Pear in red wine Wine, fruit, sugar and spices simmered together in a pan. That’s pretty much all there is to this simple and yet sophisticated dish, which would not be out of place at the grandest of dinner parties. Although it is always referred to as pears poached in red wine, mulled wine would be a more accurate description of the poaching liquid. The aromas imparted by the wine as it is warmed will be sure to invoke remembrances of Christmas past in anyone who has ever raised a festive glass of mulled wine, Glühwein, or its Scandinavian counterpart Glögg. This recipe minus the pears could easily be used as the basis for a perfectly acceptable mulled wine without any alteration.

However good you want this dish to taste, however, don’t squander a decent bottle of red on it. The cheapest you can find will be more than adequate. Traditionally, bad or off wine was mulled to make it drinkable. Heating wine by itself cooks off most of the delicate aromatics that separate a fine wine from a commonplace bottle. Adding sugar and spices renders any remaining distinction between a Grand Vin de Bordeaux and two-buck-chuck as good as negligible. The wine’s job in this recipe is to provide a backdrop for the sweetness, spices and pears  – nothing more, nothing less.

The choice of other ingredients, however, will make a difference. The slender-necked bosc (known as kaiser in Europe) and conference pear varieties will not only taste great but look fantastic on the plate. Bartlett (known as William in Britain), comice and anjou all make excellent choices in terms of texture and flavour, even if they lack the grace of the boscs and conferences.

The choice of spices is wide open. A broad range of spices are traditionally used in the mulling of wine, but cinnamon is pretty much a standard. Cinnamon is such a versatile spice because it complements a broad range of foods. It is most often associated with fruits and desserts, but also beautifully complements most meats, and is a key component in Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines. Because of its versatility, cinnamon commonly acts as an effective “flavour bridge” between other ingredients. For example, although pears and red wine may not seem naturally made for each other, the classic combination of pears and cinnamon works wonderfully, and cinnamon and red wine gives all those spicy mulled wine flavours. In other words, one ingredient unlocks two separate groups of flavours, the combination of which really make this dessert work.

Without further ado, here’s my basic recipe:-

Serves 4

2 cups red wine (nothing fancy!)
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup of sugar
2 strips orange peel
1 cinnamon stick
2 cloves
4 pears (preferably bosc or conference)

1. Add all ingredients except the pears to a non-reactive saucepan (see below) which is large enough to hold all the pears in one layer. Bring the contents to a simmer over a medium heat, stirring occasionally so that the sugar dissolves (note that if you served this mixture just before it started to simmer, you would have a basic mulled wine, “heavy on the cinnamon, light on the cloves“, just as Clarence would like it).
2. Once the pan is at a simmer, peel the pears and cut a flat surface on the bottom of each pear so they will stand up straight. Add the peeled pears to the liquid and simmer for 30 minutes, turning occasionally to cook all sides equally in the wine.
3. Remove the pan from the heat, and leave the pears to cool in the liquid.
4. Refrigerate the pears and liquid for at least two hours and preferably overnight as the flavours and colours will continue to infuse into the pears the longer you leave them, even over a period of a few days if desired.
5. When ready to serve, strain just the liquid into a pan. Boil for about 30 minutes until the liquid has a syrupy consistency (when it coats the back of a spoon) and remove from the heat.
6. Serve the pear standing in a pool of the reduced syrup (note: you probably won’t need all the syrup – save any leftovers for drizzling on ice cream or other suitable desserts).

Substitutions

Pears: Other fruits can be poached in the same way. I have seen recipes for peaches and apricots although, curiously enough, not apples, but I’m sure they would work well too.
Orange juice: If you want more of a straight wine taste, replace the orange juice with water or more wine. A little lemon can be added (juice, zest, or strips of rind) if you want to offset the sweet with a little tartness. Apple juice would be an interesting alternative, too.

Optional extras

  • As far as spices go, consider adding peppercorns, cardamom, vanilla pods (or extract), allspice berries, fresh ginger or star anise. Try to use whole spices rather than ground versions, as these can then be strained off to leave a smooth syrup after the final reduction.
  • Mint leaves, for example, could be used as a garnish.
  • To serve with the pears, try a complementary flavour of ice cream such as cinnamon, pistachio or vanilla (preferably with real vanilla – look for the black seeds) drizzled with the syrup. Nuts of any sort would finish the dish off nicely. Any type of cream would be great, too, or perhaps mascarpone cheese. The idea of blue cheese with red wine and pears makes perfect sense to me, although I’m at a loss as to how to execute it. I’d be interested if anyone’s had such a combination and how it turned out…

The science

I mentioned in the recipe that a non-reactive pan should be used. Metals such as aluminium, iron and copper are highly reactive in the presence of acids. This can lend a metallic flavour to food cooked in pans in which these metals come in direct contact with acidic foods or liquids, as well as leading to the ingestion of metals which, in large quantities, could have a health impact (copper is known to create havoc with various internal organs, while aluminium ingestion has been implicated as a potential risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease).

Highly acidic foods known to be particularly susceptible to such reactions include tomatoes, wine, citrus fruits, milk and eggs. Grey flecks in your eggs are a tell-tale sign of a reactive pan.  Unfortunately, the most reactive metals are the best conductors of heat, doing a much better job than ‘safe’ materials such as stainless steel which can cause food to cook unevenly in the pan. In an attempt to get the best of both worlds, cast iron pans are often coated in enamel while copper and aluminium pans are clad with stainless steel. Aluminium can also be anodized to create a protective oxidised coating which is non-reactive and also has fairly good non-stick properties.

