Sunday, February 20, 2022

Credit Bubble Stocks 2021 Book Review Compendium

From a recent blog post about reading:

One of my favorite questions to ask impressive thinkers is: "Who is the most obscure person whose output you read all of?" I've never posed this question without getting a good answer. That is, impressive thinkers are pursuing the "consume everything from at least some people" strategy, and I should mimic that strategy. 

We have read a great deal of what John McPhee, Bernd Heinrich, Bill Bryson, and Peter Hessler have written. That is not an exhaustive list: we could also include Jane Austen, Warren Buffett (his public writings), Ben Graham, Michael Lewis, as well as many online writers in the blogosphere. It is not necessarily clear when one writer is more obscure than another.

We'd be interested in reading everything by Nick Lane, Paul Fussell, and James C Scott, David Macaulay, among many others. This year we have been working on reading everything by Michael Ruhlman. Last year we read a big chunk of the books that have been published about the tobacco industry. We have it in mind to read big stacks about overshoot and hydrogen, among other topics.

Categories of 2021 books read from biggest to smallest: Tobacco (9), Politics & political history (6), Michael Ruhlman (4), Economics/investing/business (3), History/biography/autobiography (3), Biology and Health (2), Travel (2), Self-help/how-to (2), Scientific history (2), Literary nonfiction (2) and Collapse (1). 

A total of 36 read during 2021, down from 47 during 2020, 48 during 2019 and 113 during 2018. (See the 2020 book compendium, 2019 book compendium and 2018 book compendium.) It is not that we have run out of things to read, but rather that we have been productively researching and writing on investing topics.

Tobacco (9)

  • Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization (4/5) See full review on CBS. First in a series of tobacco books for a reading program.
  • The Rediscovery of Tobacco: Smoking, Vaping, and the Creative Destruction of the Cigarette (4/5) Second book in our tobacco reading program. Author Jacob Grier is a Portland coffee shop commie (see physique), pro-BLM, but he's staunchly pro-smokers' rights and he even smokes cigars himself. He makes an interesting point: "the cigarette's domination of the 20th century is a glaring anomaly." Prior to the mass production of the cigarette in 1895, people used tobacco in all kinds of ways, most of which did not involve inhalation of smoke into the lungs: cigars, snuff, and chaw, for example. He asks, "Could smoking in the twenty-first century come to resemble the diversity of tobacco use in the past? Could tobacco follow the trajectory of goods like coffee and beer, rebounding from corporate consolidation to enter a new age of appreciation for quality and variety?" Cigarette smoke has a lower pH than pipe or cigar smoke, which makes it possible to inhale it into the lungs. "This inhalation encourages a different pattern of use. Smokers of cigars and pipes absorb nicotine more gradually. Cigarette smokers become accustomed instead to sharp peaks of stimulation, creating cravings that can only be satisfied by frequently re-upping with another smoke. The unfamiliar potency of the cigarette brought on dependence in the smokers who took it up. Although this was not initially an intentional design feature of cigarettes, it was a boon to producers. Through accidents of agriculture and processing they created the most effective and addictive nicotine delivery vehicle ever devised. 'The cigarette was to tobacco as the hypodermic syringe was to opiates.'" It was WWI, and providing cigarettes to men in the trenches, that really made cigarettes and that made western governments supporters of Big Tobacco. By 1922, cigarettes were outselling loose leaf and plug tobacco in the U.S. Grier's idea is that cigarettes are the problem and other forms of nicotine delivery have a much better risk-reward tradeoff. He calls it "Slow Tobacco": "The [cigarette] is made for a five-minute work break... A pipe or cigar, in contrast, requires a commitment of time. [...] The need to slow down and savor the tobacco, appreciating its subtle nuances, is part of the appeal. For people who decide to experiment with Slow Tobacco, we might go so far as to offer advice mirroring Michael Pollan's for eating, urging most importantly to avoid the deadly and addictive trap of cigarettes: 'Smoke tobacco, if you choose. Not too often. Mostly cigars and pipes.'" He looks at meta-analyses of smoking risk. "Heavy cigar smokers and cigar smokers who also smoke cigarettes suffer the highest risks. Of the studies that examined men smoking one-to-two cigars per day, none reported statistically significant increases in risk for all-cause mortality or heart disease, and only one reported a statistically significant increase for cancer." "For people who smoke infrequently and do not consciously inhale, the dose-response relationship for smoking-related cancers suggests that any elevation in risk must be quite low." He points out that Obamacare insurers are only allowed to discriminate against smokers (which is ridiculous) and that HHS regulation defines "tobacco use" as four or more times per week. Mentions The Cult of Statistical Significance, a book by two economists, which argues, "Researchers run their regressions, or they review the published literature, and the only question they ask is whether an effect exists." "Yes or no, they say, and then they stop. They have ceased asking the scientific question 'How much is the effect?" And they have therefore ceased being interested in the pragmatic questions that follow: 'What Difference Does the Effect Make?' and 'Who Cares?' They have become, as we put it, 'sizeless'." He goes through a history of bogus claims that anti-smoking researchers have made in recent years, like "thirdhand smoke". "Prominent anti-tobacco researchers have adopted a thoroughly ends-justify-the-means approach to science. They will promote any finding that helps delegitimize tobacco use, no matter how far-fetched or unsupported by the evidence." As part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with states, the big tobacco companies were required "to dismantle pro-industry organizations and fund anti-smoking research." So the situation is like climate change (formerly global warming) research, where only one side is funded, and there's no pushback against the zealous ideologues. There's a good chapter (Bootleggers and Baptists) about how the MSA in 1998 was fantastic for big tobacco, "structured in ways that converted the tobacco companies into a legally protected cartel." "All fifty states passed laws requiring cigarette companies that were not part of the MSA to either join the agreement or pay penalties..." "There's no doubt that the largest financial stakeholder in our industry is our state governments," said a tobacco executive. Another helpful regulation was the Tobacco Control Act of 2009, which gave the FDA regulatory authority. Its anti-competitive measure is the one that requires the FDA to review new tobacco products before they are introduced for sale. (Products sold before 2007 are grandfathered in.) "The Tobacco Control Act essentially froze the market for cigarettes, protecting Marlboro's market share." The bootlegger and baptist dynamic is that "Big Tobacco benefits by raising the costs faced by these potential competitors, and the moral case for regulation is provided by anti-smoking groups, many of them funded in part by cigarette makers' own MSA payments." There's a Scandinavian tobacco usage paradox: "Tobacco use in Sweden and Norway is still robust; it has simply shifted to forms that are much safer than cigarettes. The Scandinavian experience shows that significant gains in public health can be achieved by persuading people to give up smoking even if they don't give up tobacco or nicotine altogether." "The methods of production used in making snus render it chemically distinct from older American-style chewing tobacco and other oral tobaccos... Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, Swedish snus producers developed standards to minimize carcinogenic constituents created by microbial growth and fire-curing of tobacco. Contemporary snus is made with air-cured tobacco leaves and a steam heating process that results in much lower concentrations of nitrosamines..." We were just talking about how paradoxes are refutations. "Snus became available in the United States fairly recently, though it remains a very niche part of the tobacco market. This is likely due to its association with chewing tobacco, since the differences between chew and snus are not obvious to the casual consumer. The FDA also forbids snus companies from marketing their product as a lower risk alternative to cigarettes..." He concludes the book: "The electronic cigarette may turn out to be the most significant innovation in the nicotine market since the Bonsack machine automated cigarette rolling in the 1880s. Vaping arose while mainstream tobacco control activists obsessed over trivial ideas like changing the colors of cigarette packaging; that it arose at all is thanks to a decade of permissionless innovation..."
  • The Devil's Playbook: Big Tobacco, Juul, and the Addiction of a New Generation (4/5) Read two books about vape startup Juul, this one was bigger and better than the other (Big Vape). One interesting find is that the founders of Juul, two Stanford graduate students in product design, were smokers who wanted to create a safer nicotine alternative for themselves. When they were starting, they mined a treasure trove of research, which was the document collection that was made public as part of the Master Settlement Agreement - "internal emails and handwritten letters, scientific studies and business plans, patents and product research, all of which opened an incredible window into a secretive industry that had spent billions of dollars over nearly half a century trying to develop a new, noncombustible cigarette." "Somebody had tried to disrupt the cigarette before: the tobacco companies themselves! [They] had simply failed miserably in their years' worth of attempts." Understanding the tobacco business today means understanding the regulatory and litigation history since the 1990s. In 1996, the FDA attempted to regulate tobacco products by declaring them drugs and drug-delivery devices. The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 (FDA vs B&W) that Congress never delegated authority to the FDA to regulate tobacco. Since FDA's mandate is to approve products that are safe and effective, and cigarettes aren't, "the inescapable conclusion is that there is no room for tobacco products within the [agency's] regulatory scheme. If they cannot be used safely for any therapeutic purpose, and yet they cannot be banned, they simply do not fit." This was a moment that really saved Big Tobacco, and Big Tobacco responded very shrewdly by switching to a strategy of regulatory capture instead of denial and fighting. "Philip Morris had announced that as part of its 'realignment' with society it would support FDA regulation rather than thwart it at every turn. This wasn't simply an act of goodwill. Under Parrish's tutelage, Philip Morris was masterfully positioning itself so that instead of locking horns with government regulators, it could work in concert with them to shape the details of any bill... The company had warmed up to the idea of FDA regulation, so long as the agency treated cigarettes as a complex product that, no matter how deadly, still could be accessed by smoking adults for continued legal use." So, in 2000 the Supreme Court punted the issue of tobacco regulation to Congress. Nothing happened for a decade, until the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act during the Obama administration. "[T]he new law was not a hands down triumph for public health. Instead, it was a compromise between the demands of public health authorities and tobacco companies, which lobbied heavily to shape the bill to their liking. For example, while the FDA was given new powers to control levels of nicotine in cigarettes, the agency was expressly forbidden from executing an outright ban on cigarettes or requiring the total elimination of nicotine in them..." Plus, "despite the FDA's new tobacco framework, e-cigarettes appeared to be in a legal grey zone. They weren't clearly enumerated in the new tobacco control act, and it wasn't evident they could be regulated under the agency's separate drug authority." A federal appeals court upheld an injunction against the FDA in 2010: "the FDA couldn't regulate electronic cigarettes as drug devices unless they were being marketed for therapeutic smoking cessation purposes." The Juul founders experimented with various nicotine salts (alkaline nicotine plus acid equals salt) and found that using benzoic acid gave vapers satisfaction equivalent to cigarettes. They filed a patent: "certain nicotine salt formulations provide satisfaction in an individual superior to that of free base nicotine." Juul also made its pods very strong: "Its five percent nicotine concentration was by far the strongest e-cigarette on the market. It would always amaze people [that] a single tiny Juul pod delivered an amount of nicotine equal to an entire pack of Marlboro Reds. Even with Juul's proprietary benzoic acid-nicotine salt formulation that made its hits smoother compared to others, its potency delivered a powerful zing." Here's something interesting about the vape business compared with cigarettes: "the Juul had no beginning or end [unlike a cigarette] so people could ingest large amounts of nicotine without even realizing it." "People were taking deeper and longer puffs the longer they had the device." In 2016, the FDA passed a rule "deeming" cigars and e-cigarettes to be tobacco products. Vapes that had been for sale before 2007 (very few) were grandfathered in, other vapes were allowed to keep selling while preparing premarket review applications (PMTA) to the FDA showing that the products met the standard of being "appropriate for the protection of public health." The applications were lengthy, costly, and onerous, which was a big advantage for large companies. The acquisition of Juul by Altria is easier to understand in light of this regulatory history. No tobacco product could be introduced, and no existing product modified, after August 2016. "By the time the company realized that Juul was an actual threat, any hope of actually innovating on MarkTen to make it better, or more appealing, had slipped away. The FDA's deeming rule had made it all but impossible. Companies were no longer allowed to introduce new products to the market, and they were forbidden from improving on any existing device." Altria's vape product, MarkTen, could not compete: "it had 1.8% nicotine, and it was in the inferior, harsh freebase form. Juul had 5% nicotine, and it was in the superior, smooth salt form. It was nearly a scientifically proven fact-Juul would hook more users than Elite." In other words, "Juul found a way to shoot more nicotine into the human body than anyone had ever thought possible." Like your typical SV startup, Juul cut corners - regulatory arbitrage, low product quality - to outmaneuver industry incumbents. Big tobacco was just very conservative because of the pummeling it took in the 1990s. This led to a "frustrating pattern" for Altria: "When little cigars started doing a brisk business, Altria started work developing its own branded product but wound up springing to buy John Middleton Inc., the maker of black and mild cigars, for nearly $3 billion. When smokeless tobacco grew in popularity, Altria tried to innovate with its own Marlboro branded smokeless products - Marlboro Snus, Marlboro tobacco sticks - before giving up and paying $10 billion for the leader in the category, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company. No matter how many Clayton Christensen or Klaus Schwab books its executives read or John Kotter consulting sessions they attended, Altria simply couldn't move much beyond rolling tobacco in paper."
  • Going Down Tobacco Road: R. J. Reynolds' Tobacco Empire: The Gold Leaf and North Carolina (3/5) Written by Gene Hoots, who worked as a financial analyst for RJR in its heyday before the leveraged buyout (which is chronicled in a great book, Barbarians at the Gate). Starting in the late 19th century, "smoking slowly replaced chewing as the tobacco product of choice. America's transformation from a rural to an urban society accelerated this change. As population density increased, spitting tobacco juice became unacceptable; in addition to being unsightly, the public began to associate spitting with the spread of tuberculosis and other diseases." On Tsar Alexis' attempt to ban smoking in 1634: "He obviously didn't have much success, and current regimes aren't having much luck either. The main reason for their failure is no secret, but hardly ever mentioned: What else? Money. The industry makes money for so many people that the world in general, and governments in particular, refuse to kill it." A big day in tobacco history: "On April 1, 1970, tobacco advertising was banned from radio and television beginning in 1971. The year before the ban, cigarettes were the biggest television advertisers, spending $230 million. Now they would be limited to print media. An era had ended. Removing the ads from the air affected Americans' smoking not at all. The ban had a surprising positive effect on the cigarette companies' finances. Without television advertising, it would be nearly impossible for a new company to enter the business; even an existing company found it challenging to introduce a new brand. And since the companies all quit advertising at the same time, existing brands' market share were not relatively disadvantaged. Also of great help, this retreat from advertising reduced the anti-smoking advertisements on television as well. Cigarettes became even more profitable. Advertising savings flowed straight to the bottom line. RJR's profit margin on cigarette sales was 19.5 percent of sales from 1966 to 1969. The margin leapt to 24.7 percent in the years 1970 to 1974." Similarly with the increase in federal excise tax in 1983, which doubled from 8 cents to 16 cents per pack: "The industry was not totally displeased with higher taxes on cigarettes. Tobacco people knew that the more governments relied on tobacco revenue, the less likely that they would discourage cigarette sales. For decades to come, many would seek to fill their coffers with tobacco money while also condemning smoking, a love-hate relationship fostered by obscene amounts of cash." Starting in the early 1960s - when the Surgeon General report came out - RJR management had a big problem with worrying about the fate of the tobacco business, and attempting to diversify away by buying other businesses. The result: "RJR bought six companies totally or in part with common stock [...] that yielded a very low or negative return, handing out stock that eventually controlled 40 percent of the company. The shares provided their new owners $1.6 billion in dividends and $9.9 billion more when the leveraged buyout" took place. "Management was wrong twice - first paying up for not very good companies, and second using stock and trading away 40 percent of one of the most profitable businesses in the world." There were some skeptics