The 5 secrets to blissful travel

Rio de Janeiro

I know a couple of guys who just wing it. One took his bride on honeymoon to Mexico City. His preparation – buy the air tickets, pack, go. Another one went to Venezuela and then travelled down to Rio de Janeiro, taking only the essentials: a hammock, a mask and snorkel, and – as he might be on a public beach- trunks. And, yes, they had a great time although apparently the New Year fireworks on Copacabana Beach were nothing to write home about. The Rio’s mayor answered disgruntled mutters from the Carioca by magnanimously staking his political career on making a real show next year. Real commitment politics.

Tambaba - João Pessoa - Paraíba by Marinelson Almeida - Traveling through Brazil

Tambaba – João Pessoa – Paraíba by Marinelson Almeida – Traveling through Brazil

However, there is a good reason why these guys can get away such insouciance. They are experienced travelers but more importantly they speak Spanish fluently. I’m not sure how Carl coped in Brazilian Portuguese but he didn’t mention any problems. So in a way they had spent many years preparing for this journey.

I can do similar things in many European countries and now Japan, but over the years I have a definite method to travelling which I have crystallized into 5 easy steps, the first of which is,

1. Go somewhere and stay there

Airline adverts gives it away: The actual business of traveling sucks. You wind up work for a week or two, pack the bags, close down the house, muster any children, get to the airport, get though the airport to the plane; find your seat(s), watch the safety briefing for the umpteenth time, bump and waggle awhile; eventually have to use the tiny, toxic toilet (Ooh Pooh!); join the scrum to deplane; get through baggage claims, customs and immigration, and finally out into the open air; then find a taxi, get to the hotel, check in, get to the room and unpack. Easy peasy?

Vitesse au Sol 842km/h by Caribb

Vitesse au Sol 842km/h by Caribb

Carl ended up on his first day in Venezuela, chilling in his hammock hung in the garden of a restaurant perched on a perfect beach. Not too shabby, but you might like to a give a bit more thought to it.

First of all though, what is the point of the upheaval-cum-holiday? Perhaps, something to append to “chill and”. May I suggest “hang out with the kids” or “rekindle a bit of passion with the wife/husband”. We are all so weary of goals, goal setting and this is not it: It is a couple of minutes of wishful thinking. Perhaps this time you’ll do exactly what worked the last time – a good option -: Perhaps you will plump for something new. Why not be outrageous! My bucket list includes a cooking and language class near Firenze. Do you love animals? How about looking after elephants in Thailand? Perhaps you’ll like to meet girls/boys? Take in a meditation course in the Sierras.  Feeling jaded? Wild Fitness will fix that.

If the holiday comes with planned activities you’re done. Otherwise, you may need to flesh out your days with trips: museums, shopping, bars.  Then get in mood with a few films: going to Thailand, watch “The Beach”, going to London try “Notting Hill”, and as for Brazil,

[“Oba, lá vem ela” from Personalidade by Jorge Ben. Released: 1991. Track 4. Genre: Samba.]

The nice thing about this stage is – it can be delegated. In many, nay most, situation it should be.

2. Any fool can be uncomfortable

is a phrase from my second Aikido teacher. I believe that it is British Army advice on building a bivouac.  A little careful preparation will avoid a sleepless night either due to water running down the back of your neck or the enthusiastic sounds from the honeymooners next door.

Now the dreaded getting-there. Ideally you can go all the way there by train but usually there’ll be an airplane involved. We’ve found the deals on Expedia to be the cheapest and best. Choose an airline with a modern fleet. Our worst flight was on United Airlines in a crusty old 747 and the best was Singapore Airlines in a brand new A345. This distinction seems to affect the quality of the food, the films and the flight crew.

I like to travel during the late afternoon or evening. Airports are less crowded, almost sleepy. When I worked in Picardy and had finally figured this out, I drove to the terminal, unloaded my luggage (which all has little wheels) and gave the car to the car service guy; collected the e-ticket; wandered through check in, security and customs which had minimal queues; browsed in duty free, and bought a single malt to be collected on my return; ate smoked salmon and soft brown bread and butter downed with a glass of Chablis; rolled on and off the Air France plane with no fuss, luxuriating in French language awhile; collected my luggage immediately, and the rental car; drove to St. Quentin just in time for a café et cognac and a good night’s sleep. Pas mal!

If the delay between flights is more than an hour, it’s quite pleasant to shell out the thirty bucks and use a business lounge. It’s quiet, the seats are comfortable and snacks and drinks are on offer.

Fuji San

Fuji San

Also bear in mind that you may to endure an obstacle race through the connecting airport, which may include racing from the long-range terminal to the local flight terminal and your departure gate, via shuttle trains, baggage claim, escalators, travelators, buses, baggage check-in, and miles and miles of neon lit corridors.

Your destination country may have a visitor’s visa which you can usually buy at the airport although a few, e.g. China, need your passport and a bit of cash before you go. Most travel agents have a service for this, for a price. I took the train up to Shinjuku and did it myself.

You could also keep a weather eye on the local politics but remember the media does like to dramatize riots and the like.

It’s also a good idea to have the required immunization and be prepared for local health hazards. Take lots of sun block.

I also recommend that you learn a few words of the local language – “Please”, “Thank you”, that kind of thing. These days you can get the basics from a podcast; a good ones can be found at www.languagepod101.com. My wife reckons that she knows how to say, “Where is the toilet?” in more than thirty languages.

3. Shit happens

Susie in Zushi

Susie in Zushi

It does but not as often as we deserve. On our way home from Greece, we were camped in Athens airport overnight awaiting a very early morning flight and witnessed the cavalcade of fellow travelers taking their charted flight home. One fellow happily pissed (in a British sense) and sporting a bright red nose, cheerily chatted to a guard while his wife beckoned. On the third time, she screeched, “Bloody well come here, Alf.” Another younger couple pushed a trolley of cases towards departures, when the fellow, passed out and slid to the floor, right in front of Alf. The girl, poor little thing, tugged and beseeched her young man to awaken; finally, she then burst into tears on which the oaf floated up to consciousness, clambered up his trolley and the pair disappeared into customs. Other than your fellow travelers, modern medicine and a good line of credit will see off most problems.

Photo by Redd Angelo on Unsplash

Photo by Redd Angelo on Unsplash

The obstacles on the way are designed to please the bureaucrats whose priorities do not include your well fare so their thoughtlessness has many opportunities to enrage you. Do not let them. Many glitches are predictable and can be avoided. Others give an opportunity for a little creativity. I travel with pens and paper which I give to bored children to scribble on; so quiet, contented children instead of noisy, grumpy ones. My wife hates flying so I invested in a magic rope trick which I performed à la Tommy Cooper in the check-in queue at Frankfurt. It was a great success especially with the child accompanying his father who were next in line.

The worst misfortunes, illness and crime, are on the whole rare. As one ages the probability of illness does increase, and this should be taken into account when arranging insurances and the like. Insurers are happiest when taking their premiums and like to keep you in the dark as to how mean they will become should you have the temerity to ask them for money. I had a camera stolen in Prague and got the normal police response – here’s a two-line report and thank you for your contribution to our economy. The insurers wanted lots of other things including the original receipt which of course I didn’t have. So I would do a dry claim run just to see what you’ll be asked for.

4. People are on the whole nice

Naughty Smile from Ravangla by By Sukanto Debnath

Naughty Smile from Ravangla by By Sukanto Debnath

On the whole people are nice. They will help out where they can and, sometimes, they will try quite hard to fix whatever is the problem.

After university, I took my girlfriend travelling through Iran, Turkey and Greece. We had arrived at the bus depot in Shiraz in Southern Iran. It was hot, dusty and exceedingly different/foreign. I knew there was a camp site in the city but where? Neither Alison or I could read the Arabic script. Our plight dawned on me as we made our way out of the depot and to a nearby roundabout. Looking forlorn, lost but quite cute I shouted, “Does anyone speak English?” Soon we had a small crowd trying to communicate to us. They found a fellow who spoke German. After a few more trials the crowd located two beautiful groomed fellows who spoke excellent English who took us under their wing. The first stop was through the bazaar into a little courtyard where a fountain was playing and into an Arabian Night café and our first Sherbot (Persian lemonade). We found the camp site, next day. The guys, who I suppose were boyfriends, came from Basr in Iraq and I’ve always wondered how they fared in the subsequent revolution and wars.

These days, I’m a little more worldly wise and like to branch out into the world beyond the hotel doors. During the several trips to Thailand, I have taken a few lessons in the Thai language, done a wonderful cooking class at the Oriental, and of course have had oodles of massages.

5. Make an album

Thai Album

Thai Album

I like to buy a picture album on the journey and fill it pictures, maps, ticket stubs, menus, money instead of just dumping the thousands of ill-considered snaps on Facebook, FlickR or some such, which is bound to bore the pants of friends and acquaintances. An album can be a minor work of art requiring careful consideration of which pictures best reflect your experience, how their order might tell a tale, how found objects are sewn between the images, what if anything should be written. It is a tactile remembrance of a time now passed. It is also a wonderful team project.

I started doing this on a visit to Thailand where I bought an album made of ‘100% elephant dung.’ When I took to work at a Japanese school where I taught English, I had immense fun asking the kids what they thought the album was made from, taking a deep sniff and offering it to a boy so he could too, and theatrically explain the words ‘100% elephant dung’ on its cover.

India Album

India Album

I have others but my prize is the leather one from India. Come to the kasbah, and see my wares, effendi!

So there you are: 5 tips to master the art of traveling slowly, enjoyably, tenderly, wittily.

—–

Featured Image: Photo by Agustín Diaz on Unsplash

Are digital technologies making politics impossible?

The Mask of Anonymous

“Well, maybe this: If you want to satirize the condition of a society, going after the apex of the pyramid is a waste of time. You need to attack the bottom. … And this requires the satirist to present the average citizen as a naïve sheep who fails to realize the hopelessness of his or her position.”   – Chuck Klosterman, I Wear The Black Hat

On January 27, 2000, President Bill Clinton congratulated his fellow Americans and himself, in his State of the Union speech:

“We are fortunate to be alive at this moment in history. Never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats. Never before have we had such a blessed opportunity and, therefore, such a profound obligation to build the more perfect Union of our Founders’ dreams.  We begin the new century with over 20 million new jobs; the fastest economic growth in more than 30 years; the lowest unemployment rates in 30 years; the lowest poverty rates in 20 years; the lowest African-American and Hispanic unemployment rates on record; the first back-to-back surpluses in 42 years; and next month, America will achieve the longest period of economic growth in our entire history.”

Academics wrote of the end of history.

By Mike Davidson for Hillary for America

By Mike Davidson for Hillary for America

Recently though, politics has not been so grand nor so compassionate. Examples are abundant; here are just a few: the U.S. Congress’s pitiful response to the ZIKA virus, the corruption scandals in Brazil, Malaysia and South Korea, the imploding economy of Venezuela, Zimbabwean hyperinflation, the bank note farce in India, and a horrible war in Syria, and another in South Sudan. This sorry state of affairs has become normal for our post-millennium times, yet 2016 will be unique due to two events, BREXIT and the election of President Trump. Two others should also get an honorable mention: the ‘No’ vote in the Italian referendum, and the narrow defeat of Nobert Hofer, who belongs to the far-right Alliance party, in the Austrian Presidential Election. Hofer might have been the first far-right European president since World War II.

In the postmortems on the European events in the U.K., Italy and Austria, the phrase “digital technologies” was not bandied about much, nor how it threatened democracy much discussed, although hindsight may reveal a bunch of malign influences, murky conspiracy, and sinister programmers. During the BREXIT debate, there was plenty of lying of the good old fashioned kind; the most egregious porkie (rhyming slang: pork pie) was the big red bus emblazoned with “We send the EU ₤350 million a week”, and “let’s fund our NHS instead”. At any other time, any one of the European dramas would be a big thing, much discussed in the media. The honorable mentions might fizzle away. BREXIT will take years to effect, and yet may die – an anencephalic left in a side ward. Then, there is the surreality of Donald Trump becoming the 45th President of the United States of America.

This was so wildly improbable back in December 2015 that a bet placed on Trump would now yield 18 times the original stake. How did The Donald pull it off? Three days after her defeat, Hillary Clinton blamed her loss on FBI director, James B. Comey, and his announcement eleven days before the election. By December 8, she knew that: “It’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences”, and implied that she had been robbed in the 2016 Presidential Election by fake news planted in the social media, principally Facebook. The CIA says they can prove that the Russian government was behind the hackers. The FBI isn’t so sure, maybe. The right-wing news website breitbart.com, which is run by President Trump’s (first) political strategist, has called the CIA reports fake news. Meanwhile, President Obama agreed that he had warned the Russians about hacking and has evicted a few from American soil, which brings us to the topic of this essay: “Are digital technologies making politics impossible?” As a high school term paper, a resulting essay might look something like this:

Digital technologies are what computers turned into and they are everywhere, even my dog. In olden times, computers printed things like the Snoopy my gran’ma has in her restroom downstairs. Then the hippies in California invented The Internet and PC’s, and soon everyone was happy and sending emails all the time. Then they got even happier when Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook and it became real easy to share pictures, messages and things with their friends. Now everyone spends hours and hours on Facebook, and don’t even watch TV no more.

Politics is what governments do. The government is run by people like Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama. Politics is about stuff what happens in other countries far away where they don’t have a clue how to do things right. Out there there are lots of really bad people like in Russia there is a very bad man called Putin, and other places there is ISIS who is also really, really scary.

Politics became impossible this year, because Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the American election. Hillary is much better at politics and has lots of friends in Washington D.C. and

New York, and said she could do things to help people. Donald Trump is really, really rich, like a billionaire, and is famous for being on “The Apprentice”. He would say “You’re fired”. He don’t know anything about politics and is friends with that Putin guy in Russia.

Hillary Clinton lost because of Fake News. Like I said, everyone spends their time on Facebook and don’t watch TV much. They get news from their friends. This is called echo chambers. Because everyone trusts their friends that bad man Putin paid people to pretend to be everyone’s friend and tell awful lies. That Jestin Coler says right-wing people believe anything bad about colored people, China, gays, Democrats, the left-wing media conspiracy and Hillary Clinton.

Fixing fake news is difficult because like I said right-wing people like it, and don’t care much if most people think they are stupid. Some people make money making fake news, sometimes a lot. We need to copy China. China has a Great Chinese Firewall and can tell whether the news is from China or just fake. If you live in China and you send fake news a police man will take you to a special camp to educate you. That might work here.

This fictional essay, from one of Klosterman’s naïve sheep might be worth a B minus – appalling academese, I know, but it’s a fair summary of the Fake News circus of Spring 2017. Would Hillary Clinton substantially improve on its substantive? She did leave US national security to a computer you might buy at Best Buy. Her fellow Democrats fared little better.

The blistering pace of modern invention leaves everyone a little amnesiac. It wasn’t so long ago that a mobile phone was the size of a brick, and computer programs PUSHed and POPped data a byte at a time. Any worthwhile book on “digital technologies” ought to define what the beast is, describe it and how it got to be. This ought to be eminently readable but also tech savvy, touching on areas such as the Deep Web, Dark Fiber, Deep Mind, and perhaps Deep Thought.

In my opinion, there are two crucial facts that the Fake-News FBI-conspiracy circus is uncannily obtuse about.

Thing1:

The first fact is the failure of the polls to predict President Trump. Newsweek reported: “By almost every metric, Clinton was the favorite to win. Trump’s presupposed loss was so unanimous among the political pundit class that he was used as an example to put the 2016 World Series into context. On October 30, after the Cubs fell behind to the Indians two games to one, FiveThirtyEight gave the Chicago squad less chance than our current president elect …. It should have been a sign.” That is except for The National “Enquirer: The Voice Of America!”, who along with an exposé about Tom Cruise’s girlfriend starring in a lesbian porn movie, claimed that, “The ENQUIRER drove light years ahead of the “lame”stream media …. Though The ENQUIRER did not follow the strict rules statistical samples, they proved to be the ONLY accurate results”. Perhaps Agent K’s assessment in Men In Black is true:

Kay: [at newsstand] We’ll check the hot sheets.

Jay: *These* are the hot sheets?

Kay: Best investigative reporting on the planet. Read the New York Times if you want, they get lucky sometimes.

Jay: I cannot believe you’re looking for tips in the supermarket tabloids.

Kay: [front-age article about farmer’s stolen skin] Not looking for. Found.

Quality Journalism Means an Informed Citizenry by Mike Licht

Quality Journalism Means an Informed Citizenry by Mike Licht

Thing2

The second fact is that the supposed chuckleheads who voted Trump into the Presidency and the spinsters from Rhyl who voted for BREXIT agreed with Thomas Piketty and his tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I doubt that Brer Cletis et al. have heard of Piketty, nor do they know much about negative interest rates, Gaussian copula functions or the Panama Papers, but they have intuited the principle political truth of our times: the richer you are the richer you are getting, and this is now a problem. Although one should not go overboard about the wisdom of crowds, the Trump presidency clearly shows that the Trumpers and Trumpettes know that Globalization has made Thing2 The Problem.

Finally, the bad side of Globalization has become a political hot potato. We are lucky that it happened, and if social media contributed to it, that too is good. Back in 2002, Bo Karlson et al. from Wireless@KST published the seminal Wireless Foresight: Scenarios of the Mobile World in 2015. The book is prescient, as it predicts Fitbits, Google Glass, Siri, Netflix, Internet of Things, and has much to say about how this was to come about. It posits four scenarios: two were slow and environmentally friendly, one was disruptive and the last Orwellian. Karlson favored the disruptive “Wireless Explosion – Creative Destruction” scenario. This is the one we got: we won.

Panama Papers

Panama Papers

Any worthwhile book on modern global politics, possible or otherwise, ought to describe how the world became a village and the roles that digital technology played in this process. Such a book ought to examine how power has bled away from nations to organizations, bigger and smaller, which may ignore national boundaries and can manipulate national law. An example is the wrangle about taxes between Apple, Eire and the EU.

Just over one hundred years ago, in one day, 84,710 men from France, men from Britain, and men from Germany died a violent death in a field in Flanders. They had their faults but they also had families, friends and sweet-hearts. At Christmas, they had sung Silent Night. Such loss shattered the notion of Pro Patria Mori, destroyed the four absolute monarchies which entered the war, and would take supreme world power away from Europeans and give it to others. Today, we marvel at how the decision-makers chose a War to End All Wars. Also, we are reminded that many of their considerations were frankly trivial and how they sheltered under a common delusion that their choices could not harm them personally. Comparing their times and ours, we find that equality in wealth is roughly the same, elites who are aloof, fearful, and ill-prepared, technology that has run well beyond the ken of all but a handful, and most people dispirited and poor. To this, our times can add global warming, unprecedented environmental destruction, tens of millions of refugees and atomic bombs. What could go wrong?

So, say should The Donald and Teresa and buddies be unable to recast our world, do we, we humans, have a Plan B? One that does not involve hundreds of millions of people dying. One that does not wreck our planet, forever. One that attempts to live up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Any worthwhile book ought to suggest ways to recast our world. I believe we can, we will, and that it will be quick. After all, gay marriage became law in only a few short years. We have the technology, we have the talent, how might it happen?

