Wednesday, February 28, 2007
New York Place Names and the Politics of Renaming
My friends Lenny Benardo and Jennifer Weiss on the politics of renaming in New York.
A FEW weeks ago, most Brooklyn residents would have pleaded ignorance about the person for whom Manhattan Beach’s Corbin Place is named. But with the recent airing of the distasteful history of the man Corbin Place memorializes, local politicians have been leading a charge to rename it. A public hearing on possibly renaming the street is scheduled for tomorrow [Februaru 26th].
But renaming is a bad idea. Street names function as a barometer of social values at a given time, and as such have historical significance that goes beyond a name. If anything, we should consider co-naming the street, a solution that has been adopted in Brooklyn and other parts of the city...
[T]he Corbin Place affair presents an opportunity to illustrate why renaming streets, no matter how odious the people involved, is not the answer. Whitewashing the past does not offer historical redress, it obscures history. Corbin’s ideas, while extreme, reflected the realities of the day when Jews were excluded and ostracized as a matter of course. It would be impossible, for example, for an Austin Corbin, no matter how significant his accomplishments, to get a street in his honor today.
Furthermore, changing Corbin Place could be the start of a slippery slope with respect to other streets bestowed on the less than meritorious. Among many of Brooklyn’s founding families who have streets named for them — the Bergens, Lefferts and Lotts — are prominent slaveholders (the Lotts, among Kings County’s largest slaveholders, are memorialized in an avenue, a place and a street). All told, Brooklyn’s streets appear to have more than 70 slaveholders represented. And Peter Stuyvesant, who apparently lends his name to Stuyvesant Avenue, was an anti-Semite of the first order. In 1654, Stuyvesant petitioned the Dutch West India Company to expel the first Jews who settled in New Amsterdam.
Ken Silverstein in Harper's Magazine:
Other countries, as former senior CIA official Michael Scheuer reminded me, do not look at the world from the same point of view as the United States. “The first duty of any intelligence agency,” he said, “is to protect the national interest. Pakistan is not going to destroy the Taliban because at some point they would like to see the Taliban back in power. They cannot tolerate a pro-Indian, pro-American, pro-Russian, pro-Iranian government in Afghanistan. They already have an unstable Western border and have to worry about a country of one million Hindus that has nuclear bombs.”
That point was echoed by a second retired CIA official, who asked to remain anonymous. “The United States,” he told me, “has never recognized the essential security concerns of Pakistan, which are on its eastern border. India can be in Islamabad in three days. We tell them India would never do that, but they have fought three wars against India. Pakistan cannot be put in a position where it might have to fight a war on two fronts, from India and Afghanistan.”
More here. [Thanks to Husain Naqvi.]
The Changing, er, Face of Dining
For a while I joked that Asad should do a review of the best strip club buffets in the city (prompted by all the buffet ads, especially in mid-town, not as a connoisseur of strip clubs) for 3QD. (The idea of that combination seems bizarre to me.) But The New York Times' Frank Bruni has taken the first step.
IT may be laughable when someone says he gets Penthouse magazine for the articles. It’s no joke when I say I went to the Penthouse Executive Club for the steaks.
Over the years I’d read reports that this pleasure palace, on a stretch of West 45th Street closer to the edge of Manhattan than most diners venture, peddled more than one kind of seductive flesh. And I felt obliged — honestly, I did — to check it out, knowing that great food often pops up where you least expect it.
You can find bliss in the soulless cradle of a strip mall. Why not the topless clutch of a strip club? And so, early this month, I gathered three friends for an initial trip (dare I call it a maiden voyage?) to the Penthouse club — or, more specifically, to the restaurant, Robert’s Steakhouse, nestled inside it.
We were strangers to such pulchritudinous territory, less susceptible to the scenery than other men might be, more aroused by the side dishes than the sideshow: underdressed, overexposed young women in the vestibule, by the coat check, at the top of the red-carpeted stairs up to the restaurant, on the stage that many of the restaurant’s tables overlook.
The Expansion of Private Property Rights
It may seen a bit policy wonky, but it's a historic step. The People's Republic debates the reform of property rights, in the Beijing Review.
Chinese philosopher Mencius, who lived over 2,200 years ago, once said, "People can have a long-term life plan only after knowing their private properties are secured."
This teaching deeply influenced China for more than 2,000 years, but after the People's Republic was founded in 1949, public ownership gradually played a dominant role.
Since China began to embrace the market economy in the early 1980s, private property rights and ownership have been increasing, but they remain an unfamiliar concept for many in the country.
Following a revision to China's Constitution to include private property rights protection, the country is now expected to adopt the Property Law this March. If passed at the annual session of China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), that law would define and regulate property rights across China for the first time.
A draft property law had its first reading in China's legislature in 2002 as part of a civil code. Since then it has been deliberated on for seven times. During those deliberations the full text of the draft law was also released to the general public to solicit opinion. At the 25th session of the 10th NPC Standing Committee held last December, lawmakers reached a consensus on the draft law.
Primo Levi on Weightlessness from Dante to NASA
In Granta, there is this beautiful peice.
From this persistent dream of weightlessness, my mind returns to a well-known rendition of the Geryon episode in the seventeenth canto of th Inferno. The 'wild beast', reconstructed by Dante from classical sources and also from word-of-mouth accounts of the medieval bestiaries, is imaginary and at the same time splendidly real. It eludes the burden of weight. Waiting for its two strange passengers, only one of whom is subject to the laws of gravity, the wild beast rests on the bank with its forelegs, but its deadly tail floats 'in the void' like the stern-end of a Zeppelin moored to its pylon. At first, Dante was frightened by the creature, but then that magical descent to Malebolge captured the attention of the poet-scientist, paradoxically absorbed in the naturalistic study of his fictional beast whose monstrous and symbolic form he describes with precision. The brief description of the journey on the back of the beast is singularly accurate, down to the details as confirmed by the pilots of modern hang-gliders: the silent, gliding flight, where the passenger's perception of speed is not informed by the rhythm or the noise of the wings but only by the sensation of the air which is 'on their face and from below'. Perhaps Dante, too, was reproducing here unconsciously the universal dream of weightless flight, to which psychoanalysts attribute problematical and immodest significance.
The ease with which man adapts to weightlessness is a fascinating mystery. Considering that for many people travel by sea or even by car can cause bouts of nausea, one can't help feeling perplexed. During month-long spells in space the astronauts complained only of passing discomforts, and doctors who examined them afterwards discovered a light decalcification of the bones and a transitory atrophy of the heart muscles: the same effects, in other words, produced by a period of confinement to bed. Yet nothing in our long history of evolution could have prepared us for a condition as unnatural as non-gravity.
Thus we have vast and unforeseen margins of safety: the visionary idea of humanity migrating from star to star on vessels with huge sails driven by stellar light might have limits, but not that of weightlessness: our poor body, so vulnerable to swords, to guns and to viruses, is space-proof.
Dennett v. Orr, Round V
Dennett asks me to identify some allegedly serious thinkers on religion. I named two in my review but am happy to name them again: William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I chose these two as both wrote after Darwin and had training in science or engineering; both were, then, presumably in a position to recognize the challenges posed to religion by science. One may or may not find convincing James's attempt to discern whether religion is possible in an age of science or Wittgenstein's interpretation of religious practice. Indeed I myself have reservations about their claims. But I find it shocking that someone writing at book-length on religion would fail to discuss, or even mention, their views or those of their intellectual equals. What, for instance, does Dawkins think of Wittgenstein's picture of religion? Does he reject Wittgenstein's idea that believers sometimes use language in a way that differs from (and is incommensurable with) how we normally use language? Would he even count Wittgensteinian-style religion as religion? And, if not, is it still child abuse? Is it evil? (For more on Dawkins and Wittgenstein, and from a bona fide philosopher, see Simon Blackburn's superb review of Dawkins's earlier book, A Devil's Chaplain (The New Republic, December 1, 2003).)
The bottom line is that Dawkins, by ducking serious thought on religion, made things far too easy for himself. One result is that the naïve reader of The God Delusion can walk away from the book wholly unaware that serious post-Darwinian thinkers have wondered if religion is really so simple as Dawkins pretends.
The man who might have been—and could still become—President
David Remnick in The New Yorker:
“Saturday Night Live” is erratic in middle age but rarely cruel. An exception came late last spring, when, at the stroke of eleven-thirty, an NBC announcer gravely told the American people to stand by for a “message from the President of the United States,” and Al Gore, surrounded by Oval Office knickknacks, came into focus to deliver what could best be described as an interim report from a parallel, and happier, galaxy. President Gore reviewed some of his actions and their unintended consequences:
In the last six years we have been able to stop global warming. No one could have predicted the negative results of this. Glaciers that once were melting are now on the attack. As you know, these renegade glaciers have already captured parts of upper Michigan and northern Maine. But I assure you: we will not let the glaciers win.
Nor was this the only problem. Although Social Security had been repaired, the cost had been high: the budget surplus was “down to a perilously low eleven trillion dollars.” The price of gas had dropped to nineteen cents a gallon, and the oil companies were hurting. (“I know that I am partly to blame by insisting that cars run on trash.”) After winning the plaudits of a grateful world—and turning Afghanistan into a premier “spring-break destination”—Americans could no longer risk travelling abroad, for fear of “getting hugged.” Even the national pastime was in danger. “But,” Gore added hopefully, “I have faith in baseball commissioner George W. Bush when he says, ‘We will find the steroid users if we have to tap every phone in America!’ ”
The cruelty here was not to Gore, who probably requires no prompting to brood now and then about what might have been, but to the audience. It is worse than painful to reflect on how much better off the United States and the world would be today if the outcome of the 2000 election had been permitted to correspond with the wishes of the electorate.
Digging up the Dead: uncovering the life and times of an extraordinary surgeon
Robert Douglas Fairhurst in New Statesman:
Few biographers come to the task as well qualified as Druin Burch, whose training as a doctor means that he is used to emerging from the dissecting room and "finding bits of fat and connective tissue later in the day, trodden onto the sole of my shoe or hitching a ride in the fold of my jeans". And few subjects are as well suited to this treatment as Astley Cooper (1768-1841), the charismatic surgeon whose skill, energy and talent for self-promotion helped to drag medicine into the modern age. Having trained at Guy's Hospital at a time when surgeons were little better than licensed butchers, Cooper's professional dedication to investigating how the human body worked, rather than how it was popularly supposed to work, produced a revolution in surgical techniques with aftershocks that continue to be felt. (His research into the anatomy of the breast is still being cited in the 21st century.)
As is often the case with ambitious men, Cooper's story is really two stories: one which traces his rise to worldly success and influence, and the other which traces the gradual decline of his youthful political idealism. In 1792, with a revolutionary glint in his eye, he made a pilgrimage to Paris, and was an appalled witness to the violence of the mob as they processed through the streets with bits of the bodies they had torn apart, like a grotesque parody of the enlightened surgical techniques he had gone there to learn. By 1820, having meekly submitted to his employers' demands for a public recantation (not altogether convincingly excused by Burch as "a pragmatic choice, a sensible one"), he had been so dazzled by the glamour of the court that he could describe the bloated and debauched George IV, seemingly without any irony, as "the Prince of grace and dignity".
It is an unappealing trajectory, and Burch doesn't gloss over the unpleasant aspects of Cooper's personality: the vanity that sometimes confused the "theatre" of surgery with a love of self-display; the clumsy sense of humour that led him once to ask his hairdresser to reach into a tub of hair powder which he had replaced with monkey entrails; the willingness to use body-snatchers in his quest for new anatomical specimens; and especially the obsession with dissection that seemed to go well beyond the needs of medical science.
Genes uncover dairy farming origins
Sara Wood and John Pickrell in Cosmos Magazine:
Though all people can digest milk in infanthood, most of the world's population lose that ability at between two and five years of age.
At this time their bodies stop producing an enzyme called lactase, which is essential for digestion of lactose sugars found in dairy products. Most Asians, sub-Saharan Africans, native Americans and Pacific Islanders remain lactose intolerant today.
However, a mutation in many European and some African populations allows them to produce lactase into adulthood, and in these cultures dairy products - such as milk cheese and yoghurt - traditionally form a key component of the diet.
A makeshift idea for the Olympics
Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times:
For decades, cities have seen Olympic bids as among the most effective ways to jump-start civic ambition. Barcelona used the run-up to the 1992 Summer Games as an occasion to reinvent its waterfront, among other expensive improvements. And Beijing is remaking itself at a breakneck pace as it gets ready for the Olympics next year.
But as Chicago and Los Angeles jockey for the right to hold the 2016 Summer Games, a different vision of what the Olympics mean for cities is emerging. It is decidedly modest. This pair of American cities, so different in so many ways, seem to agree that the best way to win the Olympics — and to pay for them — is to design a sort of pack-and-go games. Put aside any notions of an Olympics that might spur interest, here or in Chicago, in new subway lines or massive architectural icons. A central goal in both bids is to avoid the white elephants that have plagued Sydney and other host cities.
FALLING IN LOVE
MARVIN MINSKY, computer scientist at MIT, is a 1st Generation Artificial Intelligence Pioneer, and author of Society of Mind and the recently published The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind.
No one finds it surprising these days when we make machines that do logical things, because logic is based on clear, simple rules of the sorts that computers can easily use. But Love, by its nature, some people would say, cannot be explained in mechanical ways — nor could we ever make machines that possess any such human capacities as feelings, emotions, and consciousness.
What is Love, and how does it work? Is this something that we want to understand, or is it one of those subjects that we don't really want to know more about? Hear our friend charles attempt to describe his latest infatuation.
"I've just fallen in love with a wonderful person. I scarcely can think about anything else. My sweetheart is unbelievably perfect — of indescribable beauty, flawless character, and incredible intelligence. There is nothing i would not do for her."
On the surface such statements seem positive; they're all composed of superlatives. But note that there's something strange about this: most of those phrases of positive praise use syllables like "un," "less," and "in" — which show that they really are negative statements describing the person who's saying them!
— (I can't figure out what attracts me to her.)
Vesuvius erupts again ... in simulation
At least 300,000 Italians living near the Vesuvius volcano would be killed the next time it erupted if they were not evacuated beforehand, according to the first three-dimensional supercomputer simulation of the event. But in a surprise, up to 200,000 others living in the north-northwestern areas of the high-risk “Red Zone” could have more time to escape, thanks to the volcano’s towering Mount Somma rim, which acts as a natural barrier, scientists say.
“For the first time, we have seen that these flows could be substantially diverted,” Augusto Neri, of the National Geophysical and Vulcanology Institute in Pisa, who led the research, said Tuesday. “It seems that Mount Somma acts as an effective barrier. But this doesn’t mean that they’re safe.”
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Why has mankind always loved to draw animals?
David Attenborough in The Telegraph:
Animals were the first things that human beings drew. Not plants. Not landscapes. Not even themselves. But animals. Why? The earliest known drawings are some 30,000 years old. They survive in the depths of caves in western Europe. The fact that some people crawled for half a mile or more along underground passages through the blackness is evidence enough that the production of such pictures was an act of great importance to these artists.
