Category Archives: Modern Times

New House, New City, Nine Dots Prize, Global Challenges, and It’s That Man Again.

Solar Eclipse 2017 #4 by L3M35

I have been busy.

Recent events have included house moving and an un-winning of the Nine Dots Prize. Here in the USA, we’re all having a wonderful time care of Trump Enterprises and I suppose I should put in my pennyworth.

House moving

Every two years, we have moved. This time was from Daytona to St. Petersburg, Florida. This is a substantial improvement in the availability of culture and things to do. I will have to do without the Daytona Speedway, but I’ll manage.

Sunshine Skyway Bridge by Texx Smith

Sunshine Skyway Bridge by Texx Smith

A morning walk now has a view of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, AKA the Scary Bridge, with its steep shoulders. Apparently, dolphins and manatees make an appearance by the dock, and I am getting to know the wading birds and fish who sometimes leap into the air.

St. Pete has all kinds of activities born of a diverse bunch of humans. Yesterday, I took my aged laptop to the mending shop. The proprietor had a back to me, so all I could see was a woman of a certain age with shoulder-length blond hair. When he turned around to talk with me, a bubble of laughter escaped me. She had the face, hands, and voice of a man and boobs.

Nine Dots Prize

I did not win: this fellow did. Good luck to him. There is more at TheBookseller.com should you need more information.

James WilliamsOxford student wins inaugural $100k Nine Dots Prize
Published May 30, 2017 by Natasha Onwuemezi
James Williams, a doctoral candidate researching design ethics at Oxford University and former Google employee, has won the inaugural $100,000 (£77,730) Nine Dots Prize.

I sulked for a day or so.

Luckily, I already had a replacement prize, and it was easy to act on my motto “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again”. It helps that the prize is much better funded at $5million in prizes and $1m for the top prize. The competition is called The Global Challenges Prize 2017: A New Shape. and is sponsored by The Global Challenges Foundation, founded by another Hungarian billionaire László Szombatfalvy.

This new project dovetails nicely into the overall H++ project. It diverted me from working on the theory side. In the nutshell, quite clearly, climate change is real, and mankind’s preparations for the problems it will bring is truly underwhelming. The Information Revolution has cut the connection between those with the resources to do something about it, and have proofed themselves against anything that may affect them personally, and the rest of humanity. The 99.99% are also not equally exposed: 10-year-old Amina in Sudan has the fear violence, famine, and suffers a lack of education which might have increased her horizons and her chances. Clair, another 10-year-old living in her brownstone in New York, New York is cossetted by her parents, a wealthy, concerned city and Michael Bloomberg who as mayor made progress proofing the city against extreme weather after Hurricane Sandy. The trick will be to reconnect the masses with the vast power of modern civilization and fix this. Things might turn out surprisingly well.

Trump, Trump, Trump

KKK in Charlottesville

KKK in Charlottesville

From the H++ perspective, the tale of the 45th President of these United States is informative and highly amusing. The US Congress seems to be competing with the Romanian oligarchy to prove who is most venal. The Republican Congress attempted to disband its Ethics Committee because presumably, it had no ethical standards to maintain. The Romanians tried to abolish corruption as a crime; again, presumably, it would be then known as business as usual.

Meanwhile, President Trump is well on the way to starting the second American Civil War. Some 80% of Republican voters would vote for him again. The legacy of the first American Civil War has broken loose, to become the disparate groupings of the Alt-Right. Luckily, Charlottesville was in late August, so the old ally of Law-and-Order, the weather will chill the rioting for now.

 

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

Solar eclipse 2017 by Wolfgang Strickling

Solar eclipse 2017 by Wolfgang Strickling

On Monday, Nature mounted the spectacle of a total eclipse. Most people who saw it were impressed. Even the news media stopped for the 2 minutes it took to happen.

 

Rex W. Tillerson - Davos 2009 - by Michael Wuertenberg

Rex W. Tillerson – Davos 2009 – by Michael Wuertenberg

 

Now, Hurricane Harvey is bearing down on Texas. Galveston is toast. I wonder how many CEOs of the oil concerns in Houston are at home today. According to a recent study from Harvard, 80% of internal documents in Exxon confirm that global warming is real, and 80% of their advertising describes global warming as a remote, unproven hypothesis, taking a leaf or two from the advertising created by the Mad Men claiming that cigarettes were good for your health.

