Archive for June, 2008

Questions

June 27, 2008

What is the point of the Supreme Court? Is it to push political ideology down people’s throats? Or to interpret and uphold the Constitution?

Recently the Court struck down DC’s ban on handguns. All of the press coverage on this centered around the question of whether this decision was morally reprehensible — which is not the right question to ask.

Is it a good idea to have a special law against handguns in the murder capital of the nation, my hometown? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say “Yes.” (Feel free to disagree.) Does the supreme court have the right to erase that law from the books if they find it to be unconstitutional? Also, “Yes.” Will that have negative effects? That’s not really an appropriate question for this particular judicial apparatus to be asking! (Think: “Did you have sex with that woman?”)

Recently Justice Scalia wrote (falsely, as it turns out) that Guantanamo detainees tend to end up back on the battlefield if they get released, hence it is a bad idea to grant them habeus corpus. That’s not the point! The question is not whether more Americans will die as a result of the decision. The question is whether denying habeus corpus to suspected terrorists is constitutional.

Today the NYTimes came out with an editorial that starts off like this:

“Thirty-thousand Americans are killed by guns every year — on the job, walking to school, at the shopping mall. The Supreme Court on Thursday all but ensured that even more Americans will die senselessly with its wrongheaded and dangerous ruling striking down key parts of the District of Columbia’s gun-control law.”

Again, that’s not the point. Neither side is addressing the issues in a straightforward way. I suppose that when crazy judges do stupid crap, the press is bound to react in a stupid way…but this only serves to feed the endless cycle of political bullshit.

I have as much loathing for the arch-conservative and famously failed Reagan SC appointee Robert Bork as the next liberal type — but in his book The Tempting of America (which I was forced to read in high school) Bork comes out against judicial activism and I wholeheartedly agree. Judges shouldn’t push their political agenda. That’s what Congress is for. When abortion activists march in front of the courts rather than rallying their local legislative assembly, something is definitely askew.

Obama is a former Constitutional Law professor and his book The Audacity of Hope addresses these issues pretty clearly. I’m not saying that I want to have Obama’s babies or anything (he’s nowhere near progressive enough for that kind of adoration…) But I can’t help it! In all my cynicism I’m holding out a tiny, timid ounce of hope that maybe having a reasonable person in the White House will increase the likelihood that sensible judges will be appointed to the highest court in the land.

This in turn might give the NYTimes editorial board less incentive to spew their brand of ultimately distracting middle class polemic quite so often and we’d all be slightly happier! 🙂

Root Beer Revelation

June 26, 2008

I don’t usually read the Dining section of the NYTimes because I don’t have any money and I’m not a masochist. But today there was an eye-opener about root beer tasting, which made me want to recount my own experiences with the mysterious beverage.

As a kid I was raised on cola, encountering root beer only very sporadically at birthday parties or the like. As such I developed a vague but persistent distrust for the brew. I was (and am) addicted to sugar — and yet, as far as I was concerned, no soda should be this sweet! And what was that tangy aftertaste all about? The old timey medicine chest ring of the words “root beer” didn’t help things…exactly what “root” were they referring to? And what century did the root come from?

Finding no satisfactory answer, I embraced a staunch policy of avoiding the stuff. In situations of the absolute last resort, when even ginger ales or lemon limes were unavailable, I would not say no to a proffered Mr. Pibb or Dr. Pepper. But root beer was categorically out of the question.

Flash forward to high school. I was hanging out with a friend of mine and we had just made a trip to Jerry’s Subs and Pizza, where we each got cheese steaks of the insanely gargantuan size that only Jerry’s can furnish forth. When we got back to this kid’s house, he offered me a bottle of Stewart’s root beer. I was hesitant…

But I chugged it! Pure joy. I immediately chugged another one. It had the same root beer tang, but balanced with a happy hint of vanilla. I ended up drinking so many Stewarts’ that I didn’t have room for my continent-size heart attack sandwich. (I think I saved it for later, but that’s a waste in itself because the bread got soggy and the grease congealed…the fate of forsaken cheese steaks is not pretty) At any rate (here’s some free advertising for Stewart’s) my whole attitude about root beer was changed instantly and forever.