I was interested to find out from a very informative New York Times article on this subject that this reactivity is sometimes used by chefs to their advantage.  When whipping egg whites in a copper bowl, for example, some of the copper ions freed from the surface of the bowl will bond with proteins in the egg whites. The resulting molecules are more stable than the proteins alone, and less prone to breaking down if overbeaten, which is why chefs have beaten egg whites in copper bowls for hundreds of years. It used to be common in years gone by for chefs to cook green vegetables in copper too for the lovely green colour imparted from the copper dissolved from the pans.

Although the US FDA reports that the quantities of metals dissolved from pans does not create long term health risks by itself, they do report that the dissolved copper can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. On the other hand, many people could do with more iron in their diet, so cooking with cast iron could be seen as providing a valuable dietary supplement!

Cooking is perhaps my greatest passion these days. Learning how to cook, however, can be a frustrating process. There are thousands of cookery books (and websites) out there containing recipes detailing how to make a particular dish. The results of each step in a recipe depend critically, however, on one’s method of execution, which requires knowledge and practice. My results in following recipes have improved dramatically as I have learned more about cooking technique, but  still don’t feel that I really know how to cook. To use an analogy, I feel like a classical musician who has reached a sufficient level of proficiency with his instrument to be able to learn how to play most written scores with a bit of practice, but who would be absolutely lost if asked to step up on stage and improvise with a group of jazz musicians, or to compose a piece of new  music. In other words, what I lack is a knowledge of the theory of cooking. I have found surprisingly few resources which offer serious help in this area, so I have decided to try to teach myself, and to document what I discover.

The process I intend to follow is to take individual dishes (or ingredients, or techniques) and to find out as much about them as I can. By comparing different sources I hope to be able to distill the essence of the dish in question, identify what makes it tick and, most importantly,  to learn how to improvise around the theme to make versions of the dish which suit everyone’s taste buds, wallets, ethical choices, and larder contents. I am hoping this will improve my understanding of how food ticks, make me a better cook, and further my appreciation of food. By recording my findings I hope I can provide a useful resource for others too.

I want to resume my regular blogging on this site too, and if it gets off the ground I’ll transfer the food bits to another site, but for now I’ll post my stuff here. Any constructive comments would be greatly appreciated.

For this pilot,  I’ve chosen a dish that doesn’t even need to be cooked.

Waldorf Salad

Waldorf Salad

Few culinary classics can have started in as simple a form as the Waldorf salad. Tradition suggests that the dish was invented by Oscar Tschirky, the first Maître d’ at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York when it opened in 1893. Despite not even working in the kitchen, Tschirky claimed to have invented not only the Waldorf salad, but also eggs Benedict and Thousand Island dressing. Tschirky’s reputation as culinary auteur at the Waldorf is perhaps inflated by his authorship of a successful cookbook containing the first recipes for these classics, which became very influential in its time.

When looking at Tschirky’s original recipe for the Waldorf salad, it is amazing that something so minimalist could have caused such a stir. Here’s the recipe in its entireity:-

Peel two raw apples and cut them into small pieces, say about half an inch square, also cut some celery the same way, and mix it with the apple. Be very careful not to let any seeds of the apples be mixed with it. The salad must be dressed with a good mayonnaise.

Note the lack of nuts or fruit in the original. The appeal seems to lie in the combination of crunch, sweetness and the luxurious mouth-feel of the mayonnaise. Given the invention of coleslaw at least one hundred years before, I’m sure that people were experimenting with such combinations before the Waldorf Astoria opened in 1893, but making a novel salad the signature dish at such a prestigious venue ensured its fame. By the turn of the century, walnuts had become a regular accompaniment, adding another dimension to the crunch. And where the nuts went, the fruit soon followed. Grapes, raisins, dates and other variations were soon added to the mix.

There can be few better indicators of capturing the cultural zeitgeist in the US in the early 20th century than a mention in a Cole Porter tune, and in 1934’s paean to the superlative archetypes of the Jazz Age ‘You’re The Top‘, the Waldorf salad makes it to the list. Since then, it must be said that the dish has been relegated to the backwaters of culinary consciousness, but it did at least gain comedy immortality thanks to its title billing in an episode of Fawlty Towers, as expanded upon below.

Despite of its fall from grace, the Waldorf salad remains, however, a highly versatile dish, which can be eaten as a snack, an accompaniment or even a main course. Here is a basic recipe:-

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 lemon
2 apples (preferably not too sweet), cored and cut into 1/2 inch cubes just before adding to the mayonnaise/lemon mix to prevent browning
2 stalks of celery, thinly sliced
1/2 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped (toasting will improve the flavour immeasurably)
1/2 cup red grapes, halved
Romaine lettuce

Whisk together the mayonnaise and lemon in a bowl, and then add the remaining ingredients. Toss well and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve on a bed of lettuce.

Note that the above proportions are just a starting point for a classic Waldorf salad. They will produce a pretty archetypal Waldorf, and the ratios are deliberately easy to remember (1/2 cup of mayonnaise, fruit and nuts and 1/2 a lemon to 2 apples and 2 celery stalks), but from this platform, the proportions should be tweaked according to taste. In addition, there are many ways to take the dish in other directions, as described below.

Substitutions

Mayonnaise: Substitute yogurt for some or all of the amount of mayonnaise for a lower fat salad.
Lemon: Consider using orange instead, adding some zest too. If you still want some sour in the mix, add a small amount of cider vinegar. Something containing vitamin C is a good idea, however, as it will prevent the apple from browning.
Apples: Pears can be used instead, and combined with a 1/3 cup of blue cheese would make a real treat.
Walnuts: Any type of nuts, particularly pecans, or perhaps even 1/4 cup of pine nuts will do the trick
Celery: If you’re not keen on the texture of celery, try raw, peeled, cubed celeriac (celery root)
Red grapes: Raisins are often used, but any dried fruit will work, with dried sour cherries and cranberries particularly popular. The esteemed Larousse Gastronomique surprised me by suggesting the inclusion of bananas.

