Thursday, September 23, 2010

Civility for thee but not for me

On the Sojourners blog, Jim Wallis has posted his semi-annual call for truth and civility, where he decries the foul state of political discourse and (as always) credits his own efforts to be civil and truthy.

Here is the cover of this month's issue of Sojourners Magazine.



Per the cover story, Glenn Beck hates community organizers because "they upend the power structure to give people at the bottom a better chance."

Say what you will about Beck (I do not understand the appeal), I am certain that he does not "hate" community organizers because they "upend power structures" and "help churches work for justice". To suggest as much is manifestly dishonest and uncivil.

To which, why is it that the loudest voices calling for civility seldom practice what they preach? Because of the way civility is perceived.

In short, civility doesn't really matter. There is no advantage to be gained by being civil. It won't get you a promotion, or get you into a good school, or win you friends, or make you famous.
Neither is there a religious compunction toward civility. Jesus wasn't civil. Neither was Paul. The old testament, what with the babies being dashed across rocks, isn't civil, so that takes the Jews out of the equation. The Koran? My goodness.

Of course, nobody wants to go out of their way to be UNcivil. Nobody likes a jerk, and everyone likes the idea of civility, even if they do not wish to practice it.

This is especially true in politics. People want the appearance of civility, but do not feel compelled to be civil when it comes to their own beliefs.

In politics, the call to civility is a bludgeon. Jim Wallis calls for civility because it allows him to make the case that he is civil, and to imply Republicans are not.

The charge of incivility has morphed into an epithet, a way of dismissing valid ideas and contributions. The irony explains why those who call for civility are so infrequently civil themselves.

Bugger that; it's a trap. I'll not take moral lessons from moralists. Give me someone who is forthright and sincere, and leave the self-righteous preening about civility to the pots and the kettles.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Democratic Story

Over at Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight, one of the more genuinely intellectually honest Christian Democrats out there, declares that the Democrats have no story. I think he's right, and that's astounding, considering the man they elected as president.

Unlike Republicans, Democrats require a strong storyline. After all, they favor bold political solutions that require sacrifices from the voter. Republicans have the easy task of yelling "stop!". Suffices to say, stop is the zeitgeist.

For Democrats, this is all a bit tricky. Whereas conservatives dominate the Republican party, the ideological base of the Democratic party is smaller. A leaner percentage of Democrats identify as liberals. As such, what one segment of the party might find to be a compelling narrative might be anathema to the other.

The most effective compromise has been thus. First, spin the narrative of competence (e.g. Obama's "car in the ditch" scenario) that appeals to the less ideological wing of the party, as well as independents, while banking on the reliability of the liberal vote.

Second, champion personal autonomy and personal freedom. Standing up to big business and embracing individual liberties and civil rights keeps the liberals in line, without alienating independents.

Just about everyone on both sides of the aisle (except me) expected Obama to project competence. His cool demeanor and confident cadence seemed to portend to a statesmanship that never materialized.

Part of the problem is that Obama hasn't picked his battles. He went out of his way to throw himself in front of the BP oil spill for some reason. He used his most important presser on the health care debate to opine on a police controversy in Cambridge.

He has repeatedly placed rhetorical bets on an imminent recovery (8.5%, Recovery Summer) that has yet to materialize. It's tough to be seen as competent when you are so frequently wrong.

On the liberty and autonomy, it's safe to say Democrats have lost control of the narrative. Part of this is circumstantial. Gay marriage has been established as the next frontier of civil rights advocacy. However, voters in all states have roundly rejected the right for homosexuals to marry.

The autonomy argument, the vehicle by which Democrats have found themselves so frequently on the right side of history, holds no sway. This isn't about where one may sit on a bus. The institution of marriage is, by definition, a governmental imposition. There is no inherent right to marry (not least of which because marriage entails consent), and so the autonomy argument is unpersuasive.

Congress made a big show of tsk-tsking Goldman Sachs in a very public hearing, only to follow up with toothless legislation drafted by former, um, Goldman Sachs execs. Credit Republicans for getting their heads out of their asses and making the case that expanded government entails expanded influence of industry, but why did the Democrats let them beat them to the punch.

Here as well, Obama hasn't selected his battles wisely. His position on the Ground Zero mosque required Americans to abandon what they perceive to be common sense. The Boston cops thing was an unnecessarily public serving of red meat to the liberal base.

And who was asking for a bailout of Chrysler?

He has also missed opportunities. One of the biggest surefire political winners of this generation is childhood obesity. Yet, Obama outsourced the issue to the wifey. Why not use this as an opportunity to wage war against Monsanto, one of the most manifestly despicable companies in the world, thereby tying together the narratives of competence and liberty, all in the name of the CHILLLLLLDDDDREEENNNNNN!!!!!!!

Blanche Lincoln is on the Ag committee. That's why. Hardly seems worth it.

Why not use the power of government to pursue fraudulent lenders, most of whom continue to pollute the housing market with toxic loans? Establish law and order! Help struggling homeowners!

Chris Dodd.

So instead of pursuing a moderate agenda, that would have laid the framework for a bigger push toward, say, health care reform, the Barack Obama deferred to Congress, which mortgaged the farm to bail out members of congress who won't be around next year anyway.

To his credit, Scot McKnight urges Democrats to stop going after Republicans. After the way the last 18 months have gone, I can't believe this even needs to be said.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Monday Musings: Fall Edition

No blogs last week! Everyone died. No readers left. Let's muse.

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Watched Avatar this weekend. So many questions.

First, why did this movie need to be nearly three hours long? What happened in that plot that could not have been communicated in 90 minutes?

Second, if you are going to spend 10 years making a movie, why allow dialogue like "we're not in Kansas anymore!".

Third, why didn't Sigourney Weaver just rewrite the damn screenplay herself? Heck, they could have just filmed her doing it, in Avatar form. Clearly, audiences did not give a damn what was happening on the screen anyway. Just put a pink mushroom behind her or something.

What an awful film. My wife fell asleep halfway through. Thanks for the backup, honey.

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We are both thankful that we didn't piss away $26 to see it in the theaters. That said, wouldn't you pay $26 (or $13 per person) to get three hours of your life back? What was the opportunity cost of a family of four watching this movie? $200?

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Speaking of opportunity costs, the Tea Party of Delaware decided to elect Christine O'Donnell. About which, some thoughts:

1) I worry that the Tea Party has become less about ideology than about revolution. Instead of promoting conservatism, the movement has become more about rejecting the establishment. This, ironically is the sort of progressive (and, to use the common parlance, fascist) ideal the Tea Party claims to decry.

2) In fairness, just as the state of Delaware scarcely represents the Republic, so does a small percentage of its electorate broadly represent a movement.

3) Two things are nearly certain: Christine O'Donnell will not be the next senator from Delaware, and the press will pretend that she singularly represents the opposition to Obama's platform.

I wish her the best, but I expect the worst.

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The opposite applies to Lisa Murkowski, who has decided to mount a Quixotic write-in campaign in Alaska, having lost to Tea Party candidate Joe Miller.

Obviously, the best case scenario for her would be to, de facto, represent the Democratic party in this election. But if she gets elected, she'll be in no-man's land. I know the money is good, but is it really worth that sort of continual awkwarness?

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Since I bashed on Avatar, I do feel compelled to recommend The Road, another Oscar-hopeful that was superior on order of magnitude.

The film failed at the box office because it makes The Road Warrior seem like a light-hearted comedy*, and it failed with critics because film critics devour Cormac McCarthy novels like candy bars, and nothing can live up to the original of a Cormac McCarthy novel EVAH!!!!.

If Cormac McCarthy had written a book called Avatar, there would be no film criticism, as every brain of every film critic would have exploded in November of 2009.

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To which, my mom and I watched the Road Warrior when I was three years old. Repeatedly. I literally learned the difference between left and right by being asked to fast-forward through the rape scene. Not kidding. Maybe that's why I'm right handed.

My dad rented Fritz the Cat for me when I was nine, but I get where he was going with that one. I was as bored with it as he knew I would be.

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Enough of politics and Freud. How about food? So much to share.

I'll just note that the ethnic food scene in Minneapolis has substantially involved since the time I started this blog.

Let's start with T's place, on Lake Street, just East of the light rail. The roti prata and chicken curry should be enough to feed two, and enough to prompt you to sell yourself on the streets. That is good food. Service was slow on my visit, on account of the owner seems to be the only employee, but for that food at those prices, forget about it.

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About a year ago, the former crew at Little Szechuan in St. Paul left to form Grand Szechuan in Bloomington. Reward them by ordering some dan dan noodles and chung king chili chicken. Between this place, Evergreen, and the ever-expanding Tea House franchise, it looks like there is finally a decent Chinese food scene in our state.

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If you thought there already was a decent Chinese food scene in our state, cease reading.

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If you find yourself deep into the Exurbs (say, Lakevalley-ish), do make it a point to hit up Satay2Go. It's Malaysian, which is a hybrid of, well, just about everything that happens in Asia. The satay itself is great (it had better be), and the curry is good as well.

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Until next week, friends, ignore as many children as you possibly can.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Consumer Reports Resolves Nothing

There was a point last year when it seemed like burger joints were going to take over the world. Just last year, 243,703* new burger restaurants opened in the Twin Cities. What should diners make of all the new options?

Consumer Reports has an incoherent answer, accompanied by a graph. Let's explore.

McDonald's burgers are certainly cheap and fast, but you still might wonder why billions have been consumed when you see the results of our recent survey of 28,000 online subscribers who rated burgers at 18 fast-food restaurants.

Answer. They are accessible and dirt cheap. Next question: Why do more car buyers choose the Ford Focus over a Lexus?

Among the standouts were In-N-Out Burger and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. The biggest loser: McDonald's.

Which is weird, cause, if you go to California, literally nobody has any idea that In-N-Out is better than McDonalds. Just go ask someone in line at an In-N-Out. They'll have plenty of time to tell you.

Why was this article written, much less featured on the Yahoo! Front Page?

In-N-Out Burger, which touts its fresh ground chuck, has 247 restaurants in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Five Guys had 640 restaurants in 42 states. And McDonald's? 14,000 restaurants.

Welcome to the world of economies of scale, Mr. Feignsurprise.

We sent a reporter (not a trained taster, but he has eaten his share of burgers) to make an informal comparison of the fare at Five Guys and McDonald's. Here's what he found.

Consumer Reports "sent" a reporter to taste two burgers, out of the 18 assessed? This magazine is one of the most expensive in existence. They can't afford to ask a reporter to taste 18 burgers? Hell, I'd do it for free if it would get me on Yahoo! Front Page.


Five Guys

The regular hamburger, two 3.3-ounce griddled patties, was served well done on a lightly browned sesame-seed bun.

Translation: Two pieces of beef jerky on a donut. For my readers who prefer their meat well done, stop preferring that. Ordering something well done is asking a chef to destroy your food.

At Five Guys, the destruction is compulsory. Ick.

You can order any of 15 free toppings (the usual, plus options such as grilled mushrooms and jalapeno peppers). Bacon and cheese cost extra.

Can anyone think of 13 "usual" toppings on a burger? I'll start with tomatoes, lettuce, mayo, mustard, ketchup, onion and pickles. That leaves six more. Mushrooms and peppers are out, as are bacon and cheese. I'm at a loss. Pineapple? Nice reporting.

The patties had a bit of searing along the edges, a chewy texture (the chopped meat was fairly coarse), and a beefy flavor. They reminded our reporter of minute steak.

I would hope a well done burger would have searing along the edges, lest we conclude it was boiled and freeze-dried. But yes, minute steak, go on.

The meat was juicy but left an oily taste in his mouth.

That's what she said.

The bun was soft and spongy.

Right. Here's what happened, coming from someone who actually knows how to taste things. They fried the hell out of some disc-like burger patties, presumably mashing them to create that sizzling sound, connoting "cooking", but also sending oil lurching everywhere. They immediately plopped the patties onto wonder bread. Hence: spongy.


McDonalds

The basic burger was one 3.5-ounce patty with pickle slices, bits of chopped raw onion, and a dab of ketchup and mustard, served on a lightly browned bun.

On other words, it was the same damn thing.

The meat tasted mild and more greasy than beefy.

What does this mean? Most of the flavor of beef comes from the fat (aka grease). If anything, McDonalds patties taste salty, on account of, um, the salt. But it's the same sorta-beefy malaise used at Five Guys, I assure you.

It was easier to bite through than the Five Guys patty and was uniformly round and brownish-gray.

As opposed to what? Oblong and cyan? It's a burger. Brownish-gray comes with the territory.

The major flavor came from the toppings. The bun was airy and bland. The Five Guys burger was bigger and beefier but costs about $5, compared with $1 for McDonald's.

Based on this description, then, you are paying a 400% premium for a product that is about 15% better.

(Five Guys sells a one-patty Little Hamburger for about $3.50.)

To which, why not taste that to establish a head-to-head comparison? That would make a lot more sense.

And the meat is made to order, not in advance, so we waited 5 to 10 minutes. Our reporter couldn't get his hands on an In-N-Out burger, but readers gave it high marks.

The reporter couldn't "get his hands on" a burger from In-N-Out? Why was he writing this piece? Why write anything at all? Consumer Reports is the most useless thing in existence.

Also, on the made to order thing... When you go to a quality restaurant, and order a relatively complicated dish, especially one requiring a sauce, do you honestly think they wait until the precise moment at which you order the dish to start cooking? Like, braised short ribs only take 15-25 minutes to cook?

In other words, who cares whether something is made to order?

We asked 28,000 readers who bought any burger on their last visit to the restaurants below: On a scale of 1 to 10, from least delicious burger you've ever had to most, how would you rate that burger's taste? Differences of fewer than 0.5 points aren't meaningful.

I don't know what's more depressing: The fact that every single burger below was rated as above average, or that the chart trumps any actual reporting.

Burger Comparison Chart

I am not a professional taster either, but I can report the following:

Culvers burgers are disgusting. They also take about 45 minutes to get to your table. They are called "butter burgers", which tricks customers into thinking they are prepared a certain way. And indeed they are... Charred beyond recognition, and then held under a heat lamp for 35 minutes. If that's made to order, I'll take assembly line any day.

If the goal of any burger is not to be gray, then Fuddruckers should be at the bottom. Their patties are as gray as they come.

If "differences of fewer than 0.5 points aren't meaningful", then the fact that White Castle rates within 1.3 points of both the top and the bottom of the list should tell you something.

Hardees is the same thing as Carls Jr. And yet, people like Hardee's burgers better. Lesson: Don't trust people.

And certainly don't trust Consumer Reports. If I have found one thing over the years, it is that there is no compelling reason to purchase that magazine. I'll put it this way. They approach cars the way they approach hamburgers. Enough said.

Please do not construe this post as a defense of McDonalds. I'll say this... They do ugly cheap. That's more than can be said for Culvers.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Eugene Robinson sees toddlers everywhere

According to polls, Americans are in a mood to hold their breath until they turn blue.

What the hell does that mean?

This isn't an "electoral wave," it's a temper tantrum.

Right, just as it was in 1994, and every other time the electorate deigned to vote Republican over the advice of vapid political pundits.

It's bad enough that the Democratic Party's "favorable" rating has fallen to an abysmal 33 percent, according to a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. It's worse that the Republican Party's favorability has plunged to just 24 percent.

Eugene held his breath until he found a poll that supported the notion that citizens aren't pissed off at Democrats right now.

But incredibly, according to Gallup, registered voters say they intend to vote for Republicans over Democrats by an astounding 10-point margin.

To which, Gallup was not the polling firm used by NBC/WSJ. See how that works, Eugene? Different polls. Different results. Is this new to you?

My guess is that with a decided advantage in campaign funds, along with the other advantages of incumbency, Democrats will be able to mitigate these prospective losses

Okay, here's the thing. Eugene has written op-eds for how many years? Like, 30? He's won a Pulitzer. Is he really pretending that he doesn't know how the advantage of incumbency plays into polling numbers?

Incumbency does not "mitigate" against anything toward the end of an election cycle. The advantage of incumbency accrues to, for example, candidates who use town hall meetings to promote their achievements. As readers will recall, those town hall meetings haven't gone so well in the era of health care overhaul.

-- perhaps even relieving Nancy Pelosi of the hassles of moving.

That's a pretty incoherent aside, right there. Does he mean moving offices? Regardless of what happens in November, the Democrats would be out of their mind to keep Pelosi on as speaker.

But there's no mistaking the public mood, and the truth is that it makes no sense.

The party in power is perceived to have performed poorly. The electorate now opposes the party in power. This makes "no sense"? No sense? None at all?

In the punditry business, it's considered bad form to question the essential wisdom of the American people.

But Eugene will do it anyway, and the Washington Post will join the rest of paleomedia in lamenting their inevitable decline.

But at this point, it's impossible to ignore the obvious: The American people are acting like a bunch of spoiled brats.

This is not at all a partisan argument.

This is not, I repeat not, a partisan argument.

Of course not. Just like a tirade on a Lakers blog on poor officiating has nothing, at all, to do with the fact that the referees calls seemed to go against Kobe Bryant.

My own political leanings are well-known, but the refusal of Americans to look seriously at the nation's situation -- and its prospects -- is an equal-opportunity scourge.

No it isn't. Eugene has never admonished the electorate for opposing Republicans. Ever. Not once.

The nation demands the impossible: quick, painless solutions to long-term, structural problems.

No. People like Eugene claim that government can provide solutions to problems quickly and painlessly.

In fact, just two weeks ago, Eugene claimed that Obama was on a winning streak, having quickly and peacefully ended the Iraq war, single-handedly saved GM. The only think the president hasn't done, per Eugene, is "walk on water".

But the American people don't want to hear any of this. They want somebody to make it all better. Now.

And so they elected Obama over the more pragmatic McCain. Obama promised change and hope NOW. Was Eugene there to call him out on his bullshit? No he was not.

President Obama can point to any number of occasions on which he has told Americans that getting our nation back on track is a long-range project.

And so Euguene will follow with a specific example of his having done so...

But his campaign stump speech ended with the exhortation, "Let's go change the world" -- not, "Let's go change the world slowly and incrementally, waiting years before we see the fruits of our labor."

In other words, Obama promised quick-fixes, and not so much long-range solutions.

And one thing he really hasn't done is frame the hard work that lies ahead as a national crusade that will require a degree of sacrifice from every one of us.

I, for one, certainly hope he does. That said, this is where the administration is heading, isn't it? To the same frustration with an American populace that refuses to sacrifice for the agenda of a noble leader. For how much longer can Barack Obama contain his contempt?

It's obvious, for example, that the solution to our economic woes is not just to reinflate the housing bubble.

Yeah. It might have been nice, though, if he had addressed the housing crisis in some substantial way. I mean, and I'm just throwing a fit here, but how about actually allocating some dollars to actually refinancing home loans, rather than throwing billions at the makers of poorly constructed automobiles? How about prosecuting the fraudulent mortgage lenders who put us in this mess?

I know. I'm just stomping my feet here. What I should expect is that my government take my money and do nothing with it. I should be happy with that result.

I don't want to pay more to fill my gas tank, but I know that it would be good for the nation if I did.

A rudimentary study of this issue, through the lens of mathematics and economics, suggests it will not be. But again, I'm on the floor, in my pajamas, screaming at the top of my lungs because I did not get my toy... Which, again, the toy being the application of environmental policy through the lens of mathematics and economics.

The richest Americans need to pay higher taxes -- not because they're bad people who deserve to be punished but because they earn a much bigger share of the nation's income, and hold a bigger share of its overall wealth.

This is so stupid, it practically drools. The richest Americans already do pay higher taxes (almost all of them, in fact), on account of their possession of the bigger share of the nation's income. Acknowledging this fact does not constitute throwing a temper tantrum.

Think of what the interstate highway system has meant to this country. Now imagine trying to build it today.

The hell?

Fixing Social Security for future generations, working steadily to improve the schools, charting a reasonable path on immigration -- none of this is what the American people want to hear.

No, that's exactly what Americans want to hear. At some point, however, you have to actually do it. Else, we Americans throw, as you call it, a tantrum.

It's easy to blame politicians for selling a bunch of snake oil. But the truth is that all they're doing is offering what the public wants to buy.

So, the Democrats have sold us snake oil, and it is flatly ridiculous that we aren't happy with it. The solution, then, is to buy more snake oil, lest we be deemed children by the pundits.

How stupid does he think we are?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Happy 5th birthday TPWK



Did you think I forgot about you? Not you, readers... Go away. This is between me and my blog...

Look, baby, we had to cover the state fair. You know how we like to do that together...

Don't look at me like that. Yes, I know the state fair always gets in the way of your birthday. What do you want me to do? Ask the State Fair Jedi people to change it?

Okay, I meant that rhetorically. You can't really think I could...

I am not underestimating you. I didn't get that you were joking. I can't tell by your tone sometimes.

Look, do you want your gift or not? Okay... Close your eyes. I wanted to get you something that would aptly summarize everything this our relationship represents.

Got 'em closed??



Isn't it perfect? Happy 5.0, The Problem With Kevin