Friday
Jun132014

Good News for the Gluten Sensitive 

This is a short one. The science speaks for itself.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat that gives bread dough its resilience. Without gluten, bread would be crumbly and would fail to rise. Protein levels in wheat vary from around 10% up to the high teens, with so-called “heritage” varieties, the oldest types, having some of the highest levels in general.

There are certain people, slightly less than 1% of the population, who have a specific allergic reaction to gluten called celiac disease. In celiac sufferers gluten causes inflammation of the cilia, the tiny hairlike projections in the intestines, which prevents them from absorbing nutrients. Celiac sufferers experience severe gastrointestinal symptoms and chronic malnutrition unless they eliminate all gluten containing foods from their diets.

Early in 2011 a researcher published a study establishing the concept of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS. It was a set of less-severe gastrointestinal (and other) symptoms associated with the consumption of gluten. A cardiologist published a popular book (filled with errors of fact) on the subject later in 2011 and the idea took off.

Now there is a 10.5 billion dollar industry in the United States that fills entire sections of supermarkets with gluten free food. Any food item in the store that just happens to be gluten free is so labeled. Restaurants now carry gluten free options.

Jessica R. Biesiekierski, the researcher who performed that 2011 study on non-celiac gluten sensitivity, published a new study in 2013 with more participants and a more rigorous protocol. The results were a reversal of the previous study. Gluten did not cause symptoms in the individuals studied, and various biomarkers (signs of inflammatory response) had no relationship to gluten consumption.

Take a cue from the Japanese. They import 3.5 million metric tons of our wheat every year and consume wheat at a higher rate per capita than we do. They are less obese, healthier, and live longer. So be happy; have a bagel or some whole wheat toast. Maybe a plate of linguine arrabbiata. And stop worrying about gluten.

Monday
May262014

Vegetarian at the Abbattoir 

I’d like to change the pace with a negative restaurant review, plus a Philippic aimed at complacent, traditional chefs in general.  

In my experience, being a vegetarian at a restaurant is generally an exercise in diminished expectations. There are a few out there that focus on us as a demographic, and they tend to do reasonably well. Most, however, seem to view us as an afterthought; second class citizens of the culinary republic. I actually went to one chef-owned restaurant where the only thing on the menu I could eat was “frites” (expensive French fries).  Even the salads had meat in them.

I recently visited Kismet, an upscale restaurant in Montpelier Vermont. I later remembered that after the last time I had been there, a couple of years before, I had vowed to avoid the place. They just don’t seem to give a damn about vegetarians.

On my previous visit I had ordered a veggie burger. Kind of anomalous for an upscale joint, but then the fancy places have been elevating the burger to pretentious heights lately. What showed up was essentially inedible. First, it was a double stacked arrangement with three bun pieces, two burgers, and other ingredients. It was a normal burger diameter but it stood about five inches tall. It was suitable for a crocodile or a python with a dislocatable jaw, but not for a normal human mouth. Maybe the chef was being artistic in some Dadaist way, but it needed disassembly before consumption, and that’s not what a burger is about. Then there were the burgers, or to be more accurate, non-burgers.  They were half inch thick pieces of plain fried tempeh. Boring, unappetizing, and demonstrating no interest in, or mastery of cooking. I mean really, I was paying something like $17 for this, and they couldn’t mix up some kind of flavor-enhanced veggie burger? I gently noted to the server that tempeh wasn’t a burger, and that a burger should fit in the mouth of the species homo sapiens.

On my more recent visit to Kismet I ordered some kind of veggie and grain plate. Again with the plain fried slabs o’ tempeh. Add a dollop of plain rice, some unflavored steamed vegetables, a few canned condiments, and you have what I might prepare at home if I was pressed for time and filled with self-loathing. They managed to make fiddleheads unappetizing. It was a complete culinary face-plant. I felt a strange mixture of annoyance and actual embarrassment for the chef.

My dinner companion at Kismet had baked oysters and a ribeye steak and pronounced himself eminently satisfied. My appetizer was polenta fries, which were very good – crispy and chewy and slightly spicy. The chef was not incompetent, which made the abysmal main course that much more irritating.

Note to chefs: tempeh, and its blander cousin tofu, are not complete food items unto themselves. They are vehicles for flavoring and protein rich filler to be mixed with more interesting things. Pitching an unadorned slab of fermented soybeans at one of your customers is a gesture of contempt. No, I don’t have any recipe suggestions. You are, theoretically, professionals, and should know the full spectrum of your craft.

Yes, I know, *real* gourmets are eager to eat goat anus tartare on a bed of pickled larks eyeballs. Vegetarianism is for Buddhist ascetics and animal rights freaks who disapprove of plungering food down the throats of waterfowl. Throw a bowl of rice at them and move on to your real customers, the carnivores.

May I suggest that you are being lazy? Cooking with meat is like making jewelry with gold – the intrinsic characteristics of the material get you halfway home. Start with a good piece of steak, or swordfish, or some prime oysters, and even simple preparation will satisfy the customer. The grains and produce that make up the bulk of a vegetarian diet lack the intensity and complexity of flavor that let you coast to victory with a little lemon butter. You need imagination and you need to work at it to surpass our quotidian home cooking. There, the oven mitt is thrown down.

Note to restaurant owners: I have noticed that when groups of people are deciding on a restaurant, there is generally a democratic vote, but with a veto option. If one person “hates that place,” then it gets dropped from the running. Quite often there is a vegetarian in the group, our veto power giving us more clout than our numbers would have you suppose. When one of our carnivorous friends suggests that we all dine at “L’Abbattoir Sanguinaire” we are going to suggest the place down the street. A friend of mine recently suggested either Kismet or a more vegetarian-friendly place nearby for lunch, and my response was predictable. Unless you run that place down the street, it’s past time for you to up your game.

Friday
May232014

Driving Nails With Scissors 

There was a bill that that was going through the Vermont legislature this last session, H.883, which proposed to consolidate Vermont school districts. It would have eventually reduced Vermont’s 270 districts down to 50. Advocates pointed to long term cost savings, better ability to serve students, and equality of funding. Opponents cast doubt on these points and mourned the loss of local control. H.883 went back and forth, got diluted, and eventually died in the House at the eleventh hour. And there was much rejoicing.

My take is that we are trying to solve the wrong problems. I see this debate as people trying to drive nails with a pair of scissors and arguing about how to sharpen the scissors.

First, everyone is missing the point on funding, both in terms of amount and equality. Taxation ought to be based a person’s ability to pay. We tax people for school funding according to the value of their real estate holdings. Sure, through Act 60 we have shared money across towns and income adjusted to some extent, but the system is a kludge. The saying is that it took the tax burden off of poor people in poor towns and put it on poor people in rich towns.

Taxing people according to real estate value worked a century or more in the past, when income was hard to track and most people farmed. Real estate value was a decent bellwether for income; more acres equaled more crops. Now the situation is inverted. Few people farm, income is easy to track, and there is no strong connection between real estate value and ability to pay. With your average dairy farmer it is inverse. Current use taxation helps, but let’s just admit it: the most income sensitive tax is an income tax.

We should be collecting all education tax as an add-on to the income tax at the state level. It would be collected by the state but it would belong to the schools. It should be distributed to schools on a per pupil basis, with a multi-year rolling average to prevent funding shocks. We could put aside a percentage as a dedicated education rainy day fund to even out economic dips.

From H.883:

“At the same time, technology and globalization and other societal demands are changing what our students need to know and be able to do in order to contribute to building a strong economic and civic future for the State. Notably, our students need to acquire what are generally called “21st century skills,” which include the ability to innovate, adapt, handle nonroutine problems, reason from evidence, synthesize and analyze complex data, work confidently with technology, collaborate in teams, and communicate effectively through a variety of media.”

Our schools aren’t designed to do this. The fundamental structure of the K-12 school hasn’t changed in a hundred years or more. I once heard it said that our schools are doing a wonderful job – of training the farm kids of the 1890s to do the factory jobs of 1910. The present structure is focused on obedience, repetition, tolerance of boredom, alienation from nature and community, fear of failure, obsession with time limits, and the categorization of students according to the needs of moribund heavy industry. Most schools resemble medium security prisons and operate much the same, despite the best intentions of educators. The structure, both physical and rule-based, overwhelms the occupants.

And what about those time limits?

Here are a couple of statements I think everybody can agree on: Each student learns a subject at a different rate of speed. That rate will vary according to the sub-section of the subject being studied and the physical and mental state of the student at the time. A student will not learn all subjects at the same rate of speed. One student might have an easier time with math and a harder time with reading and another student just the opposite.

Obvious to the point of utter banality, you might say. I agree.

So why do we force all students to learn all subjects at the same rate of speed? Most states define a school year at 180 days. We can observe that some students master a subject in far less than 180 days. They get bored and waste time. Others might need 200 or 250 or 300 days to master the same subject. They are rushed through the subject matter, tested, branded as failures (or partial failures), and spit out the other end of their grade level to endure the frustration and humiliation again the next year.

I read a parable somewhere about an infant learning to walk. The kid grabs onto a table leg and pulls herself upright. She lets go, takes a few wobbly steps, and falls down. At this point she realizes that she is a failure at walking and crawls on all fours for the rest of her life, as we all do. Of course not. She grabs onto the table leg again and repeats the process until she can walk. Short of an actual physical disability, she will eventually walk, run, jump, and scare the crap out of her parents by climbing things. This is because small children don’t have a concept of failure. We have to teach them that. And we do.

One of the ways we do this is by imposing arbitrary time limits on learning. It’s useful for beating down children into a state of docile self-doubt and filtering for industrial productivity. It’s also convenient for administrators, but last time I checked we didn’t create and maintain schools for the convenience of administrators. Except that we do.

Another way we teach failure is through standardized testing. Standardized testing will not work until someone invents the standardized child. Until that mythical time we are merely distracting students and teachers from real learning. What we get are snapshots of a teacher’s ability to jam a student into an artificial framework under time pressure, and the student’s willingness and ability to be so jammed, combined with the student’s physical and mental state at the time of the test. It is like one of those snapshots that catches you with one eye closed and your mouth twisted into a palsied rictus.

We should get rid of grades and grading. Segregating students by age and ramrodding them all through academic material at the same speed is patently idiotic. We all know this is unrealistic, and yet we accept it. Testing them all on a particular day at a particular hour and considering this an accurate indicator of their mastery of a subject is just as idiotic. A student should be able to study a subject until he or she achieves mastery of it and then move on. Perhaps a particular student might take four years to learn what we now call 9th grade reading. At least the student ends up being able to read.

To consolidate, or not to consolidate, that is the irrelevant question. Fifty school districts based on the present educational foundation would be just as abusive and pointless as 270 districts. It’s an administrative question, not an educational one. Those fifty putative districts would be just as poorly funded.

We need to look past the wreckage of our present system, think about what outcomes we want for the children of Vermont and build schools based on how children actually learn.

Saturday
Mar292014

Rumble Strip Vermont 

I’d like to bring your attention to a remarkable website. True, it was created by a friend of mine, but I have always had the option of ignoring it. I visited it just recently and it was so much fun I thought I’d share it with you.

The site is Rumble Strip Vermont and it is run by Erica Heilman. Erica records conversations with people, edits them, and puts them online. Professionally she is a private investigator, although you’d never guess it when you meet her. This is probably one reason why she is a good investigator. She’s a great conversationalist, which is what her kind of investigation is all about.

The result is a lot of seemingly ordinary people talking about their lives; hobbies, professions, tragedies, thrills. It is the amazing contained in the quotidian.

The latest installment is some pieces about a local institution, Thunder Road. Thunder Road is a quarter-mile oval track next to a steep hill with concrete bleachers and a beer-drinking and picnicking area above. All our local heroes come out on Thursday nights to drive dangerously and bask in the best glory – fame among friends. Erica gets the story and gets the story right.

Stop in at Rumble Strip Vermont and enjoy. Keep stopping in – I’ve never been disappointed.

Wednesday
Mar052014

Intervention 

So, a nation that was once a semi-autonomous region of a declining empire has something in between a popular uprising and a coup, bringing in a new government hostile to the nearby large nation with a serious military. Said superpower sends in troops on the pretext of protecting members of its society living in that turbulent nation. World leaders in general react negatively, but there’s not much they can do, as the invading nation has a large military and nuclear weapons, as well as a certain amount of economic leverage.

Of course, by now you have now guessed that I am writing about Grenada.

Grenada? You know, the island nation in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela where they grow lots of nutmeg. The one we invaded.

I’ll refresh your memory. Grenada spent a couple of centuries as a British colony before inching its way to independent Commonwealth Nation status in 1974. In 1979 the New Jewel Movement, a Marxist political party, overthrew the elected government and took power. In 1983, a faction of the NJM that thought that the governing group wasn’t Marxist enough had another coup.

At this point the bone of contention with the U.S. was a long runway being built by American, European, and (gasp) Cuban contractors. The Grenadians and Europeans (along with a U.S. congressional investigation) said it was for commercial jets full of tourists. The Reagan administration said it was for military cargo jets full of arms for leftist Central American revolutionaries.

Then there were the medical students. There were a number of U.S. citizens studying at a medical school on the island. When interviewed just before our invasion they said that all was calm and that they were studying for midterms. Reagan decided that they needed rescuing. More accurately, that rescuing them was an excuse that would play well with the slack jawed masses at home.

On October 25th, 1983 we sent in a military force that also included some troops from nearby island nations. It was pretty much a rollover.

Sidebar: As the invasion commenced, Reagan got a call from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, telling him that an invasion would be a violation of international law and an unforgivable attack on the sovereignty of a Commonwealth nation. Consider: When the woman who sent her military to the Falklands, the woman who works in a government that includes Her Majesty the Queen, tells you that you are being too imperialist, listen. Reagan lied to her, as was his habit. Maggie found out about the invasion from other sources. So much for the special relationship.

The United Nations denounced the invasion as "a flagrant violation of international law" in a lopsided vote, with some U.S. aid dependent nations abstaining. Reagan made an offhand comment about the vote not upsetting his breakfast.

We installed a friendly government, which prosecuted the former government and handed out 14 death sentences, and all has been quiet since then. Oddly enough, the Grenadians named their new airport after the Marxist leader who had been killed in the coup of the more Marxist Marxists.

Which, of course, brings me to the Ukraine, Russia, and all that. Putin is a few hairs shy of a dictator, but a popular elected one in a country with a long history of one man rule and a combination of paranoia and resentment towards the west. Ousted Ukrainian president Yanukovich was no gift to clean politics either. The opposition that ousted him was violent and is still riddled with fascist elements. There are indications that the U.S. was and is backing the opposition movement. And so on. The situation is short on black and white.

Putin has scored big points at home and has both Europe and Ukraine by the (short hairs) natural gas pipeline, so he’s feeling good about life. He will learn what all invaders learn; the lesson of the dog that actually catches up with the garbage truck he’s been chasing. Once he has the bumper of a huge truckload of stinking political garbage in his jaws, what does he do with it? The markets have spoken, with a drop in the Russian stock market obliterating something like 10% of its value. (Also a rise in interest rates.) The madness of dealing with a factionalized and passionate group of citizens will become apparent soon enough.

For sure, invading other countries is a bad thing. However, John Kerry and others can SMETFO (spare me the false outrage). Kerry’s statement that Russia shouldn’t just invade another country on trumped up pretenses made him the ultimate straight man waiting for the punchline. I’m not just talking about Iraq, or even Iraq and Grenada. The U.S. and Russia/USSR, along with all of the other great powers in their times of power, have spent their time destabilizing smaller countries, fomenting coups, and outright invading. It’s not right, but let’s not look at the Russian invasion of the Ukraine as some kind of sui generis event. And again, with emphasis, spare me the false outrage.