Egypt Bans The Da Vinci Code

There is soooo much that’s wrong in this story, that it’s hard to know where to begin, in Al Ahram.

“We [at the ministry] ban any book that insults any religion,” Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni told parliament last week. That the list now includes Dan Brown’s international bestseller The Da Vinci Code, translated into Arabic in 2003 and widely available since then, drew a round of applause from parliamentary members. The blockbuster film based on the book is likewise to be banned.

“The book is based on Zionist myths, and it contains insults towards Christ, insulting the Christian religion,” Coptic MP Georgette Sobhi told the People’s Assembly last week.

“Creativity is good, but not when the writer seeks to shake religious beliefs and contradict basic religious tenets,” said Bishop Piscenti of Helwan Church.

The People’s Assembly debated the book and film at the request of several Coptic MPs, who were joined by Muslim Brotherhood members.

“The Brotherhood had opposed the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed and will oppose any insult to Jesus Christ,” said Hussein Ibrahim, a Brotherhood MP.

The applause did not extend to cultural and human right circles, which saw the decision to ban the book and the film as politically motivated, and dealing a blow to freedom of expression and creativity.


Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post:

Geoff Nicholson is an Anglo-American novelist — he lives in London and Los Angeles — whose subjects often have been “obsession, sex, and the relationships between people and things,” so perhaps it stands to reason that he is the first writer to devote an entire book to the subject of people who collect “any type of object or artifact that is primarily sexual.” Or at least the first writer to do so in public, since heaven knows what lurid volumes may be hidden away in some secret library of erotica. In any case, collecting matters of a sexual nature certainly dovetails with his favorite themes, so you won’t be surprised to learn that he has risen to the task.

Sex Collectors is mainly a lark, irreverent and amusing, but it’s thoughtful, too, on matters such as sexual obsession, the urge to collect, art versus pornography. Nicholson understands that collecting often is far more than a hobby, and he cites “plenty of psychologists, not least Freud . . . who’ll tell you that collecting is an anal compulsion,” though with regard to the subject at hand “anal” may not be exactly the right word.

More here.

National Security, European Data Privacy and the Case of SWIFT

The revelation that SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), which routes trillions of dollars between banks every day, was sharing it records of financial transfers with the CIA, in possible contravention of European law, may be building up to become a storm. The story first broke in the New York Times. Scott Martens over at A Fistful of Euros, a day after the NYT article:

I’ve been surprised at the lack of uproar over the discovery that the CIA has been data mining SWIFT transfer archives. I suppose it’s because this is far from the first troubling secret breech of the right to privacy by the Bush administration, and most people – the ones that don’t have large sums of money – generally don’t have any banking privacy anyway. But this new secret program touches a core Bush constituency: white-collar criminals. If Bush is able to secretly monitor transactions in the name of anti-terrorism, a future Democratic government might be able to use it against money laundering and accounting fraud. That’s surely something the Republican Party could never stand for.

SWIFT is headquartered in Belgium, but operates computer centres both in the US and the EU, so the company probably was not in a position to refuse the government’s request. According to page 4 of the original NY Times article: “Intelligence officials were so eager to use the Swift data that they discussed having the C.I.A. covertly gain access to the system, several officials involved in the talks said.” If they were prepared to break in to get the data, there was little to be gained by the firm taking a stand.

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber also weighs in:

I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop on this for the last few days, and it finally has. Privacy International has filed complaints with umpteen European and non-European data regulators that SWIFT has illicitly shared European citizens’ financial data with US authorities. This could have some very interesting consequences. Now bear in mind as you read the below analysis that I am not a lawyer. I have, however, spent a lot of time over the last six years working on and writing about privacy issues in the EU-US relationship, so I do have a good grasp of the political issues involved.

The key issue here is whether or not SWIFT (which is a sort of transactional clearing house, based in Belgium) did or didn’t break European law in providing information to US authorities. Cue background explanation of how complicated the implementation of EU privacy law is. European privacy is (with exceptions: see below) governed by the so-called Data Protection Directive, which, like all EU directives is supposed to be implemented in national legislation.

Predictably, the Weekly Standard deems the NYT a national security threat and is calling for its prosecution for publishing the story.


Woody Allen in The New Yorker:

Woody_allenThere’s nothing like the discovery of an unknown work by a great thinker to set the intellectual community atwitter and cause academics to dart about like those things one sees when looking at a drop of water under a microscope. On a recent trip to Heidelberg to procure some rare nineteenth-century duelling scars, I happened upon just such a treasure. Who would have thought that “Friedrich Nietzsche’s Diet Book” existed? While its authenticity might appear to be a soupçon dicey to the niggling, most who have studied the work agree that no other Western thinker has come so close to reconciling Plato with Pritikin. Selections follow.

Fat itself is a substance or essence of a substance or mode of that essence. The big problem sets in when it accumulates on your hips. Among the pre-Socratics, it was Zeno who held that weight was an illusion and that no matter how much a man ate he would always be only half as fat as the man who never does push-ups. The quest for an ideal body obsessed the Athenians, and in a lost play by Aeschylus Clytemnestra breaks her vow never to snack between meals and tears out her eyes when she realizes she no longer fits into her bathing suit.

More here.

Shutting Down Science

In Scientific American:

In January 2001 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study showing that reducing salt in the diet could lower blood pressure, even in people without hypertension. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which funded the study, quickly posted a press release on its Web site announcing the findings.

The Salt Institute, an industry group, was stung by the study’s results. Unable to challenge the data on scientific grounds, the institute found another way to attack them. It filed a petition under the Data Quality Act–a law ironically intended to ensure that regulations are based on solid science–arguing that the findings did not meet the act’s standards and that the heart institute had therefore broken the law by posting them…

It was the first time the right to petition in court under the Data Quality Act was challenged, but it will most likely not be the last. Nobody keeps an exact tally, but something like 100 Data Quality Act petitions have been filed with dozens of different government agencies. Most have been initiated by industry groups, disputing scientific reports that could lead to tougher regulations. If subsequent petitions are accepted by the courts, the litigation could tie up government reports indefinitely, long before their data could lead to any government action.

The Great Rising, or Mutiny, of 1857

“As we enter the 150th anniversary of 1857, William Dalrymple casts a new look at one of Indian history’s most enigmatic episodes, and its aftermath.”

William Dalrymple in Outlook India:

In June 1858, the Times correspondent William Howard Russell—a man now famous as the father of war journalism—arrived in the ruins of Delhi, recently recaptured by the British from the rebels after one of the bloodiest sieges in Indian history. Skeletons still littered the streets, and the domes and minars of the city were riddled with shell holes; but the walls of the Red Fort, the great palace of the Mughals, still looked magnificent: “I have seldom seen a nobler mural aspect,” wrote Russell in his diary, “and the great space of bright red walls put me in mind of (the) finest part of Windsor Castle.” Russell’s ultimate destination was, however, rather less imposing. Along a dark, dingy back passage of the fort, Shah_zafar_1Russell was led to the cell of a frail 83-year-old man who was accused by the British of being one of the masterminds of the Great Rising, or Mutiny, of 1857, the most serious armed act of resistance to Western imperialism ever to be mounted anywhere in the world. “He was a dim, wandering-eyed, dreamy old man with a feeble hanging nether lip and toothless gums,” wrote a surprised Russell. “Not a word came from his lips; in silence he sat day and night with his eyes cast on the ground, and as though utterly oblivious of the conditions in which he was placed…. His eyes had the dull, filmy look of very old age…. Some heard him quoting verses of his own composition, writing poetry on a wall with a burned stick.”

The prisoner was Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, direct descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamburlane, of Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jehan.

More here.

The Perils of “Blogofascism”, or How TNR Moved To The Ridiculous

The New Republic is increasingly silly. In The American Prospect, Matthew Yglesias takes the piss out of culture critic Lee Siegel’s alarms of “blogofascism”.

As Ron Rosenbaum explained in a classic January 2002 New York Observer article, Hitchens was, along with Andrew Sullivan, a George Orwell for our times. Coining the term “Islamofascism” was a “brilliant stroke . . . devastatingly effective in describing who the terrorists, the al-Qaeda/Taliban nexus, really are.” Yes, yes. Paul Berman did us the further favor, in his book Terror and Liberalism, of revealing that, despite appearances, not only were Islamic jihadists the same as Nazis, but both were also the same as secular nationalist Baathists. For that matter, despite decades of superficial rivalry, Syrian Baathism was the same as Iraqi Baathism. And, of course, as Hannah Arendt taught us long ago, if something is the same as fascism (as many things are these days) then it’s also the same as Communism.

This was all very enlightening, needless to say. But the threats of the past are now obsolete — since the liberation of Iraq, neither Islamofascism nor Baathofascism nor even Naziofascism need trouble us much.

The world, then, has recently been dangerously lacking in “-ofascist” (or perhaps O’Fascist, like in Ireland) threats. Thankfully, New Republic culture critic Lee Siegel has now uncovered the most insidious threat of all: Bloggers. “The blogosphere,” he told us last week, “radiates democracy’s dream of full participation” but is, in fact, “hard fascism with a Microsoft face.” Some thought Siegel was engaging in a little ill-advised overstatement. But no. The bold truth-teller was all-too-serious, as he revealed in his follow-up post, “The Origins of Blogofascism” — a work of Arendt-ian import, if not quite scale and scope.


From The Edge:Church200 

“Constructive biology?” Think of the cell as operating system, and engineers taking the place of traditional biologists in retooling stripped down components of cells (bio-bricks) in much the vein as in the late 70s when electrical engineers were working their way to the first personal computer by assembling circuit boards, hard drives, monitors, etc. It’s not an accident that the phrase “bio-hackers” is in the conversation, as this new crowd has a lot in common with the computer engineers who were around the homebrew computer club of the ’70s leading the development of the personal computer.

Central to this move to engineer biology, to synthesize life, is Harvard researcher George Church. “Today I am involved in a number of synthesis and sequencing endeavors,” he says. “First, the BioFab group works together on ‘constructive biology’, which has a number of tightly overlapping parts of a Venn diagram.”

More here.

With Food Line, Ali Makes Obesity an Opponent

From The New York Times:

Ali190 In a delicate dance of legend, marketing and money, Mr. Ali plans to introduce reduced-calorie foods and beverages for young adults, evoking his status as a three-time heavyweight boxing champion and American icon. The first products to roll out in convenience stores early next year will be packaged snacks with names like Rumble, Shuffle and Jabs — fruit-laden rolls and finger foods baked into vaguely signature shapes like boxing gloves and punching bags. Some flavors, like barbecued chicken and Buffalo wings, are a twist on snack classics, while others, like sweet corn and cole slaw, evoke the farmer’s market.

The new line has the lofty aim of fighting youth obesity, with no snack containing more than 150 calories. Each is fortified with vitamins and fiber, said Edward Rapp, a senior member of Mr. Ali’s new company, GOAT Food and Beverage (GOAT being an acronym for — what else? — Greatest of All Time).

More here.

The Promise of the Coming Finnish Presidency of the EU

Speaking of Halliday, he sees much promise in Finland’s coming presidency of the EU, in openDemocracy.

Finland is also intent on using the EU presidency to promote more active dialogue with the Muslim world and with the middle east. The country’s long association with UN peace-keeping and diplomacy in conflict-zones is an asset here. Martti Ahtisaari is only the most prominent current figure in this regard; the former Finnish president (1994-2000) has applied experience gained in Namibia and Kosovo to his Crisis Management Initiative, which specialises in conflict-prevention, state-building and human-security projects.

The Finns are worried by the tensions between Europe and the Muslim world over Iraq and Iran, which (as with the Danish cartoon crisis) have a “domestic” as well as foreign-policy dimension: the presence of large migrant communities across western Europe means that even countries of the Baltic region are no longer insulated from the shockwaves of conflict in or relating to the middle east.



In October 1980, the Czech astronomer Z. Vávrová of the Klet’ Observatory at Ceske Budejovice discovered Planet Number 03479, a celestial body the size of a large asteroid, in the nether reaches of the cosmos. The astronomer named it after his favorite writer, Curzio Malaparte. A literary homage drifting in outer space would have appealed to a writer who inhabited an unclassifiable planet of his own, a writer known for ingenious deceptions, morbid hilarity, and what one might call heartfelt insincerity.

However engaged he became in the splendors and miseries of the sad century he lived in, Malaparte carried himself with an air of antic dignity, an almost posthumous detachment redolent of a cosmic private joke. He embraced ideas with the grip of an octopus and abandoned them as casually as Kleenex.

more from Bookforum here.

fred halliday and why the new left review is right

Danny Postel: What exactly were you saying?

Fred Halliday: My view is that the kind of position which the New Left Review and Tariq have adopted in terms of the conflict in the Middle East is an extremely reactionary, right-wing one. It starts with Afghanistan. To my mind, Afghanistan is central to the history of the Left, and to the history of the world, since the 1980s. It is to the early 21st century, to the years we’re now living through, what the Spanish Civil War was to Europe in the mid and late 20th century. It was the kitchen in which the contradictions of the contemporary world, and many of the violent evils of the century, were cooked and then spread out. Just as Italian and German fascism trained in Spain for the broader conquest of Europe and the Mediterranean,the militant jihadi Islamists, of whom bin Laden was a part, received their training, their primal experiences, in Afghanistan. They have been carrying out this broad jihad across the Middle East and elsewhere ever since, including, of course, the attacks of September 11th. You cannot understand this unless you go back to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

But who was responsible? Pakistani intelligence, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Read Bob Woodward’s book on Casey, The Veil, or Steven Cole’s book on Afghanistan, Ghost Wars. The U.S. was deeply implicated. My view is that anybody who could not see that issue then, or in retrospect, is objectively on the Right. And I think Tariq is objectively on the Right. He’s colluded with the most reactionary forces in the region, first in Afghanistan and now in Iraq. He has given his rhetorical support to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq—who have no interest in democracy or in progress for the people of Iraq whatsoever, whether it’s the Baathists, with their record of 30 years of dictatorship, or the foreign Sunnis with their own authoritarian project. The position of the New Left Review is that the future of humanity lies in the back streets of Fallujah.

more from Salmagundi here.

Having Older Brothers Increases a Man’s Odds of Being Gay

From Scientific American:Gay_2

The number of biological older brothers a boy’s mother has carried–whether they live with him in the same household or not–affects his chances of being gay. The findings, reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by Anthony Bogaert of Brock University, lend credence to the theory that it’s not the social or rearing factors that influence a man’s sexual orientation, but rather prenatal mechanisms that begin in the womb.

The idea that prenatal mechanisms may influence sexual orientation has been around for a couple of decades. In 1996, Bogaert along with colleague Ray Blanchard correlated sexual orientation in men with the number of older brothers, but it wasn’t clear if that influence was occurring because the boys shared the same household or because they had shared the same womb.

More here.

Memento Mori: Remembering Susan Sontag

From The Village Voice:

Sontag On Photography: A Tribute to Susan Sontag
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Much of her work negotiated the distance between extremes of feeling and intellect. Many were offended by an article she published just after 9-11, noting the “courage” of the hijackers who crashed into the World Trade Center; but as we seesawed in those weeks between grief and numbness, who could forget her (radical) exhortation: to think. Sontag touched upon 9-11 again in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), a brilliant extended meditation on the uses and abuses of photographs of war and disaster.

