Category Archives: Food

Prestigious Institutions where Education is second to Revenue

You’re not there to get an education, though they tell you that. You’re there to make revenue for the college. You’re there to put fans in the seats. You’re there to bring prestige to the university by winning games.
—  Rashad McCants, former UNC – Chapel Hill basketball player

Yes, “they” will tell you that. “They” are the people at universities who will not acknowledge the truth that revenue drives decisions, not whether students receive an education.  I do not know where on the list education is, but it is unlikely in the top four or five. Prestige, as in the film by that title, is a magic show.  You think you are seeing education at public universities, but it’s a trick, sleight of hand, maybe mirrors, illusion. Prestige is like “The Mansion” section of The Wall Street Journal, where people define themselves, their success, by whether they have a private plane in their garage instead of a car. It looks like a tangible thing. Others see it. “They” tell you owning a private jet means you’ve made it.  They say you’re winning the game of life, as if the sayings of Charlie Sheen were part of a philosophical guidebook.

Eton College

Eton College

In Louie C.K.’s television show, he has written a scene between himself and his daughter. It’s a scene you won’t find mentioned in The Wall Street Journal or quoted by a public university president or chancellor.

Daughter (D): Why does she get one and not me? It’s not fair.

Louis (L): You’re never gonna get the same things as other people. It’s never gonna be equal. It’s not gonna happen ever in your life, so you must learn that now, okay?
Listen — the only time you should look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have as much as them.

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Bad News for the Holidays

There is no such thing as healthy obesity.

Science ruins the holidays again.  See this New York Times article.

The Power of Non-Smoking Guns

Sarah Palin holding Big GulpIn discussing the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek with others, it is often difficult to convey what each of these figures means by the real, since the real does not exist. The real is not to be confused with what most of us would call reality — see how the confusion begins? Sometimes it helps to come at the topic from a different angle. Today’s angle: fast food. We can imagine that many people, if asked, would confess that fast food puts us on the fast track to illness and other problems, problems food and beverage manufacturers build into their products. The manufacturers used to go to great lengths to keep that fact hidden.

Like the executives of tobacco companies, some of the food and beverage manufacturers have realized that non-hidden-ness can function as successfully as hiding the facts/toxins. Literary people have known this since Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” People tend not to see what is right in front of them. It’s frequently the best place to hide things. Jeffrey Dunn, former Coca-Cola executive sums it up: “It’s not like there’s a smoking gun. The gun is right there. It’s not hidden.” Some fast foodies take their knowledge of self-destructiveness as a badge of honor by proclaiming things like, “At least I know what’s killing me,” demonstrating that empowering knowledge = a deeper level of denial, or non-seeing. “I see that I do not see, so stop trying to make me see.” This is the starting place of almost all education. What happens after that is a version of the story of Anne Sullivan.

“People seldom see the halting and painful steps by which the most insignificant success is achieved.”
— Anne Sullivan

Bad Chemistry on Radiolab

Radiolab has been a source of fascinating information about all sort of topics over the years, and many people have noticed that the workers at Radiolab understand and appreciate the medium of radio in their presentations. In the spirit of Orson Welles, they experiment with sound, even if sometimes in decibel ranges that hurt my ears. Pathei mathos.  The show has received praise from numerous quarters, and one of its hosts, Jad Abumrad, won a MacArthur award recently.

Clara Immerwahr

During a broadcast about the chemist Fritz Haber, a scientist devoted to his Fatherland and enthralled by his own ambition, one of the hosts decided to pass moral judgment on Mr. Haber.  That judgment calls for questioning. To begin to appreciate the radical nature of the judgment, you might need what Hollywood types call the backstory, at least a bit of it, without mentioning Zyklon gas, another part of the Haber mess. According to Radiolab’s own tale, Haber himself put together a group of soldiers during World War I, and traveled with them to Belgium to experiment with chlorine gas against French, British, and Canadian troops.  With forethought, Haber and his men waited for the right conditions to release the gas on troops confronting the German forces, though using the gas was opposed by several commanders in the German military who believed that Haber’s experiment was a violation of basic human decency in time of war.  You can listen to the Radiolab podcast for a vivid description of the effects of the gas on human beings and on nature.

Upon Haber’s return to Germany after this incident, Haber found himself in an argument with Clara Immerwahr, his wife. She had heard about what he had done and was deeply disturbed. Her last name means roughly “always true (“Wahrheit” in German is truth). In short, the Cassandra story was staring Haber in the face, but he could not see it, nor could the Radiolab hosts in their retelling.  As a scientist herself, Immerwahr knew that her husband had transgressed.  She ended up shooting herself, though Haber, according to the accounts at the time, considered Clara’s interpretation of his actions to be utterly mistaken. Like the deluded Haber, one of the hosts of Radiolab decided to intervene at this point in the broadcast to provide a sterile, chilling, utilitarian arithmetic to Haber’s actions (the judgment mentioned above). In abstracted form, the ethical “thinking” inserted into the broadcast goes like this: If person X murders 2 people, but escorts 3 elderly women across the street and prevents the women from being hit by a bus, those actions combined (murdering and escorting) result in a positive integer.  One extra person lived as a result of X’s actions in those two situations, and that is what makes X a good human being.

I could not believe my ears. Two intelligent people, the hosts of Radiolab, contrary to Clara Immerwahr’s model behavior that ought to have made an impression on them, discussed blithely a formula for ethics as simplistic as the one described above, and one of the hosts concluded that Haber was a good person, because prior to World War I Haber had invented a process involving nitrogen that allowed the world to provide food to its expanding population.  The projected millions of human lives saved by nitrogen fertilizer were set against the hundreds (the exact figure was not given on the Radiolab broadcast, if my memory is correct) of soldiers and other creatures killed by Haber’s chlorine gas, and since millions happen to be larger than hundreds, you can figure out without resorting to a calculator what your ethical position on Mr. Haber ought to be.

I stopped listening to the broadcast after that, and began wishing that I had known Clara Immerwahr.

Why Can’t This Meal Be Outlawed for All Texans?

The Democrat, who represents Houston and parts of north Harris County, said “enough is enough” after Lawrence Russell Brewer ordered two chicken fried steaks smothered in gravy with sliced onions, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, a cheese omelet with other ingredients, a large bowl of fried okra with ketchup, three fajitas, a pint of Blue Bell ice cream and a pound of barbecue with a half-loaf of white bread. The meal request also included a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts, a pizza and three root beers.

“It’s So Simple, It’s Criminal”



Read Roger Ebert’s review of the documentary.


Parasailing Near Hell

Franz Kafka has his tale about hunger artists, people who starve themselves as spectacle. In Kafka’s story, people with money could buy tickets to watch the hunger artists.  Starvation as entertainment. You see a version of Kafka’s tale on CNN and the BBC now, as ratings depend, at least for a while, on what will happen to the earthquake victims in Haiti. Haiti as show and spectacle.

Today, the Guardian ran a story about some well-to-do people enjoying themselves on a vacation in Haiti.

Sixty miles from Haiti’s devastated earthquake zone, luxury liners dock at private beaches where passengers enjoy jet ski rides, parasailing and rum cocktails delivered to their hammocks.

The standard response is to be repulsed by those who are enjoying themselves so close to a massive disaster for human beings.  Yet, how is what is happening on the cruise ship all that different from what has gone on with Haiti for years and years?  Before the recent earthquake, the haves rested in their hammocks, visited tanning booths, went to the movies, purchased tickets for spring break, and parasailed, all while the people of Haiti lived in poverty.  The haves just did not happen to be in such proximity as the people on the cruise ship.  The haves were partying and entertaining themselves in Miami or Long Island or Los Angeles.

Why do we have the ritual of rounding up the homeless in American cities whenever one of the cities hosts a political convention? Is the point to remove the homeless from people’s consciousness, because their proximity would, as the kids says, put a harsh on the (political) party?  No one believes that homelessness has been solved because no homeless people are visible during the political convention.  The attendees accept that capitalism will produce haves and have-nots, though that can make some people uncomfortable when the haves and have-nots occupy the same space — when that space is unregulated.  Much more comfortable to have gated communities, or lovely shops like Starbucks where one can be with one’s own kind, and purchase something overpriced, knowing that a portion of the cost will be distributed without our knowledge or vision to the have-nots, to those who are being excluded from our gated communities.   Why get upset when the party comes to the economic scene of horror in the form of a cruise ship? Is it the distance that is unseemly?

If we are to believe the reports during the first day or two after the earthquake, some foreign rescue crews in Port-au-Prince concentrated their efforts on recovering people from the Hotel Montana, the hotel where former President Clinton said he had visited, and where some of the heads of various missionary agencies dined.  How many Haitians do you think were staying or dining at the Hotel Montana when it collapsed?