Saturday, March 30, 2013

Everybody eats: a review of Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma"

Why I read this book:

There is arguably no topic about which I know less given how important it is to the course of my life than food and nutrition (see Figure 1). Sure, I know the basics: junk food is bad, fruits and veggies are good, and if you are going to eat chocolate, make sure it is dark, not milk, and preferably Swiss or Belgian. But I have no answers to the questions that require some knowledge of nutrition: Is red meat bad for you because it is red meat, or is it the industrial methods of producing the meat that make it unhealthy? Is wheat bad for you? What about milk? And once the conversation disintegrates to the point where the central question revolves around the proper level of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, you can forget about it. And where should I shop for my food? Is the organic  craze a legitimate movement, or is it just another marketing ploy that exploits our perception of what seems legitimate?

Figure 1 - Knowledge of Food/Value-Add ratio in my life

"Omnivore's dilemma" may not answer all my questions, but it is a start. Help me, Michael Pollan. Help me.

1. Twinkie
2. French Fries
3. Supermarket ground beef
4. Organic chicken
5. Eggs from a hen named Scarlet from your local farm


- Read this book

This is an interesting, well-researched, and well-told dissertation on food. Michael Pollan asks a simple question: “What’s for dinner?” and then proceeds to walk through the four food chains that produce the food for the dinner table: industrial, big organic, pastoral (small farms), and food procured by foraging. By tracing the sources of our dinner from the beginning to the end, Pollan exposes the incongruities and the disorder in the way we eat. The complexities of the way we get our food, Pollan argues, stem from the omnivore’s dilemma. Unlike most animals, who are limited in the type of food they eat, we humans are quite un-picky in our food selection (I had a friend in middle school who used to eat pieces of paper for time before an adoring crowd of classmates - farther proof of the superiority of the human digestive system over that of other animals). This gift is also a curse - if you can eat anything, how do you know what is safe? What stops you from eating other humans? Tradition and culture guide and moderate the rules of eating, but the advances in agriculture (we can grow more, faster, cheaper), food sciences (we can now break down food into the smallest units and rebuild artificial food systems, like a twinkie), and transportation have removed some of the limitations (availability of food, seasonality) and have pushed the limit on what and how much food we can intake. 

Figure 2 - America's Omnivore's Dilemma is definitely a first world problem.
You get the sense that you can ask Pollan to write about any subject, and you will get your money's worth. There is so much cool, important information in this book - did you know that everything is made of corn? Like..everything. If Mexicans knew how much more corn Americans consume per person than them, they would probably be more upset over that than over the fact that the USA national soccer team tied Mexico at the Estadio Azteca in World Cup qualifying. And do you vaguely remember your teacher blabbering something about the Haber process in freshman biology while you were busy trying to figure out if anyone would go to Homecoming with you? Well, “Omnivore’s Dilemma” accomplishes what your biology teacher never could - you will finally understand why the Haber process was so important.

Pollan is a good journalist and a good writer, but, above all, he is really passionate about food. I mean, the man REALLY likes food. For the first time, I associate term "foodie" with a respectable human being (see table 1). To be precise, Pollan is a foodie intellectual, and throughout the book, he weaves the relation of food to culture, human development, and philosophy. 

Table 1 - My top three pet peeves
Pet peeve
The driver in the next lane who darts into the middle of the intersection in traffic when the light turns yellow, then cuts into your lane when cars move up while you wait patiently at the light. Three minutes of your life and your altruistic attitude that day - both gone in a flash.
When people do not put the cap back on the soda bottle. I can practically see the bubbles escaping. Why would you want to drink flat soda? (OK, this is my problem).
People who exclaim, "I am a total foodie!" No, you just like to eat out a lot. Unless you are Michael Pollan - you are cool.

