Monday, September 27, 2010

Zillionaires Running for Office

I struggle to understand why people are alarmed by zillionaires funding their own political campaigns. We're supposed to hate - merely on the face of it - the notion that rich dudes might buy themselves a public office. It seems undemocratic.

But wait. First of all, no one can actually buy an elected office. A huge war chest is, indeed, a huge advantage, but, still, we vote. And consider that Michael Bloomberg, a very well-liked mayor, only barely squeaked through the last election despite out-spending his opponent by a hundred million dollars.

And even his harshest critics would never accuse Bloomberg of crony capitalism. He hasn't shown partiality to business colleagues, or steered city contracts in self-serving directions, etc. If he had, he'd have sunk like a stone, because everyone's been watching for that. Even a trillion dollar campaign fund couldn't protect a mogul-turned-politician who uses his position to siphon public money to cronies (exception: Dick Cheney re: Halliburton). Bigwigs don't go into politics to enrich themselves and their friends because their political careers would be cut very short and their images forever tarnished. And, anyway, much more money could made by remaining in the business world. No mogul goes into politics to expand wealth.

So why do it? Ego plus a genuine pull toward public service. The ego part's a given for anyone in politics. But a heartfelt public service urge is a good thing, no? Even better is the freedom to defy special interests (since their money's not accepted). Finally, a leader who isn't relentlessly fundraising can apply more time and energy to actually leading.

Of course, well-intentioned politicians can be just as incompetent as corrupt ones. But while private sector success is no guarantee of governing skill, it requires intelligence, savvy and determination, so serious incompetence is less likely.

We get more competence, better motives, less special interest pressure, and greater attention to governing (indeed, Bloomberg has done a great, high-minded job; he's been New York's best mayor in decades). And none of us is thrilled with conventionally-funded politicians. So why, exactly, are we supposed to be so upset about self-financed ones?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Conciliation Via Amnesia

There's a fascinating article in this weeks Economist on the Pope's recent visit to England, and how easings in the old Catholic/Anglican rivalries made it a surprisingly non-controversial event. This isn't the product of rapprochement, peace treaty, or interfaith dialog. It's a much more mundane matter of amnesia - the British "national genius for forgetting rather than forgiving."
"...the tradition of sectarian enmity was not so much purged from the body politic as mislaid. Anti-Catholic prejudice was rife in polite English society until surprisingly recently: countless families can tell tales of scandals or feuds triggered by a mixed Anglican-Catholic marriage, up to the 1960s or 1970s. Sectarianism lingers on in Northern Ireland, bits of Scotland and some English cities like Liverpool. Yet in much of England, people under 40 cannot remember why Catholicism caused their grandparents such alarm."
This small glimmer of hope deserves to be analyzed and applied elsewhere.
"An optimist might see a chance there for Islam, another conservative religion currently causing alarm. A bit of affluence here, a bit less defensiveness there, and before you know it, the English cannot remember why a minority worried them so much. It is a muddled, imperfect solution (just ask Catholics offended by this week’s pope-bashing). But with the English, muddle is often as good as it gets."
If it's true that forgetting's as good as forgiving, one can't help but contemplate the Palestinian/Israeli mess. If a Palestinian state were established, and a thriving Palestinian middle class fostered, might a few generations of muddle dampen the vindictiveness?

Well, Bloody Mary reigned back in the 16th Century, so that one took a while, but a mere two generations after the holocaust it's hard to imagine Jews socially rebuffing Germans, much less dreaming of returning to Austria to retake the family land. As with England, this may well be attributable to a secular, thriving middle class with more to do than lick old wounds (it's fortunate that the Jewish "Never forget!" slogan has remained a call to beware man's inherent dark potential, rather than a call for Germans to be despised for all eternity).

But cultural factors seem to make different people forgive - or at least forget - at different rates. Few of my secular, middle class, thriving Armenian friends or acquaintances can make it through a half hour conversation without making reference to the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Monks and the Coffee

It's long bugged me that as a restaurant critic I seemed to have fallen into the most spiritually self-destructive of careers. Most traditions make a similar point, but the Hsin Hsin Ming, from Zen, states it most pointedly:
"If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind."
The metaphysics make sense. But as a critic, I spend my life making opinions, feeding the dualism by rendering thumbs up and thumbs down judgments. Am I fostering a mind that's rife with disease? Are chowhounds (and others with keen appreciation for quality) cosmically damned? Must we hanker for Wendy's if we're ever to enter the kingdom of heaven?

But a while back I found the key in a story written by a woman who'd worked as a driver for some Buddhist monks traveling around California for a series of meditation programs. The monks had fallen crazily in love with a certain brand of coffee they'd discovered during the trip. But while they practically jumped for joy whenever they came upon some, she found it interesting that they never showed the slightest trace of disappointment if they failed to find any. Even when days went by without finding their coffee, they were no less happy. It began to dawn on her that if they never drank that coffee again, it wouldn't bother them in the least. Yet each time they found it they positively basked in the delight.


I live for those rare bursts of inspiration where someone, in a blast of brilliance, puts things together in a unique and jarring way to great effect. Such creative moments make me proud to be a human.

Have a look at these awesome short videos:
Iran's New Voice
Safeguard the Innocent

These were produced by the kids at, who I first wrote about here, and who were profiled by CNN here. If you like the spirit of what they're doing (even if you may not agree with all their platforms), I hope you'll join me in donating.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Iran Attack Imminent?

Reza Aslan is, as many of you know, a soft-spoken, highly intelligent guy, and one of the country's leading experts on Iran (he was born there, but is fully Americanized). He explains Iranian issues - and issues in Moslem world in general - with a refreshingly non-strident tone. Rational. Reasonable. Good-humored (listen to this superbly insightful radio interview to get the idea).

That's why I'm unnerved that he
sounds so alarmed about the possibility of an impending attack on Iran. In that link, he urges, with uncommon intensity, immediate contribution to a group called the NIAC, which is pushing for this attack not to happen. Aslan says, convincingly, "we must act now and not wait for war to start to then try and stop it. We must prevent it."

Aslan is a grounded pragmatist, and I trust his assessment that the NIAC are the right guys (they've been working for Democracy and human rights in Iran, and with Jewish-American and peace groups to avoid US-Iran war). Read
their blog to see where they're coming from. And please consider donating, and upping your donation amount to the pain point. As with the Iraq invasion, we've been prepared for this scenario so thoroughly that it's easy to assume it won't actually happen. But elsewhere in the world, people share Aslan's fevered fear of the horrendous mistake that may be about to be made. A Bahranian friend just told me the following:
If the US or Israel bombs Iran, we (Bahrain) are going to be the 2nd to suffer (after Iran, obviously.) First thing Iran will do is bomb the U.S base here, to make sure the U.S doesn't use it to attack (which is basically why they're here in the first place.) We are so small as a country that one bomb will make us sink, literally. Anyways - we are freaking out, in a few years you can bet that we'll be as bad as present-day Iraq. On one hand Iran is funding terrorist attacks in this country, and militant organizations. On the other hand we have the USA who, also, couldn't care less about our lives and is just using this place as a strategic location. We don't trust anyone and are just kind of waiting to see what happens.

God forbid, if anything does in fact happen - this will involve way more than just the USA, Israel and Iran - there's also Syria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, other than Bahrain. I imagine Turkey will act upon its threats to Israel too and do something. We're basically fucked.

Text Adventure Game Nostalgia

I've never seen a computer game that came close to the Infocom adventure games of the 1980's (played by typing instructions into a bleak scrolling window of text). Perhaps I feel this way because these are the games I played when I was young. Or perhaps it's true. You playing Zork, or, even wittier, but requiring slight familiarity with the original book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Here are other versions of those games, plus a bunch of others, all playable online.

