Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Lunch

Lynne scored this beautiful fish kettle at Ashley's. When she pointed out that it had a small dent on the lid, they gave it to her for $180. (List = 1300.)

So we stuffed an arctic char with shrimp, mussels, and clams (see Marcella Hazan) and baked it. Fabulous. Next time, though, I might experiment by skipping the parchment paper and letting the kettle do the job of concentrating the heat.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Very Big Crime in Canada

"Police have made a breakthrough in the headline-grabbing heist of millions of dollars’ worth of maple syrup from a warehouse in Quebec.
"Quebec provincial police said the three individuals are to appear in court in Trois-Rivières Tuesday in connection with the massive theft from a maple-syrup warehouse in St-Louis-de-Blandford.
"The Sûreté du Québec said they also seized vehicles suspected of having served to transport the stolen maple syrup as well as equipment. Some two-thirds of the lucrative condiment has been recovered, say police."
So there, you Americans.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

When Friends Review Friends

I just got through reading The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. It is regularly described as a “novel”. It is not. It took me not quite all of an afternoon to read; it is perhaps 30,000 words long; it shows no interest in characters that don’t move the plot along; it has no description of social or political matters outside of the personal (e.g., sexual mores in the sixties). It is a novella. (On Chesil Beach is the same, by the way.) I didn’t know that they gave the Man Booker Prize to novellas.
As a novella, it is a brilliant. It is a reflection on the suicide of a clever young existentialist philosopher, Adrian, by the narrator, who had hero-worshipped him in school. We get three explanations of the suicide, each deeper and more poignant than the last, and each implicating the narrator himself in a progressively more disturbing way.
Colm Tóibin reviewed the book for the New York Review of Books. Now, I wonder at this choice. Tóibin and Barnes are part of a tiny literary elite in England, and neither is going to say anything negative about the other—and certainly not in an international journal. The review, however, is revealing, because it wallows in the social and sexual insecurities of middle class English boys who have been educated in a slightly aspirational way. Sent to a state school, they would perhaps have become vulgar, loud, and sexually confident. Sent to a “public” school, they are frozen in the complexities of the English class system, where a kiss is anything but just a kiss. In Tóibin’s mind, Barnes’s work is a prose version of poems by Philip Larkin, who is quoted or alluded to more than once in the novella:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
I am interested in how Tóibin (who, by the way, is a novelist of considerably greater distinction than Barnes—no indictment of Barnes) treats the book. One of his themes is, if I may say so, obviously false. He suggests more than once that the narrator of The Sense of an Ending reflects wisely on his past. This is just wrong. The point is that the narrator’s (bad) character is gradually uncovered and revealed by the sheer self-centred obtuseness of his reflections on his past and his dopey insensitivity to all around him. ("You don't get it. You never will. Why don't you stop trying?" says a former girl-friend.)

More importantly, I was fascinated by how Tóibin reveals his judgement. If you take one wrong view of Barnes, he says, you might ”see the plot as thin and somewhat contrived,” and the novella itself as “a quintessential English novel of its age, well made, low on ambition, and filled with restraint”. If you take another wrong view, you will find it “oddly thin and under-imagined.” (Hmm . . . if these views are so wrong, why mention them at all? Because they are not so very far-fetched?)
So what’s the right view? “Barnes’s novel, then, is not about England or about loss, but it is an attempt to find a language and a formal structure in the novel that will allow one man to make sense of things in the abstract, but also in his own voice . . . a strange and oddly powerful book.”
Oddly powerful.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day in the Summer of Lobster

According to Sam Sifton, this is the tenth consecutive year of record lobster catches in Maine. Here in Canada, we think Maine lobster is the bland version of the supreme Maritime lobster, which lives in the cold waters of the Newfoundland current, rather than the warm Gulf stream of Maine. (OK, fact-checkers, come and get me.) Lobster is selling at $7 per pound here in Toronto.
Sifton may be challenged in where he buys lobster, but he has a superb recipe. As almost everybody knows, shellfish MUST be spicy, piquante spicy (Indian-hot, as we say in Toronto). And Sifton, with impeccable taste, offers us Singapore Chili Lobster, a recipe true to that great city and its great Tamil culture, but unknown there (though only because lobster is).
This being Father's Day (which Sifton was celebrating), I made Singapore lobster for lunch. I bought cooked lobster, and so modified his recipe. Here's what I did.
2 1-kilo Nova Scotia lobsters
375 ml good white wine
Small bottle of clam juice
2 tbsp chiffonade of mint
2 thinly sliced shallots
Tarragon, thyme, bay leaf, tomato paste
Good soya sauce, Sriracha sauce
1/2 cup sliced scallions, two chopped Thai birds-eye red peppers
Separate heads of lobsters, and extract meat from claws. Cut tails into 1" sections.
Put heads and claw shells in pot with wine, clam juice, sprig of thyme, sprig of tarragon, bay leaf, tbsp of tomato paste and shallot. Boil for ten minutes and strain.
Saute a couple of tablespoons each of ginger and onion, then sauté lobster. Add chiffonade of mint.
Reduce bouillon by half, add tbsp soya sauce and of tomato paste, and at least three times the amount of Sriracha sauce.
Garnish with scallions and red peppers.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Dom in Cologne

The Cathedral in Cologne has an amazing story. Started in 1220 or so, it was abandoned in the middle of the 16th century, and then taken up again in 1842.

