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GP 14 February 2007: Prometheus Unbound: Catching Fire Again

Words are the physicians of the mind diseased. – Aeschylus 

We have Christ and though there are few words, they are enough, they are enough to last two thousand years. – Rickie Lee Jones 

Prometheus Bound.  Prometheus was the god who brought us fire and was punished for it by Zeus, who put him in chains.  All this is retold by the great tragedian Aeschylus in the first play of a trilogy.  Of course, the tale of Prometheus is only a myth, but a myth with wide application.  For the modern, it’s not just a metaphor for how we got fire: it speaks of how knowledge can reach us that will raise us up from our forlorn estate.   Every age caught up in inertia must look for its Prometheus—first to find him and then to set him free so that he can work yet more wonders for us. 

As we said last week in “UnZipping Memories,” we’re in a period of mental lockdown, our minds and bodies are on automatic, and we are simply re-enacting the tired plots of the 20th century, which means we are frustrated at every turn in the very different 21st.  In government, in education, in business, in religion, we are plagued by inertia and division, with citizens of all stripes feeling besieged and impotent. 

Torchbearers.  In every age, we suppose, there are torchbearers that come among us to throw off the yoke of the gods.  We suspect that along the way they have thrown aside conventional education in order to pull together knowledge from many domains, often from places unknown.  Perhaps they are a bit like James Oseland, about whom you can read in much greater detail on our sister site Spicelines. The conversation with Oseland mainly covers spices and his life as a spicemaster. 

But as suggested in SpiceLines’s review of his book In Cradle of Flavor, his range is much greater than New York cooking and the chatty magazine world.  As Oseland himself recounts: 

One rainy spring day in 1982 I was walking to catch the 30 Stockton bus home when I ran into Tanya Alwi, a classmate at the San Francisco Art Institute, the art college we were both attending.  I was 19 years old, a second-year student in the film-studies program.  All I really knew about Tanya at that point was that she was about the same age as I was and had the most contagious laugh I’d ever heard.  It was big and comforting and seemed to make everyone warm up to her.  I wanted to get to know Tanya better, so I asked her to join me for an espresso.  As we sat down in a crowded North Beach café, one of those smoky tin-ceilinged places off Columbus Avenue, I asked her where she came from. 

“Indonesia,” she answered in an accent that sounded almost British.  “More or less.”  Over the course of several espressos, Tanya told me about her life and home.  She explained that her father, Des, was the descendant of an aristocratic Muslim nutmeg- and pearl-trading family from Banda, part of the Spice Islands, or Moluccas, a remote chain of islands in eastern Indonesia that have lured the world’s spice seekers for centuries.  The Alwi bloodline, Tanya said, was evidence of the people who’d come to Banda over the last 500 years—she was part Malay (an ethnic group that migrated to Southeast Asia from Central Asia 10,000 years ago), part Arab, part Indian, part Chinese, part Portuguese, and part Dutch. 

Ms. Alwi diverted Oseland from his course.  This chance cuppa of expresso, at what we presume to be the Caffé Trieste (or it should have been) in North Beach, led to a trip to Indonesia and the Spice Islands, then to a stayover for a year, and finally to a lifelong affair with Southeast Asia.   He’s more than a spicemaster; he’s a veritable book of knowledge about the Spice Islands and Eastern climes.  As Spicelines observes, “The intelligence behind Oseland’s passion for the region lends authenticity not only to the recipes, but also to the advice he tenders to cooks who are new to the ingredients and techniques used in this part of the world.” 

But as well, he teaches cooking at Manhattan’s Institute for Culinary Education and has had more than one part in the movies.  Today he is editor of Saveur and loving the job. He floats easily and capably between many domains where he is not a voyeur but a full-speed-ahead participant.  It’s people like him, stalking through many domains, who can weave together important strands of our time and make them in to culture.  Today’s knowledge giver has to straddle all the lines of the universe.  This new culture is powerful enough to let us burst out of our mental chains so that we can catch up with the times in which we live.  It is the creators of a more worldly culture that can set us free from the stilllife in which we find ourselves. 

Stovepipes.  We emphasize that culture is a mosaic, a quilt of widely different strands running through society.  It’s not painting, or music, or spices, or a night at the opera, or rap—but all of these woven together and more.  Today it’s inextricably global, for culture of any merit no longer respects borders. 

It is a catalyst because of ‘stovepipes.’  ‘Stovepipes’ is consultese-shorthand that describes the structure of old-style companies where the different parts or departments don’t converse with each other very well.  It’s an American Express where you may have to talk with 4 people—instead of one—when you want to find out about travel, or hospital insurance, or about the points on your credit card, because the company is so compartmentalized that the left hand does not know what the right is doing.  It’s every telephone company where you are lucky to be able to talk to anyone (all the telecoms are very understaffed in customer operations, maintenance, and several other areas), and you may talk to as many as 5 people trying to discover your service options if you need to telephone Paris a great deal.  The consulting firms themselves are full of stovepipes, and knowledge is not shared well between different practices. 

That said, the ‘stovepipes’ that really matter in modern commerce are not those inside companies but those strewn through society and scattered about the world.  Neurologists understand very little chemistry—an impediment to research advances.  Boutique businesses have a primitive understanding of internet commerce—without which they cannot survive.  The U.S. knows little about Indonesia, the world’s major Moslem country, and even less about the Bandas where Ms. Alwi grew up.  The more complex the society, the more numerous its stovepipes. 

Culture weaves together the world as it is, bringing together spices, the Bandas, cooking, New York, a host of media, and much more.  It provides the neural circuitry along which ideas can move.  Culture knocks down stovepipes, so that a society can become interactive. 

