1
Mar

A Revolution in Taste by Susan Pinkard [Notes from chapters 1 and 2]

As a budding professional with a hectic worklife, I find generally little time to sit down undisturbed with a book from start to finish. However, there are many books which are worth perusing over and thought-provoking even in individual chapter format. For these books I shall post a precis of selected chapter with my comments. Think of it as liveblogging a book.

Blogs as soapbox. In recent years, bloggers like Nate Silver, Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald have popularized the idea of a blog being a op-ed column with minimal restraints, destined to be consumed by a wider audience. I remember the days, about a decade earlier, when blogs were still the wild-west, and the commonly held idea of a blog was a diary, for a select group of friends.

Blog as on-demand scrapbook. I think there is even more use for a blog. The world has a vested interest in never letting the internet die from bit rot (the tendency of older machines to not be read by younger machines), since a staggering amount of human effort has gone into developing it. As a corollary, personal notes uploaded to a blog are much less likely to be lost or misplaced, than if you were to put them on Scrivener, or Evernote, or Google Drive, or a hundred other solutions I have seen come and go.


Eating well in Medieval Europe: Complex sauces and meats. Today gastronomes believe that modern gastronomy in the last 50 years is as good as it has ever been, but reading Pinkard's book, I feel that medieval Europeans must have eaten equally well. The main difference seems to be that they prized a different aesthetic, a synthesis of flavors, like the rich and complex Mexican mole sauces, unlike today's analytic European cooking which prizes identifiable and distinct flavors. Some of their complex dishes sound intriguing, and I would love try them.

The unexpected upside of Plague. The second way in which Europeans ate well, is that between 1350-1550 the ordinary person could eat a great quantity of meat. I had previously imagined the Middle Ages as a period of unrelenting misery and serfdom, but the devastating black Plague which wiped out between 30-60% of Europe's population, allowed workers to bargain for better wages, end serfdom, and consequently spend more of their income on better food. A streetsweep could afford three pounds of boneless beef a week!


All page references are to Pinkard’s book, except otherwise noted.

Chapter 1 - The Ancient Roots of Medieval Cooking

  • The aesthetic of modern European ooking is analytic, because it “tends to distinguish between flavors (sweet, salty, tart, sour, or spicy) reserving a separate place for each, both in individual dishes and in the order of courses served at a meal.” Linked is notion that the “cook should respect the natural flavor of each food”, distinct and to be kept separate from other flavors. <Alberto Capatti, Massimo Montanari, Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History, p86>
  • The cuisine of the ancient Mediterranean involves a preference for “complex, multi-layered flavors” - aiming to transform raw materials into “confections unlike anything in nature) <p2>
    • Braudel’s theory is that the taste for spicy complexity is linked to the fact that most people have consumed calories in the form of cereals and legumes, quoting a Hindu poet as saying “When the palate revolts agains the insipidness of rice boiled with no other ingredients, we dream of fat, salt and spices.”
  • In medieval times, medicine was ruled by the theory of the humors (phlegm-water, blood-air, yellow bile-fire, and black bile-earth) (p8)
    • But excess of one humor (e.g. watery phlegm) could be cured by eating foods on other end of the spectrum (garlic soup, for instance, perceived to have strong heating and drying qualities)
    • This is the origin of the term “a surfeit of lampreys” that killed Henry I, since it exacerbated his watery humor.
  • Middles Ages cooking (401AD-1500AD) was a fusion of Germanic and Roman traditions
    • Romanic cooking was characterised by pungency (the fermented fish guts of garum, “directions for roasted beef called for a sauce spiced with cloves, costus, nard, and no fewer than fifty peppercorns) <p14>. However the interest in cooking vegetables declined and became associated with penance and the monastic way of life.
    • Germanic cooking was characterised by the high value-placed on eating meat, the “chewy meat of a middle aged ox” was preferred over the many years of service remaining as a draft animal.
  • The High Middle Ages (1001AD-1300AD) favored a second set of sweet flavors - honey, grape must, dried fruits, nuts, sugar
    • During 1200, cinnamon, cassia, and ginger also came into prominence
  • It is typical to attribute many of these new ingredients to trade with the Arab-Islamic world through Persia. Persia in particular was a major source of agriculture,  the cold north and the warm marshy south of Persia offered diverse growing conditions (banana, bitter orange, eggplant, lemon, rice, sorghum, spinach and sugarcane). The exact time of diffusion is unknown but ranges from 10th century to 13th century (901AD to 1300 AD)
    • Spinach, eggplant, rosewater and sugar were Persian ingredients
  • [The isfidbadj/blancmange was a light-colored meat poached in milk. Today, you can have it as “tavuk gogsu” in Turkey. You can see it in my Istanbul food blog post here, from a restaurant called Lades 2]
  • The myth of European Middle-Ages cooking is that liberal use of spices disguised rotting meat. This is untrue because spices were much more expensive than fresh meat.
  • Around 1300, the structure of a meal was 5-6 courses
    • Acidity, as a palate opener: with salads or seasonal fruits
    • Potage, Ingredients cooked in liquid/sauce: water, bouillon, water, vinegar, almond milk etc.
    • Rôt (Roast), the largest or most impressive pieces of fish or meat
    • Entremet,including the blancmange, cheese, ham, charcuterie, eggs, food in aspic jelly, pies and tarts
    • Dessert, Fresh fruits , dried fruits
    • Issue de table: Sweet meats, and light pastries

