Thursday, March 31, 2011

Limitless

[Duh, spoiler alert]

The movie irritated me for a lot of reasons. It continues a trend I've noticed with surprising frequency lately, which is for films to set up a morality tale or tragic hero, and then fail to pull the trigger on them in the climax, instead spinning some wildly improbable sequence that saves the protagonist at the clutch moment and completely undercuts the rest of the story. This is a story about cheating, right? About performance-enhancing drugs?

But the truth is I wanted Eddie Morra, the protagonist, to die for reasons beyond simply fulfilling an anti-drug morality tale. Eddie isn't a sympathetic character; he's a narcissistic asshole who uses everyone he knows but never gives anything back. The beginning of the film establishes that he's supporting his failing writer lifestyle mainly by using his girlfriend as a "maid" and a "bank." When he gets his hands on NZT, his miracle drug, instead of trying to better humankind or repay all the people he's been leeching on for the last 20 years or even just furthering his art form by becoming a great writer, he tosses aside all that writer-ly philosophizing for the lifestyle of How I Met Your Mother's Barney Stinson. He takes out a loan from a Russian shark and makes a boatload of cash on it, yet doesn't bother to repay the loan for reasons that are left unexplained. He meets his ex-wife, "the one that got away," only to discover that NZT destroyed her life. While he commiserates with her at a diner for all of 10 minutes, he never lifts a finger to help her despite already being stupidly rich by this point. She exists only to warn him of the hazards of the drug, apparently.

Instead, he uses his newfound super-smarts to charm his way back into his girlfriend's heart, but continues to engage in 18 hour benders complete with disappearing for entire nights and nailing multitudes of underwear models on the side. Funny story: one of those models ends up dead in his hotel room that night, and he has no memory of the night's events since fugue is apparently a side effect of the drug. He wonders if he killed her, the cops believe he did, and indeed he may well have, but that little incident is never resolved either way. Over the rest of the movie, he leaves a trail of corpses including his own two bodyguards, puts his girlfriend in mortal danger and forces her to take NZT, and almost certainly destroys the career of the guy at the day-trading agency who stuck his neck out to get him an interview with the head of the company.

In the end, he pays for none of these transgressions and feels no regrets. He's even running for Senate and still enjoying his money, his girlfriend, and some residual enhancement from his NZT-popping days. How lovely for him.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

veggie burgers

It's cool to see that veggie burgers are finally coming into their own, at least in NYC restaurants. As someone who does a lot of cooking out in the summer for people with varying diets, I've always found veggie burgers frustrating. Smart dogs are a perfectly fine substitute for the run o' the mill frankfurter, since hot dogs rely so heavily on strong condiments to deliver their flavor. I have several flashy recipes handy for making the vegetarians feel at home when I make more "serious" entrees, like brisket or pork tenderloin. When I go ethnic, there's always a variety of delicious vegetarian entrees at my disposal.

But veggie burgers, sigh. I have yet to find a veggie burger recipe that compares at all favorably to even the most boring, store-bought beef patty, certainly none that can be prepared economically and in a timely fashion. There are one or two palatable premade options availabe, but that means having fresh, homemade, juicy burgers for the meat eaters and the same frozen, manufactured patties for the vegetarians that they've eaten a hundred times. A grill may work magic with beef, but it's helpless against the mighty mediocrity of the Gardenburger.

I've been thinking about what my next grill project should be this summer after mostly successful forays into brisket, fajitas, and ribs. Perhaps I should consider veggie burger options. I'm intrigued by one of the burgers in the article that's basically a wide, thin felafel. Portabellas make a great sandwich, but I make the same stock version of them every time. I've never really experimented with them specifically as a burger filler. Potato pancake? Hmm, an interesting beginning...

Other ideas?

EDIT: Fixed the link and formatting weirdness. My bad.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

balls

In other news, apparently the Serious People on the TV and internet have decided that the gender of Obama's advisors is relevant to discussion of his handling of the Libya situation. This is because our media is run by high school students.

Libya

I'm of two minds about our new incursion against Qaddafi, personally. One sympathizes with the rebels and would absolutely love to see a monster like Qaddafi driven from power. Furthermore, Clinton (I believe) claims that what really struck Obama about the no-fly zone was the opportunity to reorient American foreign policy in the Middle East to take more account of human rights abuses and take a step away from CIA-backed client states and toward support of democratic reform. That end, I think, is unimpeachable.

