[book review] The Mathematics of Love

A quick read on how aspects of such a complex thing such as love can be summed up into equations. Hannah Fry shares with us her thoughts on how mathematics can help us how to find someone, keep someone, and live happily every after. The Mathematics of Love will get you thinking on the patterns that make this unique feeling into something more tangible, and ultimately, understandable.

This short book is more of a compilation of other’s peoples research that Fry compiled into a more focused book. It starts by making sure that we understand how math plays a role in our lives including love. For such a complex emotion, I had doubts on how this will go about explaining love. I was somewhat disappointed and yet relieved that the book doesn’t really talk about love itself, but more of the aspects that make up relationships, from meeting people both online and off, to seeing the importance of beauty when dating. Fry also has a good equations for inviting people to your wedding and how to maintain a happy married life.

The book doesn’t kid itself that it knows how to quantify love, but it somewhat does because of how it approaches the other part of love, meeting people, maintaining relationships and happiness.

If you want to look at love from a different angle, I highly recommend this book. It’s only 86 pages long and you’ll definitely learn more about love afterwards.

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[book review] The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More

A well researched book with experiments to back it all up, The Truth About Trust distills trust in it’s basic form. Such a complex part of our lives and yet we leave it all to our gut, The Truth About Trust gives us a better understanding on what trust is and how much we should know about it.  A must read.

My past few books are disappointments and I’m finally happy again after reading The Truth About Trust (TTAT). It has been a long time since my thoughts has been challenge and my common beliefs questioned, and happily answered by a book. DeSteno does a great job of dividing trust in it’s pure essence and getting us interested on the things we use, or rely on, and trust the most.

What is trust? The first chapter sets his hypothesis on what trust is. A few key takeaways that are established in this chapter:

  1. Trust is short term versus long term gains
  2. Trust should be contextual. This means that past behavior cannot determine future outcome. Just because somebody was worthy of your trust before, doesn’t mean you should trust them in the future
  3. Likability and competence are two big factors in trusting someone and being trusted

DeSteno relies on these three premise throughout the whole book and it’s a good guide on understanding his theories and how these three hypothesis and the building blocks on his whole research.

Trust is short term versus long term gains

Why is it that we want to be trust worthy on certain situations with certain people and not with others? Given a situation to steal without consequence, will we do it? Given a situation that we can exploit while hurting other who trusted us, what will we do? These situations mainly do have short versus long term consequences and gains.

DeSteno goes in the book saying that in some situations, we would rather be trust worthy as we can see a potential future with a situation, person, relationship, friendship, or something that will have gains in the future rather than the “now”. In business, relationships, and just everyday “humanness”, we are forced to trust and be trusted by strangers in the premise that we are going to get or give something of value. This transaction is how we have been living for generations that we are forced to trust that the person will keep their end of the bargain. What makes us trust that person? DeSteno presents his first point that trusting is a battle between short and long term gains. How, as a person, I can build your trust by producing results or being a good worker, because I want to stay in the same company where I will be compensated for the amount of work that I perform. However, I don’t know if you are only there for short term gains where you’ll disappear or pay me less than agreed after a certain project. This balance of short and long term gains can then be applied in various situations where we trust other people. Are they worthy of gaining my long term trust or are they just turning in a quick buck? Distilled in this essence, trusting then becomes a much easier premise than relying on our gut instinct. But of course, something this complex, can’t be translated as easily.

Context in Trust

Another great point of DeSteno is how we should not rely on past behavior in trusting people. His experiments has proven that people change depending on what context they will be trusted on. This reminds me of a saying that “If I can’t trust you with an egg, how can I trust you with a chicken?”. Of course this talks more about responsibility than trust, but given a situation in the past, then a similar situation arises in the future, the context greatly plays a role on how much trust should we put on the person as situations changes a person. His various experiments show again and again, how when a person rises in rank, so does his lack of trust worthiness. There is something in how when you have the resources, you lose a certain connection as you won’t need others anymore to survive. He shares the possible evolutionary reasoning behind how fundamentally, trust is about survival. How we are geared in trusting when we need people, when we are vulnerable and need help. No matter what the background of the people in the experiment were, the results were always the same, they lose connection and they become less trust worthy.