Boutiques. One of the mindsets we are now escaping is mass production and mass marketing.  Those in developed countries are slowly learning that mass products can be invented, manufactured, serviced, and even financed somewhere else in the world—cheaper and, quite often, better.  But, as we have said elsewhere, it is becoming more economic in complex economies to serve niche markets where you only sell a few thousand, instead of a million.  Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, which we discuss in “The Color of Money,” makes clear that one can make a living in small niches: it has become imperative to do so in high cost economies.  Niche products cannot be easily duplicated, affording a safe harbor to high-cost, developed nations with aging populations and a shrinking workforce. 

A recent briefing in the Economist, “Billion Dollar Pills,” January 27, 2007, pp. 69-75, suggests that India is on a fast track to become the dominant force in the world pharmaceutical industry.  Incidentally, the rapid rise of its pharma companies tracks with the marvelous advances in medical care in India where more than one Westerner now goes to have an operation.  Big Pharma is having a hard time coming up with a response to the Indian druggist: 

With its traditional approach, Big Pharma is not coming up with new drugs fast enough to fills its emptying pipeline….  By 2004 spending has swept past $50 billion, but the number of new drugs has fallen below 30.  Now annual spending exceeds $60 billion, but the number of new drugs has yet to grow. 

But some innovators are looking at personalized, boutique drugs: 

Paul Matthews, an Oxford professor and head of GSK’s imaging centre, thinks this will lead to a new ‘iterative, segmented approach to drug discovery’ that contrasts with the broad-brush search for ‘one size fits all’ blockbusters.  For example, using genetic screening and clinical imaging, his team is trying to work out why the neighbourhood’s many South Asians tend to have more heart attacks than its white population—and whether new drugs could be developed to target niche markets more effectively. 

In many other commercial fields as well, all the signs point to the need for very tailored solutions that come to grips with local tastes and individual needs.  This paradigm shift underlines the need for a vast cultural change that does not come easily to our society’s institutions. It’s this particularity that Oseland understands when he gives Spicelines “two envelopes, one of fiery black peppercorns “from somebody’s backyard in India” and another of enormous nutmegs from the Banda Island,” that impart flavors otherwise unavailable to the discerning cook.  It takes an entirely different culture and far more sensitive knowledge transfer mechanisms to understand that not just any pepper will do and to source the right pepper at the right time.  It’s rather ironic that the true imperative of globalization is to understand how to get increasingly local, particular, special, one-of-a-kind, like-no-other. 

Miss Rickie Lee Jones.  At a recent funeral for a man snatched too soon from life, we listened to the minister drone on.  The eulogy poured gallons of praise on the departed, but the unction was so extreme as to miss the target.  The words were well meant, but they spoke of how little the pastor knew his parishioner. 

Forever we have had a tough time explaining the ways of the gods to men.  Ministers and priests and shamans are taxed just to explain the ways of man to man, and are hard put, especially as earthy concerns consume their churches, to communicate God to man.  It’s hard to get the Word right when you are caught up in earthly diatribes. 

Rickie Lee Jones has given it a try: 

Ms. Jones was explaining the premise behind her new album, “The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard,” out today on New West Records.  The project is an attempt to explore the words and ideas of Jesus in a contemporary context, backed by the most rocked-up music of her almost-30-year career. 

Ms. Jones set off with this new direction and inspiration, setting unscripted lyrics to the Velvet Underground-derived drones of the band Mr. Cantelon had assembled.  Though the songs were all somehow based on the teachings of Jesus, her intention had nothing to do with proselytizing. 

It’s unlikely territory for a woman who shot to fame in 1979 as a beret-topped inheritor of the Beat tradition—the “Duchess of Coolsville,” as she titled a 2005 anthology.  Ms. Jones, 52, is also active in liberal politics, maintaining an issues-oriented Web site, furnitureforthepeople.com, in addition to her own site, rickieleejones.com.  But she says her beliefs are precisely what fueled “Exposition Boulevard.” 

Ms. Jones, we think, is a colorful example of the dramatic, but perhaps unnoticed, transformation that our culture is undergoing.  Religion, in the times of Prometheus and in the age of the Internet, is a binding force for all culture.  It is no little thing to see holy writ and the sayings of Jesus chanted by a minstrel who is by no means a self-appointed apostle or even an agent of the heavens, although Ms. Jones is a self-confessed liberal.  Like Prometheus, she’s just putting a little fire in our belly.  See “Rickie Lee Jones Receives Some Divine Inspiration,” New York Times, February 6, 2007.  While many varieties of religion thrive in Africa and the developing nations, it is tattered in wealthier countries.  Unusual, unnoticed spokesmen are reviving it. 

P.S.  Caffé Trieste has now turned into a big deal, but it was once just a happy corner place for Beats or lousy authors, and their better dressed girl friends who held down office jobs, to chat, alongside old denizens of North Beach who seemed to have time on their hands, but were less anxious and more charming.  That Trieste is gone, yet the Beats are having more impact on us today than they ever did when Hugh Romney, a.k.a. Wavy Gravy, beat his drums on college campuses.  It can take 50 years or more for the impulses of previous decades to reshape a nation’s life, and their impact tends to be unrecognized. Romney, incidentally, never completely disappears, always popping up somewhere on the edge of our society.  For sure he is no relation to the ambitious ex-Governor of Massachusetts. 

P.P.S.  Tanya Alwi, the siren who led Oseland to Asia, has become a dedicated environmentalist, working to save the oceans around the Bandas from whence she stems.  As well, she is director of Saving Borneo Rainforests (Borneo Tropical Rainforests Foundation).  Her family has a very diverse lineage, which is certainly part of the reason why she navigates so well between East and West.

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