long Tail dating back to Sear, Roebuck’s Wish Book in 1897 and 1-800 numbers in the 1960’s.  The internet allowed the democritization of the tools of production and distribution and allowing enterpreneurs like Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia to find success. The economics of scarcity were replaced by the economics of abundance.  It turns out that customers really like lots of choice contrary to the earlier conventional wisdom.  The difference is that consumers need filters like recommendations and reviews.

I like the examples Anderson cites such as the history of house music, the study of jams, and the punk rock revolution.  He makes a very compelling argument of the advantages of niche markets for the future of business.  On the other hand, I wonder how permanent this change is.  Anderson makes a point of the last big blockbuster pop album being an N*Sync record from 2001, their success in sales not repeated since.  Yet this is a very short period of time. Despite the influence of the internet on exposing niche bands to communities who’ll support them, whose to say that commercial forces won’t co-opt these new tools of distribution and production to recreate the Hit Culture?  I’ve read bloggers who are already complaining that blogs are no longer successful unless they have a staff of multiple writers with commercial support behind them.  Another example was the success of the internet phenemom Lonely Island conquering Saturday Night Live with their “Lazy Sunday” skit.  But is that the case?  Could it not be said that the SNL’s of the world will just keep swallowing up the Lonely Islands?

Author Anderson, Chris, 1961-
Title The long tail [sound recording] : [why the future of business is selling less of more] / Chris Anderson.
Publication Info. New York : Hyperion Audiobooks, c2006.
Edition Unabridged.
Description 7 sound discs (approx. 8 hrs.) : digital, 4 3/4 in.

Book Review: Great Fortune by Daniel Okrent


Great Fortune : The Epic of Rockefeller Center (2003) by Daniel Okrent is a lively and engaging popular history of the origins of the most famous urban development in the world.  It’s chock-full of facts that I never knew.

For example, the land Rockefeller Center is built upon was originally the “Upper Estate” of Columbia University, something of an albatross on the university’s neck especially after it moved further uptown. The university collected rent from the Rockefellers into the 1980’s.  The plan for Rockefeller Center was originally to construct a new opera house for the Metropolitan Opera, a plan that fell through as the greater plan for a commercial development stormed through into the Great Depression.  There were scandals of the Communist Diego Rivera painting a mural in the RCA building, and the Facist Benito Mussolini giving his blessing to a building for Italian commerce.  The most famous element of Rockefeller Center – the skating rink – was something of an afterthought to bail out a failed plan for a shopping plaza.  The opening of Radio City Music Hall was an overlong, over-the-top bomb that resulted in the venue being used as a movie theater for the next four decades.

Okrent also weaves in the biographies of the various characters involved in creating Rockefeller Center.  Most obvious of course are the Rockefeller family including the introspective John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who spent his life trying to atone for Senior’s greedy excess, and Nelson Rockefeller a steamroller of a personality who took charge of the Center in the later years of development.   Architects, designers, artists, corporate executives & businessmen all get their fair share as well.  Okrent writes of these people sympathetically without being adulatory, and shows their warts (not to mention having a few laughs at their expense) without it being a hatchet piece.

This is a very enjoyable historical work which I believe does a good job of capturing an era through the myriad people who worked on and at Rockefeller Center.

Great fortune : the epic of Rockefeller Center by Daniel Okrent. New York : Viking, 2003.

Book Review: Trawler by Redmond O’Hanlon


Trawler (2003) by Redmond O’Hanlon is one of those books where a novice goes on board a commercial fishing boat to see how hard life is for the trawlermen and finds it hard in ways one never imagined.  No big surprise there, but what O’Hanlon does in this book is write almost entirely in dialogue rather than description.  This means that O’Hanlon either brought on board a recording device or has a photographic memory for conversation.  Either way it’s remarkable considering that O’Hanlon spends much of the journey seasick, sleep-deprived, and unable to stay on his feet as the trawler Norlantean heads into a Force 12 hurricane.

