How Did The Answer To “What to Eat?” Get So Complicated?

Michael Pollan in the NYT Magazine:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy. I hate to give away the game right here at the beginning of a long essay, and I confess that I’m tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a few thousand more words. I’ll try to resist but will go ahead and add a couple more details to flesh out the advice. Like: A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat “food.” Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

Uh-oh. Things are suddenly sounding a little more complicated, aren’t they? Sorry. But that’s how it goes as soon as you try to get to the bottom of the whole vexing question of food and health. Before long, a dense cloud bank of confusion moves in. Sooner or later, everything solid you thought you knew about the links between diet and health gets blown away in the gust of the latest study.

Last winter came the news that a low-fat diet, long believed to protect against breast cancer, may do no such thing — this from the monumental, federally financed Women’s Health Initiative, which has also found no link between a low-fat diet and rates of coronary disease. The year before we learned that dietary fiber might not, as we had been confidently told, help prevent colon cancer. Just last fall two prestigious studies on omega-3 fats published at the same time presented us with strikingly different conclusions. While the Institute of Medicine stated that “it is uncertain how much these omega-3s contribute to improving health” (and they might do the opposite if you get them from mercury-contaminated fish), a Harvard study declared that simply by eating a couple of servings of fish each week (or by downing enough fish oil), you could cut your risk of dying from a heart attack by more than a third — a stunningly hopeful piece of news. It’s no wonder that omega-3 fatty acids are poised to become the oat bran of 2007, as food scientists micro-encapsulate fish oil and algae oil and blast them into such formerly all-terrestrial foods as bread and tortillas, milk and yogurt and cheese, all of which will soon, you can be sure, sprout fishy new health claims. (Remember the rule?)

Scientists bridging the spirituality gap


Spirit Religion and science can combine to create some thorny questions: Does God exist outside the human mind, or is God a creation of our brains? Why do we have faith in things that we cannot prove, whether it’s the afterlife or UFOs? The new Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania is using brain imaging technology to examine such questions, and to investigate how spiritual and secular beliefs affect our health and behavior. Newberg’s center is not a bricks-and-mortar structure but a multidisciplinary team of Penn researchers exploring the relationship between the brain and spirituality from biological, psychological, social and ideological viewpoints.

How does the center test the relationship between the mind and spirituality? In one study, Newberg and colleagues used imaging technology to look at the brains of Pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues — known scientifically as glossolalia — then looked at their brains when they were singing gospel music. They found that those practicing glossolalia showed decreased activity in the brain’s language center, compared with the singing group.

More here.

Rare “Prehistoric” Shark Photographed Alive

From The National Geographic:


Flaring the gills that give the species its name, a frilled shark swims at Japan’s Awashima Marine Park on Sunday, January 21, 2007. Sightings of living frilled sharks are rare, because the fish generally remain thousands of feet beneath the water’s surface. Spotted by a fisher on January 21, this 5.3-foot (160-centimeter) shark was transferred to the marine park, where it was placed in a seawater pool. “We think it may have come to the surface because it was sick, or else it was weakened because it was in shallow waters,” a park official told the Reuters news service. But the truth may never be known, since the “living fossil” died hours after it was caught.

More here.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Surface texture in new building design

Witold Rybczynski in Slate:

Deyoung8The new de Young museum in San Francisco, which opened in 2005, replaces a Spanish-style building that had been insensitively “modernized” in 1949, fatally weakened by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and finally demolished in 2003. Despite billing itself as a “museum of the 21st century,” the new building has many of the hallmarks of a 19th-century art gallery: skylights, separate wings for different collections, landscaped courtyards, and a grand staircase. What is decidedly unconventional, in this age of extrovert cultural institutions, is the exterior appearance, which, from a distance, is slightly forbidding, uncommunicative, almost grim.

Unusual exterior cladding is something of a trademark of the primary design architects, the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, who have previously used skins of twisted copper strips, printed acrylic, and silk-screened glass and concrete. The walls of the de Young are paper-thin copper panels, both dimpled and perforated. The dimples—concave and convex—create changing textures, while the perforations, which vary in size and density, emphasize the thinness and create the effect of a scrim. Like the exteriors of many recent buildings (Zaha Hadid’s Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum, Herzog & de Meuron’s own addition to the Walker Art Gallery), the walls neither reveal structure nor express inner organization. Instead, the patterns are purely ornamental, which makes them curiously similar in function to the moldings and decorations on the exteriors of classical buildings. The trend suggests just how far from its Modernist roots the current generation of architects has strayed.

