The Occult Knowledge Of Ancient Alien Theorists

Around to the Queen Nefertiti by Egisto Sani

Akhenaton was a most unusual looking dude. His statue in the Cairo museum of Antiquities shows a long, equine profile; a pair of flaring nostrils; hooded, mesmeric eyes; a mobile, sensuous mouth and, above all, the high dome of a vast cranium sloping back deep into the Pharaonic crown. The sculpture gives a profound impression of immense power and a clear, deep intelligence for which we have only one word: genius.

Statue of Akhenaten by Les Williams

Statue of Akhenaten by Les Williams

Akhenaton was a revolutionary before his time. He allowed his likeness to be realistic, breaking away from the stylized bombast of Ramses the Great, and leading to a flowering of creativity never before seen. The Mona Lisa of this brief twinkling in human history is the bust of his queen, the timeless, iconic Nefertiti, possibly the most beautiful woman of all time. To the ancients, women were chattels, servants, breeding stock. Most ancient potentates kept many wives and a host of concubines, but Akhenaton had just one, his childhood sweetheart whom he trusted in everything, promoting her his co-ruler.

Together they turned their backs on the dark, incestuous gods of Thebes and Tanis with their sinister magicians and their corrupt, power-hungry priesthood. The Pharaoh and his Consort sort only the light they called the Aten, and whose symbol the Solar Disk lights our world, bringing it warmth and life.

To tear their people away from the old hideous cults and the rank superstition on which those abominations thrived they set out north into the desert and were shown the place by the setting sun. There at Amarna they commanded a city to be built and, miraculously, the vast city of Akhetaten sprung into existence. Scientists still do not know how such an immense project with its innumerable temples, palaces and causeways was achieved in such a short time.

Nefertiti Bust by Philip Pikart

Nefertiti Bust by Philip Pikart

Yet the old priests plotted and planned. Robbed of power, they caused chaos in the kingdom, accusing the Pharaoh of abandoning his people. They may well have had him assassinated using a poisoned fig. Their menacing threats forced Nefertiti, now in fear for her life and the lives of her children, to write to Egypt’s mortal enemy, the Hittites, for help, for a husband. This last desperate attempt foundered when the Hittite prince was murdered in the sands of the Sinai, and Nefertiti disappears from history.

There remains on a temple wall, the Hymn to the Aten, composed by Akhenaton, which some five hundred years before the time of Moses and more than a thousand before the first words of the Pentateuch were committed to writing, is the first monotheistic prayer on earth.

 

“Thou gloriously set thyself up on the borders of the sky
Thou from whom every life was born
When Thou shone from the horizon at the east
Thou filled the land with thy beauty
Thou art beautiful, great, sparkling,
Thou travel above the land Thou hast created
Embracing it with thy rays,
Keeping them tightly for your loving son (Akhenaton).
Although Thou are far away, thy rays are on Earth;
Although Thou hast fill men’s eyes, thy prints are not seen.”

 

K'inich Janaab' Pakal

K’inich Janaab’ Pakal

On the other side of the great Atlantic ocean, remote and unknown in Europe for another three thousand years, were great civilizations which also built pyramids and which also worshipped the Sun God. In the Mayan city of Palenque, within the Temple of Inscriptions is the tomb of the god king, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal. He looks uncannily like Akhenaton. Pakal too had those luminous, mesmeric eyes, a puckered sensuous mouth, and a deep domed head. He too ruled in a time of prosperity and artistic accomplishment. His capital of Palenque also simply appeared, this time in the dense tropical Mesoamerican jungle. Most intriguing of all is the heavy lid of his solid sarcophagus which seems to show him at the controls of a spaceship.

Crystal Skull, British Museum

Crystal Skull, British Museum

Further coincidences abound. The crystal ‘Skull of Doom’, found by Anna Mitchell–Hedges in Lubaantun, Belize, in 1923, has the same elongated cranium, and remarkably the mysterious skull is made of rock crystal, and could not have been carved using any known technology. Ancient Alien Theorists believe that there are other more remarkable artifacts waiting to be discovered in the lush vegetation of Meso or South America. We now know that there was a vast civilization centered on the Amazon apparently spanning the entire continent, which is shown by the geographical location and the sidereal alignments of the figures drawn in the high plains of the Nazca desert. Isn’t it strange that when the decorated explorer Colonel Percival Fawcett was closing in on the mysterious city of “Z”, he just disappeared?

Isn’t it odd that many of modern fiction’s extraterrestrials also have high domed cranium and are frequently without hair? The central character in the epic ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ is the austere Deltan Ilia whose empathic nature and enticing pheromones allow man to make a connection with his most powerful creation. Might this not be some kind of buried unconscious root memory of beings from beyond the stars. Many Ancient Alien Theorists think so. Might not Akhenaten and Pakal be visitors from another world? Or perhaps Star Children, the progeny of gods and men?

No. The mummies of Akhenaton (AKA KV55), his father Amenhotep III, his grandfather Thutmose IV  all reside at the Cairo Museum of Antiquities, and the remains of his son Tutankhamen rests in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Thanks to the pioneering work of  Svante Pääbo, who went on to make discoveries concerning Neanderthals and uncovering a hitherto unknown human species, we know they are all have the same human DNA as you or me or Barney McGee.

I could unpick all the false leads, misrepresentation, the number of times I’ve added two plus two to come up with nine but, in our quest to understand the Ancient Alien phenomena, I propose a shortcut. If we have been visited by extraterrestrials they must have come a long way. How long might that be?

So, in human terms what is a long way? From the 18th Century, humans have been traveling faster and farther. There was a time, September 15 1830 actually, when humans, riding behind Stevenson’s Rocket, went from travelling as fast as a galloping horse, to a dizzying 28 mph (45 km/h). Women passengers were warned by eminent medical men that traveling at such speed would do them irreparable harm. All that happened to the ladies, reported the actress Fanny Kemble, was that they enjoyed an exhilarating day, although William Huskisson, the Member of Parliament for Liverpool, managed to fall in front of the steam engine which obligingly made him the first railway fatality. Within twenty years, steam trains where traveling at an astonishing 78 mph (125.6 km/h).

First flight of the Wright Flyer I, December 17, 1903, Orville piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip.

First flight of the Wright Flyer I, December 17, 1903, Orville piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip.

The early 20th century saw another revolution in travel when, on December 17, 1903, Orville Wright briefly was airborne, traveling at a sedate 10.9 km/h (6.8 mph). Within 2 years, a Wright Brothers’ airplane was travelling at 60.2 km/h (37.8 mph). Aircraft have continually become faster and flown higher, the record of 3,529.6 km/h (2,193.2 mph, Mach 2.883) being set by Capt. Eldon W. Joersz and Maj. George T. Morgan on 28 July 1976 in a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.

Travelling by aircraft has become commonplace and for a time there were actually commercial supersonic flights. I reckon that the people who travel the furthest are the crews of commercial airlines. A modern jet aircraft travels at around 500 mph. Air crew can only travel 1000 hours per year by international law. So, say a crew member flies for 30 years, they may do around 15 million miles in a lifetime, a distance which is merely interplanetary.

The furthest object made by humans is Voyager 1 launched way back in 1977. After the spacecraft had taken a true voyage of discovery and many wonderful photos, Carl Sagan prevailed on NASA to turn it around and take a picture of us on our planet: our ‘blue dot”. Voyager 1 is now (Christmas 2014) 19,558,664,450 Km (12,153,190,604 miles) from Earth and has traveled at 62,136 km/h (38,610 mph). Is that anything like a long way? For us: yes, for space: not even worth talking about.

So how about the total distance traveled by Americans, all of them, per year? In 2000 there were 190,650,023 Americans with driving licenses. The average distance one drives is 13,476 miles in a year, which means that America as a whole drives 2.5 trillion miles annually. This is more like it. The unit that astronomers use to measure the distance between stars is the light year, which is just under 10 trillion kilometres (or about 6 trillion miles). Our nearest star is the binary star Alpha Centauri which is 4.37 light years from the Sun, or 25 trillion miles. It would take Voyager 1 75,000 years to get there.

Ilia, from Star Trek: The Movie

Ilia, from Star Trek: The Movie

So how can we explain the destabilizing event at the beginning of the film which introduced the world to Ilia, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The rather ponderous plot opens with a vast, unknown entity which we later are informed is called V’ger, zapping a couple of Klingon K’t’inga-class battle cruisers. Later Ilia is zapped and reconstituted into V’ger’s spokesperson to be eventually sublimated with Decker, a Star Fleet officer who fancies her something rotten. Alas the lovely, talented Persis Khambatta, who played Ilia, died in 1998, just 49 years old.

We eventually learn that at the heart of V’ger is a space probe from the 20th Century called Voyager 6. There was no Voyager 6. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is set in the earth year 2273 when Voyager 1 will have traveled another 360 billion km making it all of 6% of a light year from Earth; not even out of the back door.

The Star Trek Communicator.

The Star Trek Communicator.

That’s the trouble with Science Fiction: the Science part has made Captain Kirk’s Communicator a reality – you can buy a cell phone which looks just like it – but the Fiction bit may not produce any more wondrous communication sets, may be just dodgy plywood ones. Space Fiction gets around the problem of crossing the interstellar space by inventing snappily named ruses to essentially bypass the issue: Star Trek had Warp Drive, Stargate used some kind of worm hole, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy used an Infinite Improbability Drive. It would be possible to explain to Isaac Newton how his principles would allow men to journey to the Moon, based on elements of technology of his time. Current scientific notions of interstellar travel require stuff like negative energy or negative mass, none of which exists now nor do we have a clue how to make any of it. So it is very likely that there is no interstellar drive for us to invent and we will remain on Earth or its environs for the whole of our existence.

So why did a SOASTA survey report that a sizeable proportion of Americans believe that the future will be just like Star Trek? First of all, no one notices negatives. During the first half of the 20th Century, we increased our top speed by a factor of 20 times, but since then not by much more. Secondly we are entranced by Moore’s Law, which promises twice as much for half the price every 18 months. It is, of course, only about the transistor equivalents on a silicon chip. This phenomenal growth has propelled computing into every nook and cranny of human life; but the “law” itself is just about the chip, and not about interstellar travel nor the possibility that it has already been used by extraterrestrials to visit us.

Luckily for the purveyors of UFO mythology, there are more important considerations than mere truth: gullibility and greed. The abundance of TV and now Internet channels means that there is always a shortage of cheap material to fill the schedule. TV channels like Discovery Channel or the History Channel do not exist primarily to inform, they exist to make money, so their executives will accept any subject within a broad remit so long as it is likely to attract sufficient advertising revenue.

Tezcatlipoca, “Smoking Mirror”

Tezcatlipoca, “Smoking Mirror”

Humans are attuned to little globs of information. We have, since the beginning, known that any tiny clue might mean the difference between dinner and being dined on. Such clues are self evident; a certain kind of rustle, a particular shape and color. They are the grist of traditional learning, and grow into ritual, superstition and a fascination with esoteric lore. When he read that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” in John 1:1, it seemed reasonable to John Dee, the Royal Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, that “the Word” belonged to the language of God and his angels. So Dr Dee, founder of the Rosicrucian Society, devoted a lifetime to learning this language of angels, or maybe the words of the fallen kind, the language of witches. We do not know how Dr. Dee obtained his obsidian mirror, a thin polished disk of a black glass made in a volcano, but it is almost certain that it was taken by Cortez from the great pyramid at the heart of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, temple of blood and still beating human hearts. The Aztec sorcerers called Dr Dee’s scurrying glass Tezcatlipoca, “Smoking Mirror”. When conjoined with the Enochian alphabet Dee the Magus was able to converse with the spirit Madimi” and together they cast a hex on the Spanish Invasion fleet and scattered it to the four winds. Sorry about that, I got a bit carried away.

