Ten Book Recommendations (Actually, Eleven)

Readers, I thought I'd share a list of the best books I've read so far this year. And also, I have a favor to ask: What have you been reading lately that you'd recommend? Please share in the comments--I'm always looking for new reading material.

A quick housekeeping note: if you'd like to support Casual Kitchen, one of the best ways to do so is to visit Amazon using any link here at this site. I then get paid a modest commission, at no incremental cost to you, on anything you buy on that visit. As always, I'm grateful for my reader's support!

Now, on to the books:

Spent -- Geoffrey Miller
This book looks at consumer behavior through the lens of evolutionary psychology, and it helps explain much of the conspicuous trait-signalling and virtue-signalling we see all around us. This book was at times funny and at other times tone-deaf, but it gives readers--particularly frugal, Casual Kitchen-type readers--a helpful set of tools for understanding modern consumerism.

The Hidden Life of Trees -- Peter Wohlleben
An unusual, even kooky book, but absolutely hypnotic. You might think you already appreciate trees… read this book and you'll appreciate them far more.

Never Split the Difference -- Chris Voss
An excellent book on negotiating. Readable, insightful, and often counterintuitive.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up -- Marie Kondo
A book that really changed the way I think, and one that has forever changed how I think about my stuff. If you could only pick one book from this list, make it this one.

Spark Joy -- Marie Kondo
This is a companion guide to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Where "Tidying Up" had a lot of philosophy and theory, Spark Joy gets into the pragmatics and practical applications of how to execute the specific steps of tidying. Use both.

Happier -- Tal Ben-Shahar
Useful. Offers readers helpful techniques and mini-habits to spur self-awareness and gratitude in your daily life. (Note: this author is an intellectual disciple of Martin Seligman, whose book Learned Optimism was also a subject for an unusual post here at Casual Kitchen)

Hannibal -- Harold Lamb
No, not Hannibal Lecter. I'm talking about the Hannibal, the general from the lost city of Carthage. This is a short, well-written biography, telling the nearly unbelievable story of how Hannibal attacked Rome after moving his entire army (including, incredibly, his elephants) across the Alps. Excellent.

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid -- Douglas Hofstadter
I strongly recommend this book for geeks, and strongly do not recommend it for normal people. But if you're a geek and you take pride in being so, you'll never forget the experience of reading this foundational book, which has helped shape the past few decades' discussions on consciousness, software programming, recursion, and artificial intelligence.

The Education of a Value Investor -- Guy Spier
Best investment book I've read this year by far. Excellent advice on how to control your intellectual and emotional inputs, useful thinking on what kinds of media you should (or shouldn't) consume, and helpful insights about what kinds of people you should surround yourself with (consensus thinkers or rigorous non-consensus thinkers), and even thoughts on how often you should check stock prices (in my case, less often--probably a lot less often). This is a very honest book that looks at the "water" we're in, and how to to improve the intellectual environment driving our investing decisions.

Capital -- Karl Marx
No one actually reads Capital, they just opine about it. And in our modern era of infantalized, "I'll talk louder than you" public discourse, you can barely bring up this massively influential book without people losing their shit and spouting all their pre-fabbed opinions. It turns out, at least in my opinion, that there are two totally different ways to read Karl Marx's divisive book: you can see it as a bible for people who want to believe "capitalism" is a horrible, awful, no-good, really bad economic system, or you can read it as a how-to guide for joining the investor class. If you'd like to protect yourself financially and help construct a good future for you and your family, try reading it through the latter lens.

Second Class Needs

Keynes observed that the needs of human beings "fall into two classes--those needs which are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human beings may be, and those which are relative only in that their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows."
--John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society

Readers of Casual Kitchen already know all about status competition and costly trait signaling. Longer term readers will also recall the concept of desire triggering: by buying something, you can even extinguish a desire you never even knew you had until some company gave you that desire to quench in the first place.

There's an obvious insight that follows: If you want to avoid getting rudely separated from your money, simply avoid all purchases in this genre of "needs" Keynes discusses above. They aren't needs at all, they just feeeeeeeeeel like needs.