Optional Extras

  • Adding a couple of sliced roasted chicken breasts can turn the salad into a main meal.
  • A dash of honey can help balance the sourness of the lemon
  • To spice things up, add a pinch of cayenne pepper or ground allspice.
  • Fresh mint can be used to add a fresh dimension to the taste

Technique – coring the apple

If you have an apple corer, so much the better. If not, try the following:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “How to core an apple with a melon bal…“, posted with vodpod

Note that if you don’t have a melon baller, you can use a spoon with a sharp or serrated edge or a even paring knife.

The science

Cut apples will soon turn brown, as enzymes in the fruit are prone to oxidation when exposed to the air. When apples are cooked, these enzymes are destroyed, which explains why cooked apples are not prone to browning. It is well known that covering the cut apple in lemon juice will stop the browning process, but this is not primarily due to the acidity of the lemons as is often thought (although this does slow the process). It is actually the vitamin C that does the trick. Vitamin C is an powerful anti-oxidant, which effectively stops the oxidation process when applied to the surface of the cut apple. This explains why other foods rich in vitamin C prevent browning, such as orange juice or honey, whereas vinegar does not.

Taking it to another dimension

I was intrigued to find this delicious looking roasted Waldorf salad on the kitchenscraps blog, incorporating celeriac in the place of celery and roasting the key ingredients for 30 minutes before mixing in the mayonnaise and serving very poshly in an impressive looking tower of culinary beauty.

Just for fun

After all that chopping, mixing and eating, relax with the classic Fawlty Towers ‘Waldorf Salad’ episode:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Basil Fawlty, John Cleese’s character, is closely based on a real hotelier, Donald Sinclair, who ran the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay when the Monty Python team stayed there. The Waldorf Salad episode is loosely based on Sinclair’s scolding of Terry Gilliam’s ‘American’ table manners, in particular his cutlery etiquette (see another post of mine on the trans-Atlantic cutlery schism). When Sinclair died, it made it to the news in Britain, following which his widow objected that her late husband had been unfairly caricatured. Newspapers were subsequently flooded with mail from former guests at the Gleneagles Hotel, describing the appalling service they had received there, and stating that the Basil Fawlty character was a remarkably close match to the eccentric Mr Sinclair.

I couldn’t let the day go by without posting some tribute to my new homeland. Time doesn’t permit some well thought out paean to Canada from my own pen, so here instead are a few words from (of all places) Britain’s Sunday Telegraph a few years ago:-

For much of the 20th century, Canada was torn in two different directions: it seemed to be a part of the old world, yet had an address in the new one, and that divided identity ensured that it never fully got the gratitude it deserved.

Yet its purely voluntary contribution to the cause of freedom in two world wars was perhaps the greatest of any democracy. Almost 10 per cent of Canada’s entire population of seven million people served in the armed forces during the First World War, and nearly 60,000 died. The great Allied victories of 1918 were spearheaded by Canadian troops, perhaps the most capable soldiers in the entire British order of battle.

Canada was repaid for its enormous sacrifice by downright neglect, its unique contribution to victory being absorbed into the popular memory as somehow or other the work of the “British”. The Second World War provided a re-run. The Canadian navy began the war with a half dozen vessels, and ended up policing nearly half of the Atlantic against U-boat attack. More than 120 Canadian warships participated in the Normandy landings, during which 15,000 Canadian soldiers went ashore on D-Day alone. Canada finished the war with the third largest navy and the fourth largest air force in the world.

The world thanked Canada with the same sublime indifference as it had the previous time. Canadian participation in the war was acknowledged in film only if it was necessary to give an American actor a part in a campaign which the US had clearly not participated – a touching scrupulousness which, of course, Hollywood has since abandoned, as it has any notion of a separate Canadian identity.

So it is a general rule that actors and film-makers arriving in Hollywood keep their nationality – unless, that is, they are Canadian. Thus Mary Pickford, Walter Huston, Donald Sutherland, Michael J Fox, William Shatner, Norman Jewison, David Cronenberg and Dan Aykroyd have in the popular perception become American, and Christopher Plummer British. It is as if in the very act of becoming famous, a Canadian ceases to be Canadian, unless she is Margaret Atwood, who is as unshakeably Canadian as a moose, or Celine Dion, for whom Canada has proved quite unable to find any takers.

Moreover, Canada is every bit as querulously alert to the achievements of its sons and daughters as the rest of the world is completely unaware of them. The Canadians proudly say of themselves – and are unheard by anyone else – that 1 per cent of the world’s population has provided 10 per cent of the world’s peace-keeping forces. Canadian soldiers in the past half century have been the greatest peace-keepers on earth – in 39 missions on UN mandates, and six on non-UN peace-keeping duties, from Vietnam to East Timor, from Sinai to Bosnia.

Yet the only foreign engagement which has entered the popular non-Canadian imagination was the sorry affair in Somalia, in which out-of-control paratroopers murdered two Somali infiltrators. Their regiment was then disbanded in disgrace – a uniquely Canadian act of self-abasement for which, naturally, the Canadians received no international credit.

So who today in the US knows about the stoic and selfless friendship its northern neighbour has given it in Afghanistan? Rather like Cyrano de Bergerac, Canada repeatedly does honourable things for honourable motives, but instead of being thanked for it, it remains something of a figure of fun. It is the Canadian way, for which Canadians should be proud, yet such honour comes at a high cost.

Finally, a few quotes about Canada that I wish I’d thought of:-

I think every Canadian should have a map of Canada in his or her house. It should be displayed in a place where one can sit and contemplate the wonderful vastness of this land. As Canadians we are continuously groping for an identity and a sense of love for our nation. We grapple with the concept, find it somewhat distasteful and leave it for another day. We find American flag waving, hand over heart while belting out Oh, say, can you see… too much and avoid doing the same. We admire their national spirit, but Canadians are, in contrast, understated. To understand the identity that exists in our hearts think of our sweepingly majestic home, its quiet, serene beauty. A beauty recognizable to us all. We are proud of this nation and of who we are. We just don’t say it. It’s like the map. It just sits there on the wall displaying the lines of our coasts, the bulk of our waterways, and the breadth of our northern territories. Surveying all of this leaves me in awe. It brings a tear to my eye…O Canada… – Debora O’Neil

In any world menu, Canada must be considered the vichyssoise of nations, it’s cold, half-French, and difficult to stir. Stuart Keate

Canada is probably the most free country in the world where a man still has room to breathe, to spread out, to move forward, to move out, an open country with an open frontier. Canada has created harmony and cooperation among ethnic groups, and it must take this experience to the world because there is yet to be such an example of harmony and cooperation among ethnic groups. Valentyn Moroz

The great themes of Canadian history are as follows: Keeping the Americans out, keeping the French in, and trying to get the Natives to somehow disappear. Will Ferguson

Many Canadian nationalists harbour the bizarre fear that should we ever reject royalty, we would instantly mutate into Americans, as though the Canadian sense of self is so frail and delicate a bud, that the only thing stopping it from being swallowed whole by the US is an English lady in a funny hat…With or without the Royals, we are not Americans. Nor are we British. Or French. Or Void. We are something else. And the sooner we define this, the better. Will Ferguson

Canada is like your attic, you forget that it’s up there, but when you go, it’s like “Oh man, look at all this great stuff!” – Anon.

There are no limits to the majestic future which lies before the mighty expanse of Canada with its virile, aspiring, cultured, and generous-hearted people. Winston Churchill

Happy 142nd Birthday, Canada!

A book I am currently reading to develop my negotiation skills, Bargaining for Advantage by G. Richard Shell, starts with an interesting  thought experiment to determine the reader’s negotiation style.

You are one of ten strangers in a room sitting at a round table. Someone walks into the room and offers a thousand dollars to the first two people who can persuade the person sitting opposite them to stand up, walk round the table and stand behind their chair. Everyone else will walk away empty handed. You need to think quick, before someone else succeeds in the task. What is your strategy?

Shell suggests that a person’s response is a good indicator of their negotiating style.

An ‘avoider’ will be reluctant to take part in the exercise, fearing looking silly, suspecting a trick, or being unable to consider the possibility of being able to persuade the other party to walk round the table.

A ‘compromiser’ see the possibility of offering $500 to the person sitting opposite if they run around the table. This is the most common solution to the problem (and the one I came up with). Shell points out that, in practice, it is often difficult to reach agreement on who should do the running, however. People fear they may be tricked and would prefer the other party to move. The time it takes for this secondary negotiation may cost both parties the prize.

The  person beating the compromisers may be an ‘accommodator’ who, having listened to the problem, sees time as of the essence and immediately runs around the table and stands behind the other person’s chair. They risk being able to convince their opposite number to share the spoils after the event, trusting in the better nature of the other party.

A ‘competitor’ will try to gain as much of the full thousand dollars by any means necessary. At the most unscrupulous level, this may mean making promises to their counterpart which they later try to back out of, or making excuses to prevent them from having to run round the table to ensure the other party does.

Finally, the best overall solution may be attained by the ‘problem solver’. This person immediately starts running, and shouts at the other person to do the same as, if you both do so, you both stand to win $1,000 without having to do so.

The experiment is instructive because it indicates an important dimension to negotiating which is often overlooked. In negotiation situations our first focus is often on how we can get as big a slice of the pie as possible, which means we perceive any gain as being at the expense of the other party. This mode of thinking can lead to a highly adversarial form of negotiation where each side sees depriving the opponent as the only way to succeed. This puts off many people from trying to make a deal, as they see it as a highly competitive, distasteful process. Successful negotiators, Shell argues, don’t fall for this fallacy, and instead look for opportunities to increase the overall size of the pie, as in the above example where the problem solver sees $2,000 at stake for the two parties rather than $1,000.

Practical situations are rarely as cut and dried as the one above. Shell points out, however, that giving full consideration to the other party’s interests and how they may coincide with your own will often provide insights to make the negotiation process smoother and potentially more beneficial to both parties. He uses everyday shopping as a simple example. Those who fail to fully consider the priorities of the merchant will be reluctant to haggle, as they will fail to give sufficient consideration to the seller’s desire to keep a customer happy. His students have discovered that merely asking for a discount from a retailer will often result in a reduction of price without any need to haggle, as the retailer will consider a reasonable discount a price worth paying to make a customer happy.

Shell’s book is great at providing a theoretical framework upon which to build one’s negotiation style and strategy, and also contains plenty of practical examples and advice on how to apply the theories. To those who find bargaining a natural process this may be over the top and unnecessary, but to us lesser mortals, particularly those with a geeky penchant for underpinning theories and conceptual frameworks, it’s a very worthwhile read.

Having recently read Daniel Gilbert‘s excellent Stumbling Upon Happiness, I was pleased to find an article penned by him relaunching the New York Times’ Happy Days blog.

It was in ‘Stumbling Upon Happiness’ that I first read about the ‘change blindness’ experiments that I covered in my most recent post. In the book, Gilbert convincingly shows how our overestimation of our brain’s ability to effectively collect, process and evaluate data leads us to act in highly irrational and inconsistent ways in the pursuit of our own happiness. In particular, he demonstrates how bad we are at predicting how we will feel in the future. We consistently overestimate the happiness that riches and good fortune will bring us, as well as the unhappiness wrought by misfortune. Not only that, but our brains also seem to lack the ability to ever learn from such mistakes. You are probably be saying to yourself that this is no great revelation, but at the same time I would predict that you are as helpless as I am to convert your knowledge into a strategy to overcome the problem.

