Monday, September 14, 2015
by Jalees Rehman
Some years ago, I was enveloped by the desire to see our children grow up to be poets. I used to talk to them about poetic metaphors, rhymes and read to them excerpts from the biographies of famous poets. When the kids were learning about haikus at school, I took the opportunity to pontificate on the controversies surrounding the 5-7-5 syllable counts and the difficulties of imposing classic Japanese schemes on the English language, which abounds in diphthongs and long syllables.
The feedback from our children was quite mixed, ranging from polite questions such as "Do you know how long this will take?" to less polite snores. I had apparently not yet succeeded in my attempts to awaken their inner poet.
Our younger son was about eight years old, when we found out about a wonderful opportunity to inculcate the love of literature into our children: The Chicago Printers Row Literature Festival! I was especially excited by the fact that they would have a special "Lil' Lit" area, just for children. I convinced the whole family to go - promising to reward each kid with $5 if they accompanied us. I hoped that my poetry monologues had prepared the children for the poetic muses that they would encounter at the festival.
Even though it was early June, Chicago was experiencing one of its rare June Gloom weekends with cloudy, drizzly weather and frosty breezes. After exiting the parking garage, our kids tried to renegotiate the promised $5 reward in light of the unpleasant weather. I brushed off their whining and charged towards the long-awaited beacon of literary pleasure.
Once we arrived at "Lil' Lit", we saw a bunch of near-empty booths and an elderly author reading from a book to a couple of five-year olds, surrounded by fifty empty seats. The few booth owners looked at us with great expectations. They had been staking out the crowd of adults, walking past them and not been able to spot any children, so my children quickly become the center of attention at "Lil' Lit".
The children were not too enthusiastic about sitting down with the author who was reading from her book, perhaps because her sparse audience had the same facial expressions that our kids exhibited when I talked about poetry. We looked around and spotted a giant yellow "Bouncy Book" which caught the kids' attention. But before they could rush over there and begin jumping on it, they saw that the ginormous hollow book had a hole and kept on deflating.
One of the booths was called "Creative Creations". I was puzzling about the title, but relieved when our kids volunteered to participate in the activity. Apparently, this booth was giving children some chalk so that they could unleash their creativity. All three of our children took to the idea and started drawing and writing on the sidewalk in beautiful rainbow colors. For some strange reason, my eight year old son took his "ninja glove" out of his pocket and grabbed a green chalk. I relaxed, and my wife and I strolled around in the area, pleased to live in Chicago, a city that offered such cultural enrichment for children. I uttered a silent prayer of thanks for the fact that we had left dreary Indiana and recently moved to Chicago.
After about fifteen minutes or so, we returned to the booth of creativity. One of the ladies who operated the booth came up to me and said, "Excuse me sir, your son has …ahem…written a…haiku…"
I couldn't believe it! All my hard work had finally paid off. Even though they had pretended to not to listen, at least one of them had learned how to write a haiku. I was not sure if I was more proud of his accomplishment or my superb teaching.
I smiled and walked to the area of the sidewalk where the haiku was written.
I was first going to count the syllables, but once I started reading it, I stopped counting:
Torture comes to me,
I did not know how to respond to the accusatory glances of the lady. I looked at my son, who was folding away his "ninja glove".
He then calmly asked "Can we go now?"
I saw the deflating bouncy book in the background and I nodded, trying to hide my embarrassment with a half-hearted smile.
His haiku brought about the end of the poetry monologue series in our house.
Monday, September 07, 2015
Stand-up for Cancer
by Carol A. Westbrook
I'm a big fan of stand-up comedy, and I especially enjoy live performances. I try not to sit too close to the stage, though, because then I'm fair game for the comic. I don't mind being the butt of jokes, but I don't want to embarrass the performer.
You see, I'm a perfect target. I'm easily twice the age of the rest of the audience, and I suppose I do look like a granny with my little spectacles and the grey highlights in my hair.
It usually begins with something only mildly insulting, such as "Did you knit anything interesting today?" or "Are these your grandchildren?"
But woe betide the comic who asks me what I do for a living!
"I'm a doctor."
"What kind of doctor?"
"An oncologist--a cancer specialist."
That usually brings the fun to a screeching halt.
The younger comedians, and the typical comedy club audience-- GenXers and Millennials--hear the word, "cancer" and think "death." Perhaps they remember the funeral of an elderly relative. Or they saw a movie or TV show depicting someone dying of cancer. Or they recall an unenthusiastic visit to a hospital with their parents to visit a dying relative.
It doesn't matter. The mood is gone. The room is suddenly quiet.
I'm always amused to watch the comedian try to recover from this. Usually he will quickly change direction and turn to another, younger, audience member, asking what she does for a living. Or the comic will start to talk about prostate exams, or colonoscopies--which usually causes the show to deteriorate into penis-and-butt jokes of the sort that were popular in 6th grade, from which there is no comedic recovery.
No, there is nothing funny about cancer. What is funny, though, is how awkward it is for most people to talk about death, or to even think about it. It makes us squirm in our seats. Pointing this out to the audience, and having them laugh at their awkwardness, takes a very insightful and experienced comedian, who understands the difficulty that we have in facing our mortality. It takes a mature, seasoned comedian to seize a moment like this--and to turn it into an occasion for laughter.
Take Rich Voss, a really funny guy whom I had the pleasure of hearing a few months ago. When he made the mistake of finding out that I was a cancer doctor, he seized the opportunity to recount another experience that he had with cancer and doctors in his audience a few years ago.
According to Voss, he was hosting an open mike, stand-up comedy session. Open mike attracts any number of amateur wanna-be's, as well as seasoned comics honing their material. Voss recalls that one performer, an amateur, was not funny at all, and the audience was getting bored and restless.
Voss, trying to regain control, asked the amateur why he was even bothering to try stand-up comedy.
"It's on my bucket list," the performer answered.
He went on to say that he was dying of a brain tumor, didn't have any medical insurance, and couldn't afford to pay for his brain surgery. He was going to die in a few months. So he decided to spend his last few months completing his "bucket list," that is, doing the few things he always wanted to try before he died. This included stand up comedy.
Whereupon another audience member jumps to his feet, and says, "I'm a surgeon! I can help you! Come to my office next week and we'll schedule your brain surgery. I will do it for you for free!"
The audience applauds. Voss, however, asks the doctor if he is a brain surgeon.
"No," he admitted. "I'm an orthopedic surgeon. But brain surgery is on my bucket list."
Everyone laughed, the awkward moment was forgotten, and Mr. Voss went on to finish another successful comedy show. Voss is a very talented guy--you should see him if you get the chance. He clearly has had more life experience than the younger folks in the audience. He recognized something that we oncologists learn from caring for patients who are facing a terminal illness--that people come to terms with their diagnosis and with their own mortality. Most of them become very matter-of-fact about facing their own death. Their friends and relatives, on the other hand, generally have a lot more trouble dealing with the concept, and will avoid discussing it, even to the point of avoiding the friend with cancer. The thought makes them squirm, it makes them uncomfortable. They don't know what to say, and it's easier to avoid the subject completely.
That is because in our society, which values good health and longevity, death has a bad name. Many cultures accept death as being a necessary part of life, but we don't -- even though it is as inevitable as taxes. And coming to terms with death is something that every cancer patient will do. In my experience, most patients faced with the diagnosis of a terminal illness ask realistic questions, make plans, and try to face it in the best way they can. No longer taboo, death becomes something they can talk about, something they can even laugh about it, something they can look in the eye and poke fun at it.
Take one patient of mine, a jovial man at the VA hospital who was dying of leukemia. He joked about his demise continuously.
"My doctor told me not to buy any long-playing records," he said, "and my insurance agent gave me a new calendar this year that only had 6 months."
Sadly, the old Vet didn't even make it to six months, but I'll be he died laughing.
Doing stand-up comedy is on my bucket list, too. Doing brain surgery is not.
Monday, February 24, 2014
Does Beer Cause Cancer?
by Carol A. Westbrook
I have been taken to task by several of my readers for promoting beer drinking. "How can you, a cancer doctor, advocate drinking beer, " I was asked, "when it is KNOWN to cause cancer?" I realized that it was time to set the facts straight. Is moderate beer drinking good for your health, as I have always maintained, or does it cause cancer?
Recently there has been some discussion in the popular press about studies showing a possible link between alcohol and cancer. As a matter of fact, reports linking foods to cancer causation (or prevention) are relatively common. I generally ignore these press releases because they generate a lot of hype but are usually based on single studies that, on follow-up, turn out to have flaws or cannot be confirmed; the negative follow-up study rarely receives any publicity. Moreover, there are often other studies published at other times showing completely contradictory results; for example, that red wine both prevents and causes cancer.
Furthermore, there is a great deal of self-righteousness about certain foods, and this attitude can cloud objectivity and lead to bias in interpreting the results; often these feelings have strong political implications as well. Some politically charged dietary issues include: vegetarianism; genetically modified crops; artificial sweeteners; sugared soft drinks. Alcohol fits right into this category--remember, we are the country that adopted prohibition for 13 years. There is no doubt the United States has significant public health issues related to alcohol use, including alcohol-related auto accidents, underage drinking, and alcoholism, and the consequent problems of unemployment, cirrhosis of the liver, brain and neurologic problems, and fetal alcohol syndrome. Wouldn't it be great if the government could mandate a label on every beer can stating, "consumption of alcohol can cause cancer and should be avoided"? Wouldn't that be a wonderful "I told you so!" for the alcohol nay-sayers?
Before going further, I will acknowledge that are alcohol-related cancers. As a specialist I am well aware that cancers of the head and neck area, the larynx (voice box) and the esophagus are frequently seen in heavy drinkers, almost always in association with cigarette smoking. Liver cancer is seen primarily in people with cirrhosis--also a result of heavy drinking. In both instances, the more alcohol that is consumed, the greater the risk of developing one of these cancers--and I have rarely seen these cancers in non-smokers or non-drinkers. But assuming that my readers are not alcoholics, the question that they are really asking is whether or not they are going to get cancer from low to moderate beer drinking.
So what, then, are the facts? Does beer cause cancer? This is a much more difficult question to answer than most people realize, and can easily be the subject of years of study for a PhD dissertation (and probably has been). Researchers will be quick to admit how difficult it is to do scientifically rigorous studies on the health effects of individual dietary components. You can't just take a group of thirty year-olds, split them into two groups, give beer to one group and make the other abstain, watch them for 20 years and see who gets more cancer. So we have to rely on population studies, estimating alcohol consumption based on purchasing statistics, self-reporting of drinking (which is often unreliable), surveys, and death certificates for cancer. Incidentally, beer is not considered separately from other alcoholic beverages in any of these studies.
For example, an interesting study by Holahan and colleagues, published in 2010 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, followed 1,824 middle-aged men and women (ages 55–65) over 20 years and found that moderate drinkers lived longer than did both heavy drinkers and teetotalers. In particular, their data suggested that non-drinkers had a 50% higher death rate than moderate drinkers (1 - 2 drinks per day). Others have criticized this conclusion because the no-alcohol group included people who didn't drink because they were already at a higher risk of death for other reasons such as serious medical conditions, previous cancers, or they were former alcoholics on the wagon. The authors claimed that they controlled for these variables but that is almost impossible to do, and that is one of the reasons that it is difficult to get accurate data from this kind of study. So it may be hard to conclude that moderate drinking significantly increases your lifespan, but it certainly doesn't shorten it.
What about cancer? The publication that started the most recent hype about cancer and alcohol appeared in the April 2013 issue ofThe American Journal of Public Health, and was written by David Nelson MD, MPH and his colleagues. They combined information from others' publications with epidemiologic surveys to determine the number of cancer deaths attributable to alcohol, as well as the types of cancer that were associated. They found that about 3% of all cancer deaths in the US were related to alcohol consumption, with most of it seen in the head and neck, larynx and esophagus. There was still a slight increased risk at low alcohol use (greater than 0 but less than 1 1/2 drinks per day), which led them to conclude, "regular alcohol use at low consumption levels is also associated with increased cancer risk." I looked at their study, and couldn't argue with their conclusion, but I don't think the risk is significant enough to recommend becoming a teetotaler.
Neither does the US National Cancer Institute (NCI). Heavy drinking aside, the NCI does not recommend that people discontinue low or moderate drinking since it would have only a minimal impact on their chance of developing cancer. Some caution is indicated for specific cancers: There is a 1.5 times increased risk of breast cancer in women who drink more than 3 drinks per day compared to non-drinkers; similarly, the risk of colon cancer is 1.5 times increased in people who more than 3.5 drinks per day. Incidentally, 3.5 drinks per day is still well above the level that is considered "low to moderate" drinking, which is usually defined as no more than 1 drink per day for a woman, 2 per day for a man. That being said, lowering your alcohol consumption deserves some consideration if you are anxious to change your odds for these two specific cancers. Nonetheless, the risks from alcohol are still low when compared to the impact of other lifestyle factors. Addressing these factors will have a much greater impact than giving up that beer or wine with your dinner: don't smoke, lose weight if you are over; exercise; eat a high-fiber diet; increase your vegetable and fruit consumption, while limiting red meat; avoid processed food; follow-up on your doctor's cancer screening recommendations for colonoscopy, pap smears, mammography and prostate screening.
Do the positive effects of drinking beer outweigh the negative effects? Moderate alcohol consumption has been reported to lower the risks of heart disease, stroke, hypertension and Type 2 diabetes; for men, it may lower the risk of kidney stones and of prostate cancer; may improve bone health; may prevent brain function decline. Alcohol consumption actually lowers the risk of kidney cancer and of lymphoma. Overall, in most studies, the positive effect was very small, but the beneficial effects of beer are only in moderate drinking, not for those who drink to excess. And of course, there are social and psychological benefits to sharing a beer with friends.
So, is beer drinking good for you? Or bad? Are you healthier if you drink, say, a beer or two per day, or are you worse off? My conclusion as a medical specialist is: it depends. On average, for the general population, drinking a little alcohol is better than abstaining completely. But on an individual basis, it depends on your current health conditions and your risk factors. Are you more likely to die of heart disease or of colon cancer? And if you want to cut down your risk of either condition you must be sure to avoid cigarettes, keep your weight down, exercise, eat a high-fiber diet that is low in red meat and processed foods, and increase your fruit and vegetable intake. The impact of alcohol consumption is likely to be small compared to these lifestyle changes.
