Music legend, proto-rapper1 and black poet Gil Scott-Heron has passed yesterday at the age of 62.

His slam on 70s society was so powerful as to give us one of today’s most ubiquitous journalistic clichés. He was a sharp political analyst, tireless militant for civil rights and the inspiration to a surprisingly wide spectrum of artists.

I was rarely so disappointed as when I read of his arrest in 2001 and ensuing decade of drug problems. Having sung for most of his career about the ravage of widespread drug-abuse in inner-city communities, seeing him eventually fall into the ugly trap of crack-cocaine felt like a personal betrayal.

Despite (or perhaps because of) all that, his last album, released only a couple months ago, was one of his most powerful. It will probably be one of the best album released in 2011 by any artist, dead or alive.

RIP Gil Scott-Heron

  1. Even though he wasn’t crazy about the title. []

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals”…

The most annoying part about trying to hold any Fukushima-related conversation over the past couple weeks: being made to feel like a tireless cheerleader for TEPCO, the Japanese government or nuclear energy in general. Merely refusing the whole panicky, guts-over-science, interpretation of events automatically left me in that corner over there, with the energy company shills, neo-con climate change deniers and simple-minded fools doomed to die a fiery nuclear death.

This is particularly enraging, if somewhat ironic, considering how much I loathe practically every aspects of public policy-making in Japan. In usual times, I am the culturally-insensitive boorish gaijin who snidely comments on the levels of inertia, corruption and inefficiency ingrained in Japan’s particular brand of bureaucratic para-democracy, getting much awkward silence and polite placating from annoyed Japanese counterparts (yes, I am the life of parties).

So, let me spell it out for the dialectically-challenged out there: Fuck TEPCO. Fuck its useless bunch of amakudari, working hand-in-hand with their equally self-serving ministry bureaucrat friends to keep their cushy retirement gigs at the expense of pretty much everything else. They are a perfect (though far from unique) embodiment of everything that is wrong with Japanese politics and bureaucracy. And most of it has absolutely nothing to do with the uncontrollable consequences of one of the strongest natural disaster to ever hit a modern country. If you want to blame TEPCO for something, why don’t you start by going back to 1995 and have a look at their practice of hiring Japanese lower-class burakumin to work in sub-standard conditions

While I am at it: let me also publicly state my fervent dislike of nuclear radiations, tsunamis, cancer, war, famine and innocent children’s tears.

That being said…

How about first revisiting those heady days of post-tsunami events and the journalistic gold-rush for fear-mongering, grossly-inaccurate, paper-selling nuggets of gold. Remember? When “Western media had a better grasp of the situation than you people on the ground”1. The somewhat condescending idea that foreign media gave an inherently better coverage of the news, by virtue of their independence and superior journalistic skills…
Here is the deal about foreign media and what they publish(ed) about Fukushima: their facts all come from one place. The very same place Japanese media get their facts from, the same place everybody gets their facts from: official TEPCO press releases and Japanese government spokesmen. CNN does not have some embedded journalist traipsing around reactor #3 with a geiger counter or a mole inside the DPJ headquarters: they do like everybody else and work from [poorly translated, second-hand-acquired] official news releases. So much for the “poorly informed” local media, kept in the dark while their foreign homologues expose the naked shocking truth to the world. Their only differences resided in their tone and the quality of their analysis. And on both counts, the less said, the better.

  1. True quote from some well-meaning moron to whom I was trying to impress that Japan was not the devastated radioactive wasteland he envisioned. []

I apologise for the avalanche of posts these days. I am sure you can understand why that is. I hope some are helping.

I just wrote this text to post elsewhere on the web, in response to someone due to visit Japan for some vacations in a few weeks and understandably worried about practical and ethical considerations… ‘thought it might help others too…

If you were planning to visit Japan in the near future (or if you even already arrived and were in the middle of your trip when the earthquake happened), you may naturally be inclined to cancel everything, either out of concern for your safety or out of respect for the victims of this tragedy. Should you stick to your plans and come nonetheless?

This is a difficult question…

The short answer is: yes, you should still come to Japan. Change as little as you can to your plans and have as much of a normal vacation as possible.

As for the longer answer:

While Fox News is busy repurposing Shibuya nightclubs into nuclear plants and Europeans are hoarding potassium iodide capsules, Muammar Gaddafi is leisurely clawing back Eastern Libya and killing hundreds, to the deafening sound of silence in foreign media. Unleashing unrestrained military force over his own people, he has successfully crushed his way to the gates of Benghazi and has made no secret1 of what awaits those that were foolish enough to think the West would help their fight for freedom and democracy.

