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False nostalgia

“By the standard measures of health and nutrition — life expectancy and height — our ancestors were far worse off than we are. Much of the blame was due to diet, exacerbated by living conditions and infections that affect the bodys ability to use food. No amount of nostalgia for the pastoral foods of the distant past can wish away the fact that our ancestors lived mean, short lives, constantly afflicted with diseases, many of which can be directly attributed to what they did and did not eat. …

“‘Servitude,’ said my mother as she prepared home-cooked breakfast, dinner, and tea for 8 to 10 people 365 days a year. She was right. Churning butter and skinning and cleaning hares, without the option of picking up the phone for a pizza if something goes wrong, is unremitting, unforgiving toil. Perhaps, though, my mother did not realize how much worse her lot might have been. She could at least buy our bread. In Mexico, at the same time, women without servants could expect to spend five hours a day kneeling at the grindstone preparing the dough for the familys tortillas.”

Rachel Laudan, writing on “In Praise of Fast Food,” in the September-October edition of the Utne Reader

Jane for all ages

“I owe my breakthrough to Jane Austen. I had written about Austen in [my] dissertation and had taken great pleasure teaching her to undergraduates. This was in the 1990s, at the beginning of the great tidal wave of Austen-mania, when the first of a spate of adaptations of her novels had begun to appear on screen.

“It was as though her novels had been waiting for the cinematic medium to jump-start her popularity with a mass audience. Austen’s simple romantic plot lines, her opulent settings and clever, highly interactive dialogue were ideally suited to movies and television. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley, in their cutaways, their brusquely proper manners, and their moral high-mindedness, were ideal cinematic heroes; Elizabeth and Emma with their arch good humor and empire dresses (presented without the period’s modest lace coverage to reveal ample decolletage) were perfect cinematic heroines. Moreover, Austen’s plots were good in any sort of setting and time period, as evidenced by the enormous success of the 1995 ‘Clueless’ (‘Emma’ set in a Beverly Hills high school).”

Paula Marantz Cohen, writing on “From Jane Austen to Henry James: A Writer’s Journey,” on Sept. 1 at the Huffington Post

Human dictaphones

“Though dictation itself is not new, dictating to a human is not the same as dictating to a machine. For one thing, a human transcriptionist responds, even if the response is pre-reflective — laughing, crying, flinching — the transcriptionist is a substitute for the authors body and that body reacts. [Feodor Mikhailovich] Dostoevsky called his transcriptionist, Anna Grigorievna, his ‘collaborator.’ …

“Although there is no way to measure her contribution, it is clear that she was aware that she was offering more than efficiency of production. … Dostoevsky understood, even emphasized, that theirs was a collaborative effort. And though history may have forgotten these invisible handmaidens, in the moment of artistic production, authors like Dostoevsky responded to their presence. No one would call voice recognition software a collaborator. Nor would anyone say that a computer ‘wrote with one hand and wiped tears with the other’ as Anna Grigorievna did when Dostoevsky dictated a scene in ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ …

“This highlights a key difference between human and mechanical transcription — there is always the possibility that the human will respond. In Dostoevskys case, he even sought the response, something no technology can provide. The human transcriptionist allowed the author a different aesthetic point of view where he could gauge the affectivity of a sentence by watching the visceral response. And the meaning of this ‘spontaneous reaction,’ even a silent one, was refracted back to the writer.”

Amy Rowland, writing on “Dictating a Masterpiece,” on Aug. 12 at the Smart Set

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