Sunday, January 28, 2007

The End of Times Puppet Show

Today I had planned to finish rereading J. R. R. Tolkien's seminal essay "On Fairy Stories" and use it as a lens through which to craft a review of Pan's Labyrinth, but I ended up having a busy day. First, I got roped into a bunch of astronomy websites about black holes, and then I had to attend my wife's sister's husband's 60th birthday. Oh well, he's a fine fellow. And I got to meet their dogs.

Anyway, some friends came over afterward and we had a light dinner and watched Jesus Camp. Holy shit! This film documents a woman who runs a fundamentalist Christian summer camp for children, and examines a few of the children who attend. It is an example of a documentary that portrays its subjects in the most sympathetic way and allows the viewer to judge for himself.

This woman has perfected some disturbing techniques in mind control and manipulation. Watching her interact with the children is a sobering experience. Her convictions were comical yet alarming. As an added bonus, the film was made prior to Ted Haggard being outed as a meth-fueled queerbag, so he is featured prominently in a few scenes. Somehow, he's far less creepy as a drug-addicted gay man than he is in the footage of this film. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Unsurpassed Gongfu Style

Are you martial art rookie? Your feelings about learning maybe wrong intention. Read "super" technique will make you in-expectable. Then you will learn that many cases that are impossible to win but it happened.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Cradle of Civilization

I was reading an AP story today about the conflict in Iraq when it hit me. I hadn't thought about it in a long, long time, not since the first Gulf War. "Baghdad" has been in the news so much these days I have become desensitized to the word. It's practically the name of the war. Baghdad. Violence. Green zone. Bodies. Injured people. IDEs. Troop surge. They had been all rolled into one festering, overripe neologism.

But as I was reading about the fighting in the streets, this picture became hauntingly familiar. The buildings in the background could be anywhere. Minneapolis. Chicago. New York. Denver. It's simple, I know. But somehow it got lost: Baghdad is a city. It's not just a war zone. People live there. So I found a map. I walked up and down the avenues in my mind, imagining how terrifying it would be to be trapped in an urban setting with helicopters and automatic weapons and heavy artillery roaring all around me and everyone I knew and cared about. It really gave me pause.

Then I began to recall my history lessons that had been buried beneath four years of war and mountains of political indifference and media stories without context. Bagdad is not the oldest city in the world. But it bears remembering and repeating, again and again: near Haifa Street, in the heart of Baghdad, Iraq, lie the banks of the Tigris River, where people now live and breathe and struggle to survive, where the United States has brought the mightiest war machine ever created. History records that civilization was born right there, over 6000 years ago.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

State of the Yawning

I watched President Bush deliver the State of the Union Address. I really wanted to write something insightful, fascinating, profound, even jaw-dropping about his speech tonight. I even took notes! Damn, how nerdy is that? I definitely need to put "get a life" on my to-do list.

What always strikes me during State of the Union Addresses is how much they resemble each other. Doesn't matter who is up there, doesn't matter what's going on in the world, it always has a remarkably similar tone: president utters some bullshit, applause. More bullshit, more applause. Sometimes I think I could write one of those speeches myself. "Tonight I am proposing a big surge followed by a happy ending." *Applause*

I suppose I could spend time rebutting his more outrageous statements, such as suggesting that the health care crisis in our country can be fixed by tweaking the tax code, asking the Congress to display "spending discipline," and talking as if it is exciting to propose a balanced budget within the next five years.

Does he think that a few measly tax breaks will insure 8.4 million children? Doesn't he remember that we had a balanced budget six years ago? Does he think it shows discipline to spend $360 billion trying to find non-existent weapons of mass destruction? And does he think Michele Bachmann is a good kisser? Seriously, she was all over him. And what was with Amy Klobuchar's suit? Damn, girl, you're in the U.S. Senate now, not the Wal-mart! And were Jim Webb and Kim Jong Il seperated at birth?!? That hair is uncanny!

But I digress. George Bush is in a bed of his own making: he flatly refused to listen to anyone outside of his own echo chamber, and as a result he has bitterly divided a country that was steadfastly united just five short years ago. Now he cannot make anyone happy: not the conservatives, not the moderates, not the progressives. I have only this to say to you, Mr. President: too fucking bad. Lie in your bed, George. You've put all of us to sleep.

