Tuesday, March 28, 2006

the science of criminal responsibility

An early posting of mine on this blog was about science in courtrooms, and an interesting controversy regarding the role of expert witnesses and judges' ability to prevent their testimony. A related and very interesting issue was the topic of a commentary in a recent issue of the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience. In this commentary, Nigel Eastman (Chair in Law and the Ethics of Psychiatry at the University of London) and Colin Campbell (Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London) discuss the complicated relationship between scientific studies of criminal behavior and legal questions of criminal responsibility and the likelihood of criminal behavior. I found it very intruiging, and an example of the complications when scientific research is applied to something subjective (law) instead of objective (health, engineering).

Their primary point is that the type of "questions that the courts and society wish answered and those that neuroscience [can answer]" are not the same. Those questions "fall into two broad domains, 'determining guilt' and 'predicting and preventing re-offending'." In both cases, the answers that neuroscience (and cognitive science more generally) can give are, in some sense, inappropriate for legal cases. I'd urge interested readers to read the whole paper, which is very clearly written, and (aside from a few fMRI images) is not technical at all. To whet your appetite, here are some selected quotes from the article on particular topics.

On determinism and culpability:
However, even if science does develop to show correlations of particular genes, or types of brain state, with aggression, will that necessarily infer diminished or absent moral or criminal culpability? (p 311)

Such questions draw us into fundamental questions of philosophy, of Cartesian dualism versus scientific determinism... (p 311)

Unlike the forensic pathologist, who offers evidence that merely contributes to a factual finding that the law then 'uses' towards determining some ultimate issue, the forensic psychiatrist offers evidence that can come close to commenting on whether the defendant had the required intention for the crime of which he or she is accused. (p 312)

Indeed, some might say that, were we to achieve such a level of biological understanding of ourselves, we would have 'biologically explained away personhood', and have subsumed both legal and moral responsibility into biology. (p 317)
Cognitive scientists seek to explain large patterns of behavior with (relatively) simple rules. If we can explain why someone commits a crime by accounting for their behavior in their genetics, or their experiences, or even just by pinpointing what in their brain state allows (say) violence, does that mean that the accused no longer has free will in the matter, did not choose to act criminally, and is thus not culpable?

On law on its own terms:
Law is ultimately pragmatic. It directly addresses difficult moral questions on the basis that it must somehow offer answers, derived and expressed in its own terms. (p 312)

In law, there is no such thing as 'real' mental disorder, only definitions of it that are adopted for purposes that usually have nothing to do with medical constructions of mental disorder per se. (p 312)

...science describes things in being, while law applies artifices to determine abstract justice. (p 314)
If we allow that criminal responsibility is defined socially, and cannot be reduced to scientific notions of volition, how do we allow science, as it progresses, to inform this social construct that uses its own notion of truth (and justice)?

On individuals in law versus populations in science:
Of course, such an aggregate approach runs fundamentally counter to the law's 'individual' approach to justice. Therefore, defendants are not sentenced on the basis of their being a member of a class of individuals with given probabilities of offending in particular ways, but on the basis of what they have done and who they are. And this implies that the criminologist or epidemiologist can, and should, never help. (p 315)

However, faced with a choice between biology-based evidence (that is more scientifically reliable but less informative about the individual) and psychology-based evidence (that is more informative but less scientificaly reliable), a court is likely to choose the latter. In doing so, the court will feel more at home, as, on a daily basis, courts are used to constructing their own 'understanding' of defendants... (p 316)
Although civil law can deal with notions of fractional responsibility, criminal law is by and large black and white. Guilty or not guilty. But science (at every level) is about probabilities, and interactions, and general rules about populations. What kinds of science will need to advance to address the very narrow questions of individual guilt that the law needs to know about?

Interesting things to consider as our understanding of the brain gets better year by year...


Sunday, March 26, 2006

"The Modern Hunter-Gatherer"

The cover story in today's New York Times Magazine (free registration required, I think) is completely enthralling. Michael Pollan is a journalist and writer on science and the environment. His well-received 2001 book The Botany of Desire was about how four plants (apples, marijuana, potatoes, and tulips) have co-evolved with humans. The essay today is an excerpt from his forthcoming book entitled The Omnivore's Dillema: A Natural History of Four Meals. In the essay, Pollan recalls his first experience as a hunter, going into the woods of Northern California to hunt wild pigs, and shooting, killing, cleaning, cooking, and eating a pig.

Pollan is a very good writer, and clearly conveys his own conflicted feelings about the process of killing an animal. One one hand, he describes how the act of hunting makes him feel alive and aware of his surroundings in a novel and focused way (which he compares to the effects of THC!), and on the other hand, he describes how the act of gutting the animal and seeing that its organs look just like those of people caused disgust and thoughts about cannibalism. The essay combines (self-conscious) hunting porn with scientific reflections on hunting and a pleasant description of cooking a dinner party. Here is how he descibes his thoughts while cleaning the carcass:
Since it was my plan to serve and eat this animal, the revulsion at its sight and smell that now consumed me was discouraging, to say the least. That plan was no longer just a conceit, either, since the moment I killed this pig I felt it descend on me with the weight of a moral obligation. And yet at the moment the prospect of sitting down to a meal of this animal was unthinkable. Pâté? Prosciutto? Ventricina? Just then I could have made myself vomit simply by picturing myself putting a fork to a bite of this pig. How was I ever going to get past this?
Like most American families, I suppose, mine historically hunted but no longer does. My mother's family is mostly ranchers, and living off the land was part of what they did. My father's parents moved from urban New York City to rural New Mexico in the 1950s, and took up hunting then, but neither my father nor his brother hunt anymore. (His father was an avid hunter, as I noted in my posting on macular degeneration last year.) My father a crack shot and frequent hunter as a young man, and was actually a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association until their politics diverged. I've only shot a gun a few times, and never at anything tastier than a paper target. (But see another essay in today's Times Book Review about edible books...!) The only things I've killed and eaten myself have been plants. The few times I caught fish as a kid, I'm pretty sure my parents killed them for me...

In fact, as a culinary vegetarian for most of grad school, I probably ate less than 10 pounds of meat that I cooked myself over those six years. Most Americans grill that many hamburgers in a single summer. (I ate a lot more meat than that, but only when other people cooked it.) Here's what Pollan says about vegetarianism, after his experience hunting:
The fact that you cannot come out of hunting feeling unambiguously good about it is perhaps what should commend the practice to us. You certainly don't come out of it eager to protest your innocence. If I've learned anything about hunting and eating meat, it's that it's even messier than the moralist thinks. Having killed a pig and looked at myself in that picture and now looking forward (if that's the word) to eating that pig, I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris.
Now that I've been cooking meat these last few years, should I take the next step, accept reality, and kill my own animal, at least once? Pollan describes the act as "manifest joy". "Perhaps it is the joy of a creature succeeding at something he has discovered his nature has superbly equipped him to do, an action that is less a perversion of that nature, his 'creaturely character,' than a fulfillment of it." Perhaps, or perhaps not. Pollan notes that we are the only species that cooks food:
All the various techniques humans have devised for transforming the raw into the cooked — nature into culture — do a lot more for us than make food tastier and easier to digest; they interpose a welcome distance too. It might be enough for other species that their food be good to eat, but for us, as Claude Lévi-Strauss famously put it, food has to be "good to think" as well; the alchemies of the kitchen help get us there, by giving new, more human forms and flavors to the plants and fungi and animals we bring out of nature. The long, civilizing braise is a particularly effective one, rendering the meat bloodless and fork tender. It was when I pulled the leg of boar from the oven to check if it was done, and a deep, woodsy-winey aroma filled the kitchen, that I felt my appetite begin to recover.
Time for lunch...


Friday, March 24, 2006

why people don't understand and/or support natural selection

Trends in Cognitive Sciences has an interesting meta-analysis of the ongoing controversy over evolutionary theory and intelligent design. Two psychologists and and a philosopher write in to take an educational-psychology and philosophy-of-science approach to the controversy. They have a couple of interesting points that I didn't know about:
Although it is tempting to think the controversy stems only from ignorance about evolution, a closer look reinforces what decades of research in cognitive and social psychology have already taught us: that the relationship between understanding a claim and believing a claim is far from simple. Research in education and psychology confirms that a majority of college students fail to understand evolutionary theory, but also finds no support for a relationship between understanding evolutionary theory and accepting it as true. We believe the intuitive appeal of Intelligent Design owes as much to misconceptions about science and morality as it does to misconceptions about evolution.
They go on to explain that most college students believe an incorrect version of how natural selection works, a more Lamarkian theory than the correct Darwinian theory. But even those who get the basics right (mutation allows variation; variation allows selective reproduction; selective reproduction allows evolution, and eventually, speciation) don't necessarily believe that the theory is true. In fact, in some cases the contrary occurs:
Brem, Ranney and Schnidel (2003) found that the overwhelming majority of their participants believed evolution to have negative social consequences, such as justifying racism and selfishness, and negative philosophical consequences, such as denying free will and a purpose to life. These views presumably stem from mistaken beliefs about biology (e.g. that race is a biologically meaningful category or that ultimate explanations reveal proximate intentions) coupled with the naturalistic fallacy (i.e. the belief that one can derive how we ought to behave from a description of how the world actually is).
They conclude with recommendations for education, suggesting "lessons from philosophy of science about what constitutes a scientific theory and an empirical test, and lessons from moral philosophy about the difference between empirical claims and moral claims."

It's interesting to consider how such a simple theory has been misunderstood for so long, and how those misunderstandings may have a basis in how we think about theories more generally, and how we view the world and morality...


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

comfort food: hot dog casserole

Some recipes get passed down through the generations. Recipes for pork roasts, or for turkey stuffing, or cakes. Perhaps my karma has a sense of humor, 'cause one of the most prominent family recipes I have is a 1950s American housewife back-of-can special called Hot Dog Casserole. It's really good. I had a bit of a bad day yesterday (didn't get a grant I was hoping for), so I decided that this sort of comfort food was in order.

I am nothing if not a food snob, though, so I did upgrade some of the ingredients. For the hot dogs, I used organic free-range beef franks (in general, for this recipe, beef or turkey are good, pork, as in products labeled "hot dogs", or tofu are horrible). For the cheddar cheese, I used Vermont Cabot extra sharp, and for the seasoned salt I made my own (recipe below). Unfortunately, only Campbells makes condensed tomato soup, and I didn't have a spare hour to make my own egg noodles. Nevertheless, the results were tasty, comforting, and snobbish.

Hot Dog Casserole

Serves about 4.

2 T butter
1 medium onion, chopped
12-16 oz beef franks
8 oz wide egg noodles
1 can condensed tomato soup
4 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2 T worchestershire sauce
1/2 t seasoned salt
  1. Cook egg noodles in salted water. Drain. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Saute onions in butter on medium heat until starting to color. Add franks and cook until starting to color. Remove from heat.
  3. Mix soup concentrate (do not add water), cheese, worchestershire sauce, and seasoned salt together. Add franks and noodles and mix until combined.
  4. Grease a 9x12 casserole and bake for 20-30 minutes until crisp on top.

Homemade Knockoff of Lowry's Seasoned Salt

1/4 c salt
1 T sugar
1 t paprika
1/2 t turmeric
1/2 t onion powder
1/2 t cornstarch
1/2 t black peppercorns
1/4 t mustard seeds
1/2 t oregano
  1. Grind peppercorns, mustard seeds, and oregano in a spice grinder. Add to remaining ingredients. In batches, grind mixture in spice grinder until fairly fine.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

Cookbook Review: Madhur Jaffrey Indian Cooking

I'd dabbled in Indian cooking for several years, borrowing recipes from Indian friends and so forth. But my repertoire has been greatly expanded by a cookbook I picked up last year, Madhur Jaffrey Indian Cooking. Madhur Jaffrey is an Indian-American cookbook author and actress, and she is widely viewed as a premier popularizer of Indian cooking in the US, in the same sense as Marcella Hazan is of Italian food and Julia Child was of French food. I've used some of Jaffrey's vegetarian cookbooks in the past, but this newish book is my favorite of hers.

