Archive for August 26th, 2007
How odd to wish to live in a totalitarian state. But the LA Times seems to think it would be a good idea:
The LA Times has a front-page article, apparently free of irony, that laments the glacial rate of progress on constructing a world-class subway system for the city, and imagines wistfully how much easier it would be if only we lived in a one-party communist state. In particular, they look at the progress that Shanghai has made in building its own subway, and pout about all of those nefarious restrictions that Americans have to put up with because we give actual citizens a say in the process.
“If the government wants to do something, even if the conditions are not ready for it, it will be done,” said Zheng Shiling, an influential Chinese architect who teaches at Tongji University in Shanghai.
At the risk of only slight oversimplification, the system works like this: Planners draw subway lines on a map. Party officials approve them. Construction begins. If anything is in the way, it is moved. If they need to, Chinese planners “just move 10,000 people out of the way,” said Lee Schipper, a transport planner who has worked with several Chinese cities in his role as director of research for EMBARQ, a Washington-based transportation think tank. “They don’t have hearings.”
Schipper recalled consulting with one Chinese metropolis whose ancient city wall stood in the way of a transportation project.
“One of the members of the People’s Committee said, ‘Oh, I know how we’ll solve the problem. We’ll move the historic wall.’ ” It was, he said, as if a planner in Washington proposed moving the Potomac River to make way for construction.
One searches the article in vain for the part where they say “Of course we live in a democracy, and some people think that there are certain benefits to that kind of system, even if the government does have to ask permission before tearing down historic sites,” but the moment never comes. Instead, we are treated to stirring stories of the plucky citizens of Shanghai, who don’t raise a peep when construction displaces them from their homes — no, indeed, they are happy to be displaced, as it gives them a chance at a new life! (It might be that voices of complaint are not heard because they are actually silenced, but that smudges up the narrative.)
As a dweller in downtown LA, where a better subway system would be a life-altering good and the lamentations of fragile newcomers who are shocked at the presence of construction noise in a booming high-density urban core form a constant background chorus, I deeply sympathize with frustration at the demands the democratic process force onto city planning. But I’ll tolerate the delays if it means that, if the Mayor wants to tear down our apartments, he at least has to hold a hearing first.
I’ve just found a concise piece from NPR radio on Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who used his uncle’s ideas on the unconscious to transform advertising into its current form.
Bernays pretty much invented the idea that you can sell products, not by making their practical advantages known, but by associating them with the satisfaction of desires – to be sexy, successful, a good husband or wife, the need to feel safe, well-regarded and so on.
Every time you see razors sold as babe magnets, or perfume sold as booty dust, that’s Bernays’ ideas at work.
He also invented the idea that marketing was more than just adverts, it could also be presented as ‘education’ that had no direct connection with a product but made people more receptive to other marketing.
Almost any sponsored survey or research you see in press, especially if masquerading as science, is based on this idea.
For example, Pfizer fund a survey that says people over 40 are having the best sex. People over 40 not having great sex wonder what they could do about it.
Hey, that’s my favourite B-list celebrity! And he’s telling me that Pfizer sell a pill aimed at the over-40s that claims to improve my sex life. My problem solved, through the power of science!
Of course, it’s not just hard-on pills [note to self: that's not a phrase I get to use often enough]. It’s now a tried and tested technique that has been used for selling everything from igloos to ideologies.
Indeed, Bernays was personally involved in selling political ideas as well as commercial products. Notably, in his book Propoganda, he argues that this form of manipulation is essential for managing the inherent chaos and destructive forces of society.
Film-maker Adam Curtis cited Bernays as one of the most influential people of the 20th century in his persuasive, if not slightly polemic, four-part series Century of the Self (available online: 1, 2, 3, 4). It contains many more examples of Bernays’ often ingenious PR campaigns.
The NPR piece is a short 10 minute introduction to Bernays’ life and work, and the site has a some additional audio clips of Bernays himself discussing his ideas.
From Nigella Lawson, via Slashfood:
Nigella’s Cold Soba Noodles with Sesame Seeds
1/3 cup sesame seeds
8 ounces soba noodles
2 teaspoons rice vinegar (the sweetened kind is just fine)
5 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons honey (I use buckwheat honey for a little added depth of flavor, but any variety works)
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
Toast the sesame seeds in a dry pan over a high heat until they look golden brown, and tip them into a bowl.
Bring a large pan of water to the boil and add some salt. Put in the soba noodles and cook them for about 6 minutes (or according to package instructions) until they are tender but not mushy. Have a bowl of iced water waiting to plunge them into after draining*.
In the bowl you are going to serve them in, mix the vinegar, soy sauce, honey and oil. Then finely slice the scallions and put them into the bowl with the cooled drained noodles and mix together thoroughly before adding the sesame seeds and tossing again.
Leave the sesame seed noodles for about half an hour to let the flavors develop, although this is not absolutely necessary or sometimes even possible. Serves 4 as part of a meal; or 2 when eaten, gratifyingly, as they are.
*I readily admit that I always skip this step, as I like to avoid having another dish to wash. I dump them into a colander and just run cold a water over them for a moment or two.
UPDATE: Made it exactly according to the recipe except (1) I added a few ounces of Kona kampachi sashimi for more protein, and (2) I used agave syrup (low glycemic index) instead of honey. It was excellent. I’ll make it again.
UPDATE 2: Made it again, and the dressing this time includes:
1 clove crushed garlic
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon lemon juice
I also again substituted agave syrup for the honey. And this time ocean scallops sashimi (cut each scallop into quarters) instead of the Kona kampachi.
The younger officers offer some hope. An article by Fred Kaplan in the NY Times Sunday Magazine:
On Aug. 1, Gen. Richard Cody, the United States Army’s vice chief of staff, flew to the sprawling base at Fort Knox, Ky., to talk with the officers enrolled in the Captains Career Course. These are the Army’s elite junior officers. Of the 127 captains taking the five-week course, 119 had served one or two tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, mainly as lieutenants. Nearly all would soon be going back as company commanders. A captain named Matt Wignall, who recently spent 16 months in Iraq with a Stryker brigade combat team, asked Cody, the Army’s second-highest-ranking general, what he thought of a recent article by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling titled “A Failure in Generalship.” The article, a scathing indictment that circulated far and wide, including in Iraq, accused the Army’s generals of lacking “professional character,” “creative intelligence” and “moral courage.”
Yingling’s article — published in the May issue of Armed Forces Journal — noted that a key role of generals is to advise policy makers and the public on the means necessary to win wars. “If the general remains silent while the statesman commits a nation to war with insufficient means,” he wrote, “he shares culpability for the results.” Today’s generals “failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly,” and they failed to advise policy makers on how much force would be necessary to win and stabilize Iraq. These failures, he insisted, stemmed not just from the civilian leaders but also from a military culture that “does little to reward creativity and moral courage.” He concluded, “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
General Cody looked around the auditorium, packed with men and women in uniform — most of them in their mid-20s, three decades his junior but far more war-hardened than he or his peers were at the same age — and turned Captain Wignall’s question around. “You all have just come from combat, you’re young captains,” he said, addressing the entire room. “What’s your opinion of the general officers corps?”
Over the next 90 minutes, five captains stood up, recited their names and their units and raised several of Yingling’s criticisms. One asked why the top generals failed to give political leaders full and frank advice on how many troops would be needed in Iraq. One asked whether any generals “should be held accountable” for the war’s failures. One asked if the Army should change the way it selected generals. Another said that general officers were so far removed from the fighting, they wound up “sheltered from the truth” and “don’t know what’s going on.”
Whole Foods this morning had fresh Monterey-Bay sardines. I got four of them, and will grill them today along with some fresh green chilis. I can’t wait. I had grilled fresh sardine at a restaurant in San Francisco just before the Julien Clerc concert, and they were wonderful.
Via TheShaveDen.com, this fascinating razor. Not a joke: the razor, circa 1935, was made and sold in Italy.
“I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” So said Confucius, but a study of how cats cope with obstacles suggests he may have been wrong about all that: it’s the doing that makes the memory last.
Keir Pearson and David McVea at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, studied how cats know to raise their hind legs to step over barriers without looking back. In one experiment, they used a bowl of food to make a cat pause just after its front legs had stepped over a barrier. Even if the pause lasted 10 minutes, the cat still remembered exactly where the obstacle was and how high to lift its hind legs to step over it.
In contrast, cats that encountered the food before stepping over the barrier with their front legs quickly forgot to step over it at all and stumbled against it with all four legs. The front legs even taught the hind ones to remember the location and height of obstacles the cats were never allowed to see (Current Biology, vol 17, p r621).
The researchers are hoping to test whether rock climbers’ hand motions similarly inform what their feet do, Pearson says.
It was responsible for one of the biggest food scares in recent times. Now acrylamide, which is found in coffee, French fries and many other foods, has been cleared of causing breast cancer.
The alarm was raised in 2002 when researchers discovered that acrylamide, which had been shown to cause cancers in animals, can form in a range of foods while they are being cooked. A team led by Lorelei Mucci at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston has now sounded the all-clear – at least for breast cancer – following a 20-year study of 100,000 nurses in the US.
Although 3000 of the women developed breast cancer, questionnaires revealed that their risk was not affected by the amount of acrylamide-rich food they had consumed. “At levels in the diet, it doesn’t seem to cause breast cancer,” says Mucci, who presented her results at the American Chemical Society meeting in Boston earlier this week.
I blogged earlier about using refillable instead of disposable bottles for water: saving money while doing good (reducing oil use and landfill waste). I got one of the special Nalgene bottles to use, but then wanted also a bottle that would fit my car’s cup holders and could be opened and closed with only one hand.
My first try was this nifty bottle—absolutely perfect except that it was too large for my car’s tiny (1996 era) cup holders. However, it fit the cup holders in the Prius fine, so the bottle has a new home.
Then I got a call from The Younger Daughter, who’s visiting a friend in Oregon. They had the perfect bottle: an Eddie Bauer Lexan bottle with a flip-up drinking spout. It’s at Target in the Outdoor section: $6.24 each. Yesterday I got two, and they’re in the car now, fitting the cup holder perfectly. These are not shown on the Target Web site (nor on the Eddie Bauer site), but they were easy to find in the store. I do like the OTG Nalgene bottle better—if only they fit the cup holder in my car.
You may have noticed that I put up a new tagline, quoting (this time) myself: “Change proceeds at the speed of growth, not the speed of insight.” – LG
The Wife asked what I meant by that, so I thought perhaps a little explanation was in order. As we introspect about our behavior patterns, we occasionally have an insight, which prompts us to change our behavior. The insight occurs in an instant, and though it may inaugurate a change, it won’t cause the change. The change occurs slowly—like the growth of a plant.
First we start to become aware of the behavior we want to change, noting it in retrospect, as we think back over the day. Then we recognize it right afterwards, as we walk away. Then we start to recognize it it immediately afterwards, sometimes at the very time we’re doing it. Then we recognize that we’re about to do it, and we can choke it off and do something else. That takes quite a while, and we still miss occasionally. But finally we automatically find ourselves behaving in new way, avoiding the old behavior altogether—but this is long, long after the initial insight.
In contrast, take a look at bad fiction—for example, a soap opera in which a character suddenly has a realization: “I’m an alcoholic!” In the soap-opera world, the insight produces the behavior change immediately: have the insight, and you’re cured. But in the real world, change comes slowly and requires effort and attention.
In the Guide, I write: “The blade and razor are the key components of the shave. Novices tend to focus more on the razor because it’s more obviously interesting than the blade and also much more expensive. Yet the comfort and smoothness of your shave, once your prep and technique are good, will be about 70% from the blade and 30% from the razor.”
Note the caveat: once your prep and technique are good. That is, once those are sufficiently established that they can be removed from the equation and you look only at using different razors and different blades.
The blade gets such a high ranking because it’s the blade that actually does the cutting—the razor simply grips the blade and presents it at a specific exposure and angle. The shaver can adjust his technique to accommodate an indifferent razor and still get a good shave, but an indifferent blade—or, worse, a dull blade or a blade with a defective edge—cannot produce a good shave no matter how excellent the razor or how the shaver adjusts his technique.
But I did play with my new Pure Badger brush by Altesse, which I got at the Carmel Drug Store yesterday along with a couple of aftershaves. It’s a uniform dark brown, and once wet had a distinct feral odor, not unpleasant (at least to my nose). That will fade with use.
I whipped up a little Lime Vanilla lather from a Mama Bear soap, and it did a good job and had a sort of soft, prickly feel. I think it will be a good change of pace.