Jan 042019
 

Today was not a good date in two separate years for Charles I of England. On this date in 1642 he stormed into the House of Commons with armed guards to arrest five members he had a dispute with, and on this date in 1649 – perhaps as an anniversary present – the Rump Parliament voted to put him on trial for treason, ending in his execution. These two events can be thought of as bookends to what is generally known as the English Civil War (or Wars) even though there had been numerous civil wars previously (during the Anarchy, for example, or the Wars of the Roses).

When the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, died childless, the throne of England passed to the son of Mary Queen of Scots – James VI of Scotland – who was the great-great-grandson of Henry VII, inaugurating the House of Stuart as James I of England. Despite numerous tensions and disputes with the nobility, as well as an ongoing dispute between Catholic and Protestant lords that led to the Gunpowder Plot — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/the-gunpowder-plot/ — and did not end until his son James II was deposed, James I managed to hold on to his throne, and die in his bed, by being a shrewd and effective conciliator (mostly drinking heavily rather than antagonizing people). His son, Charles I, was not so lucky because he was far from being a peacemaker, but, instead, was egotistical, arrogant, and headstrong, believing firmly that kings were appointed by God and should be given the authority to rule autocratically as absolute monarchs. Parliament respectfully disagreed.

Charles’ increasing monarchic profligacy resulted in two important Acts in pursuit of the rights of Parliament and People, the Triennial Act of 1641 which gave Parliament autonomy of the monarchy, and the Habeas Corpus Act of 1640, which extended one of the key terms of Magna Carta to the general population, the right not to be summarily arrested by the king without due process.  The increasing tensions between Charles and Parliament led the king to attempt to arrest (without warrant or just cause) five members of the Long Parliament.

John Pym

Charles believed that Puritans encouraged by five vociferous Members of the House of Commons, known thereafter as the Five Members – John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, Arthur Haselrig and William Strode – together with the peer Edward Montagu, Viscount Mandeville (the future Earl of Manchester), had encouraged the Scots to invade England in the recent Bishops’ Wars, and that they were intent on turning the London mob against him. When rumors reached the court that they were also planning to impeach the queen for alleged involvement in Catholic plots, Charles decided to arrest them for treason. The counterclaim was that the king had an Irish army set to reduce the kingdom.

The Speaker of the House during the Long Parliament was William Lenthall. On Tuesday, 4th January 1642, Charles entered the House of Commons to seize the Five Members, and sat in the speaker’s chair. Not seeing the Five Members and commenting “I see the birds have flown”, the King then turned to Lenthall, who stood below, and demanded of him whether any of those persons were in the House, whether he saw any of them and where they were. Lenthall fell on his knees and replied: “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here”. However, he later consented to appear as a witness against Thomas Scot in the wave of prosecutions of the regicides in 1660 which followed the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II.

This action of the king was the catalyst for the Civil War, the beheading of the king, and the rule of Oliver Cromwell. After his failure to capture the Five Members and fearing for his family’s lives, Charles left London for Oxford. Most of the royalist members of Parliament joined him there, where they formed the Oxford Parliament. The Long Parliament continued to sit during and beyond the Civil War without its royalist members, because of the Dissolution Act.

Nowadays, Charles’s act is commemorated at the annual opening of parliament when the reigning monarch delivers a speech (written by the Prime Minister of the Commons) from the throne in the House of Lords.  The monarch sends a representative, known as Black Rod, to the Commons chamber to summon the members of Parliament to hear the speech, and, when he approaches, the chamber the door is slammed in his face, signifying the fact that both the monarch and any representative is barred from entering the Commons. Black Rod knocks three times on the door, and the members of Parliament, after hearing Black Rod’s summons, file to the House of Lords where they hear the monarch’s speech crowded into the doorway of the House of Lords. The Commons’ chamber remains their sanctuary.

After the royalist army had been defeated, it became apparent to the leaders of the New Model Army that Parliament—then controlled by the Presbyterian faction—was ready to come to an agreement with Charles that would restore him to the throne (though without effective power) and negate the power of the Army, they resolved to shatter the power of both king and Parliament. Pride’s Purge brought Parliament to heel under the direct control of the Army; the remaining Commons (the Rump) then on 13th December 1648, broke off negotiations with the king. Two days later, the Council of Officers of the New Model Army voted that the King be moved from the Isle of Wight, where he was prisoner, to Windsor, “…in order to the bringing of him speedily to justice.” Charles was brought from Windsor to London in the middle of December.

On 4th January 1649, the House of Commons passed an ordinance to set up a High Court of Justice, to try Charles I for high treason in the name of the people of England. The House of Lords rejected it, and as it did not receive Royal Assent, Charles asked at the start of his trial on 20th January in Westminster Hall, “I would know by what power I am called hither. I would know by what authority, I mean lawful authority”, knowing that there was no legal answer under the constitutional arrangements of the time. In fact, he offered no defense whatsoever, refusing to accept (quite correctly), the legitimacy of the court that was trying him. In consequence, he was convicted with 59 Commissioners (judges) signing the death warrant. At the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, all the living signers of the death warrant were tried and executed as regicides.

Charles was stalwart in the face of his execution on January 30th and wore two heavy shirts to the beheading block in case his shivering from cold were mistaken for fear. Prior to his execution he took a glass of claret and a piece of bread (not intentionally Eucharistic, I believe – but also not much of a final meal). The tradition of a condemned prisoner being granted a last meal request before execution is not especially old – 19th century in most countries – and is being increasingly abolished in countries that still apply the death penalty. In September 2011, the state of Texas abolished all special last meal requests after condemned prisoner Lawrence Russell Brewer requested a huge last meal and did not eat any of it, saying he was not hungry. His last meal request was for a plate of two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions, a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger, a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, jalapeños, a bowl of fried okra with ketchup, a pound of barbecued meat with half of a loaf of white bread, a portion of three fajitas, a meat-lover’s pizza (topped with pepperoni, ham, beef, bacon, and sausage), a pint of Blue Bell ice cream, a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts, and a serving equivalent to three root beers.

I believe that I have asked this question before, but it is worth asking again today: “What would you order for a last meal?” I have seen this question played out on cooking competition television shows where contestants are invited to prepare “last meals” for a panel of celebrity judges. I think I’d have to go with cock-a-leekie soup, steak and kidney pudding, and apple crumble – suitably English of me, I know, and might well be replaced with locro (with tripe) and milanesa at the last minute.

Dec 052018
 

Today is World Soil Day. declared by the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2013. The purpose of the Day is to raise awareness worldwide of the importance of soils for food security and agriculture, as well as in mitigation of climate change, poverty alleviation, and sustainable development. If you are not a farmer or gardener you probably rarely, if ever, think about soils, soil quality, and their effects on your daily life.  I got involved in gardening as a boy, to differing degrees, in Australia and England, but when I bought a house in New York State I got deeply involved in all kinds of gardening – herbs, vegetables, trees, grass, rockeries, flower beds, water plants, houseplants, potted plants etc. – for 30 years. Soil, of all types, was key. Caring for the soil was paramount.

If you have not worked the soil as a farmer or gardener, you probably do not understand how complex it is, how much of a living thing it is, and how much it interacts with the rest of the world. Soil is a mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, and organisms that together support life. Earth’s body of soil is the pedosphere (the earth’s skin), which has four important functions: it is a medium for plant growth; it is a means of water storage, supply and purification; it is a modifier of Earth’s atmosphere; it is a habitat for organisms; all of which, in turn, modify the soil.

The pedosphere interacts with the lithosphere (rocks), the hydrosphere (water), the atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (plants and animals). Soil consists of a solid phase of minerals and organic matter (the soil matrix), as well as a porous phase that holds gases (the soil atmosphere) and water (the soil solution). Accordingly, soils are often treated as a three-state system of solids, liquids, and gases. Soil is a product of the influence of climate, relief (elevation, orientation, and slope of terrain), organisms, and its parent materials (original minerals) interacting over time. It continually undergoes development by way of numerous physical, chemical and biological processes. Given its complexity and strong internal connectedness, it is considered an ecosystem

Most soils have a dry bulk density (density of soil taking into account voids when dry) between 1.1 and 1.6 g/cm3, while the soil particle density is much higher, in the range of 2.6 to 2.7 g/cm3. Little of the soil of planet Earth is older than the Pleistocene (2,588,000 BP) and none is older than the Cenozoic (66,000,000 BP), although fossilized soils are preserved from as far back as the Archean (4 billion to 2.5 billion BP). That is, soil has been around for a very long time, but it evolves.

The era that some anthropologists (and others) call the Anthropocene, the period when humans began having a major impact on the environment, could see a fundamental change in the nature of soil. I don’t really use the term Anthropocene, but I do talk about the two great disasters that befell the planet: the domestication of plants and animals, and the Industrial Revolution. So . . . 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, humans started exploiting the planet – particularly the soil – via domestication, and it has been downhill ever since. The Industrial Revolution sped up the process, and now we are facing the consequences.

Instead of a food recipe today I have a recipe for compost. I always composted kitchen waste, leaves and grass clippings, and had plenty of compost all the time for my vegetable garden so that I did not need chemical fertilizers (and also so that my kitchen waste was not really wasted). It’s not a difficult process, but this video lays it all out clearly.

 

Nov 292018
 

Pong, one of the earliest arcade video games, and usually credited as the first commercially successful one, was launched by Atari on this date in 1972. You have to be about my age, or just a little younger to remember the stir that Pong caused when it first came out. Now it seems so pitifully crude. But it was a huge hit with all my friends, and the fad lasted for many years, even as more sophisticated competitors hit the market.

In case you are too young to remember, Pong is a two-dimensional sports game that simulates table tennis. The player controls an in-game paddle by moving it vertically across the left or right side of the screen. A player can compete against another player controlling a second paddle on the opposing side, or against the machine. Players use the paddles to hit a ball back and forth. The goal is for each player to reach eleven points before the opponent; points are earned when one fails to return the ball to the other.

Pong was the first game developed by Atari. After producing Computer Space, Nolan Bushnell, an engineer, decided to form a company to produce more games by licensing ideas to other companies. The first contract was with Bally Manufacturing Corporation for a driving game. Soon after the founding, Bushnell hired Allan Alcorn because of his experience with electrical engineering and computer science. Bushnell and Ted Dabney, co-founders of Atari, had previously worked with him at Ampex. Prior to working at Atari, Alcorn had no experience with video games. To familiarize Alcorn with creating games, Bushnell gave him a project secretly meant to be a warm-up exercise. Bushnell told Alcorn that he had a contract with General Electric for a product, and asked Alcorn to create a simple game with one moving spot, two paddles, and digits for score keeping. In 2011, Bushnell said that the game was inspired by previous versions of electronic tennis he had played before. He had played a version on a PDP-1 computer in 1964 while attending college. However, Alcorn has claimed it was in direct response to Bushnell’s viewing of the Magnavox Odyssey’s Tennis game. In May 1972, Bushnell had visited the Magnavox Profit Caravan in Burlingame, California where he played the Magnavox Odyssey demonstration, specifically the table tennis game. Though he thought the game lacked quality, seeing it prompted Bushnell to assign the project to Alcorn.

Alcorn first examined Bushnell’s schematics for Computer Space, but found them unintelligible. He went on to create his own designs based on his knowledge of transistor–transistor logic and Bushnell’s game. Feeling the basic game was too boring, Alcorn added features to give the game more appeal. He divided the paddle into eight segments to change the ball’s angle of return. For example, the center segments return the ball at a 90° angle in relation to the paddle, while the outer segments return the ball at smaller angles. He also made the ball accelerate the longer it remained in play; missing the ball reset the speed. Another feature was that the in-game paddles were unable to reach the top of the screen. This was caused by a simple circuit that had an inherent defect. Instead of dedicating time to fixing the defect, Alcorn decided it gave the game greater difficulty and helped limit the time the game could be played; he imagined two skilled players being able to play forever otherwise.

Three months into development, Bushnell told Alcorn he wanted the game to feature realistic sound effects and a roaring crowd. Dabney wanted the game to “boo” and “hiss” when a player lost a round. Alcorn had limited space available for the necessary electronics and was not aware how to create such sounds with digital circuits. After inspecting the sync generator, he discovered that it could generate different tones and used them for the game’s sound effects. To construct the prototype, Alcorn bought a $75 Hitachi black-and-white television set from a local store, put it in a wooden cabinet, and soldered the wires into boards to create the necessary circuitry. The prototype impressed Bushnell and Dabney so much that they felt it could be a profitable product and decided to test its marketability.

In August 1972, Bushnell and Alcorn installed the Pong prototype at a local bar, Andy Capp’s Tavern. They selected the bar because of their good working relation with the bar’s owner and manager, Bill Gaddis. Atari supplied pinball machines to Gaddis. Bushnell and Alcorn placed the prototype on one of the tables near the other entertainment machines: a jukebox, pinball machines, and Computer Space. The game was well received the first night and its popularity continued to grow over the next one and a half weeks. Bushnell then went on a business trip to Chicago to demonstrate Pong to executives at Bally and Midway Manufacturing. He intended to use Pong to fulfill his contract with Bally, rather than the driving game. A few days later, the prototype began exhibiting technical problems and Gaddis contacted Alcorn to fix it. Upon inspecting the machine, Alcorn discovered that the problem was that the coin mechanism was overflowing with quarters.

