Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for August 13th, 2021

A leisurely survey of 933 pieces of art by Salvador Dali

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Via a post in Open Culture by Colin Marshall, who writes:

Salvador Dalí made over 1,600 paintings, but just one has come to stand for both his body of work and a major artistic current that shaped it: 1931’s The Persistence of Memory, widely known as the one with the melting clocks. By that year Dalí had reached his late twenties, still early days in what would be a fairly long life and career. But he had already produced many works of art, as evidenced by the video survey of his oeuvre above. Proceeding chronologically through 933 of his paintings in the course of an hour and a half, it doesn’t reach The Persistence of Memory until more than seventeen minutes in, and that after showing numerous works a casual appreciator wouldn’t think to associate with Dalí at all.

It seems the young Dalí didn’t set out to paint melting clocks — or flying tigers, or walking villas, or any of his other visions that have long occupied the common conception of Surrealism. And however often he was labeled an “original” after attaining worldwide fame in the 1930s and 40s, he began as nearly every artist does: with imitation.

Far from premonitions of the Surrealist sensibility with which he would be forever linked in the public consciousness, dozens and dozens of his early paintings unabashedly reflect the influence of Renaissance masters, Impressionists, Futurists, and Cubists. Of particular importance in that last group was  . . .

Continue reading.

So sit back, relax, and watch the gradual develop of an artist and the emergence of his own vision.

Written by Leisureguy

13 August 2021 at 7:14 pm

Posted in Art, Video

Will the U.S. Pass a Point of No Return?

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James Fallows has a particularly interesting column in the Atlantic, that perhaps is appropriate for Friday the 13th. It begins:

This is the latest installment in a series that began back in 2019, with an article I did for the print magazine on Americans’ long-standing obsession with the decline-and-fall narrative of Rome.

Many people wrote in to agree, disagree, and otherwise react. The online discussion begins here. But the most sustained line of response has been from my friend Eric Schnurer.

In his first installment, in the fall of 2019, Schnurer emphasized the parts of the America-and-Rome comparison he thought were most significant—and worrisome. Then last summer, during the election campaign and the pandemic lockdown, he extended the comparison in an even-less-cheering way. In a third and more cautionary extension of his argument this summer, he concentrated on the U.S. Senate.

Now, chapter four: crossing the Rubicon. Schnurer argues that this is more than just a familiar phrase. And he says that a Rubicon moment is in view—which would be triggered by a possible indictment of Donald Trump. Over to Eric Schnurer:

Crossing the Rubicon:
If the United States, in recent years, has been tracking the decline and fall of Republican Rome, when do we pass the point of no return?

By Eric B. Schnurer

As James Fallows has observed, Americans long have been fascinated by the fall of the Roman Empire and frequently fret whether a similar fate awaits our own. But the more pressing comparison is the collapse of the Roman Republic: How did a wealthy, powerful, and successfully self-governing people—proud of their frontier origins, piety and traditional values, and above all their origin story in throwing off monarchical rule—essentially commit democratic suicide and settle, more-or-less willingly, for a half-millennium of dictatorship?

Over the last two years I’ve been charting how our politics today increasingly resemble those of ancient Rome. From rising economic inequality, political violence, and governmental dysfunction on through the generally lackadaisical reaction of the Senate to a losing chief-executive candidate’s conspiracy to murder many of them, overthrow the government, and thereby block certifying his defeat, events in ancient Rome have remarkably paralleled some you might recognize more recently.

History isn’t destiny, of course; the demise of the Roman Republic is a point of comparison—not prediction. But the accelerating comparisons nonetheless beg the question: If one were to make a prediction, what comes next? What might signal the end of democracy as we know it?  There is, it turns out, an easy answer at hand.

While there is no precise end date to the Republic, there was a bright-line occurrence generally recognized as the irreversible beginning of the end for participatory government. In fact, it is such a bright line that the event itself has become universally synonymous with “point-of-no-return”: Julius Caesar’s crossing of the river Rubicon.

And there is indeed an event looming—probably before the end of this year— that poses almost precisely the same situation as what provoked Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon: the possible indictment of former president Donald J. Trump.