What does the Beer Doctor do? As a cancer specialist, my lifestyle includes all of the above recommendations on exercise, weight and diet. I continue to enjoy my beer, but I keep my consumption within the low to moderate range, that is on average about 0.5 to 1 per day, and not every day. For me, the health benefits of drinking beer outweigh the negatives. To your health!
© 2014, Carol Westbrook. This article is from my forthcoming book, To Your Health! The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not reflect those of my employer, Geisinger Health Systems.
Monday, February 03, 2014
My So-Called Life On Walden Pond
"What would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?"
~ Thoreau, Walking
It is true that Thoreau had great misgivings about the railroad coming to Concord, and he correctly surmised that the train would make his beloved town a suburb of Boston. Somewhat inevitably, this has lead to the following sketches for a series, most likely to be submitted to the History Channel for immediate development into that esteemed channel's next surefire hit. (Note to my agent: While some of these may not seem funny, I can assure you that they are. Humor in the nineteenth century was just a bit different from ours, is all.)
Henry David Thoreau, philosopher, naturalist and iconoclast, is bored and restless. He starts farming beans in his front yard but is soon issued a citation by the homeowners' association. At the next association meeting, with his case on the agenda, he stands up and, in his defense, gives a rousing speech about self-reliance. This is not especially well received. Thinking they can salvage the situation, Thoreau's children persuade their science teacher to make the bean plot their submission to the science fair. However, in order for it to be a legitimate science experiment, the teacher insists that half the plot be planted with GMO beans.
Thoreau goes for a walk in the woods and gets lost. He is found and saved by a troop of Boy Scouts. In gratitude, he teaches them to forage for food. However, one of the scouts has a nut allergy. After a lengthy and anxious detour at a hospital, Thoreau returns home with a lawsuit on his hands. (Production note: Scoutmaster to be played by William H. Macy).
Having refused to pay taxes for some years, Thoreau eventually gets audited by the IRS. When the auditor arrives to review his paperwork, Thoreau accuses him of leading a life of quiet desperation. After that, he's really in trouble. Fortunately, his back taxes are paid the next day by his wealthier aunt, and Thoreau, like the Cincinnatus of civil disobedience that he is, returns to his bean field, once again a free man.
Thoreau takes up surveying as a hobby. Eventually, his volunteer work – and his incessant complaining about not being paid – leads the town council to hire him Thoreau as a surveyor. He is thrilled with his new job, not least because it allows him to trespass all over his neighbors' lands. He's really beginning to feel like he has reconciled his place in the community with his own perception of how a man should live. Nevertheless, one day he overhears people in the office discussing the fact that his maps are to be used by Toll Brothers for planning a new development. Thoreau resigns in principled disgust, and ponders his revenge.
Thoreau gets involved in the protests against fracking, an obvious threat to both the town and the countryside. But Mrs. Thoreau reminds him that "a good chunk" of the children's college fund is being generated from dividends yielded by energy-based master limited partnerships, and if the kids are going to go to a good school they had better be able to afford it, since Harvard certainly isn't getting any cheaper, not that he would know, as it's been how long since he last visited his alma mater, and why is he no longer so close with Ralph Waldo Emerson anyway, the two of you really hit it off when Emerson gave that speech at Harvard that Thoreau liked so much, and he (Emerson, that is) is such a well-respected person with connections and character and maybe there's an opportunity for a nice little earner with someone in his network, you never know and you'll certainly not meet anyone sitting around in the woods all day, will you, now?
Thoreau's philosophy and activism draw the attention of the Earth Liberation Front, several of whose members move into the Thoreau household. Mrs. Thoreau is none too pleased as Thoreau participates in the liberation of a foie gras farm that goes hilariously wrong (the duck and geese are too full to flee through the hole blown in the fence by the ELF). As a result, the FBI begins building a file on Thoreau. His fame steadily spreading, Thoreau also begins receiving correspondence from an incarcerated Ted Kaczynski. Awkward!
Thoreau's friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson attempts to introduce Thoreau to a broader circle of authors and critics. This eventually becomes the New England Transcendentalist movement. The Dial is its flagship magazine, where Thoreau argues along with everyone else what exactly Transcendentalism is. Thoreau is jealous of Nate Hawthorne, who recently published "The Scarlet Letter," a novel about social media ostracism involving a scarlet "@" sign, or some nonsense like that, and repeatedly tries to get Edgar Allan Poe to write scathing reviews of Hawthorne's work. (Production note: have Poe meet Thoreau at a Concord tavern, where Poe proceeds to drink the entire town under the table. Afterwards, for closure, he and Thoreau burn down the Toll Brothers offices).
Money is tight. But some hipsters are opening Walden's first fair trade espresso bar, and they have been both admiring and envious of Thoreau's beard for quite some time. After jimmying him into skinny jeans and training him to pull shots, Thoreau becomes a renowned barista. However, after several weeks he acquires repetitive stress injury in his wrists. Because he is on a 1099, he cannot claim unemployment or disability. Since his injury precludes hoeing as well as shot-pulling, he now also has to hire Mexican migrant workers to tend his bean field for him; the episode ends on a heart-warming note with the Mexicans sharing all kinds of new and delicious bean recipes with Thoreau and his family.
Thoreau opens a small business to lead walking tours through the Concord woods. The venture is unsuccessful, as Thoreau prefers to walk out to a spot and sit there for a long time. This is the only way in which he can observe birds and other wildlife, as well as the changing of the seasons. (Production note: based on his recent work in Her, ask Joaquin Phoenix if he would like to play the part of Thoreau for this episode).
Thoreau goes to the Walden Whole Foods, where he sees the beans he grew displayed as "Local Produce," but he cannot afford to buy them himself. Also, he cannot seem to convince the manager that he is, in fact, the farmer who produced the beans in the first place. Whether this was to negotiate a discount on the purchase or for some other reason is unclear, as Thoreau is soon escorted from the premises by security.
Money is tight. But in the course of tilling his bean field and walking around the woods, Thoreau has amassed a formidable collection of Indian arrowheads. He sets up a shop on eBay to sell them. After an initial commercial success, eBay receives a cease-and-desist letter from lawyers representing the Indian nation whose patrimony is allegedly on the auction block. Thoreau's defense, that "it appeared by the arrowheads which I turned up in hoeing, that an extinct nation had anciently dwelt here and planted corn and beans ere white men came to clear the land, and so, to some extent, had exhausted the soil for this very crop," is considered inadequate if not irrelevant, and eBay shuts down his shop. Thoreau receives angry letters from customers whose orders go unfulfilled.
To help him in his quest to simplify his life, his wife buys him a subscription to Real Simple magazine. But her credit card is hacked during the online purchase, and Mrs. Thoreau finds her identity stolen by rugged, independence-minded anarcho-libertarian hackers of indeterminate nationality. To help defray the costs of the charges that the credit card compny refuses to cover, Thoreau takes a job as an adjunct professor of English at the local community college. Since he never claimed his Masters at Harvard, he is told that, regretfully, he cannot be considered for a full time position.