Much of O’Hanlon’s conversation is with Luke the marine biologist conducting field studies on board the trawler.  But there is also the captain Jason, revered by his crew, and cast of tough fishermen, sometimes tight-lipped and sometimes revelatory in an almost hallucinatory way.  The discussion varies from oceanography to ichthyology, superstition and religion, masculinity to mortality, and sometimes just plain crudity.  O’Hanlon seems to make a pest of himself and gets a good bit of jibing in return.

This book not quite what I’d imagined it would be but it’s a good, solid book.

Here are some better reviews than mine:

Author O’Hanlon, Redmond, 1947-
Title Trawler / Redmond O’Hanlon.
Publication Info. New York : Vintage Books, 2006..
Edition 1st Vintage Departures ed.
Description 339 p., [8] p. of plates : ill., map ; 21 cm.

Book Review: Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky


Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008) by Clay Shirky is yet another book about the effect of social networking on the internet.  And a pretty good one at that, kind of like Groundswell without the business management emphasis.  Shirky’s main point is not so much that new technologies are changing the world, but that they are allowing people to collaborate in ways that weren’t possible before so that they can change societal and cultural norms (and by extension the world).  It’s a good and highly-readable summary of what’s going on in the world today.

I found in a Library Thing review this great webibliography of resources related to the book: http://mymindonbooks.com/?page_id=562.

Shirky, Clay.
Here comes everybody : the power of organizing without organizations / Clay Shirky.
New York : Penguin Press, 2008.

Book Review: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a difficult book to review.  I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t really understand all that this book is about but have hopes that reading it may have broadened my knowledge some and will be an incremental step in understanding similar works in the future.  Not that I can predict the future, that appears to be something that NNT feels strongly about.

Here are a few other things that Nassim Nicholas Taleb doesn’t like:

  • ludic fallacy
  • Platonicity
  • pompous academics
  • the bell curve (this won big points with me)
  • the narrative fallacy
  • financial consultants
  • and, putting things into categories (oops)

The idea of the black swan is that there are events that are rare & hard-to-predict with huge impact in just about every endeavour including science, finance, and mathematics.  The name comes from the belief among Europeans in past centuries that all swans are white because all the swans ever observed were white, a theory busted by the discovery of black swans in Australia.  Black swans may be beneficial or disasterous but have in common that people will generally ignore theses outliers until they happen and then try to create a reason for their happening.

NNT (he calls himself by these intials, btw) writes in a style mixing an essay-style discourse with narrative stories, often rather silly.  He also has kind of an arrogant, sarcastic tone that can be off-putting, but mostly I liked it since what he writes is pretty interesting.

Taleb, Nassim.
The black swan : the impact of the highly improbable / Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
New York : Random House, c2007.

Book Review: New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg


Following up on Ric Burns’ New York, I read New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (2007) edited by one of the stars of that series Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.

This collection of essays looks back with some nostalgia and some disgust at the City in the 70s, 80s, & 90s.  For most of the authors, New York once was full of crime, sex, and drugs, yet the rents were low and the City maintained its own character.  Today they sneer that interlopers have moved in, built luxury lofts, priced out everything that made New York unique and replaced it with typical American suburbia. Most of the essayists to some extent sink into insufferable self-importance which makes this book hard to read at times.

There’s a lot of hyperbole, but there’s truth mixed in.  And there’s still a lot to love about New York.  Each borough gets its own tribute, with the one on Staten Island being the most illuminating since I know little about that area.  There are also great stories on graffiti, civil rights, art, rock music, and ethnic foods.  If you love New York, this book is worth checking out.  If you hate New York, this book isn’t going to change your mind.

New York calling : from blackout to Bloomberg / edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.
Publication Info. London : Reaktion, 2007.
Description 368 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.