You can also play these games on your iPhone/iPad/iTouch, via a free app called Frotz (link opens iTunes).

The grandaddy of the genre was the original
"Adventure" (aka Colossal Cave), now available as a 64-bit(!) application for Mac OS.

If you're not sure what to do, simply type something and hit a return ("help", without the quotation marks, is a good way to start).

Warning: this stuff is really, really, seriously old school...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Explaining the Tea Party

Let me try to offer the pithiest possible explanation of the Tea Party:

Conservatives: "We want small government!"

Liberals: "Hypocrites! The Republicans have always grown government tremendously!"

Conservatives: "Right; that's why we're so pissed!"

Much as Ralph Nader was disgusted with both parties, considering them both too conservative, and hoped to either start a third one or pressure the Democrats leftward, the Tea Party folks consider both too financially liberal, and hope to either start a third one or else pressure the Republicans rightward (at least fiscally). Because, as liberals often remind us all, Republicans have wildly expanded government, too.

The Republicans are trying desperately to subvert the movement by merging the populist fiscal conservatism with social conservatism to yield, paradoxically, blandly mainstream Republicans. Results thus far, per the entry below, have been messy.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tea Party Candidates Win, Republicans Fret

The US revived the notion of "jihad" in the Muslim world - to energize the Mujahideen against the Russians.

The US supported the rise of Saddam Hussein - to serve as a
bulwark against communism.

And, most recently, the right wing power players fanned the flames of the tea party movement - to energize the base.
Once again: woops!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Modesty, Arrogance, and Political Correctness

I have a friend who attended Harvard, and whenever someone asks him where he went to school, he hems and haws. If eventually forced to give an answer, he'll meekly fess up, looking horribly uncomfortable. At some point, I felt compelled to point out to him that, really, Harvard's not that big a deal, and that the pains he takes to soft-pedal it transparently reveal how earth-shakingly impressive he actually deems it.

I happen not to be intimidated by Ivy League degrees. But if I were, I'd take umbrage if an acquaintance felt compelled to keep his under wraps in my presence. After all, what does this say about his attitude toward me?

The irony is that my friend thinks he's being modest while he transparently signals the very opposite.

On a similar note, I agree with the Right's notion that political correctness is arrogant condescension at best, and crypto-racism at worst. As I wrote in my entry about the film Winter's Bone (which some critics lambasted for the negativeness of its portrayal of Ozark culture, despite its being based on a novel by an Ozark native):
As a member of five or six minority groups, myself, I find myself cringing whenever I see groups to which I belong depicted or discussed with anxious care and glossy patina. What awful thing, after all, are they so carefully dancing around?!?"

Strange Press Blackout on Israel/Russia

On Monday, Isarel and Russian signed a historic military cooperation agreement, with serious ramifications re: Iran, the American/Israeli alliance, etc..

Amazingly, the only reports so far have appeared in the foreign press. I've been waiting for the NY Times, Washington Post, etc., to cover it and offer analysis, but, three days later, there's still been zero coverage.

I'm not big on media conspiracy theories, but this is awfully strange, no?


If trees had never existed, but suddenly appeared, en masse, people would be driven insane by the beauty.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Swallowing the Doublethink

I've spent the morning scanning news, blogs, and tweets regarding Versiontracker. In case you missed yesterday's Slog entry on this, I'll replay it here (it's short!):
"CNET has just killed one of my favorite web sites, (a repository of links to and reviews of Mac software). They acquired the site a couple years ago, and gave it a half-assed refresh, introducing lots of new problems (sound familiar?), and today they folded it completely into CNET Downloads. The jillions of reviews are wiped (as is my alert list, which was painstakingly built up over many many years). All that goodness, summarily flushed."
I'm fascinated to watch how this is playing out. CNET, which, like many large corporations, thrives on Orwellian doublespeak, outdid themselves on this one:
"We know how important the information on the VersionTracker website is, which is why we wanted to preserve it, enhance it, and make it part of the CNET experience."
By "preserve it and enhance", they mean strip it and dump it. What made Versiontracker a useful resource were its user-generated software ratings and reviews, and the ability to track a custom watch/alert list of software titles. The reviews are gone, as are the custom lists. What remains is the same bland CNET Downloads site as ever. No preservation or enhancement, though, yep, it's all very much a part of "the CNET experience."

