Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Yee-Ha Ya'll

1. Energy cannot be created or canceled, but it can be concentrated. This is the larger and profoundly explanatory context of a national-security memo George Kennan wrote in 1948 as the head of a State Department planning committee, ostensibly about Asian policy but really about how the United States was to deal with its newfound role as the dominant force on Earth. “We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population,” Kennan wrote. “In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.”“The day is not far off,” Kennan concluded, “when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.”

2. Zbignew Brzezinski, in The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, writes:"In brief, for the United States, Eurasian geostrategy involves the purposeful management of geostrategically dynamic states and the careful handling of geopolitically catalytic states, in keeping with the twin interests of America in the short-term preservation of its unique global power and in the long-run transformation of it into increasingly institutionalized global cooperation. To put it in a terminology that hearkens back to the more brutal age of ancient empires, the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together."

There has been no empire in the history of man that has done more violence to the human soul or the earth than the United States Of America. The quotations above explain the ethos of this "great" nation.

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Monday, February 26, 2007


Film Review - Kirikou et la Sorciere

Directed By: Michel Ocelet

When it was first released in France in 1999, this delightful animated children's story was the source of unlikely controversy. Set in an imaginary Africa, it tells the story of Kirikou, a stubborn newborn baby who's so eager to see the world, he clambers out of his mother's belly unannounced and starts firing off an exhausting array of questions.

It sounds harmless enough. What upset director Michel Ocelet's critics was the fact that the little urchin spends the whole movie in his birthday suit, chatting to the bare-breasted women of his village before battling the slinky, evil sorceress who's blackmailing them into poverty. Convinced that nudity wasn't compatible with a children's movie, Ocelet's original producers bizarrely demanded he cover Kirikou up and draw bras on all his female characters!

Fortunately, the director was sensible enough to stay faithful to the story's original West African origins. The result is an unexpected treat on every level. Drawing out the mythic undertones of the tale, "Kirikou and the Sorceress" follows the little 'un as he journeys into the underworld (tunnelling under the forest in a spectacular subterranean sequence); takes advice from the wise old man on the mountain; and finally finds a way to defeat the sorceress.

Whether the children in the audience will get the point of the story (a variation on the thorn in the lion's paw) or the psychological undercurrents of Kirikou facing down the castrating sorceress, doesn't really matter, since this gorgeous tale works on so many levels. Taking its artistic inspiration from African sculpture and Egyptian art, the distinctive pictorial style of Ocelet's award-winning feature is bolstered by an authentic soundtrack from Senegalese musician Youssou N'dour.

Couple this with the film's pint-sized but big-mouthed hero, and you've got one of the most enchanting animated features in quite some time.

Reviewed By: Jamie Russell

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Sunday, February 25, 2007


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Every Bite You Take

Have been travelling in the US for a bit recently and was getting rather suspicious about why the food at eating establishments [across the quality spectrum] tastes so similar. Luckily, I came by the following article by Ulrich Boser on Slate:

A hot dog from Yankee Stadium. Potato latkes from the Four Seasons in Manhattan. Sirloin steak at Applebee's. The jumbo cheeseburger at the University of Iowa Hospital. While it would seem these menu items have nothing in common, they're all from Sysco, a Houston-based food wholesaler. This top food supplier serves nearly 400,000 American eating establishments, from fast-food joints like Wendy's, to five-star eating establishments like Robert Redford's Tree Room Restaurant, to mom-and-pop diners like the Chatterbox Drive-In, to ethnic restaurants like Meskerem Ethiopian restaurant. Even Gitmo dishes out food from Sysco. Should you worry that one source dominates so much of what you eat?

Like any retailer, chefs need wholesalers that distribute goods cheaply and efficiently, and Sysco's 400,000-plus item catalog conveniently sells everything a cook needs to run an eating establishment. A little more than half of their products are brand names like Parkay and Lucky Charms. The rest are Sysco-packaged items like 25-pound bags of rice, half-gallons of salsa, boxes of plastic gloves, beer mugs, dish-washing detergent, not to mention 1,900 different fresh and frozen chicken products. Whatever a cook orders is delivered straight to the kitchen door at bottom-barrel prices: One Sysco invoice I got my hands on has a 25-pound bag of Uncle Ben's Converted Rice selling for $20.95, or about 84 cents a pound, while a 1-pound box bought through Amazon Grocery costs $2.09.

All of that seems relatively innocuous—restaurants need to make a profit, after all. But Sysco also hawks pre-packaged food. While chefs have long relied on shortcuts like freezing and using canned goods like beans and tomatoes, it's entirely different to pass off one of Sysco's thousands of ready-made items—ground beef burritos, vegan tortellini, quiche Lorraine pie, tiramisu cake—as homemade.

The ingredients alone on some of the pre-made items are enough to make a restaurant-goer swear off eating out. The breaded cheese chicken breast, for instance, contains monocalcium phosphates, sorbic acid preservatives, and oleoresin in turmeric. The Serve Smart Chicken is particularly frightening. While it looks natural, it consists of parts of other chicken breasts mashed together into a single, chicken-breastlike block. As the company notes on its Web site, our "unique 3-D technology gives you the look and texture of a solid muscle chicken breast, at a fraction of the cost. … Available in four great flavors: teriyaki, BBQ, fajita and original." What Smart Chicken tastes like, I'd rather not know.

Restaurants make a mint from serving these pre-prepped foods, since the meals can be purchased in bulk and stored in a freezer for months. A box of 36, 4-ounce chicken Kievs, for instance, can be kept in an icebox for up to 180 days. And the savings from labor costs are considerable. Each reheated Angus country fried steak will bring in almost $5 in profits. In the words of Sysco, these meals require nothing more than the ability to "heat, assemble, and serve."

It comes as little surprise that institutions like hospitals, universities, and military bases flock to Sysco's pre-cooked foods. But well-regarded bistros and pubs have also begun to offer such items to save time and money. Recently, New York magazine reported that Thomas Keller uses frozen Sysco fries at his Bouchon bistros. (While a company spokeswoman wouldn't confirm the brand, she confirmed the use of frozen fries.) Mickey Mantle's Restaurant, an upscale sports bar, serves Sysco's pre-made soups, like Manhattan clam chowder and vegetarian black bean. And then there's Edgar's restaurant at Belhurst Castle, which has won numerous awards of excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. There, the kitchen takes Sysco's Imperial Towering Chocolate Cake out of the box, lets it defrost, and then sprinkles it with fresh raspberries before serving it to diners. "We've had a lot of success with that cake," executive chef Casey Belile says. The Edgar's menu, of course, does not list the dessert as a Sysco pre-made cake, but it does charge $8.95 for the experience.

The company has a long history of championing frozen foods. Sysco founder John Baugh has been quoted as saying, "frozen foods taste better than anything I could grow in my garden." He started the company in 1969 when he saw an opening in the food services marketplace for a large, national distributor that would beat out local competitors through its sheer size. At the time, Baugh owned a small frozen-food company in Houston, and he convinced eight other regional food distributors to join forces to form a national conglomerate. Within a year of its start, Sysco posted more than $100 million in sales, and for the next 30 years, snapped up more than 150 local food distributors, becoming the largest in the nation. The company is about 50 percent larger than its next-largest competitor and five times bigger than the third-largest player; its boxes and cans are now as common in restaurant kitchens as salt and flour. A very partial listing of its better-known customers can be found here.

Some obvious food trends have helped Sysco's rise to Wal-Mart-like dominance. In 1970, households spent 34 percent of their food budget on dining out, compared to almost 50 percent today. And as small, local farms have closed down to make way for strip malls, restaurants increasingly depend on regional and national food processors to supply them with basic ingredients. While Sysco has smartly capitalized on all of this as the middleman between individual food distributors and the kitchen door, it's also earned the ire of gourmets, who portray the company as a leviathan that destroys local economies—and good taste.

But many quality restaurants, like Tree Room, use Sysco responsibly—shying away from pre-made items they can disguise as their own. Bardia Ferdowski of Bardia's New Orleans Café in Washington, D.C., purchases only raw and unprocessed Sysco products such as flour, potatoes, and beef, and receives frequent deliveries so that ingredients are as fresh as possible. For its part, Sysco has also been upping the quality of some of its offerings. It now distributes more locally grown meats and produce, and teams up with companies like artisanal cheesemonger Murray's to deliver specialty foods. Chef Tom Hosack of Hudson's at the Heathman Lodge in Vancouver, Wash., for instance, buys most of his greens through Sysco, and they're almost all regionally grown.

And not every cook has the time—or the money—to spend every afternoon foraging for fresh heirloom tomatoes at the local farmer's market. Nor do they need to. Many of Sysco's products—the meat, the vegetables, the fruits—are not that different than what you'll find at your local supermarket. But no restaurant diner should pay a chef to defrost and heat.

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Friday, February 23, 2007


The Price Of Money - Selfishness

A series of experiments have shown that merely thinking about or looking at money changes the way people behave, causing them to be more selfish and self-sufficient.

Participants first re-arranged several jumbled lists of words to form sentences. Some participants were given word lists that led to neutral sentences (e.g. ‘it is cold outside’), whereas other participants were given words that led to money-related sentences (e.g. ‘a high-paying salary’). Next, they all attempted to solve a difficult geometric puzzle. Those participants who had completed the money-related sentences worked significantly longer on the puzzle before asking for help (average of 314 seconds), compared with the participants who’d completed neutral sentences (average of 186 seconds – no different from controls who didn’t complete the earlier sentence task).

In another experiment, participants were again primed with either the neutral or money-related descrambling task. Afterwards they sat alone in a room to complete some irrelevant questionnaires. They were soon joined by an assistant of the researchers who was pretending to be another research participant, confused by the questionnaires. The participants primed by the money-related sentences spent only half as much time helping the confused person compared with the participants who’d completed the neutral sentences.

Further experiments showed participants left with more money after a monopoly game helped pick up fewer pencils dropped by a passer-by; participants primed with money-related sentences gave less money to charity; and participants sat in front of a money-themed computer screen-saver chose to sit further away from a another participant they were due to chat with.

Kathleen Vohs and colleagues, who completed the research, said that because money allows people to achieve goals without help from others, tasks that reminded the participants of money led to feelings of self sufficiency, causing them to avoid dependency and to prefer that other people weren't dependent on them.

Vohs, K.D., Mead, N.L. & Goode, M.R. (2006). The psychological consequences of money. Science, 314, 1154-1156.

Link to further information on methodology.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

New Beginnings

Identity & Violence

By Amartya Sen

"My first exposure to murder," the Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen writes in "Identity and Violence," "occurred when I was 11." It was 1944, a few years before the end of the British Raj and a period of widespread Hindu-Muslim riots. The victim was "a profusely bleeding unknown person suddenly stumbling through the gate to our garden, asking for help and a little water." Rushed to the hospital by Sen's father, the man died there of his injuries. He was Kader Mia, a Muslim day laborer knifed by Hindus. He had been asked by his wife not to go into a hostile area of then-undivided Bengal. But he had to feed his starving family, and he paid with his life.

To the young Sen, this event was not just traumatic but mystifying. How was it, Sen asks about that murderous year, that "the broad human beings of January were suddenly transformed into the ruthless Hindus and fierce Muslims of July"? And how was it that Kader Mia would be seen as having only one identity — that of being Muslim — by Hindus who were, like him, out in the unprotected open because they too were starving? "For a bewildered child," Sen remembers, "the violence of identity was extraordinarily hard to grasp." And, he confesses, "it is not particularly easy even for a still bewildered elderly adult."

Sen's book argues for the reasonableness of that bewilderment. He takes aim at what he calls the " 'solitarist' approach to human identity, which sees human beings as members of exactly one group." This view, he argues, is not just morally undesirable, but descriptively wrong. While "a Hutu laborer from Kigali may be pressured to see himself only as a Hutu and incited to kill Tutsis . . . he is not only a Hutu, but also a Kigalian, a Rwandan, an African, a laborer and a human being."

The originality of this critique is that it eschews trite appeals to the common humanity of those in savage conflict. Instead, Sen invokes the myriad identities within each individual. Because all of us contain multitudes, we can choose among our identities, emphasizing those we share with others rather than those we do not. Sen acknowledges, as he must, that such choices will be limited by external circumstances. Still, to concede that identity choices are constrained is a far cry from the claim that identity is destiny.

In a related vein, Sen criticizes the solitarist approach to civilizations. Influential texts like Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order" take a drubbing for assuming monolithic Western and Eastern civilizations. With charming erudition, Sen demonstrates that things usually ascribed to one culture in fact often arose in another. Vindaloo, now seen as a quintessentially Indian dish, originally derived from chilies brought from Portugal, while the trigonometric sine function, assumed to be a European discovery, came from India. (An unequal exchange if ever there was one.)

For all its urbanity, however, "Identity and Violence" neglects what others will take to be common sense. Hutus and Tutsis will not lay down arms because they are told they are Kigalians, laborers or human beings. Sunnis and Shiites will not be coaxed into a group hug by a reminder of the religion and cultural attributes they share. The strength of Sen's argument lies in its intuitive nature: "In our normal lives we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups." Its weakness lies in its failure to explain why, at critical junctures, we disown that knowledge. Is it because human cognition tends to trade in binaries? Is it because violence creates identity as much as identity creates violence? Is it because human beings fear the choices or solitude a more cosmopolitan outlook would force them to face? These and other possibilities go unexamined.

To be sure, Sen's apparent naïveté seems of a piece with his characteristic optimism about the human condition. This foray into identity and culture will seem a new departure for a scholar best known for his contributions to economics. But in all his work Sen has insisted that human beings are not simple. As early as 1977, he assaulted the concept of homo economicus, the individual who acts only in his narrow self-interest. And the complications he stresses point in a hopeful direction, revealing the extent to which actual people are guided by the claims of others.

In giving human complexity its due, Sen has always been a theorist of identity politics, even before the phrase became fashionable. The story of Kader Mia surfaces throughout his corpus as a seminal event of his childhood; "Identity and Violence" is simply the work in which he most directly confronts that memory and its implications. In doing so, he embodies his thesis, showing that one can be a Nobel winner, a secular saint and a writer who, for good and ill, retains a child's faith in our human natures.

Review by Kenji Yoshino

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