Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

Month: June 2012

I Saw the President, But I Still Don’t Quite Believe He’s Real

I have never really believed in the corporeal reality of the President. As a child, I knew that the President was real in theory, but it was an awfully abstract concept: a single person wielding the power to destroy the world in a small black briefcase carried by a beefy Secret Service agent was almost too much to buy. I have always felt a curious desire to personally view the President to assure myself this isn’t all some sort of bizarre collective ruse.

This is what happened today, at least at a distance, as I walked to the White House in lieu of anything better to do. I soon noticed that sweaty-looking security guards on bicycles had blocked off the motorway in front of the South Lawn and were dutifully herding tourists away from the fences that designated the safe-zone.

“What’s going on?” I asked a few people.

“I’m not at liberty to say,” the security guard said. Tourists wondered outloud. I typed “Where The Hell is the President” into my iPhone, pulled up the White House website, and discovered that Obama was due to fly back to the homestead from a jaunt to Baltimore around 4:30 PM. Intensive secrecy is, apparently, easily resolved by an iPhone. 

I decided that now was my chance to resolve my life-long concerns about the physical reality of the President, as 4:30 wasn’t that far away and I really had nothing to do other than amble around in circles in front of iconic national monuments – bonus points if I avoided stepping on the lawns’ many hyperactive bees. I remained.

Watching people watch the White House is an interesting thing. There are foreigners, lots of them: people speaking in Korean, Arabic, Bahasa Indonesian, French, and Spanish, crowding around the White House and chattering to each other in excited tones about, well, whatever foreigners say about the White House. (I suspect quite a bit of it wasn’t anything good). It seems when you visit America, you need at least one picture of you making duck-face in front of the seat of world power to prove you were there.

There are the US natives, of course, who amble up to the White House with their ever-shrinking cameras, intent at taking a photo of their kid pretending to squash the Washington Monument with their hands , or of the whole family clutching each other in a somewhat forced fashion in front of the South Lawn.

The Americans stare at the White House with curiosity and with a bit of skepticism, for many: it is vacation season and certainly many people hailing from non-coastal enclaves have found themselves here, gazing at the abode of what talk-show pundits they like to listen to on their morning commute might deem a Den of Ultimate Satanic Power. The President was of course expected in a few minutes, rocking up with his briefcase and his helicopter and his very-newly passed socialist healthcare bill and his displeasingly exotic-sounding given name: what were these people thinking about this, anyway?

A fat, heavily sweating man in a trucker cap wandered by the shifting line of tourists with his equally fat children. He ignored the security line, and the guard blew on his whistle and turned him around.

“I sure wish I had a gun,” he said as he walked by me, to no one in particular.

I considered this for a moment, and then I considered ratting him out to the security guard, but by then he had waddled resolutely across the lawn and I was loathe to chase him – and I doubted he was actually headed to his pickup truck to retrieve his shotgun. I watched him go, and noticed a group of six African Muslim women wearing hijabs were a few feet away. The most disturbing commentary sometimes comes from the inside. 

When exactly did it become acceptable to voice weaponized threats to the President in public, anyway? I had all kinds of horrible thoughts about Bush, but I never publicly expressed a latent desire to shoot him. 

A group of youngish people had arrived and began setting up baseball diamonds. The lawn facing the White House was quickly converted into a softball practice area. People with mitts on and loosely-fitting jerseys began tossing balls to each other, as tourists waiting for the President side-stepped to avoid them. It was a very sedate scene. Maybe he wasn’t actually coming at all. Maybe all my issues with the corporeality of the President are entirely justified. 

Sedate except for the constant sound of helicopters, which made all the gathered tourists snap their heads around swiftly like dogs watching a coven of squirrels when it got particularly close. Everyone who was standing outside the White House waiting for something happen was very confused about the helicopters, of which there appeared to be about three circumventing the area. Someone would shout “That’s it!”, point to the sky expectantly, and then look on in confusion as the helicopter sped away again.

“Is that it?” a little girl asked her mother, pointing at a plane preparing to land at Reagan.

“No, that’s an airplane,” her father said. “Did I just hear a helicopter?”

All this confusion was very much on purpose.

There is more than one Marine One, the POTUS’s personal helicopter. When the President arrives at the White House via helicopter, his helicopter is usually flanked by two others, which continously switch off throughout the flight so potential attackers will have absolutely no idea which the Commander in Chief is actually in. This is pleasingly referred to as the Presidential Shell Game.

Except the Presidential Shell Game was taking an awfully long time to arrive – at least 30 minutes behind schedule. Maybe they don’t arrive spot-on on time to throw off potential attackers, though I’d suspect that potential attackers would try to operate with a less fiendishly specific timeframe. Maybe they were just plain late. But it was in the 90’s outside, softballs kept whizzing past my head at uncomfortably close distances, and at least four children were whining in high, keening tones about how boring all this was. Even the gloomy, heavily-armed men on the roof of the White House had begun to pace. I decided that the issue of the President could be decided for later, and I began to walk away, continuing to keep an eye out for bees.

I got to the edge of the lawn and there it was: the Presidential Shell Game, three big helicopters coming in fast. I began to run back to the smallish area where one could actually look at the South Lawn.

It was like this.

The helicopters approached from roughly behind the Washington Memorial and then chugged directly over our upturned heads. Everyone began snapping pictures with their cellphones. I was reminded in the moment, somewhat bizarrely, of that scene in Apocalypse Now with “The End” and the napalm and the burning, except it was just Thursday afternoon in DC, and there were a bunch of people playing softball around.

The two flanking helicopters peeled off just as the three reached the White House, and the President’s helicopter proceeded to dance with the ground for a while. I saw what appeared to be Michelle Obama in a red dress waiting on the lawn, arms crossed. People began to descend from the helicopter, on the other side of our view, so we could only really see their lower halves. Their very lower-halves. 

“Wow. I just saw some Presidential legs,” a guy with a softball mitt on said, in a bored voice. “Look at that.”

I saw two men with their blazers slung over their shoulders conversing as they left the helicopter. I’m going to operate under the assumption that they were Obama and Joe Biden. The question of Joe Biden’s reality is resolved for me, I should add: he’s actually been in the den of my boyfriend’s parents house. They had, for a time, one of his voice-mails, where he identified himself as “Joe” without the addition of a last name. A politicking Iowa friend reports that Biden, upon learning a young organizer was a mere 25, gently took her face in his hands and said: “No serious men until you’re 30.”

In other words, Joe Biden is about as close as I’ve ever come to awesome world-shifting political power. If Joe Biden indeed possesses it.

Obama? I can only say for sure that I have seen his legs, and maybe a blurry outline of his dress-shirt. I’m not sure that’s good enough. Maybe I need to go to a White House luncheon, and get my name in the paper as a crasher, in the tradition of the nouveau riche and trashy. Maybe I need to shake his hand. Maybe I need to get him to sign an autographed photo. What would I say to Barack Obama, anyway?

“Thanks for the healthcare. I’m really going to enjoy melanoma-ing with impunity.”

or:

“I’ve got no interest in your birth certificate, though I’d love to know your favorite restaurant in Mombasa.”

or:

“Have you ever punched a man in the face for calling you Barry? Did this happen in a bar?”

Maybe something about that article about his affinity for hogging joints – and don’t tell me you haven’t read it. That one has kept me up at night wondering. A Man of the People, indeed.

After I left the White House and had dinner with a friend, I decided to wander over to the Supreme Court, in the hope of seeing some protesters, and also to resolve the additional issue of the reality of the Supreme Court. (I have less problems with buildings).

In front of Congress, the US Army Band was playing soul staples, and really quite remarkably well. A small crowd had turned out to watch them. I had had no idea the US Military was so committed to matters of funk. I listened to them for a while and looked down Pennsylvania Avenue, which was mostly under construction. I thought: “You’d think they’d do a better job with the grass.”

I crossed behind Congress and walked into a screening of Anderson Cooper 360 with John King.

John King (who had earlier inaccurately predicted the Supreme Court verdict, and he wasn’t even looking all that embarrassed, or in fact as if he had ever contracted an emotion in his life) was reading off notes to a group of very relaxed looking producers, who had enough technology with them to successfully counter a North Korean missile. They were friendly, and told me CNN was hiring “all the time” when I said I was an underemployed journalist.

“You can walk behind the shot and make your TV debut,” a production assistant offered. I declined, but now I regret it.

The segment cut to a commercial break, and John King continued to look serious. A rather fey makeup assistant flitted up to him and busily dusted his face with makeup, then flitted away again, as John King’s face continued to show no expression. Now he was looking serious and talking about healthcare to Sanjay Gupta on a blue screen, many miles away. He used the phrase “hill of beans” twice in three sentences.

I believe that John King is real now, incidentally. How could he not be?

So, this is what Washington is like. 

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Fighting for Potty Parity and the Right to Pee – UN Dispatch

Chinese women fight for bathroom parity in Guangzhou. Via the Telegraph.

You’ve got a lavender-scented bathroom down your hall, a relatively clean bathroom at work, and you can be reasonably sure that that dodgy gas-station will have somewhere for you to go if you drank one cup of coffee too many before you left the office. What we in the West often fail to realize is that this pleasing bathroom security is a remarkable luxury in many parts of the world where bathrooms are not the norm—and women are especially affected by this inequality.

Now so-called “potty parity” has hit the international agenda, and people world-wide are trying to figure out how best to address this very basic problem.

Women in developing countries face unique challenges when they realize they have to pee, challenges women are often uncomfortable discussing in public.In the dirt-poor and vast slums of Mumbai and Delhi, women find themselves curtailed geographically by access to a public bathroom or somewhere they can safely relieve themselves. If they do need to use a public bathroom – of which there are few in India with women’s facilities – they are often forced to pay for the privilege. This can be quite a lot of money in a nation where average income barely tops $2 a day. Home bathrooms aren’t a particularly viable option either: more than half of Indian households have no toilet, according to a 2011 census. And in the Indian cities of today, where women are going off to work and farther away from home in ever-increasing numbers, the problem is likely to only worsen.

Women are also forced to deal with the threat of rape, mockery, and sexual harassment if they must visit a public – and often male-controlled – restroom in the evening hours, meaning that many women attempt to drink as little as possible at certain parts of the day. Holding it in for hours a day isn’t just uncomfortable. It can also lead to serious health problems, including bacterial infections, loss of bladder control, and other unpleasant conditions.

Urban Indian women with jobs in bathroom-deserts often find themselves carrying plastic bags to relieve themselves in, which are delicately called “flying toilets” – a disturbing proposal indeed in a relatively public area with a high risk of sexual harassment from men. Lack of access to a private bathroom of some kind is even worse for menstruating women, who face extreme social embarrassment and potentially dangerous hygiene problems if they can’t find a facility.

Toilets are also a major factor in getting girls and young women to go to school and stay there. Many schools in the developing world fail to provide adequate toilet facilities for girls, and the profound social embarrassment and personal inconvenience this breeds—especially for menstruating teenagers, as any woman can attest—often causes girls to drop out entirely in the poorest countries.

UNICEF found that one in ten African girls miss classes or even drop out due to hygiene problems related to their period, while 20% of pubescent girls in developing countries are absent for at least part of the year for the same reasons. Once schools build bathrooms, the changes in girl’s attendance are often remarkable.  A Tanzania school saw an almost 100% increase in girls attendance after building more female-only bathrooms. 

Read more at UN Dispatch….

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5 Places Where Internet Access is Really Expensive – UN Dispatch

Reposted from UN Dispatch:

Denizens of the developed, Western world may take cheap and easily accessible Internet service for granted—and according to recent International Telecommunications Union data, prices for communications services just keep dropping from year to year across the world.  But that’s not the case everywhere. In some countries, Internet access still comes at a stiff price, for reasons ranging from choking regulations, issues of geography, and the curious mandates of the marketplace. Countries where a single government mandated telecom company seem to fare the worst, as a lack of competition accords the government the authority to set prices and keep careful tabs on use.

Here’s a non-comprehensive look at countries where Internet access comes at a premium – often disadvantaging the very people who could benefit most from its use.