This raised a great point for me on how situation changes people. All of us can reinvent ourselves and success or failure can definitely change us. This is why people in the movies when losing their money suddenly become really nice and trusting. Their vulnerability has made them trust others more. Since they have nothing to lose and needs all the help they can get, trusting becomes their only means of survival while being on the top is the complete opposite.

Likability and competence

It is easy to gain short term trust. There are tons of tips out there on how we can be easily trusted by people. Mirroring, smiling, etc. are just a few ways on how we can get the immediate trust of others. However, maintaining this trust once situations calls for it is where our trust will be tested. DeSteno mentions two main points on how we can be trusted, likability and competence. Experiments done with children showed that likability alone doesn’t necessarily mean that we will be trusted automatically. Competence has to be balanced with this likability and depending on the situation, these two traits will be measured.

Certain situations and relationships call for different traits. Maybe in a professional environment, I don’t need everybody to be likable, but everybody has to be competent to do their job. While in a social gathering, we won’t be looking for people who can fix a car, but more on how likable and enjoyable spending time with a person is. This balance was tested in DeSteno’s experiments and it shows that we have evolved not only to like likable people but to trust competent people when the situation calls for it. This made me think on how friendships are created and what we look for in people when making friends or professional connections. On why it’s wrong to ask advice to friends we know to well just because they might not give the right advice or we already know what to expect them to say when we trust them with our most intimate problems.

These two words, likability and competence, made me think on how are relationships are shaped by factors that are both totally in and out of control. How we decide on who to trust with what. Luckily these two traits are not mutually exclusive. The challenging part is finding someone that is both likable and competent for you as these values are not universal for everyone.

Juicy Bits

Equipped with his three points, DeSteno goes on to discuss situations about trust. Trust in romantic relationships, at work, online, and most importantly ourselves. He uses the three points and more in discussing these topics and I think he did a great job of, again, distilling it to the basics. No point in the book did I feel lost, rather I felt that every chapter was a discovery towards something that I should’ve known ages ago. I appreciate how each chapter summarizes the main parts just so you won’t forget.
I won’t go into all of the chapters like I do in my previous reviews, rather, I would like you to focus on the three main points when thinking about being trusted and trusting someone.
  • Short term vs long term goals. Gaining now with the potential lost or going through the long haul
  • Context in trust means that you can’t judge people based on their past performance
  • Likability and competence should be balanced and again depends on the context.
I haven’t entered a book and left with much insight in a long time. “The Truth About Trust” sounds like a huge endeavor especially for analyzing a part of us that is so vague and yet it does a great job of actually making it more understandable. For all the times we trusted our gut and got conned, for all the times we wished we were more vulnerable towards someone, remember what trust is all about…

[book review] Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

I was intrigued with the premise, heard it on a podcast, regretted the time I spent on it. Another technology journalist creating a premise, looking for evidence and correlating everything so that it’s a cause, Smarter Than You Think is just another mish mash of how technology is changing us and how a current popular line of thinking is wrong.

I never learn. If you’ve read my other reviews, I already made my mission to avoid these type of books. Somebody creates a premise over a popular thought or topic. The author creates an interesting title to stir discussion or discord, then does selective research to prove their point. Of course, writing the review was also a painful experience and I don’t know how I was able to last this long with this book.

A key point with book is how technology evolves not to replace us but more of how it complements us. A long drawn out example of chess has evolved over the years and how we evolved in playing chess as technology caught up. For some reason, this part reminded me of Nate Silver’s The Signal and Noise. The example was strikingly similar.

After a long and winding explanation of how computers complement us in the chess game, he then proceeds on how the internet enables us to collaborate effectively. Examples such as the Haiti earthquake, numerous Arab springs, and the use of Ushahidi were presented.

