[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.


[book review] The Lean Startup

Heralded as one of the must buy books for entrepreneurs The Lean Startup was written by Eric Ries, founder of IMVU. The book describes itself as a scientific approach to starting a company.

As the title implies, the goal is to get lean. Lean might mean several things to you like starting with a lean budget, lean time, lean resources or a lean product. These descriptions are actually part of the book, but one of the key components with starting a lean startup is customer validation. The goal is to learn from a process that will allow you to validate your hypothesis, create the experiment, measure the results and build from these learnings. The key with the whole process is to create a way to keep iterating through your ideas and your experiments so that you will be able to react, not with gut feel, but with hard data. No assumptions but rather well backed decisions based on data.

The book is divided into three main sections, Vision, Steer, and Accelerate. These main categories take you through the journey of learning the method.

Vision is your high level, concept phase of learning the difference of the methodology from traditional corporate thinking. This section takes you to realize the whole concept that creating sustainable business is a process. When it’s a process, it can be learned, and can ultimately be taught.

Being exposed to a lot of entrepreneurial activities, the first section doesn’t cover anything ground breaking, rather it shows you the possibilities of viewing a challenge with a different perspective. Well repeated in the book is that the Lean Startup methodology is not just for new startup companies, but for any organisation creating a product. I think this goes well with anybody working in a knowledge based industry. Formulating marketing campaigns, community engagement and other community based marketing can benefit from having a lean approach towards their business.

Steer, talks about the methodology. Dropbox and Intuit were were given as examples while going to the process of build -> measure -> learn.

This whole section is what you want to read. Again, the whole book is not rocket science, but the process itself is well thought of and it’ll get you thinking whenever you go through the rounds of work. Several methods and techniques were presented here, again with the goal of getting you to rethink how you do things now and getting into the lean mindset.

One thing that stuck out for me was how we measure “success”. We have to get into the habit of measure the right things rather than the things that will make us look good. (which is very typical in large companies) I got my fair of vanity metrics that I see often. How, and more importantly, what we measure is a crucial step in learning. If we don’t measure the correct things, our assumptions might be validated the wrong way. If you are measuring page views on your site rather than activations, this might present you with a great chart, but it won’t give you more business. I like quantifiable measurements as it takes away any doubts and uncertainties whenever we look at metrics.

Accelerate talks about growth, releasing in small batches and how you will move after applying your validated learning.

I especially liked the chapter about batches as it’s quite common for us to procrastinate by releasing a larger batch until it’s perfect then getting bombed in the end as our work didn’t get enough validation or feedback.

The last part of the book also shared a lot of resources to get you on track with the lean methodology. Blogs, resources and other books that will help you get into the mindset of lean.

As me and a friend are building our product now, the book helped me think of how we should be constantly validating our assumptions and what metrics to measure. I’ll be talking about this more once we launch and I’m so happy that it’s going to be soon.

If you are looking for a precursor to startup life, this book is a great way to change how you think and how you tackle problems. I think this is not only for startup companies, but for individuals who wants to achieve more. Conducting experiments is not just for directors or people handling budgets, it’s also for people on the field who talk to customers and clients and can constantly reinvent themselves and adapt to different situations. With the lean methodology, you can categorically experiment while constantly learning. Read it and use. 😉


[book review] Ilustrado: A Novel

I have mixed feelings with Ilustrado.

Winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, Ilustrado talks about the return of Miguel Syjuco, also the authors name, to the Philippines, to find more about the deceased Crispin Salvador, his mentor. He went back to the Philippines from New York to find out more about his mentor and potentially find his last manuscript that will expose several high flying, influential, and political families.

His journey spans over 150 years of Philippine history all the way from the Spanish occupation up to the recent Edsa revolutions. Here, he discovers a lot about his own family, his interactions with fellow authors and his “society”.

The character of Miguel feels like a reflection of the author. Born of a rich family, having the opportunity to travel the world and studied overseas, he felt as if he was an “Ilustrado” himself. Ilustrado in Spanish means the learned or enlightened one and was used in the Spanish colonization period by Filipinos studying in Spain. They were educated overseas with the goals of changing situations back in the Philippines.

The book was presented as a story within several stories, interweaving several books by both Crispin and Miguel as well as the ongoing story of Miguel’s visit to the Philippines. This format was a bit too hard to read and comprehend as several plot lines were happening. While the author wanted the stories to intertwine, it wasn’t the end result as some of the stories were too far off to remember or not as connected to the main story line as the others.

The story itself is interesting for a Filipino, especially the several metaphors with the current political landscape in the Philippines. It might be a bit hard to comprehend for somebody not familiar with Philippine politics and culture, as there’s a lot of local references sprinkled here and there but it won’t be a big barrier for you to get into the story.

Miguel Sjyuco, in a few of his interviews, mentioned that he didn’t want to be just a Filipino writer but a writer for the world. This didn’t come as strong as it should have through the novel as I felt that the whole book was not here or there. The main plot line was indeed captivating and it got me wanting for more. His exploits with his family and friends, his chronic drug use and his encounters with his new “friend” gave me a glimpse of his life. The main plot line mixes well with some of the stories, but too many things were going on that it lost focus.

I applaud Miguel for writing an honest piece about the Philippines. My hatred for poverty porn has been satiated by his representation of the Philippines. Even though it’s a side that most Filipinos never see, it’s honest and real.

If you have enough patience in you to read this book, you won’t be rewarded with something magnificent but you’ll wake up to a part of the Philippines you rarely see.


[book review] Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman

I just finished “Thinking, fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman and this is one amazing book. Kahneman is famous for his work in behavioral economics, decision making, biases and heuristics.

Summary: A definite recommendation. Explore our mind, how we make choices and how we make faults. How common sense is not really common and how our mind fails us in the process.

A rather tome-like book, I was introduced to Kahneman when I started reading a blog by David McRaney called you are not so smart. He explores biases and heuristics such as anchoring, availability bias, sunk cost fallacy, and the like. These of course are bulk of Kahneman’s work thus his name appears frequently in his blog. Another common name in the blog is Richard Thaler who has an awesome book as well called Nudge who Kahneman has worked with.

Kahneman’s goal with the book, as stated in the introduction, is to open a lay man’s mind in others decisions in situations, changes in policy and other topics that are usually discussed around the water cooler. A very simple goal if you ask me, but very relevant and timely as we “know” more about our friends from social media more than anytime in the world. He aims to give us tools to discuss situations in an informed way and to know why certain decisions seem very irrational and yet people still make the mistake of doing it.

Thinking, fast and slow (TFS) is divided into five parts starting with our “two systems”. A part of the book which will be referenced several times as it is the basis on how a lot of us think and process situations. Aptly named System One and System Two, this is a simplification of our thought process. System One is our “gut”, the part of our brain that decides fast and assesses the situation with lightning speed. System Two is our “thinking self” the one that we use when we take time to process situations. When we stop and think, when we multiply 12 by 46. These two systems guide us everyday and make us do what we do. The use of these two systems for me defines a person. Impulsive versus reflective, an analyzer versus a quick doer.

The first section of the book already introduces priming. Where decisions and situations are influenced by the outside environments by priming our System One. Priming is setting up the environment or situation to influence the decision of another to our favor. Whenever you walk into a shop, observe the environment. Everything is there for a reason, which is for you to purchase something. Making it easy for you to make a decision so that you don’t need to engage your lazy System Two and letting System One take care of the rest. Several examples are in the book of which most of us can definitely relate to.

Section two of TFS talks about heuristics and biases and for me was the most interesting section. These are common misconceptions that us lazy humans make sense of in our attempt to understand the world we are living in. Sadly, these pitfalls in our human minds are so hard to detect and figure out for ourselves as we are in the middle of the situation, compared to when we are observing a third party that is falling to the “trap”. Common examples such as anchoring, having a base number over a purchase influences us that there is a discount. Availability bias that limits our decisions to what is only available to our feeble minds. One of my favorites is regression to the mean where we think that there is no where to go but up or a hot streak in basketball is really a “streak”. I really hate our dumb minds.

Section three introduces more biases as it’s named Overconfidence. Hindsight bias the act of looking back and saying “I told you so” and outcome bias are both common in the working world and I was glad to have learned it in this book. Another interesting chapter is our reliance on experts and how, if we should, evaluate experts. Feedback and experience are the two key words here.

The fourth section talks about choices. This is where bulk of Kahneman’s work really shines where he also discuss about his work that earned him the Nobel Prize for Economics. My hatred for understanding math concepts came out but I appreciated the whole section as it again shows our poor understanding of ourselves especially in making decisions. What situations make a person more risk or loss averse. When do we get more value out of our money and how we view gains and losses. How much we value our things through the “endowment effect”. Loss aversion, possibility effects and others make this section another must read (which I will actually re-read soon) as it shows how much we value things either monetary or otherwise. Another chapter of this section talks about rare events, such as getting struck by lightning and the like. How we overweigh and overestimate things. How vivid stories and images add weight to situations and “rare events”. My dabbling with statistics already gave me the tools not to overweigh things but it’s great to see it from another angle. How come we’re more afraid of shark attacks than driving even though our chances of dying to the latter is much more?

The fourth section for me had the most meat and shows how much research has Kahneman put on the topics in the section. My mind was opened with several situations presented in each of the chapters in the section. I have to admit that I fall for most of the situations in this section as my System Two for mathematical situation and analysis is very lazy. Risk and loss aversion, framing losses, disposition effect and other situations where gains and loss has to be calculated is definitely something that I have to improve on. A re-read and a better understanding will definitely allow me to take a step back and see the bigger picture of gains and losses.

The book ends with Two Selves. Our mind is very strange especially on how we see experiences and memories. How we focus on the wrong things and want others. How happiness is perceived and how we strive to achieve it. This chapter is a great end to the book as it analyzes our situation as a whole. How we humans look at ourselves and how we experience, remember and reflect on our own existence and happiness. A great end to a great book.

Thinking, fast and slow gets all praises for me as I enjoy reading books that look into the mind. The best thing about Kahneman’s book is it’s really based on research and not just chewed up and regurgitated paper like a Malcolm Gladwell book. I was a fan of him until I read Blink and realized how much that book wasted my time with his premise going round and round. I realized that he is a great writer and nothing more.

Thinking, fast and slow is an easy read and a great introduction to the world of our mind. A world full of contradictions and biases. A mind full of assumptions and what ifs. If you want to understand others and ourselves, do pick this up. Thank you Mr. Kahneman and Mr. Tversky.

PS. Wikipedia has a good collection of cognitive biases that is worth a look after reading the book. List of cognitive biases