Not long after empanelment of the special grand jury investigating the former president and the Trump Organization, Maggie Haberman, who has covered Trump for the past half-dozen years for The New York Times, tweeted that he is obsessed with the idea that he will soon be returned to office by the various, multiplying efforts to recount and overturn state-level results from the 2020 election. As Haberman reported, the impetus behind Trump’s restoration fever-dream is the realization that he needs the immunity afforded by the presidency to avoid prosecution for the career that got him there. Just last month, Michael Wolff recounted his conversations with Trump for his new book in Times opinion essay and concluded that Trump believes that “[r]unning for president is the best way to directly challenge the prosecutors.”

Now the month prophesied in Trumpian circles for his restoration to the White House has arrived—and with it, the intelligence services are reporting increased online traffic on the subject, including calls for violence, not unlike the uptick in advance of January 6th. It is no coincidence that insurrectionists that day carried banners urging Trump to “Cross the Rubicon” and declaring “The Die Is Cast”— Caesar’s words upon alighting on the Italian side of the river—or that they will be with him to storm the forces of the Republic and ignite a civil war over Trump’s potential indictment: Avoiding criminal prosecution is precisely why Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army and ignited a civil war 21 centuries ago.

The ancient Roman Republic diverged from our notions of republican government in several respects. Although the word “republic” itself derives from a Latin phrase meaning “a thing of the people,” it was more like a closely-held corporation than anything we think of today as a public enterprise—more-or-less “owned” by those who operated it. Elected officials were expected to spend their own money on state functions like erecting public structures or organizing public events (such as the famous gladiatorial games), and in return they could expect to reap sizeable “profits” when they attained higher office. Today, we would think of basic Roman government as institutionalized graft.

Yet even the Romans had their limits. Officials who pushed the envelope too far could be criminally prosecuted. But the Romans also had a concept very similar to ours, and crucial to what motivated Caesar’s actions and is now animating Trump’s:  As long as an official held “imperium”—essentially, the authority of the state itself— he was shielded from prosecution. As soon as he left office, however—boom!, he could be subjected to criminal charges.

Caesar, like most politicians, had committed his share of excesses and gained his share of enemies in his rise to the highest office in Rome, the consulship. After his consular year, he had secured the governorship of one of the more lucrative provinces—Transalpine Gaul—and, partially for self-advancement and partially to postpone prosecution, got his governorship extended to an unprecedented five years. Officials historically had been limited to serving only a single one-year term in most offices, in order to keep one man from accruing too much power, but constitutional norms had begun to fray under ambitious men like Caesar, who had his eyes on a second, and then hopefully permanent, consulship.

But he faced three obstacles. First, his governorship was scheduled to end six months before the beginning of the next consular term, so he would have to keep his army in the field until then to maintain his imperium and immunity to prosecution.  Second, his political enemies had enacted a requirement that candidates had to campaign for consul in-person in Rome—which, thirdly, since it was illegal for a general to lead armed men into Italy or Rome itself, meant that Caesar had to choose: return to the city to campaign without legal immunity, almost certainly to face prosecution; forego the consulship, and thus forfeit any further hope of future immunity; or cross the Rubicon that formally separated Italy proper from the provinces at the head of his army—by definition an act of insurrection not only stripping his immunity but criminal in itself.

Caesar’s ultimate rise had begun with . . .

Continue reading. Wasn’t today the day when true believers thought Trump would ascend to the presidency?

Written by Leisureguy

13 August 2021 at 6:23 pm

When your father dies, your accounting degree is not going to help you to process that experience. Homer will help you.

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An interview on Why the Classics? that’s worth reading (as are the Classics):

For our first-ever newsletter on Substack, we wanted to share this amazing interview with noted classicist, memoirist, and critic Daniel Mendelsohn on the Odyssey. Mendelsohn wrote one of the most moving and psychologically penetrating contemporary works on Homer’s epic, An Odyssey  a mixture of autobiography, literary analysis, and cultural history. The whole piece is worth your time, but we wanted to draw particular attention to Mendelsohn’s thoughts on the alleged “impracticality” of the classics. He argues, convincingly and correctly, that reading great literature will prepare you for the truly human experiences  love, grief, doubt, joy  in a way more superficially “practical” education will not. 

Octavian Report: Why should we read the Odyssey?

Daniel Mendelsohn: There’s a reason the classics are classics — and it’s not because they have better agents than books that aren’t classics. The classics are classics because they pose in a way that is lively and narratively interesting and challenging the most basic questions about human experience. The Greek and Roman classics are the foundation for our way of seeing the world. And therefore we read them because they tell us something true about life. In the case of the Odyssey, aside from everything else it is, it’s one of the great family dramas. It’s about homecoming, it’s about the meaning of home, it’s about how you know and how you prove your intimacy with members of your family. It’s about the bonds that connect family members over many years despite time and distance.

Beyond that, it’s in a certain sense the first science-fiction narrative. It envisions an adventurer who’s exposed to strange new civilizations (to quote the opening of Star Trek). Odysseus is the person from Greek civilization, from Western culture, touring abroad through alternative and new civilizations. And it is through his interactions with different models of civilization, from total barbarity to hyper-cultured behavior, that he comes to reflect on his own civilization and to determine where in that spectrum it falls.

Maybe science fiction is a little strong. It’s certainly one of the first anthropological documents in the Western tradition. It’s about somebody who’s very interested to see how other kinds of cultures live. And through Odysseus, we the readers get to reflect on just what it means to be civilized.

OR: What is the civilization that Odysseus is coming from, and how do these other societies look in comparison to the one he has left?

Mendelsohn: It’s like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” This bed is too big, this bed is too little, this bed is just right. And I think we’re meant to feel that his own civilization, the Greek Bronze Age city-state from which he comes — Ithaca — and the civilization that it represents is, as it were, just right. On one end of the spectrum of civilization is the Cyclops, who represents a low point of barbarity. One of the great measures of civilization, certainly in Odysseus’ own culture, is how you treat guests. And the guest-host relationship is one of the strong markers of this civilized society: you treat your guests well. It’s a standard theme that’s repeated over and over in the poem. Odysseus himself comes as a stranger, anonymous, and he’s always bathed, fed, treated to dinner. And then they say, “Well, what is your name?” That is standard operating procedure. The Cyclops, by contrast, eats his guests. He’s a cannibal, which is clearly the low end of the spectrum of civilization.

On the other hand, the last adventure he has before he returns home is set on the island of Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians, who are hyper-civilized. They dance, they love music, they love poetry, they play games. They’re unbelievably refined. They are sensitive to Odysseus, who’s a guest in their household. They notice him crying. They ask him what’s the matter. So, I think between the Phaeacians and the Cyclops, you get these extremes. And the Greeks whom Odysseus represents land somewhere in the middle.

OR: How many hands do you think were actually involved with the composition of the Odyssey? Do you think it was done by the same person or persons that did the Iliad?

Mendelsohn: . . .

Continue reading. I love this stuff.

I also like Mark Twain’s remark that the Iliad was not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name.

Written by Leisureguy

13 August 2021 at 1:51 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education

Robert Wright points out inconvenient facts

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Robert Wright’s newsletter periodically takes a look at what the Blob has been doing — the “Blob” being, so far as I can tell, what was once called the Establishment. Here are a few instances from the newsletter today:

  • The Taliban’s rapid recent advances against the US-backed Afghan government raise a question: What has the US been doing in Afghanistan for the last 20 years? If the world’s most powerful military has spent two decades building up Afghan forces, then why are they still so bad at fighting a rebel group that lacks substantial international support? In the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Rachel Tecott of the U.S. Naval War College offers an explanation for why America’s “train-and-equip” missions so often fail. First, Washington usually pursues such missions in places where leaders have weak incentives to improve their military; like US partners in Iraq and South Vietnam, Afghan leaders focused more on preventing coups and consolidating personal power than on building an independent and competent fighting force. Second, the US military tends to focus on persuasion instead of carrots and sticks when working with local leaders, and advisers are taught to prioritize “rapport” over insisting that partners do what we tell them to do. Tecott argues that this approach is “puzzling” given the leverage the US has with junior partners, who often need American assistance to keep functioning. But the persuasion approach remains popular, largely because of bureaucratic momentum: A new approach to these partnerships risks disrupting the Pentagon’s routines and creating tension with security partners who have gotten used to a soft hand from Washington. Tecott argues that the final blame falls on civilian leaders in DC who are afraid to confront the military over the need to change its ways.
  • In the New York Times, Peter Beinart argues that it’s time for the US to start being honest about the existence of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. “Feigning ignorance about Israeli nuclear weapons makes a mockery of America’s efforts at nonproliferation,” Beinart writes.
  • The Justice Department recently indicted Trump ally Tom Barrack, accusing him of working as an unregistered foreign agent for the United Arab Emirates. In Responsible Statecraft, Aditi Bawa and Ben Freeman note that major think tanks have had little to say about the Emirati influence operation—a strange fact given their extensive coverage of Russian and Chinese meddling in US politics. Bawa and Freeman suggest a possible reason for this disparity: money. “No other dictatorship in the world gives more money to U.S. think tanks than the UAE,” they write. And this money often seems to come with implicit or explicit strings attached. For example, the UAE gave the Center for a New American Security $250,000 to produce a paper which happened to conclude that America should give the Emiratis more weapons. And the Middle East Institute secretly received $20 million from the UAE over two years, with the agreed-upon goal of countering an unnamed set of “egregious misperceptions about the region.” Neither of these organizations has published anything about the Barrack indictment or numerous other Emirati efforts to influence American politics. “Staying silent about the misdeeds of a major funder might help a think tank’s finances, but as institutions that policymakers turn to for objective insights, think tanks have an imperative to […] critically analyze the UAE with the same fervor they devote to other countries, regardless of how much money the UAE pays them,” Aditi and Freeman write.
  • This week was the 76th anniversary of America’s nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The decision to drop the bombs is often remembered as one of clear necessity—the only way to scare an implacable, even suicidal, enemy into surrender. In the Libertarian Institute’s blog, Scott Horton complicates that narrative with quotes from military and political leaders who criticized the bombing as unnecessary, including Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Herbert Hoover, Curtis LeMay, and Robert MacNamara.
  • In the Washington Post, Karen DeYoung recounts the latest example of how Biden selectively applies the rules that make up the “rules-based order.” Mauritius—a former British colony in the Indian Ocean—recently requested US support in a territorial dispute with Britain over the Chagos Archipelago. In theory, this should have been a no-brainer. British claims over the islands have consistently been rejected by international courts, much like China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. But a State Department spokesperson told the Post that Washington “unequivocally supports UK sovereignty” over the islands. The reason? The US has a strategically important naval base on Diego Garcia, the largest island in the archipelago. Mauritian officials have said they would lease the island to the US, but a sticking point remains: The islands’ inhabitants were forcibly removed in the 1960s at America’s behest, and the Mauritian government intends to allow these displaced people to return. Though this population numbers only a few thousand, American officials seem to see resettlement as a security issue for reasons they haven’t articulated.
  • A drone recently attacked an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf, killing two crew members. While the culprit remains unknown, the US and Israel have pointed the finger at Iran. In the National Interest, Paul Pillar argues that, assuming Tehran is indeed behind the attack, the Biden administration should contextualize the strike as part of the years-long tit-for-tat conflict between Israel and Iran—a conflict that each party has fueled. “If the Biden administration wants to uphold free and peaceful navigation of the seas and to oppose damaging and destabilizing actions in the Persian Gulf region, then it does no good to single out one party to a contest while ignoring the damaging and destabilizing actions of the other party,” Pillar writes.

Written by Leisureguy

13 August 2021 at 1:35 pm

Art from a mind at sea

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Intersection (2010) by Louise Weinberg.

Michael Stanley, a clinical fellow in neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, has an interesting article (with more of Weinberg’s artwork) in Aeon. He writes:

‘It’s a very strange scene,’ Louise said, staring at the photograph, during one of our more recent sessions.

‘Can you make out what’s going on?’ I asked her.

She squinted and searched the picture. ‘There’s a little man over on the left side. He’s looking at a window in the middle of the room.’

‘Do you notice anything unusual about this photograph?’

‘I’m not sure, Dr Stanley. There must be or you wouldn’t ask it like that.’

‘What do you see, David?’ I asked her husband.

‘There’s a Volkswagen Beetle hanging off the ceiling, and a little boy is looking through the windshield. It’s an upside-down room.’

‘I guess so,’ Louise said. Her voice was flat and her face wooden with disappointment.

After retiring from her job as a social worker, for the past two decades Louise had pursued a second career as an artist and art teacher. During this time, she had also suffered from atypical Parkinsonism, a syndrome of the central nervous system that manifests as rigidity, slowed movements and problems walking. I was introduced to Louise in 2020. I’m training to be a neurologist, and her primary movement disorder specialist sent her to me, knowing my interest in art and the brain. The hope was that I could better characterise how Louise’s condition was affecting her sense of the aesthetic.