Likewise, a UFO fabulator starts from the point of Extraterrestrial contact and works backwards. The word “work” here requires a little clarification and connotes finding objects, stories or witnesses, sewing them into simplistic narratives which borrow from current technology and science fiction, and projecting onto ‘the facts’  their unworldly rational. It will undoubtedly help to have sinister government types lurking around, to provide the undoubted reasons for your valuable program content being occult. A good conspiracy theory is a get-of-out-jail-free card for any awkwardness that may crop up.

Erich Anton Paul von Däniken

Erich Anton Paul von Däniken

The hard part will be the pitch, i.e. getting the money, but the key here is persistence; the channel execs need to fill air time and get their bonuses. Once you have the production money you’ll need to keep expenses down so fill the run time with general footage which can be purchased off the shelf and a very few graphics with no more than seven words a piece – remember most of your audience does not read books of any kind and are somewhat out of practice reading-wise – then cobbled the whole lot together with the “talking heads” of your UFO researchers. You don’t need to pay the “experts” much as they will appear to promote their own product. Take the money, allow the tax man to pay off your considerable expense accounts and stow the rest in the Bank of Cyprus. Life is good.

Giorgio Tsoukalos

Giorgio Tsoukalos

Ancient Alien theorists own a debt of gratitude to the founder of their discipline, Eric von Däniken. Dr von Däniken made his discoveries while working as a hotel manager in Davos, Switzerland. Is it a coincidence that every year, the rich and powerful attend a ‘conference’ there in Davos?  Just after he published his ground breaking  Chariots of the Gods?, the Swiss authorities convicted him of fraud and sent him to prison. Despite this set back, Dr von Däniken continued to develop his ideas and wrote a second seminal work, Gods from Outer Space, while in prison and finally cleared his name. He went on to found AASRA ( the Archaeology, Astronautics and SETI Research Association) and also designed and built Mystery Land at InterlakenSwitzerland. Typically, the scientific establishment has lambasted his work describing it as a “cultural Chernobyl“.  At this public education institution visitors can study aspects of the Ancient Alien controversy in a complex of exhibits including the outstanding Nazca pavilion.

Erich von Daniken and Giorgio A. Tsoukalos

Erich von Daniken and Giorgio A. Tsoukalos

Ancient Alien theorists also are indebted to Carlo Rambaldi for his vivid portrayal of alien life in such ground breaking films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Alien, and Frankenstein ’80. It is interesting to note that Rambaldi lived for many years close to Dr. von Däniken in Italy, and that the craniums of Rambaldi’s creations are perfectly smooth.

The Ancient Alien Theorist torch has now been taken up by fellow European Giorgio Tsoukalos who created the award winning Ancient Aliens. Tsoukalos is “the leading Ancient Astronaut expert” and Director and cofounder of von Däniken’s official international research organization, Center for Ancient Astronaut Research (A.A.S.R.A). The far flung travels of this “real-life Indiana  Jones” may explain why Giorgio adopted his highly original hair grooming. It appears to be derived from the styling of the Centaurian Ambassador, Londo Mollari.

Londo Mollari, Centaurian Ambassador

Londo Mollari, Centaurian Ambassador

 

Omnivore’s Dilemma, Part 2: The Idyll of Organic

Idyllic Organic Food

After prizing open the lid of Industrial Agriculture, Pollan will now checks out Big Organic, but before he does, he previews part 3 of his book.

Down on Polyface Farm

We find him taking “the ant’s eye view”, prone in a field in Shenandoah Valley, just an hour’s drive from Jefferson’s Palladian house at Monticello. If Tyson World employs methods like CAFOs and gleaming Rube Goldberg industrial plant, then Polyface’s factories live here, in the dirt. There are the grasses: orchard grass, foxtail, timothy and several others. There are the legumes: red and white clover, dandelion, Queen Anne’s lace and more. Then there are the cast of invertebrates: “eelish nematodes”, “shrimpy rotifers” and Charles Darwin’s favorite – the earthworm. To represent the mammals are moles and woodchucks. The whole lot supported by the biochemical wizardry of hosts of bacteria species and Andy-Warhol-hair-like mycelium masses of fungi. A “healthy soil digests the dead to nourish the living [which is why] Salatin calls it the earth’s stomach.”

Joel Salatin is a “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer” and Pollan’s Virgil. Like Dante, Pollan visits the darkling negative of this organic world-view; not one of weeping trees and simonous popes, but one which has been rested from farm stalls and market garden plots to become Big Organic.

Supermarket Pastoral

Pollan likes “shopping at Whole Foods nearly as much as [he enjoys] browsing in a good bookstore” which “is no accident: Shopping at Whole Foods is a literary experience, too.” Steaks in Walmart may be described as USDA certified; in Big Organic World the “range feed” sirloin steak” was part of a steer who “spent its days “living in beautiful places” ranging from “plant-diverse, high-mountain meadows to thick aspen groves and miles of sagebrush-filled flats.”: a short life but a happy one. There is a lot more where that came from:

  • “wild salmon caught by Native Americans in Yakutat (population 833)”,
  • “heirloom tomatoes from Capay Farm ($4.99 a pound), “one of the early pioneers of the organic movement” and
  • “Rosie” the chicken from Petaluma Poultry “a company whose “farming methods strive to create harmonious relationships in nature, sustaining the health of all creatures and the natural world.”

It seems as wholesome as The Sound of Music.

Tyson World marketing, the kind pumped out by Industrial Agribusiness and can be found in a newspaper or on show at Walmart does not include much about where and how the food on offer was produced. A picture of 534 (Steer Number 534 was bought by Pollan in order to follow his journey from birthing shed to abattoir) standing hock deep in cow slurry does not seamlessly transfigure into steaks sizzling on the barbie. Neither do the details about the chemical plant which made your soda have much yum appeal. Tyson World marketing is about price and a little bit about how your friends and neighbors will think that your food is great.

Vegetables in Whole Foods Market by Masahiro Ihara

Vegetables in Whole Foods Market by Masahiro Ihara

Shopping at Whole Foods or World Market is a whole lot more classy, literate and concerned, which is why the “wordy labels, point-of-purchase brochures, and certification schemes” are there. Indeed, “the word ‘organic’ has proved to be one of the most powerful words in the supermarket”, a Pied Piper which has grown into “an $11 billion industry and is now the fastest growing sector of the food economy. Pollan’s day job is as professor of journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, so words, and wordsmiths grinding out copy purposed to persuade, is very much his brief. And his professional professorial opinion is complimentary, describing “Supermarket Pastoral” as “a most seductive form”. Supermarket Pastoral is Pollan’s term for the artwork of “the grocery store poets”. Their work offers “a landscape of reconciliation” harking back to an Arcady enjoyed by Virgil’s shepherd Tityrus” which Pollan finds “beguiling enough to survive in the face of a great many discomforting facts.”

These facts begin their discomforting with the “full-color photographs of local organic farmers” and “their farming philosophies” decorating the “sumptuously stocked produce department”. All but “a handful” of these spokespersons belong in a long gone past where “they do things differently ”. “That’s because Whole Foods in recent years has adopted the grocery industry’s standard regional distribution system, which makes supporting small farms impractical.” This industry standard means “tremendous warehouses” which are principally supplied by the “tremendous farms” operated by the likes of Earthbound Farms and Grimmway Farms which owns the Cal-Organic brand.

These are big corporations. For example, Earthbound Farms “grows 80 percent of the organic lettuce sold in America.” and they have strayed somewhat from the bucolic idyll that Whole Foods uses for decoration. Pollan “learned, for example that some (certainly not all) organic milk comes from factory farms” albeit where the cows eat “(certified organic) grain”. Organic beef have their own version of CAFOs, “organic feedlots”, where the animals diet includes the oxymoronic “organic high-fructose corn syrup”.

From People’s Park to Petaluma Poultry

On Dwight Way in Berkeley, home to the University of California, is the People’s Park. It’s seen better days. It has become a “tattered camp of a few dozen homeless people”. A few “still [effect] hippie styles of hair and dress” and occasionally “spend time tending scruffy little patches of flowers and vegetables – a few stalks of corn, some broccoli plants”. Yet it was here on April 20, 1969 that the organic movement sprung to life, when the self-proclaimed Robin Hood Commission seized the vacant lot, and went on to plant trees and grass, “and perhaps most auspiciously, putting in a vegetable garden.”

Yup, organic is an LA sixties thing along with environmentalism, feminism, and personal computing. Although we might have a more cynical, jaundiced view of those times and those movements, there was also a lot of genuine passion for good. “In People’s Park … food would be organic, a word that, at the time, brimmed with meanings that went far beyond any particular agricultural method.” As a pop song of that year (July 1969) went “Something was in the air.”

The year before, on December 24, 1968 to be precise, William Anders on Apollo 8 took an unscheduled color photograph which has become known as “Earth Rise”. Rachel Carson’s dire warnings in Silent Spring, published in 1962, had not gone away. It was well known that American forces were using Agent Orange and Agent Blue in Vietnam. The sea off Santa Barbara was black from an oil spill and “Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River had caught fire.”

Earthrise by By NASA / Bill Anders

Earthrise by By NASA / Bill Anders

During 1969, an obscure magazine called Organic Gardening and Farming was catapulted into public awareness by “an ecstatic review in the Whole Earth Catalog”. From now on the sixties zeitgeist would also seek “an alternative mode of production (the chemical-free farms), … an alternative system of distribution (the anticapitalist food co-ops), and even an alternative mode of consumption (“the “countercuisine”).” Taking “you can never do only one thing” as its mantra and the instructions from J. I. Rodale the founder of Organic Gardening and Farming, the movement wished to build “a pastoral utopia in miniature, such a garden embraced not only the humans which tended and ate from it but “as many life kingdoms as possible”. So “organic” meant all this, and was regularly contrasted with regular “plastic food” which was made by the likes of Monsanto and served up by your parents.

So, lots of people, “with a head full of pastoral ideals and precisely no horticultural experience”, attempted to set up organic farms, only to find it difficult and hard work, which explains the “sorry-looking organic produce” “on display in the food co-ops” “for many years. “But [a few] freak farmers stuck with it, following Rodale’s set-by-step advice, and some of them went on to be excellent farmers.”

Cascadian Farm and Gene Kahn

Cascadian Farm Multicolored Carrots by GeneralMills

Cascadian Farm Multicolored Carrots by GeneralMills

“One such notable success was Gene Kahn, the founder of Cascadian Farm,” In 1971, “Kahn was a twenty-four-year-old grad school dropout” from Chicago’s South Side who began “a quasi-communal hippie farm, located on a narrow, gorgeous shelf of land between the Shagit River and the Northern Cascades about seventy-five miles northeast of Seattle.” “Like most of the early organic farmers, Kahn had no idea what he was doing at first, and he suffered his share of crop failures.” His efforts as part of an “ad hoc grassroots R&D effort” got “no institutional support”. Rather “the USDA was actively hostile” “viewing [organic farming] – quite rightly – as a critique of the industrialized agriculture [that it] was promoting.” Recall about this time Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz was setting out to make corn king.