There's a fine line many cookbooks seem to miss between being too basic and being completely ridiculously complex. A too-basic Indian cookbook would call for "curry powder", which is not a real Indian ingredient. Buying whole spices is cheap, and grinding them in a spice grinder is worth the trouble for the additional flavor you get. A too-complex cookbook would be something along the lines of China Moon, a California-Chinese cookbook written by a restaurant owner, where every dish requires three secret spice mixtures, 12 hours of marinating, and separate deep-frying, roasting, and stir-frying of various ingredients. Not practical. (Although the results can be fantastic.) Jaffrey's book seems to hit the sweet spot. There's a mix of simpler side dishes, more complicated main dishes, and everyday curries and daals. She assumes you have a spice grinder, but makes no other dramatic requirements on the home cook. And almost everything I've made out of the book has been fantastic.

Some favorites include Beef Baked with Yogurt and Black Pepper, which is a dry stew baked in a sealed pot in the oven, Lemony Chicken with Fresh Coriander, Eggs Vindaloo, which is a spicy, garlicy, and fantastically vinegary dish, a dead simple and fantastic Cabbage with Peas side dish, Whole Green Lentils with Spinach and Ginger, and a Coriander Chutney that is unbelievable with the little frozen samosas I can get at a neighborhood Bangladeshi deli.

Here's the recipe for an Egg and Potato Curry I made recently. The photo is cheating -- it's a photo of the photo in the book, not of my actual preparation, which was not so beautifully plated and lit... I served this with basmati rice made the way an Indian friend taught me. Add a bay leaf, a few whole cloves, a few cardamom pods, and a cinnamon stick to the rice and steam it normally. Makes your house smell fantastic...

Unday Aur Aloo

2 cloves garlic, minced
1" cube ginger, minced or grated
1 lb potatoes, peeled
6 T vegetable oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/8 t ground cayenne pepper
1 T ground coriander
1 t flour
4 T yogurt
5 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 1/2 t salt
1/2 t garam masala (best if you make your own!)
1T minced cilantro
4 eggs

1. Hard boil the eggs. (14 minutes in simmering water.) Prep the other ingredients. Cut the potatoes into 1/2" french fry sized sticks.
2. Heat oil in a large non-stick or cast iron fry pan. Lightly fry potatoes until golden brown but not cooked through. Remove to a plate.
3. Add onions, cook until medium brown. Lower heat to medium. Add garlic and ginger and fry 30 seconds. Add cayenne, coriander, and flour and cook for a minute. Add yogurt a tablespoon at a time, stirring to incorporate. Add tomatoes and cook 2 minutes. Add 10 oz water, bring to a boil, cover, and simmer on low 10 minutes.
4. Add potatoes, bring back to a boil, re-cover, and simmer on low 10 minutes. Stir in garam masala and cilantro.
5. Peel and halve eggs and add, cut sides up. Spoon sauce over the eggs and simmer, covered, on low for 5 minutes.

Serves 3-4.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

over-the-top chocolate reviews

You know those snooty wine reviews that surround the wine with flowerly language, "kissed with a touch of motor oil, hiding undercurrents of roasted pork rinds, etc..." Well, chocolate is the new wine, and it's a lot cheaper. I buy chocolate (and other things) at a gourmet store (Garden of Eden, 14th and 5th, for locals) fairly regularly, and they'd been out of my favorite bar for a couple of months, but now have it back. Yay. It's really, really good, at the bargain price of $5.95 for 3.5 ounces. Michel Cluizel's 1er Cru de Plantation, Los Anconès.

And let me now entertain you with a review of this bar from seventypercent.com, home of particularly fantastic snooty chocolate reviews:
The aroma is simply sensational and hypnotizes you with a magnetic hold. It’s mildly acidic and full on the nose, bombarding you with an astonishing array of scents. It bears an upfront green likeness - approaching grass - with strong tobacco head notes, herbal accents of licorice, and hints of olives hiding beneath. The appearance is just as luxurious and complex, with red and orange tints mixing with the natural dark tan to form a color of unparalleled allure.