So Stewart’s being placed in the bottom slot of the NYTimes Top 10 list is a revelation: Wow. There are in fact better root beers out there!

— and I’m a try ’em.

ALSO It should be noted that the method of transmitting the root beer makes a huge difference. Root beer on tap is a beauty that bottles just can’t convey.

Politics and Rashomon

June 22, 2008

By now you all probably know that Obama pulled out of public campaign financing:

Stories are enormously important and so far I’ve heard two stories about this.

Story 1: Obama, seeing a strategic opportunity to humiliate his opponent and raise unparalleled dollar$, which he claims he will need to survive the blistering attacks which destroyed Gore and Kerry, renounces public funding.

Story 2: Obama, seeing a way to break with politics as usual and enliven his populist grassroots support, renounces public financing.

I say there are elements of the truth, of what “really happened”, in both stories. Obama has thus far proved to be extremely good at managing his image, and he’s done well with this potentially volatile campaign finance thing. NYTimes columnist David Brooks wrote very astutely that the Obama video, “made a cut-throat political calculation seem like Mother Theresa’s final steps to sainthood.”

Now the role of the political press, no less than the candidates themselves, is to fit complex issues into easily digestible narratives. The genre of these narratives usually varies along with the medium — compare talk radio political analysis with op-ed pages and you’ll see vastly different storytelling strategies at work. But the goal is always the same: tell a story that people will understand and believe.

Brooks likens BHO to a split personality sociopath, which is much more common as a Hollywood trope than as a real psychological condition. It was immortalized in Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and later found many more incarnations in Hollywood film.

Now this whole good/evil split personality thing may be a good way to tell a gripping story, but it is way too simplistic to encapsulate this kind of politics. If, like Brooks, I wanted to use what is essentially a cinematic metaphor to explain the situation, I’d turn to Rashomon, the classic Kurosawa film in which a murder is retold from different perspectives and nobody can figure out what really happened.

Both Story 1 and Story 2, if repeated enough times, will become the truth. As the Commoner points out in Rashomon, “we all want to forget something, so we tell stories. It’s easier that way.”

I’m no Kurosawa scholar, but I can point to a few facts: Japanese movies of the 1950’s tended to attack more difficult topics, using more puzzling and engrossing storytelling techniques than their Hollywood contemporaries. Plus Japan in 1950 was still reeling from the insanity of WWII. Appropriately, then, most all of Kurosawa’s films from this period blur the boundaries between truth and fiction, dwelling instead on how it’s really impossible to get to the root of things, on how human existence is ultimately futile.

Rashomon is set in 12th century feudal Japan, the classic Samurai movie setting, a time when the island was divided into many warlord states with complex inter-related power relationships. You can’t trust anyone, samurai have all sworn loyalty to their masters and yet everyone has a price, real power is largely hidden. Today’s political landscape is a lot like this!

Obama calls the public financing system “broken”, which the NYtimes editorial says is “only half true.” He calls his system of getting funding “public” even though its made up of private donations. But the “public” system which is in place allows for donations from corporate interests and so-called 527 “shadow groups,” so how can it be considered “public”? Who knows what the “real” story is?

The Brooks article definitely called my attention to the fact that by refusing to play by the rules, Obama has outed himself as a political trickster. But then that’s a good thing! (especially if you’re trying to survive in feudal Japan.) Like I said, he has shown an amazing capacity for managing his image so far. So it’s encouraging that unlike Gore or Kerry, Obama may be able to weave a compelling counter-narrative for himself when the general election rolls around and the smear ads really start to fly.