at the time, like RJR's CFO in the early 1970s, who said, "I would rather own half the cigarette business than all the acquisitions we ever make." RJR traded at a low valuation (like 10x earnings) during the period in which it was making acquisitions for stock, and the "better" companies that they were buying, with stock, were acquired at higher multiples and mostly performed worse than the tobacco business. RJR management was afraid of being taken over, but there is no explanation for why they didn't just buy back their own stock to return capital and keep their shares too expensive for an acquirer. Quoting an RJR employee: "Sad to see a once great company with all its rich one hundred year plus southern heritage being reduced to this [...] set in motion years ago when the management shifted from tobacco men to outsiders. From then on the company, it seems, has been used and abused by its various holding company management for personal gain and glory with all their chest pounding adventures funded from the tobacco money they were publicly embarrassed to identify with..." The KKR buyout of RJR was incredibly leveraged. Into a $30.2 billion LBO, the GP put in $16 million and the LPs of KKR put in $1.48 billion, for a total of only $1.5 billion of equity (5%). The rest was financed with debt and preferred stock. While RJR was buying unrelated companies and then in an LBO debt service cash crunch, Philip Morris was focusing on tobacco. The result: "Philip Morris had a golden opportunity. While [RJ] Reynolds Tobacco's cash went to pay off junk bonds, the big rival plowed its profits back into the business. It beefed up its sales force, plastered the Marlboro Man on more billboards, and cozied up to wholesalers with incentives. By 1991, PM had grown its market-share lead to an impressive five points in only three years, to 43% vs RJR's 28%. PM tormented RJR mercilessly." Then, on "Marlboro Friday" (April 2, 1993), PM cut the price of smokes by 20%. A price war. In 1999, RJR Nabisco breaks up. Its Tobacco International subsidiary got sold to Japan Tobacco. Nabisco Foods was spun off - and then sold to Philip Morris. Then, in 2002 Tobacco started acquiring tobacco companies - Natural American Spirit. In 2003, it merged with Brown & Williamson, a division of British American. In 2014, Reynolds bought Lorillard (Newport cigarettes). That left Reynolds with Newport, Camel, Pall Mall, and American Spirit, plus Vuse for vapor. In 2017, BTI bought the part of Reynolds that it didn't own, ending the independent Reynolds name after 142 years. He ends with a thought experiment: "What if Bowman Gray and then Alex Galloway had said, 'We know the tobacco business. We don't know anything about food or any of this other stuff. We are first, last and always tobacco men. Let's just see how many cigarettes we can sell, and let's not stop in America. Maybe we can sell Winstons, Salems, and Camels in other countries. It's worth a try. We aren't tied to Forsyth County or even America."
  • Big Vape: The Incendiary Rise of Juul (3/5) This was pretty redundant after reading the longer, more thorough Devil's Playbook covering the same subject. Note that both authors were pretty hysterical about the "vaping crisis." Why should I care if rich high school students use their parents' money to buy nicotine? Why do we need nationwide legislation and registration to control what goes on in these absentee parents' homes? Some highlights. When the Juul founders gave a presentation about their idea in their Stanford class in 2005, it said, "What if smoking were safe? And even better, what if smoking were actually not offensive to others?" They wanted to "create a whole new experience for people that retains the positive aspects of smoking, the ritual and everything, but that makes it as healthy and socially acceptable as possible." That's re-nicotinization. Again, it was the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed in 2009, that gave the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products. But it was focused narrowly on cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and loose-leaf tobacco, and for the FDA to "deem" something else a tobacco product, it needed to write a rule regulating that specific product. They didn't get around to doing this for almost seven years, which left a loophole that Juul (and others) drove a truck through. Altria, meanwhile, was too timid and inept to follow them. They never even tried to match the nicotine concentration and salt formulation of Juul. On the other hand, R.J. Reynolds (which is now owned by BTI) did figure this out, and they used a nicotine salt in their Vuse vapor product. (And also a high concentration, like Juul.)
  • The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America (3/5) Reaching the point of diminishing returns in the tobacco reading program. It is funny to read these anti-tobacco books that have a mindset of late-1990s moral panic against smoking, when two decades later we have seen that there are worse outcomes than diseases caused by cigarettes, such as the ill health and disfiguring obesity caused by seed oils and refined carbohydrates (the hyperpalatable snack foods). When is the trial lawyers' playbook going to be wielded against snack food and seed oil manufacturers? Some highlights: the Camel billboard in Times Square from 1941 until 1966 that blew smoke rings. Designer Douglas Leigh called his billboards "spectaculars". Others involved in the promotion of cigarettes were Raymond Loewy (redesigned Lucky Strike package and did tons of midcentury logos), and Edward Bernays: "a relatively undifferentiated product, it traded on identities fashioned not through any intrinsic qualities but through advertising, public relations, and design. With these techniques, the rise of the cigarette closely followed the articulation of a mass consumption culture." Between 1880 and 1920, cigarette consumption per capita grew 10x. It doubled again over the consecutive decades. By midcentury, it had all but replaced alternative forms of usage like chew and cigars. This book has extensive history of the scientific debate over the connection between smoking and cancer. "The issue of causal criteria would be debated for decades. Absent some clearly articulated physical mechanism, was a statistical argument sufficient to prove that A causes B? Although their criteria would be refined and expanded, Doll and Hill brilliantly and explicitly outlined the basis for a systematic epidemiological approach to determining causality in noninfectious chronic disease. In this sense, modern epidemiology was constructed around the problem of determining the harms of smoking." In 1951, Doll and Hill began a prospective study of 60,000 British physicians. The study ran until 2006, but after only a few years a connection could be seen between smoking and cancer as well as mortality from other causes. The medical research into tobacco culminated in the release of the U.S. Surgeon General's report in 1964. What is interesting is that cigarette sales fell 15-20% in the first half of 1964, but the industry rebounded in 1965 and reported record sales. "Reports of the demise of Big Tobacco had been premature." One thing that did change after the report was much greater prevalence of filter tips on cigarette, which reached 90% by the mid-1970s. But, as a tobacco executive wrote, "the illusion of filtration is as important as the fact of filtration." Good info in here also about regulatory capture and the Baptist and bootlegger problem. The FTC mandated warning labels on cigarettes, but the upshot was: "it allowed the industry to insist - in court if necessary - that claims against the companies for negligence and deception were now moot. Every smoker would be repeatedly warned that 'smoking may be hazardous to your health.' The legislation would substantially assist in the industry's principal legal argument that smokers knowingly assumed whatever risks might be associated with the product." When tobacco ads were still legal to air on television, the FCC mandated a ratio of one antismoking announcement for every three cigarette advertisements. But in 1971, TV ads for cigarettes were banned. The industry actually benefited from this because the broadcast stations no longer had to provide the free time for antismoking announcements. The advertising ban saved the companies money and made it very difficult for a new company or new brand to ever launch. Divestment as a buying opportunity theme: "Industry spokespersons and other supporters of tobacco were always quick to remind the public that the cigarette was a legal product. But from a social and cultural perspective, the makers of that product had come under the kind of legal and moral scrutiny that they had scrupulously avoided for four decades. As the social and political status of the industry deteriorated, a number of institutions took actions to reduce the influence of the companies. Some universities, pension funds, and state governments divested their holdings in tobacco stocks." Buying opportunity! An investment in PM compounded at ~20% annually from that point through today. The Master Settlement was a victory for the industry, too: "attorneys general with little public health experience and their high-rolling trial lawyers eager to cut a deal might accomplish nothing except pull the companies back from the brink of obliteration." "The settlement preempted any future litigation brought by any 'settling states subdivisions (political or otherwise, including, but not limited to municipalities, counties, parishes, villages, unincorporated districts, and hospital districts), public entities, public instrumentalities, and public educational institutions.' This preemption did not apply to individual and class-action suits, but it eliminated a wide range of legal vulnerabilities for the industry." "The MSA, for all intents and purposes, was principally a new excise tax on cigarettes," and the four major tobacco companies raised their prices, passing the costs on to smokers. The states became financial partners with the tobacco industry: "there's no doubt that the largest financial stakeholder in the industry is our state governments."
  • The Gilded Leaf (3/5) This was in my tobacco reading stack. It is a history of the early days of RJ Reynolds and the Reynolds family, from the perspective of the grandson of the founder. Birth year determinism: Richard Joshua "R. J." Reynolds was born in Virginia in 1850. James Buchanan Duke (creator of the American Tobacco Company) was born in Durham in 1856. The ATC was dissolved in 1911 for antitrust reasons and RJR was spun back out, selling Camels. ATC sold Lucky Strikes and became part of British American Tobacco in 1994. The two biggest late 19th century American tobacco fortunes were created by RJR and "Buck" Duke. RJR ran his business from the South. Buck, on the other hand, "sensing that the way to the very top required the rubbing of shoulders with those who had the greatest leverage," moved his headquarters to New York. "As with Andrew Carnegie and other great salesmen who moved to New York at decision points in their careers, he was in the lair of the devil to use the leverage of the great financial institutions - to sell his ideas to the men who were crucial to the process of creating the big public companies. To reach them, Buck gave up corn liquor and the spittoon, took up champagne and cigars..." "Buck watched and learned as John D. Rockefeller set up the first trust, the Standard Oil Company, and decided to do the same for the tobacco business." While the ATC trust held together, it made almost all of the cigarettes in America, and RJR was a Buck/ATC employee. RJR the friendly entepreneur: "Nearly alone among the giants, RJ consistently took the steps that would make his relatives, friends, and senior employees millionaires." RJ's biggest mistake was waiting until very late in life to have children. He got married at 55 to his 25 year old cousin and his youngest child was born when he was 61. He died at age 68. His wife quickly remarried and died only six years after RJR. The result was that RJR's four children were orphaned but left with giant trust funds. His oldest son (Dick; RJR Jr) killed a man while drunk driving and had six children with four women. (Patrick is from his second marriage.) His youngest son died at age 20, shot by his second wife. Dick disinherited all of his children. You can read Gilded Leaf, then, as a case study of historic wealth that collapsed into ignominy and dissolution. If Bernie or Pocahontas read books, they could use this as an argument for a confiscatory estate tax on large fortunes.
  • Cigarettes are Sublime (2.5/5) Richard Klein, a Cornell professor of French literature, wrote this as "therapy" in 1994 when he was trying to quit smoking. He means sublime "in the Kantian sense of sublimity: beautiful, but counter-purposive." The book "aims to be simultaneously a piece of literary criticism, an analysis of popular culture, a political harangue, a theoretical exercise, and an ode to cigarettes." Good observation on tobacco moral panics: "It is no easy task to praise cigarettes at this time in America. We are in the midst of one of those periodic moments of repression, when the culture, descended form Puritans, imposes its hysterical visions and enforces its guilty constraints on society, legislating moral judgments under the guise of public health, all while enlarging the power of surveillance and the reach of censorship to achieve a general restriction of freedom. The present hysteria concerning cigarettes bears comparison with other moments of violent antitabaginism in this country; it contrasts starkly with times in America's history when great mobilizations of the people were called for - during wars, for example, when cigarettes were deemed to be necessary not only to survive (General Pershing wrote that they were as vital to his troops as food), but to live while surviving..." An interesting point from Pierre Louys, that tobacco was "the only decisive advance in the knowledge of pleasure that modern European culture had achieved over antiquity." Highlights: "Americans today, as always forgetting their own history, aroused to paroxysms of antismoking sentiment, think they invented it. At the turn of the century, as well as in the 1920s and 1930s, powerful political forces combated the 'demon weed.' Then, as know, protests on behalf of the health of the citizenry masked moral objections..." "The beauty and benefits of cigarettes have been repressed and forgotten in America... Nowhere these days does one hear voices lifted to praise cigarettes, as one often does in wartime, for their multiple psychological and social benefits, for their cultural value, or for their aesthetic power. But as time goes by, the circle turns. This book proceeds on the hunch that the present climate may change, perhaps gently as the result of something like fashion - an effect of the turning of an obscure process of cyclical historical development - perhaps violently, under the pressure of widespread social tensions." "It cannot be an accident that cigarette smoking always find propitious conditions in times of political crisis or social stress. It was not, however, until the Second Empire that Louis Napoleon, a compulsive user of all kinds of tobacco, and a fifty-cigarettes-a-day man, legitimized their use by the aristocracy. James B. Duke and his machine made them democratic." Klein calls cigarettes "the most powerful device that universal society has devised for finding prayerful consolation and resolute resignation in the face of danger." 
  • Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances (2/5) This was one of the books in our bibliography for Timber, Tobacco, Alcohol, Pipelines, and Utilities. Thesis: "History shows that we have always used drugs. In every age, in every part of this planet, people have pursued intoxication with plant drugs, alcohol, and other mind-altering substances. Surprisingly, we're not the only ones to do this. As you will see in the following pages, almost every species of animal has engaged in the natural pursuit of intoxicants. This behavior has so much force and persistence that it functions like a drive, just like our drives of hunger, thirst, and sex. This 'fourth drive' is a natural part of our biology, creating the irrepressible demand for drugs. In a sense, the war on drugs is a war against ourselves, a denial of our very nature." Author Ronald K. Siegel was a professor at UCLA. Interesting: "Tobacco shamanism is a relatively old pattern of drug use for our species, dating back eight thousand years." "[T]he gods of many American Indians, like those of the Mayans before them, were thought to smoke tobacco cigars, like corporate chieftans of an ancient world." Siegel's mentions that baboons were more interested in consuming drugs when they were captive: "the difference between the wild and captive baboon was the mental state of depression and suffering brought on by confinement. In this state the captive baboon expressed a 'powerful psychological predisposition' to the use of an intoxicant such as tobacco, which promised to relieve the depression by producing a state of mental exhilaration... the captive baboon reached out for escape to tobaccoland." A similar results with rats and alcohol: "A king rat developed in each of the colonies and each king was an extreme nonconsumer of alcohol. [Gaylord] Ellison speculated that 'the stress of being at the bottom of a dominance hierarchy, and failing at competition for food, leads some animals to develop extreme alcohol consumption habits.'"

Politics & political history (6)

  • H. L. Mencken: Prejudices Vol. 2 (LOA #207): Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Series (4/5) Read this back in 2018, was just rereading it for fun. Still his best pieces are the anti-chiropractor and anti-farmer ones. "[T]he only thing that keeps [farmers] from reducing us, at intervals, to actual famine is their own imbecile knavery. They are all willing and eager to pillage us by starving us, but they can't do it because they can't resist attempts to swindle each other. Recall, for example, the case of the cotton-growers in the South. They agreed among themselves to cut down the cotton acreage in order to inflate the price - and instantly every party to the agreement began planting more cotton in order to profit by the abstinence of his neighbors. That abstinence being wholly imaginary, the price of cotton fell instead of going up - and then the entire pack of scoundrels began demanding assistance from the national treasury - in brief, began demanding that the rest of us indemnify them for the failure of their plot to blackmail us!" "It was among country Methodists, practitioners of a theology degraded almost to the level of voodooism, that Prohibition was invented, and it was by country Methodists, nine-tenths of them actual followers of the plow, that it was fastened upon the rest of us, to the damage of our bank accounts, our dignity, and our ease. What lies under it, and under all the crazy enactments of its category, is no more and no less than the yokel's congenital and incurable hatred of the city man..." On Prohibition: "Perhaps the chief victims of Prohibition in the Republic, in the long run, will turn out to be the Federal judges. I do not argue here, of course, that drinking bootleg liquors will kill them bodily; I merely suggest that enforcing the unjust and insane provisions of the Volstead Act will rob them of all their old dignity." "That contempt of court should be an offense standing outside the purview of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments - that a judge should have the power to punish summarily all deliberate floutings of his dignity - this may be reasonably argued, though there are many sound considerations against it. But that it should be lawful to convert some other and wholly unrelated offense into contempt of court by a legal fiction, and so get around the Fifth and Sixth Amendments by a swindle - this is surely more than any sensible man would soberly maintain. When it is maintained, it is only by persons who are trying to put men into jail by processes that any average jury would revolt against - mill owners eager to get rid of annoying labor leaders, coal operators bent on making slaves of their miners, Prohibitionists lusting for the punishment of their opponents." On chiropractors: "[T]he doctrine that all human ills are caused by the pressure of misplaced vertebra upon the nerves which come out of the spinal cord - in other words, that every disease is the result of a pinch. This, plainly enough, is buncome. The chiropractic therapeutics rest upon the doctrine that the way to get rid of such pinches is to climb upon a table and submit to a heroic pummeling by a retired piano mover. This, obviously, is buncome doubly dammed." "To-day the backwoods swarm with chiropractors, and in most States they have been able to exert enough pressure on the rural politicians to get themselves licensed. Any lout with strong hands and arms is perfectly equipped to become a chiropractor. No education beyond the elements is necessary. The whole art and mystery may be imparted in a few months, and the graduate is then free to practice upon God's images. The takings are often high, and so the profession has attracted thousands of recruits - retired baseball players, plumbers, truck drivers, longshoremen, bogus dentists, dubious preachers, village school superintendents."
  • H. L. Mencken: The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition (LOA #257) (3.5/5) Three autobiographical works by Mencken - his childhood in Baltimore, his work as a newspaper reporter, and his life as a public figure. Mencken was born in 1880, the same year as Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall, W.C. Fields, and Oswald Spengler. His father owned a cigar business in Baltimore, so Mencken is a part of American tobacco history in a way we never realized before. "On September 26, 1890, as I find by my father's bill-file, he bought a Swiss repeater watch paying $200 for it in cash - a strange transaction for him, for he commonly preferred barter, and settled most of his major bills in either cigars or leaf tobacco, or both." "My father and his brother and partner, like most reasonably successful American businessmen of the eighties, always had plenty of time on their hands. The business they were in had not yet been demoralized and devoured by the large combinations of capital that were to come later on..." "They drank straight whiskey straight, disdaining both diluents and chasers. I don't recall ever seeing my father drink a high-ball; the thing must have existed in his day, for he lived on to 1899, but he probably regarded its use as unmanly and ignoble. Before every meal, including breakfast, he ducked into the cupboard in the dining-room and poured out a substantial hooker of rye, and when he emerged he was always sucking in a great whiff of air to cool off his tonsils. He regarded this appetizer as necessary to his well-being. He said it was the best medicine he had ever found for toning up his stomach." "When the [cigar business headquarters] was built, in 1885, he simply hung out the sign, sent for the city councilman of the district, and gave him $20. This was in full settlement forevermore of all permit and privilege fees, easement taxes, and other such costs and imposts. The city councilman pocketed the money, and in return was supposed to stave off any cops, building inspectors or other functionaries who had any lawful interest in the matter, or tried to horn in for private profit." "In the matter of polygamy among the Mormons, which kept all the moral theologians of the country in a dither down to 1890, he was a champion of the Saints, and argued that it was nobody's damned business how many wives they had, so long as they paid their bills, which seemed to be the case." Mencken was a tobacco user: "[E]very reporter had a desk, and every desk was equipped with a spittoon. This was a great convenience to me, for I had acquired the sinful habit of tobacco-chewing in my father's cigar factory, and am, in fact, still more or less in its loathsome toils." "My father had brought me into the business in the hope that I would stay in it and follow him, for he had no confidence in his brother. I had not smoked as a boy, but when I went to work he suggested that I had better begin, for I could not learn anything about tobacco if I didn't. I soon developed a taste for its better and more expensive varieties, and used to sneak into the cellar, abstract a few leaves from a Havana bale, and make myself some smokes." "As we drove home to Mt. Washington on Summer afternoons he would launch into long lectures on the characteristics of different kinds of cigar tobacco, the management of labor, the vagaries of drummers, the elements of credit, and other such pertinent matters."
  • JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters (3/5) Thesis: Kennedy was "locked in a struggle with his national security state," and the CIA "devised and executed a brilliant setup. They has played out a scenario to Kennedy's death in Dallas that pressured other government authorities to choose among three major options: a war of vengeance against Cuba and the Soviet Union based on the CIA's false Mexico City documentation of a Communist assassination plot; a domestic political war based on the same documents seen truly, but a war the CIA would fight with every covert weapon at its command; or a complete cover-up of any conspiracy evidence and a silent coup d'etat that would reverse Kennedy's efforts to end the Cold War. Lyndon Johnson [...] chose to cover up everything and surrender..." Highlights: "In the fall of 1963, as John Kennedy and Fidel Castro sought secretly a way of rapprochement, the CIA took its own secret steps in an opposite direction, toward setting up Lee Harvey Oswald as an identifiable Soviet-and-Cuban-directed assassin of the president." "Once the CIA realized its Mexico City scenario was being questioned and could implicate not the Communists but the CIA itself in the assassination, the Mexico City station back-pedaled to cover up the false evidence. It began to say that its audiotapes of the 'Oswald' phone calls to the Soviet embassy had been routinely destroyed, and therefore no voice comparisons were possible to determine if the speaker really was Oswald. (This bogus CIA claim was being made at the same time that Hoover and the FBI were listening to their own copies of the tapes, then making voice comparisons, and reporting their provocative conclusions to President Lyndon Johnson.)" Oswald had worked for the CIA and when he came back from a double-agent assignment to the USSR he was disgruntled. "His investigation by assassinations specialist Angleton was the beginning of his end. Oswald thereby became the ideal scapegoat... From the standpoint of [the CIA], Dallas eliminated two Cold War security risks... Drawing CIA dissenter Oswald into the plot in such a way that he thought he was blowing a whistle on the CIA to the FBI would, from Angleton's standpoint, have made for poetic counterintelligence irony." The CIA's framing of Oswald was so inept that it reveals Oswald was being set up: "Just as there was once again a problem of too many Oswalds - with one working his regular ours in the Book Depository, while the other was hitchhiking with Yates - so, too, was there a problem of too many curtain rod deliveries to account for one rifle being smuggled into the building. The trail of duplicating curtain rod stories led not to a lone assassin but to an intelligence operation tripping over itself while working overtime to scapegoat Oswald." "There were too many Oswalds in view, with too many smuggled rifles, retelling a familiar story to too many witnesses. At least one curtain rods story, and the disposable witness who heard it, had to go. The obvious person to be jettisoned was the hapless Ralph Yates. The stubborn insistence on what he knew he had seen and heard, from the man he had given a ride, had to be squelched."
  • 1939: A People's History of the Coming of the Second World War (2.5/5) This is in the fall of 1938 in Berlin: "Dusk began to fall. There was always a bit of a crowd in front of the Chancellery - mostly provincial tourists, hoping for a sight of the F├╝hrer. Today's gathering was larger than usual, reflecting the dramatic international atmosphere and the attraction of a major parade. Directly across the street stood Berlin's oldest, grandest, hotel, the Kaiserhof, where Hitler had lived and established his headquarters in the weeks before he seized power almost six years earlier. In its elegant bar sat two equally elegant women in their thirties, celebrating the end of their working day with one, two, and then three Martinis." Supposedly, after Hitler signed the "Anglo-German Declaration" with Chamberlain, he said that he signed it because Chamberlain "seemed like such a nice old gentleman, and I thought I'd give him my autograph as a souvenir." 
  • A Generation of Sociopaths (2/5) Author Bruce Gibney went to Stanford and his roommate was a co-founder of PayPal, which he bought into. He later worked for Peter Thiel and Founders Fund. He is GenX, which makes sense: they hate boomers the most. I have often casually blamed boomers for things, so I thought it would be interesting to read an thorough indictment of them. But after reading, I am less convinced that boomers should bear the blame for our collapse. If I had to defend the boomers at their trial, like John Adams and the soldiers in Boston, the key to their defense would be that the oldest boomers were only in their 20s when the economic collapse of the middle class in the U.S. began. (It's important to get our collapses straight, because we live in a fractal of increasing collapses within collapses.) Take a look at the website WTF Happened In 1971? as well as the related twitter account. The year 1971 is when middle class compensation in the U.S. decoupled from its productivity, and all gains from increased productivity went exclusively to oligarchs, making the distribution of wealth much more unequal. Other disquieting trends started at the same time: increasing age at first marriage, the obesity epidemic, falling beef consumption per capita. What happened in 1971 was that it was the date of the second of the U.S.'s three big dollar devaluations so far. (The first was in 1933, and the third is happening right now.) The year 1970 was also the nadir of foreign-born in the U.S. labor force, which went from 5% in 1970 to (at least) 17% today. Boomers simply cannot have been responsible for this - they were too young. I think what we can say in fairness to the boomers is that they did behave selfishly because by the time they were adults, their nation had been repealed and replaced with a free-for-all economic zone. Smashing the middle class (via central banking and imported serfs) and making their neighborhoods no-go zones was not something the boomers did, it was something they responded to by adopting a code of "every man for himself." So of course boomers fled to the suburbs and committed architectural atrocities. People (including boomers) build cheap disposable houses because the U.S. middle class is a stateless people whose neighborhoods can be targeted for destruction at any time. (Twitter account @wrathofgnon feigns ignorance about the real reasons for our pathetic suburbs.) 
  • War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar & Peace Writing (2/5) Checking out more Library of America tomes after reading their Mencken collections. I thought that this would be interesting since I really liked Thomas Woods' We Who Dared to Say No To War, and this LOA volume is much bigger. Surprise, however: there was virtually no overlap in the essays or authors included. Both have speeches by Eugene V Debs, but Thomas Woods used his speech "The Subject Class Always Fights the Battles" and Lawrence Rosenwald used a much less important speech that Debs gave to the jury in his trial for sedition. The essays that Woods compiles tend to identify the wars conducted by the United States as financial scams benefiting the elite, while the Rosenwald essays opposed war for pacifist (e.g. Quaker or pro-communist) reasons. I wouldn't be surprised if Rosenwald supported Israel in the Six-Day War even though he opposed the Vietnam War.