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan has a serious Internet problem. With only 2.2% of the population considered Internet users by the UN’s ITU statistics and exceptionally stringent controls on who gets online, this oil-rich but oppressive Central Asian country faces a serious tech deficit. Prices are part of the problem. Although no OECD data exists for Turkmenistan, newspaper reports indicate that prices for both home and business Internet connections are astronomical.

Citizens must present a passport and submit to surveillance if they wish to use one of Turkmenistan’s few, tightly controlled Internet cafes—and pay $4 an hour to get online, a hefty fee for most. Home dial-up Internet connections—only legalized in 2008—are unobtainable for most, at TurkmenTelecom mandated rates of $42 to open an account at 45 Kbps, with a series of additional fees for continuing use.

Want unlimited high speed browsing at 2,048 Kbps in Turkmenistan? Hope you have deep pockets: the service costs a hefty $6,281 a month. And there’s nowhere to go if you think that’s a smidgen too expensive: a single state-controlled ISP, TurkmenTelekom, provides legal Internet access—forcing all data through a central and easily controllable hub, and creating a lucrative government monopoly.

Mexico

Mexico may be close to the USA, but that doesn’t mean Internet access comes cheaply. According to OECD data, Mexico has the dubious distinction of the highest posted Internet subscription rates and the slowest download speeds among the 34 nations on which it has data. According to Mexico’s Census and Geographic Agency, only 22.2 percent of Mexican households had an Internet connection circa 2010,while around 32.8% of Mexicans were considered Internet users. (The UN’s ITU reports 31%).

Mexico’s neighbors to the North reported that 79.3 percent of the population were Internet users, according to the World Bank. (Mexico still beats southern neighbor Guatemala, however, where a paltry 10.5% are users, according to the World Bank).

Despite high prices, Mexicans still seem to be flocking to the Internet in record numbers – a recent study (albeit a somewhat problematic one) found that the average Mexican Internet user now spends more time online than he or she does watching television. Telenovas and soccer best watch out. 

Central African Republic (and elsewhere in Africa)

Africa has the lowest Internet penetration rates in the world, with only 5.7% of households equipped with a home connection according to the International Telecommunication Union. Not surprisingly, the few Africans who do manage to get online must pay dearly for the privilege—according to the ITU, fixed broadband Internet access cost almost three times the average African’s income in 2011.

Although prices are dropping swiftly as Africa develops, lack of infrastructure and low incomes conspire to keep home connections out of reach for the vast majority of the population. And some countries are worse than others.

According to a 2010 ITU report, the Central African Republic was the most expensive place surveyed for fixed line broadband connections, at  more than 40 times the average citizen’s income. There is some hope for cheap African Internet access: mobile Internet penetration has increased by a massive 155.59% in Africa in a mere two years, and subscriptions continue to grow quickly.

USA (And its territories)

Slate.com recently released an excellent article on the most expensive Internet in the Americas – and perhaps unsurprisingly, people residing in the Pacific Islands territories must cough up much more than those of us who reside on the continent. Data indicated that American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands are especially afflicted by high prices. Geography is part of the story, but not all: as the researchers found, prices in Guam, a 100 miles from the Northern Marianas, are five times lower.

Only half of Northern Marianas Internet users report having a home broadband connection: most cite high prices as the reason. Meanwhile, Internet speeds in nearish American Samoa are downright glacial, with home connections forced to resort to clunky 256 kilobits a second. And all that sloth doesn’t come cheap: businesses are forced to pay upwards of $175 a month for mediocre 768 kbps connections.

The price of Internet access is also a problem in America’s poorest cities: look at impoverished New Orleans, where a toxic combination of destroyed post-Katrina infrastructure, corporate pressure, and government missteps have created a major metro with 40% to 60% broadband subscription rates, according to The Lens—whereas most metropolitan counties in the USA report rates of 60% to 80%.  

Spain

51% youth unemployment and some of the most expensive broadband rates in Europe: 2012 is a horrible time to be young in Spain. According to the OECD, Spain has the dubious distinction of having the most expensive broadband entry price among member nations, if you take required line charges, such as a telephone or cable television service into account. If you don’t, it is the 7th most expensive.

OECD data also indicates Spain is at the front of the pack in Europe when it comes to prices for Broadband access, taking a wide range of connection speeds into account—and unfortunately, Spanish download speeds are on the low end of the scale, too. Roughly 66.5% of Spaniards are considered regular Internet users according to World Bank figures—not great in comparison to cheaper France’s 77.5% usage rates, or 82.5% rates in Germany. (The Spanish did beat Portugal and Greece).

– Faine Greenwood for UN Dispatch

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Guisados Tacos in Los Angeles: Photo Safari

Guisado’s co-owner Armando De La Torre mans the front of the shop.

“Guisados? They have the best tacos in town.”

I heard this from a number of Los Angelenos when I was in town recently. As the people of Los Angeles have roughly the same rabid affection for their tacos as North Carolina natives do for BBQ pork, or New Orleanians do for crawfish, I decided to take this advice seriously. So my fellow-Simon’s-Rock veteran Curran and I made the trek out to Guisados tacos on Cesar Chavez Avenue to sample Guisado’s wares. The verdict? Very much worth it. 

Guisados, according to a recent LA Weekly article, was started to address what co-owners Armando De La Torre and Chef Ricardo Diaz found to be an exceptionally serious gap in the normally robust Los Angeles taco ecosystem: tacos made with stews or slow-braised meats, or guisados. Sure, you could easily get delectable grilled carne asada, or chicken, or fried fish, or al pastor -but where was the mole poblano, the cochinita pibil, the bistek-en-sals-rojo, the chicharron in sauce?

The answer to this burning existential question would be here, in this not particularly promising looking hole-in-the-wall of a taco shop, with a hand-written menu and a curiously lengthy list of possible allergens scribbled on one off-white wall. For a joint that has been very healthily embraced by LA’s equally healthy hipster set, it is both pleasingly unpretentious and cheap, with a walk up ordering system, friendly service with a smile, and the front-of-house presence of De La Torre, who seems to derive genuine personal pleasure from explaining what exactly he’s serving up to new-looking customers.

Chef Diaz is the man-behind-the-scenes, creating recipes and adjusting flavors. What the two men have created is a traditional taqueria that uses good, old-fashioned tradition to introduce authenticity-craving Californians to some old-fashioned recipes.

You should really order the taco sampler, which comes with 6 mini-tacos in different flavors, for the princely sum of $6.

THIS IS A TACO.

De La Torre ambled over to our table on our visit and, looking very serious about the whole affair, pointed out each taco on our sampler, describing what was in each carefully-made stew with obvious personal pride. (The home-made and chewy nixtamal (corn) tortillas aren’t too shabby, either). He brought us little orange tubs of violently spicy habenero-spiced hot sauce; he kept an eye on us from the cash register as we chomped our way through his restuarant’s delightfully messy, spicy tacos.

Places like Guisados put the plasticized douchebag stereotype that plagues Los Angeles to rest. The waitress who called out my order said my name with a Spanish pronunciation: this too, made me happy.

Fabulous $6 taco sampler. $1 a taco.

So what exactly do these justly-famous taco samplers contain?

Stewed chicharrones (pork skins) with black beans and avocado sauce.

Pork skins at Guisados are, according to the LA Weekly, cooked in a mixture of chile rojo and verde sauces, spooned over a bed of unobtrusively earthy black beans, and are topped with what appeared to be a pleasingly smooth avocado sauce. Pork skins are unctuous, chewy, and unilaterally bad for you no matter what the Atkins zombies of the world might tell you: however, if you as a good Californian are able to reconcile yourself with the idea of chewing on a lump of pure fat, these are delicious, naughty revelations. Texture problems? Well, er, don’t think about it.

Tinga de pollo (stewed chicken with avocado)

What kind of monster doesn’t like chicken stewed in red chile sauce, sofrito, and cabbage? This is a homey dish, the sort of thing your non-existent Latina grandmother might cook for you on a Sunday when she had the time to keep the pot on simmer (apologies if you have actually got a kindly Latina grandmother). A little bit of spice by my admittedly dubious standards, countered, as is the usual way of things, with a slice of avocado. This might very well be the primeval fresh-from-the-swamp ancestor of the “spicy chicken tacos” you get in little paper bags from mass-market drive through windows.

Bistec en Salsa Rojo (steak in red chili sauce).

Beef slow cooked with just about anything is a good idea, and so it goes with red chili sauce. This was perhaps my favorite: I enjoyed the smoky flavor of the chili sauce, tempered with a slight sweetness and with the creamy, unctuous flavor of the avocado. Worth mentioning again that the tortillas – chewy, robust, un-fancy – really bring everything together at Guisados.

Mole Poblano with pumpkin seeds and pickled onion.

I always think of Mole Poblano as Mexico’s answer to curry, albeit with a lot more chocolate than you might encounter at your local Star O’ India emporium. (Why the clever concept of using dark chocolate as a cooking ingredient never really spread outside of Latin America continues to utterly baffle me). Guisado’s manages a luxe version in a small package, topping chicken slow-cooked in a chocolate and chile sauce with cojita cheese, pumpkin seeds, pickled onion and a small hit of sour cream. The combination of flavors and textures is really remarkable – Guisados deserves quite a bit of credit for really thinking through what they put on top of these tacos, and how it might pair up with the restaurant’s complex braises.

Chuleta de Puerco. (Stewed pork with potatoes)

Stewed pork cubes are matched with potatoes and the aforementioned green sauce, which is probably-avocado-though-I-could-be-really-wrong. Another dish that you might throw on the burner on a lazy Sunday, which seems to be the maxim Guisados lives by – another interesting look at a flavor that most of us American Mexican food dilettantes are not often exposed to. I suppose the pork was a little chewier then I might have liked.

Cochinita Pibil (spicy pork)

Pulled spicy pork in a chile sauce -one of life’s great pleasures, and reminds me of the Traditional Foodstuff of My Ancient North Carolina Ancestors, which is always a nice feeling of cultural continuity. You don’t really need to jazz up a good pulled pork much, if you know what you’re doing – thus the pickled onion, which provides a vinegary counterpart to the spicy and smoky meat.

Typical shop-front in this part of Los Angeles.

The other benefit of a visit to Guisados must surely be Cesar Chavez Avenue itself, which on a typically sedate Saturday afternoon turns into something approximating a laconic and friendly Latino street fair, as people shop for everything from lingerie to underpriced electronic goods on the street, drink aguas frescas and fruit smoothies from street vendors, and walk more slowly than they might ordinarily do.

Accordian man.

Mariachi bands mugged for my camera. Curran and I wandered into a shop devoted to the sale of statues of Catholic saints, Native American totem animals, black-velvet paintings of irate-looking wolves, and weirdly scented candles. A small dusting of what appeared to be ash hung over all the statues. A taco truck, colorfully painted, appeared to be parked on every other corner.

Taco mermaid. Insert off-color jokes here.

A few blocks up from Cesar Chavez, people were selling clothes out in front of their houses, the kids crouched out front or playing, the adults sitting somewhere shaded and watching their wares flap slowly in the wind. This was California too, and as legitimate a California as the more sedate, more tightly controlled Northern California of my high school years. It’s shame it has taken me so long to see that.

I don’t like Los Angeles. At least, I thought I did. Many people from Northern California get this idea sometime in their lives that Southern California is the enemy, and that we in our slightly-cooler environs are less plasticized, more intelligent, better at computers, more real  than our Southern cousins. (Realness is a big deal in California). This is,of course, a very stupid and lazy thing to conclude about one of the planet’s biggest and most diverse urban areas, nasty reputation for gang riots and plastic surgery and facile popular culture notwithstanding. It is more than that. It is bigger than that

Los Angeles is spread out, a suburban jungle, where you need a car to survive – a planet-molesting paradigm that disturbs many bike-commuting Northerners to their very core. But if you do venture into your car, you come to realize that Los Angeles – if we are going to delve into biology terms, which we are – is more of a superorganism (Deadly Portugese man-o-war, colorful tropical corals, the flailing tendrils of the European Union)  than a single, unified creature.

Mary shrine.

