Monday, November 15, 2010

Le Burger C'est Magnifique

I saw this article about how 5 Super-Chefs combined their forces to become a VoltronChef for some benefit at the Four Seasons.  It was a mild little article without a lot to remember, but there was one quote at the end which made me very happy.

Joel Robuchon was named "Chef of the Century" by Gault Millua.  He has contributed to Larousse Gastronomique, authored several other bestselling cookbooks, is a role model for generations of aspiring chefs, and has been awarded more Michelin Stars than any other chef in the whole bloody world.   So what words from this culinary Grand Master made me smile so smugly?
"And Robuchon wanted to hit up electronics stores; he admitted that he loves an In-n-Out burger, but that shopping is his real guilty pleasure."
His guilty food pleasure is a Double Double.  This from a man who owns the top 5 rated restaurants in the whole country and the top rated restaurant in Las Vegas.  I think In-n-Out should get a Michelin Star by default for that.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Show Must Go On

I haven't yet had a chance to see Lombardi on Broadway, but I hope I get a chance to take it in before the run is up.  I very much enjoyed David Maraniss's "When Pride Still Mattered", the thorough Lombardi biography which inspired the play.

Even if I don't get a chance to see Lombardi, I know I'll do whatever it takes to see the follow up play:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Badvertising: TurkeyTail


Turkey day is coming people, so don't forget to stock up on the essentials.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Happy Veterans Day

Veteran's day was originally Armistice Day, the day that marked the end of the Great War. I was hoping to have completed reading a book dealing with that conflict to review for a post today, but I dropped the ball.

World War one is less remembered in our country for many reasons, but at least it's remembered, if only indirectly, through the establishment of Veteran's Day as a national holiday.

Of course, the War to End all Wars did no such thing. As a result, men like Richard Winters had to lead another generation into battle. His story has been well documented, but thankfully its power has not diminished over time.  The ending to the documentary "We Stand Alone Together" remains especially poignant.

Happy Veteran's day to all vets and those on active duty. Thank you.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sugar Stasi and Freedom Fries

Welcome back to "Food and Politics" week!  For our next course we turn to the Quitta from Wasilla.

Half term Governor Sarah Palin gave a speech at a fundraiser for a private school in Pennsylvania, and her remarks caused some "controversy".  Which is exactly what they were designed to do.  Imagine that.

Palin kicked off "cookiegate" (gag) by decrying a proposed ban on cookies in schools which the evil government (read: the democratically elected state government of Pennsylvania) is planning to implement.  This totalitarian rule will be enforced by the Sugar Stasi, who will roam the halls confiscating anything that isn't whole grain, low fat and free of taste.  Violators will be punished with plates of steamed lima beans, which is better than those monsters deserve!

Well, not quite. You see, the state government is thinking about possibly voting on recommendations to schools, which would encourage them to limit the sweets offered at in class parties, and to encourage them to offer health snacks too.  There is no "ban" of any kind.  There are no penalties for not following the guidelines. 

We can debate the impact of such guidelines.  My guess would be that they wouldn't amount to much, especially since a lot of effort has already been made by some parents to provide healthier foods at these occasions.  Given that these are free guidelines meant to encourage healthy eating, the worst we can probably say is that they will have no effect.  Whatever we think, its important to look at the actual facts of the situation before we react.

Amazingly, Palin failed to address the truth or nuance of the situation. Instead, she "liberated" the dangerously underweight kids in the audience by bringing them store bought sugar cookies and then railed against the "nanny state".  Her rhetoric was perfectly reasonable and informed:

"I wanted these kids to bring home the idea to their parents for discussion," said Palin. "Who should be making the decisions what you eat, school choice and everything else? Should it be government or should it be the parents? It should be the parents."

Um... Governor Palin. The State DOES decide what a lot of these kids eat.  Each of those kids who gets a school provided breakfast or lunch, or who pays for one in the cafeteria, is being served by the state.  At an even larger level, a huge portion of most of these kids' (and our) diets are shaped by government agriculture policy, usually in a bad way.  If you're really worried about the government's role in the pantry, there are much, much bigger (and fattier) fish to fry.

Furthermore, there is no proposed restriction here on what parents (the citizens who elected the government who is making these rules) can give to their kids.  None.