A mustard seed

Cognitive Bias Codex - 180+biases, designed by John Manoogian III

Cognitive Bias Codex – 180+biases, designed by John Manoogian III

We love stories. We met them in childhood when we learn their conventions. They grow up with us and are pressed into business, history and politics. The adult world employs those linear, narrative conventions found in fairy stories to shape our understanding and our reasoning. The same tools are used to make sense of the Norman Conquest and World War 2, Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci and Quantum Mechanics, and the invention of the printing press and the Industrial Revolution. The minuscule size of the human working memory means that anything more complex than a Russian novel requires a crib sheet.

The usual workaround in the study of the past is to focus on a few individuals or events, and exclude the rest into a fuzzy background, occasionally narrated by Charlie Brown’s teacher. Complexity is hidden within flabby labels, caricature and generalization. When writ small, as in a TV show, these errors are magnified: traditions and peoples are squashed into cartoonish stereotypes, and the world is drawn as a spectator event viewed through soap opera glasses. This simplification has real world consequences. Did Aleppo fall to Assad partly because the US media portrayed his enemies primarily as jihadists like ISIS? No wonder Vladimir Putin pores over and vets school textbooks.

The world is now too complicated to rely on narrative technique alone; story telling needs an upgrade.

A good model for the process of this upgrade is the development of the procedural computer language C into the Object-Oriented C++. Bjarne Stroupstrup did this by adding keywords, so C++ is commonly described as a superset of C. The purpose of the Object-Oriented methodology is to reduce computer bugs by making code reuse part of the design of the language and to promote careful thought at the start of a project, rather than optional.

CPT-OOP objects and classes

CPT-OOP objects and classes

My book will suggest candidates for History++..  Descriptive linguistics and the Classic Style in writing are promising. History++  would be at home with math, be it Game Theory, Statistics, or Linear Modeling. It would facilitate connecting humans, history and Big Data. It would recognize that people are people, and listen to Kahneman and Tversky. It would live in a real world of volcanos and famines, the Life-World and bacteria, fashion and sex.

History++ would eschew magic. Its Classic Style would deal in concrete events, choices, and where possible measures. These are bound together in a causal network. They are effected by an environment, including all the above and more, marshalled by a notion from descriptive linguistics: some rules are necessary, e.g. Newtonian physics, and others are optional to various degrees, all are relevant at the cutting face.

The continuum of human life and events, are not loped into ages of this material or that person. Instead, it grounded in Rubicon events, which have direct and indirect participants who make choices and who have their own histories, agenda and character; events framed by beliefs, the natural world, and technology; events that are essential to understanding the world they leave in their wake. Caesar’s Rubicon choice is not one of these Rubicon events; if he won big in Gallia, he always intended to return to Rome. One such event is the arrival Cortez’s first treasure ship at Seville, on December 9, 1519.

Labels should be scrutinized. Flabby ones, with their overflowing steamer trunks of baggage, would be ridiculed and discarded. For example, “populism”: it has become the cliché of a speaker, no one in particular, rabble rousing. It connotes Mark Antony, Elizabeth I, Winston Churchill, Mussolini, Martin Luther King and Donald Trump. It’s quintessentially snobby and smug, and should be retired, immediately. History++ would employ the notion, borrowed from Object Oriented program design, called encapsulation. By requiring a strict provenance, History++ would limit 20:20 hindsight and woolly pontification. Its aim is the eloquent simplicity of the C++ keyword, “this”.

For example: How does narrative interpret the choices made by Henry, second of that name King of England, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, and Lord of Ireland, and in particular his support for the common law? Simon Schama’s narrative view, in his excellent “A History of Britain”, is that Henry chose trial by jury because he honored his coronation oath, i.e. Henry was a nice guy and deserves a statue in Parliament Square.

Bueno de Mesquita’s game theory approach suggests that his choice was financial and part of the cold war against the Pope. He chose trial by jury over trial by ordeal, because trial by ordeal was miraculous and the business of the church. It was good business, too, and, for Henry, depriving the church of a nice little earner was a good move. So, a 12th Century squabble over land becomes a part of the stream of events which leads to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The difficult birth of a German king and the hemophilia of the son of another are part of the event stream leading to World War I.

History++ really takes off when it leaves the halls of academia.

this is aztec gold. for real by erin leigh mcconnell

this is aztec gold. for real by erin leigh mcconnell

This how I envision the first block of the 6th grade history class, History of the America. Teacher comes in, takes the register, and announces that today is August 27, 1520. You are either a spices merchant in the town of Ghent, or the spice mechant’s wife. Today you are going to see the treasures on display bought to Ghent by Charles V, the Spanish king. On the way in you bump into a German artist called Albrecht Dürer. You see golden bells, “earrings and nose ornaments of exquisite workmanship, and feathered ornaments mounted in jewels, and there were even ‘books such as the Indians use.” There was an Aztec calendar, “a golden wheel ‘seventy-nine inches in diameter, of a thickness four reales’’ cover in magic symbols and malevolent gargoyles. A ceremonial shield made of feathers. You are rather frightened by the four Aztec warriors dressed in war paint, feathers and precious little else. Ok, kids, I have a question for you: how do we know any of this is true? The teacher quotes Dürer’s diary for that day, and by the by introduces the class to the notion of primary sources. Mrs. Krabappel now invites questions and there are so many of them. The rest of the class, she spends curating those questions as per the teacher’s guide, assigning who will investigate and report on what, all in preparation for next lesson, the Spice merchant’s source of pepper. a Portuguese which leads us to Prince John, the rounding of that African cape, and the dedication of Hagia Sophia and the fall of Constantinople. Back to Charles V’s grandparents, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, the Fall of Granada, the Spanish Inquisition, and Columbus, and Pre-Columbia America. The Vikings.  Arrival of the French and then the Brits.

Public policy might model Bueno de Mesquita’s predictions about Iran. Imagine the US sitting down to negotiate with Iran with his game plan. Public policy would require little to be hidden. News reportage would no longer be a TV soap but a sports report.

Of course, there will be timid souls, historians afraid of math, officials guzzling the gravy train, who would prefer the current ruinous state of affairs. I hope this idea will find friends with the intellectual courage, the insight and the foresight to bring it to the world soon.

Once done, the superset nature of this idea make it antifragile; criticism can only make it stronger. Our global networks would give it geometric growth, and as Albert Einstein said “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. … .” It would be wonderful if we could say of our work, the words written by Martin Luther of his faith:

“Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing,… .”

 

My Idea of Heaven

https://unsplash.com/collections/158745/salt-life-for-me

An English Heaven . . .

A Full English Breakfast

A Full English Breakfast

Julian Barnes, a noted English author, has a very clear and a very English notion of heaven. It starts, naturally, with a Full English Breakfast. (An English comedian said once that a Full English was one of the two things that a woman can do which would comfort any man.) Julian’s heavenly grapefruit is perfectly formed; its segments do not cling, and float away from the fruit on the tip of the oval grapefruit spoon. It had a mélange of flavors coalescing like fine wine, ‘a sort of awaking sharpness followed quickly by a wash of sweetness’.

 Then followed ‘crispy [bacon whose] fat glow[ed] like fire’, eggs which ‘trail[ed] off into filigree gold braid’ and, the tour de force, the grilled tomato. Julian rhapsodized over his grilled tomato: this tomato actually does ‘ – yes, this is the thing I remember – tast[e] of tomato’. The toast and jam is beyond his powers of description but I reckon it was Five Grain Wholemeal bread from Publix, toasted just enough to crisp the toast surfaces but only warm the interior, generously buttered with Kerry butter, and lavished with Bonne Maman Peach Preserve.

Roekelseskar by Nina Aldin Thune

Roekelseskar by Nina Aldin Thune

The main event, though, is tea. Not so much the delicate aromas of the tea itself, rather the receptacle it came in. Of my teapots over the years I am especially fond of a Brown Bessie and one which looked like a painter’s work table,both now alas dearly departed, but of Barnes’s teapot we know little. He is taken with the ‘strainer . . . attached to its spout by three silver chains’ somewhat like a demi-thurible, ‘the insignia of some chic Parisian café’, ‘a little gadget which seems to me almost a definition of luxury’.

 He finds his wardrobe full of his most comfortable, totally wabi-sabi, retired-now-magically-new clothes, and settles down for two more breakfasts.

Next day he goes shopping. A relation of his had said, “When I die, I don’t want to go to Heaven, I want to go shopping in America”. This was Publix/Whole Foods/Central Market double plus good. The range and quality was unparalleled even for those magnificent stores, including, as it did, ‘Terrine de Kangarou’, Garibaldi biscuits with a 50:50 ratio of currents to pastry, and a libation called ‘Stinko-Paralytiko (made in Yugoslavia)’.

Red Teapot by Jorge Garcia

Red Teapot by Jorge Garcia

The following day, at breakfast, he read in the newspaper that ‘No kidding, Leicester City had bloody well won the FA Cup!’

He took up golf on a course which had ‘bits of seaside links like in Scotland, patches of flowering dogwood and azalea from Augusta, beechwood, pine, bracken and gorse.’, and scored a respectable 67. That evening, his carer, Brigitta, artfully declined sex but sex was to be had as he found ‘two long red hairs’ on his pillow in the morning. It is kind of interesting, and very English, that he can make more of your Full English than a good f$%k.

Then, ‘Guess what happened next? [He] started worrying.’ Looking for reassurance, he asked ‘Look, this is heaven, isn’t it?’, to which the reply was ‘Oh yes’ And so his heavenly ‘life continued, and [his] golf improved no end.’ After a while and a cruise or two, he starts to worry again, this time about religion. His case manager asks him what he does on Sundays.‘ “On Sundays”, I said, “as far as I can work out, because I don’t follow the days too closely any more, I play golf, go shopping, eat dinner, have sex and don’t feel bad.”

supermarket from above by Bunny Hero

supermarket from above by Bunny Hero

She replies, ‘Isn’t that perfect?’

It was of course but that was not his point nor the point. Apparently, the heaven of psalms and hallelujahs, ‘Old Heaven’, had ‘sort of closed down.’ because ‘after the new Heavens were built, … there was . . . little call for it.’ The inhabitants, the ‘Old Heaveners . . . gave up speaking to anyone but other Old Heaveners. Then they began to die off.’ New Heaveners also had ‘the option to die off if they want to’. In Mr. Barnes’s heaven, people can’t stand being happy all the time and like a medieval king die of a surfeit.

An Intellectual’s Heaven . . .

Frazier, too, is equally unfit for a life of perpetual bliss. In ‘Door Jam’ he and Niles lust after an oh-so-discreet spa, which proves to be very heaven, UNTIL they found that they had had the mere Silver service, and there was the oh-so-exclusive Gold service. Their quest for heaven results in their discovery of the garbage area, and they exit pursued by bees.

The Matrix

Perhaps it is as Agent Smith says in that one good Matrix film:

Agent Smith: Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.

The problem of pain

Relief from Persepolis by Paul

Relief from Persepolis by Paul

Barnes quoted Flaubert – the quote I cannot find – that to someone in chronic pain that pain is forever new, forever worthy of attention, but to those who care for the invalid and witness a lifetime of agony, it becomes over time duller, more of an obstacle to be negotiated, an annoyance, even a self-indulgence. Flaubert forgets that love never tires of caring and never become inured to the problems of the beloved.

Paradiso

A good candidate for heaven would be Fiorenza (Florence, Italy), until you see the fortress town houses and learn of the terrible practical jokes the creatives would play on one another. In the science museum there, there is one of Galileo’s telescopes. When I wax lyrical about this little black tube and mention the Starry Messenger , the book he wrote about what he saw through such a little thing; a book which describes an imperfect sun pockmarked by sunspots, the Medicean Stars flocking around Jupiter, that for each of the multitude of stars we can see without a telescope there is a multitude more, and that the face of the Moon “is not robed in a smooth and polished surface but is in fact rough and uneven, covered everywhere, just like the earth’s surface, with huge prominences, deep valleys, and chasms.”, I usually get a slightly pained look and ‘Oh, really’.

Firenze Duomo by Franek N

Firenze Duomo by Franek N

There I was able to wander in the footsteps of the great Tuscan poet Dante Alighieri. His Divine Comedy actually has three parts although Hell is by far and away the best known, regurgitated endlessly in horrible films and derivative TV drama. Dante, the supreme poet working in a language of angels and Mafiosi, did so much better describing the damned and their torments than the dubious pleasures of heaven. His profound of hell is a sea of ice where Satan is rooted waist deep, chewing forever on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. He should have a dozen or more mouths for the wicked of subsequent centuries. They are far more deserving of the worst that Hell can dish up.

(I like the idea of putting the shades of Hitler and his stooges in the front row of every Broadway performance of ‘The Producers’. As the reaction of Pyongyang to the advanced publicity to Seth Rogen and James Franco’s film ‘The Interview’ shows, nasty tyrants have no sense of humor. I hope the Seth/James film will be a runaway success.)

Unfortunately, when it comes to heaven the best that Dante – the daddy of them all –  can come up with is the thought of a white rose and an old man’s opiate blissing,

In forma dunque di candida rosa, . . .
ma l’altra, che volando vede e canta
la gloria di colui che la ’nnamora
e la bontà che la fece cotanta,
sì come schiera d’ape che s’infiora
una fïata e una si ritorna
là dove suo laboro s’insapora,
nel gran fior discendeva che s’addorna
di tante foglie, e quindi risaliva
là dove ’l süo amor sempre soggiorna.
Le facce tutte avean di fiamma viva
e l’ali d’oro, e l’altro tanto bianco,
che nulla neve a quel termine arriva.

Fiorenza is great and should be on your bucket list, but, for me, the number one, tippy-toppy experience was an open-topped bus trip out past the Belvedere, made so famous in Silence of the Lambs, and into the sumptuous summer Tuscan countryside.

Doctor Lecter and Agent Starling

Clarice Starling: Did you do all these drawings, Doctor?
Hannibal Lecter: Ah. That is the Duomo seen from the Belvedere. Do you know Florence?
Clarice Starling: All that detail just from memory, sir?
Hannibal Lecter: Memory, Agent Starling, is what I have instead of a view.

Persian Palaces

 

Hasht Behesht Palace Musicians

Hasht Behesht Palace Musicians

Just after finishing university, I took a journey through Iran, Turkey and Greece. The first leg of the plan was to head south from Tehran to Shiraz, and visit the summer palace of Xerxes the Great known to the West by its Greek name, Persepolis. Had those ancient Greeks not been so parochial, and had they not wrecked it, the awesome complex would have made an eighth Wonder of the World. For a journey like this, I was not exactly prepared. I compounded the hazards by taking with me a cute teen girl. We survived more or less intact, due to the goodwill of the many generous, kind folk along the way. I’ll write up these adventures sometime, but now I would like to tell of the Palace of Oranges.

Shiraz is called the City of the Oranges and is the home and burial place of Hafez, the Persian Dante. For breakfast we had fresh baked bread, olives and tea and then walked into town and the delightful jewel of a tea house, to which we had been taken on our first day in the City. After a wonderful glass of Sherbot (Iranian lemonade) we set out for the palace. It did not look promising. We walked down narrow, dusty medieval streets penned in by high ocher walls. The entrance was a low unadorned door, which opened into a gloomy, dusty, medieval vestibule. We walked around a corner and the garden exploded at us.

Al Hambra by Tania & Artur

Al Hambra by Tania & Artur

Gardens like this are long and narrow, and shaded by high walls. Down the middle was a pool lined with blue and white tiles. Between the walls and pool was row upon row of orange trees. At the far end of the garden was the summer house into which was inset a Moorish alcove, lined with mirrors. How lovely it must have been to sit in that alcove on cushions with friends on a balmy night savoring the scent of orange blossom.

Ta Prohm in Siem Reap by Daniel Mennerich

Ta Prohm in Siem Reap by Daniel Mennerich

 

In the Quran, heaven is liken to a garden and in Islamic countries there are many gardens. Two such gardens are in the Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, and the Alhambra, Cordova, Andalusia. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites aka Wonders of the World and there are many more than seven. I have been to the Taj which is as beautiful in real life as it is on the picture postcards. I hope to see the Alhambra someday. I know that Jacob Bronowski loved it.

Hotel de la Paix

So what would be my idea of heaven?
I’m glad you asked me that.

It is in Siem Reap, Cambodia and was called Hotel de la Paix (Hotel of Peace). It has an undistinguished outside, hidden like the Palace of Oranges, something like a white washed Art Deco cinema in small town America. On the street side is the glass windows of the hotel’s café and a porte-cochère, into which our taxi pulled late on a July evening in 2009. The revolving doors let into a cool minimalist atrium centered on a Brancusi take on the figure forms of Angkor Wat. Above the figure floated  the tiered balconies  of the upper floors.

The Foyer Goddess by Reico

The Foyer Goddess by Reico

Behind the figure was the reception and the concierge. There we were asked one of the best questions any traveler can be asked: Would you like an upgrade?  We gladly accepted a suite for the price of a double room. Apparently, the bankers who had just broken the American credit system had also confined most of the hotel customers in other countries, so the hotel’s best rooms were vacant. So next time there is a glitch in the economy pack your bags because there will be some really good deals to be had to things normally way beyond your budget. Like this suite.

It was split level. Downstairs, the main room was divided by an enormous swivelable flat screen TV into the sleeping area with a comfy king size, bedside tables lights and so on, and sitting area with a comfy sofa, a desk and view of the central garden veiled by gauzy white curtains. The upper level was a balcony with two massage tables – les massages privés, bien sûr, and french windows which let out  on to a private sunning terrace and a huge marble plunge pool. The levels were joined by wrought-iron spiral stairs. From the sleeping area a short passage led to a huge sculpted washbasin around which were piles of wash clothes, bottles of water and what appeared to be old fashioned cruets but could be split open to reveal a unguents and oils.

Figure at Angkor Wat

Figure at Angkor Wat

To the left were your walk-in closet, a stack of teak draws and the safe, and to the right was the wonderful shower room. I think it is the best shower I have ever seen. The floor and walls and ceiling were varieties of brown biscuit in color, dimpled tiles on the floor and veined marble for walls and ceiling. The shower system was worthy of German engineering. System A was a split cylinder of shower heads to give the all-round shower, with a handheld hanging from a copper hook for those hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. System B was a huge – perhaps 20 centimeters wide – flat copper doucher capable of an excellent emulation of a tropical downpour.

Next: the pool. The pool was on the 2nd floor. To call the pool a pool gives the impression of a public building laced by a superabundance of chlorine, a pool of milky water there in, cavernous echoes, slightly scummy grout, and monstrous temperature differences which are best left to Walruses. This pool is more like a garden. To reach it, one takes the lift and then walks down the minimalist corridor, along which were niches presenting backlit Kymer reliefs, which led out into the explosion of tropical sunshine.

pool at Hotel de la Paix

pool at Hotel de la Paix

The doorway lets into an area dominated by a little canal running across left and right. You have arrived at the bit where the rooms which let out onto their own small sun decks, all of which have loungers and the like. The canal continues under the building, each side lined with alcoves with benches and cushions for quiet reading, and ending with an infinity. To reach the rest of the garden there is a little wooden bridge over the canal. There among the beds of succulents and palms are more loungers and more of the industrial sized showers. Some have stone frogs sitting around them. They reminded me of the Gorf who created the heaven called Calf Island described in Salman Rushdie’s 1st book, Grimus.

The rest of the pool had a checkerboard of water inset with small square islands sprouting fronds and palms.  Away from the loungers, several hot tubs bubbled. Another little bridge lead to the spa and the gym. The cool lavender scented spa has plush massage couches, the most expert masseurs, and all the while quietly Khmer chimes tinkle. As it was late, we opted for an early night and – of course – watched Tomb Raider.

Hôtel de la Paix by Reico

Hôtel de la Paix by Reico

Breakfast, on the morrow, was served in the restaurant. The inside of the restaurant is dark teak, its tables covered with stiff fin-de-siècle tablecloths. You are welcomed by courteous, handsome staff. The al fresco part of the restaurant lines two sides of a courtyard centered around a spreading deciduous tree and pools and flag stones. In the evening, it is candle lit. The side nearest the restaurant has conventional tables and chairs of a colonial style, the other side has five or so suspended bowers, on which you would sit or lie propped up by triangular pillows, little button shaped pillows, and shapeless pillows as soft as clouds; and supplies of comestibles furnished on teak trays on little legs. These were much to the delight of the children.

Breakfast, itself, was a vast array of breads, fruits, juices, meats, and cheeses. Tea was bought in a white porcelain Brown Bessie. On that first day I treated myself to an Eggs Benedict which I’m delighted to say was made with fresh Hollandaise.

Showers at Hotel de la Paix by Reico

Showers at Hotel de la Paix by Reico

On the opposite side of courtyard was the spacious bar about the size of decent dance hall, discretely lit with pools of blue light, huge divans and modern Khmer art. The bar itself was biscuit stone inscribed with a homage to the reliefs of Angkor, lit in blue and white. They even did a decent vodka-martini.

The last part of fine dining was the café. We had most of our lunches there. They did very well with fresh handmade ice cream, and wonderful ham and cheese croissants. The servers were handsome, efficient and courteous. I recall one in particular: a beautiful girl with long, long shimmering hair.

Outside was the Khmer capital dominated by the World Heritage Angkor Wat. Its very nice but we preferred the brooding magnificence of Beng Mealea and Ta Prohm, still claimed by the forest by the lava-like flows of Tetrameles nudiflora trees.

和平飯店 by chloe Q

和平飯店 by chloe Q

 I had a massage every day of our visit. Tough, hun? I did have lobster and I did pay more than a dollar. I bought a lovely silver bangle decorated with elephants for the wife, who added silver elephant earrings and a pendant. We sat in the night market and had our toes nibbled by minnows while drinking beer and accosting strangers to come and join us. It was undoubtedly a good trip. Could the hotel bear improvement; everything can. The massages were great but the very tippy-top best is to be had at the Le Meridien, New Delhi.

I like this hotel and I’m far from being alone. Although the name has changed, I do hope its spirit lives on.

 

Palm

Palm

The Final Days of Jesus

The Holy Sepulchre By Berthold Werner

I liked this book, The Final Days of Jesus. Its author, Shimon Gibson, is an archaeologist based in Jerusalem. He has dung up bits of the ancient city, shimmied into ancient mortuary caves and even found an ancient shroud, so he knows what he is talking about. With a name like Shimon I guess that he is Jewish, but he takes his profession seriously, so his book is mostly religion neutral, although there is a mournful note when he writes about the destruction of the second Temple in 60 C.E.

Temple Mount by Yupi666

Temple Mount by Yupi666

The book begins with that walk down from Galilee. At the end of this trek (no fifteen mile drives to the mall in those days), He stays at Martha and Mary’s house in Bethany. There is a rich crop of Beth villages around Jerusalem: Bethany, Bethlehem, Bethabara, and Bethphage (which apparently means “house of green figs.”) Gibson discusses in some detail the rituals of purification and anointing at that time and shows that Jesus’s anointing by Mary is consistent with the practices of the time.

We then walk down the steep slope of the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem, its skyline dominated by the Temple “which dazzled those who entered the city from afar” as it “gleamed all over with gold and polished stones.” The well-to-do had nabbed the hills of Upper Jerusalem for their palaces and forts while Jesus characteristically stayed with the people in Lower Jerusalem.

Dividing the city in two is the Tyropoeon Valley: Tyropoeon apparently means cheese-makers who, of course, were blessed in the beatitudes according to the Life of Brian. In Lower Jerusalem is the Siloam Miqwa’ot (ritual purification pool of Siloam). Gibson describes the care to separate the pre and post purified with different steps and even different sides of the street. In an age before antibiotics and immunization, and the prevalence of diseases like leprosy, a concern about hygiene is understandable.

Gibson downplays two events of Holy Week: Jesus’s arrival on Palm Sunday (p18) and when Jesus chased the money lenders out of the Temple precincts (p48). He argues that anything smacking of insurrection would have swiftly been jumped on by the forces of law and order, both Jewish and Roman. The Last Supper Gibson reckons took place somewhere near the Siloam Miqwa’ot and not in the tourist stop off, the Cenacle, whose Gothic arches were clearly built in Crusader times and is just too big. Why wouldn’t Jesus and the Disciples just have hunkered down there rather than schlep up the Mount of Olives? Gibson suggests that the real room was too small and they were just camping out like many other Passover visitors. The choice of Gethsemane as that evening’s camp site would have been down to its proximity to the lower city and its accessibility through the Siloam Gate. It would also have been comparatively comfy as the whole hill was an olive grove: the name ‘Gethsemane’ is derived from the Aramaic for “olive press.” Once He had been arrested, Jesus would have been taken down the Kidron Valley into the city and up to Caiaphas’s house somewhere in the Upper City.

Madaba map by By Brandmeister

Madaba map by By Brandmeister

Joseph Caiaphas, High Priest and chairman of the Sadducees, belonged to an influential family and held the job from 18 to 36 CE. It was given to him by one Roman, Valerius Gratus and fired from it by another, Vitellius, Governor of Syria, at the same time as Pilate was removed as Præfectus.” We know that Pilate really existed as there is an inscription mentioning him on a piece of stone found at Caesarea. Also, we’ve found the Caiaphas family tomb. Both fellows were career bureaucrats whose lives, their rise and fall was routine for the time, except for that minor nuisance around 30 CE which, for them, was probably simply a matter of keeping the riffraff in their place. I wonder what they would make of their fame down the ages principally due to the man they had had executed.

Gibson puts Christ’s trial in a complex of buildings near Herod’s Palace called the Essenes’s Gate, which had been built to provide a quick escape for the royals should the masses become too revolting. Here is the nice tie to the visionary folk, who lived at Qumran and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and shared many of Jesus’s ideas. The gate complex centered around a small courtyard with a raised platform, so would have suited Pilate for a quick summary trial. If it really was the location of the trial, then the story about Barabbas and the guilt of the Jews cannot be true. The Essenes’s Gate was far too small for a decent crowd to claim the guilt of Christ’s murder for themselves and their children. Neither was there a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover Time. Sad to say that the Holocaust, centuries of pogroms and hatred may be all down to a few lines by a scribe trying to suck up to the Romans.

Gibson describes the horrendous business of crucifixion in some detail including the bent nail left in some poor sod’s ankle. During the siege of Jerusalem in 60 C.E. the Roman soldiery got so bored with nailing people up they “amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures; so great was their number, that space could not be found for the crosses nor crosses for the bodies.” What must the screaming and groaning have been like?

Golgotha Cross Section by Yupi666

Golgotha Cross Section by Yupi666

The Roman soldiers probably did not think much of the Jewish religion. After all, Alexander the Great and his Greeks had beaten the Jews in battle, and then Pompey’s legions had done it all over again. Any normal people would have signed up for the winning gods. The Romans and Greeks believed in essentially the same capricious, amoral Marvel characters. As ingénues, those Romans didn’t realize that they were just the latest in a long line of military powers – Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians – who had been awesome in the day, and were no more. The Jews and their faith would outlive them too. Nowadays, we also prefer Marvel heroes and Mammon, and don’t have much time for the meek or the venerable.

The location of Golgotha, the site of both the Crucifixion and the tomb in the garden, Gibson reckons has always been known, as it was on a prominent outcrop overlooking a main route to the city, all the better to show off Rome’s might. It was pointed out to the Roman emperor Constantine’s mum, Helena, when she visited the city in 326-8 C.E. As she had bought the empire’s piggy bank with her, she brought up everything and anything to do with Christ, including those pieces of the true cross carried by the Frankish kings of Jerusalem, some 800 years later. She had her son tear down the temple to Athena which was standing on the hill of Golgotha and build the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which has been a place of pilgrimage and veneration to our times.

The big question is did Jesus just die that horrific death, knowing his life and work destroyed in the maw of imperial justice, or did God stretch out his hand and bring him back to life? This is a matter of belief: science, in the form of archaeology, cannot  answer yea or nay. For most of its existence the Christian tradition has stood by Jesus at the Siloam Pool with the humble folk. In time, of course, the folk from the upper city came down to help (themselves). The official religion of Constantine shattered into many fragments and became such strangers that epic bloodshed was countenanced by the words of the Good Shepherd, mildest of men. But it wasn’t all bad; even a Borgia pope left the marvel of Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel and Barbarini – the pope who had Galileo summoned to the Holy Offices of the Inquisition – sponsored Allegri’s Miserere Mei.

 

Both chapel and chant are some of the artillery of art made for the Counter Reformation. That shock and awe campaign flowered into Baroque and is in part theatrical and therefore man made. I have had many sublime theatrical experiences: the sunrise in the Tennessee Williams play, Camino Real: Much Ado in the garden of St. John’s, Oxford when the toasting summer had run dry of Pimm’s,

Clown Song in Twelfth Night
When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

Read More →

Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Professor and the Wild Pig

The Bison at Altamira

Meal number four

For meal number four, Professor Pollan wanted to get the grub the good old fashioned way, old as in Paleolithic Age old, but he has a problem: “I had never hunted in my life.” It gets worse.

“Being a somewhat accident-prone individual (childhood mishaps included getting bitten in the cheek by a seagull and breaking my nose falling out of bed).”  Moreover, his “father looked upon hunting as a human activity that had stopped making sense with the invention of the steakhouse.”

So how did Pollan’s mum fare? “Thanks to my mother’s more extensive engagement with the natural world, I did have some childhood experience. These elementary foraging expeditions were always accompanied by scary surgeon general-like warnings from my mother about the deadly poisons lurking in berries and mushrooms growing in the wild: she made it sound like it wouldn’t take much for a kid to get himself killed snacking in the woods.”

The poor boy was a danger to himself, even without a gun, and was fungiphobic. Still, he was intent on escaping the cube farm.

“… I had decided that this meal should feature representatives of all three edible kingdoms: animal, vegetable, and fungi. I was about as ill prepared to hunt the former and gather the latter as an eater could possibly be.”

The lack of fire arm proficiency was just too galling: “…a line of Henry David Thoreau’s that had irritated me when I first came across it years ago. ‘We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun,’ he wrote in Walden. ‘He is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected.’ That pitiable, uneducated boy was me.”

Gun: tick.

Mushrooms: Well, “Mushroom hunting was to me the very soul of foraging, throwing both the risks and rewards of eating from the wild into the sharpest possible relief. … If I hoped to host representatives of all three kingdoms on my plate, learning to distinguish the delicious from the deadly among the fungi was a necessity

Mushrooms: tick.

Divina Commedia

Pollan needed help. “What if I actually managed to kill something-then what? How do you ‘dress’ an animal you’ve killed? (And what kind of euphemism is that, anyway?)” He will get to almost throw up while dressing his pig. “What I badly needed, I realized, was my own personal foraging Virgil, a fellow not only skilled in the arts of hunting and gathering (and butchering), but also well versed in the flora, fauna, and fungi of Northern California, about which I knew approximately nothing. “As serendipity would have it, a foraging Virgil appeared in my life at exactly the right moment, though it took me a while to recognize him.”

Dante et Vergil dans le neuvième cercle de l'enfer par Gustave Doré

Dante et Vergil dans le neuvième cercle de l’enfer par Gustave Doré

Why Virgil? Does he need Thunderbird 2? Surely Scott in Thunderbird 1 would be a better choice. Ah, no. Pollan is indulging in a literary conceit. A long, long time ago, a poet called Durante degli Alighieri, or the more manageable Dante, was exiled from his home town of Firenze (Florence) by the Black Guelphs. Italian politics was as dysfunctional back then as now, so the machinations are complex, but suffice to say he never returned. He was in the then new wave of Italian poetry, the dolce stil novo (sweet new style, a term which Dante himself coined), and spent 20 years of exile writing Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy), expiring the following year. It is no more a comedy in the modern sense than Da Vinci’s Cartoon in the National Gallery, London is like those of the New Yorker. As the blessèd Peter Cook said of the Da Vinci sketch, “I can’t understand the joke.”

 

 

“The poem begins “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (halfway along our life’s path). Dante is lost in a dark wood assailed by beasts (a lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf). Things were looking dicey for our hero when he is rescued by Virgil. This Virgil is the shade of the Latin poet, author of the epic, Aeneid. He guides Dante, down through the ten circles of the Inferno – one for each sin plus one for Lucifer, then out the bottom of Hell to the base of the mountain Purgatorio, and up its 10 terraces, and to Paradiso.

Divina Commedia “is widely considered the preeminent work in Italian literature, and is seen as one of the greatest works of world literature.” To embroider Pollan’s conceit a little, the CAFOs of Agribusiness might be his idea of Hell and, if Agribusiness were a pig, then Big Organic would be a pig with lipstick. Omnivore’s Dilemma doesn’t really have a Purgatorio, it skips straight to the Paradiso of Polyface Farm.

The most famous part of the Commedia is Inferno, which is peopled by the wicked of Dante’s time. You will find a goodly crop of clerics from Pope Boniface VIII down, assorted enemies from his days in Firenze, characters from Greco-Roman myth, and those who chose mortal sin to end their earthly misfortunes. For some of the damned, part of their punishment is to lose their human form: Pier della Vigna committed suicide and was transformed into a thorn tree which bleeds; Guido da Montefeltro, advisor to Boniface VIII, hoped that the dispensation from the Pope would let him into Paradiso, but Dante finds him in the Inferno transformed into a flame.

The adventure Pollan recounts in the 4th part of Omnivore’s Dilemma is transformational, too. The tale would never feature in the Supermarket Pastoral, the genre of advertising favored by Big Organic. He discovers his Paleolithic ancestry and its uncomfortable potency.

The Forger Virgil

“The guy was a one-man traveling food network, a poster boy for tbe Slow Food movement.”

“Angelo Garro is a stout, burly Italian with a five-day beard, sleepy brown eyes, and a passion verging on obsession about the getting and preparing of food.” He “spends many of his days in California re-creating the calendar of life in Sicily, a calendar that is strictly organized around seasonal foods.”

“’In Sicily you could tell by the smell what time of the year it was,’ he said. ‘Orange season, oranges, persimmons, olives, and olive oil.’”

But before we get to the chase, there are three chapters on human nature and food.

Our omnivore’s dilemma

The phrase “… the omnivore’s dilemma, or paradox, was first described in the 1976 paper, “The Selection of Foods by Rats, Humans, and Other Animals,” by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin. … Rozin found that the rat minimizes the risk of the new by treating its digestive tract as a kind of laboratory. It nibbles a very little bit of the new food (assuming it is food) and then waits to see what happens.” So, omnivores have to be smart enough to successfully recall the foods that were good and successfully distinguish them from the bad and the toxic. “In the words of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, ‘Disgust is intuitive microbiology’”.

Wild Pig by Andrei

Wild Pig by Andrei

Human omnivorosity ”is deeply inscribed in human bodies: “Our teeth are omnicompetent- designed for tearing animal flesh as well as grinding plants. So are our jaws, which we cm move in the manner of a carnivore, a rodent, or a herbivore, depending on the dish.”

We have used our big brains to master fire and then master cooking, “one of the omnivore’s cleverest tools, [which] opened up whole new vistas of edibility.” “Indeed, there is probably not a nutrient source on earth that is not eaten by some human somewhere – bugs, worms, dirt, fungi, lichens, seaweed, rotten fish; the roots, shoots, stems, bark, buds, flowers, seeds, and fruits of plants; every imaginable part of every imaginable animal, not to mention haggis, granola, and Chicken McNuggets.”

The omnivorous life style is part of the human toolkit, as there “does seem to be an evolutionary trade-off between big brains and big guts…” Herbivores do not have to be smart, as Sid the Sloth explained in the cartoon movie Ice Age.

Diego: You don’t know much about tracking, do you?

Sid: Hey, I’m a sloth. I see a tree, eat a leaf, that’s my tracking.

Those real-life teddy bears, the koala, only eat eucalyptus leaves which means, as “it happens, the koala’s brain is so small it doesn’t even begin to fill up its skull. Zoologists theorize that the koala once ate a more varied and mentally taxing diet than it does now, and that as it evolved toward its present, highly circumscribed concept of lunch, its underemployed brain actually shrank. (Food faddists take note.)”

To complete our toolkit, or the more sciencey “the cognitive niche”, we pass our food tips and techniques in a package “we call a cuisine [which] specifies combinations of foods and flavors that on examination do a great deal to mediate the omnivore’s dilemma. The dangers of eating raw fish, for example, are minimized by consuming it with wasabi, a potent antimicrobial. Similarly, the strong spices characteristic of many cuisines in the tropics, where food is quick to spoil, have antibacterial properties. The mesa-American practice of cooking corn with lime and serving it with beans, like the Asian practice of fermenting soy and serving it with rice, turn out to render these plant species much more nutritious than they otherwise would be.”

The trouble is “America has never had a stable cognitive niche; each immigrant population has brought its own food ways to the American table, but none has ever been powerful enough to hold the national diet very steady. We seem bent on reinventing the American way of eating every generation, in great paroxysms of neophilia and neophobia. That might explain why Americans have been such easy marks for food fads and diets of every description.”

Food fads have been in vogue in America for a long, long time. The “first golden age of American food faddism” was inaugurated by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg on September 5, 1866, when he opened “his legendarily nutty sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan” If you couldn’t afford to go there and get your grape only diet or hourly enemas, then you might “Fletcherize“ which meant “chewing each bite of food as many as one hundred times”. It’s inventor was-“Horace Fletcher, also known as the Great Masticator.” All of these daft ideas were promoted by “exponents [who] spoke not in terms of fashion but of scientific eating, much as we do now.”

The point of any fad is to make money; so long as it follows the letter of the law, you’re fine, consequences are the other guy’s problem. As Pollan puts it, there is a “tendency of capitalism, in its single-minded pursuit of profit, to erode the various cultural underpinnings that a steady society but often impede the march of commercialization.” Care for the bottom line trumps all other considerations.

