Archive for July, 2008

“Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” in Four Acts

July 25, 2008

Dramatis Personae

Chef Ramsay — Vigilante of good cooking (also posessed of copious reserves of money)
Owner — Befuddled man, his noble heart is racked with worry and tremendous debt
Manager — Fast-talking egomaniac, both lazy and overbearing
Chef — Beleaguered kitchen worker whose inspiration to cook has seeped out of him
Various Waitstaff — None-too-bright women who bemoan the lack of customers
Customers — Average Joe(s), having two functional states: very angry or very satisfied.


(Chef Ramsay arrives at a fledgling restaurant. Finds the staff engaging in Group Think)
Ramsay: Bloody hell, look at this restaurant! (tastes the food) This is the worst food I’ve ever eaten!(enters kitchen) This kitchen is without a doubt the dirtiest, most disgusting kitchen on the face of the planet!
Chef: I am nonchalant…(shrugs)
Owner: I am embarassed! (faints)
Manager: Who is this #*%& to come here and criticize my restaurant? (seethes)
Ramsay: You are all lazy, stupid, and hopeless!

(commercials, and a re-cap of the situation)


Chef Ramsay:(confidently) I have hatched a plan. (To staff) You guys are terrible, but you have the potential to be better. Let’s clean the kitchen!
(Cleaning montage proceeds)
Ramsay:(cooking) I am introducing a new menu with high quality ingredients and simple, robust flavors!
Manager: (grumbles)
Chef:(raises eyebrow suggestively)
Owner:(hugs Ramsay with enthusiasm)


Ramsay: It is opening night at your new *redesigned* (new decorations unveiled) restaurant!
Manager: (paralyzed)
Chef: (skeptical)
Various Waistaff: (disorganized)
Customers: (some *very angry*, some * very satisfied*) Food!


Manager: I realize now that humility and self-discipline are positive values
Chef: I know now that I enjoy cooking.
Various Waitstaff: I like having customers to serve.
Owner: I hope I can recoup my debts before this publicity stunt is over!
Ramsay: My work here is done!



Good luck shaming China, you guys…

July 21, 2008

Maybe I should stop reading the Op-Ed page…I don’t think it’s very good for the brain.

Case in point: Thomas L. Friedman wrote in a recent Op-Ed that, “there was something truly filthy about Russia’s and China’s vetoes of the American-led U.N. Security Council effort to impose targeted sanctions on Robert Mugabe’s ruling clique in Zimbabwe.”

OK so Robert Mugabe is a rich, power mad, murderous dictator whose insane policies have ruined many, many lives — it’s true. So why would Russia and China veto the UN Security Council measure to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe?  Is it because they’re *evil* countries?

Or could these countries have, oh I don’t know, some kind of financial interest in keeping Mugabe’s regime in power?

China, for one, is beoming more and more intertwined with Africa due primarily to China’s thirst for oil and valuble minerals.

As David Shinn and Joshua Eisenman have pointed out in a recent report surrounding US-China policy towards Africa,

“China’s reluctance to impose political conditions and its willingness to work with any African government have resulted in strong ties with Sudan and Zimbabwe, two countries considered pariahs in much of the west. China accepts African governments as they are and seems equally comfortable with an Islamist government in Sudan, a democracy in South Africa, and an autocracy in Equatorial Guinea. It also has a history of switching political loyalty with relative ease when there is regime change in an African country.”

Even better: In 1965, post-colonial civil war broke out in what was then the newly independent state of Rhodesia. After more than a decade of fighting, Mugabe became commander in chief of the rebel “Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army” (ZANLA) which received funding directly from Beijing!

Remember when the US installed General Pinochet in Chile in 1972 to prevent Allende from nationalizing key Chilean industries? And then, even after decades of Pinochet’s disastrous rule, the US refused to take any stance on the general’s genocidal policies? There was something “truly filthy” about that too, no?

Whenever the US reveals its imperial aspirations, the liberal NYTimes will fob it off on excesses perpetrated at the hands of Bush…or whoever the scapegoat of choice happens to be. But whenever China or Russia do so, it’s simply “shameful”

That is dumb.

Of course, I don’t want to go out of my way to excoriate Friedman, because he’s a smart guy. But this isn’t worthy of his intelligence.

I Hate “Go Green” Eco-Chique Consumerist Bullshit

July 18, 2008

As you’ve no doubt noticed, “going green” is super trendy — and annoying as hell.

Clorox has a new line of “green” products to help nature. Now you can end environmental crisis (and be a better person) simply by purchasing a different type of chemical to clean your house! Wow, thanks Clorox Company.

A story: a few weeks ago I was watching PBS and I saw a commercial for a global warming documentary sponsored by the Shell Corporation. Let me tell you, I was *so* pleased to discover that oil companies are now on the front line of the crusade for ecological awareness! Wonderful.

Another story: Recently the Adult Ed program where I work had its annual graduation ceremony at a church in Bay Ridge. Being a forward thinking community organization, the theme chosen for the event was (you guessed it) “go green” and it featured projects and decorations that the students had put together in class to express this idea. I helped take care of kids during the show, I served food afterwards, and at the end of the event I got saddled with trash duty.

(…dramatic pause…)

The mountain of trash! Uneaten food, plastic tablecloths, cups, and silverware, paper cups and napkins, balloons, etc. Bags and bags of it, straight into the landfill where it will remain long after you and I are dead.

Go Green?

Fuck you!

Free Love and Free Trade: What’s Ben Stein’s take on International Finance?

July 16, 2008

The unparalleled Ben Stein wrote a good column in today’s NYTimes business section proclaiming best practices in love — a few economic hints on how to have a rewarding romantic relationship.

Stein advises the reader to stick to long term, low risk investments — this strategy tends to ensure reciprocity such that when you invest love, you are also receiving it back. “The impatient day player will fare poorly without inside information or market-controlling power. He or she will have a few good days but years of agony in the world of love,” writes Stein. That’s good advice!

But why end the analogy there?

Example: Free market theorists say that the liberty to trade and invest in anything, unhindered by government or other regulation, will bring stability and all-around prosperity in the global economy. Free love theorists have a similar take on protectionist arrangements such as marriage or monogamy. These visionaries say that boundaries to love or capital are artificial and antique; they should be made obsolete. Instead, if freed from hierarchy or relationships of power, love/trade would better the human condition. (Of course true believers in these ideas tend to be unabashed but relatively hard to find, since it’s so easy for poseurs to use “free trade” or “free love” simply as an excuse for gratification)

I should point out that the love/economics analogy is well worn in some areas of social studies, as in post-colonial history and women’s studies. This is because rape is an excellent word to describe the economic relationship that occurred between the European powers and the inhabitants of myriad other territories around the world throughout modern history.

So what’s a good word to describe globalization — the dominant paradigm of contemporary economic affairs — in terms of love?

Let’s look at some facts:

“In 1970, about 90% of international capital was used for trade and long-term investment — more or less productive things — and 10% for speculation. By 1990, those figures had reversed: 90% for speculation and 10% for trade and long-term investment.” – Noam Chomsky

Chomsky’s sweeping claims usually seem a bit suspect to me (besides which the book from which this quote is taken is almost 15 years old by now). In this case, however, Chomsky was referring to work by none other than (Lord) Professor John Eatwell, President of Queen’s College, Cambridge.

So I went ahead and emailed Lord Eatwell about it.

From Eatwell’s response:

“the figures derive from dividing the sum of foreign exchange transactions worldwide by the value of world trade and long-term investment (that it might be expected forex transactions were used to finance). In 1970, prior to financial market liberalisation this number would be roughly 2. Today it would be about 80 (Chomsky’s figure of 10:1 is far too low).

The change illustrates the internationalisation of financial markets. But not all of this can be labelled “speculation”. A significant proportion is hedging, and a large proportion is arbitrage.”

Wow, thanks Lord Professor Eatwell. This figure is much more recent and much more alarming than Chomsky’s.

For the layman (i.e. myself): Speculation is buying something with the expectation that you’ll be able to sell it for a profit in the near future. Arbitrage is buying something in one market and selling it in another so as to make a no-risk profit. Hedging (like “hedging your bets”) is buying something while also taking measures to reduce risk and ensure that something’s continued value — like taking out an insurance policy. (One way this can be done is through buying two related assets, to protect against the sudden collapse of one of them.)

In any case, it would seem that international finance is no longer about investing on foreign shores towards some perceived end goal — but rather it’s about brokering for short-term capital gain.

According to Joseph Stiglitz, capital market liberalization is “not so much the liberalization of rules governing foreign direct investment, but those affecting short-term capital flows, speculative hot capital that can come into and out of a country.” International trade of this kind, evidently the most common kind by overwhelming majority, is simply the movement of capital across national borders.

As we’ve seen, the scale of this activity has expanded enormously since 1970. Who really benefits from this development? Perhaps large corporations with international holdings. Certainly not the poor.

Stiglitz and Andrew Charlton, in their paper “Capital Market Liberalization and Poverty” (2004, draft) suggest that

“the poor are least equipped to cope with increased volatility, and they are most affected by financial crises. Capital mobility reduces their bargaining power relative to capital and leads to a decline in the labor share of output. Financial openness delivers the poor few benefits in terms of increased access to credit and other financial services, and it constrains governments’ redistributive efforts and anti-poverty fiscal policies…a compelling case that capital market liberalization is bad for the poor in developing countries.”

Capital markets are risky — and the poor bear the brunt of the risk of CML without any of the benefits.

In any case, to return to the analogy, the trend seems to be that this process of “globalization” has engendered a continuing decline in long term relationships while so called hook-ups (whereby the international financial market is like a nightclub geared towards promiscuity, perhaps) have become vastly more popular.


Incidentally, if long term investment bodes well for love (Stein’s theory), then I’ll postulate that the reverse is also true. Speculation in love, like breaking up with someone just to “trade up” to a better romantic partner, generally will not lead to satisfaction. Similarly, love arbitrage would be impossible as such since there is no such thing as risk-free love. Hedging your bets in love usually leads to disaster. (e.g. Zach Morris’ attempts on Saved By the Bell to take out more than one girl on a date at the same time always blow up in his face — but he never becomes a more conservative investor!)

On a final, and unbelievably hippie-tastic note, finance and love are both systems of communication. They just demand more or less opposite strategies for success — the one requires you to be ruthless and greedy and ignore everybody except yourself; the other rewards trust and generosity and mutual understanding. Not a sermon, just a thought.

Late Night w/ Degrassi — An Inquiry into Values

July 9, 2008

Unable to sleep the other night, one of my roommates and I stayed up watching this Canadian teen drama called Degrassi: The Next Generation on cable.

It was a roller coaster of a show.

Really, I can’t stress this enough: it was absolutely insane.

This show is teen drama on steroids. Watching this show is like being beaten to within an inch of your life with the drama stick. Every scene is relentlessly awkward, thoroughly awash with gossip and secrets and fragile teenage bonds being tested on the mantle of everyday life; the adolescent joy, fear and sheer adrenaline in this show is palpable. You can’t help but be sucked in because every moment is a set up for the next — and you’re waiting for it with bated breath. Wow!

I mean, the popular teen drams when I was a kid were crude and quite obviously silly. But Degrassi is genuinely compelling and incredibly sophisticated. Not only that, Degrassi is edgy — the show deals with real issues! Gone is the saccharine world of Saved by the Bell, where caffeine pills are the hardest drugs out there. Now we’re face to face with complicated real-world situations. (For Peter Jackson nerds out there, I think it’s fair to say that Beverly Hills: 90210 is to The Muppet Show as Degrassi: TNG is to Meet the Feebles.)

Media educator Sharon Ross also happened to discover the show at random late one night and was immediately impressed with its depth and realism — she proceeded to watch episodes featuring “date rape, cutting, relationship violence, school shootings, parents with cancer, abortions…all with minimal preaching and maximum information. The kids were played by kids, the issues weren’t resolved in a half hour (nor did they involve special characters coming in for one episode to “be the issue” and then disappear)… How in god’s name had this show ever made it onto my TV set? ”

To answer this question Ross took a trip to Toronto and talked to the creators of Degrassi TNG, the latest installment in 25 years of wildly popular Degrassi shows. “Writers Brendon Yorke and James Hurst spoke about the importance of writing so as to make a point: not ‘let’s do this because it’s a hot button issue,’ but rather, writing to demonstrate that ‘if you understand your neighbor,’ you’ll see that there is always some other side to a story — some angle you might not have considered. This, dare I inject some academia, is the cultural forum I constantly seek in TV…some sense that TV can and should provoke discussion and debate.” That’s right — TV that seeks discussion and awareness rather than simply consumption.

One sub-plot that I watched featured a girl who, after struggling to deal with a history of sexual abuse, built up the courage to have consensual sex with a boy she liked — who turns out to be secretly HIV+. When she tells her friends about it tearfully, one cries, “oh my god, did you use protection?!” to which she responded “of course I did! But there’s still a risk!” She then searched the internet for more information.

There you have it. Complex feelings (betrayal, fear, anger, etc.) frank portrayal and discussion of female sexuality (girls are both rational and enjoy sex), mixed with a positive public health message (*of course* I used protection!) In her book The Lolita Effect, M. Gigi Durham cites Degrassi: TNG as a shining example of progressive media which serves to resist pervasive (and oppressive) stereotypes about women, girls and their sexuality. I concur!

And yet, amidst these claims that the show promotes ‘realism’ and ‘TV with values’ you have to ask, is all of this edge-of-your seat drama really an accurate representation of teenage life? Is it so progressive to portray a world where adolescent social hierarchy is the driving force behind the characters’ lives, then play 5-minute ads for super expensive acne cream between scenes?

My high school years were filled with boredom and frustration rather than non-stop anguish and romance. Teen dramas respond to this reality by implying that it is possible to be someone else, to live another kind of life altogether — and what better way to achieve this impossible goal than to go out and buy stuff? Ay, there’s the rub.