 

 

The upbeat ending

Steven Pinker, psychologist, writer, and intelligent human, wrote a nice piece last year. He advises us not to be cynical, and use it as an excuse for inactivity, nor naively optimistic, which will only end in tears. Be rationally optimistic and recall the words of the Mahatma:

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

 

Coming soon: Eulogy for Steve, Prediction Watch starts with AI et al, the Accordion and Zydeco, Will You Kindly Stand Up.

 

The Final Days of Jesus

The Holy Sepulchre By Berthold Werner

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

Temple Mount by Yupi666

Temple Mount by Yupi666

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

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

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

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

Madaba map by By Brandmeister

Madaba map by By Brandmeister

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

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

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

Golgotha Cross Section by Yupi666

Golgotha Cross Section by Yupi666

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

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

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

 

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

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

Read More →

Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Professor and the Wild Pig

The Bison at Altamira

Meal number four

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gun: tick.

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

Mushrooms: tick.

Divina Commedia

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

The Forger Virgil

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

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

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

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

Our omnivore’s dilemma

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

Wild Pig by Andrei

Wild Pig by Andrei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steakhouse Dialogues

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

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

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

Hunting Pigs

Autumn by Alois Wonaschuetz

Autumn by Alois Wonaschuetz

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

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

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

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

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

This experience is truly disconcerting.

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

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

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

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

Them pigs ain’t gonna hunt themselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Having introduced a loaded gun …“,

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

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

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

Undressing a Pig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The mushrooms stalk the Prof

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pig: Tick, Mushrooms: Next

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

Chanterelles by Charles de Mille-Isles

Chanterelles by Charles de Mille-Isles

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

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

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

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

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

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

How in the world had he spotted it?”

Morel Mushroom by Clayton Sieg

Morel Mushroom by Clayton Sieg

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

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

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

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

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

MUSHROOMS ARE MYSTERIOUS

Burned forest by Ethan Trewhitt

Burned forest by Ethan Trewhitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circles of Hell in Dante's Inferno Graphic by INFOGRAFIKA

Circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno Graphic by INFOGRAFIKA

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

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

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

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

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

The Perfect Meal

The Menu

The Menu

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

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

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

Good job, Professor Pollan, good job.

The Persuasive Power of Repetition 1

Glass Ball by Didgeman

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

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

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

The Congo, the venue for Heart of Darkness

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

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

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

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

Walrus and the Mutton Chops by andycox93

Walrus and the Mutton Chops by andycox93

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

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

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

So Repetition, then.

It is said:

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

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

Tetrahymena thermophila 80S ribosome model

Tetrahymena thermophila 80S ribosome model

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

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

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

We repeat:

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

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

Enceladus, Saturn’s Ice Moon

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

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

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

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

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

Repeating sounds without meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

AN ELEGY FOR CHARLIE HEBDO

Charlie Hebdo on Paris Match

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

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

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

The Golden Age

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

By José Luis Filpo Cabana

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

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

Palestine

Dome of the rock by By Rastaman3000

Dome of the rock, Jerusalem, by By Rastaman3000

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

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

The corner shop

Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO

Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO

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

Prophets and profits

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

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

War in the Gulf, part 1

Tout est Pardonne

Tout est Pardonne

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

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

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

Al-Qaeda

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

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

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

Back in the USA

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

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

President G. W. Bush

The fearless American Press

Steve Emerson - Terrorism Expert for Fox

Steve Emerson – Terrorism Expert for Fox

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

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

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

The Super Bowl

Jeep Ad at the Super Bowl 2015

Jeep Ad at the Super Bowl 2015

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

Response to the Jeep Ad

Response to the Jeep Ad

Multicultural Europe

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

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

Eighty virgins?

Nasr al-Ansi

Nasr al-Ansi

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

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

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

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

Cultural Differences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, the irony

Charlie and Houellebecq

Charlie and Houellebecq

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

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

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

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

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

Ominously, there is talk of another Jewish conspiracy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jewish Cemetery, Prague

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

Napoleon_III (Wikimedia Commons)

Napoleon_III (Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

Goremykin and Gerard by Repin

Goremykin and Gerard by Repin

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Sergius Nilus

Doctor Sergius Nilus

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

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

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

Freddy Krueger e Hellraiser by Anigate Cosplay

Freddy Krueger e Hellraiser by Anigate Cosplay

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

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

The Jewish committee produced a dozen!

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

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

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

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

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

Nikolaus II (Wikimedia Commons)

Nikolaus II (Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

Joseph Goebbels bei Empfang

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

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

 

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

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

 

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.