Which takes us to Galbraith and Keynes once again:

Keynes noted that needs of "the second class," i.e., those needs that are the result of efforts to keep abreast or ahead of one's fellow being, "may indeed be insatiable; for the higher the general level, the higher still are they.”

Empowered consumers must know to separate needs of this "second class" from true needs. Further, they must also know the game: that these "needs" exist at every socioeconomic level--and no matter what your level of wealth, your attempts to satisfy them will take all the money you have, and then more.

Understanding this dynamic is a gigantic step towards playing the money game on the easy setting, and an even bigger step towards living a much more fulfilling life. Not to mention a far less expensive one.

READ NEXT: Epistemic Arrogance
And: Epistemic Humility

Costly Signalling

I just finished an intriguing book called Spent by Geoffrey Miller. I recommend it. In some ways the book is all over the place, covering more topics that it probably should, but to a patient and accommodating reader it offers plenty of useful insights.

One of the central themes of Spent is the idea of observing consumer behavior through the lens of evolutionary psychology. We all know that consumers buy things to "signal" desirable qualities and traits. This in itself is not a new idea--after all, Thorstein Veblen covered it in sarcastic detail in The Theory of the Leisure Class back in 1899. Heck, for that matter, Diogenes saw it back in 400 BC. We signal to the people around us that we are "fit" in the evolutionary sense: fit to be friends or peers, fit to be colleagues, fit to be a member of whatever tribe we're in, fit to be a mate, and so on.

The consumer marketplace gives us all kinds of methods to engage in signalling. We can signal wealth by buying expensive cars, clothes and houses. We can signal intelligence by buying shelfloads of books, or by name-dropping the Ivy League university where we got our MBA. We can signal environmental conscientiousness by waxing rhapsodic about the organic, fair trade bulgur we bought at that family-owned health food store in town.

Unfortunately, it can get awfully expensive to do all this signalling. What if, instead, we were to look at signalling activity from the perspective of consumer empowerment?

One thing to consider: If you think about it, all signals given via purchases made in the consumer marketplace are essentially... facades. Returning to our luxury car example, let's say you buy an expensive car to signal economic fitness, and by doing so you successfully attract many mating partners and friends.

Here's one problem that comes to mind right away: you will have attracted the kind of people who judge you by the car you drive.

That's bad enough... but there's an even bigger problem. Your actual economic fitness will become quickly obvious to all of those mating partners and friends once they actually get to know you. The whole point of attracting friends and mates is for them to know the real you, right? So when they find out (and they will find out) that you can barely swing your monthly lease payment, and that your "wealth signal" was totally phony, your facade instantly crumbles away, and these alleged friends and mates (who you attracted under essentially false pretenses) will neither care about your nor the luxuriousness of your car.

All facades crumble. Better to have built true financial fitness instead--by not buying that car in the first place.

In fact, taking this one step further, you could argue that a sophisticated observer of consumer behavior could judge an expensive car as a signal of anti-fitness. The signal of always driving late-model luxury automobiles, viewed across a person's entire lifetime, might represent not wealth, but the waste of hundreds of thousands of dollars of personal financial capital! This is a second-order insight you might distill from, say, books like The Millionaire Next Door or Your Money Or Your Life.

Now, in the archives of Casual Kitchen, we've written about the idea of driving old cars as an act of mini-rebellion against consumerism, against financial waste, and against the idea of raising the bar of status competition for the people around us. But as much as we anticonsumerists like to think we're above base displays of fitness signalling, these things are acts of signalling too.

What driving an old and highly practical car signals, I'm not quite certain. I'd like it to signal something along the lines of "I have the confidence to drive an old car and not worry about what people think." But then again, perhaps it signals "I'm slightly dull." Or "I'm slightly dull, thus I am unlikely to get pec implants and a mistress, therefore I am signalling I would be a very steady and economically desirable mate." It's hard to say.

Of course, I'm not judging any of these signals in the least (really, I'm not!). What I want to illustrate is that this signal--uh, whatever it happens to mean--costs a lot less to put out there than a lifetime of buying late-model luxury cars. A whole heck of a lot less.

The point here is to be aware not only of trait signalling, but also to be aware that we all do it--even if we'd like to think we don't. As "hypersocial status-seeking primates" as Spent's author Geoffrey Miller would phrase it, we are genetically built to signal. In fact, the entire reason we're even here talking about this topic in the first place was because our genes successfully signaled fitness over time, and thus survived to the present day.

The empowered consumer, then, finds a way to signal the right kinds of fitness without resorting to buying things in the consumer marketplace. Those signals are the costliest--and the most transparently artificial.

So what signals are you giving off by the purchases you make? Or, more importantly, the purchases you don't make?

READ NEXT: The Scientific Study That Cried Wolf

"Women's Vitamins"

Readers, see the following embarrassingly amateurish photo, and tell me: what do you think might be the difference between these two types of vitamins?

Well, one is branded--by Bayer, one of the most trusted brands in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry. The other isn't.

One is a "women's formula" and offers consumers "bone and breast health support." The other, with its more modest and plausible claims of being "gluten free" and offering "daily well being," doesn't make me laugh quite as hysterically.

Granted, the branded vitamin contains calcium and a few bonus obscure minerals, all of which you already get in sufficient amounts from a normal diet:



Let's face it: these two bottles of vitamin tablets are virtually identical. And given recent research on vitamins, neither will likely make any difference to your health.

The only distinction: one costs about three times as much per tablet.

Now, you might rationalize this price differential by arguing that the "untrustworthy" generic vitamin was probably manufactured in some horrible Chinese sweatshop by exploited, underpaid workers who secretly added extra lead and mercury to each pill. And of course the "trustworthy" brand was surely manufactured by people who care, who really care about you, and would never outsource manufacturing to anybody.

Feel free to think this if it makes you feel better. But the rest of the readers here at Casual Kitchen know that a brand signifies nothing about who makes, packages, or formulates the product inside. Nothing.

The only difference is the cost premium of the branded product, paid by you and received by them in the form of excess profit. And... the pill's bigger.

READ NEXT: How to Own the Consumer Products Industry--And I Mean Literally Own It

And: Consumer Empowerment: How To Self-Fund Your Consumer Products Purchases

When Food Advocates Tell You What To Serve Your Customers

It was interesting to see Chili's re-rejigger their menu recently, eliminating a number of recently added healthier menu items to focus on the chain's traditional fare of burgers, ribs and fajitas.

Yet again, another well-meaning company, while attempting to "healthify" their menu, discovers their customers never went there for healthy food in the first place. Nobody goes to Chili's for quinoa and kale.

But Chili's recent about-face highlights a risk all companies face: not knowing the difference between what people say they want and what people actually want.

Or to put a finer distinction on it: what people who know what's good for us say they want, and what actual customers want.

Consider food policy experts like Marion Nestle or Michele Simon: both would love it, simply love it, if chains like Chili's and McDonald's were to offer far more "healthier" food options.[1] They've both put extensive public pressure on many of these companies, criticizing their current food offerings and demanding healthy items like salads, fruit, and so on. And even when, say, McDonald's does offer a healthier option, it never satisfies: Nestle and Simon will reliably say the company "hasn't gone far enough."

But here's the problem: Michele Simon and Marion Nestle aren't customers of these chain restaurants. Neither would be caught dead eating at a Chili's, much less McDonald's. Hilariously, Michele Simon even wrote in her book that she only enters fast food joints to use their rest rooms![2]

Which takes us to an interesting question: When a food policy expert campaigns for major menu changes at restaurants they'll never go to, can you come up with any reason--any reason whatsoever--why a company would bother to listen? If a food advocate wants to influence what companies offer their customers, is this really the way to go about it?

READ NEXT: The Consumer Must Be Protected At All Times
And: When It Comes To Banning Soda, Marion Nestle Fights Dirty

Amazon Links: 
Michele Simon's book Appetite for Profit
Marion Nestle's book Food Politics

[1] Let's set aside for the moment the highly uncomfortable topic of how recent dietary science has turned upside down much of our views about which foods are healthy.

[2] See Appetite For Profit, page 197: "Another survey showed that nearly all U.S. adults, at one time or another (97 percent) eat at fast food restaurants. For those of us (like me) who only see the inside of a fast food joint on long road trips (and even then just to use the restroom), this statistic is a sobering reminder of how the rest of the nation eats."