30 setembro 2007

Is it possible to buy ethical trainers?

You hear sporty types asking all manner of questions about prospective trainers. Do they have inbuilt stability webs, offer motion control, secure kinematic advantage? In turn, sports shops offer services such as gait analysis. But few offer a take-back service for trainers, despite their mayfly-like lifespans. Yes, the elephant in the room - probably wearing multidensity midsoles - remains the lack of a fully 'ethical' trainer.

It's odd, given the opprobrium (and damaged sales) following Nineties revelations about the industry. Labour practices in Indonesia and Vietnam, particularly in factories used by Nike, were shown on CBS in 1997 and a sort of consumer revolution happened. That year Nike became the first of two companies to be removed from the Domini 400 Social Index, the biggest US 'ethical index', because of concerns over its international labour standards.Elements have improved dramatically. Nike is now held up as a benchmark for good factory auditing and is involved with the International Labour Organization's (ILO) 'better factories' project in Cambodia. New Balance (www.newbalance.co.uk) produces 85 per cent of its UK-sold shoes from a factory in Cumbria.

A decade on, there are demonstrably clean fashion trainers, such as the Worn Again range (www.terraplana.com) or Converse alternatives (www.fairdealtrading.com), but where is the ethical all-rounder? I thought this industry famously liked a challenge.

Until it arrives, you can hardly run in bare feet - although one of Nike's new shoes emulates barefoot running. It is therefore a question of compromise, depending on which ethical issue is the most important. There are vegan alternatives (www.vegetarian-shoes.co.uk), but synthetics such as ethyl vinyl acetate (often used as a shock absorber) are enormously polluting in manufacture and mean that the shoe will degrade some time around the 12th of never. Look for shoes that have at least substituted toluene, a vicious solvent and volatile organic compound, for water-based solvents. Some brands are looking at biodegradable materials - Mephisto, a US brand (www.mephisto.com), uses a 100 per cent biodegradable latex midsole.

The latter is key. It would be heresy to tell you to keep your running shoes for longer than the recommended six months - even unworn models lose some of their shock-absorbing cushion after 12 to 24 months. And considering that the average pair of running shoes has 76 times more fungi than a toilet bowl (try the Shoe Smell Buster, www.naturalcollection.com), who wants them hanging around?

The big brands and retailers need to offer a take-back service for these toxic wonders. Nike (www.nikebiz.com/reuseashoe) seems to be the only one offering limited recycling in the UK. Your trainers will be ground down for basketball courts (the recyclate is even branded 'Nike grind').

The boycotts might be over, but pollution, labour rights and recyclability are the key questions to ask of brands and retailers. Keeping up the consumer pressure is the only way to keep trainers in perpetual motion.

Pinning down a remedy for backache

One thing that always fascinates me is how reductionist, how mechanical, how sciencey and medical we like our stories about the body to be. This week, a new study was published on acupuncture. Many newspapers said it showed acupuncture performing better than medical treatment: in fact it was 8 million times more interesting than that.

They took 1,162 patients who had suffered with back pain for an average of eight years (so these were patients who had failed with medical treatment anyway) and divided them into three groups. The first group had some more medical treatment; the second had full-on acupuncture with all the trimmings, the needles all put carefully into the correct "meridians" and so on; while the third group just had some bloke pretending to be an acupuncturist, sticking needles in their skin at random.

The study set a threshold for "response to treatment", which was an improvement of 33% on three items out of a bigger scale, or 12% on one symptom scale. So this was not "getting better", or a "cure".

I'm not carping, I'm just telling you what they measured. And what were the results? Firstly, 27% of the medical treatment group improved: this is an impressive testament to the well-known healing power of simply "being in a trial", since medical treatment hadn't helped these patients for the preceding eight years. Meanwhile, 47% of the acupuncture group improved, but the sting is this: 44% of the fake acupuncture group improved too. There was no statistically significant difference between proper, genuine acupuncture and fake, "bung a needle in, anywhere you fancy, with a bit of theatrical ceremony" acupuncture.

There are three possible explanations for this finding. One is that sticking needles in your body at random helps back pain due to some physiological mechanism. The second is that theatrical ceremony, reassurance, the thought of someone doing something useful, helps back pain. (The third option is "a bit of both".)

Now as I have said so many times before, the placebo effect is not about a sugar pill, it's about the cultural meaning of a treatment, and our expectations: we know from research that two sugar pills are more effective than one, that a salt water injection is better for pain than a sugar pill, that colour and packaging have a beneficial effect, and so on.