But what's really interesting is watching the Mac blogs, forums, and news sites. Nearly everyone is blindly accepting the corporate doubletalk. Of course, blind acceptance of spin is bread-and-butter for many journalists (e.g. their collaboration with President Bush's propaganda run-up to the Iraq invasion, food reporters' penchant for rotely punching in press releases, etc., etc.). But aren't bloggers and forum posters, for all their foibles and biases and cloddish amateurism, supposed to apply greater skepticism?

Nope. They're buying the "fold-in" line (easily checked and disproven) that the content remains and only the name and format have changed. A small sampling:

From Mac news site
"Now, this long-time staple of the fairer platform has completely lost its identity, getting folded directly into CNet’s blandly generic site."
Posting to mobypicture
" integrated into CNET Downloads. Too bad. Look horrible now."
Even the venerable Tidbits (grandaddy of Mac news sites):
"CNET, which acquired VersionTracker several years ago, is merging VersionTracker into CNET Downloads. It doesn't look like the overall functionality will change much, but the VersionTracker name will go away."
How about this, from TUAW, "The Unofficial Apple Weblog" (background: MacFixIt was acquired by CNET in the same deal, and has been completely dissolved):
"I don't think MacFixIt was improved any by the CNET takeover, and I don't have high hopes for VersionTracker, either, but I'm going to keep an open mind."

Joseph Goebbels famously said that a lie repeated thousands of times becomes a truth. These days, you only have to say it once.

The Role of Agents, Managers, and Publicists.

This is the second installment of the "Tell It Like It Is" series. Read the first ("Real Publishing is Vanity Publishing, Vanity Publishing is Real Publishing") here.

I blundered into an interesting question on Metafilter:
"Would hiring a publicist help me to transform my podcasting and entertainment work into a full time gig?"

This is an incredibly common mistake. I keep meeting musicians and other creative types who think a manager or agent will help them get gigs and increase their profile. And everyone believes publicists will ratchet up their prominence. But no. That's completely wrong, and reflects a misunderstanding of what it's all about. As both a writer and a musician, and someone who's dealt with a slew of publicists, managers, and agents over the years from every conceivable angle, let me set the record straight.

Visualize harried parents who've hired a babysitter, knowing full well they'll return home to a crying kid, a messy house, a ransacked refrigerator, and cigarette burns in the couch's upholstery. Why do they do it? Because it's their only hope to get out of the house and see a freaking movie. It's a sacrifice, and it costs, to boot. But at a certain point, it becomes necessary.

Whatever your creative pursuit, you can manage, agent, and publicize yourself much more effectively (and cheaply) than just about any manager, agent, or publicist who'd be willing to take you on. None will expend the time and care that you will. And none is more capable of making use of your own personal and business connections than you are. Most of all, if you're truly creative enough to be thinking ambitiously about your creative career, you certainly can apply more out-of-box creativity to the task than any mere biz middleman ever could hope to - and you can apply those strategies with undivided attention.

So what are these guys good for? You hire them when your phone's ringing so hard that you can no longer handle the inflow of work queries. And so you outsource to them. As with the babysitter, they'll screw up somewhere between slightly and catastrophically...but at least you'll have bought yourself time to go see a freaking movie (or actually work on music, writing, etc.).

Same with publicity. The job of a publicist isn't to make obscure people (or operations) famous. It's to manage the publicity needs of people and operations prominent enough to have publicity needs (and busy enough to need to outsource). The very first thing all these managers, agents, and publicists will ask you is for the phone number for every business contact you've ever cultivated. And they'll rotely call down that list. You could do that...and better, too! But at least now you don't have to. That's the point.