After this, he proceeds on explaning how we are silently connected via facebook, twitter, and other social networks and how this gives us some sort of ambient awareness that changes how we keep updated with our family, friends and the people around us.

He also dwells on MOOCs (of course he would) and how this changes the whole education industry.

This has got to be the most regurgitated book I have ever read and for some reason I felt cheated of my time. I’m not even disagreeing with his premise but the whole presentation feels so skin deep. I think he could’ve delved deeper and presented more convincing arguments than just the typical exposition of current events and good examples. The whole technology and internet industry is so vast that you can nitpick any topic that you want and write about about it.

Who is this book for? If you haven’t been keeping up with internet trends, been living under a rock, or just limit you interactions to facebook, buzzfeed, and iphone games, then this is a good primer to understand how beautiful technology has evolved not only itself but us too. But please oh please, get deeper as his points are shallow at best.

 


[book review] The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Good start but dwindled near the end, The Power of Habit shows how we are affected by our habits and how we can identify, control, and ultimately shape ourselves with the habits that we have created over time.

Divided into three parts, The Power of Habit talks about how habits affect individuals, organizations, and societies. We already know that our habits shape what type of person we become, but how do we actually create these habits in the first place, and more importantly, how do we change our bad habits.

Habits of Individuals

Starting off with the habits of individuals, I think this is the strongest part of the book as it scientifically shows how we are guided by our habits. We all have habits both good and bad and realizing what they are is a big part of how we can better ourselves. Duhigg talks about the habit loop which is the major parts of our habits. I’m not sure who created the term, but he definitely popularized it and how we should change the way we look at habits.

Through various experiments and research, we have found out that habits are ingrained in our minds and the parts that dictate habits makes it hard to change. Cue, routine, and reward is a diagram that he refers to when explaining a habit and it makes it easy for us to understand the situation as well as helping us look at our own habits with these criteria in mind.

If you think about it, we don’t necessarily do a habit out of nowhere, usually, we are in the correct environment or situation that we engage in a habit. Several examples are presented in the book from cookie eating, gambling, and quitting smoking. Several keystone habits were also presented on how certain habits affect others. I like the idea of a keystone habit, a routine than affects other parts of our lives. I can attest that going to the gym regularly did have a huge effect not just in my fitness, but also in my eating, sleeping habits and general positivity. I’m guessing it’s more of the physical and mental effect of exercising that brought this but it definitely helped a lot in other aspects. The idea of a keystone habit is definitely something that we should consider when trying to replace a bad habit. He had several more example of such habits especially with the story of the lady trying to quit smoking.

Here he also discuss some marketing tactics that Pepsodent used and how using the cue, routine, reward pattern created an effective marketing campaign to get people to pick up brushing teeth with the toothpaste. This section went on and on with other examples such as Febreeze and for me, this type of correlation was starting to get tiring.

Here the author will interject some scientific experiments while going back to the current premise to show how his analysis made it relevant to current times. I know that he wants to back up his claims, but somewhere along the writing, it felt like he was trying hard to connect the two stories together.

Habits of Organizations

More examples of habit forming organizations, and here he moves away from the main pull of the book which is the cue, routine, reward and starts looking at how companies like Starbucks became one of the biggest managerial/training companies in the world and how Target “targets” you as a customer by business intelligence. 

Again, going back to my previous point of trying a bit hard to connect the main premise to the current story, I felt some points were a bit forced and lacking. More of this becomes obvious on the last chapter which definitely ended the book much weaker than how it began. 

Habits of Societies

This is where I felt that it definitely went downhill as the author talks about the Saddleback Church and Rosa Parks, which definitely blew me away on how he made that connection. He talked about how Saddleback was formed and how the founder shaped it to be a different type of church. Don’t fault me for reading A Purpose Driven Life (it was a gift) but I honestly cringed upon reading this part as it was such a jump from his initial point on the book. Such a complex situation with lots of hard work and a bit of luck can’t be attributed to his point just so that the story would fit. As well as looking for relatable parts of the story that can be attributed to his point, I think that the story is too complex to be just a puzzle fit into his book.