Still the hippies could read and at the top of their reading list was “The Soil and Health” and “An Agricultural Testament“ by the British agronomist Sir Albert Howard, who had spent his life working in India. “This last book may fairly be called the [organic] movement’s bible.” It was written in 1940 and is well ahead of its time. It is technical, devoting “many of its pages to the proper making of compost”, but it is also a philosophical work drawing a web of connection “from soil fertility to “the national health” into a “genuinely holistic concept”.

The concept promoted by Earl Butz et al was originally invented the century before by Baron Justus von Liebig in his Chemistry in Its Application to Agriculture. The good baron had found that fertilizing with just three chemical elements could radically increase crop yield. Those elements are Nitrogen (chemical symbol = N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K). Hence the NPK “designation printed on every bag of fertilizer”. To reduce the complexity of soil and its myriad of organisms to three elements is to stretch the term simplistic beyond any possible breaking point, and Howard would have none of it. “Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women.”

Justus von Liebig

Justus von Liebig

“An Agricultural Testament” was in part written as a critique of the efforts of “England’s agricultural ministry” to introduce NKP into that “green and pleasant land” and many “farmers [had] complained [that] their pastures and animals had become less robust as a result.” “The great humus controversy”, as it was called, actually reached the floor of the House of Lords in 1943, a year when one might have thought there were more pressing matters on the agenda.” “Needless to say, the great humus controversy… . was settled in favor of the NPK mentality” but not before Howard had fired the charge that “history will condemn [chemical fertilizer] as one of the greatest misfortunes to have befallen agriculture and mankind.”

“By the late seventies, Kahn had become a pretty good organic farmer and an even better businessman.” He reinvented the conventional agribusiness wheel. He found that there was more money in processed food than the raw stuff, and then, that it was cheaper to buy the raw stuff from others less evolved. As Kahn said to Pollan: “The whole notion of a “cooperative community” we started with gradually began to mimic the system… . I was bit by bit becoming more of this world, and there was a lot of pressure on the business to become more privatized.” And “that pressure became irresistible in 1990” following the Alar scare.

Alar is a growth-regulating chemical which “the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had declared a carcinogen”. It was the subject of “a somewhat overheated 60 minutes exposé on [the] apple growers” using it and as a result “Middle America suddenly discovered organic. Demand for organic food boomed.” Kahn duly “borrowed heavily to finance an ambitious expansion” only to “watch in horror as the bubble of demand subsided along with the headlines about Alar.”  Kahn had a simple stark choice of bankruptcy or selling “a majority stake in his company – to Welch’s – and the onetime hippie farmer set out on what he calls his “corporate adventure.”

Organic was shorn of the notions of distribution – via co-ops – and consumption – the counter cuisine – to become a niche product “which could be marketed through the existing channels.” So after a gritty slogging match, the USDA came out with its National Organic Standards, and despite people like Joan Dye Gussow wondering out loud “Can an Organic Twinkie Be Certified?”, “Big Organic won”. Cascadian Farm has become a General Mills brand selling “organic TV meals”. The packaging of organic milk “with its happy cows and verdant pastures” shows “a venerable ideal [has been] hollowed out, reduced to a sentimental conceit printed on the side of a milk carton: Supermarket Pastoral.”

EarthBound with Myra Goodman

Earthbound Farm Kale Italia by theimpulsivebuy

Earthbound Farm Kale Italia by theimpulsivebuy

“’Get over it,’ Gene Kahn would say” but Pollan preferred to go get a second opinion. He went to Myra Goodman, a cofounder of Earthbound Farms, “a company that arguably represents industrial organic farming at its best”, and met the “tanned, leggy, and loquacious forty-two-year-old, over lunch at the company’s roadside stand in the Carmel Valley.” Earthbound, “unlike Cascadian Farm, “is still very much in the farming business”. Myra and husband Drew started “a roadside organic farm” while “living near Carmel, killing time before heading to graduate school”. One day in 1986, they were told that their main customer for baby lettuce was letting them go, and they had a shot at selling their lettuce crop as bagged “prewashed salad mix”. “Produce managers greeted the novel product with skepticism” but agreed to their sale-or-return offer. When none of the product was returned, “the “spring mix” business” was born. The spring mix notion went on to dethrone iceberg lettuce “by introducing dozens of different salad mixes and innovating the way lettuces were grown, harvested, cleaned and packed.” Myra’s father, “an engineer and inveterate tinkerer” pitched in with the design for “gentle-cycle washing machines for lettuce.” Earthbound also “helped pioneer the packing of greens in specially formulated plastic bags pumped with inert gases to extend shelf life.”

Then in 1993, “Earthbound Farm’s growth exploded after Costco placed an order”. They needed help in learning how to run a business at this scale, so they partnered with two established conventional growers, “Mission Ranches in 1995 and then Tanimura & Antle in 1999.” Myra explained, “Costco wanted our prewashed spring mix, but [post the Alar episode] they didn’t want organic”, “but the Goodmans were committed to organic farming practices, so they decided to sell Costco their organically grown lettuce without calling it that.” Orders from “Wal-Mart, Lucy’s and Albertson’s soon followed.” They now have 25,000 organic acres” which they estimate has “eliminated some 270,000 pounds of pesticide and 8 million pounds of petrochemical fertilizer”. which is “a boon to both the environment and the people who work in those fields.”

Naturally, Pollan wanted to see the farm at work. He finds the fields are “a giant mosaic of giant color blocks: dark green, burgundy, pale green, blue green” which are divided into “a series of eighty-inch-wide raised beds”, “smooth and as flat as a table top”. “To control pests, every six or seven strips of lettuce [are] punctuated with a strip of flowers: sweet alyssum, which attracts the lacewings and syrphid flies that eat the aphids that can molest lettuces.” It is an industrial operation albeit with a “much higher level of precision – time as well as space are scrupulously managed on this farm”. The machines are supplemented with “crews of migrant workers, their heads wrapped in brightly colored clothes against the hot sun, [who] do a last pass through each block before the harvest, pulling weeds by hand.”

Pollan admits he “had never before spent quite so much time looking at and thinking about lettuce” and has to wonder whether a plastic carton of Earthbound spring mix in a Manhattan Whole Foods would accurately describe what “the first users of “organic” had in mind?”

Rosie’s home

Anchorage chickens by mazaletel

Anchorage chickens by mazaletel

His last port of call was Petaluma Poultry to “meet Rosie, the organic free-range chicken. “There’s little farmland left in Petaluma, which is now a prosperous San Francisco bedroom community”, just the Petaluma HQ “in an industrial park just off Route 101”. But he is taken to see Rosie.

He/she is a Cornish Cross which is “the most efficient converter of corn into breast meat ever designed”. This means the bird grows to “oven-roaster proportions in seven weeks” with the unfortunate side effect (for the birds) “that their poor legs cannot keep pace, and frequently fail.” Rosie lives in something like “a military barracks: a dozen long low-slung sheds with giant fans at either end.” Pollan has to don “a hooded white hazmat suit” to protect the antibiotic-free birds from Pollan’s bugs, and goes in to meet “twenty thousand birds [who move] away from [him] as one, like a ground-hugging white cloud, clucking softly. The air is warm and humid and smelled powerfully of ammonia”. After the birds had gotten used to the humans they went back to chickeny things, “sipping from waterers suspended from the ceiling, “nibbling organic food”, “everything much chickens do except step outside the little doors located at either end of the shed.” Those doors lead to “a grass yard, maybe fifteen yards wide,”  “running the entire length of each shed” which is “seldom … stepped upon” yet is scrupulously maintained” “to honor an ideal nobody wants to admit has by now become something of a joke, an empty pastoral conceit.”

Industrial Organic: the TV dinner and Rosie

 I don’t think that Pollan was anymore taken with Industrial Organic than simple Industrial, which means that the prospect of him enjoying its fare is rather poor.

First off, he tried a Cascadian Farm organic TV dinner. As he “peeled back the polyethylene film covering the dish, [he] felt a little like a flight attendant serving meals”; in some former life, perhaps. “The chunks of white meat had been striped nicely with grill marks” and the “natural chicken flavor” gave the meat “that slightly abstract chicken taste processed meat often has”. Pollan speculated that the creaminess of “creamy rosemary dill sauce” had more to do with “xanthan gum (or maybe the carrageenan?)”  “since no dairy products appeared among the ingredients.” Overall, “the entrée looked and tasted very much like airline food” and “to be fair, one shouldn’t compare an organic TV dinner to real food but to a conventional TV dinner, and by that standard (or at least [his] recollection of it) Cascadian Farm has nothing to be ashamed of, especially considering that an organic food scientist must work with only a tiny fraction of the synthetic preservatives, emulsifiers, and flavor agents available to his colleagues at Swanson or Kraft.”

However, “Rosie and her consort of fresh vegetables fared much better at dinner, if [he didn’t mind saying so [himself].” He did not like the asparagus grown in Argentina. His “jet-setting Argentine asparagus tasted like damp cardboard. After the first spear or two no one touched it”, perhaps because it was “out of place in a winter supper”. “The other vegetables and greens were much tastier – really good, in fact.” Pollan reckons “meat is a harder call. Rosie was a tasty bird, yet truth be told, not quite as tasty as Rocky, her bigger nonorganic brother. That’s because Rocky is an older chicken, and older chickens have more flavor”; so, a cautious one-thumbs-up for the Rosie dinner.

“Rocky and Rosie both tasted more like chicken than mass-market birds fed on a diet of antibiotics and animal by-products, which makes for mushier and blander meat. What’s in an animal’s feed naturally affects how it will taste, though whether that feed is organic or not probably makes no difference.”

“Better for What?”

So, Industrial Organic is better than plain Industrial, but “Better for What?” His “Whole Foods dinner certainly wasn’t cheap”. It cost $34 “to feed a family of three at home. Though [it] did make a second meal from the leftovers.” Is Industrial Organic healthier? According to the US government, no. In 2000, while “inaugurating the federal organic program, the secretary of agriculture, Glickman, said, “The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is “organic” a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” Pollan continues, “Some intriguing recent research suggests otherwise.” Research published in the Journal Agriculture and Food Chemistry in 2003 “found that organic and otherwise sustainable grown fruit and vegetables [contain] significantly higher levels of both vitamin C and a wide range of polyphenols.” Polyphenols “play an important role in human health and nutrition. Many are potent antioxidants; some play a role in preventing or fighting cancer; others exhibit antimicrobial properties.” Pollan does realize that science is a human enterprise and as prone to error as any other: “Obviously, there is much more to be learned about the relationship of soil to plants, animals, a health, and it would be a mistake to lean too heavily on any one study.”

Living creatures are the most complex entities we know of, so anyone “would be hard-pressed to prove [Industrial Organic food is healthier than regular Industrial] scientifically.”  Pollan’s bête noir, Justus von Liebig, he of “the spectacularly ironic surname” wrote that book way back in 1840, when most people still believe living things ran on vital fluid. The term biochemistry was not coined for another 60 years and figuring out the structure of macromolecules, such as hemoglobin or DNA only began in earnest after World War II. That we can understand what a polyphenol is due to the work of people like Liebig, let alone understanding any role that class of chemicals has in living things. The simplicity is all ours.

