Books History

The chemistry of chocolate

From Stuff Matters, by Mark Miodownik
p. 92-3
“Cocoa trees grow in tropical climates and produce fruit in the form of large, fleshy coca pods. These look like some form of wild and leathery orange or purple melon. The pods grow directly out of the trunk of the tree … inside each pod are 30 to 40 soft, white, fat almond-shaped seeds the size of small plums. … we harvested the cocoa beans using machetes, and then deposited them in a heap on the ground, where we left them to rot. This is how all chocolate is made. Over two weeks the heaps of beans start to decompose and ferment, and in the process they heat up. This serves the purpose of ‘killing’ the cocoa seeds, inasmuch as it stops them from germinating into cocoa plants.But more importanty it chemically transforms the raw ingredients of the cocoa beans into the precursors of the chocolate flavours…. fruity ester molecules are created, the result of a reaction between the alcohols and the acides that are created by enzymes acting within the cocoa beans… the taste of chocolate is highly dependent not just on the ripeness and species of the cocoa bean, but also on how high the rotting piles of beans are stacked, how long they are left to rot and generally what the weather is like.”

Drying and roasting … ” roasting turns the bean into a mini chemical factory,… first, the carbohydrates within the bean, which are mostly sugar and starch molecules, start to fall apart because of the heat. This is essentially the same thing that happens if you heat sugar in a pan: it caramelises. Only in this case the caramelizing reaction takes place inside the cocoa bean, turning it from white to brown, and cretaing a wonderful range of nutty caramel flavour molecules…. Another type of reaction, … also contributes to the colour and flavour of the cocoa: the Malliard reaction. This is when a sugar reacts with a protein …. reacting ith the acids and esters and resulting in a huge range of smaller flavour molecules. It is no exageration to say that without the Maillard reaction the world would be a much less delicious place: it is the Maillard reaction that is responsible for the flaour of bread crust, roasted vegetables, and many other roasted, savoury flavours. In this case the Maillard reaction is responsible for the nutty, meaty flabours of chocolate, while also reducing some of the astringency and bitterness…

Grind up the fermented and roasted cocoa nuts and add them to hot water and you have the original hot ‘chocoatl’ made by the Mesoamericans… When Europeans explorers got hold of the drink… they exported it to coffee houses, where it competed with tea and coffee to be the beverage of choice of Europeans – and lost. What no one had really mentioned was that ‘chocatl means ‘bitter water’ and even though it was sweetened with the new cheap sugar … it was also a gritty, oily and heavy drink, because 50% of the cocoa bean is cocoa fat. This is how it remained for another 200 years, an exotic drink, notable but not terribly popular.”

Books Environmental politics Politics

Notes from The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom by Derek Wall

p. 186-7 “Elinor Ostrum, and indeed Vincent, viewed ecological matters as fundamental to their political economy from the early days of both of their respective careers. Vincent and Elinor had observed how democratic structures had been used to manage real-life environmental problems, such as the dilemma of how to share grazing land or water basins. Yet Hardin [of Tragedy of the Commons] ac=dvocated largely top-down, and potentially authoritarian, solutions to these environmental problems… Elinor Ostrum, to her credit, worked very hard to challenge it. Bu doing so she has helped to promote environmental sustainability and the rights of collective resources owners – from indigenous people to peasant farmers to free/open source software designers.

The reality is that there is a spectrum, or kaleidoscope, of property rights. When we move beyond the idea of the binary of state and private property, the alternative is not simply the commons. The notion of commons, both as a resource and a property right, is an advance over the binary. Commons, rather than being unowned non-property, have been identified as collectively managed resources. Yet Elinor Ostrom’s work points to a conception of property beyond the commons. Items can be owned in a variety of ways and, as more sophisticated legal theorists have long understood, even privately owned items contain a bundle of rights. The insights gained from John R Commons that property systems are diverse further opens up a new economic and legal understanding. This enhances concepts such as usufruct, the right to access a resource on the condition that it is maintained and not degraded, which are essential to creating more environmentally sustainable systems of governance. ..

The norms and rules of usufruct are the norms and rules of sustainability. An economics of social sharing, whilst not investigated by the Ostroms, fits well with their research. With the social sharing of physical goods it is possible to cut the knot of prosperity versus environment dilemma, and have access to more physical goods than we need, while reducing other use of resources. Neither usufrust nor social sharing automatically solve sustainability problems, but they are useful tools that make them easier to face. More fundamentally, the Ostroms’ concern with self-governance suggests that grassroots popular design can be promoted as a means of dealing with a range of ecological problems, including climate change.

Elinor Ostrom’s approach to sustainability, therefore, cannot be reduced to a calculation of costs, or governmental regulation, or any other panaceas. Social-ecological systems are complex, and purely cost considerations, or centrally imposed regulatory measures are inadequate to their maintenance. The seven-generation rule is helpful in understanding her perspective … however, she did not believe a normative commitment to sustainability was sufficient, but that practical policies had to be worked out. Policies that were developed democratically were more likely to be effective, and people needed to see practical gains from such policies.

Books Environmental politics Politics

Notes from The Poverty of Capitalism by John Hilary

p. 17 “Studies of the functional distribution of income between capital and labour have shown how comprehensively the working class has been excluded from the benefits of growth in the era of corporate globalisation.Far from keeping pace with growth, in three quarters of all countries for which data were available the share of national income going to wages declined between 1985 and 2006. The most precipitous fall occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the share of income going to wages decreased by 13 percentage points in just 10 years, while dramatic declines were also experienced in Asia (10pc), the industrialised north (9 pc) and sub-Saharan Africa. … Wage levels for full-time male earners in the USA are well known to have stagnated in real terms over the past 40 years, even while per capita GDP more than doubled … yet when increases in unemployment are taken into account in addition to inflation, the median wage for all working-age men in the USA actually declined by 28pc between 1969 and 2009.”

p. 37 “Shortly after Germany’s newly revised Atomic Energy Act had passed into law, the Swedish energy company Vattenfall, which operated two of Germany’s oldest nuclear power plants, gave notice of its intention to sue the German government as a result of the decision not to extend their operating life. According to Vattenfall, the reduced book value of the two plants required the company to register an impairment loss in its 2011 accounts of just under 1.2 billion euro, including provision for dismantling the plants, and as a foreign investor it claimed the right to pursue the government for #compensation under the terms of the multilateral Energy Charter Treaty, which Germany ratified in 1997. That treaty was ostensibly designed to protect foreign investors in the energy sector from political risks such as discrimination and expropriation, in keeping with many other bilateral and multilateral treaties introduced in the 1990s. … the treaty had handed investors unprecedented power to challenge the authority of sovereign states and their democratic structures. … Vattenfall’s suit … was formally registered in May 2012 at the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement and Investment Disputes (ICSID) … it had already been successful in a prior claim brought under the terms of the same Energy Charter Treat three years earlier. The case had centred on the city of Hamburg’s environmental regulations for the River Elbe, where Vattenfall had been granted a permit to construct its new Moorburg coal0fired power plant on condition that it meet the water quality standards required of industry along the river. Vattenfall argued that these requirements made their investment ‘unviable and sued the German government… for 1.4 billion euros plus costs and interest. The case was settled between the two partied in early 2011, and although the details of the settlement were kept secret, insiders remarked that Vattenfall could consider the outcome a ‘complete success’. The company was granted a new permit to continue its construction of the Moorburg power plant, duly revised in favour to include less demanding environmental conditions.”