More especially cringe worthy was how he connected his main point, of which by this time was already muddled, with the whole civil rights movement. Of course it was presented well enough that you would believe how he packaged the whole thing with a final disclaimer that he knows it’s a complex situation blablabla but going through that route with a hard connection left me with a bad taste.

I greatly enjoyed the first part of this book, mostly because it was presenting a lot of scientific experiments and thought process on how they came with certain conclusions, but the latter part really made me think on why I still read these type of books. Should I limit myself with books that are written by scientists rather than journalists from New York Times. I have already given up on Malcolm Gladwell just because of his repetitive points type of books, but sometimes I still fall for this trick. I honestly liked his premise and how he researched it and all, but the last two thirds of the book just left me wanting to finish it and see how it goes.

None the less, at least now I know how routines should be analyzed. Cue, routine, reward.


[book review] The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t

Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise is a great entry to know how much information is out there and how much we don’t know about it. All the data in the world will not make us predict the future yet knowing how to analyze it is a something that I think all of us has to know.

I think we don’t value statistics enough and this book tells me how much I need to know more about it.

The Signal and the Noise

As much as I want to be a great fan of statistics, I was never really good in math but luckily the statistics subject wasn’t that hard during university. If you read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb then you would have an idea how much we under utilize statistics in our daily lives. This book will give you insight on how statistics is being used in different industries and how wrong we are in analyzing the data that we are given.

Nate Silver was already known in the baseball world before the US presidential elections last 2008, but the elections made him a household name after successful predicting the winner in 49 out of 50 states. If you follow just a bit of US politics like I do (via The Daily Show and Colbert Report 😛 ), then you would have definitely heard of him.

A former accountant, Silver created his predictive baseball algorithm on the side which eventually led him to better opportunities. The book discusses several industries where prediction and forecasting is their main role. Jobs like political pundits, weather forecasters, chess computer programmers, and even poker players rely a lot on statistics. This varied mix of industries got me really into the book and showed me how important statistics is.

The book was released in 2012 and a good start to any “statistics” book is to start with the 2008 economic crisis and how nobody saw it coming. Of course, he does give the typical hindsight is 20/20 routine but Silver does have a bunch on insights on why a lot of people saw it coming and how fiscal irresponsibility and ballooning property prices were good indications of the things to come.

A ironically funny chapter in the book is about political pundits and how they constantly get things wrong. Silver is in the pundit game and he knows what he is talking about especially about television pundits. It’s just hilarious for me especially since I get my “news” from comedy news show.

The book does have a good analogy on two types of thinkers: hedgehogs and foxes.

  • Hedgehogs are personalities that believe in Big Ideas. People who won’t change their minds on predictions even though new evidence presents otherwise.
  • Foxes on the other hand are people who believe in little ideas and use the data to formulate their predictions.

The book has better examples and explanations of this.

Moving away from politics, the book goes into weather forecasts and how this industry has improved over the years. If you are like me and you look at weather predictions all the time then I’m sorry to tell you that we’ve all been had. I used to live in tropical countries and man the weather forecasts are at best “a guide”. Unless it’s for a major storm, 20% of rain means nothing to me and I would always carry an umbrella. Having only two seasons, tropical countries have a hard time predicting the weather (or so I thought). When I moved to Japan, I was quite surprised on how “good” their predictions are and I would always follow their advice on what to wear and whether to bring an umbrella or not. Alas, a few months later, I still carry my umbrella all the time. Expecting a good weekend picnic is not an accurate science too. Apparently, weather forecasts are much much better now than they were 30 years ago which I totally believe. The advancement of weather forecasting technology would definitely have given us more data to work with. However, one key point I got from the book is the biases that are introduced into the forecasts as well as 5-day forecasts. The book explains this more, let’s just say that I only look at forecasts with confidence two days in advanced now.