Claims that Degrassi is a new step towards “critically aware” television programming fail to understand that the show is borrowing from a long tradition of British soap operas. For example, the enormously popular and long-running show Eastenders has consistently portrayed normal looking working class Londoners living in council flats and facing real problems (drugs, AIDS, divorce, racism, bacon sandwiches) to critical acclaim and mass popularity. It is virtually impossible to find a British actor of the stage or screen who hasn’t appeared on Eastenders at some point or another. The most famous fore-runner of this kind of show is the ubiquitous radio show The Archers, which used to intersperse real farming tips with its episodes of drama among rural English folk as a public service. Realism, public service facts, and normal people — these are old hat to some markets (Canadians?), but very different generic conventions than the ones that American soap opera viewers are used to.

Portraying the world in a realistic way, such that sex and violence have real consequences, different characters have different backgrounds and perspectives, and everyday choices may have long-term ramifications, is good. But making a TV show that uses heart pounding drama to sell a conventional consumerist version of teenage values isn’t all that terribly progressive. Even with all the innovation and realism, Degrassi is still a soap opera — just an uncommonly watchable one.

Finally, part of the bizarre sensation of watching the show is this looming awareness that the marketing machinery behind it is aimed at the generation below me. My demographic is no longer the center of attention! That feels, well, kinda weird. Hmph!

Try to find

July 8, 2008

anything categorically more awesome than the Brooklyn Public Library system.

Not only do they have books, CDs and DVDs from any of their 65 branches available for pick-up at whichever branch is most convenient for you, they also have literacy programs, job readiness and career guidance workshops, all manner of clubs, classes, and foreign language discussion groups…the list goes on.

The D-Train and I have been going to a Spanish discussion group at the Windsor Terrace branch facilitated by a volunteer every week for the past two months and although my grammar and vocabulary are still in the linguistic toilet, I am now confident enough that I had a pleasant, complete (albeit quite simple) telephone conversation in Spanish with the spouse of an Adult Ed student at work yesterday. Thanks in large part to the BPL.

Not only that! The BPL offers an extensive catalog of digital media that you can download for free! (and in complete accordance with the laws of the land.)

I have memorized my card number because I check my account so much.

I love you, Brooklyn Public Library.

The peril of comfort

July 1, 2008

I knew it! You are going through one of those “what does it all mean?” things! 

I have about 6 weeks before work is over and the process of moving out begins — this is a sobering realization.

The original purpose of this blog was to muse about life in *Brooklyn*. But as Brooklyn became the background for my life, I stopped wanting to analyze Brooklyn itself — it lost its significance. I like Brooklyn, but I no longer wonder about Brooklyn. Its distinctive beauty and energy are just another part of life. I’ve become comfortable here.

Comfort! Despite the bouts of drama, despite the undercurrents of Albee-esque malaise, despite the psychotic landlord and the power outages and the relentless critters plaguing me throughout, despite my bizarre work situation, despite the severe lack of money which has shaped my life since day one, indeed despite all the manifestations of ubran insanity, comfort prevails! How does that work? And why does it bother me?

I took my position with Americorps in order to get experience in the field of counseling and community work while I weighed my options for seeking advanced training in those fields.  I wanted to help people deal with their feelings, their needs, and their life goals in some kind of community health setting. And I’ve been quite sucessful! I’ve learned alot about counseling, education, cross-cultural communication and social services in general.

That said, when I took my job I wasn’t totally prepared for how difficult it is to follow through with wayward or disinterested clients, or to put forth the effort to deal with onerous everyday office tasks, or to negotiate the heirarchy that exists even in a non-profit community organization. I wrote about how I was being forced to work independently; organizing my own work load as I saw fit. But when nobody is there to guide you or supervise your development, it’s easy to build a little world for yourself comprised of daily rituals and little more.

So I’m in an awkward situation. I’ve helped alot of people during the course of my Americorps year. But I’ve also found myself buying into, or perhaps creating, a work-a-day reality where I have little real responsibility, room for growth, or opportunity to be creative. This, it seems, is what happens when you settle for comfort.

But is comfort such a terrible thing? Must it always lead to complacency? It is perplexing.

Finally, a word about Americorps and social class. Of the original group of thirteen Americorps volunteers placed in various positions throughout my program, six have left without completing their term. Of those six, all came from working class backgrounds. None were college educated. Two were single parents. Five were people of color.

Of the remaining seven (who have either completed or are slated to complete their terms very soon) four are white (including myself), one is hispanic, two are asian, all are middle or upper-middle class.

It’s not surprising that people with parental resources are the only ones who could complete a year of penury in one of the most expensive cities in the country. But it does perhaps trouble the goals of the Americorps program. Just as Peacecorps was originally created to bring American values to countries that were potentially within the Soviet sphere of influence, Americorps seems to have been created to deliver middle class values to the rural or inner city poor.