Movie Review: New York: A Documentary Film by Ric Burns


New York: A Documentary Film is an 8-part film made by Ric Burns that debuted on PBS in 1999 (except for episode 8, which is from 2003).  Thanks to Netflix, I’ve finally seen this epic documentary about my ancestral homeland and one of my favorite cities.

Ric Burns’ style is similar to his brother Ken in that their is a rich wealth of archival images, photos and films, supported by contemporary film interspersed with interviews with a variety of experts and dramatic renditions of quotations by historical figures.  It’s an effective technique, albeit one that could use a few adjustments.  I particularly like hearing from the experts, a grab bag of historians, writers, politicians, architects, and New Yorkers.  Standouts among the crowd include urbanist Marshall Berman, soft-spoken historian Craig Steven Wilde, and architect Robert A. M. Stern (as an aside, it seems to me that architects are often great speakers as well).  I would prefer longer clips of these people speaking about New York in place of the narration, no offense to David Ogden Stiers.  It would be one way to reduce the cliches that plague this film.  If you had a dollar for every time the words “Capitol of the World” are uttered, you could take me out for dinner at a fancy restaurant and probably get change.  Similarly, the contemporary film of soaring over the Manhattan skyline is overused creating a visual cliche.

These are minor quibbles though.  I would expect that many viewers would criticize the filmmakers for leaving things out although it would be impossible to cover every detail of city as large and historic as New York.  I would have liked to have seen more about New York’s role in popular culture such as radio, film, tv, and sports, not to mention more details about the four boroughs not named Manhattan, but so be it. I also felt that the 70 years covered in episodes #6 & 7 could have branched out to include more than road building, public housing, and white flight, since so much else happened in those times.  But then again this is the time of my life, and my parents, and my grandparents so I’m much more connected to it through personal experience and stories

The film covers New York History chronologically, with each episode culminating in a Big Event that kind of ties together the historical and cultural processes discussed in the episode.  These include 1. the Erie Canal, 2. the Civil War Draft Riots, 3. the Consolidation of  Greater New York, 4. the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire, 5. the construction of the Empire State Building, 6. the Great Depression and the 1939 World’s Fair, 7. the 1975 Fiscal Crisis, and 8. the World Trade Center & September 11th Attacks.  I think a more effective approach would have been to ditch the chronological approach and made the episodes specifically about these events: what led up to them, what effects did they have, how they influenced the people and their times, et al.  Episode 8 about the World Trade Center does in fact follow this method by tracing the history of the buildings construction, use, and desctruction, subtly creating a microcosm of New York history from the 1950’s to 2001.

Each episode also has a Big Person, a New Yorker of great prominence and influence who somehow personifies his times (and they are all “he’s”).  These include 1. Alexander Hamilton, 2. Walt Whitman, 3. William Tweed, 4. Al Smith, 5. F. Scott Fitzgerald, 6. Fiorello LaGuardia, 7. Robert Moses, and 8. no one really but high-wire artist Philippe Petit is the surprising heart of this episode.  I like this aspect less if only because it seems to lead to lionizing “great men” and repetition of more cliches (with the exception of Robert Moses about whom opinions were more neutral to negative, appropriate since Moses was eeeeeeeevil).

My overall impression Ric Burns’ New York is positive.  Episode 4: The Power and the People and Episode 8: The Center of the World are standout episodes that particularly bring the history of the city to life.  The former episode covers some of my favorite topics such as immigration and labor, while the latter profoundly recreates the horror of the September 11th attacks, but also the hope and heroism in the aftermath.  If you like New York, history, and/or documentaries check this one out.

Book Review: Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff


I learned about Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies (2008) by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff from the HBR IdeaCast Episode 91: Be a Social Technology Provocateur.  I was intrigued enough to check it out from the library that employs me but it was quickly recalled.  Luckily, I had gotten far enough to sign up for the Groundswell blog where I learned that Forrester was giving away 100 copies of the book to bloggers for review.  I was lucky enough to snag a copy and I’ve finally read it so I can fulfill my end of the bargain.