As Pollan illustrates information from government funded organizations is not necessarily reliable. “Back in the fifties, when the USDA routinely compared the nutritional qualities of produce from region to region, it found striking differences: carrots grown in the deep soils of Michigan, for example, commonly had more vitamins than carrots frown in the thin, sandy soils of Florida. Naturally this information discomfited the carrot growers of Florida, which probably explains why the USDA no longer conducts this sort of research.” It is deeply ironic (and another American Paradox) that it was not left to The Market to sort out issues such as where is the best place to grow carrots. Many things can grow in Florida which are much more difficult to grow in Michigan.

Pollan’s conclusion is that we should “develop a deeper respect for the complexity of food and soil, and perhaps, the links between the two” to get a clear understanding of health issues. I think Pollan would agree that it seems fairly self-evident more careful farming methods with fewer non-biological shortcuts should make for healthier food.

The better for what?

The better for what? question about my organic meal can answered in a much less selfish way: Is it better for the environment? Better for the farmer who grew it? Better for public health? For the taxpayer?” Pollan reckons that “the answer to all three questions is an (almost) unqualified yes. To grow the plants and animals that made up my meal, no pesticides found their way into any farmer’s bloodstream, no nitrogen runoff or growth hormones seeping into the watershed, no soils poisoned, no antibiotics were squandered, no subsidy checks were written.”

The trouble is that most people and therefore most consumers live in cities, “so only a fifth of the total energy used to feed us [organically] is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around. In that respect organic food contributes to our currently unsustainable world. There will come a time to pay the piper.

Omnivore’s Dilemma, Part 1: Children Of the Corn

Cow
Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the Philosopher of Foodies. He starts his book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, with a simple question “What should we have for dinner?”, and comes up with interesting food for thought. He has the temerity to do something that most people do their best to ignore, and something that the food industry, which he charts, dissects and skewers, does its best to encourage. He writes, “Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner”. Ignorance is bliss, you might say.

I think it would be fair to say Pollan’s point of view could be summarized by a quote from the hero of part two and three of the book, Joel Salatin: “Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?” (page: 240)

The plot of the Omnivore’s Dilemma (not a catchy title in my opinion) revolves around preparing four meals.

  • A McMeal which was gobbled up in a moving car. It was adequate. Pollan had his guilty Big Mac and fries. He could persuade his wife to take a salad, and his 11-year-old son had the McNuggets which “taste like what they are, which is nuggets, du-h”. We get introduced to George Naylor, Pioneer Hi-Breed’s 34H31, Earl “Rusty” Butz, and a brockle-face calf called Steer Number 534.
  • A Big Organic meal came care of Whole Foods, and consisted of roast “Rosie” chicken, roast veggies – “yellow potatoes, purple kale, and red winter squash, steamed asparagus, and a spring mix salad”; followed by organic ice cream and organic blackberries.
  • This is contrasted to the locatarian fare which was mainly from Polyface Farm located in rural Swoope, Virginia. The food was roasted corn, roast chicken again, and lemony rocket salad washed down with a peachy Viognier out of VA. The wine was an “unexpectedly fine wine”. Dessert was chocolate soufflé.
  • The stupendous final meal, its ingredients all handmade or plucked and killed by Prof. Pollan justifiably proud of his achievement wrote the dinner up in a Berkeley-style menu.
Pollan's Menu

Pollan’s Menu

Our omnivorous dilemma

Our omnivorous dilemma is AKA “What should we have for dinner?” We humans are omnivores capable of eating a surprisingly wide variety of food. This includes comestibles that some folk swear are delicious, healthy and nutritious, such as Japanese Natto, or Cantonese chicken feet or tripe from Morpeth, but to me are as appetizing as cold sick.

Koala Bear

Koala Bear

What to eat does not trouble animals with a more restricted diet, say a Koala Bear. “The koala doesn’t worry about what to eat: If it looks and smells and tastes like a eucalyptus leaf, it must be dinner.” For most people for most of history the choice of what to eat was limited to what there was, and during famines, what might keep body and soul together for another day. Even in the good times and the good places consumption was guided by custom and etiquette. It is not surprising that the cuisine of the great courtly cultures of the world – China, India, France, Turkey/Greece – features lots of little dishes drawing inspiration from the good wife cooking for her peasant family. For example Crêpe Suzette was invented by Henri Charpentier, He learned its crêpe and fruit elements from his foster mum. The alcohol was added by the Parisian restaurants of the Fin de siècle, the flame by chance, and the appreciation by the then Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII (1841-1910) of England, and guests. Or that was Henri’s story.

By stu_spivack (Preparing the crepes auf flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Crêpe Suzette by stu_spivack

Those times are still the daily reality of most people today, but large and growing proportion of us have moved on to modern life and modern eating. Instead of selecting available foods from a market and cooking them according to family recipes, we have advanced to the food aisles of the supermarket. And they are extraordinary. I wonder what a gifted Renaissance man like Erasmus would have made of the cornucopias we visit every week or so. There are “canyons of breakfast cereals and condiments”, “freezer cases with “home meal replacements” “, “broad expanses of soft drinks and towering cliffs of snacks”. I recall wandering around a Target in Denver being quite overwhelmed by the size of its food section and especially by the size of some of the packages. As most of the packages and brands were new to me, I had a problem deciding what to buy for my meal for one. I’m not alone in this. “Our bewilderment in the supermarket is no accident; the return of the omnivore’s dilemma has deep roots in the modern food industry …”

Supermarket

Supermarket

Pollan maintains that as we modernized we have been cut off from traditions which have been systematically tested over hundreds of years. Now we have a food industry instead. It may be shocking but the executives at Tyson, Walmart, and Whole Foods are mainly interested in running profitable businesses, and their next bonus; they are not necessarily the best folk to ensure our welfare. In theory that welfare is provided by a plethora of laws and agencies. Unfortunately, the science that underpins these laws and guidelines has only had a couple of hundred years to figure how to grow and maintain a human, compared to the thousands afforded to cultures. The Illiad tells us that the young blades at Nestor’s court at Pylos cooked kebabs in the hearth of the king’s throne room Moreover, as Big Tobacco showed us, science can be brought for a price.

Adrift from a distinct food culture, and our concerns multiplied by Madison Avenue and the latest research, we are prey to fads. So a book like the Atkins diet can radically alter eating habits by demonizing pasta and bread and replacing the food pyramid as people’s go-to reference, for a while. Meanwhile we are all getting fatter and dying unnecessarily from so-called diseases of affluence, while we read the labels and wonder “What is “natural grill flavor” or TBHQ or xanthan gum?”

Pollan recognizes this as a cultural problem, and writes: “We show our surprise at this by speaking of something called the “French paradox,” for how could a people who eat such demonstrably toxic substances as foie gras and triple crème cheese actually be slimmer and healthier than we are? Yet I wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to speak in terms of an American paradox—that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of being healthy.”

By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel

[It’s interesting that a worldly wise, well read, West Coast professor like Pollan should find the notion of an American Paradox odd. Does he think that paradoxical behavior is something that only other nations do? In America, I see paradox everywhere. It’s the only Western country where any old lunatic may arm himself – they are nearly always men – in order to shoot up a school, movie theatre, whatever. And there’s never a stout NRA member to return fire.]

Pollan’s answers his question by following the clues “that, I found, reach all the way back to fields of corn growing in places like Iowa.”

Why Corn (Maize)?

Pollan writes, “I invariably found myself in the same place: a farm field in the American Corn Belt.”, because “There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn.” including “things like Gatorade and Ring Dings and hamburgers …” and there is a good reason for this. Corn, after its seeds have been lovingly synthesized and protected from all manner of ills, produces more calories per square foot than pretty much any other food crop. This is due to its unique biochemistry, its “C-4 trick” as Pollan calls it.

There is no such plant as “natural” corn. Like nearly all our foods, humans have developed it from an unprepossessing original, in corn’s case a plant called Toesinte. Native Americans capitalized on variant plants in which a genetic mutation had wrapped the seeds in a tough husk. The tough husk prevents the corn from propagating naturally, but what would be a death sentence to a wild plant was a bonanza for humans. From then on, we unnaturally selected those characteristics which pleased us, up to and including “the biological equivalent of a patent”. It so happened that frequently the offspring of two varieties of a plant is bigger and better than either of its parents. In Genetics-speak, that cross strain or hybrid is called the F1. The children of the F1 hybrids, the F2 hybrids, are usually shadows of their parents so the farmer must buy his F1 seed from Monsanto or such. George Naylor, Pollan’s corn farmer, buys his, a brand called Pioneer Hi-Bred’s 34H31.

From somewhere in Idaho

Pollan met George Naylor in the middle of his corn field on a “slate-grey” day. Naylor “is a big man with a moon face and a scraggly grey beard” and was wearing “the farmer’s standard-issue baseball cap, a yellow chamois shirt and overalls – the stripy kind favored by railroad workers”. His Iowan field “has some of the richest soil in the world, a cake of alluvial loam nearly two feet thick” made by the “retreat of the Wisconsin glacier ten thousand years ago”, and is home to tall “prairie grasses – big bluestem, foxtail, needlegrass, and switchgrass”.

Corn Field

Corn Field

It is remarkably productive: an acre of the Naylor farm yields “more than ten thousand pounds of food”. The farm is part of a vast mono-culture of identical plants which runs skyline to skyline, a Manhattan of corn, devoid of people. The population of Green County, where the Naylor farm is, in its heyday was 16,467, now it’s a bit over ten thousand. The local town, Churdan, is a shuttered ghost town, just a café and minimart left, with the “windowless concrete skyscraper” of the grain elevator standing vigil at the far end.

The growth from the modest twenty bushels per acre eked out by the Native Americans and the pioneer farmers, got underway in 1947 when the munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama started to turn its surplus of ammonium nitrate into fertilizers instead of explosive. Hybrid corn just loves lots of nitrate fertilizer. The combination spawned corn farms running on oil. Pollan writes “every bushel of industrial requires the equivalent of … fifty gallons of oil per acre of corn”. “Ecologically this is a fabulously expensive way to produce food …”. The industrialized farm-factory has a side effect: nitrate fertilizer is washed from the fields down into the Raccoon River, which runs through Des Moines. River chemistry converts nitrate into toxic nitrite, which can find its way into tap water for humans. So, in Des Moines, the city has to issue “blue baby alerts”.

Yet despite all this technology and hard work, George Naylor “is all but going broke”. Why this should be “is complicated” and “has something to do with the perverse economics of agriculture …; a little to do with the psychology of farmers; and everything to do with farm policies …”, the last being the life’s work of Earl “Rusty” Butz, AKA “The Sage of Perdue”, Richard Nixon’s second secretary of agriculture. See the picture of Butz with Trickie Dickie, and a young Dick Chaney.

A sale of 30 million tons of grain to the Soviet Union “in the fall of 1972” compounded with “a spell of bad weather in the Farm Belt” forced grocery prices to a record high and an apparent food scarcity. Hunger It is never lost on politicos that the immediate cause of the French Revolution was hunger due to bad harvests, so when in 1973 ominous grumblings  started; “housewives were organizing protests at supermarkets” and newspapers asked “Why a Food Scare in a Land of Plenty?”, there was action.