The best part of all this: this was a private school.  Even if cupcakes, sweets and cookies were outright banned by the public school system, it wouldn't effect ability of the kids at this institution to stuff their pie holes until the Type 2 kicked in.  Just as Adam Smith intended.

Shattering the looking glass

This is the New York Times today.  For a short time it was the lead story on the Front Page.

"Biden Parodies in The Onion Strike Comic Gold"

The money quote:

“Let me get this straight: You want to interview the vice president about stories about him in The Onion?” Mr. Carney asked, sounding at once amused and dumbfounded by the request. “Well, I’ll give you credit for trying.”

This is "The Paper of Record" for the United States of America.

Its not even under "Arts and Leisure", its in the "Business" section.

They did a story is about a series of parodies by a fake newspaper. 

And they didn't even mention the best one:

Biden Invites Nation's Women To Tax Code Discussion At Private Mountain Chalet

When you pick cherries, beware of the pits

The Atlantic brings us an article about the psychological basis for our nation's (or any nations) political polarization.  As evidence of this polarization, Lane Wallace points to another recent column by Charles Blow of the New York Times, using Blow's arguments to counter beliefs expressed by President Obama that most voters are not merely partisan automatons:

In his press conference following last week's election, President Obama told a questioning reporter that he "didn't believe people carried around with them a fixed ideology"--that if you'd asked most people on Election Day, they would have said that there were some things they agreed with Democrats on and some things they agreed with Republicans on.

Wallace then cites Blow's article as evidence that the President is incorrect in this belief.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, perhaps), Blow's alarmist thesis about the danger of our partisan divide is not very convincing once you look at his data.

Blow supports his arguments with two bits of data.  The first is shown in a graph found here, which illustrates a downward trend in ideological crossover voting in Congressional elections over the last 30 years.  In other words, self identified liberal voters have been less likely to vote for Republican House candidates.  Likewise, conservatives have been voting for Democrats in decreasing numbers. Certainly a possibly sign of polarization, but scale is also important.  As you'll notice, the big drop on the liberal side is from 20% to 10% since 1982.  For conservative voters, the drop is larger, from the low 30s to mid teens.  Both trends indicate a higher degree of partisan sorting, but the small magnitude is not so alarming as Blow makes it out to be and the conclusions of hostile partisan conflict do not necessarily follow from the evidence.  The alarmist could point out that crossover voting has declined 50% (I'm surprised Blow didn't given the tone of his piece), but its just as accurate to point out that crossover was never that likely and has only become slightly less likely.

What's happening here?  There are many possibly explanations, mostly having to do with partisan sorting and the realigment of the parties over this period.  Its no secret that the old Southern Democrats have all but vanished, replaced by Southern Republicans who are of a different party but occupy much of the same ideological space. Likewise the moderate Republican may also be going extinct in some areas like the Northeast.  This has created more polarization in Congress, as measured by roll call votes.

We must remember, however, that the underlying policy preferences of the electorate need not be changed.  The same district which would have elected a Southern Democrat 40 years ago may now elect a Republican instead, but this need not lead to any significantly more gridlock or polarization than it did then.  The voting record may be more conservative overall, but the policy preferences of the district are may be basically unchanged.  If the behavior of the Representative follows these preferences than the policy outcomes need not be necessarily different.

Another thing to remember is that this is a sample of voters, who we might expect to be more loyal to a given party.  This is especially true for midterm elections, which are lower profile affairs where motivated partisans are far more likely to turn out in order to support their chosen political party. 

Finally, there a huge piece of the puzzle left out: moderates.  Self described moderate voters are the largest group in out body politic, and as they go so goes any election.  Obama won because he won more moderate support.  Republicans won this month because they flipped that around. The plurality of voters, by very definition, favor moderation. 

Blow's other piece of data is even less convincing.  He writes:

And the new Republican majority in the House comes to power with a sour sentiment from their electorate: make no deals and take no prisoners. A May poll released by the Pew Research Center found that a plurality of Republican voters said that they were less likely to vote for a candidate who “will compromise with people they disagree with.” They want either steamrollers or roadblocks, not consensus-builders.

Fortunately for us, and unfortunately for his argument, Blow helpfully links to the poll in question.  In looking at it, we see that what he says is technically true: 40% of self identified Republican voters say that a willingness to compromise does not appeal to them when casting their Congressional vote.  Sour, indeed.  But looking closer, we see that almost equal number of that same group, 35%, say that a willingness to compromise is actually a positive for them.  Additionally, 20% are unsure.  So if we take the glass is (more than) half full approach,  60% of Republicans did not express an overt dislike for compromise. 