The basic gist of Groundswell is that new social networking tools allow the general public to greatly influence how companies and products are viewed by people at large.  The authors define the groundswell as “A social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations,” (p. 9).  Many companies see this as a threat but the authors encourage organizations to embrace social technologies to give them competitive advantage in business.

Now I’m someone who recoils at the concept of “viral marketing” in particular and really the whole corporate-consumerist ideology in general, but what impresses me about this book is that it comes down to people.  This is not about marketers telling people what to buy, it is about engaging people and learning about what products/services would enrich their lives, how to respond to problems, and even how to influence the purchasing decisons of other customers.  One interesting notion is that while corporations have “product managers,” they rarely have “people managers” although that’s going to be necessary to continue in business in a groundswell environment.  They even make a good point that the customers, not the company, own the brand.

“Marketers tell us they define and manage brands.  Some spend millions, or hundreds of millions, of dollars on advertising.  They carefully extend brand names, putting Scope on a tube of toothpaste to see what happens.  We bought this brand, they say.  We spent on it.  We own it.

Bull.

Your brand is whatever the customers say it is.  And in the groundswell where they communicate with each other, they decide,” (p. 78).

Many executives want to join the groundswell and think it is as easy as putting a blog or comment pages on their website.  The authors warn that engaging the groundswell requires planning with particular goals in mind or one’s efforts will fail.  Groundswell is like a manual for managers that offers case studies, lessons from those cases, and how those lessons may be applied to one’s own business.

I’m obviously not a corporate executive, but I read this book from the perspective that libraries can benefit from the instruction of this book.  Like corporations, libraries would do well to listen to the ideas of their biggest supporters, respond to concerns of those having problems with the library, and engage people in making the library a better place for everyone.  I’d suggest this book be read by any librarians interested in ideas for transforming the library in the web 2.0 world.

Groundswell : winning in a world transformed by social technologies by Charlene Li. Boston, Mass. : Harvard Business Press, c2008.

Book Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan


In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) is Michael Pollan‘s follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he answers the question the most readers of that earlier book have when finished “Ok, so what should I eat?”

Pollan’s simple answer is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  A simple phrase, but it requires this slim book to explicate, especially in this era where the prominence of processed food products make it difficult to determine what food is.  A good portion of the book is a set of rules for identifying foods and how to enjoy them.  I’ve listed the rules below for my own memory, but it is important to read the book for Pollan’s explication of each rule.

At it’s heart, In Defense of Food is an indictment of nutritionism.  This is the process where by scientific reductionism food is broken down into it’s basic nutrients.  In nutritionism, it is at the nutrient-level where “foods” are recommend for their healthful benefits or condemned for their ill-effects.  Pollan contends that a lot of these recommendations are made under pressure from food processing companies and government agencies without thorough research on how the food (or food products) acts at the macro-level.  This lack of understanding about how food works leads to the contradictory recommendations that a food is healthy one year and deadly the next (and vice versa). Furthermore, it ignores how whole foods act as a nutrient delivery system.  For example, a plant leaf may dissolve in the digestive system releasing nutrients in a healthful way, while the same nutrient as an additive to a food product can flood the body in unhealthful ways.  Additionally, Pollan states there is little research how nutrients act in balance with one another.

The processing of food often removes the nutrients needed, even when the cartons make claims to the healthfulness of what should be inside. As a result, we live in a country where people are eating and eating and eating in search of nutrients they cannot find.  Thus the oxymoron of a people who overeat but are still undernourished.