It is different and diverse and often very spread out separate neighborhoods and communities, that are mushed together into Los Angeles mostly for the sake of city planners. The city does have a few things in common, I suppose, but as someone who barely knows this place, it is those distinctive, curious neighborhood differences that make Los Angeles much more delightful than you might ever expect. You can come down here and eat a taco, and walk around for a while and get some sense of the soul of a part of Los Angeles, one of its many component parts. You will maybe understand it better. At the very least, you will have had a good lunch.

Best chicken sign. 

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Times Picayune Lays Off Brett Anderson: No, Really, Not Everyone Can Be a Food Writer

Laying off food writers: a terrible idea in New Orleans.

The Times Picayune wants to “enhance its award-winning food and dining coverage” – and it’s doing that by laying off James Beard award-winning food writer Brett Anderson. 

Great strategy, guys. Not like anyone in New Orleans cares about food!

Today marked a round of brutal cuts at the Times Picayune newspaper, as 200 staff members were informed that their last day of work was Sept 30 by the newspapers corporate overlords, Advance Media.

Brett Anderson, the Times Picayune’s chief food critic and a recent recipient of a Nieman Journalism fellowship at Harvard, was among those unceremoniously axed by the Pic’s new Advance Publications overlords.

Anderson suspects the fellowship – which will require him to spend a year at Harvard – was part of the decision, although it’s worth pointing out that according to the Nieman Foundation, no one has ever been laid off from their newspaper jobs before for receiving the incredibly prestigious journalism award.

But considering that Advance Publications appears to prioritize crappy, cheap journalism over high quality coverage of one of New Orleans’ most important cultural touchstones, such an unprecedented move may actually make sense.

Cochon Butcher.

Comments on NOLA.com and elsewhere from residents of Ann Arbor, Michigan, another city that has suffered the dubious affections of Advance, indicate the best and most experienced reporters will be laid off or see their jobs cut – while young and inexperienced reporters will be assigned to fill their shoes.

Basically, New Orleans is going to get an armada of youthful journalists just like myself to fill the roles of hardcore veterans. I know this scares me. 

I have a sneaking suspicion that Advance feels any idiot can do food writing and restaurant reviews—a sentiment that led them to choose “the food guy” as a prime candidate for the boot. (Who needs him, anyway?)

Some browbeaten and underpaid 22 year old, part of the Times Picayune’s impending unexperienced army of journalists-turned-amorphously-titled-bloggers, will doubtless be assigned to occasionally go out to reasonably priced restaurants to “review them,” preferably “on a blog.”

Since blogs are totally where it’s at these days.

Of course, I am writing this on a blog. Blogs are awesome! But I think that turning all journalism into “blogging” is definitely not the answer to the dire straits the newspaper industry is in. Reporters can be good bloggers. Bloggers can be good reporters. But they are two different styles of writing that requires different approaches—and furthermore, reporters can avail the services of editors, who do an amazing job of improving and fact-checking journalism.

I’m afraid putting young reporters into a blogging mentality – instead of a reporting mentality – will lead nowhere good. And that applies to restaurant criticism especially.

We all know what generic restaurant reviews sound like, especially if the poor beleaguered reviewer has been told to write as if they are “on a blog.” The disinterested restaurant reviewer always seems to order a cheeseburger or the most painfully boring thing on the menu, instead of bothering to experiment with what may be a much more exciting menu.

Any restaurant that is not actively dishing out molded-over swill is deemed “delicious.” If they are dishing out molded-over swill, they are let off with a gentle “Needs Improvement.” Positive ratings are given to restaurants that provide such classy niceties as crayons on the table and play-places for customers spawn, thumping, irritating music, and conveniently priced “meal-deals.” Style, culinary history, and insight into the history of the dish or the cuisine? Forget about it.

Casamentos.

This isn’t food writing. Restaurant reviews of this nature are better suited for small-town newspapers where no one gives a crap about eating anything they can’t easily obtain on deep-discount sale at Walmart. Food writing, good food writing, is an art, a science. It is something that takes a very long time to learn and to become good at. You cannot just contract it out to Cyndi or Bobby who-just-graduated-and-kinda-likes-to-grill-and-stuff.

A New Orleans food writer has the responsibility of becoming intimately familar with hundreds of years of culinary tradition.They need to read up on the great chefs of the past. They have to familarize themselves with local ingredients and foodways. They need to sample everything they possibly  can, talk to everyone experienced that they can browbeat into a discussion, and most importantly, they need to feel a fierce, somewhat insane love of food and the culinary arts, specifically of the food and culinary heritage of Louisiana and New Orleans.

Only the truly, bizzarrely obsessive should be allowed anywhere near a published restaurant review in New Orleans: a city with a cuisine like this deserves nothing less. A young person can do the job, sure – but food writing has got to be one of the paramount loves of their life. I honestly don’t think I’m asking too much from a city that has so, so many people who fit this description.

Cheese plate at the dearly-departed Green Goddess.

And what about audience? Does Advance Publications realize that the food section is of serious import to many New Orleanians? If I read one thing in the Times Picayune or on Nola.com, if my time is short and the day is bereft of any particularly exciting murders, it will be the food section. I suspect I’m not alone among the many, many people who love both New Orleans and its food.

Simply put Advance Publication’s decision to let go of the Times Picayune’s top food critic is their special, special way of saying “screw you” to everything New Orleans stands for.

And Advance Publications really expect this special, food-obsessed community to embrace their “new and improved” version of the Times Picayune?


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Complaining About Young People Is Nothing New

We are young in 2012. We are told on a regular basis that we are degenerate creatures who waste our time with frivolities like the Internet, hyper-realistic X-Box games, and mysterious designer intoxicants.

The world is descending ever more rapidly into hell, and it is at least partially our fault. How are we, as young people, expected to respond? There is no way to repudiate being young—and so many of us conclude that we will work hard and do the best we can, and ignore the various horrible things our elders say about us. (Chief among those horrible things is the claim that we are not working).

As it turns out, young John F. Carter in the Atlantic has already written an eloquent and thought-provoking essay on being young in a time of social and economic confusion – and he did it in 1920. 

How many of us have made the same observations about the ruin of the world that’s been passed down to us as Mr Carter did in 1920?