P. 42 “By means of intense bullying and brinkmanship in the shadow of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, a new round of international trade negotiations was launched at the WTO’s ministerial conference held in Doha in November 2001. .. the US managed to engineer the inclusion of the four Singapore issues (investment, government procurement, competition policy and trade facilitation) in the Doha round’s work programme at the 11th hour a coup widely credited to the personal persistence of the EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, who would four years later be appointed Director-General of the WTO itself. “… this led to the collapse of the Doha Round in 2003.

p. 47 Bilateral Investment Treaties commonly identify the forum (or forums) in which international arbitration is to take place, as well as the procedural rules to be followed… BITs commonly grant foreign investors the choice between bringing claims first before national courts or going directly to international arbitration – an innovation which breaches the customary rule that local remedies must be exhausted before foreign investors have recourse to international forums. Secondly, investors can disguise or switch their home country so as to take advantage of these powers, as in the infamous case of the failed water privatisation in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where Bechtel subsidiary Aguas del Tunari was able to take advantage of the Netherlands-Bolivia BIT by virtue of having inserted Dutch holding companies into its ownership structure…. an ICSID tribunal in 2004granted the ‘Lithuania’ company Tokios Tokeles permission to bring a claim against Ukraine under the Lithuania-Ukraine BIT even though … the company was 99pc owned by Ukrainians”.

p. 54 “the annulment of a number of high profile ICSID awards in recent years has further undermined the legitimacy of the investment arbitration system. In June 2010, an ICSID review panel overturned an earlier award of $128 million against Argentina in favour of California-based company Sempra Energy, on the grounds that the original ICSID tribunal had failed to deal properly with Argentina’s ‘necessity’ defence in taking the emergency measures it did in the financial crisis of 2001…. In 2007, Bolivia became the first country to withdraw from ICSID, followed by Ecuador in 2009 and Venezuela in 2012; by the beginning of 2013, Argentina had also indicated its intention to leave. In April 2011, the Australian government announced that it would no longer include provisions for investor-state dispute settlement in future bilateral or regional trade agreements; one motivating factor behind the decision may have been the UNCITRAL claim brought against the state by US tobacco company Philip Morris, under the terms of the Australia-Hong Kong BIT, for lossess “potentially amounting to billions of dollars” as a result of Australia’s decision to require all tobacco products to be sold in plain packaging’.”

p. 56 “the growing rejection of investor-state dispute settlemennt is consonant with states’ increasing confidence in re-establishing control over foreign investment by the means of new regulations. In 2000, fully 98 pc of all investment policy measures introduced at the national level served to liberalise the investment regime in host countries, while just 2pc introduced new regulations or restrictions on investors. In 2010… 32% of measures introduced new regulations on inward investment…. This rebalancing was most apparent in the the extractive industries, where 93pc of regulatory changes introduced in 2010 were restrictive, … in the agricultural sector … 62 pc of regulations introduced during 2010 were restrictive. .. business has responded by calling on the G20 to create an international framework agreement on investment that would guarantee transnational capital open access and protection in cross-border activities, including the permanent right to investor-state dispute settlement. … the B20 business lobby still identifies the WTO as its preferred forum for international rules and standards on investments.”

p101 “Intensified competition at the international level has played a role in undermining the prospect of positive outcomes in the garment sector, particularly as a result of the phasing out of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement in 2005. The MFA was originally designed in the early 1970s as a protectionist shield for clothing manufacturers in the global North in the face of competition from new producers in the SOuth, especially China and India… a further consequence was companies … were forced to look to new production bases in a broader range of countries if they wished to take advantage of the increasing opportunities to supply Western consumers… the full effects of the MFa phase out… leading to significant job losses as factories closed in export bases such as Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras. In the Dominican Republic, one in three factories closed and 70,000 jobs were lost in the garment sector between 2004 and 2007, while South Africa saw the value of its garment exports to the EU and USA crash by 75 pc over the same period…. within the first year alone, Kenya recorded job losses in the garment sector of almost 10 pc, Lesotho of 26 pc and Swaziland a catastrophic 43pc. Women were particularly affected … in Mauritius, 88 of the country’s 292 garment factories closed between 2004-2009, with a loss of over 17,000 jobs … the unemployment rate for women soared to 16.5pc… IN Cambodia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, the differential between women’s and men’s wage widened in the immediate post-MFA period, surging to a 55pc gender gap in the case of Sri Lanka. Even while total employment in the garments sector increased in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India and Pakistan after 2004, working conditions were found to have declined for women in all four countries.”