God Doesn't Give a Damn What You Think

Check this out: Pat Robertson recently said that God told him that terrorists will attack the U.S. in late 2007. What a remarkable fiction. If it doesn't happen, he can claim that through his and his organization's prayers, and your generous donations to the 700 Club, the catastrophe was averted. And if heaven forbid it does come to pass, he can solemnly demonstrate evidence of his Red Phone access to the Big Guy. The only possible motivation for this kind of base pandering is money.

It is hard for me to accept that there are millions of people in the U.S. who place their faith in this kind of charlatan. It disturbs me greatly. We used to have a word for people who talk to the voices in their heads that they call "God." It was called "crazy." Now the word is "president."

I find simple comfort in the idea that ultimately, God doesn't answer to these fools. They will have to answer to God.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Shitburger w/ Large Lies, Part 4

I love women's shoes. They're hot. But a few nebbish dorks around the office occasionally grouse that women "shouldn't be wearing open-toed shoes, because of OSHA regulations!" OSHA my ass. Never wildly impressed with the organization, after reading Fast Food Nation, I am thoroughly disgusted with the agency. Not because there aren't good people in there, but because the organization itself has been two-ball castrated by the meatpacking industry! One example among far too many: OSHA fined National Beef for negligence in the deaths of two workers. The fine? $960.

Next time I hear someone in our posh office bitching about women's shoes and safety, I'm gonna go ballistic: "FORGET about the damn shoes at the office! There are meatpackers in Greely, Colorado who REALLY need OSHA's help! They don't have TIME to worry about stubbed toes! THERE ARE PEOPLE DYING!"

And there are. Meatpacking went from a high-skill, high-wage, unionized manufacturing job to low-skill, low-wage, at-will employment for immigrants, seemingly overnight. And that transformation has helped to make it one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States.

Colorado, with the help of large agribusiness corporations, has codified what many meatpacking injuries are worth, if a worker is willing to sign a waiver that denies him the right to ever sue or even to seek a second opinion about his medical condition. A finger? $2,200 to $4,500, depending upon which one. An arm? $36,000. And "serious permanent disfigurement about the head, face, or parts of the body normally exposed to public view" entitles a worker to a maximum of $2,000. No paid leave, no medical benefits, just a permanent disability and a one-time payout if the employee is lucky.

In the end, who really pays for this travesty? We do! Because these decent people end up living on public assistance. To me, this is literally human sacrifice, subsidized by taxpaying citizens, for the purpose of providing a low-cost, unhealthy meal to ignorant consumers.

I love the chapter title, "What's in the Meat." It's horror/comedy at it's best. Like Shaun of the Dead or Bio-Zombie. So just what is in the meat? The story is macabre before the animals are even slaughtered. Cows are fed rendered chicken and pork waste. Chickens and pigs are fed rendered beef waste. Incidentally, cats and dogs eat cats and dogs. It's in their food. I didn't know that. I suppose I should have, but I didn't. Anyway, the cows, being ruminants, must be heavily dosed with antibiotics in order to survive this diet. Add to all of this a hefty cocktail of hormones to speed growth, maturation, and muscle development. That beast is ready for the kill! Better living through chemistry!

Off to the slaughterhouse. Beef cattle usually stands around in gigantic feed lots, wading in their own piss and shit for days until they get lead in to be killed in an assembly-line fashion. Now, I happen to think that the animals I eat should still be treated with some reverence. But even if you don't feel that way, consider that from a bottom-line perspective, it probably would be better if an animal about to be made into food wasn't covered in feces.

The assembly line goes at breakneck speeds, and poorly-trained, overworked, underpaid workers pull the entrails out of the carcasses as quickly as they can. One error and shit is everywhere. The shit doesn't have to be there. To wit: when the beef being processed at these slaughterhouses is to be shipped to the European Union, the lines are slowed to ensure a lower contamination ratio. The EU has virtually eliminated fecal contaminants from their meat supply, and they prefer to import as little shit as possible.

Incidentally, guess where the worst of the worst meat ends up? In our schools, being fed to children. The USDA buys it at cut-rate prices, after the prime beef is picked over by the fast-food companies.