Michael Ruhlman (4)

  • The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America (5/5) Like Bill Buford (author of the previously-reviewed Heat and Dirt), author Michal Ruhlman is a writer who became a cook. In the mid-90s, he attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York. "Stock is the foundation for all classical French cooking," and he learns to make it, and downstream preparations like espagnole and demi-glace, first. There is something about good writers writing about food. I'd like to read more of Ruhlman's books, plus maybe James Beard, MFK Fischer, and Julia Child. What makes the book is that the CIA instructors are such interesting characters. "Somebody asked if it was necessary to peel carrots at all if they were going into the stock. Pardus stopped peeling and said, 'Do you peel a carrot? Some people don't. I like my stock to taste as clean and fresh as possible. My way is not the only way to do things, but I've found that people who don't peel carrots don't do it because they're lazy. Put peels on their salad if they like peels so much.'" Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking is "standard issue at the CIA;" "everyone should read this book straight through-twice-before graduating." Driving to CIA in a snowstorm: "In earlier years, a little drive like that would have been more fun than anything else. But this sort of fun ended when I became a parent. Kids change the way you behave; new instincts engage. One of them is self-preservation. A friend of mine who lives in Manhattan, for instance, remembers he began walking closer to the insides of the sidewalk, farther away from the curb, once he became a father. When I spun out on Route 9, floating backward into who knows what, I didn't think of myself but rather of my daughter's face." "Saute is a rapid, a la minute cooking technique. It has no tenderizing effect, so the product has to be tender. You cannot saute a lamb shank. The cooking is fast. That's why it's so much fun. Bing bang boom, it goes out the door. In a small amount of oil. Over high heat." How the CIA's cooking Skills class changed him: "Efficiency: no wasted movement. This idea, this will, bore not only on one's actions in the kitchen; it extended to one's life outside that kitchen. It changed how I packed for a trip - I tried to diminish the number of times I moved from closet to bureau to suitcase just as I learned to minimize my trips to the pot room or dry storage. I didn't make two trip to the hardware store because I forgot something or failed to have forseen a potential problem. I didn't go from the bedroom to the living room, stop before I got there, and go back to the bedroom because I forgot something. And if I did, it made me mad. I solved problems differently. When we awoke one morning with no electricity and therefor no way to run the coffee machine, for instance, I thought immediately to put a pot of water on the grill on the deck out back for coffee. I am certain this wouldn't have occurred to me before skills... With efficiency of action, one also wanted speed, efficiency's ultimate goal. I tried to do everything faster. The faster you worked - in the kitchen, in life - the more you could do. Whoever did the most the best, won - no matter who you were or what you were doing, even if you were just playing against yourself." "Do the job that can be done fastest, first." "The physical world grew more friendly because we were learning to harness and manipulate it. Look what we could do with heat and water and a steel surface. This created a sense of strength that I had not felt before. Control over properties - hot, cold, wet, dry - became a metaphor for control over oneself, one's actions and thoughts." A meat thermometer is only as accurate as you are. "You try to get to the coolest part of the meat there is. That will be the center of the thickest part of the roast. How do you know you've got the center? If you push it farther in, the temperature should rise." Mirepoix is chopped onions, carrots, and delery. "Asian mirepoix" is garlic, ginger, and scallions. Knowing how to cook or bake things - a loaf of bread, a sausage - is sometimes just about ratios. "Cooking is a mad dash. Baking is different. Baking is regimented. It is disciplined." Regarding cooks themselves: "I was continually surprised to discover that the age of this or that chef was not fity-six but rather thirty-nine." "All that work over grills, fire, hot metal, boiling water, heads in the oven, day after day, year after year. They literally cooked themselves. [...] It seemed completely possible that aging might have less to do with chronological time than with how much living and working you did in your life. Cooks got more done than most people by working faster longer. Cooks put in more hours of life in less time and therefore got older faster than most people. The solution for the question of age, combined with the physical fact that they baked their flesh daily in 120-degree heat, gradually carmelizing it, made sense to me."
  • The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection (4/5) We reviewed author Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef in Q2. This is volume 2 in his series on professional cooking, and he writes about a 10 day Certified Master Chef exam, plus profiles chefs Michael Symon and Thomas Keller (of French Laundry and Per Se). For literary nonfiction, I would put him right with Peter Hessler among the generation that followed John McPhee. It is interesting to piece together how he got his writing career off the ground. His first book was Boys Themselves, about his all-boys day school in Cleveland. Then he hit on cooking and attended the CIA for cooking school for the Making of a Chef, which has led to a bonanza of cooking related book opportunities, many as co-authorships with famous chefs. He got in touch with a woman in Cleveland who he had heard was "one of the best-connected people in the food world with regard to knowing great chefs." It turned out that she was helping Thomas Keller put together a book: "we were going to go with a cookbook writer, but Thomas wants a real story, so we were thinking about getting a real writer."A reviewer of his first book likened his manner to John McPhee, and she said, "Oh, John McPhee. That's who someone suggested we get to do the cookbook." His thought: "John McPhee, the nonfiction writer's nonfiction writer, the literary journalist's icon, hero, guru, unreachable deity toward whom one could only strive." He gets the job, and what is interesting about researching and writing that book is, "Less that a year earlier I was making brown sauce in the American Bounty restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America, and now I was about to be given entree into the kitchen of the French Laundry, to interview its cooks and purveyors, taste anything I wanted, watch the cooking, try to get inside the mind of this unusual chef, and eat several times at this place, one of the best restaurants in America." When he was there 20 years ago, the tasting menu was $65 and now it's $350. Keller believed in butter: "butter, butter, butter, give me more butter." "After the reduction sauces of nouvelle arrived on the scene, and the country grew concerned about the amount of fat it ate, bearnaise and its associates all but vanished. Keller served it with reverence." As a friend of CBS says, "French cooking is the art of maximizing the highest tolerance in a dish for consumption of butter." "One of the things you learn in culinary school and working in restaurants is that everything, but everything gets a sauce. Nothing is complete without a sauce. You will never at a good restaurant be served a piece of meat until it has been sauced. Appetizers, salads, pastas, entrees, and desserts always, always got some form of sauce. Sauce is so pervasive sometimes it's the only thing you get, in which case it's called soup. Sauces are a big deal, the main flavor enhancer, the seasoning, the moisture, the counterpoint. Because meat based sauces, sauces that begin as stock, are not easy and are easily ruined or bad - thick and pasty, tasteless, gummy, gunky, muddy, scorched, oversalted, underskimmed, fatty, greasy, wrong consistency, wrong color, insufficiently strained, cloudy - because so much could go wrong with a sauce, sauce was the true test of a cook, proof of the chef's subtlety and grace." The business of restaurants - Michael Symon talking about serving boring filet mignon: "Who's more stupid: them for eating it or me for not serving it when they ask?" Symon wasn't generous with sauces - but when Ruhlman would point out a "dry" dish, he'd say, "I know, we sell more wine that way!" Ruhlman reminiscing about CIA training: "I learned efficiency of movement to minimize wasted energy and time, and the idea of efficiency of movement extended to intellectual work. I began to value speed of movement more than ever before."
  • Wooden Boats: In Pursuit of the Perfect Craft at an American Boatyard (4/5) After writing his cooking book, he moves to Martha's Vineyard, where two boat builders Nat and Ross "are doing in Vineyard Haven what everyone thinks is happening in Maine but isn't". "Rarely was a working class so well enmeshed with an upper class, the wealthy and well heeled who paid for their product, as in the world of wooden boats. In few places anywhere did the rich and successful and famous revere the working class more than in this world." "[W]ooden boats, when they're being sold, are invariably old and tired and leak like hell. That's why they're being sol! No one sells a beautiful wooden boat in excellent condition that's great to sail - he'd be a fool. Boats like that, people keep: that's why they have them in the first place. What happens is that someone neglects a great wooden boat for too many years, and when it gets to be too expensive and too much of a headache to repair, then he sells it." "Old wooden boats you're forever repairing: broken ribs, water raining through the deck onto the bunks, seeping inexorably through the cracks... Fiberglass doesn't leak. Fiberglass doesn't rot. If you neglect wood, the wood resents it. Fiberglass couldn't care less. Wood is humanities and the arts, fiberglass is science. Wood is emotion, fiberglass is reason. And yet a few people kept building boats out of wood in the modern 1960s and even in the 1970s - oddballs, back-to-nature hippies, and eccentrics who just happened to like them. Wooden boats often stick around for a long time, and those tired old wooden boats were cheap for impecunious yachties willing to do a whole lot of work on them, willing to spend more time working than sailing, if they were lucky enough to do any sailing at all (often, floating was as far as they got)." "But as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, so many things were being made of plastic [that] 'plastic' turned into a metaphor for cheapness [and] impermanence...wood was the opposite." The G&B boat builders had a man in Suriname sourcing wood: "He kept an eye out for pieces of wood that were curved. A strong curved piece of wood is useless to a carpenter, a cabinetmaker, a house builder, but it's treasure to a boatwright. A boat is composed mainly of curves, and if a piece of wood has grown with a curve in it, that curve will be stronger than one manipulated by bending or sawing." Constraints: "Fiberglass boats often have true curves, but that isn't a given. You can make a fiberglass boat in any shape you want, unlike a traditional wooden boat. Thus many designers do make them any shape, most often enlarging the belly unnaturally to create more sleeping space below. The shape of a wooden boat is limited by how far wood can bend." When this book was written, Maine and Washington state were the states with the highest number of wooden boat building and designing firms. The west coast wooden boat center was Port Townsend, WA, on the Olympic Peninsula. Martha's Vineyard: "There's a level of culture here that you don't find in other places with money." "The thing about building boats of wood is you never really get as good as you want to be at it. Furniture makers approach perfection. Their joints get tighter and tighter, and the pieces are more perfect. And boats are the same way. The more you do it, the better you get. But you don't take a piece of furniture and thrash it around in salt water and sunshine. If a furniture maker took his dining room table and went out and rowed it around in the harbor, and then let it sit out in the sunshine for a couple years, what would be left?" "With [a wooden] boat, all the pieces are gathered from all over the world and put together by artists. With a [fiberglass] boat, it comes in a big barrel from New Jersey. The value of a wooden boat goes up every year like a house's. The value of a plastic boat goes down every year like a car's." "[Cedar] is the least expensive good-quality wood you can buy. It's light, durable, rot resistant." "When Nat hikes through a forest, he sees boats." "[T]he workman is, or should be, invested in his toolbox; he therefore instructs every new apprentice to build his own box as his first order of duty, and he points him to the scraps of topical hardwoods stacked against the wall beside the wood-burning stove." "Jon ran into a problem as soon as he tried to get material for his newsletter. Boatbuilders are not typically the most loquacious of people - they build boats, they don't contribute to newsletters." "Not only did Nat have the good fortune to find and stay on the perfect spot of earth for what he wanted to do, he also had the good luck to meet another man who had found the smart thing and who shared his appreciation of the elemental appeal and fundamental sense of traditional wooden vessels."
  • House: A Memoir (3/5) Another Ruhlman book. This time he buys a 100 year old house in a leafy suburb of Cleveland (his hometown) and deals with having it restored. Describing Cleveland Heights: "The houses here had been created largely in the first three decades of the century-spacious Tudors, humble but elegant Colonials, Queen Annes, Beaux Arts, quintessential bungalows, Prairie, Victorian - virtually every style of residential architecture from those decades was represented here, neighboring one another, along with a few nineteenth century farmhouses. On a twenty minute bike ride, you might see a sizeable swath of residential architectural history, homes built with the materials that were mainly taken for granted when they were used - first-growth timber, blocks of quarried sandstone that had been hand carved. Even the bricks had a patina and warmth that distinguished them. The operative fact was that the structures built during or before the 1920s had a textural richness in their details - the mullions, the eaves, the gables - and had an integrity in their materials, not of which existed anymore." "Hiring a moving company for the first time was a definitive indication of adulthood. I'd always thought of U-Haul as an unfortunate but necessary fact of life... I am confident in marking my adulthood not at or before my marriage, not at the birth of either of my children, not at the publication of my first book, but rather at the desire and ability to hire a moving company."

Economics/investing/business (3)

  • The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence (3/5) Thinking about inflation lately, since we are living through another major inflation. Robert Samuelson thinks of 1960-2010 as a half century that was "one long economic cycle dominated by inflation's rise and fall". During the first half with constant inflation, "large price increases were the norm, like a rain that never stopped. Sometimes it was a pitter-patter, sometimes a downpour. But it was almost always raining. From week to week, people couldn't know the cost of their groceries, utility bills, appliances, dry cleaning, toothpaste, and pizza. People couldn't predict whether their wages and salaries would keep pace. People couldn't plan; their savings were at risk. And no one seemed capable of controlling inflation." Issues with inflation and accounting: "As inflation rose, companies' sales and profits grew rapidly. Managers believed they were doing better than they were; they paid less attention to the many small daily operational matters that improve efficiency. From 1964 to 1974, after tax profits jumped from $41 billion to $95 billion." Here's something funny: "Inconvenient bursts of inflation were blamed on onetime events: spending for the Vietnam War or global surges in oil prices." Crooked moron Lyndon Johnson tried to "persuade and bully" people not to raise prices: "When egg prices rose in the spring of 1966 and Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman told him that not much could be done, Johnson had the Surgeon General issue alerts as to the hazards of cholesterol in eggs."
  • Whiskey Rebels: The Story of a Frontier Uprising (3/5) Picked up a used copy of this; the author Leland Baldwin (1897-1981) seems interesting. (He once observed that colonies were 'funhouse mirrors' of their mother countries' cultures.) Good description of the Whiskey Rebellion: "Washington sent an army of same size he used against the British during Revolutionary War to decimate the Appalachia Scotch-Irish who thought it was outrageous they were being forced to pay for the British colonies' war against England." Other books by LDB: The Story of The Americas; The Keelboat Age on Western Waters; Pittsburgh: The Story of a City, 1780-1865; Recent American History. Summary in his words: "The Revolution was over, and a federal government was already consolidating the fruits of victory in the hands of the Eastern moneyed classes. The West, perfectly aware of this fact, complained bitterly that it had been induced to pour out the blood of its men, women, and children simply to enrich speculators and manufacturers. The Indian Raids still continued against the outlying settlements; speculators had engrossed the best lands and demanded extravagant prices for them..." "The Whiskey Insurrection was one of the signposts that market the cleavage amidst the people, particularly between the agrarians and the rising industrial and mercantile class. Probably the thinking members of both sides did not fail to note this. The anger of the dominant elements against the West showed the hollowness of their tirades in favor of Liberty - at least from the equalitarian standpoint - and laid them open to the accusation of wanting independence so that they could rule without British interference." "The westerner of the seventeen-nineties saw more or less clearly that it was the economy of the frontier individualist that was being undermined. With the limited vision incident to any decade he thought he had his back to the wall making his last stand against plutocratic individualism. As a matter of fact Armageddon, that mythical struggle that is always coming but never arrives, was as far in the future as ever. There was too much cheap land farther west to make it worth while to stand and fight to the bitter end." Regarding the hunting-gathering Indians, Pittsburgh lawyer Hugh Brackenridge said, "I consider the earth as given to man in common, and each should use his share, so as not to exclude others, and should be restricted to that mode of using it, which is most favourable to the support of the greatest numbers, and consequently productive of the greatest sum of happiness; that is, the cultivation of the soil." Per LDB: "The cure for Indian troubles favored by the frontiersmen was extermination of the Indians, and from this policy they rarely deviated either in theory or practice. In their minds it was a simple problem of choosing which race should survive, and they did not hesitate to choose. There has never been a time in the westward advance when the pioneers ceased to echo the early cry of the Pennsylvania squatters that 'it was against laws of God and nature that so much land should lie idle while so many Christians wanted it to work on and to raise their bread.'" "For years the West had urged a land tax as the most equitable method of taxation. The purpose in this was twofold: first, the East would bear the greatest burden, since land there was more valuable on account of superior improvements and proximity to markets; and second, it was hoped that the taxing of the western land held by speculators would force them to sell it at reasonable rates and thus hasten the development of the West. Now it was perfectly apparent to the westerner... that the laying of the excise was a clever move on the part of the eastern plutocracy to escape a land tax..." 
  • The Psychology of Money: Timeless lessons on wealth, greed, and happiness (2/5) This is a blog post that was turned into a book, so you can read the tl;dr version instead. Author Morgan Housel is a partner with a VC fund that appears to be Big Soy - they invested in two different fake meat companies.

History/biography/autobiography (3)

  • In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (3.5/5) This is Nathaniel Philbrick's (author of Mayflower, Valiant Ambition, and In the Hurricane's Eye) story of the sinking of a Nantucket whaleship in 1820 in the south Pacific. It was attacked by a whale that it was hunting! The sailors were in trouble when their ship sank and they were left with three creaky, smaller whaleboats far from land and without good navigation equipment or much knowledge of Pacific islands. So much trouble that they end up resorting to cannibalism on two of the boats that were rescued. (One didn't make it.) Highlights: "Nantucket's shipowners could be as fierce in their own bloodless way as any whaleman. They might 'act the Quaker," but that didn't keep them from pursuing profits with a lethal enthusiasm. In Moby-Dick, one of the Pequod's owners is Bildad, a pious Quaker whose religious scruples do not prevent him from extorting cruelly long lays from the crew (he offers Ishmael a 1/777 lay!). With his bible in one hand and ledgerbook in the other, Bildad resembles a lean, Quakerly John D. Rockefeller..." "[T]he forecastle had its merits. Its isolation (the only way to enter it was from a hatchway in the deck) meant that its occupants could create their own world. When he sailed on a merchant voyage in the 1830s, Richard Henry Dana, the author of Two Years Before the Mast, preferred the cameraderie of the forecastle to steerage..." "[I]n 1848 came the discovery of gold in California. Hundreds of Nantucketers surrendered to the lure of easy wealth in the West. Abandoning careers as whalemen, they shipped out as passengers bound for San Francisco, packed into the same ships in which they had once pursued the mighty sperm whale. The Golden Gate became the burial ground of countless Nantucket whaleships, abandoned by their crews and left to rot on the mudflats. Long before Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, Nantucket's economic fate had been determined. Over the next twenty years, the island's population would shrink from ten thousand to three thousand." 
  • Denison's Ice Road: Opening an Arctic Truck Route Farther Into the Wild North Than Other Men Dared (2/5) I didn't find Edith Iglauer's first book nearly as interesting as her second, the previously reviewed Fishing With John. Perhaps it's because the Northwest Territories of Canada (only 40,000 people living in a land area the size of South Africa, with half the territory too cold for trees to grow) are a less interesting place than coastal British Columbia and the Inside Passage. Still, a theme on this blog is the recognition of the early European-American settlers, pioneers, and frontiersmen: the people who actually built the country. As exhibited by previously reviewed books like Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It," McCullough's "The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West," "On The Wings Of The World" (about John Audubon), and the biographies of the great 19th (and early 20th) century industrialists. Before "Ice Road Truckers," a man named Denison was building a seasonal, winter ice road from Yellowknife to a uranium mine on the Great Bear Lake, about 300 miles away. (GBL is the fourth largest lake in North America.) Building ice roads and shipping loads across them is the type of business where the "profit is sitting in the yard". Denison said, "When we were a small outfit tryin' to get along we didn't have the money to buy new trucks so we had junk to start with an not too much money in equipment, and that's how we made money." One of the hazards of ice roads, and especially ice road trucking with heavy loads, is dropping through the ice. Luckily nobody in Denison's operation had ever perished, but they had sent a number of vehicles to the bottom of lakes. However: they got most of them back! Set up an A-frame with a winch over a hole in the ice, and drop a line down. Denison said of one vehicle that was waiting to be recovered from underwater: "It's the only one we've lost but I don't think of it as really lost, just in cold storage."
  • Eat a Peach: A Memoir (2/5) I've been enjoying food writing so much lately (Bill Buford, Michael Ruhlman) that I thought I would give David Chang's memoir a chance. I've heard good things about his restaurants (e.g. Momofuku) in New York and Los Angeles, but this book was pretty bad. Unlike the high-functioning Ruhlman or Buford, Chang is (or was) a depressed drug abuser. He had a good vision for what to cook and sell, but a messy personal life and not great business sense. His goal was to be a popular cook at all costs rather than some other more balanced and sensible goal. He also had quite a bit of racial resentment from being a second generation Asian immigrant. 