Steakhouse Dialogues

“The first time I opened Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation I was dining alone at the Palm, trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium rare. If that sounds like a recipe for cognitive dissonance, if not indigestion, well, …”

Pollan has a lot to say on the ethics of eating animals. Are the chickens at Polyface Farm mistreated? If so, would we prefer a vegan paradise? We humans are adept at coming up with excuses. This facility Pollan describes in a story about Benjamin Franklin. “He tells in his autobiography of one day watching friends catch fish and wondering, “If, you eat one another, I don’t see why we may not eat you. He admits, however, that this rationale didn’t occur to him until the fish were in the frying pan, beginning to smell “admirably well”. The great advantage of being a “reasonable creature,” Franklin remarks, is that you can find a reason for whatever you want to do.”

Even so, we now know humans do not make choices rationally. We emote, and justify post hoc. In sciencey speech, decisions are locked away in our limbic system. Pollan’s recalls his brief relationship with the animal he brought during his quest in beef industry. “I had been wondering what 534 would be feeling as he neared his end. Would he have any inkling – a scent of blood, a sound of terror from up the line – that this was no ordinary day? would he. in other words, suffer? [Temple] Grandin anticipated my question.” who observed cattle being feed through a chute “getting their shots, and going up the ramp at the slaughter plant. No difference. If they knew they were going to die you’d see much more agitated behavior.’”

Hunting Pigs

Autumn by Alois Wonaschuetz

Autumn by Alois Wonaschuetz

The professor is a male Homo sapiens sapiens. Hunting and killing wild animals is in his biological ancestry, so he is getting to do what evolution fashioned him to do. In a way, he’s been using his clever brain to avoid doing so; living a comfortable life in the cube farm, something that our cousins, the Neanderthals, didn’t have an option on. Pollan will discover that meeting his human past is literally surreal.

“Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling. It embarrasses me to write that, but it is true. I am not by nature much of a noticer, yet here, now, my attention to everything around me, and deafness to everything else, is complete.

I notice how the day’s first breezes comb the needles in the pines, producing a sotto voce whistle and an undulation in the pattern of light and shadow tattooing the tree trunks and the ground. I notice the specific density of the air. But this is not a passive or aesthetic attention; it is a hungry attention, reaching out into its surroundings like fingers, like nerves.

See that smoothly scooped-out puddle of water? That’s a wallow, but notice how the water is perfectly clear: Pigs haven’t disturbed it yet today.

Professor Pollan writes, “Approaching his prey, the hunter instinctively becomes more like the animal, straining to make himself less visible, less audible, more exquisitely alert. predator and prey alike move according to their own maps of this ground, their own forms of attention, and their own systems of instinct, systems that evolved expressly to hasten or avert precisely this encounter … “

This experience is truly disconcerting.

“WAIT A MINUTE. Did I really write that last paragraph? I recognize this kind of prose: hunter porn. And whenever I’ve read it in the past, in Ortega Y Gasset and Hemingway and all those hard-bitten, big-bearded American wilderness writers who still pine for the Pleistocene. it never failed to roll my eyes.

And yet here I find myself sliding into the hunter’s ecstatic purple, channeling Ortega -Y Gasset.”

Slightly less disconcerting was the reception of his hunter persona by civilized humans. After “my second trip hunting with Angelo when, … we stopped in at a convenience store … . The two of us were exhausted and filthy, the fronts of our jeans stained dark with blood. …

And under the bright fluorescence of the 7-Eleven, in the mirror behind the cigarette rack behind the cashier, I caught a glimpse of this grungy pair of self-satisfied animal killers and noted the wide berth the other customers in line were only too happy to grant us. It is a wonder that the cashier didn’t preemptively throw contents of the cash register.”

Them pigs ain’t gonna hunt themselves

Pollan started training for his quest: “I had tried out my rifle only once before taking it to the woods, at a firing range in the Oakland Hills, and by the end of the morning my paper target had sustained considerably less damage than my left shoulder, which ached for a week.”

And before we get too sorry for the pigs, he points out that in Sonoma County: “The animal is regarded as a pest in many parts of California” and “They are also, by reputation, vicious; one of the nicknames the California pig has earned is ‘dog ripper’.”

Now that the Prof has embarked on the adventure, he has to put any qualms aside; his Virgil is determined and compelling. “’You are going to kill your first pig today’, Angelo shouted over the roar of the engine. Given the nature of hunting, not to mention me, I understood this as less a prediction than a prayer.”

The experience unfolds: “When I could hear Angelo’s footsteps no more my ears and eyes started tuning in-everything. It was as if I’d dialed up the gain on started tuning in – everything.

I found I could see farther into the woods than I ever had before, picking out the tiniest changes in my visual field at an almost inconceivable distance, just so long as those changes involved movement or blackness. The sharpness of focus and depth of field was uncanny, ‘Hunter’s eye’, Angelo said later when I described the phenomenon; he knew all about it.

Later it occurred to me that this mental state, which I quite liked, in many ways resembled the one induced by smoking marijuana…”

The lucky fellow has great cannabis memories; some people just become giddy. The active ingredients of cannabis, the cannabinoids, stimulate the “brain’s ’cannabinoid network’”.  Human brains have receptors for THC, and for anandamine, an endogenous neurotransmitter, which implies that there is a serious role for the cannabinoid network. Pollan suggests that this network has evolved to tune a hunter’s mind to the task at hand. When asked about the cannabinoid network and the role of anandamine, regular pharmacologists plump for their default hypothesis of pain and reward. I prefer Pollan’s hypothesis Anything but the musings of scientists betraying the pervasive conditioning brought to us by their employers.

“Later, when [Pollan] reread Ortega Y Gasset’s description of the experience, I decided that maybe he wasn’t so crazy after all, not even when he asserted that hunting offers us our last best chance to escape history and the state of nature, if only for a time – for what he called a ‘vacation from the human condition.’”

The cannabinoid network even comes with automatic debrief. “It’s curious how the hunting story takes shape in the minutes after the shot, as you work through the chaotic simultaneous of that lightning, elusive moment, trying to tease out of the adrenaline fog something linear and comprehensible.”

“Having introduced a loaded gun …“,

“ … in Act One, the curtain can’t come down until it is fired”. Pollan becomes oppressed by Chekhov and his dictate. Why? Prof missed; close but no cigar (or pig, in this case). A lesser man would have been content to call it a day. but he had not only Chekhov guilting him, he would disappoint Angelo. Then, there was Señor Ortega Y Gasset, Pollan’s literary guide to the hunt. Ortega Y Gasset would understand, smile sadly, and suggest that he had achieved a “platonic” understanding of the hunt, akin to bird watching. The Señor wrote, “Platonism represents the maximum tradition of affected piety.” That kind of affection was not for the Prof, he determined to try again, and consummate the experience.

“The crystal stillness of the scene and the moment in time now exploded into a thousand shards of sense. Something like the fog of war now descended on the scene, and I’m uncertain exactly what happened next, but I believe Angelo fired a second time. Angelo clapped me on the back and congratulated me extravagantly. ‘Your first pig! Look at the size of it. And with a perfect shot, right in the head.’, Angelo continued, “You got yourself a big one. That’s some very nice prosciutto!”

It was a big pig; it weighed “190 pounds. The pig weighed exactly as much as [Pollan] did.” Then, he learns all about the dressing-a-pig thing: “Dead bodies are awkward, among other things, and negotiating one this big proved a difficult, clumsy, and oddly intimate operation.” To Angelo, though, all of it was normal, indeed, “[Pollan] could not believe Angelo was still talking about food. “ They managed to haul the bulky animal back to the truck and suspended from a custom made crane on the truck’s stern.

Undressing a Pig

“Next Angelo made a shallow incision along an equator circling the pig’s belly and began to gently work the hide loose. I held down a narrow flap of skin while he cut into the fat behind it, leaving as much of the creamy white adipose layer on the carcass as possible. ‘This is really good fat,’ Angelo explained, ‘for the salami.’”

Quickly they had an audience: “… a pair of turkey vultures [circled] high overhead, patiently waiting for us to finish. Whatever parts of this pig we didn’t take the local fauna were preparing to set upon and consume, weaving this bonanza of fat and protein back into the fabric of the land. Pollan dutifully “held the [animal’s stomach] cavity open while Angelo reached in to pull out the mass of organs …”

He “reached in and pulled gently and the rest of the viscera tumbled out onto the ground in a heap, up from which rose a stench so awful it made me gag. This. was not just the stink of pig shit or piss but those comparatively benign smells compounded by an odor so wretched and ancient that death alone could release it.

I still had my arms wrapped around the pig from behind, holding it steady and open, but I needed, badly, to break away for a moment to lo-care an uncontaminated breath.

What disgusted me about “cleaning” the animal was just how messy – in every sense of the word – the process really was, how it forced me to look at and smell and touch and even to taste the death, at my hands, of a creature my size that, on the inside at least, had all the same parts and probably looked an awful lot like I did.”

The yucky bit, thankfully, came to an end. Professor Pollan had successfully killed his pig. He, Angelo and Ortega Y Gasset could be proud, and Prof could return to real life. That evening, Angelo sent him an email entitled Look the great hunter! with some photo attachments. Pollan was keen to show his family, so he opened one.

“The image that appeared on my computer screen hit me like an unexpected blow to the body. A hunter in an orange sweater was kneeling observing some hoary convention of the hunter’s trophy portrait. One proprietary hand rests on the dead animal’s broad flank. The man is looking into the camera with an expression of unbounded pride, wearing a big shit-eating grin that might have been winning, if perhaps incomprehensible, had the bloodied carcass sprawled beneath him been cropped out of the frame.

What could I possibly have been thinking? What was the man in that picture feeling?”

 

The mushrooms stalk the Prof

“Nature, as the Woody Allen character says in Love and Death is like an enormous restaurant.” Quite how Woody Allen, an icon of New York City life, might know I’ll leave for your musings. The Prof finds that: “It was almost as if I had donned a new pair of glasses that divided the natural world into the possibly good to eat and the probably not.” He saw “clumps of miner’s lettuce off in the shade (Claytonia, a succulent coin-shaped green I had once grown in my Connecticut garden) and wild mustard out in the sun. {Angelo called it rapini. and said the young leaves: were delicious sautéed in olive oil and garlic.”

In his newly found vigilance, the mushrooms made an appearance. “Hiking in the Berkeley Hills one afternoon in January I noticed a narrow shady path dropping off the main trail into the woods, and I followed it down into a grove of big oaks and bay laurel trees.”

“I noticed a bright, yolky glimmer of something pushing up the carpet of leaves not two feet from where I’d just stepped. I brushed away the leaves and there it was, this big, fleshy, vase-shaped mushroom that I was dead certain had to be a chanterelle.” Bingo!

“I took the mushroom home, brushed off the soil, and put it on a plate, then pulled out my field guides to see if I could confirm the identification. Everything matched up: the color, the faint apricot smell, the asymmetrical trumpet shape on top, the underside etched in a shallow pattern of “false” gills.” Getting warm.

He “felt fairly confident. But confident enough to eat it? Not quite. The field guide mentioned something called a false chanterelle that had slightly thinner gills. Uh oh. Thinner, thicker …”

Damn!                         Prof, the Chanterelle hunter: 0          Prof’s fungiphobia: 1

Pig: Tick, Mushrooms: Next

“Isn’t it curious how in so many of our pastimes and hobbies we play at supplying one or another of our fundamental creaturely needs-for food, shelter, even clothing? So some people knit, others build things …” In Bavaria, after a full week’s work building BMWs, the German male with his German son will don identikit overalls and toolbelts, and set about building houses. Fun should be taken seriously.

Chanterelles by Charles de Mille-Isles

Chanterelles by Charles de Mille-Isles

Professor Pollan likes to garden, and has done so “since [he] was ten years old, when [he] planted a “farm” in [his] parents’ suburban yard and set up a farm stand patronized, pretty much exclusively, by [his] mother.” Garden[ing] is diverting: “mostly comic dialogue with other species”, and awesome: “… the fact that by planting and working an ordinary patch of dirt you could in a few months’ time harvest things of taste and value was, for me, nature’s most enduring astonishment. It still is.”

Still, none of this is going to help in the mushroom hunt, and there is another problem: “Mushroom hunters are famously protective of their spots, and a good chanterelle spot is a precious personal possession ….” He “… asked a slew of acquaintances [he] knew to be mycophiles [literally mushroom lovers] if I might accompany them. (The Bay Area is home to many such people, probably because mushroom hunting marries the regions two guiding obsessions: eating and the outdoors.)”

Pollan discovers that the reaction to this seemingly innocuous request might have been caused by something done by Ted, the teddy bear, in Seth MacFarlane’s movie, Ted. “You could see at once that this was an entirely outrageous request, tantamount to asking if I might borrow their credit card for the afternoon.” Even the urbane fellow pig-hunter, Jean-Pierre fended him off, and others employed :“…the same joke: “Sure. you can come mushroom hunting with me, but I must tell you that immediately afterward I will have to kill you.”

Luckily, the Prof had his Virgil. “I was beginning to think it was hopeless, that I was going to have to learn to hunt mushrooms from books-a dubious, not to mention dangerous, proposition. And then Angelo called.” After Pollan had finished skipping around in glee, a period of mature reflection set in, so he wrote: “Though l probably shouldn’t overstate Angelo’s generosity. The place he took me mushrooming was on private and gated land owned by an old friend of his, so it wasn’t as though he was giving away the family jewels.”

“The chanterelle is a mycorrhizal species, which means it lives in association with the roots of plants – oak trees, in the chanterelle’s case, and usually oak trees of a venerable age.” Angelo had taken him to an oak grove where he was on first name terms with every single tree.

“I looked around my tree for a few minutes, walking a stooped circle under its drip line, flicking the leaf litter here and there with my stick, but I saw nothing. Eventually Angelo came over and pointed to a spot no more than a yard from where I stood. I looked, I stared, but still saw nothing but a chaotic field of tan leaves and tangled branches. Angelo got down on his knees and brushed the leaves and soil away to reveal a bright squash-colored trumpet the size of his fist. He cut it at the base with a knife and handed it to me; the mushroom was unexpectedly heavy, and cool to the touch.

How in the world had he spotted it?”

Morel Mushroom by Clayton Sieg

Morel Mushroom by Clayton Sieg

The age-old reason: practice. That’s “apparently how it goes with hunting mushrooms: You have to get your eyes on”, and “before the morning was out [he]’d begun to find a few chanterelles on my own. [He] began to understand what it meant to have [his] eyes on, and the chanterelles started to pop out of the landscape, one and then another, almost as though they were beckoning to me.”

As you’ll recall, Pollan is a professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and therefore a fully paid up member of the Guild of Wordsmiths, but the quest to find wild mushrooms has uncovered a profound truth: “Our ability to identify plants and fungi with confidence, which after all is one of the most critical tools of our survival, involves far more sensory information than can ever be printed on a page; it is, truly, a form of “body knowledge not easily reduced or conveyed over a distance.” Language leaves a lot out. No matter how capacious our digital storage becomes, the written word and therefore the Internet, will only capture a little of the world we humans are capable of perceiving. Pollan sums this up in a quote from the Marriage of the Sun and Moon by Andrew Weil:

“’One learns most mushrooms in only one-way: through people who know them.”, which he illustrates with his own experience:

“… now that I have held a freshly picked chanterelle in my hands, smelled its apricoty scent, registered its specific heft and the precise quality of its cool dampness (and absorbed who knows how many other qualities beneath the threshold of conscious notice), I’ll recognize the next one without a moment’s hesitation.”

And he is, rightly, jolly pleased with himself: “It’s not every day you acquire such a sturdy piece of knowledge.” The following week, he’s off to his oak tree and its cache of golden chanterelles: “I hadn’t thought to bring a bag, and there were more chanterelles than I could carry, so I made a carrier of my T-shirt, folding it up in front of me like a basket, and then filled it with the big, mud-encrusted mushrooms.” Gleefully, he “drew looks from passers-by, looks of envy, I decided …” and later smugly mused: “So now I have a spot and, just like Jean-Pierre’s town. (Please don’t ask me where it is.)”

MUSHROOMS ARE MYSTERIOUS

Burned forest by Ethan Trewhitt

Burned forest by Ethan Trewhitt

Just in time, too. “Once the rains stopped in April the chanterelles were done for the year” The next mushrooming where the “morels [which] came up in May.”

During the pig hunts the Prof had interrogated Jean-Pierre, who finally, reluctantly, gave him a name, Anthony Tassinello, and put Pollan “in touch with Anthony” via e-mail. And Anthony was up for it. Pollan: “was surprised he’d let a complete stranger tag along, but after some back and forth by e-mail, it began to make more sense. The morels were on, and Anthony could use an extra pair of hands. especially ones that were asking for nothing in return. … the secrecy issue is not nearly so touchy in the case of the ‘burn’ morels we would be hunting.” “Burn” morels mushroom after a pine forest fire, so are temporary and easy to Google.

In due course the call came and Anthony advised Pollan how he should prepare. “Anthony also advised me to bring sunscreen and bug spray (for mosquitoes), at least a gallon of water, ChapStick, and, if I owned one, a walkie-talkie. Morel hunting didn’t sound like much fun, more like survival training than a walk in the woods.” The Prof set his alarm for 4:30 A.M.

“The forest was gorgeous, and the forest was ghastly. Ghastly because it was, for as far as you could see, a graveyard of vertically soaring trunks that had been shorn of every horizontal, every branch, by the fire.”

Anthony and Professor Pollan were joined by Ben, Anthony’s mushrooming buddy, and the legendary Paulie Porcini. Their prey: The Morel, which is “a decidedly comic-looking mushroom, resembling leprechauns or little penises. The morel’s distinctive form and pattern would make it easy to spot if not for its color, which ranges from dun to black and could not blend in more completely with a charred landscape.” On the blasted, blackened hill slopes, more than ever mushrooms “seem[ed] autochthonous, arising seemingly from nowhere, seemingly, without cause.”

Carefully schooled by the three, the Prof extemporized. “When Ben spotted me hunting in a prone position, he approved. ‘We say, stop, drop, and roll, because you can see things at level you’ll never see from above.” For a time, they wandered, Pollan trying to get his eyes on, and experiencing “mushroom frustration”. “’Mushroom frustration’ is what you feel when everyone around you is seeing them and you’re still blind …”

“Ben and Anthony had a slew of these mushroom-hunting adages and I collected them over the course of the day. ‘Seeing is boleting’ means you never see any mushrooms until someone else has demonstrated their presence by finding one.”

The “’screen saver’ – the fact that after several hours interrogating the ground for little brown dunce caps, their images will be burned on your retinas. ‘You’ll see. When you get into bed tonight,’ Ben said, ‘you’ll shut your eyes and there they’ll be again – wall-to-wall morels.”

“’But you must never forget the final theory, the theory of all theories, ’Ben warned near the end of my morning tutorial. ‘We call it TPITP: The Proof Is in the Pudding’.

After lunch, “Along Beaver Creek that afternoon the morels were totally on, as Ben would say; almost everywhere I looked the honeycombed dunce caps appeared, and I filled a bag in less than an hour.”

“It was deeply satisfying when the morels appeared, a phenomenon ‘You could swear was as much under their control as yours. I became, perforce, a student of the “pop-out effect,” a term I’d first heard from mushroomers but subsequently learned is used by psychologists studying visual perception.” I suppose the “pop-out effect” is something like seeing the 3D shapes in a stereogram or Magic Eye picture.

Circles of Hell in Dante's Inferno Graphic by INFOGRAFIKA

Circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno Graphic by INFOGRAFIKA

This, the Professor’s last adventure has given us a wonderful insight into human nature and human religion. Earlier, I included a brief introduction to Paradiso under the guise of introducing Virgil, Dante’s guide and mentor. Now, let’s revisit the poem so I may draw an appropriate metaphor for the Prof’s achievement. Paradiso is a truly wonderful poem, and, with a little work, it’s fairly easy to read in Dante’s actual words. In the poem, Dante has captured the universe of the Feudal Church, which, to me, is full of sin and guilt, and far from the teacher who once said, “Let the children come to me”. In our world, there is no pit dug by Lucifer’s plummet from heaven, our real mountains are majestic but nothing like the terraced Babel reaching the outskirts of heaven, and heaven is not a beautiful rose window, sterile and unmoved.

Instead the Prof has brought us news from beyond words, from Husserl’s Lebenswelt (Life world). This Lebenswelt is more wonderful than we imagine, and the more we look the more wonderful it is. Its order is built into a Copper Sulphate crystal growing in a super saturated solution; into the enormous gypsum crystals of the Cueva de los Cristales, Naica; into the basalt hexagons of the Giant’s Causeway, Ireland, built by the wonderfully named giant Finn MacCool; and reflected from far away by the Ice Sculptures of the Carina Nebula. Life, Merleau Ponty’s “Chair” (français (literally): flesh), encompasses the exquisite choreography of cell division, a baby’s smile, the bliss of humans bound together in orgasm, the life of chanterelles, the mighty breach of a right whale, and up and out to the transcendental wonder of our Blue Dot. The humans of the Life-World have answered back with the serene call of the Muezzin floating over Istanbul, the throaty roar of John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom, the piquancy of Lai from Richard the Lionheart: Troubadors et trouvères by Alla Francesca, and the overwhelming Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The genius of people created the Song Lines running across the Outback; the feathered serpent god rippling down the staircase to the pyramid temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza; the luminous spaces of Santa Sophia, Istanbul; and the ranked immortals and votives, the winged bulls and the black marble throne room at Takht-e-Jamshid. So it goes this Life-World, this Flesh: It runs on and on, worlds without end.

The hunt had made the Prof feel awesomely powerful, similar to the feelings described by Israeli tank commanders driving the routed Egyptian army back across the Sinai during the ‘67 War. The principle entertainment of monarchs and nobles has been hunting, because the chase gave something of the same thrills as battle. A warrior could easily describe his experience as being one with Mars or St. Michael.

Even to a sophisticated, well informed individual like Professor Pollan, mushrooming felt magical and unknowable. The secretive reflexes of mushroomers as they refused to divulge their places was akin to those concealing magical or religious law; the feelings of those questing to find such places is akin to those seeking to find answers in Nostradamus or John Dee’s angelic language. This also goes someway to explain why many prefer the half-baked Ancient Aliens to real science. For supplicants watching a TV science show, they are excluded from the chase, the false leads, the dumb mistakes, and the work with its final triumph.

If science is to be better appreciated then TV science shows should refrain from trotting out facts, handed down from Olympian heights, and seek to engage people in the process of scientific discovery. In the history of science, the pop-out effect has happened many times. From Galileo looking at Jupiter and its moons, through Kekulé dreaming of a snake biting its tail and upon waking realizing that he had a solution for the structure of benzene, to James Watson playing with cardboard shapes representing the components of DNA called bases and realizing that was a good reason for the unusual ratio of their proportions, there is ample material to include regular folk. I maintain that it is quite possible to explain Einstein Special Relativity and Gödel’s Theorem to an interested anyone, perhaps even explain Darwinian Evolution to the satisfaction of a Southern Baptist preacher.

The Perfect Meal

The Menu

The Menu

“Perfect?! A dangerous boast, you must be thinking.” the Prof quips, but I do think so. The food was spectacularly good – have a look at the photo of the menu. The first course of Abalone performed well as a “chaser of mouthwash”.

The humans furnished conversation which was like a “sustainable effervescence, unfurl[ing] like a sail”.

“There comes a moment in the course of a dinner party when, with any luck, you realize everything’s going to be okay. The food and the company having sailed past the shoals of awkwardness or disaster, and the host can allow himself at last to slip into the warm currents of the evening and actually begin to enjoy himself.”

Good job, Professor Pollan, good job.

The Persuasive Power of Repetition 1

Glass Ball by Didgeman

I can clearly remember asking my English master, “When are we going to start studying English Grammar?” I recall the fellow as young, small and slight, with a mop of curly, dark brown hair, and substantial sideburns. All in all, his 70s-fashion sense made him look like an elf. “We don’t do that anymore,” he said. And when I asked how I was going to learn it, he replied, “Read a lot”. Repeat

So I read a lot. I read The Glass Bead Game on the train from Tehran to Istanbul.

Yambuya_RDC_congo_1890 by By Th. Weber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Congo, the venue for Heart of Darkness

I read Heart of Darkness in the wee hours working in the biscuit factory.

I read anything and everything: all of Hardy, most of Dickens; Austin and Auden, Bryson and Byron, Keats and Cummings, Dawkins and Darwin, James and Joyce, Lawrences T.E and D.H, Orwell and Orton, Pynchon and Pratchett, Shakespeare and Sheridan, and “Even Cowgirls get the Blues”.

So, I should have been well prepared to teach English in Japan, ne?

Nope, not at all. There is a reason French classes include grammaire française, or in German classes there is Deutsches Grammatik, and this was true for other language classes too: Especially Japanese learning English, and 英語人は日本語を習う.

Walrus and the Mutton Chops by andycox93

Walrus and the Mutton Chops by andycox93

My elfish English master was acting in the fashion of those times; tearing down the moldering Gormenghast of colonial methods and Victorian values, and refuting beliefs in thrashings, cold baths, and English grammars based on two-thousand-year-old Latin ones. Someone in Eng. Lit. had noticed that the English Language grew from a Germanic stock to which had been grafted French, Latin, a bit of Greek and umpteen other languages. We freely steal whenever we take a fancy to one of someone else’s nouns or verbs. It is simply ridiculous to apply highly inflected Latin grammar to this perky expressive mongrel. When my Chemistry teacher mocked the Star Trek opening lines “To boldly go” as a split infinitive, he was wrong. Infinitives are there to be split when it is the right thing to do. In Japan, folks were better educated and more practical. They knew what a clause was.

Once I had recovered from feeling nauseously miffed (about my lack of formal grammar and not the other times), I set about remedying the deficiency, only to find that the weeds of industry had produced such a plethora of books, blogs and bibles that it was nigh impossible to gain much traction on the subject until I discovered The Teaching Company. I started with the excellent “Building Great Sentences” and went to buy many great other titles.  “Building Great Sentences” inspired me to attack English Grammar again. As before there were heaps of the stuff available, but this time, thanks in main part to Richard Norquist’s excellent (and free!) ThoughtCo,com Blog and Newsletter and June Casagrande, who wrote the classic Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies, I got better.

This essay is the first of four on repetition, the many ways we repeat ourselves. We repeat sounds, words and phrases all the time, and we do so to increase our intelligibility and both our affect and our effect. We do so formally and informally, and have always done so. Repetition is a bore at the moment as it only multiplies the fire hose of information targeted on us. Our more rational, more intelligent progeny will have figured out how their devices work, and have a vaccine for FMO and fakenewzeemia, so will have the time to devote to the first human communication technology, speech, knowing all others are but its pale reflection.

So Repetition, then.

It is said:

“[R]epetition skulks under numerous different names, one might almost say aliases, depending on who is repeating what where:
When parrots do it, it’s parrotting. When advertisers do it, it’s reinforcement.
When children do it, it’s imitation. When brain-damaged people do it, it’s perseveration or echolalia.
When disfluent people do it, it’s stuttering or stammering.
When orators do it, it’s epizeuxis, ploce, anadiplosis, polyptoton or antimetabole.
When novelists do it, it’s cohesion.
When poets do it, it’s alliteration, chiming, rhyme, or parallelism.
When priests do it, it’s ritual. When sounds do it, it’s gemination.
When morphemes do it, it’s reduplication.
When phrases do it, it’s copying. When conversations do it, it’s reiteration..”

(Jean Aitchison, “‘Say, Say It Again Sam’: The Treatment of Repetition in Linguistics.” Repetition, ed. by Andreas Fischer. Gunter Narr Verlag, 1994)

Tetrahymena thermophila 80S ribosome model

Tetrahymena thermophila 80S ribosome model

And Jean goes onto total up 27 ways we do this thing. Some worry about repetition and need reassurance:

“Repetition is a far less serious fault than obscurity. Young writers are often unduly afraid of repeating the same word, and require to be reminded that it is always better to use the right word over again, than to replace it by a wrong one–and a word which is liable to be misunderstood is a wrong one. A frank repetition of a word has even sometimes a kind of charm–as bearing the stamp of truth, the foundation of all excellence of style.”
(Theophilus Dwight Hall, A Manual of English Composition. John Murray, 1880)

Yet even a recent Republican candidate for the Presidency (Mitt Romney) quipped,
“President Obama should stop apologizing for American People. President Obama should start apologizing to the American People,”
stealing a tip from the JFK’s (and Ovid’s) playbook.

We repeat:

  • Sounds, and have done so since babyhood;
  • Words, independent of words around them;
  • Meanings, to clarify or harp on another word;
  • Words or phrases balanced against others to produce – we hope – ringing persuasive rhetoric.

PIA19656-SaturnMoon-Enceladus-Ocean-ArtConcept-20150915, By NASA/JPL-Caltech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Enceladus, Saturn’s Ice Moon

Thinking about and trying to teach artful repetition harks back to the Ancient Greece of Socrates and Plato, as do our prejudices about whether something said artfully can be as truthful as plain speaking. As we have some writing from these ancient orators, we also know what they called their stuff. This was not much of a problem until the nineteenth century when to be educated was to have read the Classics, as they became called, in the original Ancient Greek or the Latin of Augustus. Since then human knowledge has increased so prolifically that we have newly coined words to describe its vastness. The top unit, currently, is a Xenottobyte, which is 1,000 Yottabytes (Yb); a Yb is to a Terabyte (Tb) as a Terabyte is to a single byte (1b); a Tb is a 1,000 billion bytes, a byte is a single unit of computer storage which can be either a binary one or a binary zero.

Our recent ancestors could only wonder at our achievement, for example:

  • we have discovered ribosomes, those exquisite molecular sewing machines which spin the ubiquitous dogsbodies of life, proteins;
  • we know what lies at the heart of our sun, and why it is hot;
  • we have discovered an ocean in an ice moon orbiting Jupiter and another orbiting Saturn;
  • and we can make a movie of the visual cortex in someone’s brain watching a movie.

Not only are we as a species more proficient and busier, we simply do not have the time anymore.

Our lack of Ancient Greek and Latin also means we no longer have a handle on the names of all those rhetorical techniques handed down by those ancient orators, like anadiplosis or polyptoton, but as they are neat and would be an excellent zinger/put down, so I’ll include them and add little mnemonics in order to remember them.

Repeating sounds without meaning

A single repeated phoneme ( as in “ba” in “Ba-ba-Blacksheep” or “Ba-ba-Barbara Anne”) are our first words or a default when we have none. A child saying “Mama” is reduplicating. This is term is straight from the department of redundant redundancies, as “Mama” is twice a “ma”, i.e. a duplication, and the suffix re- means to do again, so a “re-duplicative” of “ma” should be “ma ma ma ma” and sounds very like the phrase used to illustrate the four tones of Mandarin. I would forget it but it goes well with other oily words: insinuate, global, bill.

In real speech there is a lot of – err – meaningless sounds or embolalia (em-bo-LA-lee-a, From the Greek, “something thrown in”, mnemonic “embol” as in embolism, “lalia” as in lips or the Cyclops on Futurama). Embolalia do not carry meaning in themselves. “Um”, “ah”, or “err” is not like the word “dog” which to me conjures up an image of  a furry, four footed mammal with a taste for long walks and duck jerky. But, to me, the word “chien/chienne” or “犬 (いぬ, inu )” or “perro/ perra” also means Monty T. Dog and his species which implies that there is something about meaning has to be learned. Embolalia can garner meaning from its context and tone, as in “Owh, no, Mrs.”

The master of this innuendo was Frankie Howerd, doyen of Carry On films and Up Pompeii, who even gave a class at the Oxford Union.

When we reduplicate embolalia, we stutter. To those of us like poor Ken in ‘A Fish called Wanda’ it is a curse but even the brief in that film, Archie, whose honeyed tongue makes him his mint, can, on occasion, fall short: “ I Wendy- I Wanda- I wonder…” when pondering a new girlfriend, a current wife and the possibilities.

Stuttering can be done deliberately and can be used to make a great deal of dough. Dan Dotsons deliberate duplications are his heirloom Auction Chant (or Auctioneering) which he performs on Storage Wars. There are distinct musical possibilities to embolalia and stuttering. Amy Whitehouse uses it to make “Doo Wop” and Scatman John worked on his stutter to become “Scat” art.

In the next essay, we will investigate, how to grow meaningless repeated sound into art with a capital A, and therefore any other purpose you may choose.

AN ELEGY FOR CHARLIE HEBDO

Charlie Hebdo on Paris Match

(This was written just after the killings at Charlie Hebdo January 7, 2015 )

The fractured and widely dispersed movers and shakers of the Jihad ( جهاد‎ ǧihād [dʒiˈhæːd]) must be feeling pleased with themselves. Across the Muslim world, the Western inspired revolts have all but been put down and all but Tunisia are back to business as usual. The latest news on that front is that Libya’s politicos have rolled back the ban on their colleagues who worked for Gadhafi. Two Islamic nascent states are forming, one in northern Iraq/eastern Syria, ISIS land, and the other in north Nigeria, Boko Haram land. The Jihad Illuminati have kept up a media blitz on the infidels starting in December in Sydney, then the beheading of journalists foolish enough to put themselves into the grasp of ISIS, and most recently the execution of the pudgy Cabu and his fellow blasphemers at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. This last attack was to them a triumph; those cartoons of the Prophet needled even the most progressive Westernized Muslims who understood, if not agreed with, the justification of the killers. Muslim condemnations distinguish between the act and the provocation, something lost on the rioters in Pakistan and Nigeria, and the newly minted Jihad Joes and Jihad Jills now on their way to Northern Iraq to fight for Islam. Undoubtedly there are more martyrdoms in the pipeline. They are wildly cost effective: for the price of a decent party to Atlanta you can get front page billing for days on end.

And such parties do happen. I was told of such a flight from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia which carried a party of young Saudi men to Atlanta for R&R. Once the airplane was airborne and the beers had been opened, my friend and the party organizer was shocked by the demands from the party goers for prostitutes and cocaine when they arrived in the USA. The behavior of these young Saudis was an interesting comment on the prevailing values in their country which according to its rulers is run under Sharia law. Indeed, there are several countries which are under Sharia law, such as Iran and the Gulf states, yet neither of the brothers Kouachi were killing for Saudi Arabia or any other Islamic state. They were killing for the once and future caliphate.

The Golden Age

By José Luis Filpo Cabana (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By José Luis Filpo Cabana

Islam as a religion and as a political organization exploded out of Arabia during the Rashidun Caliphate (Arabic: الخلافة الراشدة‎ al-Khilāfati r-Rāshidah) which lasted the thirty years foretold by the Prophet from 632 – 661 CE. The Jihad swept through Egypt, defeating the Byzantine emperor, and Iran, deposing Sassanid rule. The last three caliphs – Umar, Uthman and Ali – were all murdered, which closed that succession and led to the split between Sunni Moslems and Shi’a Moslems. For over a thousand years, Islam dominated the Middle East. There were a few upsets. The Franks established a brief (88 years) Kingdom of Jerusalem (which is wonderfully depicted in Kingdom of Heaven) followed by a toe hold at the port of Acre which lasted another 99 years. Far more serious were the Mongols who married ruthless military efficiency with a contempt for settled ways of life. The destruction they caused has only been exceeded by World War II and the 96-year long war of the Three Kingdoms in China. Inevitably, the vast Mongol empire succumbed to dynastic squabbles, and the western branches of Genghis Khan’s dynasty converted to Islam. A cadet of one of these branches, Babur, after many attempts, conquered northern India, establishing the Mughal Empire.

The Mughals were deposed by people from a smallish island on the other side of Europe: the British. The 19th and early 20th century were the glory days of European imperialism. European nations carved up the world into colonies and protectorates which included, after World War I, the Middle East. World War II closed that era and the former colonies in the Middle East became dictatorships or kingdoms with one exception. The survivors of the Holocaust migrated to reclaim their homeland in the newly formed Israel.

Palestine

Dome of the rock by By Rastaman3000

Dome of the rock, Jerusalem, by By Rastaman3000

There was an Arab population living in the then Palestine. Many Palestinians were evicted to make way for the refugees from Europe, who were followed by more from the Soviet Union. Twice, the neighboring Arab states attacked Israel, and twice they were roundly defeated. The simmering discontent of Palestinians and the impotence of the Arab ruling class morphed into the PLO as a terrorist organization led by Yasser Arafat. They targeted passenger jets, in particular the Israeli airline El Al. Of course, when in due time the PLO came to power, they proved themselves corrupt and incompetent, and where replaced by the more austere Hamas.

World War II left Europe greatly impoverished with large swathes of wasteland. The British simply resigned to their fate as America’s poodle and quickly let go its colonies. Indian Independence partitioned the subcontinent into Pakistan and India, and was greeted with an orgy of violence, ‘the first to display elements of “ethnic cleansing,” in modern parlance.’ France attempted to retain some of its colonies but was quickly kicked out by their independence movements.

The corner shop

Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO

Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO

The lackluster economic performance of the former colonies meant that many of their citizens looked for homes and work in their former European masters. Those from the Indian subcontinent chose Britain. I recall watching a passenger dressed in a sari and newly embarked from an Air India 747, looking out through an entrance door way to Birmingham airport at the rain and a chilly English November evening.  Those from the southern coast of the Mediterranean or Maghreb choose France. The family of my elegant French teacher in Oxford was originally from Morocco.  This, on the whole, was a good thing. Nowadays, British high streets always have an Indian restaurant. The late-night corner shops in Britain are run by Indian families and in France such shops are called an Arab as their owners are mainly from the Maghreb. Multicultural Europe is a more interesting place. The east end of London, the traditional part of London for immigrants to settle, now has a Little India, a road lined with Indian restaurants just like China Town. I recall standing on Shadwell Station, on the Docklands Light Railway and close by, smelling all the curries being cooked in the tenements below. Once upon a time that smell would have been boiled cabbage. A very good friend hails from the area and is now a very successful computer consultant with a lovely family, and now lives in Holland.