Parkinsonism didn’t just affect Louise’s movements. In the past few years, she had suffered from dementia, a progressive deterioration in cognition that affects thought, mood and behaviour. While Louise’s language and to some extent memory remain strong, in the past few years her chief struggle has been a decline in her visual and spatial abilities, and executive functions such as self-control and problem-solving. She could still identify basic shapes, silhouettes of animals, and obscure road-signs that I had shown her, and had even discerned a version of the Mona Lisa with an inverted face. However, a few hatches over a word rendered it unintelligible. A drawing of a hand with a superimposed spiral became a snail. Her vision could no longer pierce through a mess of extraneous details to the orderly form beneath.

I grew curious about the relationship between her steadily advancing cognitive deficits, and her creative will that never seemed to wane. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that good art is a form of ‘dancing in chains’ – that restrictions and limitations (often self- or societally imposed) lead to workarounds and developments that spur creativity. In watching how Louise’s art and brain changed over time, I hope to show the role each played upon the other.

The story of Louise’s art began more than 20 years ago, while she was in her mid-40s. She bought a book at a rummage sale in Boston, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (1979) by Betty Edwards. Though Louise had never picked up a paintbrush, ‘lightning struck’, as she put it, and she knew she was going to be an artist.

An early exercise challenged the student to copy Picasso’s portrait of Igor Stravinsky, but upside down. Counterintuitively, the inversion made it easier to draw. To draw a well-known figure from a little-seen perspective drives the attentional systems of the right brain to focus on the forms and outlines that make up the figure – rather than the figure itself, who it is, and its details, which are a preoccupation of the left hemisphere. It’s a version of the art-school adage to draw what you see, not what you know you should see. Even so, the two are hard to separate, since the brain’s ‘top down’ expectations influence what stimuli arrive ‘bottom up’ from our environment.

Louise attempted the exercise and, to her surprise, it looked like Stravinsky. Her pleasure in copying the portrait lay not just in the creation itself, but in the act of creation. Most of us experience the joy of art only in appreciating it; our minds put together the scene before us, link it to our past, and focus it with our mood in that moment. Two people might cry at a Rothko, one from pleasure and one from confusion. Louise found joy in setting that process into motion as an artist, producing something that marshalled the viewer’s visual stimuli such that she and others would react to it. She was going to be a creator, not just an observer.

Soon, Louise’s urge for expression drove her to abstract painting. Oils appealed both for their aesthetic and their textural feel. She used bold colours on large canvases, trying to explore relationships of space where viewers could begin to project a sense of figure (a street corner, a table), and yet… was it really a street corner? More than beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The artist tells us where to look and controls what we’re looking at, but what we see is a perceptual process that happens in our brains and not on the canvas.

Eventually, Louise enrolled at an arts institute in New England. Initially,  . . .

Continue reading. It’s an interesting article.

Written by Leisureguy

13 August 2021 at 1:08 pm

Does This Medieval Fresco Show A Hallucinogenic Mushroom in the Garden of Eden?

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Emma Betuel writes in Atlas Obscura:

ADAM AND EVE STAND IN the Garden of Eden, both of them faceless. Eve’s ribs are bold slash marks, as if the artist wanted her to appear almost skeletal. But that is not the strangest thing about this faded 13th-century fresco inside France’s medieval Plaincourault Chapel. Between Adam and Eve stands a large red tree, crowned with a dotted, umbrella-like cap. The tree’s branches end in smaller caps, each with their own pattern of tiny white spots.

It’s this tree that has attracted visitors from around the world to the sleepy village of Mérigny, some 200 miles south of Paris. Tourists, scholars, and influencers come to see the tree that, according to some enthusiasts, depicts the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria. Not everyone agrees, however, and controversy over the fresco has polarized researchers, helped ruin at least one career, and inspired an idea—unproven but wildly popular, in some circles—that early Christians used hallucinogenic mushrooms.

The question of what was painted on the back wall of Plaincourault goes back at least to 1911, when a member of the French Mycological Society suggested the thing sprouting between Adam and Eve was a “bizarre” and “arborescent” mushroom. The idea that the Tree of Life was actually A. muscaria pops up in the 1925 book The Romance of the Fungus World, which presents a “curious myth” about the Plaincourault fresco depicting the hallucinogenic mushroom, though there is no suggestion of its use by early Christians.