On the one hand this book is a vindication.  I always felt better eating real butter, sugar and other whole foods when everyone told me it’s healthier to consume margarine and aspartame and the like (ok, I could cut back on the sugar some more).  I  never trusted high fructose corn syrup.  The way people glom onto fad diets withouth much evidence that they’re healthful drives me crazy.  I would add to Pollan’s rules: “Never trust a diet with a name (ex. Adkins, South Beach, et al). On the other hand I live on a supposedly healthy vegetarian diet, but I don’t eat nearly enough leafy plants and I rely way too much on processed foods even if they’re supposedly healthy meals from Trader Joe’s.

Pollan often refers to the traditional nutritionist we should trust as “Mom.”  Unfortunately, he fails to acknowledge that Mom is now working 40+ hours out of the home. So is Dad and sometimes the kids are too. The time crunch many Americans face that put real pressures on the time available to select, prepare and eat food. This is not to be critical of Pollan, but I’d like to come up with extra rules that would help people incorporate healthy relationships with food into their busy lives. It seems it would need to be a cultural change as well as individual.  It could be as simple as teaching someone like me what to look for at a farmer’s market:  which type of produce should I look for, how should I judge it’s quality, how much do I bring home, and what do I do with it when I get home?  It sounds dumb, but I really need such remedial training, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

A good book to pair with In Defense of Food is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, in which author Barbara Kingsolver and her family spend a year eating locally, organically, and sustainably.  It come recommended by my sister and is central to this great episode of Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippet called The Ethics of Eating.

Professional reviews:

Favorite Passages

How a people eats is one of the most powerful ways they have to express, and preserve, their cultural identity, which is exactly what you don’t want in a society dedicated to the ideal of “Americanization.”  To make food choices more  scientific is to empty them of their ethnic content and history; in theory, at least, nutrionism proposes a neutral, modernist, forward-looking and potentially unifying answer to the  question of what it might mean to eat like an American.  It is also a way to moralize about other people’s choices without seeming to.  In this, nutrionism is a  little like the institution of the American front lawn, an unobjectionable, if bland way to pave over our differences and Americanize the landscape.  Of course in both cases unity comes at the price of aesthetic diversity and sensory pleasure.  Which may be precisely the point.  – pp. 57-58

When most of us think about food and health, we think in fairly narrow nutritionist terms — about our personal physical health and how ingestion of this particular nutrient or rejection of that affects it.  But I no longer think it’s possible to seperate our bodily health from the health of the environment from which we eat or, for that matter, from the healt of our general outlook about food (and health).  If my explorations of the food chain have taught me anything, it’s that it is a food chain, and all the links in it are in fact linked: the health of the soil to the health of the plants and animals we eat to the health of the food culture in which we eat them to the health of the eater, in body as well as mind.  So you will find rules here concerning not only what to eat but also how to eat it as well as how that food is produced.  Food consists not just in piles of chemicals; it also comprises a set of social and ecological relationships, reach back to the land and outward to other people. – p. 144

But meat, which humans have been going to heroic lengths to obtain and have been relishing for a very long time, is nutritious  food, supplying all the essential amino acids as well as many vitamins and minerals, and I haven’t found a compelling health reason to exclude it from the diet (That’s not to say there aren’t good ethical or enviromental reasons to do so).

That said, eating meat in the tremendous quantaties we do (each American now consumes and average of two hundred pounds of meat a year) is probably not a good idea, especially when that meat comes from a highly industrialized food chain.  Several studies point to the conclusion that the more meat there is in your diet — read meat especially — the greater your risk of heart disease and cancer.  Yet studies of flexitarians suggest that small amounts of meat — less than one serving a day — don’t appear to increase one’s risk.  Thomas Jefferson probably had the right idea when he reccomended using meat more as a flavoring princinple than as a main course, treating it as a “condiment for vegetables.” — p. 165-6

EAT FOOD

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
  • Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are:
    • Unfamiliar
    • Unpronouncable
    • More than five in number
    • Or, include High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Avoid food products that make health claims
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible

MOSTLY PLANTS

  • Eat mostly plants. Especially leaves
  • You are what what you eat eats too
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer (to preserve cuts of meat)
  • Eat like an omnivore
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils
  • Eat wild foods when you can
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements (but don’t waste your money unless you’re over 50)
  • Eat more like the French.  Or the Italians. Or the Japanese.  Or the Indians.  Or the Greeks.
  • Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism
  • Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner

NOT TOO MUCH

  • Pay more, eat less
  • Eat meals
  • Do all you’re eating at a table (a desk doesn’t count)
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Consult your gut
  • Eat slowly
  • Cook, and if you can, plant a garden

Pollan, Michael.
In defense of food : an eater’s manifesto / Michael Pollan.
New York : Penguin Press, 2008.
244 p. ; 23 cm

Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan


When I was a kid, my grandfather grew string beans and tomatoes in a planting box on his balcony 23-stories above a major elevated highway interchange in Brooklyn.  My sister and I would smirk as my grandmother proudly stated “Your grandfather grew these himself,” as she ladled the limp, brownish-green string beans on our plates.  My mother had better luck growing bumper crops of green beans in the Connecticut soil of our backyards as well as all the vegetables necessary to make a delicious spaghetti sauce.

Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) by Michael Pollan it occurs to me that these may be the only meals I’ve eaten that don’t come from the chain of industrial monoculture.  And even then both my grandfather and mother relied on the seeds and fertilizers sold by big agribusiness.  Pollan’s conceit in this very important book is to trace the chain of events leading to four very different meals:

  • a fast food meal from McDonald’s
  • an “organic” meal from the industrial suppliers of Whole Foods
  • a meal from a “beyond organic” symbiotic farm in Virginia
  • a meal made entirely of food gardened, foraged and hunted by Pollan himself

For the fast food meal, the central crop is corn grown in sturdy rows and harvested with industrial efficiency.  While corn may not obvious in many meals it is a key ingredient in feed for cattle (even though by nature they eat grass) and corn-derived additives and foodstuffs are the integral to many foodstuffs (especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup).  Pollan demonstrates how this industrial form of agriculture is destroying the earth through overuse of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides.  The corn products and corn-fed beef are less nutritious than they would be otherwise, not to mention the incalculable suffering of the feed lot.  Plus industrial agriculture’s reliance on government subsidies and fossil fuels adds a great cost to this supposedly cheap crop.

By comparison, the “big organic” meal from Whole Foods is tastier and more nutritious by comparison.  Organic farmers proudly proclaim that they’re protecting the earth by not using fertilizers and pesticides.  Yet by following the agribusiness industrial model, these farmers are still creating unsustainable food networks whether they’re unaware of it or simply greenwashing.  Pollan points out the energy required to import out-of-season goods from distant regions plus the additives used to preserve them.  Free range animals rarely live the pastoral live imagined by organic food lables and instead are not all that different from the non-organic factory farms.

Pollan spends a week on a farm of a farmer whose philosophy goes beyond organic and into the symbiotic relationships of plants and animals.  While he calls himself a grass farmer, he’s raising cattle and chickens as well in innovative ways where each being supports the cause of the others in a cruelty-free way.  The farm also serves only local customer, the importance of food networks where buyers know their suppliers are stressed.  While this philosophy is critiqued as inefficient and elitist, Pollan illustrates how it is in fact more efficient in food production as well as cost when the hidden costs of agribusiness are added in.  The benefits to plants, animals, and humans are high as well.

Finally, Pollan creates a meal himself from his garden, finding mushrooms with some of Northern California’s most obsessive foragers, and hunting for wild pigs.  At one point in this section Pollan experiments with vegetarianism using as a way to debunk animal liberationist theologies.  This is the one section of the book I had trouble with since as a vegetarian myself I feel Pollan tied together all vegetarian philosphies with the most extreme adherants and the benefits of vegetarian lifestyles weren’t given a fair shake.

