Saturday, November 24, 2012

Amateur food porn from Austria and Italy

When you tell people you've just been to Austria and Italy most people want to know one thing and one thing only: what did you eat?

In October I had the good fortune to take a jaunt through those two countries and thought I'd answer that question with a sampling, in photos. It's Thanksgiving weekend here in the U.S., after all. Though some of these are mine, many thanks to Matthew for the best of the images included in this post...

First up, the unsurpassed cafés of Vienna, starting with my favorite café in all the world. We visited Café Central twice in six days:

Café Demel was our first café visit this trip:

And there was also Café Landtmann, an old hangout of a certain Viennese shrink, fellow by the name of Sigmund Freud:

Vienna's not all cakes and coffee, though. The city loves its cured meat too, in endless varieties, as in this supermarket near where we stayed with friends, just outside the Ring:

Cured meat, cheeses, exotic fruits, olives, and prepared seafood is a fraction of what's on offer at the outdoor stalls of the old Naschmarkt, near the Secession Building:

Venice's Rialto market on that city's Grand Canal is legendary, a visual feast from the produce sellers to the fish market. We didn't sample the horsemeat...

In Bologna we stayed in the heart of a district packed with produce sellers, bakeries, fish sellers, butchers, and cheese shops.

But what we'll always remember about Bologna, our last stop before heading home, was the best gelato of our entire trip, right in the shadow of the city's most identifiable landmarks, the adjacent, 12th century Asinelli and Garisenda Towers.

The most intense flavor? A cherry and white-chocolate concoction called Inferno (what else?), which drew us back to the gelateria that sold it over, and over, and over again. One has to wonder whether this infernally tempting gelato is named as it is because the Garisenda Tower that looms over this fine gelateria is cited in Dante's Inferno:
As when one sees the tower called Garisenda
from underneath its leaning side, and then a cloud
passes over and it seems to lean the more,
thus did Antaeus seem to my fixed gaze
as I watched him bend -- that was indeed a time
I wished that I had gone another road.

 --- Divine Comedy, Inferno, XXXI, 136-141 ---

While staying in Bologna we took a train to Ferrara for the day. On the city's central square we ordered a regional specialty, a pumpkin-filled pasta called cappellacci di zucca, cooked in butter and sage.

Satiated? Or are you salivating?

Buon viaggio!

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Monday, November 19, 2012

Déjà vu at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

My trip to Austria and Italy in October included fodder for more blog posts than I'll likely ever write. I'll start, belatedly, with one of the first among our many museum visits in Vienna, Graz, Venice, Padova, Bologna, and Ferrara: a visit to Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Back up for just a moment...

Late last year, between Christmas and New Year's Day, I visited San Francisco's deYoung Museum (across the bay from where I live in Berkeley), to see an exhibit of paintings by masters of the Venetian school on loan from the selfsame Kunsthistorisches Museum. I wrote about that visit in Portraiture and history: Masters of Venice at the de Young Museum.

Among the many treasures on view in early October at the Kunsthistorisches were the very portraits that had been on loan to the de Young a little more than nine months before. These included both paintings I mentioned in my blog post of 2 January: Tintoretto's Portrait of Sebastiano Venier (and the Battle of Lepanto) and Bernardino Licinio's Portrait of Ottaviano Grimani.

For recidivist museumgoers it's not unusual to find a work of art in Museum X that one saw previously in Museum Y. The proximity in time, though, between the Venetian Masters' visit to San Francisco, and when we encountered these paintings again at their long-term home in Vienna, imbued last month's re-viewing with a strong sense of déjà vu. This sense was heightened by the fact that we were en route to Venice -- whose rulers, landscapes, and history were the subject of these paintings.

But there was more.

As I explained in that prior blog postI visited the de Young museum in San Francisco with my partner and an old and dear friend.

We visited the de Young on the 27th of December last year. The old and dear friend was Susan Poff, whose life -- along with the life of her partner, Bob Kamin -- was taken suddenly and brutally less than a month later. Our museum visit was the second-to-last time I would see Susan alive; she was like a sister to me over the course of our thirty year friendship, much of which we spent living in a collective household.

Some sixteen years after our household scattered across the Bay Area and beyond, we didn't often get a chance to enjoy Susan's company unencumbered by the many demands on her life and time and attention: motherhood especially; her relationship with Bob; an intellectually and emotionally demanding career providing medical and social care for the deepest down and furthest out in San Francisco's Tenderloin. Most often we saw Susan at reading group meetings, where we talked about fiction in the company of six or eight others of our close community.

That de Young Museum Tuesday in December, Susan was giddy to have the better part of a day as 'adult time' to do as she wished: time to be with a couple of close friends and take in an exhibition well beyond the usual orbits of love and commitment that filled her life. Matthew and I were buoyed by our outing with Susan, even during the serious bits of our conversation over lunch.

In Vienna we immersed ourselves, for the second time in ten months, in works by Giorgione, Licinio, Mantegna, Tintoretto, Titian, and Veronese. The echoes that reverberated that day were certainly echoes of the people and histories they depicted; and echoes of thought and feeling inspired when we saw the same cavanses in San Francisco late last year; but, beyond these expected resonances, also the echoes of a penultimate, glad, and -- especially in retrospect -- precious day with Susan.

As we moved through the rooms of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, I reflected on the layers and dimensions of culture carried by paintings, sculpture, architecture, and artifacts preserved there.

After our visit to the de Young I focused on the human history directly depicted and deliberately enshrined in portraits painted by the Venetian Masters whose work was on loan to that museum.

Like any regular museumgoer, the manner and technique of representing (or abstracting) the sensed and conceptualized world -- forever evolving as artists push the boundaries of representational media, and seek their own voices and the voice of their time and place -- is another dimension I mull over most every time I step into an exhibition, whether fresh or familiar.

And this time around, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum galleries that host the great portraitists of sixteenth century Venice, I was keenly aware of the way that repeatedly viewed and considered artworks can become  personal touchstones, imbued with meaning idiosyncratic to the viewer over the long and winding paths of life and friendship.

That's a lot of weight to load onto a canvas. The master painters of Venice were up to the task.

Susan and Bob, rest in peace.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Portraiture and history: Masters of Venice at the de Young Museum
A eulogy for Susan and Bob
Shape, stone, seeing: Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, Michael Ondaatje

Thanks once again to Wikimedia Commons for the image of Bernardino Licinio's portrait of Ottaviano Grimani. Thanks to Matthew Felix Sun for the image of Susan in front of El Anatsui's installation Hovor II, photographed at the de Young Museum on 27 December 2011.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Microbiome research vaults science and politics in reach of Lao Tzu

I believe that our dawning understanding about how deeply individual living beings interdepend on other living beings -- not just at the species and interspecies levels but as individuals -- is the next huge thing in human apprehension of what it means to be. As I wrote this summer, in One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you:
What I find staggering is how this newly-understood scope of the human microbiome impacts any conceivable concept of "self" -- a topic of interest to narcissists, philosophers, and readers of Ayn Rand throughout the ages. What does "I" mean when each of us is a massively populated ecosystem? When each of us is, so to speak, a teeming zoo enclosed in a bag of skin.
But enough about me. Let's turn to an exhilarating article Michael Specter recently published in The New YorkerGerms Are Us: Bacteria make us sick. Do they also keep us alive? I include excerpts in this post, but I recommend the entire article, whether you find it in your personal stash of unread magazines, at your local public library, or in the on-line New Yorker Archives, where one can purchase digital access to the issue of 22 October 2012.

Specter's piece begins with an introduction to the bacterium Helicobacter pylori.

H. pylori is a creature that co-exists with -- a.k.a. "infects" -- more human beings than all other bacteria combined, according to Specter. In 1982, a couple of scientists, Barry Marshall and J. Robin Warren, discovered the bug was responsible for gastritis and peptic ulcers in humans. Marshall and Warren later won the Nobel Prize for this work. Following their discovery, a long period of discussion and experimentation around a quest to rid human beings of H. pylori altogether ensued.

Luckily, this effort didn't succeed.

Why luckily? Because H. pylori does more than wreak havoc on human digestive systems. As the chair of NYU's Department of Medicine, Martin J. Blaser, put it to Specter:
"Germs make us sick [...]. But everyone focusses on the harm. And it's not that simple, because without most of these organisms we could never survive." [...]

"I love genetics [...]. But the model that places our genes at the root of all human development is wrong. By itself, it simply cannot explain how rapidly the incidence of so many diseases has risen." He stressed that genes matter immensely, but that one must take into account more than just the twenty-three thousand genes we inherit from our parents. The passengers in our microbiome contain at least four million genes, and they work constantly on our behalf: they manufacture vitamins and patrol our guts to prevent infections; they help to form and bolster our immune systems, and digest food. Recent research suggests that bacteria may even alter our brain chemistry, thus affecting our moods and behavior.
The article goes on to describe the mass extinctions [the phrase is mine in this context] of the microbiome in the bodies of people who live in developed countries and subject themselves to regular courses of antibiotics; as well as the loss of microbiome among babies delivered by Cesarean section (our first romp in the microbial fields naturally occurs in the course of vaginal birth, during which a child is draped in the protective mantle of her mother's microbiome).

Neither Dr. Blaser nor other responsible scientists dispute the effect and value of antibiotics, specifically the relationship between application of these treatments and freedom from disease. Put simply, without antibiotics, lots of people who are alive now would be dead. Antibiotics have dramatically increased longevity among populations to whom they are available when needed. Moreover, doctors' ability to safely and routinely perform Cesarean section has similarly saved millions of lives, both of mothers and their babies.

And yet.

Experiments conducted by Blaser, his NYU colleague Yu Chen, and Ann Müller of the University of Zurich, strongly suggest a relationship between absence of H. pylori and the occurrence of asthma. Similar findings are reported by Blaser's lab and others in relation to stomach hormones that regulate appetite, suggesting a relationship between absence of this bug -- so recently on most doctors' hit list -- and prevalence of obesity.

From Specter's article:
He [Blaser] took the theoretical case of a woman who was born at the turn of the twentieth century and possessed then thousand species of bacteria. Beginning in the nineteen-thirties, with the advent of antibiotics, most people began to have one or two courses of antibiotics in their lives. After the war, hygiene improved as well. The result: fewer bacterial species in our microbiome. "Let's say that the woman is down to nine thousand nine hundred and fifty," he went on. "And then she has a daughter. That child is likely to take many more antibiotics than her mother did. She starts life with fewer species, adn she will lose more as she goes along." Project this trend forward a few generations, and the implications are worrisome. "A lot of things are happening at once," he said. "The rise in obesity, celiac disease, asthma, allergy syndromes, and Type 1 diabetes. Bad eating habits are not sufficient to explain the world-wide explosion in obesity."

[...] "We are not talking about illnesses that are increasing by ten per cent," Blaser said. "They are doubling and tripling and quadrupling. With each generation there is heavier impact on the early-life microbiome. And it means we are less and less able to metabolize the food we eat."
It's complicated. And that, really, is the point.

At the risk of introducing a sour aftertaste of the 2012 election season that many would prefer to put behind, here's a short passage of President Barack Obama's speech to the Democratic Party convention on 6 September, as transcribed in the Washington Post:
We don’t think the government can solve all our problems. But we don’t think that the government is the source of all our problems, any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.

Because -- because America, we understand that this democracy is ours.

We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.
What does a political convention speech have to do with the science of species interdependence? Queue up that second-to-last sentence from the exerpt, above:
It’s about what can be done by us, together [...]
Here's the thing.

Whether you're interested in effective action in the realm of politics, medicine, food policy, or energy investments, alignment to the world's reality is prerequisite -- including alignment to the existential truth of deep and pervasive interdependence. We've known this at least since Lao Tzu gave humanity the Tao Te Ching. In Stephen Mitchell's translation:

In harmony with the Tao,
the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full,
all creatures flourish together,
content with the way they are,
endlessly repeating themselves,
endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.

The Master views the parts with compassion,
because he understands the whole.
His constant practice is humility.
He doesn't glitter like a jewel
but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as a stone.

Here's hoping we all -- not just the recently-reelected POTUS -- can find our way forward in harmony with the Tao through these staggeringly complex and dangerous times.

Thanks to Dr. Laughlin Dawes and for the image of a ulcerated tumor that is not associated with H. pylori.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The controversy machine v the reality machine
Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit
One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you

Monday, November 5, 2012

A queasy election season

I have three good reasons for posting infrequently over the last five or so weeks. For one, I was traveling for most of that time. The other two good reasons? I'll get around to those. My travels provided rich fodder for future posts, and I'll get around to those too.

But the thing that has paralyzed me above and beyond anything else has caused a lot of other people to check out too. You know what I'm talking about: it's the savagely stupid, money-corrupted level of discourse at which U.S. citizens permit U.S. democracy to be conducted.

The so-called Founding Fathers must be spinning in their tombs.

Like many people I know, political circulars, party fundraising solicitations, and other abuses of innocent trees addressed to my abode go straight to the recycling bin. Yes, there are exceptions. Rare exceptions.

One exception in my household this season was an envelope with Mitt Romney's return-address right there in the upper left corner.

I just couldn't help myself. It was, straining credulity, addressed to me. So I opened it. I began to read. Then I began to laugh. Then I read the whole thing and ... well, never mind what happened then.

Here's what I laughed at:
Dear Steven,

I am running for President of the United States and because you are one of America's most notable Republicans, I want to personally let you know why. [...]

If you ever read anything posted on One Finger Typing that I've labeled politics you know exactly why I started laughing. Let's just say that I am not one of America's most notable Republicans, okay?

I mean, it's true that the first electoral campaign in which I volunteered was a campaign to elect a Republican congressman. He was the only Republican congressman at the time who publicly and vociferously opposed the war in Vietnam. Pete McCloskey. I was eleven years old when I showed up at McCloskey's campaign headquarters on University Avenue. Nobody there could think of anything an eleven year old could do to help other than to stuff envelopes. So I stuffed envelopes. I stuffed envelopes like a kid on a mission, for hours, sheltering under a folding table to stay out of the other volunteers' way.

I'm pretty sure I even registered Republican for at least one election, but I don't recall why or when. That's probably how RMoney got my name. Some computer, somewhere in the twisted bowels of that opportunistic twit's campaign organization, must have recorded that I registered as a Republican once upon a time.

But please ... can we dial down the sycophancy? "America's most notable Republicans"? I think not.

(Is it worth noting that Pete McCloskey changed his political affiliation in 2007, more than thirty-five years after I volunteered in his bid for re-election to Congress? McCloskey at long last declared that, "I finally concluded that it was fraud for me to remain a member of this modern Republican Party...")

One of America's most notable Republicans ... The rest of RMoney's letter was even more vapid than it's ridiculous opening.

As for that other candidate?

I have my complaints about him too, and I've voiced some of them here in this blog. I didn't mention the POTUS's shameful lack of leadership on the critical issue of climate change in a litany composed a couple months ago, but plenty of others are lining up to criticize Obama's inadequate attention to that issue in response to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent endorsement.

Bloomberg's endorsement is pretty telling, really, with respect to that level-of-discourse thing I mentioned at the top of this post. But because there are exactly two candidates who have a prayer of winning the contest, the choice Bloomberg made is a no-brainer. At least Obama has done something during his first term ... and hasn't backed away from his principled position in order to pander to an antediluvian party's so-called "base."

What's with these candidates?

Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University, had some interesting opinions on the topic of political polarization -- the politics of pandering to fundamentalist wingnuts -- in in his NY Times blog on Saturday, America's Leftward Tilt. To wit:
The reality is that our government hasn't become this dysfunctional because the parties are so "polarized." It's because there is only one pole in American politics today, and its magnetic field is so powerful that it has drawn both parties in the same direction -- rightward. And it is in that same direction that the magnetic field of contemporary American politics is likely to pull the stories the two parties tell after the election -- and the policies the winner pursues.

The data, however, suggest just the opposite -- that both candidates have benefited in the general election every time they have taken a left turn. [...] For both men, a pragmatic left-hand turn helped them steer their way toward a middle class desperate for hope.


So what underlies this powerful pull to the right? Many factors, but two stand out. The first is campaign money. When Americans saw the scope of the savings and loan scandal in the 1980s, which today seems like just a bad day on the unregulated derivatives market, Ronald Reagan's attorney general, Edwin Meese III, put nearly a thousand bankers behind bars. In contrast, Mr. Obama's attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., can't seem to smell the stench of a fraud that cost millions of people their jobs or homes.

The second is an ideological vacuum. For years, even Republicans accepted the premises of the New Deal, which drew them leftward just as today's political winds blow everything in their path rightward. President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Interstate highway system. President Richard M. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. Neither believed in the radical dismantling of programs that protected ordinary Americans, and both believed that a crucial role of government is to provide the infrastructure that makes economic prosperity possible.

Then came the conservative movement that ushered in Reagan, whose ideology has dominated our political discourse ever since, even after its proven failure. If Nixon and Bill Clinton were the last gasps of Roosevelt's breath, then Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama and perhaps Mr. Romney may well be the last gasps of Reagan's. If the centrifugal pull of the 2012 election is likely to be to the right, is there any potential counterweight?

Perhaps one: both presidential candidates want a legacy. The most important legacy Mr. Obama could have would be to spend his second term using executive orders, judicial appointments and the bully pulpit to return democracy to everyday Americans by demanding clean elections, uncorrupted by money. [...]

If Mr. Romney wins and wants a second term, he would be wise to wed an economic narrative about innovation with a narrative that will save his party from extinction by making comprehensive immigration reform a central item on his agenda. If Mr. Romney succeeds in reviving a moderate Republicanism that recognizes that an increasingly interconnected world will require an increasingly diverse work force, he could potentially drag his party into the 21st century.

In other words, if the candidate who wins takes a left turn like the one that won him the presidency, the Reagan era would finally be over. We can only hope.
I wish I could be so sanguine. In fact, I'm too nauseated by this year's election season to take a philosophical view. Escaping the hysteria by hiding out across the pond for three of its most hysterical weeks? It wasn't long enough.

Get it over with.

Cast your ballot tomorrow if you haven't already.

Democracy is on the ropes; abdication of citizenship isn't going to help any.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
What do baseball and presidential elections have in common?
The controversy machine v the reality machine
Post-convention blues (the sky, I'm sayin')
North Korea, women's rights, and post-truth politics

Thanks to 99 United for the image from Lobbyist Central in Washington, DC, via Flickr.