Monday, March 31, 2008

The Politics of Chocolate

For those interested, check out page 15 of the Villa Rosa Voice on a history of chocolate and politics.

What is a Truffle?

Photo of chocolates from La Bottega del Cioccolato

I lived and studied in Florence, Italy for four months in early 2007. In my time abroad I worked in a chocolate shop. No, not a chocolate factory, but a small, boutique chocolate shop called La Bottega del Cioccolato. In my time at La Bottega I chopped, covered, packaged, baked, and sorted all types of chocolate products. I find it interesting that a year after my experience in Tuscany I find myself asking the question: what is a truffle?

I recently received a gift with these hard chocolates resembling sea shells. Inside they were filled with a raspberry-caramel cream. What threw me off was the packaging that said "royal raspberry caramel: TRUFFLES." But wait, aren't truffles supposed to be round, soft, and covered in cocoa powder? I decided to do some investigation to clear up this chocolate misunderstanding.

Apparently traditional chocolate truffles are made with a chocolate ganache center and rolled in cocoa powder. This chocolate confection is named after the truffle fungus because when they are harvested, they come out of the ground in a similar spherical shape, covered in earth which the cocoa powder is meant to imitate.This is the sort of chocolate that I associate with truffles, and that's why I didn't understand how something that looks like it came out of a Whitman Sampler can be called such a thing.

In my research I found that the definition of a truffle is not so narrow as my imagination pictures them to be. Apparently, truffles can vary in their contents and coatings and not resemble one another at all. Some have hard exteriors, others are coated in coconut shavings, and some have unique fillings.

Upon reflection, in my time at the chocolate shop I made and tasted many a truffle, but I didn't realize what they were because they were cast in molds, and were hard shelled. However, the truffles that I did taste were most definitely not your stereotypical truffle. Some were filled with white chocolate and szechuan white pepper, or some with the typical Italian digestivo Grappa. My reaction in trying that one was "troppo forte."

So now I have my mystery solved. Truffles began as imitations of fungus. Appetizing, I know. And have evolved to incorporate all sorts of flavors, fillings, and shapes. Well, that certainly takes the hot air out of my argument. However, I don't feel that I will ever recognize those hard-shelled impostors as truffles. Stick with traditio. Give me my fungus chocolate.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cheer Up Charlie

Oh, the global credit crunch. While it may sound like a puffed rice candy bar, no one is jubilant about finding this golden ticket. The squeezing of the global economy is affecting nearly everyone, but one particular demographic could really be feeling the burn. In the U.S., students, arguably some of the poorest Americans, could see their education jeopardized when it comes to the availability of student loans.

For those concerned about the credit crunch, it is more likely that the worry is about a tightening of personal finances, as opposed to a worry about funding for college. For those unaware of the crunch, it is important to know why student loans are being threatened in the first place. This means looking into the epicenter of the quake, the subprime mortgage crisis.

During the U.S. housing boom in the early 2000s, lenders gave mortgage loans to high-risk, or subprime, borrowers with the idea that housing prices would continue to rise and allow for more favorable refinance options. The fall-out was the burst of the U.S. housing market in late 2006. The crisis has had widespread affects on mortgage lenders, banks, and other financial institutions.

Less money in the banking sector coupled with less confidence in borrowers means a tightening of the loan market. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, M&T Bank spokesman Philip Hosmer explains that “the market some lenders use to raise money to make loans has dried up in the fallout from the subprime mortgage loan crisis. M&T raised money by bundling student loans and selling them as bonds to investors.” M&T is one of three large lenders that recently announced they would not be making new student loans.

Analysts of the financial aid and student loan market are trying to keep optimistic. It is touted there will be no change in student loans guaranteed by the federal government. Loans, such as Stafford loans (that hold interest rates around 6%) are guaranteed to all students. However, there are limits to these loans. Students can only borrow $3,500 freshmen year, $4,500 sophomore year, and $5,500 for junior and senior year.

Perkins loans, however, will be more scarce in the upcoming year. These loans typically go to the students with the most economic need and are held at the enticing interest rate of 5%. The reason Perkins won’t be available is two-fold. The federal government has not adjusted its pool of funds to keep up with rising college enrollment costs. Also, the high interest rates that come along with the credit crunch and economic recession make it necessary for those with existing loans to hold them longer. This leaves little capital to be lent out to students in need. No child left behind indeed.

How is this affecting whether to choose between Harvard or Harvard on the Pike? According to Mark Kantrowitz, a publisher of, eligibility will be the key difference affecting student loans. For students applying for private loans, they will need either excellent credit, or a co-signer that will guarantee to repay the loan. This, once again, short changes those students at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Those who truly need to take out private loans may find themselves unable to afford their first choice schools due to funding. Settling on an in-state second choice school may indeed be reality, but for some it limits educational opportunity. Thus proving, that the American dream does, indeed, have a price-tag.

What is a prospective student to do? Those who plan on taking out around $5,000/year need not worry, subsidized or unsubsidized Stafford loans will pick up the tab. Those trying to go to private school need to secure government backed Parent Plus or Parent Loan for Undergraduate student loans. If that fails a last resort is to panhandle on the street. Now, when you are begging credit-worthy passersby to be your co-signer, tell them they're not just sponsoring your education, but their sponsoring their country's future. If recent history has proven anything, a rally to patriotism is surprisingly convincing. Lastly, to leave with one last bitter sip of reality, even if your loans do come through, and you attend the university of your choice, don't be surprised if you scrounge your way through college eating cabbage soup with Grampa Joe.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Free Tibet

My first dog as a kid was a Lhasa Apso. Being the Nancy Drew that I was, I sleuthed out the fact that my new dog was native to Tibet. Ironically, I ended up naming her China. Today, I can’t help but wonder if good old China would have survived recent riots due to her namesake. The ethnic rifts between Tibetans and Han Chinese have been stewing for decades, but the difference between this uprising and that of 1959, when the Dalai Lama was forced into exhile, was the restraint that the Chinese government showed in response to the violence. Due to international pressure and observance, this incident in China could prove that economic liberalisation can place pressure on authoritarian governments to become more free and open.

