Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Words, in fact, lived by

"Just, as a novel concept, try not pissing me off for a while."

"At this point, spiraling out of control seems like the far more suitable choice."

"Sad trombone." (in a far higher pitch than should have been used, unfortunately.)

"Don't let reason, fact, or any shred of sanity slow you down."

"If I thought it was a worthwhile endeavor, I probably would have tried it."

"Life is, in fact, often shorter than it should be."

"If I'm doing this right, you guys are screwed."

"Just let Douchebaggus Maximus over there say his piece and then we can all go on with our lives."

"I wish I had found a way to do it better. I wish I had found a way to do it. I wish I had found a way. I wish."

[All of the above were said by, near, or to me at some point in the last 24 to 36 hours. None of it may be worth a damn, but there it is.]

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Outside agitators

I've been in a couple near-riots. The first was in 1989. Michigan had just won the national championship in basketball and the students (of which I was one) erupted on to the streets of Ann Arbor in a frenzy of celebration. As with most large gatherings that involve a) sports b) victory and c) alcohol, the cheers and hugs and dances soon turned to collapsed awnings, torn down street signs, and broken windows. In their rush to outdo each other as to whom can CELEBRATE HARDER, destruction became easier than doing a better dance. The university's response was to declare all such destruction to be the work of "outside agitators" and not their highly intelligent and presumably civil-to-a-fault student body. (Strangely, on a trip to a town of 60 people on the north end of Hawaii's big island 12 years later, I encountered someone whose only visit to Ann Arbor had been that very night, as he attended a concert at Hill Auditorium and later said: "And I walked out into the midst of a riot." I responded: "Yeah! I was in that riot!" Small world...)

The other was a few years later when I went to see the fireworks over the Detroit river with a couple friends. It had been one of those deathly humid July nights and something, somewhere, sparked a bunch of the locals to start intimidating, then threatening, and then assaulting and robbing the wealthier folks who had come down from Oakland County to see the show. By the time we were leaving, there were a dozen melees erupting all over Jefferson, Washington, Griswold, and Woodward and crowds of people naturally screaming and fleeing the ruckus. The city's assessment? "Outside agitators"... until someone pointed out that most of the young men arrested were, in fact, residents of the city. Then they became "hardened criminals."

I had first-hand exposure to the perpetrators in both incidents. The first group were students. Period. They were drunk and they decided to party to the limit, as it were. The second group were no more "hardened criminals" than my grandmother, unless average high school kids in Polo shirts had become the most fearsome element of society.

As I'm sure you've all seen, London and other communities are on fire:

Events were triggered by police shooting an unarmed man as they attempted to make an arrest last Thursday. The man, Mark Duggan, happens to be black. A candlelight vigil two days later soon erupted in the first wave of violence and it's been proceeding since then. PM David Cameron's and Home Secretary Theresa May's responses: "a certain element", "outside agitators", "hardened criminals." It's like training parrots: One says it, then the others follow.

In addition, they mentioned "more robust police action", "prosecuting to the limits of the law", and general harsh justice and recrimination all around. What they didn't stop to do was question why this much unrest amongst the typically staid British populace might be taking place with no Premier League win to be seen. Likewise on this side of the pond, only a few people have brought up the diverse array of motivations, any or all of which might be responsible for the outbreak: youth unemployment, racial tensions, police brutality, austerity measures. That's a pretty toxic combination of economic and social conditions that would strain most societies to a potential breaking point (unless they're distracted by the latest episode of Toddlers and Tiaras like, you know, Americans.) And yet London's response is typical British (and American) Empire: Control and punish.

Certainly, some swift action has to be taken to contain a situation that could easily boil out of control, if it hasn't already. And, of course, the stiff upper lip must always be displayed to reassure the rest of the obedient population that reacting to the government's draconian treatment of its non-wealthy citizens must not be tolerated. Can't go giving anyone any ideas or tolerating any new ones, for that matter. Like telling schoolchildren that they can't bring a nail clipper to class because of a "zero tolerance" policy, it's simply inconceivable to those in charge, especially annoyed as they are from having been dragged home from their Mediterranean vacations, that wielding the hammer even harder might be precisely the wrong thing to do. After all, if the trigger event for this was police brutality (only exacerbating the bad economic straits that many find themselves in), what happens when Cameron's order for a "more robust response" is taken seriously by the police on the ground?

As is the situation with most riots, the eruption of same in lower-class or middle-class neighborhoods has only engendered the disgust and enmity of the people suffering many of the same problems (leaving the racial issue aside, for the moment.) As Jello always said: "Tomorrow you're homeless. Tonight it's a blast!" That's not exactly the best way to effect social change, but some outbursts can't necessarily be controlled. All the same, just as in politics, making enemies of those who might otherwise be your allies and support you is, in a word, stupid. But I don't think anyone's ever seen an intelligent riot.