Despite his successes in improving the quality of both product and process in his father's pencil-making factory, Thoreau goes to work one day only to find that all manufacturing has been offshored to Shenzhen. However, as salary costs continue their inexorable rise there, rumors abound that the pencil factory will soon be "re-shored."
Thoreau's manuscript "Walden" is rejected by all publishers. After deciding to self-publish and spending much of his family's remaining savings on this enterprise, he holds a reading and book signing at the local Barnes & Noble. No one shows up. Dejected, Thoreau calls up Emerson, asking if he would connect him with Emerson's agent. Emerson says he will get back to him, but suggests in the meantime that he take up blogging instead.
Monday, December 09, 2013
Google Zeitgeist: Annoying Philosophers, Weird Germans and White Pakistanis
by Jalees Rehman
The Autocomplete function of Google Search is both annoying and fascinating. When you start typing in the first letters or words of your search into the Google search box, Autocomplete takes a guess at what you are looking for and "completes" the search phrase by offering you multiple query phrases. The queries offered by Autocomplete are "a reflection of the search activity of users and the content of web pages indexed by Google". Considering the fact that more than five billion Google searches are conducted on an average day, the Google Autocomplete function has a huge database of search information that it can reference. This also means that the Autocomplete suggestions are quite dynamic and can vary over time. A popular new song lyric, the name of a viral video or a recent movie quote can catapult itself to the top of the Autocomplete suggestion list within a matter of hours or days if millions of users start search for that specific phrase. Autocomplete may also take a user's browsing history or location into account, which explains why it may offer a varying set of suggestions to different users.
Autocomplete can be quite annoying because the suggested lists of queries are based on their web popularity and can thus consist of bizarre combinations which are not at all related to one's intended searches. On the other hand, Autocomplete is also a fascinating tool to provide a window into the Zeitgeist of web users, revealing what kinds of phrases are most commonly used on the web, and by inference, what contemporary ideas are currently associated with the entered keywords. The Google Zeitgeist website reveals the most widely searched terms to help identify cultural trends - based on the frequency of Google search engine queries - during any given year.
The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) recently used the Google Search Autocomplete function in an ad campaign to highlight the extent of misogyny on the web. Searching for "women should…" or "women need to…" was autocompleted to phrases such as "women should be slaves" or "women need to be put in their place". The fact that Autocomplete suggested these phrases means that probably hundreds of thousands of internet users have used these phrases in their search queries or on web pages indexed by Google – a reminder of how much gender injustice still exists in our world.
A recent article in Slate pointed towards another form of bias unveiled by Autocomplete: Occupational prejudice. The search phrase "scientists are…." was autocompleted to suggest that scientists were either liars, liberal or stupid. I tried it out and received similar suggestions by Autocomplete:
I guess we scientists have been upgraded from merely being stupid to being idiots. I was curious whether other professions fare better.
Well, apparently bankers do not.
And doctors are not only as stupid as scientists, they are also overpaid, arrogant and dangerous.
I can understand that doctors are thought to be overpaid, but it is a bit of a surprise that folks on the web think that professors are overpaid, especially considering the fact that many of them have spent a decade or more in postgraduate education before they become professors and still earn far less than non-academic colleagues in the private industry.
Philosophers, on the other hand, are not perceived as being stupid by the Google Zeitgeist. They are wise and annoying with a tinge of depression.
The next time you contact your editors, please remember that they are people, too.
The fact that Autocomplete suggests these phrases means that they are frequently used in searches and web pages but there is no way to know who is using them and what the intent is behind their usage.
What does the Google Zeitgeist tell us about people of different nationalities?
Germans are not seen in a very positive light, but the prejudices regarding Germans being rude, cold and weird should not come as a surprise to anyone who watches Hollywood movies which love to propagate such clichés.
Interestingly, search queries suggest that both Americans and Germans may come across as weird and rude.
Maybe the web collective feels that members of all nationalities are weird and rude – even the Canadians, who are also known to be nice even though they are afraid of the dark.
When I queried the characteristics of Pakistanis with the "Pakistanis are…." Phrase, I was surprised by the fact that Autocomplete offered very different suggestions than those for Germans and North Americans. The latter were being described by adjectives such as rude, weird, nice or cold – but when it came to Pakistanis, the search queries instead focused on their ethnic identity.
Are Pakistanis white or not white? Are they mostly Indians or do they have Arab origins? The odd thing is that I have conversations around these questions with many Pakistanis, who often try to convince me that they indeed have "white" roots. Some Pakistanis I know – especially those who are proud of their fair skin color - frequently mention their possible Greek origins (dating back to the times of Alexander the Great and his invasion of the Indian subcontinent) conquests, others emphasize the fact that the people who currently reside in Pakistan may have had Arab forefathers when the Arabs invaded the Indian subcontinent. On the other hand, I also know plenty of Pakistanis who see themselves as people with a primarily Indian heritage. The fact that this is a hotly debated topic among Pakistanis suggests that maybe the internet queries suggested by Autocomplete were in fact based on queries or web pages of Pakistanis who are interested in discussing this topic.
When it comes to Arabs, their ethnic identity is also apparently a popular topic in internet queries, and again my personal interactions with American Arabs mirror the Autocomplete suggestions. I have often heard American Arabs mention that they feel they ought to be accepted as part the American "white" population ("Hello – I just received a phone call, Dr. Frantz Fanon is on hold for you on line 1).
I first thought that perhaps the desire to identify oneself with being "white" was a remnant of one's colonial past, but my search for "Nigerians are…" did not support this hypothesis.
The Web seems to hold extremely positive views of Nigerians – smart, intelligent and educated.
Moving beyond searches for nationalities, what characteristics do web users associate with members of other groups?
Well, religions do not fare well.
Christianity and Islam are seen as evil, full of falsehood and (oddly enough) may not even be religions.
In contrast, atheism is not labeled as evil. The suggested queries instead revolve around the question of whether or not atheism is a religion.
How about a cultural ideology?
Ok, Google Zeitgeist tells us that postmodernism is BS and dead.
The human emotion of Schadenfreude, on the other hand, is very much alive.
Autocomplete is not only a tool to identify biases and phrases used on the web; it has also become an inspiration for poets. The Google Poetics blog is run by Sampsa Nuotio and Raisa Omaheimo and collects Google poems, recognizing that Autocomplete suggestions sometimes contain a Dadaist beauty and are in essence prose poems. Inspired by their collection of Google poems, I sometimes enter words or verses from famous poems to generate Autocomplete's mutant versions of those famous verses:
Here is a Google Autocomplete poem based on "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas:
Do not go
do not go where the path may lead
do not go gentle poem
do not go my love
Do not go beyond what is written
And one based on the line "Let us go then, you and I" from T.S. Eliot's ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'
let us entertain you
let us entertain you gift cards
let us play with your look
let us go then you and i
I would like to now close with a final ode to Google:
google is evil
google is god
google is your friend
google is down
Monday, October 31, 2011
Airplanes, Asparagus, and Mirrors, Oh My!
by Meghan D. Rosen
Last month, I asked you to submit a science-y question that you'd like to have answered in simple terms. You asked about light, and mirrors, and spices and space— I was delighted by the scope of the questions posed.
This month my fellow SciCom classmates tackled three. Steve Tung glides through the mechanics of flight; Beth Mole spouts off about asparagus pee; and Tanya Lewis reflects on mirrors.
If you have more burning science questions, just post them in the comments. We'll be back next month with more answers.
And if you don't have a science question, but do have a thought or a picture to share, check out www.sharingamomentofscience.tumblr.com
How can an airplane fly upside down?
Daredevil pilots execute stunning aerobatic maneuvers― loops, rolls, spins, and more― sometimes while upside down for a long time. How do they do it? It might seem that the force keeping a right-side-up plane aloft would push a flipped plane down.
The trick is how the plane is angled in the air. Pilots can adjust the tilt to lift the plane, even when it is upside down.
You may have stuck your hand outside of a moving car and felt the rushing air push it up or down. Tilt your hand more, and that force is stronger. Turn your hand upside down and it still happens, though it might not be as powerful.
Plane wings, flipped or not, work the same way― tilt them up more, and air lifts the plane more. There are drawbacks and limitations, however. Higher angles cause more drag, slowing the plane. Tilt too far and the plane loses its aerodynamic properties and falls like a rock.
But not all airplanes can fly upside down. Some depend on gravity to fuel the engines; some would break under the different stresses of flying inverted. Stunt airplanes use specially designed wings, bodies, and engines to be more agile, more durable, and more versatile.
Steve Tung once dreamed of designing airplanes and rockets. He now dreams of pithy, memorable prose. (He received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering with a concentration in fluid mechanics from Cornell University) Twitter: @SteveTungWrites
Many years ago Mel Brooks asked the one question which had haunted him all these years: "Why, after I eat a few stalks of asparagus, does my pee pee smell so funny?"
It wasn’t until recently that scientists started to unravel this odorous riddle. The answer lies with both the whizzer and the whiffer.
When we digest asparagus, its sulfur-containing compounds can break down into stinky subunits that strike as early as 15 minutes after eating. Although the culprit behind the smelly bathroom visits hasn’t been caught, the most likely suspect is methanethiol.
But in bathroom exit surveys, only some asparagus eaters say they can smell the excreted evidence.
In 2010, scientists went digging through a database that linked genetic data with survey data including answers to questions like ‘Have you ever noticed that your pee smells funny after you eat asparagus?’
They found that people who have particular DNA changes around a set of genes responsible for olfactory receptors—molecular smell detectors in your nose—are more likely to be able to smell asparagus pee.
So for those that can’t smell asparagus pee, it might not mean that you can’t make it.
Last year a different set of scientists waved pee vials under people’s snouts to sniff out who could make asparagus pee and who could smell it.
They confirmed that some schnozzles can’t smell asparagus evidence. But they also found that some people don’t seem to make it either, at least not in detectable amounts.
Since scientists haven’t pinned down the stinky subunit responsible, they can’t say for certain if it’s not there at all or just at really low levels that we can’t smell.
For now, it seems likely that our abilities to make and smell asparagus pee probably exist on sliding scales, and whether or not you can smell it seems unrelated to whether or not you can make it—so, continue to ponder in the potty.
Beth Mole earned her PhD in microbiology at UNC Chapel Hill studying a potato pathogen and did postdoctoral research on antibiotic resistant bugs at UNC's Eshelman School of Pharmacy. She started writing about science in 2008 for Endeavors magazine and is currently enrolled in the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.
When you look in the mirror and point your right arm out to the side, your reflection in the mirror points its left arm. But when you point up above your head, your reflection doesn’t point to its feet. Even if you lie on your side and point your arm out, the mirror seems to “know” to switch which arm your reflection points, even though that’s now up or down relative to the ground.
What’s going on? Actually, mirrors don’t reverse things left-and-right, they reverse them in-and-out. Imagine casting a rubber mold of yourself, then turning the mold inside-out. Your reflection would face you, but your arms would appear to switch sides.
Another way to think about it is this: write something on a piece of semi-transparent paper and hold it up to the mirror. The reflected writing is, of course, a mirror image. But now turn the paper around so the writing faces you, and look at the reflection in the mirror. The writing is the right way round again. The reflection is like a stamp, making a “light print” of the writing on the page.
Tanya is a graduate student in the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz. She is an incurable science geek with a penchant for storytelling. She can be reached at tanlewis (at) gmail (dot) com or on twitter @tanyalewis314
Monday, September 05, 2011
A Gut Feeling
by Meghan Rosen
Are you in the market for a healthy, stable, long-term relationship? Turns out you may not have to look further than your gut. Or, more specifically, the trillions of microbes that inhabit your gut. Yes, you and a few trillion life-partners are currently involved in a devoted, mutually beneficial relationship that has endured the test of time. Don’t worry though, they’ve already met your mother.
We’re exposed first to our mother’s microbial flora during birth; these are the pioneering settlers of our gastro-intestinal (GI) tract. In the following weeks our gut becomes fully colonized with a diverse array of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Although our gut microbes are generally about an order of magnitude smaller in size than human cells, when counted by the trillions, they add up.
In fact, these intestinal interlopers (along with their fellow skin, genital and glandular neighbors) can account for up 2% of a person’s total body mass). That’s right, a 175lb man could be carrying more than 3 pounds of microbes in and on his body. Most of these microbial tenants, however, are crowded together in the lower part of his large intestine: the colon.
If we travel up the GI tract a bit and inspect the contents of the small intestine, the concentration of microbes drops nearly a billion-fold; compared to the colon, it’s practically germ free. (Although these germs are harmless when living in the gut, if the intestinal lining is breached, they won’t pass up an opportunity to spread to and wreak havoc in other areas of the body.)
While it’s easy to see the lifestyle advantages for a colon-dwelling bacterium (warm food, cozy housing, nearby relatives), the benefits and health implications for humans are not as well understood. Do we gain anything from toting around these vast microbial populations or are we merely a free meal ticket?
We know from studies in mice that gut microbes can influence health and metabolism. In fact, mice that have been delivered by cesarean section into sterile environments (and therefore lack the usual complement of intestinal microflora) are not as healthy as siblings that are birthed normally. These germ-free rodents have defective GI and immune systems compared to their microbe-ridden brothers and sisters.
While it’s clear that an animal’s gut microbes are a valuable part of a healthy intestine, their role in human metabolism and body weight remains ambiguous. We do know, however, that these microbes can enhance digestion. Normally, anything a mammal cannot digest passes through the GI tract unscathed; the energy present in this food is ‘locked up’, and therefore excreted. Obese mice, however, hold a few extra keys to calorie consumption.
The gut microbes of obese mice contain a vast array of genes that encode uncommon digestive enzymes. These enzymes help break down an expanded set of caloric compounds, and allow the mice to extract nutrients from otherwise indigestible food substances. Consequently, obese mice have fewer calories remaining in their feces than their slimmer relatives.
If obese mice have a different cohort of intestinal bacteria with super-digestive abilities, is the same true of obese humans? Is there a link between different body types and different gut microbial communities? Researchers at the Center for Genome Sciences at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri are attempting to answer these questions by comparing the identity of these gut community members, or the ‘gut microbiome’, in groups of differently sized people. Jeffrey Gordon’s lab examined fecal samples from 54 sets of adult female twins and sequenced the DNA of each and every microbe that passed through the volunteers’ intestines.