But what was their purpose? Maybe drawing was an essential part of the ceremonials they believed were necessary to ensure success in hunting. Maybe the paintings were intended not to bring about the death of the creatures portrayed but, on the contrary, to ensure their continued fertility so that the people would have a permanent source of meat. We cannot tell. One thing, however, is certain. These drawings are amazingly assured, wonderfully accurate and often breathtakingly beautiful.
This practice of painting images of animals on walls has persisted throughout our history. Five thousand years ago, when men in Egypt began to build the world's first cities, they too inscribed images of animals on their walls.
The Last Time I Saw Paris
From the Bahia de Banderas News:
There were numerous refugees in Mexico City following the Spanish Civil War, and pre & post WWII. For the most part they were the intelligentsia fleeing war torn Europe, and ended up teaching at Mexico City College, the National University and the American High School. They represented an extraordinary wealth of experience which made, for me, an educational opportunity unmatched elsewhere at the time. (I attended MCC 1955-1959.)
Mme Germainé Dauchat taught French at Mexico City College during the 1940s and 50s. She was an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary story of survival under the Nazis during the Paris Occupation. I have transcribed her story "The Last Time I Saw Paris" from two 1947 issues of the Mexico City College "El Conquistador." -- Joseph M. Quinn
The Last Time I Saw Paris
When the war broke out in 1939 I was teaching Latin and German in a boys' high school in Pontoise, a small town on the Seine 60 kilometers northwest of Paris. Pontoise was a railroad center and had a military barracks, and thus German planes were bombing the area quite frequently.
Many Parisian parents sent their children to this small city, feeling they would be out of danger away from the metropolitan area, but it turned out that it was more dangerous for them in Pontoise than if they had remained in Paris. Fortunately there was a large cave near the school and this served as a convenient shelter during air raids.
Eventually we had more teachers in the school than students. The minister of the interior, Paul Reynaud (later premier), had issued a decree forbidding teachers to abandon their posts. Nevertheless parents withdrew their children one by one. I commuted every day from Paris until it was no longer possible to travel to Pontoise. How well I remember that last day!
It was June 11, 1940 and the Germans were only a few miles from Paris. My train was stopping every few minutes. The bridge over the Seine was barricaded and I found it necessary to get off the train and climb over the barricade. There was a terrible bombing going on, and the Germans were using incendiary bombs. I could see houses blowing up as though they were made of playing cards.
More here. [Thanks JMQ.]
Believers vs. Non-believers
Britain's new cultural divide is not between Christian and Muslim, Hindu and Jew. It is between those who have faith and those who do not. Stuart Jeffries reports on the vicious and uncompromising battle between believers and non-believers.
From The Guardian:
The American journalist HL Mencken once wrote: "We must accept the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." In Britain today, such wry tolerance is diminishing. Today, it's the religious on one side, and the secular on the other. Britain is dividing into intolerant camps who revel in expressing contempt for each other's most dearly held beliefs.
"We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism," says Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. "Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England. Most of them would regard each other as destined to fry in hell.
"You have a triangle with fundamentalist secularists in one corner, fundamentalist faith people in another, and then the intelligent, thinking liberals of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, baptism, methodism, other faiths - and, indeed, thinking atheists - in the other corner. " says Slee. Why does he think the other two groups are so vociferous? "When there was a cold war, we knew who the enemy was. Now it could be anybody. From this feeling of vulnerability comes hysteria."
"We live together but we don't know each other," says Tariq Ramadan, the Muslim scholar and senior research fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford.
More here. [Thanks to Dhiraj Nayyar.]
Hinduism and Virgin Comics
Virgin Comics, started by Richard Branson's Virgin, has been putting out a number of comics that are based on Hindu themes and that modernize Hindu epics. You can find a free pdf issue here. Devi (pictured) is on its 6th issue.
Walk In, which just debuted in December, may be the ultimate pastiche.
Hopefully, it won't all devolve into a Hindu variant of Left Behind. [H/t Linta Varghese]
Have you heard about outsourcing? This is a story about outsourcing. See, there's a planet out there called Terra and they outsource their prisoners to us here on Earth. We're their penal colony. But the prisoners don't know it. Nor do they know their crimes.
Ian Dormhouse is one of those prisoners. He doesn't know it. Until he meets a stripper in a past-its-prime burlesque club in Moscow. Oh--and there's the octopus on her shoulder. And there's the gangster who's dream Ian saw that he wasn't supposed to. (Because now he's posing as a dreamreader in the club to get close to the girl.) And there's the German rock band that plays mind-altering music--literally.
Banality of Evil, the French Version
Maurcie Papon, the Vichy bureaucrat whose trial for crime against humanity provides one of the few instances in which the French examined their part in the Holocaust, is dead. In the Economist:
That summer he also received other orders. He was to round up a “sufficient number” of Jews and send them to a staging camp at Drancy, in northern France. And he was to make such convoys regular. This meant ordering arrests, arranging police escorts and organising express trains that would not stop at stations. He managed it with his usual competence. Between 1942 and 1944 1,690 Jews were shipped out of Bordeaux, including 223 children. Most ended up in Auschwitz.
Had he known they would? No, he insisted later, nor did he have any inkling of the Nazis' broader plans. He had certain fears about Drancy. But people had to understand that he was not a free agent. There was a German imperium in force; Vichy was subject to it and he, after 1940, obedient to Vichy. With the coming of the Nazis numbers of civil servants had been sidelined or silenced, but he had a job to do, and “desertion was not in his ideology”. There was a duty to survive, to keep things running, to avoid gratuitous provocation that might make a bad case worse. In Bordeaux he resisted in his own way, he said: taking names off arrest-lists, tipping off families in advance, sheltering a rabbi in his house. Why, he even chartered the city trams to spare the very young or old the walk to the station, and booked passenger trains, not goods wagons, to make their journey comfortable.
These self-justifications came out at Mr Papon's trial, one of only two of French officials who collaborated with the Nazis in their crimes against humanity. Hundreds more might have been charged, including all those who worked for him. But once the Vichy leaders had been executed for treason after the Liberation, a different imperative prevailed: to keep France united, to avoid recriminations and to draw a veil over the past. In this new version of history all Frenchmen had resisted, including those who were now intent on quietly protecting each other. In his mind Mr Papon, too, had spent the Occupation fighting.
On the Consequences of Carter's Palestine
In The American Conservative, Philip Weiss looks at the political and cultural impact of Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace not Apartheid:
The conventional wisdom seemed to be that Carter had damaged himself [by writing the book], and badly.
But the fury has masked a quieter trend —nodding support for the president’s views across the country. The book still ranks sixth on the New York Times bestseller list three months after publication, and Carter has taken on a moral halo among progressives and realists, the shotgun marriage of the Bush years. Film director Jonathan Demme, who mainstreamed gay rights with “Philadelphia,” is making a documentary on the book tour. “NBC Nightly News” featured the former president breaking down in tears on a panel at the Carter Center when relating a story of praying to God to give him strength before he confronted Anwar Sadat at Camp David in 1978, when Carter forged an historic peace accord between Israel and Egypt.
“I think the attacks in some ways have made the book more effective,” says Michael Brown, a fellow at the Palestine Center. “It’s extraordinary, but when people oppose a book or a movie, and make a big fuss out of it, most Americans will say, ‘I want to know what this is about.’”
Some of the fury hides an old-fashioned power struggle. For the first time since the State of Israel was created in 1948, a prominent American politician has publicly taken up the cause of the Arabs, describing Israel’s practices as oppressive. Such voices are common in Europe and in Israel itself. But they are uncommon here, where staunchly Zionist voices routinely assert that Israeli and American interests are identical, a view uniformly reflected in our politics and policies. The Carter groundswell seems to represent a real political threat to that claim. A recent batch of letters to the Houston Chronicle ran three-to-one in Carter’s favor. “Can’t Israel defend itself without subjecting all Palestinians in the occupied territories to such shameful conditions?” one asked. “Nothing justifies treating an entire group of people as if they were second-class human beings.”