If I had my way, I wouldn't necessarily try to control it but, rather, direct it. No sense in tearing up your own community when the problem is the rather ritzier locales elsewhere, where the people who own your community actually live. It's like the old Q&A: Q- Why rob banks? A- That's where the money is. If you're going to cause general mayhem, you might as well do it where the money is. Nothing gets the state hopping faster than threatening the paymasters.

Am I talking about class war again? Tsk, tsk, old boy.

Monday, August 8, 2011


I use olive oil in so many things I may have begun to forget what it tastes like. I eat packaged crackers that claim to be infused with olive oil (and pepper and various other flavors.) Are they? I'm not entirely sure. I think the flavor is there, but I'd have a hard time picking it out over the pepper or the salt or the wheat or whatever else is involved. One assumes the maltodextrin isn't overwhelming the olive oil but then one would have to have a fairly textured grasp of the taste of maltodextrin now, wouldn't one?

Extra virgin olive oil, of course, is ubiquitous in my use and virtually any cooking I've ever seen or partaken of (I guess that's not entirely true, since I've done a fair bit of Japanese cooking.) But, once again, what exactly separates it from plain, old virgin oil? (As an aside, I think almost all Westerners associate the term 'virgin' with the Church and the proliferation of its use with Italian cooking. At one point, terms like 'virgin' proliferated because of the rather religious nature of the Italian peninsula and the omnipresence of the Latin language as a religious vehicle. Thus, olives become tied to Italian cooking, despite their origin with the Greeks and profligate use in Greek, French, and Spanish cooking; not to mention the rampant spread of half-assed Italian cooking (and distortions thereof; pizza, anyone?) as a vehicle for the tastes of mass market America. You don't often see frozen Greek, French, or Spanish meals at the local store. This may have nothing to do with my main point but this is how my mind occasionally wanders...)

What normally separates EVOO from VOO is nominally acidity and taste. I don't know that I'd be able to tell the difference by taste, despite having tasted and cooked with any number of high quality oils over the years; even the disgustingly overpriced ones at places like Zingerman's (Bourgeois! Burn him!) Could I tell the difference between EVOO and VOO? I like to think so, since I have been able to tell the difference between Greek and Italian olive oils in the past. But, again, it's seemingly omnipresent in my life at the moment and I begin to wonder if I can pick it out amidst the static haze.

Can you tell what your life would be like without democracy? If you're an American, you've been living with it all of your life but would you be able to tell if it were gone? Would it matter? Would you care? As long as Modern Family came on at the proper time and you could still get it in HD, would it matter to you that you'll never have the opportunity to improve your life or the lives of others by participating in the grand process? And when I say "participating", I mean actively; not walking into a booth every four years and pulling a lever/darkening an oval/tapping a screen for some schmuck who's only vaguely dissimilar to the last schmuck who steps and fetches for Goldman Sachs and whomever else pays him.

Would it matter to you if the current occupant of the Oval Office stepped up to the podium tomorrow and, instead of giving some indignant response to the credit raters (the vast majority of whom would be in jail for crimes various and sundry if they weren't, you know, indirectly paying him and everyone around him), actually stated that we were giving up on the whole democracy schtick and instead just converting back to the feudal system? We're almost there, anyway. Would it matter? As long as you could still get to Lowe's and Whole Foods and Bed, Bath, and Beyond and as long as you could still get the kids to camp or Disney World, would you be able to tell that you no longer had any choice in the direction of your country? Is the concept of democracy so twisted, so distorted, so ephemeral to the average American's waking hours that it has become background noise?

Tea Partiers like to think of themselves as participants in democracy and, compared to the average American, they are. Despite being ridiculously ignorant, often bigoted, and incapable of understanding the broad and long-term meaning of many of their actions ("You keep your government away from my Medicare!"), they were sufficiently motivated and active enough to elect a collection of borderline insane people to the highest legislative body in the land. That's how our system is supposed to work. It's also the reason that the following aphorism is true: Imagine that the average voter is the average sports radio caller. Now, construct a defense for democracy.

Can you tell when your government has changed? Everyone is in a panic over the obdurate nature of the Tea Party and how it almost plunged the US into default and how our credit rating is down for the first time in history and yadda, yadda, yadda... So, people are actually sitting up and paying attention to their democracy. Their response? Many people that I've heard or read are now desperate to re-elect Obama, presumably so that they can go back to treating their government as background noise because, after all, Jimmy has soccer and that just takes up so much time and the feudal system really won't change that.