It is not difficult to guess Pollan’s political dispositions or his conclusions (you are reading the musings of a Berkeley professor, not a Big Oil executive after all), but neither does he impose his views on the reader. And this is largely what makes reading the book so great - the experience feels like a long, involved conversation that delves into all corners of food, our attitude towards the sources of it, and the implications of those attitudes. It is a conversation that commands your attention and keeps your interest because the author balances the philosophical arguments (“Is it wrong to eat animals? Are they capable of suffering?”) with practical considerations (“this chicken is sooo tasty!*”). So when Pollan talks about his conflicting feelings of excitement and guilt over his hunting expedition, you understand. And when Pollan takes his family to McDonald’s and then proceeds to illustrate the true cost of that meal when you consider the skewed, petroleum-fueled, unsustainable economics of industrial food, you think: “That was probably the only time in the last ten years you had a fast food burger, Mr. Pollan, but I appreciate you walking the mean streets for us in order to get street cred”. But you understand.    

- Think about your food 
    • There are so many “big” issues at stake in the discussion about how we eat:
    • Is it morally acceptable to eat animals?
    • How do we balance the profit-driven engine of capitalism with harmonious existence with Nature? How much should be driven “bottom up” (consumer awareness/demand) versus “top down” (food policy)?
    • Why has In-N-Out not opened up operations on the East Coast?
    • What is Man’s rightful place in the Universe? Are we bigger than Nature, or are we but a small part of it?

    I do not have the answers to these questions. I suspect that we will never stop progressing, and, of course, I like to have strawberries in the winter as much as the next guy, but we have to realize that our petroleum-fueled, antibiotics-driven methods of producing and consuming food are unsustainable. 

    Neither can I claim to have major revelations about the way I eat, at least for now. I am not quite yet willing to forego the convenience of my local supermarket for trips to the closest self-sustaining farm, but hey - I am eating a lot less meat than I used to, and my friendship with the McDonald’s drive-through lady slowly dissipated over time**, so that is a start, right?  

    We will come back to the topic of food (and eventually, nutrition) again. For those of you who are as new to the topic as I am, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” serves as a terrific introduction. In this book, Michael Pollan produces a treatise on food. He also asks us to think about it. For the knowledge and for that simple request, I am grateful. 

    *The examples in quotes are not Pollan’s exact words, I am just paraphrasing for effect. If you are going to judge, judge me, not Pollan.
    ** She always used to give me extra ketchup packets, and I think of her fondly to this day.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Thank heavens I was not born in the Middle Ages: A review of Bernard Cornwell's "Agincourt"

Why I read this book:

Ah, historical fiction. The union of the two components in this genre makes so much sense you have to wonder why it was not invented sooner*. This genre is a perfect example of the "opposites attract" principle. By itself, history is informative and probably important, but kind of boring. Fiction is for cat people. Together, however, history and fiction are exciting and educational. It is basically like eating a cake and getting the nutritional value of vegetables. So let's learn about Agincourt, but let's have fun while we are at it!


1. The Black Plague - the worst.
2. The Western Schism - probably should not be second worst, it was not that bad.
3. Serfdom - that must have sucked, but definitely beats the Plague.
4. Dukedom - people have to call you "Your Grace". I could get used to that.
5. Age of Discovery - godsend for the Europeans. Not so much for everyone else.


The book was ok. Just ok. The story line was just too predictable and not particularly captivating. You know that feeling - like when you meet someone for a first date, and you know immediately that the date is going to be perfectly pleasant, but will go nowhere. And so you exchange the usual lines: "Yes, I also really want to go to New Zealand!", "I know, Tina Fey is just so brilliant!", "Oh, so you are tapering now?", but at the end of the night, you are left with an unmemorable evening and a $100 dent in your wallet. Your own fault, of course - who gets dinner on the first date? 
Anyways, the most enjoyable part of the book was the epilogue where the author explained his fascination with the Battle of Agincourt, a major event in the Hundred Years' War, when a vastly outnumbered English Army defeated the French thanks to the prowess of its long-bowmen. Perhaps I have gotten used to reading dry history books or perhaps the originality and dedication of the author shone brightest during this part of the book, but I greatly enjoyed his discussion about his sources and the analysis of how many fighters there were on both sides. I even liked the fact that the author explained that he was trying to convey how brutal the fighting was more than the numerous parts of the story where the author went into gory details describing the "actual" battles. Describing gory battle scenes is one of the few areas of story-telling a movie would do a better job of conveying than a book, and I wish the story line of the book was more engaging instead.