“In the first place, I would like to observe that the older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us. They give us this Thing, knocked to pieces, leaky, red-hot, threatening to blow up; and then they are surprised that we don’t accept it with the same attitude of pretty, decorous enthusiasm with which they received it, ‘way back in the eighteen-nineties, nicely painted, smoothly running, practically fool-proof. “So simple that a child can run it!”

But the child couldn’t steer it. He hit every possible telegraph-pole, some of them twice, and ended with a head-on collision for which we shall have to pay the fines and damages. Now, with loving pride, they turn over their wreck to us; and, since we are not properly overwhelmed with loving gratitude, shake their heads and sigh, “Dear! dear! We were so much better-mannered than these wild young people. But then we had the advantages of a good, strict, old-fashioned bringing-up!”

How intensely human these oldsters are, after all, and how fallible! How they always blame us for not following precisely in their eminently correct footsteps!”

And how have we responded to this somewhat dubious gift of a “leaky, red-hot” world?

“Now my generation is disillusionized, and, I think, to a certain extent, brutalized, by the cataclysm which their complacent folly engendered. The acceleration of life for us has been so great that into the last few years have been crowded the experiences and the ideas of a normal lifetime. We have in our unregenerate youth learned the practicality and the cynicism that is safe only in unregenerate old age…. 

World War I, the financial crisis. Hand-wringing about youth’s new-found caution circa 2012.

We have been forced to become realists overnight, instead of idealists, as was our birthright. We have seen man at his lowest, woman at her lightest, in the terrible moral chaos of Europe. We have been forced to question, and in many cases to discard, the religion of our fathers. We have seen hideous peculation, greed, anger, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, unmasked and rampant and unashamed. 

“Forced to become realists overnight” – we all remember 2009.

We have been forced to live in an atmosphere of “to-morrow we die,” and so, naturally, we drank and were merry. We have seen the rottenness and shortcomings of all governments, even the best and most stable. We have seen entire social systems overthrown, and our own called in question. In short, we have seen the inherent beastliness of the human race revealed in an infernal apocalypse.”

“These Wild Young People – By One Of Them” is a lovely work. Its age would probably go unnoticed if someone happened to post it on a Tumblr without attribution. Our angst is not a new angst, and the complaints our elders make about us in a time of great uncertainty and anxiety are not new, either. Some might find the inevitable, cyclical nature of all this rather depressing – and to some extent, I do.

However, I take some more solace in the knowledge that every generation has gone through this to some extent. True, we’re suffering in a crap economy with no jobs and with massive student debt. True, we are regularly demonized in the press, largely for factors totally outside our control.

But they are getting older. To quote the clever Mr Carter:

“Oh! I suppose that it’s too bad that we aren’t humble, starry-eyed, shy, respectful innocents, standing reverently at their side for instructions, playing pretty little games, in which they no longer believe, except for us.

But we aren’t, and the best thing the oldsters can do about it is to go into their respective backyards and dig for worms, great big pink ones–for the Grundy tribe are now just about as important as they are, and they will doubtless make company more congenial and docile than ‘these wild young people,’ the men and women of my generation.”

You may also refer to my handy Storify of ancients bitching about insolent youth: Get Off My Lawn, Wastrel

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Is a Cambodian Spring Approaching? Not Any Time Soon

Borei Keila protesters at the US Embassy.

There has been some talk on Foreign Policy and in the New York Times about the prospect of a so-called “Cambodian spring,” an uprising of popular sentiment in this beleaguered Southeast Asian nation roughly equivalent to the democratic drama that has unfolded across the Middle East. Sounds nice. But could it ever actually happen?

As Prime Minister Hun Sen—who won a decisive, if not exactly fair victory in Sunday’s elections—racks up human rights violations and cracks down on peaceful protesters and land-grabbing victims, it’s easy for outside observers to draw parallels between his retrograde regime and the dangerous, inhumane policies of dictators who have dramatically toppled in recent months in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the average Cambodian can do little but watch as around 20% of the nation is signed away to lucrative-for-some economic concessions, and protesters—including innocent 14-year-old girls—are murdered, wounded or imprisoned at the behest of the government.

Surely some kind of popular uprising isn’t too far off in Cambodia? 

I think any talk of a “Cambodian Spring” is premature, and for a few key reasons.

1. Cambodia is a new democracy (and I do use the “D” word in a very loose sense). Hun Sen’s military coup that put a decisive end to any real opposition occurred in 1997. The Khmer Rouge weren’t fully defeated until the 1990’s. As an outside observer, it can be easy to forget that Cambodia remains a country in the very earliest stages of clawing its way back from one of the 20th century’s worst genocidal regimes. Remember the 2004 US elections, when Republicans trumpeted of George W Bush that America shouldn’t “change horses in the middle of a stream?” Yeah, it’s kind of like that—admittedly with far nastier implications.

Trauma goes a lot deeper than bad memories. Cambodians are likely afflicted with PTSD in huge numbers, and recent studies indicate that PTSD can even be passed down from generation to generation. Young Cambodians—the probable core of any topple-Hun-Sen movement—have grown up hearing the horror stories of their parents and grandparents who managed to survive the profound horror of the Khmer Rouge years. They’ve taken these stories to heart, and have a very visceral sense of how bad things can be.

This kind of upbringing and influence means that even the young in Cambodia are relatively cautious and disinterested in rocking the boat, heeding the horrifying war stories of their elders. Cambodia circa 2012 is appealing indeed when the Khmer Rouge is a relatively recent and visceral memory for a hefty percentage of the population.

Phnom Penh boy.

Almost no one in Cambodia is interested in taking part of any kind of long-lasting and potentially deadly conflict, which a so-called “Cambodian Spring” event would entail. It’s pretty easy to predict that Hun Sen would not go gently into that good night if Cambodians did decide to take matters into their own hands—a sinister capacity he’s been more than happy to demonstrate since the beginning of 2012. You can bet reform minded Cambodians have noticed.

It’s also worth remembering that most of the Middle Eastern nations that have seen democratic upheaval have been relatively stable since the 1960s, and are considerably more wealthy and developed than Cambodia is.

2. People do like Hun Sen. This is difficult for Western observers to believe, but I suspect most Cambodians would back up this statement. It’s true that Hun Sen used intimidation and dodgy tactics to secure a victory this Sunday, but he almost certainly would have won anyway.

