Life as an Extreme Sport

In Which An Editor Obnoxiously Brags About Her Author

I spent much of the fall grumbling – mostly good-naturedly – about editing a dissertation on the dual-use dilemma in the life sciences. I fell into editing the project rather late,Note, fellow editors: don’t take on a large project like that with a two-month window, especially not when you have two academic conferences of your own to prepare for and attend, plus your day job. which led to some memorable crankiness on my part (I actually sent back one chapter with “no” and “rewrite”), and sleep turned into a precious commodity for a while.

Overall, though, I’m incredibly proud of the small part I had in the project, and extremely proud of the author in general. You can’t read the dis (yet), but you can see a little bit of Nick’s writing over on the Scientific American guest blog, today, where he looks at the proposed DHHS policy on gain-of-function research in the life sciences:

Yet even if we do overcome the hurdle of identifying what is beneficial, and what manifestly dangerous, the proposed actions given by the framework are somewhat alarming. The framework gives the option to transfer dangerous gain-of-function research to agencies that conduct classified research, such as the Department of Defence or the Department of Homeland Security.

Yet classified government research in the life sciences doesn’t have a great track record of being in the public interest: the Defence Intelligence Agency’s attempts to make genetically modified anthrax, the Defence Threat Reduction Agency’s milling weapons-grade anthrax in secret, or the CIA’s creation of Soviet-style “bomblets” that are used to disperse biological agents (in the name, so claimed, of assessing their effectiveness in use against the US), are all example of deeply troubling classified life sciences research purported to be in the public interest.

The possibility of taking research we’ve already ascertained is problematic, and giving it to an agency with a history of misuse of research, is frightening. We should question this new policy to the extent that it leaves open this option. If research is risky to public health, or doesn’t show merit regarding actually emerging infectious diseases, why open the way for that research to be done in secret?

You should go read it because you’re excited about the idea of a new, non-American voice in bioethics, or because you’re interested in the life sciences and dual-use research, or because you want an idea of what I was working on in the fall, or because you see the issues here for corruption, or just because I said so and you know I have fantastic taste.I do. Bias aside. And if you haven’t picked up on the bias yet, you’re just a wee bit slow now, eh? And I don’t know what this lampshade is doing on my head. Whatever the reason, go read.

Found Those Million-odd Pieces

Oh, I was doing so well until I wasn’t. But at least when I wasn’t, I was really committed to it.

I’m not sure what threw the anxiety into overdrive today, but by about 10am I was a quivering mess. And once again, it wasn’t so much the potential diagnosis as it was not knowing what was going to happen in the afternoon. I suppose my primitive brain assessed threats and figured that not knowing this afternoon was a more immediate concern than what may come from that test.

As for the biopsy itself – well, I had been tempted to live tweet it. Let’s all be grateful I didn’t, as I would have had to expose you to proof I’m a sailor’s daughter (I certainly swear like it), and then probably just would have slipped into somewhat mindless screaming. It seems that my cervix is as contrary as the rest of me, and a procedure that should have taken five minutes took closer to 25, and involved seeing stars at several points – and not the fun kind.

Never have I been so grateful for the deep breathing practices of my religion.

Of course, all this means is that the first step is done. The ob/gyn was honest: she’s not sure what’s going on, but the ultrasound images are concerning. The next step is the biopsy results, and from there we’ll figure out options. The results themselves won’t be in for a week, perhaps more at this time of year. I’ll call Thursday and she’ll either have the results or know when I should expect them.

Which yes, means that at minimum I have several more days of riding the roller coaster of anxiety, wondering if my bitchiness is the inherent or stress-induced variety, and trying not to overreact too much in the opposite “experience all the things” way.

Power Broker Bioethicists

Alice Dreger has a new post up discussing How to be a Bioethicist. She admits, upfront, that she sort of sucks as one, and not for reasons the snarkier or more vindictive readers of this blog might assume. Rather, she sucks as a bioethicist because she has a penchant for naming names and citing her work, because she is concerned about principles, and because she hasn’t figured out how to get a staggeringly high salary, regardless of currency. (Of course, she missed the fourth reason she makes a bad bioethicist: her unfortunate affliction with XX Syndrome.)

Sarcasm, and even personal issues aside, I think Dreger raises a very interesting point about North American bioethics as a whole: what I rather jokingly referred to as the advent of “power broker bioethics” before I realized that this, indeed, was actually and precisely the correct phrase.

A power broker, for those of you who missed the 80s or anything to do with Wall Street, is “a person who is important by virtue of the people or votes they control; a power broker who does you a favor will expect you to return it.” It, in many ways, describes the behavior Dreger details: attempts to suppress dissent via appeals to authority; trading favors for benefits; obfuscating financial details in an effort to hide paper trails; and always, always looking for ways to inflate one’s sense of self via title and position.
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Lies, Damned Lies, and Mehdi Hasan on Abortion

I got really annoyed this morning. I woke up, and basically the first thing I saw on Twitter was numerous retweets and comments about a HuffPo UK article on abortion and social progressives attempting to argue that one could be socially progressive and still advocate for an anti-choice position.

