Jul 212021

Today is the birthday (1911) of Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher whose work is one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory. McLuhan coined the expression “the medium is the message” and he was a fixture in media discourse in the late 1960s, though his influence began to wane in the early 1970s. In the years following his death, he continued to be a controversial figure in academic circles. However, with the arrival of the Internet and the World Wide Web, interest was renewed in his work and perspective. I am not going to indulge in a big song and dance number about his life’s work – which was profoundly influential – nor talk about his background. Look them up if you are interested. I am going to concentrate on “the medium is the message” and then give some amusing quotes before looking at how the medium impacts the recipe.

McLuhan’s most widely-known work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), is a seminal study in media theory. McLuhan famously argues that in the modern world “we live mythically and integrally…but continue to think in the old, fragmented space and time patterns of the pre-electric age.” He proposed that media themselves, not the content they carry, should be the focus of study—popularly quoted as “the medium is the message.” McLuhan’s concept was that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as a clear demonstration of this concept. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that “a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.” More controversially, he postulated that content had little effect on society—in other words, it did not matter if television broadcasts children’s shows or violent programming—the effect of television on society would be identical. He noted that all media have characteristics that engage the viewer in different ways; for instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it. This dates his work, because, of course, now with streaming movies we can pick any bit we want and watch it over and over.

Let’s put things in personal (and contemporary) perspective. In 1960 the Olympics were held in Rome and I was living in South Australia. The only way we could watch anything newsworthy at that time was to view a newsreel at the cinema which was projected before the feature film. Television was not available then. Newsreels of the Olympics were weeks out of date, and contained no more than short clips of someone winning a race or making a spectacular jump. A week’s events were compressed into 2 or 3 minutes. Turn the page to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

The 1964 Olympics were Japan’s opportunity to showcase its post-war culture and to emphasize its superior command of electronic technology. They were the first Olympics to be televised live – and by then South Australia had a television system, and we had a TV. Everything had changed. We used to go to the cinema once a week – a family outing. Now we had movies (old ones) every day. Our living room where the seating used to be roughly circular was now arranged to that all the seating faced the television in the corner. From then on, no matter the style of house, the seating was always focused on the television. In this respect, television transformed our living space much as McLuhan’s example of the light bulb. But there was more.

My world was completely turned upside down by this television window into the hyper-technologized Japan of the new decade. It was not simply that I was able to watch the whole of a 10 km race in real time (Ron Clarke of Australia won bronze), as opposed to just the last few seconds on a weeks-old newsreel, but I could also absorb the distinctive flavor of Japanese culture. I got completely carried away by what I saw – so much so that I began a scrapbook and journal of images of the games and of Japan, and spent many idle hours dreaming about going there (which it took me 50 years to accomplish). I also began training in sprinting, leading to a secondary school career as a track athlete. Life altering.

All that said, I am not willing to acknowledge the value of McLuhan’s analysis in any bold sense. I very much agree with Umberto Eco who argued that McLuhan’s definition and treatment of the word “medium” was simplistic and that McLuhan’s term conflates channels, codes, and messages under the overarching term of the medium, confusing the vehicle, internal code, and content of a given message in his framework. In like manner, Régis Debray takes issue with McLuhan’s envisioning of the medium. Like Eco, he too is ill at ease with this reductionist approach, summarizing its ramifications as follows:

The list of objections could be and has been lengthened indefinitely: confusing technology itself with its use of the media makes of the media an abstract, undifferentiated force and produces its image in an imaginary “public” for mass consumption; the magical naivete of supposed causalities turns the media into a catch-all and contagious “mana”; apocalyptic millenarianism invents the figure of a homo mass-mediaticus without ties to historical and social context, and so on.

Glib wordiness of this passage aside, we agree that we cannot ignore the content of a message independently of the medium. As a friend of mine in graduate school noted – in a course on symbols (paraphrased) – Hamlet is Hamlet whatever the medium. Whether in a book on a stage or in a movie, he is still that ‘to be or not to be’ guy.”

McLuhan in Annie Hall

McLuhan himself, in his own defense, argued that his words were more poetic than discursive, and should be springboards for discussion. Fine – here’s some springboards:

“I don’t necessarily agree with everything that I say.”

“Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.”

“Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools!”

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.”

“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is a hallucinating idiot…for he sees what no one else does: things that, to everyone else, are not there.”

“There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”

“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”

“Many a good argument is ruined by some fool who knows what he is talking about.”

“Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery.
The politician will be only too happy to abdicate
in favor of his image, because the image will
be much more powerful than he could ever be.”
[For the era of Reagan and Trump]

“the only people who have proof of their sanity are those who have been discharged from mental institutions”

Let’s be McLuhan-esque with today’s recipe. How do you prefer to learn a new recipe – orally from a friend? from a cookbook? or from a YouTube video? Here’s two of the three for Mrs Beeton’s tea-cakes.

Which one works for you? Note that the video has no spoken words. How does it make you feel?

Oct 102015


On this date in 1964 the Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XVIII Olympiad opened in Tokyo. Tokyo had been awarded the organization of the 1940 Summer Olympics, but this selection was subsequently passed to Helsinki because of Japan’s invasion of China, before ultimately being canceled because of World War II. The 1964 Summer Games were the first Olympics held in Asia, and the first time South Africa was barred from taking part due to its apartheid system in sports.


These games were also the first to be telecast internationally without the need for tapes to be flown overseas as they were for the 1960 Olympics four years earlier. The games were telecast to the United States using Syncom 3, the first geostationary communication satellite, and from there to Europe using Relay 1. These were also the first Olympic Games to have color telecasts (partially). Certain events like the sumo wrestling and judo matches, sports huge in Japan, were tried out using Toshiba’s new color transmission system; but just for the domestic market, not for any international coverage. History surrounding the 1964 Olympics was chronicled in the 1965 documentary film Tokyo Olympiad, directed by Kon Ichikawa.


I remember being absolutely enthralled by the telecasts. We had watched snippets of previous Olympics via tapes that were flown to Australia, or, in the case of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, films shown on newsreels in the local cinema. Besides being able to watch whole events and somewhat continuous coverage, I was amazed by all the new technology – electronic starters and photo finishes, instant replay, slow motion, the works. It was as if the modern world had arrived fully formed into our living room in a rather electronically impoverished corner of South Australia.

TRANSPAC-1, the first trans-Pacific communications cable from Japan to Hawaii was also finished in June 1964 in time for these games. Before this, most communications from Japan to other countries were via shortwave.


The start of operations for the first Japanese “bullet train” (the Tokaido Shinkansen) between Tokyo Station and Shin-Ōsaka Station was scheduled to coincide with the Olympic games. The first regularly scheduled train ran on October 1, 1964, just 9 days before the opening of the games, transporting passengers 515 kilometers (320 mi) in about 4 hours, and connecting the three major metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka.

Some already-planned upgrades to both highways and commuter rail lines were rescheduled for completion in time for these games. Of the 8 main expressways approved by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 1959, No. 1, No. 4 and a portion of No. 2 and No. 3 were completed for the games. Two subway lines totaling 22 kilometers (14 mi) were also completed in time for the games, and the port of Tokyo facilities were expanded to handle the anticipated traffic.


The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo celebrated Japan’s progress and reemergence on the world stage. The new Japan was no longer a wartime enemy, but a peaceful country that threatened no one, and this transformation was accomplished in fewer than 20 years. Although Japan’s foreign policy was closely linked to the United States during the Cold War, the city of Tokyo hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics in the spirit of peaceful engagement with the entire international community, including the Communist states. The goals were to demonstrate to the world that Japan had fully recovered from the war, had disavowed imperialism and militarism, welcomed high-caliber sports, and sought to engage the peoples of the world on a grassroots level. Sports were kept entirely separate from politics. The event proved a great success for the city and for Japan as a whole, with no untoward incidents. Japan’s foreign policy was expanded to include sports diplomacy as the nation sent teams to international competitions across the globe.

Tokyo1 371 DSCF1623

Japanese cuisine was once virtually unknown in the West. For my 21st birthday (1972) I went to the ONLY Japanese restaurant in London where my partner and I were the only Westerners in the place – and the waitresses (dressed as geishas) spoke minimal English. It was a memorable meal which set me on a life course of eating as well as preparing Japanese dishes. It’s possible to prepare a number of dishes at home but you have to have the right ingredients, prime of which is the bonito stock – dashi. I give a recipe here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/ajinomoto-monosodium-glutamate/ Above is an example of my Japanese home cooking – various kinds of fish with dipping sauces. Udon and soba noodles are usually readily available at Asian groceries and are very easy to prepare, simply by poaching them in dashi and then serving them in the stock or cold with a dipping sauce of soy sauce and bonito flakes, or shaved ginger root.

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However, for a good variety it’s just as well to go to a restaurant where you’ll find all manner of traditional dishes prepared perfectly and served beautifully.

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Aug 072013

bikila3  bikila9

Today is the birthday (1932) of Abebe Bikila (አበበ ቢቂላ) double Olympic marathon champion from Ethiopia, most famous for winning a marathon gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics while running barefoot, and from that point on a great hero of mine.

Abebe Bikila was born in the North Showa region of Ethiopia, in a village called Jato. In his youth, he was noted as a good swimmer, Guna player (a type of hockey played during Christmas), and a skillful horse rider. At the age of 17 he moved to the capital city, Addis Ababa, where he began a military carrier in the imperial bodyguard regiment. To keep the troops physically fit, the army unit had regular sport activities. This program gave him a chance to develop his natural talent for sport. Later on as a symbol of unity the armed forces established a yearly sport competition event, which was designed to reunite the three forces, army, air force and navy in shared activities. In his first Annual National Army Athletic competition he finished a marathon in 2 hours 39 minutes and 50 seconds. That opened a new chapter in his life. He was noted by the Swedish coach Onni Niskanen who was then a director of athletics under the ministry of education and later an official of the Red Cross.

With the assistance of Niskanen, Bikila began intensive training for the 1960 Rome Olympics. Abebe Wakijera was the only other Ethiopian athlete who qualified to go to Rome besides Bikila. Just days before the competition Bikila developed a blister on his foot due to running with new shoes that did not fit properly (Adidas was low on stock when they got to him). Some journalists had claimed that he used to train barefoot, but this was not true. He decided to run barefoot only as a result of the inconvenience of the blister. Sergei Popov of Russia, who was the world record holder, Abdesselem Rhadi of Morocco, who won an international marathon that same year and another notable, Barry Maggee, of New Zealand were among the participants and the favorites to win the race. Bikila was completely unknown from a country with little Olympic presence.


The race began at Campidoglio Square. Abebe kept running close but was not in the leader pack until they approached the 10 kilometer mark. By the 15 kilometer point, he had gained momentum and joined the leaders. By then the competition came down to four people : Rhadi and Arthur Kelly of Britain in the lead, shadowed by the Belgian Van den Dreissche and Abebe Bikila. At the 20 kilometer mark Bikila and Rahdi were running side by side leaving everybody behind them. They passed the 35 kilometer mark running neck and neck. With 1 kilometer left, Bikila drew away. The distance between the two front runners gradually grew. Running strongly Bikila finished the race with a new record time of 2:15:16.25 improving the previous record, set at Helsinki in 1952, by about 8 minutes. Bikila became the first sub-Saharan African to win an Olympic gold, ushering in an era of dominance by east African distance runners. I remember it vividly, including being amazed at watching him do exercises just off the track by the finish line at the end of the race as if he were fresh as a daisy.


When Niskanen was later asked by a reporter if he was surprised by Abebe’s victory, he replied that he was not and he added that “others do not know Abebe as I do. He has no fear for his rivals. He has strong willpower and dedication. There is none like Abebe I have ever seen. Abebe was made by Abebe, not by me or anyone.”

On 13 December 1960, while Emperor Haile Selassie was on a state visit to Brazil, his Imperial Guard forces, led by General Mengitsu Neway, staged an unsuccessful coup, briefly proclaiming Selassie’s eldest son Asfa Wossen as Emperor. Fighting took place in the heart of Addis Ababa, shells detonated inside the Jubilee Palace, and many of those closest to the Emperor were killed. Bikila took no part in the uprising, but was briefly held in detention after the coup. Most of the surviving Guards were disbanded and dispersed. One newspaper remarked, “Abebe owes his life to his gold medal.”

In 1961, Bikila ran marathons in Greece, Japan, and Czechoslovakia, all of which he won. He entered the 1963 Boston Marathon and finished in just 5th place—the only time in his career that he finished a marathon and did not win. He did not compete again until the Addis Ababa marathon in 1964 which he won in 2:23:14.

40 days prior to the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, during a training run near Addis Ababa, Bikila started to feel pain. Unaware of the cause of the pain, he attempted to overcome it but collapsed. He was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. He was operated on and shortly thereafter he started jogging in the hospital courtyard at night.

The Tokyo marathon (which, like the Rome marathon, I still remember vividly), started with 68 world class athletes. Immediately Ron Clark of Australia and Jim Hogan of Ireland took the lead. Bikila stayed close. At the 20 kilometer mark he took the lead and slowly opened a gap between himself and the other frontrunners. He won the race with a record time of 2:12:11.2 improving his own record time in Rome. After finishing the race, as in Rome, he went through a series of vigorous exercises as if he were getting ready to start another marathon. In a news conference after the event Abebe predicted that he would win in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Abebe Bikila at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics  bikila6

While training before the 1967 Zarauz competition Bikila hurt his leg. He competed in the race but failed to finish the course. He was sent to Germany for the necessary treatment by the emperor. But the discomfort in his leg recurred during training. In Mexico City Bikila was confident of winning a third gold medal in part because the altitude was similar to that of Addis Ababa, and would affect other runners more than he. He started in the leading pack running ahead most of the way. But his leg injury flared up. As the pain became unbearable, he decided to leave the competition. It was reported that he encouraged Mamo Wolde who was in the race by saying, “I cannot continue running because I am seriously ill. The responsibility of winning a gold medal for Ethiopia is on your shoulders.” At the 15 kilometer mark Bikila dropped out of the race. Wolde took the lead, running alone with little competition from the rest of the athletes, and finished the race in first place in 2:20:26.4.

In 1969 while traveling from his home town, Abebe had a tragic car accident. Because he could not be treated effectively at the local medical facility, he was sent to the Stoke Mandeville hospital in England. He was originally paraplegic but after 8 months of treatment he recovered use of his upper body. As soon as he was able he began physical training to enhance his upper body strength. Two years later, in 1971, he entered a paraplegic sport competition in England in archery, finishing seventh out of one hundred. In that same year he participated in the International Paraplegic Games in Norway. He competed in a dog sled race and finished first.

In 1972, Bikila was invited to the Munich Olympic Games as a special guest. He was received with a standing ovation as he entered the stadium in a wheelchair. In honor of his fortieth birthday a gala celebration was held at the Olympic village in the presence of athletes and officials of the organization.  Bikila died In 1973 October 20 at the age of 41. An estimated 75,000 mourners attended the state funeral, including members of royal families, and ambassadors, as well as local and international reporters.

Ethiopian cuisine characteristically consists of very spicy vegetable and  meat dishes, usually in the form of wat (also w’et or wot), a thick stew served on top of injera, a large sourdough flatbread, which is about 20 inches (50 cm) in diameter, made from fermented teff flour. Teff is a grain that makes a  flour similar to quinoa flour. Teff (Eragrostis tef) was first domesticated in Ethiopia around 4000 BCE. It is very versatile and can be used in place of wheat flour to thicken soups, stews, gravies, puddings. It is practically gluten free and so cannot be used to make leavened bread. What gluten there is in teff does not contain the a-gliadin-fraction that causes allergic reactions, and has a high concentration of different nutrients:  a very high calcium content, and significant levels of the minerals phosphorus, magnesium, aluminum, iron, copper, zinc, boron and barium, and thiamin. Teff is high in protein. It is considered to have an excellent amino acid composition, including all 8 essential amino acids for humans, and is higher in lysine than wheat or barley. It can be fermented naturally to make an alcoholic drink similar to Peruvian chicha. Typically in Ethiopia stews are served on top of injera.  Diners break off pieces and scoop up the stew with it, right hand only.



Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants have modified their recipes after moving to the United States or Europe, depending on what grains are available to them. The injera you find in many Ethiopian restaurants in the United States includes both teff and wheat flours. Most injera made in Ethiopia and Eritrea, on the other hand, is made solely with teff. Depending on where you live, teff flour can be difficult to come by. Try a well-stocked health food store or go online. I give a half-and-half flour and teff recipe here, which I find works well, but you can experiment with proportions.


½ cup teff flour
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 cup water
pinch of salt
peanut or vegetable oil


Put the teff flour in the bottom of a mixing bowl, and sift in the all-purpose flour.

Slowly add the water, stirring to avoid lumps.

Put the batter aside for a day or more (up to three days) to allow it to ferment. You will know if the process is working because the batter will start to bubble. This process relies on airborne yeasts, so I usually put mine outside until the bubbles start to form (typically within a day). It helps if you live in the country. If it does not start fermenting you can add a teaspoon of fresh yeast.

Stir in the salt.

Heat a nonstick pan or lightly oiled cast-iron skillet until a water drop skitters across the surface.

Brush the pan with a thin layer of vegetable oil and pour in enough batter to form an even layer over the entire surface, thicker than a crepe but not as thick as a U.S. pancake. Swirl the pan to achieve this.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until holes appear on the surface of the bread. Once the surface is dry, remove the bread from the pan and let it cool. Repeat with the rest of the batter.

Do not brown the underside of the bread and do not flip it.  It takes some experience to get this process right, and I also find that the process gets easier after I make the second and third injera. I use a cast iron skillet and it seems that as the cooking process continues the heat spreads more evenly and consistently across the pan. Often I eat the first one in the kitchen dipped in a little meat sauce!
Beef Wat

Several properties distinguish wats from stews of other cultures. Perhaps the most obvious is an unusual cooking technique. The preparation of a wat begins with chopped onions slow cooked, without any fat or oil, in a dry skillet or pot until much of their moisture has been driven away. Fat (usually niter kibbeh, a kind of clarified butter) is then added, in quantities that might seem excessive by modern Western standards. The onions and other aromatics are sautéed before the addition of other ingredients. Indian ghee is a suitable substitute for niter kibbeh (as is clarified butter). This method causes the onions to break down and thicken the stew.


1 ½ lbs (750 g) beef, cut into 1 inch cubes
3 tablespoons oil
6 tablespoons niter kibbeh, ghee, or clarified butter
1 onion, small, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped and crushed
2 teaspoons berbere, spice (see below)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
½ tsp sugar
2 cups (500 ml) beef stock
2 tsps sea salt (or to taste)


Put the onions in a dry heavy skillet. Cook over very low heat until they are lightly caramelized, the slower the better.  Sometimes this takes me up to an hour.

Raise the heat to medium and add the garlic, berbere spice, tomato paste and sugar. Stir well, and cook until thick.

Add a little of the stock to make a paste. Then stirring constantly add the remaining liquid and the meat cubes. Season with salt to taste, and cook gently for 1 hour or longer until the meat is tender (so that it shreds easily) and the sauce is thickened and reduced. Shred the meat with two forks, and serve the wat on top of injera.

Berbere Spice Mixture

Berbere spice is available online or you can make your own.


½  tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground fenugreek
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp turmeric
4 tbsps hot pepper flakes
2 tbsps paprika
1 tsp dried ginger
2 tsps dried onion flakes
½ tsp garlic powder (or flakes)
¼ tsp ground allspice
¾ tsp cardamom seed
½ tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground coriander powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon

Mix all the spices and toast in a dry, hot pan, shaking to prevent scorching. Cool the mixture, then grind it into a powder. I use a coffee grinder which I reserve for spices. Save the leftover spice in a small glass bottle with a tight-fitting lid.