The problem, however, is in the means. First and foremost, as I've said for years, I believe peace is underrated in America. There is a general lack of recognition of the costs of war and of the difficulty of leashing "dogs of war" already loosed.

More specific to this situation, I have little confidence either that the limits of our intrusion were sufficiently spelled out, or that all the likely outcomes were considered. Can we be confident that our military will leave once "Qaddafi stops firing on his own people" even if it becomes clear that he will stay in power? If he is toppled and replaced by another dictator? Can we prevent this spectacle from providing autocrats in Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere the cover they need to fire on their own protesters?

If nothing else, Libya has given us an opportunity to discuss a particular problem with our status as the "world's police." On Saturday night the BBC was talking with an American pundit about the degree to which this was truly an international coalition vs. just another American intervention. He answered with an interesting point: to an extent every multi-partner intervention is an American-led one, not because America is more meddlesome or bellicose than other nations (though we might be) but because we have the only military force on the planet with the necessary infrastructure to manage a full-scale aerial and maritime force of any real size.

That is an astonishing statement. This was a war that Europe, and to some degree the Arab League, wanted, that Sarkozy went to the mat for. It has official UN sanction. In fact, most of the air "sorties" are now supposedly conducted by non-US actors according to NPR this morning. Even in this Europe-"led" UN humanitarian effort, however, they had to rely on our navy to control logistics and our planes to do some initial bombing while they got their ducks in a row. Yet neither the United Nations nor the "first world" have to contribute a single euro, yen, or loony to the upkeep of the obscenely oversized military apparatus that's busting the American budget and hardening our people to the sight of violence and suffering. Nor can we forget the disproportionate cost in blood that the United States also pays.

Those who believe that down the path of world military supremacy lies madness, that waging an arms race with the entire world is a fool's game, would do well to remember that if they ever succeed, it will be not with the support of the developed world, but over its protests.

Monday, March 14, 2011

whites flying in, whites flying out

TNC's doing a nice series on Detroit and white flight.

Probably not a profound thought, but talking with Sap the other day, I was stricken by the catch-22 we're stuck in when it comes to buying a house. Being white, educated middle class (barely) people, if we buy in the city, we're immediately guilty of participating in gentrification. If we buy in the suburbs, we're participating in white flight.

Friday, March 11, 2011

war is always the answer

Josh Marshall:
I sit at my desk every morning listening to the sounds of cable television in the air. Now a lot of it is about Libya. And I'm just blown away by the constant, almost unanimous chorus in favor of some sort of active, military involvement in the country. At this moment, I'm listening to some person say that it just doesn't make sense -- that it's inconsistent -- for the President to announce that it is our national policy that Qaddafi should leave and yet not take military steps to make that happen. I've also heard numerous voices arguing that we 'didn't act' in the Balkans and then didn't act in Rwanda and that we should not make the same mistake today.

This is a wildly different standard for military action than we've ever heard before, even in an era where our interventions have become much more frequent and when they've often been wise and necessary.

"Wise and necessary?" Really? Even if we allow that the "era" he's describing covers the entire post-WWII period, I can think of the following military engagements off the top of my head:
Korea
Cuba (Bay of Pigs)
Vietnam
Lebanon
Granada
Nicaragua (Iran-Contra)
Panama
Iraq
Somalia
Haiti
Bosnia
Kosovo
Afghanistan
Iraq

How many of those were "wise and necessary?" Half? I very much doubt it.

That, by the way, is 14 wars over 60 years, roughly one war every 4.2 years, and a nearly constant state of war since the Carter Administration.

I offer that quibble about a post I otherwise very much agree with because I think it shows the level to which even Josh Marshall has internalized the ever-present drumbeat of war in the United States press. I call it "ever-present" because, frankly, it is. It seems like very time any attention is given to any kind of crisis in another country, an army of pro-war talking heads takes to the airwaves with the same message:
"Of course nobody "wants" war, but this time it's our moral imperative! We can't just leave them on their own! Their leader is a madman! History has taught us that we should always go to war in this situation! Dulce et decorum est! Cry havoc! For Gondor!"

And we usually go to war when this happens, which is all the time (or apparently every 4.2 years). Not only do we usually go to war, but after we go, people are shocked to find out that:

  1. our soldiers are not, in fact, bulletproof ninja superheroes, and tend to die or get horribly injured when people shoot them. Also, they're not robots: being shot at and seeing people blown to bits and/or splattered all over the pavement often screws them up psychologically

  2. all that shit we outfit them with and all those warplanes and missiles and tanks and subs cost a boatload of cash

  3. all those freedom bombs we drop on the other country kill an absolute shit-ton of innocent people

  4. the "happily ever after" story we go in there gunning for never seems to work out

  5. it's much, much harder to end a war than begin one because politicians and really suck at avoiding the "sunk costs" fallacy. No matter how bad things look, they always think they can make up for it if they just up the ante [again].


And yet there's nary a pro-peace talking head to be seen, ever. I'm afraid, contra Josh, now is decidedly not different from the norm.

returning to "the South"

Very interesting post from TNC on the sizable and increasing immigration of blacks back to the South and how it is and is not a mirror image of the Great Migration.

Also interesting is the response from readers to some of the places named. Apparently there was some dispute as to whether eastern Maryland counts as "the South," and Matt Yglesias questioned the southern bonafides of Miami, and the inclusion of Texas as a "historic African American population center."

Any attempt to define the boundaries of an area steeped in mythology and wrapped up in political/historical baggage is almost inevitably going to prove difficult. I remember very recently being part of a discussion of "the West" that quickly ran aground when someone asked what states qualify. Is it just the west coast and Rocky Mountain states? What about New Mexico? What about Texas, which is a "southern" state but is nevertheless wrapped up in all the mythology of the West? What about the Great Plains states west of Iowa and Missouri? Surely they aren't "Midwest," right?

Similarly goes the problem of classing states as within or outside of "the South." Is the South essentially the states that had not abolished slavery by 1860? If so, we'd have to include Delaware, and possibly Missouri. Here's one that starts a lot of arguments: is it the states of the old Confederacy? That would exclude Maryland and muddy the cases of Kentucky and Missouri, two states with conflicted populations that enjoyed representation in both the Union and Confederate Congresses.

Is it a question divorced from history, and more about current tendencies in politics, food, sports, accent, and religion? This is the basis by which people vote Florida out of the Confederacy and question the southern pedigree of places like Research Triangle, Atlanta, and Northern Virginia (and by "northern Virginia" we of course mean "most of Virginia"). But hold on: if we're talking about areas full of socially conservative evangelicals who eat a lot of BBQ, watch football, and say "y'all," not only must we include Missouri, but also Oklahoma! And probably Kansas! And New Mexico! And maybe southern Ohio and Pennsyltucky!

I also question whether a place stops being "southern" just because it undergoes cultural and demographic shifts, even significant ones. Miami may have seen a major influx of New Yorkers and Cubans and Midwestern snow bunnies, but are they not allowed to be southern? What, a group of people can move to New York and within a generation or two be "New Yorkers," but they're forever black-balled from the southern club? What about all the people in Miami who are the descendants of slaves and slaveholders? Did they stop being Southern when their Yankee neighbors moved in?

And if the majority of Chicago's south side came during the Great Migration, does that mean the south now includes that part of Chicago?

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

the death of the arcade

A fun little blog post on the reasons behind the disappearance of the penny arcade. The thesis:
It all came down to the quarter [video game expert Mark] Cerny said. Arcade games had to squeeze enough money out of people to be worthwhile for arcade owners and game makers. But they also had to deliver enough play time to make it worth while for gamers to drop in their money. ... What remains today, Cerny says, is Japan as the single shelter for arcade gaming. And that boils down to their 100 Yen coin.

Of course, not everyone agrees, pointing to consoles, the internet, the existence of the coin loony in Canada (and yet, no more arcades), and LAN parties.

I was a huge video game fanatic from the late Atari through the early N64 years, and I have my own theory to add to the mix: console/pc technology eventually allowed home games to do things you can't do in the arcade model, and those new, irreplicable functionalities became ubiquitous in video games.

Consider, for instance, the first Nintendo. When it released with Super Mario Bros., there was also an arcade version of that game with slightly better graphics, as had happened with Galaga and Pac Man on the Atari. Same thing with ExciteBike and other sports games. I suspect this was an intentional arrangement so video game makers could keep both revenue streams going, and it was the model for a long time.

Then Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda and Metroid. These games were distinct from their predecessors in that they used methods of saving and recalling progress to allow a player to navigate a huge map incrementally over time. These two games felt bigger and more immersive than anything else that had yet come out, and they became two of the biggest selling, most popular franchises in the history of video games.

And the arcade was utterly locked out.

You may remember, then, that the arcade adapted, focusing on the things it could offer, specifically having lots of people in one place and having the space and equipment to house elaborate setups. Thus, arcades around the country stocked up on competitive fighting games (Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat), 4 person cooperative short adventure games (The Simpsons, X-Men), and simulators (Cruisin' USA). Meanwhile, they ceded the market for long-form adventure games and the nascent roleplaying (Final Fantasy) genre to consoles and the strategy genre (Command and Conquer) to pcs. It looked from my perspective like arcades had survived and were doing fine.

Then 64-bit systems started coming out, and it became apparent that the gap in graphics quality between arcade games and home games disappeared, and may even have inverted. Gran Tourismo was probably a more beautiful game than any arcade racing game. Golden Eye could match any arcade shooter.

Then came the advent of internet gaming. People could log into sites like Blizzard's battle.net on their computers, and then even on consoles, to play with or against other people. This new model meant that not only could people play 4 players splitting one screen like at the arcade, but one could play with any number of other players online, all having their own full screen. Competitive gamers found they could get more satisfaction from online first person shooters like Halo than from Tekken-style combat games, and the people who like 4 player cooperative play really liked the new Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs like World of Warcraft, which supports 5, 10, 25, and even 40 person cooperative play.

Thus gamers, the kind of the people who would go somewhere to blow $10 in a sitting over a couple of hours on video games, got hooked on game styles you can't replicate in an arcade setting. Look at the games people are playing now, Wow and Rifts and Call of Duty: Black Ops and Kill Zone and Dragon Age 2 and Just Dance 2. Only the last one could be feasibly rendered in an arcade setting, and you'd have to use a mat rather than the Wii controller. Also, you'd have to dance in public.

Alternatively, one could point to Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies, but you can buy those games for less than $5 on your smart phone. Who would pay to play them in an arcade?

Friday, March 04, 2011

we make great pets

An interesting pair of studies out recently on pets. In one via Discovery News, cats are found to be surprisingly good at reading, and manipulating, their owners:
The study is the first to show in detail that the dynamics underlying cat-human relationships are nearly identical to human-only bonds, with cats sometimes even becoming a furry "child" in nurturing homes.

"Food is often used as a token of affection, and the ways that cats and humans relate to food are similar in nature to the interactions seen between the human caregiver and the pre-verbal infant," co-author Jon Day, a Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition researcher, told Discovery News. "Both cat and human infant are, at least in part, in control of when and what they are fed!"

For the study, led by Kurt Kotrschal of the Konrad Lorenz Research Station and the University of Vienna, the researchers videotaped and later analyzed interactions between 41 cats and their owners over lengthy four-part periods. Each and every behavior of both the cat and owner was noted. Owner and cat personalities were also assessed in a separate test. For the cat assessment, the authors placed a stuffed owl toy with large glass eyes on a floor so the feline would encounter it by surprise.

The researchers determined that cats and their owners strongly influenced each other, such that they were each often controlling the other's behaviors. Extroverted women with young, active cats enjoyed the greatest synchronicity, with cats in these relationships only having to use subtle cues, such as a single upright tail move, to signal desire for friendly contact.

Then, in a separate study, researchers found that drug-sniffing dogs are not nearly as effective as believed. Often what the dogs are actually responding to is the subtle social cues of their masters. In fact, according to the study, dogs are more likely to get a false positive because of the owner's hunch even than because of the scent of sausage furtively left on a mark!

It is amazing how well we have molded cats and dogs for human companionship. On the other hand, it may be even more interesting how they have molded us. Take this article, for example:
Dogs, cats, cows and other domesticated animals played a key role in human evolution, according to a theory being published by paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman of Penn State University.

The uniquely human habit of taking in and employing animals -- even competitors like wolves -- spurred on human tool-making and language, which have both driven humanity's success, Shipman says.
...
Dogs, for instance, might have have been selectively taken in by humans who shared genes for more compassion. Those humans then prospered -- a.k.a. reproduced -- with the dogs' help in hunting and securing their homes.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear to researchers yet, dogs and cats also reduce their humans' blood pressure, and do so even more effectively than blood pressure medication.

NFL lockout

A very nice writeup here of some helpful facts about the lockout, such as what the sticking points are and what will happen to the players, the draft, etc. if the lockout happens.

Charlie Sheen's a winner. Also, a hitter.

I don't know if Sheen's televised meltdown is the product of a bender or just an act. I don't know if he means the things he's saying. I don't know if this means he's through with TV, or TV's through with him, or if he'll be bigger than ever this time next year.

What I do know, and what's been lost in all the hubbub, and what we all need to remember before we become half-ironic fans of Charlie Sheen, is that he's a serial abuser of women:
In 1990, he accidentally shot his fiancĂ©e at the time, the actress Kelly Preston, in the arm. (The engagement ended soon after.) In 1994 he was sued by a college student who alleged that he struck her in the head after she declined to have sex with him. (The case was settled out of court.) Two years later, a sex film actress, Brittany Ashland, said she had been thrown to the floor of Mr. Sheen’s Los Angeles house during a fight. (He pleaded no contest and paid a fine.)

In 2006, his wife at the time, the actress Denise Richards, filed a restraining order against him, saying Mr. Sheen had shoved and threatened to kill her. In December 2009, Mr. Sheen’s third wife, Brooke Mueller, a real-estate executive, called 911 after Mr. Sheen held a knife to her throat. (He pleaded guilty and was placed on probation.) Last October, another actress in sex films, Capri Anderson, locked herself in a Plaza Hotel bathroom after Mr. Sheen went on a rampage. (Ms. Anderson filed a criminal complaint but no arrest was made.) And on Tuesday, Ms. Mueller requested a temporary restraining order against her former husband, alleging that he had threatened to cut her head off, “put it in a box and send it to your mom.” (The order was granted, and the couple’s twin sons were quickly removed from his home.)

So no, I won't be putting him on my Twitter feed, thanks.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

McDonald's oatmeal

A surprisingly lively internet discussion has arisen from NYT food columnist (and author of the virtually comprehensive reference book How to Cook Everything) Mark Bittman's latest article on McDonald's new offering of oatmeal. Bittman, whose column is called "The Minimalist," is unimpressed:
The oatmeal and McDonald’s story broke late last year, when Mickey D’s, in its ongoing effort to tell us that it’s offering “a selection of balanced choices” (and to keep in step with arch-rival Starbucks) began to sell the cereal. Yet in typical McDonald’s fashion, the company is doing everything it can to turn oatmeal into yet another bad choice.
...
The aspect one cannot argue is nutrition: Incredibly, the McDonald’s product contains more sugar than a Snickers bar and only 10 fewer calories than a McDonald’s cheeseburger or Egg McMuffin. (Even without the brown sugar it has more calories than a McDonald’s hamburger.)

Several people from my side of the aisle have surprisingly taken aim at Bittman's characterization of the nutritional issue, most notably Adam Serwer, who points out that at 290 calories McDonald's oatmeal isn't actually that bad on its own.

Here's McDonald's nutritional information chart. I'll point out that the oatmeal also has 5g of fiber. It would cost 5 points on the old Weight Watchers system, for those of you familiar with it. I find it useful because it considers calories, fat content, and fiber. 5 points for breakfast isn't bad. It's less than the whole wheat English muffin, egg, and tablespoon or 2 of cheese I normally have for breakfast (6.5 points).

Of course, the real nutritional threat of McDonald's oatmeal isn't what's in the oatmeal, but rather what's on the rest of the menu. Bittman is pretty close to the mark: in order to get the oatmeal, you have to get in line at McDonald's and then stare at a menu covered in salty, sugary, fatty decadence while listening to a parade of people ordering said decadence, at which point many people will succumb to the temptation of sausage gravy biscuits and fried hash brown disks and hammy eggs Benedict muffins and egg-filled, cheesy, bacon pancakewiches and whatever else they offer.

There's a reason every diet begins with cleaning out your kitchen and every "stop smoking" strategy involves no longer hanging out with your smoking friends. Willpower is not an infinite resource, and if you're faced with the choice your brain is hard-wired to prefer over and over again, you will not make the right decision 100% of the time. And of course, every bad choice makes it much more likely that you'll make that choice again.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

from first responders to welfare queens

Ohio police and firefighters are learning a hard lesson this week about the loyalty of the Republican party toward its non-upper-crust supporters.

There's a reason your union predecessors sided with the Democrats, guys. The Republicans may love getting your votes, but there's no room for you at their table. It's the bosses' party, the party of the powerful and no one else. They've never made a secret of it, and you won't get any table scraps because you were their useful idiot.

What, you think your union is different to them? You think they give a shit about you because you protect their homes?

It's interesting how race has warped so many electoral dynamics in this country. Minorities and police, in particular, consider themselves at odds politically. And yet, viewed through an economic lens, it's clear that the Republican party is almost as implacably hostile to public, unionized employees like police as they are to black people and immigrants.

EDIT: Having slept on it, I don't actually think that last paragraph is true.