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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: September 5, 2009

“Fields are not ‘natural’; nor are crops: both are wildly successful human inventions. In nature, plants don’t want to be eaten, they want to thrive. Indeed, the closer a plant is to its natural state the more likely it is to poison you which is why humans have spent 10,000 years breeding out harmful traits from crops.”
Observer columnist Robert McKie in a piece questioning the value of organic food.

THE BEST CHEF in the world is what innumerable people have called Spain’s Ferran Adrià whose Costa Brava restaurant elBulli manages to seat a mere 8,000 of the 300,000 potential customers who request a reservation every year. Adrià, 47, is notorious for such dishes as fried tobacco balls, a chicken skin and orange blossom envelope and ice cream served with garlic oil and vinegar. Delicious! (to some), but is it art?   It’s provoked a fierce argument in art and foodie circles, exacerbated by the publication of Adrià’s book, Food for Thought, Thought for Food, already in three languages and claimed to have “revolutionized the world of gastronomy.” Some critics lashed into the chef when his recent ‘artwork’ was to create special dinners at Documenta (held every five years at Kassel in Germany). One, José de la Sota, wrote: “Adriá is not Picasso…What is art now? Is it something or nothing?”

LIES ARE EVERYWHERE and we can’t survive without them writes psychologist Robert Feldman in his new book, The Liar in Your Life. “Teens who are good liars tend to be more successful socially, and cancer patients who can deceive themselves into believing a falsely sunny prognosis are better at combating the disease.”

CALIFORNIA AS A Third World country. That’s the prospect envisaged by Alex Alexiev as he forecasts that “immigrants will likely soon dominate the state’s overall population and politics.” It’s not just that Hispanics are already a minority in the schools and that 40 percent of immigrant families depend on public assistance, he writes in National Review, but that even after 20 years in the U.S. most remain “poor, unskilled, and culturally isolated, a new permanent underclass.” And the site now has the country’s highest adult illiteracy. “We are witnessing a highly advanced and prosperous state, long endowed with superior human capital turning into the exact opposite in just one generation” Alexiev declares.

THE CSI EFFECT may be wonderfully convincing to television viewers but is very misleading to jurors, says Popular Mechanics, who “routinely afford confident scientific experts an almost mythic infallibility because they evoke the bold characters from crime dramas.” The magazine devotes eight pages to examining ballistics, bite marks, and blood splatter patterns to conclude that much of the ‘science’ behind forensic science “rests on surprisingly shaky foundations.” In fact, it says, it was developed not by scientists but by cops “often guided by little more than common sense.” Even fingerprints have their limitations, although DNA evidence “has become the strongest tool in the courtroom.”

RACING AGAINST EACH OTHER,  teams milked a cow, rushed the milk in a steaming pitcher to a home espresso machine, and created a cappuccino on the spot for the judges. The report in Barista magazine is of an earlier contest for the annual Nordic Barista Cup, an event that will take place Sept. 16-19 in Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik. For this year’s event, to be attended by baristas from dozens of countries, teams will spend two days in the wilderness together, before returning to the capital to study in depth the coffee culture of Costa Rica to which the winning team will be transported next spring.

MACHISMO IN MEXICO is being undermined by the growing number of edecans (models hired for what Ms reports is a “steady stream” of expositions at the five enormous convention centers in the capital, whose population now tops 22 million. “The edecan is the first image clients get when they arrive,” comments Isaac Abadi, head of a design firm, although it’s reported that as part of the job involves flirting, the ladies still have to deal with a lot of harassment and are sometimes regarded as prostitutes. Brazilians, Venezuelans, Argentinians, and Czechs fill most of the $300-a-day jobs —“typically tall, voluptuous, and golden-skinned” the magazine explains, “representing an ideal Latin or European woman with little resemblance to the average Mexican woman.”

BORN OUT OF the space industry, solar energy has Bell Labs to thank for its initial success declares Ron Pernick in a Via Satellite story which declares that it is via space that solar power will eventually reach its high point. “Five power satellites could supply 2 percent of the energy needs for the United States” claims John Mankins, prexy of the Space Power Association which monitors current technology. “The development of space solar power must be an international undertaking and the U.S. should definitely play the leadership role in developing that effort.”  The magazine cautions that not only will it be considerably more expensive to place this solar array in space rather than on the ground, but that the geo-stationery orbit where it must go, is already perilously crowded with satellites. Nevertheless, says Mankin, it would “encourage countries to start working together instead of in isolation.”

BY THE TIME the Fed caught up with Albert Talton in March, he’d successfully created and passed seven million dollars, maybe even more, and America’s most successful forger is now serving nine years. The story is told in this month’s Details: how Talton, 44, a career criminal, learned to counterfeit watermarks and security strips, to emulate the 75/25% cotton-linen paper, and fool the detection pens that make a yellow mark on genuine bills. “The security features make it more difficult,” says Treasury Agent Edwin Donovan, “but there’s no such thing as uncounterfeitable.” After hanging them up to dry on a clothesline, Talton distributed the $100 bills (for about $12-16 apiece) to intermediaries, one of whom carelessly betrayed him. “A wise printer insulates himself so that the person who spends the money has no idea of its source,” comments the magazine.

THE WILCOCK WEB: At a time when path-breaking advances are being made in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and a dozen other similar areas, science journalism is declining, says the Nation reporting that the number of U.S. papers with newspaper science sections has shrunk by almost two-thirds….Involuntarily swearing when you hit your thumb with a hammer may be a good thing, says Keele University’s Dr. Richard Stephens, raising levels of adrenaline which acts as an anaesthetic?….. For a contest at Cambridge University next spring, 18 competitors are competing — for a prize of $15,000 — at sending some half-ounce-sized object into orbit on a miniscule budget of $1,500 ….Silent gratitude isn’t very much use to anyone,” jeered Gertrude Stein…. You may think that burquas and niqabs demean women, says Christopher Caldwell, but what about “jeans that cinch halfway down the bumcrack?”…..Maybe that firm that invested (and lost) $585 in Readers’ Digest didn’t read the magazine first….A dozen members of Britain’s Upper House known as Law Lords, who have up to now been responsible for hearing final appeals, will don robes next month and be renamed as the country’s first Supreme Court… Small-time preachers go to jail for stealing a few thousand bucks from church funds so how come televangelists who take millions get a pass?….Longchamp indubitably has the ugliest models…. Available soon: Inflatable walls, inset with air filters and oxygen supplies, that can be moved along on a cart by coal miners to block off the tunnel after an underground disaster….At a cost of $30,000 each, San Francisco is installing 360 new bus shelters whose solar panel roofs will channel thousands of kilowatts into the city’s grid…..Obviously, New York’s blind Governor David A. Paterson can’t do the job as well as a sighted person but it’s not politically correct to say so, so nobody does….More than 200 people have booked $200,000 seats on Virgin Galactic’s space flights scheduled to begin next year. Among other operators planning flights are Xcor (offering four-minute fights for a bargain $95,000; the European Commission’s Fast 20XX (from Sweden but not before 2015); and $20 million seats available for  Russia’s next flight in 2011… Deft definition: Osteopornosis — a degenerate disease….On Washington’s National Mall next month, 20 student teams will compete to build the most efficient solar-powered home….“The secret to creativity,” alleged Albert Einstein, “is knowing how to hide your sources …. Getting attention on some college campuses are contests with the atlatl, a 25,000-year-old weapon which is described by Celine Rainville as “a stick that can hold a spear, or dart, and acts like another joint for your arm, giving you the ability to hurl a spear further.”…“To be wronged is nothing, unless you continue to remember it.” — Confucius (550-479BC)