Although the majority of the twins selected for the study were identical, nearly every pair of sisters had one drastic physical difference: their body mass index. Gordon’s team of researchers specifically chose twin sets with one obese and one lean member to help understand the role of the gut microbiome in human obesity.
Although most gut microbial genes were shared between all volunteers, a significant portion of microbial genes varied from person-to-person, particularly among the obese and the lean. For instance, the obese member of a twin set generally had a gut microbiome loaded with extra genes involved in fat, carbohydrate, and protein metabolism. Are these mighty microbial metabolizers so efficient at squeezing calories from food that they actually contribute to their landlord’s obesity? Maybe, but we can’t say for sure just yet.
We do know that our gut is a kind of multi-species digestive super-organ, and that changes in the intestinal microbiome are associated with vastly different body types. In fact, Gordon’s lab has shown that you can actually fatten up a lean mouse by feeding it microbes from the guts of an obese peer. Although it’s still unclear exactly how the organisms in our intestines contribute to obesity, this research provides something for follow-up studies to chew on. Is it possible then to lose weight by dining on the gut bacteria of a skinny friend? Perhaps. Just don’t try it at home.
1. Bajzer, M and Seeley, RJ (2006, December). Obesity and gut flora. Nature, 444, 1009-1010.
2. Hord, N. G. (2008). Eukaryotic-Microbiota crosstalk: Potential mechanisms for health benefits of prebiotics and probiotics. Annual Review of Nutrition, 28, 215-31.
3. Ley, R. E., Turnbaugh, P. J., Klein, S., & Gordon, J. I. (2006). Microbial ecology: Human gut microbes associated with obesity. Nature, 444(7122), 1022-3.
4. Othman, M., Agüero, R., & Lin, H. C. (2008). Alterations in intestinal microbial flora and human disease. Current Opinion in Gastroenterology, 24(1), 11-6.
5. Sekirov, I, and Finlay BB (2006, July). Human and microbe: United we stand. Nature, 12(7), 736-737.
6. Turnbaugh, P. J., Hamady, M., Yatsunenko, T., Cantarel, B. L., Duncan, A., Ley, R. E., et al. (2009). A core gut microbiome in obese and lean twins. Nature, 457(7228), 480-4.
7. Turnbaugh, P. J., Ley, R. E., Mahowald, M. A., Magrini, V., Mardis, E. R., & Gordon, J. I. (2006). An obesity-associated gut microbiome with increased capacity for energy harvest. Nature, 444(7122), 1027-31.
Monday, August 01, 2011
Kipple and Things: How to Hoard and Why Not To Mean
This paper (more of an essay, really) was originally delivered at the Birkbeck Uni/London Consortium ‘Rubbish Symposium‘, 30th July 2011
Living at the very limit of his means, Philip K. Dick, a two-bit, pulp sci-fi author, was having a hard time maintaining his livelihood. It was the 1950s and Dick was living with his second wife, Kleo, in a run-down apartment in Berkley, California, surrounded by library books Dick later claimed they “could not afford to pay the fines on.”
In 1956, Dick had a short story published in a brand new pulp magazine: Satellite Science Fiction. Entitled, Pay for the Printer, the story contained a whole host of themes that would come to dominate his work
On an Earth gripped by nuclear winter, humankind has all but forgotten the skills of invention and craft. An alien, blob-like, species known as the Biltong co-habit Earth with the humans. They have an innate ability to ‘print’ things, popping out copies of any object they are shown from their formless bellies. The humans are enslaved not simply because everything is replicated for them, but, in a twist Dick was to use again and again in his later works, as the Biltong grow old and tired, each copied object resembles the original less and less. Eventually everything emerges as an indistinct, black mush. The short story ends with the Biltong themselves decaying, leaving humankind on a planet full of collapsed houses, cars with no doors, and bottles of whiskey that taste like anti-freeze.
In his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick gave a name to this crumbling, ceaseless, disorder of objects: Kipple. A vision of a pudding-like universe, in which obsolescent objects merge, featureless and identical, flooding every apartment complex from here to the pock-marked surface of Mars.
“No one can win against kipple,”
“It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”
In kipple, Dick captured the process of entropy, and put it to work to describe the contradictions of mass-production and utility. Saved from the wreckage of the nuclear apocalypse, a host of original items – lawn mowers, woollen sweaters, cups of coffee – are in short supply. Nothing ‘new’ has been made for centuries. The Biltong must produce copies from copies made of copies – each replica seeded with errors will eventually resemble kipple.
Objects; things, are mortal; transient. The wrist-watch functions to mark the passing of time, until it finally runs down and becomes a memory of a wrist-watch: a skeleton, an icon, a piece of kipple. The butterfly emerges from its pupae in order to pass on its genes to another generation. Its demise – its kipple-isation – is programmed into its genetic code. A consequence of the lottery of biological inheritance. Both the wrist-watch and the butterfly have fulfilled their functions: I utilised the wrist-watch to mark time: the ‘genetic lottery’ utilised the butterfly to extend its lineage. Entropy is absolutely certain, and pure utility will always produce it.
In his book Genesis, Michel Serres, argues that objects are specific to the human lineage. Specific, not because of their utility, but because they indicate our drive to classify, categorise and order:
“The object, for us, makes history slow.”
Before things become kipple, they stand distinct from one another. Nature seems to us defined in a similar way, between a tiger and a zebra there appears a broad gap, indicated in the creatures’ inability to mate with one another; indicated by the claws of the tiger and the hooves of the zebra. But this gap is an illusion, as Michel Foucault neatly points out inThe Order of Things:
“…all nature forms one great fabric in which beings resemble one another from one to the next…”
The dividing lines indicating categories of difference are always unreal, abstracted from the ‘great fabric’ of nature, and understood through human categories isolated in language.
Humans themselves are constituted by this great fabric: our culture and language lie on the same fabric. Our apparent mastery over creation comes from one simple quirk of our being: the tendency we exhibit to categorise, to cleave through the fabric of creation. For Philip K. Dick, this act is what separates us from the alien Biltong. They can merely copy, a repeated play of resemblance that with each iteration moves away from the ideal form. Humans, on the other hand, can do more than copy. They can take kipple and distinguish it from itself, endlessly, through categorisation and classification. Far from using things until they run down, humans build new relations, new meanings, carefully and slowly from the mush. New categories produce new things, produce newness. At least, that’s what Dick – a Platonic idealist – believed.
At the end of Pay for the Printer, a disparate group camp in the kipple-ised, sagging pudding of a formless city. One of the settlers has with him a crude wooden cup he has apparently cleaved himself with an even cruder, hand-made knife:
“You made this knife?” Fergesson asked, dazed.
“I can’t believe it. Where do you start? You have to have tools to make this. It’s a paradox!”
In his essay, The System of Collecting, Jean Baudrillard makes a case for the profound subjectivity produced in this apparent newness.
Once things are divested of their function and placed into a collection, they:
“…constitute themselves as a system, on the basis of which the subject seeks to piece together [their] world, [their] personal microcosm.”
The use-value of objects gives way to the passion of systematization, of order, sequence and the projected perfection of the complete set.
