Dispatches: Local Catch

In yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, Paul Greenberg has written this excellent article on the engandered Patagonian toothfish, or Chilean sea bass, to use the current moarketing moniker.  He also touches on the very serious situation of all the ocean predators that humans have become so fond of eating: tuna, cod, etc.  As a huge, geeky believer in the idea of being connected to your food by knowing where it comes from and the people who produce it, I thought I’d provide a couple of my recipes for local fish.

But first, where to find local fish?  For a few years, I have been cooking fish on Wednesdays procured from my local fisherman, Alex at Blue Moon fisheries, who (or rather, whose retinue of exceptionally cool female employees) sells his catch on that day at the Union Square Greenmarket (on Union Square West at 16th Street).  What is challenging and interesting about doing it is the lack of any of the familiar farmed fish: no salmon or bluefin tuna, and very rarely cod or swordfish.  Instead you have a seasonally changing selection of fish that are swimming in the waters of Long Island: striped bass, bluefish, albacore, dogfish, weakfish, blackfish, monkfish, sea robin, porgies, etc.  As well, there is a selection of Bluepoint oysters, littleneck and quahog clams, and mussels from Shinnecock Bay.  Buying oysters and bringing them home to shuck yourself and slurp down with a little Sancerre, beer, or Champagne is something I highly recommend to endear yourself to your loved ones.

Getting fish from Alex and company and learning what to do with it has taught me a ton about what actually swims in the waters surrounding New York, at what times of year, and at what depths.  It’s also brought me into contact with lots of interesting ideas and local colorations.  Dan Barber sears white fish in lard; it’s super.  When you start doing something regularly, ideas start to flow.  Fried oysters are quick and delicious.  Albacore tuna crusted in sesame and seared on one side, then doused in soy and mirin is amazing.  I make my own canned tuna by packing chunks of the albacore into mason jars with chili, garlic, parsley, and lemon rind, filling it with olive oil, and following the typical canning procedure.  A salade nicoise with the oil from those jars in its mustard vinegarette is pretty special.  Dogfish (a small shark) sandwiches with tomatoes, mayonnaisse, and Tabasco are a hard lunch to beat.  Fish Biriyani with dogfish.  Grilled bluefish.  And on and on.  Find a local fish supplier, read some Alan Davidson, and away you go.  Anyway, herewith, a couple favorites.


Jasper White (the godfather of chowder) might dislike this recipe, since it doesn’t contain salt pork, one of the orthodox elements in the litany of New England chowder ingredients.  Well, I developed this recipe while living with a pescetarian, so I didn’t use salt pork.  If you want to use it (and it is great), leave out the garlic and chili mixture and start by rendering the fat from about two tablespoons of finely diced salt pork and then removing them once they have given up their fat and golden-browned.  Drain these on a paper towel and sprinkle the crispy cracklings on the finished dish.  You’ll have an more traditional chowder that relies on the base note of pork fat (always a pretty good idea), though my version substitutes for that flavor pretty well, I believe. 

Three other points: you want potatoes that are starchy, not waxy, because the starch helps thicken the broth. Second, sourdough bread and seafood broth is a godlike combination, so make sure you find a good sourdough loaf.  Finally, my other innovation on the classic method is to remove the clams after cooking and replace them at the end, thus avoiding rubbery-clam syndrome.  If you only have very large clams, you can chop them up roughly prior to putting them back in the soup, though you then lose the sensual quality of perfectly tender, whole clams in your soup.

Serves 4-6

1/2 tsp minced garlic and red chilies in olive oil (if you don’t have it, make do with crushed chili flakes and minced garlic)
1/2 tsp peppercorns, lightly crushed in mortar
1 knob butter
2 tbl olive oil
1 large yellow onion, cut into large dice
two dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed and rinsed
three large starchy potatoes (such as Idaho), peeled and cut into largish slices
1 lb flounder fillets (or other delicate white fish: fluke, halibut, sea bass, hake, cod, etc)
half a bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
half a loaf sourdough bread, sliced and toasted
cream (as much or as little as you like)

Warm the garlic/chili and the peppercorns with the butter and oil in a heavy soup-pot over medium-low heat.  Add the onions and sweat until translucent and flimsy but not browned.

Add the clams and a bit of water (or wine), turn the heat to high and cover.
Open after five minutes and check that all the clams have opened (littlenecks can be a bit reticent, sometimes you have to turn them right side up).  With a slotted spoon, remove the open clams to a bowl.

Now add the potatoes to the pot and enough water to cover them.  Salt generously to avoid stirring too much later.  (Meanwhile take the clams out and discard the shells.)  Boil until potatoes are well cooked. Crush one or two of the cubes into the broth to thicken it a bit.

Add the flounder fillets and cook them in the broth just until they flake apart (2-3 minutes).  Turn the heat off, throw in the clams and any residual broth from their bowl, the parsley, and enough cream to thicken the broth.  Ladle into bowls, and top with sourdough croutons.


This recipe is a good example of how small changes in execution can result in completely different flavors.  Here this is achieved by browning the garlic and onion further, which makes for a more potent, deeper broth.  This is then balanced by the addition of crushed red chili flakes and saffron, and smoked fish.

To make it, follow the recipe for Clam Chowder, but substitute two cloves of minced garlic and half a teaspoon of red chili flakes.  Let the garlic brown to a nutty gold (but not actually burnt) before adding the onion, which you should also let become just golden.  Put in less salt.  In place of half the flounder, add half a pound of smoked fish (haddock would be ideal, but bluefish works too).  Lastly, soak some saffron in cream while making the soup, and finish with the saffron-inflected cream.


This is my version of Bouillabaisse, with some help from the fish stew of Liguria.  Following the French system of bestowing appellations, I do not call my stew bouillabaisse, because the particular fishes required to make a proper one are unavailable to me in New York (particularly the legendarily bony rascasse, without which no authentic bouillabaisse can be made – one of the best pieces of food writing I have ever read is the great A.J. Liebling’s article on the rascasse). Instead I have developed a retinue of seafood found here that together produce a stock of similar complexity.  What’s important is to have a bony bottom feeding fish similar to the rascasse – in my case use the cool and ugly sea robin, a “trash” fish I buy from Alex for $1.50 a pound.  I fillet the fishes myself, but you can also have the fishmonger do it and ask to keep the carcasses.  The leftover meat from the carcasses, once cooked, can be saved for fishcakes.

This is a good dish for a special occasion, when you have friends helping and drinking Bandol or Julienas with you in the kitchen.  I think a seafood stew and its delicious broth are celebratory in a way unlike another big roast of meat – certainly much more more exciting.  For me, a bouillabaisse or other fish stew is an epic poem of the region in which it’s made, a Virgilian georgic of people, fish and work.

Serves 8

2 yellow onions, coarsely chopped
a large bulb fennel, chopped, eight leafy fronds reserved
6-8 ribs celery, chopped
six cloves garlic, minced
10 peppercorns
3 bay leaves
one snapper, filleted, carcass conserved
one sea robin (from the gunard family – or the boniest seafish you can find), whole
one bass, filleted, carcass conserved
1 1/2 pound mussels
1 1/2 pound very small clams (vongole) or cockles
half a bottle Italian white wine (nothing fancy, Pinot Grigio or Orvieto will do)
8 langoustines, or 1 pound of the biggest, coolest shrimp you can afford
3 pounds medium-waxy potatoes, peeled and cubed, or new potatoes
2-3 pounds fillets of very fresh wild striped bass, wild halibut, wild cod or other large-flaked white fish
3 tbl olive oil
red chili flakes
2 cans whole tomatoes, preferably Italian such as San Marzano
1 tsp saffron, preferably the large Iranian available from Truffette
1 loaf best sourdough or country bread (pugliese, batard, etc)
2 cloves garlic, halved

In a large stockpot, add a third of the chopped onion, chopped celery, chopped fennel, and chopped garlic, and all the peppercorns, bay leaves, and fish carcasses.  No salt.  Cover with cold water.  Bring to the boil, break up the carcasses with a wooden spoon.  Simmer slowly for thirty minutes.

During this thirty minutes, in another soup-pot, add the mussels and 1 cup wine, cover and cook over high heat until steam escapes from the top.  Check that all the mussels are open.  With a slotted spoon, move the mussels to a bowl. Remove half the mussels from their shells, discarding shells, and put the mussels on a large platter.  Strain the liquid in the pot into the stockpot.  Repeat the exact same process with the cockles or clams, adding to the platter.

Also during this thirty minutes, put the shrimp or langoustines into the stock pot in a sieve, so they don’t float away, and cook under just done or underdone, less than a minute. Reserve.  Also boil the potatoes in salted water until just done, drain, and add to the platter.  Finely chop the parsley and add to the platter.

Back to the stock.  After thirty minutes elapses, strain the stock into another pot through a sieve.  Remove all solids from the stock pot (after the fish carcasses cool, pick through them for meat, and use it for fish cakes, a mayonnaise-based fish salad, or just a sandwich with tabasco).  Now strain the stock back into the stockpot, put back over low heat and let it simmer, concentrating its flavor.  It should smell pretty great.

Now the actual stew begins.  In a heavy soup-pot, heat the olive oil over medium and add the rest of the onion and fennel, cooking until translucent. Add the garlic and a hefty amount of red chili flakes, and fry until garlic is just off-white and the harshness of its aroma has been attenuated.  Throw in the saffron and stir.  Now add the tomatoes (but not their juices), breaking them up with a spoon.  Cook this down over high heat until you have a medium a little looser than tomato sauce, about 30 minutes.  Now add enough of the concentrated fish stock to make the right volume for your numbers, and salt and pepper exactly right.  Poach the snapper and bass fillets in the stew and break them up a bit.

Thickly slice and properly toast the bread, then quickly rub one side with halved garlic.