Biology and Health (2)

  • Oxygen: The molecule that made the world (4/5) Science writer author Nick Lane also wrote Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the meaning of life, Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, and The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life. He is quite interested in mitochondria and aging. "If organic remains are buried rather than eaten, then the complete re-uptake of oxygen by consumers is prevented. The left-over oxygen accumulates in the atmosphere. Almost all our precious oxygen is derived from a 3-billion-year mismatch between the amount of oxygen generated by the primary producers and the amount used up by consumers. The vast amount of dead organic matter buried in the rocks dwarfs the total carbon content of the living world." The "unparalleled rate of coal formation in the Carboniferous and early Permian" (90% of world reserves) was caused by "an exceptionally high rate of lignin production, and exceptionally low rate of lignin breakdown, and nearly perfect conditions for preserving organic matter." As below, so above - this would have caused a significant increase in the oxygen concentration of the atmosphere. "Rising oxygen levels may therefore have favored confederations of cells, from which grew the most efficient energy system for powering life - numerous mitochondria per cell - and the first stirrings of cellular organization. If so, it is quite possible that a tendency to huddle together as clumps of cells, to alleviate the toxicity of oxygen, was an impetus to the evolution of multicellular life." "[O]xygen releases much more energy from food than do sulphur, nitrogen, or iron compounds acting as oxidants and is an order of magnitude better than fermentation. The consequences of this simple fact are startling. In particular, the length of any food chain is determined by the amount of energy lost from one level of the chain to the next. This, in turn, depends on the efficiency of energy metabolism. [...] food chains must be very short in the absence of oxygen. [But with oxygen powered respiration,] carnivorous food chains pay and the predator is born. The dominant position of predators in modern ecosystems is not possible without oxygen. It is no fluke that the Cambrian animals were the Earth's first real predators." Oxygen dissolves better in cold water and in fresh water: "giant amphipods will be among the first species to disappear if global temperatures rise, or if oxygen levels decline." Quotes something interesting from Free Radicals in Biology and Medicine: "plants and animals existing in the Carboniferous times must presumably have had enhanced antioxidant defenses." "An average adult... gets though nearly a quarter of a litre of oxygen every minute. If only 1 per cent of this leaks away to form superoxide radicals, we would still produce 1.7 kilograms of superoxide each year." A way to measure the damage caused by free radicals is the rate of excretion of oxidized DNA building blocks in the urine (e.g. 8-OHdG). So, "the damage done by breathing for one year is equivalent to a whole-body radiation dose of 1 sievert (or 1 joule energy per kilogram)." "The genes that protect against radiation are not only the same as those that protect against oxygen toxicity, but are also the same as many of those that protect against other types of physical stress such as heat, infection, heavy metals, or toxins. [...] The reason for this cross-protection is that many different physical stresses all funnel in to a single common damage process in the cell, so all can be withstood through common protective mechanisms. This shared pathology is a rise in oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is defined as an imbalance between free-radical production and antioxidant protection. However, it is not just a pathological state, but also acts as a signal to the cell that it is under threat." "The integration of protective mechanisms against oxidative stress raises the possibility that life might have evolved ways of dealing with oxygen toxicity long before there was any oxygen in the atmosphere - ionizing radiation alone might do the trick." His theory of aging: "The impression that ageing is programmed is strongest in animals that undergo 'catastrophic' senescence. The most famous example is the Pacific salmon, though there are several others..." "Some sort of oxidative stress is a necessary signal for cells to marshal their genetic response to physiological stress. If we block oxidative stress, we may make ourselves more vulnerable to infection. Seen in this light, it is quite conceivable that we are 'refractory' to large doses of dietary antioxidants because they interfere with our response to stress." He says: "I suggest that there is a trade-off between oxidative stress as a signalling pathway that musters our defences against infection, and oxidative stress as a cause of ageing. In effect, the diseases of old age are the price we pay for the way in which we are set up to handle infections and other forms of stress in our youth." "Infectious diseases cause a rise in oxidative stress, which is largely responsible for coordinating our genetic response to the infection. As we age, mitochondrial respiration also causes a rise in oxidative stress, which activates essentially the same genes through a common mechanism that involves transcription factors like NFkB. Unlike infections, however, ageing is not easily reversed: mitochondrial damage accumulated continuously. The stress response and inflammation therefore persist, and this creates a harsh environment for the expression of 'normal' genes. The expression of normal genes in an oxidized environment is the basis of their negative pleiotropic effects in old age." "As we have seen, antioxidants rarely cure diseases, let alone ageing. Of the many possible explanations for this - perhaps they are not potent enough, or do not get to the right place in the right amount at the right time - the most inherently believable is that free radicals are only part of the problem." Antioxidants "cannot halt mitochondrial leakage, and cells are refractory to overloading with antioxidants, lest they smother the powerful genetic response to injury."
  • Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food (3.5/5) Looking for a book to give to normies about the highest-impact steps to take to improve health. Author Cate Shanahan's two key points: avoiding sugar and avoiding seed oils. (Same as Mangan's key points.) She mentions that the president of the Culinary Institute of America challenged her in 2012 about her criticism of canola oil, saying that she was spreading misinformation (!). Charles Henning told her that "We have to feed the masses. There's just not enough olive oil for everyone." She has consulted on diet for NBA teams and found that "twenty-six of the twenty-nine five star hotels on the NBA tour use vegetable oils or blends in place of olive oil for pizza sauces, salad dressings, hollandaise, marinades, mashed potatoes, baked goods-you name it." This is the principal-agent problem in action. No one is going to give you expensive, wholesome ingredients if they can sneak inferior ones past you without you noticing. Mangan pointed out something alarming about seed oils the other day: "human adipose tissue linoleic acid has a half-life of 1-2 years"! She mentions Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston Price, a book which I have had on my list but have not read yet. She also mentions Fighting the Food Giants by Paul Stitt. Other highlights: "Reorienting our financial priorities around healthy eating rebuilds our family's genetic wealth and is the best investment we can make." "Find the best ingredients grown on the richest soil in the most wholesome, sustainable manner" "Pungent vegetables like celery, peppers, broccoli, arugula, and garlic contain more antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals per bite than starchy vegetables..." "Traditional life seemed to revolve around collecting and concentrating nutrition." "Today at every stage in the process of producing food, we do things differently than our sturdy, self-sufficient ancestors did." "[T]he guy driving the Porsche Carerra to the surgical suite to thread another stent into another artery of another patient is almost guaranteed to be thirty years, or more, behind in his knowledge of nutrition and its role in the etiology of the arterial disease that, indirectly, paid for his house..." "There's no drug to raise HDL but there are drugs to lower LDL: the statins." "Processed foods made with vegetable oils are also the foods typically loaded with sugar, so cutting vegetable oil automatically helps you to cut sugar intake." Epigenetics: "DNA seems capable of collecting information-through the language of food-about changing conditions in the outside world, enacting alteration based on that information, and documenting both the collected data and its response for the benefit of subsequent generations." Margarine: "one molecule away from plastic". Omega 3 supplements: "Consuming purchased supplements entails risk of exposure to unacceptably oxidized oil. Get your omega-3 fix from real foods, like sushi, oysters, grass-fed butter, raw nuts (especially walnuts) and seeds, and lots of green leafy vegetables." "My preferred method of omega-3 supplementation is with flax seeds that you grind fresh before using."

Travel (2)

  • The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds (3.5/5) This young married couple from Alaska (author Caroline Van Hemert and her husband) did a 4,000 mile journey across Alaska, first paddling through the Inside Passage from Bellingham to Haines, AK, then crossing the coastal mountains (Saint Elias Range) on foot and skis, and packrafting down the Yukon River. A long portage through Tombstone Territorial Park takes them to the Mackenzie River, which they packrafted to its delta at the Arctic Ocean (Beaufort Sea). (Through the mosquito ridden delta!) They paddled and hiked along the Arctic coast through Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, then crossed the Brooks Range (Gates of the Arctic National Park) and floated down the Noatak River in a borrowed canoe to end their journey at Kotzebue. They were in their early 30s, passionate Alaska outdoor adventurers, and this was their last hurrah before settling down to have two children (so far). It took from March to September, and it sounds like they were pushing the season a bit late at the end with the cold. They must be kind of liberal because they went through thousands of miles of bear country with just bear spray, no guns, and towards the end actually got chased by a menacing black bear. (The bear spray was ineffective.) But they are impressive people, look at their off-the-grid cabin in Haines. She and her husband split their food rations based on body weight (60/40) which is a rational and fair system. They did get hungry at the end when a bush pilot was late making their food drop because of disorganization and weather. This trip seemed to be enough to quench her restlessness: "Suddenly, I feel the first real pull towards home. I realize now that staying in one place is not the same as being stuck. We've seen so much in the past five months, covering ten or twenty or forty miles at a time. But this isn't the only way of seeing. Here, it's the seasons, the animals, the shadows and sounds that change. In the series of paintings Francesco had shown us before leaving, every view of the lake looked slightly different; each cloud, each shade of green, each reflection on the water's surface colored by the mood of the day. It takes much more than a visitor's eyes to uncover such subtleties."
  • Into a Desert Place: A 3000 Mile Walk around the Coast of Baja California (2/5) I have discovered a recurring theme with these adventurers books: doing something just for the sake of doing it is not all that rewarding. We saw this with the Man Who Walked Through Time, Paul Theroux's books, and Jim Rogers' books. There's no reason to walk around the perimeter of the Baja peninsula, and the story becomes monotonous and self-similar in the same way that the peninsula itself is a fractal. In contrast, a book like Fishing With John is more interesting because fishing is a purposeful economic activity. John Steinbeck wrote of Baja California: "If it were lush and rich, one could understand the pull, but it is fierce and hostile and sullen. The stone mountains pile up to the sky and there is little fresh water." Macintosh quotes John Selby: "it would have been better for everyone concerned if, after the Mexican war, the United States had seized the whole couuntry." Highlights: "Meat was a precious commodity in the fisherman's paradise of Baja California." "On hot deserts it is a big temptation to take off a shirt and wear only shorts... this will do nothing but make you dehydrate faster. Clothing helps you ration your sweat by not letting it evaporate so fast that you get only part of its cooling effect." Walking along a mountainous peninsula, he has the same issue that Colin Fletcher had in the Grand Canyon: "At the first hint of light, I was up and out to assess the situation. Cutting inland was no easy option: I'd have to backtrack a mile or more to find a relatively safe place to climb, and wandering into the mountains with just over a gallon of water wasn't a particularly attractive proposition." He says, "If I could give one piece of advice to anyone believing the world to be dull, it would be this - if you have the ability to set goals and value your word, then you'll never be bored. When you're absolutely determined to accomplish something you've committed yourself to, life suddenly becomes exciting and exhilarating." 

Self-help/how-to (2)

  • The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America's Wealthy (5/5) Key idea: wealth comes from frugality. Common denominators: 1) living well below means 2) "allocating time, energy, and money efficiently, in ways conducive to building wealth" 3) achieving financial independence more important as a goal than conspicuous consumption / materialistic status displays. An interesting observation is that people in higher social class occupations are pressured to "spend significantly more of [their] household income to maintain and display [their] upper-middle-class lifestyle." Other highlights: "The longer the average member of an ancestry group has been in America, the more likely he or she will become fully socialized to our high consumption lifestyle." "It's easier to accumulate wealth if you don't live in a high-status neighborhood." Expensive neighborhood means bigger house with bigger property tax, maintenance, utilities, furnishings; also means keeping up with the neighbors' expensive cars.
  • Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (2.5/5) Thesis: "The average human lifespan is absurdly, insultingly brief. Assuming you live to be eighty, you have just over four thousand weeks." People have been talking about this one on Twitter, but it wasn't that good. A few highlights. "Pay yourself first... if you try to find time for your most valued activities by first dealing with all the other important demands on your time, in the hope that there'll be some left over at the end, you'll be disappointed... there is no moment in the future when you'll magically be done with everything and have loads of free time." "Limit your work in progress... [otherwise] each time a project starts to feel difficult, or frightening, or boring, you can bounce off to a different one instead." We read a great essay a few years ago with good arguments for limiting WIP: "[I]t’s a very bad sign to have a lot of projects that are '90% complete'... For any process that makes things, it’s a substantial savings to have a smaller inventory. A manufacturer buys raw inputs, does work on them, and ships them to a customer. Every moment between the purchase of inputs and the delivery of finished goods is a cost to the manufacturer, because of the time value of money. Smaller inventories are what it looks like to have a faster turnaround. If a lot of your projects are 90% complete, that means you’re spending a lot of time having invested a lot of work into them, but realizing none of the value of the finished product." An idea: "we should try to treat every experience with the reverence we'd show if it were the final instance of it." (The Last Time.) "To treat [all] moments solely as stepping-stones to some future moment is to demonstrate a level of obliviousness to our real situation that would be jaw-dropping if it weren't for the fact that we all do it, all the time." Couple other little ideas for device addiction - switching phone screen from color to grayscale, and using single purpose devices (like simple Kindle).

Scientific history (2)

  • The Age of Wood (4/5) "[N]ew technologies do not replace old ones, but inspire new ways to use them. In the case of copper and bronze, the major impact of the new materials was to enable people in the Old World to exploit their main structural material, wood, more effectively..." "Broad-leaved trees have more efficient water-conducting vessels than conifers and can grow faster as seedlings, so they outcompete conifers and dominate the vegetation in areas with the best climates and soils. [...] Broad-leaved forests also tend to improve the soil; the leaf litter that they drop builds up its fertility. In contrast, conifers are naturally restricted to areas with poor growing conditions, places where frost and drought kill broad-leaved trees - the cold northern reaches of the globe, high mountains, and semidesert - and areas with poor, thin soils; and their needles acidify the soil and lock up what nutrients are present. They also have a much more limited form of branching than broad-leaved trees, so their trunks are much straighter, knot free, and uniform." As a result of this: "whenever farmers colonized new regions, the first places that they settled in were those that had previously been covered in broad-leaved forest; it was simply the best, most productive land. They did not cut the trees down for firewood or timber, but to clear the land so that they had space to plant their own crops." Meanwhile, "farmers avoided conifer forests because they were an excellent indication that the land was too poor to farm:" Scandinavian forests, Alps, Canada, Pacific Northwestern U.S. "European settlers to North America were given specific advice when they were settling a new area to clear only the broad-leaved forest and leave the conifers standing." "The consequence of this pattern of settlement was that the wealthiest, most stable, and longest-lived states grew up in areas formerly dominated by broad-leaved forest. The great civilizations of Ancient Greece, Rome, and China were all based in such areas. It was the states on former grassland and desert regions, states that were fed by irrigated land, such as the Mesopotamian civilizations of the Middle East, the Anasazi sites of New Mexico, and the many civilizations around the Andes, that tended to collapse. Not only were they more vulnerable to droughts, but the irrigation water brought in salts that were left as the water evaporated and built up in the soil, causing salination and dramatic long-term falls in crop yields. For this region agriculture on the Great Plains of America, is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term..."" Also interesting - cycles of deforestation and reforestation (from changes in human activity, whether by population growth and technology or population dieoffs) cause immense changes to the amount of C02 in the atmosphere.
  • Tales from the Ant World (3/5) E.O. Wilson is the myrmecologist who said, “The foreign policy aim of ants can be summed up as follows: restless aggression, territorial conquest, and genocidal annihilation of neighboring colonies whenever possible. If ants had nuclear weapons, they would probably end the world in a week.” He is 90 years old and still writing. Highlights: "The general principle of evolution emerging from the military strategy of ant colonies if the following: The more defensible the nest site and the more valuable the resources it contains, the more powerful the defense and the greater the fierceness with which it is applied." Funny estimate - there are a million times more individual ants than humans, but they each weigh about one-millionth what a human does, so the total biomass is the same. A rule that has inspired his life as a research biologist: "For every problem in biology there exists a species ideal for its solution, and conversely, for every species there exists a problem its study is ideal to solve." Ants communicate exclusively with pheromones, and this has limitations: "Ants and other invertibrate animals are too small, and their brains too meager, to inch past the limits of communication which they posess. Even so, social insects in general, and ants in particular, have, somewhere among the thousands of living species, accomplished almost every other innovation with chemical communication that we are able to imagine."

Literary nonfiction (2)

  • Draft No. 4 (5/5) McPhee's writing process, and anecdotes from his writing career. In the Solstice Links there is some discussion of the dictionary/thesaurus that McPhee is using to pick the right words on his final revision - his fourth draft of a piece. Maybe with this book we're getting a taste of what his Princeton creative writing class would be like? The eight essays in the book are Progression, Structure, Editors & Publisher, Elicitation, Frame of Reference, Checkpoints, Draft No. 4, and Omission - all published in the New Yorker between 2009 and 2015.
  • The Patch (4/5) Rereading some McPhee. Some great ones in here - collecting used golf balls that he sees while biking and canoeing. Visiting the golf course at St Andrews and watching an Open. Collegiate lacrosse. (Among his talents, McPhee is a great sportswriter.) Very short pieces from his early writing, doing profiles for Time magazine. Why chocolate bars are partly made of granite.

Collapse (1)

  • World Made by Hand: A Novel (4/5) This is architectural critic James Howard Kunstler's 2008 novel about peak oil. It takes place in an upstate New York town that has reverted to an agrarian economy with most of the (remaining) population working in food production after energy scarcity and a nuclear attack collapses the country. It is the first in what ended up being a four part series of novels. Here's a funny one-star review by a bugman: "Welcome to the town of Union Grove, New York, where the men are brutal, the women are subservient, and non-white people don’t exist." This paragraph is classic Kunstler: "It was hard to imagine that we used to cultivate lawns. My yard was now a raised bed garden. It was geometrical, a cruciform pattern, the beds transacted on the diagonal as well, with brick paths carefully laid. With our many material privations, it was not possible to live without beauty anymore. I spent a lot of time in my garden, and the feel of being in it was as important to me as the vegetable I grew. At the center, I built a birdbath out of stacked granite blocks with a concave piece of slate on top that caught the rain. The birds seemed satisfied with it and it was pleasant to look at. I would have preferred a statue of the goddess Diana in the manner of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, but I hadn't managed to scrounge one up." Another: "The old high school complex itself was a 1970s-vintage modernist monstrosity, a U-shaped set of low-slung rectilinear boxes like ten thousand other schools around the nation from the period. Seeing the building usually made me deeply sad and even a little angry, the way that refrigerator in my garden did. Its vision of yesterday's tomorrow seemed pitiful. Children like my Daniel and Genna had sat in those very box buildings under buzzing fluorescent lights listening to their science teachers prattle about the wonders of space travel and gene splicing..." Or: "I went and hit the power button on the old stereo. In doing it, I was conscious of putting something behind me: the expectation that things would ever be normal again. There was a kind of relief in it. I also turned off the electric lights so they wouldn't come on and scare anybody again."

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