A Review of The Coast of Utopia
Alexander Herzen's My Past & Thoughts is probably my favorite autobiography. When friends of mine went to see Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia, I was a bit curious about its portrayals of Herzen (as well as of Bakunin and others). Eric Alterman reviews the play in The Nation:
The significance of the Lincoln Center Theater's production of Tom Stoppard's three-part, nearly eight-hour The Coast of Utopia lies in its status as a cultural rather than a literary event. As a dramatic work the play, which follows the lives of a series of Russian intellectuals and would-be revolutionaries across Europe between 1833 and 1866, suffers from all kinds of insoluble problems. For starters, even if you've done all your homework--including the extra credit--it's damn near impossible to remember who everybody is, what they thought and with whom they slept, and why it might matter seven hours (and possibly months) later. But as an occasion for serious political and philosophical argument in a culture bereft of both, Stoppard's magnum opus is cause for celebration.
Utopia resists simple summary. It begins in the years following the crushing of the Decembrist revolt of 1825, as Stoppard's young idealists muse about the backward nature of their nation and the beautiful future they would create if only they weren't saddled with institutions like the czar, serfdom, censorship and the Third Section, the KGB's pre-Revolution precursor. In doing so, they use and abuse the arguments of various German Romanticists, French proto-socialists and even the odd novelist. An enormous Ginger Cat, representing the dialectic of history passing from Hegel to Marx to Engels, has a walk-on, too.
Eventually, as the action moves from the splendor of the Bakunin family estate in Premukhino with its "500 souls" to Moscow to Paris to Rome to Nice to London and, finally, to Geneva, the arguments focus on the various disagreements between Michael Bakunin--known to most of us as one of the philosophical fathers of anarchism but who here spouts an extremely confused and romantic Hegelianism--and Alexander Herzen, who remains today the hero of Russian constitutional liberals and who ought to be a hero to liberals everywhere.
A few small companies and maverick university laboratories, including this one at U.C.L.A. run by Seth Putterman, a professor of physics, are pursuing quixotic solutions for future energy, trying to tap the power of the Sun — hot nuclear fusion — in devices that fit on a tabletop.
Dr. Putterman’s approach is to use sound waves, called sonofusion or bubble fusion, to expand and collapse tiny bubbles, generating ultrahot temperatures. At temperatures hot enough, atoms can literally fuse and release even more energy than when they split in nuclear fission, now used in nuclear power plants and weapons. Furthermore, fusion is clean in that it does not produce long-lived nuclear waste.
Dr. Putterman has not achieved fusion in his experiments. He and other scientists form a small but devoted cadre interested in turning small-scale desktop fusion into usable systems. Although success is far away, the principles seem sound.
The compensation of top American corporate executives has soared during the past 15 years. Measured in 2005 dollars, the average annual compensation of the CEOs of the large companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 almost tripled from 1992 to 2005, growing from $3.7 million to $10.5 million.
In this context, the opportunistic timing of executive stock-option grants, via backdating or otherwise, has attracted a great deal of news coverage, regulator attention, and public debate since the media first focused on it in the spring of 2006. The U.S. Senate’s banking and finance committees held hearings on the subject. More than 150 firms have thus far come under scrutiny, dozens of executives and directors have been forced to resign, and many companies have announced that they will have to revise their past financial statements.
But our understanding of option-grants manipulation remains incomplete. What circumstances and factors led to opportunistic timing of grants in some companies but not in others?
It Seems the Fertility Clock Ticks for Men, Too
When it comes to fertility and the prospect of having normal babies, it has always been assumed that men have no biological clock — that unlike women, they can have it all, at any age. But mounting evidence is raising questions about that assumption, suggesting that as men get older, they face an increased risk of fathering children with abnormalities. A number of studies suggest that male fertility may diminish with age.
It’s a touchy subject. “Advanced maternal age” is formally defined: women who are 35 or older when they deliver their baby may have “A.M.A.” stamped on their medical files to call attention to the higher risks they face. But the concept of “advanced paternal age” is murky. “If you look at males over 50 or 40, yes, there is a decline in the number of sperm being produced, and there may be a decline in the amount of testosterone,” Dr. Sokol said. But by and large, she added, “the sperm can still do their job.”
“The message to men is: ‘Wake up and smell the java,’ ” said Pamela Madsen, executive director of the American Fertility Association, a national education and advocacy group. “ ‘It’s not just about women anymore, it’s about you too.’ "
Monday, February 26, 2007
A Case of the Mondays: Religion and Welfare
In most countries secularism is positively correlated with support for welfare, but does welfare make people more secular? Anthony Gill of the University of Washington says yes; in 2004, he and grad student Erik Lundsgaarde published a paper arguing that welfare provides a substitute for church attendance, making people less likely to attend church.
The full theory goes as follows: in the 19th century, the power of Christian churches came from their ability to provide social services such as charity, education, and health care. As the state started providing the same services without requiring or expecting church attendance, it became less economic for people to attend church, and less economic for church leaders to focus on welfare activities.
This theory has a lot of holes in it, but the study has some empirical backing. There's a statistically significant relationship between a Christian country's welfare spending as a percentage of GDP and the percentage of people in it who report attending church weekly, even when controlling for such variables as education and whether the country is Catholic or not. The weakness of the study comes not from its lack of data, but from flaws in how the variables are defined, failure to look for alternative explanations, and problems with individual case studies.
First, the study doesn't explicitly say how welfare spending is measured. This is significant because it right off the bat fails to control for key factors. Most importantly, the most expensive part of the welfare state is social security, whose cost increases with the old age dependency ratio. But more religious states have higher population growth rates, leading to younger demographics and lower social security costs.
It's possible to get around that by looking at states that buck the trend and are both relatively religious and relatively old. The best case study here is Poland, which is simultaneously the most religious nation in Europe and one of the oldest. Additional examples include Spain, Portugal, and to some extent Italy. The only one of the four that appears in the scattergram plotting church attendance and welfare spending is Spain, which is considerably more religious than the regression line predicts.
In addition, even when one controls for old age pensions, not all governments spend welfare the same way. The USA prefers targeted tax breaks, making its welfare system appear stingier than it actually is. In addition, some benefits can be distributed either as welfare or as spending on health care and education, which the study doesn't account for. A good example in the US would be free lunches in schools, a welfare service that adds to the education budget.
Second, the omission of education spending is crucial. A church often thrives by having its own set of parochial schools. The standard British joke about catechism is that religious education only secularizes people, though the more common sensical effect is the opposite, namely that greater availability of parochial schools will make the population more religious. Education spending is correlated to welfare spending via the mediating variable of economic liberalism or socialism. As such, Gill and Lundsgaarde commit a grave sin of omission by overlooking it.
Likewise, a more direct political mediating variable could account for much of the correlation. In a followup paper, Gill notes that the correlation between welfare and religosity holds within US states, too. But within the US, both welfare and secularism fall under the rubric of liberal politics, contrasted with the welfare-busting and religiosity of conservative politics.
This in fact holds true in Europe and Latin America, which comprise all countries in the study but two, the US and Australia. Throughout Europe and Latin America, even more so than in the US, there is a strong tradition of anti-clerical liberalism. It's likely that all Gill's motivating example of Uruguay shows is that Uruguay has a long history of domination by the left-liberal Colorado Party.
Third, the main measure used for religiosity, reported church attendance, is deeply flawed. The USA's real church attendance rate is half its reported rate. The church attendance variable tracks not how many people attend church, but how many would like pollsters to believe that they attend church. This variable has some value, but is overall less important than data based on actual church attendance.
The other figure used, the percentage of people who declare themselves nonreligious, is flawed as well. There are two dimensions to religious affiliation - one's choice of religion, which tracks culture, and one's position along the religious-secular spectrum. More plural areas, especially those with strong connections between religion and culture, will have a lower percentage of people calling themselves nonreligious than less plural areas.
Fourth, many of the assertions in the study admit too many inexplicable case study exceptions. Ireland and the Philippines' unusually high levels of religiosity are attributable to the role the Catholic Church played in pro-independence and anti-Marcos politics respectively; I presume Poland could be similarly explained away, were it in the study. But other exceptions require seriously modifying the theory.
For example, the study would predict an increase in American church attendance rates after the welfare reforms of the 1990s. The American study only finds a slightly less significant correlation between welfare and religion in 1995; meanwhile, there was a measurable increase in church attendance in the two months following the 9/11 attacks.
For another example, the case study of Britain goes in almost the opposite direction as the one the study predicts. Britain hasn't had a serious welfare system since Thatcher's economic reforms. And yet, in the 1990s, religious belief crashed, and while children of secular parents always grew up to be secular, children of religious parents had only a 50% chance of growing up to be religious. Levels of belief crashed even among Muslims, who Britain forces a religious identity on in many respects.
And fifth, there are alternative explanations that the study should look at but doesn't. First, it's legitimate to ask why support for welfare correlates so nicely with secularism in Western politics. It could be an ideological accident that modern liberalism is secular and pro-welfare and modern conservatism is religious and anti-welfare; after all, in turn-of-the-18th-century Britain, it was the Tories who were more supportive of extensive Poor Laws and the Whigs who favored a libertarian economic policy.
Or, equally well, it could be the realpolitik version of what the study is trying to say: welfare is a substitute for religion. As such, religious organizations are likely to ally themselves with political groups that oppose welfare. It holds to some extent for modern conservatives, though by no means for all. In 1900, the US populists were both pro-religion and pro-welfare, and would only embrace prosperity theology in the 1960s and 70s.
A good way of gauging such political explanations is seeing if the same trends hold for non-Western countries. Muslim organizations provide the same welfare Christian ones do; in fact, one of the main power sources of Islamist movements is their strong performance in disaster relief. Of course, Islamism has an entirely different dynamic to it - its main promise isn't charity but change - but it's useful to examine this dynamic and see how it can apply to the West. How relevant is the promise to change the morally uncertain status quo to the rise of American Dominionism?
I should stress that except perhaps for the problematic definitions of the variables, this study is not shoddy. A data set comparing religiosity and welfare is always useful. The study's downfall is in using the data to confirm a theory that has no other evidence to it. Although the study seems to satisfy the falsification criterion in that Gill intended for it to highlight the failure of the theory, in fact it does not falsify the statement "welfare does not cause a decline in religiosity." All it does is superficially confirm the statement that welfare does in fact cause religiosity to fall.
Of the many different angles the study could take, the one about a direct effect of welfare on religiosity is one of the most obvious two, which is probably why Gill went with it. The other, that religious groups lobby against welfare, is more empirically plausible than the converse direction of causation, but does not fit well into Gill's theory. But more indirect links, for example with education or political liberalism as a mediating variable, look far more fruitful. The study's ultimate downfall is not so much that it is wrong as that it is woefully incomplete, concentrating on perhaps the least enlightening theory available.
perceptions: of context
Maslen & Mehra. Roe Deer - Docklands - London I. 2007.
Non-manipulated photography of sculpture.
Shrooming in Late Capitalism: The Way of the Truffle
On a winter’s night in Paris long ago, I ducked into the Grand Vefour – then a charmingly approachable temple of gastronomy, free of the rather strained merriment that signals too much money being spent – and, as one of seven guests of a rich man, sat down to a dinner that would leave me not as I was before.
To my right was Diarmuid C.-J., an elderly esthete of some renown living among dusty art objects a stone’s throw from the restaurant. He was well used to ordering without regard to the menu, and he did so this night. While others were calling for appetizers, a fish course and an entrée, Diarmuid commanded a dish of eight lightly sautéed whole fresh truffles. A little salt and pepper, a splash of cream whisked into the pan juices – that would suffice for his dinner.
But, what were truffles? Rare mushrooms, the man on my left quickly whispered to me. Rare, and black and growing underground. They were the cost equivalent, I later determined, of ordering five or six personal lobsters while others in your party struggled with choices less pricey and less pure. But cost was only part of the story.
Dinner began to arrive, the unexcitingly superb starter items of the era: delicate pike terrines, mussels steamed with shallots and Chablis. Who isn’t happy with such? But it all fell away when, in a footed, lidded Limoges dish, Diarmuid’s golf ball-sized truffles were borne to the table by a sly-looking servitor who uncovered them and swanned off. The others, including our imperturbable host, smiled faintly but intently, like Etruscans at bull games. They were in the know. Silently, I sniffed the truffle aroma, nothing if not a decisive fragrance, but I lacked the right referent. The grassiness of the cream -- cream had never smelled so grassy -- called up woods and moon and dew. The odor I might later describe as “earthy” and “musky” and many other things to do with cheese was then but deeply portentous. An agreeable fright overtook me: it was Pan, I understood – it was Pan! Beneath the cool weight of napery, my knees knocked slightly. I shot Diarmuid a meaning glance, all but nudged him as he plied his knife and fork, and opened my mouth to receive a truffle. For was I not still a baby bird, the whole world’s pleasure to feed me? The saurian flicker of his cold pale eye should have warned me to desist, but it did not.
And so, my first truffle. Tuber melanosporum, unearthed not a day earlier by a caveur who knew a secret place in the oak groves of Perigord, who had gone out after nightfall with his muzzled, truffle-ardent sow or his keenest bitch – for the female of the species is by far the better finder – and, kneeling where the unerring animal pressed its snout among the roots and panted and grunted and stamped, had angled his small trowel into the soil and sifted his way down to the prize. My prize. Oh, I could wish it had been fed me by an unbegrudging man, but that might only have crowded the sensation.
Not a sensation that I particularly had words for, either, looking back on the almost convent-bred purity of my food vocabulary that year. Best just to liken it to the entrance into the room, naked, of that person whom you know will make all the difference. Time passed -- I'm not sure how much -- and as I licked my lips and refocused on the table I saw that people -- all but one -- were smiling those faint, intent smiles not at the truffles but at me.
Having been admitted, in any case, to the 4,000 year-old company of those who know the truffle firsthand, I was hardly astonished when, a few years later, a Parisian banker, discovering that his cook had served his only truffle to two of her friends, made television news by shooting her. The investigating magistrate refused to bring the banker to trial for what was “obviously a crime of passion, completely understandable and completely forgivable.”
Yes, I understood. And if, wedged among his dusty curios, Diarmuid caught the news and untenderly remembered me, then I spared a thought for him too.
It Started with Desert Truffles in the Axial Age
The Pharaoh Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid, is the one of the first truffle eaters whom history names, although truffles were prized still earlier in the palaces of ancient Mesopotamia, where their remains have been found in special baskets. The Egyptians inventoried their edibles, making papyrus records of who ate them, but the Sumerians left recipes. The truffles beloved of Khufu and the Sumerians, well known both to the writers of the Mishna and the Hadiths, and greedily imported by the Greeks and Romans, are not the same as T. melanosporum, however, but desert truffles, of the Terfezia and Tirmania genera, comprising about 30 varieties. And, although they are in flavor terms if not in pedigree far humbler cousins, any consideration of the truffle must begin with them.
Terfezia taste nutty and delicate, with flesh that is white or creamy or even rosy in color, and they need cooking – either simmering in milk and honey or roasting in the embers of a fire. While T. melanosporum imparts unmistakable flavor to other foods, the mild Terfezia will take on the flavor of whatever it is cooked with. It can also be ground into flour for poultices, its cooking juices saved as a treatment for eye infections. In the Tirmidhi Hadith, No. 1127, Mohammed recommends the latter use. There is even an intriguing etymological case that the self-replenishing manna from heaven sustaining the Israelites in the Book of Genesis was in fact Tirmania nivea, the aristocrat of desert truffles.
Among nomadic peoples, folklore about the truffle abounds -- it is a highly nutritious “found food” for which relish, gratitude and even awe are well demonstrated. Singing to the truffles, Bedouin girls forage at dawn, when the first rays of light create telltale shadows on the still damp sand, and the truffles swell not far below the surface. Bedouins claim that truffles will grow where lightning strikes, appearing without seed or root, loosened from their beds by thunder. These beliefs go back thousands of years, at least as far back as Theophrastus, the favored pupil of Aristotle and father of taxonomy, who described truffles in the 3rd Century B.C.E. as “a natural phenomenon of great complexity, one of the strangest plants, without root, stem, fibre, branch, bud, leaf or flower.” Three hundred years later Pliny the Elder wrote that “among the most wonderful of all things is that anything can spring up and live without a root. These are called truffles.” The Babylonian Talmud, compiled in Iraq in the 5th Century C.E., records the rabbis concluding after discussion that truffles “emerge as they are in one night, wide and round like rounded cakes.”
In the desert as elsewhere, outlandish explanations for tuber growth have stubbornly attached to the truffle. But the necessary reciprocal relationship between truffle and host obtains in the desert as in the forest. Shrubs of the Helianthemum genus – relatives of the North American rock rose – can be a tip-off to desert truffle presence, for Terfezia and Helianthemum are symbionts. Filaments of the truffle penetrate the roots of the shrub, obtaining nourishment from it, in turn producing a substance that inhibits the growth of competing plants. In the absence of Helianthemum, the desert truffle can make do with other shrubs. It’s all a bit mysterious, as desert truffles grow in locations that are closely guarded secrets, and they utterly resist cultivation.
Usually no more than a few centimeters across but occasionally the size of a fist, desert truffles are found in the spring and sold in the souk, from North Africa to the Negev to easternmost Iraq. A good truffle year depends on adequate rainfall in the autumn – about 8 to 10 inches. In a middling year, desert truffles can cost about $100 a kilo, the price fluctuating wildly with supply.
In the past few years, European interest in whether desert truffles flourish has increased along with the size of Europe’s Middle Eastern population. Traditional European fanciers of T. melanosporum and its lordly white Italian counterpart, T. magnatum, are also looking to Africa and the Middle East for truffles, the supply of their most highly prized indigenous ones being egregiously threatened, down twentyfold from 100 years ago, rarer and pricier and more sought after with every passing season. A good time, in short, to take after the Romans and import Terfezia from Africa, thereby nabbing -- it is surely hoped -- some of that same old razzle-dazzle if not the peerless and shocking taste.
Food of the Devil, Fit Only for Saints and Popes
If one of the defining characteristics of Late Antiquity was its excessive devotion to banqueting, with the inclusion in banqueting protocol of emetics and special chambers – vomitoria – where diners would rid themselves of surfeit the better to take on still more surfeit, then with the Fall of Rome the elaborate truffle dishes of the era would go the way of the stewed cygnet’s tongues, leopard’s marrow cooked in goat’s milk, almond-fed geese, and conger eels fattened with live slave-meat fetishized by the later, briefer Roman emperors. The Middle Ages were dark indeed for the abused and maligned truffle, whether because, with the rise of Christian Europe the devil was presumed afoot in the kitchen as he never was in less sober times, or because food preparation to some end beyond sustenance – cuisine, that is — took centuries to regain sway after being made repulsive by decadence and impracticable by the breakdown of trade routes.
In these years, there occurred also a shift in the thinking about exactly what a truffle was, and where it came from. It was the devil’s own food, and it was black. Though occasionally it was white, tasting of honey and garlic, a Manichean reading of this difference would never obtain. Any way you sliced it in the Dark Ages, a truffle was a degenerate thing, and it came not from Africa but from secret pockets of Europe. T. melanosporum and T. magnatum had been found, and found to be potent aphrodisiacs, conferring unholy sexual prowess on their eaters. And so they were banned from kitchens – most kitchens, that is.
Ambrose, the famously ascetic 4th Century Bishop of Milan who became after death a saint, received a gift of truffles from the Bishop of Trevi. No one can say whether he ate them, but he certainly recorded his gratitude for them. Pope Gregory IV, who reigned in the mid-9th Century, let it be known that he positively needed truffles “to strengthen him in the battle against the Saracens.” Around this time there was philosophical speculation as to whether the truffle was truly a plant. Folk wisdom still held that it was a fusion of water, heat and lightning, but deeper thinkers asked whether it might not be some kind of animal. One of the salient mysteries enshrouding all love foods began to pertain to the truffle -- in particular, the question of how food that debauches the weak-willed and the sinful serves yet to fortify the strong-willed and the saintly, nourishing them towards victory in their fitting and strenuous tasks.
By the late 14th Century, however, the truffle had made a comeback from the demonic hypothesis. Petrarch dedicated a sweet sonnet to it, and its ungodly reputation burned off like ground fog in the clear light of more rational times.
Back with Bells On, This Time for Women
During the Renaissance, the absence of truffles from the tables of the mighty would have been an inadmissible embarrassment, and their chefs were under relentless pressure to present them with ingenuity and élan. The custom of the truffle tribute arose. In 1502, the nobles of the Marchigian region of Aquamagna made a gift of stupendous black truffles to Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI. The redoubtable Lucrezia, for whose golden tresses long curly pastas were named, was very well pleased indeed, and lost no time incorporating the truffles into her beauty routine – history does not say exactly how.
But it was Catherine de Medici who outdid all other comers in securing the hold of the truffle on the European imagination. The late-born daughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Catherine was the child bride of Henry II of France. Forsaking Florence for grim cold Paris could not have delighted the 13-year old royal girl, and she brought with her cooks, and forks, and artichokes, and truffles and high heels, thinking to subdue the gaucheries of the French. That would become the gayest achievement of Catherine, who for lack of love grew into a dour and grasping queen, not averse to poisoning her political rivals. By the time she died in 1589, however, the French court was used to the sight of ladies of high birth openly eating love foods such as artichokes and truffles. This was unexampled in the Florence of her distant youth, so full of gorgeous perks for men only. It is worth remembering that until Catherine de Medici became Queen of France, aphrodisiacs were the prerogative of men, at least officially. The truffle tribute received by Lucrezia Borgia would not have been intended for her to eat – as perhaps she did not – but to serve to male guests to good effect.
A century and a half later, things had become ever so much more relaxed. Madame de Pompadour chatted freely with her maid about amatory matters. Hoping to hold onto the affections of the king, Louis XV, she lived for days at a time on an aphrodisiac regime of vanilla and celery and truffles. “My dearest,” she confided to her maid, “the fact is I am very cold by nature. I thought I might warm myself up, if I went on a diet to heat the blood, and now I’m taking this elixir which does seem to be doing me good.”
Sipping at truffle juice, Pompadour had no call to give the king heirs; when, one evening, she and Louis XV sat down to a dinner of truffled ram’s testicles, they were unbothered by thoughts of the succession.
In the final years of the 18th Century and the beginning decades of the 19th, truffles were consumed whenever Europeans could afford them, and often when they could not, for it was becoming a la mode to ruin yourself by giving that final brilliant dinner that would occasion financial collapse. Trufflemania was upon the land, and a dish such as truffle-stuffed turkey, cunningly uniting the old world with the new, had become all the rage, suicides occurring for the sheer beau geste of serving it forth without means.