So should you read this book? Sure**. But probably not. You should, since we are on the topic, at least read the Wikipedia entry for Agincourt because you never know when it might come up in conversation. Well, alright, you do know - practically never. But if it does! And what if that attractive person you are talking to loves the Hundred Years' War?! Then that's true love, my friend.  

*I have no idea when the historical fiction genre was created. It was probably invented by Hammurabi. That guy was way ahead of his time. The only things he did not invent are the printing press and the telephone, and that may have been on purpose so that the human race would not get depressed from not inventing anything after he was gone.

**In all seriousness, you will be better served by reading this book than by watching whatever trash is on TV right now, so you can buy the book here. Unless you are watching "House of Cards" on Netflix. Then do not buy this book. Continue watching that show instead.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Talk about credibility: A review of Viktor Frankl's "A Man's Search For Meaning"

Why I read this book:

By now, the formula for how I choose my books should be pretty clear:

25% - Amazon's Daily deal
25% - Whatever David Brooks mentions in his column
25% - Friends' recommendations
25% - Whatever gets cross-referenced in these three sources: The Atlantic, Harper's,  and the New York Times (aka the Yuppie Trinity).

I saw enough references to Viktor Frankl's "A Man's Search for Meaning" among my aforementioned sources that I added it to my "to read" list. You can then imagine my giddiness when I saw this book pop up as an Amazon Daily deal! The choice is clear.


1. I need to find new sources
2. I need to at least adjust the weighting
3. The book is as mediocre as my mainstream sources
4. The book and my formula will prepare me for dinner table conversation in polite company
5. The formula is working! I just need to add Youtube so that I don't miss things like the Harlem Shake


First of all, you should read this book. This is a potentially life-changing book. If that does not move you, let's try a different approach. The book is widely known, and it is short. If you read it, next time someone says "There is a great book called "A Man's Search for Meaning", have you read it?", you can say "Yes! I have read it" (because it is short), and then the person you are talking to will think you are a respectable person because the main attribute of the book is not that it is short, but that it is potentially life-changing.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian professor of Neurology and Psychiatry who developed "logotherapy" - a method of psychotherapy based on the premise that the fundamental drive of human nature is to find meaning (as opposed to power or pleasure). Frankl spent years in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Frankl survived; his parents, brother, and wife, like millions of others, did not.

In "A Man's Search for Meaning", Frankl weaves the foundations of his philosophy with his personal experience in the concentration camps. Frankl believes that a person can find meaning primarily in one of three ways: through devotion to a task, unconditional love of another human being, and, in those circumstances when fate leaves no other way, the ability to bear suffering with dignity. Frankl's thoughts are wise, but what gives his words gravity is of course his personal struggle. When a man who has walked the tightrope between life and death speaks about what truly matters, you listen. Here is Frankl on love:

"But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look...Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love."  

The words are beautiful and tragic, amplified by the deeply personal tone. Frankl then reflects on other aspects of grasping for meaning. As a man who devoted his professional life to understanding what drives us, Frankl builds his observations of prisoner behavior into his theories. For instance, Frankl observes that the survival of a prisoner depended on his will to survive. Once the hopelessness of the situation undercut a person's spirit, the biological shutdown soon followed. The thought of reuniting with loved ones provided the lone reason to hold on for many of the prisoners. For some of those fortunate enough to survive the concentration camps, the breaking point came after liberation when they discovered that their loved ones perished, and the world moved on without the survivors. 

"Woe to him who found that the person whose memory alone had given him courage in camp did not exist anymore! Woe to him who, when the day of his dreams finally came, found it so different from all he had longed for!", Frankl exclaims abstractly in a tone of a sympathetic observer. 

And yet here is a man who found himself in that very situation! You would not know that from the book - I only discovered that Frankl lost his wife when I read other sources to find out more about this remarkable man. Frankl himself never mentions this fact - a particularly striking point given his deeply personal expressions about love and his wife.

So now you begin to understand the spiritual fortitude of this remarkable man and his ability to devote himself to love and work and to transcend suffering. That detached tone is the trace of a man whose spirit is so resilient, so otherworldly, that he has come to symbolize the redeeming qualities of human beings at a time when the very nature of a Man is on trial. Where is the anger, the bitterness? In any other circumstance, we may be tempted to dismiss a man so devoid of normal human reactions as a naive peacenik. Yet here is a man who has been to Hell and back. His words, so serene and wise, stand in stark contrast with the horrors he experienced and command attention. This book is foremost a spiritual expression - a testament that some values are universal, and desperately needed proof that the human race is not a self-consuming cancer.        