All that said, there are managers, agents, and publicists who plum the depths, promising nobodies that they'll make them somebodies. I'm assuming I don't need to tell you, intelligent Slog reader, what such people are worth (aside from the mega-rare instance of a discerning manager/agent finding a genuine diamond in the rough). Legitimate creative middlemen (indulge the oxymoron for a moment) don't, for the most part, seek out nobodies, because nobodies lack money, and 10% of nothing is nothing. Illegitimate (or, I should say, particularly illegitimate)
creative middleman look for nobodies with money from other sources...who they can flatter and suck dry.

Of course, if you're supremely uncreative and unenergetic (in which case you are undoubtedly a lousy writer, musician, artist, etc.) and you happen to have money (e.g. from your parents) to pay a good publicist, he or she can probably get your band's gig listed in the usual obvious places you yourself could approach if you weren't so lazy. And this may draw a few more bodies through the doorway. But your band stinks, so what's the point? :)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

CNET Just Scared the Crap Out of Me

CNET has just killed one of my favorite web sites, (a repository of links to and reviews of Mac software). They acquired the site a couple years ago, and gave it a half-assed refresh, introducing lots of new problems (sound familiar?), and today they folded it completely into CNET Downloads. The jillions of reviews are wiped (as is my alert list, which was painstakingly built up over many many years). All that goodness, summarily flushed.

Holy crap.

Well, I'd been increasingly using competing site, which works a lot better (read: at all) on my iPhone, anyway. But still.

Waking up from "Inception"

NY Magazine film critic David Edelstein thinks the hoo-ha over Christopher Nolan's "Inception" is evidence of the same sort of mental tampering explored in the film:
"For the record, I wanted to surrender to this dream; I didn’t want to be out in the cold, alone. But I truly have no idea what so many people are raving about. It’s as if someone went into their heads while they were sleeping and planted the idea that Inception is a visionary masterpiece and—hold on … Whoa! I think I get it. The movie is a metaphor for the power of delusional hype—a metaphor for itself."
I've been ambivalent, myself, even after a second viewing. There's just enough cleverness (e.g. the "Give me a kiss" scene, the use of slowed-down Edith Piaf to create the menacing score motif, the folding Paris, the brilliant notion that each layer of dream-within-a-dream expands relative time) to keep me on board despite the clunky exposition, the anemic characterization, and the eerie, not-fully-conscious - in fact, quite dream-like! - feeling that lots of things are not quite adding up.

So many people are proclaiming genius that I've tipped that way, as well. But I was pretty effectively de-programmed by a read through A D Jameson's
Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception (note: read only if you've seen the film!). I don't agree with everything Jameson says, and he could stand to dial back some of his scathing pique*, but he makes some great points, particularly re: Nolan's prosaic filmmaking and blockheaded literalness.

this page, where Inception-obsessed fans attempt to answer the film's unanswered questions, is an even more effective red pill. The labors these true believers endure to explain plot holes make a persuasive, if unintentional, case that the film really doesn't hold together very well.

* - among the useful, if hard-won, truths I gleaned from years spent refereeing a huge crowd trading opinions is that the angrier the refutation, the more biased that refutation usually is.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Patricia Wells' French Food Glossary

I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't want to have a copy of Patricia Wells' French Food Glossary on their mobile device.

From the above link, you can load and bookmark the PDF version in your mobile browser, or else download the Microsoft Word version onto your desktop computer and either email the text to your mobile device (and save the email in a prominent place) or load it into whichever text reader you use on the device.

Bonuses: bookmark, if you'd like, my Filipino Food Glossary and my Oaxacan Food Glossary (neither are anywhere near as authoritative, complete, or careful as Wells' French glossary; these are just quick cheatsheets!).

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