28 fevereiro 2008

“Hungry?” she said, eyes widening in disbelief. “That’s a country? I’ve heard of Turkey. But Hungry? I’ve never heard of it.”

Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?

A popular video on YouTube shows Kellie Pickler, the adorable platinum blonde from “American Idol,” appearing on the Fox game show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” during celebrity week. Selected from a third-grade geography curriculum, the $25,000 question asked: “Budapest is the capital of what European country?”

Ms. Pickler threw up both hands and looked at the large blackboard perplexed. “I thought Europe was a country,” she said. Playing it safe, she chose to copy the answer offered by one of the genuine fifth graders: Hungary. “Hungry?” she said, eyes widening in disbelief. “That’s a country? I’ve heard of Turkey. But Hungry? I’ve never heard of it.”

Such, uh, lack of global awareness is the kind of thing that drives Susan Jacoby, author of “The Age of American Unreason,” up a wall. Ms. Jacoby is one of a number of writers with new books that bemoan the state of American culture.

Joining the circle of curmudgeons this season is Eric G. Wilson, whose “Against Happiness” warns that the “American obsession with happiness” could “well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation.”

Then there is Lee Siegel’s “Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob,” which inveighs against the Internet for encouraging solipsism, debased discourse and arrant commercialization. Mr. Siegel, one might remember, was suspended by The New Republic for using a fake online persona in order to trash critics of his blog (“you couldn’t tie Siegel’s shoelaces”) and to praise himself (“brave, brilliant”).

Ms. Jacoby, whose book came out on Tuesday, doesn’t zero in on a particular technology or emotion, but rather on what she feels is a generalized hostility to knowledge. She is well aware that some may tag her a crank. “I expect to get bashed,” said Ms. Jacoby, 62, either as an older person who upbraids the young for plummeting standards and values, or as a secularist whose defense of scientific rationalism is a way to disparage religion.

Ms. Jacoby, however, is quick to point out that her indictment is not limited by age or ideology. Yes, she knows that eggheads, nerds, bookworms, longhairs, pointy heads, highbrows and know-it-alls have been mocked and dismissed throughout American history. And liberal and conservative writers, from Richard Hofstadter to Allan Bloom, have regularly analyzed the phenomenon and offered advice.

T. J. Jackson Lears, a cultural historian who edits the quarterly review Raritan, said, “The tendency to this sort of lamentation is perennial in American history,” adding that in periods “when political problems seem intractable or somehow frozen, there is a turn toward cultural issues.”

But now, Ms. Jacoby said, something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way.

Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.

She pointed to a 2006 National Geographic poll that found nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t think it is necessary or important to know where countries in the news are located. So more than three years into the Iraq war, only 23 percent of those with some college could locate Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel on a map.

Ms. Jacoby, dressed in a bright red turtleneck with lipstick to match, was sitting, appropriately, in that temple of knowledge, the New York Public Library’s majestic Beaux Arts building on Fifth Avenue. The author of seven other books, she was a fellow at the library when she first got the idea for this book back in 2001, on 9/11.

Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment, she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.

At that moment, Ms. Jacoby said, “I decided to write this book.”

Ms. Jacoby doesn’t expect to revolutionize the nation’s educational system or cause millions of Americans to switch off “American Idol” and pick up Schopenhauer. But she would like to start a conversation about why the United States seems particularly vulnerable to such a virulent strain of anti-intellectualism. After all, “the empire of infotainment doesn’t stop at the American border,” she said, yet students in many other countries consistently outperform American students in science, math and reading on comparative tests.

In part, she lays the blame on a failing educational system. “Although people are going to school more and more years, there’s no evidence that they know more,” she said.

Ms. Jacoby also blames religious fundamentalism’s antipathy toward science, as she grieves over surveys that show that nearly two-thirds of Americans want creationism to be taught along with evolution.

Ms. Jacoby doesn’t leave liberals out of her analysis, mentioning the New Left’s attacks on universities in the 1960s, the decision to consign African-American and women’s studies to an “academic ghetto” instead of integrating them into the core curriculum, ponderous musings on rock music and pop culture courses on everything from sitcoms to fat that trivialize college-level learning.

Avoiding the liberal or conservative label in this particular argument, she prefers to call herself a “cultural conservationist.”

For all her scholarly interests, though, Ms. Jacoby said she recognized just how hard it is to tune out the 24/7 entertainment culture. A few years ago she participated in the annual campaign to turn off the television for a week. “I was stunned at how difficult it was for me,” she said.

The surprise at her own dependency on electronic and visual media made her realize just how pervasive the culture of distraction is and how susceptible everyone is — even curmudgeons.

Oscar banter :)

"Normally when you see a black man or a woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty."

"Tonight we look beyond the dark days to focus on happier fare - this year's slate of Oscar-nominated psychopathic killer movies. Does this town need a hug? No Country For Old Men, Sweeney Todd,There Will Be Blood. All I can say is: thank God for teen pregnancy."

"There are three pregnant ladies with us tonight. Jessica Alba. Cate Blanchett. Nicole Kidman. And the baby goes to.... Angelina Jolie. I'm stunned. Angelina couldn't be with us tonight, it's tough to get 17 babysitters on Oscar night."

"Whoever owns the Boeing 707 parked on La Brea Avenue, your landing lights are on [John Travolta runs on stage and rushes for the door]. "Don't worry, it's a hybrid".

"Away From Her is about a woman who forgets about her husband. Hillary Clinton called it the feelgood movie of the year."

"You know another way they could show respect for the writers? Maybe one day invite some of them to the Vanity Fair Oscar party. Don't worry. They won't mingle."

"Cate Blanchett is the woman who can't be stopped. She played Elizabeth. She played Bob Dylan. In No Country for Old Men she played the pitbull chasing Josh Brolin. Cate Blanchett, she is amazing. Right now, I Jon Stewart, am being played by Cate Blanchett."

"Oscar's 80th birthday automatically makes him the frontrunner for the Republican nomination."

"These past three and a half months have been very tough. The town has been torn apart by a writer's strike. The fight is over, so tonight... welcome to the make-up sex."

"Our next presenter speaks four languages, and earlier in the evening she taught me 'I'm calling security', in all of them. Please welcome Penelope Cruz."

"In case you're wondering what we do during the ad breaks. Mostly, we sit around and make catty remarks about what you're wearing at home."

"There was a small technical glitch, so we're going to have to restart the show."

"Our next presenter is either a Hollywood movie star, or an auto dealership, ladies and gentlemen Harrison Ford"

"Here's a brief taste of what your four hour writer-less Oscars would look like. Please enjoy Oscar's salute to binoculars and telescopes"

"According to the IMDb our next presenter is the star of the 2010 untitled Nicole Kidman project. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, Nicole Kidman."

"Before we spend the next four to five hours giving each other golden statues, let's take a moment to congratulate ourselves."

"To really appreciate [Lawrence of Arabia] you have to see it in widescreen." (while watching the movie on a mobile phone).


26 fevereiro 2008

The Magical Halloumi Cheese

this one we know about and have enjoyed many times :)

Fried Halloumi, native to Cyprus, may be the only food where the word "squeaky" comes up when people are describing this unique cheese. Halloumi is traditionally made from goat and sheep's milk, and is similar to a mozzarella, but denser, saltier, and…squeakier. Let me explain.

What makes Halloumi unusual is it's very high melting point. Because of how the curd is heated, then brined and pressed, the cheese can be fried without melting. This makes for a very cool appetizer or meze, as they would call it in Cyprus. This video recipe I did for About.com shows my favorite way of preparing Halloumi. I think it's best when seared in a very hot pan, nice and brown, and then drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette.

Check the video at Food Wishes Video Recipes

21 fevereiro 2008

Foodsel ;)

An example with my favorite food:

Figs, raw
» Fruits and Fruit Juices

Energy Sugar Fat
4.3 size D batteries 5.3 sugar cubes 0.0 butter sticks

A serving of 145.0g contains 107kcal, representing ± 4.3 batteries*.

A aged requires 2100kcal (83.4 batteries*) a day.

* size D, 1.5V, 19500mAh

A serving of 145.0g contains 23.58g sugars, which is comparable to ± 5.3 sugar cubes.

A serving of 145.0g contains 0.44g fat, which is comparable to ± 0.0 butter sticks.

20 fevereiro 2008

Óleo de fígado de... tubarão

Unilever ends the use of shark products in its cosmetics

In its campaign to end the use of shark squalene, Oceana has received news that the multinational will stop using this product in early 2008, joining other European cosmetic companies that have already done so

Madrid -- Oceana, the international marine conservation organisation, is engaged in a campaign to end of the use of shark liver oil, known as squalene, in cosmetics products. Europe is a major force in the production and trade of squalene, and the campaign has included investigative visits to fishing ports and cosmetics shops, and discussions with cosmetic companies and squalene manufacturers, to gather information about uses, trade and markets for this product and the sharks it comes from.

Oceana has received notice that Unilever, a multinational company famous for many brands of food, personal care and household products, has decided to remove shark squalene from its cosmetic brands, including Pond’s and Dove, and will replace it with a plant-based version. According to Unilever, the new production will begin early this year and new formulations are expected to appear on market shelves beginning April 2008.

Squalene is an organic compound found in certain animal and plant sources, and is used as an emollient in various cosmetic products, such as creams, lotions and glosses. Squalene oil can be harvested from the livers of sharks, where it is found in great quantities. Deep-sea sharks (those living in ocean depths of 300 to 1500 metres) have especially large reserves of squalene, as their livers can comprise up to one-third of the weight of the entire animal. Consequently, deep-sea sharks are often caught specifically for their squalene oil. The excessive catches of these animals have contributed to dramatic population declines of certain species, some of which are on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. Oceana has been campaigning to end the wasteful deep-sea gillnet fishery for sharks in the Northeast Atlantic since 2005.

Shark-based squalene has a readily available substitute on the market that comes from a purely vegetable origin. Squalene can be obtained from olives (a component of olive oil) and it has the same qualities of animal-based squalene and is less expensive than the animal version.


New Translation: The Cult of the Amateur

The Cult of the Amateur
How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy
by Andrew Keen

“If we are all amateurs, there are no experts.”

Andrew Keen’s new book, The Cult of the Amateur is the latest addition to the Newsnight book club. In it, the author expresses his concern for the profligacy of online amateurism, spawned by the digital revolution. This, he feels, has had a destructive impact on our culture, economy and values.

He says, “[They] can use their networked computers to publish everything from uninformed political commentary, to unseemly home videos, to embarrassingly amateurish music, to unreadable poems, reviews, essays, and novels”.

He complains that blogs are “collectively corrupting and confusing popular opinion about everything from politics, to commerce, to arts and culture”.

He claims that Wikipedia perpetuates a cycle of misinformation and ignorance, and labels YouTube inane and absurd, “showing poor fools dancing, singing, eating, washing, shopping, driving, cleaning, sleeping, or just staring at their computers.”

He warns that old media is facing extinction – “say goodbye to experts and cultural gatekeepers – our reporters, news anchors, editors, music companies, and Hollywood movie studios.”