Finally, slice the striped bass fillet into portions, one for each eater.  Now poach the cod pieces in the simmering stew broth.  As soon as they’re close to done, remove each to a warmed soup plate.  Now add the entire contents of the platter (mussels, cockles, potatoes, parsley) to the stew and heat as fast as you can.  When back to the boil, add langoustines or shrimp, count to fifteen, and ladle the stew over the cod, placing a langoustine on top, and add half a ladle of the stock to moisten if necessary.  Prettily place a fennel frond on top of each bowl (lying down, not jutting out!) and wedge a slice of garlic-rubbed toast halfway into the soup on the side of each plate.


This is a great use for albacore tuna, which is good raw but too lean to be very good cooked, and which appears in great quantities in the late summer and fall.  You can use it for the Salade Nicoise or for my tuna salad recipe below.  It’s way better than regular canned tuna and way cheaper than imported oil-packed Italian bluefin tuna.  Anyway, bluefin is wasted on anything other than sashimi.

Makes one Canning Jar

1/2-3/4 pound albacore tuna, no bones or skin, cut into 4-5 chunks
1 clove garlic, smashed and chopped
two or three red birds-eye chilies, split lengthwise
some sprigs of parsley
a small pinch of thyme
1tsp Maldon salt, or regular salt
6 peppercorns
good olive oil

Sit the tuna chunks in a canning jar (with the hinged top and red rubber seal) on top of the parsley fronds.  Add the rest of the ingredients around and on top of the tuna.  Now pour olive oil on top until it comes above the level of the tuna.  There should be a little room at the sides and top of the jar; you don’t want it packed too tightly.

Now place the jar (or jars) in a large pot and fill with water until the water comes just below the level of the jar’s mouth.  Take the jar out and bring the water to the boil; add the jar again (with tongs), lower heat to the barest simmer, cover and let simmer for 1 hour.  You’re done.  Let cool and refrigerate (just to be safe); it keeps indefinitely, though once you open the jar you should finish it within a few days.  And you will.


Obviously a classic.

Serves 4.

1/2 pound oil-packed tuna, flaked
2 pounds new potatoes
1 pound asparagus
4 eggs
2 very ripe beefsteak or plum tomatoes
Mixed lettuces, cos, romaine, etc
1 tbl mustard (I use Maille)
1 lemon
Maldon salt

Boil a pot of well-salted water, add the potatoes, cook until done.  Set aside.  Boil the eggs until softish, set aside, cool, peel and halve.  Blanch the asparagus, set aside.

Cut the tomatoes into quarters lengthwise and sprinkle with Maldon salt.

Make a vinegrette by beating into the mustard some olive oil and some oil from the tuna can and the juice of half a lemon until you have a loose dressing.  Pepper it.

Mix all ingredients gently with dressing to coat.  Either in a large bowl for the table or in individual dishes, arrange all ingredients and squeeze some lemon, grind some pepper and crunch some Maldon salt over them.  Bob’s your uncle.


This is the best tuna salad you can get, perfect for open-faced sandwiches on thick, toasted slices of good bread.  If you don’t have your own canned tuna, use water-packed white meat tuna and add a little more mayo.  I lunch on it and a bowl of dal when writing.

Serves 1 man, or 2 women (inside joke)

1/2 pound home-canned tuna
2-4 bird-eye chilies, finely sliced
thumb of ginger, finely diced
1 tbl parsley or cilantro, finely chopped
1 tbl mayonnaise
a squeeze lemon juice
a lot of black pepper

Combine everything in a bowl.  Break up the tuna some, but not too much.


SERVES 6-8 (depending on Allah’s mood – at times it has served 12)

6 curry leaves
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
1 thumb-sized piece ginger, finely diced
3-5 green birds-eye chilies, thinly sliced

1/2 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp ground coriander, 1 tsp red pepper, 1 tsp ginger, 1/2 tsp garam masala OR
4 tsp Shan fish biriyani spice mix OR
4 tsp hot madras curry powder

oil (canola or other vegetable)
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
10 black peppercorns
handful fresh coriander, chopped
some saffron and a bit of milk
16 oz. plain yogurt
2 lbs of firm, white-fleshed fish fillets (I like tilapia or the shark known as dogfish)
2 teacups full of Basmati rice from Pakistan, or India

Soak the saffron threads in milk in a cup.  Fry 1/4 of the onion in oil until dark golden brown (not burnt), then spread on a paper-towel covered plate to dry and become crispy and sweet.  Bring a pot of salted water to the boil, add the rice, simmer for 5 minutes until half cooked through, then drain in a sieve and leave.

Heat 5tbls oil in a large pan and add the curry leaves, cumin seeds and peppercorns when hot, then in 30 seconds the other 3/4 of onion.  Fry till onion is getting dark at edges and light golden.  Add the garlic, ginger, and chilies and fry more for a couple minutes.    Add the ground spice mix, 1 1/2 tsp salt and the coriander and fry for a minute.  Start adding the yogurt starting a little at a time, stirring, and then larger amounts until incorporated and all is bubbling away.  Then reduce heat, add the fish fillets, cook a couple of minutes and turn over.  turn off heat.  You now have a half cooked fish curry, and separately some half-cooked rice.

In a sturdy pot or casserole, add some of the sauce from the curry to the bottom, then 1/3 the rice, then half the fish curry, then 1/3 the rice, then half the fish curry, then top with the last 1/3 rice.  On top, sprinkle most of the crispy onions and a bit of fresh minced ginger, then pour the saffron-milk on top in an X pattern.  Put the lid on and leave to cook at the lowest heat for 30-45 minutes, turning off 10 minutes before eating.  Serve with raita, a hot green chutney, and extra crispy onions on each serving.


Where I’m Coming From
Optimism of the Will
Vince Vaughan…Eve Sedgwick
The Other Sweet Science
Rain in November
On Ethnic Food and People of Color
Aesthetics of Impermanence


Lives of the Cannibals: Isolation

The word derives from the Latin insulatus–made into an island–and it has a nasty sense to it, or so goes conventional thinking. Among its associations: disease, betrayal, failure, separation. It is the fate of the disgraced ruler (Napoleon’s sentence, true to the word’s root), the madman (isolated even from his own limbs by the fastening of straps) and the infected (the soon-to-be-dead, obscured by thick sheets of plastic and extensive breathing apparatus). It is what mothers fear for their children (who must be socially integrated, who must play well with others in order to get along and ahead in the world) and what children fear for their doddering parents (who must be reminded that they still belong to this world). It is a word without much positive association, at least in the minds of most people. We are taught to value plurality, consensus and feedback, and to regard the defiantly singular as suspect.

Such a shame, these negative connotations, especially considering that the word itself is quite properly defined and sourced. But we do understand its associations well–disgrace, insanity, imminent death–and we New Yorkers embrace them. We are (colorfully, proudly) isolation’s wealthy priests, a brotherhood of rejected, contagious madmen–and don’t you shake your head, Cowboy, in your disingenuous shame….I know pride when I see it!–clambering together on several rocks at the edge of the Atlantic. Of course, difference has always been a source of pride, a desirable feature in moderation, something to distinguish (but not to separate). You don’t need a Metro Card to appreciate what’s unique. But it helps. And in fact New York was built for isolation–exquisite machine, and complex, designed to exacerbate difference by density.

Isolation is subjective. There is no observable measurement that guides our estimation of it (its trite signals–social ineptitude, substance abuse, pallor–are too broad, suggesting a host of primary mental and physical disorders to which isolation has been unjustly attached as symptom or result), and yet it is experienced always and only in relation to others. Perhaps that’s why New York is its perfect vehicle. You cannot be isolated from others if there are no others to be isolated from, and fortunately, in this city, there are many, many others (all of them occupying, it seems on some nights, the apartment directly above yours). This is New York’s genius: to pack and load until all around are the bodies and voices of other people, most of whom you will never meet, whose thoughts may or may not coincide with your own, and whose gestures and posture and vocal tone may remind you in some insignificant way of someone you once knew, enough at least to confuse for a moment, to part your lips with the beginning of recognition. The multitude is New York’s special power. Here you will walk the streets and see the face of your best friend, how it was contorted with laughter, and the hands of the man who taught you piano, whose knuckles were enormous; you’ll hear your uncle’s voice, the way it thins its vowels down to string. These recognitions keep you dizzy in the beginning. Then they make you wary and wise. This is how you earn your eyes in New York, the ones that look right past beggars and roll in the wide-open faces of tourists. Things are not as they appear.

Concrete, too, plays a role. The hard surface, a broad palette, does not lend itself to the formation of meaningful human connections. With appropriate irony, we live and work on top of this manmade carapace, choosing to expose rather than protect ourselves, favoring the benefit of an impenetrable surface on which to construct our ambition. It’s better that way–reliable, safe, efficient–and if we imitate its principal characteristic, if we are a touch impervious, then such is the sacrifice we make. We are not here to join hands in fellow feeling.

And there is the anonymity of sophistication, because who would champion fraternité in the thick of such wit and fancy poise? New York City, weary from its better knowledge, is no place to clasp hands and sing songs. Isolation is inherently sophisticated, an exclusive state, and highly transmissible, so it flourishes here, without the annoyance of a lot of mutual identity. When New Yorkers run into each other outside the city, there is acknowledgement, yes, and respect, and even some sense of pleasure at the recognition, but we do not then go out to dinner together. We don’t become friends, no more than we would were we to bump into each other on Seventh Avenue. Such things are for people from Wisconsin. No, sophistication demands restraint, and the city trains us well in that discipline.

It is almost ridiculous to add that the city’s architectural realities reinforce our sense of isolation, so obvious does it seem. The five boroughs offer a wide selection of slots in which we may exist calmly, in compact stacks of residential habitats. We transform warehouses and churches and single-family brownstones into hives of homes, with drywall and wainscoting and original details, and we sit in our rooms and listen to our neighbors, who themselves are listening to their neighbors, who just returned from Elizabeth, New Jersey, with new throw rugs for the kids’ room and a drop-leaf dining table. We covet these small comforts, the better to insulate our tiny segment of space, the better to fashion attractive surroundings, to distract from the stranger who sleeps just inches away, just through that wall, whose obstructed breathing you can hear in the middle of the night. The fabulous terror of isolation is felt best when pressed up against the bodies of millions.

Whatever its ingredients and the means of its formation, New York’s modus operandi and principal issue fuels ambition–professional, creative, romantic. In every moment of individual desperation lies the seed of an artistic triumph, an industrial revolution, an unholy feat of seduction. It is New York’s most appealing paradox–that the greatest of cities maintains its power not by bringing its people together, but by inspiring their isolation.

Lives of the Cannibals: Redemption
Lives of the Cannibals: The Spell of the Sexual
Lives of the Cannibals: Rage

Monday Musing: More Paranoiac rantings about the web and blogs

The other day I came across an article in a new journal, In Character, which has issues titled “Thrift”, “Purpose”, “Creativity”. The latest issue is entitled “Loyalty”. In it, I found a article by Bret Stephens on “Keeping Faith with the Jews, Keeping Faith with Israel”. The article was a rejoinder to Tony Judt’s 2003 piece in The New York Review of Books. Judt had written an article which endorsed a binational state as a solution the decades old conflict between the Palestinians and the Jewish state.

The idea of a binational state is a old one, but initially it came from the Zionist movement’s left wing—Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt at the moment of Israel’s birth. In more recent times, it was taken up by Palestinian secular nationalists and some in the Left wing, Palestinian and non-Palestinian.

The essay itself was odd. Its opening lines: “This is an essay about loyalty—the loyalty that Jews owe the State of Israel. To understand what such loyalty entails, let me begin by describing an act of betrayal.”

(The article itself was relatively uninteresting, for me at least, if only because Stephens kept suggesting that a Jew may not identify with Jewish religion, history and culture, but to be part of the Jewish community still he or she must minimally identify with what is “filial[ly] and political[ly]” Jewish, by which Stephens implicitly meant loyalty to the Israeli polity. The Satmar came to mind.)

But that wasn’t what caught my eye. Stephens mentioned a web site called “Palestine: Information with a Provenance”. The website catalogs information about people who write and speak on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its categorizations are, well, to say the least interesting. The site’s categories include “Hardline Zionist American Jew” and “anti-Zionist Mizrahi American”.

Stephens reaction was the following.

[T]he radically pro-Palestinian politics of the site were nowhere near as disturbing as the uses to which they had put their views. Among its other features, it places individuals in “author categories”: Jewish, Zionist, Israeli, American, Palestinian, Arab. I “found myself,” so to speak, as “Bret Stephens: Zionist American Israeli Jew.” With a meticulousness that would have delighted Adolf Eichmann, they had made lists, and I was on four of them, the very four they held in greatest contempt.

It struck me, to some extent, as a reverse Campus Watch. And therein was the odd, disturbing bit—which in all honesty I don’t quite know what to make of.

Campus Watch’s response to charge of McCarthyism was and has always been simple.

• Campus Watch is not a government activity or associated with any government organization.

• Campus Watch has no legislative or judiciary authority. It cannot dictate to any educational institution hiring or firing decisions.

•Campus Watch lacks any coercive powers.

And “Palestine: Information with a Provenance”:

A great many untruths and half-truths have been written on the conflict over Palestine. Therefore, it is important to understand the provenance of all material about the situation. For each article, map or book: who produced it? what agenda do the author(s) have? where was it published? what agenda does the journal have? Similarly, it is important to understand the provenance of each film or audio/video clip: who is speaking in it? what agenda do the speakers(s) have? where was the film or clip produced or broadcast? what agenda does the producer/broadcaster have? An attempt is made here to provide this information.

Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault’s case study of modern prisons, or properly, his extension of his sociological claim that one of the hallmarks of the modern era is surveillance, laid out an image of world in which people, cognizant of constantly being watched, alter their behavior and thereby alter themselves. Anthony Giddens and Timur Kuran have made similar claims, though Kuran does not associate it with modernity per se.

The monitoring is not necessarily done by states or other organized forms such as hospitals, asylums, factories and prisons, though states and other formal organizations are in a better position to do it. Or at least were. With the advent of the net, we can all be implicated in this mutual monitoring.

Daniel Pipes and Campus Watch are of course right in that, unlike McCarthy, they are not associated with any government organization, have no legislative authority, and cannot dictate hiring or firing in educational institutions. They are wrong in that they do have a coercive power. The power they have is the specter and, perhaps, reality of the lynch mob. It is certainly the fear that many on Campus Watch’s list feel, and what Bret Stephens felt. If “Palestine: Information with a Provenance” had the same scope and prominence, others on the “blacker” of its list may feel the same.