p. 106 ” aggressive cost-cutting by brand buyers has been a dramatic decline over the past two decades in the unit price of clothes leaving the factory floor. The factory price for cotton knit shirts, for instance, was driven down by over 20 pc in Mexico, El Salvador, Pakistan, Peru, Turkey and Bangladesh during 1994-2004, by over 30pc in Haiti, Guatemala, Domitian Republic and Egypt, and by over 50pc in Honduras and Nicaragua. … as sales began to be hit by financial crisis and recession from 2008 onwards, Western retailers embarked on their own discount campaigns in an attempt to offset declines in consumer spending… in Bangladesh, according to the country’s Export Promotion Bureau, the average price for woven and knitted garments fell another 3 pc between 2010 and 2011 as a result of this downwards pressure from retailers, while production costs increased by around 10oc. … to consumers in the West, this meant ever cheaper clothing over a sustained 20-year period, defying inflation and gibing rise to a throw-away fashion culture unknown to previous generations.In the USA, the price of women’s clothing fell by over 17 pc between 1992 and 2010, compared to a 55pc rise in the consumer price index as a whole. The UK clothing sector experienced significant price deflation in the first decade of the 21st century, as supermarket tripled their share of the clothes market and other ‘value’ retailers such as Primark burst on to the scene, leading to a 23 pc fall in the retail price of clothing and footwear in the 10 years to 2008 (and a 38pc fall in the case of women’s clothes. Brands and retailers at all points of the spectrum have seen vastly increased profits … Gap for instance posted sales of around $14.5 billion in both 2002 and 2010, but saw its profits increase two and a half times from $478 million to $1.2 billion in the same period. Nike’s profits more than tripled from $663 million in 2002 to $2.1 billion in 2011, with its profit margin increasing in the same period from 6.7pc to 10.2 pc. .. Primark … increased sales from £654 million in 2002 to £3 billion in 2011, and profits from £72 million to £309 million. The world’s largest fashion retailer Inditex… quadrupled its profits from 438 million euros in 2002 to 1.9 billion euros in 2011.”
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Books History Politics Women's history

An astonishing veil of royal protection

What’s really most astonishing about The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter is what’s missing. That’s no fault of the author, Lucinda Hawksley, but she has to leave large gaps in her biography, for documents relating to Princess Louise, who died in 1939, and her husband, who may have had his own secrets, as a homosexual in an intolerant age, remain classified and closed away.

We’re not talking about matters of state here, some deep secret about the First World War and relations with Germany that might somehow, distantly, have modern ramifications, or impact on anyone alive today – what we’re talking about are documents that probably, Hawksley concludes, show that Louise had an illegitimate child.

But when she went to the Royal Archives,she found a brick wall: “We regret that Princess Louise’s files are closed.” And she found that archivists in the National Gallery, Royal Academ and the V&A, as well as overseas collections in Malta, Bermuda and Canada, we bemused to find that material they expected to hold had been removed to the Royal archive.

Hawksley traces that probable child, adopted by the Queen’s accoucher, and family. She reports how his descendant, Nick Locock, tried to get his grandfather’s body exhumed, from a family mausoleum in Kent to establish that through DNA tests, which would have involved drilling through the coffin and removing a fragment of bone. A long legal battle ended with that being denied on the basis of “the sanctity of Christian burial”. “As Nick commented to me with a wry smile a few years after losing the court case: ‘I wouldn’t have minded so much if the very same church hadn’t recently moved about 200 bodies to make way for a coffee shop in the crypt!” (p. 93)

And the records of Queen Victoria – her volumninous letters and diaries are apparently available, but as Hawksley notes, not what they seem. For they aren’t the originals, but were heavily edited by Princess Beatrice. Given how much of a nasty, self-centred, vindictive character the Queen appears, it’s hard to imagine just how bad the originals are, Hawksley concludes.

Despite her upbringing, Louise was, for a royal, an interesting character. She tried to support Josephine Butler’s campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act – and although she was stopped from that on the basis of “this is politics”, she maintained a friendship with Butler, as well as many deeply “unsuitable”campaigners and artists. Perhaps not surprising that a central London pub was named after her.

This is definitely worth a read for a glimpse into another world – and a perspective on current debates on child abuse and neglect – for Queen Victoria certainly treated her children in a way that would count as emotional abuse under proposed new laws. Of course whether she’d get arrested would be another question…

Books History Women's history

Reading a fine history of Delphi

A shorter verson was first published on Blogcritics

There’s a whole book about the history of Delphi, and the material to fill it handsomely, because it was an important place in the ancient world, influential and often rich for many of the centuries from before Greek history was recorded well into the 4th century AD.

But it wasn’t, by and large powerful. It wasn’t the centre of an empire, it never had large bodies of troops to call on, it lived in large part on its wits, navigating its way through the Persian Wars (probably rather less than heroically), the Peloponnesian War, centuries of Roman emperors and their foibles.

That makes its history, I found, particularly interesting. Most of the human race, for most of our history, has lived like this, town burghers, village elders, huddling anxiously together, trying decide which side to choose in a conflict, or whether they can get away with sitting on the fence, calculating whether flattery is a good option, or an appearance of independent mindedness. Most of us haven’t been at the centre, from which most history is written, but the peripheries, trying to cope with the power of the centre.

That balancing act is central to Michael Scott’s very readable but still scholarly and serious complete account of the Greek settlement’s history. I was particularly impressed by his credible refusal to try to answer unanswerable questions: not choosing which record of the oracle’s pronouncements to “believe”, but acknowledging that they were shaped to the purposes of the writers who recorded them often centuries after their reported utterance.

He doesn’t try to solve the puzzle of the lack of a chasm beneath the temple of Apollo, while recording the recent geological revelations that the site is at the centre of two fault lines, perfectly placed to produce the fissured bedrock beneath the temple, through which fumes of ethane, methane and ethylene, from the underlying bituminous limestone might have risen. Indeed, he notes that intoxication of the priestess, if part of the practice, doesn’t really do anything to explain how for 1,000 years carefully crafted prophecies emerged from the depths of the temple and were at the centre of maintaining the economic future of a inconveniently located site that had nothing obvious to recommend it as a place for a visit beyond its mystique.

He’s also interesting on the place of the oracle at its peak time, that of the classic period of Greek history, when city states with varying methods of government often used it as a “tie-breaker” in making tough decisions about their actions – his comparison with management consultants is interesting, although I rather like the idea of turning his approach around: thinking about management consultants as being like the Pythia – about the same level of science and probably as good at judging the desires of those who employ them.
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Books History Politics

Behind our unwritten constitution…

Little known facts: ” The 1713 Place Bill, which would have taken all government ministers out of parliament and split the executive from the legislature, failed to get on the statute book only because the vote on the third reading in the Lords was tied. The Reform Act of 1832 was later thought so good they named it Great, but on its second reading in 1831 was carried in the Commons by a single vote, as was the vote of no-confidence in Jim Callaghan in 1979 that led to Mrs Thatcher’s first election victory.” (p5)

“Sir William Paxton … bought his Carmarthenshire seat with 11,070 breakfasts, 36,091 dinners and 25,275 gallons of ale, carried on treating the electorate with food and booze until a series of Corrupt Practice Acts in 1854, 1883 and 1885.” (p. 11)

From Parliament: The Biography, Volume 1, by Chris Bryant.