I could go on about E. coli, Salmonella, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (aka Mad Cow Disease), and other contaminants, but the title of this four-part series pretty much sums it up: if you are eating ordinary ground beef from grocery store or from a fast food chain, you are quite literally eating shit.

The industry doesn't want to do what the EU does: slow production lines and implement widespread microbal testing at all stages of processing and handling. Instead, they want to "cold pasteurize" the meat. "Cold pasteurize"? What the hell is that? It turns out that this is what the Beef Industry Food Safety Council wants to call "irradiation."


So what about Richard Linklater's film version? I must confess I saw the movie first. I thought it was fairly well-made; it struck me as slightly preachy and disjointed, but informative and very grim. It was a clever idea to take a work of non-fiction and weave a narrative around the information.

Linklater succeeded in this endeavor by building a multi-threaded story around an ensemble, in the spirit of Syriana or Traffic. Except that the characters populating this tale are much closer to us. Terrorism and the drug trade don't affect as many Americans as fast food. Though it lacks the raw data that gives the book its devastating punch, the film's finale is as bleak as it is real.


Earlier in this series of essays, I talked about Schlosser's comment that informs the book. He said that there was nothing inevitable about the way American food production is today. And in other parts of the world, they are doing something about it. Germany, ground zero of the industrial revolution, no longer believes that an industrialized food system is in the best interests of people or the environment. They are legislating to de-industrialize food production, mandating that 20% of farms are organic by 2010.

Now that's something hopeful. I'd like to see the U.S. take a step or two in that direction. But we have to start somewhere. So skip the fast food. Buy small, buy local, buy organic. Eat slow food.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Shitburger w/ Large Lies, Part 3

In 1917, the five largest meatpacking companies - Armour, Swift, Morris, Wilson, and Cudahy - controlled about 55% of the market. They routinely fixed prices and engaged in a myriad of anti-competitive behaviors, so much so that President Woodrow Wilson, presumably having no relation to the Wilson meatpacking company, ordered the FTC to investigate the industry.

Worried that a trial would destroy them, the meat industry giants signed a consent decree in 1920 that effectively broke their monopoly. Over the next fifty years the industry became smaller and more distributed. By 1970, the top four meatpacking firms slaughtered only about 21% of the nation's cattle.

Fast forward to today. The top four meatpacking firms - ConAgra, IBP, Excel, and National Beef - slaughter about 84% of the nation's cattle. This does not raise concern in Congress or the White House. In fact, the president and key members of Congress embrace this system and are cozy with the industry's lobbyists. The USDA, OSHA, and the FDA are largely partners with these agribusiness giants. These federal agencies possess little real power to enforce regulations or punish infractions.

This massive concentration of market power is maintained in large part because there is not a widespread, open commodities exchange for cattle. As much as 80% of the cattle being grown is bought and sold at undisclosed prices by the big four, effectively rendering a small rancher powerless to compete for market share or offer his stock at an informed price.

So what happened in the last 40 years? McDonald's demand for supply chain efficiencies...

Jesus, am I still going? Are you still here? You should have slapped me long ago. But thanks for sticking with me. Damn, this is getting to be a long review. I was trying to write a narrative of one thread that runs through Fast Food Nation, but it seems to be falling apart! You'll just have to read the book.

The tale of the beef industry, as told in the chapters "On the Range", "The Most Dangerous Job," and "What's in the Meat," is the beating heart of Schlosser's opus. But as I sit here trying to organize my thoughts and include the choicest cuts, I realize again how skillfully Schlosser has presented his material.

He had opened the book with a comparative history of two of the great purveyors of Americana in the 20th century, Walt Disney and Ray Kroc. We all know uncle Walt (though maybe not some of his more nefarious deeds), but Kroc is the man who took the McDonald brothers' small California restaurant and made it into an international phenomenon.

Disney's and Kroc's desire for complete control of their own product and their single-minded strategy to sell that product to the entire family made them unique. This introduction helps to frame a context for the explosion of fast food in the last forty years. Without it, the story just doesn't quite come to life.