And it is this in the net and the blogosphere that generates this patrician worry of mine.

3 Quarks Daily Needs Your Help…

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Contestants, Taxes, Paradoxes and Sure Things

John Allen Paulos in his Who’s Counting column at ABC News:

Bigjap_1What’s important is the “utility” to you of the dollars you receive, and their utility drops off, often logarithmically, as you receive more of them. Gaining or losing $1 million means much more to most people than it does to Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. People consider not the dollar amount at stake in any investment or game, but the utility of the dollar amount for them.

Note that the declining average utility of money provides part of the rationale for progressive taxation and higher tax rates on greater wealth.

A less weighty illustration than progressive taxation is provided by a recent British study of the show “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.” It confirms that contestants behave as considerations of utility would suggest. Once they’ve reached a high rung on the winnings ladder, they more often quit while ahead rather than risk falling to a much lower level.

More here.

dark matter?

THE adage “what you see is what you get” could be thought to ring true for a group of people who dedicate their lives to collecting tiny flickers of light from very distant objects. But astronomers and cosmologists, who do exactly that, have long held that the universe is pervaded by far more than that which can be seen. Since the 1930s, they have postulated the existence of “dark matter”, an ethereal and, as yet, undetected form of matter.

Physicists claim to need dark matter to explain why the stars in the outermost reaches of rotating galaxies are moving at such great speeds. If these galaxies consisted only of the stars that can been seen, their gravity would be insufficient to hold on to the outermost stars. The individual stars would simply fly out of the galaxy, like a doll thrown from a rapidly spinning merry-go-round. Thus, the galaxy must contain some mysterious matter that makes it massive enough to keep hold of these stars. . .

Now, in a controversial paper that has recently appeared on arXiv, an online collection of physics papers, Fred Cooperstock and Steven Tieu of the University of Victoria in Canada claim that one of the key pieces of evidence for the existence of dark matter is not really there.

more from The Economist here.

young persia


“I love George Bush,” said one thoughtful and well-educated young woman, as we sat in the Tehran Kentucky Chicken restaurant, “but I would hate him if he bombed my country.” She would oppose even a significant tightening of economic sanctions on those grounds. A perceptive local analyst reinforced the point. Who or what, he asked, could give this regime renewed popular support, especially among the young? “Only the United States!”

If, however, Europe and the United States can avoid that trap; if whatever we do to slow down the nucleariza-tion of Iran does not end up merely slowing down the democratization of Iran; and if, at the same time, we can find policies that help the gradual social emancipation and eventual self-liberation of Young Persia, then the long-term prospects are good. The Islamic revolution, like the French and Russian revolutions before it, has been busy devouring its own children. One day, its grandchildren will devour the revolution.

more in the New York Review of Books here.

van gogh drawings


Fame hasn’t always been kind to the reputation of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), whose drawings are now featured in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s owing to his fame, after all, that van Gogh is still so often described as a deranged genius—the man who cut off his ear in a fit of paranoid rage. Yet the artist’s drawings often tell a different story. For while it’s true that in these drawings every dot, squiggle and stroke of van Gogh’s emphatic pen is charged with an uncommon emotional weight, it’s also true that his draftsmanship is just as often governed by a sustained feat of pictorial precision and control. Complex spatial perspectives are strictly observed even in drawings that are overcrowded with visual detail, and every image—including the artist’s self-portraits—is rendered with a faithful depiction of its observed subject.

more from Hilton Kramer at The New York Observer here.

Is Osama Dead or Alive?

From Despardes.com:Osama

Is he dead or alive? Now newspaper Ausaf published from Multan has reported that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden died four months ago in a village near Kandahar of severe illness. He was campaigning at Bamiyan, fell very ill, returned to Kandahar where he died and was buried in the “Shada graveyard in the shadow of a mountain.” Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was not far from the truth when he told reporters from CBS News last month, “he has become a cult, I think.”

More here.

Waiting for an Islamic Enlightenment

Tariq Ali on “No God But God” in the Guardian:

God Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American writer, a Shia by persuasion, and informs us in the prologue to his book that he will be denounced as an apostate by some and an apologist by others, but that the latter does not bother him since “there is no higher calling than to defend one’s faith”, especially in times of ignorance and hate.

The Shia sects and some of their more esoteric beliefs have little to do with Islamic theology. An Iranian equivalent of Monty Python’s Life of Brian will deconstruct all this one day. Shia mythology (some of it uncritically recycled here) transformed a crude bid for power by Ali’s son, Hussain, and his defeat and death at the hands of the Caliph Yazid, into a sacred martyrdom commemorated to this day with an annual display of self-flagellation and blood-spilling. The reform solution is to ban the self-flagellation and instead encourage participants to donate their blood to hospitals. It’s an amusing idea that misses the whole point about the processions, designed by the Shia clergy to encourage obedience, inculcate the idea of an eternal martyrdom and maintain their grip.

More here.

Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity

Cosma Shalizi, indubitably one of the smartest persons in the blogoshere, has posted a brilliant and very substantive review (in other words, he has said in an erudite manner what I thought but couldn’t express anywhere nearly as well when I read the book) that he wrote of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, when it had come out a couple of years ago:

Normally, scientific work is full of references to previous works, if only to say things like “the outmoded theory of Jones [1], unable to accommodate stubborn experimental facts [2–25], has generally fallen out of favor”. This is how you indicate what’s new, what you’re relying on, how you let readers immerse themselves in the web of ideas that is an particular field of research. Wolfram has deliberately omitted references. Now, this is sometimes done: Darwin did it in The Origin of Species, for instance, to try to get it to press quickly. But Wolfram has written 1100 pages over about a decade; what would it have hurt to have included citations? In his end-notes, where he purports to talk about what people have done, he is misleading, or wrong, or both. (An indefinite number of examples can be provided upon request.) To acknowledge that he had predecessors who were not universally blinkered fools would, however, conflict with the persona he is try to project to others, and perhaps to himself.

Let me try to sum up. On the one hand, we have a large number of true but commonplace ideas, especially about how simple rules can lead to complex outcomes, and about the virtues of toy models. On the other hand, we have a large mass of dubious speculations (many of them also unoriginal). We have, finally, a single new result of mathematical importance, which is not actually the author’s. Everything is presented as the inspired fruit of a lonely genius, delivering startling insights in isolation from a blinkered and philistine scientific community. We have been this way before.

More here.

Taiwan to ignore flu drug patent

From BBC News:

TamifluTaiwan has responded to bird flu fears by starting work on its own version of the anti-viral drug, Tamiflu, without waiting for the manufacturer’s consent.

Taiwan officials said they had applied for the right to copy the drug – but the priority was to protect the public.

Tamiflu, made by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, cannot cure bird-flu but is widely seen as the best anti-viral drug to fight it, correspondents say.

More here.

The Fall of the Warrior King

Dexter Filkins in the New York Times Magazine:

23coverEven in an Army in which ferocious competition produced nearly perfect specimens of brains and lethality, Sassaman stood apart. Commanding some 800 soldiers in the heart of the insurgency-ravaged Sunni Triangle, Sassaman, then 40, had distinguished himself as one of the nimblest, most aggressive officers in Iraq. From his base in Balad, a largely Shiite city in a sea of Sunni villages, Sassaman bucked the civilian authorities and held local elections months earlier than in most of the country’s other towns and cities. His relations with the locals in Balad were so warm that on each Friday afternoon, inside a circle of tanks on an empty field, his men would face off against the Iraqis for a game of soccer. He was a West Point grad and the son of a Methodist minister. As quarterback for Army’s football team in the 1980’s, he ran for 1,002 yards in a single season and carried West Point’s team to its first bowl victory. Everyone in the Army knew of Nate Sassaman.

Yet as his junior officers briefed him in January about what had happened to two Iraqis his men detained that night by the Tigris, the straight lines and rigid hierarchy of the Army that had created him seemed, like so many other American ideas brought to this murky land, no longer particularly relevant…

The events that would end the career of one of the Army’s most celebrated midlevel officers sent a shock through the American force in Iraq. It is only now, with the Army’s investigation complete and Sassaman’s career over, that the story can be pieced together from interviews with him, his comrades and the Iraqis. Twenty-two months after that night on the Tigris, it is a tale that seems like a parable of the dark passage that lay ahead for the Americans in Iraq.

More here.

MacMansions on MacQuasars

From Now or Never:

The other day one of my students asked me what I thought about our spending billions to explore space when we have so many problems here on earth that need our attention.  It’s a good question. The USA’s scoping out another moon shot as we speak. China’s orbiting the globe now and should soon be as dizzy as other super-duper powers. Mars is on the horizon. Before you know it there’ll be MacMansions on MacQuasars, yet bad news falls from terra firma’s firmament without let-up.  Sadly the human record  seems to tell us our’s is a conflict without resolution, a condition without a cure.

It’s deja vu cloned and cubed.

What we’re caught up in is the eternal call of the moment wrestling with our obsession with the unknown. Instant gratification chronically usurping future returns.  In modern 1st world parlance, it’s like being strapped to a table in a fast food joint wolfing juicy supersizes with fries until we’re bigger than Jupiter, instead of getting out there and exploring Jupiter.  It’s an endless state of affairs.  We might as well be Sysiphus, and this dilemma our rolling stone.  God knows we need the exercise.

More here.

Better than a Timex

From Discover:

SOMETIMES, WHEN THINGS GET SUFFICIENTLY WEIRD, SUBTLETY NO longer works, so i’ll be blunt:  The gleaming device I am staring at in the corner of a machine shop in San Rafael, California, is the most audacious machine ever built. It is a clock, but it is designed to do something no clock has ever been conceived to do—run with perfect accuracy for 10,000 years.

