Nov 122017
 

On this date in 2014 the lander module Philae detached from the Rosetta space probe built by the European Space Agency and landed on comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko (a.k.a. 67P) at 15:33 UTC.

Rosetta was set to be launched on 12 January 2003 to rendezvous with the comet 46P/Wirtanen in 2011. This plan was abandoned after the failure of an Ariane 5 carrier rocket during Hot Bird 7’s launch on 11 December 2002, grounding it until the cause of the failure could be determined. In May 2003, a new plan was formed to target the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, with a revised launch date of 26 February 2004 and comet rendezvous in 2014. The larger mass and the resulting increased impact velocity made modification of the landing gear necessary.

After two scrubbed launch attempts, Rosetta was launched on 2 March 2004 at 07:17 UTC from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana. Aside from the changes made to launch time and target, the mission profile remained almost identical. Both co-discoverers of the comet, Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, were present at the spaceport during the launch.

To achieve the required velocity to rendezvous with 67P, Rosetta used gravity assist maneuvers to accelerate throughout the inner Solar System. The comet’s orbit was known before Rosetta’s launch, from ground-based measurements, to an accuracy of approximately 100 km (62 mi). Information gathered by the onboard cameras beginning at a distance of 24 million kilometers (15,000,000 mi) were processed at ESA’s Operation Centre to refine the position of the comet in its orbit to a few kilometres.

On 25 February 2007, the craft was scheduled for a low-altitude flyby of Mars, to correct the trajectory. This was not without risk, as the estimated altitude of the flyby was a mere 250 kilometers (160 mi). During that encounter, the solar panels could not be used since the craft was in the planet’s shadow, where it would not receive any solar light for 15 minutes, causing a dangerous shortage of power. The craft was therefore put into standby mode, with no possibility to communicate, flying on batteries that were originally not designed for this task. This Mars maneuver was therefore nicknamed “The Billion Euro Gamble”. The flyby was successful, with Rosetta even returning detailed images of the surface and atmosphere of the planet, and the mission continued as planned.

The second Earth flyby was on 13 November 2007 at a distance of 5,700 km (3,500 mi).] In observations made on 7 and 8 November, Rosetta was briefly mistaken for a near-Earth asteroid about 20 m (66 ft) in diameter by an astronomer of the Catalina Sky Survey and was given the provisional designation 2007 VN84. Calculations showed that it would pass very close to Earth, which led to speculation that it could impact Earth.[73] However, astronomer Denis Denisenko recognized that the trajectory matched that of Rosetta, which the Minor Planet Center confirmed in an editorial release on 9 November.

The spacecraft performed a close flyby of asteroid 2867 Šteins on 5 September 2008. Its onboard cameras were used to fine-tune the trajectory, achieving a minimum separation of less than 800 km (500 mi). Onboard instruments measured the asteroid from 4 August to 10 September. Maximum relative speed between the two objects during the flyby was 8.6 km/s (19,000 mph; 31,000 km/h). Rosetta’s third and final flyby of Earth happened on 12 November 2009.

On 10 July 2010, Rosetta flew by 21 Lutetia, a large main-belt asteroid, at a minimum distance of 3,168±7.5 km (1,969±4.7 mi) at a velocity of 15 kilometers per second (9.3 mi/s). The flyby provided images of up to 60 meters (200 ft) per pixel resolution and covered about 50% of the surface, mostly in the northern hemisphere. The 462 images were obtained in 21 narrow- and broad-band filters extending from 0.24 to 1 μm. Lutetia was also observed by the visible–near-infrared imaging spectrometer VIRTIS, and measurements of the magnetic field and plasma environment were taken as well.

In May 2014, Rosetta began a series of eight burns. These reduced the relative velocity between the spacecraft and 67P from 775 m/s (2,540 ft/s) to 7.9 m/s (26 ft/s). In 2006, Rosetta suffered a leak in its reaction control system (RCS). The system, which consists of 24 bipropellant 10-newton thrusters, was responsible for fine tuning the trajectory of Rosetta throughout its journey. The RCS operated at a lower pressure than designed due to the leak. While this may have caused the propellants to mix incompletely and burn ‘dirtier’ and less efficiently, ESA engineers were confident that the spacecraft would have sufficient fuel reserves to allow for the successful completion of the mission.

Rosetta’s reaction wheels also showed higher than expected friction levels, though testing during the deep space hibernation period revealed the system could be operated safety at much slower speeds reducing the bearing friction noise. Before hibernation, two of the spacecraft’s four reaction wheels began exhibiting increased levels of “bearing friction noise” and one was turned off after the encounter with Lutetia to avoid possible failure. Engineers turned on all 4 wheels after the spacecraft awoke from Deep Space Hibernation in January 2014, ran them at lower speeds and elevated the control settings on the bearing heaters using an On-board Control Procedure to help reduce the level of bearing friction noise seen on 2 of the Reactions Wheels prior to Deep Space HIbernation. These changes allowed all 4 Reaction Wheels to be used throughout the period Rosetta was in orbit around 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Additionally, new software was uploaded which would allow Rosetta to function with only two active reaction wheels if necessary.

In August 2014, Rosetta made a rendezvous with the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and commenced a series of maneuvers that took it on two successive triangular paths, averaging 100 and 50 kilometers (62 and 31 mi) from the nucleus, whose segments are hyperbolic escape trajectories alternating with thruster burns. After closing to within about 30 km (19 mi) from the comet on 10 September, the spacecraft entered actual orbit about it.

The surface layout of 67P was unknown before Rosetta’s arrival. The orbiter mapped the comet in anticipation of detaching its lander. By 25 August 2014, five potential landing sites had been determined. On 15 September 2014, ESA announced Site J, named Agilkia in honour of Agilkia Island by an ESA public contest and located on the “head” of the comet, as the lander’s destination.

Philae detached from Rosetta on 12 November 2014 at 08:35 UTC, and approached 67P at a relative speed of about 1 m/s (3.6 km/h; 2.2 mph). It initially landed on 67P at 15:33 UTC, but bounced twice, coming to rest at 17:33 UTC. Confirmation of contact with 67P reached Earth at 16:03 UTC. On contact with the surface, two harpoons were to be fired into the comet to prevent the lander from bouncing off, as the comet’s escape velocity is only around 1 m/s (3.6 km/h; 2.2 mph). Analysis of telemetry indicated that the surface at the initial touchdown site is relatively soft, covered with a layer of granular material about 0.82 feet (0.25 meters) deep, and that the harpoons had not fired upon landing.

After landing on the comet, Philae had been scheduled to commence its science mission, which included:

Characterization of the nucleus

Determination of the chemical compounds present, including amino acid enantiomers

Study of comet activities and developments over time

After bouncing, Philae settled in the shadow of a cliff, canted at an angle of around 30 degrees. This made it unable to adequately collect solar power, and it lost contact with Rosetta when its batteries ran out after two days, well before much of the planned science objectives could be attempted. Contact was briefly and intermittently reestablished several months later at various times between 13 June and 9 July, before contact was lost once again. There was no communication afterwards, and the transmitter to communicate with Philae was switched off in July 2016 to reduce power consumption of the probe. The precise location of the lander was discovered in September 2016 when Rosetta came closer to the comet and took high-resolution pictures of its surface. Knowing its exact location provides information needed to put Philae’s two days of science into proper context.

Researchers expect the study of data gathered will continue for decades to come. One of the first discoveries was that the magnetic field of 67P oscillated at 40–50 millihertz. A German composer and sound designer created an artistic rendition from the measured data to make it audible. Although it is a natural phenomenon, it has been described as a “song” and has been compared to Continuum for harpsichord by György Ligeti. However, results from Philae’s landing show that the comet’s nucleus has no magnetic field, and that the field originally detected by Rosetta is likely caused by the solar wind.

The isotopic signature of water vapor from comet 67P, as determined by the Rosetta spacecraft, is substantially different from that found on Earth. That is, the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in the water from the comet was determined to be three times that found for terrestrial water. This makes it very unlikely that water found on Earth came from comets such as comet 67P, according to the scientists. On 22 January 2015, NASA reported that, between June and August 2014, the rate at which water vapor was released by the comet increased up to tenfold.

On 2 June 2015, NASA reported that the ALICE spectrograph on Rosetta determined that electrons within 1 km (0.6 mi) above the comet nucleus — produced from photoionization of water molecules by solar radiation, and not photons from the Sun as thought earlier — are responsible for the degradation of water and carbon dioxide molecules released from the comet nucleus into its coma.

I don’t have any great ideas for food recipes to celebrate a module landing on a comet, but I do have two ideas for recipes in a wider sense. Once is a “recipe” for making a comet, or a simulacrum of a comet made out of common items, most of which are available in the kitchen. If you go on YouTube and search for “comet recipe” you will find any number of videos of people replicating the structure of comets using household items.  Here’s one:

That recipe does not produce something edible, however. On the other hand, there are quite a few recipes for cocktails called “comet.” They are all quite different from one another, and none, in my opinion, evokes comets in any way. I don’t drink alcohol any more, but when I did I had some memorable experiences with blackcurrant vodka, so this one struck a chord:

Comet Cocktail

Ingredients

30ml Smirnoff Double Black vodka
10ml blackcurrant cordial
60ml pineapple juice
lemon wedge

Instructions

Shake the vodka, blackcurrant cordial, and pineapple juice in a cocktails shaker.  Pour over cracked ice in a glass and garnish with a lemon wedge.