Little did they know: the perspective of thousands killed at the hand of a lunatic dictator in a faraway middle-eastern country, however preventable, just doesn’t make for the same quality of frontpage fear-mongering as some good ol’ worldwide nuclear scare.

Next-day update: Turns out you can’t even count on fickle news outlets to stick to their sensationalistic headlines for more than a week… it only took a last-minute UN vote (after much waffling) and a few bomb raids on Tripoli, for Japan to be relegated to some tiny one-liner in a corner of the front-page. So apparently nuclear apocalypse just wasn’t so imminent after all.

  1. Although I cannot find back that news quote, I believe his own words were along the line of “going door-to-door, purging the region” and “enacting retribution”. []

A tangential update to my previous, and much more relevant, post on the current shape of things in Japan

As any sane person would point out, now certainly isn’t the time to have a wide-scale debate about civil nuclear policies. Decade-long policies should not be decided in the middle of a day-to-day disaster…

Unfortunately, that is not how some people see it: the debate is already happening. I have no particular animosity against the die-hard anti-nuclear types1 who have seized on the occasion for their own political purpose: I know they sincerely mean well2. But I do certainly find it distasteful when any side uses the emotion generated by such a tragedy to advance points of questionable relevance. It’s also a bit insulting when reports of anti-nuclear demonstrations trump reports on actual earthquake/tsunami-related fatalities on the front page of German newspapers (yes, I am looking in your direction, Spiegel).

Now, since we are having that debate. Allow me to raise one single point, based on very easily verifiable facts:

  1. see: Germany and other countries with similarly contentious domestic policies on nuclear energy and strong anti-nuclear groups. []
  2. Keeping in mind that meaning well and being sincere has never meant you can’t be an irrational loon, far from it. []

Speaking at a London conference on Tuesday, Donal Byrne, chief executive of Corvil, a high-speed trading technology company, caused a ripple of audible incredulity throughout the room when he suggested that trading speeds could be reduced to picoseconds in the not too distant future.

Before you dismiss this as yet another unneeded example of what’s wrong with modern finance and how little actual value high-speed arbitrage brings to the market… consider for a moment: light travels by less than a millimeter in a picosecond! Hell, it does not even break a meter in a nanosecond

Leaving aside petty issues of actual CPU speed and everything but the most basic signal transmission aspect, I think this grandiose prediction from some random finance schmuck, no doubt busy at work on the next global crisis, can only mean one thing:

Finance has finally toppled the laws of conventional physics and invented supraluminal speed travel!

Take that, Albert.

Yesterday’s skiing was brilliant indeed…

My latest paper has nearly received its stamp of approval from my academic peers and newfound friends at the Public Library of Sciences1.

The weather is sunny and nearly getting to the point where I’ll need sunglasses to bike to work.

My new 20-meter-wide monitor was waiting by my desk today..

My personal supplies of high-grade chocolate is at an all time-high. With more on its way as I write..

But most importantly…

Flight EK 316 to Osaka is on schedule…

I am one good news away from breaking out in an elaborate choreography with the local avian life

  1. In the science publishing world, “accepted with revision” is a journal’s way of saying “I am not that kind of girl: first buy me dinner, then I’ll let you rip my clothes off”. []

Fielding Mellish: Are we fighting for or against the Government?

CIA operative: CIA is not taking any chances this time. Some of use are for and some of us are going to be against them.

The US have a rather poor record of picking sides, when it comes to dictator-sponsoring. Sure, they could do worse: like France’s Foreign Minister, who assured Mr. Ben Ali of her enduring friendship (along with offer of police back-up)… a mere two days before the Tunisian people drove him out of the country for good. A comically bad timing.

Not long before they opted for an altogether different approach to democracy-spreadin’, the United States used to have nothing but kind words for their good Iraqi friend, Mr. Hussein: shining beacon of containment, if not stability, in the Middle East. Containment made all the more necessary by the fresh return of Mr. Khomeini to Iran, where the people were oddly pissed at the United States for blatantly overthrowing their previous, democratically-elected, government in order to back their own puppet-dictator

By comparison, I guess a few decades of murder, military coups and oppression by proxy in half of Latin America is a mixed diplomatic bag for the US. At least they managed to keep Pinochet in place longer than Baptista. And, while their success rate on backing a stable dictatorship in Bolivia was only slightly above average, they certainly get extra points in creativity for enlisting a notorious nazi war criminal to help them along the way1.