In the collection, function is replaced by exemplification. The limits of the collection dictate a paradigm of finality; of perfection. Each object – whether wrist-watch or butterfly – exists to define new orders. Once the blue butterfly is added to the collection it stands, alone, as an example of the class of blue butterflies to which the collection dictates it belongs. Placed alongside the yellow and green butterflies, the blue butterfly exists to constitute all three as a series. The entire series itself then becomes the example of all butterflies. A complete collection: a perfect catalogue. Perhaps, like Borges’ Library of Babel, or Plato’s ideal realm of forms, there exists a room somewhere with a catalogue of everything. An ocean of examples. Cosmic disorder re-constituted and classified as a finite catalogue, arranged for the grand cosmic collector’s singular pleasure.
The problem with catalogues is that absolutely anything can be collected and arranged. The zebra and the tiger may sit side-by-side if the collector is particularly interested in collecting mammals, striped quadrupeds or – a particularly broad collection – things that smell funny. Too much classification, too many cleaves in the fabric of creation, and order once again dissolves into kipple. Disorder arises when too many conditions of order have been imposed.
“[W]e must think of chaos not as a helter-skelter of worn-out and broken or halfheartedly realised things, like a junkyard or potter’s midden, but as a fluid mishmash of thinglessness in every lack of direction as if a blender had run amok. ‘AND’ is that sunderer. It stands between. It divides light from darkness.”
Collectors gather things about them in order to excerpt a mastery over the apparent disorder of creation. The collector attains true mastery over their microcosm. The narcissism of the individual extends to the precise limits of the catalogue he or she has arranged about them. Without AND language would function as nothing but pudding, each clause, condition or acting verb leaking into its partner, in an endless series. But the problem with AND, with classes, categories and order is that they can be cleaved anywhere.
Jorge Luis Borges exemplified this perfectly in a series of fictional lists he produced throughout his career. The most infamous, Michel Foucault claimed influenced him to write The Order of Things, the list refers to a “certain Chinese encyclopaedia” in which:
Animals are divided into
- belonging to the Emporer,
- sucking pigs,
- stray dogs,
- included in the present classification,
- drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
- et cetera,
- having just broken the water pitcher,
- that from a long way off look like flies…
In writing about his short story The Aleph, Borges also remarked:
“My chief problem in writing the story lay in… setting down of a limited catalog of endless things. The task, as is evident, is impossible, for such a chaotic enumeration can only be simulated, and every apparently haphazard element has to be linked to its neighbour either by secret association or by contrast.”
No class of things, no collection, no cleaving of kipple into nonkipple can escape the functions of either “association OR contrast…” The lists Borges compiled are worthy of note because they remind us of the binary contradiction classification always comes back to:
- Firstly, that all collections are arbitrary
- and Secondly, that a perfect collection of things is impossible, because, in the final instance there is only pudding “…in every lack of direction…”
Human narcissism – our apparent mastery over kipple – is an illusion. Collect too many things together, and you re-produce the conditions of chaos you tried so hard to avoid. When the act of collecting comes to take precedence over the microcosm of the collection, when the differentiation of things begins to break down: collectors cease being collectors and become hoarders. The hoard exemplifies chaos: the very thing the collector builds their catalogues in opposition to.
To tease apart what distinguishes the hoarder, from the collector, I’d like to introduce two new characters into this arbitrary list I have arranged about myself. Some of you may have heard of them, indeed, they are the brothers whom the syndrome of compulsive hoarding is named after.
Brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer lived in a mansion at 2078, Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. Sons of wealthy parents – their father was a respected gynaecologist, their mother a renowned opera singer – the brothers both attended Columbia University, where Homer studied law and Langley engineering. In 1933 Homer suffered a stroke which left him blind and unable to work at his law firm. As Langley began to devote his time entirely to looking after his helpless brother, both men became locked inside the mansion their family’s wealth and prestige had delivered. Over the following decade or so Langley would leave the house only at night. Wandering the streets of Manhattan, collecting water and provisions to sustain his needy brother, Langley’s routines became obsessive, giving his life a meaning above and beyond the streets of Harlem that were fast becoming run-down and decrepid.
But the clutter only went one way: into the house.
On March 21st 1947 the New York Police Department received an anonymous tip-off that there was a dead body in the Collyer mansion. Attempting to gain entry, police smashed down the front-door, only to be confronted with a solid wall of newspapers (which, Langley had claimed to reporter’s years earlier his brother “would read once his eyesight was restored”.) Finally, after climbing in through an upstairs window, a patrolman found the body of Homer – now 65 years old – slumped dead in his kippleised armchair. In the weeks that followed, police removed one hundred and thirty tons of rubbish from the house. Langley’s body was eventually discovered crushed and decomposing under an enormous mound of junk, lying only a few feet from where Homer had starved to death. Crawling through the detritus to reach his ailing brother, Langley had triggered one of his own booby traps, set in place to catch any robbers who attempted to steal the brother’s clutter.
The list of objects pulled from the brother’s house reads like a Borges original. FromWikipedia:
Items removed from the house included baby carriages, a doll carriage, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyer’s hope chests, rusty bed springs, a kerosene stove, a child’s chair, more than 25,000 books (including thousands about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, the chassis of an old Model T Ford, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, 14 pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines.
Finally: There was also a great deal of rubbish.
A Time Magazine obituary from April 1947 said of the Collyer brothers:
“They were shy men, and showed little inclination to brave the noisy world.”
In a final ironic twist of kippleisation, the brothers themselves became mere examples within the system of clutter they had amassed. Langley especially had hoarded himself to death. His body, gnawed by rats, was hardly distinguishable from the kipple that fell on top of it. The noisy world had been replaced by the noise of the hoard: a collection so impossible to conceive, to cleave, to order, that it had dissolved once more to pure, featureless kipple.
Many hoarders achieve a similar fate to the Collyer brothers: their clutter eventually wiping them out in one final collapse of systemic disorder.
But what of Philip K. Dick....?
In the 1960s, fuelled by amphetamines and a debilitating paranoia, Dick wrote 24 novels, and hundreds of short stories, the duds and the classics mashed together into an indistinguishable hoard. UBIK, published in 1966, tells of a world which is itself degrading. Objects regress to previous forms, 3D televisions turn into black and white tube-sets, then stuttering reel projectors; credit cards slowly change into handfuls of rusted coins, impressed with the faces of Presidents long since deceased. Turning his back for a few minutes a character’s hover vehicle has degraded to become a bi-propeller airplane.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, another stand-out novel from the mid 60s, begins with this memo, “dictated by Leo Bulero immediately on his return from Mars”:
“I mean, after all; you have to consider we’re only made out of dust. That’s admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn’t forget that. But even considering, I mean it’s a sort of bad beginning, we’re not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we’re faced with we can make it. You get me?”
Monday, April 25, 2011
by Jenny White
Gus Rancatori is a Renaissance man who owns an ice cream parlor. Cambridge-based Toscanini’s is a hangout where you’re as likely to run into a Nobel Laureate in chemistry and a molecular foodie as a furniture maker or novelist. One day I met a dapper man with gray hair who had been a physicist at MIT and gave it all up to start a business making high-end marshmallows. Tosci’s staff is memorably pierced and talented. One of the managers, Adam Tessier, is a published poet and essayist who last year filmed a customer a day reading a Shakespeare sonnet. Some scoopers are music majors, hard-core rockers who play for bands with names like Toxic Narcotic. You might receive your khulfee cone from the hands of the next big pop star. Gus Rancatori circulates through the wood-paneled room beneath displays of art, the host at a rotating feast of words, ideas and, above all, ice cream. Gus is discreet, but has some favorite customer stories.
