The Spectator’s absurd and embarrassing attack on The Guardian.

The journal’s Leader this week is quite staggering in its stupidity:

It is good to see the Guardian suddenly rediscover its interest in the sanctity of a free press [...] It did not show any particular alarm when Rupert Murdoch’s journalists were hauled out of bed at 6a.m. and had their computers confiscated while police tried to identify their sources. But when the Guardian is visited by a civil servant to discuss its possession of secret material concerning British and American intelligence and the partner of one of its journalists is questioned and then released at Heathrow airport, it reacts as if it is the victim of a constitutional outrage.

I suggest a plausible possible difference might be that where Sun journalists are accused of illegally tapped phones of private individuals in order to fuel the world of celebrity gossip, Guardian journalists are sifting through leaked documents which they received and which pertain to important political issues. Is The Spectator really incapable of grasping this difference? Or would it prefer to pretend that the notion of ‘public interest’ is non-existent, and this false equivalency can somehow be pulled off?

But they proceed to dig even deeper:

The more we learn about the detention of David Miranda, partner of the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, the more reasonable the government’s actions appear. Miranda was not apprehended simply because of his relationship with Greenwald, as originally suggested. He was part of a professional operation leaking classified information which betrayed British and American national security.

Let’s have this on the record: The Spectator believes that those facilitating the leaking of state secrets through journalistic institutions ought to be detained under terrorist legislation. And it’s little surprise, given their level of trust in government:

Britain is engaged in a fight against terrorism — a fight that we are winning, thanks to the diligence and flair of our security services. They occupy the difficult territory that lies between freedom and liberty: the British government has to strike a balance between the two. It is one of the jobs of ministers to decide which details ought to be in the public domain, and which ought to be kept secret so that we can better intercept terrorists. Over recent years it has been decided by sections of the media that it is in fact their role, not that of elected, accountable officials, to perform this task.

Is this the voice of people in the business of journalism, or has The Spectator’s offices been taken over by the Home Office’s PR department? What happened to scepticism about the state’s yearning for ever more power? When did journalism cease to be about offering a counterweight to such dangerous forces?

And to cap it all off, a belief-defying claim and a deceptive quote:

it is not quite clear that the Guardian is acting in the national interest — and Greenwald certainly speaks as if he is waging a kind of information jihad against the British government. ‘I will be far more aggressive in my reporting from now. I am going to publish many more documents,’ he declared after his partner was detained.

The belief defying-claim is the suggestion that the NSA-related reporting has not been in the national interest. How, exactly, is it not good that as citizens we now know far more about the secretive and extensive operations of the US government, and Britain’s relations to such programmes which are ripe for abuse? If The Spectator had it their way, we’d make democratic choices like patients picking medical treatments whilst wholly ignorant of their conditions. And their entire argument is based on the unproven claim that The Guardian‘s reporting has jeopardised security. As I argued yesterday, there’s good reason to think that even if that was true, it wouldn’t be sufficient to justify restricting reporting. But the fact no evidence is even provided for it only makes their case the more laughable.

The Greenwald quote they cite was taken from a Reuters interview that has been widely established to be misleading. Ezra cleared things up the other day:

Greenwald’s point seems to have been that he was determined not to be scared off by intimidation. Greenwald and the Guardian have already been publishing documents outlining surveillance programs in Britain, and Greenwald has long declared his intention to continue publishing documents. By doing so, Greenwald isn’t taking “vengeance.” He’s just doing his job.

Boss Time.

This one’s timely at the moment. Find above a performance of Long Walk Home from Cardiff. I hadn’t heard it before, but it quickly became apparent that it was a Bush-era political song with new-found meaning, as we learn of the institutions created under his watch that continue to cast a shadow, and the legacy that’s sustained.. The key lines:

My father said “Son, we’re lucky in this town,
It’s a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone”

“Your flag flyin’ over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t”

It’s gonna be a long walk home.

I remember smiling a few weeks later, when Rand Paul quoted this at Christie (Jersey’s Governor, a major Boss fan) in the context of their spat over national security.

The logic of Theresa May.

The Home Secretary did the rounds in the media yesterday, insisting the police are independent and she had nothing to do with the decision to detain Miranda, but simultaneously defending the law they were acting on and the decision they made:

I think it is right, given that it is the first duty of the government to protect the public, that if the police believe somebody has in their possession highly sensitive stolen information which could help terrorists which could lead to a loss of lives then it is right that the police act. That is what the law enables them to do.

Let’s just dwell on this for a second and unpack its implications. First off, note the heavy use of conditionals. Could help terrorists. Could lead to a loss of lives. The bar is immediately lowered such that almost anything could be hypothetically justified in the name of preventing possible deaths, because the state’s first duty of protecting the public is seemingly believed to be boundless.

Secondly but equally important, note that there’s no mention of the necessity of any intent to help terrorists. Sufficient for the police to act in this way, in May’s mind, should be the mere fact that something they possess might cause deaths. We can take it that she deems it irrelevant whether there are other motives for possessing the object or information in question. After all, if there was going to be a good overriding reason for refraining from state action here, the free reporting by journalists of secretive and invasive programmes would surely count insofar as that kind of activity is essential to any healthy democracy. Again, the duty of protecting the public is supposed to be an unrivalled trump card. It’s unclear what restrictions on state power would be justified once this worrying world view is adopted.

And the reason it’s particularly absurd in this context is that the information in question alleged to be of use to terrorists is about precisely the secretive programmes governments are using in the name of fighting terrorists. It becomes a self-fulfilling, impenetrable logical circle: The government must protect people. It acts secretly to do so. Concerned people expose the secret acts. The exposure itself is said to endanger protection, justifying state interference once more. Can they not see the authoritarian hell hole they’re creating? And how was May able to give this line to journalists without them making her address the absurdity of her logic?

Ditch the OJ.

I’m somewhat embarrassed it took me so long to reflect for a second and realise this, but until last month I hadn’t really considered how weird and what a bad sign it was that orange juice never, ever, tastes or looks like it comes from oranges. That thick, super-sweet bright yellow concoction? It should raise suspicions immediately. I think it may have been buying it from street vendors in Marrakech, freshly squeezed in front of my eyes for 30 pence a glass, that made me wake up to the difference. So I’ve recently cut out one more daily source of processed food from my diet and gone straight to the source for the goodness instead: one actual orange, every morning. Give it a go. In the meantime, here’s the back story:

Juice companies [...] hire flavor and fragrance companies, the same ones that formulate perfumes for Dior and Calvin Klein, to engineer flavor packs to add back to the juice to make it taste fresh. Flavor packs aren’t listed as an ingredient on the label because technically they are derived from orange essence and oil. Yet those in the industry will tell you that the flavor packs, whether made for reconstituted or pasteurized orange juice, resemble nothing found in nature. The packs added to juice earmarked for the North American market tend to contain high amounts of ethyl butyrate, a chemical in the fragrance of fresh squeezed orange juice that, juice companies have discovered, Americans favor.

(Hat tip: Bittman).

(Photo taken in Marrakech, from my Instagram).

America’s absurdities.

The British perspective:

And so a country where even Conservatives are proud of the nationalized health service cannot comprehend a system that leaves tens of millions of people unable to afford basic health care. A country that all but banned guns after the slaughter of 16 small children in Scotland in 1996 cannot understand why some Americans’ response to mass shootings is to argue for more gun rights, not fewer.

Despite the sometimes immature behavior of Britain’s legislators, they manage to enact laws without deliberately obstructing the running of the country. Britons are perplexed by the sclerotic hatred infecting so much political discourse in America. And not one Briton I ever met understood why being able to see Russia from Alaska was at one time apparently considered an acceptable foreign-policy credential for a prospective vice president.

Britain’s press protections.

They’re useless. The Guardian’s account of why, back in July, it was compelled under the threat of legal seizure to destroy its London hard-drives related to the NSA leaks is a must-read. It’s a pretty powerful case for why, despite the harm its rigidity causes, America’s First Amendment is overall a good thing: it shields the country’s press from the pernicious and worrying interference evidenced here.

Update: I see that the White House basically agrees.

Boss Time.

Okay, I happily confess it: I fucking love Dancing in the Dark. You’d be amazed how many ‘purists’ on forums complain about how the encore of Springsteen’s shows are by now just formulaic regurgitations of party hits. I see them more as the final celebration of the man’s most symbolic songs, and none of them give rise to a rush of pure joy quite like this one. So many punchy lines to roar:

I check my look in the mirror. I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face!

You say I gotta stay hungry. Hey baby, I’m just about starving tonight!

And where some seem to see what is by now predictable, ‘artificial’ connections with fans towards the end of the song, I see in the face of the woman brought up on stage disbelief and awe at what a moment their hero is creating for them, and in Springsteen I see equal, utterly sincere joy.

At Stratford I saw Springsteen’s adorable mother step forward for a slow dance instead, and in Kilkenny a young boy was invited up, only to be told to keep one of Springsteen’s guitars after ferociously strumming it eye-to-eye with him before the song’s final explosive chorus. But this woman at Wembley seemed to live up to the moment best. She’d travelled from Italy, and got her due reward.

Potato, kale and chickpea curry.

This recipe courtesy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall here. A friend, deceived by the similar white colour of the plate and soy yoghurt, thought I’d been so aesthetically extravagant as to make a ‘ring’ out of my curry. If only. I left the mustard seeds and dried red chilli out, but the ginger, turmeric and cumin and coriander seeds gave it sufficient kick. Very filling. My family approved.

Authoritarian apologetics.

Was anybody missing Louise Mensch’s regular contributions to our public life before her reappearance on Newsnight yesterday? I didn’t think so. Talk about a timely reminder of why we’re better off without her. First, the lies. Appelbaum called her out on this immediately, but it’s worth emphasising that Snowden did not go ‘straight to’ the Chinese Morning Post. His first act upon acquiring the classified documents was to contact and work with Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. Second, Greenwald did not vow ‘revenge’. He said the British government’s actions would not deter him from continuing with his work.

But it’s not just the lies here that are so pernicious. It’s the way Mensch’s entire way of linguistically characterising the Snowden saga is laced with the implication that the American and British governments should be trying to impede the reporting of everything we have recently learnt. She suggests that the journalistic activity of airing previously secret and shocking information about the overreach of the American National Security Agency is to be legitimately blocked by virtue of its being complicit in ‘abetting the enemy’, and relying on the theft of classified documents.

It’s a cliché by now to note how a democracy is descending into the conditions faced in Russia, but when a previous and apparently respected Member of Parliament can talk this carelessly, and seemingly sincerely believe what she says, how different really is our political class to the foreign thugs in power that they hypocritically chastise?

Quote for the day.

Generally I do what I like at any given moment and let the people find out where they fit in. The only thing I do keep in mind is that I’m in the midst of a lifetime conversation with my audience, and I’m trying to keep track of that conversation. Martin Scorsese once said that ‘your job is to make your audience care about your obsessions.’ So if the artist loses track of the conversation he’s having with his audience, he may lose us forever. So I try to keep track of that conversation, while giving myself the musical freedom I need.

Bruce, in interview last year with Jon Stewart.

My future.

Since I’ve decided academia isn’t for me, the sooner I can plan for the future and know where I’ll be in a year’s time, the better. It’s a daunting thought. Assuming I can get a job, for the first time in my life I’ll be financially independent and free from the world of studying. There are so many issues to consider here. I need to decide what it is I want to do, and what I realistically can do. Journalism of some sort is my dream (why do you think I began this?), but applications for Guardian internships this summer failed and I can’t count on that working out. I’m increasingly convinced that I’ll be best at non-profit work related to animal rights, nutrition or environmental campaigning of some sort. But I also need to keep in mind my commitment to Giving What We Can. I have only pledged to tithe whatever I make, but nowadays I do want to take the further step of trying to earn much more than I need so that I can donate more.

And then, just as important, is the consideration of where to live. Any job suitable for me is almost certain to be in London, and all my social circles by now centre around the capital. But the property market there is, notoriously, insane. I’ve been scouring RightMove and sense that £800 a month for a studio-apartment the size of a shoebox and without a genuine kitchen is the norm. The prospect is nauseating. And yet, commuting drags hours out of your day and annual train tickets can cost several thousand pounds on unreliable and vastly overcrowded routes. There will be no easy options here. Life is much easier when living costs can be split with a partner. Perhaps I’ll have to give serious thought to living with friends for the foreseeable future.

Whatever happens, though, I do want to be clear that I fully recognise that these are emphatically First World Problems. I’m a white, male Oxford graduate. Any obstacles I face will inevitably only be bumps on a road otherwise paved with privilege. I hope I take that seriously, and I want to do my very best not to forget it.

Noodles with lemon, aubergine and tofu.

I wanted to try adapting my favourite vegan Ottolenghi dish – soba noodles with aubergine and mango – so that it retained its vibrancy without being too sweet, and instead of acting as a starter could constitute a substantial main course. My hunch was that this was best done by dropping the vinegar, mango and chilli and replacing them with savory soy and sesame flavours, whilst bulking the dish out with tofu and retaining the heaps of herbs and dash of citrus. To my surprise (I didn’t even bother photographing it), this improvisation worked wonderfully. Serves four.

200g wholewheat noodles

300g firm tofu, drained and cut into 2cm dice

1 large aubergine, chopped into 2cm dice

half a lemon, zested and juiced

1 orange, zested

half a red onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

20g basil, finely chopped

20g coriander, finely chopped

1 tsp sesame oil

20g sesame seeds

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp olive oil

250ml sunflower oil

salt and pepper

First, cook the noodles in boiling water for four minutes. Drain in a colander, rinse with cold water and then leave on a clean tea towel to dry.

Heat up all the sunflower oil in a saucepan and fry the aubergine in several batches. You need to keep turning them until they’re golden, and keep adjusting the heat to prevent spitting. Drain in a colander and sprinkle liberally with salt. Fry the tofu in the remaining oil for five minutes, then turn off the heat.

Heat up the olive oil in a wok or large saucepan. Add the red onion and fry for three minutes. Add the garlic and fry for another two. Now add the noodles with the soy sauce, sesame oil and lemon juice, and heat for one more minute whilst stirring. Turn off the heat. Now add the aubergine and transfer over the tofu, carrying minimal oil. Finally, add the sesame seeds, orange and lemon zest and chopped herbs. Stir once more and season to taste.

Not if, but when.

I’m glad to see that Andrew Sullivan, who describes himself as a libertarian but for so long didn’t seem to grasp the gravity of the NSA leaks, has finally woken up and rediscovered a central premise of that ideology:

I’ve watched the debate closely and almost all the checks I supported have been proven illusory. The spying is vastly more extensive than anyone fully comprehended before; the FISA court has been revealed as toothless and crippled; and many civilians have had their privacy accidentally violated over 3000 times. The president, in defending the indefensible, has damaged himself and his core reputation for honesty and candor. These cumulative revelations have exposed this program as, at a minimum, dangerous to core liberties and vulnerable to rank abuse. I’ve found myself moving further and further to Glenn’s position.

What has kept me from embracing it entirely has been the absence of any real proof than any deliberate abuse has taken place and arguments that it has helped prevent terror attacks. This may be too forgiving a standard. If a system is ripe for abuse, history tells us the only question is not if such abuse will occur, but when.

Precisely. And as Sullivan goes on to note, one of those ifs materialised yesterday when Greenwald’s partner was ludicrously and enragingly detained at Heathrow under British anti-terror legislation.

But what hits me hardest about this latest development is that the real news in that Guardian write-up really isn’t and shouldn’t be news at all. And that’s the fact that we even had laws sitting on the statue book in this country that permit the state to detain people for up to nine hours and apparently confiscate their digital property, without the need to justify suspicion of probable cause, without the detained having the right to a lawyer being present, and with the refusal to answer questions constituting a crime. How reckless could we have been in crafting legislation so powerful, vague and thus inevitably ripe for abuse? And why did we have to wait until now for this to explode into a political issue worthy of national debate?

Greenwald, as always, nails it:

They completely abused their own terrorism law for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism: a potent reminder of how often governments lie when they claim that they need powers to stop “the terrorists”, and how dangerous it is to vest unchecked power with political officials in its name.

Boss Time.

Back in June, Coventry was my third gig in only twice as many days, having travelled in a week from Oxford to London to Glasgow and back, with Shropshire several times in between. Add in the emotional exhaustion of having a friend’s funeral in Birmingham on the same day, my decision to drink substantially before arriving at the stadium and the fact I couldn’t arrive early enough to make the pit, and this one was always going to be about the moment and remain only a blur in the mind.

But I can recall this one moment in the concert as vividly as any Springsteen memory I have. From one New Jersey God to another, Bruce announced that they would perform the whole Born to Run record in tribute to the late, legendary James Gandolfini of Sopranos fame, who had tragically passed away two days earlier. The symbolism of everything that was about to begin overpowered me. Coventry, of all places, was about to become the epic centre of the artistic universe. I remember my heart dropping with the sound of the opening harmonica, and I belted out the lyrics as if hearing them live for the first time.

There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away.

It’s a town full of losers. We’re pulling out of here to win.

This was the best Thunder Road I’d ever fucking experienced. 

Fellatio’s history.

I give you the Egyptian myth of Osiris and Iris:

Osiris was killed by his brother and cut into pieces. His sister Iris put the pieces together but, by chance, the penis was missing. An artificial penis was made out of clay, and Iris “blew” life back into Osiris by sucking it.

Also of note:

There are certain male chimpanzees who lick their female mates, but that of course is called cunnilingus, and it seems as much an act of hygiene and play as it does an expression of innate sexual pleasure. It’s certainly not an act in and of itself. While animals have an incredibly rich and complex sexual life, we humans are unique. As far as fellatio is concerned, at least as a sexual act unto itself, we human beings are all alone in the animal kingdom.

Crunchy fettuccine with creamed mushrooms and blanched broccoli.

Okay, I slipped up here. I didn’t know fettuccine was necessarily egg pasta. In my defence, the packaging was in Italian, and every other brand I’ve bought recently has been one hundred percent durum wheat without me checking. I only realised my mistake when the instructions suggested a mere four minutes in boiling water would suffice. That mistake won’t be made again. It was a shame, too, given I picked soy cream out especially to keep it vegan.

Anyway, this is basically Ottolenghi’s crunchy pappardelle recipe in Plenty with only minor tweaks. The beautiful colour here is courtesy of the breadcrumbs, which go golden after a few minutes of toasting in a frying pan, and the chopped parsley, crushed garlic and lemon zest mix dusted over the dish at the end.

The soy cream was delicious.

Up your game, mainstream media.

The key takeaway from Peter Maass’s epic report on the Snowden backstory is, surely, this paragraph:

Poitras possesses a new skill set that is particularly vital — and far from the journalistic norm — in an era of pervasive government spying: she knows, as well as any computer-security expert, how to protect against surveillance. As Snowden mentioned, “In the wake of this year’s disclosure, it should be clear that unencrypted journalist-source communication is unforgivably reckless.” A new generation of sources, like Snowden or Pfc. Bradley Manning, has access to not just a few secrets but thousands of them, because of their ability to scrape classified networks. They do not necessarily live in and operate through the established Washington networks — Snowden was in Hawaii, and Manning sent hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks from a base in Iraq. And they share their secrets not with the largest media outlets or reporters but with the ones who share their political outlook and have the know-how to receive the leaks undetected.

Alright, one other takeaway: HBO’s The Newsroom needs a new aesthetic that looks more like Greenwald’s chilled Brazilian crib.

Knowing your own needs best.

Jacob Goldstein reports on GiveDirectly, an innovative new charity that gives out cash, no strings attached, to the impoverished:

An inordinate number, it seemed, used it to replace their thatched roofs, which are not only lousy but also weirdly expensive, as they need to be patched every few months with a special kind of grass. A metal roof costs several hundred dollars, but lasts for 10 years, making it a much better investment. Omondi was among those who bought metal roofs. He also purchased a used Bajaj Boxer, an Indian-made motorcycle that he uses to ferry people around, for a small fee; he is also currently paying off a second motorcycle, which he rents out. Now Omondi makes about $6 to $9 a day in his taxi operation, several times his previous income, and he works almost every day. Several of his neighbors also used the money to start businesses­. One man bought a mill and charges villagers to grind their corn. Others became microretailers, buying goods like soap and oil at wholesale and reselling them at a markup.

GiveDirectly has been picked out by GiveWell for its high impact potential.

Choosing charities.

Another day, another opportunity for the core message of the Effective Altruism movement to seep through from the philosophical community to the public, this time in the shape of a Peter Singer column in the NYT:

“Effective altruism,” as this evidence-based approach to charity is known, is an emerging international movement. Not content with merely making the world a better place, its adherents want to use their talents and resources to make the biggest possible positive difference to the world. Thinking about which fields offer the most positive impact for your time and money is still in its infancy, but with more effective altruists researching the issues, we are starting to see real progress.

In the article, Singer makes the case for why charitable donations which go towards curing blindness are better than those funding art museums in the affluent West. It may seem to some, including myself, like there’s barely a case that needs to be made here. Any moral theory which prioritises creating further higher pleasures for those with already worthwhile lives at the cost of not relieving real, unfathomable pain for others is not going to be worth our time. And yet, the Rockefeller Philanthrophy Advisors service which Singer flags is a good reflection of how sadly alien this logic is outside of academic circles. Here’s Singer again:

Its Web site offers a downloadable pamphlet with a chart showing areas to which a philanthropist might give: health and safety; education; arts, culture and heritage; human and civil rights; economic security; and environment. The Web site then asks, “What is the most urgent issue?” and answers by saying, “There’s obviously no objective answer to that question.”

There is, of course, a general sense of social awkwardness created when a family member asks you to sponsor them, if they’re raising money for a charity you have no way of discerning the efficacy of, and when you know it’s highly likely the money can be better spent elsewhere. But why would a professional philanthropic advice service bow to these pressures and pretend we can’t categorically value, say, deworming children to protect their intestines from parasites over paying to preserve a Cezanne painting for public viewing? It’s simply beyond me. Trying to create the greatest benefits possible through one’s donations shouldn’t be a controversial matter. The extreme suffering of millions must come first.

The letters that the NYT published today, however, are a further reminder of why the Effective Altruism movement still has much persuading to do. The first seems likely to be an especially common reaction:

Peter Singer writes that when it comes to charity and philanthropy, a dollar spent on preventing blindness in developing countries is “a better value” than a dollar spent on a new wing at a local art museum. His reasoning is that not going blind is far more important to us than having a better art museum.

The logical implication is that we are ethically obligated to spend whatever we have to give on charities that produce the greatest world benefit per dollar, a formula where “arts, culture and heritage” will almost always lose out to “health and security.”

This is not a plausible contention. Are we ethically prohibited from enhancing our communities by giving to the cultural, educational, spiritual or recreational institutions that mean the most to us so long as more urgent problems exist anywhere in the world? To state the proposition is to refute it.

For that matter, are we ethically prohibited from spending money for the benefit of ourselves and our families beyond bare necessities so long as those same problems persist? Of course not. A spirit of empathy and charity is ethically required. Perfect altruism — where every act and omission is calculated to produce the greatest good for the greatest number — is not.

Unless Mr. Singer lives in a shack, subsisting on gruel, water, a typewriter and one kidney, I’m sure he agrees. Meanwhile, if Mr. Singer wishes to impress upon the fortunate a duty to train their philanthropic eye on world poverty and disease, I don’t think his worthy cause is well served by suggesting that local cultural giving is a relative waste.

I’m mainly inclined to take this as a sign of how belittling the privileged can be of the severity of world poverty. If we were forced to visually face the extent to which the rest of the world suffers on a daily basis – perhaps we drove by and witnessed their plight on the way to work every morning – perhaps then we would all acknowledge that there is something sickening and guilt-worthy about the way we indulge ourselves daily with superfluous goods. The writer takes the logical implications he outlines to be absurd, but they seem to me roughly right. We should do all we can to solve the world’s most pressing moral problems. We will inevitably fall short and fail as individuals, but this is no argument against the imperative existing. Again, how in the name of morality can you justify anything less?

One alleged implication that we know by now is clearly wrong, though, is the claim that to be consistent Singer must live in a shack. It’s obvious that he can do far more to alleviate global poverty by using his celebrity and earning well, rather than becoming an impoverished monk.

Boss Time.

This moment, from the second night in the small Irish town of Kilkenny – the final night of the Wrecking Ball tour – sums up better than anything why I find Springsteen to be such an amazing human being. The introduction to the song should suffice. If you don’t ‘get it’ after that, perhaps you never will. Which other artist would break down the barrier between performer and audience in this way, and show so absolutely the level of mutual respect and appreciation? ‘A few more debts to be paid’ – what kind of language is this at a rock concert? “We need you! We need you!” is a familiar call he will roar at us during every gig, but it was here that we saw just how much he means it. He even manages to play the role of stand-up comedian whilst delivering this moment, before proceeding to be the musician we love him most for, playing an early song which Europe had only heard once before and the world hadn’t heard in four years. Seriously. Enough said.

Aubergine and courgette moussaka.

This one was from my Veganomicon cookbook again and worked a treat. The veg were sliced thinly lengthways, brushed with olive oil and roasted separately. The sauce was basic – canned tomatoes simmered with fried onions, garlic, veg stock, dried oregano, cinnamon, and a bay leaf. But the special touch was the top: pine nuts, apparently, go remarkably creamy when blended, and even moreso when mixed with mashed tofu. Cheese was not missed at all.

The ontology of nutritionism.

One of the best books I’ve read this summer is Michael Pollan’s In Defence of FoodIt’s much shorter than his other works, which makes it perfect for anyone keen on learning the jist of his food philosophy for practical purposes, without relishing the deeper intellectual details. I just want to outline here Pollan’s case for abandoning the language of nutritionism, because I’ve pretty much bought into it and have decided to start writing, talking and hopefully thinking accordingly.

The history of nutritionism, then, can be seen as an attempt by science to identify and map out what it is in food that is good for us, before offering dietary advice accordingly. The first big success was supposed to be the discovery of the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fats. And at the time, it was believed that this picture was exhaustive. These were all we needed in the appropriate quantities in order to live healthily.

Problems arose, though, when it was noted that people who, for instance, spent long periods at sea had diets rich in all the macronutrients, and yet still contracted diseases like scurvy. Soon came the arrival of a new language and level of parts to explain what food is and what we need from it: micronutrients; vitamins and minerals.

Now, all dietary advice today seems to be built around this conceptual framework. We hear plenty about the need for protein and watching our intake of carbs and fats. We know plants tend to be high in the vitamins and minerals also necessary for staying healthy. All food is analysed in terms of such component breakdowns. We have, fundamentally, bought into this way of perceiving the world in which we don’t talk about oranges or kale or whatever being good for you, and cheeseburgers being bad. What we hear and understand is that Vitamins A, C and K are good for you, and saturated fat is bad. Nutritionism encourages us to psychologically divorce evaluative judgements from the food we in fact eat. And I think, largely following Pollan, that there’s likely to be several problems with this.

First, it facilitates our being deceived by unhealthy hyper-processed foods, because they can carry legitimate labels proclaiming their low saturated fat, or high artificially added calcium, and we buy into thinking that such foods are good for us accordingly when they aren’t,, because such properties alone don’t reliably track what is good.

Second, nobody can conceivably act on such data and devise a diet to precisely hit their Recommended Daily Allowances accordingly, and this is far more likely to lead to frustration and scepticism about healthy eating as a whole, at least when compared to the simpler and better advice of just eating a diverse, predominantly plant-based diet.

Third, it encourages us to lack humility in appreciating the complexity of the factors at play here, and people design new food and diets with our apparent knowledge in mind, far too sure that we’ve adequately located and mastered what it is that makes food good.

And proof of the foolishness of all this comes in the fourth point, which is that we already seem to be on the verge of the next paradigm shift. ‘Phytochemicals‘ like ‘antioxidants’ are nowadays all the rage, as a super-micro level is increasingly explored. Now, we are told, it may in fact be these properties which fight cancer and make vegetables so good for us, and there may be up to twenty thousand types of them. And this shift seems somewhat overdue. It is, after all, no secret amongst those that follow centuries of accumulated folk-wisdom invested in cuisines and traditions that green tea is very, very good for you. Yet it’s hardly high in macronutrients or vitamins and minerals, so our current model struggles to understand why.

So how long until phytochemicals become sanctioned as ‘essential nutrients’? How long until agencies start attempting to tell us which foods contain which phytochemicals, and in what quantities? And what good will any of this do that isn’t fully served already by simply saying: fruit and vegetables are good; who knows and cares why? Just eat more of them.

The foolishness of food scientists.

Loving this from Olga Khazan over at The Atlantic:

Around the time that the previous futuristic-food genie — a 3D printer that spits out geometrically shaped, insect-based food pellets — was unveiled, Anjan Contractor, the inventor, told Christopher Mims, a reporter for our sister site Quartz, “I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can’t supply 12 billion people sufficiently. So we eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food.”

After the technique was unveiled, a Yahoo news headline proclaimed, ” NASA awards grant for 3-D food printer; could it end world hunger? 

“No,” is the resounding answer, according to several development writers who responded at the time. We don’t [need] new ways to turn insects into food, it turns out. “Hunger” means not having the stuff to make food — insect-based or otherwise.

“Using chemical reactions to turn plant matter into food isn’t a revolutionary idea,” wrote Josh Keating in Foreign Policy. “By this standard, the oven in my kitchen is a 3-D printer: If I put in special powders called flour and yeast, it will print me out a loaf of bread.”

Update: And this, from Eric Holt Gimenez, even moreso:

Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. For the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world already produces more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak we expect by 2050. But the people making less than $2 a day — most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating unviably small plots of land — can’t afford to buy this food.

In reality, the bulk of industrially-produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the 1 billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.

Boss Time.

Since I’m working on the problem of evil at the moment (and will, eventually, at least blog a little about this), it seems appropriate that Boss Time tonight involves this rare tune from Nebraska, which Springsteen performed on request at the Olympic Park Hard Rock Calling concert towards the end of June: Reason to Believe. The lyrics are below. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether they’re intended sarcastically.

Seen a man standin’ over a dead dog lyin’ by the highway in a ditch
He’s lookin’ down kinda puzzled pokin’ that dog with a stick
Got his car door flung open he’s standin’ out on Highway 31
Like if he stood there long enough that dog’d get up and run
Struck me kinda funny seem kinda funny sir to me
At the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.

Now Mary Lou loved Johnny with a love mean and true
She said “Baby I’ll work for you every day and bring my money home to you”
One day he up and left her and ever since that
She waits down at the end of that dirt road for young Johnny to come back
Struck me kinda funny seemed kind of funny sir to me
How at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.

Take a baby to the river Kyle William they called him
Wash the baby in the water take away little Kyle’s sin
In a whitewash shotgun shack an old man passes away
Take his body to the graveyard and over him they pray
Lord won’t you tell us tell us what does it mean
Still at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to
believe .

Congregation gathers down by the riverside
Preacher stands with his Bible groom stands waitin’ for his bride
Congregation gone and the sun sets behind a weepin’ willow tree
Groom stands alone and watches the river rush on so effortlessly
Lord and he’s wonderin’ where can his baby be
Still at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to
believe.

Romance as idolatry.

A Christian friend posted this quote from Ernest Becker earlier:

We feel diminished by [our loved ones'] human shortcomings. Our interiors feel empty or anguished, our lives valueless, when we see the inevitable pettiness of the world expressed through the human beings in it. For this reason, too, we often attack loved ones and try to bring them down to size… After all, what is it that we want when we elevate [love] to the position of God? We want redemption—nothing less.

Another Christian friend has argued to me strongly that religious marriages tend to be much stabler and healthier than their atheist equivalents, the reason being that when both partners concur that someone else – God – is the most important member of their relationship, the pressure on the other person to be perfect is reduced and one another’s failures become tolerable. I wouldn’t be too surprised if there is some truth to this, and atheists shouldn’t shy away from conceding it. After all, if you approach the world from a framework within which we are all inevitably failures and someone much better awaits unification with us, the odds that such beliefs can be therapeutic seem high. And the wiser atheists should probably also grant that our loved ones almost always do fail us in significant ways. The disagreement is only over whether a better alternative actually exists.

I’d be interested to know, incidentally, whether Christian marriages fail as often as atheist marriages do. Divorce rates might not be a great test of whether their marriages tend to be happier and less strained, though, because they’re also far more likely to put up with bad marriages because they believe that divorce is wrong.

Aubergine and courgette risotto with shredded mint and orange zest.


Note to Americans: courgettes are zucchinis and aubergines are eggplants. This was, for once, my own concoction after several years of risotto making. Like most, it starts with a sautéed onion and crushed garlic base and makes use of white wine and vegetable stock. I strongly recommend putting in the effort of making your own stock from scratch, though. Four or more of these aromatic herbs and vegetables simmering in water for thirty minutes should do the trick, with thanks to Ottolenghi for the list: parsley, thyme, bay leaf, onion, garlic, carrot, fennel, celery. It’s also essential that you fry the courgette and aubergine together but separate from the rice mixture, draining in a colander and seasoning afterwards, so that they retain their own flavours. I have to admit, basil would probably work better than mint here: it’s less jarring with the savoury stock, and the leaves are softer, which makes sense in a creamy dish. But I stand by the orange zest, which is justified for the colour alone.

The other vegan risotto mix I tend to do nowadays makes use of four Ps: porcini mushrooms, pine nuts, peas and parsley. Asparagus is a great edition if it’s in season.

Nudge, nudge.

I’m sure there was a time when my liberalism was so rigid and fanatical that I thought absolute state neutrality mattered more than anything. I thought it followed that governments shouldn’t try to encourage good behaviour, regardless of whether there were disastrous social consequences of not doing so.

Not any more. For once, I gladly defer to David Brooks on the compelling case for soft paternalism:

[I]t is hard to feel that my decision-making powers have been weakened because when I got my driver’s license enrolling in organ donation was the default option. It’s hard to feel that a cafeteria is insulting my liberty if it puts the healthy fruit in a prominent place and the unhealthy junk food in some faraway corner. It’s hard to feel manipulated if I sign up for a program in which I can make commitments today that automatically increase my charitable giving next year. The concrete benefits of these programs, which are empirically verifiable, should trump abstract theoretical objections.

Boss Time.

Another early request at Wembley, another rare gem I hadn’t had the privilege of hearing live before. This one had been on my bucket list for a while. Lost in the Flood was unarguably Springsteen’s first dark, almost Gothic ballad. Don’t miss the epic Hendrix imitation at the 6.07 mark.

Burgers with sour cream (vegan edition!)

I’ve never tried to replicate a meaty meal before, but this turned out to be a surprisingly rewarding creation. The ‘sour cream’ is in fact a tofu, lime and fresh coriander combo, briefly blitzed as suggested in the Veganomicon book. I freestyled the burger mixture based on a quick Google indicating what the main ingredients should be: the kidney beans themselves mashed and then mixed with (Panko) breadcrumbs, dried oregano, fresh coriander, chopped red onion and chilli, crushed garlic, salt and olive oil. They work great, and certainly need no longer than ten minutes in a 200C oven. Triple that amount of time for the sweet potato wedges (brushed priorly with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and ground coriander, Plenty-style) and you’re home and dry.

Sympathy for the Olympic Committee, continued.

Stephen Fry weighs in with a popular piece:

Stage them elsewhere in Utah, Lillyhammer, anywhere you like. At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world.

Careful with Utah. Would that not be implicit endorsement of: mass imprisonment of African Americans in the name of a War on Drugs, the practice of solitary confinement for thousands of prisoners, the NSA, drone strikes, Texas’s anti-abortion laws, the absence of a federal right to marriage for all sexualities, Guantanamo, the ignoring of the plight of millions of homeless people, and so on, and so on.

I repeat: does any nation pass these ethical filters? If you oppose Russia’s hosting on these grounds, I’m not sure how you avoid the conclusion that all sport is over until the world becomes perfectly good.

Quotes for the day.

Have some Tolstoy:

I was stupid and callous enough to go and see an execution this morning… the spectacle made such an impression on me that I shan’t get over it for a long time… When I saw the head part from the body and how it thumped separately into the box, I understood, not with my mind, but with my whole being that no theory of the reasonableness of our present progress could justify this deed, and that though everyone from the creation of the world, on whatever theory, had held it to be necessary, I knew it would be unnecessary and bad.

He also happened to be that rare sort of person – a vegetarian Christian:

If a man’s aspirations towards a righteous life are serious [...] If he earnestly and sincerely seeks a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from animal food, because, not to mention the excitement of the passions produced by such food, it is plainly immoral, as it requires an act contrary to moral feeling, i. e., killing – and is called forth only by greed.

The progress of the movement should cause especial joy to those whose life lies in the effort to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, not because vegetarianism is in itself an important step towards that kingdom, but because it is a sign that the aspiration of mankind towards moral perfection is serious and sincere.

Boss Time.

I’ll skip back to some Wembley highlights as of tomorrow, but tonight I wanted to post from the Glasgow gig that transpired three days later. I think I calculated that seventeen songs were changed in the set-list, which is more than half the concert. Bruce also upped his time on stage to a staggering three and a half hours. (He joked towards the end during “Shout” that “I’ve gotta get home. I can feel a heart-attack coming on. I’m sixty fucking three!”) Anyway, this was a request early on in the show for my favourite song from his first album, and a song that easily makes my top ten: It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City.

Confession time: I’ve spent most of the last six months exiting my house in the morning to the sound of this track. If you want a confidence boost and to feel fucking cool, roaring along to the opening lyrics can’t be beaten:

I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra
I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova
I could walk like Brando right into the sun
Then dance just like a Casanova
With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet
Silver star studs on my duds just like a Harley in heat
When I strut down the street I could hear its heart beat
The sisters fell back and said, “Don’t that man look pretty.”
The cripple on the corner cried out, “Nickels for your pity.”
Them gasoline boys downtown sure talk gritty
It’s so hard to be a saint in the city.

Don’t miss the ferocious, frantic, orgasmic drum-guitar duel at the end.

“This is a fragile foundation on which we’ve built our informational world”.

In saying that last night, Ezra Klein captured how worrying it is that journalism, an essential institution for the success of democracy, is wholly contingent for its financial future on the whims of generous millionaires and the market for advertising. I recall pondering this myself back in February, and wondering why public funding never seems to be an option on the table. The problem isn’t going to go away.

Soba noodles with aubergine and mango.

When Ottolenghi says he wants to create ‘drama in the mouth’, this kind of dish is what he has in mind. With the mango, lime, chilli, red onion and heaps of coriander and basil to boot, it’s by far the loudest and sexiest item on offer in PlentyIt’s far too sweet to act as a main. I think it works more naturally as a party-piece, or a starter, though I’m tempted to recommend defying convention and serving this after a more savoury and substantial meal. These are the kind of flavours people should want to linger as they leave the dinner table. Recipe available here.

(Photo from my Instagram).

Junk food stamps, continued.

More from Mark Bittman on why Congress could potentially foster fiscal conservatism and make people healthier, just by cutting corn subsidies and shifting the focus to fruit and veg:

About 750,000 United States deaths annually — a third of the total — result from cardiovascular disease, at a medical cost of about $94 billion. The report (and video based on it) maintains that if we upped our average intake of fruits and vegetables by a single serving daily — an apple a day, essentially — more than 30,000 of those lives would be saved (at an overall “value,” according to the report, of $2.7 trillion). Each additional serving of fruit or vegetable would reduce mortality from cardiovascular disease by about 5 percent, to the point where if we all ate the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, we’d save more than 100,000 lives and something like $17 billion in health care costs.

You’ve probably noted by now a shift in my focus when I post about food. That reflects the fact that I now think the health case for veganism is just as powerful as the case from environmentalism and animal welfare.

Sympathy for the Olympic Committee.

Yes, really. To summarise the situation, their condemnation of Russia’s latest legislative attacks on homosexuals has been lukewarm, and there’s rising uncertainty about how the Winter Olympics there are going to unfold in such a context.

The reason I don’t think this situation is easy is this. Any global sporting competition has to balance the facts that diverse nations will be competing, host countries must be rotated, and a lot of the world sucks and doesn’t (yet?) achieve high standards of liberal decency. I mean, Christ, even nations that have completely overcome historical legislative inequalities between the races and the sexes can still fail on gay rights insofar as marriage equality and so forth haven’t fully materialised yet. Is America next up as a non-viable host candidate?

Yes, the harm caused by Russia’s laws is probably a lot severer than that, and I really do get the intuition that a minimal level of political decency should be set (Of course any offers from North Korea can be swiftly binned). But Russia’s laws will not be making it impossible for gay people to compete, and the Olympic Committee has an interest in banning expressions of protest if we want to stop the whole thing descending into something other than the Games.

If any injustice in any society suffices to make a nation fail the ethical filter test, then that may as well signal the end of global sport right now.

Junk food stamps.

Jane Black has an article over at Slate exploring the odd world of American food stamp politics, in which legislators are keen to promote health by funding good food (Surprising, no? I half expected Republicans to deem burgers and soda to be inextricably tied up with patriotism), but nothing is materialising because of opposition from anti-hunger groups. This is especially frustrating when the case for restricting what can be bought with social security cheques is so powerful:

Supporters of restrictions have persuasive arguments on their side. While the food-stamp program was initially created to get malnourished Americans more food, today’s low-income families are as likely to be plagued by obesity and related chronic diseases as hunger. According to a study in the Journal of Health Economics, the annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. is now $190 billion. When indirect costs are included, such as income lost from decreased productivity and absenteeism, the number rises to $450 billion (pdf). “The science linking soda to obesity and diabetes is rock-solid,” says Kelly Brownell, the dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “The government should not be in the business of making people sick.”

Emphasis mine. If conservatives are conventionally for social responsibility, and liberals are defenders of choice, I see why the former can often find the latter infuriating. Nothing in me nowadays has any desire to defend the right of individuals to choose to binge on junk which later in their lives contributes to a public health crisis. The extent to which diabetes, obesity, coronary heart disease, cancer and so on have become epidemics in the West, with all the social costs that they entail, is sufficient reason to justify the state in taking steps to cut consumption of such literally corrosive products.

Now, the anti-hunger charities do have some legitimate concerns. As the article notes, the task of publicly categorising which foods in supermarkets are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ would be colossal and ripe for disaster, and making “low-income families in the grocery line pay separately for forbidden foods” is indeed a worryingly stigmatising and exclusionary image. But to oppose even exploring any such ideas from the outset, when the potential benefits on the other side of the scale are so big? It makes one sadly suspect that the following has some explanatory role to play:

ConAgra Foods, makers of everything from Slim Jims to Chef Boyardee, has made a $10 million commitment to Feeding America, which also lists General Mills, Kellogg’s, Kraft, and PepsiCo among its donors in its annual report. The sponsors of FRAC’s fundraising gala dinner, held in June in Washington, D.C., included PepsiCo, Land O’Lakes, Yum! Brands, Nestle, the American Beverage Association, and the Snack Food Association.

Only in America.

Quote for the day.

And is it possible, CLEANTHES, said PHILO, that after all these reflections, and infinitely more, which might be suggested, you can still persevere in your Anthropomorphism, and assert the moral attributes of the Deity, his justice, benevolence, mercy, and rectitude, to be of the same nature with these virtues in human creatures? His power we allow is infinite: whatever he wills is executed: but neither man nor any other animal is happy: therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of Nature tends not to human or animal felicity: therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men? EPICURUS’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?


Hume. I started reading this week in preparation for an essay I must write on the problem of evil, so you can expect more along this line soon.