Thursday, October 29, 2015

Pad thai was invented by the decree of a dictator

The year was 1938. Six years earlier, Phibunsongkhram, better known as Phibun in Western historical accounts, had played a prominent role as a military officer in a coup that stripped Thailand’s monarchy of its absolute powers. A year later, he became the equivalent of the Minister of Defense after crushing a rebellion launched by royalists, and in 1938, he became prime minister. ...

Worried about his country’s independence, disintegration, and, most of all, support for his rule, Phibun decided to transform the country’s culture and identity. ...

As part of his campaign, Phibun ordered the creation of a new national dish: pad Thai. ...

The exact origins of pad Thai remain contested. According to some accounts, Phibun announced a competition to create a new, national dish. Phibun’s son, however, told Gastronomica that his family cooked the dish before Phibun made it government policy, although he does not remember who invented it. ...

By releasing a pad Thai recipe and promoting it, Phibun turned one potential take on stir-fried noodles into a national dish. He believed that pad Thai would improve the diet of people who ate mostly rice, and that cooking pad Thai in clean pans would improve national hygiene.

Most of all, Phibun wanted to unify the country by promoting a uniquely Thai dish. ...

Within several years, vendors selling pad Thai filled Thailand’s streets. Phibun’s son called it “Thailand’s first fast food.” ...

The Public Welfare Department distributed recipes and a great number of carts for selling pad Thai, while Phibun banned Chinese and other foreign food vendors as part of his “Buy Thai” campaign. Propagandists launched a campaign with the slogan “Noodle is your lunch.” ...

As for food, history is full of examples of seemingly quintessential dishes with short histories. When we think of Italian food, we think of pizza and spaghetti. Yet tomatoes are not native to Italy and only reached Europe after conquistadors brought them back from South America.

No food is more Irish than potatoes. Except that when potatoes first reached Britain, people thought that they, like all roots, were only fit for animals. “The poor of Europe,” Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire, has said, “had to be bludgeoned into adopting the potato in the 17th and 18th century.”

“How long does it take to create a cuisine?” writes Laudan. “Not long: less than fifty years, judging by past experience.”
--Alex Mayyasi, Priceonomics, on manufactured culinary identity. HT: Marginal Revolution

Monday, October 19, 2015

Sensitivity to loud chewing might be a psychiatric disorder

People who have an extreme aversion to specific noises—most often “mouth sounds” such as chewing or lip-smacking, but also noises such as foot-tapping, pen-clicking or sniffing—suffer from a condition called misophonia. While many people find some everyday sounds annoying, misophonia—in which the sensitivity disrupts a person’s life—may affect up to 20% of the population, researchers say.

There is a current debate among physicians whether it should be a psychiatric disorder. ...

People who have misophonia often have symptoms of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression, although the researchers don't know if one causes the other, the study found. ...

The experts are clear: The person who is annoyed by the sounds is the one who needs to change and learn coping skills. If others accommodate you by changing the way they eat, they are only enabling you. ...

A form of cognitive behavioral therapy, called “exposure and response prevention,” has been shown to be effective for misophonia sufferers. The client is exposed to chewing sounds gradually—first on a tape, then from a stranger in the room and finally from his or her loved one. “After repeated exposure, they see they can tolerate it,” Ms. Wu says.
--Elizabeth Bernstein, WSJ, on having to live and let live

Harry Potter and Jane Eyre as sacred texts

During orientation at Harvard Divinity School here in 2013, Angie Thurston wandered amid the tables set up by the various campus ministries. Catholic, Methodist, Muslim — they mostly served to reinforce the sense that Ms. Thurston did not fit into an organized religion.

Here she was, starting her graduate studies in religion when she did not know the definition of liturgy, had never read the Bible and could not have identified a major theologian like Karl Barth, even if it would have won her a fortune on “Jeopardy!” Yet something in organized religion hinted at an answer to the atomized, unmoored life she led. ...

Now in her final year at Harvard, Ms. Thurston is a central figure in a boomlet of students who are secular or unaffiliated with any religious denomination, commonly known as “nones,” attending divinity school. While Harvard may be the center, nones can be found at other divinity schools around the country, especially those inclined toward theologically and politically liberal Protestantism, like Chicago Theological Seminary. ...

The group that Ms. Thurston helped start, Harvard Religious Nones, includes almost 70 people on its email list and regularly attracts 20 people to its meetings, not insignificant in a divinity school with 350 students. The divinity school also has a humanist group with about a half-dozen members.

One of her classmates, Casper ter Kuile, and a recent divinity school graduate, Vanessa Zoltan, teach a weekly course together for about 55 people on “Harry Potter” as a sacred text at the off-campus Humanist Hub. ...

With a divinity school professor, Stephanie Paulsell, [Zoltan] did an independent study in “Jane Eyre” as a holy book.
--Samuel Freedman, NYT, on the universal human need to worship


Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things -- if they are where you tap real meaning in life -- then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already -- it's been codified as myths, proverbs, cliches, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power -- you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.
--David Foster Wallace on what we worship

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Myers-Brigg test is crap

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is probably the most widely used personality test in the world. ...

The only problem? The test is completely meaningless.

"There's just no evidence behind it," says Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who's written about the shortcomings of the Myers-Briggs previously. "The characteristics measured by the test have almost no predictive power on how happy you'll be in a situation, how you'll perform at your job, or how happy you'll be in your marriage." ...

...the test was developed in the 1940s based on the totally untested theories of Carl Jung and is now thoroughly disregarded by the psychology community. ... Several analyses have shown the test is totally ineffective at predicting people's success in various jobs, and that about half of the people who take it twice get different results each time. ...

CPP, the company that publishes the test, has three leading psychologists on their board, but none of them have used it whatsoever in their research. "It would be questioned by my academic colleagues," Carl Thoresen, a Stanford psychologist and CPP board member, admitted to the Washington Post in 2012. ...

The Myers-Briggs is useful for one thing: entertainment. There's absolutely nothing wrong with taking the test as a fun, interesting activity, like a BuzzFeed quiz.
--Joseph Stromberg and Estelle Caswell, Vox, on gussied up astrology. HT: JL

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Toyota pickup trucks: The right choice for a zombie apocalypse


The Treasury Department's Terror Financing Unit has launched an inquiry into why the Toyota Hilux is the ISIS jihad ride of choice. “Regrettably, the Toyota Land Cruiser and Hilux have effectively become almost part of the ISIS brand,” Mark Wallace, CEO of the Counter Extremism Project and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told ABC News. ...

To be fair, this isn't new to ISIS. The Toyota truck has been the easy-to-obtain, harder-to-destroy truck of choice for paramilitary ventures since the 1980s. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, Libyans, Chadians, the Free Syrian Army, U.S. Special Forces, and the Islamic State all share in common their preference for the Japanese-made vehicle, known as "the technical." They can be smashed, plunked into the ocean, buried in sand, shot at, burned, and still start dependably. (You can pick your armor-plated model here). ...

As former Army Ranger Andrew Exum told Newsweek in 2010, “The Toyota Hilux is everywhere. It’s the vehicular equivalent of the AK-47. It’s ubiquitous to insurgent warfare." A New York Times report from 2001 triangulated that analogy with the Al Qaeda grunts addicted to the trucks. ...

Some features of the Hilux to note: When conducting guerrilla-style warfare in hostile desert climes, a solid wheelbase and "stout" chassis are foundational requirements. Yet, something light and fast needs to be able to fit a small army, and loot. Thankfully, there's a king cab option with extended bed in Nebula Blue. Patrolling a caliphate the size of Belgium? A 21-gallon fuel tank will get you over to the next village you plan to seize.
--Nathan Pemberton, New York, on the downside of great engineering

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

DNA testing: The Abominable Snowman is a bear

No one has ever found conclusive proof of the Abominable Snowman, because it isn’t a man but a bear. According to a genetic study published by Britain’s Royal Society in 2014, DNA from two different alleged samples shows that the yeti is almost certainly a bear, either a new species or a hybrid between a brown bear and an ancient polar bear.
--Amanda Foreman, WSJ, on unanticipated scientific advances

Monday, October 5, 2015

Most recycling doesn't help the environment

In 1996, I wrote a long article for The New York Times Magazine arguing that the recycling process as we carried it out was wasteful. I presented plenty of evidence that recycling was costly and ineffectual, but its defenders said that it was unfair to rush to judgment. ...

So, what’s happened since then? While it’s true that the recycling message has reached more people than ever, when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all.

Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. ... The mood is so gloomy that one industry veteran tried to cheer up her colleagues this summer with an article in a trade journal titled, “Recycling Is Not Dead!” ...

New York and other cities instruct people to rinse the bottles before putting them in the recycling bin, but the E.P.A.’s life-cycle calculation doesn’t take that water into account. That single omission can make a big difference, according to Chris Goodall, the author of “How to Live a Low-Carbon Life.” Mr. Goodall calculates that if you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere. ...

One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis because there was no room left in the nation’s landfills. But that media-inspired fear was never realistic in a country with so much open space. In reporting the 1996 article I found that all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing. ...

With the economic rationale gone, advocates for recycling have switched to environmental arguments. ...

...recycling operations have their own environmental costs, like extra trucks on the road and pollution from recycling operations. ...

According to the E.P.A.’s estimates, virtually all the greenhouse benefits — more than 90 percent — come from just a few materials: paper, cardboard and metals like the aluminum in soda cans. ...

Once you exclude paper products and metals, the total annual savings in the United States from recycling everything else in municipal trash — plastics, glass, food, yard trimmings, textiles, rubber, leather — is only two-tenths of 1 percent of America’s carbon footprint.

As a business, recycling is on the wrong side of two long-term global economic trends. For centuries, the real cost of labor has been increasing while the real cost of raw materials has been declining. ...

Recyclers have tried to improve the economics by automating the sorting process, but they’ve been frustrated by politicians eager to increase recycling rates by adding new materials of little value. The more types of trash that are recycled, the more difficult it becomes to sort the valuable from the worthless.