A very famous MIT type used to attempt to pay with his own hand-drawn funny money and then he would launch into a lecture about the symbolic value of money, which I tried to squelch by claiming to remember that class from Freshman Economics. If you asked to help him, he would say, "I'm beyond help." When another MIT student found out that I didn't have a computer he offered to give me one, so strong were his evangelic instincts and also, like many of the customers, he was exceptionally generous.
With one hand Gus makes what The New York Times has called "the best ice cream in the world”; the other takes the cultural pulse of the city.He has published a mini-memoir, Ice Cream Man, and writes a column for The Atlantic -- close observations on what we can know about society through ice cream.
Customers! They're so nice. They're so weird. Some of them are so naked. We get a big cross section. We're near MIT but we're also in Central Square near a housing project. We get people who don't speak English because they're incredibly smart and have come to MIT and we get people who don't speak English because they just snuck into this country. We get people from nominally Spanish-speaking countries who don't speak Spanish. I like to hire people who can speak other languages. It can help in the store.
We often discuss the customers after a long night and I think most of us would agree that some of the most difficult customers are suburbanites who come into town on weekends or during the summer and are a little lost. Maybe I'm seeing anxious tourist behavior, but it often seems that adults from the suburbs like to play a little stupid when they're out of their element, "Look at this, honey, they have Saffron ice cream!" Any customer is capable of asking a question that is not really what they want to ask. "What's in the Goat Cheese Brownie?" really means, "Can I taste the Goat Cheese Brownie?" A customer once pointed at the chocolate ice cream and asked if it was vanilla. My playful brother, Joe, said, "Yes. It is." The customer thought for a minute and said, "I thought vanilla was white." My brother feigned surprise and slapped his forehead, "My God. You're right. That is chocolate." When customers arrive while we're mopping the floor and all the chairs atop tables, they ask "Are you closed?" Obviously we're closed, but they want to ask, "Can we still get something?" and if it is at all possible we try to serve them something, but something to go, so we can finish cleaning and go home ourselves.
Time takes on a cultural dimension in the shop, as people develop a circadian rhythm in which the cosmos aligns with their stomach: I can do this important thing here and only here, now and only now, and I need French Toast to do it.
Some customers are like Japanese trains. Every morning at 8:45 AM they get a double espresso or every night they come to study and begin with a White Peony tea. One customer only drank nocciola frappes and when he died suddenly his friends at MIT all came to the store after a memorial service and drank nocciola frappes. An accountant often arrives just before we stop serving weekend brunch and is upset when we are out of breakfast items. "This is very important to my week. Why do you always run out of French Toast?" Another was indignant when we asked people to leave after our 11 PM closing. We need to get home, catch a bus or subway, or simply lock the doors to keep any night goblins outside. Many people do not like our policy prohibiting the use of computers for a few hours every week. People think we are intentionally serving unusual flavors they like when they're not in the store; we make Cocoa Rum Chip every other week, but they only come occasionally. We try to set aside special flavors for special people, but customers also have "commitment issues" about ice cream flavors.
For the IgNobel Awards, an internationally broadcast spoof of the Nobel Prizes held at Harvard University, Gus developed a new ice cream flavor as homage to the discovery by 2007 IgNobel Chemistry Prize winner, Mayu Yamamoto, that you can extract vanillin from cow dung. (Gus admitted that his recipe for Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist did not include poop.) When I pointed out to Gus that he treats ice cream the way a novelist regards a blank page, he responded,
The idea of ice cream as a blank page might be very appropriate. I think about many things but it is easy for any idea to slip across the surface of my mind and end up as an ice cream flavor. Flavors come about from mistakes and misunderstandings. Ginger Snap Molasses was the result of wordplay. Steve's Ice Cream made Ginger Molasses and I wanted to get the cookie, the word "snap" and the idea of that snap into the flavor or at least flavor name. Black Bottom Pie came about while reading a cookbook one morning when I should have been getting to work. Jeremiah Tower, the first chef at Chez Panisse, described a favorite dessert from Alabama and I realized I had all the ingredients but should probably invert everything. So instead of making a chocolate rum pie with a ginger snap crust, I made a Chocolate Rum ice cream containing pieces of ginger snap cookies. I have a lot of curiosity and even a food as simple as ice cream can provide a large playing field.
Running rough-and-tumble on the playing field of food, fun, and social analysis, Gus, together with the anthropologist Merry “Corky” White, puts on a semi-underground annual food film festival that in its execution itself becomes a piece of performance art. Graduate students from Harvard and MIT volunteer their technical and lugging skills. The festival uses scavenged equipment and university rooms opportunistically acquired for that evening’s showing. Sometimes the films are shown in a room repurposed from a small swimming pool, chairs set inside the tiled chin-height walls. While watching the movie, you imagine Harvard men in knee-length bathing suits taking bracing morning constitutionals.
The films are usually accompanied by a speaker reflecting its theme, and Corky, an accomplished cook, makes film-appropriate food. After “Ratatouille”, the animated movie about a rat assisting a young Parisian from beneath his chef’s hat, the food critic Corby Kummer regaled the audience with stories from the field, but what the audience saw was the snooty food critic in the film, to whom Kummer bore a remarkable resemblance. Then Corky served up samples of ratatouille. When Gus and Corky realized the series was attracting a covey of attendees who skipped the movie and came just for the food, the series went even further underground in a game of cat and mouse (or rat) with the film grazers.
Food and drama embrace on screen and off. “The Kings of Pastry” is a documentary that follows three pastry chefs in the grueling competition for France’s most prestigious pastry title. Some of the men broke down under the pressure, their enormous sugar confections toppled, lifelong dreams ground to sugar dust. The audience in the borrowed Harvard room was tense; in the film, the judges were about to announce the winners. Just then there was a commotion at the door; members of the student shooting club claimed to have booked the room and demanded that we surrender it immediately. But we all remained in our seats, eyes glued to the drama on the screen, our noses twitching at the platter of Corky's cream puffs waiting on the table.
What is the secret of this enthusiasm for food -- not just for nurturance, but as a philosophical platform and for “deep play”?
The mysteries of ice cream? Moving past the maternal link I think the fundamental appeal of ice cream is juvenile. It is a food you get to play with and is actually improved by that combined stirring-melting spoon business. As you soften the ice cream it warms. Cold numbs taste buds so warming up the ice cream actually does make it taste better. It is the little boy's equivalent of letting wine breathe.
Playing with your food can be hedonistic and it can be dramatic, fusing our passions in one grand gesture of denial. You cannot have my Dulche de Leche. You may not pass. One customer was mugged when he refused to surrender a pint of ice cream to teenage thieves. And on another occasion the police caught a fleeing thief after first bringing him to heel with a well-aimed Toscanini frappe.
(Photo credit: Merry White)
Friday, September 11, 2009
Abbas Farid: Freestyle Footballer Extraordinaire
Via All Things Pakistan: