Thursday, December 29, 2011

This is Senator Ben Nelson's Fault

(I started writing this post before Nelson announced he is planning on retiring. As you can guess, I'm not sad to see him go.)

In terms of electoral politics, Barak Obama's 2008 platform was among one of the most popular in recent memory. Not only did he secure 54% of the vote, but the Democrats gained seats in both the House and the Senate, and, until the special election of Scott Brown, had a near super majority in the Senate. And yet almost none of that platform was enacted, and, somehow, so many Americans were convinced they didn't actually want what they voted for the first time around, that the Democrats lost the House entirely and many seats in the Senate. I've talked about the madness of this whole process before (I mean, Republicans held health care benefits for 9/11 first responders or “heroes” as they are occasionally called, hostage to extending the Bush tax cuts on the top 1% of Americans) but I think it is important to place blame where it really belongs. On Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson.

By the time the debate over health care reform started, the Obama administration had already stabilized the economy (not in the way I would have, but we didn't have a second Great Depression so I guess that's something) and saved the American auto industry. Rightly concluding that any recovery and subsequent economic growth would be hampered by the cost of health care on Americans and small businesses, they decided to pursue health care reform. Not wanting to repeat the mistake of Bill Clinton's attempt to reform health care, for better or for worse, Obama left the work of crafting the policy in the hands of the legislature. (It being their job and all.) Really, who could blame him given the make up of Congress at the time. And, honestly, the results weren't that bad, even after all of the compromises. If the rolling reforms are allowed to happen, we'll have taken a few steps towards a humane health care system. They weren't what I wanted, but they were reasonable given the state of American mainstream politics, and, when asked about specific aspects of the legislation, most Americans support most of the reforms.

Enter Ben Nelson, Democrat Senator from Nebraska. I think of Nelson as a Regional Democrat, meaning his party affiliation has a lot more to do with where he lives than what he believes. He's only a Democrat because Nebraska Republicans are so conservative. It's the same with Scott Brown and old Mitt Romney. The only reason they run on the Republican ticket is because Massachusetts Democrats are more liberal. Brown in Nebraska is a Blue Dog Democrat. Nelson in Massachusetts is a moderate Republican.

However, this isn't Nelson's fault because he disagreed with the content of the health care reform bill. It is legislators' responsibility to vote with their conscience, no matter what the party whip says. This wouldn't be his fault if he had argued against the bill on the floor of the Senate, if he had sought to change the legislation in committee or through other influence, and it wouldn't be his fault if, even after changes made to deal with his concerns, he still voted against the legislation. It's his fault because he joined the Republican filibuster.

By joining the filibuster, Nelson single-handedly turned what should have been a three month process into a ten month process, one in which all sorts of absolute insanity was spewed by opponents. At one point, in an effort to do anything to get the bill through, Reid tried to tack on what became known as the Cornhusker-Kickback, but that vote-purchasing was too overt even for Washington.

Of course, there were Blue Dog Democrats in the House who railed against the bill, some of whom even going so far as to essentially campaign on their opposition to it. (Just a side note; many of these “Blue Dogs” were elected on Obama's coattails and to thank him for creating a political climate in which they get jobs in Congress, they shat all over his most ambitious legislative goal. Thanks guys.) However, there was really nothing they could do about it, because there isn't a filibuster procedure in the House that allows for the minority party to dictate legislation.

The perpetual filibuster over health care reform sucked all of the policy momentum out of the Obama administration, making it almost impossible to take any additional steps in fixing the economy. Furthermore, by joining the filibuster, Ben Nelson changed the narrative of governance from “The Obama Administration Doing  Stuff” to “Congressional Republicans Making Sure Stuff Doesn't Get Done.” Our national political discussion was as much about what the Republicans were preventing as it was about what the Obama administration was doing. (For example, how many people are talking about the Obama administration's foreign policy successes in the last four years; ending the war in Iraq, assassinating Osama bin Laden, leading from behind in Libya, while navigating two inherited wars, radical changes in an already unstable Middle East...) And, along with all the stuff in the committees and the anonymous holds on legislation and nominations, the filibuster became the primary technique of Congressional Republicans until they took back the house.

And that brings us to now. Obviously, a lot of other factors went into that mysterious process in which “then” inexorably becomes “now,” but I believe a lot of those wouldn't have been possible without Ben Nelson's filibuster. The radical optimist in me assumes he truly believed that the policy was so bad for this country that he stood in the way of a vast majority of legislators to prevent it from being adopted, but I'm pretty sure he just assumed his constituents wouldn't vote for him if someone accused him of supporting something somewhat somehow connected to socialism.

With his retirement, most pundits believe the seat will be filled by a Republican, and frankly that's fine with me. The Democrats might be begging Nelson to say, but from my perspective, it should be the other way around. It's the Republicans who should be begging him to stay, because he was one of the most successful Republican legislators of the last four years.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bruins Udpate: I Told You So Edition

Well, I only really told you about half of what happened. I told you not to worry about the Bruins, but I didn't say they wouldn't lose in regulation again until December 6th. So why are the Bruins currently the best team on the planet? Well, I'm glad I pretended you asked.

A Legitimate Fourth Line: The Bruins play the best third period in the league, a plus 33 last time I heard. They're like a baseball team with a lights out closer. Right now, if you don't have a lead by the second period against the Bruins, the game is essentially over. On most teams, even in the NHL, the fourth line doesn't see a lot of minutes. On the Bruins, they do. Furthermore, their job is to exhaust the opposing defensemen. And Julien sticks with them even when they're on the ice for goals because he trusts the system as much as he asks his players. Which means that all of the Bruins generally have more energy in the third period than all of their opponents.

Depth and Difference: Along with just the numerical depth, each of the four lines presents different challenges to their opponents. The top line has one of the game's best passers flanked by top tier power forwards. The second line combines the best three-zone player in the game (I'm going to keep saying it) with two explosive skaters. The third line combines Kelly's speed and intelligence (The new Reichi?) with Perverley's dangerous skating and stick-handling, while Benoit Poulliot now skates his brains out when he's on the ice. And the fourth line are plenty capable of forechecking the heck out of defensemen and grinding out the occasional goal. And Paille is usually about the fastest guy on the ice when he's out. Very few teams present match up challenges on every single line.

Tim Thomas: It seems like every now and again you have to remind the world Tim Thomas is still the best goalie in the NHL. That helps. And, since we're talking about goalies, I might as well add that Rask might be one of the top 20 goalies in the league. (He just threw down a 41 save shut-out.) That might not sound like anything special, but he's the back up. That's pretty special.

The Julien System: It's about time to start talking about Claude Julien in the same terms as we talk about Bill Belichick. The games are different, so the moment by moment strategy doesn't really compare, but Claude Julien's system has lead to a Stanley Cup Championship, a President's Trophy, four straight playoff appearances, and an .616 winning percentage. Here's an example of why the system works so well. If an opponent is able to skate the puck out of his zone, and the Bruins center is in position, one defenseman backs up, while the other attacks. This makes it almost impossible for a player to skate through the neutral zone, which almost always leads to a harmless dump in. It's subtle but effective and, at least in my mind, proves the depth and success of Julien's coaching.

The Bruins won the Stanley Cup last year and returned just about everybody on that team. And though they haven't found that defenseman that Kaberle was supposed to be, and Corvo, might be, they've add players with a real hunger to succeed. And Tyler Sequin is better. All told this shouldn't be that much of a surprise. The only question is whether or not the Bruins can maintain these advantages through another playoff run. And with that in mind...

My Radical Suggestion for this Post (seriously, I'm totally like that guy from Moneyball): Start resting players now. I know we're a long way from the playoffs, and nothing is certain in sports (or, well, I guess anything), but I think there is real value to resting players as the season goes along. After the President's Trophy winning Bruins were ousted from the playoffs by Carolina, the extent of the team's injuries slowly made their way public. The Bruins were riddled, not with anything catastrophic, but with the wear and tear of playing a hockey season in the NHL. For some reason, that wear and tear hits every team differently, team to team, season to season. I'm not saying the Bruins should send out the JV team every now and again, just give one or two players one or two nights off as a way to mitigate that wear and tear. (In this sense, a mild injury here and there during the regular season, a la Chara's current leg injury could be beneficial.) Furthermore, the Bruins have two talented young players in Steven Kampfer and Jordan Caron who would benefit from a little extra NHL time. Zack Hamill is also beginning to show his NHL worth. Rotate through the line up and with 2-3 weeks before the playoffs go back to all the starters starting. So the Bruins might lose a few games they otherwise wouldn't have; if it leads to postseason victories it is well worth it.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Review of Pacific Crucible

History books are about meaning; they're not so much records of what happened (we have records for that) as they are attempts to figure out what all that stuff that happened means, both to us now and to the people who went through them. History books are about emotions, feelings, interpretations, and consequences. Pacific Crucible by Ian Toll is about the war in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor to the Battle of Midway, and if I were on a committee (would anybody like me to be on their committee) it would win a Pulitzer Prize.

The first triumph of the book is how well Toll weaves the different perspectives on the events together into a cohesive narrative. He shows us the admirals deciding strategies and on the next page or the next paragraph he quotes from a sailor or pilot involved in carrying out those strategies. We see the grand abstractions of global strategies hashed out by Churchill, Roosevelt and the other upper echelon leaders, and the fire balls, oil slicks, and carnage of actual battle. We see the pride and fear of the Americans. We see the pride and fear of the Japanese. An event can never be recreated, and even the best approximations are simply mosaics of the event, pictures compiled by little bits of information and opinion. Toll does an amazing job of bringing clarity and depth to the mosaic of these events.

I drew two conclusions about the war in the Pacific from Toll's book. The first is that this movement was almost the WWI of WWII. Much of the horrifying slaughter of WWI was caused by new technologies being applied by people who didn't know how to use them. So you had cavalry charges into machine guns. The air craft carrier was a brand new technology and, in the beginning, neither the Japanese nor the Americans really knew how to use it. Furthermore, they presented a method of warfare entirely foreign to the dominant naval strategic ideologies held by both sides. Part of why the U.S. won the Battle of Midway so convincingly is that they figured out how to use air craft carriers first; strike first, with enough force to prevent a counter attack, get away.

The second was the power of arrogance. In the first few months of the war, the Japanese swept across the Pacific, easily conquering territory after territory, primarily because the European nations simply couldn't believe people who weren't white actually knew how to build and fly planes. The completely unprepared, undermanned, and undertrained outposts were easily annihilated by a Japanese military that included, what was most likely the most advanced and highly trained air force in the world at the time.

But the Japanese were not immune to arrogance. Despite being an island nation with very limited natural resources, they attacked a nation that had, essentially, a limitless capacity to produce the materials of war. Many Japanese believed that the decadent and materialistic Americans simply lacked fighting spirit. It didn't matter how many planes America built if it didn't have enough pilots brave enough to fly those planes into battle.

From this perspective, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was almost a blessing for the Americans, because it humbled them. It gave them a respect for their enemy. It showed them the limitations of their own defenses. It proved they were not invincible. That knowledge girded them for the long war ahead, made it easier to accept early defeat in service the subsequent victory, and drove them to constantly improve their tactics, techniques, and technologies.

I'm an idea guy. I read history books for those big perspectives, those abstract conclusions that help shape my understanding of the world, but Toll is a storyteller as much as he is a thinker and theoretician. There are characters and conflicts, story arcs and grand images, boardroom tension and battlefield carnage. The beauty is that it all comes together. Very few history writers achieve this kind of complex coherent synergy of event and action. There's Barbara Tuchman, of course. And now there's also Ian Toll.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Waiting for the Children of the Cold War to Die

Did your parents explain the complex political forces involved in the first Gulf War while it was happening? Did they talk about how Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait with weapons we had given him? As an 8 or 9 year old, did you see the now infamous picture of Donald Rumsfeld shaking Hussein's hand? What did they teach you about taxes? How about the Junk Bonds scandal, or the Savings and Loan scandal? Even as teenagers, what did you learn about the stock market from the dot com bubble?

Of course, none of that came up. We were kids and our parents were busy. We grew up with a simplified version of the events and many of our core beliefs were developed based on whatever simplifications we received. I bring this up, because I'm trying to understand one of the most baffling phenomenon of today's politics.

We already know how to fix our economic problems. We got out of a Depression once before and it wasn't through tax breaks for the wealthy and government deregulation. To summarize: government funded infrastructure projects kept society from falling apart whilst (and at the same time) developing resources for future economic growth (like the electrification of rural America) until WWII provided the motivation for an even greater federal spending spree that finally jump-started the economy and lead, with the aid of several farseeing plans (like the GI Bill and the Marshall Plan), to the most prosperous three decades any nation has ever seen. We can do that again. We know how.

Furthermore, pretty much all of the forty or so countries that outrank us in just about every quality of life standard, use the same strategy. To summarize: the national government administers those aspects of society which private markets have proven unable to effectively manage, like health care, education, and a material safety net, paid for by a tax structure that recognizes the reality of modern wealth, while regulating destructive behaviors that would not be automatically corrected by the market, like food safety and environmental concerns, and leaving everything else (which is still quite a lot) to the private markets until they prove themselves unable to handle some specific responsibility.

There. Done. Problems solved. Furthermore, given the vast monetary and material wealth of the United States, there is every reason to assume that if these solutions were implemented, we'd get another one of those big stretches of national prosperity and return to that whole being number one thing so many people spend a lot of time shouting about.

But nobody is doing these things. Even a whisper of a fragrance of a hint of the possibility that maybe we should think about perhaps having a federally administered non-profit health insurance option was a non-starter. So why, if these strategies worked to get us out of the Great Depression, and all these other nations are doing better than us in a lot of meaningful ways, can't we do this stuff?

Dan Bern has a song called Children of the Cold War. In it the speaker asks Moses why the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years. Here is Moses' response: "We waited that the ones who knew firsthand of slavery could die out,/ Be left behind, buried in the ground./ So that no one but the innocent could reach the Promised Land./ We waited for the children of slavery to die." Essentially, those who grew up in slavery had their core beliefs shaped by that experience and nothing was going to undo that shaping, and so, in order to build a society free of slavery, they had to wait for those who grew up with slavery to die.

In the same way that people in my generation were developing our worldviews in the context of a simplified understanding of, well, everything, including the Gulf War, et al, our parents generation developed their worldview in the context of a simplified understanding of everything including the Cold War. In the simplified Cold War, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is the enemy of the United States of America, and everything about them is evil. They called themselves “socialist,” and so anything “socialist” is therefor evil. In the same way that we didn't learn all the intricacies of the first Gulf War, like for example, how the US installed government in Iran completely altered the political landscape of the Middle East, our parents' generation didn't learn about the difference between socialism and communism and the particularly brutal brand of fascism practiced by Stalin and his descendents.

Throw in a school of economic thought, a few selfish bastards leveraging a set of ideas for their own personal profit, and an information and education system not too good at complexity and nuance, and you have a political situation in which one entire political party works tirelessly to cut taxes for the wealthy and deregulate the economy regardless of all the historical evidence their policies are absolutely destructive, while outright rejecting any policy that leverages the government spending and regulating power to benefit society.

Dan Bern's point in the song is the same as Moses'; in order for society to progress those whose core beliefs were developed during the Cold War need to, well, step aside. Death might be a bit much, but the problems of the 21st century are not going to solved by a mid-20th century mindset.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Triumph of Detective Alan Grant

The Daughter of TimeThe Daughter of Time is the second greatest detective novel ever written. (It's on the internet, it's true now!) Scotland Yard Detective Alan Grant is convalescing in a hospital after breaking his leg by falling through a trap door in a theater, in pursuit of a criminal. In order to help combat the prickles of boredom, Marta, his actress friend, brings him a collection of portrait postcards to examine. Ultimately, it is a portrait of Richard III that draws his attention because, from the face in the picture, Grant expected him to be a judge.
What follows is the story of Grant's investigation of Richard III, aided by an American scholar at the British Museum. Ultimately, Grant concludes that it was much more likely that Henry VI, not Richard III, murdered the princes in the tower. Serious scholars will recognize that Tey is novelizing several major scholarly rehabilitations of Richard III, but that rehabilitation is not really the point of the story.

The Daughter of Time is about how we come to hold beliefs and what we do in the face of information that contradicts them. One of the most revealing discoveries Grant makes is actually in an elementary school text book. On one page, the authors condemn Richard III as England's greatest monster for murdering two children, and on the next they list Henry VII's ruthless elimination of an entire family as though it were all part of normal government bureaucracy. Grant and Carradine (the scholar) also come up with the idea of Tonypandy; a totally fabricated or completely distorted historical event, like the strike in Wales in Tonypandy, the martyrdom of Covenanters in Scotland, and the Boston Massacre, that persist in the cultural memory despite irrefutable contrary proof. Though he never states it this way, Grant discovers that we often prefer the story to the history.