Chapter 2 - Opulence and Misery in the Renaissance

  • A large amount of what we think as European ingredients come from the New world - turkeys, green beans (haricot beans), chilli peppers, which were immediately accepted; and potatoes and tomatoes, which were not.
  • Vegetable cooking became seen as worthy of sophisticated treatment, making an increasing number of appearances in cookbook recipes (in medieval times they rarely made an appearance), and also more sophisticated recipes (not just boiled, mashed, or seasoned)
  • There were multiple instances Plague in 14th century Europe: 1346-1348 in France and Italy, 1353-55, 1377-78, 1385-86, 1403, 1419. In France as a whole the population fell between 33-50%. The long-term effect of the plague was to end serfdom, as peasants negotiated with their lords for better terms, and laborers, servants, urban artisans saw wage increases. Most of this surplus income was spent on better food (1350-1550 the era of “carnivorous Europe”, according to Braudel) .In Italian cities even street-sweeping boys and laundrywomen could afford three pounds of boneless beef a week, a record that would not be matched until after WWII. Cattle raisers from far off regions Denmark, Hungary, Tyrol and Moldavia would drive their cattle to markets in Germany, Northern Italy, Burgundy and the Low Countries (I.e. Benelux region) <p45>
  • However when the population recovered two centuries later in 1550, wages stagnated and fell in relation to cost of living. Bread became so expensive, that other food became unaffordable.
  • Cereals came to dominate the popular diet, and white bread got replaced with black bread. Meat rations decreased <p44-p47>, and famines returned because of overdependence of cereals by the majority of the population [Similar to the cause of the Irish potato famine]. Between 1480 and 1585, meat prices quadrupled, while wages only tripled <Le Roy Ladurie, The Peasants of Languedoc p42-44>
  • By the 17th century stock raisers focused on two things: value-added products such as sausages and ham, or higher-premium items such as veal, lamb and poultry.
  • In the 17th century, elite consumers bought these luxuries less frequently, and meat cookery featured use of cheaper cuts.
13
Feb

Reflections on the movie Birdman [Spoilers]

Birdman is a comedy about authenticity.

Critical notes:

  1. A Protestant vs Catholic way of life. The "Protestant" way of living your life is to believe in an authentic inner-self. The "Catholic" way of living your life is to perform the outer vestments of virtue, and that shall save you when it comes to the time of judgement. Riggan is concerned with the Protestant way of living his life - to become authentic to who he is - to become an actor. Whereas before, he was going with the flow, peddling schlock as Birdman, being a movie star. If Riggan had been a "Catholic" unobsessed with the notion of authenticity, then he wouldn't have bet it all on a switch to theatre. A theatre-director friend of mine commented that often, a lot of actors freeze up because they think the inner state of mind on stage is important - but acting out their roles as "Catholics" is often more effective. And Riggan often worries too much about being authentic, to the point where he often is upstaged by Edward Norton, even on his own script.
  2. Life tells us what we're suited for. Riggan's accidental nude walk through Times Square attracts way more attention than his play ever does.
  3. Birdman constantly undermines itself: It is a movie that relentlessly undermines itself. Perhaps it could end at the point where Birdman appears, and breaks the fourth-wall in telling the audience - "this is what you want!". Perhaps it could end when Riggan (Michael Keaton) shoots himself on-stage. Perhaps it could end when Riggan finally exits the film, but they had one more minute of footage to show how his daughter reacts to his leaving the room.
  4. The authenticity conflict changes after the extended scene where Riggan imagines himself as Birdman: after the extended scene of Riggan as Birdman, I believe that the central conflict of authenticity moves from "thespian vs Birdman" to the more general question of "should I choose to be concerned about authenticity as a Protestant, or live life without giving a damn about authenticity?"
  5. Authenticity is a brief fleeting moment. Where Riggan shoots himself on stage, that was the most authentic performance. Authenticity is a moment in time.
  6. Authenticity is an elaborate construction. But paradoxically, Riggan who is concerned about authenticity is ashamed of his nakedness, unlike Edward Norton in the dressing room. Authenticity, the movie seems to say, is not even nakedness, but a elaborate construction.
  7. Authenticity is impossible as a life philosophy. The movie ends at an indeterminate point, when Riggan has left the hospital room through the window. He has accepted that authenticity (represented by his abortive theatre career) is a mirage. Authenticity is impossible to focus on as a life philosophy. Riggan is perfectly content to be Birdman, and is no longer concerned with being an authentic artist. And so he jumps out of the window.
  8. Reading #1: I didn't like the ending because of the event of suicide undermines Birdman's own undermining of authenticity. And we are left in doubt as to exactly where he goes. Throughout the movie there is a streak of magic realism (Riggan appears to have superpowers, telekinesis, flying, but only when he is alone, and there is always an explanation for it - at the end of the sequence where he appears to fly, there is a taxicab who chases him for an unpaid fare, the telekinesis could be him just throwing things around.) And if we believe in the magic realism, then Riggan has become Birdman, is flying, and his daughter finally sees him for who he is. And if we don't believe in magic realism, then Riggan is splat at the bottom of his hospital block. I didn't like it because of its hint of suicide. There is a hint of The Leap into the Void: a leap of faith. But here philosophically is where I dislike the film: a suicide is a second event, and up to this point the movie has exhibited the principle: authenticity is only possible with great theatricality and falsehood - the most authentic Riggan has been in the movie is to shoot himself on stage. Therefore authenticity can only be achieved, performed, under contradictory conditions - to be as theatrical and false as possible. And because it is a performance, it can only be achieved in an event. The movie relentless undermines itself, showing that Riggan is as Nietzsche would say, "invulnerable only in the heel", destined to continue living even after he delivers his own coup-de-grace to himself, a bullet to the nose. The movie seems to say, authenticity is impossible as a life philosophy, because authenticity can only be an event, and people live on after events. That's why I did not like the ending, with its hint of suicide, because suicide/become Birdman/Riggan's exit from his hospital window is yet another event. I expected Riggan to exhibit some real character development. But his exit via the window is yet another flashpoint in Riggan's quest for authenticity - to be Birdman or to be a theatre actor (after the extended scene of Riggan as Birdman, I believe that the central conflict of authenticity moves from "thespian vs Birdman" to the more general question of "should I choose to be concerned about authenticity as a Protestant, or live life without giving a damn about authenticity?) - Riggan is superficially our hero for realising that his dreams of being thespian was unimportant. But in a much more profound sense, he isn't our hero, because he exhibits no awareness that the quest for authenticity (Birdman or thespian) is futile.
  9. Reading #2: A martyr for authenticity: Perhaps he is our hero for choosing to die as Birdman, rather than live in a world where authenticity is impossible. But becoming a martyr is only heroic if there is a concrete enemy. If the enemy is reality itself, then suicide is a futile action, guiding no-one, a shout into the void.
  10. The structure of the movie advertises the impossibility of authenticity as a life ideal, and it is a world where either the protagonist doesn't realize this impossibility, or the protagonist chooses not to exist in this world where authenticity is impossible. The first possibility is just a tragedy of a complete lack of self-awareness, the second is a futile stance, because there is no enemy but reality itself. And that is why I didn't like the ending of Birdman

Artistic notes:

  1. Drums capture New York. The drum soundtrack, made of all percussion, captures the feeling of New York, without music to join the beats, a relentless inner propulsion.
  2. First class editing: The editing, to make it seem like one whole shot is first-class

Rating: 16/20

1
Jan

[Review] How Asia Works by Joe Studwell

Studwell’s Thesis: Three Stages of Development

This is one of the most important books of 2014, which attempts to answer the question of why the East Asian economies of Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China have succeeded and the Southeast Asian economies did not. Mr Studwell’s experience as a practicing journalist seems to have served him well. His second book “Asian Godfathers”, was an in-depth look into the crony-capitalism that characterised the Southeast Asian bloc.

This book is a book of one idea. The thesis of the book, baldly stated, is that there are three important steps to creating an advanced economy. Three steps, in depth-

1. Land reform to ensure agricultural base of the country can provide the capital base for manufacturing. The first step is to get the majority of households to build a modicum of domestic capital - this allows the population to play dual roles of savers (saving at an elevated rate, and providing capital for the next step, manufacturing) and consumers (demanding basic consumer goods and durables). How specifically is that to be accomplished? The key is to fully utilise the one cheap resource in the economy - labour - fully, in the sector that makes up the majority of the economy, agriculture (usually about 70% of the economy will be in agriculture). The best way to maximise productivity is to institute land reform to ensure that farmers have an incentive to make their lands as high-yield and high-intensity as possible, resembling high-yield household gardening rather than large plantations, which are more inefficient.

Further caveats and dangers are highlighted: land reform must be carried out properly - besides apportioning the household income levers properly, the monopsony problem needs to be solved - to avoid the problem of a single buyer taking away all the surplus that the efficiencies the household farmers (gardeners) accrue. In case of a monopsony, the buyer will is much more likely to save less (providing less capital) but also in consuming may have a skewed demand profile, choosing luxury goods such as real estate instead of basic materials like cement (which are probably not domestically produced, foreign enterprises thus learn on domestic capital’s learning curve).

2. Manufacturing with export discipline, domestically developed technology, and eliminating losers. Even after giving households the capital to demand basic goods, there is a basic cap on the productivity of agriculture sector. Therefore a second economic intervention will be required to raise the profile - Manufacturing, and it is the best way to take people off the land. This is because fundamentally, manufacturing allows for on-the-job learning, which allows human capital to be built on the job without deadtime; and 80% of the world’ economy is built on manufacture. There are at least two major reasons militating against a services-based economy. The first is that the world’s economy has been stuck on 20% of the world as services for a quarter of a century, and the second is that there must be dead-time of schooling in order to develop the capabilities for a service economy. But import substitution industrialisation did not work for the Southeast Asian economies, and Studwell identifies the Northeast Asia (NEA) economies as developing manufacturing industries with export discipline, with sanity-checks on manufacture. This is what Studwell identifies as the key mistake of Mahathir’s creation of Proton in his Look East campaign. Instead of being challenged on the global stage, the domestic firms reposed in high profit but competitive domestic markets. Proton for instance produced cars mainly for the domestic market, and not for overseas markets.

Two caveats: A country needs to ensure that technology Is developed in-house, and operational technology is not simply imported-in. “Kit assembly”, as Studwell calls it, was what Tommy Suharto’s Timor Car and pre-Mahathir Malaysia was engaging in, which did not lead to any manufacturing learnin. The second caveat is to eliminate losers rather than to pick winners. To get a higher quality end-product, the domestic manufacturing industry should create overcapacity, and then slash it by a Darwinian process of winnowing. That is what happened with successful South Korean chaebol - “most of the top ten chaebol of the mid 1960s had disappeared through forced mergers and bankruptcy by the mid 1970s, and half of the new group had disappeared by the early 1980s. Few Koreans, let alone foreigners, now know the names of some of the biggest chaebol of the post-war era, such as Samho, Gaepong, Donglip, Shinjin and Dongmyung - and that is because they are long dead.”. Instead Mahathir picked a winner with Proton - he created a single domestic champion, rather than allowing the Darwinism of the market to pick out a single winner. The extended discussion between Mahathir and South Korea is where Studwell expands on his formula for ensuring the second and third keys are

3. Financial coercion of the system to best allocate the capital amongst the best performing future industries, and not only to industries with short term profits. The siren call of speculative short term investments, like luxury real estate, can detract from more productive future investments. A key tactic practiced was central bank rediscounting, where banks which loaned to companies with high export performance and certain sector focuses could qualify for additional loans from the central bank. Japan pioneered it in NEA, and Korea practiced it to an extreme extent, General Park Chung-Hee choosing to do almost unlimited rediscounting for export loans and other government-approved projects, which led to 15-20% inflation rates annually). Korea is an interesting case in point, because while banks provided an unattractive value proposition - low nominal interest rates and negative real interest rates, citizens continued saving their money in domestic banks instead of spending it, because of three factors: (A) the dominant consideration was the need to hold money against future liabilities in a state with little welfare; and (B) because of massive taxes on imported consumer goods, leaving not much to spend on. and (C) in bad years, a multi-year moratorium was imposed on kerb lending (3rd party money-lending), such that the general public would have to accept no interest on their funds in the kerb market, and  would have to go to state-approved banking system

The caveats: Beware reliance on foreign capital unless you have goods other countries want. The question of “can there be an over-reliance on foreign capital?” is answered in the positive here, the wisdom of a domestic capital base created in step 1 is clear, when looking at Southeast Asian economies. In Japan, FDI was not very much used, though it was used for a very aggressive industrial development push (Korea). In Korea the danger was mitigated (the wisdom of the step 2) because Korea was too interconnected with the world for foreign debt accumulation to be dangerous - payment of interest and principal as a share of exports was only 20% in the early 1980s. Export discipline had caused the world to demand Korean goods. In Southeast Asia, though capital fight occurred in the Philippines in the 1980s due to its corrupt financial practices (unlimited rediscounting on anything, central bank as lender of first resort and not last resort), and in 1997, the Asian crisis started when the Thai government could not defend the baht against currency traders who had taken a short position against it.

Another caveat: Short-term profit seeking inevitably comes into the command and control economy as companies become financially stronger in both the case of Korea and Japan, in later years (Japan in the 80s, Korea in the 80s and 90s), there was a redirection of funds from these low-risk developmental investments to higher-risk plays such as real estate (Japan, Korea) and short maturity foreign debt (Korea leading up to 1997 East Asian crisis) that led to crises. In Japan, this was because domestic banks were losing their traditional customer loan base of Japanese firms, which chose to take advantage of Eurobonds (bonds in foreign markets), because they had less terms and conditions attached to the money. Therefore the Japanese banks took higher risks in real estate. In Korea, a different problem arose - chaebols became too big to fail (a chaebol failure would bring down the bank), and used their clout to get banks to loan them funds to speculate in real estate. In addition, the lifting of capital controls in the 1993 (short term offshore borrowing was allowed) allowed Korean banks to borrow from foreign banks, including SEA ones. In Studwell’s view, the IMF solution was, for once, the correct one - a Western-style independent central bank, wholly  independent commercial banks, large foreign controlled banks, increased rights for independent investors in stock and other markets. In both Japan and Korea though, the increasing economic clout of the strategically important firms (financial liberalization for Japanese firms allowing them to seek funding overseas, and the increasing size of chaebol to become too-big-to-fail) led to increasing short-term profit-seeking that led to crises; these are portrayed as the inevitable growing pains of a new economy.

There is a short final chapter, of which I found especially interesting China’s attempts to curtail the power of its largest private enterprises - through means such as renshi tiaozheng (rotation of leaders of its three oil companies); and its playbook focus on manufacturing industrial equipment procured by other governments or state-owned enterprises, e.g. power equipment for the world, such as the ‘ultra-supercriticals’, the prodcution of 1,000 megawatt super-high temperature turbines; construction telecommunications. This is due to China's difficulty in coming up with a real consumer product powerhouse.

My takeaways: For countries looking to grow, they should look to follow this model. It will be hard, but as Studwell’s iconoclasm led him to profile the crony capitalism that goes on in Southeast Asia, here his iconoclasm serves him well in separating the economics of development (protectionism a la Friedrich List), and the economics of efficiency. If anything, we are wiser for Studwell contextualising laissez-faire economics from Adam Smith’s day: The recommendations of Wealth of Nations were written when protectionist Britain ruled the world and no one could sail into a British port without a British flag. To insist on free-trade on equal terms is much like Chelsea football club saying it’ll take on any 3rd division football team on equal terms. Nourishment along these 3 steps will be necessary.