Living in Tokyo, the topic about earthquake prediction definitely got me interested. If you’ve lived here for a few weeks, you’ll know that earthquakes is as common as the wind. Silver discusses how earthquake predictions are always wrong and why we always want to look for patterns in earthquake predictors. I really believe that the technology to predict earthquakes are still far off and until then, all we can do is be prepared. I felt a couple of moderate earthquakes here and to be honest, I won’t know how I’ll react once another big one comes. I am ready with my emergency pack and all, but looking at the statistics a big one will definitely hit sooner or later. The book has a good analysis of earthquake occurrences that he will later discuss but on the topic of terrorism.

Another chapter that got me piqued was the chapter about climate change. Although I still don’t understand why there are still people who don’t believe that climate change is a real thing is beyond me, he does have some information on why. Comparing date from the past, sample sized, and different predictive algorithms has a big part on this. Although just looking at what is happening with our weather patterns should make you think that climate change is real. Larger storms, longer winters, hotter summers, and random freak fests should give us an indication that something is wrong with our nature and we are contributing to this destruction should be freaking obvious. The recent storm in the Philippines, Haiyan, is another single point example of this.

I really enjoyed this book and if you are like me who likes to know how much I don’t know, then you would appreciate this book at lot. Looking at different industries and professions in a different angle will just make you appreciate them more and all the thought that goes into their jobs that we take for granted.


[book review] So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

Constant self-improvement is everybody’s goal. If you are still struggling which self-help book to read, make sure you read this one. Grounded on real life and none of that secret crap, So Good They Can’t Ignore You is based on something real, tangible, and accessible to us normal folk who actually have jobs, don’t have a million dollars, and not part of the “exception”.

For those unfamiliar with Cal Newport when you were in school, then I suggest checking out his website at http://calnewport.com/. I finished university by the time he was writing his study hacks blog, but I saw a number of my interns reading his blog and I can see how effective his techniques are. Even if you’re outside school you can definitely get some tips on his study habits and tackling a similarly academic setup.  Familiarising yourself with his content will give you better context on how he came up with his processes in the book.

Cal Newport has a great summary of the book at his blog. I’ll try to do what he did to himself, using his own book to analyse himself, where he went wrong and where I can improve. I’ll go the rules one by one so that you can see it in action and why I really like this book.

Rule #1: Don’t follow your passion

The book details how follow your passion is bad advice. Follow your passion is something you hear all the time especially when expose yourself to different communities where people can become experts or successful with what they do. We always hear about people taking the plunge and going straight to things they really love like moving to another country (ha!), quitting their day jobs and starting a business or something that is truly out of the ordinary. I would separate this from risk taking as I’m a big believer that calculated risks is part of life, but rather big jumps that make us seem to believe that there is a perfect job out there waiting for us to quit our current ones and take that “dream job”. He calls this the passion hypothesis. The book has several examples on why figuring out our passion before hand is almost impossible or not financially viable. For some reason, a huge percentage of us think that our hobbies or things we enjoy can be made as a career and we sometimes mistake this as a passion in life. Being the practical human beings that we are, we have to take a look at things in a much more different light. Rather than dreaming of somewhere else we can be, we have to assess where we are right now and see how realistic this “passion” really is.

Seeing as where I am right now, I think I got trapped into the passion hypothesis as well. Thinking that a change of scenery would change me perhaps? I’m not really sure… My goal of moving is part of me wanting to live in another country, understanding a different environment, and getting more international experience. However, if I went by the book, there’s still one thing that I didn’t capitalise enough of which is discussed on rule #2.

Rule #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Here he talks about the alternative to passion hypothesis, building career capital. This is my favorite chapter as it’s the most controversial and gives you the alternative to all the follow your passion advice.

Career capital is creating enough money in your personal bank so that your options will open up in the long run, creating a name for yourself with the craft/job/career that you have chosen. The few examples in the book are of a TV writer, a musician, and a venture capitalist. Most of us being knowledge workers, it might not be as clear why he choose those examples, but it’s definitely more relatable than other books. Here he defines the word deliberate practice as a way to continually improve ourselves.

I’ve heard of deliberate practice before and it’s definitely a painful process. However, deliberate practice is such a good way to measure and see if you are actually challenging yourself to keep on improving. For some reason, when I look back a few years ago, I seem to engage in more deliberate practice. Maybe because we grow more comfortable with what we do, that we try not to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. I’m trying to be more conscious now whenever I feel uncomfortable while I’m studying, writing, or any creative endeavour and I easily realise that I’m going through that phase of discomfort.

Studying is a great measurement if we are being uncomfortable enough to know that we are actually learning. Whenever, we study and seem to find the work easy to digest, then probably that is beyond your level. However, whenever we try to dodge or rack our brain, that’s the sign that we’re putting something foreign and is most likely actually learning. It’ll take a long time and it’s a crappy feeling but that’s how you learn. Newport shows several examples of this and it’s great seeing such a feeling being validated.

Deliberate practice creates career capital for oneself. With knowledge workers, where immediate feedback and deliberate practice is not as common, it creates an open field for us to strive for excellence as we can constantly be conscious of what we do with the goal of deliberate practice. This method is much more easy to spot with professions that has immediate feedback like musicians and athletes. However, being a normal knowledge worker doesn’t give us that opportunity to solicit feedback as obvious as other crafts. None the less, knowing where and what to improve is already a step ahead of the majority.

Have I built enough career capital for myself? I would think I did but the reality is different. Building career capital has to be very deliberate and conscious. I did create value, expanded my network, and specialised but career capital has to be more than this. The thing about career capital is it has to be niche and valuable enough. Did what I use to do enough for this? Of course there are more factors to this which will be explored in rules 3 & 4 but this question has been going in my mind more that ever.

Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion

Of course this will make more sense for people who currently have jobs so my interpretation will be different. In our desire to take more control and autonomy, we will usually associate it with a better role in the company. As we continually improve and create more career capital, more people will notice, especially your boss, and a promotion will follow soon. The lesson in this chapter is we should know the right time to advance. Just because we are given a chance to advance doesn’t mean we should take it. A promotion doesn’t necessarily mean more autonomy and definitely doesn’t mean more opportunities to build more career capital. He cited several examples here from different fields and if I look back, I really applaud people who would rather choose more control, autonomy, and challenges than a better title on paper.

I know several people who went through this path and it inspires me more to do the same. Focus on a niche and valuable skill and tough it out.

Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big

Having a mission is one of the main points of this book. But with the theme of the book, it’s something that you have to discover for yourself and not built into us.

This is probably the most difficult part of the book as this will take time and a lot of exploration. I’m a big believer that we’re here in the world to find our own purpose. Not find in the sense of finding a rare antique. It will definitely not be there by travelling and doing something extreme like one of those once in a lifetime experience. I think this book sums it up by creating more value in what we do and from there seeing and discovering what our mission can be in life. I like the term “adjacent possible” wherein the big ideas found in any field is new combinations of existing ideas. I think this sums up our great purpose in life especially if you just don’t want to “exist” in this world. To be honest, this will be a lifelong struggle for me as I search and create more value for myself. My move to Japan is part of my goal to learn more about the world, in a very slow way. I’m the type of traveller who really wants to live in a country and not just be there.

If there’s a part of this book that will be the hardest to ingest, it would be rule 4.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You will be part of my re-read list as it does a good job of reminding us how we should continually improve ourselves and not be trapped into this passion hypothesis. Reading this book definitely reminds me of Linchpin by Seth Godin in a different sense. It surely reminds me of the Survivorship Bias article at youarenotsosmart.com which makes his thinking more palatable and acceptable in this day in age of mediocracy.

We live in such a great era that opportunities are made and not presented to us. The more value we create for ourselves the more opportunities open up. This book has definitely got me thinking of how to approach our lives in a way where we are not directed by our imaginary desires and our magical passions that a dream job exists out there. Survivorship bias is a reminder on why the law of averages exists and why we only hear about heroes.

The courage culture bug definitely hit me and maybe I did move too soon to Japan without creating as much career capital as I can. In the theme of the book, I won’t say how much I love taking risks and challenges but this is one of the reasons.