Through it all, Grant demonstrates the clarity of thought, skills in deduction, and adherence to facts that define detective fiction, but that is not his triumph. His greatest moment happens on page 194. Carradine enters completely deflated. “He looked young, and shocked, and bereaved.”

Here's the complete next two paragraphs.
       “Grant watched him in dismay as he crossed the room with his listless uncoordinated walk. There was no bundle of paper sticking out of his mail-sack of a pocket today.
        “Oh, well, thought Grant philosophically; it had been fun while it lasted. There was bound to be a snag somewhere. One couldn't do serious research in that light-hearted manner way and hope to prove anything by it. One wouldn't expect an amateur to walk into the Yard and solve a case that had defeated the pros; so why should he have thought himself smarter than the historians. He had wanted to prove himself that he was right in his face-reading of the portrait; he had wanted to blot out the shame of having put a criminal on the bench instead of in the dock. But he would have to accept his mistake, and like it. Perhaps he had asked for it. Perhaps, in his heart of hearts, he had been growing a little pleased with himself about his eye for faces.”

Emphasis is so totally mine. It's plenty easy to argue about the mechanisms of false belief when you are examining someone else's belief. But the second that lens is turned around all those mechanisms kick in and you have facts, not hearsay, you have certainty, where there is doubt, and your beliefs are grounded in fact and rationale and not in narrative and emotions. In short, the things that make everyone else believe in ridiculous things, make you do it to.

But not Alan Grant. He hasn't even heard the potential argument yet and he is ready to let go of his belief in the face of fact. To make it even more admirable, Grant further admits the limitations of his efforts, saying essentially that you can't just dick around in history and expect to be know more than everybody else. I don't know if there's a more repeated mistake in human consciousness than not seeing the flaws in your own beliefs, and Detective Alan Grant does not make it. And that makes him a hero.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why I Wasn't (and Still Aren't) Worried About the Bruins

Things were looking a little grim for the Bruins. 3-7 and in last place in the Eastern Conference. Yes, that is technically worse than the Islanders. But I wasn't worried. Here's why.

The Quality of the Teams They Beat: Those first three teams were the Tampa Bay Lightning, now with a record of 8-5-2 and still sporting one of the most complete forward lines in the game with LeCavalier, Stamkos, and St. Louis. Then it was the Chicago Blackhawks who are now first in their division with a record of 8-4-3 and had such a successful and intelligent off-season that some analysts (Barry Melrose at least) are thinking about them as Stanley Cup favorites. Then, of course they beat Toronto who had won their first five games and still lead the division. The Bruins went on to beat Toronto again, dealing them their first home loss of the season, and stopped Ottawa's 6 game winning streak before beating up on the Islanders. It wasn't like the Bruins collected wins against the dregs of the league.

They Were in Every Game They Played: With a couple of exceptions the Bruins played even or better against everybody. The “frustration” that everyone was talking about last week came from not winning games they deserved to. Whether it was goalies standing on their heads, fluky goals for their opponents, bad bounces, or a few key mistakes, the Bruins seemed to end up losing no matter how well they played. (OK, I was worried very briefly, after Ottawa, despite being beaten in ever aspect of the game, were ahead 2-1 at the end of the first period.) And to all you new Bruins fans, get used to this. For whatever reason, the Bruins under Claude Julien lose a lot of games they deserve to win. They make up for it, you know, winning the Stanley Cup and all, but in the moment it is face-radiatingly frustrating.

The Only Thing that Matters is Making the Playoffs. It has not been a good couple of years for the number one team in the Eastern Conference. It's been better in the West, but the top seeds have had their share of scares. Yes, home ice advantage is nice, and yes, you'd prefer to play a lesser team in the first round of the playoffs, but there hasn't been that much of a difference in terms of overall quality between 1 and 8, especially when some teams, no matter their overall quality, match-up well against other teams. (Bonjour.) The Bruins don't need to win the President's Cup to have a good shot at the Stanley Cup, they just need to get in.

Three More Reasons: Tim Thomas is still the best goalie on the planet. Zdeno Chara is still the shut down defenseman in the NHL and his puck skills have actually improved over the last three years. Patrice Bergeron is still the best all around, three zone, 200ft x 85ft, hockey player on the planet.

The Big Question the Bruins Need to Answer: What is the difference between Toronto and Montreal? The conventional wisdom is that Montreal's small fast forwards are the primary reason why the Habs have beaten the Bruins consistently over the last few years (but not when it mattered!) and there's a lot of truth to that. They're fast enough to out-skate the defensive structure and they seem to slip under and around Chara, Boychuk, and McQuaid. The only thing is Toronto has a couple of those small, fast forwards too. In fact, they might have the fastest of them all. Phil Kessel is the NHL's top goal scorer and he calls it a good game against the Bruins if he gets more than a shot or two on goal. So why do the Bruins lose to the Habs but beat (badly) the Leafs? My best guess: PK Suban and Carey Price. For some reason Carey Price plays really well against the Bruins. And, despite his reputation for wilting late in the season (wonder what percentage of Montreal games he's played over the last few years) he is a really good goalie, something the Leafs still don't have. And the Leafs don't have a defenseman who can skate the puck like Suban.

One Final Point: Holy crap Tyler Seguin! It's still early yet, but the improvement of his play off the puck is really encouraging. If he keeps improving, he could be the natural goal-creator the Bruins need to win a lot of those games that have slipped out of their grasp in recent years. And that line of Bergeron, Marchand, and Sequin could become one of the most dangerous in the league.

Friday, November 4, 2011

It's the Earnings

Despite what some might say, the reason for the whole Occupy movement, the 2008 crash in the first place, and the persistence of the recession, all boil down to one simple factor with a lot of complex causes. For the last thirty years, American wages have stagnated. Couple stagnation with inflation, rising health care costs and college tuition, and general increases in the cost of living, and the meaningful earnings of American workers has been going steadily down for thirty years.

Simply put, most Americans have a lot less truly discretionary money than they used to. It's easy to connect that to the financial collapse of 2008. That collapse was caused by a financial market based in the trading of financial products based in sub-prime mortages, i.e. mortgages that, because of the borrowers credit rating, income, or other factors, had a high risk of not being paid off. If wages had kept pace with profits, productivity, cost of living, or even just inflation, more Americans would have had enough money to actually afford homes, and thus, not be sub-prime borrowers in the first place. This inability to afford homes, was, of course compounded by the amount of credit debt most Americans carried and carry. If wages hadn't stagnated, fewer Americans would have had to go into credit card debt in order to make ends meet. That debt, also contributes a great deal to the persistence of the recession, as paying down credit card debt, or really any debt, does not create any new economic activity because it is not new spending. And no matter what the other factors are, people can't really spend money they don't have at a rate needed to jump start a sluggish economy no matter how easy credit might be.

To put it in an almost tautological sound byte, America is in a recession because Americans don't have enough money.

It would be one thing if wage stagnation were part of a long downturn in the American economy. But over that same time period, both productivity and corporate profits went up. It would also be another thing if Americans, for whatever reason, started working less, but Americans now work more than anybody else in the world. We work more than Japan. Remember when it was kind of a joke how hard the Japanese worked?

There are a lot of different factors that caused the wage stagnation including; weakening influence of unions, globalization of labor, transition to a service economy, stagnant minimum wage, and a change in executive culture. Recent executives seem to have developed a radical short-sightedness that focuses only on this quarter's dividends and this year's executive bonus. This is in contrast to the radical, liberal, socialist, east-coast, VW driving, hippie, elitist, Henry Ford, who paid his workers fairly well, under the radical belief that if you want to sell something, people need to have enough money to buy it. The easiest way to ensure that at least some people had enough money to buy his cars was to pay his workers enough money to buy his cars.

And that speaks a little to a possible solution to the problem. This wouldn't need to be a government solution if executives paid their workers well, reflecting the growth of profitability and productivity, the increase of cost of living, or even just inflation. (And corporations now have more cash in hand than perhaps any other time in history, so the money is there for this.) Consumer spending would go up, Americans could get a handle on their debt, whether its mortgage, credit card, student loans or all three, and that would be it for the recession. Obviously not every company is in the position to do this, but those that could and do would stimulate spending in other parts of the economy, contributing to its overall health. But as we learned the last time we went through this, if a behavior is making money right now for the right people, no matter how bad that behavior might be in the long term for everybody, even the companies and shareholders in question, the private market will not correct this behavior. You'd think you wouldn't have to pass a law to tell companies that filling out their “medicine” with rat poison is bad for society and their industry but you do. You'd think you wouldn't have to tell investment brokers that it is a terrible idea to build an entire financial structure on loans that are, by definition, most likely to be defaulted on, but apparently you do. And you'd think you wouldn't have to re-teach American executives the lessons of Henry Ford, but you do.

And this is why responsibility for the 2008 crash rests not only with the investment banks. It is shared by every American corporation that depressed earnings by shipping jobs to countries with less just labor laws or only hiring people part time employees to avoid having to pay benefits or slowly reducing the benefits that help reduce cost of living or laying off workers to maximize short-term profits. The banks just provided one final I-can't-believe-anybody-would-build-a-financial-market-out-of-mortgages-likely-to-be-defaulted-on straw on the camel's back. And this is one of the reasons why the Occupy Wall Street movement is diverse and diffuse and should remain so. Wall Street is a convenient organizing metaphor, but the problem is spread throughout our entire economy.

This means it has to fall back on the government, and I still think the best way to accomplish, productively putting more money in more Americans' pockets is a big old infrastructure project. It injects capital into the consumer economy while improving our economy's ability to transact business. And it doesn't just have to be roads and bridges. Does your company use the Internet? Then it benefits from a government investment in technology and infrastructure in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Federal investment now in the technological infrastructure, like say, a modernized electrical grid to maximize the impact of subsequent renewable energy technology, will stabilize the economy in the short term and lead to economic growth in the future.

And if we have to raise taxes on the top 1% to do it, well; as I said earlier, American wages stagnated while American profits rose, this means there had to be a surplus, and I'm pretty sure we know where it went. A modest increase in tax burden seems like a pretty reasonable thing to ask after the top 1% have spent the last thirty years hoarding the largess of everyone else's hard work.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Rugby World Cup 2011

I asked for, and did receive from my partner, a subscription to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which has just finished up. Over the last month and a half I've watched a whole lot of rugby, and a whole lot of it was some of the best sport I've ever seen. It's almost more surprising the sport hasn't caught on in the states. You have big hits, displays of dexterity, creativity of play, and feats of endurance, quite often all performed by the same guy. It's like every player on the pitch is a Troy Paulamalu, except he can also pass and kick. And he's not wearing any pads. It's a sport where both a slick passing, smooth running, underwear model like Sonny Bill Williams (pretty sure he's an android,) and an oafish, heavy metal haired, troll like Castrogiovanni can dominate a game. (No really. Castrogiovanni pretty much single-handedly demolished the U.S. He would have eaten their hearts to gain their strength, but he had already ground their will to live into a fine powder, so didn't really see the point.) Hopefully there will be enough of a TV and internet viewership in the states that NBC (or someone, Versus maybe, seems right up their alley) will start to carry more of it. But enough grandstanding.

The United States Eagles played themselves proud. It was clear that in the parts of the game that demand the most intuitive skill--the skill that is developed over such a long period of time that it becomes part of a player's intuition--they were severely lacking, especially in the scrum. To have a successful scrum at the international level, you need to have forwards who have been scrummaging their whole lives, and the U.S. just doesn't have that yet. The same thing goes for the kicking game, though this gap between the U.S and the first tier nations is not so stark. Until we start developing rugby players at a much younger age, we'll be on the outside looking in. (More on this later.)

But, and I can say this because I watched damn near every single game in the tournament, the United States was the best tackling team in the tournament. Their match against Ireland was awe-inspiring. They didn't have the skill or the strategy to beat Ireland, but they tackled so well, they hit guys so hard, that if not for two huge mistakes they might would have made it a very close game. Every time an Irish player touched the ball, he was immediately decked. Their efforts earned the rightful admiration of the announcers. They played their guts out in their other three games as well, beating Russia, running their second-stringers against Australia, and then doing alright against Italy until the game went to the scrum.

I don't particularly want the U.S. to win the World Cup. I can enjoy the sport and root for them, even when they're not #1. (Man, were Bruins tickets easy to get five years ago.) And frankly, I find it annoying and arrogant that we seem to focus only on being the super best at everything in the whole world of the Universe. (Anybody remember the “2010” plan where the best high school soccer players were drafted directly into the MLS in the hopes of fielding a team that could win the soccer world cup by 2010. Yeah, me neither.) However, I think it would be pretty cool for American rugby if opponents made sure to bring extra ice to every match against the Eagles. We might never be good enough to win a cup, but if we continue to hit like this, we'll leave our mark on every tournament we're in.

One for the coaches. Ending a 24 year drought, the favored New Zealand All-Blacks won the tournament. Though they were the most talented, player for player, team in the tournament—and this will make all the youth anything coaches happy—they won the tournament through discipline. Against teams that just didn't have the man-power to play with them, the All-Blacks scored a lot of tries and showed a lot of flash, but against the more talented teams like Australia and France, the All-Blacks won simply by giving up far fewer penalty kick chances than their opponents. They took chances in their offensive end trying to win the ball back, but once they got into reasonable kicking range (you kick penalty kicks from where the penalty occurs) they played it safe. The result of this strategy is they slowly but surely pulled away from their opponents. And when they got the chance to show their flare they did.

I watched a lot of rugby in the last month and pretty much every game offered something spectacular, even for the second tier teams. There was the five minutes when Namibia had the greatest kicker in the world, the Argentina winger who became un-tacklable for ten seconds and broke Scotland, the Tonga defeat of France in the biggest upset of the tournament, the All-Blacks winning it at home, and of course, that first hit the US laid on the Irish, that told Ireland they were in for a game.

(Finally, American commentators are, by and large, an abomination of the spoken word, compared to the commentary offered for the rugby world cup. I don't know where the difference comes from, but it is downright embarrassing.)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cooking for Gamers: Stock

Making stock might be the perfect cooking activity for gamers, or really for anyone who has some hobby or enjoys some activity that keeps them in the house for hours at a time. It's easy in terms of technique, it's almost impossible to screw up, and, if you're in to the whole sustainability thing, it extracts the absolute maximum amount of food value from your vegetables and meat. And if you happen to not be the primary cook in your household, this is a great way to contribute to the overall health and quality of your food, because not only does homemade stock taste better than store bought, in liquid, powder, or cube form, there is so much less sodium in it that it actually lowers someone else's risk of heart disease while you eat it.

The first ingredient: a bag in the freezer. If you eat a lot of fresh vegetables keep the scraps. Stalks from greens like kale and chard, carrot tops (though we find the carrot greens give a swampy flavor to our stock), parsnip peels, onion skins, parsley stems, mushroom stems, etc. Nearly all vegetables that can be boiled, don't have really strong flavors of their own like peppers, or flavors you don't personally like, aren't so starchy they'll turn the stock into a sludge, like potatoes, and are not somewhat gassy like the various permutations of cabbage (I know, which is like half the vegetable world, but still) can be part of a stock. Just collect them all in a bag and stick it in the freezer. If you eat meat, keep the bones/carcass in a bag in the freezer as well. You can also just buy carrots, celery, and onions, or chicken wings, if you don't generate the raw materials on your own. When you can no longer fit Red Baron's Pizzas in the freezer, it's time to make stock.

Second ingredient: The biggest pot you have. Dump your bags in aforementioned pot with water, some fresh carrots, onions, and celery (everyone knows the French for that, right? Good.) a bay leaf or two and some garlic. Because we usually pressure can our stock in quarts and we've got a big old pot, we'll usually measure out six or seven quarts of water, but there's nothing wrong with just filling the thing up.

Then put the spurs to it and get your game started, but don't go on any quests yet. If you've got a big session planned, this would be the time to lay in supplies at the computer/gaming console, get connected to your teammates or search for any tips or cheats you might want to use. (Well, you might not want to use any, but I'm not very good at video games, so I usually keep a walk through handy.)

Once the stock has reached a boil, set it to simmer and go do something else for a couple of hours. No really. As long as you don't leave it unattended for so long that all of the water evaporates and you start burning the mass of disintegrating vegetation, you really can't screw this part up. Sure you can boil the stuff long enough that it breaks down more than you might want it do, but that just means you're straining will need to be more meticulous. When is it done? I don't know. When you reach a good save point. When you have to go to the bathroom. When you lose your internet connection. But seriously, folks, if the fresh carrots you put in are mushy, they have, in the words Saint Alton Brown (Hallowed be thy multitasker) “given it their all.” We'll often do two or three rounds of stuff in one pot, just to make the stock more flavorful and free up more space in the freezer.