Tibet is formally known as the “Tibet Autonomous Region.” It is an autonomous region like that of Hong Kong, and Macau. However, Tibet does not enjoy the independence that comes from being an international financial centre or the “Vegas of Asia.” Due to a boom in tourism and a speed train between Lhasa and Beijing, the demographics of the region have been shifting. Native Tibetans feel that nearly half of the population in Tibet is comprised of Han Chinese and Hui Muslims. Any economic growth that the region has seen is perceived as beneficial for Han Chinese because they make up a majority of business owners in the region. To add fuel to the fire, in 1991 the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, said that the shift meant that “Chinese settlers (were) creating Chinese apartheid.” He has gone so far as claiming ethnic genocide on his native homeland.

Given this background, the destruction that ensued on May 14th makes a little more sense. Well, as much sense as rioting can make. Accusations, or possibly just rumors, of Buddhist monks being beaten by local police incited protests outside of Ramoche Temple in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Of course, the Chinese version of the story is that the violence began with monks stoning police. While monks have been known to be active in separatist protests, it is hard to vision city wide riots beginning with fully robed monk winding up and beaming policemen.

From Ramoche, the rioters gained force and moved through the city. They smashed non-Tibetan shops, pulled merchandise into the streets, and burned the rubble. Tibetan shop owners were spared by tying traditional white scarves through shutter handles, tipping off rioters to move to the next shop. While this block party was going on, police hung low. It was only on March 15th that tear gas was used to clear alleys still being affected by rioters, and single gun shots were fired to disperse crowds.

In the country that brought you Tiananmen Square, the reaction to protests in Lhasa have been uncharacteristically mellow. Many believe that the upcoming Olympics were on the minds of the Chinese political machine. This much anticipated event is expected to bring in huge profits and attention to Beijing and to China, and it is unlikely that major powers will boycott the games as Politosaurus Rex encourages in her post 2008 Olympics: Supporting Inhumanity in Beijing?. With so much invested in this project, the Chinese would be foolish to garner boycotts due to human rights violations in Tibet. Additionally, press coverage of the event has ratcheted up the pressure for China. You can’t sweep photographs by western reporters under the rug.

The international speculation that China would react mildly due to the Olympics was founded in reality. This brings hope that the more China is integrated into the global economy, the more it will be held to a higher standard, a standard that abhors repression, and the atrocities of human rights violations.

However, outsiders shouldn’t be too excited about Chinese politics becoming transparent and fair anytime soon. The timing of the riots so close to the Olympics could have been a fluke. There’s no telling what the government does in less well known conflict areas, or in the battles that aren’t broadcasted in international news networks. One Western student in Tibet apparently witnessed six Tibetan boys dragged from their homes, kicked and beaten with batons, bundled into a bus and driven away. Unfortunately, the Chinese are good at proving that, optimism can only go as far as reality.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"These are a few of my favorite things"

Two of my favorite things, Banksy and CurrentTV.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

She just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwhich!

I will say that I can speak three languages if someone asks. Well, if you count the number of languages that I can curse at you in, the number dramatically increases. But to learn a new language, and say that you are proficient, you need to know more than how to insult someone's mother. Here in the United States the intensity and degree of foreign language training that is received varies. Usually the standard Spanish and French are offered in high school. Latin is thrown in from time to time but the goal of learning this "dead" language is for SAT prep.

Two years of language training is the minimum; in those two years gaggles of students listlessly sit through their instructor trying to teach verb conjugations. Oftentimes, language training and requirements are not explained for their significance. Students question, why should I learn Spanish? My friend who is Mexican-American said that at a meet and greet one girl told her that she was learning Spanish so she could talk to her maid. Something tells me ADD highschoolers are not going to be motivated to learn Spanish so they can talk to the hired help (and that's assuming they have any). Oftentimes the excuse comes up that English is spoken everywhere so why learn someone else's language. It is true that English's use has grown enormously, but it is a poor excuse to refusing to learn another language.

Maybe foreign language adoption is simply based off of relevance. Take Switzerland as an example. Its surroundings have dictated the languages (French, German, and Italian) that are spoken within the country. The country's regions dictate which language is dominant, but citizens know multiple languages depending on the interactions they have with the varying regions. Then there's the U.K. whose population has the lowest foreign language ability in the European Union. This quote could have been taken before the recent 12 country expansion, but it's interesting to note nonetheless.

The U.S. aligns more closely with the British side of the spectrum, but there are foreign languages that are pushed more heavily than others depending on the context. During the Cold War students signed up to learn Russian. Today the context has shifted to the Middle East. After recognizing the drastic shortage in Arabic speakers, the government provided incentive to those who spoke Arabic along with other critical languages like Farsi and Urdu. For the business minded folk with dollar signs on their eyes, Mandarin is the place that they want to be.

While schools may be too strapped for resources to add new programs, a greater diversity of languages could provide reason for students to skip the trip to McDonalds and come to class. Children learn languages more easily. Maybe languages should be offered at a younger age in U.S. public schools. Or more variety of language could spark student's interest interest. Whatever they do, schools need to reinforce foreign language training as something of significance, rather than a requirement.