Richard Nixon, Earl "Rusty" Butz, and Donald Rumsfeld

Richard Nixon, Earl “Rusty” Butz, and Donald Rumsfeld

So, the “Sage of Perdue set to work re-engineering the American food system, driving down prices and vastly increasing the output of American farmers.” “He exhorted farmers to plant their fields ‘fencerow to fencerow’ and advised them to ‘get big or get out’.” With the 1973 farm bill, he rejinked government subsidies from loans designed to keep farmers’ solvent into direct payments intended to increase production. And that farmers did, all too well. Over the years, government has found other things to spend money on, consequently “just about every farm bill since has lowered the target price in order [apparently] to make American grain more competitive on world markets.”  The result is that as of October 2005, corn was bought for $1.45 a bushel and the agriculturists at the University of Idaho reckon that that bushel costs $2.50 to produce, trapping the farmer into attempting to grow still more, ad infinitum.

A monument to this abundance, or a “plague of cheap corn” as George Naylor put it, was the “bright yellow pyramid the size of a circus tent” Pollan saw at the foot of the grain elevator in Farnhamville, Iowa, part of a “bumper crop” “represent[ing] what was left of the millions of bushels of corn that had overflowed the elevators [the previous] … October.” Pollan felt that “something [was] deeply amiss in the sight of so much food lying around on wet ground.”  Ricardo Salvador, a Latino agronomist and Prof. at Iowa State, took a similar line: “To be honest I felt revulsion. In Mexico, even today, you do not let corn lay on the ground; it is considered almost sacrilegious.”

But from the perspective of hardnosed commodity brokers, this hill is only so much “number 2 field corn”. This term was coined by the Chicago Board of Trade as part of a grading system introduced in 1856 to simplify commodity trading. It is almost inedible: you’ll have to soak the corn kernels in water for several hours to get something tasting like “lightly corn-flavored starch.”  But, then again, you’re not supposed to eat it; it flows into factories which turn it into ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, umpteen other things and meat. Pollan intended to follow this yellow river on its journey to the consumer so he contacted the chief processors of corn, Cargill and ADM, but they declined Pollan on “food security” grounds.

Mommy, what does C.A.F.O. mean?

Pollan left the Manhattan of corn and towering corn elevators which stand like a lone moorland menhirs to visit a cattle metropolis called Poky Feeders. The high plains of western Kansas are crisscrossed by “ramrod roads”, Kansas lay lines to the standing stones of Idaho. He speeds down one until “the empty dun-colored January prairie suddenly turns black and geometric, an urban grid of steel-fenced rectangles as far as the eye can see” which is coupled “an aroma more bus station men’s room than cows in the country”. Welcome to Poky Feeders. He had come to visit his steer, number 534.

By Derekbalsley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cattle Lot By Derekbalsle

534 had started his life in a birthing shed on the Blaire Ranch “a few miles outside Sturgis, South Dakota”. His mother was 9534, that would be the 34th cow born in 1995, and his father via “a fifteen-dollar mail order straw” was “Gar Precision 1680, a bull distinguished by the size and marbling of his offspring’s rib-eye steaks. If this strikes you as rather Brave New Worldish, you’re not alone; only we’ve not yet applied industrialization to human reproduction. His first six months were spent with his mother, on Blair Ranch’s “rolling short-grass prairie” with the option of “nibbling on a salad bar of mostly native grasses: western wheatgrass, little bluestem, buffalo grass, green needlegrass.”

“In October, two weeks before [Pollan] made his acquaintance, steer number 534 was weaned from his mother.” Then “he was rounded up and herded into a “backgrounding” pen with others of his cohort, to spend a couple of months learning to eat corn from a trough. It was in this pen that Pollan chose 534 because he “had a wide stout frame and was brockle-faced- he has three easy-to-spot white blazes.” “Ed Blair, the older of the two brothers, suggested only half in jest that [Pollan] go the whole hog and buy the animal” which “immediately struck [Pollan] as a promising idea.” Shortly after 534 was off to Poky Feeders.

The heart of Poky Feeders is the mill. It processes a million pounds of feed a day, which is corn rolled into flakes which weren’t “half bad; not as crisp as a Kellogg’s flake, but with a cornier flavor”, liquefied fat i.e. beef tallow, and “a sticky brown goop of molasses and urea, plus vitamins and a couple of antibiotics “- Rumensin and Tylosin.”

It all makes inexorable economic sense, even the cannibalism.“ “Fat is fat,” the feedlot manager shrugged when [Pollan] raised an eyebrow.”  Trouble is, apart from the yuck factor, the system is new in evolutionary terms which means things go wrong. The classic example is “Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, first brought to light in merry England where, once upon a time, bits of sheep were fed to cattle. A disease of sheep known as scrapie was passed to the cattle and then to humans. For a while British beef was banned in Europe and , there were fears that it could turn into an epidemic as the human version Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease was essentially untreatable. In a damage control exercise, the British public were treated to the spectacle of the nerdy Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer, feeding his four year old daughter with hamburgers at a Norfolk country fete. The furor has died down, for now, and is not a known problem at Poky Feeders.

The main problem that Poky’s three “hospitals” cope with is Bloat. A diet loaded with starch stalls the fermentation in the animal’s rumen which “inflates like a balloon” and may occlude his esophagus and suffocate him. The cattle can also get “a kind of bovine heartburn” which too can be lethal. This is why the animals are fed antibiotics. “Most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed”. As the current stocks of antibiotics are variations of a handful of compounds, it is only a matter of time before they are compromised by antibiotic resistant superbugs. According the staff veterinarian, Dr. Mel Metzin, all this is due to the simple fact that “they’re made to eat forage and we make them eat grain.” so the “cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days”, perhaps “as much as [the animals”] systems can tolerate.” Still Dr. Mel is upbeat: “Hell, if you gave them lots of grass and space, I wouldn’t have a job.”

Pollan found 534 in pen 63 which on first impression was “not a bad piece of real estate, all considered.” Then he figured out the pond which pen 63 overlooked was no pond at all but in CAFO speak “a manure lagoon”. (CAFO is the acronym for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.) Pollan had on “the same carrot-colored sweater” he had worn when they had first met in South Dakota and wondered if 534 would show a “glint of recognition?” Nope, “none whatsoever.” He looked well although his eyes were a little bloodshot, “irritated by feedlot dust” according to Dr. Mel. Indeed, Dr. Mel was impressed: ““That’s a handsome-looking beef you got there.” “[Pollan’s unspoken reply:] Shucks”

Rube Goldberg and Number 2 corn

Around 60% of “the 10 billion bushels of corn harvested each year” is used in CAFOs and the like. The rest – remember humans don’t eat kernels of number 2 field corn – is deconstructed in a wet mill. As ADM and Cargill, who do most of America’s wet milling, had declined to show him their plants in Decatur, Illinois and Iowa City respectively, he made do with a model mill at the Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State University. It is “a Rube Goldberg [Heath Robinson (GB Eng.)] contraption of stainless steel tubes, pipes, valves, vents, drying tables, centrifuges, filters and tanks” which as Larry Johnson, the Center’s director, describes it “is essentially an industrial version of digestion”. Pollan goes into some detail on how the processes work, but suffice to say it is ingenious, cost effective and mainly made from metal. The end product are things like High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) which is “the most valuable product refined from corn”. Then these products are reassembled into food items like Cocoa Pebbles breakfast cereal or Coca Cola, and a surprising range of other products, e.g. Windex, diapers, gypsum drywall, wax paper and fresh vegetables!

First Booze Then Fries

Unsurprisingly, the result of ingenuity and a prodigious amount of cash is what Pollan calls “A Republic of Fat”. The UN reckons that there are now a billion or so people with overnutrition – an interesting euphemism – which is more than the unfortunates with malnutrition, at around 800 million. So, there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone and it is probably technically possible to do it. Quite when we’ll get around to it is another matter.

The US takes the lead in the obese league with 60% of Americans who are overweight and 20% who are obese. It has not always been so. “Most researchers trace America’s rising rates of obesity to the 1970s.” which is coincidentally the era of Earl Butz. Maybe that’s no coincidence at all.

Pollan gets his label Republic of Fat from a book about America and alcohol entitled The Alcoholic Republic. Apparently, from the time of the Founding Fathers onwards, America was on a “collective bender” to the astonishment of European visitors. One wrote home, “Come on then, if you love toping. For here you may drink yourself blind at the price of sixpence.” Pollan reckons that the driving forces for both republics are the same things: too much corn and ingenious marketing.

At the top of the roll of honor for those marketers is David Wallerstein, who invented for McDonalds the “equivalent of a papal dispensation”: Supersize. McDonald’s empire has in recent times been losing market share which wasn’t helped by the film Super Size Me. This goes some way to showing that the Republic of Fat will not need a period like Prohibition to reform a clearly daft state of affairs.

A recent Freakonomics Radio podcast “You eat what you are”, which includes Pollan, suggests that reform is happening in the US, so soon back to slimmer Americans, with the rest of the world in tow with the end of world hunger thrown in. That would be nice. In the meanwhile, Pollan has updated the ancient Mayan self-description “the corn people” or corning walking”, “So that’s us: processed corn, walking”.

Texan Rodeo

A cowboy on a bucking horse

By Jiminie, I like, nay, love “Ro-de-o.” Perhaps an earlier pre-rodeo me might say, “Now I’m a confirmed fan of Rodeo”, but we’re in Texas at the Ro-de-o. Yeee Harr!

The arena is huge, at least the size of a football field, enclosed and dark. Nested in four beams of white light, a lone horseman on chestnut mount holds a great Stars and Stripes. The flag is taller than the man mounted on his horse. The Star Spangled Banner is playing and most of the audience is singing along, many with their right hand across their heart. This is followed by an impromptu yet personal prayer thanking the Lord for being American and most of all a Texan. This leaves you in no doubt that you are in the land of patriots and believers.

The Star Spangled Banner in the Rodeo Area

The Star Spangled Banner in the Rodeo Area

Now, down to business. There are gates at either end of the arena. The wild riders are carefully seated on their horses or bulls, locking hold of the harness with stout rope and rough leather gloves. The gate is flung open and the horse and rider launch into the void. The mustang jumps, arches and rolls; the rider balances like a tightrope walker with only his grip holding him to the horse. After ten seconds or so, which must be a deal longer for him, two compadres sidle up either side of the beast, one going for the mustang’s harness and the other offering a welcome shoulder and the rider swings on behind him. Their horses are magnificent; their professionalism and timing superb.

The acceleration, the exhilaration

The acceleration, the exhilaration

After a few horses, comes the next event: calf wrangling. These are not petite little pets. They are waist high on a man, and very much have a mind of their own. So as soon as they are released into the arena, they run hell for leather. The cowboy only has a moment to jump and catch him. They wrestle awhile until the weight of the man will turn the calf’s head and the animal tumbles over. One time, the animal was on his way down when he jinked and twisted out the wrangler’s grip and plumb got away.

Sheep Wranglers

Sheep Wranglers

Then it’s the turn of the little fellas. They are kitted out for contact sports and seem kind of small in this vast space with these big men, but they will be treated respectfully and kindly. The comperes wrangles the row of 4th and 5th graders into some kind of order. They are interviewed, “Say, what’s your name fella?” and shown their mount. Not for them a steer; one fall, one blow on the head and that would be goodnight little tyke. That eventuality would be followed by a sure and swift vengeance from the most formidable creature hereabouts – a Texan Mom.

They get up close and personal with an ornery sheep. The child is carefully mounted onto the animal gripping the fleece with all their eight year old might, the handlers retire and they’re off. As the sheep does do much in the bucking and kicking line, just runs, the might just has to hang on for dear life for five seconds or so, sometimes slipping over the animals head and frequent rolling down under the beast, belly side. Then comes the prize giving. The little man who got kicked in the head got a special big trophy. They might want him to come again.

The original Daisy Dukes

The original Daisy Dukes

Refreshments can be had from the hawkers who patrol the bleachers and then there is the industrial sized bar. There, there are the young Texans females. These bodacious teens wear Daisy Dukes and well tended boots, check shirts and pushup bras for showing off the begins of the best present their mother will ever give them. They are as prime an animal as any you will see in the arena below: Svelte and willowy with cumuli of sleek, glossy, lustrous hair; flawless skin the color of wheat toast and  generous, scintillating smiles.

The odd thing here is that there seem to be parallels to another sporting contest held on the other side of the Pacific; that would be Sumo. The rodeo arena and the sumo dohyō are both holy places made of earth, both have elaborate customs and ceremonies, and both are out and out contact sports for big men. As I’ve written before, I do not think killing animals just for sport is justifiable.

Sumo arena

Sumo arena

A day out the Ro-de-o just goes to show you don’t have to slaughter an animal just to have a good time.

Eddukashun: Wot problem?

Boy Square Root

[Note: This was written way back in 2014, when the idea of a President Trump was unheard of.]

Getting the goods is hard. We live in an age of a superabundance of data but almost no information. Most folk around the world think that the Russian involvement in the independence of the Crimea was – at the least – unsporting; not so according to Russia’s media, which means most Russians are content with the story that Russia has recently fought and won World War Three, liberating the oppressed peoples of the Crimea from the brutal oppression of the Ukrainian fascist stooges and their criminal bosses in Europe and the US. Meanwhile in the land of the free, an average evening program of world news might contain up to three items on events outside the USA, sometimes none.

Getting the goods is hard, so I like to cast my net broad, across different media, different countries, and different ages. One day, while working at Walmart, three of my sources came up with three stories relating to education.

Wired

Sergio Juárez Correa & Paloma Noyola Bueno [Wired]

Sergio Juárez Correa & Paloma Noyola Bueno [Wired]

The first source is the magazine Wired. Wired has had some the best journalism of the last 10 years, although it scaled down its efforts since the heady days of the Wired style manual. The piece is entitled “How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses”. The epicenter of the story is Matamoros, which is on the wrong side of the US-Mexican border. Life there is grim – you can imagine – but there are kids there and some go to José Urbina López Primary School, AKA un lugar de castigo (“a place of punishment”). If you think that would be a stupid place to start looking for a revolution in math education, then you would be dead wrong.

The dismal prospects for the inmates of the lugar de castigo were the starting point for Sergio Juárez Correa, a teacher at José Urbina López. He started to look for something more effective than the government’s curriculum, and in his searches, he discovered the work of Sugata Mitra, a pioneering educationalist, who had the daft idea that kids want to learn, and could teach themselves.

One day Juárez Correa went to his whiteboard and wrote “1 = 1.00.” Normally, at this point, he would start explaining the concept of fractions and decimals. Instead he just wrote “½ = ?” and “¼ = ?” “Think about that for a second,” he said, and walked out of the room.” He came back with 10 pesos (75 cents) and watched as one of the kids, Alma Delia Juárez Flores, explained to her class mates the concept of decimal fractions.

That was interesting. So, he persisted in his ridiculous pedagogy and tried an old teacher’s trick: he told the kids to add up the numbers from 1 to 100. Normal people will start to add 1 to 2 to 3 . . . but there is a short cut, if you can stand back and see the wood for the trees. 0 + 100 is 100, and so is 1 + 99, and so is 2 + 98, so the answer is 50 x 100 plus the 50 in the middle making a total of 5050. The kids were quiet for a moment until Paloma Noyola Bueno raised her hand and said, “The answer is 5,050. There are 50 pairs of 101.” Juárez had his aha moment.

History of math is not something that folks are big on, so may I explain why Juárez was so moved. This sum was set for another child in another country, over two hundred years ago; the child was Carl Friedrich Gauss. When he told the schoolmaster the answer, just like Paloma, Gauss’s teacher, rather than beat him for being a smart alec, told the Duke of Brunswick. The Duke duly sent Gauss to the best school around called Collegium Carolinum (now Braunschweig University of Technology) which was very smart of him. Gauss went to become Princeps mathematicorum (“the Prince of Mathematicians”). In baseball terms Gauss was Babe Ruth, and, like the Babe, he was a game changer. The next generation of mathematicians went on to explore radical new ideas about math. It is this math which underpins the physics and hence the technology of the twentieth century. It is no accident that one of the two of the schools of thought about Quantum Mechanics is the Göttingen school, named after Gauss’s home town. So, if it is possible to build a Warp Drive, it will be someone like Paloma who will be its creator.

Gauss on the 10 Mark Bank

Gauss on the 10 Mark Bank

Back in Matamoros in June 2012 a coordinator from the Ministry of Education arrived to give the kids one of those standardized tests so beloved by such people. It came and it went, except that this time Juárez Correa noticed the kids were distinctly unfazed, taking the test in their stride as just another trivial chore.

The real news had to wait until Sept 2012 when Ricardo Zavala Hernandez, assistant principal at José Urbina López, logged on the ENLACE, Mexico’s national achievement exam web site, to check the results of the June 2012 tests. On the whole things were predictably a little bit better than last year, except for Juárez Correa’s class. In the Spanish tests, all the students were well above average and Zavala Hernandez had the top mark in the state AND the country. Palomar came TOP in math in the country with ten of her class mates above the 99.99th percentile.

Juárez Correa obviously had something but nothing that Francisco Sánchez Salazar, the chief of the Regional Center of Educational Development in Matamoros, was interested in. He said, “The teaching method makes little difference,” . . . “Intelligence comes from necessity,” he says. “They succeed without having resources.” Nice job.

The US clones of Jefe Salazar at present are pushing something called Common Core. This Youtube video shows one student’s withering option of it.

From Our Own Correspondent

From Our Own Correspondent

The next source is I had “From Our Own Correspondent” a broadcast and podcast from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The BBC, or Auntie has she is affectionately known as, was created in a time of Empire, and still tries to apply British notions of truthfulness and fairness to its news reporting. Many people including the Dali Lama think it an excellent source of impartial, well presented information. The “From Our Own Correspondent” reports are topical, well sourced and have humanity. This story is from Sarah Toms in Singapore entitled “Mrs Wong and Mrs Lim Go Shopping”. Sarah’s daughter is at school there and is deluged with homework. She has been doing algebra since age eight. Not only does this challenge the kids, it challenges their parents. So much so that in Singapore there are Saturday morning classes for parents, to teach them the material in their children’s homework. Sarah went to one of these classes along with sixty or so concerned parents to do math, along the lines of “Mrs Lin bought twelve pears and ten apples . . . “

What are the chances, do you think, of seeing a class for parents in math in the UK or USA any time soon?

New York, New York

The last story that day was about the latest results from New York, New York. I can’t find the exact story but it was along the lines that only a fraction of high school students could get into community college. It doesn’t matter. There is no lack of dismal statistics about New York schools and American public schools in general. There is the dutiful wringing of hands and promises of a better tomorrow, again.

Walmart

To the mix, I should add that a friend who had become a Supervisor (Acting) at the store had been asked by another supervisor, one of the trusties, how do you spell “medicine”?

What does all this mean, if anything?

I am not sure which I reckon is a good start. Part of the problem is that there are too many people with simplistic solutions or poorly thought through opinions, e.g. I know I went to school you know. I think that what is missing are good questions and honesty.

Some questions we can ask and answer quite easily, e.g.

Boy Square Root

“Boy Square Root”

Q) Are there many people like Paloma in the world today?

A) A lot. Chelsea Mae made a video about a urchin call Gerald AKA “Boy Square Root” which was published by the Huffington Post.

It would be nice if these kids had their Duke of Brunswick to scoop them up and send them on to college and a glittering future.

Q) A more difficult question is why bother?

A) Governments and educationists, those in the education reform industry, would claim that the answer is obvious, and start droning on about technology. I think that at the least they are being disingenuous, in the wonderful phrase of a British Civil Servant, “economical with the truth”.

My second piece of evidence for such a point of view also comes from another Wired article, this one entitled ‘If Politicians Had to Debug Laws Like Software, They’d Fix the Bugs’ which begins:

In the spring, members of Congress set off to fly home for a holiday—and ran into mammoth lines at the airports. Why were things so bad? Because of airport furloughs caused by the “sequester.” The sequester, you may recall, is the ridiculous measure Congress passed when members couldn’t agree on a budget, and it mandates across-the-board cuts.

Critics warned that the sequester would cause hardship throughout the country, but congress-folk didn’t care — until they had to share in the pain.When they discovered that the sequester was eating into their vacation time, they rushed back to the Capitol and passed a law restoring funding to airports, working so fast that part of the bill was handwritten.

Congress, it turns out, isn’t paralyzed. It’s just not motivated correctly. In this spirit, there’s one simple way to get our do-nothing legislators off the dime: Have them eat their own dog food. Then maybe one day Captain Kirk will command his USS Enterprise “to boldly go where no one has been before”.

Seez You by Nate Beeler

Seez You by Nate Beeler @ http://www.cagle.com/author/nate-beeler/

 

 

Harry’s Big Day: The History Of A Dastardly Practical Joke

Fire

Harry wandered in, mumbled his announcement, and wandered whence he came. I heard myself mutter, “We just can’t leave it,” “No we can’t,” Hilary chimed in.

Technicon SMA 12/60

Technicon SMA 12/60

This is the story of my most dastardly practical joke, and I seriously doubt that I will better it (which doesn’t mean I will not try). Let me set the scene. It was in olden times, i.e. the 1980s, before the personal computer and well before mobile telephones. The nearest thing most people came to a computer was their electricity bill. Still, the march of Science had arrived in our little Clinical Chemistry Department of our little suburban hospital. We still had a few test tubes and Bunsen Burners. I recall performing an enzyme assay for Acid Phosphatase (a test for prostate cancer) using a rack of test tubes suspended in a water bath and I suppose the Radioimmune Assays for hormones – then the big thing – did use dozens of little plastic tubes, but on the whole the test tube thing and naked flames were on the way out; most of the work was done by machines.

Greg Saunders of CSI and his bank of wiz bang, internet enabled, Deep Minded gizmos were 20 years in the future. Instead a company called Technicon had cornered the hospital chemistry market with the notion of a bubble. In the most simplistic terms, a drop of blood serum was sipped from a little plastic cup held on a carousel and diluted with water, salts and detergent to become a sample. This sample was feed through clear plastic tubing where it was mixed with chemical solutions, and the resulting chemical reaction produced a color change, which was measured using a photocell. The bubble prevented one sample drop washing into the next.

The machines were magnificent, and their memory is sadly lacking on the Internet. The chemical solutions could be vibrant colors, such as a deep magenta for measurement of total carbon dioxide. The form of the machines was a network of transparent tubing, imbedded with handsome springy glass coils, oil heating baths, transparent acrylic blocks and finally blocky colorimeters. The biggest machine in the lab was a magnificent SMA2 whose great rack of tubing was back-lit, highlighting the flickering voyage of the bubbles, and the magenta and peach solutions. All in all, they were something I feel Willie Wonker would have been proud of.

The bulk of the analyzes and running these machines was done by the serfs like Hilary and me, who gloried in the name of Medical Laboratory Scientific Officer. Harry, however, was of the nobility, a doctor destined to become a consultant. On that glorious morning when Harry made his big announcement, Hilary and I were doing the second most popular set of tests, those used to assist in diagnosing Liver Function. We used blood serum but there were some test tube tests for liver function performed on urine. Harry’s announcement? He had asked for an opportunity to do a pee test for liver function.

He had asked because he was taking the big exam, the one which made him a Consultant. He had already passed the written portion of the final exam but unlike the exams you or I would take, after the written bit there was a practical bit. And the practical bit had teeth; if you failed it then you had to do the whole exam all over again. Just the kind of thing to catch Harry – a low riding, laid back, Hush Puppy driving individual – out.

Harry wanted to practice.Ho, ho, ho! Hillary and I would give it to him. This was an act of some temerity on our part. Doctors, as you undoubtedly know, are far more intelligent than non-doctors. Only they have opinions which have merit, on the human body and pretty well anything else. To publicly mock one in his natural habitat was not necessarily a hanging offence. This was not the Japan of Edo, but it was not the done thing; words would be said.

Technicon sample carousel

Technicon sample carousel

Once, when I was the on-call chemist working in the evening, the duty admitting surgeon sent down a sample for the standard tests for admitting a patient, a Urea and Electrolytes, done on the glorious SMA2. The patient had an ‘acute abdo’ as we say, a painful stomach. I suggested that I also did the test for the enzyme Amylase which screens for pancreatitis. This ailment causes nasty stomach pains but is much loved by surgeons because in patients with pancreatitis surgery is contraindicated, as they say. The immediate treatment is to tuck them up in a cozy bed with lots of morphine and fluids, and wait for the consultant round in the morning. However there are many other abdominal pains,  e.g. appendicitis, which do require surgery. After an hour or so, a groggy patient was in the receiving room of an operating suit and a  newly minted consulting surgeon, not the admitting surgeon, was reviewing his notes. The aforesaid was a Mr.: a fully certified surgeon will insist on the Mr. instead of Dr. to which he is perfectly entitled, to distinguish them from those mere purveyors of potions. The attachment to being a Mr. (or a Miss – I never met a Mrs. but undoubtedly they exist) is something which harks back to when the principle skill required of a surgeon was to remove a leg in less than 25 seconds and follow that up with a good shave. Mr. – I forget his name – called and wondered if I might do the Amylase after all. Alas I didn’t have enough blood so he sent me down some more. The test included a 20 minute incubation/cooking time, so for around half-an-hour the operating theater, surgeon, anesthetist and staff waited. I suspect that during this time a rather cross phone call went from operating room to Casualty; a fiery dressing down down the clearly defined totem pole. This is my theory anyway. From then on every patient Dr. P admitted that night also had this Amylase test requested. By the 7th patient, I was well past just complaining to my team of doctors. I was fuming and marched into the little office, to be confronted by one of the most beautiful women I have ever met –  Dr. P  and her  exquisite almond eyes. She apologized and I was allowed to say it was my pleasure, shucks.

Hilary and I laid our plans well. First, we concocted our urine sample, A.K.A. The Bait, with tap water, a splurge of blood serum for protein, a spatula of glucose, some aspirin (which Hilary swore would work “just like urobilin”) and a drop of bilirubin, the yellow pigment of jaundice, from an old brown glass stoppered bottle hidden away in the dark recesses of the chemicals store. I invented a patient who I called Eileen Whitling, The word “whitling” sounds like a family name and my thesaurus told me was from the Anglo Saxon for a lie. She had a test request card created for her which put her on Intensive Care unit (ICU) and gave her a diagnosis of ‘Acute Abdo’, i.e. her tummy hurt, a lot. much like Dr. P’s patient. The plausible back-story was that poor old Eileen had arrived in Casualty feeling very poorly and was clearly unwell; what of, no one knew, perhaps pancreatitis, so she had been sent to ICU to be carefully monitored, and meanwhile a bunch of tests had been ordered looking for clues. Now, it so happens that the first symptom of acute liver failure is bilirubin appearing in a patient’s urine so there were good clinical grounds to do the test. The fact that over the previous two years Harry had never had such a request didn’t seem to bother him. Nor did he notice that The Bait was the only test requested for Eileen. To make The Bait a little more convincing I put it in a high risk bag reserved for suspected Hepatitis patients. On the off chance that there really was an Eileen Whitling and she was on the ICU I called sister in charge of the ICU to tell her about the plot. Very, very unlikely but stranger things have happened.

Now the hardest part: waiting. I recall having The Bait in place dangling from a brass hook on the pigeonholes of the separating bench, the initial point where samples were received. A crack crew such as Hilary and I zapped through the day’s analyses, converting graphs drawn by the machines to numbers and writing up the report cards, well before 4 pm which was last call for the report cards to be glanced over by a medico or a biochemist and sent out to the wards, the GPs and the satellite hospitals. Harry had seen the treasure, carefully folded back the results sticker to read the fallacious patient detail and quietly burbled, replaced the prize on its hook and wandered off, again – he did do a lot of wandering off. The minutes ticked by. I found myself on several occasions wandering towards the separating bench to find a mildly expectant Harry hovering around awasting time. I found my face spreading into the broadest grin and had to turn away smartly and find cover. Folk started to accumulate around the general area of the separating bench. They made half-hearted, general conversation. They frequently glanced at (a) the clock and (b) The Bait .

At long last Harry came through, collected The Bait, inquired as to whether there were any more, was told no, and proceeded with as much aplomb as he could muster into the bowels of the lab to perform these most vital of tests. Hilary and I were invited to the hospital bar for a quick drink. She declined as she had to go home to make tea. How everyone knew I do not know to this day. Our preparations weren’t terribly subtle and someone with some knowledge could have figured out what was afoot. Hilary claimed she hadn’t told anyone. But there you are – the only person in the lab who didn’t know was Harry. Moreover, the noncommissioned management must have known fairly early in the afternoon and could have stopped the prank in an instant. Yet they just let it roll along. Seems that various people had a rather low opinion of our Harry.

So we sat in the bar supping tepid beer waiting for the shoe to drop. Christine – one of the seven Chrises in the lab at the time – arrived late to report that Dr. Harry was carefully performing the tests, carefully measuring the test ingredients, which was totally unnecessary in these qualitative tests. He had picked off the two easiest, those for protein and sugar, first. They proved to be splendidly positive. Then he did the bilirubin test which was also satisfactorily positive. Harry apparently started chortling. Poor Eileen may have succumbed to some dreadful autoimmune disease which was damaging not only her liver, but her kidneys and pancreas. This would need careful investigation. Christine described his enthusiasm as gruesome. Then Helen decided to up the ante and called him to make a totally specious request as anewly minted admitting clinician. This combined with rather lackluster performance of aspirin to imitate urobilin gave the game away. Harry’s wife who had patiently waited for him while he was doing the tests took the poor man away.

The next day a zephyr blew around. Helen caught the little ire that Harry felt but mostly he was disappointed to find that Eileen would not be needing him.

The Decay of the Art of Lying

Portrait of Mark Twain ca. 1905 owned by the Mark Twain Library in Redding CT, by Terry Ballard

by Professor S. Clements, Chair of Ozology, Agloe, NY

Essay, for discussion, read at a meeting of the Skull and Bones Club of Haarvaard, Boston, Mass., and offered for the three hundred thousand dollar prize, now first published.  [1]

Obviously, lying isn’t dying out. Even the most cursory check by the most careless nincompoop will find that the universal custom of lying is alive and well. As the Sage of Calaveras County reminded us, “…the Lie, as a Virtue, a Principle, is eternal; the Lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man’s best and surest friend, is immortal, and cannot perish from the earth ….” We are eternally indebted to the Sage’s profound insight and professional zeal.

Silvio Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi

Since Twain’s times, mankind has been the soul of diligence and industry, developing ever more excellent ways to doublespeak, distort, hype, misinform, mislead, mis-speak, sex-up, spin, overstate, understate, puff, rationalize and economize/stretch/twist the truth, The Sage would marvel at the burgeoning of the humble telegraph: acquiring a voice with the telephone, taking flight as radio waves, fusing Greek with Latin in order to draw in pictures, all to provide more and better ways to inform the general public about winning jackpots, the best car deals, and elixirs still not subject to FDA approval. He would gawp at the industry – which would humble the builders of The Pyramids – which has gifted the common man with the tools for truth adjustment, with its crowning achievement: Facebook.

So, given this sublime pinnacle of endeavor, what have I to complain about? What is so special about our current times? Why is there “a decay in the art of lying?” It is simply this: No educated person, no one well-traveled and familiar with the finer things in life could “contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted.” Our age is now described as one of “post-truth.” Apparently, truth has been optimized and upgraded to lo-cal truthiness. The fiction that most of the time most people, politicians and car salesmen included, tell the truth is finally exposed as a callow fiction. Could this be true? Is this like the Space Race, some moment, some small step which has been set in history never to be repeated?

The Libration of Paris

The Libration of Paris

Now the children are abed, we can all agree: not in the least. The Lie is a Necessity, an Understanding, a Facilitation, a recreation and is Eternal; application does not wither her, nor custom stale. Many examples worthy of superlatives have slipped passed into dusty forgetfulness and as for truthiness, this too shall pass. After all, previous ages have gifted us such great legacies of lying. Who can forget the creativity evinced by Indulgences of the medieval church, the peace accords made with Native Americans, the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, the benefits of the British Empire, or De Gaulle’s liberation of Paris? And what of the good Doctor Goebbels, and his breathtaking achievements?

Has the use of the euphemism, the fig leaf of propriety, fallen from fashion? We have more than enough to cover the embarrassment of members of all parties, persuasions, and proclivities: you may “hike the Appalachian Trail”, “discuss Uganda”, adopt a “wide stance”, have the “utilizzatore finale”, “watch badgers”, “slip your moorings”, and although one may not have “inhaled” nor “had sex” the public feels she certainly swallowed.

Bernie Madoff, By U.S. Department of Justice

Bernie Madoff, By U.S. Department of Justice

The fecund field of finance has always been a profitable venue for lying. In recent years, it has benefited from scientific advances in confabulation, theprinciple being an arcane, redundant vocabulary which includes a lot of numbers and now mathematical inscriptions. This gives any fiduciary pronouncement an aura of science and certainty. Who can forget the masterpieces of Enron, Madoff’s marvels, or the creative opportunities offered by mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations? Nothing says a job well done than a $134.1 million golden parachute.