Western observers find it baffling that the Cambodian people haven’t yet come together to oust Hun Sen, who has helmed a truly disturbing set of recent tortures, murders and arrests of protesters and dissenters. But many Cambodians positively associate Hun Sen with the relative stability and prosperity they’ve enjoyed since the war years—years of violence, poverty and instability that ended much more recently than the ouster of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

He’s also done a good job of reaching out to the Thais and the Vietnamese, and Cambodian relations with these ancient enemies are now in a better place then they’ve been in a very long time. (That these good relations came about in part due to Hun Sen’s cheery willingness to sell off the country to the highest bidder is best dealt with another time).

Hun Sen takes to the rice paddies. (Via the Cambodia Herald)

Further, as Bill Herod, a retired development worker friend of mine who has spent many years in Cambodia pointed out, Hun Sen has done an excellent job of cultivating a populist image and getting out among the people, up to and including splashing about in their rice paddies. When I worked at the Cambodia Daily, Hun Sen seemed to show up at every graduation ceremony and building opening, delivering speeches and shaking hands, accompanied by his trademark folky-yet-bizarre commentary.

He can attribute much of his longevity to his remarkable energy. Hun Sen’s marked willingness to get in the trenches and criss-cross the country in search of support differentiates him from the opposition, which the average person sees as helmed by urbane, champagne-swilling French-educated aristocrats very much unlike themselves. (They happen to be pretty much right).

It’s true that Hun Sen and many in his government were former Khmer Rouge members, and that’s an obvious black mark on their record. It’s also true Hun Sen has done a really excellent job of blocking the passage of justice in the shambolic Khmer Rouge War Tribunals. But it’s worth pointing out that a truly massive number of Cambodians were, in one way or another, involved with the Khmer Rouge. Blacklisting every leader who was somehow involved in the KR might leave Cambodia with a rather paltry number of leaders.

As Herod observed: “The Western media loves to identify him [Hun Sen] as a “former Khmer Rouge” or even a former Khmer Rouge “leader” or “commander,” but the Cambodian people see him as a survivor of the Khmer Rouge horrors – just like them.”

Ruined building at Borei Keila. Occupants were evicted and intimidated by the government.

3. Sam Rainsy is something of a slender reed to base an opposition on. To quote Ou Virak of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, speaking in the Foreign Policy article: “Rainsy is living a comfortable life in exile, making increasingly radical comments in an effort to stay in the minds of international observers rather than ordinary Cambodian people.”

That’s on the money. Currently, Rainsy is something of an armchair-and-Facebook revolutionary-in-exile, enjoying the daring status that his rebellion accords him without having to deal with the immediate dangers and stressors of being an activist on extremely hostile turf. Other opposition leaders (Funcinpec and the Norodom Ranariddh Party, for example) are cast from a similar aristocratic mold.

Many of these urbane opposition leaders weren’t even in-country during the Khmer Rouge era. They host dinners and press flesh in wealthy Western countries with a healthy population of sympathetic supporters of democracy. They are considerably less adept at garnering the support of Cambodians themselves, who can’t afford to attend banquets and who are often rather suspicious of high-brow foreign ideas.

To survive and engender the change it wants to see, the Cambodian opposition will have to do a much, much better job of appealing to your average Sophal or Chanda than it is doing today. After all, the Sunday elections indicated that the Sam Rainsy Party lost ground this year, despite a truly dismal season of CPP violence and repression.

Even when you take voter intimidation and other sneaky tactics into account, that’s an indication that the opposition has a serious populist problem. I would suggest opposition leaders try spending as much time as Hun Sen does walking around behind the ass-end of a water buffalo in the boonies.

I don’t quite understand why the Foreign Policy article cited above failed to mention the promise of Mu Sochua, a charismatic Sam Rainsy Party Parliament member.

If we’re talking opposition leaders, I’d place the dedicated, humane, and intelligent Ms Sochua at the front of the pack of potential change-agents, far ahead of the controversial and often rather shrill Rainsy. When I followed the Borei Keila evictions this January, Ms Sochua was just about omnipresent in the field, showing up at every protest and rally she possibly could, talking to affected citizens with obvious and genuine concern for their welfare, and walking through the filthy camps the evictees had been forced into. This is the populist touch the opposition needs to cultivate.

The Independence Monument.

4. What about all that corruption? Yes, corruption is a truly massive problem in Cambodia, a nation where bribery, “tea money” and ample amounts of wheel-greasing are required to get just about anything done. Hun Sen and his CPP cronies make a lot of money off this corrupt system, creating an ever-increasing gap between the filthy rich and the desperately poor. Doesn’t this piss people off?

Well, yes. And no. Corruption, especially at the higher levels, is often seen as an indication of cleverness. You have to be smart to bilk money from powerful companies and governments, and to a number of  Cambodians, that’s something of a laudable trait.

Many Cambodians feel more envious when they contemplate wealthy and corrupt officials than they do enraged—and perhaps they hope for a chance to “make corruption” themselves when they get the chance.

As Bill Herod observed of the corruption dilemma: “Remember, this is a society more influenced by its feudal traditions than its overlay of democracy.”

Once again, this all comes down to history, both recent and ancient. People in Cambodia are still largely more concerned with basic survival and getting ahead than they are with the finer points of modern governance. When you take their recent genocidal history and current poverty into account, this relative tolerance of corruption becomes a lot easier to understand.

Cambodia would obviously be more wealthy and more functional if corruption wasn’t so built into day-to-day-life—but the elimination of corruption would require a truly massive amount of cultural change, and a hefty pay cut for just about everyone with some semblance of power. I wouldn’t bet on it any time soon.

Downtown Phnom Penh.

So There Won’t Be a Cambodian Spring? 

Not any time soon, I’ll wager. I suspect that many foreigners calling for or advocating a “Cambodian Spring” may be making the mistake of projecting their own feelings and experiences on a people that still remain in the very earliest stages of recovery.

We in the West may think to ourselves of the unquestionably cruel Hun Sen regime: “I could never support that. I would revolt!” But it stands to remember that we are not Cambodian, and that very few of us carry the deep psychological scars a supremely violent revolution and genocide can engender. Nor are we intimately involved in the painful and slow process of rebuilding a country from the bottom up. This is not our battle. It’s theirs.

Things can change in Cambodia, but I suspect that they will not change drastically anytime soon, despite the aura of optimism recent changes in the Middle East and Burma have created. The Cambodian people have already experienced their own worst case scenario—one of the worst that has ever come to pass in the modern era—and are finally beginning to come out the other end of the tunnel.

O’Russei, hive of Cambodian commerce.

As depressing as this may sound to outsiders, things will likely have to get much, much worse in Cambodia before the average citizen becomes even vaguely interested in jeopardizing the nation’s relative peace and stability in the name of revolution. Real policy change in Cambodia will likely happen when Hun Sen wants it to happen and when he feels it will benefit him personally.

As outsiders, the best we can do is support the work of journalists and activists, and attempt to create conditions that make the ardently capitalist ruling classes in Cambodia see treating people fairly as a more profitable bet than shamelessly exploiting them. (Sanctions, such as those imposed by the World Bank in response to the Boueng Kak land grabs, are a good way to get the regime’s attention by affecting its bottom line).

We as outsiders need to encourage and hope for Cambodia’s continuing stability and growth, as it is these two factors that often allow a people to feel secure enough in their day-to-day needs to call for direct action and change. Ultimately, the Cambodian people must decide for themselves when it will be worth jeopardizing their hard-won relative security in pursuit of a modern democracy.

FURTHER READING: Derek Phatry Pan of the Khmerican has written an excellent analysis of why the social media protest movement is unlikely to have much of an impact in Cambodia anytime soon. With Cambodia’s remarkably low Internet penetration rates and a pervasive “culture of fear,” massive public protests like those of the Arab Spring become much more unlikely.

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Pollo Guisado ala Faine: Thank You, Los Angeles

Making pollo guisado was one of my better life-choices of late. I recently spent a couple of weeks in Los Angeles, the Land of the Taco and the Taco Truck and Putting Things in Tacos Like Korean BBQ. It’s sufficient to say that people in Los Angeles are really pretty remarkably serious about their tacos, and taco choices there extend far beyond the usual chicken-ground beef-and-carne-asada reporitore most Mexican restaurants favor.

Best of all were the tacos I enjoyed at Guisados, a small taco place on East Cesar Chavez that has gained an extremely enthusiastic local following. I tried Guisado’s eponymous pollo guisado taco – review coming soon – and decided I would have to try making this remarkably tasty, spicy braised chicken dish myself. I find it exceptionally difficult to resist a good braise.

Where did pollo guisado come from, anyway? No one is entirely sure. Pollo guisado appears to be a dish ubiquitous across Latin America, at least from my Internet research. Mexicans make it, Dominicans make it, Puerto Ricans make it – and indeed, it’s a rather ubiquitous idea, slow-braising chicken with peppers, a concept that’s intrinsically very close to the popular chicken cacciatore of Italy. (Cacciatore is another favorite recipe of mine, although I like this a lot more).

I wanted to make a spicier Mexican version of pollo guisado, so I mushed four or five online recipes together and proceeded from there.

I cooked the chicken for three hours, until the meat was falling apart and all those rich, spicy-as-hell chili flavors had melded nicely. I also threw some baby tri-colour potatoes in there for good measure.  The finished pollo guisado was extremely spicy and very, very good. It would be excellent served over grits or rice. I intend to make this for a party sometime, and serve it with corn tortillas and various taco toppings.

Here’s my recipe, or at least an approximation of what I did. Remember that I apparently have a mouth of pure, cancer-inducing asbestos, so the less spicily inclined will want to cut down on the quantity of peppers.

BASTARDIZED-BUT-TASTY POLLO GUISADO ALA FAINE

This takes about 3 hours – plan ahead. 

– One whole chicken, cut into pieces

– Chipotle peppers in Adobo sauce (optional if you like heat)

– Adobo sauce or chili paste. I used this very nice Peruvian Aji Panca chili paste by Costa Peruana, found at Whole Foods. It’s got a mild and slightly fruity flavor, and helps to counteract the heat of the other ingredients. Adobo sauce will work too.

– Ancho chili powder, a tablespoon or so to taste. Can be substituted with regular or chipotle chili powder.

– Chicken stock

– Red, green, and Poblano peppers, sliced. 1 of each, 2 green peppers. You’ll need one extra green pepper for sofrito.  You don’t need the Poblanos if you can’t find them.

– Tomato sauce

– Dry oregano

– Sugar – helps temper hot chili.

– Baby potatoes (optional)

– Onion

– Garlic

– Celery

1. First, make sofrito – the Latin equivalant of the Creole’s “holy trinity.” Finely chop onions, celery, and green pepper. I threw in about three chipotle chilis packed in adobo sauce. Skip if you’re looking for something milder. Add cilantro if you are cooking for people who like it.

2. Saute the sofrito, adding a small amount of chili paste or adobo sauce to the mix. You don’t want it to be too moist. Once the sofrito has softened, add in the chopped peppers and soften them up as well.

3. Rub chili paste or Adobo, along with some salt and pepper, into the chopped chicken.

4. Brown the chicken in a big braising pan, large enough to fully contain all of the chicken and the vegetables.

5. Once the chicken has browned, add the vegetables.

6. Add the tomato sauce and the chicken stock. You want the liquid to be covering the chicken and vegetables.

7. Add the ancho chilli powder, the remaining chili paste or Adobo to taste, a pinch of dried oregano, a tablespoon of sugar to taste, and salt and pepper. Mix everything up throughly.

8. Bring the mixture to a boil. Once this has occurred, cover the pan and turn the heat to low. Braise for 3 hours, checking on the chicken often. You want the chicken to be falling off the bone.

9. If you are using baby potatoes, add them about 2 hours into the process, sooner depending on their size.

10. When the chicken is tender, carefully remove it from the sauce. Reduce the sauce by boiling over high heat for 20 to 30 minutes.

11. Serve the pollo guisado with corn tortillas to make tacos. You can also serve this over rice, polenta, or grits. Excellent with sliced avocado or guacamole to temper the heat.

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