I was just rereading Erwin Schrödinger’s pathbreaking 1944 lectures What is Life? which is often praised for its prescience — and influence — on the foundational principals of genetics in the second half of the twentieth century. At one point, in developing the crucial importance of his concept of negative entropy as the driver of life, he remarked on the misunderstanding that “energy” is what organisms draw from their food. In an ironic aside he says
In some very advanced country (I don’t remember whether it was Germany or the U.S.A. or both) you could find menu cards in restaurants indicating, in addition to the price, the energy content of every dish.
How odd that the only biological organisms that Schrödinger is today commonly associated with are cats…
Isaac Asimov, in a side-remark in his Treasury of Humor, mentioned a conversation in which a participant expressed outrage at a politician blathering about “American goals”. “His specialty is jails, not goals,” and then seeming to expect some laughter. It was only on reflection that Asimov realised that the speaker, who was British, had spelled it gaols in his mind.
I was reminded of this by this Guardian headline:
Labour has shifted focus from bingo to quinoa, say swing voters
The words bingo and quinoa look vaguely similar on the page, but they’re not pronounced anything alike. Unlike Asimov’s example, this wordplay is in writing, so spelling is important. My feeling is that wordplay has to be fundamentally sound-based, so this just doesn’t work for me. Maybe the Guardian editors believe in visual wordplay.
Alternatively, maybe they don’t know how quinoa is pronounced.
That was my immediate translation when I saw this headline yesterday:
Theresa May and David Davis to travel to Brussels for urgent Brexit talks
Obviously the British are trying to create an impression of comity with the EU negotiators, to show that misunderstandings are being swept aside, and the negotiations are now going to run smoothly. An impression that is not fostered by this:
Though Downing Street insisted the dinner had long been in May’s diary, EU sources suggested it may have been more last-minute, but were not able to provide confirmation.
On the other hand, given the warnings about the security of post-Brexit food supplies, maybe they were just hoping to get a solid meal.
The Church of England wants people to know the true meaning of Christian faith, which is, apparently, chocolate eggs. Official church spokesmen have attacked Cadbury’s and the National Trust for conducting “egg hunts” without mentioning Easter. It’s just like when Peter denied his Lord three times, and then left his name off the adverts for his Galilee fish shop.
The chocolate-maker retorts “it clearly used the word Easter on its packaging and in its marketing”, and no greater love hath a man than to use his suffering and death in packaging and marketing. But the Archbishop of York* says that’s not enough:
The Archbishop of York said calling the event the Cadbury Egg Hunt was like “spitting on the grave” of the firm’s Christian founder, John Cadbury… He said if people were to visit Cadbury World in Birmingham “they will discover how Cadbury’s Christian faith influenced his industrial output.”
I think we can all agree that Easter is a time for all Christian believers to reflect on industrial output.
And despite the politically correct marketing gobbledegook of the Cadbury’s representatives — “We invite people from all faiths and none to enjoy our seasonal treats” — it is appropriate to expect that people should think of the Church of England when looking at a hollow shell stuffed with unhealthful, cloyingly sweet goo.
I’m reminded of the stories I heard from East Germany about attempts to rechristen the Christmas tree to Jahresendbaum [end-of-year tree] and the traditional angel on top to Jahresendflügelpuppe [end-of-year winged doll]. Christmas itself was supposed to be called Fest des Friedens [festival of peace]. I’m not sure if these were jokes, or whether they referred to genuine government initiatives — maybe both — but here is one report of these designations actually being used, and even compulsory.
* This statement really should have come from the Archbishop of Cadbury…
Reading Richard Evans’s The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815–1914, I discovered this anecdote about Ioannis Kapodistrias, appointed by Russia as governor of Greece in the late 1820s:
He introduced the potato into Greece, in an effort to improve people’s diet. At first, this met with deep skepticism among the peasantry, who refused to take up his offer of free distribution of seed potatoes to anyone who would plant them. Trying a new tactic, Kapodistrias had the potatoes piled up on the waterfront at Nafplio and surrounded by armed guards. This convinced local people and visitors from the countryside that these new vegetables were precious objects, and thus worth stealing. Before long, as the guards turned a blind eye, virtually all the potatoes had been taken — and their future in Greece was assured.
This reminded me of something I read many years ago, in Fernand Braudel’s The Identity of France:
In France, despite its early success, it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that the potato was regarded as truly ‘worthy’ to be eaten, with partisans prepared to defend it on both dietary and culinary grounds… In the géneralité of Limoges, potatoes were originally banned because they were thought to cause leprosy…
The corner was not really turned until the severe famine of 1769-70. The following year, the Academy of Besançon set an essay competition on the subject: “Suggest food plants which might be used in times of famine to supplement those usually eaten.’ All the essays mentioned the potato — notably the winning entry, which came from Parmentier. He then embarked upon a massive propaganda campaign, deploring ‘the mocking humour of our scornful citizens’. He published widely, gave advice on the growing and storing of the potato, organized gourmet dinners in his own home at which nothing but dishes made from potatoes were served…, brought to Paris all the varieties then cultivated in France and had even more shipped from America to give a better selection. He finally obtained from Louis XVI, in 1786, permission to set up an experimental plantation on about 20 hectares just outside Paris in Neuilly, on the untended and infertile soil of the plain of Sablons. It was a complete success. In his efforts to attract consumers, Parmentier concluded that the best method would be to entice people to steal his potatoes. So he ostentatiously had his plantation guarded by the maréchaussée, the local police — but only by day. Similarly, he advised landowners not to force potatoes on their peasants, but to plant one fine field full themselves and ‘expressly forbid anyone to enter’ — a more subtle approach than that of Frederick II of Prussia who sent in the troops to make the peasants plant potatoes.
Is it possible that Kapodistrias knew of Parmentier’s example? I guess so. Was this actually a well-known method for tricking the childish peasants into trying something new? Maybe. Or are these anecdotes, rather, merely recrudescences of a universal myth about how to trick the childish peasants? I’m not interested enough to track down the references…
I’ve been on Sardinia for the past few days. In the supermarket I noticed this:
Of course, in Italian the words caffeine and coffee are more similar than in English, but I never would have thought they would invent what seems like a nonsense word — deteinato — as an adjective for decaffeinated tea. A bit like the way broadcasting on television became, in English, telecast.
I noticed this sign the other day in the Ruhr city of Hagen. It’s an Irish pub whose sign uses a sort of Gothic script that otherwise is used in Germany as a marker of conservative German gastronomy (as on this restaurant in Munich, since 1800), and that is used on pubs and restaurants elsewhere simply to signify “German”, particularly beer. Here, it’s Irish for some reason.
And on top of that, this Irish pub is named for a quintessentially London character (or is it two characters?) in a novel by a Scottish author. At least they got the shamrock right.
I commented before about the weird obsession of journalists with photographing Labour leader Ed Miliband eating bacon sandwiches. Here’s another one. It’s genuinely unclear to me whether this is about demonstrating some kind of general average-Brit bona fides — like when American politicians eat deep-fried corn dogs — or whether it’s more specifically about demonstrating that he’s not too Jewish.
I just spent a week at the Hotel Durant in Berkeley. Around the hallways were prominently displayed advertisements for their in-house restaurant Henry’s. “It’s back,” said the signs. “And better than you remember.” A bit further on the signs boasted of food that was “Fresh, seasonal, and surprisingly delicious.” So, my immediate reaction to all of this is, how close to a gastroenterological vision from Dante (first book) was it before the “extensive remodelling”? Without the “surprisingly” my eyes would just skip over the anodyne advertising copy. As it is, I can’t help but wonder why I should be surprised that they have delicious food, and whether this has anything to do with their protesting too much that the food they now serve is “fresh”.
Obviously, they’re trying to convince survivors of their previous version that it’s worth trying again. Maybe it will work. But those of us who were spared the experience are just left wondering how deep the hole was that they are trying to climb out of.
Update: I mentioned this to an older couple, Berkeley natives, and before I could get very far the following dialogue ensued: