Thursday, April 30, 2009
Science, Society and The Merchants of Light
Over at The Science Network:
A conversation between Roger Bingham and Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, Brian Greene, Lawrence Krauss and Steven Pinker.
The Last Temptation of Risk
Barry Eichengreen in The National Interest:
THE GREAT Credit Crisis has cast into doubt much of what we thought we knew about economics. We thought that monetary policy had tamed the business cycle. We thought that because changes in central-bank policies had delivered low and stable inflation, the volatility of the pre-1985 years had been consigned to the dustbin of history; they had given way to the quaintly dubbed “Great Moderation.” We thought that financial institutions and markets had come to be self-regulating—that investors could be left largely if not wholly to their own devices. Above all we thought that we had learned how to prevent the kind of financial calamity that struck the world in 1929.
We now know that much of what we thought was true was not. The Great Moderation was an illusion. Monetary policies focusing on low inflation to the exclusion of other considerations (not least excesses in financial markets) can allow dangerous vulnerabilities to build up. Relying on institutional investors to self-regulate is the economic equivalent of letting children decide their own diets. As a result we are now in for an economic and financial downturn that will rival the Great Depression before it is over.
The question is how we could have been so misguided. One interpretation, understandably popular given our current plight, is that the basic economic theory informing the actions of central bankers and regulators was fatally flawed. The only course left is to throw it out and start over. But another view, considerably closer to the truth, is that the problem lay not so much with the poverty of the underlying theory as with selective reading of it—a selective reading shaped by the social milieu. That social milieu encouraged financial decision makers to cherry-pick the theories that supported excessive risk taking. It discouraged whistle-blowing, not just by risk-management officers in large financial institutions, but also by the economists whose scholarship provided intellectual justification for the financial institutions’ decisions. The consequence was that scholarship that warned of potential disaster was ignored. And the result was global economic calamity on a scale not seen for four generations.
A Profile of Andrew Sullivan
Over at the Economist's Intelligent Life:
Andrew Sullivan’s story is inherently implausible. How did an HIV-positive gay Catholic conservative from the poky English town of East Grinstead end up as one of the most powerful writers in America?
Today his blog, the Daily Dish, is regularly named as one of the most influential in America, and in November it reached 23m hits in the month. Politicians from Condoleezza Rice to Barack Obama himself have courted Sullivan in the hope of friendly posts. After he moved his blog to the website of the venerable Atlantic Monthly magazine, the traffic there rose by 30%.
This is all the stranger since—unlike other big-name bloggers such as the liberal-Democratic Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos or the libertarian Republican Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit—he has no obvious political constituency. Sullivan is regarded by his critics as an attention-deficit bundle of contradictions. He is a conservative Christian who rages against the self-proclaimed forces of conservative Christianity. He is a pioneering crusader for gay marriage savaged by the gay left as “chief faggot”, herding homosexuals on behalf of The Patriarchy. He admits: “I’m very uncomfortable with audiences who agree with me… I’ve never really had a place where someone didn’t dispute my right to be there.” So what is the glue that holds together the blogger-king?
In a series of long interviews, Sullivan—a friend of mine—talks me through his story.
Walter Isaacson on Einstein
A long, slow descent into hell
Romesh Gunesekera in The Guardian:
For 26 years the main story in Sri Lanka has changed little: bombs, bullets, carnage and suffering. LTTE suicide bombs on buses, at train stations, suicide trucks at the Temple of the Tooth, the Central Bank, the assassination of one president, the wounding of another, and government military campaigns with increasing firepower and increasing casualties, terrifying air strikes and massive bombardment. Sadly, there have been other spikes of horror in the country with tens of thousands of dead - the 2004 tsunami, floods, the 80s insurrection in the south, disappearances, abductions - but the war has gone on relentlessly, in one area of the north or another, with only short periods of truce in which the Tigers and the government each gathered strength for the next round.
In those 26 years the great map of the 20th century was transformed: the Berlin wall came crashing down, Germany was reunified, the Soviet Union disappeared, China became the factory of the world and India boomed. But in Sri Lanka, the story remained the same.
A country that was once an admirable model of democracy, leading the way in agrarian reform, quality of life indices, and health and education services, got stuck as the prototype for suicide bombers on the one hand, and the new benchmark for "shock and awe" tactics with unbridled military muscle on the other. I find it difficult to believe that it was allowed to happen.
The Humanitarian Disaster in Sri Lanka
Meenakshi Ganguly in openDemcracy:
Tens of thousands of terrified civilians are trapped in a dangerous conflict-zone. The military says that the remaining LTTE cadre - along with their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran - have effectively hidden themselves among the civilians in a government-declared "no-fire zone". As the military plans the final defeat of the LTTE in this twenty-six-year conflict, the fact that the army has repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled these zones means that fear for the safety of civilians has increased.
This terrible plight of civilians is hardly surprising.
The LTTE has itself long been responsible for horrific human-rights abuses. These include forcibly recruiting people to serve its cause; turning schoolchildren into combatants; using Claymore landmines and human-bombs; indiscriminate killings and outright murder. During the 2002-08 ceasefire, the LTTE continued to commit systematic human-rights abuses, not least in the territory it controlled.
Sri Lankan governments, in an effort to appease the majority Sinhalese population, have consistently failed to address Tamil grievances; this has helped the Tigers to build support among the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. But the present government of Mahinda Rajapakse is hoping that its current military campaign will finally mark an end of the LTTE. Since 2006, when both sides resumed major military operations, the conflict has killed and wounded thousands of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands, leaving many suffering from disease and hunger.
To ensure its success, the Sri Lankan government has chosen to silence dissident voices. Many of those demanding another approach or criticising government actions or policies are accused of being closet LTTE supporters or otherwise sympathetic to terrorists. Journalists and human-rights defenders wonder when they might fall prey to a bullet or be subjected to arbitrary detention. Many have fled the country. Meanwhile, all over Sri Lanka, Tamils are treated as suspects, often asked to report for profiling and identification.
How to Be Black at the Beach
From The Washington Post:
No one writes with more acrobatic imagination and good humor about the complexities of race in America than Colson Whitehead. In "The Intuitionist" and "John Henry Days," he evoked the nation's racial history as deftly as he created bizarre alternatives. And in his 2003 paean to his home town, "The Colossus of New York," he captured the choreography of a vibrant, multicultural city. Now he surprises us again with a charming autobiographical novel that comes honey-glazed with nostalgia. Detailing the life of a dorky teenager in a community that's peculiar but oddly familiar, "Sag Harbor" is a kind of black "Brighton Beach Memoirs," but it's spiced with the anxieties of being African American in a culture determined to dictate what that means.
Like Stephen Carter, Whitehead writes about an enclave of upper-middle-class blacks, in this case a contented but separate summer resort on Long Island. (Whenever the narrator mentions Sag Harbor to white people in New York, they say, "Oh, I didn't know black people went out there.") Straddling parts of East Hampton and Southampton, Sag Harbor is an ancient town by American standards, a whaling community that predates the Revolution (it's mentioned in "Moby-Dick"). But the 20-acre section that Whitehead celebrates was settled in the 1930s and '40s by blacks from Harlem, Brooklyn and parts of New Jersey, professional people who "had fought to make a good life for themselves, vanquished the primitives and barbarians out to kill them, keep them out, string them up, and they wanted all the spoils of their struggle. A place to go in the summer with their families. To make something new."
Handle With Care
From Proto Mag:
The word care, in a medical sense, implies the many things physicians do for patients, among them: ordering tests, writing prescriptions, performing surgery. Or perhaps used to do. Abraham Verghese, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, thinks doctors have distanced themselves from the word’s basic definition: to show empathy and compassion. “The patient in the bed is merely an icon for the real patient, who exists in the computer,” Verghese has lamented.