As an example of the paradoxes involved in predicting our own future happiness, Gilbert cites the example of a bride about to get married. If you asked her how she would feel if she was jilted at the altar, you would expect her to say that it would be her worst nightmare. And yet you could equally predict that if you asked a selection of brides who had been faced this nightmare a couple of years ago that a good number would say that it was the best thing that had ever happened to them.  They would likely report that they had narrowly escaped a marriage that was clearly wrong for them, and had since moved on to create a new life for themselves, perhaps finding a new partner who, in retrospect, is a much better choice. The bride-to-be, however, is highly unlikely to take such a long-term view into account when considering the effects of being left at the altar. It turns out that such ‘future blindness’ afflicts all of us on a pretty much constant basis.

Daniel Gilbert’s post in the New York Times shows how, in a similar fashion, uncertainty leaves us with a disproportionate degree of unhappiness compared to those who have no doubt of their fate:

Consider an experiment by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who gave subjects a series of 20 electric shocks. Some subjects knew they would receive an intense shock on every trial. Others knew they would receive 17 mild shocks and 3 intense shocks, but they didn’t know on which of the 20 trials the intense shocks would come. The results showed that subjects who thought there was a small chance of receiving an intense shock were more afraid — they sweated more profusely, their hearts beat faster — than subjects who knew for sure that they’d receive an intense shock.

That’s because people feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur.

[…]

Similarly, researchers at the University of British Columbia studied people who had undergone genetic testing to determine their risk for developing the neurodegenerative disorder known as Huntington’s disease. Those who learned that they had a very high likelihood of developing the condition were happier a year after testing than those who did not learn what their risk was.

Why would we prefer to know the worst than to suspect it? Because when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it. We change our behavior, we change our attitudes. We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug. But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know. An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.

As my wife and I search for our first permanent work since arriving in Canada last October, we may occasionally be laid low for a couple of days by bad news of rejection following a promising interview, or from a temporary position not developing into something longer term but, by and large, I can imagine that our states of mind are healthier than many of those in fear of losing their jobs at the moment. Our optimism bounces back as soon as our focus returns to the possibilities in front of us. Applying for jobs is a process that spurs the imagination to what we could do if successful (getting our belongings out of storage and getting a place of our own, just for starters), and the mere process of writing nice things about oneself in résumés and cover letters seems to inject positivity.

It’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder how we would feel if we were both working for GM or Chrysler at the moment with the threat of unemployment hanging over both of our heads. We would likely be scared to death about ending up in the situation we are currently living in. It would be great if  had the mental wherewithal to learn something from this observation in order to avoid stresses in the future when I have more to lose. As Daniel Gilbert suggests, however, this is far easier said than done.

If you didn’t catch it first time around, you can find out the debilitating affects of inattentional blindness by taking the following test:

To be frank, I’m not sure how much this awareness of the shortcomings of our observational powers will help in avoiding collisions with bikes, but it does make you think of how much our brains fail to observe of what is going on around us. I am a particularly unobservant person, often failing to notice quite blatant household rearrangements that my wife has made in my absence, much to her chagrin and my embarrassment. On the other hand, I have a very keen eye for birds and other wildlife that often completely escappes the attention of others. It seems we all operate on different cognitive frequencies, but our brains all seem to only be able to process a selected edited highlights of what goes on around us. Here’s another experiment which discusses some of the cognitive science involved:

Finally, here’s a video showing Derren Brown exploiting this ‘change blindness’ to the extreme.

On a more serious note, around 20 cyclists are killed on London’s roads every year, over half by heavy goods vehicles. On a more practical note, Transport For London has issued 10,000 fresnel lenses to the capital’s freight operators. These lenses allow the driver to see below and behind the normal range of vision, which they hope will reduce serious accidents in the future. For the rest of us, I guess avoiding distractions (not using cellphones when driving is a particularly obvious example) and trying to be aware as possible of what is going on around us is the best advice although, ironically, the above experiments hint that the occasional ‘moonwalking bear’ will always occasionally evade our notice. All we can do is try to keep them to a minimum.

For the first time in its nineteen year history, Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach festival is to include a production of Othello, having lined up black Canadian actor Michael Blake to play the role.

“It’s been an omission, no question,” says festival artistic director Christopher Gaze. “But I don’t think it got away from us, it’s purely been a question of finding the right actor. … There just aren’t enough black actors here in Vancouver,” he adds. “And to be able to play a part of this measure – if you’re black or of an ethnicity that would work – like any other part, you have to win it. This is a massive role – in scope and emotion – it’s very difficult.”

Ray Fearon as Othello

The greatest tragedy is that no black actors in the West of Canada have been considered good enough to play the role up to now, even if the role is considered one of the toughest in the repertoire.  Having played Othello with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, British actor Ray Fearon commented:

People say Iago is the better role. But Othello is mammoth emotionally. I tell you, it finished me off. It demolished me physically. I had to have two months off afterwards and I grew up as a damn athlete!

Fearon’s performance was something of a watershed. Only ten years ago he became the first black actor to play the role in the main theatre at Stratford (although Ben Kingsley played the role without makeup as an Arab in 1985). Donald Sinden was the last white actor to perform the part in ‘blackface’ for the RSC in 1978.

Olivier: "My kingdom for a banjo!"

Even if one accepts the defeatist view that decent black Shakespearean actors are as rare as hens’ teeth, can it really ever be the best option to leave such a major play out of the repertoire? The theatre has always been a place where masks and disguises are worn and the audience is asked to suspend disbelief, particularly in Shakespeare’s plays. Many of his works originally featured men dressed as women dressed as men. There is no controversy when Shylock is played by a gentile, when Lear is played by a young man or, indeed, when black actors play Hamlet or Kings of England.

Clearly, casting the role of Othello causes more of a problem, as Othello’s racial difference inspires much of the fierce invective spoken by Iago and the rest of the supporting cast.  Perhaps the cleverest solution, was a 1997 production in Washington, D.C., in which Patrick Stewart played Othello with an otherwise entirely black cast. However, it is surely possible to find inventive solutions to the problem of how to allow a white man to play the role of a ‘moor’ without resorting to stereotypes and caricatures which have typified some of the famous performances of the last century (a New York Times critic said of Olivier’s film performance that :“You almost wait for him to whip a banjo out or start banging a tambourine.”)

If there is a moral to this story, it is surely that more black actors need to be seen major Shakespearean roles, but the let’s hope that this can be achieved without typecasting. Black actors don’t need to be confined to having Othello as their only opportunity at a leading Shakespearean role any more than Jewish actors would appreciate only playing Shylock, or Scottish actors being limited to Macbeth. Similarly, the theatre will suffer if, for reasons of political correctness totally inconsistent with the flexibility associated with casting other Shakespearean roles, Othello becomes the exclusive property of black actors.

That was January. This is now.

Some figures in yesterday’s Globe and Mail regarding the bailout of GM and Chrysler, and in particular the support of the pension funds, made for pretty shocking reading:

Ottawa and Toronto were already asking a lot of Canadians – most of whom have no private retirement fund and earn significantly less than auto assembly workers – by allowing some of the bailout money to go toward fixing an estimated $7-billion shortfall in GM Canada’s pension plan.

But with the latest forecast pegging the overall bailout bill at as much as $13.5-billion, or more than three times the original estimate, politicians are testing the limits of recession-racked Canadians’ tolerance and financial wherewithal. The ballooning bailouts are pushing Ottawa deeper into the red, with this year’s deficit projected to surpass $50-billion.

At General Motors of Canada Ltd. alone, the rescue package could amount to a staggering $1.4-million for every job saved, with no guarantee that the bailout will ensure the long-term survival of the company’s remaining auto assembly and engine plants.

I don’t have the latest figures on what GM workers earn, but two years ago the average gross hourly wage in the US was US$39.68 (£24.60 at current exchange rates), which becomes $73.26/hour (£45.42) when benefits are taken into account. In comparison, this latter figure is about $30 more per hour than the equivalent rates paid in US-based Japanese plants. The auto workers unions have made concessions as part of the negotiations with GM and Chrysler to bring their wages closer to those in Japanese plants, but the question remains as to how the average tax payer, who is likely to be receiving very little support in their industry of employment and to be earning considerably less than the wage rates mentioned above, is left paying $1.4 million per worker to the pension funds of mismanaged (and grossly overpaying) companies in one particular sector.

Unfortunately, the Government of Ontario doesn’t come out of this affair in a particularly good light. In 1992 Ontario decided to exempt companies with over CAN$500 million in assets from its plans to force all companies to fully fund their pension schemes, under the assumption that such companies were ‘too big to fail’. The Canadian Auto Workers union is now arguing that the Ontario Government was negligent, and is on the hook for the shortfall. Although the government has claimed not to have the money to fund the amount, recent reports suggest that either the provincial and/or the national government are likely to end up footing the bill.

The automakers’ lobbyists also haven’t been slow to take advantage of the industry’s geographical spread across the US-Canadian border. If one government played ball and the other one didn’t, you could expect a massive migration of automotive supply chain across the frontier. In the end, Stephen Harper, not a man with a great history of supporting government intervention in the private sector, felt he had no choice but to hold his nose and match Obama’s guarantees or see vast swathes of southern Ontario jobs disappear into thin air. Since that time, the bailout sum has ballooned to potentially three times the amount originally anticipated.

Canadians, and particularly those living in Ontario, will be paying for the bailouts in tax rises and government cutbacks for many years to come, and given the automakers’ previous reneging on promises, there is little guarantee that the money will see a long term future for GM and Chrysler in Canada. GM’s workforce in Ontario has fallen from 20,000 five years ago to 14,000 in advance of the recent difficulties, and a planned 7,000 by next year, not taking into account any further cut backs deemed necessary in the forthcoming bankruptcy proceedings. The argument goes, however, that there are more than just the jobs at GM and Chrysler at stake. Both companies would be likely to bring down much of their supply chains with them if they disappeared or relocated, and as a result would endanger production at the other car manufacturing plants in Ontario.

Surely, however, the costs of supporting the affected automotive suppliers in order to guarantee continued supply to Ford, Honda and Toyota, and of retraining and sensibly compensating those thrown out of work by the exodus/collapse of GM and Chrysler would be considerably lower than the mind-boggling sums now under consideration and, perhaps more importantly in the long run, would avoid the dangerous precedent set by such lavish rewarding of failure and excess.

Two opinion pieces in the Guardian this week on the subject of swine flu influenza A (H1N1) provided an interesting example of Philip Tetlock’s classification of good and bad pundits as ‘foxes’ and ‘hedgehogs’, as I outlined in another recent post.

On Wednesday, Simon Jenkins published a column entitled “Swine Flu? A panic stoked in order to posture and spend”. Here are some extracts:-

Health scares are like terrorist ones. Someone somewhere has an interest in it. We depend on others with specialist knowledge to advise and warn us and assume they offer advice on a dispassionate basis, using their expertise to assess danger and communicating it in measured English. Words such as possibly, potentially, could or might should be avoided. They are unspecific qualifiers and open to exaggeration.

The World Health Organisation, always eager to push itself into the spotlight, loves to talk of the world being “ready” for a flu pandemic, apparently on the grounds that none has occurred for some time. There is no obvious justification for this scaremongering. I suppose the world is “ready” for another atomic explosion or another 9/11.