ALIENS PREDATOR TERMINATOR (Stan Winston dead at 62)

June 17, 2008

As a kid I spent hours watching and re-watching a VHS tape crammed with 6+ hours of classic 80’s action fare; labeled “ALIENS PREDATOR TERMINATOR” in my step dad’s stark handwriting, this amusingly lo-fidelity tape was a relic of his days as a bachelor, and a staple of my own development as a hopeless movie nerd.

At the end of Aliens, as the eerie Goldsmith theme plays and the credits start to roll, I would be *just* about to turn off the TV (perhaps to go play outside or read a book) — when suddenly Predator is on! That movie rocks! Gotta watch.

Alright, alright. The Predator has blown himself up with a final gesture of extraterrestrial bravado, Arnold is scratched up and dusty but otherwise miraculously unscathed by the explosion and sitting safely in his evac chopper, and all is well in the jungle.  Time to get up, stretch out, maybe get a glass of water. Then BAM! It’s Brad Fiedel’s Terminator theme, with its military rhythm and beautifully simple 80’s-tastic synth melody, and I’m right back in.  Yeah dude! The Terminator!

I don’t care to reveal how much of my early adolescence was spent in this fashion.

One time (in the days before IMDB) I tried to think of some of the different intersections that those three classic movies share:

James Cameron directed two of them.

Lance Henricksen featured prominently in two of them.

Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in two of them.

Michael Bien starred in two of them.

Bill Paxton had roles in two of them.

And Stan Winston did the visual effects for all three of them!! Unbelievable.

On the one hand, this means that I can’t think of any one person more responsible for gluing me to the television and wasting my precious youth (except for my step dad of course!)

On the other hand, Winston’s contribution to special effects in the movies we all love is unparalleled. Like Syd Mead, he is an  unsung hero of mis en scene, especially in sci-fi films that would fall flat without that element of sheer, eye-popping spectacle.  What an amazing body of work, what a brilliant mind, what an untimely death.

I want to send my sincere condolences to his family and friends.

“making Bolivar’s dream real” — The Union of South American Nations

June 16, 2008

Well heck, I definitely did not know about this!

Most of South America has banded together into a singular economic force known as the Union de Nationes Suramericanas  — which the BBC is referring to as “Unasur”. The treaty was signed just weeks ago. Like the EU, “Unasur” is an attempt to integrate the infrastructure and economy of disparate countries, complete with a central bank and a parliamentary government to boot. Crazy!  

The president pro tempore is Michelle Bachelet, the democratically elected president of Chile, a socialist. This should be a big deal no matter where you are on the political spectrum , right? And yet this little AP blurb is all I could find on the NYtimes archives about it. Very strange.

As far as the potential importance of “Unasar” (that name really sucks),  Chomsky gave a talk on this topic back in 2006:

“This is the first time since the Spanish conquests, 500 years, that there have been real moves toward integration in South America. The countries have been very separated from one another. And integration is going to be a prerequisite for authentic independence. There have been attempts at independence, but they’ve been crushed, often very violently, partly because of lack of regional support. Because there was very little regional cooperation, they could be picked off one by one — That’s what has happened since the 1960s. The Kennedy administration orchestrated a coup in Brazil. It was the first of a series of falling dominoes. Neo-Nazi-style national security states spread across the hemisphere. Chile was one of them. Then there were Reagan’s terrorist wars in the 1980s, which devastated Central America and the Caribbean. It was the worst plague of repression in the history of Latin America since the original conquests. But integration lays the basis for potential independence, and that’s of extreme significance.”

That sounds like the right track to me.

Doc to Dock

June 13, 2008

Just wanted to take a moment out of my busy (?) workday to post a quick plug for a local charity organization that I’ve worked with a couple of times called Doc to Dock. Check out their site!

The idea is simple: During surgery, doctors open up huge bags of sterile medical supplies but typically use only a small number of them. The rest of the stuff, which is all packed in kits and individually wrapped and thus sterile, must be thrown away. (Then of course all of this crap, most of it plastic, goes either to the landfill or to the incinerator.)

