The mythical pre-history of plant-based meat

In reading Matthew Cobb‘s fascinating new book on the history of ethics and genetic engineering I came across this quote from Martin Apple, president of the world’s first transgenic plant research institute, the International Plant Research Institute, in 1981:

We are going to make pork chops grow on trees!

Of course, long before the first soy latte was even a twinkling in the woke barrista’s eye, people were concerned with plant-based substitutes for meat and dairy for religious reasons. And this reminded me obliquely of the myth of the barnacle goose.

In the Middle Ages it was widely believed that this bird grew from its snout from trees hanging over the water, or out of a barnacle attached to the bottoms of ships or loose pieces of wood. This raised a conundrum for medieval rabbis: For purposes of kashrut, should these geese be classed as fish, meat, or something else?

Some authorities said they were neither fish nor fowl, but rather like shellfish were impermissible no matter how they were slaughtered. But Rabbi Mordechai ben Hillel Ashkenazi of Regensburg said that, effectively, they are fruits:

Regarding birds that grow on trees, there are those that say that they do not require shechitah [ritual slaughter], because they do not reproduce sexually and are like any wood. (Quoted in Sacred Monsters: Mysterious and Mythical Creatures of Scripture, Talmud and Midrash, Nosson Slifkin, p. 319.)

Truly the world’s first plant-based meat!

More metric-imperial conversion hijinks

A while back I noted how an article on Ebola in the NY Times had apparently translated “one millilitre of blood” in a medical context into “one-fifth of a teaspoon of blood”. Hilarity ensued. Now I see that the fun doesn’t go in only one direction. I just got a letter from the NHS about an upcoming appointment, including these instructions:

Do not come to your appointment if you or anyone living with you has the symptoms of a new continuous cough (in the last week) or a temperature above 37.8 degrees or loss or change to your sense of smell or taste.

37.8 degrees? Why exactly this number? It sounds both arbitrary and absurdly precise. A bit of reflection revealed that 37.8 degrees Celsius is precisely 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They obviously copied some American guidelines, and instead of rounding appropriately — or reconsidering the chosen level — they just calculated the corresponding Celsius temperature. The funny thing is, Americans are used to having the very non-round guideline of 98.6 degrees as the supposed “normal” body temperature, because someone* in the 19th Century decided 37 degrees Celsius was roughly the right number, and that magic number got translated precisely into Fahrenheit.

* Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich, actually.

The World Comeuppance

There are few turnabouts more satisfying than when the cynic who thinks he’s calculated everything to his own benefit finds himself suddenly betrayed by the evil to which he’d accommodated himself. Extra points if he mocked the boring sincerity of those who moralised blah blah blah.

Which brings us to the World Cup. Anyone planning to attend or support the games has to be willing to ignore the corrupt process by which Qatar was selected; the thousands of labourers worked to death to build the facilities; and the foul mistreatment of women and sexual minorities by the Qatari authorities.

Eight years ago it was reported that the Qataris were already breaking the promises they had made to be allowed to host these games. They broke their promises to improve working conditions. They broke promises to allow LGBT+ visitors to attend the games safely. Most fans were happy that these promises were made, providing them cover to enjoy the World Cup, and were indifferent to whether the promises were kept.

But can they enjoy the World Cup without beer? Personally, I have zero appreciation of sport, but I have always accepted that other people really seem to dig football. But I do need to point out that the number of people who enjoy watching football completely sober seems to be rather small. Hence the dismay, that the theocratic dictators turned out to actually sincere in opposing alcohol, and are willing to take an economic hit to ban it from the tournament sites. Shocking!

Suicides at universities, and elsewhere

The Guardian is reporting on the inquest results concerning the death by suicide of a physics student at Exeter University in 2021. Some details sound deeply disturbing, particularly the account of his family contacting the university “wellbeing team” to tell them about his problematic mental state, after poor exam results a few months earlier (about which he had also written to his personal tutor), but

that a welfare consultant pressed the “wrong” button on the computer system and accidentally closed the case. “I’d never phoned up before,” said Alice Armstrong Evans. “I thought they would take more notice. It never crossed my mind someone would lose the information.” She rang back about a week later but again the case was apparently accidentally closed.

Clearly this university has structural problems with the way it cares for student mental health. I’m inclined, though, to focus on the statistics, and the way they are used in the reporting to point at broader story. At Exeter, we are told, there have been (according to the deceased student’s mother) 11 suicides in the past 6 years. The university responds that “not all of the 11 deaths have been confirmed as suicides by a coroner,” and the head of physics and astronomy said “staff had tried to help Armstrong Evans and that he did not believe more suicides happened at Exeter than at other universities.”

This all sounds very defensive. But the article just leaves these statements there as duelling opinions, whereas some of the university’s claims are assertions of fact, which the journalists could have checked objectively. In particular, what about the claim that no more suicides happen at Exeter than at other universities?

While suicide rates for specific universities are not easily accessible, we do have national suicide rates broken down by age and gender (separately). Nationally, we see from ONS statistics that suicide rates have been roughly constant over the past 20 years, and that there were 11 suicides per 100,000 population in Britain in 2021. That is, 16/100,000 among men and 5.5/100,000 among women. In the relevant 20-24 age group the rate was also 11. Averaged over the previous 6 years the suicide rate in this age group was 9.9/100,000; if the gender ratio was the same, then we get 14.4/100,000 men and 5.0/100,000 women.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the total number of person years of students between the 2015/2016 and 2020/2021 academic years were 81,795 female, 69,080 male, and 210 other. This yields a prediction of around 14.5 deaths by suicide in a comparable age group over a comparable time period. Thus, if the number 11 in six years is correct, it is still fewer deaths by suicide at the University of Exeter than in comparable random sample of the rest of the population.

It’s not that this young man’s family should be content that this is just one of those things that happens. There was a system in place that should have protected him, and it failed. Students are under a lot of stress, and need support. But non-students are also under a lot of stress, and also need support. It’s not that the students are being pampered. They definitely should have institutionalised well-trained and sympathetic personnel they can turn to in a crisis. Where where are the “personal tutors” for the 20-year-olds who aren’t studying, but who are struggling with their jobs, or their families, or just the daily grind of living? And what about the people in their 40s and 50s, whose suicide rates are 50% higher than those of younger people?

Again, it would be a standard conservative response to say, We don’t get that support, so no one should get it. Suck it up! A more compassionate response is to say, students obviously benefit from this support, so let’s make sure it’s delivered as effectively as possible. And then let’s think about how to ensure that everyone who needs it gets helped through their crises.

Diwali sweets and the tofu-eating wokerati

I’m always fascinated by the way foods define people’s identities — their own and other people’s — and particularly how they are politicised, used to recognise one’s own folk and reject the Other. Bush-era attacks on “latte-sipping liberals” made a big impression on me (“sipping” was a good touch there — not just expensive coffee, but effeminate sipping), as did the scandalised mockery of Obama when he remarked in 2008 on the price of arugula. (According to some, arugula was also effeminate.)

I find the ethnic dimension particularly interesting. It is no coincidence that these two foods that lefties were ridiculed for consuming have Italian names. Jews, of course, have always been attacked for their exotic food preferences, as with the probably anti-Semitic attack on Ed Miliband for looking insufficiently natural when eating a bacon sandwich.

Nowhere is the political valence of ethnic foods more complex than with Britain’s Asian population. Whereas I grew up in the US thinking “Asian” meant by default Chinese and Japanese, in the UK the term refers primarily to the former colonies of Indian subcontinent. Hence the justified pride, in the whole country, in the Indian community, and particularly among the conservatives, in having the first prime minister from an Asian background.

Interestingly, this was emphasised by the King providing Diwali sweets (marking this week’s Hindu festival) when Sunak visited the palace recently. But these gestures of pride and acceptance are not extended to Asians and their foods when their heritage is not British colonial. Particularly striking was the attack in Parliament just last week by the Tory Home Secretary on the “tofu-eating wokerati”.

Hindus can be good Britons and eat Diwali sweets, but those who indulge in other Asian foods are foreign, most especially if they don’t even have the excuse of ancestry. At least the Chinese eat pork…

Conservatives ❤️ Jews

Tory foreign secretary and leading candidate for party leader has been expressing her admiration for my people! Apparently we’re really good with money, and we look out for our own. Things that Conservatives love:

At the same time, she set out her own view of Jewish values, saying: “So many Jewish values are Conservative values and British values too, for example seeing the importance of family and always taking steps to protect the family unit; and the value of hard work and self-starting and setting up your own business.

When it comes to a general election I look forward to her praising Black Britons’ uncomplicated joy in life and sense of rhythm.

It’s an esteem shared by many conservatives. Donald Trump famously loved the Jews, because they’re all a bunch of sharp-elbowed greedsters. He promised in his first campaign that he would be greedy for the United States, and he expected the Jews to be greedy for him. He put this on full display in his 2019 speech to the Israeli American Council, where he told the main Jewish audience, apparently approvingly, that

You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all… Some of you don’t like me. Some of you I don’t like at all, actually. And you’re going to be my biggest supporters because you’re going to be out of business in about 15 minutes if [Democrats are elected].

Back in his businessman days there was this racist twofer where he told the head of one of his casinos

I’ve got black accountants at Trump Castle and at Trump Plaza. Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. Those are the kind of people I want counting my money. Nobody else.

It’s that kind of keen appreciation for the admirable qualities of the Hebrews that got Trump named — by himself — “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life”.

The urtext of the modern Anglo-American welfare state

In George Minois’s History of Old Age I noticed this passage from the 5th century Christian writer Salvian of Marseille:

Those who commit [these sins] have grown old, furthermore, they have become poor: two circumstances which only serve to worsen their crime, for sinning in youth, sinning in wealth is a much less surprising matter. What hope, what remedy can there be for these men who are not turned away from their habitual impurity either by indigence or by declining age?

We expect the rich to be pigs, but the poor are obliged to set a good example for the rest of us. It’s interesting that we tend to be much more explicit in winking at the occasional depravity of youth, explaining it away with their not-yet-fully-developed mental faculties, and their ability to learn and grow into a more responsible maturity. We also connive at all manner of crimes and misdemeanours from the rich, without ever expecting of them that they will some day be poor and well-behaved. I think, because there are no more cakes and ale, that thou shalt be virtuous…

The usual suspects

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has raised some hackles with his recent comment that Hitler “had Jewish origins,” and “that the biggest antisemites are the Jews themselves.”

It’s a pretty obvious point. European civilisation has come to the nearly unanimous consensus that antisemitism is among the most terrible scourges of humanity. It is, in the words of Pope Francis, a “great evil”, hateful, “disgusting” (Keir Starmer), and ultimately destructive of human rights and dignity of all people.

Hitler was mankind’s ultimate villain, indifferent to human life in pursuit of his last schemes to control the world, and we all know where that kind of person goes to pray.* And really, once you’ve acknowledged how corrosive and malign antisemitism is, the question answers itself, who must be responsible for creating it, and likely pulling the strings behind the scenes to promote it…

[For another example of the Jews are the real antisemites and white racists are the new Israel trope, see this post.]

* No one ever stops to wonder whether AH’s well-known vegetarian diet was just a devious choice for avoiding a certain kind of meat…

The Rwandan Shabbos elevator

Comments on the present Tory government’s contempt for the law have tended to focus on the prime minister’s lockdown parties, or his bribes for home redecorating, or his lying to Parliament. But there has been nothing so explicit and brazen as the prime minister defending a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda to await decisions on their cases, as a necessary defence against “a formidable army of politically motivated lawyers”. Rather like the US sending prisoners to be tortured abroad — or doing it themselves in the law-free zone of Guantanamo — he is saying that our legal protections for asylum seekers are too onerous (when lefty lawyers have the audacity to actually use them) so we’re going to evade the law by sending the people to another jurisdiction where they don’t apply. Rather than simply change the law to match what he believes ought to be done, providing clarity and confidence to all concerned.

Which brings me to… the Shabbos elevator. One of the things that makes Orthodox Judaism seem bizarre to us Liberal Jews is its never-ending struggle to put one over on God. The Torah is full of rules and regulations — 613 of them according to one popular enumeration — and these are variously extended, expanded, and interpreted in various rabbinical texts and traditions to form the quasi-legal corpus known as halakha. Orthodox Jews commit themselves to obeying all of these precepts, which immediately leads — because some of them (like the ban on carrying anything outside or making a flame — interpreted to include electricity — on Shabbat) are quite onerous, some (like the prohibition against borrowing money at interest and the requirement to cancel all debts every seventh year) inconvenient, and others (like the ban on clothing made of mixed fabrics) simply bizarre — devote vast stores of legalistic ingenuity to evading these rules.

Thus you see the Orthodox tying wires — an eruv — around whole neighbourhoods, or even a large part of a city, to define it as a single “household”, where objects may be carried and journeys are permitted on Shabbat. They formally transfer their loans to a rabbinical court to avoid the required cancellation of debts in the Sabbatical year. They put their electric lights on automatic timers on Shabbat. And in hotels and apartment blocks — particularly, but not only, in Israel — they continue to use elevators that are specially designed to stop on every floor on Shabbat (to avoid needing to activate electrical buttons).

In his book The Shabbat Elevator, and other Sabbath subterfuges, the folklore scholar Alan Dundes considers the question of why the same people would have a set of overly strict customs, and then “counter customs” that relax the strictures. Within the framework of Jewish tradition the explanation is simple: The halakha is not a mere custom, it is the perfect law of God, and so must be followed. To the letter. Not, though, in spirit, because interpreting the spirit is beyond the capacity of mortal man. We are responsible for obeying the exact perfect words as passed on to us from God through our ancestors. These tricks may seem bizarre and counterintuitive, but if God wanted us to behave differently he would have formulated his Torah differently.

To a liberal Jew this seems kind of crazy. Our ancestors collectively created the law, and we do not respect it by evasion. We respect it by updating it. That forces us to acknowledge what we are doing, and to justify it, to ourselves and to our community.

And so it is with refugee law in Britain. If the UK government finds the law inappropriate, if it admits what they consider abuse by lefty lawyers, then they are free to use their majority in parliament to change the law, and to remove the legal rights and protections that refugees currently enjoy. To leave the law in place, but to evade it by sending the asylum-seekers to a country where they are not legally protected is bizarre and pointless, except as way of avoiding responsibility for the moral principles that their ancestors encoded into British law.

Actors and financiers

The New Statesman has published an extended interview of Tony Blair by… the Welsh actor Michael Sheen. I found it a bizarre prospect. I know nothing about Sheen — I saw him in a film once — but I’m pretty sure if I wanted to hear Blair’s opinions, an actor would be one of the last interlocutors on my list. (A judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on the other hand, would be right near the top.) What is it about actors, particularly film actors, that makes people want to rub up close to them and insert them into all kinds of roles for which they are in no way especially qualified or even interesting?

Michael Sheen and Tony Blair

My use of the word role there may suggest part of the reason: Even if actors are generally not especially intelligent, or insightful, or capable of repairing a leaky faucet, and their life experience is less relevant to the concerns of average people than pretty much anyone else’s — academics such as myself excepted — actors are used to playing the part of people who are intelligent or insightful or capable of fixing a leaky faucet, and perhaps they convey the superficial image of holding an intelligent conversation, even when they are utterly banal. (Just to be clear, I’m not saying that actors are unusually stupid: I have met some reasonably intelligent and interesting actors, and heard interviews with an occasional few who seemed genuinely fascinating. Only that their professional accomplishments give me no more expectation of their competence in any other area — or of them having anything interesting to say on any subject other than theatre and film — than members of any other profession or none.

It occurred to me, that there is an analogy to the perverse role of the finance industry. Money is sticky. That is, a significant fraction of the money running through the banks sticks to the people who handle it. It’s not at all obvious that the people who are responsible for investing and manipulating rich people’s money should themselves become rich. There is a German expression about the opposite expectation, “Pfarrers Kind und Müllers Vieh/ Gedeihen selten oder nie”: The preacher’s child and the miller’s livestock/ Will as good as never thrive. But we accept that there’s no way to prevent the people who are close to the money day in and day out from siphoning much of it into their own pockets. According to some estimates financial services in the US absorb a full 20% of all corporate income in the US.

Actors have a similar position in the attention economy. Attention is sticky. Their main job is to attract attention. And once they have the attention of a large public, the attention sticks to them, personally, even when they transition to activities that no sensible person would want to pay attention to.