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Kitchen Confidential

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000) by Anthony Boudain is a fun read from the now famous celebrity chef Anthony Boudain. It recounts Boudain’s time working as a cook and chef in New York.

It’s genuinely interesting, gritty and pretty funny in parts. From my limited experience working in a commercial kitchens it also sounds pretty realistic. The places I worked in, while good, were nothing like the incredible places where Boudain has worked, but still, there was the same camaraderie, slander and tough working conditions.

This book really shows just how incredibly tough it is working in a kitchen. The hours and the demands of the job are staggering. It’ll be interesting over the next few decades to see how much of this labor is displaced with automation, if indeed that much is. Human hands and flexibility are perhaps under appreciated.

The book also shows Boudain’s huge appreciation for food as well.It makes you appreciate the skill that goes into the creation of fine bread and other food.

Kitchen Confidential is an interesting, inspiring and amusing look at the restaurant trade and food.


Skin in the Game

Skin in the Game : The Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life (2018) by Nassim Taleb is Taleb’s latest book in what he calls his Incerto trilogy. Many people cannot stand Taleb. His style, his anger, his digressions and his contempt for much of academia put many people off. But he has some good things to say and without doubt the concept of Black Swans and Fat Tail risks has been propagated primarily by him. I personally like Taleb and generally enjoy what he has to say.

In this book Taleb emphasises that people can happily advise others about what to do often without having done it themselves and without suffering loss if others take their advice and fail. They have no skin in the game. Taleb contrasts this to people who have been in an industry, say trading, where personally wrecking things is a real danger. Bad trades like Nic Leeson’s have destroyed companies.

The book is tough going, particularly the early parts. Taleb has taken personally that he hasn’t gained real insider status and that many academics don’t like him. He believes they have failed to appreciate him. He goes after lots of people and personally criticises them. I almost gave up on the book. But it got better, I learnt some things and there are real insights in the book for people who persist. He views on religion are really interesting. The probability points he makes are also well worth considering.

For anyone who hasn’t read Taleb but has come across his ideas this book isn’t a good place to start. The Black Swan is better. For people who like him like myself the book is worthwhile, but be aware there is a lot of rehashing of his older works.

Enlightenment Now

Enlightenment Now : The Case for Reason, Science, and Humanism (2018) by Steven Pinker is a high selling non-fiction book by a famous author that espouses that humanity’s condition has improved dramatically in the past 200 years and also very dramatically in the past 50 years. In addition to that Pinker says that the reason for this improvement is Reason, Science and Humanism. Bill Gates recently said that book is his favourite of all time. Pinker is a Canadian born cognitive psychologist professor at Harvard. He has also written a number of very successful other books.

The fact that the number of people in the world living flourishing lives in the world over the past 200 years has shot up dramatically. This fact is critically important and has been sadly under reported. The recently deceased Swedish doctor Hans Rosling made a big effort with his ‘Gap minder’ website to collate statistics on the well being of people all over the world. His TED talk is fantastic and it has had a huge impact. The data show that life expectancy has shot up in poor parts of the world along with literacy and life expectancy. Max Roser, a German researcher, has furthered this sort of data collection in his fantastic our world in data project.

The book summarises these incredible developments well. Pinker states that the system of markets, science and democracy has worked better than anything in history and that the increase in well being is absolutely staggering. The book does cover much of the same ground that Matt Ridley’s ‘The Rational Optimist’ also does.

The other part of the book is stating that it is the ideas of the Enlightenment that have been furthered with atheism that has caused all this to take place and Pinker starts to take on those he believes are the enemies of The Enlightenment. This part is more problematic. Many of the major Enlightenment thinkers were religious, in particular Kant, as have been many major scientific figures including Newton, Maxwell and others. They were not seeking to put forward new thinking based just on reason but instead to use reason to justify their beliefs better. There have been critiques of the book from academics who study The Enlightenment that point out these issues .