At the center of Verghese’s first work of fiction, Cutting for Stone (Knopf, February 2009), is compassion shown and withheld—between physicians and patients, and physicians and their families. In Addis Ababa in the 1950s, twins Marion and Shiva are born to Indian nun Sister Mary Joseph Praise and British surgeon Thomas Stone. When Praise dies giving birth, Stone abandons the twins, who are raised—and eagerly inducted into medical careers—by married doctors. Marion leaves Ethiopia to complete his residency in the Bronx. On a visit to a Boston teaching hospital, he sits in on a morbidity and mortality conference (an examination of cases gone wrong) and sets eyes on his father for the first time.
More here. (Note: Thanks to Sughra Raza)
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
The Dilemmas of Graduate Education
Mark Taylor's op-ed on graduate education in the NYT has generated a lot of discussion. One of the more critical responses has been from Marc Bousquet, author of How the University Works, in The Chronicle of Higher Ed:
Why golly, the problem with the university is that there aren’t enough teaching positions out there to employ all of our excess doctorates Mark C. Taylor says: “Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist).” Because there are just too many folks with Ph.D.‘s out there, “there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.”
Um, nope. Wrong. The New York Times loves this bad theory and has been pushing it for decades, but the reality is clear.
In fact, there are plenty of teaching positions to absorb all of the “excess doctorates” out there. At least 70 percent of the faculty are nontenurable. In many fields, most of the faculty don’t hold a Ph.D. and aren’t studying for one. By changing their hiring patterns over the course of a few years New York or California — either one — alone could absorb most of the “excess” doctorates in many fields.
Bousquet follows up in The Valve:
If you think I’ve been hard on Mark C. Taylor and the New York Times for their “hey! I went to graduate school, therefore” theories of higher education, you should consider that bad journalism and bad leadership have real consequences for people I care about, like Jamie Owen Daniel and the young fellow pictured below the fold.
In point of fact: I was rather tame by comparison to pretty much everyone else who actually knows anything about academic labor, especially the always-blistering Historiann and Jonathan Rees. Even the guy over at Savage Minds who wants to agree with Taylor admits, “this op-ed sucks.”
I answered most of the responses in the comments portion of the original post, such as where to find the data.
Among the excellent responses, I felt one deserved a post of its own. It went something like this: “well, if demand for education is rising, and tuition is soaring, where does the money go, if not to the faculty?”
For that, I promised to reprint this post from before I joined Brainstorm.
Mitchell Joachim is an architect and urban designer as well as a partner in Terreform, a New York—based organization for philanthropic architecture and ecological design. His design of a compact, stackable "city car," developed with the MIT Smart Cities Group, won the 2007 Time Magazine Best Invention of the Year.
Not Easy Being Greene: Graham Greene's Letters
Michelle Orange in The Nation:
"If anybody ever tries to write a biography of me," Graham Greene once mused, "how complicated they are going to find it and how misled they are going to be." It's a sentiment often held up by Greene's biographers as a kind of immunity medallion: his intractability appears to surpass that of even your average manic-depressive titan of twentieth-century literature, yet it is paradoxically essential to understanding his character.
Canadian scholar Richard Greene, who is no relation to the author, brandishes this medallion in the preface to Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, a new collection he has assembled from the tens of thousands of letters Greene wrote over his lifetime. A chief attraction of this volume is the access RG received to several recently discovered troves of letters, many written to Greene's family members, which were not available to previous biographers. Nevertheless, RG warns, "The sum of all these discoveries is to make Graham Greene a stranger to us again."
A stranger with no shortage of calling cards: devout Catholic, lifelong adulterer, pulpy hack, canonical novelist; self-destructive, meticulously disciplined, deliriously romantic, bitterly cynical; moral relativist, strict theologian, salon communist, closet monarchist; civilized to a stuffy fault and louche to drugged-out distraction, anti-imperialist crusader and postcolonial parasite, self-excoriating and self-aggrandizing, to name just a few. "But who are you, Mr. Greene?" Yvonne Cloetta, his last mistress, remembered Greene being asked throughout his career. "I am my books," he insisted, a problematic deflection for several reasons, the most obvious being that the Greene oeuvre and its secondary materials support any number of conclusions about who their creator was and what he believed.