Immediately, a lovely chocolaty presence captivates you, totally enveloping the taste buds with a mesmerizing pull. It’s eventually accompanied by a green flavor similar to olives, along with a concurrent emergence of mild acidity. The olives are subtle at first but increase steadily, and then gently fade as the chocolate turns to berries and cherries, a red and fairly tart flavor. Here, we also see a very faint cherry cordial-like flavor, one that pairs rather well with the splashes of rum that manage to sneak in as well. Approaching the end of the length, the red fruits evolve into apricots, and then almonds and hazelnuts finish everything off and last long into the satisfying, albeit short, finish. The texture is typical Cluizel: slightly creamy and slightly thick, thereby creating a fuller body in the mouth, which when combined with the strikingly long length and strong chocolaty presence result in a very satisfying experience overall.

Unarguably one of Cluizel's pinnacle achievements, Los Ancones is a well-balanced chocolate, with optimum flavor yield and minimum bitterness. One can tell that the bitterness is present, but it’s kept in check remarkably well. Also the acidity is treated similarly and never emerges to the foreground to dominate. Excellent job here. Los Ancones is remarkably satisfying, as the underlying chocolaty strength and complexity persistently endure without any signs of weakening whatsoever. It’s a strong chocolate, slightly acidic, and slightly bitter, never alleviating or straining at any given moment, ultimately delivering multiple sensations and constant flavor evolution persistently. A stellar performance in every respect, Los Ancones will leave you spellbound.

Hans-Peter Rot
Enjoy that? I did too.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

NYC film incentives

One of my earliest blog posts was on a movie being filmed in my neighborhood, Astoria. That movie, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, is now completed and screened to rather positive reviews (and two awards) at Sundance. I've seen some screenshots of scenes that were filmed half a block from my apartment...

What I didn't know at the time was that that movie was significantly aided by a package of New York State and City tax incentives that were started a few years ago. The NYT and WNYC have stories about this. Filming in NYC is more expensive than filming in other locations (Toronto and Vancouver being popular standins) due to the high cost of lodging and feeding the crew. The incentives, started in 2003, allow films and TV shows that do 75% or more of their filming in the city to get 15% of their production costs (not including director and cast salaries) to be written off their various taxes. It's been unbelievably successful. Since a low in 2002, the number of hours of film and TV filmed in the city have literally doubled. This has a large impact on the city, in both good and bad ways. In bad ways, filming disrupts traffic in all sorts of exciting ways. On the other hand, the economic impact on the city is significant. Silvercup Studios, down the road in Long Island City, is planning to build a huge new highrise development on the East River, with sound stages, cultural and retail centers, and (of course) apartments.

However, as a result of all this enthusiasm for filming in New York, the money allocated by the city and state for the incentives is running out very quickly. There's talk of making the intentives, or some version of them, permanent. On the other hand, that was $175 million in taxpayer money that was spent pretty rapidly. Was it worth it? Did that $175 million pay for itself in terms of generating tax revenues from other sources? At a minimum, did it spur enough economic activity to be considered a good investment, compared to other investments that could be made? This seems to be the key question, and answers don't seem to be clear. The Times says, "People familiar with the program said it appeared to recoup its costs by generating new economic activity, but city officials declined to detail such figures." That's hopeful, but not too convincing. Other investments that the government makes, such as building bridges and educating kids, make longstanding contributions to economic activity. One thing that's very clear, given how fast TV and film expanded here, is that if the incentives leave, the industry will be very quick to crunch the numbers, and will likely leave too.


Sunday, March 12, 2006


I've never been all that thrilled by mangoes. But over the years I've had a half-dozen Indian and Indian-American housemates, and they have all been insistent that you can't get good mangoes in the United States. They mostly had good taste in food, so I'm willing to believe them. So imagine my delight this morning to read an opinion essay in the Times by Madhur Jaffrey, writer of one of my favorite cookbooks, Madhur Jaffrey Indian Cooking. Here are the first few paragraphs:

WHATEVER anyone else might say, America's new nuclear and trade pact with India is a win-win deal. India gets nuclear fuel for its energy needs and America, doing far better in what might be called a stealth victory, finally gets mangoes.

Not those pleasantly hued but lifeless rocks that pass as mangoes in most American grocery stores. Definitely not the fibrous, unyielding, supersized Florida creations that boast long shelf life and easy handling and shipping but little else. They might hint at possibilities but provide no satisfaction.