Further hurting this story is the fact that the other two relevant groups, Democrats and Independents (both of which are larger than Republicans), willingness to compromise won out among voters.  For the whole sample, 42% said that ability to compromise would effect their vote positively, while 29% were indifferent to the quality.  Bringing up the rear were those who disliked compromise in a candidate, with only 22% rating it as a negative.

The funniest thing is that Blow somehow missed the title of Pew's press release for the poll: 

"Willingness to Compromise a Plus in Midterms".

He must have needed a whole bucket for all the cherries he was picking.

One even larger issue with Blow's whole thesis is the fact that he never really addressed what President Obama said about voters!  The President was referring to policy preferences, not merely to partisan vote choice.  Its been proven by smarter men than me that the average citizen is capable of holding a variety of policy opinions which cross what we would assume to be the normal partisan lines.  Context, nuance, world conditions and random chance all factor into citizen's expressed preferences at any given time, be it Election day or any other day of the year.  Furthermore, there is much that strong majorities of Americans do agree on when asked about their individual policy preferences.  This agreement cuts across ideologies, partisanship, and generations.

Political polarization is real.  Its likely growing, especially among elites, and it does create real problems to efforts to create good policy.  But hyperbole and bad science don't help the situation.  Let's not forget that this nation of ours was once so divided that it literally divided, and the results were not pretty.  With that in mind I have to disagree with Blow when he declares that we are in the "twilight of American moderation".

Monday, November 8, 2010

Government Cheese...

"...and living in a van down by the River!"

Interesting article in the Times this weekend, which sheds some light but also brings up a lot of questions. 

To summarize: The government heavily subsidizes our dairy industry.  The end result being that the government ends up owning a lot of cheese.  A lot.  As in hundreds of millions of pounds of cheese.  Naturally the government can only have so many Taco Tuesdays, and so they need to find a way to get rid of all of this extra milk and cheese that they own.

To help in this process, the government formed an agency called Dairy Management, which sounds like a CIA front company if I ever heard one.  Dairy Management is funded mostly by fees on dairy producers, with a small portion of its budget coming from taxes.  But in reality, all of this money is tax money, since the dairy farmers are paying back a portion of their government subsidies.  DM's job is to promote the consumption of milk products, especially cheese.  To do this, they have worked and continue to work with fast food companies to develop and promote new products with more cheese content.

More cheese on pizza equals more cheese sales,” Mr. Gallagher, the Dairy Management chief executive, wrote in a guest column in a trade publication last year. “In fact, if every pizza included one more ounce of cheese, we would sell an additional 250 million pounds of cheese annually.”

More cheese means more cheese. Got it.

The article goes on to describe how DM used their stunning grasp of cheese economics to help Dominoes develop a better pizza which was enjoyed more by customers and thus helped their sales.  And by "better" pizza they mean "they put a whole lot more cheese on top".

Anyone who knows anything about nutrition knows that cheese is high in deliciousness but low in health value. It tends to be high in calories, fat, and saturated fat, which is why people love it so much. But these pro-cheese efforts come in direct conflict with other government efforts to get people to eat a healthier diet, one which is lower in saturated fat and, by extension, contains less cheese. That's punchline to this article, as it points out the conflict here between different government agencies.

I like this article overall, and I think its the type of investigative news we need more of.  My only objection is the way the story is framed overall.  The writer frames it as a negative case of "government vs. government", which of course is true, but in reality its not as crazy or idiotic as its made out to be.  There are legitimate competing interests here, public health vs. the dairy industry, and both have been successful in getting their voices heard by the government.  Dairy Management exists because the Dairy industry has been able to put political and financial pressure on the government to create a subsidy regime.  The public health concerns exist because another part of the citizenry has pressured the government to try and promote healthy eating.  The government has responded to the demands of its constituencies, which is often a complicated and contradictory.