Next: the stunning conclusion to Shitburger: the film, the grotesque facts, and some other third thing.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Shitburger w/ Large Lies, Part 2

By the time I got around to looking at Fast Food Nation, I considered myself pretty aware of food politics. My wife and I had run a child care business. Good nutrition and food safety were important issues to us. I bought free-range and organic foods when I could, and we never ate much beef anyway.

I thought we were doing pretty well, I thought I was a green, progressive consumer, I thought I had heard all I needed to know about the mistreatment of chickens and the lagoons of pigshit. Who cares about a little fast food? It's no big deal. I was doing my part, wasn't I?

There is so much more to the story.

In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser assembles an enormous amount of information into a single tome that scathingly indicts the American system of industrial agriculture. What is remarkable about this book is that he mostly manages to eschew the hyperbole of a true believer. Instead, he turns a serious, investigative, and critical eye toward the entire economic and cultural system of fast food. His meticulous research and statistics made my jaw drop and my stomach sick. But he is never dour nor boring, and rarely is he pedantic. He uses humor and humanity to portray the absurdity and the horror of the tale.

Schlosser's central question is "why?" Why is industrial agriculture and the fast food industry the way that it is? In asking this question, he notes that, while the fast food experience has become so utterly mundane and commonplace that it is akin to brushing one's teeth or stopping at a traffic light, there was nothing inevitable about the way it is. That simple idea struck a chord in me. I'd never thought of the problem in quite that way. We lived in an industrial society, so why wouldn't we have an industrialized food system?

It turns out that the food system we have today has a one-hundred year history, dating back to the turn of the last century. In the early 20th century, farming and raising cattle were largely the same as they had been for time out of mind. But urban areas were changing. Chicago meatpackers were subject to appalling conditions, and the meat being processed was filth-ridden.

A young socialist, Upton Sinclair, published his incendiary work The Jungle, which documented the plight of these workers and exposed the foul and potentially harmful beef. Public outcry from this book and from other activists caused such a stir that the Roosevelt administration swiftly enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This became the foundation of the modern Food and Drug Administration.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Shitburger w/ Large Lies, Part 1

As a kid, I loved McDonald's. I can't tell you how many times I went there. I grew up on it. My parents were divorced, so it was my connection to my dad, who on Sundays took us there during our visits.

We never had illusions that it was any good for us. My dad had read Bic Mac: the Unauthorized Story of McDonald's when it came out in the 1970s. So he knew it wasn't a healthy supper. My aunt always teased us that those white buns gave you butt cancer. I didn't really know what that meant at the time, but the word "butt" made me giggle.

None of that really mattered, however. The poor nutritional value of the meal was completely eclipsed by desire and expediency. It tasted so good! Salt, fat and sugar in spades. A McDonald's meal satisfied primal cravings. It was otherworldly; an instant meal to fill us up and make us happy.

My first introduction to food politics came when I was a teenager. A friend pointed out that Burger King used meat from Hormel, which had notoriously broken the Austin, Minnesota meatpacking union strike. He had relatives who were meatpackers, so I showed solidarity by avoiding the Whopper. We simply proceeded to eat every other kind of fast food we could get our hands on.

Time went on. Eating at McDonald's, though still ok, became rare, as I had grown into a fairly health-conscious person. But all that went out the window when I had kids. Once again I found myself seduced by the cheap, quick, and convenient "all-American meal." My wife became obsessed with collecting the toys that came with the Happy Meals. My kids loved the treat.

It wasn't a regular thing. We tried to instill good eating habits in our kids. But McDonald's was an acceptable bit of junk food: good for a night I didn't feel like cooking, a safe stop that everyone could agree upon while traveling, an easy place to grab a quick meal and a collectible nicknack. How bad could it be?

All of this is backstory to my inevitable encounter with Fast Food Nation. I saw the film last Thanksgiving, then I finally started the book over Christmas. I just finished it today.

Anti Hard-On

What's the opposite of a hard-on? Easy-Off. I spent an hour today trying to clean my stove and microwave with Easy-Off BAM Universal Degreaser. I must say that the supposedly powerful, foamy white spray isn't very sticky and doesn't penetrate well. The whole experience left me flaccid.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Crank Wankers

My son has mono. At least the doctor thinks so. Anyway, he was feeling really shitty yesterday. Shitty enough to sit down with his old man and watch a bad action movie!

We had seen Transporter and Transporter 2 together, and we had lamented that we didn't make it to see Crank, Jason Statham's latest offering. So when my wife came home with that DVD from the video store, our evening plans were set.

If you've seen the preview, you've just about seen this movie. Like the bus in Speed, Statham's character has to go full throttle or his heart will stop. "You've had the Bejing cocktail!?! If you stop, you die!" Or so says Dwight Yoakam's character, a strung-out doctor (!) with a taste for Vegas hookers (!!). Anyway, the concept itself makes me chuckle.

There is nothing particularly original or exciting in the movie, I'd seen most all of this before, and done better. The film relished a little too much in its own stupidity. But in spite of all of that, it managed to make us laugh. On display during its 87-minute running time: public sex, dismemberment, a boner under a hospital gown, riding a motorcycle without pants, a car going up an escalator, the word "cunt" superimposed on Statham's character as he utters the line "does it look like I have 'cunt' written on my forehead?" Talk about gonzo.

When I asked my son's favorite part, he quipped, "all of it. No wait, the public sex scene. Not to mention the best ending. Actually, change 'best' to 'most insulting.'"

And in truth, the end I'd never seen before. It's unlikely you've seen a movie that ends quite like Crank.

Happy Slightly Used Year

Well, 2007 is thirteen days old. I haven't brought about the harmonic convergence, nor conquered the world yet, but it seems to be going ok. My resolution for this year is to cook more. I've been doing fairly well so far. And in truth, it seems to be a simple, modest, and completely achievable goal. There is a lot behind this resolution, however. I'll speak more about it when I publish my joint book/film review of Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Support Our Tropes

Every day I have to endure the sight of little yellow ribbons placed upon all kinds of automobiles, ranging from old jalopies to shiny new gigantic SUVs, and it galls me. In the old days, you had to put a sticky flag decal and real ribbon on your car if you wanted to display your support for human bloodshed. But nowadays you don't even have to commit that much! You can put a flexible magnetic ribbon on your vehicle. Don't worry, they are a safe thing to put on your car! The magnet won't damage the finish. And if your team doesn't win, you can peel it off and no one will know that you backed a loser.

I support our troops in a very different way. I do it by voting for politicians who will increase soldiers' pay and health benefits, who try to insure that their families are cared for, and who work hard to guarantee that they are well-equipped and well-trained for their missions. But above all, I support our troops by trying to elect leaders who refuse to put our soldiers into harm's way without a truly just cause.

I will not support our troops by picking up the two-for-one deal on refrigerator magnets in the checkout line at Wal-mart.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Plan 9 From Outer Space

Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

The U.S. has spent nearly $360 billion fighting a war in Iraq that has no clear military objective, and therefore no possibility of victory. The Iraqi civilian death toll is astronomical; estimates range from 53,000 to 600,000 dead. Even the conservative estimate is staggering. U.S. soliders have been stretched to the breaking point, required to serve long past what one should in good conscience ask of a person in uniform.

Tonight, the president's plan shows that he is unfazed by his tragic and colossal blunder. Instead of introducing a sweeping plan for peace in Iraq, instead of listening to his critics, his colleagues, or even the man who helped deliver him the presidency in 2000, he keeps his own counsel. Instead of trying something wholly new, something unexpected, something inspiring, he has abandoned real reform in policy for more violence.

George Bush wants 20,000 more soldiers in Baghdad and Anbar Province. His plan speaks of brigades and troop strengths and clearing the threat of radical Islamic extremists. Lost in his wargame fantasy is that Americans have no interest in an open-ended conflict in a faraway land. The United States has neither the will nor the stomach to fight the Iraqi War. This is war in which one of the belligerents has no cause to fight. A war like that cannot be "won."

A review of the facts: countless dead, closing in on a half-trillion dollars spent, no credible exit strategy, and the global terror threat has increased since 9/11/2001. Faced with these sobering realities, Bush still thinks that more troops in Iraq will pacify the insurgency, quell international terrorism, and support the nation-building efforts of the newly installed government.

Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Georgsama bush Laden

George Bush and Osama bin Laden have more in common with each other than I do with either one. Both are wealthy scions of powerful families who spent their youths as feckless playboys. They both became deeply religious fundamentalists and both now claim to do God's bidding. And terrifyingly, they both believe that they are fully justified in their use of violence to achieve their political goals. Are these similarities merely superficial? Or do they mean something?

Correction: I just read a succinct biography of bin Laden. He was not in fact a feckless playboy in his youth; that rumor is apparently unfounded. George, the story of transformation from boozy coke-head into born-again religious fanatic is yours alone!

Monday, January 8, 2007

Bow Vine Whore Moans

I had a really interesting idea for a post this evening, but I got bogged down thinking of a clever title, and then I got side tracked by thinking about homonyms. I love homonyms. They are, of course, the essential ingredient to delivering a pun. Anyway, the whole of the essay has vanished for now, completely forgotten in the wake of my futile search for a witty word play.

So I'm left with this: the title of this particular rambling scrawl scarcely has a point, other than to illustrate how far afield one can go with homonyms: start with a cow's biochemistry and end up with one part nonsense and one part wailing ten dollar call-girl. I hope it titillated the readers anyway.


I kind of suck at my new job. I work on this gimpy, complicated RAD tool that combines the worst of fat client and thin client technologies. I have a load of deliverables due this Friday, and I don't really know how to do much with this damn tool yet. Once upon a time I would have cried myself to sleep every night until I figured it out, but nowadays I'm much too crabby, sedated, and distracted to achieve that level of emotional involvement with my projects at work.

Anyway, I was really looking forward to getting on track at work this week, because one of the contractors who did the initial development on the system is in town. He had planned to spend the entire week with me. Instead, he has his own functional deliverables due Friday. So I'm not going to get nearly as much of his time as I had hoped. Oh well. I'll have to just dive in and see what I can do. At least I ain't chicken.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

My Beautiful Balloon

I just finished watching The White Diamond for the second time, a Werner Herzog documentary from 2004. My wife rented it last Tuesday without really knowing anything about it. We watched it in awe on Wednesday night. When she selected it, I don't even think she realized it was by Herzog, because the Hollywood Video sticker was haphazardly placed over the film's title, which contained his byline. She just plucked it off the shelf without much thought. She's discovered some incredible films that way.

I was mesmerized by this picture. The film is many things: a history of flight and a celebration of its transcendency, an experiment in balloon technology's applications, a cathartic tale of an accident remembered, a travelogue of an adventure a wild rainforest, and a tale of a curious native and his rooster. I watched it twice in three days.

The serene photography is breathtaking, but more than that I was drawn to the characters. Dorrington, the subject of the film, is an inventor, an odd man of passion and conviction. He navigates his life with aplomb and yet he is haunted by an accident in his past. Being a dreamer myself, I am drawn to dreamers, and Dorrington, an unabashed nerd, not only dreams big but pursues them relentlessly. He spends time discussing his grand schemes and how one might realize them.

Herzog was very fortunate to find a perfect foil for his obsessive subject in one of the local porters hired by the crew to carry equipment into the rainforest. Mark Anthony Yhap is a simple yet profound man, a diamond miner filled with a quiet delight in his surroundings and in life itself. He seems to float through the film and through life, aware of the world around him and yet ultimately untroubled by it. The crew and the viewer are both drawn to this happy, peaceful person. When Mark Anthony is invited to fly in Dorrington's airship, he gladly accepts, but then has a strange, pensive look on his face: he regrets that his rooster Red Man cannot fly too. After he lands, he remarks quietly with a mysterious grin that his rooster should have joined him on the flight. A small moment of touching humor.

Why Not

It occurred to me recently that I should write in a blog, not because everyone else is doing it, nor because I have some really profound insights to share, but merely because I seem to be better on paper than I am in person. Hey, that may not be saying much, but it's something. Coincidentally, a friend showed me his blog this week that he'd been writing for three months. While it is overwhelmingly apparent that he has plenty to say, what my contribution to the world of online literature will be remains to be seen. Maybe writing this blog will make me a better writer. Or maybe this space will become just another bit of litter on the garbage-laden information stupor highway.