That’s the law! Because of it, hospitals in America waste thousands of tons of brand new medical supplies per day. I posit that the point of said law is not to protect us from some looming public health risk, but rather to artificially boost sales for medical supply companies. (And in turn their suppliers, the plastics industry. And what does plastic come from? Oil!) We need to re-evaluate the conventional economic wisdom that production and consumption growth are always good — the late great Galbraith had a point.

Anyway, Doc to Dock works with hospitals to establish a recycling system so that unused medical supplies, still in mint condition, can be donated. Then Doc to Dock employs volunteer laborers (like myself) to sort the supplies, then ships them to hospitals in Africa where said supplies are desperately needed. So it’s good work! If you live in Brooklyn, you should go down there and help some time. They are cool.

For good measure:

Medical supply companies and their corporate parents are getting what amounts to a subsidy for overproduction — hospitals are required to buy more than they need. This boosts our GDP (yay!) but is not good for consumers. Put yourself in the producer’s shoes: Why bother trying to compete for a hypothetical African market when you’ve got a permanent customer in your pocket?

Tyco, known to all of us as the friendly purveyors of toy trucks and electrical equipment, is also the world’s fourth largest medical supply company. So they’re reaping the rewards of this arrangement; indeed Tyco executives are notoriously greedy. And they have no qualms evading local labor laws in Latin America (as when they were requiring female workers in Mexico to submit to pregnancy testing.) Love those toy trucks though!

An encounter with Non-Violent Communication

June 12, 2008

Like my rambling encounter with Theater of the Oppressed from a few weeks ago, this post is mostly for my own edification — I’m trying to write out stuff that I learned recently before I forget it all!

*Ahem*

The Ideology of Nonviolent Communication

    states the following:

  • All humans have energy that sustains life
  • This energy expresses itself in our dreams and our needs
  • If you are human, you have this spirit. If you have this spirit, you have needs. Hence, everyone has needs
  • Wants and desires are strategies to meet your needs

What is the point? Well, these are premises for developing strategies for communication that satisfies human needs. The performative quality of words implies that language itself can be a violent act (thanks Judith Butler) even when it’s only meant to be expressive. Think about the last time you asked your roommate to pick up the slack and wash his share of dirty dishes — it always comes off as a criticism, and makes you sound like an asshole. But really you feel frustrated with the kitchen and you need your roommate to help you out. So why should that be grounds for you being the asshole? It shouldn’t.

Phrasing, tone, and style are important — if you say, for example, “Hey man I really feel like you’re not doing your share of the dishes” then you are implicitly imposing a judgment upon your roommate. The emphasis placed upon the really implies disappointment, and quasi-paternal shame at your dirty roommate. Also the “you’re not doing your share of the dishes” is not actually a feeling, it’s a quite specific thought and statement about your view of the situation masked within an “I feel like…” sentence.

This is, incidentally, a favorite Wesleyan kid tactic for avoiding responsibility; you know that kid who raises his hand to proclaim “I feel like Shakespeare wrote King Lear as a metaphor for political power in general.” Damn it, you don’t “feel like” that! You think that!

But I digress. The point is that there is a judgment inadvertently entangled in that sentence about dishes — if you utter it, your roommate will be more likely to counter-attack or go on the defensive than to communicate openly. To judge a person before you’ve walked a mile in their proverbial shoes is an act of linguistic violence and it will most likely lead to a battle, roiled with sarcasm, eye-rolling, and sighs (at best).

The way to avoid this is to express your feelings and your needs clearly and simply, without casting aspersions upon the other person. NVC theory says that you should deal with others compassionately, observe what’s going on around you, and pay attention to your own feelings in particular (because they help you figure out what your needs are.) This way you can more effectively seek positive changes that work for all parties involved. Strive for no labeling, no judgment, and no violence.