Praising the truffle as “the Mozart of mushrooms” Rossini tells how he wept to see a truffled turkey he was rowing to a picnic go overboard into the Seine, one of three times in his life the composer would admit to shedding tears. Nor was Byron immune to truffles, although he did not eat them but kept them on his writing table, stroking them, finding the aroma a stimulant to creative juices.
The opening years of the 19th Century were a time of vigorous inquiry into gastronomy per se – great minds considered it. It was widely observed that the marked superiority in intellect of Alexandre Dumas pere over Dumas fils should be attributed to the elder’s fine dining. Styling the truffle the “Sanctum Sanctorum of the table,” Dumas writes of an intimate after-theatre supper at the house of a certain Mlle. Georges, where the hostess “embodied every form of sensuality, and no mercy was shown to the truffle, for it was compelled to yield every sensation of which it was capable…” The exigencies of Mademoiselle’s truffle were described in full, and this was not called decadence but intelligence.
In the 1820’s, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin produced a speculative work on what his translator, M.F.K. Fisher, called “the problems of transcendental gastronomy.” The Physiology of Taste, published in 1828, came at just the time, Fisher tells us, that “Europe went mad over the art of dining.” In the spirit of the age, Brillat-Savarin was bold enough to comment on whether the truffle was actually a love food. Yes and no, he opined, for “while it is not a positive aphrodisiac it may in certain circumstances render women more willing and men more likable.” Moreover, he lets us know, even the mention of the word “awakens erotic and gourmand ideas in men and women alike.”
Hard science would soon enter the truffle picture to stay, in the person of Carlo Vittadini, the dyspeptic-looking Milanese physician with a purely scientific passion for underground mushrooms who in 1831 gave the world his Monographia Tuberacearum. This foundational work made possible all truffle classification in Europe, a boon to both mycology and gastronomy. The full name of T. melanosporum is T. melanosporum vittadini, and all the black but less wondrous truffles of Perigord, Burgundy, Provence and Umbria are named by and for him too. Too many truffles, then as now, are black without being T. melanosporum, and among white truffles only the ravishing T. magnatum vittadini, the truffle of Alba, sliced fresh and raw onto Italian dishes in the autumn, giving them an unmatched depth and wildness, is worth paying for. Vittadini identified more than 60 varieties of black and white truffles, and, while he had no cooking tips to pass on, one can only stand in awe of his sorting.
Truffle-Finders of Choice: Innocence, Animals and the Forest Floor
Naming and knowing are linked passions, always, and with taxonomy came increased interest in the actual cause of truffles, the objective conditions that gave rise to them. Not so easily studied, since the shrewd country people who made a living from gathering T. melanosporum had little incentive to demystify it. Slowly, however, it became scientific knowledge that T. melanosporum was not simply found in the roots of oak and certain other trees, but grew there, the fruiting body of a whole fungal colony that, unable to produce its own food, unites with the tree’s rootlets to develop symbiotic organs that feed on nutrients photo-synthesized in the tree canopy. Thus a gossamer web is sent out to take moisture and minerals from the earth and infuse the soil with antibiotics, protecting the trees from disease-causing organisms.
Animal interaction aids the process, diffusing the spores. Whether that animal is a squirrel, a pig or a human matters little as long as only mature truffles are dug up, their self-fertilizing traces dredged ultimately to some more distant tree, ensuring the spread of the colony. Immature truffles are like cheeses and melons that have been cut – they never ripen further. It is both a folktale and the probable literal truth that the first humans to dig for truffles were imitating the behavior of the almost gruesomely fertile wild boar whose natural habitat was the oak forest. Only, looking not just for food to eat but for food to sell, a human will dig deeper than a foraging boar, disturbing the next generation of truffles before they are ready to seed.
Dogs, too, can be made to dig too deep for that unready truffle. Unlike a pig, a dog has no necessary love of the tuber, only a keen nose and high trainability. Breed is unimportant, except that a heavy-pawed canine smashes the truffles as it digs. In a passion to obey, a delicate-footed bitch will deftly unearth a truffle and take for her reward a bit of cheese. Truffling with a sow, however, you must muzzle her, or, lashy eyes slitted with pleasure, she will hasten to reward herself. A seasoned caveur may prefer to forage with one or the other animal, each a trained creature of great value. When, in 1985, a hapless Frenchman was sentenced to forty years in prison for the theft of two truffling pigs, no one protested.
The ideal finder, though, belongs to folklore in the South of France, and now to history, for she is no longer on the job. This is a virgin girl, and to learn about the truffle-hunting virgins of old, we must turn to M.F.K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth. “People tell me that only virgins have the true nose for truffle-hunting,” Fisher says. “I know a man who once saw the last human truffle-hunter in all the Perigord country.” Fisher was writing in the 1930’s and the teller of the tale she quotes is reminiscing about his boyhood, so this locates the sighting in the final decade of the 19th Century.
“Yes,” Fisher’s source confides, “I have seen the last virgin woman truffle-hunter in all France…It was a secret hunt, and we had gathered secretly because the Church was opposed to women truffle-hunters.“ Without gallantry, the teller goes on to remark that the virgin was no longer young, but then, it was the last hunt, and she was the last virgin with “the true truffle-nose,” so the men made do with her. We are told how that nose quivered and turned red, how the virgin full of years ran “like a demented soul through the underbrush,” ran faster than she could be followed by men and boys, and came to a stop at a clearing around an old oak tree, there to point at the ground with her foot, “all the time trembling and sniffing like a sick dog.” Of course, truffles were found that day. The men and boys took them, and, sending the best off to Lyons, chopped up those that remained and cooked them into a kind of omelette for themselves. One quite sees how the up-and-coming virgins of Perigord began, in the Modern era, to seek other career options.
Modern Times for the Truffle
If there is a hurdle for entrance to the Modern era, it may be a twin hurdle: rating a mention in Proust, and getting analyzed if not on the couch then in the lab for serious sex-attractant potential. Triumphantly, the truffle cleared both hurdles.
Proustians the world over assemble every now and then for a replication of the famous dinner at Tante Leonie’s table they know from A la recherche du temps perdu. The glistening yellow and black pineapple and truffle salad is a challenge to the pocketbooks of latter-day Proustians, but they cannot have the dinner without it; inordinantly fond of truffles, Proust wouldn’t want them to. In May 1922 at the Majestic Hotel in Paris, Violet and Sydney Schiff, a rich English couple, gathered all the top Modernists – Stravinsky, Picasso, Joyce, and Proust – for a supper party meant to be a meeting of the minds. An exhausted Proust and a drunken Joyce are said to have managed mutually insulting claims not to have read one another’s works. Perhaps conciliatorily, perhaps in one-upmanship, Proust finally asked Joyce, “Do you like truffles?” The reputed answer was, “Yes, I do.”
Minding that one cannot prove a negative, modern science has for decades aimed to have its say about whether the truffle – or indeed, anything – is a love food. James Trapp, an Oregon State University researcher and perhaps the leading U.S. truffle expert, puts it to us that “the aphrodisiac effect of the truffle has never been objectively demonstrated.” That reputation is supported, however, by scientific findings that truffles contain the pheromone androstenol and its precursor, the steroid androstenone. Both are needed to create that musky odor, so tremendously arousing to sows. And there is fascinating evidence that the sex-attractant androstenol affects not only pigs but humans – “long pig,” as the Fiji Islanders once called their favorite dish – not by making women feel aroused, but by elevating their moods.