Once the stock is done, fish out all the clumps of stuff and strain out all the bits of stuff. You'll need to cool it down before the next step. In a perfect world you'll be able to get the stock out of the “danger zone” (40-140 F) as quickly as possible. You can put it in a cooler with ice and then transfer it to your fridge. In my world, we have to leave it out overnight and then put it in the fridge to finish cooling. If you're making veggie stock, you'll need to do this in order to season it properly. If you've got meat in it, you'll need this so you can take the fat out. The fat will congeal in the top and you should just be able to pull it out with your hands. (And don't throw that out. It's useful. And healthier than margarine.) For the game, now you can really get into something involved and totally play all night. I guess everybody else can catch up on their reading, or Dr. Who, or sleep, or whatever it is the kids do these days.

Since our stock has been in the danger zone for, like ten hours, we bring it to a rolling boil for at least ten minutes before we do anything else to it. Then we season it. Salt (a lot more than you would think but still way less than store brought). Pepper. Herbiage, like rosemary, thyme, oregano, or really anything that isn't basil, sage, cilantro, or something with its own strong distinct flavor. (Probably would avoid mint, while we're avoiding things). Taste and adjust seasoning. Package how you see fit. You can can it, freeze it, or use it. I'd advise leaving the last 1/8-1/4 an inch in the pot, because there's probably a lot of detritus in it, that even the finest strainer or cheese cloth will have missed.

And there you have it. Your rice pilaf will be so much better. As will all your soups, or hot pots, or really anything that uses stock. And most of the time you were playing video games.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My Occupy Wall Street FAQ

Pretty much every mainstream article or other coverage of the Occupy Wall Street actions asks the same few questions. Here are my answers the those questions. And they're just my answers. Others who support the actions like I do, including those actually occupying, might give different answers.

What are you protesting against?

This question usually gets asked in the opening paragraph and what is kinda funny about this question is that the journalist almost always answers the question in the exact same opening paragraph. We're protesting a system of radical wealth concentration that hurts the vast majority of the population. That's it. All the chaos, the ambiguity, the “pet projects” the articles go on to list are just descriptions of particular manifestations of that damage. Recent college grads and college students will focus on coming out of school with crippling debt into an economy devoid of well-paying jobs despite years of increased productivity, substantial corporate profits, and massive (and growing) executive salaries. Unions will obviously focus on the erosion of their ability to ensure fair wages and safe working conditions for their workers. Whether it's teachers, nurses, small businesses owners, or people who don't think big campaign corporate campaign contributions and corporate lobbyists should have so much influence on policy, this system hurts, well, just about everybody, and so everyone describes the particular effect the system has on them. The more accurate conclusion to draw from the many different voices heard at the Occupy actions is not that the actions are disjointed and chaotic, but that our system is so destructive, people are lining to tell the world how it is screwing them.

Why aren't you focusing on the 2012 elections?

Didn't we try the whole election thing before? In 2008, on a somewhat liberal platform, promising to change the system we're occupying against, Barack Obama was elected with 54% of the popular vote, way more than George W. Bush received in either of his elections. More on theelection here. Democrats around the country rode in on Obama's coattails to the tune of a majority in the House and almost a super-majority in the Senate. Mitch McConnell, out loud and in public, said the Republicans' goal for the next four years was, not helping the economy out of the greatest recession since The Great Depression, but making sure Obama wouldn't get elected again. To that end, they used every procedural trick allowed by the Senate; anonymous holds on Obama's nominations, filibusters and threatened filibusters on every single meaningful piece of legislation offered by the Democrats, to delay, distort, and diffuse every attempt to put that extremely popular platform into action. Furthermore, as long as the same lobbyists are in Washington, it really doesn't matter that much who we elect to Congress. Furthermore, odds are that pretty much every campaign took donations, and thus are somewhat beholden to, the 1% at the heart of this whole problem. To use some businesseese, thus far, electoral politics hasn't provided much of a Return on Investment.

What do you hope to accomplish?

Maybe thousands of Americans will decide to move their money from too-big-to-fail banks to locally owned banks and credit unions. (I know I'm thinking about it.) Maybe people will start shopping with the 99%, the locally owned independent retailers who, despite being told over and over again by everyone in Congress that they are the backbone of the American economy, never seem to get tax breaks, subsidies, and bailouts. Maybe the next time Walmart or Costco or Amazon or some other huge company comes to a city begging for tax breaks, direct subsidies, and low or no interest loans, the people of the city will stand up and prevent it. And there could be some policy results. Nancy Pelosi seems to like us, and the Buffet Rule is about as popular as a piece of hypothetical legislation can get. Or maybe some of the 1% will decide they want their children to inherit more than trust funds. Maybe they'll want to help pass on a just and sustainable world where the best succeed, most live in comfort, and everyone lives in dignity.

But perhaps there's something even more basic that can be accomplished. The American economy has been acting like an addict. Through every boom we think we're invincible and after every bust we promise it will never happen again. We tell ourselves that if just stop drinking during the week, we'll be able to get our lives together. And then we say, after the wedding that's it, we're done. But it never works out like that. We forget our mistakes. We mistake a quick high for a full recovery and go right back to buying, selling, and trading with abandon. The first step in any recovery is admitting the full depth of your problem. In that sense, Occupy Wall Street is not a movement or a protest, but an intervention.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Let's Get This Over With: 2011 Red Sox Edition

Let's get this over with.

I wrote the bulk of this post last week, not too long after the most statistically unlikely occurrence that has ever occurred in human sport occurred, before Tito left and the pace of Epstein speculation picked up. It doesn't change much of the points I make, but I think greatly decreases the likelihood of some of what I'd like to see happening. Looking forward the 2012 Red Sox are still one of the most talented teams in the league and if their pitching can stay healthy, they should have a successful year. The impact of the 2011 season I think is really going to show in keeping that talent together and in the long term success of the team. They've locked up some important players, but not all of them. With Tito gone, and Epstein likely out, I wonder if they'll be able to keep Ellsbury once his contract is up, if they'll be able to keep Papelbon, or at least, get some kind of value for him in a trade. What about Bard, and some of the other younger players who don't have long term deals yet? And what about Tek and Wake? Will they bother to come back (more on this below)? Will a new GM, pick up their 1 year options? And speculating on other moves, if the clubhouse was as bad as is being implied, will Boston continue to be a team players want to play for.

So, below is what I wrote last week, tweaked a little bit to reflect the new developments.

I'm pretty conservative when it comes to sports. I'm willing to give players and coaches a chance to prove themselves, even when they've been struggling. I prefer stability in my lineups. I'm a real fan of the home town discount. I was one the people who argued in favor of keeping Claude Julien and Tim Thomas and I think Tito should manage the Sox for many years to come. (Goddamnit!) I think there is something ridiculous when armchair coaches give themselves pulsating aneurisms condemning a player after a bad week.

So the next paragraph is going to be a bit out of character. (Spleen!)

Carl Crawford has no place on the 2012 Boston Red Sox. There are a lot of things about his performance I'm willing to forgive. But something is wrong when a player with far less talent, making far less money, has more big at bats, in far fewer at bats than Carl Crawford did. Under no circumstances, where both players are healthy, should Darnell McDonald come through in the clutch more than Carl Crawford. Did I mention that the rookie Reddick had more big hits and he only came up on any permanent basis after J.D. Drew was injured? Hell, Ryan Lavarnway might have more clutch hits in his three games than Crawford had all season. A .240 batting average can mean a lot of different things, but it doesn't mean much if every time you come up with 2 outs and runners on, your fan base feels a sinking feeling.

But even with the lack of offense I wasn't ready to send Crawford packing until last week. Even though he didn't get an error for it, there is absolutely no reason why a professional left-fielder should have missed that catch. Of course, Crawford making that catch doesn't guarantee the Red Sox win that game, but it does guarantee that we don't go through the worst 64 sports-related seconds imaginable. And the throw to the plate was the kind you tell your therapist about. It was the single most important defensive play in his career and he absolutely wilted.

And he missed the exact same catch earlier in the week. A miss that cost the Red Sox two runs and the game. In case, there is any doubt the level of disdain I feel for Crawford's effort I will say this. Manny Ramirez would have made those catches. Manny Ramirez.