A personal note to all this: Once upon a time I was experiencing serious, soul-crushing, Bell Jar-esque depression. Then I began to realize (thanks to the support of friends, family, and extraordinarily uplifting albeit un-bloggable circumstances) that this suffering was self-imposed. I had been shouldering a burden of my own narrow judgments, ignoring my own needs as well as those of loved ones, and thus actually causing my distress that had spiraled into despair.

For me, the most interesting thing about NVC theory is that it jibes with what I was thinking at that time — it is essentially the same theory that I conceptualized during the incredibly euphoric phase of my life that took shape after I climbed out of the mire. I thought: If people could know their needs and speak them to others, then individuals could act together to solve collective problems. I was thereupon *completely* convinced that I should become a counselor or therapist — the profession of helping people understand their own feelings and act upon them by making positive change in their lives.

Now I know that this isn’t necessarily the case; rather, I can work to affect positive change through communication in all sorts of other, broader ways too. Even though I stumbled upon NVC by myself and in my own original way, others have been working on developing its applications for years. And I hope to be part of generating this discourse.

The pleasure of Top Chef

June 7, 2008

David brings up an interesting question about Top Chef : “How do they deal with the fact that they are judging a competition based on a sense that can’t possibly be transmitted to the viewer?” If we can’t taste the food and we can’t know whether judges are being honest, then how does the show capture viewer’s attention?

I think this is an excellent point of inquiry.

Here’s a quick answer: Top Chef usually challenges contestants to organize and execute good food in difficult catering situations. You get a strict shopping budget, a crazy time limit, and intense pressure to be creative. This, coupled with the ongoing drama between contestants, makes the viewer want to see what the chefs can come up with, regardless of the fact that they can’t participate in the judging. (Plus there’s the Schadenfreude when contestants make mistakes.) After witnessing the frantic kitchen drama you choose favorites and you watch the judges (who are indeed not accountable to viewers for their decisions) to see if they jibe with your own estimate. If so, you feel validated. If not, you get immense frustration!! (the very emotion which started this whole blog-a-log.) That’s why you watch the show.

Here’s a longer answer: The question brings up related questions about TV cooking in general. If you can’t taste what someone is cooking for you, how do you know the food is good? Why do you watch? There is (as of now) no way to transmit taste via television — so what is the deal with food television, particularly televised competitive cooking?

Scholar Pauline Adema maintains that the pleasure of watching cooking shows is a false satiation of, “the hunger for emotional and physical pleasure vicariously grafted by watching someone cook, talk about, and eat food.” I think that’s about right — food television is about vicarious pleasure.

Some cooking shows display the ease of cooking good food with ordinary ingredients (Rachel Ray, Paula Dean, Jaimie Oliver, etc.) while other shows feature haute cuisine methodology (Wolfgang Puck, Jacques Pepin, the original dean of TV cooking Julia Child, etc.) Regardless of these shows’ different goals, the viewing pleasure is about the same.

However, new forms of cooking show have appeared in recent years, particularly on Food Network. These shows alter the standard cooking show, usually borrowing from other successful TV genres. Food 911 features an expert helping ordinary folks, akin to Nanny 911 and the like, Emeril is a variety show with a classic ostentatious host, Good Eats with Alton Brown is more of a Bill Nye-esque science show, etc. Each of these change the cooking show formula to produce different viewing pleasures. TV cooking programs with a focus on competition, like the original Japanese Iron Chef, its American spin-off, and the old UK favorite Ready, Steady, Cook, add something unique — the suspense of cooking against opponents and against the clock.

Top Chef is ingenious because it incorporates both the competition/race against time cooking show with the relatively young reality TV form, perfected by producers at Bravo. Watching Top Chef is multifaceted fun: suspense, reality TV personal drama, AND cooking. (Food Network has tried to capture this formula with it’s Top Chef imitation The Next Food Network Star — a show that falls flat in a number of ways.)

Should we let a table of authoritative judges dictate what counts as good food via the TV? Giving up our real senses to their televised equivalent is certainly bizarre and possibly quite dangerous.

How do we know that TV food is good? We don’t. Ignoring this question, and indulging mindlessly in TV food, is arguably disempowering with respect to your own personal dealings with food. Fellow Wesleyanite Johanna Goetzel writes about the feminist implications of Food Network’s comodification of the traditionally feminine sphere of the kitchen — a place where cooking could be empowering for women! Goetzel argues that, “while it can be argued that food produced on Food Network shows is real, it requires a trust beyond the sensory, and beyond the viewer’s discursive power. By exploring the extensive following of Food Network, American interests in the culinary comes to the front and threatens the real (personally experienced) empowerment in the kitchen.” Traditional cooking shows (and cookbooks from time immemorial) are involved in marketing a false discourse of domesticity, making public the private sphere of the kitchen, and promoting a corporate-sponsored ideal of cooking and, hence, of the feminine.

I’d argue that Top Chef inaugurates the TV cult of the professional chef and restauranteur rather than contributing to the ancient cult of the domestic wife and cook. There has been a spate of Bravo shows about professionals in an affluent service economy (professional dancers, fashion designers, hair stylists, personal trainers, etc.) of which Top Chef is one. Any analysis of Top Chef from a cultural studies perspective should take this into account: Top Chef is about professionalism, power, superiority, and, ultimately, class. (Think about the many challenges that call for serving “the masses” or using low class ingredients to create top flight dishes, or distinguishing between high quality and low quality ingredients, etc.) So asking why we watch it can be drawn out into a difficult but important question about ideology, the full answer to which is beyond the scope of this blog.

I always hated…

June 6, 2008

Joe Lieberman!

Bastard!

*even more* Top Chef

June 5, 2008

Alright now, I know this is ridiculous. But viewers of last night’s astonishing episode, in which Lisa once again narrowly avoided the cut, will understand why I remain fixated on this.

In response to blogly critics and conspiracy theorists, like myself, the stoic Head Judge Tom Colicchio blogged copiously about Top Chef shooting + judging procedure, sprinkled with some very upfront words about his own feelings on the Lisa thing:


I think Lisa, along with a few chefs from past seasons (Dave Martin and Mike Midgley are two that come to mind,) benefited from a phenomenon I call the “lucky-dog-who-keeps-skating-by-effect,” in which a chef of decent, but not stellar, skills gets lucky and doesn’t screw up at precisely the moment that one of their more gifted opponents does. And since we judge each week’s Elimination Challenge on its own merits, we are operating each time under the assumption that everyone still cooking deserves to be there.

Now you may hate us for standing in the “judge each week on it’s own merits” corner, and personally subscribe to the “judge each week by overall performance” camp, but consider for a moment if we did judge each contestant based on their cumulative merits — by whose analysis, exactly? And how do we arrive at a consensus? My idea of how the chefs rank may vary widely from Ted or Gail’s. And what about our Guest Judge — he or she doesn’t know any of the chefs — of what value at that point is their input? The debate would shift from “who won this episode?” to “who’s won the most episodes?” and “should we factor in the Quickfires?” “Does attitude or likability count?” “How about we assign each dish a score, tally them up, and then knock people off by the numbers?” Etc. etc …. It opens a huge, even more contentious can of worms. The “week-by-week” logic may be only incrementally fairer than the “overall performance” argument, but it’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.

That being said, I felt manipulated by the week-before-last’s show — it really did seem like Lisa should have been sent home over Dale. I wrote this in my blog not to sell my fellow judges up the river, but rather to empathize with viewers who are left to wonder, How did that happen?” It’s hard to boil four or more hours of nuanced debate into a few minutes of screen time, and I can see why the results don’t always mesh with what viewers have seen.

I can only resolve to follow my gut each week about the food in front of me, and hope that Top Chef fans stick it out with us and keep writing in. Your thoughts and comments, even when I don’t agree, are an essential part of making this a dish that works.

Tom

Wow. I guess it just struck me as pretty cool that he would take time to respond in such a careful, sober way to all of us silly blog types.