Shows about critics are a tricky business. There’s a tendency for the writer’s words, reproduced in wall texts or captions, to eclipse the pictures, narrowing their meaning to a single interpretation. Sontag’s aphoristic style, heir to Walter Benjamin’s epigrammatic insights, works particularly well in this context. (She was heir to Benjamin as well in her preoccupations with surrealism, the politics of the image, and the 19th-century as the cradle of modernity, while Roland Barthes was like her sentimental Parisian cousin in their shared obsession with photography’s whiff of mortality.)

More here.  Also, see Brian Sholis’s excellent short comment on the exhibit here at Artforum.

Gauss’s Day of Reckoning

“A famous story about the boy wonder of mathematics has taken on a life of its own.”

Brian Hayes in American Scientist:

Fullimage_2006330101517_846_2Let me tell you a story, although it’s such a well-worn nugget of mathematical lore that you’ve probably heard it already:

In the 1780s a provincial German schoolmaster gave his class the tedious assignment of summing the first 100 integers. The teacher’s aim was to keep the kids quiet for half an hour, but one young pupil almost immediately produced an answer: 1 + 2 + 3 + … + 98 + 99 + 100 = 5,050. The smart aleck was Carl Friedrich Gauss, who would go on to join the short list of candidates for greatest mathematician ever. Gauss was not a calculating prodigy who added up all those numbers in his head. He had a deeper insight: If you “fold” the series of numbers in the middle and add them in pairs—1 + 100, 2 + 99, 3 + 98, and so on—all the pairs sum to 101. There are 50 such pairs, and so the grand total is simply 50×101. The more general formula, for a list of consecutive numbers from 1 through n, is n(n + 1)/2.

The paragraph above is my own rendition of this anecdote, written a few months ago for another project. I say it’s my own, and yet I make no claim of originality. The same tale has been told in much the same way by hundreds of others before me. I’ve been hearing about Gauss’s schoolboy triumph since I was a schoolboy myself.

The story was familiar, but until I wrote it out in my own words, I had never thought carefully about the events in that long-ago classroom. Now doubts and questions began to nag at me.

More here.

The India Model

Gurcharan Das in Foreign Affairs:

Summary:  After being shackled by the government for decades, India’s economy has become one of the world’s strongest. The country’s unique development model — relying on domestic consumption and high-tech services — has brought a quarter century of record growth despite an incompetent and heavy-handed state. But for that growth to continue, the state must start modernizing along with Indian society.

GURCHARAN DAS is former CEO of Procter & Gamble India and the author of India Unbound: The Social and Economic Revolution From Independence to the Global Information Age.

More here.

Should the United States sacrifice its republican institutions in order to fulfil an imperial vocation?

Robert Sidelsky in the New York Review of Books:

The question of how the world should be run, and America’s part in its running, is the subject of much academic and political discussion in Washington these days. The factual questions are: Is the United States on the road to becoming an empire like the Roman and British Empires before it? What are the prospects for such an enterprise in today’s world? More speculatively, does globalization require an imperial underpinning? There are also questions of value: Is imperialism a good or bad thing? Should the United States sacrifice its republican institutions in order to fulfil an imperial vocation? Gregor Dallas’s 1945: The War That Never Ended can be read as setting the scene for this discussion. The Second World War cleared away the European empires, actual and aspiring, leaving the United States and the Soviet Union as the two contending superpowers. The collapse of the Soviet Union concluded the “unfinished business” of the war, by leaving the United States the sole superpower and simultaneously creating a single world economy. The dynamics of postwar US supremacy and the question of whether they are pushing the United States toward formal empire are the subject matter of Charles Maier’s Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors.

More here.

New York City most courteous place on planet

Jennifer Harper in the Washington Times:

EmpirestatebuildingThe Big Apple just got a lot shinier. New York City is the most courteous place on the planet, according to a survey released yesterday by Reader’s Digest. And at the bottom of the heap lurks Bombay. India’s financial capital has bombed — deemed the very rudest.

The publication staged a global civility derby among 35 cities around the world, using undercover reporters to conduct more than 2,000 simple courtesy tests among unwitting passers-by, clerks and the proverbial men — and women — on the street.

Would they hold open doors, say “thank you” or help retrieve a sheaf of wayward papers on the sidewalk? Well, yes — and no, depending on the locale. Still, it is reassuring to note that even in times of tumult and uncertainty, earthlings proved fairly genteel: The survey revealed that overall, the test cities were courteous an average of 55 percent of the time.

And what about poor Bombay?

More here.  And here is the full ranking of 35 cities from Readers’ Digest.

Dispatches: Chicken Country

I’m currently living temporarily in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a state of affairs that has led me to think quite a bit about locality.  My dreams, of course, before coming here were to finally make contact with authentic American folkways, and hopefully foodways, to find local diners and farm markets and maybe even meet a grizzled trapper, a la Withnail and I, who would supply me with rabbits or venison or brook trout.  Ah, Asad, you idiotic city slicker.  The most popular grocery in town is at Wal-Mart, and the diner is Denny’s.  (Though the Georgian fast-food chain, Chick-Fil-A, and their superbly simple chicken sandwich (toasted buttered bun, fried chicken cutlet, pickles), leaves me overjoyed.  When I get back, I think I’m going to open a Chick-Fil-A on, like, Metropolitan and Lorimer and rake it in.)  If anything, the national food distribution system is more entrenched and dominant here in sleepy P-burg, with its forty thousand people, than in New York, where I can choose which season’s milk I want my Parmigiano-Reggiano from DiPalo’s to have been made from, thank you very much.  (I like winter, and I am insufferable.)  But the experience of extreme difficulty finding any locally, sustainably produced food here in WV has gotten me thinking.

A couple of years back, my aunt was kind enough to invite me to a house she rented in Cape Cod during the summer.  Naturally, given my fish obsession, I visited the well-stocked local fish store, excited about the prospect of partaking of the local catch.  Yet upon questioning the honest staff about the provenance of their selection, I learned that while some fish was locally caught, much of the fish was shipped in by truck – swordfish from the Carolinas, bluefin tuna via Boston or even New York’s now-defunct Fulton Fish Market, etc.  I’d had a similar experience in the charming little English seaside town of Aldeburgh, where there was a great selection of fish trucked in from Billingsgate, London’s wholesale market, resting prettily on ice, or being fried and wrapped in newspaper at the delicious fish-and-chip shop on the high street.  (Random aside: I groggily concussed myself one morning there because of the medievally low doorframes.)  Somehow, this seemed wrong, even though in London I would happily buy little vongole shipped from the Adriatic, cause that seems like a metropolitan prerogative.  I was buying into the pastoral myth of the countryside as the authentic source of food.

So, the fish shops of Wellfleet and Aldeburgh are far better than the fish shops in, say equally picturesque mountain villages, yet the fish they stocked was, for the most part, equally accessible to retailers anywhere.  Why the paradox?  Expectation creates demand, and people expect fish near the sea, and like to assume it came right out of that sea, and usually don’t ask if it did.  So fishmongers do business by the sea, often selling farmed fish like cod and salmon that it’s really hard to catch in the sea nowadays, while local fishermen cannot get distribution locally.  Of course, there is wild seafood to be had in Wellfleet and Aldeburgh, it’s just harder to come by in this confusingly globalized day and age.  In the case of Cape Cod, strolling down to the beach revealed thousands of native Wellfleet oysters lying around; I’m happy to report that we gathered and ate at least two hundred, and that my little nephew Sam really liked the tiny crab hitchhiking in our bucket.  The point, however, is that locality is very difficult to ascertain in our current food system, dominated as it is by supermarkets with global supply systems.  Even regional food preferences, where they exist, are largely now maintained for show rather than for the traditional reason that a particular food is in prolific supply in a region, with a few exceptions, such as Maine lobster, Maryland crab and Pacific salmon.

There’s a reason those three items are all, well, seafood.  Fish and seafood are the last wild creatures we eat much of.  But even farmed food’s origins are increasingly unclear these days, as I was finding here in Parkersburg, where my fantasies of connection with the land were being completely thwarted.  By coincidence, the new Michael Pollan book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, had just come out.  Really three books in one, it recounts three meals in Pollan’s trademark analytical goody two-shoes style, one following a confined steer to McDonald’s, one from an organic farm, and one foraged and hunted by Pollan.  The McDonald’s meal comes at the end of a long, and utterly fascinating, description of the dominance of subsidized corn production in the U.S. economy, and how the overabundance of cheap corn threatens to ruin our environment and our very selves.  Pollan makes the astute point that industrial monocultures such as the corn, chicken, and beef industries transform the nation’s landscape into a dystopia.  Rather than the aesthetically pleasing little system of a Georgic ode, we have instead literally disgusting operations the sight and smell of which must be kept in quarantine out of sight.  The synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that industrial agriculture requires pollute water tables and turn frogs hermaphroditic.  The addiction to feeding cheap corn to cows, a ruminant that evolved to eat grass, means that harmful bacteria such as E.Coli multiply in their stomachs.  And finally, the transformation of the rest of that pile of surplus corn into byproducts such as oils, starches, syrups and stabilizers means that most of our cheapest food is just corn byproducts (it occurs to me, with horror: et tu, Chick-Fil-A?).  If I was to propose the simplest possible anti-industrial agriculture diet, I’d say: just don’t eat or drink anything with high-fructose corn syrup or vegetable (i.e. corn and soybean) oil.

To my pleasant surprise, however, Pollan’s second meal is a sunny account of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in the nearby Shenadoah Valley.  Salatin is a hero of the “managed pasture” movement, which entails rotating animals on pasture and allowing the grass to recover, rather than separately inputting synthetic fertilizers, corn, and antibiotics.  He pioneered moving chickens in mobile coops after his cows, allowing them to pick grubs and worms out of the cow’s manure, in the process fertilizing the fields, keeping the steer disease-free, and filling their own stomachs.  He has created similarly symbiotic relationships between the pigs, rabbits, and sheep on his farms, all of which rotate around the property while never being allowed to exhaust the pasture.  Salatin’s beef eat only grass, which according to Pollan makes for a much healthier and beefier beef, which is confirmed by my experience of Argentinian grass-fed beef (which, sadly and absurdly, is as illegal here as Pakistani mangoes and unpasteurized French cheese).  And I know for a fact that free-ranging chickens eating a varied diet as Salatin’s do make for much better eating than do your average Purdue broiler.  Salatin is a bit of a nutcase (when Pollan asks how people in New York can get access to food like this, Salatin replies, “Why do we need a New York City?”) but his methods are impeccable, and from 100 acres of farm and 450 acres of forest he produces 30,000 dozen eggs, 11,000 chickens, 25,000 pounds of beef, 25,000 pounds of pork, 1000 turkeys, and 500 rabbits annually.  Of course, this is a drop in the ocean: we’d need thousands of farms like Polyface to feed people this stuff, and food would be much more expensive.

Although, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good thing for meat, at least, to be a great deal more expensive.  Why should we subsidize the cost of disease-ridden meats itself produced from subsidized corn when people spend barely any money on food as it is?  Would less meat and less sugar in the American diet be a bad thing?  Maybe the worst and most objectionable thing of all, though, about contemporary U.S. foodways is the flavor.  Let’s be honest.  The U.S.A. has the worst quality produce in the world.  An apple or a peach or a strawberry from an average supermarket taste like mildly flavored cellulose.  An apple from an orchard, ripe, in October, tastes complex and perfumed; a summer strawberry from an allotment is like an uncloying little sugar bomb; a real ripe peach from, say, Turkey, in summertime is simply absurdly good to eat.  Yet here we are in the richest country in the world, etc, etc, etc, and we eat food that’s fit for the table of some Protestant Low Country in which toil and suffering in this world bring redemption only in the next.  Unpasteurized cheese, which millions of Europeans eat safely every year, is illegal here out of fear.  Yet the FDA would rather irradiate beef, killing its taste entirely, than impose any punishment upon producers whose product is routinely contaminated with lethal fecal matter.  How are we screwing up this bad?

I don’t have an answer, other than to say that I’m going to be heading over to Salatin’s to fill a cooler with grass-fed beef and chickens and eggs soon.  Pretending to be Argentine, by eating that beef with some chimichurri and some Malbec will be nice.  So, I have realized, will eating food that accords with my general philosophy of taste: it’s better to perform labor procuring something that tastes good than trying to redeem something that doesn’t.  A subway ride to a good butcher is better cooking than following thirty-six steps from Eric Ripert’s cookbook with watery scallops and woody rosemary.  The increasing spiciness of American fast food, I think, is tied to an increasing need to camouflage the blandness and insipidity of the main ingredients.  Not that I’m saying spicy food is bad; I’m Pakistani, after all.  But excessive concealment is a sign of bad ingredients – I have my mother’s father’s favorite cookbook, from 1920’s India, and the recipes are amazingly simple: korma has chicken, onions, ginger, red pepper, and saffron. 

New York is as guilty of overcomplexity as anywhere, with its chattering vogues for senseless combinations and magical thinking about this season’s ingredient, be it lotus bulbs or pork belly.  How often do you see pastas or sandwiches that have four or five too many things on them?  And how rarely do you see people with the rigor of gastronomes past, with a steady assurance as to what goes with what, in what season?  Now we ridicule such inflexibility, residing bravely as we do in the great masala of today, where we have  oversweet versions of Thai food served to us by French chefs.  Take that, orthodoxies of yesterday!, comes our adolescent cry.  Meanwhile, we’ve never eaten the simple, decent reduction from which the lemongrass reduction departs, and have no sense of which rules are being broken.  And lest you think that cooking rules are some kind of dead-European-male thing, some sign of domination, remember this: all cuisines are bounded languages in which utterances have a grammar, and Mexicans, Provençals and Indians are equally protective of their regional foodways.  There’s much pleasure to be had from intermingling them, but much to be lost by forgetting that people ate certain ways because long experience and settled tradition embody much more knowledge of their food than we have.

I recently tried to convince my sister that no spices whatsoever are needed to enhance a good chicken, and thusly cooked her the dish whose recipe I’m about to give you, along with some by-recipes that come along with buying a whole animal and using it unwastefully.  But don’t try it with a factory bird from Giant Eagle, as I did recently, the flesh is mushy and dry simultaneously, and the muscle tone is weird, and the bird just doesn’t taste like anything.  So get something good and then don’t do much to it.  Try this if I haven’t convinced you.  All you need is one good chicken; of course, finding one is harder than it should be.


This dish is a touchstone of simplicity, and won the argument with my sister.  I like it with mashed potatoes.  I read accounts of roast chickens in food books all the time, and often order it to test a kitchen, the same way you might do with tandoori chicken and naan at a tandoori place.  By the way, Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories is one of my favorite cookbooks, simple and methodologically sound and really indicative of a chef’s whole style, and he recounts some great tales of L’Ami Louis in Paris and their roast poulet de Bresse with fries.  Oh man.

Serves 4

One chicken, smallish (free-range essential, organic preferable)
Half a lemon
Pepper (don’t even ask; yes, freshly)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Farenheit.  Take the neck and organs out of the chicken’s cavity, reserving for stock, and put the chicken in a roasting pan.  Put the lemon half in, cut side “up.”  Smear butter all over the chicken, leaving a prodigious amount on the breast.  Sprinkle with a lot of salt and pepper.

Put the chicken in the oven and leave it for an hour.  Open up and check if it’s getting too browned, if so, turn down to 350.  If not, leave and check again in fifteen minutes.  Pull the chicken out, and poke a paring knife into the thigh – the juices will come rushing out clear as a bell.  You should have a really beautiful bird with burnished dark-golden, crackling skin. 

Carve the chicken into pieces (drumsticks, thighs, wings and breast) and remove to platter.  If you don’t know how, just do it; you’ll be fine, it’s dead easy.  Now pour off the accumulated juices into a small saucepan, spooning off excess oil, and squeezing the lemon half into the mix, and boil for a bit (you can mix in some flour here if you want a thick gravy – I prefer thinner juices as a sauce).  Spoon over the chicken, or pass around.  Putting these pieces of chicken over mashed potato provides more starch to absorb the reduced chicken jus, which is a great idea.  Make it with a good chicken, and I guarantee this recipe.


Roast chicken bones (including what’s on people’s plates – don’t be shy)
Bay leaf
Onion, halved
Celery stalk, broken in half
Slice of ginger
Clove of garlic

Put it all in a pot, just cover with water, and bring to boil.  Skim, turn down, and simmer for two hours.  At this point, you’ll have a nice chicken-y stock that beats the pants off any can or cube and you can salt it properly and strain it.  But don’t throw away the bones; take the leftover chicken pieces from the stockpot and pick the meat off the bones – there will be a great deal on the back, especially the two little pearly nuggets on the underside.  French people have some sexy name for them, and they are good.


A good way to use chicken stock and meat; funny and old-fashioned but comforting and nice.  Another is to use all the meat for a nice chicken salad.  Another is to cook any vegetable in season (asparagus, celeriac, peas, nettles, you name it) in the stock and then puree it, topping with more pepper and a little Parmigiano, if you want.  Another is to braise lamb shanks in it with onion and fennel and top them gremolata (minced parsley and garlic, mixed).  Another is… well, you get it: it’s good to have some stock around.

Chicken stock with extra chicken meat (see above)
Soy sauce

Flake the reserved meat into the pot of stock, which is simmering on the stove.  Add a little vinegar and a little soy sauce.  Simmer away for a while and then pick one of these three options:

1. Egg Drop: Mix about two tablespoons cornstarch and equal water, then mix into stock, stirring vigorously.  Let thickening magic occur for a while.  Beat an egg in a bowl, and pour into soup, stirring.  You’re done.  Serve with thinly sliced superhot little Indian chilies soaked in vinegar in a little bowl.

2. Chicken Corn: Add a couple of ears worth of corn kernels or a can of corn to the stock.  Then follow the instructions for Egg Drop.

3. Hot and Sour: Add sliced fresh mushrooms, cubed tofu, julienned bamboo shoots, some sliced pork if you have it, extra soy and vinegar, and a mess of white (or black) pepper.  Then follow the instructions for Egg Drop.

The rest of Dispatches.

Teaser Appetizer: Sleep and Insomnia, A Letter to Shakespeare

Dear Shakespeare,

The other day I counted the word “sleep” in 167 passages of your work and I am sure I did not count them all. You have penned sleep in its own image and as a metaphor. You knew sleep:

“The innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.” (Macbeth, Act II)

And you knew sleep’s associated afflictions, especially its deprivation: insomnia.

Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber: Thou hast neither figures nor no fantasies Which busy care draws in the brains of men; Therefore thou sleep’st so sound. (Julius Cæsar, Act II)

The purpose of my letter is to share with you new information we have learned about sleep and insomnia since your demise in 1616.In the intervening four hundred years; we have invented complex contraptions to study a sleeping person. We can record the brain activity, eye movement, muscle tone, breathing patterns and measure the levels of various substances (chemicals, molecules, hormones) floating in the blood. All these studies have yielded considerable information.

We now describe the architecture of sleep according to the movement of the sleeping eyes, which when moving rapidly is the “rapid eye movement” (REM) phase; the rest is the non rapid eye movement phase (NREM). We start our sleep with NREM and get into REM before waking up. NREM starts with easy arousal light sleep (stage1 and 2) and marches into deep sleep (stage 3 and 4) from which a slumbering person is difficult to arouse. The unpleasant experiences of night terrors, sleepwalking and bed-wetting – the afflictions you are familiar with — occur during deep sleep.

Macbeth had a troubled stage 4 sleep:

“Ere we will eat our meal in fear and sleep In the affliction of these terrible dreams That shake us nightly: better be with the dead, Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace, Than on the torture of the mind to lie In restless ecstasy” (Macbeth, act III)

And Lady Macbeth too sleep walked in her deep stage 4 sleep:

“Since his majesty went into the field, I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her night-gown upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it,. write upon’t, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast sleep.” (Macbeth, Act V)

Mr. Shakespeare, Did Parolles wet his bed in REM sleep or deep sleep?

“In his sleep he does little harm, save to his bed-clothes about him” (Alls Well That Ends Well, Act IV)

The sleep cycle starts with stage1 during which we drift in and out of sleep, our brain activity slows down. Then we enter stage 2: our brain activity slows down further; our muscles may suddenly jerk but our eyes do not move. Stage 3 shows periods of slow moving delta waves on recording of the brain activity and in stage four our muscles are immobile and brain activity reflects only delta waves. REM sleep follows stage 4: the eyes throw jerky movements, blood pressure rises, breathing becomes shallow and rapid, temporary muscle paralysis ensues, heart pounds faster, men get penile erections and the brain waves gather speed. We indulge in dreams during this active stage of sleep — the brain is hardly idle. (Most mammals and birds show REM sleep, but cold blooded animals and reptiles do not. Do other mammals dream?)