I would have preferred the author to talk more about the driving force in all this: the huge subsidies given to the dairy industry and their effects.  The really root of the problem and what to be done with it is barely discussed. Maybe this is a realistic view to take since changing the status quo would be so difficult, if not impossible, but I think it would be more productive to focus on solving the larger problem instead of putting all the emphasis on the conflicts of interest.  I think most Americans, myself included, can probably agree that its a good thing in theory to have a strong dairy industry.  But I think we can also agree that when paying out enormous subsidies actually results in the American diet becoming less healthy, this is a bad thing.  I'm not sure exactly where the balance should be, but I think that these subsidy efforts need to be pared back or eliminated.

There are some other, more disturbing parts of the article.  They discuss possible faked or fudged scientific research meant to promote dairy foods as health foods, and possible retribution against researchers who refused to shape their findings in this way.  If true this would be far worse in my mind than the idea of promoting putting more cheese on a pizza.  Its one think to push a product and let the free market decide (though in this case I doubt you could call it a true free market), its another thing to poison the well of information while people are making those decisions.

One thing that really struck me that wasn't talked about in the article: Just how freaking dumb is Dominoes?  They knew their pizzas sucked.  They wanted to sell more pizzas.  Yet it took a government agency to clue them into the simple idea of adding more cheese.  How was this such a big mystery?  I put cheese on lots of stuff, because its great and it makes just about everything better.  Its not that complicated:

1) People like cheese
2) Add more cheese
3) Profit

Dominoes isn't the only fast food company which has made use of Dairy Management in order to increase their sales.  Pizza Hut's idea to put cheese directly into the crust was a DM innovation, as was their "Summer of Cheese" marketing campaign.  Which is just baffling to me.  For all we here about the innovative power of the private sector and the idiocy of the government, why does it take a government agency with an agenda to clue in the private sector on the basics their own business?

I can't wait till next week when there will be an article about how Pork Management caused a revolutionary breakthrough when they clued in food providers that people really like bacon.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Wherefor art thou, Highlights?

It seems I praised NFL films a bit too much in my post to open the season.  I think they've started to take me for granted.

First, they haven't produced "Game of the Week" since the end of the 2008-2009 season.  The last "Game of the Week" was the Super Bowl between the Steelers and Cardinals.  Its now been a season and a half with no new features.  My only guess at the reason is the death of narrator Harry Kalas in April 2009.  Harry's death was a loss for all of us, but surely the show must go on, right?

Another thing which is bad may not be related to NFL Films directly, but is related to the NFL and how it handles its video content.  For some reason the NFL has ceased to create self contained highlight videos during this season.  These are videos of a game which show only highlights coupled with the radio calls of the given team making the highlight, which no studio input or outside narration.  They would always be listed simply, with a title like "Chargers 21, Raiders 14". Now for some reason this practice has stopped, which is really a pain because the only way to try and get a full video of highlights is through a recap show.  That can be fine sometimes, but its far from perfect. I've seen them do highlights for a game where 40+ points were scored, and the whole reel consisted of one play and lasted less than 30 seconds.  That's hardly what I'd call full coverage.

So what's the deal?  Where are our highlights?

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Tonight I went to a dumpy little pizza place to get a sandwich.  This particular place is really basic, they appear to have only like 5 items, all with big pictures on the board.  It only looks like there are 2 types of pizza, cheese and a different type of cheese, and everything comes with a flat fountain drink and costs a nice round number, like $5 or $6.  No separate tax calculation or anything too complicated.

But they do make a good meatball sandwich.

Anyway, I got said sandwich and the fountain drink it comes with, and before I had said anything the cashier was packing it all up to go.  It was at this point I realized there was no one dining in, every one of the few customers in the store was getting their food to go. And its not a small place, there is plenty of seating.

But the funniest thing is that the cashier proceeded to put the top on my drink and then put it directly into the paper bag, next to the sandwich.  I'd never seen this done before, mostly because its crazy and just asking for a spill.  But the whole experience seemed to imply strongly that they didn't want anyone hanging around to, you know, eat their food.

The name of this establishment?  "Family Affair".

I'm pretty sure that place is a front.

Election Fever: the Recovery

We had an election this week.  An election which proceeded normally by most measures, and was strange by others.  We knew from lunch time on 1/20/2009 that the President's party was going to lose seats in the midterms, we just didn't know how many. 

If you had told me a year ago (or 6 months ago, or whenever), that the Republicans would win 60+ seats, I would have thought it possible.  If you had told me that Harry Reid would be reelected to his Senate seat, I would be skeptical, but allowed that it, too, was possible.  Now, if you had told me that both of these things would happen on the same day, I would have thought you were nuts.  I would have gladly taken your money and given you good odds against it, and today I would be much lighter in the wallet as a result of my hubris.  The only consolation I take is knowing that I wouldn't be the only prognosticator who would have been so very wrong. 