More here.

Neglecting Darfur

Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, blogging from the World Economic Forum in Davos:

Irene_khan In true WEF style, a galaxy of stars – from Blair to Bono and Bill Gates, from Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa, to Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, the President of Liberia and the first woman head of state in Africa – sat around the table, with lesser luminaries like Paul Wolfowitz, the President of the World Bank, and Joseph Stiglitz, the award-winning economist in the row, directly behind them.

The subject was “Delivering on the Promise of Africa”. While everyone agreed that the promise was being marred by crippling debt, rampant corruption, weak commitment by both western and African leaders and the lack of capacity in Africa, the round table exuded a sense of optimism and hope for the future.

It was an inspiring debate. The two African Presidents and the African NGO representative emphasised the leadership and participation of Africans themselves.

Bono called Africa “an adventure and an opportunity”; for Blair, it was a “strategic interest”. Ogata believed that it was possible to have an African miracle.

It was left to Ogata, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to remind all of us that Africa must be made refugee-free and that the carnage in Darfur must be stopped.

It was the first time that anyone had mentioned Darfur in Davos. A human rights and humanitarian catastrophe – that has left millions displaced, killed, raped with impunity – is nowhere to be found on the agenda of WEF. Business leaders see no commercial interest in that part of Sudan. Political leaders would prefer not to be reminded of the limits of their own impotence.

More here.

Friends in unlikely places

The superstores are suddenly competing to be green. Can we trust them?

George Monbiot in The Guardian:

You batter your head against the door until you begin to wonder whether it is a door at all. Suddenly it opens, and you find yourself flying through space. The superstores’ green conversion is astonishing, wonderful, disorienting. If Tesco and Walmart have become friends of the earth, are any enemies left?

These were the most arrogant of the behemoths. They have trampled their suppliers, their competitors and even their regulators. They have smashed local economies, broken the backs of the farmers, forced their contractors to drive down wages, shrugged off complaints with a superciliousness born of the knowledge that they were unchallengeable. For them, it seemed, there was no law beyond the market, no place too precious to be destroyed, no cost they could not pass to someone else.

We environmentalists developed a picture of the world which seemed to be repeatedly confirmed by experience. Big corporations destroy the environment. They are the enemies of society. The bigger they become, the less they can be constrained by either democracy or consumer power. The politics of scale permit them to bully governments, tear up standards, reshape the world to suit themselves.

More here.

Goncharov: oblomov


Anyone with a claim to literacy is familiar with the names of Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky, and can cite some of the titles of their most famous works. But Goncharov and his novel Oblomov, of which a new translation, a snappily colloquial and readable one, has just been published–who ever heard of them? Well, Beckett for one, who was told to read Oblomov by his mistress Peggy Guggenheim, and soon signed some of his letters to her with this cognomen. I recall my teacher at the University of Chicago long ago, the renowned classicist David Grene, who had been a fellow student of Beckett’s at Trinity College, Dublin, telling me that the future famous writer was well-known as a very late riser and missed classes for this reason. Since the main character of Oblomov also finds it very difficult to leave his couch–whether he succeeds in doing so or not (literally as well as symbolically) constitutes the main thread of the extremely tenuous action of the novel–Beckett’s instant attraction to this character is easily comprehensible. There is also good reason to believe that the figure in Waiting for Godot bearing the Russian name of Vladimir is a tribute to this unexpectedly Slavic aspect of Beckett.

more from TNR here.

The Jihadism of Fools

Over the last few years, and especially since the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, there have been indications across the world of a growing convergence between the forces of Islamist militancy, on the one hand, and the ‘anti-imperialist’ left on the other. Leaving aside widespread, if usually unarticulated, sympathy for the attacks of September 11, 2001, justified on the grounds that “the Americans deserved it,” we have seen since 2003 an overt coincidence of policies, with considerable support for the Iraqi “resistance,” which includes strong Islamist elements, and, more recently and even more explicitly, support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the Middle East itself, and on parts of the European far left, an overt alliance with Islamists has been established, going back at least to the mass demonstrations in early 2003 that preceded the Iraq War, but also including a convergence of slogans on Palestine–supporting suicide bombings and denying the legitimacy of the Israeli state. Last year, for example, radical Basque demonstrators were preceded by a militant waving a Hezbollah flag. Moreover, since most of those who oppose the U.S. action in Iraq of 2003 also opposed the war in Afghanistan in 2001, this leads, whether clearly recognized or not, to support for the anti-Western Taliban, armed groups now active across that country.

more from Dissent here.

may this day be as much as possible unlike a dog!


Kenneth Koch once said of his early poems that he wanted to keep the subject in the air as much as possible, because any subject, according to Wittgenstein, is a limitation of the world. But Koch, who died in 2002, knew that a subject emerges sooner or later, so it makes sense that he would choose happiness, an expansive one, as his own. In the long poem “Seasons on Earth,” he writes that he thought about happiness “As being at one’s side, so that one [had] but / To bend or turn to get to it . . .” This obsession, amply displayed in the near-simultaneous publication of his Collected Poems and Collected Fiction, began as a reaction to the suffocating aesthetic of what he saw as New Critical drips—poets Koch referred to as “the castrati”—who thought suffering the only form of intense feeling. For Koch, it was unethical to deny any part of experience, which is why his poems ask us time and again what it means to lead a good life—with “good” meaning both pleasurable and ethical. In the broad view of his career that these new books afford, we see Koch preserving the comic as a serious way of arriving at “ecstasy, unity, freedom, completeness, dionysiac things,” poetic ambitions he talks about in a 1995 interview with the poet Jordan Davis, his student and the editor of his Collected Fiction.

more from Boston Review here.

Thomas Hardy’s English Lessons

From The New York Times:Hardy190

When Thomas Hardy drew his first chancy breaths inside a Dorset cottage in 1840, Wordsworth had yet to become England’s poet laureate. By his ninth decade, still writing, Hardy enjoyed listening to the wireless with his dog, Wessex, and had seen the silent-film adaptation of his own “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.” The author’s life span seems somehow even vaster than it was, a match for the cosmically long view Hardy took of his fictional characters, fate’s playthings set in motion on a “blighted star.”

This new biography makes its subject a fascinating case study in mid-Victorian literary sociology. Hardy struggles — with an industriousness befitting the age — against editorial rejection, rapacious contract terms and enforced prudery. Leslie Stephen, known chiefly to the 21st century as Virginia Woolf’s father, edited his magazine, The Cornhill, under the watchful, prissy eyes of so many others that he sometimes made “few suggestions beyond bowdlerizations” when working on Hardy’s copy. Serialization often forced the author “to pack in far too much plot” and thereby throw novels like “The Mayor of Casterbridge” significantly off-kilter. Finally, there were reviewers to contend with; Hardy remained overly sensitive to all they had to say.

More here.

The debt to pleasure

From The Guardian:

Hanif Kureishi explains how the work of the Japanese master Junichiro Tanizaki inspired him to write the screenplay for Venus.Pleasure_1

It was on a long train journey that I first read Junichiro Tanizaki’s novella Diary of a Mad Old Man (1961). It had been sent to me by an American friend who knew I’d just read Tanizaki’s novel The Key (1956). The Key concerns a middle-aged, ordinary couple with an adult daughter who still lives with them. From the ruins of what appears to be a long-dead marriage, something starts to stir. We like to believe – it is a common misconception – that erotic relationships only deteriorate, that there is nothing new that can happen between a long-established couple. This is something we are so certain of that it must be incorrect. A deep involvement may become so distressingly pleasurable that we might feel dangerously addicted. As such a relationship develops, distance might be required, as the relationship begins to feel dangerous, even incestuous.

The novel opens with a middle-aged man drugging his sexually cold wife in order to spend more time with her feet. The sexuality of both of them is in the process of being re-aroused by the constant presence in their house of their daughter’s fiancé. Here jealousy makes passion possible. As Lacan puts it, “The other holds the key to the object desired.”

More here.

John Allen Paulos on Health, Wealth and Happiness

From ABC News:

Screenhunter_01_jan_27_0239First wealth. A recently released study says that the inequality in wealth throughout the world is extreme and growing more so. The report by the World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University paints an informative picture of the world’s wealth distribution as of 2000, the last year for which figures are available. It states that the top 1% of the world’s population – about 37 million adults – had net assets (note: not income) worth at least $500,000. This constituted approximately 40% of the world’s assets.