If you are at the stage of your life questioning your job daily and why you are doing what you are doing, (which a quick look at my FB feeds says majority of you) then I would definitely recommend this book. Much more approachable and realistic than your typical self help crap, So Good They Can’t Ignore You will definitely be up there in my recommended list.


[book review] The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

Food, food, food. If you eat food, then you better read this book. Easy to chew, a joy to digest.

Michael Pollan’s first book, the Omnivore’s Dilemma talks about the four paradigms of food production, from industrial, pastoral (big-organic and self-sufficient) and personal.

The book starts from the large producers of corn then goes down all they way to a hunter gatherer experience.

I was engaged throughout the whole book as the topic about food is so personal. Something we hold and touch everyday, something we put in our mouths and resides in our bodies for hours. Nothing is more personal than food and yet we take it for granted.

Starting with industrial agriculture, Michael walks us through a brief history of corn farming and how it has shaped the modern farms of America. How big corporations were able to control the corn production and how much money farmers lose for every yield of corn. How much corn has infiltrated our daily lives, from breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Even from driving and the tools we use at the office. He shows how much corn has been a part of the modern world beyond it’s intended use of being food.

From industrialized agriculture, he moved towards a more vile scene of industrialized farming. A place where cows, pigs, chicken, and other animals are grown to serve the purpose of feeding a “higher creature”. He visits several farms hoping that he’ll be able to track the progress of the calf he bought as he wanted to follow it’s journey from birth to plate. It proved to be a difficult task just like following a husk of corn from the field to the plate.

Industrialized farming and agriculture has it’s fair share of enemies from liberal environmentalists and the general public who has seen those scare videos from PETA showing them how animals in industrial farms are like prisoners in a concentration camp. One common complaint about the book is its lack of macro economic analysis of the whole food industry. Sure, it’s a great way to mask the book from being a capitalist view on food but there is a reason on why corn can grow so close to each other and why cows and chickens live in dire conditions to feed our insatiable appetite for food.

The author achieved his goal in leaving a bad taste in my mouth upon reading the section on industrialized farming and agriculture. How we can enjoy out of season vegetables and meats from all over the world without batting an eyelash. How we can have meals that looks like and tastes like chicken and yet is made from corn. How we can afford to throw out totally edible corn to the sea just to balance out the over supply. His goal is for us to rethink where our food comes from and the sacrifices made for us to enjoy a single meal.

The first section reminded me of the few weeks I was in the US, and how large the portions are and more importantly how much meat I consumed, even the salad tasted like meat. Compared to most of the meals I eat here in Asia, eating in States felt like a feast. Large portions, lots of condiments and lots of meat. Reading how they are produced made all the bad memories of all the weight I gained on these trips. No surprise on why USA is suffering from an obesity epidemic, I can’t imagine having to eat enormous portions everyday.

The pastoral section started by introducing us to organic farming, a relatively recent fad in the states which of course gets so much interest from the hipster/hippie folk, and how badly we fall for well written stories. He visits several organic farms and sees first hand how manipulated the meaning of organic has been. How farmers abuse the system of lax rules in the effort to pass off their products as organic. He visits several farms in California and see little difference between industrial CAFOs and the so called organic farms.

I greatly enjoy books that open our minds on marketing gimmicks, especially about common misconceptions that somehow become common knowledge, one of which is the organic farming movement. It’s clear that even though they are marked organic, the process, once seen, can hardly pass off to be organic. Crowded chickens, unnatural farming, and assembly line like processing just can’t be called organic in it’s pure essence. Luckily, I’m not a big sucker for organic products and I’m lucky enough to be living in Singapore where (hopefully) the animals and plants don’t go through so much trouble that they have to grow out of unnatural circumstances. This does bring to light how we are easily fooled not just by the companies creating the products but by our ideal pictures of how farms are supposed to be run. Lush grassy knolls, chickens and cows running free across the fields, a happy family running the farm with their farm truck used to haul feeds to the barn, this is what we associate organic farming with, a beautiful farm operating just like in the books we used to read when we were young. Pollan shatters this notion and exposes us to the hidden truth.

There is some hope to all this madness as he visits Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm. Here he discovers how Polyface tries to maximize the energy of the sun by admitting that they are grass farmers. In essence, every farmer is a grass farmer as this is the first organism that harnesses the sun’s energy, that then gets eaten by cows which then gets eaten by us. Salatin doesn’t believe that cows and chickens should be trapped in a cage but rather, he grazes them in his huge farm. The cows eat grass then move around the farm with the chickens a day behind the cows which then feeds on the cowpies and other by-products of the cow, as was designed by nature. It’s a sight to behold as Polyface has gotten down what farming is as to how the animals were designed to live. Here’s a short clip from USATODAY to give you a better idea. Pollan iscern which type of farming is better. But again, this is where Omnivore’s Dilemna fails. The macro economic benefits of feeding a nation is something that Polyface can’t tackle. Their costs are higher and their yields are lower compared to industrial farms. Salatin and Pollan makes a convincing argument that the face value of food produced by CAFOs are cheaper, yet we pay for it through other means like damage to our health and the environment, something that is very hard to quantify, unlike a price of a dozen eggs.

The final part of the book tells how humans have lived before industrialization and farming, through hunting and gathering. Here, he learns how to hunt wild pigs and gather wild mushrooms through the forests of California. It’s quite a fascinating part of the book as he gets to meet people who hunt for fun, while other who hunt and gather for profit. His goal at the end of his expedition is to create a meal from ingredients that he has harvested himself. From the fowl, to the mushrooms and other ingredients.

Here, he shot his first gun with mix feelings. He hesitated gathering mushrooms as he is unsure if it was the “safe kind”. He went through a lot of introspection especially when he was hunting as it was his first time taking a life. The ethical hunting also became an issue with his guides giving good explanations on why they continue to hunt.

This section had an air of ‘hipsterness’ for me. It didn’t seem as right as sustainable farming as most of the hspends a week helping out at Salatin’s farm to understand how he can sustain such farming methods in our industrialized world. In the end, after trying their products, the chickens tastes more “chickeney” and the eggs more “eggy”.

Polyface is a great counter example of how our race for profits has made us alter even the natural tendencies of animals so that we can maximize yield. Salatin acknowledges the limits of nature and his farm runs along with how the animals interact with nature and other animals and plants. He has accepted the fact that the environment is not mono-specie, something that large farms do, but rather animals interact with other animals. Cows don’t just eat one species of grass. Chickens don’t eat just one type of feed. Cows graze on their own and eat grass upon their discretion. Chickens eat after the cows have trimmed the grass. This is nature at its best and that interaction is something that industrialized farms can’t mimic or don’t even bother about. Their cramped cows and their manufactured feeds will produce beef, but is it worth all the toxic byproducts, the diseases contracted by the animals due to their environment? I haven’t seen a large farm to be able to pass judgement but just using logic one can dunters are doing it for game or to get a better tasting patte. I do believe that there are pros to hunting and most of the hunters are not invading any territory or over hunting but the thought that this game is used to feed those with better palates is just alien to me. Coming from a third world country where food is scarce, every morsel of food is sacred and is valued. It doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate good food, it just means that there is not enough for everybody and one has to share, else feel the guilt of eating expensive meals while a family outside can barely feed themselves (socialist in me talking).

He concluded the book by sharing a meal he created from scratch with his friends. With the pork and wild mushrooms he gathered, pasta he kneaded himself and other more “natural” ingredients. He analyses the whole food industry, through the corn fields and cattle farms, the grazing cattle in Salatin’s farm and wild pigs of California. He doesn’t struggle to realize how much we have altered the environment in an effort to produce more and more food beyond our needs. How we have destroyed nature in order to grow animals beyond their natural environment. How we have created products that the main ingredients are beyond recognition. His analysis again gets you think of what you eat and where it comes from.

An easy read and a great eye opener for something very personal, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is something you should chew slowly else you might spit it out.