There were a few things that salvaged this from being a complete fucking disaster.  Thankfully, Sharron Angle was defeated.  I'm also thankful that O'Donnell was defeated, but that was a sure thing, while Angle looked to be on her way to Washington. And that wouldn't have been good, because Sharron Angle is a crazy person.

Let me say that again, because it brings a certain type of catharsis: Sharron Angle is a crazy person.

In my own home state we cut our typical, slightly right of center swath through a series of ballot measures.  No (legal) pot parties for now. No taxes to pay for state parks. No new taxes at all actually.  But at the same time our voters were clearheaded enough to see through a ballot measure which I'm pretty sure was written on the Koch family stationary, and we also introduced a mild bit of sanity into our government with the passage of prop 25. So overall I'd give us a B-, thought I fear that we've just kicked the can down the road again, and we are running out of road.

There was a lot to be upset about, but I wasn't.  Truth be told, there was only one thing which really got on my nerves.  Not the outcome.  Not the endless, boring analysis and hand wringing from the chattering class, which appears to be the only growth industry in America right now.

No, the thing which really got me steamed was a segment on ABC nightly news (I know, I know) the day after, talking about soon to be Speaker Boehner.  The soft focus was in full effect, and they opened the piece with a "But who is this new man, chosen to lead the House?"

John Boehner has been in Congress for twenty goddamn years.  He was already Majority Leader, and he has been Minority Leader for 4 years. There isn't a big mystery here.  But, sadly, there is.  Because I soon realized that most of the people watching this segment were probably getting introduced to the Tan Man for the first time ever, and it made me feel sad.  And angry.  And pasty.

Its not even about Boehner.  I don't loathe him a tenth as much as I loathe many of his minions, soon free to roam the House at will and sit in the big boy chairs.  Bachmann.  Barton.  Issa.  King. The other King, who has the same name and looks a lot like the other, other King but isn't him.   Boehner is downright lovable by comparison.  But the Boehner piece made me realize that if people can't even be bothered to learn who he is, what chance do the rest of them have of being exposed as the monsters they are?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Meat and Potatoes

There's a new show on Food Network, called "Meat and Potatoes".

I actually watched (sort of) what I think is the first episode of it.  I say sort of because I had it on the TV with no sound, looking over intermittently while working on the computer.  From what I could tell, the show involves one shot of meats in various forms after another.  First there was some grilled chicken.  Then some steaks. Then some ribs. Then what looked like rack of lamb.  All these foodstuffs seemed to be added, one by one, onto a platter over the course of the show.  At one point there was some sauce.  There was also some bald guy who occasionally took a bite of the various cooked meats on display.  There was a short 

From my brief, muted viewing of the show, "Meat and Potatoes" looks tasty, especially since it looks heavy on the former and light on the latter.  But I'm not sure I see the point.  It looked like an even more generic version of "Triple D" or something like that.  Most of the travel/food shows showcase things that are interesting or unique: giant food, crazy food, "The Best Thing I Ever Ate", etc.  This didn't seem to have any particular angle, at least that I could discern without the sound.

Oh well. I doubt I'll watch again, especially since the next episode is likely to balance things out with a heavy dose of spuds.

Just in Time!

Today in the mail I got a magazine style bit of campaign literature.  It outlines all the ways in which Jerry Brown is the devil incarnate, and all the ways in which Meg Whitman would be the best thing to happen to California since the founding of In-n-Out.  It looks fairly well put together and must have cost a pretty penny to create and mail out to millions of potential voters.  No doubt it was paid for out of the record setting $190 million dollars Whitman spent on here own campaign, the most private money spent by any candidate for any office ever in history.

The election was two days ago.

I'm an absentee voter, so my ballot was filled out two weeks ago.

Maybe next time spend enough money to mail out your campaign pitch to people while they still have time to vote.  Mailing it early might not change anyone's mind, but I can guarantee that this magazine can't possibly effect my vote now.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A plea

Tonight's Chalie Rose featured two brilliant sages offering their insights on the election: David Brooks and Chris Mathews.

Shoot me.  Right in the head.