A quarter-century later, the earlier mentions lured R. Gordon Wasson to see the fresco for himself. Wasson was a PR exec in banking, and also an amateur mycologist. Although he had no formal training in the field, he’s known today for his prolific writing on mushrooms, particularly of the hallucinogenic variety, and fungi-focused travels, some of which were secretly funded by the CIA, which had its own interests in the topic. In 1952, when Wasson saw Plaincourault for himself, he wasn’t convinced, and sought the opinion of Princeton art historian Erwin Panofsky. The scholar was blunt. “The plant in this fresco has nothing whatever to do with mushrooms,” Panofsky wrote.

The idea persisted, however, and was loudly revived in 1970 by John Marco Allegro, a scholar of ancient languages at the University of Manchester. In his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, Allegro argued that Christianity itself had derived from a fertility cult whose members ingested hallucinogens. He called the Garden of Eden story “mushroom-based mythology.” His visual evidence was the fresco at Plaincourault, in which “Amanita muscaria is gloriously portrayed,” he wrote. Allegro was already a controversial figure: He had been publicly criticized by colleagues on a team translating the Dead Sea Scrolls for his overly imaginative interpretations. But The Sacred Mushroom was the final nail in the coffin of Allegro’s career.

Speaking to Time Magazine, one scholar called the book “a Semitic philologist’s erotic nightmare.” Other critics included Wasson, who wrote, “One could expect mycologists, in their isolation, to make this blunder. Mr. Allegro is not a mycologist but, if anything, a cultural historian.” Despite the broad and negative reaction to the book, Allegro’s interpretation of the Plaincourault fresco lives on, attracting new believers.

Two of the fresco’s current champions are Julie and Jerry Brown, neither of whom are mycologists or art historians. Jerry is an anthropologist at . . .

Continue reading. There’s more. People do fall in love with their theories….

Written by Leisureguy

13 August 2021 at 12:48 pm

Posted in History, Memes, Religion, Science

A Stuffed Avocado for Every Century

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Nico Vera writes in Taste:

All it takes is a few moments scrolling Pinterest or browsing the recipe section of a fitness magazine to spot a stuffed avocado. Halved and pitted avocados are literal catchalls for savory fillings of canned tuna, chicken salad, poached shrimp, baked eggs, and fluffy quinoa that span the health diet spectrum from keto to paleo, Whole30, gluten-free, and vegan. In its simplest form, the avocado is a fresh, bright green, raw bowl with a chameleon-like ability to swap itself in as the “healthy” version of everything from the tortillas used for tacos to the rice used for sushi. However they are prepared, stuffed avocados are a pop-culture panacea.

For some, the ubiquitous stuffed avo might read as a revival of a retro delicacy—like the lobster salad–filled avocado at 1920s-era decadent dinner parties. But for me, the stuffed avocado has always brought me back to my native Peru, where it’s called “palta rellena.” Across Lima, restaurants serve palta rellena as a piqueo (small bite). When I was a kid, my mother enjoyed preparing a chicken salad version during warm summers. She would slice avocados in half lengthwise, pit them, and stuff them with pulled poached chicken mixed with mayonnaise, chopped red onion and celery, and green peas. Then she’d garnish it all with parsley. I remember it as cold, creamy, crunchy, and refreshing.

It turns out that this simple dish has a complex colonial past that begins with its name. Avocados are originally from Mexico and Central America, and the etymology of “aguacate” is “ahuácatl,” the name for the fruit in the indigenous Náhuatl language. That’s the root of various derivations around the world: “avocado” in English, “avocat” in French, and “abacate” in Portuguese. Why, then, is it “palta” in Peru?

Inca Garcilaso de la Vega provided the answer more than 400 years ago. Peru’s mestizo chronicler wrote about his country’s history in the Comentarios Reales de los Incas, a 1609 book that documented Inca culture before and during the Spanish conquest, including how the avocado arrived in Peru. While expanding their empire in the mid-15th century, the Inca conquered a tribe in southern Ecuador called “Paltas.” From there, they brought back the fruit—and the name.

As it turns out, Mexico has its own history of stuffed avocados. A few years ago, on a trip to visit family in Mexico, Los Angeles–based writer and recipe developer Andrea Aliseda found a book that provided some insight.

“While visiting Cuernavaca, the ‘City of Eternal Spring,’ I [found] Nuevo Cocinero Mexicano in a used books and vinyl shop. It was like finding treasure,” says Aliseda. Published in the 1800s, Nuevo Cocinero Mexicano is a rare food dictionary that Aliseda calls the crown of her book collection. Among its hundreds of recipes, she spotted three entries for aguacates rellenos.

