Archive for February, 2016

I learned recently about a new website, inequality.org, which bills itself as a project of the Institute for Policy Studies (a think tank in Washington, D.C. — we obviously need more D.C. think tanks). Inequality, specifically of the wealth and income type, is a trend that has been underway for decades. One has to be living under a rock not to have noticed by now where trends are pointed. The site linked to above no doubt contains quite a lot of information and resources, but I admit I don’t have the patience to wade in only to discover needless details of what is already well known. So where, in fact, has all the money gone? OxFam International provides a disturbing snapshot:

The Oxfam report An Economy for the 1%, shows that the wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population has fallen by a trillion dollars since 2010, a drop of 38 percent. This has occurred despite the global population increasing by around 400 million people during that period. Meanwhile, the wealth of the richest 62 has increased by more than half a trillion dollars to $1.76tr. The report also shows how women are disproportionately affected by inequality — of the current ‘62’, 53 are men and just nine are women.

The title of the Oxfam report is misleading, of course, because the numbers don’t support the populist reference to the 1%. In 2010, when the estimated midyear world population was 6,916,183,482, (6.9 billion, if you prefer) the number of people who accounted for half of the world’s wealth was 388, or 0.000000056% (that’s seven zeroes before the 56). In 2016, with an estimated midyear world population of 7,404,976,783 (or 7.4 billion), the now 62 people who account for half the world’s wealth (assuming the number 62 doesn’t diminish further between now and July 1) is 0.0000000084% (that’s eight zeroes before the 84). The absurdity of so few people having consolidated so much wealth, a trend that continued (probably accelerated) from 2010 to 2016, cannot be lost on any thinking person. Those dates are relatively arbitrary for purposes of comparison.

To say that economic systems are rigged in favor of the few is a statement of the obvious. No rational argument could be made that the value of social contribution or labor of a mere 62 people is equivalent to half the world’s population. Nor can it be reasonably argued that such large pools of money, stagnant or otherwise, are good for economic systems that require both liquidity and diversity. Is anything being done to dismantle this entrenched and deepening inequality? None that I can observe within the context of geopolitics or economics. However, considering how convinced I am that our economic arrangements will fail utterly when the house of cards we’ve built shakes itself apart, not least because so much of it is based on growth fueled by cheap energy that has been losing ROI for over a century, I would argue that what we are doing to ourselves by doing essentially nothing ought to crash things back to where the value of fiat currency is nothing. Poof: no more 1%, no more 0.000000056%, no more 0.0000000084%.

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I don’t watch political debates. Being of sound mind and reason, I’m not part of the target audience. However, I do catch murmurs of the debates from time to time. Because torture is a sore subject with me, this excerpt (full transcript here) from the Feb. 6 debate moderated by World News Tonight anchor David Muir perked up my ears:

MUIR: … we’re going to stay on ISIS here and the war on terror, because as you know, there’s been a debate in this country about how to deal with the enemy and about enhanced interrogation techniques ever since 9/11.

So Senator Cruz, you have said, quote, “torture is wrong, unambiguously, period. Civilized nations do not engage in torture.” Some of the other candidates say they don’t think waterboarding is torture. Mr. Trump has said, I would bring it back. Senator Cruz, is waterboarding torture?

CRUZ: Well, under the definition of torture, no, it’s not. Under the law, torture is excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems, so under the definition of torture, it is not. It is enhanced interrogation, it is vigorous interrogation, but it does not meet the generally recognized definition of torture.

MUIR: If elected president, would you bring it back?

CRUZ: I would not bring it back in any sort of widespread use. And indeed, I joined with Senator McCain in legislation that would prohibit line officers from employing it because I think bad things happen when enhanced interrogation is employed at lower levels.

But when it comes to keeping this country safe, the commander in chief has inherent constitutional authority to keep this country safe. And so, if it were necessary to, say, prevent a city from facing an imminent terrorist attack, you can rest assured that as commander in chief, I would use whatever enhanced interrogation methods we could to keep this country safe.

Cruz is obviously squirming to avoid answering the simple questions directly and unambiguously. Whose definition has Cruz cited? Certainly not one of these. Another page at the previous link says plainly that waterboarding is “torture plus” precisely because of its ability to inflict “unbearable suffering with minimal evidence” repeatedly. Relying on some unsubstantiated definition to keep waterboarding among available interrogation options and then invoking the ticking time bomb scenario is callous and inhumane. Cruz is unfit as a presidential candidate for lots of reasons, but his stance on torture is an automatic disqualification for me.

Muir then turns the same question(s) over to Trump:

MUIR: Senator Cruz, thank you. Mr. Trump, you said not only does it work, but that you’d bring it back.

TRUMP: Well, I’ll tell you what. In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians, we have people chopping the heads off many other people. We have things that we have never seen before — as a group, we have never seen before, what’s happening right now.

The medieval times — I mean, we studied medieval times — not since medieval times have people seen what’s going on. I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.

Trump, in contrast to Cruz, doesn’t squirm at all (though he does struggle to complete a sentence, resorting instead to a stammering, repetitive word salad no one seems to mind). Instead, he goes full war criminal without hesitation (though at this point in time it’s only postulated). Trump’s polarizing, inflammatory style has earned him both severe disapprobation and earnest support. Like Cruz, Trump has a variety of automatic disqualifications as a presidential candidate. My thinking is that, even though I can’t peer into his mind and guess his true motivations (which may be as obvious as they appear) or anticipate his behavior should he attain office, his moral judgment vis-à-vis torture (and frankly, most other topics as well) is so impaired that I don’t trust him as a playground monitor.

In narrative, there are four essential types of conflict:

  1. man against man
  2. man against society
  3. man against nature
  4. man against self

One might argue that Cruz, Trump, and their supporters who applaud “get tough” rhetoric (add Hillary Clinton to this group) fall into the first category, ever battling enemies like besieged heroes. I would argue they fall into the fourth as well, battling their own inhumanity, though there is a notable lack of wrestling with anything approaching a conscience. But in truth, debate over torture might better be categorized as man against everything, considering who and what is destroyed even by entertaining the fantasy of torturing others. Some still argue that a strategic advantage can be retained using torture, whereas Trump (always the extremist) merely relishes the possibility of obliterating others. However, we become monsters by keeping the option alive.

Acid Added

Posted: February 11, 2016 in Health, Taste
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I traveled to Europe recently, which I haven’t done in a couple decades, and was reminded immediately of a danger that tends to go unacknowledged: the reduction of foreign lands and peoples to a series of clichés or stereotypes. Tourist guides and websites reinforce the effect. This tendency may be forgivable with respect to food, considering that one has multiple meals per day, which thus occupy a significant portion of one’s time and attention abroad. My rediscovery of truly fresh-baked bread (given the superior European tradition of daily shopping for bakery goods, I suspect that propionic acid and sodium propionate used as preservatives in American bread and other baked goods was not present) called to mind a book recommended at Gin and Tacos (see blogroll) entitled Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo. Although obvious perhaps in hindsight, it was surprising to learn (via book blurbs and recommendations) that demand for foods that could withstand transport times to combat troops without spoilage was a principal driver of innovation in food processing technologies, which have been further refined over the decades by Big Ag.

Here a good example: peeled and skinless tangerines and mandarin oranges used in salads are passed through steam or hot water at about 90ºC for 2–3 minutes to loosen the peel and make it easier to separate from the segments. Segments are then separated and the segmental membrane is removed by chemical treatment — meaning it’s dissolved in an acid solution, which is neutralized in turn with an alkaline solution. This is described in greater detail in expired U.S. Patent No. 4,294,861 entitled “Method of Separating and Taking Out Pulp from Citrus Fruits.” Here’s the abstract:

A method and an apparatus for processing citrus fruits into a drink, which is the juice of the fruits containing separate juice vesicles, or sacs, of the pulp, by cutting the fruits into pieces and directing jets of a fluid against the cut surfaces, thereby separating and forcing the pulp in the form of separate sacs away from the peel and segmental membrane of the fruit pieces.

Of course, citric acid is naturally occurring in, well, citrus fruits. (Citric acid also makes for a surprisingly potent cleaning agent.) But I find it more than a little ooky to treat foods in acid baths, or to add acids to ingested foods (is there another kind?) as preservatives. Admittedly, all sort of acids are present naturally in foods: malic acid in apples and cherries; tartaric acid in grapes, pineapples, potatoes, and carrots; acetic acid in vinegar; oxalic acid in cocoa and pepper; tannic acid in tea and coffee; and benzoic acid in cranberries, prunes, and plums. Less natural but wholly familiar to typical Murricans, corrosive phosphoric acid (also known as orthophosphoric acid) is used as an acidifying agent in soft drinks (which also contain relatively harmless carbonic acid) and jams to provide a tangy flavor. Otherwise, the syrup/sugar content alone would be enough to make one vomit. Fumaric acid is also used in noncarbonated soft drinks.

Maybe none of these rise to the level of universal acid that eats through everything, including stomach linings, or to sulfuric acid found in batteries (or more simply, battery acid). Still, our food is nonetheless suffused in acids, and the idea of adding more to bakery goods to make them shelf stable may account for why European bakery goods made for that day only are so far superior to most American bakery goods able to sit in one’s breadbox almost indefinitely. Cue the periodic newsbit about a McDonald’s meal allowed to sit out for some extended period of time (often years) without spoiling in the least.

My work commute typically includes bus, train, and walking legs to arrive at my destination. If wakefulness and an available seat allow, I often read on the bus and train. (This is getting to be exceptional compared to other commuters, who are more typically lost in their phones listening to music, watching video, checking FB, or playing games. Some are undoubtedly reading, like me, but electronic media, which I find distasteful, alter the experience fundamentally from ink on paper.) Today, I was so absorbed in my reading that by the time I looked up, I missed my bus stop, and half an hour later, I nearly missed my train stop, too. The experience of tunnel vision in deep concentration is not at all unfamiliar to me, but it is fleeting and unpredictable. More typical is a relaxed yet alert concentration that for me takes almost no effort anymore.

So what sent me ’round the bend? The book I’m currently reading, Nick Carr’s The Glass Cage, takes a diversion into the work of poet Robert Frost. Carr uses Frost to illustrate his point about immersion in bodily work with manageable difficulty lending the world a more robust character than the detached, frictionless world experienced with too much technological mediation and ease. Carr does a terrific job contextualizing Frost’s lyric observations in a way quite unlike the contextual analysis one might undertake in a high school or college classroom, which too often makes the objects of study lifeless and irrelevant. Carr’s discussion put me unexpectedly into an aesthetic mode of contemplation, as distinguished from analytic or kinesthetic modes. There are probably others.

I don’t often go into aesthetic mode. It requires the right sort of stimulation. The Carr/Frost combination put me there, and so I tunneled into the book and forgot my commute. That momentary disorientation is often pleasurable, but for me, it can also be distressing. My infrequent visits to art museums are often accompanied by a vague unease at the sometimes nauseating emotionalism of the works on display. It’s an honest response, though I expect most folks can’t quite understand why something beautiful would provoke something resembling a negative response. In contrast, my experience in the concert hall is usually frustration, as musicians have become ever more corporate and professional in their performance over time to the detriment and exclusion of latent emotional content. I suppose that as Super Bowl Sunday is almost upon us (about which I care not at all), the typical viewer gets an emotional/aesthetic charge out of that overhyped event, especially if the game is hotly contested rather than a blowout. I seek and find my moments in less crass expressions of the human spirit.