In contrast, the top 50% of the world’s people owned a bit less than 99% of the wealth, and this translated into a median wealth (half the world’s population having more, half less) of just over $2,000. To be in the top 10% required net assets worth about $60,000.

More here.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center may be going too far by trying to build a museum on a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem

Daniela Yanai in the Los Angeles Times:

Dome20of20the20rock1Last week, Israel’s High Court of Justice ordered Los Angeles’ Simon Wiesenthal Center and the municipality of Jerusalem to explain why they should be allowed to construct a new Museum of Tolerance on the site of an ancient Muslim cemetery.

On the surface, it’s a straightforward enough question. But it’s really about more than the fate of one cemetery and whether it should be preserved. What is at stake is the nature of both people’s claims, Palestinian and Israeli, to Jerusalem.

The site of the museum is in the heart of downtown Jerusalem, on a parking lot next to the city’s Independence Park. Designed by architect Frank Gehry and kicked off in 2004 with a visit by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the museum (a sister, of sorts, to the one of the same name in Los Angeles) seems, at first glance, like a welcome initiative. In a region wracked by intolerance, what better way to improve the chances for peace than to teach people about different cultures?

But the museum itself became a test case for tolerance when bulldozers digging its foundation unearthed human remains last year, and the project has been mired in legal disputes ever since. Even though archeologists and historians knew that the site was on top of an ancient cemetery — parts of which are visible just adjacent to the site — spokespeople for the Jerusalem municipality claimed that the discovery of remains came as a surprise.

More here.

Mexico in Ruins

My friend and 3QD contributor, J. M. Tyree, has sent the following message:

Joseph Pearson, a great friend and very talented Canadian writer, has a new essay up on the AGNI site about a visit to Mexico City:

Around the doors of the Hotel Gran Ciudad de México, with its wondrous Art-Nouveau dome, are younger men in the casual uniform of Lacoste gold shirts tucked into khaki pants. They sport expensive watches in a city where wearing a plastic one is the only sure method to prevent being mugged. They pile into a taxi, and a tickle of fear rises up my neck. Disparities of wealth exist everywhere, but they are rarely so visible as in a city without a real middle class. I am afraid not because Mexico is unique in its share of misery. It’s not. I am afraid because Mexico is the future.

I highly recommend the rest of the essay, “Mexico in Ruins” (particularly its take on gay bars in Mexico City), as well as AGNI’s very fine online-only journal in general, which offers free subscriptions by email and showcases emerging, often younger writers every month.

Thanks, J. M.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Paul Krugman on Milton Friedman

From the New York Review of Books:

Screenhunter_02_jan_26_1636 Keynesianism was a great reformation of economic thought. It was followed, inevitably, by a counter-reformation. A number of economists played important roles in the great revival of classical economics between 1950 and 2000, but none was as influential as Milton Friedman. If Keynes was Luther, Friedman was Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. And like the Jesuits, Friedman’s followers have acted as a sort of disciplined army of the faithful, spearheading a broad, but incomplete, rollback of Keynesian heresy. By the century’s end, classical economics had regained much though by no means all of its former dominion, and Friedman deserves much of the credit.

I don’t want to push the religious analogy too far. Economic theory at least aspires to be science, not theology; it is concerned with earth, not heaven. Keynesian theory initially prevailed because it did a far better job than classical orthodoxy of making sense of the world around us, and Friedman’s critique of Keynes became so influential largely because he correctly identified Keynesianism’s weak points. And just to be clear: although this essay argues that Friedman was wrong on some issues, and sometimes seemed less than honest with his readers, I regard him as a great economist and a great man.

More here.

The Lies of Ryszard Kapuściński

Jack Shafer in Slate:

Screenhunter_01_jan_26_1627John Updike worshipped him. Gabriel García Márquez tagged him “the true master of journalism.” But there’s one fact about the celebrated war correspondent and idol of New York’s literary class that didn’t get any serious attention this week. It’s widely conceded that Kapuściński routinely made up things in his books. The New York Times obituary, which calls Kapuściński a “globe-trotting journalist,” negotiates its way around the master’s unique relationship with the truth diplomatically, stating that his work was “often tinged with magical realism” and used “allegory and metaphors to convey what was happening.”

Scratch a Kapuściński enthusiast and he’ll insist that everybody who reads the master’s books understands from context that not everything in them is to be taken literally. This is a bold claim, as Kapuściński’s work draws its power from the fantastic and presumably true stories he collects from places few of us will ever visit and few news organization have the resources to re-report and confirm. If Kapuściński regularly mashes up the observed (journalism) with the imagined (fiction), how certain can we be of our abilities to separate the two while reading?

Should we regard Kapuściński’s end product as journalism? Should we give Kapuściński a bye but castigate Stephen Glass, who defrauded the New Republic and other publications by doing a similar thing on a grosser scale? Do we cut Kapuściński slack because he was better at observing, imagining, and writing than Glass, and had the good sense to write from exotic places? Exactly how is Kapuściński different from James Frey in practice if not in execution?

More here.

US military unveils heat-ray gun

From the BBC:

Heat_rayThe prototype weapon was demonstrated at the Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.

A beam was fired from a large rectangular dish mounted on a Humvee vehicle.

The beam has a reach of up to 500m (550 yds), much further than existing non-lethal weapons like rubber bullets.

It can penetrate clothes, suddenly heating up the skin of anyone in its path to 50C.

But it penetrates the skin only to a tiny depth – enough to cause discomfort but no lasting harm, according to the military.

A Reuters journalist who volunteered to be shot with the beam described the sensation as similar to a blast from a very hot oven – too painful to bear without diving for cover.

More here.

Enlightenment fundamentalism or racism of the anti-racists?

From Sign and Sight:

Pascal Bruckner defends Ayaan Hirsi Ali against Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, condemning their idea of multiculturalism for chaining people to their roots.

“What to say to a man who tells you he prefers to obey God than to obey men, and who is consequently sure of entering the gates of Heaven by slitting your throat?” – Voltaire

“Colonisation and slavery have created a sentiment of culpability in the West that leads people to adulate foreign traditions. This is a lazy, even racist attitude.” – Ayaan Hirsi Ali

There’s no denying that the enemies of freedom come from free societies, from a slice of the enlightened elite who deny the benefits of democratic rights to the rest of humanity, and more specifically to their compatriots, if they’re unfortunate enough to belong to another religion or ethnic group. To be convinced of this one need only glance through two recent texts: “Murder in Amsterdam” by the British-Dutch author Ian Buruma on the murder of Theo Van Gogh (1) and the review of this book by English journalist and academic Timothy Garton Ash in the New York Review of Books (2). Buruma’s reportage, executed in the Anglo-Saxon style, is fascinating in that it gives voice to all of the protagonists of the drama, the murderer as well as his victim, with apparent impartiality. The author, nevertheless, cannot hide his annoyance at the former Dutch member of parliament of Somali origin, HirsialiAyaan Hirsi Ali, a friend of Van Gogh’s and also the subject of death threats. Buruma is embarrassed by her critique of the Koran.

Garton Ash is even harder on her. For him, the apostle of multiculturalism, Hirsi Ali’s attitude is both irresponsible and counter-productive. His verdict is implacable: “Ayaan Hirsi Ali is now a brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist.” (3). He backs up his argument with the fact that this outspoken young woman belonged in her youth to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. For Garton Ash, she has merely exchanged one credo for another, fanaticism for the prophet for that of reason.

More here.

Steven Pinker on thought and metaphor

Peter Calamai in the Toronto Star:

Pinker_6“We have to do two things with language. We’ve got to convey a message and we’ve got to negotiate what kind of social relationship we have with someone,” Pinker says in a telephone interview from his home in Cambridge, Mass.

Even something as seemingly straightforward as asking for the salt involves thinking and communicating at two levels, which is why we utter such convoluted requests as, “If you think you could pass the salt, that would be great.”

Says Pinker: “It’s become so common that we don’t even notice that it is a philosophical rumination rather than a direct imperative. It’s a bit of a social dilemma. On the one hand, you do want the salt. On the other hand, you don’t want to boss people around lightly.

“So you split the difference by saying something that literally makes no sense while also conveying the message that you’re not treating them like some kind of flunky.”

The Harvard psychologist classes the salt request as an example of indirect speech, a category that also includes euphemisms and innuendo. Two other key themes for Wednesday’s talk are the ubiquity of metaphor in everyday language and swearing and what it says about human emotion.

More here.