I'm going to keep cooking with olive oil, because I like it. But now I might think about where it is among the panoply of tastes that I'm eating and about whether I might do something differently.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Casino Republic

Casino Royale is an excellent Bond movie. In fact, it may be the best Bond movie ever. Not only did it revive the franchise from the doldrums initiated by Roger Moore's later work and regrettably sustained by Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, but it also returned the series to its roots: the Fleming novels, in which Bond was a ruthless killer, allowing for almost anyone to be expendable in the name of Queen and Country. Just the same, it was clear that Bond was intended to be the "hero" in the murky world of covert activity and Cold War politics.

In sticking with the title theme, the producers chose to follow the most recent trend of gambling heroics and used no-limit Texas hold'em as the game upon which the premise rested.

Above is the final scene of the poker game. The game was established as a 10-player table with each player beginning with $10 million in chips. There was also a permitted $5 million re-buy, by which a player who had been knocked out could re-enter the game. Despite the rather farcical nature of the poker presented for the camera (if these players were genuinely skilled and practiced, the betting patterns were... odd, to say the least, based on the flops), one can accept that the game had to be dramatically presented, which meant a certain amount of melodrama was expected. That's all well and good until you come to the topic of the re-buy.

First off, allowing someone back to the table after they've lost their initial stake defeats the purpose of a winner-take-all tournament and puts more pressure on those players who, either through good cards or good play (or both) have managed to stay and prosper at the table. Secondly, allowing players back in with a half-stake is tantamount to suicide and something that no sensible person would do, as they would expect to do nothing but sacrifice another 5 million based on simple facts.

If we assume that the players who lost took some time to do so, that means the big and small blinds have risen considerably by the time they buy their way back in, such that they're significantly hit every time either blind rolls around to their position. Furthermore, if we naturally assume that fewer players buy back in than have lost out of the game, one can also assume that those players remaining at the table have considerably more money than their initial stake. What that means is that the bets will be played at a higher level than someone returning to the game can manage, even with what they assume is a solid hand. If someone is sitting at 14 million and the player returning with 5 million decides to bet $50K on a hand, that's a significant outlay of his available cash. But it's relatively chump change to the player sitting with 3 times that much in front of him. He can casually raise to $500K and still not feel a horrible sting, but that would be 10% of the re-buyer's entire roll in one hand. In other words, all that the remaining players have to do to eliminate the returners is to lean on them for a few hands. Soon enough, between competitive hands and the blinds, they'll be pushed to an all-in position and likely lose their roll again.

This is precisely the situation which perfectly embodies the current American economic and political situations.

The owning class (the top 5% or so) has a catastrophically-larger share of the wealth in this nation. Any challenge to their control can simply be leaned upon until it wilts under the pressure of that much money. How so? Perhaps by manipulating the stock market for political gain? After all, if "It's the economy, stupid" then powerful financial groups can certainly make sure that the economy stays flaccid if their puppets start to get uppity. This is, of course, presuming that said puppets aren't of the owning class and prefer things as they are, anyway. Oh, wait...

A similar situation exists in the world of political parties, wherein the Democrats and Republicans have been in control for so long that they've not only gerrymandered districts to either completely distort the desires of neighborhoods and communities or make it virtually impossible for the current party in control to ever be removed, but they've also established any number of regulations that make gaining and retaining ballot access for minor parties a frequently nonviable goal. If those don't work, it's a relatively simple task for either wing of the major party to lean on smaller competitors in a similar economic manner to that described above. After all, if elections are all about money ("It's the political economy, stupid!"), then he who has the gold still makes the rules. Where do they get this gold? Why, from the ownership class, of course. Convenient, that.

In short, they own the government. They own the economy. They essentially own you and everyone around you and no fantastical re-buy is going to get the other 95% of us back in the game and even if one existed, all they need to do is pool resources and lean upon any intruder to the system until they give up. Certainly, expecting the next Democrat blowing smoke about "hope and change" is an utter lost cause (at it has been for at least 60 years now; have you learned? please?)... unless we, the underclass, start fighting back.

How does one "fight back" against that kind of economic weight? Well, the easy answer is violence. The only slightly less easy answer (and far more palatable) is to exclude ourselves from the system. What worked in the past were strikes and mass disruptions to said system a la the Arab Spring but that takes a level of coordinated action that generally only emerges with some kind of significant shock like, say, a financial implosion...

There have been two last-minute saves in the past 3 years: the bailout of the banks and AIG in 2008 and the recent "debt ceiling" crisis. Either of those events allowed to proceed to their natural conclusion might have stirred up just enough suffering and consequent outrage to put people back in the streets for real. But that's exactly what they don't want to see, so it might be time for some low-level initiative. I'm not holding my breath for it, but it's either that or we wait for "Vote Palin/Bachmann 2012: It's a no-brainer!"

Sell enough of those and I'll finance the damn revolution myself.