Summer Reading: Fresh Air From Pollan

I’ve been meaning to tell you more about Michael Pollan. I’ve been planning a post or two about Summer reading, and was going to discuss the books of Michael Pollan to kick off a possible series. That plan was hatched in the late Summer of 2007… then the Fall came, and then the Winter and Spring… then Summer of 2008… never got around to it. Drat. (Checking back, I see that I started the series by talking about Haruki Murakami, here. So I’ll call this part of the series too, even though it is not really Summer.)

Anyway, the good news is that Pollan was on Fresh Air (NPR) yesterday, and as usual he was excellent:

In an open letter to the next president, author Michael Pollan writes about the waning health of America’s food systems — and warns that “the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close.”

The future president’s food policies, says Pollan, will have a large impact on a wide range of issues, including national security, climate change, energy independence and health care.

Here’s the link to the audio. Before you rush off to that, let me continue what I was going to say, at least in brief.

Pollan has risen to prominence, justifiably, mostly as a result of his excellent book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History Of Four Meals”. It is a delightful examination of the food industry, charting the route of much of the food that you eat […] Click to continue reading this post

Help Me! Heeelp Meee!

the fly operaSorry. Didn’t mean to cry wolf, but I always think of that great (as in camp and amusing) ending scene when I think of The Fly. The movie, anyway. (That’s in the original 1958 movie version – clip at bottom of this post.) Now there’s an opera! I am not joking. David Cronenberg has teamed with composer Howard Shore to create an opera. (You know the work of both of them rather well, actually, from film work together, and separately – Shore did the wonderful music for films such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Cronenberg the film director needs no introduction.) I love the play on Da Vinci’s iconic drawing for the production’s publicity and so forth. See above right.

The artists are of the opinion (and I agree, in principle) that the themes visited in the story are powerful and resonant enough for an opera. Science, science ethics, new technology, fear of same, mercy killing… and presumably devotion to a cause, […] Click to continue reading this post


Three things:

(1) Did you, like most people, miss the movie Idiocracy* last year? It looks like yet another lame comedy, but bear with it. It actually isn’t, really. It is one of the best indictments of what seems to be happening to a large part of the core of our society that I’ve seen in a while. You know what I mean… lower and lower thresholds for waiving all sorts of basic things that were once part of our required education… not just the awful spellings on signs that some of us whine about (sometimes too much, I’ll admit), but the necessity to use a severely reduced vocabulary to make yourself understood in the local store…or the lack of patience people (and the media) have for a reasoned, structured argument, focusing rather on looks, personalities or sound-bites (look for example at some the political headline discussions in both US and UK news at this moment)… the worry that fewer and fewer people seem to read a book from time to time**… The fact that nobody who works in stores seems to know anything about the merchandise they are employed to sell you… Or that situation you’ve had where the person behind the counter gets confused and can’t serve you because the item that you want to buy does not have a little picture of it at the checkout that they can click on in order to ring up your order/total…

Well, this film imagines a future where that sort of thing has become the least of your worries. The “dumbing-down” has just continued unabated. Everybody is essentially […] Click to continue reading this post

The Earthquake

[Update 19/05/08: It is expected that well over 50,000 people have died. There are several updates on the NPR sites mentioned below. See a BBC article here for a recent summary.]

Well, they’re estimating 10,000 casualties so far from the earthquake in China that measured magnitude 7.9 on the Richter scale. NPR’s Melissa Block and Robert Siegel were actually in the area when it took place and they are filing lots of reports. Melissa had her equipment running at the time of the quake and so you can hear her reactions here. […] Click to continue reading this post

We Interrupt This Broadcast…

One of my favourite topics to think about, since I was very young, is the effect that direct contact with intelligent alien life would have on our society. It would be transformative, I think, whether it be initially seen as for good or ill. Of course, most imaginings of such an event usually considers the “ill” aspect. I was chatting about the issue recently with a friend of mine while hiking the other day and then I recalled that I forgot to do a blog post on last week’s Sunday night radio listening, part of which was about just this very topic!

war of the worlds tripod illustrationThe show was in two parts (both good… more on the second later) and the first was a 1994 recreation of the classic War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938. You know the one, I hope… It was a CBS radio broadcast by the Mercury Theater company, masterminded and led by Orson Welles, and was a Howard Koch radio adaptation of the 1898 H. G. Wells novel. As you may know, the radio show created a huge panic among the listening audiences at the time, brought on by a combination of the relative newness of the medium (it was done in the style of a series of on-the-scene breathless news reports) and the general atmosphere in world politics at the time. (There’s a rather good Wikipedia collection of information about it here.)

All of this puts me in a nostalgic mood, since during some of my school days I loved that War of the Worlds rock musical concept album by Jeff Wayne from 1978 (I knew of it only in the early to middle 80s), with a star-studded cast of musicians (Justin Hayward, Phil Lynott, Julie Covington, David Essex and Chris Thompson), and the wonderful voice of Richard Burton as the main protagonist (a journalist). Anybody else remember that? From so many listenings to it, I used to be able to sing along to every note and word of that album! Probably still can, even though I’ve not heard it in so long. Altogether now – Uuuu-Laaaa!!!, or Come on Thun-der-child!!… Here’s a Wikipedia link.

Anyway, I highly recommend the recreation of the broadcast. Find an hour and curl up next to your computer and pretend it’s a warm old valve radio. Leonard Nimoy plays […] Click to continue reading this post

The Reply

Explorer 1 SpacecraftToday is the 50th anniversary of the day the USA replied to the world-changing Sputnik launch by the USSR almost four months earlier (see my post), as well as Sputnik 2 (carrying the dog Laika) a month after. In some sense, the space race began in earnest with this launch of the craft called Explorer.

A great thing about the Explorer 1 craft was that it even did some groundbreaking […] Click to continue reading this post

Physics and Whiskey

jameson irish whiskeyBeing a loyal fan of Scottish single malt whisky, I never thought I’d be blogging about Irish whiskey, but this is why we get out of bed in the morning – we seek the stuff we can’t guess*.

So I was going to point out to you an amusing distraction. The series of radio ads for Jameson Irish Whiskey that you can listen to here. There’s one featuring a physicist, you see, and a friend of mine sent me the link for that reason**. There’s the idea of attraction, and so gravity is brought in by the ad man trying to use the concept to sell the product, and the physicist is obviously not having it… a short bit of fun play between segments of some program on some station somewhere or another. I can see that they’d work rather well. Have a listen.

That was going to be it, until I found another – real – physics connection. Turns out that Guglielmo Marconi – he of the use of electromagnetic waves for telegraph communication, Nobel prize, and so forth – is the the key to the connection. Do you know what it is?
[…] Click to continue reading this post

Listen Against

Oh boy. I laughed very loudly in my office at this in many places. I had the door closed, mercifully. I’m sorry, but most of you won’t get this, but I need to let the relative few who’ll find this hilarious know about it. So scroll on down to another post if you’ve no idea why this would be funny for you. Basically, you have to be into Radio, and moreover into BBC Radio. Quite a bit. If you’re familiar with it (especially Radio 4 and Radio 3) then please please please listen to this new program: It’s called Listen Against. It is a remarkably good and hilarious parody of Radio 4 and a host of other […] Click to continue reading this post

A Kick From Sputnik

sputnik1Today’s the 50th anniversary of an event that might be thought of as an extreme way of nationally getting really serious about Science education. Sputnik was launched by the USSR. The little pioneering satellite passed overhead several times a day, sending a powerful beeping signal over a radio channel. America immediately became scared, worried and paranoid and essentially declared it a national emergency to respond by a focus on better education in some science and technical subjects. Songs were written. The entire culture was changed.

Fear and paranoia are certainly not the ways I’d like to see us come back to recognizing the value and urgency of improved science education (not the least […] Click to continue reading this post

Home School

simpsons schoolThis is very interesting to me. I just heard a story (by Nancy Mullane) on NPR’s Weekend Edition about home schooling. (The link is here, and audio will be available at that page shortly). It focuses on the issue that African Americans are the fastest growing group of adopters among minorities in the US. I was also not aware that homeschooling is on a rapid rise.

This raises all sorts of questions for me. Very basic ones. How well does homeschooling work? Does the “product” – an educated person – perform well afterwards, once they’ve rejoined educational settings with the more traditional social environments (colleges and universities). Does the reduced level of social interaction during those homeschooling years have an adverse effect, or is it compensated for by social interaction that presumably takes place after school? Perhaps there are arguments that the reduction in social interaction even helps in some ways? I really don’t know much about this. Do you? I presume there’s all sorts of statistics on this, but I’d be curious to hear a bit of anecdotal discussion in the comments. Perhaps you were homeschooled? Have friends who were? Are homeschooling someone now? Are being homeschooled now? Tell us what you think!

I wonder about this since I’m curious as to whether this results in a different (better, […] Click to continue reading this post

Live Radio Footie Film Fun

football soccer ballradio dynamoSo you’ve already read my opinion about the Bourne Ultimatum after I returned from seeing it on the opening night – (In short, it’s just brilliant!) Well here’s something related that is rather funny, especially if you are a football (soccer) fan, although that is not necessary (I have little or no interest in it myself). If you don’t already listen to Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo every week (most conveniently via their podcast), let me say right away that you should, since it is just an excellent and often highly entertaining discussion of film and movie releases. As a film reviewer, Kermode is not as good with words as, say, the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane (although it is not a fair comparison – the media are different), but his rants can be just great to listen to when he truly hates (and occasionally loves) something -whether you agree with him or not. Simon Mayo is sometimes thought of as his sidekick in this duo, but he’s really the anchor of the whole thing (and often the pragmatic link back to the everyday that keeps the whole show rooted), and from time to time the focus shifts to him. He’s also into his sports, while Kermode is not, which also makes for an amusing backdrop since the broadcast (on Radio 5 Live) is usually done live from some sporting context or other, which takes a sort of backseat role while they talk about movies. Anyway, it is an excellent podcast to listen to every week. I highly recommend it. You can find it on iTunes. (They also have started doing occasional video podcasts too, but the thing to go for is the radio show. – another convenience of it is the fact that you can keep the podcast until after you’ve seen the films if you like (this is what I usually do – I mostly prefer to not hear anything about a film before I see it), and then listen to it and shout at Mark if you so desire.)

film roll images from usdojAs I mentioned, Mayo is a big sports fan, and his team, Tottenham, apparently got slaughtered by Crystal Palace and are now at the bottom of the premier league (can you tell I’m faking this and I’ve no idea what I’m talking about?) The next day, he’s interviewing (not with Kermode though) the director Paul Greengrass and the actor Matt Damon (both of the Bourne […] Click to continue reading this post