While reading "A Man's Search for Meaning", I could not help but compare this book to the other well-known memoir of living through the Holocaust, Eli Wiesel's "Night" because the tone of the books is so noticeably different. 

Frankl is philosophical, spiritual even. His beliefs are so strong, he transcends human suffering. Wiesel's account, on the other hand, is searing, and his tone is antithetical to Frankl's. God? He hangs on the gallows with the countless, nameless bodies. Faith? It was consumed by the flames that swallowed the infants who were tossed in by the truckloads in front of Wiesel's eyes. 

The difference in the philosophies of both of these men is striking. I find it all the more astonishing then that the lives of both of these remarkable men, despite the difference in their opinions about faith and the human soul, seem to converge on a common path. Both men devoted their lives to helping others, telling their story, and working tirelessly to make sure that the world does not go mad again. 

Viktor Frankl leaves this final tally of the struggle for human nature:

"Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips."

As the last of the members of that generation pass on, the accounts of Frankl and Wiesel take on added significance. For our sake, we must never forget their story.        

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What is all the commotion about? A review of "The Hunger Games" trilogy

Why I read this book:

After reading over one thousand pages of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich", I needed a change of pace. Pouring over an unflinching, dry account of history is hard work. I needed something light, something popular, something sweet after eating my vegetables, if you know what I mean (yup, it is still true: you cannot say "if you know what I mean" without it sounding like sexual innuendo... if you know what I mean). 

Perfect timing for "The Hunger Games" trilogy, and besides - people cannot seem to stop talking about it. I even read that archery is exploding in popularity due to these book and the movie (I swear, you can make anything cool if you put it in a movie). Sure, I am late to the party, but I am late to everything - I did not even learn how to ride a bike until I was twelve, so being behind the curve does not phase me. Besides, what better way to change direction away from World War II than to read about children being pitted against each other in a death match? Right... Oh well, too late now - I already purchased the books. 


1. You have a decent chance of finding something better by sticking your hand down a dumpster bin.
2. You can find something better in a thrift shop, and not in a cool way like Macklemore and Lewis.
3. You can find this book at your corner CVS. You can probably save a bit at Walmart, but you are willing to pay for convenience.
4. This book should come with a gift wrap, paper mache, and cinnamon sticks.
5. This book belongs in your private collection, next to the busts of Augustus and Bach. 


These are my thoughts as I made my way through the trilogy:

“The writing is rather simplistic. The sentences are short, and she writes like she is speaking.”
“This book is clearly aimed for 14-year olds and the unwashed masses. Everyone around me is a peasant.”
“Oh no, am I just getting old and bitter and out of touch?”
“This little sister angle is totally working. If I ever write anything, I must use that.”
“OK, I have to admit the concept is pretty clever.”
“Crap, it’s 12:30am.”
“I need to totally open a Hunger Games course. Some sort of a hybrid between a survival camp and paintball. Maybe have ziplining? No, that’s stupid. The ziplining, that is – the Hunger Games course is so money.”
"I wonder what Suzanne Collins looks like. I am picturing a Suzie Orman, but with dark hair."

No, YOU stop it, Suze Orman!

"Crap, it's 12:30am again."
"There is so much girl power in this book! I like that. If I were in a book club, I would definitely focus on that aspect of the book and the broader societal implications it carries. I should join a book club."
"If I find out Suzanne Collins is some crazy Glenn Beck fan, and this book is really her vision of what happens when Obamacare is fully implemented, I am going to be pissed."
"A book club with a manly twist. Maybe a Crossfit/book club hybrid? Today's workout: 15 minutes to find your one rep max squat snatch, 10 minutes to discuss the Hunger Games, then 'Fran'. Man, I am on fire!" 
"Wow, I was way off:"
In case you were wondering: Suzanne Collins does not look like Suze Orman.

"Crossfit/book club combination!? That is so STUPID. What was I thinking yesterday?"
"Still on board with the Hunger Games survival course idea, people would eat that up. If people pay good money to have their testicles zapped in ToughMudder/Zombie-thon/whatever, they will definitely pay for the Hunger Games survival course. Suzanne and I will split the profits 30/70. Ok, 40/60."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A glimpse into Hell on Earth: a review of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich"

Why I read this book:

My initial introduction to William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" came several years ago when my friend Dexter*, whom I introduced earlier in this blog, and I were trading stories about ambitious projects - books of heft in theme and volume, the kind that cool the passions of bookworms everywhere. At the time, I was inspired to pick up "War and Peace" (I made it to page 300 - no small feat; the book has been sitting open on that very page on my night stand for the last two years); Dexter suffered the same fate with "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich".

With that introduction to this book, I was only too happy to pick up "The Rise and Fall" when Amazon offered it as a Kindle Daily deal. So many pages of knowledge for so little money - let's do this thing, Shirer!


1. A casting net - seriously, that's just insulting. These gladiators are trying to kill me, and you outfit me for crabbing in the Chesapeake bay.
2. A dagger - Excellent for slicing an apple, not so much to defend against the a-hole in the chariot.
3. A spear - "Hey, look, did Caesar just vomit all over the Assyrian Prime Minister?" (spear in the back). It could work...
4. A trident - It's all relative; I could have been that poor guy with the net.
5. A sword and shield - the complete package 


Before you open this book, make sure that you first visit the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. Go there because a book, no matter how powerful or revealing, cannot strike your most primal sensations as your eyes or your ears can. Go there and walk the exhibits; read the correspondence from Nazi bureaucrats who treated death as a production process as they casually noted that the methods of mass murder at their disposal were not killing people fast enough. Feel the shiver run down your back as your mind slowly registers the horrid contrast between the numbers and projections stated as a matter of fact in a manner devoid of any emotion, as if the work were producing nuts and bolts, and the brutality that lies behind those words. Go there and stare at the mountain of shoes as it finally dawns on you that people, no different than you and I, walked in those shoes right up to the moment they were slaughtered on a scale that has known no precedent in its calculated brutality and magnitude. Go there because chances are that you grew up in a part of the world that grew prosperous and peaceful on the rubble of the most devastating war the world has ever known. Go there because you cannot really fathom what happened during the reign of the Third Reich because your parents taught you to share when you were a child, and your Mom cried when you pushed that annoying kid in kindergarten when he tried to take your fire truck even though he already had the police car AND the ambulance, and you found the whole experience so stressful that the lines between what is wrong and what is right, and what  the boundaries of conduct are, became engrained in you at an early age. Go there because your upbringing and the fortunate timing of your existence has shielded you from realizing the true depths of evil that humans are capable of. Go there so that you may realize that humans have the capacity to organize all their resourcefulness, intelligence, and passion into such hatred, cruelty, and genocidal atrocities that even the imagination of early civilizations and religions could not replicate it in their representations of evil.    

After you internalize in your psyche the human capacity for unspeakable evil, you should proceed to read "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich". For even as the book cannot make you feel the sheer terror of what transpired during World War II, these pages will meticulously catalog every minute detail  of the events that plunged the world into utter destruction and help you understand the events that transpired, the causes of this madness, and ultimately, what we can do to prevent something like from ever happening again. For a history book, the writing is surprisingly smooth; an impressive accomplishment given the subject and the incredible array of sources that the author has meticulously compiled for this authoritative study.