Science, the objective search to understand the universe and everything within it, has had its fair share of shady hypotheses: the four humors, the Martian canals, the racial inferiority of anyone not male, white, and educated at a fine university like this. Now science is big governance and big business, there is all the more reason to bend the rules, trim the results, overestimate a success. The title of a paper by John Ioannidis is suggestive: “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”. The central tenant of the scientific method is that “the facts, ma’am,” can be shown to be true by someone other than the proposer. That is reproducibility. Two papers studying reproducibility in psychology show that between a third and two-thirds are – how does one say – unproven, ranging from not wholly true to pure invention. It is worse in pharmaceuticals. Of the 74 antidepressants licensed by the FDA only 37 have positive clinical trials. Most (60%) new drugs licensed by the FDA do not have published clinical trials, at all. This opens the door to a wonderful new variant on the “silent lie” so prized by the Sage. Isn’t a relief to know that a member of the legal profession will be on hand should you be maimed or die as a result?

Tonkin Gulf incident

Tonkin Gulf incident

On the other hand, maybe some small step for mankind in the progress of lying has been achieved. Once, the explosive sinking of a warship and well timed news reportage could justify a war. Then it required two ships. Lately, inflation has set in, so a warship plus an embassy just didn’t do. It required a spectacular demolition to move the people onto a warlike footing, and, even then, it required a little bunk and hokum about yellow cake uranium to get the show on the road. Once this was achieved though, the people were touchingly believing in the President’s insistence that Saddam Hussein was an architect of 9/11. Neither did it seem strange that the incumbent President’s dad and Shafig bin Laden, brother of Osman, were together in New York on 9/10/2001. Do you believe Americans will support President Trump in his war? Would the generals be happy should he walk away from a NATO commitment to defend say Lithuania? I feel that we can no longer feel confident that a crisis containing the nuclear option would put the country on a war footing again, although no doubt our friends in the Kremlin would help if it were to their advantage. There is always the possibly of things going awry or valuable human beings like us being hurt.

Then there is the thrice-accursed Internet. Once, the wide spread dissemination of corrected news was limited to those with means and education. Everybody was entitled to their opinions, and we told them so, knowing that those opinions mattered little without ownership of at least a television station. Then the hippies struck. These wretches with their libertarian ideology created the Internet. The old expedient of looking at the letters to the editor is long gone. Ignoramuses, trolls, luddites and people of sense play as equals on the fracking field of the World Wide Web. It is also full of sink holes and silos from whence who-knows-what may erupt. Anybody can publish confabulated news and swing elections (so they say), and we can only shudder that possibilities which a world stage might be used by iron souled truth mongers.

Lying also seems to be in trouble when it comes to the fiction of politeness. Cowboys, samurai and Scottish highlanders were extremely polite. This is unsurprising when multiple means of ready death were easily available and those who might take insult well practiced in the use of those aforesaid means. Ladies who take tea were also carefully polite because of an iron etiquette and long memories. As Twain himself writes, “Is it justifiable? Most certainly. It is beautiful, it is noble. …they had a thousand pleasant ways of lying, that grew out of gentle impulses, and were a credit to their intelligence and an honor to their hearts. Let the particulars go.” Men, too, were courteous to a point although “Their mere howdy-do was a lie” and more likely meant “I wish you were with the cannibals and it was dinner time.” We are now thrust into a time when no political speech is complete without bleepable cuss words. Stupidity and cupidity are considered badges of virtue, much as, once upon a time, a holy man needs be filthy and wracked with fleas. The possibility looms that a viral video will become more influential than a White House briefing. Or worse, profitable agreements made by our kind of people may have to be shared. I’m aware of the efforts being made to tame this unruly sprawl, but we should ask how an elite can maintain its coherence and authenticity?

We now see the costs of allowing the art of lying to descend to such a level. A cost not measured by the trifles which inspire the common people – loyalty, country, community, and so on – but the only thing that counts, hard cash. Unshackled from truth, lies belong to anyone, and authenticity becomes as illusory as a quiet night out at a musical. But not all is lost and no doubt you are all aware of the challenges of the next four years. Indeed, I feel as the Sage did all those years ago, “like an old maid trying to teach nursery matters to the mothers in Israel.”  I think it only fit to finish as Twain did is his masterpiece “On the Decay of the Art of Lying”, “Joking aside, I think there is much need of wise examination into what sorts of lies are best and wholesomest to be indulged, seeing we must all lie and do all lie, and what sorts it may be best to avoid, and this is a thing which I feel I can confidently put into the hands of this experienced Club,–a ripe body, who may be termed, in this regard, and without undue flattery, Old Masters.”

[1] Took this pin money.

Images

The Featured Image: Portrait of Mark Twain ca. 1905 owned by the Mark Twain Library in Redding CT, by Terry Ballard.

Silvio_Berlusconi_(2010), By Silvio_Berlusconi_(2010).jpg: www.la-moncloa.es derivative work: Off2riorob (Silvio_Berlusconi_(2010).jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The_Liberation_of_Paris%2C_25_-_26_August_1944_HU66477.jpg, See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

BernardMadoff.jpg, By U.S. Department of Justice [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tonkin_Gulf_incident_track_chart_of_alleged_attacks_on_4_August_1964, By U.S. Navy. Post-work Cobatfor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Albatross: Refuge from the Craziness

Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) by David Cook

My, we have had a crazy week, yet the world is not quite as mad as it was one hundred years ago. Here are a wonderful song and a wonderful poem both entitled Albatross to empower your copin’ and enhance your chillin’. Love, Robert.

 

 

The Featured Image is called Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) by David Cook in West Point Island, Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). You can find it on Flickr.

 

Belgium is boring?

Brugge - Bruges – Brujas by Javier Díaz Barrera
cone full o' fries with mayo, Amsterdam style

cone full o’ fries with mayo, Amsterdam style

Belgium is boring. Lots of people say so. True, it has big neighbors. To the south is France, home to Paris fashions and the Cannes film festival. To the east is Germany where they make some of the world’s best cars. But Belgium boring, I don’t think so, not for a minute. Why’s that you might say. Let me tell you then.

To my mind the most important reason is food. It was in Belgium that the humble potato became the ポテトフライ, the French fry or in English English, the chip. There it was perfected. May I recommend a trip to Antoine’s, the best chip shop in the world and choose a cone of frites topped with the traditional Belgian sauce, mayonnaise.

Then there’s chocolate. Belgium is famous for chocolate. There are over 30 chocolate makers is Belgium including Godiva, Neuhaus, Leonidas, My favorites are Wittamer and Marco Piccolini. Both of them have shops and cafés on Sablon square. And I used to drive through that square everyday!

Good belgian chocolates or pralines by Boris & Co

Good belgian chocolates or pralines by Boris & Co

There is a reason Belgian chocolate is so good. It’s because chocolate is fermented like beer. And it so happens that Belgians are brilliant beer brewers. They make light beers, dark syrupy beers, beers like lemonade, beers made from cherries, made from raspberries and even from bananas.

So, whenever I went to Brussels, which you know is the capital of Belgium, I would pop into the best bar in the world. It is called Le Greenwich and it’s very special. It’s a chess pub. There is always someone there who will give you a game. Sometimes people will crowd around a particularly good one. There are even Russian grand masters who play there.

No art then? There’s oodles of art. The Surrealist painter Magritte lived and worked in the working-class district of Anderlech in north of Brussels. It amuses me to think of this famous painter and his wife chatting with his neighbors. Anderlech, like many working-class areas, has a famous football team. It is also home to a strange sculpture called Atomium. Brussels also has a cartoon/manga museum, home to the Belgian hero Tin-tin and his rocket. It has an enormous book shop full of cartoon books from many different countries.

Magritte-Museum_Brussels_20080531_1 by I say, have a cup of tea

Magritte-Museum_Brussels by I say, have a cup of tea

But the real gems of Belgium are the beautiful Art Nouveau houses. My favorites surround the fountains of Place Ambiorix. This most elegant of styles is based on designs taken from living things. The best examples were designed by Victor Horta. This style was copied in buildings in lots of other countries, for example the Chrysler skyscraper in New York or the Paris Metro.

Brussels is home to several international organizations, the European Union and NATO. This is a little odd as the country is deeply divided between the northern part where they speak a kind of Dutch and the southern part where they speak French.

Tassel House stairway By Henry Townsend, Wikimedia Commons

Tassel House stairway By Henry Townsend, Wikimedia Commons

In the northern part are the beautiful old towns of Ghent and Bruges and Antwerp. Antwerp was the home of the famous painter Rubens. It is also the diamond capital of the world. Ninety eight percent of all the diamonds in the world are traded in Antwerp. It was also where the biggest bank robbery ever happened. The thieves, who had nicknames like the Monster and the King of Keys, stole a hundred billion euros worth of diamonds. Perhaps, the mastermind who is now in jail says it was an insurance scam.

I particularly love the southern part though. I’ve spent wonderful summer holidays there. My many friends and I lived in a wooden house in Walsort sur la Meuse for a few weeks. It is sweet and slightly sad memory.

Thank you for listening to me.

Featured Image: Brugge – Bruges – Brujas by  Javier Díaz Barrera

Welcome from America

High Five Interchange. Dallas, TX

Howdie, Y’all

I’ve finally made it to Texas and just before the 4th of July, too. The day was commemorated in a traditional manner: cold beer drunk while standing neck-deep in the pool; barbecue, steaks, potato salad, and more beer; fireworks put on by the city, downtown. The town in question is the capital of Texas, the state of six flags, home to Dell, live music Mecca, and host to SXSW, and is known to the world by the name of Austin.

Now, Texas is defined in the English mind by TV shows (Bonanza, Dallas), a green knoll overlooked by a book depository, and Presidents by the name of Johnson – the show off – and two by the name Bush – George and George Walker, but that is Texas not Austin. It might be fair to say that the Texas proper and Austin are barely on speaking terms. The Big Oil of Dallas and Houston might disparage Austin as a homespun hippydom , replete with Mexican supermarkets, numerous bookstores and a cool public swimming pool. Austin, however is growing like Topsy, which along with the right and/or requirement for every man and most women to own a seven liter truck whose name needs a deep gravelly voice to say right, means roads.

Roads in Austin have aliases: Loop 1 or Mopac Expressway, Ben White is also 71, Research Boulevard AKA 183, Ed Bluestein Boulevard and Anderson Lane. Out in the Hill Country there are still the dirt tracks of yore but hereabouts the main thoroughfares are full value 3rd generation concrete cadenzas, along one of which I am bowling to work, today. There are no roundabouts, so 1st generation. Turn left at the lights and on the freeway; immediately, the inside lane morphs into an exit only lane and a new lane segues in from the right. I mirror, signal and wait patiently to sidle over and zipper, aiming my little car with the side mirrors to miss the Ram trucks –its torque best in class, the 18 wheeler Mac trucks and all the other Jurassic vehicles.

Do this once more, and the morphed-into-exit-lane karooms up and over another aerial slipway, slaloms into another and dives into a six lane parking lot. Yup, I like Texas. Although there is a lot of lively folk here, just up the road there are just a few and the city lights give way to the wonder of the night sky.

Then “A Horse with No Name” by America starts playing over the radio. Another place, another time comes and says howdy. Listen to the video. No trickery or electronic gizmos, just guitar and voice, and just sublime.