Pinker also makes the point that a lot of the humanities have become heavily left wing and politicised and intolerant. Pinker points out that in many Humanities departments there are as many Marxists as conservatives with the majority being substantially left, and many hard left wing. They have also become intolerant of idealogical diversity. Pinker points out that this is also leading to much of the humanities become irrelevant. Science is seen by post modernists as just another version of truth that is primarily about propagating an oppressive point of view.

Much of the great progress over the past 20 years is also due to China’s rise and it is interesting to ponder if the rise of a nominally Marxist but certainly totalitarian state coupled to a market economy that uses science is a rise compatible with The Enlightenment.

Pinker’s previous book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ was challenged by Nassim Taleb on the basis that a single modern nuclear war would make the entire thesis incorrect. Pinker responds to this criticism in the book. However, he doesn’t name Taleb which is a bit petty.

The book concludes with a defence of Liberalism and Humanism and references to The UN’s Declaration of Human Rights and a manifesto for a new Humanism.

Overall, Enlightenment Now is well worth a read for the statistics that point out just how much the modern world has improved in so many dimensions. Pinker’s idealogical justification for this rise isn’t as strong and is apparently not as well researched.




The Only Story

The Only Story (2018) by Julian Barnes is a story about a tragic first love and a man looking back over his life.

Barnes writes superbly as usual. His prose is measured and delivers stories of middle class English life brilliantly. The book is moving and quite depressing and delivers emotion very well well. Perhaps some readers will find the sweet sadness that characterizes his other books. This one didn’t work for me however, the initial story and development work but later in the book the timeline speeds up and it feels a little as though Barnes wanted to finish the book.

It’s not his finest book but definitely worth a read for anyone who appreciates Barnes books.

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (199) by Eugene B Sledge is an incredible memoir of fighting in the US Marines in the Pacific in World War II in some of the bloodiest battles of the war.

Eugene Sledge was the son of a doctor and was in college and could have become an officer but instead became an enlisted Marine and was in a mortar crew. After the war he went on to become a Professor of Biology.

The book describes the incredible trials and bloody nature of the war where Sledge was. The graphic and matter of fact nature of the startling events is really something. The Japanese changed their tactics from Banzai Charges to defense in depth as they retreated across the islands. The fighting was brutal.

The book is engrossing.

Five go Away on a Strategy Away Day

Five Go Away on a Strategy Away Day (2016) by Bruno Vincent is a satirical Famous Five book where they go on a corporate away day full of buzzwords and team building skills. It’s clever, I picked the book, laughed and wound up reading it through a short time later.

It’s clever, not brilliant, if you’re in the right mood it would be really amusing. Strategy away days are rich fodder for satire. It doesn’t quite really work though.

The Catastrophe Signal

The Catastrophe Signal (2017) by Bernie Lewin is an interesting, but sometimes hard going history of atmospheric climate panels and conferences. The book goes through the panels, research and various investigations that leads up to the International Panel on Climate Change IPCC becoming the dominant greenhouse gas adjudicating panel that provides scientific justification for attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It covers the research into the effects of the Supersonic Transport (SST) on the Ozone layer, to people worried about global cooling in the 1970s to the Ozone Hole Research and panels in the 1980s and later the IPCC. It’s really very interesting, the political justification for much of the research and the early reactions of bodies like the WMO to this kind of research is fascinating. It would be rare to find anyone today who is even aware of the worry about global climate of the SST.

It is also remarkable to read about how action on Ozone was taken before there really was a scientific consensus on the effects. Again, it’s also remarkable to find that much of this action was supported strongly by conservative governments around the world.

The  book is more of a valuable serious history than an entertaining read, it is, quite frankly due to the scholarly nature a bit arduous in parts. But it is also rewarding. It becomes clear that activists have driven the process for negotiations and consensus repeatedly. In different cases the outcomes have been very different. On the SST and global cooling effectively nothing happened, on Ozone steps were taken and then scientific justification was found.