Back to our Winter of 2011, where increasingly degrading global economic conditions provide the proverbial straw to the Middle-Eastern camel’s back, sending it to the street2. For the Department of State, Tunisia was a thankfully low-stake gamble: sure, Ben Ali was a model of stable, affably-corrupt, anti-islamist3 dictator, but Tunisia wasn’t exactly a central piece of their Middle-East strategy. And with Club-Meds as its main natural resource, Halliburton wasn’t rushing at the door either. So it did not take much to release reasonably non-commital statements in support of “the will of the people”, when the chances of said people appeared to raise slightly above your average strangled-at-birth democratic uprising.

For Egypt, Mrs. Clinton was considerably more restrained in extolling the virtues of democracy. At first suitably neutral (aka “I understand your inspirations… but why must we use violence to settle this? Can’t you people wait another couple decades for a peaceful transition to democracy?”), and progressively more assertive as the situation evolves (but never more than the strict minimum), on the off-chance that she might have to woe Mubarak’s successor in a not-too-distant future. Because if you think the US doesn’t know when to drop a losing horse, you should ask Imelda how long it took Ronnie to erase her husband’s number from the White House speed-dial, when the wind started turning.

Perhaps most surprising (and somewhat hopeful) about the ongoing events in Egypt, is the apparent detachment of the army from Mubarak: not a week ago, every single analyst assured us that Mubarak could rely on the indefectible support of his military, ensuring that no movement could be taken beyond a certain point. In reality, it currently seems like the army might soon join in on the demand for him to step down (remains to be proven what role they would play in the immediate aftermath)…

Anyway, if Egypt pulls this off after Tunisia, I can think of quite a few pet dictators in the region that will start worrying for their job.

  1. nothing beats the know-how of an infamously sadistic Gestapo officer, when it comes to fighting communist insurgents []
  2. those same economic woes that prompted Western countries to reach for the lube while bending over in front of Goldman Sachs []
  3. In our post-cold-war days, “anti-islamist” is the new “anti-communist” magic label that gets you US backing and CIA funding. []

It is no secret that I like to cook and bake. I have even posted a few recipes here in the past, ranging from Agedashi Tofu to Mango Chutney Pork Chops and Squirrel Melba.

As any sane person would, I blatantly ignore measurement recommendations in recipes. Except when cakes or pastries are involved. Baking is a much different job from regular entree cooking. If entree cooking was engineering: intuitive, reliable and practicable by a trained monkey1, baking would be much more like chemistry: finicky, unpredictable and liable to poison you if something goes wrong.

Baking is tough, and in a continuous effort to make me more marketable on the 40-to-50-year-old Japanese dating scene, I have been striving to improve my skills. Sometimes with helpful professional tips from friends, but most often through trial and error. Which is where the present entry comes in:

Being a scientist with early-onset Alzheimer and lingering ADD, I need to record the results of my culinary experiments lest I endlessly repeat the same mistakes and end up losing my entire roster of lab-test guinea pigs friends, to food poisoning. After toying with a few different solutions for the 21st-century housewife (from short-lived handwritten notes to mind-boggingly annoying “recipe sharing” websites), I settled, as I usually do, for the easy way: piling it on that shapeless clutter of random notes and pointless observations that we call a blog.

All that to say: the notes below are hardly proper recipes, more like experimental reports and notes for future experiments. No details and how-to’s: only list of ingredients, measurement corrections and fatal mistakes to be avoided. You might find them somewhat useful, but they are mostly addressed to future me and his elusive quest for the perfect chocolate mousse. Feel free to peruse, but don’t say you weren’t warned.

Chocolate Mousse

Ingredients:

  • 200g extra-dark chocolate2.
  • 100g butter (no more).
  • Shot-glass worth of strong brewed coffee.
  • 5 egg whites, 3 to 4 egg yolks (can use all 5 egg yolks but will result in runnier, stickier mousse).
  • 60g sugar (not 200g, for chrissake).
  • Rum
  • Few drops of vanilla extract

Notes:

  • Essentially based on Julia Child’s already quite awesome recipe, with a few crucial changes: her recommended sugar dosage will kill all diabetics in a 100km radius, if they haven’t keeled over from the massive butter-induced heart attack.
  • Whisk the crap out of egg yolks+sugar+rum (electric egg-beater for the win): makes the result less runny.
  • Dash of lemon juice (/cream of tartar) to whisk egg whites, pinch of salt at the end to retain consistency. Yay for high school chemistry.
  • Get chocolate as cold as possible (but still liquid and smooth) before mixing to egg whites: ice-cube bain-marie.
  • Special extra-sex food-porn edition: tiny ultra-dark-bitter-chocolate specks or candied orange zest.

Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest cake)

  1. Just kidding Engineering M.Sc. friends, we still need you. []
  2. In chocolate as in crack-cocaine, never go with less than 70% pure. []