Emmanuel Saez Awarded J.B. Clark Medal
Peter R. Orszag, Director of the OMB, on the award of the John Bates Clark medal to Emmanuel Saez:
Emmanuel is perhaps best known for his detailed examination of how wages at the top end of the U.S. income distribution have evolved over the past century. He and his co-author Thomas Piketty discovered that the overall pattern for the share of income accruing to those in the top 10 percent is U-shaped (see chart 1 below). Thus, the share going to the top 10 percent was around 45 percent from the mid-1920s to 1940, but then declined to approximately 33 percent during World War II. Emmanuel attributes this fall-off to the sharp reduction in capital incomes brought about by the war and the revenue increases needed to finance the war effort. After the war, the share of income accruing to the top 10 percent remained essentially flat until the late 1970s, when it began climbing dramatically, ultimately surpassing its pre-war highs. Indeed, in 2006, the top 10 percent earned 50 percent of national income, a higher share than even in 1928, the peak year of the "roaring twenties" stock market bubble.
Chart 1: Share of Total U.S. Income Accruing to the Top 10%, 1917-2006
Perhaps even more interesting than his findings about the evolution in earnings for the top 10% is what he found when he isolated data from just the top 1 percent of earners—namely, that virtually all the historical fluctuation in the share of income going to the top 10 percent was due to fluctuations in income within the top percentile alone (see chart 2 below).
Out of sight, out of mind, they say; but
what do they really know? –August O’Rielly
this evening the meadow seems the essential thing
and because of it
what we talk about this evening
includes stalks and streams and frogs
and insects and eggs and blackbirds
and lack of worries about work and contracts
rent contracts and other contracts
not far from us the children are walking
hand in hand with their grown-ups
it is a meadow
true, there’s a city on top of it
amis loved ballard
I first came across Ballard when I was a teenager. He was a friend of my father's, and my father championed his early work, calling him "the brightest star in postwar SF" (all purists call science fiction SF, and have nothing but contempt for "sci fi"). Ballard was a beautiful man, with a marvellously full, resonant face and hot eyes, and talked in the cadences of extreme sarcasm with very heavy stresses - he wasn't being sarcastic, merely expressive. The friendship between the two did not survive Ballard's increasing interest in experimentalism, which my father always characterised as "buggering about with the reader". But I was always delighted to see Jim later on. Funnily enough, he was an unusually lovable man, despite the extraordinary weirdness of his imagination. His imagination was formed by his wartime experience in Shanghai, where he was interned by the Japanese. He was 13 at the time and took to the life in the camp as he would "to a huge slum family". But it wasn't just the camp that formed him - it was the very low value attached to human life, something he saw throughout his childhood. He told me that he'd seen coolies beaten to death at a distance of five yards from where he was standing, and every morning as he was driven to school in an American limousine there were always fresh bodies lying in the street. Then came the Japanese. He said "people in the social democracies have no idea of the daily brutality of parts of the east. No they don't, actually. And it's as well that they don't."more from The Guardian here.
the cia sucks
Surely the most flabbergasting single disclosure in the recently released interrogation memos is the revelation that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, captured on March 1, 2003, was put to the water-board 183 times that month, or about six times a day. This can really only mean two things: that the method is very crude and inexact and/or that his interrogators were in a state of panic and under insane pressure to produce results. I have myself been water-boarded under controlled conditions, and it isn't possible to imagine undergoing it that number of times unless one was seeking martyrdom (which may well be the case with KSM, who is still demanding the death penalty from us). The memorandum rather silkily argues that "before the CIA used enhanced techniques," KSM was resisting "giving any answers to questions about future attacks," but if he was apprehended on March 1, 2003, and then "dunked" 183 times in the next 31 days, it suggests in the dry words of Scott Shane in the New York Times that "interrogators did not try a traditional, rapport-building approach for long." Here is a seldom-mentioned reason why the CIA might go crazy in this way, to the point where even the FBI and other agencies were cripplingly (for us) reluctant to cooperate with it. On 9/11, according to Bob Woodward, George Tenet audibly hoped that the suicide-murderers of al-Qaida were not connected to the shady-looking pupils at those flight schools in the Midwest. The schools, that is to say, about which the CIA knew! In other words, and not for the first time, the CIA (which disbelieved the evidence of Saddam's plan to attack Kuwait in 1990 and continually excused him as a "secularist") had left us defenseless and ignorant.more from Slate here.
The birds are back in woods behind my house. Wrens, nuthatches, tree-creepers; from first light their bright calls spill into my sleep. After a winter watching a monoculture of jackdaws floating over the lake like delicately made marionettes, the inhabitants of An Atlas of Breeding Birds in Cumbria have begun to spill into the peripheries of my poems. What is that draws poets to birds? And why have so many turned to them at critical points in their own writing? The collective nouns we all remember from childhood speak of language's innate fascination with all things avian: a murder of crows, a murmuration of starlings, a parliament of fowls. And it's no coincidence we afford them the most poetic collective nouns: right from the birth of literature birds have been present.more from The Guardian here.
Feminist friend or foe?
From The Guardian:
Friedrich Engels condemned prostitution but enjoyed it himself; called for equality but dismissed female suffrage. Tristram Hunt on a strangely enlightened sexist
"It is absolutely essential that you get out of boring Brussels for once and come to Paris, and I for my part have a great desire to go carousing with you," Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Marx in 1846. "If I had an income of 5000 francs I would do nothing but work and amuse myself with women until I went to pieces. If there were no Frenchwomen, life wouldn't be worth living. But so long as there are grisettes [prostitutes], well and good!" The life of Friedrich Engels, the mill-owning Marxist, was one of supreme self-contradiction - particularly when it came to feminism. He was a socialist who condemned the use of prostitutes as "the most tangible exploitation - one directly attacking the physical body - of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie", but then regularly enjoyed their services. He demanded female equality, but couldn't bear the company of high-minded women. Engels was the intellectual architect of socialist feminism, and an old-fashioned sexist.
Obama promises spending boost for science
President Barack Obama bolstered his lofty promises to US scientists on Monday, saying he would push through an historic increase in research and development funding. Obama pledged to raise the country's R&D budget to 3% of the national gross domestic product from today's nearly 2.7% — an increase of roughly $46 billion annually. The government currently picks up about one third of the tab. Assuming that trend continues, public funding would need to increase by about $15 billion annually, says Rick Weiss, a spokesman for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
"This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history," Obama said in a speech at the National Academy of Sciences' 146th annual meeting in Washington DC. John Marburger, science adviser to former President George W. Bush, called 3% of GDP a "healthy target" but said the trick will be getting industry on board. "The federal government can't do all of that by itself," he says. "Remember, two-thirds of that figure is coming from the private sector, and we're in the middle of a recession." Marburger says Obama made the right decision to propose permanently extending the research tax credit to give private companies a stable incentive to invest in research and development. Bush proposed the same thing as part of the American Competitiveness Initiative, which sought to boost funding for math, science and engineering, but it was never fully funded during Bush's tenure.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
dilettantes of the world, unite!
Knapton, who was in fact an extremely accomplished painter, created a rogues' gallery that includes milordi like John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich (the very one who first put meat between slices of bread to avoid wasting precious gambling time by sitting down to normal meals) in a Turkish turban, gazing lovingly, and not quite soberly, at a glass of wine (of course it is a beautifully blown Venetian glass). Sir Bourchier Wrey (the names of the Dilettanti are often as colorful as their outfits) dips into a porcelain punch bowl; the window behind him reveals that he, and implicitly we, are inside a ship's cabin on a vigorously bounding main. The ceramic vessel's rim bears the inscription "Dulce est Desipere in Loco"; "it is sweet to act like a fool in the appropriate place." The whole composition rolls and heaves along with the ship and its tipsy toastmaster; the texture of paint evokes hot flesh, supple fabric, cool china, ripe fruit, the wine-dark sea, and a sea of golden wine. The Dilettanti not only acted like fools in the appropriate places; they could also be downright blasphemous, especially with regard to the Catholicism they had encountered in Italy. Knapton painted Sir Francis Dashwood, Lord LeDespencer, decked out as a Franciscan friar, tonsure and all, lofting a gilt chalice inscribed "MATRI SANCTORUM" (to the mother of the saints), but Dashwood's wide eyes are fixed on what he might have called the "charms" of a classical Venus, whose hand, which should have been poised to shield her celestial nudity, has conveniently broken off.more from the NYRB here.
WHAT IS IT like to be a baby? For centuries, this question would have seemed absurd: behind that adorable facade was a mostly empty head. A baby, after all, is missing most of the capabilities that define the human mind, such as language and the ability to reason. Rene Descartes argued that the young child was entirely bound by sensation, hopelessly trapped in the confusing rush of the here and now. A newborn, in this sense, is just a lump of need, a bundle of reflexes that can only eat and cry. To think like a baby is to not think at all. Modern science has largely agreed, spending decades outlining all the things that babies couldn't do because their brains had yet to develop. They were unable to focus, delay gratification, or even express their desires. The Princeton philosopher Peter Singer famously suggested that "killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all." Now, however, scientists have begun to dramatically revise their concept of a baby's mind.more from the Boston Globe here.
Let me tell you the basics of risk communication, and then I want to apply them, a little bit, to bird flu. The fundamental principle of risk communication can be summarized in a number, [which] is the correlation between how much harm a risk does and how upset people get about it. If you look at a long list of risks, and you rank them in order of how upset people get [about them], then you rank them again in order of how much harm they do, then you correlate the two, you get a glorious 0.2. Those of you who remember your statistics know you can square a correlation coefficient to get the percentage of variance accounted for: If you square 0.2, you get 0.04, or 4% of the variance. That is, the risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different. If you know that a risk kills people, you have no idea whether it upsets them or not. If you know it upsets them, you have no idea whether it kills them or not.more from UPMC here (via Marginal Revolution).
A Poem of Changgan
When my bangs hung about my forehead
I played by the gates, bending off flowers;
Riding on a horse of bamboo, you come
Circling the well in play, infant plums in hand:
Two children without dislike or suspicion,
Living in the lands of the boatsmen.
At fourteen I became your wife.
My shy cheeks widened for laughter not once.
I lowered my head to a dark wall;
Beckoned a thousand times, I answered not once.
Only at fifteen my eyebrows opened to you:
I would follow you as ashes mix with dust.
I gave you my antique promise.
I won't climb the look-out for you.
At sixteen you traveled far beyond the Gorge,
Where the Horse-Head Rocks pile high.
Beware the month of May- there
The apes call of sorrow, the heavens wail.
Your footsteps at the gates
Grew of green moss,
Moss deeper than broom sweepings. Leaves fell--
By autumn wind. Early this year.
In August butterflies turn yellow, pair by pair,
Flying over the grass in the Western Garden.
They hurt your wife, pair by pair.
She frets on a chair for her cheeks growing old.
Tell me in a letter
When you will come down from Sanba.
I will meet you-- nowhere is far---
Even on the Sands of Lasting Wind.
