Cigarettes’ secret shame

RJR gambled against the trend of tasteless cigarettes, opting to load their new filter tip with tar and nicotine, so that even after the filter had done its work some taste and tar would remain intact. In deference, however, to the modern smoker’s less discriminating palates, they decided that quality of taste could be compromised, and that their new filter brand might make use of the 30 per cent or so of tobacco wasted in processing in the manufacture of normal cigarettes. After rigorous experiments with a coffee grinder and a pulp press, RJR came up with RST — Reconstituted Sheet Tobacco — which used all the stems, leaf ribs, tobacco scraps and dust which had hitherto been thrown away…

The introduction of RST marks a change in the cigarette manufacturers’ perception of their customers. Cigarettes, despite their origin as poor man’s tools, had nevertheless been a genuine tobacco habit. The paper skin that rendered their contents invisible was accepted by both manufacturer and consumer to be at most a necessary evil, but never a cloak of darkness beneath which secrets were concealed. Once manufacturers started treating their products as a package instead of a tobacco delivery system, and a package that had to look prettier or promise better health, wealth, or appearance than their competitors’ brands, they effectively abandoned the integrity of their product in favor of its appearance.

That’s from Iain Gately’s Tobacco, a fantastic cultural history on read on my long plane rides this week. Gately illustrates how today’s demonization of tobacco paints with far too broad a brush. Cigarettes are the most visible and deadly form of smoking, but they are to tobacco what mass market light lagers are to beer: convenient, fast, flavorless bastardizations of what the product can truly achieve. Cigarettes succeeded because they’re cheap, marketable, and quickly smoked, giving consumers the power (or curse) to keep up a steady nicotine fix. Pipe and cigar smoking are much older, much safer practices. The flavors they offer are much more developed. But because they take time and effort, they’re much less frequently enjoyed today than they used to be. Unfortunately, the same bans that throw cigarette smokers out of doors often thwart pipe and cigar smokers entirely. A bracing two minute cigarette break outside in the Boston winter is one thing, but an hour outdoors with a cigar? Not worth the frostbite.

Gately’s wide-ranging look at tobacco culture would enhance anyone’s appreciation for the plant while giving hope for the future; though today’s smoking bans appear draconian, they’re nothing next to the kingly proclamations and death sentences smoking used to elicit. These too shall pass, and hopefully with them quality tobacco’s current cultural insignificance.

Save Carthage!


A six part trilogy

Reading the news for the past few days makes it feel like I’m living in a Douglas Adams’ novel, so it’s a fitting time to hear that the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s trilogy is getting a new installment:

Douglas Adams’s increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy is to be extended to six titles, after Adams’s widow Jane Belson sanctioned a project which will see children’s author Eoin Colfer taking up the story.

And Another Thing… by Colfer, whose involvement with the project was personally requested by Belson, will be published next October by Penguin. No information has yet emerged about the plot of the novel…

Adams himself had plans for a sixth Hitchhiker book, saying in an interview: “People have said, quite rightly, that Mostly Harmless is a very bleak book. And it was a bleak book. I would love to finish Hitchhiker on a slightly more upbeat note, so five seems to be a wrong kind of number, six is a better kind of number.” …

Colfer himself is currently grappling with nerves over the quality of his addition to Adams’ oeuvre. “I feel more pressure to perform now than I ever have with my own books, and that is why I am bloody determined that this will be the best thing I have ever written,” he said. “For the first time in decades I feel the uncertainty that I last felt in my teenage years. There are people out there that really want to like this book.”

Adams is a hell of an act to follow but Colfer sounds like he has the right attitude about it.


Coffee, sex, and Starbucks

“When a woman gives a man coffee, it is a way of showing her desire.” According to the Economist, that’s the theme of a new novel exploring the intersection of coffee, love, and sex.

For some reason it’s never worked out this way with my girlfriends. Maybe they just don’t appreciate the “constructive criticism.”

In other coffee news, Reason.TV’s Michael Moynihan recently examined the growth of indie shops and the decline of the once unstoppable Starbucks. Pleasant surprise: my friend Jocelyne from Open City’s sister restaurant Tryst explains how the shop has thrived in the face of competition. Click over here to watch it.


Grape and Bean in The Post

Grape and Bean, Big Bear, and Murky all get coverage in The Washington Post today in an article by Michaele Weissman, author of the new book God in a Cup. Weissman’s book covers the new wave specialty coffee industry from seed to cup, profiling the people at Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and other roasters, along with baristas, farmers, and importers. Though perhaps too personal at times, it’s an interesting and sympathetic look at our sometimes weird and obsessive subculture. Definitely recommended.


Dust-Up in the L.A. Times

This week in the L.A. Times Dust-Up feature, I’m discussing food policy with Paul Roberts, author of the recently released The End of Food. We take on a different question each day, taking turns on who goes first. Today’s question considers food-borne illness in our produce: is it a major menace or a manageable threat?

This should be a fun discussion. Paul and I don’t agree on everything, as you’ll see in the coming week, but we’d both like to see consumers eating better, fresher food, an end to subsidies for industrial farming, and regulations that aren’t bent to the interests of major corporate players. His book is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in why so much of our food is so bad and how out of touch we are with its origins.



Jeff has tagged me with a meme:

1) Open the nearest book to page 123.

2) Post sentences 6, 7, and 8 from that page.

3) Tag five others.

Not a very good meme, but since it’s a weekend, I haven’t been memed in a while, and the nearest book is very good, I’ll do it. The book is On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee’s 800 page behemoth of a book about the science of food. Though a useful reference, it’s so well written that it’s enjoyable reading straight through; I’m at 646 right now. From 123:

Meat consumption on this scale is possible only in wealthy societies like our own, because animal flesh remains a much less efficient source of nourishment than plant protein. It takes much less grain to feed a person that it does to feed a steer or chicken in order to feed a person. Even today, with advanced methods of production, it takes 2 pounds of grain to get 1 pound of chicken meat, and the ratios are 4 to 1 for pork, 8 to 1 for beef.

I’ll tag Chad, only because he hasn’t updated since March 6.


Gene Healy blogs again

After a long blog hiatus, Gene Healy is back with a new site and a new book to promote. The blog is here, and a welcome return for those of us who’ve missed his grumbly libertarian cynicism. The book is The Cult of the Presidency, an examination of how the modern American president has acquired excessive powers at the expense of individual liberty and good government. I’m about halfway through it now and recommend it highly.

[Disclosure: Part of my job is promoting this book, but if you think that represents a conflict of interest then you profoundly overestimate the size of this blog’s readership.]


Thought for the new year

“The worst thing we do to ourselves is not about giant hats, tight corsets, bad diets, or cosmetic surgery; the worst thing we do to ourselves is to let ourselves get trapped in thoughts and behaviors for decades, for a lifetime, repeating and repeating. What a paralyzing potion culture can be! The antidote is history.”

— Jennifer Hecht, The Happiness Myth


Gift ideas for coffee and cocktail lovers

Stuff I’ve enjoyed this year…

PUG! Muddler — Your friend probably doesn’t need a muddler this big, but damn, it’s cool. Also good for beating down that unruly house guest who’s had a few too many mojitos.

Eva Solo brewer — Brews like a French press, but with style. This is what I use every day at my “desktop coffee shop” now that I’m in a think tank instead of working as a barista. The advantages over a traditional press are the modern design, insulating jacket, and drip-free pour spout. It’s questionable whether these marginal improvements are worth the hefty price tag, but it’s a great coffee maker.

The Joy of Mixology — The book I used to learn the basics of bartending and one I still constantly reference. A major virtue is that instead of just throwing together a list of random recipes (though there are plenty), author Gary Regan groups them into families so that, say, it’s easy to see how a margarita and a sidecar are variations on the same theme. This is a perfect resource for learning the essentials of mixing drinks.

Starbucked –The definitive history of the green giant. Author Taylor Clark pulls no punches lamenting Starbucks’ fall from serious coffee outfit to purveyor of sugary milk drinks while giving due praise to the company’s branding genius and credit for promoting American cafe culture. A fun, informative read in or out of a giant purple plush lounge chair.

Baratza Virtuoso grinder — Forget overpriced coffee makers that make a crappy brew from pods of pre-ground beans. Give a good burr grinder instead. There are others on the market, but this one has been working wonderfully for me.

The Art of the Bar — I came across the restaurant Absinthe by chance in San Francisco a few years ago and didn’t get a cocktail. Big mistake! This book, written by a couple of the restaurants’ bartenders, offers up lush photos, sound advice on crafting drinks, and intriguing recipes. Many of the drinks require obscure ingredients, but anyone who likes to explore will find this a fun book to delve into.

Counter Culture Coffee — Durham-based Counter Culture is taking over the East Coast with its wonderful single origin coffees. You can’t go wrong ordering from them, but this trio of differently processed microlots from Aida Batlle in El Salvador sounds particularly appealing.

Imbibe magazine subscription –The only magazine I read cover to cover as soon as a new issue comes in. Great cocktail recipes and informative articles related to beverages of all kinds.

Zyliss citrus zester — Having the right tools is everything. I had a channel knife and struggled to get a decent twist with it. After reading the review of this one in Imbibe, I ordered it as a replacement. What an improvement! Cutting long twists should be easy. With this knife, it is.

[Cross-posted at Smelling the Coffee.]


Recent reading

Been a long time since I’ve done one of these, lots to catch up on…

Cocaine, Dominic Streatfeild — I don’t know how this British paperback ended up in a Houston used book store, but I’m glad it did. A fun and informative history of cocaine, presenting a balanced view of the drug’s dangers and the gross injustices of prohibition. The author journeyed to South American jungles and prisons to get the story of cocaine through all aspects of the supply chain.

The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform, John Samples — This book thoroughly establishes its thesis that campaign finance laws developed as a means of protecting established politicians and parties, allowing them to use anti-corruption rhetoric to make raising campaign money more difficult for challengers. Two criticisms: 1) The opening chapters and occasional paragraphs elsewhere in the book emphasize the opposition between Madisonian and Progressive visions of politics that could needlessly alienate readers who don’t consciously identify with either approach. 2) Some discussion of how campaign finance laws are used by established political groups to bully grassroots outsiders would have further helped the author’s case.

The Weathermakers, Tim Flannery — Good for the basics of climate change, though excessively alarmist in my view. Also, the overly metaphorical chapter titles make it annoyingly hard to use as a reference.

Unto Others, Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson — The first part, about robust evolutionary models of altruistic behavior, is fascinating. The second, about testing the psychology of altruism, is less so.

The Prism and the Pendulum, Robert Crease — Wonderful book featuring ten of the most beautiful experiments in science, explaining how scientists without access to huge grants and modern technology cleverly came up with answers to fundamental questions.

Radicals for Capitalism, Brian Doherty — Makes me excited to be libertarian again. Thorough and well-written. A bit meandering at times, but if a 600 page book on the history of the modern American libertarian movement appeals to you, you won’t be disappointed.

The Long Tail, Chris Anderson — Good book, interesting subject, lots of supporting data, but I suspect the essentials can be just as easily gleaned from the magazine article.

The Essential Epicurus, Epicurus — He’s not the gourmand he’s commonly assumed to be. The actual Epicurus emphasized the virtues of restraint, simplicity, and friendship over the unquenchable desire for esteem and physical pleasure.

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann — There’s nothing I could say about this book that hasn’t been said before, so I’ll just note that it’s a fantastic novel of ideas with beautiful meditations on the perception of time. Starts out slow, but draws one in. One of my favorite novels now.

The Boy Who Would Live Forever, Frederik Pohl — The Gateway novels were among my favorite sci-fi series in high school. The characters in this new addition to the universe don’t quite live up to those in the earlier books, but it’s still a good read.


Book meme from Ben

Just when I was feeling out of things to write about, Ben saves me with a meme.

1. One book that changed your life: That’s an easy one. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. I find most of her writing ponderous now, but when I read it high school it was compelling. Since I had the good luck to grow up without religion it was my first flirtation with an all-embracing ideology. Fortunately I moved on to other things, but it’s safe to say that without Atlas… no Torch, no IHS seminars, no Cato internship. And no eventual burn out that led to becoming a barista? Perhaps. The alternate life in which I didn’t read this book while young is hard to picture.

2. One book that you’ve read more than once: The Great Gatsby. In high school I hated it. Like one Amazon reviewer, I considered it “no more than a lengthy description of the doings of fops.” Re-reading it in a philosophy and lit class at Vanderbilt I finally recognized it as the great American novel.

3. One book you’d want on a desert island: Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Its praise of solitude would be ideal for a desert island and its aphoristic style would be good for non-sequential browsing.

4. One book that made you laugh: Steve Martin’s The Pleasure of My Company.

5. One book that made you cry: Not sure I’ve every been physically moved to tears by a book. If I have, it was probably from Of Mice and Men or To Kill a Mockingbird.

6. One book that you wish had been written: An additional novel by Peter Taylor.

7. One book you wish had never been written: The Catcher in the Rye. There are probably novels with protoganonists less likeable than Holden Caulfield, but I haven’t read them.

8. One book you’re currently reading: (You could just look at the sidebar.) The Medici Giraffe, a series of historical vignettes detailing how exotic animals have been used by people in power to add to their prestige and cement diplomatic relations. It’s well-written and a fascinating jumping off point for the various tales. Plus the title of the epilogue — “Little people in furry suits” — makes me giggle. I assume the chapter is a musing on anthropomorphism, but I like to interpret it more comically.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read: Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. It sounds fascinating, but the equations and code are intimidating for someone as poor at math as I am.

I’m not sure I have the blog cred right now to tag anyone Ben hasn’t already tagged. But if you want to play along, go for it.


Vacation reading review

Over the course of a week in the Michigan Upper Peninsula I was able to knock four books off my “to read” shelf:

Cheese PrimerWhen most people think of beach reading, they think of escapist fiction. This has never made sense to me. I can read escapist stuff anytime. It’s the tedious, self-edifying books I have a hard time picking up. That’s why they’re perfect for the beach. The opportunity costs are low, because what else are you gonna do while you bask in the sun? The same thinking applies to plane rides, of which I had five. So I find vacations the perfect time to read something big and dense. (I should also note that UP beaches are populated more by retirees than by babes in bikinis, so the distractions are fewer than in, say, Daytona.)

This summer my big self-edifying book was Steven Jenkins’ Cheese Primer. As much as I love food, I didn’t know jack about cheese. I knew just enough to recognize the pun in previous sentence, but not enough to resist using it. Trips to the cheese counter were an exercise in complete ignorance. Thanks to this book, I now know enough to get by. At 500 pages, the percentage of information I actually retained is pretty low, but it’s still a lot more than I knew before. Despite the repetition in some chapters, notes on the culture and history of the regions represented kept the reading interesting.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the book is the difference in labeling of American and European cheeses. American cheeses tend to be represented by individual brands, whereas regional descriptors and certifications often take the place of branding in Europe where traditions are more firmly in place. This could partly be due to the fact that the author is an American and therefore more likely to be familiar with individual American producers than European ones, but the difference is real. Europe has been more successful at maintaining quality traditions, but what will happen in the future? Will American cheesemakers, armed with the advantage of branding, innovate and equal their European counterparts, as they often have with wine? Perhaps the next decade will see an explosion of fantastic American cheeses.

Libertarian nota bene: many of the best cheeses come from unpasteurized milk. But if they’re not aged more than 60 days, they can’t be imported to the US and one has to travel abroad to taste them. Thank you, FDA.

Shadow of the Giant Of course, a little escapism is a good thing for the summer. This year it was provided by the latest novel in the Ender’s Game series, Shadow of the Giant.

These sci-fi books are organized unusually, with two series branching off from the initial Ender’s Game. That book was fabulous, as was the second book in the Ender Quartet, Speaker for the Dead. After that, author Orson Scott Card seemed to lose control of the metaphysics, and the rest of the series following Ender went downhill.

Fortunately, the series following the bit character Bean has remained solid. Though less philosophical than the other series, the novels offer consistently good characters and stories rooted in world politics. Shadow of the Giant resolves much from the previous books and nicely lays the groundwork for a finale. Ender fans will be pleased.

Pirates in an Adventure with ScientistsThe Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists provided a few more brief moments of escapism. This is a very short book, but extremely funny. Fans of Monty Python and Douglas Adams will enjoy this immensely.

The story follows the adventures of the glossy-bearded Pirate Captain, his loyal crew, and Charles Darwin, as they attempt to rescue Darwin’s brother from the scheming Bishop of Oxford. Absurd humor, anachronisms, and evolutionary in jokes abound.

British author Gideon Defoe has already published the sequel The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists is forthcoming. Defoe has also written a book called How Animals Have Sex. I bet they’re all hilarious.

Stumbling on HappinessTyler Cowen called Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness “so far the best book this year.” I have to agree, and not just because this might be the only book published in 2006 that I’ve read yet. It’s a fascinating look at human psychology.

The subject is happiness, or more particularly, how we consistently mispredict what will make us happy and what will depress us. There’s far more to the book than I could summarize here, but most of it concerns what Gilbert calls the psychological immune system. Thanks to illusions of memory and imagination and the powers of rationalization, we wrongly believe that good events will make us happier than they do, and bad events sadder. In reality, we adapt and acclimate to both.

We are, in fact, doubly mistaken. We are mistaken first in our expectations, and mistaken a second time as we remain blind to the defense mechanisms we should know that we possess. We tell ourselves that moving to California and getting the perfect job will make our lives complete, or that losing a romantic partner will devastate us. And they do, but not for long. If we are smart, we know that we can be happy in a lot of places, in a lot of jobs, with a lot of people, yet we persist in investing our decisions today with a significance far beyond their actual capacity to effect our happiness.

Should this lesson change the way we live our lives, the way I live my life? I have found it liberating as I downgrade my apartment significantly from a nice, spacious, one bedroom apartment near the Metro to an older, three bedroom with flatmates further from the train. Sharing the space won’t be so bad, I don’t really need the stuff I’m getting rid of to fit into it, and I was paying too much before anyway. See, the psychological immune system is working already. Knowing that it’s going to kick in makes doing what I need to do easier from the beginning.

On the other hand, there is the risk that such a zen attitude could deaden ambition. Why make sacrifices today to work toward a vision of the future? If you believe that achieving that vision will make you happy, you are probably mistaken. So why not enjoy today and be confident that you’ll be happy ten years from now, too, regardless of what you’re doing? Why don’t we all just work in coffee shops?

Perhaps the answer lies in eternal recurrence. No, not my blog. If you think you’ll find the meaning of life here, move on. Or try John Coleman’s site. I’m talking about Nietzsche’s challenge to live a worthy life. Imagine your life recurring again and again, endlessly. Do you curse yourself for squandering it on petty matters? Or do you rejoice in its aesthetic achievement? And if you take the question seriously, does the possibility of regret for wasted opportunities partially invalidate Gilbert’s thesis?

In a New York Times article devoted partially to his research, Gilbert seems to share this worry:

‘Hope and fear are enduring features of the human experience,” he says, ”and it is unlikely that people are going to abandon them anytime soon just because some psychologist told them they should.” In fact, in his recent writings, he has wondered whether forecasting errors might somehow serve a larger functional purpose he doesn’t yet understand. If he could wave a wand tomorrow and eliminate all affective-forecasting errors, I ask, would he? ”The benefits of not making this error would seem to be that you get a little more happiness,” he says. ”When choosing between two jobs, you wouldn’t sweat as much because you’d say: ‘You know, I’ll be happy in both. I’ll adapt to either circumstance pretty well, so there’s no use in killing myself for the next week.’ But maybe our caricatures of the future — these overinflated assessments of how good or bad things will be — maybe it’s these illusory assessments that keep us moving in one direction over the other. Maybe we don’t want a society of people who shrug and say, ‘It won’t really make a difference.’

So the question remains, what role should happiness play in the planning of our lives? Gilbert doesn’t claim to know, but he does offer insights into why our predictions fail and what we should expect from our psychology. He also posits many other interesting ideas and even explains a Paul Simon lyric whose meaning had long eluded me. For the questions the book answers and especially for the ones it doesn’t, I recommend it highly.


High on religion

Speaking of atheism, a few neuroscientists have a new theory about how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam got started. From The Syndey Morning Herald:

Glad tidings of great joy: there could be a straightforward medical explanation for at least three of the world’s major religions. Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus all experienced revelations on mountains, but they were probably just suffering a form of altitude sickness, say a group of Swiss and Israeli neurologists, casting doubt in the process on the very existence of God.

All three felt, heard or saw a presence, experienced lights and felt afraid, say the brain scientists from Lausanne, Geneva and Jerusalem. But so have contemporary mountaineers who are more interested in ice picks and thermal undies than anything mystical – suggesting the dizzy heights may have the effect of turning ordinary mortals into prophets.

Note that the paper is published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, which the Herald describes as “positively boastful about giving a run to bright new ideas that haven’t been through the usual discouraging process of scientific peer review.”

I’m not sure what to make of that. But in a similar, perhaps more credible vein, Daniel Dennett’s new book looks interesting.

[First link via TMN.]