Interestingly, there has even been a trial on patients with arm pain specifically comparing a placebo pill against a placebo ritual involving a sham medical device, modelled on acupuncture, which found that the elaborate ritual was more effective than the simple sugar pill. "Placebo" is not a unitary phenomenon; there is not "one type of placebo".

But the most important background information missing from the news reports wasn't about the details of the study: it was about back pain. Because back pain isn't like epilepsy or tuberculosis. Most of the big risk factors for a niggle turning into chronic longstanding back pain are personal, psychological, and social: things like depression, job dissatisfaction, unavailability of light duty on return to work, and so on.

And the evidence on treatments tells an even more interesting psychosocial story: sure, anti-inflammatory drugs are better than placebo. But more than that, bed rest is actively harmful, specific exercises can be too, and proper trial data shows that simply giving advice to "stay active" speeds recovery, reduces chronic disability, and reduces time off work.

We don't like solutions like that for our health problems. There are huge industries telling you that your tiredness is due to some "chromium deficiency" (buy the pill); your cloudy-headed feeling can be fixed with vitamin pills, pills, and more pills. It is a brave doctor who dares to bring up psychosocial issues for any complaint when a patient has been consistently told it is biomedical.

But in conditions like back pain or fatigue, information alone can make a difference. In Australia, a simple public information campaign ("Back pain: don't take it lying down", arf) was shown to reduce back pain significantly.

Bad Science.net

26 setembro 2007

Washing the Car

You can forgo expensive non-eco friendly store-bought cleaners for our two wonder products instead.
Before you start washing, sprinkle baking soda through the car’s interior to remove odors.
Vacuum it up when the outside washing is done.
For the car body, grab a bucket, and pour in 1⁄2 cup of vinegar for every gallon of water; scrub car with a big sponge.
For windows, mirrors, and interior plastic, mix 2 cups of water and 1⁄2 cup vinegar in an empty spray bottle. You can add up to 1⁄4 cup of rubbing alcohol and, to make it look fancier, one drop each, no more, of blue and green food coloring. Instead of rags, use newspapers to clean. Shine.

The London Underground map as you've never seen it before

Enlarge the image

24 setembro 2007

Fascist America, in 10 easy steps

From Hitler to Pinochet and beyond, history shows there are certain steps that any would-be dictator must take to destroy constitutional freedoms. And, argues Naomi Wolf, George Bush and his administration seem to be taking them all

Picture 3-691. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy

2. Create a gulag

3. Develop a thug caste

4. Set up an internal surveillance system

5. Harass citizens' groups

6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release

7. Target key individuals

8. Control the press

9. Dissent equals treason

10. Suspend the rule of law

Naomi Wolf at The Colbert Report

23 setembro 2007

Mango Language Learning Center


L’homme est une plante qui porte des pensées, comme un rosier porte des roses et un pommier des pommes.
[Antoine Fabre d’Olivet]
L’Histoire philosophique du genre humain

L'avantage d'être intelligent, c'est qu'on peut toujours faire l'imbécile, alors que l'inverse est totalement impossible.

[Woody Allen]

What the Spanish really cook at home

If you want to prepare truly authentic Spanish dishes, from paella to patatas con chorizo, there is only one book you need - the traditional cooking bible of Spain that contains 1,080 recipes from the mother and daughter team of Simone and Inés Ortega now translated into English for the first time
In the last 30 years over a million copies of 1080 have been sold in Spain. It is the bible of Spanish cookery, Spain's favourite cookbook, and contains recipes for everything from little ham croquetas, perfect paellas or tortilla Espanol to patatas con chorizo and pigs' trotters, Spanish style. The original book was written by Simone Ortega, a Spanish food writer who has been writing for 50 years and whose work is hugely respected by luminaries like the Spanish über-chef, Ferran Adrià: 'This is an historic book, for those who like to feed the soul as well as the stomach.'
The book has now been translated into English for the first time. Simone's daughter, Inés, herself a well-known foodie, teamed up with her mother to revise and update the original. The result is truly comprehensive, containing 1,080 recipes, with clear explanations to help non-natives cook impressive tapas or bigger traditional dishes. There are lots of helpful notes about alternative ingredients, or what to do to change the texture of a dish. If you've ever wanted to be able to cook Spanish food, this is really the only book you'll ever need to buy.


1080 Recipes by Simone and Inés Ortega is published by Phaidon

Rhymes with Orange: meaner still?

Bluefin Tuna Fishing Banned in Europe

Blame sushi! The 2007 quota of nearly 17,000 tonnes of bluefin tuna has already been exhausted for this year, forcing the European commission to impose a ban on bluefin tuna fishing in Europe, specifically in Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Portugal and Spain for the rest of the year. Italy and France closed their own fisheries in July and August.

Experts say that the rising popularity of sushi is to be blamed for the rising demand for bluefin tuna. Unlike most tuna, bluefin grows slowly and matures late, making it vulnerable to intensive trawling. The typical size is 2 m (6.6 ft) at about 500 kg (1,100 lb).

Based on what I saw (or I should say did not see) diving in Crete last week, I seriously doubt there is a single fish of that size in the Mediterranean any more.

19 setembro 2007

Brave New Rat Race

How the world of tomorrow looked through yesterday's lens

Think "future" and "work," and iconic images spring to mind: the belching, subterranean M-Machine in Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis, the disaffected laborers in George Orwell's 1984 (1949). Popular culture has always offered up depictions of what lies in store for us tomorrow—visions both utopian and dystopian, earnest and arch, eerily prescient and hilariously off-base. Here—from movies, media, and World's Fairs—is a sampling of some of the ways we used to think about the future of work.

Celestial splendor for the brains, a Bosch-like hell for the brawn. Seething in the bowels of 2100 London in H.G. Wells' The Sleeper Awakes (1910), mobs of laborers are barely held in check by a priesthood of technocrats. In RUR (1921), Czech playwright Karel Capek has his Robots, designed for docility, overthrow their human taskmasters. Using elements from both, and borrowing from the grandiose skyscrapers of 1920s architectural artist Hugh Ferriss, Lang constructed his Metropolis.

Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) satirized Fordism and the cult of efficiency. At the 1939 World's Fair, American optimism found a good fit in the streamlined, labor-saving World of Tomorrow, where such techno wonders as IBM's electric typewriters drew admiring crowds.

A Business Week special report from 1953 on "Tomorrow's Management" weighed in on automation (predicting bigger plants with "a dozen or so workers a shift" by 1980)—at a time when many feared machines would put the masses out of work.

Two views of the Punch-Card Jungle. In the 1964 Twilight Zone episode, "The Brain Center at Whipple's," an automation-mad factory owner purges his work force, exulting, "No more coffee breaks, no more sick leave, no more petty inconveniences like maternity"—until he gets his own pink slip. Over at Spacely Sprockets, George Jetson (The Jetsons, 1962-63) enjoys the perks of a computerized office: A nine-hour work week and limited duties (mostly pushing a single button)..

In Brazil (1985), the workplace is a paranoid superbureaucracy. The satire, directed by Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, features a future office filled with inept bosses, interchangeable workers in identical gray suits, and propaganda posters ("Suspicion Breeds Confidence"). At the Ministry of Information, generically named departments ("information retrieval") generate reams of pink and blue forms, which are duly filed by the worker drones.

At Gattaca Aerospace Corp. (Gattaca, 1997), in the "not-too-distant future," job interviews are nothing more than urine tests that identify genetically superior humans among the regular joes. Typical workdays for those who make the cut: space missions to places such as Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and mandatory exercise sessions at the sleek office complex with fellow elites.

Photo of the Day

Gadling on September 8th

Seven Wonders of the IT World

Computer Closest to the North Pole:

Webcam #1

Who's in charge: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory takes care of this floating eye at the top of the world.

A view close to the North Pole from Webcam #1

Make and model: NetCam XL, made by StarDot Technologies.

Proximity to the pole: Varies. "Since the North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, we deploy our instrumentation on an ice floe as close to the pole as we can," says Nancy Soreide, associate director for IT at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. "However, the ice floe does not stay at or near the pole. It drifts."

How it works: The webcam's container stands on a metal apparatus, on top of a piece of plywood and the ice. A battery floats beneath the ice surface, powering the webcam, which sends back pictures via satellite.

Prime time: Runs only during the balmier months, between April and October.

Life span: Think Titanic—at the end of each year's season, the webcam sinks, and is replaced by a newer model.

Operating temperature: From a chilly minus 40 degrees F to a balmy 120 degrees F.

Resolution: 2048 by 1536 (3.1 megapixels).

Weight: 19.5 ounces.

Dimensions: 3.25 inches wide (82.5 millimeters) by 2.20 inches high (56 millimeters) by 6.6 inches deep (167 millimeters).

On the scene: Lots of ice but no Santa sightings or flying reindeer, to date.

Computer farthest from Earth:
NASA's Voyager 1 satellite

Distance from Earth: Voyager is three times farther away than Pluto. That's to say at least 4 billion kilometers, times three.

NASA's Voyager satellite computes at the edge of space as we know it

Distance from the sun: 15.44 terameters.

Distance logged per day: 1 million miles.

Years old: Almost 30, having launched on Sept. 5, 1977.

Places it's dropped by: Jupiter and Saturn, on the way to the edge of space as we know it.

How it communicates with Earth: Uses NASA's Deep Space Network, a system of antennas around the Earth. There's no IM out here: Signals traveling at light speed take 14 hours one-way to reach Voyager.

Daily to-do list: Collects data on solar wind, energetic particles, magnetic fields and radio waves.

Powered by: Radioisotope thermoelectric generators.

Power needed: About 300 watts, the amount of power needed for a bright lightbulb.

Next: Google's Ultra-mysterious Data Center

World's most intriguing data center:

Location: The Dalles, Oregon, on the banks of the Columbia River, 80 miles east of Portland.

Google's new home

Main attractions: Hydroelectric dam for power, two four-story cooling towers.

B.G. (Before Google): Pioneers knew The Dalles as the end of the Oregon trail.

Jobs inside the data center to date: Between 100 and 200. Google won't specify.

Code name: Called Project 02 by the locals.

Wired by: A fiber optic artery looped through the surrounding wilderness.

Secrecy level: High. Two reporters from the local newspaper are the only media who've been inside the compound and written about it (See "Inside the World of Google"): Google treats any and all details as though they belong to the National Security Agency.

Size: 30-acre site.

Number of servers: Google's mum. It has an estimated 500,000 around the world, spread across 25 locations.

Storage: Across all its data centers, Google stores an estimated 200 petabytes.

Top searches inside the compound: We'd bet it's a tie between "Britney Spears" and "Web 2.0."

Next: Grid Computing on a Global Scale

World's largest scientific grid computing project:
The E-sciencE II (EGEE-II) project

Launched: September 2006, for use by scientists around the world.

A Google Earth view of European sites hooked into the EGEE grid computing project

Helps power: Large-scale scientific research projects in fields from geology to chemistry—for example, will analyze data from CERN's Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator being built to help investigate details around the Big Bang and related physics questions.

Amount of work it does: 98,000 jobs a day, more than 1 million per month.

Juggling ability: Runs about 30,000 jobs concurrently, on average.

Number of sites connected to the EGEE infrastructure: About 240.

Number of countries connected to the EGEE infrastructure: 45.

Number of CPUs available to users, 24/7: More than 36,000.

Storage capacity available: About 5 PB disk space (5 million GB).

Next: The Top Gun of Supercomputers

World's fastest supercomputer:
IBM BlueGene/L (BGL)

Powered by: 65,536 dual-processor computer nodes.

The BlueGene/L supercomputer at home at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Home base: This 2,500-square-foot marvel lives at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.

Claim to fame: Helps researchers answer physics questions about stockpiled nuclear weapons and materials like Plutonium.

Power requirements: 1.5 megawatts (equivalent to a 2,000-horsepower diesel engine).

Clocked speed: Rated fastest in the world after clocking sustained performance of 280.6 trillion operations per second, or teraflops.

Approximate cost: As part of a larger contract including other supercomputers, just under $100 million.

Measure of compute capability: To match the power of this behemoth, every man, woman and child on Earth would need to perform 60,000 calculations per second (without transposing digits or forgetting to "carry the one").

Brawny bandwidth: Its internal communication network would support 150 simultaneous phone conversations for every person in the United States.

Waiting in the wings: IBM has announced a successor, Blue Gene/P, designed to deliver three times the processing power of the Blue Gene/L.

Next: A Most Lilliputian PC

Smallest PC to run Windows Vista:
OQO, Model 02

The package: OQO's Handheld PC checks in at 5.6 (wide) by 3.3 (high) by 1 (deep) inches.

The diminutive OQO handheld PC weighs in at less than one pound

The skinny: Weighs just under 1 pound (weight varies with configuration).

Vitals: 1.5GHz processor, Windows XP or Vista, 30 or 60GB hard drive, 512MB or 1GBDDR DRAM, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth.

Most likely to twist your fingers into yoga positions: Thumb keypad with 57 keys total, mouse buttons, digital pen, programmable thumbwheel.

Stayin' alive: Lithium-ion polymer battery keeps it cooking for up to three hours.

Price of entry: Starts at $1,499.

James Bond-worthiness: Sleek, but we'd bet 007 would insist on something even smaller.

Next: Taking Money from Bill Gates' Pocket

Biggest Paradigm Change in Enterprise Software:
Linux kernel

Created by: Linus Torvalds, in 1991, helping open-source developers collectively craft a viable alternative to Microsoft operating systems.

The Linux kernel contains 8.2 million lines of code, with approximately 86 lines added every hour

Number of developers: Total since 1991 is unknown; 3,200 developers for the kernel as of release 2.6.22.

New releases: Every 2.6 months.*

Quick change artists: 2.89 changes made to the kernel every hour.

Lines of code: 8.2 million and growing (about 10 percent per year).

Amount of code added every hour: 85.63 lines.

Revenue diverted from Microsoft: Perhaps only Mr. Gates knows.

*Unless otherwise marked, statistics reflect Linux kernel releases of the past 2.5 years (version 2.6.11 through 2.6.21).

The 86 Greatest Travel Books of All Time

Chosen by a literary all-star jury that included: Monica Ali; Vikram Chandra; Jared Diamond; Peter Mayle; John McPhee; Francine Prose; Paul Theroux; Gore Vidal; and more.

Along the Ganges
Ilija Trojanow (2006)

Arabian Sands
Wilfred Thesiger (1959)

An Area of Darkness
V. S. Naipaul (1965)

As They Were
M.F.K. Fisher (1982)

A Barbarian in Asia
Henri Michaux (1933)

The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer
Eric Hansen (2004)

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus
Lawrence Durrell (1957)

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
Rebecca West (1942)

Blue Highways
William Least Heat-Moon (1982)

Captain John Smith: Writings (2007)

Chasing the Monsoon
Alexander Frater (1993)

Chasing the Sea
Tom Bissell (2003)

Cross Country
Robert Sullivan (2006)

Dark Star Safari
Paul Theroux (2003)

Democracy in America
Alexis de Tocqueville (1835)

Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell (1933)

Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff
Rosemary Mahoney (2007)

The Emperor
Ryszard Kapuściński (1978; translated by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand)

Alfred Lansing (1959)

Alexander William Kinglake (1844)

"Exterminate All the Brutes"
Sven Lindqvist(1996)

Farthest North: The Voyage and Exploration of the Fram, 1893–1896
Fridtjof Nansen (1898)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Hunter S. Thompson (1972)

The Fearful Void
Geoffrey Moorhouse (1974)

From a Chinese City
Gontran De Poncins (1957; translated by Bernard Frechtman)

Great Plains
Ian Frazier (1989)

The Great Railway Bazaar
Paul Theroux (1975)

Hindoo Holiday
J. R. Ackerley (1932)

The Histories
Herodotus (circa 440 b.c.)

The Impossible Country
Brian Hall (1994)

In a Sunburned Country
Bill Bryson (2000)

India: A Million Mutinies Now
V. S. Naipaul (1991)

The Innocents Abroad
Mark Twain (1869)

In Patagonia
Bruce Chatwin (1977)

In the Country of Country
Nicholas Dawidoff (1997)

In Trouble Again
Redmond O'Hanlon (1988)

Iron & Silk
Mark Salzman (1986)

I See by My Outfit
Peter S. Beagle (1965)

The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Journey to Portugal
José Saramago (1981)

The Nobel Prize–winning novelist's early work doesn't take him far afield; instead, he digs deep, unearthing the bones of a country too often considered an afterthought. His use of the third person remains a strange choice, but the book was an important guide for Monica Ali, who set a recent novel here. "Not always a smooth read," she says, "but it's drenched in so much history and culture that it's an essential read" (Harcourt, $17).

Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Condition of the North American Indians
George Catlin

Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849–1850
Florence Nightingale (1854; published 1987)

Life on the Mississippi
Mark Twain (1883)

London Perceived
V. S. Pritchett (1962)

The Long Walk
Slavomir Rawicz (1956)

The Lycian Shore
Freya Stark (1956)

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
Suketu Mehta (2004)

The Muses Are Heard
Truman Capote (1956)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches
Matsuo Basho (1694)

News from Tartary
Peter Fleming (1936)

The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt (1987)

No Mercy: A Journey into the Heart of the Congo
Redmond O'Hanlon (1997)

Notes from the Century Before
Edward Hoagland (1969)

Old Glory
Jonathan Raban (1981)

The Pillars of Hercules
Paul Theroux (1995)

The Pine Barrens
John McPhee (1968)

The Places in Between
Rory Stewart (2006)

Riding the Iron Rooster
Paul Theroux (1988)

The Rings of Saturn
W. G. Sebald (1998)

The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan
Winston Churchill (1899)

The Road to Oxiana
Robert Byron (1937)

Rome and a Villa
Eleanor Clark (1952)

Roughing It
Mark Twain (1872)

Sandstorms: Days and Nights in Arabia
Peter Theroux (1990)

Sea and Sardinia
D. H. Lawrence (1921)

Shah of Shahs
Ryszard Kapuściński (1982; translated by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand)

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
Eric Newby (1958)

Siren Land
Norman Douglas (1911)

Skating to Antarctica
Jenny Diski (1997)

Slowly Down the Ganges
Eric Newby (1966)

The Songlines
Bruce Chatwin (1987)

Southern Baroque Art
Sacheverell Sitwell (1924)

Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue
Paul Bowles (1963)

A Time of Gifts
Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977)

To a Distant Island
James McConkey (1984)

Travels in Arabia Deserta
Charles M. Doughty (1888)

Travels in the Interior of Africa
Mungo Park (1799)

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (circa 1355)

Travels Through France and Italy
Tobias Smollett (1766)

Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes
R. L. Stevenson (1879)

Travels with Myself and Another
Martha Gellhorn (1978)

Two Towns in Provence
M.F.K. Fisher (1983)

A View of the World
Norman Lewis (1986)

West with the Night
Beryl Markham (1942)

The Worst Journey in the World
Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)

Wrong About Japan
Peter Carey (2004)

The Methodology
So many great travel books. How to choose? We asked 45 of our favorite writers for their favorite nonfiction travel titles—the ones that changed the way they considered a certain culture or place or people, that inspired them both to write and to get out into the world themselves. Their nominations—everything from Hunter S. Thompson's 1972 acid trip Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Herodotus's 440 b.c. Histories—follow, all of them passionately endorsed and beloved.

The original date of publication follows the title; the current publisher and the price follow each entry.

Here, our all-star literary jury:
André Aciman, Monica Ali, Julia Alvarez, Tom Bissell, Geraldine Brooks, Vikram Chandra, Jim Crace, Jared Diamond, Linh Dinh, Anthony Doerr, Jennifer Egan, Stephen Elliott, Nuruddin Farah, Nell Freudenberger, Peter Godwin, Peter Hessler, Uzodinma Iweala, Sebastian Junger, Robert D. Kaplan, Mary Karr, Erik Larson, Rosemary Mahoney, Peter Mayle, Tom McCarthy, John McPhee, Adrienne Miller, Jan Morris, Stewart O'Nan, Francine Prose, Jonathan Raban, Graham Robb, Akhil Sharma, Matthew Sharpe, Jim Shepard, Darin Strauss, Robert Sullivan, Manil Suri, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Lynne Tillman, Luis Alberto Urrea, Gore Vidal, Sean Wilsey, John Wray, and Lawrence Wright.

For abstracts on the books, visit Concierge.com

18 setembro 2007


Everyone knows chocolate is supposed to melt in your mouth, not in your hands. But there is much more to properly tasting chocolate. You inspect it. Smell it. Break it in half to see if it snaps cleanly. Then go ahead and take a bite.

Chew it a little to release the initial flavor. Then let it melt in your mouth. Take a little air into your mouth, and after a moment or two, swallow the chocolate and wait for any aftertaste.

That, according to Patrick F. Fields, is the correct way to taste chocolate. "It's the most chemically rich and diverse naturally occurring food on the planet," says Fields. "And it tastes good!"

He should know. An adjunct instructor of biology at Olivet College who specializes in botany, Fields studies and teaches about the history and culture of one of the world's most popular confections. And he holds dozens of chocolate tastings every year. At the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Fields teaches a four-week adult-education course each spring in which students taste more than 60 types of chocolate. They range from your basic Hershey's bar to artisanal varieties from South America and luxury chocolates from France, Belgium, and Switzerland.

Fields, who favors a chocolate-colored lab coat and is affectionately known as "Doc Choc," doesn't need a classroom to pontificate about chocolate; the man lives and breathes the stuff.

He can rattle off who created the first commercial label for chocolate (Milton Hershey), how many naturally occurring varieties of cocoa beans there are (two), and the obscure health benefits of chocolate. (It can help asthmatics by dilating bronchial tubes, and can lower bad cholesterol, he says.)

Fields earned a Ph.D. from Michigan State University in botany and plant pathology, and he works with fossilized plants. His professional studies led him to the subject of chocolate, albeit indirectly. While earning a master's degree at the University of California at Berkeley, he noticed that the botany department offered a course on chocolate. It had a two-year waiting list, and he never got in, but he later agreed to teach a similar class at Michigan State. Now it has become one of his favorite courses and a personal pastime.

A tour of the instructor's home, outside Lansing, Mich., would give away his obsession. His shelves are packed with all sorts of books about chocolate — children's books, cookbooks, trivia books, academic studies, and even a chocolate murder mystery. His collection of chocolate paraphernalia includes chocolate soap from a spa at the Hotel Hershey, chocolate-themed playing cards, chocolate tins, empty chocolate Frappuccino bottles, and past issues of Chocolatier

Indeed, Fields is chocolate's cheerleader. He likes to dispel common myths about his candy of choice and insists, for example, that chocolate does not cause headaches or pimples. Nor does it make one fat — excess calories and sugar do, he says. "Chocolate has fat in it," he says, "but it's full of all the good fats or neutral fats." And contrary to popular belief, chocolate does not contain lots of caffeine. (It does, however, contain a compound — theobromine — that causes a buzz similar to a caffeine high.)

Fields prowls supermarket aisles and gourmet shops to check out the newest products on the market. He also has a network of suppliers, including a chocolatier based in Wisconsin who sells free-trade chocolate, produced in socially responsible ways, that is made in Ghana.

He insists he has no favorites, since he is constantly discovering new varieties, but he often prefers chocolate that contains between 55 percent and 75 percent cocoa. And he never ceases to be amazed that such a concoction ever came into being, especially considering chocolate's origins in a bitter, unappetizing bean tucked inside a pod growing from a tree.

Fields recently hosted a tasting over the phone, to give The Academic Life a sense of his style (not to mention taste a lot of chocolate and call it "work"). He chose 11 varieties and instructed that they be tasted in order of increasing cocoa content, the way he does most of his tastings. That meant starting with milk chocolates and working up to the darks.

Fields judges chocolate for six qualities: appearance, aroma, snap (meaning how the chocolate breaks), texture, flavor, and aftertaste. A good chocolate should have a lustrous, even color on the surface. "You don't want any kind of streaks or dots to bloom," he says. Those indicate the chocolate has either been chilled or heated. Ideally chocolate should never leave room temperature.

Quality chocolate should smell pleasant, he says — not smoky, musty, or chemically. Terms used to describe a chocolate's aroma are very similar to those used in a wine tasting, he points out: "Berry, citrusy, floral, flowery, fresh, fruity, gassy — I like that one — mellow, mildew, pungent, sour, spicy, straw, subtle, winy, or woody."

As for snap, tasters are instructed to break apart the chocolate to see what happens. "At room temperature, chocolate should break cleanly and firmly and not crumble or splinter," he says. Once popped in the mouth, chocolate should be smooth and creamy, even velvety — never greasy, waxy, gritty, or lumpy. And as those M&M's commercials have long taught us, it should also melt in your mouth, since cocoa butter, a major component of chocolate, melts at just below body temperature.

The flavor of a good chocolate should be pleasing, harmonious, and well balanced. "You ideally don't want wild extremes in your flavor," says Fields. It should not be too bitter or too sweet. Added flavorings like vanilla, nuts, or spices should blend well. Here Fields goes off on a tangent to explain how hazelnuts are chocolate's ideal partner. "It's one of the few things on the planet that humans have found that just blend seamlessly with chocolate," he declares. Nutella fans would concur.

Chocolate has a wide range of flavors — it can be bitter, burned, citrusy, earthy, flat, floral, fruity, rich, round, salty, smoky, spicy, tart, or taste like toasted nut. But flavor is a complicated subject. Tasting chocolates scientifically involves discerning three levels of flavor, not just one. There is the first impression, the immediate taste that comes through after the first bite.

"That's where all the little sensors in the various places on your tongue are responding to the sweet, the sour, the bitter," he says. "And then if you allow it to melt thoroughly in your mouth and then just open your mouth just a little and take in some air over it, the flavor will change. I suspect what's going on is the digestive enzymes in our saliva are starting to break down some of the sugars, and then the oxygen just seems to speed up that process."

Lastly, there's the aftertaste. A chocolate's flavor should linger in the mouth, says Fields. It should be pleasant, not overpowering, and should not have an "off" taste.

During tastings, Fields freely shares his impression of each confection but does not dictate what others should favor in a chocolate. To each his own, he says. This time around, he was partial to a Colombian dark chocolate with passion fruit, mainly because it was so unusual.

People who have attended his tastings or taken his courses all have their own favorites. And they know their chocolates. Elvera Shappirio, an artist who took his course at Michigan, tasted a Venezuelan chocolate called El Rey during one class and has stocked it at home ever since. She goes for varieties that contain 58.5 percent to 61 percent cocoa.

"The 70 percent is not as smooth as I'd like," says Ms. Shappirio, who now refuses to buy some inferior types of chocolate. Thanks to Fields's course, her palette is now sophisticated enough to tell the difference.

"He really covered everything I could imagine," says Ms. Shappirio. "I never will look at chocolate the same way again."


Patrick F. Fields, an adjunct botany instructor at Olivet College who teaches about the history and culture of chocolate, weighs in on a selection of chocolates from a recent tasting he hosted for The Academic Life.

Droste Milk Chocolate Pastilles (the Netherlands): "Over all I think this one's kind of nice, it is kind of glossy. It has a nice sheen to it. The aroma smells to me pleasant and chocolaty. I don't get any prominent fruity flavors out of it, and partly t's because it's fairly sugary. It's a milk chocolate that has a fair amount of sugar in it. The snap is nice and clean. The texture I like because it's smooth and creamy. It typifies the perfect Belgian school of chocolate making where they add a little extra cocoa butter, and you can sure tell."

Lindt Excellence Toffee Crunch Milk Chocolate (Switzerland): "This one has little nibs, little bits of toffee mixed in, so there's some extra sugar. It has a crunch if you chew it. Obviously those things are going to alter your impression of the mouth feel so you're then judging the addition rather than the chocolate. You can tell it's pretty creamy."

Milka Café-Crème Milk Chocolate With Mocha Creme Filling (Germany): "This one has coffee flavoring. It has a little bit more crumbly of a snap. It's not quite as lustery. The extra cocoa butter they add is probably less than what others use. ... There is a distinct steamy mocha aftertaste. It reminds me of the flavor of coffee ice cream. ... The mouth feel is a little powdery. It's not nearly as creamy as the ones we have tasted already. I'm reading the label; it says with a mocha cream filling. Technically this is a truffle. ... I'm pretty sure what they've done is to make it more chocolaty, they've added cocoa powder, rather than what we call chocolate liquor."

Cote d'Or Dégustation Milk Chocolate With a Dark Chocolate Filling (Belgium): You can tell there's a little bit of vanilla or something in this. I get an aftertaste. ... They've added, secondarily, cocoa and whey and milk fat to it to try and make it more milky, but it's kind of powdery to me. It's not nearly as creamy, so it's a different kind of a chocolate."

Lindt Swiss Bittersweet Fine Dark Chocolate (Switzerland): "It has a lot harder snap, and so when you bite it, even, it's crunchy. What I like about it is they have added vanilla to pretty good beans, and it leaves a distinct vanilla flavor in your mouth. We're getting darker and darker. ... It's about 50-percent cocoa content. ... This one is tried and true pretty good. It's not a great chocolate, but it's a pretty good chocolate. I like it."

Tom and Sally's Handmade Chocolate, handcrafted from French dark chocolate (United States): "I wanted to highlight a little American company. And they're pretty much candy makers, I think. ... I crunched that one and it's pretty hard. And it comes out to about 50-percent cocoa content. ... This is a mom-and-pop's organization doing small handmade batches versus the previous one we just tasted, the Lindt Swiss Bittersweet, which is a very large mega corp doing things, so the flavor is very different. It's very seasonal."

Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Dark Chocolate (United States): "There is a fruitiness to it. ... It does have kind of a funny aftertaste that can linger in your mouth. ... I do like it, clear up until the aftertaste."

Valrhona 61% Dark Chocolate With Hazelnut Pieces (France): "I find the hazelnuts a little distracting in texture. ... I find it hard to judge this chocolate because it has so much crunch, with so many things in the way. But they happen to be really good. And the only caution about any kind of chocolate with hazelnuts in it is that if the hazelnuts have spoiled, the chocolate is ruined."

Bernard Castelain Macaïbo 70% Dark Chocolate (France): "These people are using good beans and treating them well. ... The only thing I notice is that the aftertaste is a little bit astringent. You just feel kind of a weird kind of drying feel to your mouth after you've completely melted it, tasted it, and swallowed. If it were the perfect chocolate, it wouldn't quite have that. But I'd rate this pretty darn high. ... I like the fruitiness that comes through. You get it initially, then you get it again when you breathe in air, so I think it's a pretty darn good one. ... They're making it with love instead of a business-dollar profit margin in mind."

Santander 70% Cacao Dark Chocolate With Passion Fruit (Colombia): "It has passion fruit, and I didn't expect much. I thought it would be pretty yucky. But I like it. I like the tartness that hits you very quickly. Some people don't care for this, and if you don't, be honest. But I love the sour things."

Hachez 77% Cacao Cocoa d'Arriba Classic (Germany): "The first flavor I get is a little bit fruity, but once you let air in, it's becoming a bit more astringent. So it feels like almost peppery in your mouth, and the fruitiness seems to disappear and slowly the bitter is coming on. ... I personally don't care for it."