I looked forward to reading this book because I previously enjoyed reading Pollan’s Botany of Desire. Like that previous work, this book is written in Pollan’s engaging style that is both alarming and compelling without being preachy.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma is worthy of the hype it has received and I recommend reading it.  Anna Clark of Isak sums it up best: “This is an astonishing, engaging, hilarious and revelatory book that should be required reading for every American. At least every American that eats.”

Online resources mentioned in the text:

Favorite Passages

It’s difficult to control the means of production when the product you’re selling can reproduce itself endlessly.  This one of the ways in which the imperatives of biology are difficult to mesh with the imperatives of business. — p. 31

I’ve oversimplified the story a bit; corn’s rapid rise is not quite as self-propelled as I’ve made it sound.  As in many other “self-made” American successes, the closer you look the more you find the federal government lending a hand — a patent, a monopoly, a tax break — to our hero at a critical juncture. In the case of corn, the botanical hero I’ve depicted as pluck and ambitious was in fact subsidized in crucial ways, both economically and biologically.  There’s a good reason I met farmers in Iowa who don’t respect corn, who will tell you in disgust that the plant has become “a welfare queen.” — p. 41

For corn has been exempted from the usual rules of nature and economics, both of which have rough mechanisms to check any such wild, uncontrolled proliferation.  In nature, the population of a species explodes until it exhausts its supply of food; then it crashes.  In the market, an oversupply of a commodity depresses prices until the surplus is either consumed or it no longer makes sense to produce any more of it.  In corn’s case, humans have labored mightily to free it from either constraint, even if that means going broke growing it, and consuming it just as fast as we possibly can. — p. 56

So this is what commodity corn can do to a cow: industrialize the miracle of nature that is the ruminant, taking this sunlight- and prairie grass-powered organism and turning it into the last thing we need: another fossil fuel machine.  This one, however, is able to suffer. — p. 84

I’d always thought of trees and grasses as antagonists — another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other.  To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass.  But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands.  So it is with the blade of grass and the adjacent forest as indeed, with all the species sharing this most complicated farm.  Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild. — p. 225

A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency at any cost and the moral imperatives of culture, which historically have served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market.  This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism — the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society.  Mercy toward the animals in our care is one such casualty. — p. 318

Author : Pollan, Michael.
Title : The omnivore’s dilemma : a natural history of four meals / Michael Pollan.
Published : New York : Penguin Press, 2006.

Two Commentaries on Immigration


“It is just so difficult to think that they don’t want us” in Larry James’ Urban Daily written in response to a municipal law requiring proof of citizenship from tenants.

Supporters of the ordinance claim that these hard working, undocumented families use up the scarce resources of the community, including public education and health care. Few will acknowledge the fact that these families pay all sorts of taxes, including sales tax, federal withholding taxes, property taxes and Social Security taxes that they will never be able to reclaim. Undocumented workers are in essence paying for my retirement, with no hope of receiving such benefits themselves no matter how hard or long they work.

The New Bedford Raid and Its Aftermath in Dispatch from the Trenches focuses on how corporate policy — aided and abetted by the government — perpetuates the illegal immigration problem.

It’s the picture of city officials so blindly pro-business that they could walk through that hell-hole of a sweatshop and come away thinking only about how they could help Insolia make more money that puts the 19th century attitudes of modern America into sharp relief. Not one of them appears to have considered for a moment that there was anything wrong or at least suspicious about the crowded, filthy conditions or thought to wonder if these rows and rows of Hispanic women were all legal. Not one of them so much as asked a question about how the workers were treated or raised so much as an eyebrow over an obviously unhealthy workplace. Neither was of the least importance to them. They were focused on one thing and one thing alone: help the owner make more money.

Kudos for Dudos


This week’s Boston Phoenix cover article “Choosing Our Religion” is a fun historical and sociological analysis of Boston’s favorite chain Dunkin’ Donuts. The franchise dominates New England so much so that it is frequently cited in directions: “Take a left at the first Dunkin’ Donuts, pass through the rotary, and then at the second Dunkin’ Donuts take a right, but not a hahd right!”