What do you think? We’ve published two extracts from Andrew Keen’s book below. Have a read and share your thoughts – is he being alarmist about the effects of the Web 2.0 revolution, or raising genuine concerns? Are we at the mercy of the amateur? Can kids tell the difference between credible news sources and the amateur’s blog? What, in any case, can be done?


14 fevereiro 2008

On Valentine's Day

For a year, Jeffrey Eugenides read nothing but love stories in order to select the best for an anthology. With the tormented poet Catullus as his guide, he went from Chekhov to Nabokov to Alice Munro and discovered that the greatest works depend on disappointment, boredom and broken hearts

The Latin poet Catullus was the first poet in the ancient world to write about a personal love affair in an extended way. Other poets treated the subject of "love", allowing the flushed cheeks or alabaster limbs of this or that inamorata to enter the frame of their poems, but it was Catullus who built his nugae, or trifles, around a single, near-obsessional passion for a woman whose entire presence, body and mind, fills the lines of his poetry. From the first excruciating moments of infatuation with the woman he called "Lesbia", through the torrid transports of physical love, to the betrayals that leave him stricken, Catullus told it all, and, in so doing, did more than anyone to create the form we recognise today as the love story.

Gaius Catullus was born around 84 BC, in Cisalpine Gaul, the son of a minor aristocrat and businessman with holdings in Spain and Asia Minor, and lived until roughly the age of 30. It was as a very young man, then, that he found his way to poetry - and to Lesbia.

Lesbia wasn't her real name. Her real name was Clodia. Classical scholars disagree over whether she was the Clodia married to the praetor Metellus Celer, infamous for her licentiousness and possible matricide. Lesbia might have been one of Clodia's sisters, or another Clodia altogether. What's certain is that she was married and that Catullus's relationship with her was adulterous. Although, like many adulterers, Catullus disapproved of adultery (in poem LXI he writes, "Your husband is not light, not tied / To some bad adulteress, / Nor pursuing shameful scandal / Will he wish to sleep apart / From your tender nipples"), he found himself, in the case of Clodia/Lesbia, compelled to make an exception. He became involved with a wicked aristocratic Roman lady who used him as a plaything, or - the alternate version - he fell for a fashionable, married Roman girl, who ended up sleeping with his best friend, Rufus. Whatever the details, one thing is clear: a great love story had begun.

Of Catullus's many hendecasyllabics devoted to his relationship with Lesbia, only two concern us here. The first two. The poems having to do with Lesbia and her pet sparrow.

Sparrow, my girl's darling

Whom she plays with, whom she cuddles,

Whom she likes to tempt with finger-

Tip and teases to nip harder

When my own bright-eyed desire

Fancies some endearing fun

And a small solace for her pain,

I suppose, so heavy passion then rests:

Would I could play with you as she does

And lighten the spirit's gloomy cares!

That's poem II. And by poem III, Lesbia's sparrow is dead. "[P]asser mortuus est meae puellae, / passer, deliciae meae puellae, / quem plus illa oculis suis amabit," Catullus writes, which translates as "My girl's sparrow is dead, / Sparrow, my girl's darling, / Whom she loved more than her eyes."

Incidentally, this poem - or, more specifically, the onomatopoeia of its two central words, "passer" and "pipiabat" - did more than anything I can remember to make me want to become a writer. I can still hear our Latin teacher, Miss Ferguson, piping out in her most piercing sparrow's voice, "passer pipiabat", getting us to notice how much the plosive rhythm resembled a bird singing. That words were music, that, at the same time they were marks on a page, they also referred to things in the world and, in skilled hands, took on properties of the things they denoted, was for me, at 15, an exciting discovery, all the more notable for the fact that this poetic effect had been devised by a young man dead for two thousand years, who'd sent this phrase drifting down the centuries to reach me in my Michigan classroom, filling my American ears with the sound of Roman birdsong.

But back to the poem. The pluperfect of "pipiabat" is elegiac: the bird "used to sing". Now its song has been silenced. Catullus, who in the previous poem had cause to wish the bird would fly away, now changes his mind. "Oh what a shame!" he writes. "O wretched sorrow! Your fault it is that now my girl's / Eyelids are swollen from crying."

Things were bad with the sparrow around. They're bad with the sparrow gone. Nothing is keeping Lesbia from giving all her love to Catullus now. But Lesbia's no longer in the mood. Worse, her crying has ruined her looks. If Catullus gave us the confessional love story, these first two poems delineated its scope. At the behest of Dave Eggers, I've been reading almost nothing but love stories for the past year for an anthology, My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead, which takes its title from Catullus (the proceeds of which will go to support Eggers's literacy project 826 Chicago).

The subjects of the stories range from two lovers taking a road trip in communist-era Czechoslovakia, in Milan Kundera's "The Hitchhiking Game", to the two terrifically well-groomed, adolescent "TrendSetters & TasteMakers" from the near-future, in George Saunders's "Jon", to the little Jewish boy in Isaac Babel's "First Love" who falls for the Christian neighbour sheltering him during a Russian pogrom. Despite the multiplicity of subjects and situations, one Catullan requirement remained in force: in each of the love stories, either there is a sparrow or the sparrow is dead.

In discovering and gathering these stories, my method was maximally random and sociable. At lectures and book parties, in elevators with editors and at literary festivals with fellow novelists, on college campuses, in loud tapas bars, I asked whoever happened to be nearby to name a favourite love story. Jonathan Franzen, bobbing off the Amalfi coast after an illegal dinner of sea urchins, suggested three separate stories by Alice Munro. Kathy Chetkovich nominated "Secretary" by Mary Gaitskill, which I didn't select (I didn't think it was about love) and Mary Robison's "Yours", which I did. Jhumpa Lahiri was the first of many to insist on James Joyce's "The Dead". Asked to propose something from his own oeuvre, Martin Amis struggled to find anything sufficiently romantic.

I didn't confine myself to writers. Natasha Egan, associate director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, mentioned a story I'd read and loved a few years earlier, David Bezmozgis's "Natasha". The German artist Thomas Demand had me look at Robert Musil's difficult and rather punishing "Tonka", which I tried my best to forget but couldn't get out of my mind. (How like love!) Edwin Frank, editor of NYRB Classics, was responsible for sending my way the work of the illustrious Chinese writer Eileen Chang (whose Lust, Caution has recently been made into a film by Ang Lee), which was a revelation to me. And then there were the students and dinner-party guests, the bookworm bartenders, the voluble taxi drivers.

Many of the stories didn't need an advocate. They were among my favourites already. As a way to narrow literary focus, selecting "love" as your theme doesn't help much. Viewed a certain way, almost any story appears to be a love story. Generally speaking, however, what animates most of the stories isn't agape, but eros. The love is mainly romantic love. In almost every story you'll find a lover and a beloved, a subject pursuing an object. In Miranda July's "Something That Needs Nothing", a young woman longs for the love of her best friend, only to finally win it at the expense of turning herself into another person. The spinster in William Faulkner's southern gothic, "A Rose for Emily", whose chances for marriage have been doomed by paternal opposition, devises a desperate measure, after her father's death, to keep her next lover at her side. A frustrated teenage love affair leaves the narrator of Stuart Dybek's "We Didn't" with a memory more indelible than any resulting from consummation.

At dinner one night, when asked to list and describe the love stories I was thinking about, I was met with furrowed brows. This wasn't what my dinner companions had expected when I'd said the word "love". They were expecting happier, fluffier stories. They were expecting love. And so here I should make an important distinction: my subject wasn't love. My subject was the love story. A compendium of philosophical notions of love might begin with Plato's hypothesis that human beings were originally hermaphroditic. Severed into two sexes, men and women spend their lives seeking their other halves. Saint Thomas Aquinas reasoned that before the Fall, erections were volitional. Adam, sinless, couldn't have randy thoughts. In the Garden, confronted with Eve's nakedness (nakedness he didn't recognise as such), Adam issued disinterested, elevator-operator commands. "Up" was one. And afterwards: "Down".

Evolutionary biology does away with love completely, finding in the novelist's most dependable material - adultery and divorce - nothing more than a hardwired imperative to pass genes along to the next generation. Sexologists see only a chemical state of infatuation that lasts a couple of years, transforming thereafter, among even the most well-matched couples, into the bath-towelly togetherness known as pair-bonding.

When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims - these are lucky eventualities, but they aren't love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.

We value love not because it's stronger than death, but because it's weaker. Say what you want about love: death will finish it. You will not go on loving in the grave, not in any physical way that will at all resemble love as we know it on earth. The perishable nature of love is what gives love its profound importance in our lives. If it were endless, if it were on tap, love wouldn't hit us the way it does.

And we certainly wouldn't write about it. From William Trevor's "Lovers of Their Time", which tells the story of a married travel agent and pharmacy clerk who have nowhere to meet but an out-of-the way bathroom in an old hotel, to Gilbert Sorrentino's postmodern "The Moon in Its Flight", where the teenage lovers are thwarted not only by fate, but by the literary conventions of romance, to Harold Brodkey's scandalous story "Innocence", which consists of the extended account of a Harvard senior's unflagging attempt to bring his girlfriend to her first orgasm by means of a virtuosic and intensely cerebral act of cunnilingus, the characters seek a paradise that recedes endlessly before them. Escape from one set of circumstances brings confinement in another. The fated love turns out to be a human fantasy. Desire is a homeostatic system. Push it down in one place and it rises in another.

Many of the stories fall within the continuum laid out by Catullus's first two Lesbia poems: from voyeuristic longing to disenchanted entanglement. The narrator of Nabokov's "Spring in Fialta" recounts the many missed romantic opportunities he's had with a woman named Nina, whom he'd first met, and kissed, on a pitch-black Russian winter night years and years before. Nina recurs in the narrator's life like a theme in a piece of music, and every time the strings announce her arrival, the cymbals clash and she disappears.

I'd been under the impression lately that I was cooling ever so slightly on Nabokov, that sober middle age had made me less susceptible to his lush lyricism. But rereading "Spring in Fialta" reminded me how much better Nabokov is than everybody else. Not only does the story impart to the reader a profound wistfulness, in which the evanescence of love expands to suggest the fragility of life and time and memory itself, but Nabokov manages, at the same time, to weave into the story secondary and tertiary levels of meaning. There's what's happening with the weather, for instance, the "cloudy and dull" spring of Fialta that, in the background of the narrated events, is slowly transforming, thawing, dripping and brightening, in order to flash out at the end with the story's tragic revelation. Along with this, Nabokov has studded the story with recurring details - of the circus coming to town, of speeding automobiles - all of which will figure in the denouement. The literary craft in all this mirrors the literary imagination (the seeing of patterns, the orchestrating of fate) that the narrator brings to his random meetings with Nina throughout the years, a literary imagination that every lover possesses. "Spring in Fialta" isn't only about a love fated never to be. It reenacts the story-making we inevitably engage in whenever we fall in love.

The sparrow in "Spring in Fialta" is Nina's husband Ferdinand, who's always in the way. In the case of Chekhov's "The Lady with the Little Dog", however, the sparrow is dead. Gurov, the unfaithful husband in the story, seduces Anna Sergeevna, an unhappy young married woman, while they are both visiting Yalta. Gurov, who has done this sort of thing before, assumes he'll forget Anna as he's forgotten other women. But he doesn't. Her memory haunts him and, finally, he pursues her to her hometown, where they resume their affair. In the story's final scene, the two lovers clandestinely meet in a dingy hotel room in Moscow. And then comes one of the most enigmatic endings in literature. "And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning."

One of Chekhov's admirers, Serafima Remizova, was highly disappointed with this ending. "I read your story," she wrote to Chekhov in a letter, "and I should like to ask you to write the continuation of it. You have abandoned your heroes ... at the most critical moment in their lives, when they are about to make a decision. But which one? ... It is important for someone like you, Anton Pavlovich, who can see into the human heart, to show ... how happiness can be found in such a situation."

But the inconclusiveness of Chekhov's ending, his failure to show how happiness can be found in such a predicament (along with the suggestion that perhaps it can't be found), is exactly what makes this story one of the greatest love stories of all time. It ends where the preliminaries of love end, after the stirrings of attraction, after the trysts and renunciations and the renunciations of those renunciations, when desire has attained its object and the real, the heavy problems begin.

I've read "The Lady with the Little Dog" countless times over the years and my interpretation continually changes. When I was younger (and more sophisticated), I was sure the ending was ironic. The emotional deadness of the lovers' marriages was sure to infect their own new relationship in time. Reading the story now, older (and more innocent), I couldn't help finding in Chekhov's last line a glimmer of optimism. The story seemed to me, this time, to be about that miracle you come across every once in a long while: two unexceptional people, for no demonstrable reasons, being exceptionally in love.

Christianity, which in its beginning retained much of the earthiness of Judaism, a sense of the body and its sexual appetites as inherently good, was slowly influenced by Neoplatonism, which held for a strict duality between the body and the spirit. Asceticism, abstinence, monasticism - you can blame it all on the Greeks. Nevertheless, it's the renunciation of the body that distinguishes true love from any simulacrum. When the body is no longer desired, when beauty has faded, when possessiveness has been relinquished, real love shows its face. This seems to happen most often in old age, or as the result of a winnowing of ego. Born with desire, the stories say, we grow into love, and then only sometimes, and only if we're lucky.

In Alice Munro's magnificent "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" (now a film, Away from Her, starring Julie Christie), the husband of a woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease, after regretfully relinquishing her to a nursing home, finds, on his subsequent visits, that she is slowly forgetting him and becoming involved with an elderly male patient. The husband responds to this death-in-life with an act of love that goes beyond the bounds of matrimony, approaching the selflessly divine. Deborah Eisenberg's shatteringly beautiful and unerring "Some Other, Better Otto" suggests that, in moments of existential crisis, the only lifeline remains the quotidian, humdrum, durable presence of that imperfect thing: one's life partner.

Each of these two stories is nearly impossibly good. The complexity of the characterisation alone is a marvel - Munro's model husband was, it turns out, a serial philanderer some years back, and the irascible Otto of Eisenberg's tale becomes, despite his scorched-earth policy relating to other human beings, a person of uncommon tenderness and philosophical insight, in the way depleted soil is enriched by burning. These two stories tiptoe right up to the abyss, Munro by unsentimentally describing the inevitable decay of the mind and body, Eisenberg by insisting on the absurd and pitiful insubstantiality, the puniness, of the self. And yet these are the stories in which love, to use an old-fashioned word, triumphs. To borrow from Raymond Carver: this is what we talk about when we talk about love. Not eros, maybe, when all is said and done. Closer to agape.

Had Catullus written only those two opening poems about Lesbia's sparrow, he might not be remembered today. Although they prefigured his own fraught relationship with his married woman, and although I find in them the poles around which all love stories revolve, there is a whole world of detail, particularity and specificity in between. From the bracing acerbities of Lorrie Moore's "How to Be an Other Woman", to the stark assessments of Richard Ford's "Fireworks", to Bernard Malamud's comic presentation of one very picky rabbi, the stories that made their way to me, by sometimes circuitous paths, never failed to be just the thing, after a long, unromantic day at my desk, that I most wanted to read.

It is perhaps only in reading a love story (or in writing one) that we can partake of the ecstasy and agony of being in love without paying a crippling emotional price. There 's this thought, too. After Lesbia spurned him, what did Catullus do? Kill himself? Drink to excess? No. Mostly, he wrote, and eulogised his friendships and his dead brother. He brought to his work the same devotion he'd once lavished in vain on Clodia. And he left behind his poems.

Passer pipiabat. Here's a loose translation: "Better a sparrow, living or dead, than no birdsong at all."

04 fevereiro 2008

Translators Are Angels

Translators are angels, I whispered
into the ear of my guardian angel in King João Library.
They stand beside us, hearing out thoughts,
only muttering what’s necessary. Smiling slightly,
listening carefully to the speaker who’d mentioned my name,
she said: We are perfect nobodies; nameless,
voiceless, winged incandescence, except when we’re bad.
Then she turned to me: Like now, if I don’t tell you what he said

- John Mateer

Hiding in Plain Sight

The art of... Art Wolfe :)

The Longitude Dial

William Andrewes' Longitude Dial tells time—assuming the Sun is shining—but it also does something no other dial can do: it tells place. As the daylight hours pass, the telltale shadow cast by the wire, or gnomon, moves across a laser-etched map; wherever that longitudinal shadow falls, it's noon. Part of what makes this feat possible is that the dial is custom-built for its location, with that very spot serving as the center of a computer-generated map on the dial face. In this dial, customized for a client in New York State, the gnomon's shadow indicates it's 11:45 a.m. at the dial's home base. Wherever the gnomon's shadow falls on the map, it's noon, and where it crosses, the degree scale marks the longitude of those places. The spherical shadow in South America, cast by the round bead on the gnomon, indicates where the Sun is precisely overhead.

This ring is encircled with the number of minutes added or subtracted to convert solar time (as shown on a sundial) to so-called mean time (as kept by clocks and watches).

The shadow of the gnomon's bead traces the Tropic of Cancer on this day, June 21. The time of the day's sunrise and sunset are also indicated on the ring encircling the hours and minutes.

Indicate the hour, when the gnomon's shadow falls on them. Minutes are marked by Arabic numerals.

DEGREE SCALE Marks the longitude of those locations under the gnomon's shadow.

(Description from The Smithsonian Magazine)

A Brief History of House Cats

On any of the surprising number of Web sites dedicated entirely to wisdom about cats, one will find quotations like these: "As every cat owner knows, nobody owns a cat" (attributed to Ellen Perry Berkeley); "The phrase 'domestic cat' is an oxymoron" (attributed to George F. Will); and "A dog is a man's best friend. A cat is a cat's best friend" (attributed to Robet J. Vogel). Of course, there is such a thing as the domestic cat, and cats and humans have enjoyed a mostly symbiotic relationship for thousands of years. But the quips do illuminate a very real ambivalence in the long relationship between cats and humans, as this history of the house cat shows.

The Mystery of the Ancient House Cat

It has taken a while for scientists to piece together the riddle of just when and where cats first became domesticated. One would think that the archaeological record might answer the question easily, but wild cats and domesticated cats have remarkably similar skeletons, complicating the matter. Some clues first came from the island of Cyprus in 1983, when archaeologists found a cat's jawbone dating back 8,000 years. Since it seemed highly unlikely that humans would have brought wild cats over to the island (a "spitting, scratching, panic-stricken wild feline would have been the last kind of boat companion they would have wanted," writes Desmond Morris in Catworld: A Feline Encyclopedia), the finding suggested that domestication occurred before 8,000 years ago.

In 2004, the unearthing of an even older site at Cyprus, in which a cat had been deliberately buried with a human, made it even more certain that the island's ancient cats were domesticated, and pushed the domestication date back at least another 1,500 years.

Just last month, a study published in the research journal Science secured more pieces in the cat-domestication puzzle based on genetic analyses. All domestic cats, the authors declared, descended from a Middle Eastern wildcat, Felis sylvestris, which literally means "cat of the woods." Cats were first domesticated in the Near East, and some of the study authors speculate that the process began up to 12,000 years ago.

Civilization's Pet

While 12,000 years ago might seem a bold estimate—nearly 3,000 before the date of the Cyprus tomb's cat—it actually is a perfectly logical one, since that is precisely when the first agricultural societies began to flourish in the Middle East's Fertile Crescent.

When humans were predominantly hunters, dogs were of great use, and thus were domesticated long before cats. Cats, on the other hand, only became useful to people when we began to settle down, till the earth and—crucially—store surplus crops. With grain stores came mice, and when the first wild cats wandered into town, the stage was set for what the Science study authors call "one of the more successful 'biological experiments' ever undertaken." The cats were delighted by the abundance of prey in the storehouses; people were delighted by the pest control.

"We think what happened is that the cats sort of domesticated themselves," Carlos Driscoll, one of the study authors, told the Washington Post. The cats invited themselves in, and over time, as people favored cats with more docile traits, certain cats adapted to this new environment, producing the dozens of breeds of house cats known today. In the United States, cats are the most popular house pet, with 90 million domesticated cats slinking around 34 percent of U.S. homes.

God and Devil: The Cat in History

If cats seem ambivalent towards us, as the quotations from cat fan-sites indicate, then it may be a reflection of the wildly mixed feelings humans, too, have shown cats over the millennia.

The ancient Egyptian reverence for cats is well-known—and well-documented in the archaeological record: scientists found a cat cemetery in Beni-Hassan brimming with 300,000 cat mummies. Bastet, an Egyptian goddess of love, had the head of a cat, and to be convicted of killing a cat in Egypt often meant a death sentence for the offender.

Ancient Romans held a similar—albeit tempered and secularized—reverence for cats, which were seen as a symbol of liberty. In the Far East, cats were valued for the protection they offered treasured manuscripts from rodents.

For some reason, however, cats came to be demonized in Europe during the Middle Ages. They were seen by many as being affiliated with witches and the devil, and many were killed in an effort to ward off evil (an action that scholars think ironically helped to spread the plague, which was carried by rats). Not until the 1600s did the public image of cats begin to rally in the West.

Nowadays, of course, cats are superstars: the protagonists of comic strips and television shows. By the mid-90s, cat services and products had become a billion-dollar industry. And yet, even in our popular culture, a bit of the age-old ambivalence remains. The cat doesn't seem to be able to entirely shake its association with evil: After all, how often do you see a movie's maniacal arch-villain, as he lounges in a comfy chair and plots the world's destruction, stroke the head of a Golden Retriever?

03 fevereiro 2008

The Kama Sutra of Housework

On the Use of Outside Help
In an effort to enhance domestic congress, some couples may seek the services of one professionally trained in the art. However, this is seldom as satisfying as when the man performs the task alone. But in the interest of matrimonial harmony, if both the man and the woman work outside the home, it is acceptable to engage a cleaning person once every two weeks.

The Washing of Dishes
The woman submerges her dishes in warm, soapy water, rinses them in clear water and passes them to the man. The man employs a slow, clockwise motion to dry them thoroughly with a dish towel. After about 20 minutes, the solicitous partner will switch roles for variety.

On Doing Laundry
The man is often too hurried and wishes to place the clothes immediately in the washing machine. He must learn patience and be guided by the woman, who will teach him the art of sorting and, in time, even to pre-soak. The slow, deliberate dividing of clothing into piles of whites, lights and colors will lighten the loads and heighten the pleasure.

The Art of the Dryer
Once the man has mastered the washing routine, he can be introduced to the dryer. Again, he must act against his nature and learn patience before inserting damp garments into the cylinder. Although all items can be placed into the dryer, he must learn to withhold some of them. What could be a most pleasurable cycle can end in anger and disappointment for the woman if a delicate undergarment is shredded or blue jeans are shrunk.

On Extracting Dirt from the Carpet
This is an uncommon task for a man. Before he can perform the act he must first be alerted to the existence of dirt in the carpet. Once introduced to the vacuum cleaner, its mechanical nature may overexcite him and cause him to proceed with inappropriate haste. The woman must also ensure that he is schooled in which attachment to use for each task.

The Cleaning of the Bathroom
Most men are unfamiliar with this delicate maneuver and may initially resist. A woman should not expect too much at first, taking initial satisfaction from the man's cursory sponging of the sink and tub before he advances to the washing of the floor and the polishing of taps. Be aware that he will not readily clean the bowl. But if a wise woman knows how to reward her mate, she may never have to use a toilet brush again.

01 fevereiro 2008

Steve Martin

On being funny, Smithsonian Magazine

and the book Born Standing Up.

"What is the most racist, intolerant, anti-Semitic, homophobic country in the Western world?"

The results would make people, who are not Caucasians, probably want to avoid Italy, Muslims to avoid Greece, Jews to avoid Spain, and immigrants as well as homosexuals to stay clear of Northern Ireland. These countries were rated as the least tolerant in the Western world.

Human Beliefs and Values Survey experts went about conducting the survey by making people in Western countries answer yes/no to the following statements:

  • I wouldn't want my neighbors to be of "different race" (Least tolerant: 1.Italy 16%, 2. Greece 14%, 3. Belgium 13%)
  • I wouldn't want my neighbors to be "Muslim" (Least tolerant: 1. Greece 21%, 2.Belgium 20%, Norway 19%)
  • I wouldn't want my neighbors to be "Jewish" (Least tolerant: 1. Spain 22%, 2. Greece 18%, 3. Italy 13%)
  • I wouldn't want my neighbors to be "immigrants" (Least tolerant: 1.Northern Ireland 19%, 2. Italy 17%, 3. Belgium 16%)
  • I wouldn't want my neighbors to be "homosexuals" (Least tolerant: 1. Northern Ireland 37%, 2. Italy 28%, 3. Ireland 27%)

The US, mercifully, ranked average or below average for all questions. Still, a surprisingly high number of Americans are not comfortable living around people who are not "just like them."

The least racist and homophobic country was Sweden.

The country least concerned about having Muslim neighbors was Canada.

The least anti-Semitic country was The Netherlands.

The country least worried about having immigrants as neighbors was Portugal.

The survey was conducted in 2000.

Text found in Gadling

The Web Trend Map 2008

10 Neatest LEGO Facts and Links

From Neatorama ;)


Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler

A SEA change in the consumption of a resource that Americans take for granted may be in store — something cheap, plentiful, widely enjoyed and a part of daily life. And it isn’t oil.

It’s meat.

The two commodities share a great deal: Like oil, meat is subsidized by the federal government. Like oil, meat is subject to accelerating demand as nations become wealthier, and this, in turn, sends prices higher. Finally — like oil — meat is something people are encouraged to consume less of, as the toll exacted by industrial production increases, and becomes increasingly visible.

Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.

Just this week, the president of Brazil announced emergency measures to halt the burning and cutting of the country’s rain forests for crop and grazing land. In the last five months alone, the government says, 1,250 square miles were lost.

The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284 million tons. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period. (In the developing world, it rose twice as fast, doubling in the last 20 years.) World meat consumption is expected to double again by 2050, which one expert, Henning Steinfeld of the United Nations, says is resulting in a “relentless growth in livestock production.”

Americans eat about the same amount of meat as we have for some time, about eight ounces a day, roughly twice the global average. At about 5 percent of the world’s population, we “process” (that is, grow and kill) nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.

Growing meat (it’s hard to use the word “raising” when applied to animals in factory farms) uses so many resources that it’s a challenge to enumerate them all. But consider: an estimated 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which also estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation.

To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

Grain, meat and even energy are roped together in a way that could have dire results. More meat means a corresponding increase in demand for feed, especially corn and soy, which some experts say will contribute to higher prices.

This will be inconvenient for citizens of wealthier nations, but it could have tragic consequences for those of poorer ones, especially if higher prices for feed divert production away from food crops. The demand for ethanol is already pushing up prices, and explains, in part, the 40 percent rise last year in the food price index calculated by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization.

Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens. This despite the inherent inefficiencies: about two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption, according to Rosamond Naylor, an associate professor of economics at Stanford University. It is as much as 10 times more in the case of grain-fed beef in the United States.

The environmental impact of growing so much grain for animal feed is profound. Agriculture in the United States — much of which now serves the demand for meat — contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Because the stomachs of cattle are meant to digest grass, not grain, cattle raised industrially thrive only in the sense that they gain weight quickly. This diet made it possible to remove cattle from their natural environment and encourage the efficiency of mass confinement and slaughter. But it causes enough health problems that administration of antibiotics is routine, so much so that it can result in antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten the usefulness of medicines that treat people.

Those grain-fed animals, in turn, are contributing to health problems among the world’s wealthier citizens — heart disease, some types of cancer, diabetes. The argument that meat provides useful protein makes sense, if the quantities are small. But the “you gotta eat meat” claim collapses at American levels. Even if the amount of meat we eat weren’t harmful, it’s way more than enough.

Americans are downing close to 200 pounds of meat, poultry and fish per capita per year (dairy and eggs are separate, and hardly insignificant), an increase of 50 pounds per person from 50 years ago. We each consume something like 110 grams of protein a day, about twice the federal government’s recommended allowance; of that, about 75 grams come from animal protein. (The recommended level is itself considered by many dietary experts to be higher than it needs to be.) It’s likely that most of us would do just fine on around 30 grams of protein a day, virtually all of it from plant sources.

What can be done? There’s no simple answer. Better waste management, for one. Eliminating subsidies would also help; the United Nations estimates that they account for 31 percent of global farm income. Improved farming practices would help, too. Mark W. Rosegrant, director of environment and production technology at the nonprofit International Food Policy Research Institute, says, “There should be investment in livestock breeding and management, to reduce the footprint needed to produce any given level of meat.”

Then there’s technology. Israel and Korea are among the countries experimenting with using animal waste to generate electricity. Some of the biggest hog operations in the United States are working, with some success, to turn manure into fuel.

Longer term, it no longer seems lunacy to believe in the possibility of “meat without feet” — meat produced in vitro, by growing animal cells in a super-rich nutrient environment before being further manipulated into burgers and steaks.

Another suggestion is a return to grazing beef, a very real alternative as long as you accept the psychologically difficult and politically unpopular notion of eating less of it. That’s because grazing could never produce as many cattle as feedlots do. Still, said Michael Pollan, author of the recent book “In Defense of Food,” “In places where you can’t grow grain, fattening cows on grass is always going to make more sense.”

But pigs and chickens, which convert grain to meat far more efficiently than beef, are increasingly the meats of choice for producers, accounting for 70 percent of total meat production, with industrialized systems producing half that pork and three-quarters of the chicken.

Once, these animals were raised locally (even many New Yorkers remember the pigs of Secaucus), reducing transportation costs and allowing their manure to be spread on nearby fields. Now hog production facilities that resemble prisons more than farms are hundreds of miles from major population centers, and their manure “lagoons” pollute streams and groundwater. (In Iowa alone, hog factories and farms produce more than 50 million tons of excrement annually.)

These problems originated here, but are no longer limited to the United States. While the domestic demand for meat has leveled off, the industrial production of livestock is growing more than twice as fast as land-based methods, according to the United Nations.

Perhaps the best hope for change lies in consumers’ becoming aware of the true costs of industrial meat production. “When you look at environmental problems in the U.S.,” says Professor Eshel, “nearly all of them have their source in food production and in particular meat production. And factory farming is ‘optimal’ only as long as degrading waterways is free. If dumping this stuff becomes costly — even if it simply carries a non-zero price tag — the entire structure of food production will change dramatically.”

Animal welfare may not yet be a major concern, but as the horrors of raising meat in confinement become known, more animal lovers may start to react. And would the world not be a better place were some of the grain we use to grow meat directed instead to feed our fellow human beings?

Real prices of beef, pork and poultry have held steady, perhaps even decreased, for 40 years or more (in part because of grain subsidies), though we’re beginning to see them increase now. But many experts, including Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, say they don’t believe meat prices will rise high enough to affect demand in the United States.

“I just don’t think we can count on market prices to reduce our meat consumption,” he said. “There may be a temporary spike in food prices, but it will almost certainly be reversed and then some. But if all the burden is put on eaters, that’s not a tragic state of affairs.”

If price spikes don’t change eating habits, perhaps the combination of deforestation, pollution, climate change, starvation, heart disease and animal cruelty will gradually encourage the simple daily act of eating more plants and fewer animals.

Mr. Rosegrant of the food policy research institute says he foresees “a stronger public relations campaign in the reduction of meat consumption — one like that around cigarettes — emphasizing personal health, compassion for animals, and doing good for the poor and the planet.”

It wouldn’t surprise Professor Eshel if all of this had a real impact. “The good of people’s bodies and the good of the planet are more or less perfectly aligned,” he said.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, in its detailed 2006 study of the impact of meat consumption on the planet, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” made a similar point: “There are reasons for optimism that the conflicting demands for animal products and environmental services can be reconciled. Both demands are exerted by the same group of people ... the relatively affluent, middle- to high-income class, which is no longer confined to industrialized countries. ... This group of consumers is probably ready to use its growing voice to exert pressure for change and may be willing to absorb the inevitable price increases.”

In fact, Americans are already buying more environmentally friendly products, choosing more sustainably produced meat, eggs and dairy. The number of farmers’ markets has more than doubled in the last 10 years or so, and it has escaped no one’s notice that the organic food market is growing fast. These all represent products that are more expensive but of higher quality.

If those trends continue, meat may become a treat rather than a routine. It won’t be uncommon, but just as surely as the S.U.V. will yield to the hybrid, the half-pound-a-day meat era will end.

Maybe that’s not such a big deal. “Who said people had to eat meat three times a day?” asked Mr. Pollan.