Aguacates rellenos de picadillo are avocado halves peeled, pitted, and stuffed with a mixture of minced pork loin, spices, tomato (Mexico’s native xitomatl), capers, and parsley, which are then bathed in an egg wash and deep fried. Aguacates rellenos de queso are the same, except that cheese replaces the pork loin. But the third version, Aliseda told me, changed her perspective on what’s possible with aguacate relleno.

In the more elaborate aguacates rellenos de ensalada en nogada dulce, the peeled avocado is halved, pitted, and filled with a salad of . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it sounds delicious.

Written by Leisureguy

13 August 2021 at 11:09 am

‘Inflammation clock’ can reveal body’s biological age

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Again, the whole-food plant-based diet confers an advantage: it is, in practical effect, an anti-inflammatory diet (and that’s a good thing). Max Kozlov writes in Nature:

A new type of age ‘clock’ can assess chronic inflammation to predict whether someone is at risk of developing age-related disorders such as cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease. The clock measures ‘biological age’, which takes health into consideration and can be higher or lower than a person’s chronological age.

The inflammatory ageing clock (iAge), reported on 12 July in Nature Aging1, is one of the first tools of its kind to use inflammation to assess health. Other age clocks have used epigenetic markers, chemical groups that tag a person’s DNA as they age and are passed along as cells divide. The researchers who developed iAge hope that, because inflammation is treatable, the tool could help doctors determine who would benefit from intervention — potentially extending the number of years a person lives in good health.

The study “is a further reinforcement of the fact that the immune system is critical, not only for predicting unhealthy ageing, but also as a mechanism driving it”, says Vishwa Deep Dixit, an immunobiologist at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, who was not involved in the work.

Keeping time

iAge is based on the idea that as a person ages, their body experiences chronic, systemic inflammation because their cells become damaged and emit inflammation-causing molecules. This ultimately leads to wear and tear on their tissues and organs. People who have a healthy immune system will be able to neutralize this inflammation to some extent, whereas others will age faster.

To develop iAge, a team including systems biologist David Furman and vascular specialist Nazish Sayed at Stanford University in California analysed blood samples from 1,001 people aged 8–96 who are part of the 1000 Immunomes Project, which aims to investigate how signatures of chronic, systemic inflammation change as people age. The researchers used the participants’ chronological ages and health information, combined with a machine-learning algorithm, to identify the protein markers in blood that most clearly signal systemic inflammation. In particular, they pinpointed the immune-signalling protein, or cytokine, CXCL9 as a top contributor; it is mainly produced by the inner lining of blood vessels and has been associated with the development of heart disease.

Sayed says that CXCL9 being a key component of iAge gives new credence to the adage that “you’re only as old as your arteries”.

After developing it, the researchers tested iAge by collecting the blood of 19 people who had lived to at least 99 years old, and using the tool to calculate their biological age. On average, the centenarians had an iAge 40 years lower than their actual age, according to a press release — aligning with the idea that people with healthier immune systems tend to live longer.

Ageing gracefully

Scientists have long explored the idea of age clocks as a predictor of how healthy a person currently is. Epigenetics-based research in this area has shown some promise2, but María Mittelbrunn, a molecular biologist at the Autonomous University of Madrid, says that evaluating a person’s biological age by measuring epigenetic changes to their DNA can be complicated. Measuring inflammation with a blood test would be easier, making a tool such as iAge more practical for a clinical setting.

Furman hopes that iAge and other age clocks based on inflammation might enable personalized treatments, too.

When examining CXCL9 as a biomarker of systemic inflammation, Furman and his colleagues grew human endothelial cells, which make up the walls of blood vessels, in a dish and artificially aged them by letting them divide repeatedly. The researchers saw that high levels of the protein drove the cells into a dysfunctional state. When the team silenced expression of the gene that encodes CXCL9, the cells regained some function, suggesting that the protein’s harmful effects might be reversible.

If caught early, “inflammation is one of the best things we can treat”, says Mittelbrunn. “We have developed. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

13 August 2021 at 10:57 am

How gut microbes could drive brain disorders

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The more we learn about the gut microbiome, the more important it seems. I am happy that my own (whole-food plant-based) diet nourishes a good gut microbiome, and I do try to pick foods (e.g., allliums, asparagus) that support good gut microbes. Cassandra Willyard writes in Nature:

In 2006, soon after she launched her own laboratory, neuroscientist Jane Foster discovered something she felt sure would set her field abuzz. She and her team were working with two groups of mice: one with a healthy selection of microorganisms in their guts, and one that lacked a microbiome. They noticed that the mice without gut bacteria seemed less anxious than their healthy equivalents. When placed in a maze with some open paths and some walled-in ones, they preferred the exposed paths. The bacteria in the gut seemed to be influencing their brain and behaviour.

Foster, at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, wrote up the study and submitted it for publication. It was rejected. She rewrote it and sent it out again. Rejected. “People didn’t buy it. They thought it was an artefact,” she says. Finally, after three years and seven submissions, she got an acceptance letter1.

John Cryan, a neuroscientist at University College Cork in Ireland, joined the field about the same time as Foster did, and knows exactly how she felt. When he began talking about the connections between bacteria living in the gut and the brain, “I felt very evangelical”, he says. He recalls one Alzheimer’s disease conference at which he presented in 2014. “I’ve never given a talk in a room where there was less interest.”

Today, however, the gut–brain axis is a feature at major neuroscience meetings, and Cryan says he is no longer “this crazy guy from Ireland”. Thousands of publications over the past decade have revealed that the trillions of bacteria in the gut could have profound effects on the brain, and might be tied to a whole host of disorders. Funders such as the US National Institutes of Health are investing millions of dollars in exploring the connection.

But along with that explosion of interest has come hype. Some gut–brain researchers claim or imply causal relationships when many studies show only correlations, and shaky ones at that, says Maureen O’Malley, a philosopher at the University of Sydney in Australia who studies the field of microbiome research. “Have you found an actual cause, or have you found just another effect?”

In recent years, however, the field has made significant strides, O’Malley says. Rather than talking about the microbiome as a whole, some research teams have begun drilling down to identify specific microbes, mapping out the complex and sometimes surprising pathways that connect them to the brain. “That is what allows causal attributions to be made,” she says. Studies in mice — and preliminary work in humans — suggest that microbes can trigger or alter the course of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, autism spectrum disorder and more (see ‘Possible pathways to the brain’). Therapies aimed at tweaking the microbiome could help to prevent or treat these diseases, an idea that some researchers and companies are already testing in human clinical trials.

Credit: Nik Spencer/Nature

It is early days, but the prospect of new therapies for some of these intractable brain diseases is exciting, says Sarkis Mazmanian, a microbiologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena — particularly given how much easier it is to manipulate the gut than the brain. Getting therapies into the brain has been a long-standing challenge, he says, “but you can sure as hell change the microbiome”.

Tangle transmission

In 1817, the English surgeon James Parkinson described some of the first cases of the “shaking palsy” that would come to be known as Parkinson’s disease. One individual had developed numbness and prickling sensations in both arms. Parkinson noticed that the man’s abdomen seemed to contain “considerable accumulation”. He dosed the man with a laxative, and ten days later his bowels were empty and his symptoms were gone.

Parkinson might have been on to something. Some people who develop the disease experience constipation long before they develop mobility problems. And many researchers have embraced the idea that the disease begins in the gut, at least in some cases.

To understand the idea, it’s useful to know a little about the disease. The hallmark symptoms of Parkinson’s — tremors, stiffness and slowness of movement — appear as the neurons responsible for coordinating motion begin to die. Why these neurons die isn’t fully understood, but a protein known as α-synuclein seems to have a key role. In people with Parkinson’s disease, the protein misfolds. The first misfolded protein causes more to misfold, until harmful clumps known as Lewy bodies begin to form in the brain.

What triggers this cascade? In 2015, Robert Friedland, a neurologist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, proposed a new theory. He had read that . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

13 August 2021 at 10:36 am

Via dell’Ambra and Pashana, with the V3A

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It’s always a pleasure to end the week with a wonderful shave, and today’s was just the ticket. With the Italian Barber Bruce synthetic, I got a luscious lather from Strop Shoppe’s Via dell’Ambra shaving soap, and my Maggard Razors V3A again demonstrated what a fine — comfortable and efficient — razor it is. Three passes left my face smooth for a splash of Pashana combined with a squirt of Hydrating Gel. My face feels marvelous and ready for a walk.

Written by Leisureguy

13 August 2021 at 9:56 am

Posted in Shaving

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