How did this horror happen? The rise of the National Socialists (Nazis) in Germany unequivocally owes its success to the unbending will and determination of a mad, but brilliant, maniac, albeit Hitler's crude, hateful philosophy found a fertile environment. Shirer argues that Hitler's dreams of German conquest and expansion resonated strongly with a people with a long martial history.
He does have a point - naming your reign the THIRD Reich does imply some continuity (the first Reich was the Holy Roman Empire and the second Reich was the Hohenzollern Empire). Shirer also draws interesting parallels between Hitler's philosophical foundations behind his mad rants in Mein Kempf and the works of some of the influential thinkers in German history. Shirer paints a damning portrait of the complicity or lack of resistance to Germany's descent into an instrument of the most immoral destruction in history by the most powerful elements of the German society: the old guard of the government, the business interests, and the Army. Once Hitler ascended to power, becoming bigger than God and Law, and turned his maniacal hatred outside Germany's boundaries, the duty of stopping him fell to the fragmented, selfish, and mutually distrusting world powers. Disaster was already guaranteed to Germany's neighbours by the time a wavering Britain, defeatist France, treacherous Soviet Union, and an aloof United States realized the extent and brutality of Hitler's aims. Among these titans, historians of the Western world have reserved the greatest condemnation for Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler's lies and unchallenged takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia. This hardly seems fair - while Chamberlain certainly misjudged Hitler's capacity for lying, treachery, and barbarism, the United States was only too happy to stay on the sidelines while the Old World destroyed itself into oblivion, and the Soviet Union was busy scheming with Hitler to take its share of conquests! These historians have clearly fallen for the "oldest sibling" bias: when the parents get home to find the couch on fire and the chandelier sticking out of the television, the oldest child gets punished on the principle of bearing responsibility for the domain in the parents' absence. Never mind that the middle child decided to practice her aim with a bow and lit arrows a la the Hunger games; never mind that the youngest decided that he is Tarzan; the oldest child shoulders the blame. In the case of Chamberlain, it must be noted that while history has judged the old gentleman harshly, he fought for peace with tenacity and conviction; and once he realized that he was faced with an aggressor with a bloodthirst that could not be satisfied, Chamberlain was resolute and steadfast in his opposition to farther Nazi aggression.

Chamberlain did not have a precedent for the cunning and evil that was his adversary. In no prior time in human history has such madness of hatred united with such daring in manipulation of human desire for reason and peace , and with the world's most powerful military at the disposal of a ruthless maniac.

But we do have that precedent now. And even as the last of the generation that defended the world from the horror of Nazism pass on, books like "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" live on to remind us that the quest for global peace and harmony cannot be a fool's utopian errand, but must rather be the essential goal to ensure that we do not destroy each other. This book is a reminder that war is hell, and that we cannot unleash it lightly; and just as we must resist the temptation of war when the national mood is that of bloodlust, we must not give in to naiveté and weakness when we are faced with an insatiable evil.

*Dexter - as in the kid from "Dexter's laboratory", not the serial killer from Showtime's "Dexter".

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Happy New Year: A taste of Bay Area Crossfit gyms

I met the New Year in San Francisco, and, along with walking the crooked streets and tasting the local fair-trade, all-organic fair, I could not pass up this opportunity to visit some of the Crossfit gyms in the area. This trip was the first time I have had a chance to see how gyms other than my own box operate, and I really enjoyed the experience.

The first gym I visited is Crossfit Santa Cruz. For Crossfit aficionados, this place holds some mystical significance: this is the "original" Crossfit, the place where Prometheus stole fire from the gods, and where the original disciples received the gospel of Greg Glassman. True to form, CF Santa Cruz sits inconspicuously in a row of the uniform garages that, for some reason, seem to house in equal proportion vintage clothes shops, industrial paint dealers, and chain-smoking Eastern European mechanics who specialize in oil changes and tint jobs.

You know you have found a true Crossfit box if you can get 20" rims next door while you work out.

The gym is small, about half the size of my home gym. Despite the fact that it was 9am on New Year's Eve, there were about fifteen people already warming up, dispelling my fear about possibly being the only people to show up. People consistently came up to us (my friend Maximus* and I) to introduce themselves, and that was before we officially went around in a circle to introduce us to start the class. When I joked about the West Coast friendliness, a guy later confessed that the owner makes the regulars do burpees if the gym members do not introduce themselves to visitors. From this, I formed several conclusions:
1. No one likes burpees.
2. The gym must get a lot of visitors.
3. West Coasters are still way friendlier than us (it took six months for our Navy jock-nerds to acknowledge my presence when I first joined).

I was surprised to find no overt indication of the gym's legacy as the original gym. Only a careful scan of the records on the wall, where "Back Squat - 450" was scribbled along with the name "P. Barber", betrayed the rich history of this unassuming place. I felt like an archeologist examining the ruins of the Jerusalem Old Town. Danielle, the owner and coach, was tireless in her coaching, and I learned a lot during the class.

This is what Pat Barber does when he is NOT working out. Imagine what he does at the gym!

The next day I went to check out San Francisco Crossfit. This place has apparently gained some fame in the Crossfit community. It is an outdoor facility in full view of the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, and coached by mobility expert Kelly Starrett and gymnastics guru Carl Paoli. I was amused to note that quite a few of our ladies who mentioned these guys and their gym to me assumed the same "he-is-so-dreamy" tone that they use when talking about Hugh Jackman or Patrick Dempsey. Guys, take note: mobility is sexy. And while I, regrettably, did not get a chance to meet the dreamboats themselves, I can certainly attest to the gym's emphasis on mobility. We did enough one-armed overhead squats to last me a lifetime, and my shoulders are still sore even as I write these words.

San Francisco crossfit has a lot of space, and there were a lot of people at the class (to be fair, this was the only class offered on New Year's Day). The coaches told everyone to turn to their neighbors and introduce each other, and I understood that there were a lot of drop ins in the class. That, plus the sheer number of people in the class made the experience feel quite impersonal even though I chatted with my neighbors, and the coaches were helpful and friendly. I am glad I dragged myself to experience a workout at San Francisco Crossfit - they are soon leaving their open-air spot with a grand view of the Golden Gate bridge for a state-of-the-art facility somewhere else in the city.

Incredible picture of the Golden Gate bridge courtesy of Maximus.

My biggest takeaway from my trip is that size matters. A small gym fosters relationships and translates into results. The coaches know their flock and understand their particular needs, strengths, and weaknesses. In the small confines of Crossfit Santa Cruz, Danielle (the coach) wasted no time critiquing my overhead squat even though I had known her for all of fifteen minutes. We get this level of coaching at my home gym. The gym members get to know each other, and this familiarity is a powerful motivator. Everyone wants to be fit and strong and to have the ability to do splits like Van Damme (when did the sun set on that career? And why did I not get a say in that decision?), but that abstract desire dissipates when you first open your eyes on a Monday morning or start shutting down your workspace after a tiring work day. Knowing that people you know are waiting at the gym to go through the class with you and push you along is the most effective way to bring you closer to the results you desire.

JCVD would probably like San Francisco Crossfit.
*Maximus is not his real name (yes, I also kind of wish it were).
I do not own all of the images used in this post, and I am grateful for the implicit permission of the owners as to their use.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Eventually everyone gets shot: a review of "Coming Apart" by Charles Murray

Why I read this book:

Charles Murray's "Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960 - 2010" made quite a splash among the editorial pages of the major newspapers, magazines, and the like outfits upon its publication. Murray, a political scientist and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, demonstrates that a gargantuan class divide has formed and accelerated in the last several decades as compared to the interconnected lifestyles of the American classes in the sixties. Murray argues that the confluence of education, technology, and enhanced mobility has led to the isolation of the elite classes in their own geographic, cultural, and social bubble at the same time as the lower classes have experienced a shocking decline in social capital measured by factors such as marriage rates, industriousness, and religiousness. The author focuses on the whites of America to remove race as a variable in this alarming discussion of the disintegration of the American social fabric.
When my favorite columnist, David Brooks, raved about the book in his column, I decided to see for myself what the hype was about. Looks like "The Hunger Games" will have to wait.


1. Somali shillings
2. Uzbekistani som
3.Turkish lira
4. Mexican peso
5. US dollar, baby.


The book comprises three main parts: demonstration of trends and data that identifies the geographic isolation of the elites and the disintegration of social capital in the lower classes, root cause analysis of the problem, and lastly, the author's recommendation for addressing the problem of the downward trend among the lower classes and the issue of the growing divide between the elite classes and everyone else.

The first part of the book produces the evidence for the conclusions that made "Coming Apart" the talk of the nation: the affluent and the educated are congregating in a handful of pockets of zip codes around major cities, flourishing, sipping good coffee, and living their lives largely unaffected by the rest of society, while the working class whites have experienced a sharply pronounced increase in unemployment rates (both willful and forced) and births out of wedlock as well as a corresponding decline in marriage rate and religious and civic participation.
Murray spends a considerable amount of time explaining his methodology using sexy terms such as "multivariate analysis" and producing a wide array of graphs to support his findings. While such discussions focus on the technicals more than the average reader (me) would care about, the discovery of trends and revealing graphs grasp at the same pleasure circuits as the more prettily wrapped works of social and behavioral economics such as "Freakonomics" and everything Malcolm Gladwell ever wrote.

The second and third parts of the book focus on the underlying causes of the divide between classes and the decay of the lower class and contain the author's views on addressing these issues. These sections of the book are subjective and open to debate (perhaps this is why every mention of "Coming Apart" that I saw in the newspapers and magazines cherry-picked only the conclusions of the first part of the book and ignore these sections), but they made a tremendous impression on me and garnered the book the highest of the ratings.

For starters, Murray spends a considerable amount of time discussing why the stratification of various elements of the American society is bad for the health of the country. At a time when inequality, economic or social, is one of the most charged political topics, how often have you stopped to think about if and why that is an issue? How often do you hear pundits and policy makers provide that explanation? The answer is practically never. You cannot, however, escape the hysterical cries of "We are the 99%" on the extreme left, finding their scapegoat in the richest 1% and short-sightedly focusing on a symptom instead of a cure; nor can you miss the roars of "socialism" and "class warfare" of the far right when the topic of inequality comes up, as they turn a deaf ear to the tremors of the changing times and choose the tactics of a shouting chid over a reasonable conversation with the other side. Murray devotes a number of pages to explain what most of us inherently know: that social trust and cohesion between citizens constitute the basic material for the success of the American project, and this effort alone elevates the book past much of the traffic I encounter on the television and the editorial pages of newspapers. 

Murray is a libertarian, and many of his views are unconventional and stir controversy, as he readily acknowledges. They are also untenable for all practical purposes. For instance, he argues that the vast amount of resources that our government devotes to fighting social ills with self-evident lack of results are so mishandled, we may be better off by writing everyone a check for their portion of the aforementioned resources. Where Murray stands out, however, is in his ability to identify the domestic problems facing the country, and to do so in a deeply analytic, intelligent way, backed by data and framed within a historical context, leaning on writings of men who shaped American history, such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexis De Tocqueville.

What touched me the most was Murray's ruminations on the issue of executive compensation. Murray pierces right through the tired debate (of course, the rate of executive compensation growth is egregious) with a simple, yet poignant rebuke: Have you, as an executive and a leading figure in the nation, given any thought to how unseemly your astronomical compensation and your golden parachute are? This appeal to the higher principles in our business leaders resonated with me. We tend to portray the captains of industry as star individual performers, the Kobe Bryants of business, who should be compensated as such. That may be, and I cannot advocate putting artificial restrictions on someone else's earnings. I can and will, however, stand behind the notion that a leader should recognize that his position places him in the vanguard of maintaining and shaping the values that govern this nation. Humility and selflessness may seem to be relics of a bygone era, a time that is ill-suited for the pace of today's events. Murray himself exposes his fears that the foundation of values that made America great may today be crumbling. I think those fears are misplaced despite his astute diagnosis of the issues facing the country. Despite the political turbulence of today's age, American democracy is still vibrant, and its companies and universities are still the centers of global innovation. I think we will emerge from the Great Recession and its aftereffects with a renewed sense of industriousness and importance of civic participation.

Do not despair, Charles Murray: If we can successfully bring back the high five, we can bring back virtuousness and humility.

Coincidentally, I had been searching for the intellectual basis for the conservative reaction to the handling of the Great Recession by making acquaintance with Arthur Brooks' "The Battle" and Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged". Those books left me disenchanted and in mourning for the hours that I spent laboring through the bleak, uninformative pages; hours that I could have put to use on something more productive such as watching "Game of Thrones" or working on my back squat. I stumbled upon Charles Murray's analysis by accident - the book was not advertised to me as a work of political philosophy. I am glad I did find this book - this work is by far the most robust, intelligent, and informative discussion of the foundational issues facing the nation that I have seen from an advocate of limited government. This book is not exactly an high-octane, action-packed thriller - this is not everyone's cup of tea. If you find this topic interesting, however, and you find yourself on the fence about whether to pick up this book, let me nudge over the edge. It will be worth your time; provided you are a fan of "multivariate analysis", of course.