Friday, February 18, 2011

A Crisis of Czars

President George W. Bush speaks to the press after the signing of the 2008 Economic Report Monday Feb. 11, 2008, in the Oval Office. Joining President Bush are, from left, Chuck Blahous, Deputy Assistant to the President for Economic Policy; Pierce Scranton, Chief of Staff, Council of Economic Advisors; Eddie Lazear, Chairman, Council of Economic Advisors; Donald Marron, Senior Economic Advisor, Council of Economic Advisors; and Keith Hennessey, Assistant to the President for Economic Policy. White House photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

That, is a shot from the George Bush Archives.

I pop it up because of this wee gem on the House slate.

The House has decided to draw a line in the sand against experts who have experience and who keep the President informed and help formulate policy.  Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) has introduced the measure, "I think this sends a strong signal to the president that we are tired of him running this shadow government, where they have got these czars that are literally circumventing the accountability and scrutiny that goes with Senate confirmation."  Likewise he states, "We are going to save millions of taxpayer dollars, but we are also going to send him a signal that he is going to have to hold his administration accountable to the same transparency that he promised, but has unfortunately failed to deliver."

What is interesting isn't the move to defund positions in the Cabinet--which is troubling enough, and is something that I'm not sure that the Representative has thought clearly through since the House and Senate change hands fair often, as do the folks in the Big Chair--but the lack of anything remotely looking like awareness that the term "czar" is a nickname that has been given to Advisors to the President, for a long while. Since Woodrow Wilson, who appointed Bernard Baruch to run the War Industries Board late in WWI.  The nice folks at Wikipedia have compiled a list of "Czars" that have served since FDR.

The interesting take away from that list is that Bill Clinton appointed 8 such posts.  George W Bush appointed 33. To be fair, President Obama has appointed 54. The uptick in these Advisors comes down to an expansion of issues that the Administration sees as important, such as climate change, the special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation at the Council on Environmental Quality; the senior adviser to the secretary of the treasury assigned to the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry and senior counselor for manufacturing policy; the White House director of urban affairs; the special envoy to oversee the closure of Guantanamo Bay; the special master for TARP executive compensation at the Department of the Treasury; and the associate general counsel and chief diversity officer at the Federal Communications Commission.

AIDS apparently is still enough of a crisis to warrent a post, as it was during the Bush Presidency, though likewise to be fair, President Obama declined to continue with a Bird Flu Czar as under his predecessor. Likewise, copyright law is apparently important enough to warrent a post for both Administrations as well.  Likewise, issues of regulation, budget, terrorism, and even faith based initiatives are fine. All of these, the President has continued posts from the previous Administration.

Where was the gnashing of teeth when the number of "Czars" grew to over four times that of the Clinton Presidency?  The issue isn't about transparency--which the Administration actually has a "Czar" for, to advise on how to present things better--but rather, a focus on green energy, closing GITMO, diversity, and gutting economic policy to better the field for the coming Presidential election. While the Gentleman from Louisiana may talk a good game about belt tightening, it boils down to limiting the Presdient's effectiveness on issues that have potential to be disastrous for some interests who really don't like the idea of alternatives being found, or government efficiency to improve upon.

Crossposted to The Motley Moose

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Apparently, Rummy didn't bone up on Nurnberg...

Rumsfeld seeks to throw out the Padilla case.  That is the lawsuit that claims that harsh interrogation tactics were used, and violated his civil and Constitutional rights.  Padilla was the test case for the "enemy combatant" defense of holding even American citizens, and held without charge for four years, interrogated with methods that under most circumstances would be outlawed within the US.  Particularly troubling in the case, was the stripping of rights due to the "unlawful combatant" nomenclature that was used to justify the holding without charge, which under most circumstances would have violated his civil and Constitutional rights. 

The defense?  Folks were only following orders.

Presidential immunity cited regarding 'enemy combatants'Any injuries suffered by Padilla were the result of President Bush’s authorization that he be treated as an enemy combatant, Rumsfeld’s lawyers say. The president enjoys complete immunity for those actions, they say, so the suit must be thrown out.

“Military detention is a normal and inevitable incident of an enemy combatant designation,” Rumsfeld’s lawyers argue in their brief. Padilla’s assignment to the Charleston brig was “routine and appropriate.”

Save, in this case, Rumsfeld did more than just follow orders. He crafted the programs and gave the orders himself. He was center to the legal framework of the justification of stripping the amenities of US citizenship and its rights and responsibilities from Padilla in his holding without charge. While Rumsfeld would like to throw the cloak of Presidential immunity over himself, he seems to forget that "Befehl ist Befehl" worked less well than folks had expected none too long ago.

Let's be clear.  Padilla was pretty much guilty of conspiring to create a dirty bomb. The evidence was fairly damning, and his connections checked out.  He was not a good man, and by and large, if he'd been more competent and law enforcement less on the ball, he might have actually gotten his wish and performed a horrendous act on our soil. The thing is, we have tried terrorists in this country before.  Both foreign and domestic. ADX Florence  holds several convicted terrorists, some more successful than Mr. Padilla.  Mind you, not held, but convicted.  Our justice system can handle trying even difficult cases, and the lawsuit that Rumsfeld is trying to deflect comes because folks wanted shortcuts and work arounds difficult points of law, as opposed to doing the job right the first time.

Ramzi Yousef-Captured in Pakistan, convicted for role in Bojinka plot in 1996, convicted for role in 1993 WTC bombing, sent to ADX Florence.

Wali Khan Amin Shah-Captured in Manila, convicted for role in Bojinka plot, sent to ADX Florence

Abdul Hakim Ali Hashim Murad - Captured in Manila, convicted for role in Bojinka plot, sent to ADX Florence

Eyad Ismoil - Captured in Amman, extradited to US, convicted of role in 1993 WTC bombing, sent to ADX Florence

Khalfan Khamis Mohamed-Captured in Cape Town, convicted of 1998 Embassy bombings, sent to ADX Florence

Mahmud Abouhalima-Captured in Egypt, convicted of 1993 WTC bombings, sent to ADX Florence
Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-Owhali-Convicted of 1998 Embassy bombings, sent to ADX Florence
Mohammed Odeh-Captured in Karachi, convicted of 1998 Embassy bombings, sent to ADX Florence
Mohammed A. Salameh-Convicted of involvement in 1993 WTC bombing, sent to ADX Florence
Mohammed Ali Hassan Al-Moayad-Captured in Germany, convicted of federal crimes related to funding Hamas, sent to ADX Florence

All convicted of Federal crimes.  All captured and convicted. The difficulty being, that Rumsfeld and the Bush Presidency did not want to rely on law enforcement to do their job. They instead wanted the blunt force operation of the military to make things "easier" for capture.  The problem being, while the military is fantastic at some operations, preserving a chain of evidence is not a particular strong suit.  The matter of capturing and convicting terrorists comes down to a matter of law enforcement, and there come certain restrictions that the military does not have. Which is why it seemed the attractive option.  The problem being, that if you simply want to kill terrorists, then the military is your tool. If you want to try and convict terrorists, it's another thing entirely.  The Bush Presidency, and its staff were of two minds on the matter, wanting to have victories in court, as well as victories on the ground.  Rather than play by the rules, they looked for workarounds on the law, and for shortcuts.  The problem being, if you want to convict folks, then you really can't take those shortcuts.

The issue at hand isn't that Padilla wasn't a bad man.  He was. But, we extend human rights and our system of justice to everyone, and in looking to work around these restrictions, Rumsfeld and his team were personally knowledgeable of their actions, and were cognizant of the legal ramifications enough that they ordered the Justice Department to produce legal memos to justify the actions that were taken. Not to look at precedence and work from a solid legal position, but to lattice a framework to justify actions already taken.  Under orders or not, Rumsfeld and others named in this case, were fully aware of the shakey legal ground, and I hope to the 10,000 Hells that this case goes all the way, because we need to draw a line in the sand against those who use "orders" to throw away our basic values and foundations of our law.  That this asinine legal morass threatens to throw out many cases only compounds the sin, because if we'd handled the mess with attention to detail, and according to law, instead of looking to shoehorn law and justifications for things already done, we would have many more names in ADX Florence, held without being martyrs to a cause, and held with justice being on our side.

In order to take the moral high ground, we must actually occupy that territory first, and damned if this case needs to be taken through, because this mess has sullied our name, our nation, and our system.  It threatens us as much as the dirty bomb that Padilla hoped to build, and just as corrosive and dangerous to our systems of governance.

Crossposted to The MotleyMoose...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tucker and Dale vs Evil

Tucker and Dale vs Evil hit the film festival circuit early last year, and is now on video.

I try to stay away from hype on a film.  I certainly stay away from those pesky awards, but on this one, I can see why it took SXSW Audience Award, as well a couple of other festival awards, because this is a little film with a lot of hearts.  On screen, usually getting impaled with something sharp, wooden, and with a fair amount of Karo-based faux-blood product.

Our tale begins with a pack of college kids heading out into the woods for a weekend of fun at the lake. Enter Tucker and Dale, a couple of back woods boys who are likewise heading to the lake and Tucker's new vacation home, a charming fixer upper cabin in West Virginia.  Which happens to be across said lake from the camping spot of our erstwhile college kids, out for a good time.

Without wanting to spoil things too much, let us say that hijinks ensue when Tucker and Dale are mistaken by the pack of college ne'erdowells as backwoods hillbilly psychopaths, and their quiet weekend of fixing up the cabin takes several turns for the worse as wave after wave of frat boys and girls extinguish themselves in appropriately spectacular fashions trying to escape the hapless fellas, just out to drink beer, fish, and clean out their new vacation home.

I would like to say that there was a deeper story, but that would be a lie. It is a film that likes the characters, likes to play with conventions--the earnest Tucker and Dale holding off a horde of college kids who seem hellbent to kill themselves in front of the boys, the beautiful lass left for dead by her friends, and saved by the kindly Dale--it treats Tucker and Dale with respect, while the cartoonish college kids are fodder for effects mill, as is the wont of slasher films galore. What it is, is funny and entertaining, and I love its tagline: The perfect love story...with a high body count puts well the entire film into a tasty tidbit.

Scary?  Not so much. Cartoonish violence, a thin story, it is a great send up for slasher movies, and plays with the conventions that we all know, all hold dear, and shows you exactly how it's going to tip them over, and holds you accountable for how you take that.  Eli Craig, who wrote and directed the film, isn't taking you through any new country, but that's half the fun.  You know the conventions, you know the premise, and it's still a funny and fresh film.  In part, because of the charm of Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, and that of Katrina Bowden, who plays the damsel in peril, saved by our hillbilly heroes from a terrible death by drowning.  The performances, and goofiness play off the script, intentionally thin and a foil for the conventions of the slasher, and the one thing that the film does, is keep its tongue firmly in cheek and with great affection to the source material and the genre.

If you missed it on the circuit, you can catch it on Netflix or at your video store. It is one of those gems that comes up on occasion that make movie watching fun. That is, if you find campy horror with grisly ends fun...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

10 Myths About Buddhism

Greta Christina at AlterNet got me thinking a bit with her piece on 10 Myths and Truths About Atheism.  As a Buddhist, I sometimes get to field the odd question and assumption, and some of them are sometimes a bit off base.  I don't pretend to be a historian, but I wanted to tackle the subject as an exercise in understanding.

1:   Buddhism is a Pagan religion.
There are a lot of gods in many Buddhist practices.  In part, because Buddhism doesn't replace native beliefs where it finds itself.  Siddhartha is a revered figure, but the Buddha is the Enlightened one, and while revered, he considered himself a teacher, and encouraged those who set upon the Eightfold Path to reject anyone's infallibility, including his own.  One of the features of Buddhism, is that it need not take the place of native beliefs, it is a philosophy that seeks to place itself in context with where it finds root. Gods have a place in Buddhist teachings, in a dualistic fashion.  If anything, gods have a place as guideposts, and even as warning signs.

Gods tend to have specific purposes and duties.  They are often locked into those roles.  While revered figures, they are likewise unable to break from those roles.  Gods, despite their divinity, are unable to become truly Enlightened, and in some ways, locked into those roles, by their own conception, they are to be pitied.  They are locked into their roles in Celestial order.  Protectors perhaps, guides perhaps, but ultimately as locked into the cycles of death and rebirth as anyone else, albeit, with different roles to play. It is in those roles that they are locked, and unable to break free of those roles, they are figures that can be revered, but ultimately, they are forces to respect, that are lessons in the dangers of acceptance of the cycles of suffering and rebirth.

2:   All Buddhists believe in reincarnation.
While many sects place an emphasis on the cycle of birth and rebirth, that is hardly representative of all Buddhists. Shin Buddhists tend to concentrate on the now, as opposed to the next existence.  Buddhism has had 2500 years or so of development and divergence in practice.  Look at the profusion of ministries of Christianity, and add half a millennium of teachings, and you have an idea of how disparate the many schools of Buddhist thought can be. Reincarnation is an important part of many teachings, but that is likewise in context to actions that are preformed now.  What Buddhists do all share is the universal truth of impermanence and the interconnectedness of all beings. As you awaken to that truth, so can we exercise our awareness and compassion. Compassion in the realization that no being is higher or lower, but the same and interconnected with ourselves. Reincarnation doesn't affect that basic connectedness.

3:  All Buddhists are vegetarians.
While many monks maintain a vegetarian diet, anyone who has known a Tibetan Buddhist can tell you, that while vegetarian diet is revered, it also isn't always possible.  Theravada teachings highlight that the Buddha accepted any food offered as alms, including meat.  The prohibition against meat comes from actively seeking animals to be slaughtered for your consumption. It also comes from the concept of Right livlihood--to not engage in trades or occupations which, directly or indirectly, result in the harm of other living beings.  The business of weapons, trafficking of human beings, meat, intoxicants, and poison are all considered to be harmful.  Mahayana practice is much more strict on the point--in some cases, depending on the Sutras taught, some reject the idea that the Buddha ate meat or permitted it.  Some attribute that to the rise of Chinese monasteries--such institutions meant food prepared specifically for consumption of the monks, and that would mean that animals would be brought in specifically for slaughter.  The Vajrayana traditions sometimes allow followers to consume alcohol and meat, and the Ganachakra prescribe both.  While the Dalai Lama himself promotes a vegetarian diet, he himself partakes meat when offered.  The Japanese schools likewise have de-emphasized vegetarianism as well.

4:  Buddhists are pessimists with all that suffering.
The Four Nobles Truths can be interpreted by many to be dang pessimistic.

1: Life mans suffering
2: The origin of suffering is attachment.
3: The cessation of suffering is attainable.
4: There is a path to the cessation of suffering.

You will note, that "suffering" is in all four of those things.  That, on the surface, seems to be a LOT of emphasis on suffering and pain.

Yet, in that, we have a path from that. The First Noble Truth is that we all suffer. Pain is an inevitable part of life. Pain, sickness, heartache, frustration, disappointment.  While we seek to supplant that pain--and all living things do that--those remedies for pain are impermanent in nature.  Be that sex, be that relationships, be that drugs, be that eating, be that satisfaction in our trade, all those moments of pleasure are transient.

The Second Noble Truth refers to our attachment to these impermanent things as a remedy for pain. Often that very search leads to more pain, with craving and clinging to these impermanent things, whose loss is inevitable, including our attachment to the illusion of the self.  One of my teachers explained it simply: expectation leads to disappointment.  Our attachments and expectations can lead us down a path to pain.

The Third Noble Truth is where things get away from the heaviness of suffering.  There is hope to unshackle yourself from cycles of pain and suffering, some of your own making, some of the general nature of existence. By unmaking those attachments, and reliance on the transient and impermanent, we can overcome thhe causes of suffering. Free of worries and cares, we can detach from the impermanent.

The Fourth Noble Truth lays down the path to the end of suffering, between the extremes of hedonism and self mortification, we can free ourselves from those cycles of suffering. It takes work, it takes dedication, it takes practice, but we are ultimately responsible for our own path, and we can choose to do that.  In the end, our path is our choice.  It's a very empowering sort of statement, and one that is sometimes equally scary and hopeful at the same time.

5:  Buddhists are all pacifists.
Yes, Buddhism holds a deep regard for all life. Murder, violence, war, all things to be rejected. Yet, Buddhists have fought in many conflicts over the centuries. In 621 CE, the monks of Shaolin fought to help establish the Tang Dynasty. Tibetan Buddhists formed strategies with the Mongols to assist in their victories. Zen Buddhists in Japan colluded with the samurai culture to dominate the nation. and was certainly involved in the rise of militarism in the 1930s to the rise of the Japanese prior to WWII, not just excusing the killing, but raising funds for manufacture of weapons and tools of war.

Dhammananda wrote: Buddhists should not be the aggressors even in protecting their religion or anything else. They must try their best to avoid any kind of violent act. Sometimes they may be forced to go to war by others who do not respect the concept of the brotherhood of humans as taught by the Buddha.  They may be called upon to defend their country from external aggression, and as long as they have not renounced the worldly life, they are duty-bound to join the the struggle for peace and freedom. Under these circumstances, they cannot be blamed for becoming soldiers or being involved in defence. However, if everyone were to follow the advice of the Buddha, there would be no reason for war to take place in this world. It is the duty of every cultured person to find all possible ways and means to settle disputes in a peaceful manner, without declaring war to kill his or her fellow human beings.

There is the story of bandits killed by rinpoche who realized the intent to pirate and slay others, who were killed to prevent not just to protect those under his charge, but to prevent the pirate from going on to bring torment to others and his own self for those acts.

While the teachings of Buddhism hold deep regard for life, out of compassion for all things, it is like any other religion, and there are those who have used its teachings to justify a lot of things over the years, including war and violence.  Ultimately, that decision has more to do with those who choose to do so. As a bouncer, I justified my actions in putting folks down hard to protecting folks from harm. It was my decision, and it's still a struggle.  In preventing harm, and keeping others from harming others, I feel that I did right not only by my patrons, but by those who would harm them.  In stopping things before they could get ugly, or uglier, I served a greater purpose.  Justification and self delusion?  Possibly, and that is the struggle to walk the Middle Path.  While many Buddhists hold that violence is never an option, there are those who hold that their actions can prevent greater harm.

6:  Buddhists are above sex and scandals.

Buddhist monks and nuns have been involved in all sorts of scandals and escapades, pretty much since the beginning of monastic practice.  While the concepts of "Do not engage in sexual misconduct" is strong in teaching and practice, there have historically been LOTS of folks who tossed that right out the window.  Even the concept of Buddhist monks being forbidden to marry is hardly universal--Pure Land Buddhist in particular in Japan--as the founder of the Jodo Shinshu school married, and authorized priests to marry as well.  Celibacy in the monastic orders is hardly universal.

In modern times, across China, Japan, Tibet, Thailand, and even in America, Buddhists have been involved in scandals involving sex.  People are people, and people often do dumb things.  Buddhists are no different in that.  There have been monks who have abused nuns in monastaries. There have been monks who have abused lay people--men and women.  Charges of gross misogyny can be leveled against many temples and priests, not just in Asia, and not just in ancient history. The recent revelation of Eido Shimano's misconduct with students is hardly the first such scandal.  Monasteries in China and Japan both have been guilty of prostituting nuns, and covered up, or excused.  The lack of response by those in a leadership role in those monasteries is just as damning as the lack of response and dodging of the Vatican in response to charges of sexual misconduct by their own priests.  Much as folks like to brush these things under the rug, they have occurred, and it is something that is still a danger.  Buddhists are far from perfect, and the idea that Buddhists are above such things by dint of the nature of the practice and teachings is dangerous.  Dangerous to the folks who leave themselves open to coercion, dangerous to the practices and temples where such things occur, and dangerous to those who want to ignore such misconduct.  That thinking involves giving credence to an illusion that Buddhism is above such things, and illusions are something that Buddhists try to strip away from themselves.  As in any practice or teaching situation, there are those who will try to use their position for personal gain, and for personal gratification.  Even those who cloak themselves in respectability as teachers and priests. Buddhists are not above such things, and shedding light on these scandals brings the antiseptic of truth to ugliness that some would prefer be swept under the rug.

7: Buddhist are serious and can't enjoy life.
Hotei sort of dispels that. Hotei is the chubby, laughing monk that is popularized with lots of statues that are often mislabeled as The Laughing Buddha.  Hotei was a monk from the ninth century in China, from the Chen school--the precursor to Zen--and has been venerated and commemorated as a popular figure of the zest that Buddhists can have for life.

While Buddhist practice does discourage extremes, one of the enduring facets is the humor of nearly all my teachers over the years. The Buddha himself was often depicted as smiling and and cheerful.  Open heart and kindness are virtues to be celebrated in nearly every culture, and Buddhism is no different. Humor is a great tool, for pricking self delusion, and exhibiting compassion.  Buddhists can drone on and on, but the greatest of teachers keep a zest for life, and instilling calm and comfort to those around them.  Laughter and joy are to be shared, and its importance can be found in the Patisambhidamagga:

Those who are filled with smiles and laughter will perfect the virtues. That is smiling wisdom. Those who are filled with smiles and laughter will attain the path and the direct knowledges, and they will quickly realize the ultimate meaning, Nirvana.

Compassion, as a virtue, means to feel the pain of others. To realize that we are all connected and one. That leads not just to wanting to alleviate their pain, but liking others. Understanding others.  Seeking to increase their happiness and welfare. Laughter and sharing it is one great way to do so.  Yes, Buddhists can natter on about suffering and responsibility and duties, but at heart, you learn to like people more. Like yourself, like others, and that spills out in lots of ways beyond giving alms to the poor.

8:  Buddhists don't believe anything truly exists.
Maya, illusion, is an important concept in Buddhist thought. We cling to many illusions, build entire scaffolds of reason to defend many illusions, and there are many schools of thought to the underlying nature of reality.  Perception of reality are based on preconceptions and many of the tools that Buddhist bring to contemplation are designed to strip our preconceptions away.

I like how the Dalai Lama puts the answer to the question of Do Objects Exist?

"Analysis does not contradict the mere existence of the object. Phenomena do indeed exist, but not in the way we think.

The underpinnings of reality are a debate within oneself, on understanding the nature of conventional truth, and ultimate truth. It's a conversation that involves your own understanding, and is part of the journey we take to understand ourselves, our place in things, and how we relate to that place. In the end, that's something we need to look at, and reason out ourselves.

9:  Buddhist teachers and priests are final arbiters of what is right.
While teachers and many figures have arisen to help show folks the way, the Buddha himself had a simple thought on this.

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written  in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

Ultimately, every Buddhist is the arbiter of their own path. While others can show you what has worked for them, and understand the hurdles that confront you, it is up to you to make your own leaps, and your own path.  Teachers can help, priests can give you tools that have worked for them, and others, but in the end, it is up to you to figure out how to use them best. Teachers are resources, respected, but in the end, you have to make that journey on your own. You are the final arbiter in your path, and what works for you, may not work for everyone else, or visa versa. You are the final arbiter of what is right, and you have that responsibility to forge that on your own.

10: Karma is the cosmic balancing force.
Karma's root in Sanskrit is simple. Action. Karma as a concept is often misinterpreted as a way for the Universe to balance good and evil.  You earn good karma or bad karma.  That is an interpretation that has led to a lot of justifications over the years.  In India and China, it is used as a justification to not help those who are less fortunate, because of the belief that their actions in a previous life got them to their current straits, and it would be meddling with the Wheel's purpose to assist them.  That the Universe doles out suffering and pain in this life to correct your past mistakes.  That bad things happen to you because of past misdeeds.

Karma is simpler than that. Karma is simply action. Cause and effect. Actions have reactions. All our actions ripple out with reactions, and those reactions ripple out further.  You own your actions. You are responsible for them.  You are responsible for your intentions and motivations as well.  The Golden Rule to not do things that you wouldn't want done to yourself is hardly a concept that is specific to Buddhism. Every mainstream religion teaches that your actions have consequences. They differ sometimes on how those actions can reverberate, but in Buddhism, karma is an often misunderstood concept of cosmic balancing.

While many get caught up in the "good" and "bad" concepts of karma, ultimately karma is a simple concept. You are responsible for your actions. You should understand how your actions will impact others. Your own motivations for those actions are important. Saving  a woman from drowning can be seen by many as a good act, but if you did it so you could grope her, less so good on you.  Ultimately, karma is simply a concept that your actions have weight and consequence, and if you are responsible, you will bring awareness to your actions, and be aware of your motivations. Whether or not those are for good or ill, that is dependent on you.  How those actions affect others, that is something to consider.  Not just because you want only good things for yourself, but for others as well.  Karma can get all knotted up with interpretations on their impact on your path, but it is less about how it will affect your next life, than how it affects others, now.  Actions that help others radiate out.  Good will shown can help others find compassion.  Saving a man who is starving helps them now, and can help him realize that he can help others later.  Harming others now, or simply annoying the crap out of them in traffic ripples out as well.

While there is a huge amount of teaching on the concept of karma and reincarnation, those teachings pale to the very simple concept that your actions have consequence, and being mindful of your actions, and motivations is important now, and to others.  Those discussions are important for many, but getting lost in them can detract from simple practice of mindfulness and responsibility.  Actions are important. Actions have consequence.  Be mindful of them, and the rest is a lot easier to sift through.

Cross posted to The Motley Moose

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Forgotten Classic

I am a big old geek.

I am looking forward to the release of Killzone 3.  It is shaping up to be one THE shooters for the year.  A combination of what looks to be crazy multiplayer action, and a story mode that is gritty and immersive.

Killzone 2 hit a while back, and folks hopped on it pretty well, and the Beta dropped for Killzone 3, and it has been a hugely popular.  I've been surprised though at the number of folks who missed the original on the  PS2 seven years ago.

Guerilla Games produced a game that I played the crap out of.  Halo and Halo 2 took a lot of the attention away from this game, when this dropped in 2004, I scooped it up for my shiny PS2, and I took to it far more than Halo.  In part, the story appealed more.  The characters of Templar and Rico, Lugar and Hakha actually gave you multiple points of view--and a variety of game play styles to run through your missions with.  The voice acting was fantastic.  The variety of environments ran from trenches, jungle, arctic ice, swamp, to beat down urban tangles.  Halo was just a hair too clean a future, and it wasn't until much later did I pick up either of Bungie's titles.

In part, the design ethic got me. It was a future that was lived in. It looked useful. Well, except for the Helghast's  glowing red goggles which made them easier to spot.  The weapons had a certain weight to them, they each had a different feel.  Different purposes.  The ISA's main battle rifle with its grenade launcher was handy for some situations. The Helghan battle rifle wasn't as accurate, but it chewed things up, and the secondary shotgun fire was just mean up close.  The vehicles had a certain design ethic that was internally consistent.  It was a future that looked organic and right.  From the industrial areas to the makeshift camps.  The heavily armored Helghast soaked up bullets and kept coming. The control centers and urban environments were beat on.  Barrels on your turrets and big guns overheated if you pushed them.  There was a balance in the limitations that seemed realistic.

The characters sucked me in as well.  Captain Templar as an officer with a task, Luger who finds him on his delivery of an agent to hand over to the ISA, Rico, a gunner with attitude galore, and the In Field Agent Hakha.  The relationships developed as time went on.  The plot peeled back mission by mission, and while not  incredibly deep, it was not overly complicated.  You never got the feel that the writers were just piling on plot to yank the rug out from under you with a Clever Surprise.  It was a war tale, and it marched along at its own pace, and the grit and immersion helped that. You reloaded, you looked at the weapon.  You got tired if you ran too long.  There was smoke and mist that obscured your vision.

It wasn't without problems. The game could glitch.  The AI was sometimes less than brilliant. The controls took some time to get used to.  For amazingly athletic soldiers, you couldn't jump over things save in preprogrammed areas.  There was no real cover mechanic, so you wound up squatting next to things, and that had to do.

But despite these things, I found it to be a huge amount of fun. The controls, when you mastered them, were immensely satisfying. The environments were varied, and mastering them had their own rewards too.  Mastering the characters was likewise entertaining--and the missions changed a bit for tactics depending on who you controlled.

Killzone 2 revamped the system entirely.  Lean and peek cover. Vehicles. Simple objectives to plant charges, and a relatively long campaign mission. Less variety in environments, but a lot of house to house and tunnel to tunnel combat made up for some of that in being equally gritty. The design ethic of usefulness continued.  Less variety perhaps, but environments that could be used with differing tactics.  In many ways, it looks as if Killzone 3 is going to be an extension of the gains that Killzone 2 made, but no matter how pretty, and graphic and gritty the new one is, I retain an affection for the first. Not a perfect game, but like its design ethic, it was useful.  And a lot of fun.

Folks are having a lot of fun with the brutal combat and the convoluted environments in the newest game in the series, but for me, it's nice to see the seeds from the first game finally seeing their ultimate fruition. If anything, it appears that Killzone 3 is making good on the promises and the continuing evolution from the first.

If you haven't played the first, there are copies available on Amazon and other vendors. It is priced fair cheap, and for those who fell in love with the second, and those who are fans of the third's preview copy, it might be worth a peek, just to see how far things have come, and where the seeds were lain for such a great design ethic.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Dreams allow us to possess what we cannot have while awake. That's one way to look at our nocturnal wanderings through the unconscious. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes gratifying, sometimes disturbing, sometimes nonsensical, they are how our big old brains sift through the day and what is really eating at us.

We tend to lie to ourselves fair often about our motivations. Our hopes, our goals, we can gloss over a lot in a fit of self deception. While most folks talk of dreams as aspirations, as our goals working out to become reality, in a fine language of hope, and metaphysical lashings to build up dreams as something greater, I tend to take a more...practical approach.

Perhaps it's the psychology that I had to take in teacher's training. Perhaps it's just a sceptical mindset.  Perhaps I'm just a cranky bastiche. Been thinking about dreams for a bit--the travels between Colorado to New Mexico, and now back to Maine, and soon to Massachusetts are all in flux.  Life in flux, dreams are in flux too.  Nightmares and those delicious ones where you have everything you've wanted, to the odd and sometimes disturbing ramblings, they all have sort of congealed over these last few months of tumult. Dreams of my daughter. Dreams of losing my daughter. Dreams that have continued over the years in a weird episodic fashion that pick up just where the last one left off, like some unconscious soap opera that just gets stranger each time it picks up the old thread.  Dreams of fights that go horribly, horribly, horribly awry.  Dreams of being impotent against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Dreams of holding someone who is far, far, far away, and whose scent remains in my hindbrain and the thought of it can cause me to stop everything I'm doing when I remember it, and the feel her skin beneath my fingers comes unbidden.  It's hard to lie to yourself in a dream.  Your unconscious tends to cut out all the silly crap and sterling justifications, and pare you down to what you're really feeling.  You may say that you don't have feelings for X, but your dreams will slice that particular lie right out. You can possess all the things you want, you hope for in a dream, and that is as telling as the dreams where you lose what is most important to you as well.

Big dreams, little dreams, the random firing of neuron dreams that have us do nonsensical things that TOTALLY make sense while asleep, they are a way of looking at your waking life that condenses down things that you might not have thought of as important, but resonated somehow.  Not always earth shattering. Not always a window to the deepest workings of our psyche, we can over interpret dreams--as much as you can over-interpret Tarot cards.

I liken dreams to Tarot in a way. 

A lot of folks use Tarot as a tool of divination.  My own sceptical self doesn't really let me think that you can predict the future with cards. While I remain a bit of theist, I still have a healthy dose of scepticism that doesn't believe that the Universe tends to conduit itself through laminate cards made in some factory that also makes Aura Reading guides. Newage rhymes with sewage for a reason in my book, and that is perhaps a personal failing and prejudice, but I acknowledge that it's there. That being said, I think that divination tools like Tarot are useful.  Tarot and other tools are means for meditation and examination.

Our brains are wonderful for attaching meaning to things.  Images to emotion, people to emotion and chemical triggers, events to emotion. We bond our memories in all sorts of fashions, and our brains make connections between these concepts and emotions, and triggers all the time. We attach significance to events and people and places all the time, shifting relationships and meanings all the time.  That's what has made us successful as a species. We can attach meaning to concepts with alacrity.  We make webs of connection with those concepts with wild abandon.  Which is why Tarot is a useful tool.  Not to divine the future, but for self examination.  The cards have meaning. They each represent a concept, and their position has particular significance as well.  When laid out, you can use them to judge what meanings you immediately attach to the cards.  In an honest reading, you can see what you attach as signficance as a means to evaluate yourself and your motivations.  What in your past attaches most to the concept to this card?  What attaches itself most readily to this one?  What about that one?  Used as a meditation, it can allow you to less worry about your future, but have a powerful snapshot of your current motivations and interior dialogue.

Dreams are another snapshot.  For all the high flown language of dreams, and reaching for the sky, dreams are a good way to see first hand what the brain is sifting through. What attachments are most in the fore.  What scares us most right now?  What makes us happiest right now?  What weird crap has managed to sift forward from the last few days in our lives, and impress itself on our psyche. Good dreams, bad dreams, they are snapshots of what the heck is really running through our brains.

We are justification machines. We attach meaning to things, and often we seek justifications and attachments when none are needed or wanted.  We are big chemical soups that look for attachments and meanings all the time.  We predict behaviors from those attachments. We react to things based on those attachments and meanings.  Which  is why things like panic attacks are such buggers. Chemical trigger goes off, and we don't know why, so we find reasons for why we are suddenly terrified. We can deceive ourselves by putting on layers of justifications for why do this or that, especially while awake. It's OK to speed because of this. You're not being untrue if you call a friend, right?  It's just one more cookie. We find reasons for this, and we tend to gloss over our motivations, because sometimes the truth behind those motivations is scary stuff.

Dreams don't care about that, though. They cut straight down through the web of self deception, and what you've got going on inside, wells up.  What is truly important, that gets all fuxxored up with all sorts of other things, and it's often hard to see those things when you have to sift through a mixed up dream narrative--and often that narrative is just random crap bound together by our brains constantly seeking to make connections--but in the end, good dreams or bad, they're an opportunity to take stock, honest stock, of what's actually going on behind our skulls.

In that, I tend to look at dreams as exactly that: opportunity.  Good dreams show us the things that we hold important.  Bad dreams as well too. While terrifying, they show what is important. What we may have been decieving ourselves about while awake. What connections are important.  Our own guilt, our own fears, those are important things to know, what things are rolling around under the surface, and what we can work through.

I tend to dismiss the idea that the Universe speaks to us in dreams. WE speak to ourselves in dreams. We are honest with ourselves in dreams, and if we're smart, we listen to that, and try to not let ourselves be deluded by the layers of justification that we tend to slather on to make ourselves feel better. Rather than look to the mysticism of dreams as a conduit of the Universe, those dream books ARE useful tools for self evaluation.  While you can lose yourself in running down what symbols mean in dreams, it is perhaps more useful to examine our dreams with a detached honesty.  What drives us, what scares us, what brings us joy, we work all that out in dreams, and hopefully, we're open to not decieving ourselves that X, Y, or Z mean more than they do. We can confront the things that we tend to bury while awake. Good and bad.  Love and hate, and all the odd emotions and attachments we make.

A good friend has been having bad dreams as of late.  And for good reason, since there's a lot going on her life, and she's got fears a plenty, and heartache, and guilt, and more.  I point to those bad dreams as opportunity.  Not only for exposing what's going on, but to allow herself to confront her feelings of guilt that she has no reason to feel guilt from.  Takes on too much onto herself, and while it is an intellectual exercise to say, "yeah, that's on someone else's shoulders" the dreams tell a different story, that there's more work to be done on that front. For her, I say that even those bad dreams are opportunities. Snapshots that are useful.  And in dealing with those snapshots, it leaves room for the sweeter ones to come.

Dreams are tool. A wonderful tool, and to benefit from them, good or bad, you just have to hold that tool right.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Extension of US PATRIOT Teabaggers?

Things seemed to have backfired for House Republicans...

I have been a vocal critic of the TEA Party.  I put that out there right away, because I dislike it when bloggers and journalists spin reports that praise folks when they do things that they agree with, and pretend that they were always on board with said folks.  I think that as an Astroturf movement, that the TEA Party is a disingenuous sort of "movement" that manipulates real fears to political advantage for a GOP establishment, but the vote to block US PATRIOT shows chinks in the discipline of the House Republican majority, and illustrates a divide that could be the undoing of a great deal or maneuvering to capitalize on populism.

26 members of the House Republican caucus crossed party lines to stand against renewal of three key provisions of US PATRIOT.  The authority to issue roving wiretaps, the library records which gives the FBI access to search records, and the "lone wolf" provision that gives authority to investigate anyone outside the country, even if they have no known ties with terrorist organizations, were defeated in a 277 to 148 vote.  Defeated, because of the special expedited procedure that the House leadership wanted to push through, which required a 2/3rds majority.  In wrangling to speed up the process, the House leadership handed itself a defeat of provisions that they've argued are necessary to security of the nation.

David Schweikert of Arizona, Tom Graves of Georgia, Raul Labrador of Idaho, Randy Hultgren and Bobby Schilling of Illinois, Justin Amash of Michigan, Christopher Gibson of New York and Michael Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania were among those who stepped across the aisle to oppose the move.  Representative Dennis Kucinich wrangled the move, and can be credited for giving impetus for the TEA Party freshmen to put their votes where their mouths have been, in opposing "Big Government" and intrusion into privacy.

Mind you, this certainly doesn't defeat the extension of US PATRIOT by any means.  The White House has asked for the extension as a tool against terrorism, and the Senate has expressed the desire to make these provisions permanent.  The House can reintroduce the measures and take a straight vote, albeit somewhat longer in process, and it will pass.  The Senate version is likely to pass as well, and while Eric Holder has assured the Senate that it is instituting measures suggested to assure oversight to prevent civil liberty violations already, this is somewhat cold comfort.

The real story is less about the extension of US PATRIOT though.  The tools to fight terrorism that were shoehorned into US PATRIOT during the last administration were resoundingly approved by the House and Senate in their votes, and include a laundry list of powers that intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been asking for years for.  On the surface, they appear to be tools that can help root out those who exploit our systems that require due process or who simply fall off the radar from investigations.  The problem being that the potential for abuse under peace time considerations with the somewhat vague threat profiles and open language throw a wide net that a less than scrupulous Administration could use to ferret out undesirables.  These issues remain, and will continue to be issues when the House reorders itself to bring these provisions to a regular House vote.  What this does illustrate are divides that the new freshmen have with the House leadership, and where they have the potential to be a thorn in the side of the Republican leadership on issues where the GOP's support of the TEA Party by funneling cash to their "movement" may have unintended consequences, in having freshmen Congresscritters see a vulnerable establishment being liable to support the ideals and positions that they've advocated, yet voted against time after time.

The vote itself is more of a show to delay.  In the long run, US PATRIOT will be renewed, and this is largely a symbolic gesture.  One that freshmen Representatives can point to later on, and perhaps craft their positions from.  Scott Brown of Massachusetts has angered his TEA Party supporters by his own votes, which run counter to the vocal position that many support.  This vote, while symbolic, illustrates that there is potential for the TEA Party movement to become its own creature, as opposed to a vehicle for the same policies that the AEI and their Fellows have been advocating for some time, and have backpedalled from publicly only recently.

To be sure, I am not convinced that the TEA Party is terribly good for US policy, both domestic and foreign, and the movement has yet to spawn anything like sane fiscal policy, both at the state or Federal level, but as the freshmen navigate this session, there are signs that they may become less vehicles for rubber stamped support, than a genuine movement of their own, albeit somewhat late in the game.  How this affects the House and Senate remains to be seen, but the discipline that the House and Senate have shown in the past may be slipping, and that means that genuine compromise may have to be reached between the two parties, and if the TEA Party can facilitate this, I may be forced to re-evaluate my opinion on what began as Astroturf.

Crossposted to The Motley Moose

Monday, February 7, 2011

iPhoning it in

I was a late adopter for a cell phone.  I got my first only a year ago or so. I cheap LG without many features, cost about $20, and in all fairness, I only got it so that I could get in touch with my daughter while I was out in Phoenix.

I upgraded to an iPhone with some trepidation.  Gal I was dating waited in line for hers, and she loved it with a glee that was frightening to behold. Aps galore, a camera, movies on demand.

It seemed all a bit too much.

When I was realized I was bound for Mesa Verde this summer, and the 3G was coming out, said iPhone gal poked and prodded me to taking her phone, and upgrading her to a spiffy new one.  I put the iPhone in my pocket, and pretty much didn't use it all that much, except to call my little girl.  Didn't really use the aps all that much, and I didn't really get into the text habit.

A summer on the mountain changed that.

Mesa Verde is pretty a damned isolated place.  Internet connection, even through the company was spotty, at best.  Even the machines that Aramark provided in our little basecamp only had occasional internet connection.  If you were in camp and had a computer, WiFi signal was an on again, off again, and mostly off again, sort of premise.  Being thoroughly  addicted to teh Interwebz, this was not exactly ideal.  Save, that pesky iPhone DID allow me to connect. And I grew to love that heavy little rectangle since it not only let me call my little girl, and text her, and get my news fix too.

The relationship with the gal who got me hooked on the phone went south, but that phone kept me hooked.  As time went on, it was pretty much my conduit to the world--despite losing signal when we went up to 5000' or so.  Made good friends, started texting more, and before I knew it, the iPhone was a constant companion.  Google maps. YouTube. Texts beyond all reason. Skype on the dang thing.  Thesaurus. Dictionary. Books upon books.  Scientific calculator.  More and more science and math aps than you could shake a stick at.  Even got my feet wet with the goofy games.  Before I knew it, my phone was absolutely one of those things I put into my pocket, even before I found my keys.

So, when my phone finally decided to stop charging, it left me with an unsettling feeling.  A disquiet that I really had no idea would ever descend.  Without a phone, without this phone, I am now all bereft.  For someone who, up until this year, didn't even own a cell phone, now I find myself all kinds of antsy.  No contact numbers to browse through.  No quick finds for addresses.  No Google Maps to prop up in the cup holder to find odd places. No quick note to friends on stuff that made me giggle.  No fast camera to take a pic of goofiness on the road.

Yes, I am addicted.  Never saw it coming, until I went to sign into Skype today, and saw that nasty red line on the battery life, and the phone defiantly refusing to charge.

Tomorrow I'm heading to the AT&T store, and see what wonders they'll put before me. 3G? 3GS?  Maybe something entirely different?  All I know is that somewhere between January and now, I got hooked on a goody that I never knew you couldn't do without.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Zen and the Art of Cooking

Some time ago, the the blog Why is it Evil addressed the question of Why Chefs are Evil.

Not terrible funny, but it got me to musing.

We aren't evil.

We aren't always very nice. Because we work in a high stress job, that is part craft, part art, part mind numbing paper work, dangerous, repetitious, and filled with some of the most marginal personality motherfurkers you'll ever have the pleasure of meeting, and most of us love the profession.

We aren't good people. Mothers, don't let your daughters date a chef. She may love the after hours, she will love the food and the drink and the parties, but we WILL do bad things to her, that she will probably really enjoy.

Bourdain touches on a bit of the life in his books, but he doesn't do it justice, because most of the public simply won't believe it. Doing rails off a waitresses' bewbs in an office, while you have a full dining room and a patron locked in one of the bathrooms is, in some places, called Friday.

It is equal parts art, craft, and skill. And love for your fellow cooks. You bond as a team, and even if you hate the night, you're in there because the guy across the grill is your boy. Or girl depending on the kitchen, and that means they're family. It is a Zen profession, because the best you can hope for at the end of the night, are empty plates, and smiling patrons. And hopefully some good memories of your place.

The idea that one can't get into a routine is garbage. Cooks multi-task, we like to multi-task, we take it as a point of pride that we can do an 18 hour day, with a pot of coffee, half a pack of smokes, never sit once, clean hundreds of pounds of meat, fish, and more, and then actually prepare it, carve it into delicate and edible art, and at the end of the day, all we've got to show for it are some folks who are giddy and heading to their cars, and the knowledge that we'll do it again tomorrow, and most folks faced with that will run for the farking hills.

Most folks can't do the job that a professional chef does. Can't. Physically nor mentally. It is a hard life, it takes its toll on your body and mind, and yet, I love it. I love my crew. I love to cook, and being there for folks' celebrations. My art does that. My craft makes it affordable.

Yes, people cooked for their families for generations--but I cook for hundreds a night, night after night. My hands have touched an average of 150 dishes a night, 320 some odd nights a year, for better than 20 years now. I do things with food that your Grandma can't. Because I have more experience than she's had cooking. She does things well, and she is a master of several dishes. I have to be the master of a rotating menu, executed exactly the same, night after night, and in conditions that would make most folks flee. Professional cooks are just like any other professional. There are indeed talented amateurs who can do nice things. And that's fantastic. Prove it to me, by replicating it two dozen times a night, and a few dozen times for a few more different dishes, and do it on command.

Evil? Sometimes, but we kinda like it that way.

These are restaurant folk, in our natural environment.

The art of cooking is an odd one. It is very much a Zen profession. My craft gives me a lot of satisfaction. I love to cook. And I love to cook for people. But at the end of the day, not matter what, no matter how artful my plates are, not matter how long I take to prepare and play in the kitchen, the best I can look forward to are empty plates.
That's a good thing.

Empty plates means that people got fed. People don't necessarily remember the sauce that I did with their chicken, or the slight chocolate note--because I use cocoa, coffee, and dark beer--in my chili. They remember the time that they have with folks at the table. They remember Bob ordering the Four Alarm Penne, and him gulping water, and the laughs around the table. They remember the look in their wife's eye when she shared her truffle cake. They remember Grandma getting a little misty when the Steak and Tatty Pie was finished, and the memories of her mother's cooking getting shared around the table. If I get to spark those sorts of memories, that's exactly what I hope for. Mine is an ephemeral art. It is a Zen profession, because it doesn't last. The memories, the times shared, the people you're with, those last. I just facilitate things a bit.

We celebrate with food, and hopefully, meals are a celebration. Of time together, of people you love, of good times, or bad. We bring food to those who are in need, because we not only feed them, we share of ourselves. We may not have the words to help someone with the loss of their parents, but we can put together a meal for them. That shows our love and affection, and our care.

That's my profession. That is what I love to do.  I feel enormously blessed that I can share some of the things that I've learned over the years, after hundreds of thousands of meals going through my hands.  It's hard to have some pride in the skill and the craft, and you want to do what you do well, and that leads to some ego, but the one thing that handling food teaches you, is to be humble in that.  Not because there is some new hotshot coming up, but because no matter what we do, ours is a basic sort of skill. 

The best fish that I've ever had was in Jamaica. Fresh off the boat, right on the dock. Fileted right in front of me, slapped onto a grill with a little oil, salt and pepper, and a squoze of fresh lime, and handed to me in a paper boat, with some hot sauce in a blob on the side.  Nothing fancy about it. I remember that fish, because it was perfect. Crisp skin, sweet flesh, fiery sauce, tang of the lime, it all blended together with the tired of swimming and fishing, a sweet young thing whose name I cannot remember, but she smelled of sun tan oil, the rum drinks we'd had, and maybe a hint of strawberry lip gloss.  We had ice cold beer, and ate on the dock, tired, and sore, and that fish was the most pefect thing in the world. That moment is cemented in my mind because of that amazing fish.

I am grateful to that guy on the dock, because his fish made me a perfect moment. One I hope to take with me to the grave. We help cement moments in time. THAT is our professional skill. Not necessarily the cooking.  Our vehicle is the food. The presentation.  Food alone isn't going to do anything though. We need to share it with people. That's when it matters.

Cooking is craft. It's physics, it's chemistry, it's art, it's business, it's your life. It's not for everyone, but cooks get to bridge a lot of areas of expertise. A good cook should have some mechanical skills. Should have a good eye for color. A good nose. Ability to taste and judge how flavors will evolve is essential. Chemistry of cooking is amazingly important. Understanding of basic physics helps a lot. Understanding economic theory comes in handy when you run a joint, and you'd better get hip to HR, PR, alcohol service, licensing, food safety, a bit of biology, a bit of anatomy don't hurt, and even a little botany. For all those skills, it comes down to making memories. That's our real product.

My advice for the hobbyists?  Share what you do. Don't get lost in "right way" or "wrong way."

Getting lost in minutia? It happens with a hobby. I tend to think of folks in the nerd vs geek categories for most hobbies. Be that a football stat nerd versus a football geek who paints his face and gets involved. I tend to separate folks out like that. Nerds collect--be they facts, movies, stats, they immerse themselves in the details, and love the knowledge that brings. Take pride in that knowledge. Not a bad thing. Geeks get involved. Be that dressing up, making their own films, writing their own stories, building a shrine to their favorite team, a working model of their favorite mecha. Not a bad thing either. Unless of course, it turns to obsession that divorces you from contact with folks. Be that getting so lost in stats and figures, that you lose sight of the game that you love, and instead get focused on tiny details and rules, or so lost in your creations that you don't connect with people, and get lost in your own fantasy.

Ideally, your interests help you connect, and give you a greater appreciation of skills and people. You get lost in them, then it gets weird.

Love food? Then share it. Share that love, because that's what it's about. Sharing your passion and love, with those you love. Not dunning folks who don't do it "right." It isn't up to your standard? Don't go back. Don't make that mistake in your own cooking. There is nothing wrong with being passionate about cooking. But losing sight of the connections that good cooking should bring, that's a weird and lonely road, and if you constantly harp on things done "wrong" then folks aren't going to connect with you. You alienate folks with constant tirades, then you're missing the point.

It's food. It's hopefully great. Be it a great hot dog with a home made giardinera and chili that brings tears to the eyes, or a silky smooth alfredo that you get extra bread to sop up every last drop, or a falling off the bone tender beef rib, or a galatte that melts your soul. It's food. It's basic.

It IS love, but only when you share it.

Crossposted to The Motely Moose

The Best of Cookbooks...

As a chef, I often get asked all sorts of things.  What's your favorite dish?  What do I do with arugula?  What's the best sauce?  How do I cook X?  Who's your favorite chef?  What's the best cookbook?

These are questions that are often complicated. Favorite dish changes on a whim, because what you're in the mood for depends on the season, depends on who you're with, depends on how you feel that day.  Arugula has lots of uses.  Best sauce with what?  Lots of ways to prepare a lot of things, so it's sort of a loaded gun sort of question.

But the last two are fairly easy for me.  Hands down, it is Jacques Pepin.  No question. No equivocation. Jacques is THE man in my book. An amazingly skilled chef, he is likewise a gifted teacher, an advocate for the profession, someone who loves food, and has an attitude that is generous and wide when it comes to cuisine. La Technique was a brilliant and accessible way to bring the fundamentals of French cuisine to the masses.  His work and his passion earned him France's highest civilian honor, the L├ęgion d'honneur. He is very much one of my culinary heroes.

Not surprisingly, he also wrote the cookbook that reccomend to folks who want to get their feet wet in cooking.  Jacques' Art of Cooking is easily the most accessible, and best cookbook that I can recommend for beginners and enthusiasts alike.  Jacques is very much a teacher, and this pair of books is not only lavish with illustrations, it is a course in cooking. From stocks to patisserie, from fish to meats, from various cutting techniquest and presentation, it is very much a course in cooking that leads one recipe at a time to teaching the fundamentals of cooking, and with step by step instructions, and each recipe builds skills to take to the next. They are an investment in skills, and when I recommend them, it isn't just for the recipes, but for what amounts to an education in the craft that I love. His enthusiasm and joy for that craft is evident, and it is a joy just to look through, and for beginners and enthusiasts alike, the pair of books are an ode to the craft and art in the kitchen, and done with simplicity an elegance.

Get these first, and take the time to sit down with them. Not just for the recipes, but for the technique and the skills that are presented.  For the joy and the artistry.  For the basic fundamentals that will build your own skills and develop your own eye and taste.  I cannot recommned these books enough, and for the beginner, they are gold. Far more so than The Professional Chef by the Culinary Institute of America--which is far better suited as a text for the burgeoning professional, than for laymen looking to improve their skills.  The key to Pepin is always the joy of sharing, and that is what good cooking is about. Sharing with those you love, sharing good times, sharing something that is basic and commonplace, and elevated by the company.

Crossposted to The Motley Moose

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Cape and Supers in General

Mike Brotherton  posted up a quick thought bubble on why do superheroes on TV suck ass recently. I popped him off a quick reply, and then realized that the subject is an interesting question.

We see a plethora of comics to movies today. The obvious successes like Sam Raimi's Spiderman films. del Toro's great spin on Hellboy.  Jon Favreau's Iron Man.  Then you get into the lesser knowns, like The Losers. 30 Days of Night. Road to Perdition. Ghost World. A History of Violence.  There are high profile faves that have hit the screen, like Scott Pilgram and The Green Hornet, and then you have barely recognizable adaptations like Wanted that threw out the original comic premise for something that might be called "inspired" by the comic, while pretty much just tossing out the original. Then you have Zack Snyder doing essentially a frame by frame recreation of 300, and the same can be said for Robert Rodriguez doing much the same for Sin City--even including Frank Miller in the directing credits.

The thing Mike's blog touched on, was that TV superhero series have a spotty record.  While I still have fond memories of Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman--and to be entirely fair, the woman made those big ol' granny panties work for her, so how can not love the show--and I'm old enough to remember Legend of the Superheroes.  Yes, there was The Hulk. The Shazam/Isis Hour on Saturday mornings--and let's not forget Electra Woman and Dyna-Girl. The Greatest American Hero as a sort of deconstruction of the genre. The terrible Flash adaptation. Later we had a re-imagined Lois and Clark. Now, we have the almost unrecognizable Superboy in Smallville. There have been a ton of superhero series. Some fair, some not so great. Some terrible. Some, like Heroes started off with high hopes, and then sort of fell into mediocrity if not eventual collapse of anything resembling sense or structure.

Series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its spinoff Angel, fared better. Better writing was a start, and to be fair, TV has been kinder to fantasy series, and urban horror fantasy, than to straight up stories about guys and gals in capes and costumes.

In part, because, as cool as the costumes may seem on paper, when you put a grown man into spandex, you realize, that the physiques that the heroes of comics have are impossible. Not just the wasp waisted and titanic bewbs that most comic heroines have, but the men as well.  Even Olympic gymnasts and swimmers fail in comparison to most superheroes.  Put a costume on folks, and it gets silly fast.  Even super high tech costumes like MANTIS.

TV just doesn't have the budgets to work with that del Toro and Favreau have. Or Zack Snyder can pull in.  That isn't lost on TV producers either.  They want the demographic, but often don't understand the audience. Yes, I'm looking at even the Sci-Fi Network. Or the SyFy Network.  When a network programming lead says that she doesn't really like all that science talk or goofiness with aliens, you know that you're pretty much boned for good science fiction, and that sort of puts a damper on things like superhero spins as well. Producers who are looking to capitalize on a fad, but without understanding of the genre produce things like SuperCroc vs Gatoroid or the fifty brazillion disaster variations and the Mythological Beast Attacks of the month that SyFy has gone for in their TV movies. Or adapting straight up fantasies and slipping them in on a network supposedly devoted to science fiction. It is that lack of understanding of the genre that leads TV supers down an ugly and odd road.

Most often, it's a move to "deconstruct" the genre.  Greatest American Hero. Heroes. Lois and Clark turned Superman into a romance. Smallville turns Supes into a teen angst soap opera. Why?  Because those are things that the producers understand.  Just give the outer veneer of a man who can fly, or a girl who can heal anything, and then turn loose the monkeys to churn out scripts filled with pregnant pauses, dewy looks that are rife with longing--which sadly usually looks like our Dear Heroine sat on a pin--and they call it a success.

This is why I chose to take a look at The Cape.  I am a fan of another comic inspired series, The Human Target, though, the producers don't really tout it as a "comic series." The Human Target has been fun, and while it is a departure from the comic, in that our Beamish Boy isn't replacing his client so much, as a team related exercise in bodyguarding in a similar vein to the odd turns that Burn Notice has taken to, it is still a serviceable series.  Like many comic inspired properties, the producers threw out the original, and just use the title and character names, and roll on like a big wheel. I understand this, and I've pretty much resigned myself to it.

Which is why The Cape sort of captured my attention.  It's about half way through its first season, and it's taken some decent names and put them on camera. Keith David, Vinnie Jones, Summer Glau, all have some street cred for their chops on geeky franchises. It's a series that is unabashedly about a guy in a cape, and with a suitably genre background of a cop turned acrobat and stage magician, with a tricked out cape and a lot of parlor tricks he learned from a carny to fight crime, and clear his name, to rejoin his family who thinks him dead.

A lot to process?  It always seems like it with superhero properties. The stream of minutia and characters and all the odd plot pieces, but then again, try distilling down the relationships and sub-plots in NCIS sometime.  Comic series have their conventions, and motivations to be a hero is part of that. Our Vince Faraday has his own demons to fight, even as Bruce Wayne, or Frank Castle do. Revenge is always an easy one to understand.

The effects are not amazing. Vinnie Jones has an odd makeup as the sort of Killer Croc inspired Scales as an oddly disfugured dock boss.  James Frain's Chess is a diabolical planner, and the concession to showing his ebbil is his mask on occasion, and some odd contacts when he is wallowing in his own crapulence. Faraday's cape is an odd blend of bungi effects, CGI whipping around, and folding back into his cowl.  But the action isn't bad.  And the story is refreshingly open as a comic series go on TV. Not lost in trying to shed being a comic inspired series, it doesn't take the angst filled road that bogged down both Lois and Clark and Smallville, punctuated with melodrama.  Instead, The Cape follows a cop who wants to clear his name, and is getting used by his Circus of Crime mentor Max Malini, and Summer Glau's cryptic Orwell.  He's tortured by not being able to reach out to his wife and son who think him dead, and he breaks to see his son in the guise of The Cape, inspired by his son's favorite comic.

The one thing that I like about the series is that it doesn't shy away from the comicdom it comes from. It is at least honest with itself on this, and while it isn't the quality of writing that we saw in HBO's Rome--and to be fair, there are few shows that can be held to that standard--it is at least honest about where it comes from, and the material.

Great television?  Maybe not, but it doesn't suck necessarily, because it's not actively trying to be anything else than what it is. Which is actually kind of nice for a change.  It gives me hope that TV producers might eventually get the concepts that make a decent superhero concept. 

Perfect?  Far from it, but servicable and if you like the genre, it might be worth giving a spin, at least on Hulu to try it on for size.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Al, at this point...

Al Gore recently responded to Bill O'Reilly's question:  “Why has southern New York turned into the tundra?”

It was a reasoned response, if you understand the issues.

In fact, scientists have been warning for at least two decades that global warming could make snowstorms more severe. Snow has two simple ingredients: cold and moisture. Warmer air collects moisture like a sponge until it hits a patch of cold air. When temperatures dip below freezing, a lot of moisture creates a lot of snow.”

“A rise in global temperature can create all sorts of havoc, ranging from hotter dry spells to colder winters, along with increasingly violent storms, flooding, forest fires and loss of endangered species.”

The problem is that Al Gore has tainted this issue with his insistence on framing the issue of climate change in terms of "Global Warming." It is a branding issue largely, once you dip into the science of climate change.

The problem lies in that most folks aren't dipping into the science. In framing things under the rubric of
Global Warming it not only allows misconceptions to bloom, it gives folks who reject climate change as a matter to latch onto this particular phrase.  Common sense folks, who look upon these blustery, blizzardy conditions hear "Global Warming" and short circuit to themselves, "How in the hell can this man be talking warming when it's so goddamn cold?" 

To be clear, the evidence that we are seeing climatic changes as a result of man made conditions is mounting. The loss in the polar caps, and the large amounts of fresh water dumped into those seas affects energy transfers across the globe.  That shift in energy transfer has growing evidence of climatic shifts that do much more than simply warm or cool. It shifts energy patterns and transfers that affect weather formation, and throw off climatic systems.  Moreover, the warming aspect carries with it its own dangers to throw things far enough off kilter, that the massive dump of fresh water into the poles, that it could even throw off the Great Ocean Conveyor. That would be catastrophic to current weather patterns, and the agriculture that we base our food supplies on, across the globe as a side effect. Stretches of arable land turned to desert, growth of the ice caps as fresh water is locked up, and that mass of ice furthering the size of the caps, creeping us into a return to conditions that the have more typified the Earth as of late, at least geologically speaking, with a return to another Ice Age.  Currents that drive the oceans, and massive amounts of energy, as well as the oceanlife that thrive in these currents and use them shutting down would be catastrophic to more than just human life, but cause extinction events in the seas as well as on land.

That's hard to grasp, when you only talk about Global Warming.

Al Gore did a great deal to promote the idea of responsibility for our actions, and understanding of the issues at hand. Save that his insistence of the branding of the problem as Global Warming, it now serves as an umbrella to attack him for hiding behind.

We face not just global warming, but climate change on a massive scale. Weather patterns thrown off kilter, energy transfers that fuel storm patterns that we have yet to accomodate and understand.  Shifts in pelagic poputions of various forms of life that affect fishing and the life cycles of many species. Framing the issue as climate change is a far more accurate form of terminology. It also gives the folks who are heavily invested in technologies and processes that fuel the problem less ground to push against, and less arguments to frame by disingenuously attacking the issue on "common sense" grounds and pointing to every blizzard and storm as asking the question of how can global warming explain these tundra conditions?

At this point, maybe Al Gore needs to step aside.  Allow the argument to be framed in the way that it should have been framed from the first.  Not as a matter of "warming" or "cooling" but as a matter of systemic climatic change.  Yes, Climate Change is less catchy and fear-mongery, but fear mongering is not what we need. Nor pithy catch phrases.  What we do need is understanding that our actions are causing shifts in global weather patterns.  That will mean some folks get colder, or warmer. That rain falls that they expected will change. That the storm systems they are used to will change. That lands that were arable thanks to seasonal patterns will be affected. That the investment in infrastructure around these arable lands may become outdated, if not useless.

Gore's insistence on framing things in terms of Global Warming as a brand is hurting his own cause. And the cause of scientists who are doing good research.

Crossposted to The Motley Moose.