Everything about this clock is deeply unusual. For example, while nearly every mechanical clock made in the last millennium consists of a series of propelled gears, this one uses a stack of mechanical binary computers capable of singling out one moment in 3.65 million days. Like other clocks, this one can track seconds, hours, days, and years. Unlike any other clock, this one is being constructed to keep track of leap centuries, the orbits of the six innermost planets in our solar system, even the ultraslow wobbles of Earth’s axis.

Made of stone and steel, it is more sculpture than machine. And, like all fine timepieces, it is outrageously expensive. No one will reveal even an approximate price tag, but a multibillionaire financed its construction, and it seems likely that shallower pockets would not have sufficed.

Fleeing to Europe

Der Standard (via Sign and Sight) looks at the politically charged issue of asylum seekers (refugees) in Europe in this interview with the Portuguese journalist, Paulo Moura on African refugees in Morocco.

Der Standard: In recent years, the EU has let it be known it has plans to create outposts for African refugees in North Africa. Haven’t these outposts existed for a long time now?

Paulo Moura: Yes, as informal camps. In general, the refugees see it as their right to solve the problem as they see fit. What is certain is that they want to come to Europe, and there is nothing that can change their minds. They live to reach Europe. So it wouldn’t be a good idea to set up such camps. The last time I was in one of these “underground camps” in a forest near Ceuta, a refugee leader said that the official outposts wouldn’t change the refugees’ condition one bit. The money would be used for the local people of the country in question. “Official” camps only serve to give Europeans a clear conscience.

Morocco receives financial aid from the EU. What impact does this have? Are institutions in place that supervise this money flow?

The country receives money to solve problems where they occur. But the way this is done is unacceptable. Prison conditions are miserable, and the jails are filled to overflowing. Thousands of people continue to live and die in the forests and deserts, and nothing is done to stop it. And the system of corruption in Morocco pervades every level – from the government to the police to the military. So it’s impossible to exercise control.

praising agee


Agee’s film criticism sounds like that too, a calculated yet self-exceeding improvisation. Its culmination is the twenty-five-page essay he wrote for Life in September 1949 titled “Comedy’s Greatest Era.” Agee’s premise was simple: “As soon as the screen began to talk, silent comedy was pretty well finished.” In a Bob Hope film, “the fun slackens between laughs like a weak clothesline.” What Agee loved in silent movies was the same thing that he loved in nineteenth-century daguerreotypes and New Orleans jazz, an unselfconscious authenticity of the kind Schiller called “naïve” rather than sentimental. Agee began his essay in a mock-analytic mode: “In the language of screen comedians four of the main grades of laugh are the titter, the yowl, the bellylaugh and the boffo. The titter is just a titter. The yowl is a runaway titter. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure knows all about a bellylaugh. The boffo is the laugh that kills.” Agee examined the smiles of the great comedians: Harold Lloyd’s “thesaurus of smiles” which “could at a moment’s notice blend prissiness, breeziness and asininity,” or Buster Keaton–the “most deeply ‘silent’ of the silent comedians”–whose smile “was as deafeningly out of key as a yell.” The twitchings of Harry Langdon’s clueless face “were signals of tiny discomforts too slowly registered by a tinier brain; quick, squirty little smiles showed his almost prehuman pleasures, his incurably premature trustfulness.” And then there was Chaplin, some kind of ultimate for Agee: “Of all comedians he worked most deeply and most shrewdly within a realization of what a human being is, and is up against.”

more from TNR here.

Schama on rubens


The thing about entitling your show “Master in the Making” is that it assumes a public already sold on just what it was that got made. But that couldn’t be less true in the case of Rubens. In any given museum on any given Sunday, the empty gallery is invariably “Flemish, 17th Century”, where gatherings of massively upholstered nudes shift their dimpled weight opposite a collision of horses and carnivores, while by the door an obscure and pallid saint embraces his martyrdom with rolled-up eyes. Punters enter, take a quick gander, assume the proper expression of the glazed, the cowed, the awed and the baffled, and then accelerate towards the door marked “Rembrandt”.

more from the Guardian Unlimited here.

giant squid


OK, Us, you’ve had your fun. Now you best pay attention. Those pictures you took crossed a lot of lines, and I, Giant Squid, want to set some ground rules if you ever want me to cooperate again. Giant Squid doesn’t have a lot of patience.

Not all of the pictures made Giant Squid mad. The first ones of me underwater, for example—those were all right. Nonintrusive, plenty of Japanese scientists on hand to make it legit. All in all, pretty understandable, pretty exciting even, considering that Giant Squid hadn’t ever been photographed in his natural environment before. Hell, I’ve been a giant squid my whole life, and even now sometimes just the fact that a creature like me exists is enough to make Giant Squid ink himself. For the sake of science, Giant Squid is glad you’re happy with those shots. Giant Squid saw some of them on Yahoo!’s newswire, and he’s gotta say they turned out pretty well.

But now it’s gotten out of hand. . .

more from McSweeney’s here.