Here, I have snapped it with my iPhone 4; superimposed is an etching on glass of the scene in 1842, when the construction was taken up again. Note the crane on the left. The cathedral was finished using the best 19th century methods. The roof is supported by a steel frame.

In the foreground is an excavation of the old Jewish quarter. It will be enclosed by a brand new Jewish museum.

Monday, April 16, 2012

York (Canada) Spurns $60 million! Skies Fall!! Newspapers Aghast!!!

The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) is a private think tank devoted to the study of democratic institutions and governance issues worldwide, and affiliated with the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. Endowed by Jim Balsillie, a co-founder of Research in Motion (makers of the Blackberry), it has an impressive staff of scholars, many of them academic, some others private scholars who have produced books, films, etc on relevant topics.
Over the last week, CIGI has been caught up in a small but violent media storm in the Canadian press. At issue are a centre for international law that CIGI (and Balsillie) wanted to establish jointly with Osgoode Hall, the law school at York University, Toronto. The proposed endowment was $30 million from Balsillie, matched by Ontario: ten research chairs, twenty graduate fellowships, and international reach in vital issues such as “trade and finance rules, intellectual property law and environmental norms” (to quote Balsillie). (Some details here.)
But then . . . the faculty at Osgoode Hall declined the endowment. They turned down $60 million!
According to the newspapers, their behaviour is bizarre, myopic, retrograde, unionist . . . and this includes  even generally progressive newspapers such as the Toronto Star, in which we find this statement by Fred Kuntz, vice-president of CIGI for public affairs (and formerly a distinguished journalist and editor of the Star):
Jim Balsillie does not assert his own policy views on global affairs (I’m assuming he has them) into the research activities, nor do other members of the operating board. The entire bugaboo is a fiction. Signed agreements and protocols in place for the York proposal guaranteed academic freedom under York’s existing policies and practices, and left all faculty hiring decisions, curricula and student admissions solely and rightly in the hands of York . . .
The controversy has handed the opponents of the humanities and social sciences a big stick. Writing in the Globe and Mail this morning, the former oil executive Gwyn Morgan (who has written that a humanities PhD equips you only to wait at tables) writes:
How can it be that, in the name of “academic freedom,” those appointed to lead our publicly financed universities are rendered impotent by their own employees? Where else in the private or public sectors do employees decide who else is hired and what the organization delivers, while being free to spend most of their time doing what they choose?
Professors given a say in the appointment of other professors? Unthinkable!
But didn't Kuntz tell us that hiring was "rightly in the hands of York?" Hoping to resolve the contradiction, I wrote James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, to ask why his organization disapproved of the CIGI/Osgoode Hall arrangement. He replied:
In the case of York, the agreement provided that the program would be run by a steering committee made up of two representatives of CIGI and two of York. As all decisions of the Steering Committee had to be unanimous, the CIGI was given voice and veto power over:
(1) the research areas for each chair,
(2) the specific financial terms and expectations for each chair, including their research plans,
(3) the short list of the candidates from which the University will hire. 
In the face of massive opposition, the university modified #3 so that, in the event that CIGI disagreed about who could be on the short list, the matter would be referred to an outside group of "experts", chosen by the Steering Committee, that would make the final decision. That was the only change.
So did the proposed agreement guarantee academic freedom, as Kuntz writes? Perhaps, in a certain sense, it did. That is, CIGI did not seek to influence or censor what professors write. But this was never the issue. The issues were: CIGI’s attempts to monitor hiring, and its right, under the agreement, to cut off funding at any time for any reason. Kuntz was in a sense right to say that hiring decisions are “in the hands of York.” But he fails to mention CIGI’s control over the shortlist–indeed, over the whole project.
The proposed CIGI/Osgoode agreement has the support of some respected academics, including Patrick Monahan, an eminent constitutional scholar, former Dean of Osgoode Hall, and presently Provost of York University. Perhaps Monahan thought that CIGI’s rights to monitor shortlists could be managed and channeled in a constructive manner. But the fact remains that this is not an issue just of academic freedom. The issue is, rather, academic autonomy in certain critical areas of university governance. Oil executives and newspaper editors do not understand these issues. They are immersed in institutions that are managed for a determinate goal. They do not understand the culture of independent creation that informs a university. They have no idea why this culture is important, or how much it has contributed to the atmosphere of free inquiry that so benefits universities in the great democracies of the world.
It is sad that the misrepresentation of this issue can put this culture in danger. It is also frightening that research funding has become such a potent instrument of interference and control in Germany and other European countries.

(Crossposted from NewAPPs)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Gupta Sahib of St Stephen's

In 1968, stupefied by boredom after three years studying Physics, I switched to a Masters program in Philosophy. (Some of my co-bloggers will be amused to hear that my Physics degree was held up by six months because I had failed History of Science and had to retake the exam.) A couple of weeks ago, I recounted here and here how I went to the Head of the Philosophy Department at St. Stephen’s College to ask what I might read to prepare myself. He suggested F. H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality. The man who thus caused me much misery (but far far less than doing Physics and Chemistry labs) was Rajendra Kumar Gupta. He was a striking figure, a face made of planes, a mind never satisfied with uncertainty, a spirit that made of me, and every other Stephanian, a building and renovation project. For the next two years, I followed him everywhere. Last week, aged 81, he died.

My Bradley story was meant, of course, to serve a rhetorical purpose. It evinces my affection, but does not convey my enormous debt to Gupta Sahib (as we called him—only a few others were accorded that wry salute). Now I must thank him and mourn him. (What I write here is much informed by correspondence with K. P. Sankaran, Ravi Rajan, Akeel Bilgrami, Joseph Prabhu, Saam Trivedi, and Anjana Jacob.) 
Rajendra Gupta educated many generations of students at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. He himself took a degree in English there, but under the influence of Sudhir Kumar Bose, an enormously charismatic Cambridge educated philosopher, he switched to Philosophy, and went on to a Ph. D. at Bonn. He returned to St. Stephen’s College and taught there for the rest of his career.

Once I had actually enrolled in the Masters program, we would meet almost every day. Once a week, the meeting was formal, a tutorial for which my fellow Masters student, Lalit Sharma, and I would have to write something. That something was criticized word by word, to the point where it became our ambition just once to be able to write our two pages without error—an ambition never realized, alas. Once a week, we’d meet at the legendary Philosophical Society at which we would discuss a classic text, one painstaking page at a time. At other times, Dr. G. (another affectionate sobriquet), Lalit, and I would go to the Coffee House, occasionally accompanied by Mrs G., a philosopher at Miranda House. This was how we learned Philosophy—starting as wide-eyed students to whom every work of philosophy was wonderfully plausible, slowly emerging as more seasoned dialecticians who could engage a text.

Philosophy was taught in conversation in tiny groups. To think of forty such tiny groups—one replacing the previous as one year gave way to the next, to think of that maieutic process repeated again and again and again—this is to contemplate a career very different from the ones most of us have followed. But one that could produce the intellectual serenity, sense of achievement, and contentment of Dr. Gupta and his mentor, Mr Bose.

What exactly did we learn? Aside from Bradley, I remember inching through Plato’s Republic, Kant’s first Critique (another miserable summer) and Prolegomenon, Moore’s Principia Ethica—Dr G couldn’t decide who was the greater moral philosopher, Kant or Moore—W. E. Johnson’s Logic, Wittgenstein’s Investigations (politely disliked)—Dr G. thought that family resemblances were a metaphysical theory of universals, and a rather bad one at that—Ryle’s Concept of Mind (politely despised). (No Aristotle!) And there were lectures at the University, though St. Stephen’s and its University were more or less closed to one another.

In retrospect, it surprises me that aside from the Harvard educated Dr Ansari in the University department, we would have completely missed any technical philosophy. No modal logic. No metalogic. No Russell. I don’t think anybody understood quantification well enough to teach “On Denoting” or “Knowledge by Acquaintance” or “Three Grades of Modal Involvement”—or to understand the importance of these works. This cut us off from a large part of 20th century progress in philosophy—though once I got to Stanford, I was enthralled by this. (I sometimes wonder how well Wittgenstein understood quantification—replacing it with propositional connectives may be philosophically defensible, but misses the main point.)

Rajendra Gupta was a man of integrity. Even a tiny stain of imperfection was enough to turn him away from something . . . unless that something (or somebody) was from St. Stephen’s, which was family. It is a tremendous virtue never to compromise. But that virtue can isolate a man. St. Stephen’s was a sheltered world within which a man like Dr. G could escape the struggles of low income Indian life. A decent sized College bungalow, food in Hall whenever wanted, work and office mere steps away. It was in that little world that I learned philosophy.