After hearing about the game’s success, Bushnell decided there would be more profit for Atari to manufacture the game rather than license it, but the interest of Bally and Midway had already been piqued. Bushnell decided to inform each of the two groups that the other was uninterested—Bushnell told the Bally executives that the Midway executives did not want it and vice versa—to preserve the relationships for future dealings. Upon hearing Bushnell’s comment, the two groups declined his offer. Bushnell had difficulty finding financial backing for Pong. Banks viewed it as a variant of pinball, which at the time the general public associated with the Mafia. Atari eventually obtained a line of credit from Wells Fargo that it used to expand its facilities to house an assembly line. Management sought assembly workers at the local unemployment office, but was unable to keep up with demand. The first arcade cabinets produced were assembled very slowly, about ten machines a day, many of which failed quality testing. Atari eventually streamlined the process and began producing the game in greater quantities. By 1973, they began shipping Pong to other countries with the aid of foreign partners. They also developed home versions and table-top versions:

You can play the original Pong game here: http://arcade.gamesalad.com/g/123436

I graduated from Pong to Tank (produced by an Atari subsidiary) in 1974, but when Space Invaders came out in 1978, all bets were off, and I played it fanatically as an arcade game until the PC revolution of the early 1980s. Even though I switched to a variety of games written for the PC, I still played Space Invaders for many years, until finally giving up on video games entirely.

Here is a cute video dedicated to food and recipes found in video games:

Nov 262018
 

Today is the birthday (1919) of Frederik George Pohl Jr., a prolific science fiction writer from the 1930s through the first decade of the 21st century. I was a moderate fan for quite some time, even though his plots made major scientific and anthropological blunders. I always thought of him as a kind of Orwell-lite – indulging in stories based on futures that could develop if some trend continued to a fantastical extremity. What would happen if advertising agencies became the most powerful force in the world (Space Merchants)? What would happen if stupid people bred uncontrollably while smart people limited their family sizes (“Marching Morons”)? His assumptions were not generally sound, and his characters tended towards the comically stereotyped, but I used to enjoy reading them in my 20s when I did not own a television, the internet did not exist, and I wanted some light diversion from my studies from time to time. His books were easy to read, and the holes in the plots plus the two-dimensional characters did not annoy me too much. I still have a certain nostalgic fondness for his writing, even though it annoys me much more nowadays. His books are windows into a simpler time – for me and for the world.

Pohl was the son of Frederik (originally Friedrich) George Pohl (a salesman of Germanic descent) and Anna Jane Mason. His father held various jobs, and the family lived in Texas, California, New Mexico, and the Panama Canal Zone when Pohl was a small boy. The family settled in Brooklyn when Pohl was around seven. He attended Brooklyn Technical High School, and dropped out at 17.

While a teenager, he co-founded the New York–based Futurians fan group, and began lifelong friendships with Donald Wollheim, Isaac Asimov, and others who went on to be well-known writers and editors. Pohl later said that “friends came and went and were gone, [but] many of the ones I met through fandom were friends all their lives – Isaac, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Dirk Wylie, Dick Wilson. In fact, there are one or two – Jack Robins, Dave Kyle – whom I still count as friends, seventy-odd years later….”

During 1936, Pohl joined the Young Communist League because of its positions in favor of unions and against racial prejudice, Adolf Hitler, and Benito Mussolini. He became president of the local Flatbush III Branch of the YCL in Brooklyn. Pohl has said that after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, the party line changed, and he could no longer support it, at which point he left. He served in the United States Army from April 1943 until November 1945, rising to sergeant as an air corps weatherman. After training in Illinois, Oklahoma, and Colorado, he was mainly stationed in Italy with the 456th Bombardment Group.

Pohl began writing in the late 1930s, using pseudonyms for most of his early works. His first publication was the poem “Elegy to a Dead Satellite: Luna” under the name of Elton Andrews, in the October 1937 issue of Amazing Stories, edited by T. O’Conor Sloane. (Pohl asked readers 30 years later, “we would take it as a personal favor if no one ever looked it up”.) His first story, the collaboration with C.M. Kornbluth “Before the Universe”, appeared in 1940 under the pseudonym S.D. Gottesman.

Pohl started a career as a literary agent in 1937, but it was a sideline for him until after World War II, when he began doing it full-time. He ended up “representing more than half the successful writers in science fiction”, but his agency did not succeed financially, and he closed it down in the early 1950s. Pohl stopped being Asimov’s agent—the only one Azimov ever had—when he became editor from 1939 to 1943 of two pulp magazines, Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories. Stories by Pohl often appeared in these science-fiction magazines, but never under his own name. Work written in collaboration with Cyril M. Kornbluth was credited to S. D. Gottesman or Scott Mariner; other collaborative work (with any combination of Kornbluth, Dirk Wylie, or Robert A. W. Lownes) was credited to Paul Dennis Lavond. For Pohl’s solo work, stories were credited to James MacCreigh (or for one story only, Warren F. Howard.) Works by “Gottesman”, “Lavond”, and “MacCreigh” continued to appear in various science-fiction pulp magazines throughout the 1940s.

Pohl co-founded the Hydra Club, a loose collection of science-fiction professionals and fans who met during the late 1940s and 1950s. From the early 1960s until 1969, Pohl served as editor of Galaxy Science Fiction and Worlds of If magazines, taking over after the ailing H. L. Gold could no longer continue working around the end of 1960. Under his leadership, Worlds of If won the Hugo Award for Best Professional Magazine for 1966, 1967 and 1968. He also served as editor of Worlds of Tomorrow from its first issue in 1963 until it was merged into Worlds of If in 1967.

In the mid-1970s, Pohl acquired and edited novels for Bantam Books, published as “Frederik Pohl Selections”; these included Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. He also edited a number of science-fiction anthologies.

After World War II, Pohl worked as an advertising copywriter and then as a copywriter and book editor for Popular Science. Following the war, Pohl began publishing material under his own name, much in collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth. Though the pen names of “Gottesman”, “Lavond”, and “MacCreigh” were retired by the early 1950s, Pohl still occasionally used pseudonyms, even after he began to publish work under his real name. These occasional pseudonyms, all of which date from the early 1950s to the early 1960s, included Charles Satterfield, Paul Flehr, Ernst Mason, Jordan Park (two collaborative novels with Kornbluth), and Edson McCann (one collaborative novel with Lester del Rey).

In the 1970s, Pohl re-emerged as a novel writer in his own right, with books such as Man Plus and the Heechee series. He won back-to-back Nebula Awards with Man Plus in 1976 and Gateway, the first Heechee novel, in 1977. In 1978, Gateway swept the other two major novel honors, winning the Hugo Award for best novel and John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel. Two of his stories have also earned him Hugo Awards: “The Meeting” (with Kornbluth) tied in 1973 and “Fermi and Frost” won in 1986.

His works include not only science fiction, but also articles for Playboy and Family Circle magazines and nonfiction books. For a time, he was the official authority for Encyclopædia Britannica on the subject of Emperor Tiberius. (He wrote a book on the subject of Tiberius, as “Ernst Mason”.) Some of his short stories take a satirical look at consumerism and advertising in the 1950s and 1960s: “The Wizards of Pung’s Corners”, where flashy, over-complex military hardware proved useless against farmers with shotguns, and “The Tunnel under the World”, where an entire community of seeming-humans is held captive by advertising researchers. (“The Wizards of Pung’s Corners” was freely translated into Chinese and then freely translated back into English as “The Wizard-Masters of Peng-Shi Angle” in the first edition of Pohlstars (1984)).

Pohl’s last novel, All the Lives He Led, was released on April 12th, 2011. By the time of his death, he was working to finish a second volume of his autobiography The Way the Future Was (1979), along with an expanded version of the first volume. In addition to his solo writings, Pohl was also well known for his collaborations, beginning with his first published story. Before and following the war, Pohl did a series of collaborations with his friend Cyril Kornbluth, including a large number of short stories and several novels. Their Gladiator-At-Law was my introduction to Pohl courtesy of a copy left in the bookshelves of my apartment when I was a student at Oxford. Gladiator envisages a dystopian future in which corporate lawyers control the world, and the masses are kept pacified with bread and circuses.

In the mid-1950s, he began a long-running collaboration with Jack Williamson, eventually resulting in 10 collaborative novels over five decades. Other collaborations included a novel with Lester Del Rey, Preferred Risk (1955). This novel was solicited for a contest by Galaxy–Simon & Schuster when the judges did not think any of the contest submissions was good enough to win their contest. It was published under the joint pseudonym Edson McCann. He also collaborated with Thomas T. Thomas on a sequel to his award-winning novel Man Plus. He wrote two short stories with Isaac Asimov in the 1940s, both published in 1950. He finished a novel begun by Arthur C. Clarke, The Last Theorem, which was published in 2008.

Pohl went to the hospital in respiratory distress on the morning of September 2nd 2013, and died that afternoon at the age of 93.

One of the background characters in Space Merchants is Chicken Little, which is not really a character so much as a thing: an ever-growing organic blob, that outer pieces are sliced off daily. The slices are then trimmed, packaged, frozen, and shipped off to market to be bought by “consumers” (i.e. the masses) whose diet consists of such artificially grown foods because real animal meat is too expensive for all but top tier advertising executives. Well, I am not going to give you a recipe for anything artificially grown like Chicken Little. I would be part of the resistance movement in Space Merchants known as Consies (short for Conservationists). In many of Pohl’s novels he envisages a world where real fruits, vegetables, and animal products are too expensive for the masses who must be content with artificially mass-produced foodstuffs. It seems to me more likely that as the world population grows, the poorest will starve rather than that the corporate world will come up with a way to feed them. In any case, I am not going to give you a recipe for some imagined food of the future. You are better off eating sustainable products.

Meanwhile here is the kind of thing that sci-fi fans dream up to replicate exotic foods from strange planets:

https://www.tor.com/2009/04/19/science-fiction-cuisine-the-spoo-elevating-moment/

My advice – you can do better than this.

 

Nov 232018
 

Today, the day after Thanksgiving in the US, (commonly called Black Friday, because businesses that have been in the “red” most of the year move into the “black” because Christmas shoppers binge shop) is known as Buy Nothing Day (BND), an international day of protest against consumerism. The first Buy Nothing Day was organized in Canada in September 1992 “as a day for society to examine the issue of overconsumption.” In 1997, it was moved to the Friday after US Thanksgiving, one of the ten busiest shopping days in the United States. In 2000, some advertisements by Adbusters promoting Buy Nothing Day were denied advertising time by almost all major television networks except for CNN. Soon, campaigns started appearing in the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Austria, Germany, New Zealand, Japan, the Netherlands, France, Norway and Sweden. Participation now includes more than 65 nations.

Various gatherings and forms of protest have been used on Buy Nothing Day to draw attention to the problem of overconsumption:

Credit card cut up: Participants stand in a shopping mall, shopping center, or store with a pair of scissors and a poster that advertises help for people who want to put an end to mounting debt and extortionate interest rates by destroying their credit cards by cutting them up with the scissors.

Zombie walk: Participant “zombies” wander around shopping malls or other consumer havens with a blank stare. When asked what they are doing, participants describe Buy Nothing Day.

Whirl-mart: Participants silently steer their shopping carts around a shopping mall or store in a long, baffling conga line without putting anything in the carts or actually making any purchases.

I feel much the same way about Buy Nothing Day as I do about Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and the like. Setting aside one day to curtail your hyperconsumption is not going to change much, any more than having a single day to honor mothers or lovers is going to do much to strengthen family ties or relationships. These values should be honored every single day of the year if they are important to you. If by some chance you honor Buy Nothing Day on the day after Thanksgiving, but then splurge for the rest of the days until Christmas, you have achieved nothing. To be fair, Adbusters claims that Buy Nothing Day is about raising awareness, so that people change their habits permanently, but I do not understand how watching people pretending to be zombies pushing empty shopping carts around a store is going to change anyone’s buying habits. It just seems like an exercise in mockery.

As it happens, I am a great believer in buying as little as possible. Ten years ago, I lived in a four-bedroom house choked with STUFF, and one day I walked away from it carrying one suitcase, and I have never been back. I sold the house and contents as is. Since then I have acquired a second suitcase – I admit it – and I move to a different country every 2 years with my 2 suitcases. If I accumulate any items over and above what fits in those 2 suitcases, I give them away when I move countries. Simple. My life of not buying STUFF suits me now, but I don’t advocate my lifestyle to others. Do what you want. If bankrupting yourself buying mountains of Christmas presents every year makes you happy, go ahead. It’s not my idea of happiness, but you can do what you want. There is, of course, the small matter of the continuously overflowing landfills piled with waste, and oceans flooded with plastic and other pollutants caused by mindless consumption, but I doubt very much that a few people parading their “sanity” in front of herds of crazed shoppers the day after Thanksgiving is going to do much to fix the situation.

Buying nothing will not really help when it comes to meal times unless you have a farm, but you can do a lot to cut down on waste. My guidelines on how to keep a stock pot going in the HINTS tab is a good start. Learning how to make refrigerator soup is another good plan. To make a delicious soup out of odds and ends in the refrigerator requires imagination and experience, but I do it on a regular basis  because I like to keep my perishables to a minimum. I actually call refrigerator soup “throw everything in a pot” soup. It amounts to the same thing.

Nov 122018
 

Today is the birthday (1915) of Roland Gérard Barthes, French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic, and semiotician. Barthes’ ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of many schools of theory, including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology, and post-structuralism. His book, Mythologies (1957), originally a series of essays on the interpretation of popular culture published periodically, was an influential work in anthropology because it introduced anthropologists to semiotics – the analysis of signs and how they operate. Barthes’ work had its vogue in the 1960s and ‘70s, especially because he was a French intellectual whose writings were somewhat clearer and more readable than those of many of his contemporaries, and they appeared to be fertile ground. I always felt that his analyses were trivial, and most of the social scientific world now agrees with me – with the exception of holdouts in France. No worries: I despaired of French social scientists and philosophers a long time ago.

Barthes was born in Cherbourg in Normandy. His father, a naval officer, was killed in a battle during World War I in the North Sea before Barthes’ first birthday. His mother, Henriette Barthes, and his aunt and grandmother raised him in the village of Urt and the city of Bayonne. When Barthes was 11, his family moved to Paris. He claimed that his attachment to his provincial roots remained strong throughout his life – although he does a fair imitation of the bored, Parisian, left-bank intellectual that you could easily be fooled.

Barthes spent from 1935 to 1939 at the Sorbonne, where he earned a degree in classical literature. He was plagued by ill health throughout this period, suffering from tuberculosis, which often had to be treated in isolation in sanatoria. His repeated physical breakdowns disrupted his academic career, affecting his studies and his ability to take qualifying examinations. They also exempted him from military service during World War II. His life from 1939 to 1948 was largely spent obtaining a degee in grammar and philology, publishing his first papers, taking part in a medical study, and continuing to struggle with his health. He received a diplôme d’études supérieures from the University of Paris in 1941 for his work in Greek tragedy. In 1948, he returned to purely academic work, gaining numerous short-term positions at institutes in France, Romania, and Egypt. During this time, he contributed to the leftist Parisian paper Combat, out of which grew his first full-length work, Writing Degree Zero (1953).

In 1952, Barthes settled at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, where he studied lexicology and sociology. During his seven-year period there, he began to write a popular series of bi-monthly essays for the magazine Les Lettres Nouvelles, in which he examined “myths” of popular culture (gathered in Mythologies). The essays in Mythologies were reflections on French popular culture ranging from an analysis of soap detergent advertisements to a dissection of popular wrestling. Though knowing little English, Barthes taught at Middlebury College in 1957 and befriended the future English translator of much of his work, Richard Howard.

Barthes spent the early 1960s exploring the fields of semiology and structuralism, chairing various faculty positions around France, and continuing to produce more full-length studies. Many of his works challenged traditional academic views of literary criticism and of renowned figures of literature. His unorthodox thinking led to a conflict with a well-known Sorbonne professor of literature, Raymond Picard, who attacked the French New Criticism (a label that he inaccurately applied to Barthes) for its obscurity and lack of respect towards France’s literary roots. Barthes’ rebuttal in Criticism and Truth (1966) accused the old, bourgeois criticism of a lack of concern with the finer points of language and of selective ignorance towards challenging theories, such as Marxism.

By the late 1960s, Barthes had established a reputation for himself and traveled to the US and Japan. During this time, he wrote the 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” which, in light of the growing influence of Jacques Derrida’s concept of deconstruction, would prove to be a transitional piece in its investigation of the logical ends of structuralist thought. Trust me. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you don’t want to know. Derrida, Bourdieu, Foucault . . . are all names that have me running for the exit.

Barthes continued to contribute with Philippe Sollers to the avant-garde literary magazine Tel Quel, which was developing similar kinds of theoretical inquiry to that pursued in Barthes’ writings. In 1970, Barthes produced what many consider to be his most prodigious work, the dense, critical reading of Balzac’s Sarrasine entitled S/Z. Throughout the 1970s, Barthes continued to develop his literary criticism; he developed new ideals of textuality and novelistic neutrality. In 1971, he served as visiting professor at the University of Geneva.

In 1975 he wrote an autobiography, and in 1977 he was elected to the chair of Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France. In the same year, his mother, Henriette Barthes, to whom he had been devoted, died, aged 85. They had lived together for 60 years. The loss of the woman who had raised and cared for him was a serious blow to Barthes. His last major work, Camera Lucida, is partly an essay about the nature of photography and partly a meditation on photographs of his mother. The book contains many reproductions of photographs, though none of them are of Henriette. On 25th February 1980, Roland Barthes was knocked down by a laundry van while walking home through the streets of Paris. One month later, on March 26th, he died from the chest injuries he sustained in that accident.

I was going to gather together a series of pithy quotes from Barthes as a small homage, but as I re-read his work I realized that I detest his writing so much that I could not find a single one I like. Here’s a small sample:

Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. The emotion derives from a double contact: on the one hand, a whole activity of discourse discreetly, indirectly focuses upon a single signified, which is “I desire you,” and releases, nourishes, ramifies it to the point of explosion (language experiences orgasm upon touching itself); on the other hand, I enwrap the other in my words, I caress, brush against, talk up this contact, I extend myself to make the commentary to which I submit the relation endure.

Some anthropologists find this kind of thing useful in interpretive analysis. I find it a complete waste of time. He rails against bourgeois culture, yet this sort of writing could not be more elitist. How many coal miners or steel workers are going to be intrigued by his words? How are these sentiments going to help them in their daily struggles? I have no time for this kind of self-centered, self-congratulatory twaddle, and I am glad to say that a great many intellectuals now agree with me. Einstein once said that if you cannot explain something simply, you do not understand it. Roland Barthes and his kin want to turn that sentiment on its head: “If you cannot make a simple idea impenetrable to the masses, you are not trying hard enough.” “Confusing” is not a synonym for “nuanced” or “profound.” Ask yourself, in the cracks, why every one of my photos of Barthes here shows him smoking.

This video, Semiotics in the Kitchen by Martha Rosler, is a perfect parody of semiotics and Barthes. Also perfect as my recipe du jour. That is, at the end of the video you will not have learned anything new, you will not have help in creating a dish, and you will still be hungry.

 

 

Oct 072018
 

Cornell university’s Inauguration Day took place on this date in 1868. The previous day, each of the candidates who showed up in Ithaca was given an entrance examination. There were 412 successful applicants. With this initial enrollment, Cornell’s first class was, at the time, the largest entering class at a US university. On the occasion, Ezra Cornell delivered a brief speech. He said, “I hope we have laid the foundation of an institution which shall combine practical with liberal education. … I believe we have made the beginning of an institution which will prove highly beneficial to the poor young men and the poor young women of our country.” His speech included another statement which later became the school’s motto, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

Ezra Cornell

Two other Ezra Cornell-founded, Ithaca institutions played a role in the rapid opening of the university. The Cornell Library, a public library in downtown Ithaca which opened in 1866 served as a classroom and library for the first students. Also Cascadilla Hall, which was constructed in 1866 as a water cure sanitarium, served at the university’s first dormitory.

Cornell was among the first universities in the United States to admit women alongside men. The first woman was admitted to Cornell in 1870, although the university did not yet have a women’s dormitory. On February 13, 1872, Cornell’s Board of Trustees accepted an offer of $250,000 from Henry W. Sage to build such a dormitory. During the construction of Sage College (now home to the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management as Sage Hall) and after its opening in 1875, the admittance of women to Cornell continued to increase.

Significant departures from the standard curriculum were made at Cornell under the leadership of Andrew D. White. In 1868, Cornell introduced the elective system, under which students were free to choose their own course of study. Harvard University would make a similar change in 1872, soon after the inauguration of Charles W. Eliot in 1869. It was the success of the egalitarian ideals of the newly established Cornell, a uniquely American institution, that would help drive some of the changes seen at other universities throughout the next few decades.

In 1892, the university library was opened. Known today as Uris Library, it was the result of a gift from Henry W. Sage in memory of Jennie McGraw. In her will, she left $300,000 to her husband Willard Fiske, $550,000 to her brother Joseph and his children, $200,000 to Cornell for a library, $50,000 for construction of McGraw Hall, $40,000 for a student hospital, and the remainder to the University for whatever use it saw fit. However, the University’s charter limited its property holdings to $3,000,000, and Cornell could not accept the full amount of McGraw’s gift. When Fiske realized that the university had failed to inform him of this restriction, he launched a legal appeal to re-acquire the money, known as The Great Will Case. The United States Supreme Court eventually affirmed the judgment of the New York Court of Appeals that Cornell could not receive the estate on May 19th, 1890, with Justice Samuel Blatchford giving the majority opinion. However, Sage then donated $500,000 to build the library instead.

My association with Cornell is a bit circuitous, but longstanding. Cornell University Press published my Ph.D. dissertation in 1988, and re-issued it as an e-book in 2017. During the initial phases of editing the book for publication I visited Ithaca several times, and toured the campus and surrounds. I also had several students go on to

do graduate work at Cornell, and attended their commencements. Several of my students also had a parent on the faculty at Cornell. All rather fine threads, but weaving a strong fabric all the same.

The school colors of Cornell, carnelian and white, also have a strange history with me and lead to today’s recipe. I am always fascinated by the roots of English words and /CARN/ (flesh) is one of my favorites because it spawns a plethora of words that seem to be unrelated, yet all tie to “flesh” somehow – carnival (remove flesh for Lent), carnation (flesh-colored flower), carnivore (flesh eater), incarnation (taking flesh), and, of course, carnelian (a flesh-colored stone). But it does not stop there. Campbell’s canning company was started in 1869 by Joseph A. Campbell, a fruit merchant who lived in Bridgeton, New Jersey. It started out by producing canned vegetables, jellies, soups, condiments and minced meats. But in 1897, John T. Dorrance, a chemist with degrees from MIT and Göttingen University, joined the company and developed a way to condense their soups. By halving the quantity of its water, he reduced the can size, and condensed soup took off.

Its blue and orange label was a mainstay for nearly 30 years, until a company executive, Herberton Williams, saw the Cornell University football team in action. Impressed by the carnelian red and bright white of their uniforms, he convinced the company to switch branding colors.

I’m not a huge fan of canned soups, condensed or otherwise, but a couple of Campbell’s offerings work for me, namely, Pepper Pot and Scotch Broth. You can go to the Campbell’s website for recipe ideas using their soups, but I don’t recommend them. There’s something a tad 1950s-ish to me about using canned soup to tart up a recipe. I prefer natural – i.e. unprocessed – ingredients when I am cooking. I make my own pepper pot and Scotch broth from scratch also, but the Campbell’s varieties used to be my standbys when I wanted something quick. Maybe you have a fav? You can comment if you do.

Sep 302018
 

Today is the birthday (1923) of Donald Ibrahím Swann a musician, singer and entertainer who is best remembered as one half of Flanders and Swann. His middle name hints at his unusual background. Swann was born in Llanelli in Wales. His father, Herbert Alfredovich Swann, was a Russian doctor of English descent, from the expatriate community that started out as the Muscovy Company. His mother, Naguimé Sultán Swann (born Piszóva), was a Turkmen-Russian nurse from Ashgabat, now part of Turkmenistan. They were refugees from the Russian Revolution. Swann’s great-grandfather, Alfred Trout Swan, a draper from Lincolnshire, emigrated to Russia in 1840 and married the daughter of the horologer to the Tsars. Some time later the family added a second ‘n’ to their surname. His uncle Alfred wrote the first biography of Alexander Scriabin in English.

The family moved to London, where Swann attended Dulwich College Preparatory School and Westminster School. It was at the latter that he first met Michael Flanders, a fellow pupil. In July and August 1940 they staged a revue called Go To It. The pair then went their separate ways during World War II, but were later to establish a musical partnership writing songs and light opera, Flanders providing the words and Swann composing the music.

In 1941 Swann was awarded an exhibition to Christ Church, Oxford, to read modern languages. In 1942 he registered as a conscientious objector and served with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (a Quaker relief organization) in Egypt, Palestine and Greece. After the war, Swann returned to Oxford to read Russian and Modern Greek.

When by chance Swann and Flanders met again in 1948 it led to the start of their professional partnership. They began writing songs and light opera, Swann writing the music and Flanders writing the words. Their songs were performed by artists such as Ian Wallace and Joyce Grenfell. They subsequently wrote two two-man revues, At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat, which they performed all over the world until their partnership ended in 1967.

At the same time, Swann was maintaining a prolific musical output, writing the music for several operas and operettas, including a full-length version of C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, and a setting of J. R. R. Tolkien’s poems from The Lord of the Rings to music in The Road Goes Ever On collection. In 1953–59 Swann provided music for seven plays by Henry Reed on the BBC Third Programme, generally known as the Hilda Tablet plays for one of the fictional characters, a lady composer of avant-garde “musique concrete”. Besides incidental music, Swann composed for this character an opera, “Emily Butter” and several other complete works. A lifelong friendship with Sydney Carter resulted in scores of songs, the best known being “The Youth of the Heart” which reappeared in At the Drop of A Hat, and a musical Lucy & the Hunter. After his partnership with Flanders ended, Swann continued to give solo concerts and to write for other singers. He also formed the Swann Singers and toured with them in the 1970s. Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s he continued performing in various combinations with singers and colleagues and as a solo artist. In the later years of his life he ‘discovered’ Victorian poetry and composed some of his most profound and moving music to the words of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Oscar Wilde and others. He wrote a number of hymn tunes which appear in modern standard hymn books.  It is estimated that Swann wrote or set to music nearly 2,000 songs during his career.

Swann died in London on 24th March 1994.  His lifelong friend, John Amis, wrote in his obituary:

I have never met anybody who knew Donald Swann who did not like him; his friends positively adored him. And he seemed to inspire love because love was what he was about; it came out in his life and his music. Like any (other) saint he could mildly infuriate from time to time with his absent-mindedness and with his seeming inability to see things, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. But one came to realise that these minor failings came through his single- mindedness or loyalty or the depressions that he suffered from. So were they failings?

I was a great fan of Flanders and Swann in the 1960s. I suppose they have not worn well with age, but their songs still amuse me. In my youth I was known to sing “The Gas Man Cometh” and not terribly long ago I gave a public performance of “The Hippopotamus Song.” Videos of live performances are rare, sad to say. Here is “Song of Patriotic Prejudice.” It does make me cringe a bit these days with its stereotypes and lack of political correctness, but it also shows their innocence and joviality:

In the spirit of Swann’s lighthearted joviality I suggest you do something  creative with thyme today in honor of one of Swann’s earliest musical endeavors, Wild Thyme, which has a long run in London in the 1950s. I use thyme in my beef and chicken stews to good effect, and very often in sauce for roast meat. I am sure you can be more creative than me.

 Posted by at 9:10 pm
Jun 282018
 

Not entirely by coincidence, today marks both the beginning and ending points of the Great War, also known as the First World War and World War I. That is, archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo on this date in 1914, leading directly to war, and the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended the war was signed on this date in 1919. Here we run into the problem of identifying certain dates, or events, as “significant.” It took some time for the various forces in Europe to mobilize for war after the assassination, and for the war to spread beyond Europe. Furthermore, fighting had been concluded 7 months before the Treaty of Versailles by an armistice on 11th November 1918. In a way these facts undermine the premise of this blog – but only in a small way. After all, the birth date of someone who went on to do “significant” things is really of no consequence in the grand scheme of things. Nor are dates of national independence and whatnot. History is a steady continuum, so that marking any single day as “important” is a bit misguided. But . . . if we don’t do something like this we end up not celebrating anything. Some people don’t like celebrating their birthdays. My wife hated them. I make a big deal out of mine. You can call this narcissistic of me. Maybe it is. But I will defend myself by saying that I have spent a lifetime in service to others as a pastor, teacher, firefighter, and emergency paramedic, (all either underpaid or not paid at all), so ONE day of the year taken to please myself seems reasonable. Likewise, taking one day of the year to turn the spotlight on a person, event, or place of lasting importance seems fair enough.

Today’s anniversaries are admittedly singular actions in a steady flow of history that may have points you can highlight but which is really a continuous stream – punctuated, sadly, by brutal wars. I have the (bad) habit of seeing the Treaty of Vienna of 1815 — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/congress-vienna/ — as a particularly disastrous agreement between powerful states that plunged Europe and the world into chaos for the rest of the century and beyond. I call it a “bad habit” because the treaty was not just one event, but the culmination of a whole sequence of events that led up to it, and there were numerous other factors causing the subsequent chaos. But there is a point to be made here. The Treaty of Vienna set up the notion of a balance of powers as the recipe for peace. The reasoning was that if Europe consisted of a number of strong nations such as Britain, France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, with neutral buffer states in between (that everyone agreed upon), no single state would seek war with another because the other states would step in, triggering a massive war that would be too costly to contemplate. However, these major powers were busy carving out empires in the rest of the world throughout the 19th century, fueled in large part by their own industrial revolutions that needed massive inputs of raw products. Yes, it’s all interconnected, and is much more complex than I am sounding – bear with me.

Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Europe had divided itself into 2 camps: the Triple Alliance of Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary, and the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia, with the Balkan states in the middle. The member states of each alliance promised aid to the other members should they be attacked. By dividing the powers into two blocs, instead of having many, the concept of the balance of power was narrowed dangerously (and was also upset by the emergence of newly unified nations such as Italy and Germany – which came into being because of dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Vienna by ethnic groups). Now, instead of independently operating nations, you had two giant power blocs with the nationalist aspirations of ethnic groups in the Balkans sitting between the two. Slavs in the Balkans wanted a united Slav state similar to Italy and Germany, but to achieve this goal they had to break parts of this imagined state (Yugoslavia – i.e. united Slavs) free from Austria-Hungary. Hence the assassination of the heir apparent to the crown of Austria-Hungary by a (mostly) Serbian set of conspirators as the match to the powder keg. By themselves, the Balkans were a small powder keg, but they set off much bigger ones. Austria-Hungary and Germany declared war on Serbia in retaliation, Russia came to the defense of Serbia, and almost immediately the other members of the alliances joined in. The Ottoman Empire was rather late to the game, but entered on the side of Germany/Austria-Hungary, and Italy dithered around for a while trying to pick the winning side before joining in on the side of the Triple Entente even though they were one-third of the Triple Alliance.

Because both sides had massive empires, the war spread around the globe, with very few countries being able to maintain neutrality. When you look at a map (above) of the areas of the world on the side of the Triple Entente (green), and the areas on the side of the Triple Alliance (orange), with neutral countries in grey, you can get a sense of why Italy made the choice it did. The map is deceptive, though, because the crucible of the war was in Europe where the two blocs were evenly matched. Battles in other parts of the world were significant, but secondary, and when the US entered on the side of the Triple Entente in 1917, the balance shifted, leading to a conclusion in late 1918. The war was labeled the Great War, because nothing so all encompassing had ever happened before, even though the Napoleonic wars came close. It was not called the First World War until there was a Second.

In hindsight, historians see the Second World War as a consequence of the Treaty of Versailles. But historians also ask the hypothetical question: “Could either war have been prevented?” Counterfactual questions such as this one have limited utility, but they are always worth asking because similar circumstances can always re-emerge. THE POINT OF STUDYING THE PAST IS TO UNDERSTAND THE PRESENT. If Trump were ever to carry out his earlier threat of annihilating North Korea, for example, it could easily escalate into a world war between China and Russia on one side, and the USA and Europe on the other, much in the same way that the Great War started. Of course, if he pisses off Europe, Canada, and Mexico enough with trade wars he may find himself going it alone – but one hopes these speculations are all drastically hypothetical. They do, nonetheless, point out that apart from national objectives being at stake, individual egos are in the mix also.

Historians sometimes argue that the Great War could have been prevented by diplomacy if all the potential belligerents had been willing to sit down together at a congress instead of jumping straight into war mode.  This is hindsight speaking, though. The various factions thought that the war would be over by Christmas instead of dragging on for 4 ruinous years. Here’s where a time machine would have come in handy. If you could have shown the various parties the consequences of war, perhaps they would have thought twice before starting one. Perhaps. But there were also individual egos involved in starting the war, and these egos fueled the Treaty of Versailles. The Allies who won could have simply agreed to let bygones be bygones and gone about rebuilding their nations; but they didn’t. In the flush of victory they demanded that the losers admit that they had started the war and that they pay for their actions. Therefore, Germany was hit with crippling reparation payments which it could ill afford before the Great Depression, let alone during it. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire also had to give up their colonies, and the latter two were split apart into separate nations. The seeds of the Second World War, not to mention Middle East conflict, the Maoist revolution, etc., were sown.

One of my personal points of despair at this stage is that generations are growing up without a firm grasp of history. My grasp of history is certainly tenuous and biased, but at least I understand its importance. Also, a great many of my relatives who I grew up with (as well as scores of family friends) were participants in either the First or Second World War. I have seen the effects of these wars on a completely personal level. Nowadays, wars are devastating enough, but people growing up in the dominant nations are distanced from them. Conscription is a thing of the past, so that if a family member is killed in a foreign war, relatives can be (minimally) consoled by the notion that they knew the risks when they signed up. Otherwise, wars are the stuff of periodic images on news programs while daily life goes on as usual. Both world wars were engaged in by nations who were convinced of their military superiority: firm in the belief that they could win quickly, and  gobsmacked when this turned out not to be the case. In my humble opinion, we are living in the same world today.

When I choose my daily recipe I am often left with a puzzle because, like nations, local dishes are both the product of local circumstances and intersecting influences from all over the world. Neapolitan pizza would not be what it is without tomatoes from the New World; green chile stew in the southwest of the US has pork as a principle ingredient, and pigs were first domesticated in Asia. The drive to integrate ideas and ingredients that are global in origin is universal and ongoing on the local level. Here’s your challenge. Can you come up with a dish that melds English, Russian, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Turkish elements in one? I can’t for now, but I will give the matter some thought, and maybe add a coda later if I come up with one.

May 232018
 

Today is the birthday (1934) of Robert Arthur Moog (rhymes with “vogue”), a US electronics and mechanical engineer who is best known as the inventor of the Moog synthesizer. Moog was not a musician, but he knew how to work with innovative musicians to showcase and push the boundaries of his inventions. The two most famous are probably Walter/Wendy Carlos and Keith Emerson. I have to say that I very much miss the days when the Moog synthesizer was brand new (late 1960s to early 1970s), and still play the early records (although I no longer have my original vinyls because of my many moves). Nowadays, anyone with a laptop and computer can generate a host of synthesized sounds and they all sound artificial and dull to me. Moog’s first synthesizers were gritty and it took real artistry and technical knowledge to put them through their paces.

Moog was born in New York City and attended the Bronx High School of Science, graduating in 1952. He earned a B.S. in physics from Queens College and a Masters from the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science in 1957. He received his Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell University in 1965. In 1953 at age 19, Moog founded his first company, R.A. Moog Co., to manufacture theremin kits.  He produced his first theremin in 1948 from circuit diagrams, and then went on to refine the electronics and then manufacture and market the kits based on his design. During the 1950s, composer and electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott approached Moog, asking him to design circuits for him. Moog later acknowledged Scott as a major important influence. The Moog synthesizer was one of the first widely used electronic musical instruments. Early developmental work on the components of the synthesizer occurred at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, now the Computer Music Center. While there, Moog developed the voltage controlled oscillators, ADSR envelope generators, and other synthesizer modules with composer Herbert Deutsch. Moog created the first voltage-controlled subtractive synthesizer to use a keyboard as a controller and demonstrated it at the AES convention in 1964. In 1966, Moog filed a patent application for his unique low-pass filter U.S. Patent 3,475,623, issued in October, 1969. He is a listed inventor on ten US patents.

Moog had his theremin company (R. A. Moog Co., which later became Moog Music) manufacture and market his synthesizers. Unlike the few other 1960s synthesizer manufacturers, Moog shipped a piano-style keyboard as the standard user interface. Moog also established standards for analog synthesizer control interfacing, with a logarithmic one volt-per-octave pitch control and a separate pulse triggering signal. The first Moog instruments were modular synthesizers. In 1971 Moog Music began production of the Minimoog Model D, which was among the first synthesizers that was widely available, portable, and relatively affordable.

Walter (later Wendy) Carlos was one of Moog’s earliest musical customers, and he credits Carlos with providing feedback valuable to further development. Through his involvement in electronic music, Moog developed close professional relationships with artists such as Don Buchla, Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, John Cage, Gershon Kingsley, Clara Rockmore, Jean Jacques Perrey, and Pamelia Kurstin.

Moog was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor on April 28, 2005, and died at the age of 71 in Asheville, North Carolina on August 21, 2005.

Quite a number of classically trained musicians objected to Switched on Bach and other presentations of classical music on the Moog synthesizer, and I think that Carlos’ response was quite apt (although a touch disingenuous). It heart he said words to the effect that if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it. His basic point was that his use of the Moog synthesizer to play Bach, Mozart, Purcell, etc. did not destroy the originals. You can still play them as they were originally written – even on period instruments if you want. All that performing these pieces on the Moog did was add a different set of possibilities to what already existed, and continues to exist. Here is Carlos rendition of Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary – used by Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange:

All right – so maybe you don’t like this rendition. You’ve still got this one:

You can shut your ears to the first and listen only to the second, if you wish. I prefer to listen to both. As far as I am concerned, they both have merit. In any case, the world of music is always changing, even when performers want to replicate the sounds of the past. No matter how much research you do into performance styles, period instruments, and whatnot, you are never going to duplicate the sounds of past musicians, or know exactly how composers conducted their own music. It’s always interesting to experiment, but, for my money, it’s also interesting to try new things.

In the world of cuisine, electronic engineers have made some significant strides. For centuries, professionals in culinary arts and perfume production have had to rely on the services of “noses” – rare and well-trained individuals with a highly developed sense of smell, who can analyze and synthesize complex tastes and odors. Since the 1980s, electronic devices have been designed and tested that can mimic – to a degree – the human sense of smell. These machines are particularly useful in detecting the deterioration and spoilage of food products for market. What they cannot do, of course, is mimic human aesthetic sensibility associated with smell and taste.

A really interesting new development if the use of electronics in manipulating taste (akin to the way Moog manipulated sound is described in this article: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/10/13/diet-cutlery-electronic-spoons-which-make-food-taste-sweeter-on/

A team at the University of London is developing an apparatus called the Taste Buddy. It sends signals to taste receptors in the tongue that stimulate specific areas making you think you are tasting something quite different from what you are actually eating. The apparatus is in prototype stage at the moment and is quite big. The hope is to miniaturize it using microchip technology so that it can be inserted into cutlery, such as forks and spoons. That way, when you eat something using a spoon with a Taste Buddy in it, the spoon will trick your tongue. So far they are able to make foods taste sweeter than they are naturally. However, the claim that they will be able to make cabbage taste like chocolate or tofu taste like ice cream seems far-fetched to me. Most flavors concern receptors in the nose more than those on the tongue, and they are very complex. In fact, flavor chemists have not yet been able to isolate all the taste components of items such as chocolate and coffee. They seem to contain thousands of aromatic components and they cannot be duplicated adequately yet. So, I expect they can make cabbage taste sweeter than it is naturally, but making it taste like chocolate is surely a pipe dream. Still, the idea of a Moog spoon does seem intriguing. Like Moog and his synthesizer, I would not want the Taste Buddy spoon to replicate flavors from the natural world, any more than I would want an electronic keyboard to sound like a pipe organ. I’d want to use the Taste Buddy spoon to make funky new flavors that cannot be produced naturally. That would be original.