Mercutio got it wrong:

“True, I talk of dreams, which are the children of an idle brain” (Romeo and Juliet, Act I)

We sleep in cycles of NREM and REM and about 90 to 100 minutes elapse from the beginning of stage 1 to the end of REM. This cycle repeats 3 to 6 times at night. In a cycle of 100 minutes, the duration of stage 1 is 10 minutes, stage 2 is 50 minutes; stage 3 and 4 is 15 minutes and finally REM lasts 25 minutes. If we miss our REM sleep, we fall into REM the next night without other stages, till we catch up with this REM deficit.

We flash signals from the base of the brain which either awaken us or put us to sleep. These chemical signals or neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine exude from the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain stem and keep the brain awake. Other neurons at the base of the brain turn off the awakening process and we fall asleep. The levels of adenosine build up while we are awake and subside during sleep. Caffeine containing potions like coffee and tea inhibit adenosine.

REM sleep is regulated by the part of brain — we call Pons, which sends signals to other parts of the brain and also inhibits neurons in the spinal cord causing temporary paralysis.

We have learnt our bodies function in a cyclic rhythm spread over 25 hours: we call it circadian rhythm. Mere 200,000 neurons in the suprachiasmic nucleus (SCN) of hypothalamus play the role of the body clock. Sunlight or other bright light and even external noise triggers SCN which signals the pineal gland to shuts off the production of melatonin. The pineal gland secrets melatonin (a drowsiness inducing hormone) at night and in darkness. Some people with blindness suffer from sleeping disorders because they are unable to respond to light. Traveling long distance in a short period (jet lag) or change of shift at the work place can disrupt the circadian rhythm.

The neuro-chemical control of sleep is autonomous and we can not voluntarily deprive ourselves of sleep. Cleopatra in her raging defiance may have succeeded in starving herself but to defy sleep was an empty threat.

“Sir, I will eat no meat, I’ll not drink, sir; If idle talk will once be necessary, I’ll not sleep neither: this mortal house I’ll ruin, Do Caesar what he can. Know, sir, that I will not wait pinion’d at your master’s court.” (Antony and Cleopatra, Act V)

Voluntary sleep deprivation may not be possible, yet we have enough reasons to loose sleep: anxiety, depression and body pain. Iago could not sleep because of pain…

“And, being troubled with a raging tooth, I could not sleep.” (Othello, Act III)

And King Richard was anxious.

“For never yet one hour in his bed Have I enjoy’d the golden dew of sleep, But have been waked by his timorous dreams.” (King Richard III, Act IV)

In our “progress” we have added a few more causes of insomnia: jet lag, shift change and stimulant drugs. People who work at night and travel through time zones disturb the sunlight stimulus to circadian regulation.

We have found that sleep is essential for survival – at least for rats. Scientists made rats live on a platform floating in tub of water. When rats drifted into REM sleep their muscles got paralyzed and they slipped off the platform and fell into the water. Poor rats! Wet and drenched they struggled and climbed back onto the platform went into paralyzing REM sleep and fell into water again. Deprived repeatedly of REM sleep, they died in 3 weeks instead of usual 2 to 3 years.

Mr. Shakespeare, do you accuse us of being sadistic? We defend the progress of science at all costs! This very scoundrel race of rats spread the germs that devastated London with bubonic plague which must have caused you a few sleep less nights! Well, we people are adept at taking revenge for historical blood feuds; in his case it is against the rats. Well, they are all rats!

You ask what have we achieved in the past 400 years? We have accumulated wealth and information; yet it is true that our restless days still end up in sleepless nights. King Henry also knew it; money can buy you a bed but not sleep.

“Not all these, laid in bed majestical, Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave, And, but for ceremony, such a wretch, Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,” (King Henry V, act IV)

You probably think the information gained in the last 400 years has cured our insomnia… not so Mr. Shakespeare: 30 to 50 percent of our people now suffer from insomnia; we are a sleep deprived world. Here is some news for you from the Boston Globe:

The Institute of Medicine report said loss of sleep has increased in recent decades due to longer workdays and computer use and television watching taking up more time. Lack of sleep increases the risk of a variety of health problems, the report said, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and heart attacks. It also raises the chances of injury or death due to accidents at work, home, or in automobiles. Studies in the 1990s estimated the cost of medical care for sleep disorders at $15.9 billion, the report said. In addition, fatigue is estimated to cost businesses about $150 billion a year in lost productivity and mishaps, and damage from motor vehicle accidents involving tired drivers amounts to at least $48 billion a year. The National Sleep Foundation issued a report indicating only 20 percent of US adolescents get the recommended nine hours of sleep a night.

So, here we are, four centuries after you! Amazing: so much knowledge, yet how little we have learned! We have coaxed but a few ounces of wisdom from the tons of information we have collected and culled. Our data could fill the cavernous base of a medieval church and all the wisdom will rise but slim as a spire. From you we need to learn to build with in the scaffold of wisdom and not on the foundation of data. We need at least as many seers as we have scientists.

“Not poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep, Which thou owedst yesterday.” (Othello, Act III)