You won’t like him when he’s angry

The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating by Anthony Warner. Oneworld Publications, 2017. 9781786072160.

Sarah: I went to Seattle’s cookbook bookstore, Book Larder, and ended up buying a bunch. I highly recommend this bookstore because they don’t have everything, they just have good things. I grabbed several cookbooks plus this one, because the summary of it said it’s exactly the kind of thing I like to read. It’s by this guy with a background in cooking and in chemistry who is angry about fad diets and the bad science and the bad dietary advice they propagate. He covers some of the more recent fad diets and what’s wrong with them, and then has chapters in between where he talks about how to think more critically, more scientifically, how to ask the questions that you need to ask, why you might seem to have good results from a diet even if it doesn’t really work, and how people will recommend a diet if they think it has an effect but if it doesn’t they won’t discourage you.
Gene: If it doesn’t have an effect?
S: So if you try the amazing new whatever diet and it doesn’t do anything for you, are you going to put a testimonial to that effect on the website promoting the diet?
G: Probably not.
S: So I picked it up, expecting to love it because it’s exactly my speed. But I ended up not loving it.
G: Not loving this book?
S: Because it turns out I’ve already read this information. I’m already aware of all of the things he’s talking about, and he covers more of the how to think critically part and less about the crazy diets and where they came from. I ended up skimming to the parts about the new crazy diets and how they originated. I think it’s a good book, but it’s the wrong time for me to read it. This book would have been great for me twenty years ago.
G: Where did you get that information, did you find it in diet books and on websites?
S: I have read other, similar works by medical people and people writing general debunking and critical thinking books. It’s a genre that I read.
G: So you’re wowed by this book because it’s all there.
S: It’s all there! It’s all in one book.
G: And you’ve read enough on the subject that you know it’s good.
S: It’s really good!
G: But this is not the book for you right now because you have read enough books on critical thinking, especially about diets, that what you would get from this book you already have.
S: Exactly!
G: This is a new kind of Book Wow! So it did wow you, you just didn’t need to read it.
S: Right! He has this really great chapter explaining regression to the mean where he explains the concept in a really clear way with an example from his life.
G: What was it?
S: He had this sous chef, mostly he did fine, but every once in a while he would do terribly, he would really mess up in the kitchen. Then he’d get yelled at and the next day he would be better. And every once in a while he would have an awesome day and his bosses would think he finally was getting the hang of this and then the day after, he would drop back to his normal level again. But the author and another chef were talking about this, trying to figure out how help him. The author tried to be encouraging when he did really well, but the other guy only ever yelled at him when he sucked. Now he’s realizing that the whole thing was regression to the mean. The highs and the lows… if you have a really high day, do the best you’ve ever done, you’re not going to stay at the highest point, you’re going to drift back to your average. The worst day you’ve ever had, same thing. So if your health is terrible, and you don’t have a degenerative condition, you’re going to feel better eventually no matter what you do. No matter what diet you try, if you feel cruddy, eventually you’re going to feel better. And the reverse is the same, if you do really awesome, you’re going to get back to normal at some point. It’s this thing that makes an effect appear to happen with all sorts of interventions. If you’re doing a scientific study, you need to have various controls to spot this. He talks about how it’s very difficult to spot, and the whole idea of regression to the mean is recent, it’s only been around since the late 1800s, even though people have been evaluating information like this for a long time. But this was really hard to see.
G: This kind of non-effect effect.
S: You see something happen, but it didn’t happen for the reason you think it did.
G: So things seem to work for you because you are generally OK. Whatever you’re doing is OK. If you feel super-shitty after you ate X, then you feel better when you eat Y, you think you feel better because you ate Y, but not really. You just feel better because you generally feel better.
S: Yeah, and they have to control for this in medicine, when they test a new drug, because that’s exactly what happens with everything. The author says people will ask him, “If this guy feels better after he stops eating gluten, what’s the harm?” and he says that it’s because it’s really limiting your diet, it’s hard to get all the nutrients you need. People who legit have celiac disease have to be super careful. And people will tend to keep eliminating more and more things from their diet.
G: Yeah, that’s interesting.
S: And he has a very carefully-written chapter about eating disorders. He says that he had previously made this statement, that now he realizes is incorrect and apologizes for saying it and for being insensitive about it, and he’d had a lot of people talk to him and correct him: he had said that these fad diets cause people to get eating disorders. Now he says that it isn’t that they cause eating disorders, but people may have an underlying susceptibility to eating disorders and sometimes the thing that triggers them or maybe is the first sign of eating disorders manifesting is that they start doing Clean Eating, which is a particular type of fad diet. You’ll talk to someone who works at an eating disorder clinic and they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, like 90 percent of people in this clinic started out with Clean Eating.”
G: What is Clean Eating?
S: It designates certain foods as “dirty” and certain foods as “clean.” Theoretically it’s emphasizing eating more vegetables, eating less processed food, but it ends up giving people a huge array of foods to avoid, that they must remember which are good and which are bad. You end up eliminating the bad foods, and feeling happy that you were able to eliminate the bad foods, that you are good and not bad. It’s really appealing to the part of your brain that can get disordered. The idea of cleanliness, the idea of goodness, the idea of purity associated with your eating really sinks its claws into the part of you that wants to have an eating disorder.
G: Is this like when people talk about a cleanse? Like a blueberry cleanse?
S: I think there’s some overlap, but I think it’s slightly different. (There’s a good overview of it in The Guardian by food writer Bee Wilson.)
You’re going to see it everywhere now, it’s been a fad for maybe five years. I had been seeing books on Clean Eating at the library and wondered, “Clean? How so?”
A lot of this originated on his blog and he talks about how it has changed based on input from his readers, people who wrote in and gave him more context and more information.

Why does that guy’s name always come first?

Lewis & Clark by Nick Bertozzi. First Second, 2011. 9781596434509. 144pp.

Gene: This is the Lewis & Clark graphic novel by Nick Bertozzi, who is amazing. His Shackleton graphic novel is also famous among librarians. I really like his books. I have some of the original art from the Shackelton graphic novel on my wall. I’m a huge fan of his work. And I’m happy to report he seems super cool — I met him at SPX a few years ago.
I love this one even though I don’t enjoy nonfiction graphic novels much. I read it again recently because I wanted to have a sense of Lewis and Clark’s journey after seeing so many places they stopped on my drive from Seattle to North Dakota and back last summer.
Bertozzi’s art gives a great sense of being on the plains. And I’m sending it to my library school advisor Carol Doll (who I visited in North Dakota) because I’ve been looking for graphic novels she’d like. (I also sent her Marzi, about a girl growing up in Poland behind the Iron Curtain, and 3 volumes of Northlanders, and Brian Wood’s comic series about Vikings, which she said was a little too violent.) So I’m sending this, Sharon Shinn’s graphic novel from First Second (she’s a fan), and, because she’s interested in the history of the west, the Audubon graphic novel as well, which is my go-to gift of the year along with F*ck That’s Delicious.

Continue reading “Why does that guy’s name always come first?”

Marathons: Not a Spectator Sport

The Great American Foot Race: Ballyhoo for the Bunion Derby! by Andrew Speno. Calkins Creek, 2017. 9781629796024.

A book about an ultramarathon from Los Angeles to New York City in 1928 might be a hard sell for most readers, but this book packs in a huge amount of fascinating information about the race, the runners, and the issues of the time: the rise of professional sports, corporate sponsorship, the emergence of agents, the dawn of the US interstate highway system (the race was run on the newly-completed Route 66), city boosterism, ballyhoo and humbug (there was a lot of overstated publicity for the race), and even the rivalry between running and race walking. Segregation became an issue as the black runners passed through Texas and Oklahoma — some received threats as they ran. A total of 55 men finished the race. Doctors were astonished that none seemed to suffer long-term health problems. This book is the paper equivalent of those ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries that suck you in even if you had no previous interest in the topic.

John “Two Sheds” Hodgman

Vacationland: True Stories From Painful Beaches by John Hodgman, narrated by the author. Penguin Audio, 2017. 9780525497691.

Hodgman’s previous books, a trilogy of compendiums of fake facts, had elements of his life woven in, from love to family to mortality. Vacationland has more of a narrative arc: he tells stories of the vacation home he grew up visiting and then owning after the death of his mother, then shifts to his new family’s vacations in Maine, where his wife grew up vacationing. He weaves funny anecdotes into the way he comes to terms with his place in the world: making stacks of river stones with a friend while high, how he ended up with his own apartment in high school, the oddness of the Maine dialect humor industry, and the by turns funny and horrifying story of getting an iron hook through his hand and going to the hospital. As he points out himself, a story of having two vacation homes is not likely to be relatable to most readers, but his voice (both literal and literary) made this audiobook tremendously enjoyable.

Storytelling for Good and Evil

Design Is Storytelling by Ellen Lupton. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2017. 9781942303190. 160 pp.

Sarah: I came to Design is Storytelling thinking it would be more about storytelling as applied to designing objects, but it’s more about using the different techniques of design to influence people. And it ends up boiling down to a lot of stuff about designing a product or service or experience people want and want to interact with.
Gene: Like the Chipotle customer line?
Sarah: Yeah. This is a chapter on the narrative arc, and as an example, how you get food at Chipotle vs. at McDonald’s.
Gene: What’s the takeaway?
Sarah: In Chipotle, there’s a defined place for you to go, there’s an interaction that takes you along the line, and then you finish, get the food, pay and you go. In McDonald’s you stand in one of several lines and talk to someone, someone else makes the food, and then it’s delivered to a different spot by a person you’ve never seen before while you’re waiting in an area that’s undefined so you just sort of mill around. The design is not as good.
Lupton brings in a lot of real world examples: how grocery stores are set up, how they draw you through what you buy; how each IKEA is set up…
Gene: The belly of the warehouse!
S: …and she makes a point, people say IKEA is a maze but it’s not, it’s a labyrinth with a defined path that you’re supposed to take.
Gene: Is that the difference between a labyrinth and a maze?
S: Yeah, in a maze you don’t know where you’re going and you might have dead ends.
G: I thought this book was going to be all about graphics.
S: No, the writer is a design instructor, and so in the section on storyboards she shows how to use them to walk people through any potential problems with people interacting with a product or service. How do you find the points where people are going to get annoyed, where it won’t work, and how do you explain the problems in a way so that the solution is exactly this product, which you need. So there’s an ongoing example of people riding their bikes and then wanting to take a bus but its bike rack is full, or a friend offers a ride but their trunk doesn’t have space for your bike. So how do you do multi-mode transportation that includes bikes?
But then she’ll also talk about the storyboard being the product, like an app, that will take you through the actions someone could take and what it will look like when those actions are taken.
And then there’s a whole chapter on the storytelling Rule of Three. In some part she acknowledges that this is based on some particular Western mode of thought and storytelling. (In other cultures’ traditional tales, this rule doesn’t apply.)
G: That’s why foreign films often feel so different, right? Because they don’t use the same basic structure. They feel unfamiliar. It’s one of the reasons I love foreign horror films — I never know what’s going to happen next.
S: So she talks a lot about good design vs. bad design, how to predict future problems and opportunities. There’s an example on future outcomes for a museum where most of their users are researchers but not many regular people. Where did it want to be? A ton of visitors or just a few? A blockbuster exhibition where there’s a ton of folks but nobody can touch anything, or something more interactive. It’s a way to think about the future.
So more and more of this as you read is going to sound like the times your library system made you do focus groups. These are all of the vocab words that seemed so foreign to me as a library worker about how to think about the future and options and all the sort of creative thinking focus group stuff. One of the things she gets into is emotion and how it plays a huge part in our decision making, even though we think we’re rational when making decisions and interacting with things. And how patterns of experience can give patterns of reaction. (There’s a great example about people putting their hands in buckets of cold water.)
She talks about how Starbucks is an experience. If you were just buying coffee you’d buy cheap coffee, but it is an experience of attention and setting and all of this other stuff. They write your name on the cup! There’s nice music! It smells good.
G: Does that mean the guy driving his Porsche is having a better experience than I am driving my Honda?
S: Probably. She gets into this stuff and it starts to sound like mind control. Trying to get you to use things. Making you like them better because of small changes not based on the product itself exactly, but its personality.
G: You mean it works the same but looks different?
S: Yes. There’s this thing about gendered products. Chapstick is gender neutral, but EOS doesn’t appeal to men. Changing something’s color can change people’s assumptions about it. Greenwashing — trying to make a product sound more ecologically friendly than it is. This can just about the physical packaging being green. That alone makes people assume something is ecologically responsible. There are other messages you can send with other colors.
There’s a page of how we find what’s different in two images, what we notice and what we don’t. Affordance. Eye mapping.
G: I want to say for the recording, you’re skimming over a lot of points but this book is full of graphics that illustrate all of these and more. Right now there are a lot of dots and letters and stuff on the page, and they’re making me aware of where my eye is drawn. It’s an exercise in how to emphasize different things. It’s making me think about library displays, and the non-design of them — we can build a great display but it will change as books are checked out and somewhat randomly replaced with whatever available.
S: This is a nice rundown of all of these design ideas, particularly in a commercial context, and how they can be used for good or evil, to confuse or inform.

Look It Up, Fuzzball

You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia by Jack Lynch. Bloombury Press, 2016. 9780802777522. 464pp.

In twenty-five chapters Jack Lynch, a Professor of English at Rutgers University, describes fifty seminal reference works throughout the ages. For example, chapter six describes the centuries-long impact of Avicenna’s (ibn Sina’s) million-word, encyclopedic and authoritative The Canon of Medicine then contrasts it with the Anglo-Saxon Bald’s Leechcraft which, in a more practical 32,000 words, gave Roman prescriptions (and included substitutes readily available to Britons).

Lynch knows that reference works are not static, despite presenting some that are literally carved in stone or baked into clay. As of publication Grey’s Anatomy was in its 40th edition, and Lynch says no text nor drawings from the original remain in the current version. That stalwart desk reference for physical science, The CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, is in its 95th edition and going strong, although its author, the Chemical Rubber Corporation, hasn’t sold any rubber or chemicals in decades. (Lynch always tries to encapsulate the publication history of each of the reference works he highlights, right down to the page count and the weight!)

Lynch buffers these chapters with shorter sections in which he discusses trends in the genre, like the transition from scrolls to books. Most amusing is “Ghosts and Montweazels” in which Lynch discusses accidental and deliberate errors. Publishers and compilers commonly err as to the scope and scale of their projects; century-long efforts are not unknown. Some works even have revisions before they’re completed.

Great dictionaries and encyclopedias that defined languages and even nations are covered, but Lynch gives science and technology its due. Chapter 10 discusses those aides to computation and description, Henry Briggs’ Arithmetica Logarithmica and Johannes Kepler’s Tabalae Rudolphinae. “We are left with the strange paradox that mathematical tables were rendered entirely obsolete by the computer, although tables were the main reason computers were invented,” Lynch writes.

There are also reference books that are just plain fun. Lynch briefs us on a select group of games rule books and sports record books. He also writes about a sex manual which was in print for centuries, and a 1761 directory of London sex workers! If you’re wondering how to keep all these references organized, Lynch describes the efforts of the great catalogers to bring order and utility to the world’s libraries. (Yes, library catalogs are reference works.) He also reveals how his own home bookshelf is arranged.

Lynch confesses the printed reference work may be in need of a eulogy. Everything is moving online. If it’s a eulogy he’s written, it’s a great one.

Thanks to Robert in San Diego for this guest review!


F*ck, That’s Delicious: An Annotated Guide to Eating Well by Action Bronson with Rachel Wharton. Abrams, 2017. 9781419726552.

Gene: Do you know Action Bronson? He has a show on Vice called Fuck, That’s Delicious.  He’s a chef, a hip hop performer, a TV host, a stoner, and I fell in love with him I was when I was staying with friends during a Texas library conference on April 20th, not realizing the 420 pot smoking connection. The Vice channel had a show featuring Action Bronson and his friends getting high and watching the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens.  The show was “projected” onto a green screen behind them. I couldn’t stop laughing. It beat every Cheech and Chong movie ever.
Action Bronson is tattooed and has a giant beard and his look doesn’t scream “celebrity chef” or a “hip hop star,” but he is. He loves life and good food.
Sarah: I love that aspect of hyper-positivity in contemporary culture! It’s so nice. The book is dedicated to his nonna, his grandmother.
G: It’s 100 amazing things: moments, meals, places, people, artifacts, and accessories. His Albanian grandma cooked bread three times a day. That’s everything you need to know about him right there. Loves his family, grew up in Queens eating food from everywhere.
The first entry: “1. A Bowl of Crispix Over The Sink”. This is no BS. He talks about other cereals. Apparently he only eats the marshmallows out of Lucky Charms, which I think is wrong. #2 is —
S: Chankonabe! Sumo stew!
G: This sent me to the internet to watch a clip of him and his buddies wrestling in Japan.
S: That’s great.
G: He has a tip here to look up Big Japan Pro Wrestling, which features matches with piranha tanks.
Here they are wandering around Japan. They eat street food and in five-star restaurants.
The next section is on bagels. I’ve only eaten one of his “Five Bagels Around The World,” at La Maison in Montreal, Quebec. It was fantastic.
S: I still need to have a Montreal bagel.
G: Man! Cooked in a wood burning oven. So good. And that leads to his USDA food pyramid, which is all bagels.
There are some recipes here, here’s one for golden beet poke, another for chicken pot pie. Entry #7 is “A Key Food Bag”. An ode to a grocery store bag!  #8 is “Chewy Candies”. #9 is a list of incredible pairings, including Big Macs and Fat Camp. Each pairing is explained in a paragraph. Apparently a counselor at his camp slipped him food, and he sold it. He not only lost weight, he lost his virginity to his counselor.
Here’s a recipe for what must be the best chocolate chip cookies.
S: With butter on them?
G: Salted honey butter. There’s a recipe for how to make that, too.
S: Intense.
G: Its like, he’s not going to worry about anything. I probably won’t make the butter if I try these. But Action Bronson is just going to go for it because it’s awesome.
#11 is about crispy rice, including a list of what it’s called in different countries. It’s “nurungji” in Korean, and most often found at the edge of hot stone bowl bibimbap, which he mentions.
#21 is about toothpicks, including the plastic ones with floss (which he loves), the square ones in Europe (which he doesn’t like), and MetroCards.
#22 is a recipe for Explosive Chicken, which is the first thing I’m going to make from this. I’m going to use this to win Silver [my wife] to his side.
S: Szechuan peppercorns!
G: She’s not a fan of his shows or this book, but if it’s hot enough I’ll be able to put on an episode of Fuck That’s Delicious and she won’t notice until she’s laughing. And by then it will be too late.