“Good puzzle would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub,” mused Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. A better one would be to traverse the Hub without passing a Dunkin’ Donuts. There are 269 Dunkin’ stores or kiosks within a 15 mile radius of Boston proper. Indeed, it often seems there’s one on every other corner. Across New England, there are nearly 2000 Dunkin’ outlets: that’s one for about every 6000 people.

I grew up with Dunkin’ Donuts. No school, church, or community gathering occurred without a box of Munchkins. My friends in high school referred to the Dunkin’ Donuts on the Post Road in Greenwich as Headquarters. Sadly, now that the doughnuts are baked offsite they are often stale and tasteless compared to the fresh yumminess in their “Time to Make the Doughnuts” days. Of course, it’s not about the doughnuts, it’s about coffee, and thus Dunkin’ Donuts finds themselves in a battle for brand loyalty and identity politics with Starbucks.

Fair or not, these are the stereotypes. Starbucks is fancy, indulgent, haute-bourgeois. Dunkin’ is simple, unpretentious, to the point. One encourages lounging and relaxation, one encourages getting in, getting out, and getting on with your day. Look deeper, and it’s fascinating how these conventions play out.

I have to say I’ve never heard Dunkin’ Donuts referred to as Dunkies. If the name’s shortened people call it Dunkin’s or less commonly (but my preference) DuDos. Also the article makes no mention of Dunkin’ Donuts acquisition by the evil Carlyle Group. Oh and don’t ever, ever order a Dunkaccino®, it is a foul, sickly-sweet concoction.

Further commentary on this article at The Bostonist.

Independent Book Stores


Three recent articles of interest regarding bookstores:

First an article about the people responsible for opening new independent book stores at a time when the independent book store is is said to be on it’s death bed:
‘We’re not in it for the money’ The number of independent bookstores has been steadly growing. But will they survive? — By Teresa Méndez in the Christian Science Monitor.

Part of what these stores – and the larger independent community – are working to do is find a niche, a way to create an experience the warehouse-size stores cannot, whether through knowledgeable handselling, hosting author and community events, or carrying a particular genre.


Following up on the news of the 98 new independent bookstores in the country, some advice to keep the independent bookstore alive:

Wicked Witch of Publishing Takes Over Pretend Independent Bookstore. Will She Thrive—or Just Survive? — By Lynne W. Scanlon in The Publishing Contrarian.

Where do I find the mass grave of the 2500 bookstores that went out of business between 1990 and 2006? I want to stand beside it and bid adieu to Murder Ink, Coliseum Books and Micawber Books—bookstores-turned-white-elephants that have recently succumbed at the ages of 34, 32, and 26, respectively—as their corpses are tossed on top of the bones of their erstwhile predecessors. Then I want to grab the owners of the 97 new independent bookstores that arrived on the scene in 2006 by the scruff of the neck, drag them to the edge of the grave and scream: “Don’t make the same mistakes these guys did.”


Finally, an article on bringing bookstore ideas into the library, albeit ideas from chain bookstores. I’d love to see an independent bookstore-inspired library. The smell of pathcouli would be as strong as the voices of the prophets of doom.

What libraries can learn from bookstores: Applying bookstore design to public libraries — By Chris Rippel in LYPOnline.com

Crosstraining would benefit libraries. Training circulation and reference staff in the mysteries of interlibrary loan would increase their ability to answer questions and advise patrons about the interlibrary loan process. Crosstraining catalogers and reference staff could produce better cataloging for use by reference staff and improve reference staff’s understanding of the access provided by cataloging.

This quote speaks to a constant struggle at my own library. We’re constantly in trouble when “the expert” is not around, but on the other hand when everyone is cross-trained it’s hard for each individual to keep track of all that information and overall service is watered down. Quite a conundrum.