Translation: Kevin Tsai
From The Boston Globe:
RELIGION CAN BE good for more than the soul, a growing number of studies seem to say. Over the past decade, academic research on religiosity has exploded, and with it has come a raft of publications suggesting that spiritual beliefs and practices can add years to life, lower blood pressure, or keep at-risk kids on the straight and narrow. As sociologists, psychologists, and physicians turn their attention to measuring the effects of religion, often fueled by grant money from private foundations, the results have percolated swiftly through weekend sermons and the popular media. Being nonreligious, one might conclude, looks more and more like a danger to your health.
But as the academic interest in religion has mounted, some scholars have begun to call this picture into question. What's missing, they believe, is a comparable examination into the lives of nonreligious people and even the potential benefits of nonbelief. Galvanized by a desire to even the scales, these researchers have been organizing academic centers to study the irreligious, conducting major surveys, and comparing their findings. They've already found that convinced atheists appear just as well equipped to cope with hardship as convinced believers, and that some of the world's healthiest societies have the lowest levels of piety.
To Fathom a Colony’s Talk and Toil, Studying Insects One by One
From The New York Times:
Anna Dornhaus is peering into a cardboard nest box only an inch on a side, at a “family” of 100 or so European rock ants. Known as Temnos, the ants — painted in primary colors — are going about their ant chores hauling, foraging, nursing the glistening maggoty brood. Next to a color-coded Temnos, a rice grain would look like an old-growth log. When the lid on an ant colony is raised, a whiff of dead cockroach — ant chow — wafts by. A quiescent larger queen is a study in brown. “She’s hardly a head of state,” Dr. Dornhaus said. “More like an ovary.” Nearby are bumblebee hives under glass in which each bee sports a number from 1 to 100 on tiny price-tag-like label attached to its back.
To understand what is really going on in a colony of ants or bees, Dr. Dornhaus, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, tracks the little creatures individually — hence the paint and the numbers. Individual ants, she said, have “their own brains and legs, as well as complex and flexible behaviors.” She continues, “Each ant’s behavior and the rules under which it operates generate a pattern for the colony, so it’s crucial to discover its individual cognitive skill.” Dr. Dornhaus, 34, a tall, blond German-born scientist, has great patience, a prime requirement in her trade, and a feel for the creatures she studies. When people find out that “I study ants, bees and other crawly things, the first thing they ask is do I know how to kill them.” She added, “I wouldn’t tell them if I knew.”
Monday, April 27, 2009
Dispatches: Rome Food Report
Fettuccine alla gricia, a common pasta dish in Rome, has four ingredients: the noodles, olive oil, bits of cured pig's cheek, and grated cheese. Most trattorias offer it. It's not innovative, nor is it usually presented with much elegance. It's simply an oily plate of flat, yellow noodles with some reddish brown bits of guanciale and a shower of pecorino. The pleasure it gives is hard to describe. The word delicious somehow seems too refined and cerebral, tasty insufficiently hyperbolic. Scrumptious is close, but kind of pretentious. Anyway, a good alla gricia is lipsmackingly, profoundly pleasurable to eat.
There's a difference between eating and dining. In Rome, you eat. By eating, I mean the straightforward, carnal pleasure of gnawing things that taste good. A perfect example would be another common speciality: abbacchio scottadito, which is grilled very young lamb sauced with a lemon wedge. There's usually a rib, a bit of shoulder or leg, and a chop. (Incidentally, Urdu speakers call a chop a "champ," which has always struck me as charming, and oonomatopoetic of lipsmackingness.) Abbacchio scottadito is variously salty, gamy, fatty, and cartilagenous. It tastes extremely, intensely lambish. Impossible not to chew the bones.
Not that you can't dine in Rome: at La Rosetta, Rome's most celebrated fish restaurant, you can wear your Lanvin suit, sit with the multinational haute-bourgeoisie, and have a spaghetti with seafood that costs forty-two euros. But I had a superb (superb!) spaghetti alla vongole for eight euros at a random neighborhood restaurant. By the way, you can make this at home very easily: fry a tiny bit of minced garlic, add some white wine and the smallest clams you can find, cover till they open, and mix with some high-quality pasta (I recommend Martelli, if you can find it; I can't anymore) and a bit of chopped flat-leaf parsley. End of story. But try getting dime-sized little vongole outside of Italy that are as fresh and sweetly saline.
You can find various cheap but amazing trattorias throughout Rome, even in the center. I had the aforementioned alla gricia at Da Francesco, a great, great place off the Piazza Navona, one of the most touristic places on earth. They won't make you an espresso, though--they maintain a pre-capitalist refusal to do things they don't want to do. This attitude, actually, marks most of these places, which often treat Italians better than foreigners, may not have written menus, and generally stick to the same dozen dishes. Fior de zucca (deep-fried zucchini flowers), baccala (salt cod), spaghetti cacio e pepe (with cheese and black pepper), bucatini all'amatriciana etc., etc. It's interesting how many restaurants are locally famous for their version of a dish with less than five ingredients.
Great renditions of dishes like this are like sketches by an old artist: slapdash and assured at the same time, with no mistakes. I think it's easier to be more attuned to the subtleties of how good fettuccine can be if you try to cook these dishes at home. Cooks know first-hand that making a perfect omelet is a lot harder than a perfect fifteen-ingredient stew. The tolerances are lower when the ingredients are so few: a restaurant can't save itself by selling you on its chef's virtuosity, the fact that he or she was the first to combine vanilla beans with sea bass.
Eating in Rome is a nice curative to the U.S. addiction to deism. Chef deism, I mean. When compared to the average three-course Roman meal with a jug of decent Falanghina, which often runs you less than twenty euros, a lot of New York's Italian food and wine appears bloated, garish, and drastically overpriced. Worship of culinary innovation and virtuosity bores me, anyway. Food is less serious, and more serious, than that. The deliciousness of great Roman meals doesn't have to do with a particular chef's combinatory talent, but with a chain of proud people. Arugula that tastes so good, anchovies that taste so good, puntarella that tastes so good: these are the collaborative achievements of a gastronomico-agriculture.
The good places don't court you; actually they're willing to deny you a dish if it's not in season. I once went in search of carciofi alla guidia (artichokes Jewish-style, with are deep-fried and taste as good as potato chips). A self-respecting Trastevere (the neighborhood across the Tiber: tras-Tevere) ristorante refused, saying those artichokes weren't in season as of last week, and that the ones that were available now were only for carciofi alla romana (artichokes stewed with mint) instead. So I had those.
Not that there aren't bad meals in Rome: there definitely are. And there are establishments where popularity has led to impatience. Nice-looking spots near popular sites are usually mediocre. Waiters behaved with exasperation at the Terence Conran-ian Gusto, although their fior di zucca pizza was very fine. The crazy lines at tourist spots like the Café Sant Eustacchio make their sugary, Neapolitan espresso less enjoyable. But the level of execution at dozens of unheralded cafés around the city make up for it. My pick, simply because I had an impeccable cornetto and cappuccino there every morning, is La Cornotteria.
My last night in Rome, which was last night, I said I wanted to go somewhere typical, which began a somewhat rollicking hour-long argument amongst the assembled company, with recommendations flying around, places being called only to find they were shut (Sunday), etc. Finally it was realized that we were only down the street from a very typical neighborhood restaurant, apparently the last place Pier Paolo Pasolini was seen, eating his dinner, before being murdered. This was Al Bionde Tevere, a few hundred yards from Cestius' first-century Pyramide, which sits there randomly at a traffic circle. We walked over. It's a crappy-looking place with plastic chairs, on whose terrace stray cats torture lizards. You should try it.
Al Bionde Tevere
Via Ostiense 178
tel. 06 574 1172
Piazza del Fico 29, near Piazza Navona
tel. 06 686 4009
Via dei Vascellari 29
tel. 06 581 8355
Via Ostiense near Montemartini Musuem
Via della Rosetta 9, near the Pantheon
tel. 06 686 1002