[…]

During the BSE scare of 1995-7, grown men with medical degrees predicted doom, terrifying ministers into mad politician disease. The scientists’ hysteria, that BSE “has the potential to infect up to 10 million Britons”, led to tens of thousands of cattle being fed into power stations and £5bn spent on farmers’ compensation.[…] This science-based insanity was repeated during the Sars outbreak of 2003, asserted by Dr Patrick Dixon, formerly of the London Business School, to have “a 25% chance of killing tens of millions”. The press duly headlined a plague “worse than Aids”. Not one Briton died.

The same lunacy occurred in 2006 with avian flu, erupting after a scientist named John Oxford declared that “it will be the first pandemic of the 21st century”. The WHO issued a statement that “one in four Britons could die”.

Simon Jenkins is an arch-cynic. This often serves him well, making his columns iconoclastic and insightful. Having cynicism as your default setting, however, is sometimes going to result in wrong-headed opinions such as those in this piece.

His insistence that health specialists should avoid using words like ‘possibly, potentially, should and might’ clearly indicates his pedigree as a columnist. While pundits may use the illusion of certainty to talk up the importance of their opinions and predictions, it would be utterly irresponsible of the WHO and other medical experts to speak in terms of certainty about a newly discovered virus with an inherently chaotic infection pattern. Also note that later in the article Jenkins criticises John Oxford for stating that avian flu ‘will be’ the first pandemic of the 21st century. Would Jenkins have preferred that he hedged his bets with a ‘potentially’ or a ‘might’? It seems difficult to win in Simon Jenkins’ eyes.

He then criticises the WHO for stating that the world is ‘ready’ for a flu pandemic, and for scaremongering. I presume what he is referring to is the WHO’s Keiji Fukuda’s comments on Monday:

“I believe that the world is much, much better prepared than we have ever been for dealing with this kind of situation[…] The past five years have put us in (the) best possible position to handle this kind of situation.”

Jenkins can’t have it both ways. If the WHO are stating that the world is ready, surely that is reassuring, not scaremongering. When he goes on to mention the BSE, SARS and avian flu scares, he is talking as if scientists at the time had the perfect knowledge to predict that the diseases wouldn’t spread. At least in the last two instances, without extremely risk averse containment procedures, things could have been a lot worse. The millions of deaths in the 1918 pandemic are surely sufficient reason to act with extreme caution and present people with the pandemic scenario in order that they take seriously the necessary simple steps (frequent washing of hands, for example) that can impede the spread of the virus.

On Wednesday, common sense returned to the Guardian’s pages in a piece by Ben Goldacre, whose ‘Bad Science‘ column and website have tagged him as an arch-enemy of overhyped scientific claims:-

Just like with Sars, and bird flu, and MMR, is this all hype? The answer is no, but more interesting is this: for so many people, their very first assumption on the story is that the media are lying. It is the story of the boy who cried wolf.

We are poorly equipped to think around issues involving risk, and infectious diseases epidemiology is a tricky business: the error margins on the models are wide, and it’s extremely hard to make clear predictions.
[…]
All people have done is raise the possibility of things really kicking off, and they are right to do so, but we don’t have brilliantly accurate information. Someone has said that up to 40% of the world could be infected. Is that scaremongering? Well it’s high, and I’m sure it’s a bit of a guess, but maybe up to 40% could be. Annoying, isn’t it, not to know.

Someone has said 120 million could die. Well I suppose they could: I’m sure it was done on the back of an envelope, by guessing how many would be infected, and what proportion would die, but I don’t think anyone’s pretending otherwise.
[…]
By Tuesday, pundit-seekers from the media were suddenly contacting me, a massive nobody, to say that swine flu is all nonsense and hype, like some kind of blind, automated naysaying device. “Will you come and talk about the media overhyping swine flu?” asked Case Notes on Radio 4. No. “We need someone to say it’s all been overhyped,” said BBC Wales.

[…] Simon Jenkins suggested the same thing. It’s not true, I said. They were risks, risks that didn’t materialise, but they were still risks. That’s what a risk is. I’ve never been hit by a car, but it’s not idiotic to think about it. Simon Jenkins won’t be right if nobody dies, he’ll be lucky, like the rest of us.

Goldacre and Jenkins are both known for calling out BS in their columns, but Goldacre isn’t defined by his skepticism. He can easily slip from his default mode to a robust defence of the coverage of the potential pandemic. While Jenkins appears the one-dimensional cynical hedgehog, Goldacre proves himself to be the multi-faceted fox.

It is, of course, very possible that this won’t be as bad as is feared, but as long as it can’t be ruled out, it makes a lot of sense for people and institutions to take practical steps to be ready just in case. This isn’t a bogus threat or conspiracy theory. This is a regular punctuation mark throughout the course of human history.

Although much is uncertain at the moment, the breakout of the disease in Mexico means that looking at the situation down there gives at least some of idea of how things could be elsewhere in the world very soon if the virus continues to spread unabated. Unfortunately, the statistics coming out of Mexico are very unclear. The difference between confirmed and suspected deaths is large, and even the confirmed figure seems to go down as well as up. I personally suspect that the number of actual cases in Mexico is much higher. We may only seeing the tip of the iceberg – the extreme cases which have been reported. As we know, the symptoms in those returning from Mexico have been mild. If they had contracted the virus at home, how many would have gone to the doctor, and how many of those would have been tested? I imagine that many minor cases in Mexico have gone unreported for similar reasons.

This would potentially explain two anomalies: firstly, the high death rate in Mexico. If the infection rate was much higher than reported, this would bring the death rate down to a much more statistically understandable level, meaning that many more cases would be needed outside Mexico before a proper comparison could be made. Secondly, it would make more sense of the rate of infection among those returning from Mexico compared with the rate within the country. If I’m right, this would suggest a high infection rate but with a much lower mortality rate than currently reported in Mexico. Of course, I’m no expert and this is just a homespun theory. I’m just trying to make sense of some perplexing inconsistencies in the stats. I’d be interested to know what others think.

I have written before about Martin Seligman’s discovery of the phenomenon of learned helplessness. His experiments demonstrated that when animals or people are subjected to unavoidable pain or distress, around two-thirds of subjects seem to lose the capacity to take advantage of subsequent opportunities to improve their situation. The remaining one-third, however, are immune to the effect.

Seligman’s experiments were important because they proved that an individual’s mindset is an important factor in influencing behaviour, an idea which had been rejected by mainstream psychology up to that point. Seligman’s subsequent work in defining the explanatory styles that both led to learned helplessness and provided immunity to it led to the development of  methods of treatment, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, which could be used to change an individual’s core beliefs and, thus, avoid extreme effects, such clinical depression.

Carol Dweck

At the time of this ‘cognitive’ revolution in psychology, Carol Dweck was a graduate student at Yale. She was particularly interested in how Seligman’s observations could be interpreted in an educational context. She was aware that some children seemed to be paralysed by failure, while others were motivated by it. Based on her research, she developed a theory that a student’s belief regarding whether his or her abilities were fixed or subject to change was crucial to educational development. The differences between the ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets are clearly illustrated by this diagram.

In a breakthrough study in 1975 she took a group of elementary school students who were having difficulties with mathematical problems. Half of the group were coached to believe that their brains worked like muscles, which could grow stronger with more effort, and that working hard would enable them to solve the problems. The other ‘control group’ did not receive the training. The  group that received the growth-mindset coaching quickly made progress, learning to solve the problems which continued to elude the uncoached control group.

Dweck found that it wasn’t just failure itself that created learning difficulties for children with fixed mindsets. Among successful pupils, fear of failure was also a potential problem. When fixed-mindset kids were told how smart they were, this seemed to create a disincentive for them to learn more, in case future failure tarnished their ‘smart’ image. In his article The Talent Myth, which chronicles how an unrestrained ‘talent culture’ led to the collapse of Enron, Malcolm Gladwell describes an experiment of Dweck’s which highlights how the fixed-mindset can lead talented individuals astray:-

Dweck gave a class of preadolescent students a test filled with challenging problems. After they were finished, one group was praised for its effort and another group was praised for its intelligence. Those praised for their intelligence were reluctant to tackle difficult tasks, and their performance on subsequent tests soon began to suffer. Then Dweck asked the children to write a letter to students at another school, describing their experience in the study. She discovered something remarkable: forty per cent of those students who were praised for their intelligence lied about how they had scored on the test, adjusting their grade upward. They weren’t naturally deceptive people, and they weren’t any less intelligent or self-confident than anyone else. They simply did what people do when they are immersed in an environment that celebrates them solely for their innate “talent.” They begin to define themselves by that description, and when times get tough and that self-image is threatened they have difficulty with the consequences.

Dweck’s conclusion based on her research is that teachers and parents who praise children for their talents rather than their efforts could lead them to fear and avoid failure, rather than seeing it as a necessary part of the learning process. As the extract from Gladwell’s essay shows, in extreme cases, it can even encourage them to lie rather than admit to failure.

In recent decades the importance of a child’s self-esteem in educational achievement has had a strong influence on teaching methods. Dweck argues, however, that a ‘self-esteem at all costs’ approach has diluted standards and left many children unchallenged and afraid to fail. Students may have felt good about themselves, but at the cost of lowered academic standards. Dweck emphasises the need to teach children that failure is part of the learning process, and that self-esteem is the by-product of overcoming challenges.

Dweck, who is now a professor of psychology at the University of Stanford, has provided an excellent overview of her work in her 2006 book Mindset. The book looks at the influence of mindset not only on education and parenting, but also in many other contexts including relationships, business and sports.

One important theme of the book is how an obsession with ‘natural’ talent can create barriers to those with fixed mindsets. Like Dweck, Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t believe in ‘The Natural’. In his most recent book, ‘Outliers’, he analyses a number of so-called natural talents including Bill Gates and The Beatles to show that their success was a result good fortune and hard work, without which talent alone would never have cut it. Gladwell quotes a rule of thumb of 10,000 hours of practice as a minimum for someone to become an expert in their chosen field, regardless of natural ability. Even Mozart, the most frequently cited child-prodigy, did not produce any masterpieces until he reached his twenties. Dweck believes that fixed mindsets inhibit people from finding out their true potential in a particular field because they perceive themselves as having not having enough natural talent to begin with.

The good news from Dweck’s research is that she has found that changing from one mindset to the other is quite easy given the right training. She has developed ‘Brainology‘, an online training course for schoolchildren, and also runs courses for business managers. Dweck has even become involved in sports psychology, working with English soccer team Blackburn Rovers and lecturing to the Scottish soccer establishment, including Scotland manager George Burley.

Thinking about how the concept of mindset applies to myself has been an interesting and surprising exercise for me. Looking at failure as a growth process has helped me to remain positive in the face of repeated rejection in the current job market. I also found that, upon reflection, I wasn’t quite as much of a ‘growth-mindset’ guy as I thought I was. I even noticed myself developing a fixed mindset about my possession of a growth mindset! I found that the further a growth mindset drives you forward, the bigger the risk of falling into a fixed mindset based on pride at one’s accomplishments.

The ultimate message from Dweck’s work is that defining oneself in concrete terms in any aspect of our lives puts limits on our potential, even if the definition is a positive one. By learning to enjoy the voyage of discovery on its own terms, including the opportunities for growth provided by the setbacks along the way, we can have a more fulfilling life with more potential for learning and achievement.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.