 

 

Jul 112017
 

Today has been designated the day of the bandoneon in Argentina by official law of Congress.  This date was chosen because it is the birthday of (1914) Aníbal Carmelo Troilo, much loved and revered bandoneon player, composer, and orchestra leader in the 1930s and 1940s in the heyday of tango in Buenos Aires.  The bandoneon is the quintessential tango instrument even though it was invented in Germany and produced there exclusively until the 1940s. Subsequently classic bandoneons became rarer and rarer in Argentina and helped contribute to the slow death of traditional tango.  Here’s a link to a documentary that, in my opinion, is the best single review of the history and current status of the bandoneon in Argentina. It follows the fortunes of a young woman who is attempting to join an orquesta tipica (tango band) and learn from one of the masters.  It also talks about the slow demise of the bandoneon in Buenos Aires and has interviews with famous older players (as well as many full-length performances and discussions of playing style).  It is around 90 minutes long, so I have not embedded it here for the sake of conserving disc space. It is in Argentine Spanish with English subtitles and is well worth your time if you want a really comprehensive understanding of the instrument:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5a6SJOH2-A

Here is Troilo playing his own composition“Sur” in rare live footage:

The bandoneon is named for its inventor, Heinrich Band (1821–1860), and was originally intended as an instrument for religious and popular music of the day, in contrast to its free reed predecessors the concertina and the button accordion which were largely used for folk music. Around 1870, German and Italian emigrants and sailors brought the instrument to Argentina, where it was adopted into the nascent genre of tango music which was slowly emerging as a distinct musical and dance form at the time, particularly (but not exclusively) in the docklands of my old barrio, san Telmo.

By 1910 bandoneons were being produced expressly for the Argentine and Uruguayan markets, with 25,000 shipping to Argentina in 1930 alone. However, declining popularity and the disruption of German manufacturing in World War II led to an end of bandoneon mass-production. Bandoneons were never produced in Argentina itself despite their popularity. As a result, by the 2000s, vintage bandoneons had become rare and expensive limiting prospective bandeonistas. In 2014, the National University of Lanús announced their development of an affordable Argentine-made bandoneon, which they hope to market for one-third to one-half of the cost of vintage instruments.

The bandoneon is like a concertina in that it has buttons on the left and right hand, but it has many more than a typical concertina so that it can play completely chromatically over a number of octaves. Typically bandoneons are bisonic, meaning that each button produces one note when the bellows are pushed, and a different note when they are pulled.  Here’s a fairly standard layout (click to enlarge):

The bandoneon is not an enormously difficult instrument to play if all you want to do is bang out a simple tune with a few chords. That was its original intention. But to master the instrument for tango is a lifetime’s occupation, and very few people succeed. You really have to start at 5 or 6 years old, and even then, with constant practice, you are not ready to join an orquesta until your 20s at the earliest. The bandoneon in this respect is like any classical orchestral instruments. It’s not just a matter of playing the notes, but of understanding the subtleties of rhythm and intonation that are unique to the instrument and to tango itself.

As Argentina modernizes, classic tango and bandoneon playing are seen as old fashioned, and, consequently, are dying as younger people embrace pop, rock, and hip-hop. To my mind, and to the minds of many Argentinos, this state of affairs is a tragedy because tango is truly Argentine grown. It has some roots in European musical style, to be sure, but what it evolved into is uniquely Argentino. Even attempts to modernize it by the likes of Ástor Piazzolla, (who played with Troilo before branching out), weaken the spirit of tango, in my oh-so-humble opinion, by introducing elements of blues, jazz, etc. which are not Argentine products at all. For me, nuevo tango is simply not tango. Most foreigners don’t get it because they don’t know real tango to begin with. If you go to plaza Dorrego in san Telmo on a Sunday afternoon, chances are you’ll run into one of my favorite tango orquestas, playing down a side street opposite iglesia san Pedro. They are young enthusiasts keeping the tradition alive.

Over 4 years of posting I’ve pretty much covered the waterfront when it comes to Buenos Aires cooking.  There’s not a whole lot to it to begin with. Some regional recipes find their way into Capital’s kitchens, however.  Here’s a recipe for Patagonian Carbonada Criolla which I’ve had once or twice made by local cooks. Its origins in European stews are obvious but the ingredients are a little different – especially the dried apricots. Argentine beef is best of course. Even stewing beef is a lot tenderer there. You may have to adjust cooking times if you use your local beef.

Carbonada Criolla

Ingredients

⅓ cup olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 ½ lbs stewing beef, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 28 oz can stewed tomatoes
2 cups beef broth
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 white potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tbspn sugar(optional)
1 large winter squash, peeled and cubed
7 oz dried apricots, roughly chopped
salt and pepper
2 ears sweetcorn, sliced in 1” rounds

Instructions

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat and sauté the peppers and onions until they are lightly golden.

Add the beef and brown on all sides.

Add the stewed tomatoes, beef broth, potatoes, sugar (if used), squash and apricots plus salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a slow simmer, cover and cook for an hour. Check periodically to make sure the stew is not too dry.  If so add a little more beef broth. Simmer longer is the beef is not tender.

Add the corn and cook for 15 minutes longer.

Serve hot in soup dishes.

May 182017
 

Today is the birthday (1919) of Margot Fonteyn de Arias, DBE, prima ballerina assoluta of the Royal Ballet, for whom she danced her entire career. Fonteyn was born Margaret Evelyn Hookham in Reigate, Surrey. Her father was a British engineer, and her mother was the daughter of Brazilian industrialist Antonio Fontes. Very early in her career Margaret took the name by which she was known all her life, Margot Fonteyn, with the surname derived from “Fontes,” also adopted by her brother—Portuguese “fonte” is “fountain” in modern English, “fonteyn” in Middle English. Her later formal married name was Margot Fonteyn de Arias in the Spanish-language tradition.

At 4 years of age her mother signed her and her elder brother up for ballet classes. At age 8, Margot travelled to China with her mother and father, who had taken employment with a tobacco company there while her brother Felix remained at his school. For six years Margot lived in TianJin, then in Shanghai, where she studied ballet with Russian émigré teacher George Goncharov. Her mother took her back to London when she was 14, to pursue a ballet career. Her father continued on in Shanghai and was interned during World War II by the invading Japanese.

In 1933 Fonteyn joined the Vic-Wells Ballet School, the predecessor of today’s Royal Ballet School, training under the direction of Ninette de Valois and such teachers as Olga Preobrajenska and Mathilde Kschessinska [Krzesinska]. After starting with the Vic-Wells Ballet, she rose quickly through the ranks of the company. By 1939 Fonteyn had performed principal roles in Giselle, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty and was appointed prima ballerina. She was most noted in the ballets of Frederick Ashton, including Ondine, Daphnis and Chloe, and Sylvia. She was especially renowned for her portrayal of Aurora in Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Fonteyn also worked with choreographer Roland Petit and, later in life, Martha Graham. When the Royal Ballet toured the United States in 1949, Fonteyn instantly became a celebrity for her performances.

In the 1940s she and Robert Helpmann formed a very successful dance partnership, and they toured together for several years. In the 1950s she danced regularly with Michael Somes. In 1955, the year in which Fonteyn married a Panamanian diplomat, they danced together in the first color telecast of a ballet, NBC’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. In 1958 they appeared together in the first British televised version of The Nutcracker.

Fonteyn began her greatest artistic partnership at a time when many people, including the head of the Royal Ballet, Ninette de Valois, thought she was about to retire. In 1961 Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West, and on 21 February 1962 he and Fonteyn first performed together in Giselle. She was 42 and he was 24. Their performance was a great success; during the curtain calls Nureyev dropped to his knees and kissed Fonteyn’s hand. They created an on-and-offstage partnership that lasted until her retirement in 1979 at age 61, and were lifelong friends. Fonteyn and Nureyev became known for inspiring repeated frenzied curtain calls and bouquet tosses. Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed Marguerite and Armand for them, which no other couple danced until the 21st century. They debuted Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, although MacMillan had conceived the ballet for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable. Fonteyn and Nureyev appeared together in the filmed versions of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Les Sylphides, and the pas de deux from Le Corsaire.

Despite differences in background and temperament, and a 19-year gap in ages, Nureyev and Fonteyn became close lifelong friends and were famously loyal to each other. Fonteyn would not approve an unflattering photograph of Nureyev. He said about her:

“At the end of ‘Lac des Cygnes’ when she left the stage in her great white tutu I would have followed her to the end of the world.”

The extent of their physical relationship remains unclear. Nureyev said that they had one, while Fonteyn denied it. Her biographer Meredith Daneman agreed with Nureyev. The pair remained close even after she retired to a Panama cattle farm with her husband. She talked with Nureyev by phone several times a week, although her farmhouse did not have a telephone. When she had to be treated for cancer, he paid many of her medical bills and visited her often, despite his busy schedule as a performer and choreographer. In a documentary about Fonteyn, Nureyev said that they danced with “one body, one soul” and that Margot was “all he had, only her.”

In 1955 Fonteyn married Dr Roberto Arias, a Panamanian diplomat to London. Their marriage was initially rocky because of his infidelities. She was arrested in Panama when helping Arias to attempt a coup d’état against the government in 1959. Confidential British government files released in 2010 showed that Fonteyn knew of and had some involvement in the coup attempt. In 1964 a rival Panamanian politician shot Arias, leaving him a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.

After her retirement she spent all her time in Panama, and was close to her husband and his children from an earlier marriage. She had no pension, and had spent all her savings looking after her husband.[6] Shortly before her husband’s death, in 1989, Fonteyn was diagnosed with cancer, and she died on 21 February 1991 in a hospital in Panama City, Panama, aged 71.

Reigate in particular, where Fonteyn was born, and Surrey in general, is pretty much a wasteland when it comes to old traditional recipes. This may be due to the fact that Surrey is little more than a suburb of London – Reigate certainly, these days. Yet all is not lost. Surrey tea rooms are noted now, and have been for over a century, for the classic English afternoon tea “cake” (or tart), maids of honour. Tradition has it that they were first baked by a maid of honour at Henry VIII’s court, some versions even suggesting the maid in question was Anne Boleyn. Legend also has it that Henry prized them so much that he kept the recipe locked away. Who knows? What we do know is that you will find them served in Kew, Richmond, and other landmark towns in Surrey.  There are something like a custard cheesecake inside a pastry shell.Sometimes you will find recipes for them that are cake and jam inside a pastry shell. These are not traditional. A tea room in Kew in Surrey, “The Original Maids of Honour,” dates back to the 18th Century and was set up specifically to sell these tarts. Dainty and royal morsels for a world renowned ballerina.

Surrey Maids of Honour

Ingredients

Pastry

2 cups all-purpose flour
6 tbsp cold unsalted butter
⅓ cup vegetable shortening
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tsp lemon juice
⅛ tsp rose water or orange flower water (optional)
1 pinch salt

Custard Filling

1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)
½ cup heavy cream, plus 2 tbsp
¼ cup unsalted butter
2 tbsp granulated sugar
¼ cup ground almonds
1 large egg, beaten
2 tsp finely minced fresh lemon zest
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
¼ tsp rose water or orange flower water (optional)
fresh ground nutmeg

powdered sugar (for dusting)
butter (for greasing)

Instructions

Dice the butter. Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl. Add in the diced butter, plus very small scoops (teaspoon sized) of shortening. Mix together, cover, and place the bowl in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes.

In another bowl, place the eggs, lemon juice, rosewater (or orange-flower water), and a pinch of salt and put in the refrigerator.

Using a food processor pulse the chilled fats and flour until the mix is coarse and crumbly (8 to 10 pulses). Do not over process. Slowly add the liquids (while pulsing more) until the pastry has almost come together. Scoop out the pastry on to a floured surface and knead until it is completely combined. Only a few times should be needed. Cut into two discs, wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

To make the filling, cut lengthwise down the vanilla bean with the tip of a sharp knife. Put the vanilla bean and cream into a saucepan, and heat to just below boiling over medium heat. DO NOT BOIL. Remove from the heat. Take out the bean and scrape the seeds into the cream (or simply use vanilla extract). Add the butter, sugar, ground almonds, egg, lemon zest and juice, and the rosewater (or orange-flower water), stirring well to combine. Let stand for about 10 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 425˚F

Grease very well 2 12-hole tart or muffin pans. If you have only one (as I do now), you’ll have to make two batches, each as follows. Roll out half the pastry, cut out 12 rounds with a 3” round cutter, and carefully press them into the tart pan. Spoon half the filling into the pastry cases. Leave about 1 inch below the rim because the custard rises as it bakes. Dust lightly with fresh nutmeg and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the custard is golden and puffy.

Let the tarts sit in the pan for a few minutes before unmolding on to a wire rack to cool. Dust the tops with powdered sugar.

You can leave the tarts to cool a little before serving, but they are best eaten still slightly warm.

May 072017
 

Today, the first Sunday in May, is World Laughter Day. The first celebration was actually on January 10, 1998, in Mumbai, and was arranged by Dr. Madan Kataria, founder of the worldwide Laughter Yoga movement. Now there are special World Laughter Day events in at least 105 countries worldwide. Kataria, a family doctor in India, was inspired to start the Laughter Yoga movement in part by the facial feedback hypothesis, which postulates that a person’s facial expressions can have an effect on their emotions. There is also some scientific evidence that laughter is medically helpful. Kataria’s speculation is that it does not matter whether laughter is forced or natural to have a beneficial effect. I can understand the hypothesis although I have no evidence to support it other than anecdotal. It is, of course, fundamental to yoga that body posture influences mental state. I think that this is unquestionably true, but whether it applies to deliberate laughter is not clear to me. However, I see no reason why we can’t deliberately provoke actual laughter. If I want to laugh I can watch this video, for example. It cracks me up – every single time.

Why this particular cat fail clip should make me laugh so reliably is not clear, and brings up the whole question of the nature of humor which has been studied endlessly and with little profit. Incongruity is one facet of humor, as in this case. The cat so clearly wants to jump up on the shelf, and fails. But . . . it does not jump and miss; its “jump” is not even worthy of the name. It just falls off the table. It is the combination of obvious desire and epic failure that appeals to me; that, and the fact that I know cats and their desires very well.

As a graduate student I wrote a paper on incongruity in comic strips for my sociolinguistics class. My (lame) hypothesis involved showing that sometimes cartoonists tried to be funny by making their characters say things that were grossly out of characters, such as, children being wise well beyond their years, or, conversely, adults talking like children. The latter is the stock in trade of the immensely popular television series The Big Bang Theory, which I detest precisely for that reason. The premise that highly intelligent men typically act like children in their social lives annoys me beyond words. First, the premise is demonstrably false, and, second, seeing grown men acting like boys does not amuse me.

Although some animals, especially non-human primates, exhibit physical behaviors that look like laughter, I find it highly unlikely that animals are capable of actual laughter. Chimpanzees and orangutans sometimes display laughter-like behavior when they are enjoying themselves, but human laughter extends well beyond simple enjoyment. It is much more complex. Much of human laughter comes from language, and this is outside of non-human capability.

There is no question that laughter can be infectious. This classic English music hall song, The Laughing Policeman, relies on infection for success (or failure):

I’ve always enjoyed provoking laughter from my students when I teach. It’s not a deliberate strategy; I can’t help myself. I see the funny side of things. In fact I see the funny side of just about everything when I am with other people. But there’s the thing. For me laughter is sociable. If I watch a movie by myself that amuses me, I don’t laugh, but if I am with other people, I do. Back in my college days no one had a television, but we had a television room and we would pack it on certain occasions, such as when Monty Python came on. The place would be in hysterics from start to finish, and I would laugh along with the others.

This point reminds me that laughter is intensely culturally specific. I had many colleagues in the US who did not find Monty Python funny in the slightest. On the other side of the coin, when I was in China I could not for the life of me figure out what Chinese jokes were all about, and they were perplexed at my humor. There was also the complication that Chinese university students generally think it is impolite to laugh out loud in class.

I had two separate ideas for recipes today. The first was to talk about “joke” dishes, that is, dishes that look like one thing but are actually another. Here, for example, is a “grilled cheese” sandwich that is actually toasted pound cake slices with a yellow icing for filling:

However, I’ve covered this idea before several times. So, instead I want to look at amusing recipes. I found this online (click to enlarge).

It’s a recipe generated by a computer program trying to emulate the activity of neural networks – that is, getting a computer learn how to think the way humans think. They were produced  by Janelle Shane using char-rnn, an open-source program on GitHub that she (and others) can customize to build their own neural networks. She gave it a cookbook to analyze and then asked it to produce new recipes. Granting computers human intelligence has a long way to go. I think we’re safe from a robot takeover for a while. Or . . . maybe they are already ingenious enough to know how to chop beer. Frightening.

Here’s another recipe that will keep you guessing:

Pears Or To Garnestmeam

meats

¼ lb bones or fresh bread; optional
½ cup flour
1 teaspoon vinegar
¼ teaspoon lime juice
2  eggs

Brown salmon in oil. Add creamed meat and another deep mixture.

Discard filets. Discard head and turn into a nonstick spice. Pour 4 eggs onto clean a thin fat to sink halves.

Brush each with roast and refrigerate.  Lay tart in deep baking dish in chipec sweet body; cut oof with crosswise and onions.  Remove peas and place in a 4-dgg serving. Cover lightly with plastic wrap.  Chill in refrigerator until casseroles are tender and ridges done.  Serve immediately in sugar may be added 2 handles overginger or with boiling water until very cracker pudding is hot.

Yield: 4 servings

Jan 042017
 
 © Bettmann/CORBIS

© Bettmann/CORBIS

On this date in 1948 Myanmar, then known as Burma, became independent of British rule, and so today is Independence Day in Myanmar. British rule in Burma lasted from 1824 to 1948, from the Anglo-Burmese wars through the creation of Burma as a Province of British India to the establishment of an independently administered colony, and finally independence. Various portions of Burmese territories, including Arakan, Tenasserim were annexed by the British after their victory in the First Anglo-Burmese War. Lower Burma was annexed in 1852 after the Second Anglo-Burmese War. The annexed territories were designated the minor province (a Chief Commissionership), British Burma, of British India in 1862.

After the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, Upper Burma was annexed, and the following year, the province of Burma in British India was created, becoming a major province (a Lieutenant-Governorship) in 1897. This arrangement lasted until 1937, when Burma began to be administered separately by the Burma Office under the Secretary of State for India and Burma. British rule was disrupted during the Japanese occupation of much of the country during the Second World War.

During the 18th century Burmese rulers, whose country had not previously been of particular interest to European traders, sought to maintain their traditional influence in the western areas of Assam, Manipur and Arakan. The British East India Company, however, was expanding its interests eastwards over the same territory. Over the next 60 years, diplomacy, raids, treaties and compromises continued until, after three Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824–1885), Britain proclaimed control over most of Burma.

With the fall of Mandalay on 1 January 1886, all of Burma came under British rule. Throughout the colonial era, many Indians arrived as soldiers, civil servants, construction workers and traders who, along with the Anglo-Burmese community, dominated commercial and civil life in Burma. Rangoon became the capital of British Burma and an important port between Calcutta and Singapore.

burma1

Burmese resentment was strong and was vented in violent riots that paralyzed Yangon (Rangoon) on occasion all the way until the 1930s. Some of the discontent was caused by a disrespect for Burmese culture and traditions such as the British refusal to remove shoes when they entered pagodas. Buddhist monks became the vanguards of the independence movement. U Wisara, an activist monk, died in prison after a 166-day hunger strike to protest against a rule that forbade him from wearing his Buddhist robes while imprisoned.

On 1 April 1937, Burma became a separately administered colony of Great Britain and Ba Maw the first Prime Minister and Premier of Burma. Ba Maw was an outspoken advocate for Burmese self-rule and he opposed the participation of Great Britain, and by extension Burma, in World War II. He resigned from the Legislative Assembly and was arrested for sedition. In 1940, before Japan formally entered the Second World War, Aung San formed the Burma Independence Army in Japan.

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Burma was a major battleground and was devastated by World War II. By March 1942, within months after the British began the war in Burma, Japanese troops had advanced on Rangoon and the British administration had collapsed. A Burmese Executive Administration headed by Ba Maw was established by the Japanese in August 1942. Wingate’s British Chindits were formed into long-range penetration groups trained to operate deep behind Japanese lines. A similar US unit, Merrill’s Marauders, followed the Chindits into the Burmese jungle in 1943. Beginning in late 1944, allied troops launched a series of offensives that led to the end of Japanese rule in July 1945. The battles were intense with much of Burma laid waste by the fighting. Overall, the Japanese lost about 150,000 men in Burma. Only 1,700 prisoners were taken.

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Although many Burmese fought initially for the Japanese as part of the Burma Independence Army, many Burmese, mostly from the ethnic minorities, served in the British Burma Army. The Burma National Army and the Arakan National Army fought with the Japanese from 1942 to 1944 but switched allegiance to the Allied side in 1945. Under Japanese occupation, 170,000 to 250,000 civilians died.

Following World War II, Aung San negotiated the Panglong Agreement with ethnic leaders that guaranteed the independence of Myanmar as a unified state. Aung Zan Wai, Pe Khin, Bo Hmu Aung, Sir Maung Gyi, Dr. Sein Mya Maung, Myoma U Than Kywe were among the negotiators of the historical Panglong Conference negotiated with Bamar leader General Aung San and other ethnic leaders in 1947. In 1947, Aung San became Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council of Myanmar, a transitional government. But in July 1947, political rivals assassinated Aung San and several cabinet members.

On 4 January 1948, the nation became an independent republic, named the Union of Burma, with Sao Shwe Thaik as its first President and U Nu as its first Prime Minister. Unlike most other former British colonies and overseas territories, Burma did not become a member of the Commonwealth. A bicameral parliament was formed, consisting of a Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Nationalities, and multi-party elections were held in 1951–1952, 1956 and 1960.

The geographical area Burma encompasses today can be traced to the Panglong Agreement, which combined Burma Proper, which consisted of Lower Burma and Upper Burma, and the Frontier Areas, which had been administered separately by the British. In 1961, U Thant, then the Union of Burma’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and former Secretary to the Prime Minister, was elected Secretary-General of the United Nations, a position he held for ten years. Among the Burmese nationals to work at the UN when he was Secretary-General was a young Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of Aung San), who went on to become the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, and ultimately leader of Myanmar.

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Mohinga is the national dish of Myanmar. In Burmese it means snack (mo) soup (hinga) and is ubiquitous in Myanmar. It is a breakfast dish traditionally, but, like eggs and bacon in the West, it is now a breakfast food served ALL DAY. Mohinga is also served with all the trimmings at formal functions and nowadays it is also sold in dry packets as a ready-made powder that is used for making the broth.

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Street hawkers are the original purveyors of mohinga doing the rounds through neighborhoods where they have regular customers. They carry the soup cauldron on a stove on one side of a shoulder pole and rice vermicelli and other ingredients along with bowls and spoons on the other. It used to be available only early in the morning and at street pwès or open air stage performances and zat pwès or itinerant theatres at night. Trishaw peddlers began to appear in the 1960s and some of them set up pavement stalls making mohinga available all day.

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There are different varieties of mohinga in various regions of Myanmar, of course. Rakhine mohinga has more fish paste and less soup. Its ingredients depend on their availability. However, the standard dish comes from southern Myanmar, where fresh fish is more readily available. The main ingredients of mohinga are chickpea flour and/or crushed toasted rice, garlic, onions, lemongrass, banana tree stem, ginger, fish paste, fish sauce, and catfish in a rich broth cooked and kept on the boil in a cauldron. It is served with rice vermicelli, dressed and garnished with fish sauce, a squeeze of lime, crisp fried onions, coriander, spring onions, crushed dried chillis, and, as optional extras, crisp fried fritters such as split chickpeas (pè gyaw), urad dal (baya gyaw) or gourd (bu thee gyaw) or even sliced pieces of Chinese donuts, as well as boiled egg and fried nga hpè fish cake.

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Obviously you are not going to be able to create mohinga at home in anything like an authentic way, but I’ll tackle the problem two ways. First a video:

Next, a recipe. Some of the ingredients are going to be difficult, if not impossible, to find in Western markets. Rotsa ruck !!

Mohinga

Ingredients

½ cup peanut oil
1 tsp turmeric powder
½ red onion, finely sliced
1 stalk lemongrass, white part only, finely sliced
2 cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
2 tsp shrimp paste
1 tsp sweet paprika
3 tbsp cooked, crushed chickpeas
85 g toasted rice powder
4 tbsp fish sauce
2 red Asian shallots, peeled
2 hardboiled eggs, sliced
100 g boiled banana trunk or banana blossom
600 g cooked thin rice noodles
4 sprigs coriander, to garnish
4 snake beans, finely sliced
dried chile flakes

Broth

1 whole catfish, cleaned
1 lemongrass stalk, bruised
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 litres cold water

Chile paste

3 lemongrass stalks, white part only, finely sliced
4 whole dried chiles
4 red Asian shallots, diced
4 cloves garlic, diced
2 cm ginger, finely sliced

Instructions

To make the broth, add the catfish, lemongrass, garlic, turmeric and water to a large saucepan or stockpot. Bring to the boil over high heat and skim any impurities that rise to the surface. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain the broth then remove the fish meat from the bones. Set aside and reserve the broth.

Meanwhile, to make the paste, pound the lemongrass, chiles, red shallots, garlic and ginger to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Set aside.

Heat the peanut oil in a saucepan over low-medium heat and add the turmeric. Next, add the chile paste. Add the red onion, lemongrass, ginger and garlic. Cook for 5-6 minutes. Add the flaked fish and coat in the paste. Sauté over low-medium heat for 20 minutes. Add the shrimp paste and paprika. Continue to cook, over low heat, for a further 5 minutes to infuse flavors.

Return the broth to the stockpot, place over medium heat. Add the crushed chickpeas, rice powder, fish sauce and flaked fish mixture. Season with salt and black pepper. Reduce heat simmer for 30 minutes. Add the red shallots and boiled egg. Add the banana trunk.

Divide the vermicelli noodles among 4 bowls. Pour the broth over the noodles. Garnish with coriander, snake beans and chile flakes to serve.

 

Dec 012016
 

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According to some sources, the world’s first moving assembly line began operation at the Henry Ford Company in 1913.  The actual date of initial operation is subject to debate, but I’ll use this one. The moving assembly line was a monumental revolution in the production of cars, and, ultimately in mass production in general. On the positive side, I suppose, the moving assembly line was a giant leap forward in producing relatively inexpensive cars for the masses, and his methods were known at the time as Fordism. On the not-so-positive side, Ford’s innovation spawned repetitive, dull labor, mass consumption of identical cars, and traffic jams. I’m a colossal fan of handmade goods and public transport.

Henry Ford With 1921 Model T

The main point to understand is that Ford did not invent the assembly line; that has a very long history. He invented the moving assembly line. The assembly line in general is practically as old as civilization. Any system in which a product moves from one person to the next for the addition of components is an assembly line. So, for example, in a professional kitchen a plate can move from the roast station to the vegetable station to the sauce station and then out to the diner. Three different chefs have added a component to make the plate complete. Ford made several changes to increase efficiency and speed in assembly. First, he standardized the components; second he standardized the actions on the assembly line; and third he created a constantly moving conveyer belt so that the cars moved from one assembly point to the next. His innovation cut the assembly time for a car from about 12 hours by hand to about 2½ hours on the moving line.

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With mass produced standard parts there was no time wasted getting components to fit, as there is in hand manufacture. Building a car using Ford’s method is just like building a house using lego blocks. Every component fits where it should on the car because the car has a completely uniform construction, which means that every car is identical and all the parts are interchangeable. The components are fitted together in carefully regulated steps. Ford had time and motion experts calculate the precise number of steps (87) needed to construct a car, as well as the order and most efficient way to organize the construction. The moving conveyer belt meant that the cars under construction moved from station to station where workers had the parts ready to attach. The workers were trained in the one task each had to manage so they could perform it quickly. In consequence a car rolled off the assembly line every 3 minutes. That’s great for mass production, but not so great in other ways.

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Assembly line production in this manner has two major flaws, in my opinion. First, it produces endless copies of the original model. Ford is famous for saying that you could have the model-T in any color you wanted as long as it’s black.  Nowadays assembly line production has some variety built in but in Ford’s day it was the continual production of identical models that was one key to low cost. In addition, Ford’s innovation made labor repetitive (that is, boring). If you are trained to fit driver-side doors on the cars, that’s all you do 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. That reduced Ford’s labor costs, because such work is not skilled labor, and, like parts, one line worker can easily be replaced by another if one gets sick or is inefficient. Ford paid decent wages and the work was steady because demand for his cars was high. But the work itself was dehumanizing.

Ford’s production methods not only revolutionized production, but revolutionized culture in general. You have to decide whether the costs outweigh the benefits or vice versa. I’ve done assembly-line work and it’s not for me. The job was well paid, but the days at work robbed my soul of creativity and dignity. I became a slave to production at the expense of my humanity. The inhumanity of the moving assembly line is famously parodied in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times:

Like industrial production, assembly-line cooking has its pluses and minuses. At its worst we end up with mass-produced fast food that may be cheap but has few redeeming features beyond filling an empty belly. But assembly-line cooking is not all bad, and sometimes results in something special. As the name implies a line cook is a cook working on a culinary assembly line, and busy restaurants, even the fanciest, cannot always produce every dish, one plate at a time assembled by a single cook.

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At home I occasionally need to use assembly line techniques, especially when I am cooking for a crowd, and pretty much always when I am having a dinner party. Cooking shows on television often make a big deal out of plating a meal. I don’t do that at home. I do not assemble plates in the kitchen and then bring them to the dining table ready to eat. My guests have empty plates and I bring all the dishes to the table. They then circulate, and guests help themselves as the different components pass. So it’s like an assembly line except in this case it is the components that move and the finished product stays in one place. The finished product is not as elegant as it would be if I made each dish in the kitchen, but the seeming paradox here is that by using a moving assembly line for all the components, each diner’s plate is unique. Assembly lines do not have to result in identical products.

There is also a certain amount of efficiency to using assembly line methods in the kitchen. So, for example, if I have 4 apples to peel, core, and slice. I could peel, core and slice the first, then the second, and so on, and that’s what I used to do for a long time. But now I peel all 4, then core all 4, then slice all 4. When I managed a catering company and when I directed church suppers, we always had assembly lines.

Here’s a very efficient assembly line in Thailand:

Oct 132016
 

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Today is the beginning of土居太鼓祭り—Doi Taiko Matsuri. Let me break down the Japanese for you (not that I speak Japanese). Doi is a place on Shikoku Island in Japan, Taiko is a traditional Japanese drum, and Matsuri means festival. So, Doi Drum Festival.  It runs for three days from the 13th to the 15th of October annually. Drum festivals in Japan these days are fairly common in a number of locations but they are not all the same.  Some drum festivals are what you might expect – groups of men, or men and women, in special costume drumming out traditional rhythms on sets of specially made drums.  Doi Drum Festival is not one of these, but its form is also common. It involves processions of太鼓隊 – Taiko Tai – literally meaning “drum squad,” that is, large troupes of men who accompany (and sometimes carry) a large, very heavy, ornate platform carrying a “drum” through the streets of the town, with men standing on the platform barking orders and supervising events.

I have not been to Doi, but I’ve attended festive processions in other parts of Japan and pretty much have the overall impression – hoards of people, lots of food, manic performers, colorful costumes, rafts of men carrying heavy platforms . . . etc. This video (and the photos) make the point. I’m sure the Doi festival has its peculiarities; you’ll pardon my ignorance of the finer details, I hope.

Doi is now a district in Shikokuchūō (四国中央市),  a port city located in Ehime Prefecture on the northern shore of Shikoku – the smallest of the main islands that make up Japan, located south of the main island of Honshu and northeast of Kyushu. Shikokuchūō is a city created in 2004 out of 2 neighboring cities, and 2 smaller towns. Doi was one of the towns. The merger was a political move to establish a worthy capital should Shikoku become an island province, and the name Shikokuchūō (Shikoku Central City) was chosen to reflect this aspiration. It has been roundly condemned by locals as a name that is both unoriginal and uninspiring. Within this conurbation localities still strive to maintain their distinctiveness. Doi Taiko Matsuri helps Doi in this regard.

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If you watch the video you’ll see that there are certain basic elements to the Doi Taiko Matsuri processions. First, let’s consider the floats. They are large platforms on top of heavy wooden poles carrying an ornate “drum.” These platforms weigh around 3 or 4 tons apiece and can either be lifted in the air using the poles, or rest on a wheeled carriage. The “drum” is now an elaborately decorated centerpiece which I am assuming would have been a container for a real drum or drums at some point (based on processions I have seen elsewhere in Japan where drummers sit inside this centerpiece and knock out rhythms on drums inside). In Doi there appear to be no actual drums although they could be inside the towers – as they are in other parts of Shikoku. In some cases there are men sitting on top of the towers and might be drummers. There are, however, men standing on the platform directing the movements of the drum squad with hand gestures and whistles. All the actions of the drum squad are rhythmic.

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Second, the thrill of the procession is in the dexterity of the squads who are in competition with one another. For most of the procession the squads merely guide the float on its carriage as they work their way through the streets (you can’t see the carriages in the video because they are obscured by the men in the squads). But periodically they stop and, under the direction of the men on the platform, turn the float, and lift it above their heads. This action requires both strength and coordination. Speed, dexterity, strength, and agility are all judged critically by the onlookers – mostly Japanese, but with some foreign tourists mixed in (very few, because such events are not widely touted).

The Doi procession is relatively sedate in comparison with some I have seen, notably in Osaka. Some of these processions pull and push the floats at running speed through the streets with the men on top having to hold on tight as they careen around corners at breakneck speed. Others are carried on the men’s shoulders for long distances and then periodically shaken and tilted violently. These more active processions are potentially quite dangerous and there are records of the platforms falling over because of poor coordination of the squads, or runners being trampled. The energy and enthusiasm of the men in the squads is electric. It’s not hard to imagine them being carried overboard in the heat of the moment.

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Festival food is available everywhere on these days, of course. There’s really no way to replicate local specialties, so, instead, I’ll mention a famous one – Jakoten. Jakoten (じゃこ天) is a special product of Uwajima in Southern Ehime prefecture, but can be found at many festivals because it is good finger food. Jakoten was supposedly invented in the early 17th century and was originally a kind of steamed fish paste cake ordered by daimyo Date Hidemune to be made by his craftsman using fishes of Uwajima when he lived there. According to legend, he loved steamed fish cakes when he was in Sendai so he wanted to eat them also in Ehime.

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Hotarujako, which are small white fish, are common for making Jakoten. Hotarujako is the Japanese name for Acropoma japonicum, a member of the Acropomatidae family of bioluminescent fish, called, in English, glowbelly or lanternbelly. Hotarujako is also called Haranbo in Uwajima. First, the heads, viscera and scales of the fish are removed. Then, the remaining parts are minced including the bones. Seasoning is added and the minced fish is ground into a paste. Next, it is shaped into rectangular patties by using a wood frame. The patties are fried several minutes until they become brownish color.

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Jakoten are usually eaten with a dipping sauce of soy sauce and daikon. You can buy them on Shikoku cooked to eat immediately, or fresh to take home and cook. I couldn’t find an online source. They wouldn’t be any good anyway. They’d have to be frozen and shipped overnight. Just get on a plane and visit Doi.

Oct 062016
 

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Today is the anniversary of several significant events in the development of motion pictures.  On this date in 1889 Thomas Edison gave a public display of his first motion picture and in 1893 on this date he received the first copyright for a motion picture filmed with his Kinetograph camera. Edison’s contribution to the motion picture industry has been highly exaggerated and disputed, but the events are milestones of a sort. What cannot be disputed is that the first “talkie” which completely revolutionized motion pictures, The Jazz Singer premiered on this date in 1927 at the Warner Theater in New York.  Let’s dispense with Edison first.

Although Edison’s tireless self promotion and business acumen have left a permanent legacy in the U.S., and the world, of him as a genius inventor – the light bulb, the phonograph, etc. etc. – with his name permanently enshrined in place names and business enterprises, modern historians have picked apart the legend, showing that others who preceded him in fields that he claimed credit for have, until recently, languished in obscurity, and that even in his own laboratories other scientists and inventors were ultimately responsible for inventions which Edison patented and took credit for. What he was undeniably a genius at was funding and selling commercially viable products, using his name as a selling point (remind you of anyone currently in the public eye?), and profiting from the work of others. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Edison’s promotion of motion pictures.

In the late 1880s a number of people were working on ideas pioneered by Eadweard Muybridge (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/eadweard-muybridge/ ) to take multiple still photographs in rapid sequence and string them together so that, when projected, they become “motion pictures.” That concept is still, in essence, the basis of celluloid movies. In the mid-19th century, inventions such as Joseph Plateau’s phenakistoscope and the later zoetrope demonstrated that a carefully designed sequence of drawings, showing phases of the changing appearance of objects in motion, would appear to show the objects actually moving if they were displayed one after the other at a sufficiently rapid rate. Each sequence was limited to a small number of drawings, usually twelve, so it could only show endlessly repeating cyclical motions. By the late 1880s, the last major device of this type, the praxinoscope, had been elaborated into a form that employed a long coiled band containing hundreds of images painted on glass and used the elements of a magic lantern to project them on to a screen.

The use of sequences of photographs in such devices was initially limited to a few experiments with subjects photographed in a series of poses, because the available emulsions were not sensitive enough to allow the short exposures needed to photograph subjects that were actually moving. The sensitivity was gradually improved so that in the late 1870s Eadweard Muybridge created the first sequences of  images photographed in real-time which could be animated. He used a row of cameras, each in turn capturing one image on a photographic glass plate, so the total number of images in each sequence was limited by the number of cameras, about two dozen at most. Hand-painted images based on the photographs were projected as moving images by means of his zoopraxiscope.

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By the end of the 1880s, the introduction of lengths of celluloid photographic film and the invention of motion picture cameras, which could photograph an indefinitely long rapid sequence of images using only one lens, allowed several minutes of action to be captured and stored on a single compact reel of film. Edison was granted a patent for his motion picture camera or Kinetograph. He helped with the electromechanical design, while his employee W. K. L. Dickson, a photographer, worked on the photographic and optical development. The bulk of the credit for the invention belongs to Dickson.

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The Kinetograph was used initially with a Kinetoscope for viewing motion pictures made by the Kinetograph. The Kinetoscope was designed for films to be viewed by one individual at a time through a peephole viewer window at the top of the device. The Kinetoscope was not a movie projector but introduced the basic approach that would become the standard for all cinematic projection before the advent of video, by creating the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter. A process using roll film was first described in a patent application submitted in France and the U.S. by French inventor Louis Le Prince. The concept was copied by Edison in 1889, and subsequently developed by Dickson between 1889 and 1892.

This video gives a little bit of the history, and at the end shows what is claimed to be the first motion picture – a quick, blurry clip of a woman twirling.

It is not undisputably the first motion picture, although it is probably the first that Edison’s company produced. It does give the basic idea from which Edison and others developed short movies. Claims about dates of production and priority are murky at best.

In 1893, what is sometimes claimed as the world’s first film production studio (it isn’t), the Black Maria, or the Kinetographic Theater, was completed on the grounds of Edison’s laboratories at West Orange, New Jersey, for the purpose of making film strips for the Kinetoscope. Construction began in December 1892 and was completed the following year at a cost of $637.67 (around $18,000 in current dollars). In early May 1893 at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, Edison conducted his first public demonstration of films shot using the Kinetograph in the Black Maria, with a Kinetoscope viewer. The exhibited film showed three people pretending to be blacksmiths.

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The first motion pictures made in the Black Maria were deposited for copyright by Dickson at the Library of Congress in August, 1893. In early January 1894, The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (Fred Ott’s Sneeze) was one of the first series of short films made by Dickson for the Kinetoscope in Edison’s Black Maria studio with fellow assistant Fred Ott. The short film was made for publicity purposes, as a series of still photographs to accompany an article in Harper’s Weekly.

It was the earliest motion picture to be registered for copyright — composed of an optical record of Ott sneezing comically for the camera. While Edison was not a great inventor, he was a shrewd enough businessman to know that copyright was important for his commercial success. Patenting and copyrighting of inventions can most definitely be attributed to him.

The first films shot at the Black Maria, which Edison had little to do with other than financing, included segments of magic shows, plays, vaudeville performances (with dancers and strongmen), acts from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, various boxing matches and cockfights, and scantily-clad women. Many of the early Edison moving images released after 1895, however, were non-fictional “actualities” filmed on location: views of ordinary slices of life — street scenes, the activities of police or firemen, or shots of a passing train.

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In April 1896, Thomas Armat’s Vitascope, manufactured by the Edison factory and marketed in Edison’s name, was used to project motion pictures in public screenings in New York City. Later he exhibited motion pictures with voice soundtrack on cylinder recordings, mechanically synchronized with the film. Some of the early Kinetoscopes also had synchronized sound which could be heard through earphones. So, “talkies” had been around since the beginning of motion pictures. But until the 1920s they had mechanical problems and were not commercially viable.

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The Jazz Singer is the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized sound; its release on this date in 1927 heralded the commercial ascendance of the “talkies” and the decline of the silent film era. It was directed by Alan Crosland and produced by Warner Bros. with its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system.  The film, featuring six songs performed by Al Jolson, is based on a play of the same name by Samson Raphaelson, adapted from one of his short stories “The Day of Atonement.”

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The film depicts the fictional story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a young man who defies the traditions of his devout Jewish family. After singing popular tunes in a beer garden he is punished by his father, a cantor, prompting Jakie to run away from home. Some years later, now calling himself Jack Robin, he has become a talented jazz singer. He attempts to build a career as an entertainer but his professional ambitions ultimately come into conflict with the demands of his home and heritage.

The premiere was set for October 6, 1927, at Warner Brothers’ flagship theater in New York City. The date was chosen to coincide with Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday around which much of the movie’s plot revolves. The buildup to the premiere was tense. Beside Warner’s precarious financial position at the time, the physical presentation of the film itself was remarkably complex:

Each of Jolson’s musical numbers was mounted on a separate reel with a separate accompanying sound disc. Even though the film was only eighty-nine minutes long…there were fifteen reels and fifteen discs to manage, and the projectionist had to be able to thread the film and cue up the Vitaphone records very quickly. The least stumble, hesitation, or human error would result in public and financial humiliation for the company.

None of the four Warner brothers was able to attend: Sam Warner— the strongest advocate for Vitaphone—had died the previous day of pneumonia, and the surviving brothers had returned to California for his funeral.

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According to Doris Warner, who was in attendance, about halfway through the film she began to feel that something exceptional was taking place. Jolson’s “Wait a minute” line had prompted a loud, positive response from the audience. Applause followed each of his songs. Excitement built, and when Jolson and Eugenie Besserer began their dialogue scene, “the audience became hysterical.” After the show, the audience turned into a “milling, battling, mob”, in one journalist’s description, chanting “Jolson, Jolson, Jolson!” Among those who reviewed the film, the critic who foresaw most clearly what it presaged for the future of cinema was Life magazine’s Robert E. Sherwood. He described the spoken dialogue scene between Jolson and Besserer as “fraught with tremendous significance…. I for one suddenly realized that the end of the silent drama is in sight.”

Critical reaction was generally, though far from universally, positive. The sound quality was fine for the songs, but critics complained that it was not able to capture the nuances of dialog as effectively. For the film to be shown nationwide theaters had to be modified at considerable expense. The Jazz Singer was certainly a commercial success, but its impact was not felt immediately. Silent films continued to be popular for some time for many reasons. One that tends to be forgotten these days is that large, cosmopolitan cities, such as New York, had sizeable immigrant populations who did not speak English, and they preferred silent movies where the main action was visual.

Here’s the famous, or infamous, conclusion to the film.

This leads me to a discussion of racism in the film. Nowadays minstrelsy and blackface are universally condemned as racist holdovers from vaudeville and earlier, and people without any knowledge of the era or Jolson simply dismiss The Jazz Singer as one more chapter in perpetual racism. In fact film historians see the film quite differently. Jazz historians have described Jolson’s blackface and singing style as metaphors for Jewish and black suffering throughout history. Historian Michael Alexander describes The Jazz Singer as an expression of the liturgical music of Jews with the “imagined music of African Americans,” noting that “prayer and jazz become metaphors for Jews and blacks.” Playwright Samson Raphaelson, after seeing Jolson perform his stage show Robinson Crusoe, stated that “he had an epiphany: ‘My God, this isn’t a jazz singer’, he said. ‘This is a cantor!'” The image of the blackfaced cantor remained in Raphaelson’s mind when he conceived of the story/play which eventually led to The Jazz Singer.

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Jolson first heard music from the African-American community, such as jazz, blues, and ragtime, played in the back alleys of New Orleans, and he enjoyed singing the new jazz-style of music. He often performed in blackface, especially in the songs he made popular, such as “Swanee”, “My Mammy”, and “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody”. Jolson’s black stage persona, called “Gus” was a wily and wise-cracking servant who was always smarter than his white masters, frequently helping them out of problems they created for themselves. In this way, Jolson used comedy to poke fun at the prevalent idea of white supremacy. In most of his movie roles, however, including a singing hobo in Hallelujah, I’m a Bum or a jailed convict in Say It With Songs, he chose to act without using blackface. In The Jazz Singer, he performed only a few songs, including “My Mammy”, in blackface, but the film is concerned in part with the experience of “donning a mask” that the young Jewish singer embraces in performing popular songs onstage.

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As a Jewish immigrant and the most famous and highest-paid entertainer in the U.S. at the time, he may have had the incentive and resources to help break down racial attitudes. For instance, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) during its peak in the early 1920s, included about 15% of the nation’s eligible voting population, 4–5 million men. While The Birth of a Nation glorified white supremacy and the KKK, Jolson chose to star in The Jazz Singer, which defied racial bigotry by introducing African-American music to audiences worldwide.

While growing up, Jolson had many African-American friends, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who later became a prominent tap dancer. As early as 1911, at the age of 25, Jolson was already noted for fighting discrimination on the Broadway stage and later in his movies. At a time when African-American people were banned from starring on the Broadway stage, he promoted a play by African-American  playwright Garland Anderson, which became the first production with an all-Black cast ever produced on Broadway. In addition he brought an all-Black dance team from San Francisco that he tried to feature in his Broadway show (without success); he demanded equal treatment for Cab Calloway, with whom he performed a number of duets in his movie The Singing Kid; and he was supposedly “the only white man allowed into an all black nightclub in Harlem.”

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Al Jolson once read in the newspaper that songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, neither of whom he had ever heard of, were refused service at a Connecticut restaurant because of their race. He immediately tracked them down and took them out to dinner, “insisting he’d punch anyone in the nose who tried to kick us out!” Subsequent to their meeting, according to biographer Al Rose, Jolson and Blake became friends. Rose writes:

This didn’t have anything to do with the theater, because they never worked together. Rather, they both had a love of prize fighting and used to go to boxing matches together, engaging in jocose discussion of the relative merits of Negro with Jewish pugilists. They would occasionally wager a bottle of whisky on these bouts.

Film historian Charles Musser notes that “African Americans’ embrace of Jolson was not a spontaneous reaction to his appearance in talking pictures. In an era when African Americans did not have to go looking for enemies, Jolson was perceived a friend.” There’s plenty of racism to go around these days; I’d advise not pointing fingers because of current sensitivities. Attention to context goes a long way.

Popcorn is the obvious recipe to go along with the movies although it’s hardly gourmet fare and you don’t really need a recipe in these days of popcorn machines and microwave bags. Movie theater popcorn tends to range from mediocre to barely edible, but you can do a better job at home even without special equipment. When I was a boy we made popcorn once in a while using a heavy lidded skillet. It’s a matter of greasing the skillet well, adding a small amount of popcorn, covering, and heating over medium-high heat whilst shaking vigorously until the popping has stopped. This type of popcorn was not popular or common in cinemas in Australia or England when I was growing up. Packaged caramel corn was the norm. You can make this yourself if you wish.

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Caramel Popcorn

Ingredients

10-12 cups freshly popped popcorn
1 tbsp vegetable oil
¾ cup unsalted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp kosher salt (or to taste)
¼ tsp baking soda

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 250°F.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.

To make the caramel sauce, melt the butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Mix in the sugar until the sugar is completely moistened. Increase the heat to medium high and bring the mixture to a boil. Once boiling, boil for 3-4 minutes while stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan continuously.

The exact cooking temperature is not absolutely critical with this recipe, but ideally you should use a sugar thermometer and let the sugar mixture reach between 250°F and 300°F. The higher the temperature, the crunchier the popcorn, but do not let it go over 300. At this point smoke will appear.

Remove from the heat and add the vanilla, salt, and baking soda and stir until combined. The sugar mixture will bubble up violently. Continue stirring until you have thick, glossy sauce.

Slowly pour the caramel sauce over the popcorn while stirring the popcorn and continue stirring the sauce into the popcorn until all of the kernels are coated.

Divide the popcorn between two baking sheets, spreading the popcorn out into an even layer. Bake for one hour, checking and stirring every 15 minutes and breaking up any clumps.

Let the popcorn cool completely on the baking sheets. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container for up to a week.

Oct 022016
 

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Today is the birthday (1890) of Julius Henry Marx known professionally and ubiquitously as Groucho. His absolutely unmistakable appearance, carried over from his days in vaudeville, included quirks such as an exaggerated stooped posture, glasses, cigar, and a thick, black greasepaint mustache and eyebrows. These exaggerated features resulted in the creation of one of the world’s most recognizable novelty disguises, known as “Groucho glasses”: a one-piece mask consisting of horn-rimmed glasses, large plastic nose, bushy eyebrows and mustache.

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I don’t think there’s any great sense in rehashing Groucho’s career. If you don’t know him, a simple biography won’t help. If you do know him you don’t need me telling you about him. Let’s start instead with a compilation of some of his famous lines.

Groucho’s life before Hollywood is the part most fans don’t know. He was born in a room above a butcher’s shop on East 78th Street in New York City between Lexington and 3rd” and grew up on East 93rd Street off Lexington Avenue in a neighborhood now known as Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. At the time the area was dominated by European immigrants, mostly artisans.

This 1915 photo of the Marx brothers with their parents in New York City is extraordinary because the family resemblance of the brothers, masked by the vaudevillesque makeup on film, is so evident. From left to right they are, Groucho, Gummo, Minnie (mother), Zeppo, Frenchie (father), Chico, and Harpo.

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Groucho’s family was Jewish. Groucho’s mother was Miene “Minnie” Schoenberg, whose family came from Dornum in northern Germany when she was 16 years old. His father was Simon “Sam” Marx, who changed his name from Marrix, and was called “Frenchie” by his sons throughout his life because he and his family came from Alsace in France. Minnie’s brother was Al Schoenberg, who shortened his name to Al Shean when he went into show business as half of Gallagher and Shean, a noted vaudeville act of the early 20th century. According to Groucho, when Shean visited he would throw the local street waifs a few coins so that when he knocked at the door he would be surrounded by adoring fans. Groucho and his brothers respected his opinions and asked him on several occasions to write some material for them.

Minnie Marx did not have an entertainment industry career but had intense ambition for her sons to go on the stage like their uncle. While pushing her eldest son Leonard (Chico Marx) in piano lessons she found that Julius/Groucho had a pleasant treble voice and the ability to remain on key. Groucho’s early career goal was to become a doctor, but the family’s need for income forced him out of school at the age of twelve. By that time young Groucho had become a voracious reader, particularly fond of Horatio Alger. Groucho continued to overcome his lack of formal education by becoming very well read.

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After a few stabs at entry-level office work and jobs suitable for adolescents, Groucho started on the stage as a boy singer with the Gene Leroy Trio, debuting at the Ramona Theatre in Grand Rapids, MI on July 16, 1905. Marx reputedly claimed that he was “hopelessly average” as a vaudevillian. By 1909 Minnie Marx had assembled her sons into a forgettable-quality vaudeville singing group billed as “The Four Nightingales.” The brothers Julius, Milton (Gummo Marx) and Arthur (originally Adolph, from 1911 Harpo Marx) and another boy singer, Lou Levy, traveled the U.S. vaudeville circuits to little acclaim. After exhausting their prospects in the East the family moved to La Grange, Illinois, to play the Midwest.

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After a particularly dispiriting performance in Nacogdoches, Texas, Julius, Milton, and Arthur began cracking jokes onstage for their own amusement. Much to their surprise, the audience liked them better as comedians than as singers. They modified the then-popular Gus Edwards comedy skit “School Days” and renamed it “Fun In Hi Skule”(reminds me of Molesworth). The Marx Brothers performed variations on this routine for the next seven years.

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For a time in vaudeville all the brothers performed using ethnic accents. Leonard, the oldest, developed the Italian accent he used as Chico Marx to convince some roving bullies that he was Italian, not Jewish. Arthur, the next oldest, put on a curly red wig and became “Patsy Brannigan”, a stereotypical Irish character. His discomfort speaking on stage led to his uncle Al Shean’s suggestion that he stop speaking altogether and play the role in mime. Groucho’s character from “Fun In Hi Skule” was an ethnic German, so he played him with a German accent. After the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, public anti-German sentiment was widespread, and Groucho’s German character was booed, so he quickly dropped the accent and developed the fast-talking wise-guy character that became his trademark.

Consequently the Marx Brothers became the biggest comedic stars of the Palace Theatre in New York City, which billed itself as the “Valhalla of Vaudeville.” Chico’s deal-making skills resulted in three hit plays on Broadway. No comedy routine had ever so captured the Broadway circuit. All of this predated their Hollywood career. By the time the Marx Brothers made their first movie, they were major stars with sharply honed skills. That’s why at the heart of their movies they are still vaudevillians. Here’s the crowded cabin scene from A Night at the Opera. Pure vaudeville.

After his movie career Groucho was relaunched to new stardom on You Bet Your Life, now with a genuine moustache but still wisecracking – often ad-lib. Here’s a reel of outtakes that were too racy to air in the 1950s.

Groucho’s quotes are famous, so there is no need to list them in quantity. Here are some that are not especially wisecracks.

Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

A woman is an occasional pleasure but a cigar is always a smoke.

My favorite poem is the one that starts ‘Thirty days hath September’ because it actually tells you something.

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We know a great deal about Groucho’s eating preferences. He loved chocolate, for example, and when on a strict diet towards the end of his life he limited himself to two only which he ate first thing, remarking, “Well, I’ve had my chocolates. Now there’s nothing to do but wait for tomorrow.” Groucho had a lifelong love of clam chowder. In his youth, his Aunt Hannah would cook up batches of the soup for the Marx family using the same pot the family used to do their laundry. Groucho claimed the dual-purpose pot enhanced both the wash and the flavor of the chowder. “I wish I could remember what it tasted like,” Groucho later recalled when he was in his 80s.

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I have no idea what it tasted like. I’m fairly certain it was not classic New England Chowder. That recipe is here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ship-ahoy/ Here is Manhattan clam chowder instead. People are really divided between the two chowders. I’ll take either, but I prefer Manhattan style because of the contrast of the sweetness of the clams and the acidity of the tomatoes. If you are a decent cook, all you need is the list of ingredients. Proportions and quantities, as always, are really up to the cook.

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Manhattan Clam Chowder

Ingredients

24 cherrystone clams, rinsed
1 tbsp butter
¼ lb slab bacon, diced
1 white onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 large ribs celery, cleaned and diced
1 green pepper, seeded and diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
red pepper flakes, to taste
3 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
3 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes in juice, crushed or roughly diced
freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ cup chopped parsley
oyster crackers

Instructions

Put the clams in a large, heavy Dutch oven, add about 4 cups water, then set over medium-high heat. Cover, and cook until the clams have opened, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. (Clams that fail to open after 15 to 20 minutes should be discarded.) Strain the clam broth through a sieve lined with cheesecloth, muslin, or doubled-up paper towels, and set aside. Remove the clams from their shells, discard the shells and set aside the clams.

Rinse out the pot, and return it to stove. Add the butter, and turn the heat to medium-low. Add the bacon, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fat has rendered and the pork has started to brown, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the meat from the fat, and set aside.

Add the onions, garlic, celery, green pepper, potatoes and carrots to the fat, and sauté, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are softened but not brown, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Add 4 cups of clam broth. Add the sprigs of thyme and the bay leaf.

Partly cover the pot, and simmer gently until potatoes are just tender, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Using the back of a wooden spoon, smash a few potatoes against the side of the pot to release their starch and help thicken the broth.

When the potatoes are tender, stir in the tomatoes, and heat them through. Add the and reserved bacon, stirring to combine. Add black pepper to taste. Let chowder come to a simmer, and remove from the heat. Remove the thyme and the bay leaf.

The chowder should be allowed to sit for a while to cure. You can refrigerate it overnight if you like.

Reheat the chowder before serving, then garnish with chopped parsley. Serve with oyster crackers.

 

Sep 082016
 

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September 8 was proclaimed International Literacy Day by UNESCO on November 17, 1965. Its aim is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities, and societies. On International Literacy Day each year, UNESCO reminds the international community of the status of literacy and adult learning globally. Celebrations take place around the world. About 775 million adults lack minimum literacy skills. According to statistics that are not especially reliable because what counts as “minimally literate” varies from culture to culture, one in five adults is not literate and two-thirds of them are women. The fact that twice as many women as men are illiterate is largely attributable to gender inequities in education in many regions of the world.

I have many thoughts about this subject, some of which will not be popular. At the outset I would like to challenge the unthinking notion that literacy is universally a GOOD THING. Obviously, in the modern developed world being literate has many more advantages than being illiterate. Even so, at what age and in what manner children should be taught to read is an ongoing debate. The great educator Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf schools, felt that 7 was soon enough for children to start learning how to read. He wanted them to experience purely oral culture first. That way they could enjoy the sheer pleasure of language – songs, poetry tales etc. – in oral form only. Therein lies the rub. Cultures that are literate gain something and lose something. Cultures that are non-literate (have no system of writing), are not inferior to ones that are literate; they are different.

There are things that non-literate cultures can do that literate ones cannot. It is believed, for example, that Homer (if he actually existed) was a bard who could not read or write. His epics were probably composed orally and subsequently written down by scribes.  Compare his epics with, let’s say, Virgil’s Aeneid. Virgil is all right, but the Aeneid is scholarly and stuffy, whereas the Iliad and Odyssey are free flowing and imaginative. To compose an epic orally you have to have the kind of memory that is rare in literate people.

Literacy is thought to have first emerged with the development of numeracy and computational devices as early as 8,000 BCE. Script developed independently at least four times in human history in Mesopotamia, Egypt, lowland Mesoamerica, and China.

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The earliest forms of written communication probably originated in Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia, about 3500-3000 BCE. During this era, literacy was the product of expanding empires that required permanent records of laws and finances. Later, the notable accomplishments of the elite were recorded by scribes.  Writing systems in Mesopotamia first emerged from a recording system in which people used impressed token markings to manage trade and agricultural production. The token system served as a precursor to early cuneiform writing once people began recording information on clay tablets. Proto-cuneiform texts exhibit not only numerical signs, but also ideograms depicting objects being counted.

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Egyptian hieroglyphs emerged from 3300-3100 BCE and focused on the activities of power elites. The Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system was the first notation system to have phonetic values.

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Writing in lowland Mesoamerica was first put into practice by the Olmec and Zapotec cultures around 900-400 BCE. These cultures used glyphic writing and bar-and-dot numerical notation systems for purposes related to royal activities and calendar systems.

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The earliest written notations in China date back to the Shang Dynasty in 1200 BCE. These systematic notations were found inscribed on bones and recorded sacrifices made, tributes received, and animals hunted, which were activities of the elite. These oracle-bone inscriptions were the early ancestors of modern Chinese script.

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There are three basic systems of writing that vary in their difficulty in learning and usage — alphabetic, syllabic, and logographic. Alphabetic systems developed early in Mesopotamia, and are now extremely widespread because of their ease of use. A mere 26 letters give you the whole English language. The Roman alphabet used for English is not as phonetic as one might like. This is the fault of history not of the alphabet per se. English has never had an official academy to govern spelling so that it accurately mirrors standard pronunciation. Thus we end up with spellings like “was” “knight” “aisle” and “thorough” which give no clue as to proper pronunciation.  The spellings reflect archaic pronunciations and have never been corrected. Most European languages do better, but they need accents and other diacritics for assistance.

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At the other end of the scale is Chinese which is commonly known as a logographic writing system (although this is misleading). Chinese characters stand for morphemes, units of meaning that can be concepts or words. Learning to read them takes a very long time, as I can personally attest. After 2 years of study (1 in China), I know about 1,000 characters. Defining basic literacy in Chinese runs into political arguments. Are you basically literate if you know 2,000 or 5,000 characters? The upper number is probably the more accurate, but the government likes the lower one. By a personal estimate I’d say it takes about 10 years to be minimally competent in reading Chinese – and I mean minimally. Scholars in imperial China are known to have learned in excess of 50,000 characters. This leaves aside the even more vexing point that knowing how to pronounce the characters is no guarantee that you have a clue what the writer is saying. There is a system of writing Chinese, known as Pinyin, that uses the Roman alphabet, that comes in handy for phone texts or beginners. But no one in China wants Pinyin to replace characters. Too much meaning would be lost. Take the pronouns “he” and “she” for example. They are both pronounced /ta/ and written tā  in Pinyin. But the characters are different 他 (he) 她 (she) reflecting the unspoken, but implied, gender difference.

So . . . is learning how to read a universally GOOD THING? If you want to survive in the modern, developed world it is.  What it comes down to is whether the modern, developed world is a GOOD THING. Great minds differ on this. It’s certainly not obvious that Western culture and its values should be adopted universally. Children in non-Western, non-literate cultures, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are increasingly forced to go to school “for their own good.” Is it, though? Enforced schooling radically disrupts traditional cultures – permanently. There is ample evidence that such enforced enculturation leads to an impoverished life, both materially and socially. You may say that it’s all well and good for me, a white, educated, privileged male to decry such things. Fair comment. It may well be that traditional cultures are doomed anyway. At least I am asking the question: “What have we done?”

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I could write a whole lot more but you get the point. I can’t complain too much about literacy because it allows me to write this blog. At least I’ve given you food for thought. And speaking about food, let’s talk about recipes. The survival of written recipes from a vast array of historical periods and cultures is a great boon, but it is also limited. If you are a long-time reader you’ll be familiar with my constant complaints about problems in interpreting old recipes, based on only the written word. Too much information is missing. What is more, you really can’t learn how to cook from books alone. Somewhere along the line you need to watch other people cooking and/or take instruction from someone else – orally.  The written word is a supplement. There’d be no need for cooking classes if you can get all you need from books. I’ll readily admit that books are extremely useful for ideas, but I rarely follow a recipe directly.

So here I face a quandary. Do I celebrate literacy by writing down a recipe for you? Or do I indicate the limits of literacy by using a video? I’m going to go with the latter. Here are three instructional videos I made to demonstrate the preparation of an Argentine tortilla – so you’ll get to hear my voice.

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Part 1 is the most useful because it concerns making a basic egg batter for a variety of dishes such as English pancakes, Yorkshire pudding, and a whole lot more. This recipe is so useful that I’ve included it in my HINTS section (upper tab). Here’s the thing. I’ve made 100s of tortillas over the years. They are one of my favorites because they are quick, easy, and immensely versatile. I can make a perfect tortilla in a heartbeat without thinking. But communicating my knowledge is very difficult. I cooked dozens for my ex-girlfriend in her kitchen with her watching, and supervised her in cooking them several times. Hers were then, and still (as far as I know), awful – edible, but hardly worth the effort. She’s a good cook, but there’s a skill she’s missing and I can’t convey in words spoken or written.  You have a try.

Part 1 (The batter)


Part 2 (The filling)


Part 3 (The tortilla)