I disagree, rather vehemently. To the tune of almost 3000 words, give or take, as I basically deconstructed the author’s entire argument in an attempt to show not only why it was wrong, but obnoxiously so. With thanks to Nicholas G. Evans, Catherine Flick, and Laura Northrup, all of whom provided feedback and helped to focus my irritation into coherence.

Without furtherOkay, with slightly further ado: yes, this piece was picked up and published, in edited form, on Comment is Free in The Guardian.

Now, really, without further ado,…

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Food is Complex

Food is complex.

That’s really the only conclusion I can draw after reading Francis Lam’s NYTimes article Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes, and the following back and forth Lam had with his friend Eddie Huang over at Gilt Taste, Is it Fair for Chefs to Cook Other Cultures’ Food?

Because of paywalls and irritating things like “flaky commute wifi access,” I actually read the second article, Lam and Huang’s back-and-forth, first. This was probably a mistake, since it made me cranky in a sort of ineffable way. I knew I disagreed with the piece, but putting my finger on a single reason why was elusive.

Lam’s original NYTimes piece actually addressed some of the things that I think bothered me about the subsequent give-and-take. He did talk about how it’s difficult to start your own restaurant, and that non-immigrants may have a leg up there, not just because they may have the financial capital not accessible to new immigrants, but because they have the innate cultural knowledge necessary to start a business, especially one as volatile as a restaurant. Pulling back to my education, and piggybacking on what Chefs Bayless and Ricker, as well as Dr. Ray, said in Lam’s article, there is a bilingualism in cooking food from another culture that allows these chefs to be liminal people – they become translators understanding both cultures.

Anyone who has learned another language in a formal setting will come across the word “gloss.” It’s a translation or interpretation of a word. There are linear glosses: champignons versus mushrooms, for example. But then you have interlinear glosses, when you have to understand not only the words but the structure of the language itself. The interlinear gloss I’m most familiar with is that of American Sign Language, given that it’s my second language. Here’s an example, via Wikipedia:

“I don’t like garlic.”

Now, picky linguistics people will note that this also contains prosody – telling you the emotional inflection of what’s being signed. (The signs are in brackets, the prosody in superscript, and the interlinear gloss would be the structure shown in the written text, and how you’re getting “I don’t like garlic” from that series of signs.)

So what does linguistics have to do with cooking and food? Well, I think that what we’re seeing with these “bilingual” chefs is the ability to do what is functionally an interlinear gloss, “explaining” food from other countries in a way that is comprehensible to people who are missing the cultural connection that typically comes with food.

Which means that I pretty much agree with Lam’s basic NYTimes article. What, then, was my issue with the followup in Gilt Taste?

I think what bothered me, ultimately, was the lack of focus on the things Lam did bring up in his article: access, culture, and perhaps even desire. (For example, one of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten at is the pub around the corner from my house. It’s Irish American food, it’s a pub, and they have no desire to be noticed by Beard. Does this mean that they’re not good food, or that I wouldn’t cheerfully put them up against some of the best “fine dining” I’ve eaten? No. It just means that getting the notice of a Beard award isn’t something that happens if you run a pub. Or food cart. Etc. Just like there are fine writers out there who will never receive any of the numerous writing awards: Pulitzer, Booker, Nobel, etc.)

What the Lam and Huang article did focus on was ideas of access and appropriation, with Huang apparently taking the position of gatekeeper: keep those damned whities out if they don’t have permission to be cooking the food.

Well, who gives that permission?

But perhaps worse, or at least beyond that, is this idea that Americans should cook American food. What is American food? Is it Native American food? You can’t really say “yo white person! Just cook things that the Mashpee Wampanoag or Powhatan ate,” because well – that’s not “white American food.”

There is no white American food. There are European foods – French and Spanish and Italian and German and so on for each country, each of which have been horribly butchered and beautifully elevated by American chefs and cooks. But none of them “belong” to American chefs any more than Powhatan recipes do.

Does a chef have to do a complex genealogy before being able to open a restaurant?

And then what in the world do you do with fusion chefs, like Morimoto, who come from another country and infuse local mishmashed American cuisine with Japanese standards, to amazing effect? Is he doing appropriation, or is it okay because he’s not white?

See what I mean? Food is complex, and this isn’t even getting into deeper cultural resonance tied to food and eating and social expectation and experience.

Ultimately, I think that my friend Lisa summed it up best: there are a lot of perspectives in this issue, and it’s illuminating to see that there is anger over this issue.

From my own perspective, discussions of authenticity shouldn’t be limited to the “lesser” or “non-French-based” cuisines. We should always be discussing authenticity, provenance, history and skill – and culture should be as much a part of that discussion as education.