As usual, we are left to be sorted out by behavioral scientists, with all their talk of connotations. That truffles connote wealth, for instance, and that wealth is arousing. No argument there. That whatever is rare and hard to get is a big, big turn-on. This too holds water, does it not? But, if a rich person made you a truffle tribute such as Lucrezia Borgia received 500 years ago, and you understood that it was both pricey and rare, would any arousal you felt on nibbling at the tribute be necessarily specific to the giver? Perhaps it would all depend on just how much money was being spent.
So, just how much money is being spent?
We are asking at a very bad time, of course, for the September 2005 to March 2006 harvests of both T. melanosporum and T. magnatum were dismal in quantity. Low rainfall, a broiling summer – in short, changing patterns in the world climate – are disastrous to the traditional truffle locations in the South of France and the North of Italy.
Trufficulture, the cultivation of truffles on tidy plantations, now vastly amplifies the dwindling supply of wild-gathered truffles, but still, a year of few truffles across the boards can only have one result -- fewer high rollers getting their truffles this year than last, and paying more for them. A lot more.
The freshest information on price comes from a world traveler, David Downie, who treks enormous distances and writes wonderfully about it. He tells us that scarcity itself has driven wholesale prices of T. melanosporum to between $375 and $600 per pound, that variation depending on provenance. Picture how far a pound of hamburger goes in a dish that features meat, and try to encompass how much hamburger you’d have to work with if, desiring the good stuff, your butcher paid $600 per pound for whatever he then sold you.
More horribly still, T. magnatum, the white glory of Alba that grows exclusively in the wild, taking to basket willows as its black cousin does to oak, is such a vanishing item that, Downie winces to relate, it wholesales for $1750 to $2000 per pound.
Getting down to cases, you may expect to pay a trusted merchant $75 or so for a whole fresh T. melanosporum about the size of a medium Labrador retriever’s nose. Your own T. magnatum of like dimensions may cost $150.
Fitting these tubers into what you know about cooking is very close to unnecessary, isn’t it? But if you are willing and able to put down $75 to $150 for an edible thing the size of a medium dog’s nose, then I do have a couple of suggestions for you.
With T. melanosporum, keep it simple and make a tastou. Slice the fresh, raw truffle onto a long thin piece of lightly buttered country bread, sprinkle it with sea salt and with freshly ground pepper, and bake it in a very hot oven for two minutes. Don’t wait around – eat the thing.
No one in her right mind would “cook” a T. magnatum. Just a few tissue-thin medallions of the raw, fresh real thing, dealt one by a nifty slicer or a razor blade and a steady hand, are sufficient to enliven a pasta dressed with butter and salt and pepper far beyond one’s ability to forget it. Trust me.
A co-owner of The Four Seasons in New York, Julian Niccolini, takes a different approach. “Eat the truffle as you would an apple,” he counsels.
Whichever piece of advice you follow, a caveat is needed. Be very sure your truffle is indeed either T. melanosporum or T. magnatum, and never hand over money for any of the more than fifty European truffle species, black and white, that are neither thing, perfectly pleasant as some of them may be. ‘Pleasant’ is not a word that can ever denote a true truffle experience. Protect yourself from this vapidity: buy a fresh truffle in season -- fall for T. magnatum, fall and winter for T. melanosporum -- from a source you trust, or don’t buy it at all. It’s actually okay, if sad, not to buy one at all. Some authorities believe, however, that the time to buy truffles is now or – soon enough – never. For the worst threat to the noblest truffles may be, simply, the shape of things to come.
Battling the Truffle Anti-Christ
There is an interloper in the oak groves of Perigord, a highly competitive interloper that looks even to experts just like the real thing but tastes, appallingly, of nothing much. Enter T. brumale vittadini, the tuber that has shaken truffle world to its very foundations.
David Downie conducted an interview with Pierre-Jean Peybere, France’s leading dealer in fresh and conserved melanosporum. Peybere tells him how the brumale is the dreaded enemy of the melanosporum, an invader species up to 10,000 times hardier and superior in its ability to compete. “The ugly truth comes out in brushing,” Peybere says of the brumale, almost identical in outer appearance to melanosporum, but crisscrossed with thick white veins inside. The brumale tends to smell off-puttingly of alcohol, Downie finds, and to be flavorless. Yet it can handle the dry summers that are becoming the norm in Perigord. Peybere ruefully observes that in a business where reputation is everything, there are nonetheless unscrupulous retailers and restaurants passing off the brumale as melanosporum, with fewer members of each new generation of truffle-eaters to know the difference. A future in which this fungal Anti-Christ effectively knocks out melanosporum on the basis of looking enough like it for the deception to be successful is not hard for Peybere to envision. “It’s possible,” he says, “one day we’ll just run out of melanosporum.”
The white truffles of Alba, too, compete poorly with hardier species that invade their willow habitat and drive them out. Though the price is stratospheric and the demand higher than ever for the wild T. magnatum – no one yet knows why it resists cultivation – at some point, it may tip, and cease to be commercially viable at any price. If that happens, fewer and fewer people will know to object to the profitable, mild-tasting stand-ins that will be sliced onto their fondue in the fall. Things will simply have changed.
Sequencing the Truffle Genome
When folk wisdom and farming come up short, and venality is on the rise, a beleaguered blue-blood truffle’s best hope may lie with molecular biologists. Or perhaps not.
INRA, France’s national institute for agricultural research, confesses that little is understood about the interactions between competing fungi such as T. melanosporum and T. brumale. For this reason, INRA researchers set up a consortium with universities in Italy and Belgium in order to sequence and study the truffle genome. A strain of T. melanosporum from the INRA collection at Clermont-Ferrand was chosen for sequencing, which started in 2006 at Genoscope-Nationale Sequencing Centre at Evry.
Noting that while the morphology of spores does vary according to species, INRA admits not only the difficulty of telling T. brumale spores from those of T. melanosporum with a microscope, but the futility of employing a microscope to tell which species has produced truffle juice under analysis, as the juice of a truffle, like an immature truffle, contains no spores. To overcome that problem, and deal intelligently with rising truffle fraud, INRA developed a clever molecular test. The test is based on analyzing a fragment of ribosomal DNA, the sequencing of which makes it possible to determine the truffle species without ambiguity – in 48 hours and on all types of truffle-based products, both cooked and raw.
One can only hope that such sophisticated tools to detect and discourage truffle fraud will before long be applied to analyzing how a threatened species might regain its competitive edge without being genetically manipulated. Little could be clearer, however, than that the idea of T. melanosporum fashioned into Frankenfood the better to vanquish T. brumale may be just around the corner. If this happens, then the truffle and the Devil shall have truly been brought together for the very first time.
To Know Pan
Pan would shudder, yes he would. I’ve known him for a while now, and I’m sure of it.
That Paris evening of my girlhood, when a rich man’s guest could order up a storm of truffles for himself – eight fresh whole ones, sufficient, perhaps, to have one to give away – could never today be repeated in the public dining room of a great restaurant. If in some ill-conceived demonstration of freakish plutocracy it were, then a hush would befall not the table but the room, and not an admiring, anticipatory hush, either. For even in a temple of nimiety where almost everything costs too much and is too much – that’s part of the point, after all – there is such a thing as going too far in the presence of other revelers, and doing this would neatly cross that line.
How then -- if at all -- to eat the secret masterpiece of nature, to taste the taste that will wed you to everything wild and deep?
It is an act that has a moral dimension, for it might be said that in a time of monstrous contrasts on a global scale, you had money to burn and yet did not give it away. That instead, you went shrooming. Consumer culture cannot quite blind us to such considerations – not for lack of trying hard. But perhaps you have done good things for yourself, and not in such a way as to cause a thunderous silence in a large room? If so, I would urge you to think long before you decide that eating a truffle will never be one of them.