No. What America will be getting is the King of Fruit, Indian masterpieces that are burnished like jewels, oozing sweet, complex flavors acquired after two millenniums of painstaking grafting. I can just see them arriving at the ports: hundreds of wide baskets lined with straw, the mangoes nestling in the center like eggs lolling in their nests.

These mangoes will be seasonal. Americans will learn to wait for them, just as Indians do. They cannot be pushed to grow in hothouses. Indian mango trees, many of them hundreds of years old (and some reputed to be thousands of years old) need to breathe the same free, fresh air Indians breathe and live through India's three main seasons: summer, the monsoons and winter.
Looking forward to this...


Saturday, March 11, 2006

fresh chocolate bread

A friend from grad school and her husband used to throw fantastic parties on their porch. Highlights in my mind include wicked good mojitos and her homemade chocolate bread, served with marscapone cheese. Before we left Illinois for porch-free climes, I made sure to snag the recipe for the bread. This is a fine, fine dessert bread, made with cocoa powder and best-quality bittersweet chocolate chips, with rich and color. The marscapone cheese adds richness and a bit of tanginess. Fantastic for any occasion, as they say... I've made it twice in recent weeks, once for an occasion, and once to devour, alone in my apartment, while watching TV...

The full recipe is here, and I have adapted a dough-cycle bread-machine version as well for people too lazy to knead. But basically it's a standard white bread with melted butter and sugar added to the dough, followed by a quarter cup of cocoa powder (not Dutch-process as you want the tanginess) and a half cup of chocolate chips (I like Ghirardelli's 60% chips). Knead, rise, form two round loaves, proof, and bake at 425 for 10 minutes and then 375 for 20. Brush the top with more melted butter and serve with marscapone cheese, and (optionally) with mojitos...


Thursday, March 09, 2006

flour tortillas

Tortillas, the Mexican and Central American food used to wrap up other foods, are historically made from corn. In Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex cuisines, however, flour tortillas are used to make Burritos as Big as Your Head. Corn tortillas are healthier, with about a tenth as much fat as flour tortillas. But, the market says that tortillas should be soft and easy to wrap, so at least twice as many flour tortillas are sold in grocery stores as corn tortillas.

National Geographic News has an interesting story today about efforts to select and possibly breed flour varieties especially for flour tortillas. There are several types of wheat flours already available, of course. Bread is made with high-gluten flour, which builds strong structures (bubbles) in bread, while pastries and cakes are made from low-gluten flours which give a softer texture. Flour tortillas, according to the article, require high protein content, but less of that protein should be gluten. In order to get good textures (not to mention shelf lives), manufacturers of flour tortillas often add a number of additives. If the wheat were naturally lower in glutens, some of those additives could be omitted, making flour tortillas a little more natural. The new research shows that the average temperature in the fields affects just this property of the wheat. In cooler climes, hard red winter wheat has a higher gluten level than when the same grain is grown in hotter areas, such as Texas. Genetic factors also play a role, which is under study. Given the increase in flour tortilla consumption in the US, the suggestion is that there should be a new category of wheat flours, to add to bread, pastry, cake, and so on -- the tortilla flour. Interesting...

In my posting earlier this month about low-carb wheat, I grumbled about GMO wheat specifically designed for vague and unlikely health reasons. In this case, the research is for better food, and that's something I can get behind. (Even if I prefer the authenticity of corn tortillas...)


WTC site and normality

I've been thinking about the World Trade Center site, the events of 9/11, and how they are viewed by people. 9/11 was of course an exceptional event, way outside our day-to-day lives, with terrific horror and heroism. The year after that day was also remarkable. The cleanup of the site was completed much faster than expected, for less money than was predicted, with fantastic organization and cooperation by all concerned, and astoundingly, with no fatalities among the cleanup crew. Truely exceptional, in the sense that it was an exception to the way we expect things to go.

It's been 4 1/2 years now, and, well, things are very different. Here's what Curbed is linking to today, in a posting called "WTC Chaos Update: The Times That Numb Men's Souls":
1) Oh ho, look at that—Larry blinked! Developer Silverstein for first time doesn't rule out surrendering building sites 3 and 4 to NYC. [NYPost]
2) Tunnel to funnel folks from New Jersey into city might be key in Silverstein/City negotiations. LES club owners rejoice. [NYSun]
3) Victims' families continue to protest subterranean memorial design a week after city declared the issue moot. Brace yourself: it's vigil time. [Gothamist; Newsday]
4) Downtown arts groups receive $27 million federal grant—almost enough to buy one of Calatrava's penthouses. [NYTimes]
5) SHOCK POLL: Most NY'ers think Ground Zero situation is FUBAR. No shit? [Crain's]
So, we've got arguments among property owners, developers, and politicians, ongoing struggles about what the memorial's going to look like, ongoing fights over money, and a survey that says that only 10% of NYC residents think the reconstruction is going well. (And those people are, well, wrong.) This is not an exceptional state of affairs. In fact, it's safe to say that this a completely normal state of affairs in this country and this city. So, we've got an event and a site that in the course of a few short years has gone from perhaps the definition of an exceptional event, to one that is now the quintessential typical state of affairs. And who said irony was dead?

I wonder, as well, if the horrific normality of the current situation has in some sense infected our views of the horrific exceptional nature of 9/11 itself? Do we view 9/11 as less of an iconic event because the reconstruction has been such a snafu? I've asked a few New Yorkers who were here on 9/11 about this, and they do seem to have at least some sympathy for this view. At least, I haven't been beaten up yet... Conversely, I also wonder if people far outside of New York City might view 9/11 even more iconic and exceptional than New Yorkers, simply because the New York Post doesn't tell them every day how badly the reconstruction process is going? What do you think?


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

becoming an artist, via NYT

The Times today has a photo of a melting glacier sculpture being constructed by artist Deborah Fisher, some of whose work is at the Socrates Sculpture Park here in Astoria/Long Island City. I wouldn't mention it, except that on the Times' web site, they have an interesting multimedia slideshow of Fisher, with her talking about how and why she became an artist. Recommended...


Sunday, March 05, 2006

podcasts and molecular gastronomy

I bought an MP3 player last year. Not an iPod, but an iAudio U2, which is like an iPod Mini, but boxier and less elegant. (And cheaper and with more features.) I listen to music on it, certainly, but I also listen to a lot of podcasts. Although food, science, and New York City are three of my favorite things, and they're the things I like to write about, for some reason they're not my favorite things to listen to. There are plenty of cooking, science, and New York podcasts, but I find them pretty consistently boring. Who wants to listen to someone give a play-by-play of making pasta? Yawn. Instead, I seem to have ended up listening to podcasts about stuff I never write about, like films, and music, and politics, and culture. My two favorite podcasts are CineCast (likely to be renamed to The Cinema Show soon), and WNYC's podcast of Soundcheck, their music interview show. Both are interesting, well produced, and expand my mind in interesting ways. If you're got an MP3 player, check 'em out...

The podcast that this posting's about, however, is from WNYC's Leonard Lopate show, another interview show with a very electic set of guests. It's the exception that proves the rule, as it was an interview (on an NYC radio station) of a scientist who studies food. Hervé This (pronounced tees) is a French chemist and "molecular gastronomer" who studies how cooking works. As fans of American science-of-cooking author Harold McGee know, cooking is a chemical process, controlled by heat, moisture, acidity, and other factors. But McGee is a science writer, not a scientist himself. M. This, however, is an actual lab bench scientist, and he has written a book called Molecular Gastronomy that details some of his experiments to try to confirm or debunk the many many techniques that have been passed on from chef to apprentice or parent to child. In the podcast he talks about the myth of the four (or five) simple flavors tasted on the tongue, and how different kinds of sweetness, sourness, etc. can be detected and how they interact with each other in differing ways. For example, he has found that some sorts of bitterness can't be counteracted with sugar, while others (such as the bitterness of burned onions) can. He also spends a lot of time trying to understand the French concept of terroir, the idea widespread in wine and some other crops that soil, hill slope, and so forth have important consequences to taste. He ends up with evidence that supports terroir in vegetables like cauliflower, but finds no evidence for other crops. And of course the whole interview is with This's strong French accent and enthusiasm, which adds great authenticity!

The podcast is interesting and worth downloading (it's just an MP3 file, so no iPod needed), and I'll buy and read the book just as soon as finish the six inches of other books on my pile...

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