Prophets and profits

Yet would these events by themselves have led to the massacre in Reims? We need to look to the more austere brothers of those party goers to Atlanta. At the end of WWII, the world was being divided into American and Soviet spheres of influence. FDR and Harry Truman co-opted Saudi Arabia into the American one, with a mutual defense agreement which included a permanent U.S. Military Training Mission in the Saudi kingdom. This agreement was cemented with oil, extracted by ARAMCO (formerly the Arabian-American Oil Company) which is based in Dhahran. The Suez crisis in 1956 demonstrated the US hegemony to the other Gulf States. The Saudi Arabian US oil connection explains the bizarre fact that George H. W. Bush, former US President and father of the then incumbent, and Shafiq bin-Laden, the brother of Osama bin-Laden, were  the honored guests at a Carlyle Group meeting on September 10, 2001, in New York, New York. The Bushes had bin-Laden priority shipped out of New York to avoid any unpleasantness.

To Moslems, Saudi Arabia is sacred. The Prophet had his visions near Mecca. The holiest book, the Quran was first written down in Mecca. Moslems pray towards Mecca, and are enjoined to travel once in their life there and process around the Ka’aba (Arabic: الكعبة‎‎ al-Kaʿbah IPA: [ælˈkæʕbɐ], “The Cube”), a journey known as the Hajj. To some Saudi baby boomers, their country’s role as custodian of the sacred sites and its spiritual preeminence didn’t square well with the conspicuous corrupting opulence available to some and the integral presence of Americans who also supported the archenemy Israel. Luckily for King Faisal, then the Saudi law giver, there was a simple solution: encourage them to leave and make trouble for someone else. Many young Saudi men left to join the Mujahedeen fighting the godless communists in Afghanistan. They kept their trust funds and got presents, like Stinger surface-to-air missiles which were good at bringing down Soviet helicopters.

War in the Gulf, part 1

Tout est Pardonne

Tout est Pardonne

So, when in 1990 Saddam Hussein’s army marched into Kuwait and threatened to continue on down to Dhahran and then other Gulf States, King Fahad, who had succeeded Faisal, called on the US to honor their agreement to protect his kingdom and their joint assets, much to the disgust of the Saudi Mujahedeen. The Americans, with a sizeable following of other states and a new generation of weapons much more suited to the open desert than the Vietnamese jungle, quickly defeated the Iraqi army. It did not finish the job because the Iraqi regime were clients of the Soviets who black-balled that encroachment into their sphere of influence.

The 1990s were a golden age for America. The Soviets retreated from Afghanistan. The Iron Curtain cracked and then collapsed, followed in short order by the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. The other great Communist power, China, spooked by how quickly and easily the Soviets lost power, reformed just enough to encourage much of world manufacturing to relocate to its shores. Apartheid ended in South Africa and the promised blood bath was avoided by the genial leadership of Nelson Mandela. Academics wrote of the “End of History”.

Fujiyama’s end of history was an anathema to the Saudi Mujahedeen, now living in Afghanistan and another failed state, Sudan. The Prophet had prophesized that ‘towards the end times, the Rightly Guided Caliphate will be restored once again.’ Muslims would win. To defeat the Soviets the Saudis had teamed up with a group called the Taliban, a creature of the Pakistani Secret Service. These victors concluded that it was they who had defeated the Soviets and they could do the same to the Infidel Americans. They called themselves Al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda

After one failed attempt to destroy the Twin Towers, the result was 9/11. Although this pleased the Palestinians, it did not result in the Jihad that Osama bin-Laden and his cronies wanted. The Saudis were evicted from Afghanistan, to the pleasure of the locals. The US President took the opportunity to settle the Iraq issue: to evict the troublesome Saddam and install an Iraqi version of ARAMCO.

Both US military expeditions ran into problems. The brief stabilization of Iraq due to the Surge of US troops and the fostering of the Awakening of Iraq allowed just enough time for the US military to officially withdrawal leaving Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister. Al-Maliki is a Shi’a and beholden to the Shi’a community which dominates Southern Iraq. It didn’t take long for him to alienate the Sunnis in North Iraq which elements of al-Qaeda exploited to create ISIS. The mountainous terrain of Afghanistan gave US forces the same grief as it did to the Soviets. So too did Afghani politics. The US Military has grown quiet on their operation as the Taliban wait and rest up in the safety provided by the Pakistani Secret Service.  After all, Bin-Laden was caught and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan’s Sandhurst or West Point, and, apparently, no one in Pakistan knew he was there? For more about Pakistan’s Secret Service read ‘Ghost Wars’ by Stephen Coll and ‘The Wrong Enemy’ by Carlotta Gall.

The current actions of the Jihadists, of which al-Qaeda is but part, should be considered considering the very limited response to 9/11 by main stream Moslems. The Jihadist leadership concluded that the reason that there was no Jihad in 2001 was because they did not have a territorial platform. This they have now acquired. The ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared his country a Caliphate and himself Caliph. He is currently picking a fight with Jordan, the weakest of their neighbors. If ISIS can draw that kingdom into a civil war, it would give them access to an Israel border, and an opportunity to take the Jihad to a new level with an attack on Israel to reclaim Jerusalem and evict the Jews. The ultimate prize is to depose their fathers and grandfathers and to establish their version of Sharia law in Saudi Arabia and reclaim the holy sites of Mecca and Medina from those apostates who sold their birthright to infidels and who deserve a fiery death.

Back in the USA

President Bush gave a Texan response to the events of 9/11: “We will find those who did this, we will smoke them out of their holes, we will get them running, and we will bring them to justice.” The US military quickly defeated their enemies in open battle and offered a vision of a prosperous, peaceful, progressive country. Instead the newly liberated peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan refused to step up to the plate, knuckle down, and do the right thing. Many Americans think those military interventions were well meant but they were a waste of time and cost too much in American blood and in American cash. Their high purpose announced at the UN is dead.

“For too long, many nations, including my own, tolerated, even excused, oppression in the Middle East in the name of stability. Oppression became common, but stability never arrived. We must take a different approach. We must help the reformers of the Middle East as they work for freedom, and strive to build a community of peaceful, democratic nations.”

President G. W. Bush

The fearless American Press

Steve Emerson - Terrorism Expert for Fox

Steve Emerson – Terrorism Expert for Fox

I’ve spoken with American coworkers and fellow dog walkers about the Charlie Hebdo killings and was stunned to find that at least half of them had not heard of it. That’s not surprising. ABC’s World News program regularly has no stories from outside of the continental USA. Fox News’s expert on Islam is – incredibly – the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty, Phil Roberson.

Another Fox pundit, Steven Emerson, said that Birmingham, UK, is an autonomous Moslem enclave closed to infidels and Moslem religious police are active in London.  He was corrected by the British Prime Minster and made time to apologize for being totally and stupidly wrong. Emerson is still on Fox.

Obama administration joined European leaders marching in support of “Je Suis Charlie”. Luckily, late night talk shows have a better handle on events.

The Super Bowl

Jeep Ad at the Super Bowl 2015

Jeep Ad at the Super Bowl 2015

This Arab thing event impacted important things like the Super Bowl 2015, when Jeep had the bad taste to include a cute girl wearing a traditional headscarf. Folks put them right.

Response to the Jeep Ad

Response to the Jeep Ad

Multicultural Europe

Multicultural Europe and an enlarged EU are considered a triumph by the bureaucrats who run the EU and the governments which drive it. The native and immigrant populations are not so sure. The bureaucrats naturally prefer a command economy and continue making the same mistakes as the Soviets. High taxation – income tax alone is 50% in France – and a plethora of regulation snuffs out innovation in all but the biggest enterprises so the wealth of Europe is gradually draining away to the USA and China. When I was in France last year I struck up a conversation with a lovely young woman in the Metro so I could practice speaking French. She told me that she wishes to move to the USA to enjoy a better life. Her friends do too. The economy of continental Europe is stagnant and unemployment endemically high. It is no wonder that the current French President François Hollande is the most unpopular president ever.

Economic strife polarizes societies. In France immigrant communities dominate the banlieue, the suburbs of Paris and other cities. Unemployment runs to 40%, drug trafficking is popular, and it is a happy hunting ground for the radicalizing imams sent to harvest Jihad Joes and Jihad Jills.

Eighty virgins?

Nasr al-Ansi

Nasr al-Ansi

So how does the Jihad recruit? According to the neighbor of Said Ibrahim, one of the 21 July 2005 London bombers, Ibrahim was expecting his 80 virgins when he went to paradise. Quite how the recruiting sergeants keep a straight face when proselytizing with such transparently adolescent fantasies is quite beyond me. It is medieval just like the chant of those early Europeans on the 1st Crusade: “Dieu le veult” (God wills it), which is something no European has said recently. How did the poor boy get such spammy notions? And where?

ISIS recruiters seem to be numerous and relentless users of social media, although if Scotland Yard’s report of the three girls who chose to travel to Turkey and perhaps join ISIS is mostly correct then the recruiting sergeants seem to have the run of mosques and safe houses across Europe.

Where do the recruiters get the money? On the whole recruiting in Europe and the US is a sideshow, organized it seems from Yemen, an old stamping ground of Al Qaeda. The Charlie Hebdo attacks were claimed by Nasr al-Ansi, described as ‘a top commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ but in reality, is a sheepish, paunchy bureaucrat. He is Yemeni but his patch includes Saudi Arabia.

Native European communities naturally feel threatened. The Pegida movement in Leipzig in former East Germany complains about the effects of immigration. A mother at one of their rallies did not want her blond daughter to feel an alien in her home town. The English Defence League has produced a film which includes a young English white woman talking with a bukkah clad protestor; the protestor accused the English woman of being dressed like a tart. Such misgivings are dismissed by media and government alike as racist, uneducated and dumb.

Cultural Differences

In 2010, Zafran Ramzan, Razwan Razaq, and three others were found guilty of having sex with minors, and where put on the sex offenders register. The judge had no doubts as to what kind of men they were:  “the message must go out loud and clear that our society will not tolerate sexual predators preying on children.”

In September 2012, articles in The Times, a prestigious London newspaper, reported on “a problem with networks of Asian offenders both locally and nationally” which was “particularly stressed in Sheffield and even more so in Rotherham, where there appears to be a significant problem with networks of Asian males exploiting young white females.” This quote was taken from a 2010 report by the police intelligence bureau.

The official reaction to The Times’ articles from the South Yorkshire Police was: “The Times was wrong and that to suggest the police was deliberately withholding information was “a gross distortion and unfair on the teams of dedicated specialists working to tackle the problem.”

“In October 2012, the Home Affairs Select Committee [a key component of governmental oversight] criticised South Yorkshire’s chief constable, David Crompton, and one of its senior officers, Philip Etheridge, for their handling of child sex abuse. The committee heard evidence that three members of a family connected with the abuse of 61 girls were not convicted, and an unconvicted 22-year-old man was found in a car with a 12-year-old girl with indecent images of her on his phone. David Crompton said that “ethnic origin” was not a factor in deciding whether to charge suspects. The committee said that they were very concerned, as was the public

In January 2013, the head of Rotherham Council, Martin Kimber, was summoned to the select committee to explain the lack of arrests for sexual abuse, despite South Yorkshire Police saying it was conducting several investigations and the council having identified 58 young girls at risk. MP Keith Vaz questioned why, after five Asian men were jailed in 2010, more was not being done: “In Lancashire there were 100 prosecutions the year before last, in South Yorkshire there were no prosecutions”. The council apologised for the “systemic failure” that had “let down” the victims of child sexual abuse.

Although there had been three previous inquiries – in 2002, 2003 and 2006 , the one commissioned by Rotherham Council in November 2013 and headed by Professor Alexis Jay was comprehensive and damning.

It found that girls “were raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten and intimidated.”

Some “children who had been doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone.”

The report concludes: “No one knows the true scale of the child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham over the years. Our conservative estimate is that approximately 1,400 children were sexually exploited over the full inquiry period, from 1997 to 2013.”

During the period of the cover up the official attitude might be summarized by the experience of one whistle blower: … she had been accused of being insensitive when she told one official that most of the perpetrators were from Rotherham’s Pakistani community. A female colleague talked to her about the incident. “She said you must never refer to that again – you must never refer to Asian men.” “And her other response was to book me on a two-day ethnicity and diversity course to raise my awareness of ethnic issues.”

Oh, the irony

Charlie and Houellebecq

Charlie and Houellebecq

When the gun men burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, that week’s cover of Charlie was of a French author, Michael Houellebecq. The cartoon mocked Houellebecq for being old and poked fun at his book published that very day called Soumission. This book thanks in part to Al Qaeda is now a best seller.

‘Narrated by a middle-aged academic, Soumission sees Houellebecq imagine France in 2022, where Front National Leader Marine Le Pen is beaten by the leader of France’s new Islamic party, Mohammed Ben Abbes. Once Abbes is president, women go veiled in the street, and schools adopt an Islamic curriculum.

The work’s themes have been described as controversial – “France is not Houellebecq. It’s not intolerance, hatred and fear,” French prime minister Manuel Valls, told reporters – and Houellebecq’s publisher in France was placed under police protection in the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, with the novelist stopping promotion of the new book.

A caricature of Houellebecq featured on the cover of last week’s issue of Charlie Hebdo, published before Wednesday’s attack; it’s “not bad”, the novelist told an interviewer on Le Grand Journal that week, adding “Cabu [the late cartoonist] often did me – he was often funny”.’ Reaction in France to the Charlie Hebdo killings neatly divided native and immigrant communities. A million Parisians marched and waved pencils. Jean-Marie Rouart of L’Acedemie Française thundered in Paris Match, “C’est Voltaire qu’on assasine”. The reaction in the banlieue was mute.

French newspapers reported that some students in these neighborhoods—as well as other heavily Muslim areas near cities like Lille—refused to participate in Thursday’s national moment of silence for the victims of the terror attacks. One teacher said up to 80 percent of his students didn’t want to observe the silence, and some said they supported the attackers. “You reap what you sow,” a student who refused the moment of silence told his teacher about the terrorists’ victims, according to Le Figaro.

Ominously, there is talk of another Jewish conspiracy.

Mehdi Boular, 24, who said he was married with two children, and two of his friends, did not attend Sunday’s rally.

“We’re Muslims,” Boular said. “They might have killed us if we’d gone.”

But even though the flags of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia were flying at the rally in Place de la République and Muslims were well represented among the marchers Sunday, Boular said the attacks in Paris were part of a plot masterminded by Jewish conspirators.

“The Kalashnikovs, the identity cards the [killers] supposedly left behind, it was all staged,” said Boular, as his friends nodded in agreement. “It was a conspiracy designed by the Jews to make Muslims look bad. We’d rather just stay where we are.”

The reaction of Hollande and his fellow bureaucrats, is predictably unimaginative: they issued a strongly worded statement – this time in the form of an infographic, and hoped that it will all go away. Good luck with that.

Omnivore’s Dilemma: Polyface Paradise

Joel_Salatin_and_hen by By nick v from washington dc (Joel Salatin) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The second part of Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is about Big Organic, starts with Pollan in a field looking at grass. After this quick intro, we are quickly whisked away to Organic Land, where liveth Whole Foods, Cascadian Farm and Petaluma Poultry. The term “organic” according to the US Department of Agriculture is “a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” To this anodyne bureaucratese, I’m sure Pollan and Joel Saladin would agree. Joel Saladin, a self-described “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer”, is owner of Polyface Farm and Pollan’s Virgil in the Land of the Locotarians. After the Supermarket Pastoral tour, we’re back in a Polyface field in a chapter entitled Grass: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pasture.

Monday

As the son of “one of the great indoorsmen”, Pollan has to wonder “how much do you really see when you look at a patch of grass?” Green? monotonous? Something which reminds “us of our existential puniness”? Lying prone, the good Professor is given the introductory lecture in Grass Farmer: 101. First point. Underline. You may not know anything about grass, but a cow does. It’s dinner, and breakfast – the day job.

“She sees, out of the corner of her eye, this nice tuft of white clover, the emerald-green one over there with the heart-shaped leaves, or, up ahead, that grassy spray of bluish fescue tightly cinched at ground level. These two entities are as different in her mind as vanilla ice cream is from cauliflower. two dishes you would never conflate just because they both happen to be white. The cow opens her meaty wet lips, curls her tongue …”

salad-bar-beef

salad-bar-beef

“Joel calls his pastures the salad bar …”, and now the Second Point. Underline. The Law Of The Second Bite”. Plants do energy economics. After a herbivore’s munch, the cropped grass plants will sulk for a couple of days, and then stage a comeback in a “blaze of growth”. Note all the anthropomorphizing comes from your author, not Pollan, not Salatin. Joel showed Pollan this blaze when he “ pulled a single blade of orchard grass, showing me exactly where· a cow had sheared it the week before, …”, which had “a kind of timeline, sharply demarcated between the dark growth, predating the bite, and the bright green blade coming after it.” Joel can even do a graph for you: “The important thing to know about any grass is that its growth follows a sigmoid, or S, curve …”.

To be a good grass farmer is to exploit this grassy behavior. and being an Old Testament kind of guy, Joel has a law to clarify things: The Law Of The Second Bite, “never, ever ‘… violate the law of the second bite’”. To do so damages the grass plants and consequently its team of fungi, bacteria, bugs and assorted vertebrates. Cows naturally know this: it’s their wild behavior. Humans unfortunately are prone to taking shortcuts: “If the law of the second bite were actually on the books, most of the world’s ranchers and dairy farmers would be outlaws …”. The downside of being a good grass farmer is it takes work; of the brawny kind and of the brainy kind. “As Florida rancher Bud Adams once told [Pollan], ‘Ranching is a very simple business. The really hard part is keeping it simple.’”

Prof. Pollan then spent an invigorating afternoon tossing hay bales in the barn with Joel’s two twenty-something apprentices. He admits that the “… afternoon had left me bone tired, sore, and itchy all over from pricks of the chaff, so I was mightily relieved when Joel proposed we ride the four-wheeler to the upper pasture where the cows had spent their day”, to see Joel’s “postindustrial enterprise” in action.

Joel carefully monitors and records “the grasses in several dozen paddocks, which range in size from one to five acres, depending on the season and the weather”, which he uses to calculate cow days. A “cow day … is simply the average amount of forage a cow will eat in one day.” It’s not an exact science, “a cow day is a good deal more rubbery than, say the speed of light …” because it has to factor in season and weather for the grass, and the cow’s “size, age, and stage of life: A lactating cow, for example, eats twice as much grass as a dry one.” Joel calls it “management intensive”.

In the upper pasture, eighty or so of Joel’s girls were waiting corralled by portable electric fences. “The fence plays the role of predator in our system, “Joel explained, “keeping the animals mobbed up and making it possible for us to move them every day.” It took the men “no more than fifteen minutes to fence a new paddock next to the old one, drag the watering tub into it, and set up the water line.”

Meanwhile, the “cows that had been lying around roused themselves, and the bolder ones slowly lumbered over in our direction, one of them – “That’s Budger” – stepped right up to nuzzle us like a big cat. Joel’s herd is [a] … somewhat motley crew …” Unsurprisingly, Joel “doesn’t believe in artificial insemination or put much stock in fancy genetics. Instead he picks a new bull from his crop of calves every couple of years, naming him for a celebrated Lothario: Slick Willie had the job for much of the Clinton administration.”

Then, “The moment had arrived. Looking more like a maître d’ than a rancher, Joel opened the gate between the two paddocks, removed his straw hat and swept it grandly in the direction of the fresh salad bar … . After a moment of bovine hesitation, the cows began to move …” “The animals fanned out in the new paddock and lowered their great heads, and the evening air filled with the muffled sounds of smacking lips, tearing grass, and the low snuffling of contented cows.”

Pollan recalled his meeting with his steer, 534, in the C.A.F.O. feedlot: “The difference between the two bovine dining scenes could not have been starker.” Polyface Farm is not just cute, it’s way more efficient by “… as much as four hundred [cow days] per acre; the county average is seventy.” Salatin notes, “In effect we’ve bought a whole new farm for the price of some portable fencing and a lot of management.” It’s ecofriendly as “pastures will, like his woodlots, remove thousands of· pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year”. When Salatin bought Polyface Farm, it was a “gullied wreck”. Pollan’s chorus voice wonders, “how could it come to pass that a fast-food burger produced from corn and fossil fuel actually costs less than a burger produced from grass and sunlight?” Simply put, by trashing consumers, tax payers, domestic animals, and the planet. Pollan notes: “As I neared the blessed, longed-for end of my first day as a Polyface farmhand I must say I didn’t feel at all the way I normally do after a day spent laboring in the information economy.”

Tuesday

Pollan might be, in his Berkley professor avatar, a runner; anyway he keeps himself fit, which I suspect wasn’t a lot of help keeping up with one tough hombre and his lads who are as fit as Olympians. It must have taken a good deal of resilience to prize himself out of bed, that morning; his reward was another day in paradise.

“As I stumbled up the hill, I was struck by how very beautiful the farm looked in the hazy early light. The thick June grass was silvered with dew, the sequence of bright pastures stepping up the hillside dramatically set off by broad expanses of blackish woods. Birdsong stitched the thick blanket of summer air, pierced now and again by the wood clap of chicken pen doors slamming shut.” Today, Pollan will meet and get to understand, the second shift of the Polyface crew: the chickens.

Chicken Pollock

Chicken Pollock

He made his way up to “two figures – the interns, probably – moving around up on the broad shoulder of the hill to the east, where a phalanx of portable chicken pens formed a checkerboard pattern on the grass. … Directly behind each pen was a perfectly square patch of closely cropped grass resembling a really awful Jackson Pollock painting, thickly spattered with chicken crap in pigments of white, brown, and green.”

The chicken yards move every day, just like the cow pastures. Grass can cope for a day with chicken pecking and “hot” (nitrogenous) chicken poo. The chickens get “fresh grass, along with the worms, grasshoppers, and crickets they peck out of the grass, [which] provides as much as 20 percent of their diet”. The grass and Joel get their fertilizer. How nice you might think, but the chicken poo has another trick up its sleeve.

In the next pasture, was  a Joel invention which Pollan was “eager to watch”: “The Eggmobile”. “It’s, one of Joel s proudest innovations; … a ram-shackle cross between a henhouse and a prairie schooner”, the home of the laying hens. “‘In nature you ll always find birds following herbivores’, Joel explained, when I asked him for the theory behind the Eggmobile. ‘The egret perched on the rhinos nose, the pheasants and turkeys trailing after the bison-that’s a symbiotic relationship we’re trying to imitate.’” He has no need for pesticide; he leaves it up to his “sanitation crew”.

Four days ago, the chicken yard had been cow pasture. It is covered with cow pats, the stuff you can find in the cesspools of a CAFO. One is a toxic waste and the other a valuable resource: difference is that this cow product has been visited by one of the smallest on the Polyface team.

When Ogden Nash dashed out his couplet:

“God in his wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why.”,

he was speaking as a townie.

It’s all in the timing: “’Three days is ideal. That gives the grubs a chance to fatten up nicely, the way the hens like them, but not quite long enough to hatch into flies.’ The result is prodigious amounts of protein for the hens, the insects supplying as much as a third of their total diet-and making their eggs unusually rich and tasty.”

Opo_Terser_-_Female_Tabanus_Horse_Fly_(by)_By Thomas Shahan [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Female Tabanus Horse Fly By Thomas Shahan

Joel releases “An eager, gossipy procession of Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and New Hampshire Whites” who attack the cow pats by “doing this frantic backward-stepping break-dance with their claws to scratch apart the caked manure and expos[ing] the meaty morsels within.

“Unfolding before us, I realized, was a most impressive form of alchemy: cowpatties in the process of being transformed into exceptionally tasty eggs.” Joel is characteristically humble with this, one of his quotidian miracles: “I’m just the orchestra conductor, making sure everybody’s in the right place at the right time.” Pollan – and we should be – blown away by it. “Here we come to one of Nature’s wonders and maybe Farmer Salatin’s most productive workers: the blow fly. They do on Earth what Trip Tucker’s recyclers do on The Enterprise. They literally turn shit into chicken.” Had Nash visited his countryside, God would have told him the why of the fly.

After a visit to another “shademobile, called the Gobbledy-Go”, and other bunch of avian pesticides – the turkeys – it’s thankfully lunchtime.

To illustrate another example of the usefulness of cow poo, Pollan recalls for us his first visit to Polyface and the cattle barn. “The barn is an unfancy open-sided structure where the cattle spend three months during the winter …” Joel leaves the cows’ output in situ and scatters straw and wood chipping to soak up the liquid and make a steady floor. “As this layer cake of manure, woodchips, and straw gradually rises beneath the cattle, Joel simply raises the adjustable feed gate from which they get their ration of hay; by winter’s end the bedding, and the cattle can be as much as three feet off the ground. … There’s a secret ingredient, Joel adds to each layer of this cake: a few bucketfuls of corn.

Over the winter, bacteria and fungi go to town on this goo, turning it into prime manure, and fermented corn kernels. The only problem is how to dig it out? Solution: “’… There’s nothing a pig enjoys more than forty proof corn and there’s nothing he’s better equipped to do than root it out with his powerful snout and exquisite sense of smell. I call them my pigaerators,’” Salatin said proudly.”

Pigs in Shit

Pigs in Shit

Salatin let the pigs have at it, and the two sat “on the rail of the wooden paddock, watching the pigs do their thing …” They were “buried clear to their butts in composting manure, a bobbing sea of wriggling hams and corkscrew tails …”. Pollan’s writer’s side is never completely quiet but on this occasion his word smithy got jammed and could only come up with “happy as a pig in shit.”

A factor in the failure of the smooth operation of Pollan’s copy machine, recall he teaches journalism, had something to do with what happens to those “corkscrew tails” in the big wide world of a pig CAFO. Pigs are smarter than many dogs and they comprehend the vile conditions they live in. Piglets get just ten days mother time “(compared with thirteen weeks in the wild)” and then are put on “drug-fortified feed” “because they gain weight faster”. This leads to the “porcine ‘vice’ of tail chew”. The piglets like to chew the tails of other piglets. The other piglets will let them, because they are as unhappy as a pig can get. The gnawed tail frequently becomes infected, and these infections may lead to septicemia and death of the pig. So far, so horrible. Pollan has so far been keeping to the don’t ask, don’t tell understanding a writer has with the great general public on matters concerning growing and raising food.

In the first “Lord Of The Rings” movie, “The Fellowship of the Ring”, Frodo finally makes it to the Last Homely House at Rivendell. Once he has recovered from the fight at Weathertop and a Morgul-blade cut, he spends some quality time with his uncle Frodo , the Hobbit who found The Ring in The Hobbit. Bilbo gives Frodo an Elvish mail shirt made of Elf silver and his Elfish sword, Sting. While Frodo is trying on his new kit, Bilbo wonders whether he might see The Ring just one more time. When he does, for a moment his face switches into a ravening bug-eyed monster. This is Pollan’s bug eye moment.

The way to cure – what a euphemism that is – “the porcine ‘vice’ of tail chewing” is to rip it off, mostly,. “using a pair of pliers and no anesthetic”. The point of the exercise is to make the stub of the remaining tail so sensitive that the piglet has to defend it. It’s all USDA recommended yet “a hog hell … smoothly paved with the logic of industrial efficiency”, for “’a protein machine with flaws’”. It’s enough to make you swear off pork, (which it has).

Wednesday

When you fondle that slab of frozen white meat in a supermarket, stamped chicken, what springs to mind?

I’ll give you a second.

Chickens may not pay taxes directly, but recently someone killed the animal whose remains you are clutching. Pollan has the same problem.

“Today promised not to be about the ecstasy of life on a farm. Today was the day we were ‘processing’ broilers or, to abandon euphemism, killing chickens.” Pollan “managed to get up right on time-5:30 A.M., to be exact and to make my way to the broilers pasture ”where he would assist the interns in “catching and crating the three hundred we planned to process immediately after breakfast.”

Chicken Wrangling for Professors

Using a big plywood paddle, apprentice Daniel secured a bird, and grabs “a flapping bird by one leg and flipped it upside down, which seemed to settle it. Then, in a deft, and practiced move, he switches the dangling bird from his right hand to his left”. Once he has five in his left hand they are stuffed into a crate, apparently no worse for the experience.

“’Your turn’, Daniel said, nodding toward the cornered mass of feathers remaining in the pen. To me, the way he‘d grabbed and flipped the chickens seemed unduly rough, their pencil legs so fragile-looking, Yet when I tried to coddle the birds as I grabbed them, they flapped around even more violently, until I was forced to let go. This wasn’t going to work.” He ended up copying Daniel, gathering the birds into “a giant, white pom-pom” and stuffing them  into carry crates. His judgement on this initial part of the experience is “I could see why doing it as fast and as surely as possible was best for all concerned.”

Joel slaughters the birds on the farm “and would slaughter his beeves and hogs here too if only the government would let him.” His dictum on the subject: “’The way I produce a chicken is an extension of my worldview.’” The birds are killed in “a sort of outdoor kitchen on a concrete slab, protected from (some of) the elements by a sheet-metal roof perched on locust posts. Arranged in an orderly horseshoe along the edge are stainless steel sinks and counters, a scalding tank, a feather-plucking machine, and a brace of metal cones to hold the birds upside down while they re being killed and bled out.”

The arrangement affords Joel a deal of satisfaction. “’When the USDA sees what we’re doing here they get weak in the knees,’ Joel said with a chuckle.” The USDA slaughter house manual assumes walls, the one on Polyface Farm doesn’t have any. Joel’s rejoinder to any “USDA inspector conniptions” about this “plein-air abattoir” is “the best disinfectant in the world is fresh air and sunshine. Well, that really gets them scratching their heads!”

The true irony here is although “Polyface can prove its chickens have much lower bacteria counts than supermarket chickens (Salatin’s had them both tested by an independent lab)”, and those lower counts presumably translate into lower human exposure to the bad ones, the USDA regs. don’t care. This is possibly because: “That would require the USDA to recall meat from packers who failed to meet the standards, something the USDA, incredibly, lacks the authority to do”. If you think that’s a tad wrong, Pollan relates a full blown Saladin exposition on the subject. “It was a little early in the day for a full-blown prairie populist stem-winder, but clearly I was going to get one anyway.” Perhaps that was Joel’s way of encouraging Pollan on the next part of his adventure.

He joined the killing crew dispatching the birds, carefully and efficiently. He wondered “Could they smell the blood on Daniel’s hands? Recognize the knife? I have no idea. but the waiting birds did not seem panicked, and I took solace in their seeming obliviousness.” He dispatched birds himself, and saw once the birds “came out of the scalder [they looked] very dead and soaked – floppy wet rags with beaks and feet.” Yet there was still majesty in death: “The viscera were unexpectedly beautiful, glistening in a whole palette of slightly electric colors, from the steely blue striations of the heart muscle to the sleek milk chocolate liver to the dull mustard of the gallbladder”. The experience clearly moved Pollan who concluded; “In a way, the most morally troubling thing about killing chickens is that after a while it is no longer morally troubling.”

Saladin, and maybe Pollan, clearly think that the Polyface way is better than either Agrobusiness or Big Organic. They are many who agree with Saladin in principle: José Bové, Roquefort farmer, M.E.P. and McDonalds demolisher, or Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, or “Sally Fallon, the “nutrition expert and cookbook author” of the Weston Price Foundation or the folks at Eatwild.com, or Joel’s numerous fans among the chefs of Charlottesville, or the discriminating citizens who pay “a premium over supermarket prices for Polyface food, and in many cases driving more than an hour over a daunting (though gorgeous) tangle of county roads to get to it.” The direct Polyface customers are: ”a remarkably diverse group of people: a schoolteacher. several retirees. a young mom with her tow-headed twins, a mechanic, an opera singer, a furniture maker, a woman who worked in a metal fabrication plant in Staunton. … no one would ever mistake these people for the well-heeled urban foodies generally thought to be the market for organic or artisanal food. There was plenty of polyester in this crowd and a lot more Chevrolets than Volvos in the parking lot.“

When I first read Omnivore’s Dilemma, wifey and I were exploring the little towns around Austin. When we discovered Round Rock and ROUND ROCK DONUTS, that was a good day. Many of those little towns were charming but neglected; the town squares lined with deep, cool emporia. I could see, come the apocalypse, a group of Saladin acolytes buying the broken land around one such, and establishing a Free State of Joel.

The historic jail at Gonzalez comes with a gallows for dispatching ne’er-do-wells, with the side benefit of educating the drunk tank or parties of misdemeanoring teenagers. 3D print shops could make any piece of modernity you could wish for, including droids, drones and Ironman suits for kitting out a militia. Power would come from the sun. Everything would be locally grown or locally made. Perhaps half of the land might be rewilded, becoming home to traditional Native American ways of life.

That Agrobusiness will end is in no doubt, although it would be nice if it were done with care and compassion, which is unlikely with the myopic Mammon worshippers currently in charge.

A patchwork quilt of Free States of Joel would be as troubled as current times. America has a tradition of marriages between religion and greed, which dates back to the Salem witch trials. On the small screen it is exemplified by Jimmy Baker, who is still, amazingly, in business. In addition, this vast country hides a host of fundementalist backwaters, a few of which are ruled by perverts like Warren Jeffs.

The main problem with a Polyface solution to human nutrition is: What to do with cities? Joel is not interested. Cities are essential to any growing culture. They provide relative safety for the outliers of human diversity. The concentration of humanity promotes complexity, exploration of cultural traditions, and a welcome to new ideas.

The current situation is clearly nuts. Let’s get to work and fix it.

 

Simply Wicked: The story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion

The Jewish Cemetery, Prague

Last week I came across a remarkable book called The Plot: The Secret story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion written by Will Eisner. Will was a great cartoonist, so this book is a cartoon, but with a deadly purpose: the history of a little number about ‘The Jews’.

Napoleon_III (Wikimedia Commons)

Napoleon_III (Wikimedia Commons)

To begin with, we are introduced to Napoleon the Third, grandson of Bonaparte and incompetent tyrant. His misrule inspired a satire, “The Dialogue between Machiavelli and Montesquieu”, by Maurice Joly. Machiavelli, byword for self-interested government, wrote “The Prince”, a book in which he asks the question, “Is it better for a prince to be loved or feared?” Machiavelli’s answer is feared, something that Napoleon III, along with lots of others, took note of.

The story shifts to pre-World-War-I Russia and the twit of a tsar, Nicholas II. For a time his most trusted adviser was Sergei Yulievich Witte. Witte had dangerously modern views, even entertaining the notion that the blood sport of pogroms might be a bad thing. A couple of characters from the old guard, by the name of Gormykin and Rachkovsky, were scandalized by the man and his corrupting ideas.

Goremykin and Gerard by Repin

Goremykin and Gerard by Repin

To deal with the Witte problem, Rachkovsky came up with the idea of a smoking gun with which he could use to malign The Jews and taint Witte, so alienating him from the Tsar. He also knew someone up to the job, a talented propagandist called Mathieu Golovinski. Golovinski had honed his talents faking evidence for Tsar Nicolas’s secret policemen, the Okhrana. Unfortunately for Golovinski, a wave of liberality saw him fired and exiled to Paris.

In Paris, Rachkovsky found him. What Rachkovsky wanted was much bigger than Golovinski’s usual product, but luckily he had read Joly’s book about Napoleon the Third, which he freely plagiarized, creating his mischief-piece: The Protocols.

Apparently, in the Old Jewish Quarter of Prague near the synagogue and its cemetery, the Hidden Hand, the committee of the Elders of Zion, “Three hundred men, each of whom knows all the others”, met to discuss The Great Jewish Master Plan. Although the Hidden Hand had been around in 929BC, they hadn’t had the foresight to try to take over the world yet, and had waited two thousand years of eviction, exile, poverty, massacres, bigotry, and general persecution before getting around to making The Great Jewish Master Plan. Then they had it all written down, printed, and nicely bound.

But “Providence … brought to the light of day these secret Protocols [so] all men may clearly see the hidden personages … at work ‘behind the scenes’ of all the Governments. This revelation entails on all peoples the grave responsibility of examining and revising AU FOND their attitude towards the Race and Nation which boasts of its survival over all Empires.”

(If you think this passage is a tad purple … It is a quote from  https://www.biblebelievers.org/. Really.)

Doctor Sergius Nilus

Doctor Sergius Nilus

Somehow the inattentive Elders had mislaid a copy which was found by a Doctor Sergius Nilus, writer and self-proclaimed mystic. He included it in his apocalyptic book which has the catchy title of The Great within the Small and Antichrist, an Imminent Political Possibility. Notes of an Orthodox Believer. Rachkovsky’s smoking gun was a runaway success: Witte was fired and GormyiKine got his job. The Protocols, this ghoul book has gone on to haunt the nightmares of Europe and then the rest of the world, inspiring the wickedest thoughts and causing the most heartbreaking tragedies, and no matter how many times it has been shown to be a malicious hoax, somehow like Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Leatherface and the rest of the slasher movie villains, it has been able to resurrect itself time and time again.

On Wednesday, August 17th, 1921 the prestigious Times of London published “Jewish Peril” Exposed: Historic “Fake” which detailed the Protocols’s provenance and parallels between the Protocols and Joly’s The Dialogue.

In 1920, Henry Ford, the Steve Jobs of his day, bought a small Michigan paper called The Dearborn Independent. From 1920 to 1922, it published a series of articles entitled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem based on the Protocols. In April 1924, Aaron Sapiro, a major figure in the American farmers’ cooperative movement and lawyer, read the thinly veiled attack in Ford’s book. The International Jew accusing him and other prominent Jews of acting as agents in The Great Jewish Conspiracy. Shapiro sued Ford who chose business over principle and had the Jewish activist Louis Marshall, write an apology. Ford closed the Independent in 1927.

Freddy Krueger e Hellraiser by Anigate Cosplay

Freddy Krueger e Hellraiser by Anigate Cosplay

In 1934 the United Jewish Communities sued the Nazi United Front to make the Nazi prove their claim that the protocols were genuine.

“The judge asked both parties to produce an expert on the contents of the Protocols.

The Jewish committee produced a dozen!

The Nazis could not produce any …
So . . . the Nazis simply submitted the name of a clergyman nobody could find.”

In 1964, a subcommittee of the United States Senate published a report on the Protocols describing it as “one of a number of fraudulent documents that peddle the myth of an “International Jewish conspiracy.” The report goes on to back up this damning indictment.

On November 24, 1999, L’Express, a French newspaper reported, that the respected Russian historian Milhail Lepekhine had read the files of the defunct Soviet KGB and proved that the Protocols were written by Golovinski.

So imagine my surprise and dismay when in 2012 a bright charming man from Egypt started rattling on about the Protocols. I pointed out that they are and always were a forgery, but mere facts did not sway him. Even if it was a forgery, like so many before him, he thought that it is the kind of thing that Jews do. You can see where Kafka, who lived in Prague, got his ideas. The Egyptian probably got the idea from a TV serial called “Knight without a Horse” broadcast in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries which is based on that proverbial bad penny, the Protocols. If you wish to find out more about the real story I recommend Simon Schama’s superb BBC series The Story of the Jews.

You would think that folks who peddle The Protocols would know more about real history and take note that the Protocols carry a curse for those who believe in them.

Nikolaus II (Wikimedia Commons)

Nikolaus II (Wikimedia Commons)

Napoleon the Third, the subject of Joly’s The Dialogue, lost the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and surrendered. Parisians were much tougher, erecting barricades and defending the city for two months, an event known as the Paris Commune. Napoleon was first captured by the Germans and, as the French did not want him back, went into exile where he died in 1873.

Nicholas II, the target of Rachkovsky’s smoking gun, personally lost World War I for Russia and killed 1.7 million Russians in the process. He was forced to abdicate during the February Revolution in 1917 and was put under house arrest. The October Revolution brought Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power. In the following year, on March 1, 1918, he and his entire family was executed by bullets and rifle butts.

Adolf Hitler, Fuhrer of the Third Reich, dragged Europe into a Second World War, the world’s most deadly war to date, killing an estimated 60 million people. As the transcript of the Wannsee Conference shows he personally instructed Himmler’s goon Reinhard Heydrich to arrange the Final Solution. This has become known as the Holocaust from the Greek ὁλόκαυστος holókaustoshólos, “whole” and kaustós, “burnt”), or the  Shoah  (Hebrew:  השואה,  HaShoah,  “the catastrophe”) which took the lives of 5.93 million Jewish people. Hitler died by drinking a vial of potassium cyanide solution and shooting himself. He was so frightened of the Soviet troops who were about to capture him that he had his remains and that of his wife, Eva Braun, burnt. He is widely considered the most evil human being who ever lived.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s poison dwarf, who used the Protocols as part of the Nazis’s propaganda shot himself and his wife Magda, after she had killed their five children.

Joseph Goebbels bei Empfang

The state of Israel has taken on all its Arab neighbors – twice – and soundly defeated them. At present, in 2015, all Arab countries are either under a ferocious dictatorship or sliding towards becoming failed states ripped apart by civil war and atrocities. Now millions have lost their homes and hundreds are drowning trying to escape across the Mediterranean Sea. The human cost is heartbreaking.

The Synagogue in the Old Jewish Quarter in Prague no longer is home to Jewish prayers on the Sabbath. The graves lie higgledy-piggledy, the stones covered in moss, the ground rucked up like a rumpled satin bedspread. Men have to wear a yarmulke when they go in. Instead of songs and prayers from the Bible there are names written on the walls, when they were born, when they died, hundreds of thousands of them.

 

'Why single out only Muslim women Women covering all around the globe ,in different religions , (& it doesn't mean they are all oppressed , they are happy

‘Why single out only Muslim women Women covering all around the globe ,in different religions , (& it doesn’t mean they are all oppressed , they are happy

 

Cohen Bros. Moments: How Japan met America at the end of the Pacific War

Geisha Makeover at the Katsura Studio,Tokyo by lu_lu

First scene: the Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan

In the end it was the Tenno, 天皇 (てんおう), the Son of Heaven, the divinely appointed ruler of Japan, who made the decision. The credo of Budō, the Japanese Way of the Warrior, demanded that a warrior surrender his life whenever his lord needed it. That had been the cornerstone of the Empire’s zeitung, its imperishable spirit of conquest. The Empire’s armies had beaten the British and the French, and ground down the Chinese. Those British had treated the emperor with contempt. That ex-King had mocked him and his impeccable Western clothes, as a “prize monkey”. The news that a British battleship Prince of Wales had been sent to the bottom by Japanese torpedoes, had given the emperor grim satisfaction. That ex-King had been Prince of Wales when he gave such insult. During the siege of Singapore, the British soldiers thought that the Japanese bicycles running on stripped steel rims were tanks, and the civil servant in charge had meekly surrendered what Churchill thought an unsinkable battleship. Unfortunately, all its guns pointed out to sea.

"Budō" shuji, brushed by Kondo Katsuyuki, Menkyo Kaiden, Daito ryu

“Budō” shuji, brushed by Kondo Katsuyuki, Menkyo Kaiden, Daito ryu

Then the Empire had taken on a greater foe. That foe should have fallen apart at that first crushing victory. Its leaders had let the country rot for over ten years, leaving it to gangsters and film starlets to run things. They were a mongrel horde without discipline. But it hadn’t worked out like that. What should have been an easy next battle turned out to be a disaster. Somehow the mongrels knew and were ready. They had conjured aircraft carrier after aircraft carrier from who knows where. Their airmen were ferocious. At least as committed as our warriors who had been given Bushido souls with their mother’s milk. The mongrels never ever gave up, and kept coming on, hit after hit, until we started to lose aircraft carriers, the proud victors of the Battle of Pearl Harbor; first Soryu and then Kaga. We lost four irreplaceable ships and so many men. In the end Admiral Nagumo had to give up. The rout was hidden for a while. The eyewitnesses who might have spread discord, those soldiers and the airmen who had survived were interred. Our propagandists announced a great victory. But that was a lie.

Now the Tenno and his generals were down to just two options. Super weapons had vaporized the downtowns of two medium sized cities, apparently left intact by the Super Fortresses just to see what these weapons could do. And who knew how many more super bombs the enemy had and where they would be used? One thing was for sure, there was nothing that the army, navy or airforce could do to stop them. The slimmest, deluded hope was an agreement signed back in the glory days. The fact that it had been a cynical matter of convenience, at least by the ally who sponsored it, didn’t seem to matter much. He had gone to break the farcically named “non-aggression” treaty with a spectacular invasion, which he had called Barbarossa. The snows of the Steppes and the bloody minded persistence of the Untermensch, had turned it into a hellish rout which had rolled all the way back to his Fuhrerbunker under his chancellery in Berlin. Now he was dead, suiciding not by honorable Seppuku but a quick bullet and glass vial of prussic acid, while around him raged Gotterdammerung , a monstrous parody of Wagner’s tale of the Nordic gods. Hitler’s war had shattered European imperial power forever, at an incalculable cost in resources and some fifty million lives. (There is an excellent film on those last days called “Downfall”. The drawback is that it’s in Deutsche but is nonetheless an absolutely compelling tale.)

Empress Sadako with Prince of Wales in 1922

Empress Sadako with Prince of Wales in 1922

That other Axis ally had always been a flake and was dead too, shot by peasants and his corpse urinated on by their women. Now Uncle Joe, the Tsar in all but name of the Soviet Union, had unequivocally torn up that ‘non-aggression’ agreement by formally declaring war. The Russian army had already beaten the Imperial Army once before, and was now on its way down the Trans-Siberian railway. The great Soviet General Zhukov, who had seen off the Wehrmacht and had commanded that first defeat of Japanese forces in Manchuria, would steamroller the last vestiges of Japanese Imperial might and, if the Soviet Army behaved as it had done in Germany, would fulfill every horror story concocted by our propagandists. The Imperial Army had a lot of hidden skeletons like those tales back in Korea and China.

The options were simple: trust General Anami’s Ketsugō plan, which included arming children with sharpened bamboo sticks, or surrender to the Americans. Hirohito, Divine Son of Heaven, Tenno, chose door number two. The Tenno, divinely appointed ruler of Japan, the pinnacle of Bushido, had decided that he preferred to live and take his chances.

:Namban Attributed to Kano Naizen

:Namban Attributed to Kano Naizen

The Atomic Bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th 1945 and Nagasaki on August 9th which was the same day that the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. After trying to get a concession or two the Empire of Japan signaled that it accepted the Potsdam declaration, which demanded total and unconditional surrender. On August 15 the Japanese people heard the Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast telling them that they would have “to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable”. Few of them understood what was about to happen due mainly to the archaic form of Japanese he used, which was something like FDR or Churchill using Chaucerian English, and in part to the scratchy recording made by NKK and the Emperor’s thin reedy voice. Japan waited for the victors.

Second scene: Flashback

tengu statue by the station by erysimum9

tengu statue by the station by erysimum9

The Japanese do not call themselves Japanese. Their name for themselves is Nihonjin and the name of their country is Nihon (日本), the sun’s origin. Europeans first learned of this country from Marco Polo’s book where he described an island known to the Chinese as Zipangu. Our name Japan was garbled from the original by filtering it through Mandarin and Italian or maybe Cantonese and Dutch. Any which way, one would be hard put to find more dissimilar languages.

Until 1945, Japan had never been successfully invaded, although Genghis Khan had a couple of goes back in 1274 and 1281. They are a homogeneous insular people, courteous and intelligent, and minimalist by necessity and by taste. They also think very highly of themselves.

When in the 16th Century Europeans arrived, the few Japanese who met one were not impressed. Yes, the Europeans brought interesting ideas like muskets which the Japanese readily copied but the men themselves were appalling. They were ketto yabanjin(けっと 野蛮人), dirty hairy beasts just like the goblin tengu 天狗 with huge long noses, enormous penises and venal tastes. During the war, the Imperial propagandists had capitalized on these prejudices. And now these barbarians would have the run of the place.

Third scene: Atsugi Air Base, Japan

Ase o fuku onna by Utamaro

Ase o fuku onna by Utamaro

It wasn’t long before those dreaded Americans arrived. On August 28, 1945, only 13 days after Hirohito’s broadcast American troops arrived at Atsugi Air base, just south of Tokyo, with orders to secure Yokohama for General MacArthur and his staff. The troops formed a convoy of trucks and ventured into enemy territory. They were soon met by a Japanese convoy sent by a new organization set up by the helpful Japanese government called the Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA), and these trucks were carrying Japanese women in elegant kimono, who had “volunteered” to service the horny Yanks. Well, for many of the women sex was their day job anyway. The American officers were shocked and offended, and said so but, no doubt, some of the GIs would have been game. And so began a fascinating bit of human history, replete with every human vice but also much sweetness.

Atsuji wasn’t the only airfield which had to be commandeered. In early September, fifty Marines were sent to secure the air base at Omura near Nagasaki in Northern Kyushu. They too were welcomed by a party of geisha, and finding the base adequately secured, the men, lead by their fearless first sergeant, moved on to commandeer a nearby geisha house which they chose as their billet — while they waited for reinforcements — as it was well supplied with beer, ‘hibachi-grilled fish’ and girls. The doughty first sergeant of MAG-44 commandeering party was 22-year-old Nick Zappetti who already had a colorful history. He had grown up in the Italian enclave of East Harlem on Manhattan, New York. His cousin was Gaetano Luchese aka “Three Finger Brown” and Zappetti knew lots of other guys with nicknames, “Boss of Booze” Joe Rao, “Trigger” Mike Coppola and Joe Stretch whose real name was quite melodramatic enough.

Fourth scene: Hikari wa Shinjuku Yori, Japan

Bob Johnson of Reading, Mass. cordially greets Tamiko San by Okinawa Soba (Rob)

Bob Johnson of Reading, Mass. cordially greets Tamiko San, by Okinawa Soba (Rob)

Japan, of course, had its own wise guys. They called themselves ya-ku-za, the numbers 8-9-3, a term for a losing hand in cards. In other war torn countries black markets had flourished and Japan was no exception. While the Emperor and his cronies mourned, and the people feared the impending hordes of yabanjin, the yakuza reaction to the cessation of hostilities was let the good times roll. Only three days after the Emperor’s speech, they placed an advertisement for a black-market market called charmingly Hikari wa Shinjuku Yori (Shinjuku has more Light) and a couple of days after that the market in Shinjuku opened with supplies which had been destined to support General Anami’s Ketsugō army and then liberated and repurposed by the Yakuza. It was not long before the victors and vanquished were able to make working arrangements about the economic facts of life.

Tokyo was a shanty town of lean-to huts; some folk were even living in bomb craters, and nobody had enough to eat. The point that the government ration was totally inadequate was neatly, if inadvertently, made when a Tokyo District Court Judge who had refused to eat anything bought illegally died of malnutrition. So, despite “not overly successful” attempts to rout out American involvement, the light of Shinjuku AKA the black market boomed. Some eight million dollars worth of remittances were sent back to America, more than “the entire military payroll”. Naturally, the Yakuza claim that they saved the people at the beginning of the post war period.

Fifth scene: Rikidozan in the Ring

Fascinating although this is, it isn’t really Cohen Bros. material. For that we have pro-wrestling. After years of being told how tough the Japanese fighting man was (true) and how victory was inevitable (not so true) the post war Japanese male felt something of a letdown. The depth of such feelings were discovered on the night of February 19, 1954 in a puro-resu bumu held on Tokyo.

In the blue corner representing America were the Sharpe Brothers, Ben (6’ 6”, 240 pounds) and Mike (6’ 6”, 250 pounds). In the red corner representing the Land of the Rising Sun, Home of Sumo were Rikidozan (6’ 2”, 220 pounds) and Kimura (5’ 8”, 170 pounds). A Japanese journalist wrote, “The difference in physical size, especially in Kimura’s case, triggered painful memories among the spectators of Japan’s devastating loss in the Pacific War.” The ring announcer agreed, “Those Americans are huge. How can they possibly lose?”

The American Goliath, Mike Sharpe, climbed into the ring to confront tiny Rikidozan. Then Riki, as he became known, ‘flew into the ring and began pummeling Mike Sharpe with powerful karate blows.’ Mike backed down towards his corner and was quickly worn down by the furious Jap. To escape he tagged his brother. Ben received the same warm welcome. The blitzing attacks of the feisty Riki dazed him; he collapsed and Riki held him down for the count.

Rikidozan in action

Rikidozan in action

The audience went wild, jumping to their feet and throwing cushions, hats and anything else into the air. The crowd of some 20,000 gathered at Shimbashi Metro Station to watch the match on a 27 inch “General” went bananas, stopping traffic outside. Folks who had climbed trees to get better view of another jumbo TV in Ueno Park were so jubilant that they fell from their perches, “incurring serious injury and … ambulances shuttle[d] back and forth …. to the nearest hospital for much of the evening.”

It was estimated that between 10 and 14 million Japanese had watched the show live, and when it was broadcast 24 million, around a third of the population, watched. Riki was now a celebrity adored by millions including the media mogul and owner of NTV Matsutaro Shoriki who said,”Rikidozan, by his pro wrestling in which he sent the big white men flying, has restored pride to the Japanese and given them new courage.”

Alas, it was pro-wrestling and pro-wrestling is not known to be much of an actual contest, and this wasn’t at all. The match had been “scripted, rehearsed, and staged with the full cooperation of the Americans, who had been extremely well compensated for their trouble.” Nick Zappetti realized that was money to be made and was recruited to be a fall guy along with fellow American, one John MacFarland the Third.

Sixth scene: The Imperial Hotel Diamond Incident

MacFarland was not exactly inconspicuous in a nation of shortish, black haired people. He was 6’ 4”, 250 pounds, his red hair was cut into a duckbill, and he went by his wrestling name of “Gorgeous Mac”. As well as being a prize on the pro wrestling league, he had issues. He had been hospitalized for manic depression and treated with insulin shock therapy for his shocking temper. Gorgeous Mac was also in debt and an illegal, as his tourist visa and his passport had expired, so he need a lot of money fast, so he talked with Nick, with his connections and all, how this could be achieved.

Geisha Makeover, by lu_lu, at Katsura Studio in Tokyo.

Geisha Makeover, by lu_lu, at Katsura Studio in Tokyo.

The plan MacFarland came up was a doozy. He wanted to rob the Diamond Shop in the arcade of his swanky hotel. First off, this was some hotel. It was called the Imperial and had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and had survived the great Kanto earthquake in 1927. It was a home-from-home to high-ranking officers from GHQ, senators and Hollywood stars and was ‘generally acknowledged as the Greatest Hotel in Asia.” The plan sounded simple enough. The Diamond Shop offered ‘private showings’ of its merchandise to certain qualified guests. Gorgeous Mac would establish his credentials with a suitcase of cash, which in reality was newspaper with a thin overlay of bills. He would get chummy with the salesman and offer him a drink. The drink would contain ‘knockout drops’, rending MacFarland and the salesman unconscious, Zapetti would emerge from another room and swipe the diamonds. It seemed plausible until Gorgeous Mac said, “I gotta have a gun”.

Zapetti tried to argue him out of his questionable request by pointing out that he was an enormous pro-wrestler and could easily handle any salesman. All Gorgeous Mac would say is “I gotta have a gun”. Zapetti had seen MacFarland totally lose it before, so declined to be part of the venture. He did however provide a .38 revolver which he gave, sans bullets, to one of   Gorgeous Mac groupies. This teenage boy was nicknamed the “Mambo Kid”, “M” for short, on account of  his taste in clothes: ‘black rhinestone-studded Latin clothes and big pompadours’. Should you doubt that Japanese folk love Latin dance you should go to the Asakusa Samba Festival.

So, on “January 15, 1956, at 10:20 AM, Imperial Hotel arcade jeweler Shichiro Masubuchi carried a briefcase filled with . . . diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies to MacFarland’s room.” He was relieved of the case by MacFarland and M who then chose to take the elevator to the main lobby, “where MacFarland agreeably stopped to sign autographs. Then he stood in line for a taxi in front of the hotel …” That evening MacFarland made front page news and had a team of seven detectives “- one for each leg, one for each arm, one man to grab his torso, another for the neck and a detective to snap on the handcuffs on” – on his trail. It didn’t take long to find, and when they caught him he came along quietly. MacFarland got eight months in a Japanese jail for his trouble.

So there you are.

This is but a taste of the wonderful Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster. As the wise man said no one could make this stuff up. and Cohen Brothers would have a field day making it into a film.

Featured Image: Geisha Makeover, by lu_lu, at Katsura Studio in Tokyo.