At the moment the Red Sox might be able to pitch a “not the right fit,” deal with someone to send Crawford elsewhere and, in doing so, might actually get a decent return on their investment. But, honestly, I'd be fine just clearing the books of his salary so the Sox could spend that money on somebody willing to, I don't know, throw his body into the center field wall in his attempt to make a difficult catch at the tail end of an MVP caliber season.

Enough of that. Looking forward. The first thing I would do is pick up Varitek's one year option. If there is one important lesson the Sox learned this year that can be applied in the future, is that resting your catchers leads to better offensive production. It makes sense. Catcher is such a grueling position on the defensive side, that very few catchers have the legs beneath them when they get to the plate to make any meaningful contributions. Between Tek and Salty the Red Sox got 27 Home Runs and 92 RBI. (If you throw Lavarnway in there, the numbers go up to 29 and 100.) Imagine what kind of salary that guy would get. (Hi Joe Mauer.) Frankly, I would sign Tek and bring up Lavarnway so the Red Sox carry and rotate three catchers.

The rotation would go 4-1, 3-2, with Salty being the 4, Lavarnway being the 1, and Salty being the 3, and Tek and Lavarnway splitting the 2. This would keep Salty fresh and give Lavarnway a chance to play the game with Varitek around. (Can you think of a better way to develop a young catcher?) And if they want to get Lavarnway a few more at bats, he can DH for a game here and there. And Tek goes right to bench coach in 2013. (Though now, who knows if he or future GM and M would want that.)
Besides the Crawford removal, I actually wouldn't do that much in the off-season at this point. I would still look around for a true starting short stop. I might also see if there are any developing pitchers available. But, we should remember there was a good reason why everyone picked them to win the AL east. Even with losing two of their five starting pitchers and a couple of other key starters, and the under performance of Crawford, it still took a convergence of events that Nate Silver calculated the odds of happening at 1 to 278 million, to keep them out of the playoffs. I would also pick up Wakefield's option, if only to give him the chance to announce his retirement mid-season and get the curtain call he deserves.
One more dire prediction. If the Red Sox start slow, the Fenway sell-out streak ends. For fun, let's just say it ends on June 23. Now to watch the Bruins game and banner raising that I recorded.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review of Lightning Rods

Lightning Bolts is a strange book. If I hadn't read a bunch of Cesar Aira and Tao Lin this year it would easily be the strangest book I've read, but, well, that's how I roll. It can also be an uncomfortable book for a couple of different reasons. The premise is simple; down on his luck salesman Joe, taps into his own sexual fantasy to create a service based on providing top-performing heterosexual men with perfectly anonymous sex as an outlet for drives that are usually expressed by actions now considered sexual harassment. After all the usual struggles of a start up business, Joe's endeavor ends up being extremely successful. He even uses it as a springboard for a tangential business providing height adjustable toilets. And from the beginning to the absolute end, Joe believes he has made the world a better place.

It's easy to see why some people would be uncomfortable by the very premise of the book. Even my partner was skeeved out and she's read The Story of the Eye, Last Exit to Brooklyn, and (AND!) Justine. (Look those up.) Even with all precautions that Joe takes to create a situation where sex is no different than any other bodily function, a lot of readers are going to be uncomfortable at the very idea.

The discomfort is compounded by the narrative style. The entire book; conversations, trains of thought, descriptions of events, is written in what I like to think of as “corporate calculated casual;” the fake friendly buddy buddy diction of negotiations, conference presentations, and working lunches. The diction is not informal because the participants have a relationship; it is informal because a consultant at some point realized that an informal tone is more successful in making sales. Talking like a buddy with someone drops their negotiation barriers, because they feel like they're talking with a buddy. Throughout the book, Joe convinces people of his protect by agreeing with every one of their objections and concerns until he has swung them all the way around to agreeing with him. Though DeWitt (author of The Last Samurai) never confronts the idea directly, the style of the book is a satiric and vicious condemnation of the nature of our business.

But Joe is not without his points. And one that he makes presents a major metaphysical challenge. I'll paraphrase it. Imagine a man who was born with a high level of testosterone. Imagine further that he was raised in a patriarchal household where no respect is shown to women whatsoever. His father is a blatant and loud chauvinist. Depending on where he lives, he might not encounter a different world view in high school, and depending on where he goes to college (and perhaps even what he majors in) he might not encounter a different world view until he gets to the workplace, where his attitude constitutes a substantial liability to his employer. If we are expected to accommodate disabilities, and a man ends up an asshole through genetics and upbringing, why should accommodations not be made for him?

What we have here is a very touchy example of a basic question of free will. The question it asks is: what about us are we responsible for? If the chauvinist is never taught a different way of viewing the world, at what point do we hold him responsible for his chauvinism? If there are some actions that an individual must always be responsible for, what are they and how do we decide what they are? And DeWitt, to her credit, doesn't give us any help in answering the question.

DeWitt has written a book that's hard to enjoy. Through the content and the style she has posed challenges and questions that are uncomfortable to confront. After awhile, that networking style, becomes just as impersonal and alienating as the Lightning Rod system itself. But that doesn't mean this isn't a good book. I think there is something to impactful books that aren't enjoyable to read. To put it simply, sometimes life isn't enjoyable and so sometimes the books we read shouldn't be enjoyable either. I certainly wouldn't make those books the majority of anyone's reading, but I would suggest at least trying Lightning Rods. It's a cruel satire of a cruel system of being and the challenges it poses are real opportunities to learn something about ourselves.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reviews of Reamde and The Windup Girl

I recently finished two excellent works of entertainment writing, both with the potential to contribute more than just a few hours of fun to the reader's consciousness. Here are reviews for Neal Stephenson's Reamde and Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl.

I won't try to summarize Reamde. It's one of those works that the second you start telling someone else what has happened, it sounds preposterous, ridiculous, and absurd. But it all makes sense while you're reading it. Like all Stephenson's work, the writing is of such a high quality, the characters are so interesting, and the events are so thrilling, that he convinces you it's just a lot more fun if you go along with the coincidences than if you spend the whole book questioning their likelihood.

Instead of a summary, I'll give you some keywords to give you a sense of the story; Welsh Islamic Jihadist, MMORPG with shockingly realistic topography and tectonics, Chinese hackers, Eritrean refugee orphan adopted into a mid-west American family, lunatic Russian mobsters, MI6, and the American/Canadian border in the Pacific Northwest. Oh, and radical American isolationists with lots of guns. Oh, and a Boston born NSA agent stationed in Manilla. Did I mention everything that happens, happens because of a relatively benign virus called “REAMDE” that only affects serious players of T'Rain, the aforementioned MMORPG.

The perfect way to read this is probably to just take a week off from work and blast right through it. You always want to know what happens next, not because Stephenson plays cliff-hanger games, but because the characters are so interesting and whatever has just happened in the book was so thrilling and entertaining, you know you're going to enjoy whatever time you spend reading it.

Reamde is not without its more subtle themes. Otherness plays a huge part in the story, as the protagonist, Zula (the Eritrean orphan), is often saved by being a black woman in a situation where she is the only black woman, and the primary antagonist is a black Welsh Jihadist (Yep. Welsh). There's also the basic moral tension between crime and law, present in any good thrillers, as well as Stephenson's usual insightful speculations about technology, society, and economy.

In a perfect world, all bestsellers are of this quality, written with an attention to detail, respect for the reader's intelligence, and actual skill with sentences. I'm sure you've noticed its not a perfect world. Though it is filled with James Pattersons and Dan Browns, we can at least take some comfort in the fact that we have at least one Neal Stephenson.

Catastrophic climate change brought on by burning fossil fuels. A food system destroyed by genetic manipulation and unscrupulous mega-agr-business. Rapidly mutating plagues and viruses. The world of The Windup Girl, as in the best sci-fi, is on of the possible futures to our actual present. The story takes place in Thailand. By shutting themselves off from the rest of the world, destroying invasive species, and burning villages with hints of plague, Thailand was able to restore, to some degree, its indigenous agriculture and create a sustainable economy, based in carbon neutral energy and strict control over their seed stock.

The story picks up when all of that is at risk. Foreign businesses and ambitious members of the Thai government are working to erode those protections, and open the Thai markets to foreign investors and foreign genetically engineered foods. One of the major characters is Anderson Lake, a foreign businessman looking to do just that. Lake works for a major agribusiness based in Des Moines. Under the cover of a kink spring factory that is developing a major breakthrough in energy storage, his major goal is to gain access to the Thai seed bank. To do so, he's willing to put the factory workers at risk of plague and facilitate a military coup.

His opposite is Jaidee, a charismatic former Muay Thai boxer, who is the inspirational leader of the Environmental Ministry, the arm of government that created and enforces Thailand's isolation. Jaidee is brash, idealistic, and uncompromising and as a result comes into conflict with those forces, seeking to undo the influence of the Environmental Ministry. Because he is an uncompromising idealist, it isn't hard to figure out what happens to him.

For much of the book, Emiko, The Windup Girl herself, plays a small role. Windups are genetically engineered humans, generally made in Japan, and because they are genetically altered, they are illegal in Thailand; “mulched” if discovered. When we meet her, and for much of the book, she is working as a dancer and a prostitute.

Bacigalupi does a brilliant job building his world. Just like spending a lot of time living in a foreign country, you pick up the terms. Bacigalupi doesn't go out of his way to explain the terms or the rituals, they just come up naturally and you absorb their meaning, their meaning from the context. It's the best technique for building a complete world without writing a guidebook into your novel.

At its core, The Windup Girl is about societal forgetting, about how as past problems fade from prominence, many forget both their sources and their solutions. In The Windup Girl, Anderson and the Trade Ministry, forget that isolation from the radically globalized economy saved Thailand from the rampant manipulation of the world's networks of life by foreign companies. Certain actions caused the problems and since the problems have been contained, those certain, very profitable for some, actions are being taken again. Sound familiar? Today in the U.S. we've forgotten what lead us to the Great Depression and what got us out of it. The Windup Girl should be thought of with the other great warning novels including The Sheep Look Up and A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Novak's Look

On October 1, 1932 in the fifth inning in Game 3 of the World Series, Babe Ruth pointed out towards center field at Wrigley and hit the next pitch at least 440 feet. It is an absolutely iconic moment in sports. One could argue it is the most iconic moment in American sport. The outsized personality of Babe Ruth, the unabashed arrogance, the walking the walk of some of the biggest talk ever committed to film. People around the world, in wiffle ball games, video games, office contests, and other random situations, will now point vaguely in front of them to “call their shot.” Now imagine that instead of Charlie Root, throwing that pitch, it was Cy Young.

On Saturday September 10, 2011, Novak Djokavic had just gone down two match points to Roger Federer. It was the fifth set of the semi-finals of the US Open. Federer has won more majors than any other man in tennis history. He had gone up 2 sets to none and had won 182 of his previous 183 matches in which he had won the first two sets. Federer went up 40-15 on an ace, and is, arguably the greatest tennis player the world has ever seen. The crowd was cheering for Federer because many still remembered Djokovic's antics at the US Open a few years ago, because Federer is a great tennis player, and because they might witnessing the resurgence of one of the word's great athletes. Then this happened:

After a series of “I got this” smirks and, “Alright, if that's going to be the way he's going to play it” nods and perhaps a quick “Fuck this guy, he does commercials for private jets,” Djokavic settles into the standard ready to return position and hits what has to be one of the single greatest returns in the history of the game of tennis. Going through Djokovic's mind had to be how he earned the No. 1 ranking in tennis, how he had beaten Federer before, how Federer had his time and now it was Novak's time. The audience is stunned into a rumbling silence, because they were ready to cheer the return of Federer to the top of the tennis world, and then it wasn't just that Djokavic hit it back, he flicked his wrist and returned a pretty good serve at a physics stretching angle, and it is only when Djokavic casually raises his arms in a gesture correctly described as “Hey, I can hit some pretty big shots too,” that the audience realizes their minds had just be blown. That's how blown their minds were. Djokavic's towel guy wasn't even around. And the return absolutely shatters Federer. And then what was a foregone conclusion becomes a foregone conclusion only inverted.

If you're still unsure about just how amazing that return was, listen to Federer press conference. Its like watching a particularly sensitive child come to grips with his dad running over the bike, that he just bought with his own chore money. In a very roundabout, almost Luongonian way, Federer says it was a lucky shot and mumbles away until its time for him to, I don't know, decide which private jet to take home.

It had already been an excellent match but that look made it iconic. Sport does the moment perhaps better than anything else in human society. Because of how it is compartmentalized and because of how it is recorded,we are able to find and preserve these moments. In some ways, the whole moment is a lot closer to Bobby Orr soaring through the air than Babe Ruth calling his shot, but however you ultimately categorize it, Novak smirked his way into the annals of sport.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Muppets Take Ulysses

I haven't been able to get this idea out of my head since Riss came up with it last week. With every stray brain moment I have I seem to be expanding the concept, refining i, developing it, exploring it. And it's pretty close to the only thing we've been talking about in that time as well. Riss doesn't talk sports, we're reading different books, and it's a whole lot more satisfying than talking about the state of the world. The thing is, once you make that first initial breakthrough, once you see that first character equivalent, the whole idea seems so perfect that it makes you wonder if there were some underlying intentions. The idea: A Muppets version of Ulysses by James Joyce.

Stay with me. You like The Muppets right? So I'll start the post where Riss started the idea. I'm going to describe a fictional female character for you. She's a confident, voluptuous would be the term, vibrant woman, secure in her body and her sexuality, with an almost aggressive sense of life, who happens to make her living as a singer. This, of course, is Miss Piggy. But it is also Molly Bloom. I'm going to say this again just so I can watch myself type it, Miss Piggy and Molly Bloom are essentially the same character. Really the only difference between the two is that Miss Piggy's volume is set to “vaudeville” while Molly Bloom's is set to “novel.”

If you're familiar with both, you're probably seeing how it all falls together, like in that last scene in The Usual Suspects, but, well, most people aren't so I'll go on to describe another fictional character, this one male. He is kind, decent, industrious in his own way, committed to doing his best and making the world a better place even if he's not entirely sure how to do it, and can be a bit of a know-it-all mixed with an occasionally annoying dash of milquetoast. Said character could be none other than Kermit the Frog. And Leopold Bloom!

Also, the central conflict in the relationship between Miss Piggy and Kermit is that Miss Piggy is always looking for a formal consummation of the relationship, getting married, and, for reasons that are never made clear, despite his obvious love for Miss Piggy, Kermit is never ready to go all the way. The central conflict in the relationship between Leopold and Molly is that they haven't had sex, consummated their relationship if you catch my drift, in nine years, and not for lack of Molly's effort. In both cases, there is an Odysseus wandering far from his Penelope.

What's especially interesting to me about this (not just because it allows me to combine two of my favorite things ever) is that this idea renders an unfilmable novel, filmable. The problem with Ulysses as a movie is that it is a novel of the interior. Bloom's character is developed and demonstrated through presentations of his thoughts, dreams, and fantasies. We are shown what kind of person he is by sharing his thoughts. But long experimental presentations of thought don't translate well in film. 

However, by having Kermit play Bloom, Bloom's character is established through Kermit's character. Kermit brings 40 years of character history to whatever work he is called upon to perform. You don't need to show his thoughts to show his character because his past does it automatically. Same thing with Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Sam the Eagle, Link Hogthrob and all the other Muppets. The unfilmable intellect doesn't need to be filmed when the character is assumed by the figure portraying it. 

Furthermore, the more visually bizarre aspects of Ulysses like the Circe episode where characters change gender, the setting changes, flights of fantasy are indulged, and inanimate objects talk, are already part of the Muppet universe. The director doesn't have to do anything special to create a scene where a belt buckle talks, because in the Muppet universe nearly everything talks. This inherent accepted strangeness also makes it easier to deal with the wild style of an episode like Oxen in the Sun. The language in Oxen in the Sun progresses through all of the stages in English literature, which is awfully hard to film without looking silly; unless you show Kermit the Frog and the other characters in costumes from the various time periods, or have other Muppets costumed from different time periods milling in the background. 

For some reason, Muppets in particular engender an imagination permission that allows us to completely accept the absolutely ridiculous. Furthermore, (yes, there's another furthermore) the Muppet archetypes also allow the filmmaker to communicate some of the complexity of Ulysses. For example, in one episode Bloom goes to a restaurant to get some lunch but is disgusted seeing all the men stuffing their faces with all manner of food. In a book you can describe the men and the food. You have time to build the impression of disgust. But movies don't offer that time and so you can never get to the essence of this moment. Unless, of course, you can show Kermit look into a restaurant filled with pigs eating out of troughs swilling steins of beer. You see! You see! And Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem playing in the bar in the Sirens episode. And think of the cameos!

If you do see, and I accept that many will not, you're already filling in the blanks. Stephen is played by Fozzie (more on that later in another forum), the Citizen is Sam the Eagle, Simon is Rolf, Mary Lou is Gerty, Gonzo is Bella/Bello (the role of a lifetime) and Wayne is Haines (and, it's an actual black panther of course).
So two things, since I like to try and find some kind of conclusion for the end of these posts. Yes, thinking about this is a ton of fun for me, but I legitimately believe The Muppets take Ulysses would be an excellent movie. And you'll be seeing more of this. I mean, if you want to you'll be seeing more of this, because Riss and I are going to pass some of our idle hours on a blog devoted to this. Drop me a comment if this is something you'd be interested in participating in. (Any storyboard artists out there? Brian Henson is that you.) So, introducing the, at least to Riss and me, the infinitely amusing new internet project The Muppets Take Ulysses.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Interview with Daniel Lawless of Plume

Plume is a new online poetry magazine that is two issues old and already publishing some of the biggest and best contemporary poets; Rae Armantrout, Thomas Lux, Charles Bernstein, G.C. Waldrep and more. (Including, soon, me!) Plume is dedicated to publishing the very best of contemporary poetry, and I've to to say, so far so good. They are are highly selective, offering twelve poems per monthly issue; poems with a sense of the uncanny, foremost, and of the fineness of language, the huge absences to which it points and partakes of, and the urgency and permanence of its state of departure — the coattails forever –just now—disappearing around the corner. Or as one of the rotating quotes, this one from Jean-Michel Maulpox, “Poetry is completely divided between the desire for the country that does not exist and the need for common ground: between elsewhere and cliché; its two contradictory genies.'

Daniel Lawless is a poet and editor of Plume. He teaches at Saint Petersburg College. Below is an interview with Daniel conducted via email.

Why start an online poetry magazine?

For practical – monetary – reasons, of course, it’s easier than print; even print on demand requires one to sell – not my strong suit. Why, more general: a mixture of base and not so base motives: to duck school committee work; to allow my mother before she dies and some long-disappointed friends to believe I accomplished something (as if there was something to accomplish…another discussion); to pass the time; to put to some use a lifetime of reading and writing; as in writing a poem, simply to make a beautiful object.

As an editor, what do you look for in a poem? Do you imagine potential readers? Do you look for quality beyond your own personal taste? Or are you honestly subjective, publishing the poems that connect with you?

As our mission statement notes, I look for a sense of the uncanny, of the fineness of language, to be written by someone keener than I in some ways or many ways. Not so much a message: I do not wish to be instructed, unless beauty itself is instructive, and it is. The image that makes one want never to write again or to close the book or turn the page and pick up the pen, figuratively or literally. Potential readers, yes: mostly dead or soon to be so: Trakl, Cendars, Parra, Transtromer, Cassia, Ponge and Michaux, Follain, Canneti, Cioran, Bly, Li Po, etc. I would hope I look for quality beyond my own tastes, but I doubt I do. I publish what I like – why else – aside from the reasons given above, would I bother? And it is a bit of bother.

Is there anything a poem or poet can do or not do, that will guarantee rejection?

I’m not a huge fan of nature poetry: I see no greatness in knowing the names of things –plants, fish--though many do and can argue almost convincingly that such is an intrinsic, even a primary good. The poetry I loved first was Surrealism: Benedikt's great anthology. The translations were so flat – I liked how they contrasted with the extravagance of the imagery. When I learned to read French I was vastly disappointed by the musical quality of the work. So – I prefer a detached, observational style – Simic, Ponge, again – ipso facto, sentimental, didactic, pastoral, spiritual – likely not to be well-received. And formal approaches manhandled.

How do you think about “America Poetry?” Do you think about a coherent entity and compare it with entities from other eras? Do you think about individual poets who happen to be writing now? Is there a way to think about “American Poetry,” or should we only think about individual poems and poets?

If anything, I stayed away from American poetry when I was young; I think Sontag drew an entire
generation of poets and writers toward Western Europe. Part of this was inevitable rebellion against my mentor/teacher (and later my fellow grad students): a lover and crony of the Beats, pal of Thomas Merton. (Also the lure of the exotic, the obscure – which these were at the time, at least in my world of Louisville, Kentucky.) I thought of some books as coherent entities: Robbe-Grillet’s For a New Novel, the Artaud Anthology, the Contemporary European Poetry anthology with the white cover, Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life where I discovered Cendrars, Benedikt’s Prose Poem anthology, Leaping Poetry, Barthes’ Mythologies, magical realism, Borges, Tzara, Guillevic, Voznesensky, Mishima, Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Guy Davenport essays : these were nations to me. Compare? Only in the most superficial way in which one compares the music of one’s youth to that which comes later --and finds inferior despite one’s public rehearsal of its minutia and over-loud praise. Am I wrong to think non-US poets take more chances, generally? And fail more often and succeed more spectacularly?

What are the most exciting things happening in poetry today? The most frustrating?

The usual complaint, which can be made of all the arts, I suppose – so many bands, so many films, so many this or that: a surfeit. Not too long ago, it seemed, one could know all of the poets worth knowing, might have assembled them in a Holiday Inn Express conference room. No longer, of course. Whether that is exciting or frustrating, I’m not sure.

Who is the one poet you wish everyone was reading?

Not a poet, but “the last philosopher in Europe” as he has been called: Emil Cioran – an aphorist of the first order, a master of knee-slapping bleakness, to use a phrase from my first Editor’s note, one who had read everything worth reading, like Steiner, also one with a horrific, troubling past to say the
least (Grass comes to mind), but a gorgeous stylist; one can, in reading him, if one is a particular type of person, only nod one’s head in assent until one becomes faintly ridiculous, like one of those mechanical water-sipping bird toys.

What is the responsibility of the poet to the world? Do poetry editors have different responsibilities? If so what are those?

The poet is responsible to nothing (except to his craft? on second thought, no, not even that) and no one: society or humanity least of all. Editors have no responsibility either – it seems silly to use those words in the same sentences – though many, many do, I know, serious, talented writers and editors. I merely say that, for me, no. One tries one’s best, one tries to be fair, to be discerning, but in the end whether one does or not is not a matter of responsibility, but temperament.

In terms of a poet's responsibility. Does poetry make the world a better place? Is this even a useful question to ask and if not, in terms of understanding poetry, what is a useful question to ask?

I am tempted to say that which distracts us from the inevitability of our demise, and does no harm to others in the general sense, is never a bad thing. I am great believer in distraction: that most things are little more than that. As I say, I think I am rarely edified by poetry, but often am fascinated by it, as one tends to be in the face of beauty in all its manifestations. Which is not nothing.

Is there a particular poem or poet that first showed you the potential of poetry? What was that moment like for you?

Breton’s “Free Union” – the listing was hypnotic, the images have stayed with me for forty years. I first read it in, oh, 1976 or ’77, I think. Around the time I took a trip to San Francisco, where punk was crowning in certain neighborhoods: exhilarating. I came back to Louisville and found it, punk, was popping up at the art schools and such, too. The spirit of DIY was in the air, and I recall printing up poems and stapling them to telephone poles – virgin forest then – unsigned, only a little stamp my girlfriend at the time made up. I’d walk around days later, checking my route as it were. Many were still there, weathering, which was nice, many were gone. Best was when I’d go to a party and find one of them stuck to a wall or refrigerator door.

How do you read a poem? What do you listen for and think about while reading? How do you discover
or create meaning through reading a poem?

Good questions. Could you answer them for me? If nothing else – and there is very little else – I have read a fair amount in my life, so reading becomes allusion, an echo chamber: this calls to this, to that, the other thing, and in time a dozen other things. That is what happens when I read, I think – sometimes to the detriment of reading the poem actually in front of me. To the degree that I have a way of reading, or listening for, or thinking about, poems, it has to do with the whispers of past work, other poets, distant images, that maintain some ineffable connection to the words I am reading: “.. that rose which only words distant from roses can describe…” (Aragon).

What are you reading now?

Poetry: Plume’s submissions list is growing frightening. Also Dana Gioia’s early work, Interrogations at Noon, and Montale’s Motets. Luljeta Lleshanaku . I like the unjustly maligned Padgett Powell’s Interrogative Mood – again, lists. Ennemis publics – a dialogue between Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy. Pessoa’s Always Astonished. Larkin. Cavafy. Avital Ronell’s Stupidity.