October 22, 2014

Happy/sad to see this story on the front page of the NYT — well, sad to see it but happy to see it noticeably displayed.  Here, have the lede:
Over the last two years, lawmakers in at least eight states have voted to increase the fees or the interest rates that lenders can charge on certain personal loans used by millions of borrowers with subpar credit.

The overhaul of the state lending laws comes after a lobbying push by the consumer loan industry and a wave of campaign donations to state lawmakers.

Aww, quid pro quo in action yet again.  I guess it's the kind of thing that we're inured to, yet another story of the Banks predations being tacitly supported by the legislative recipients of the lobbying money of the Banks.  But the facts of it are pretty galling.  Take for example, this, the stated logic from one of the lobbyists:

In pushing for the changes, the North Carolina Financial Services Association, which represented OneMain and Springleaf, as well as lobbyists for dozens of smaller, locally based lenders, argued that lending caps had not been updated in years. "Rents are higher, electricity costs more, gasoline costs more," the group's lobbyist, Richard H. Carlton, said in an interview. "But the rates hadn't kept pace."

I guess it is the job of the lobbyist to hide the actual reason behind the request — "Please let us take more money from poor people who have no other recourse" — but the argument that the interest rate on a loan should somehow be tied to inflation is insulting on the face of it.

To be honest the story in this is not that state houses are capitulating to legalized loan sharks.  The story is that these companies exist in the first place.  What's the going rate for one of these subpar-credit loans?

OneMain, which has 1.3 million customer accounts, offers its borrowers unsecured, installment loans with interest rates of up to 36 percent. Borrowers pay both interest and principal in monthly installments until the loan is paid off, usually within a few years. But many of its borrowers refinance their outstanding balance.

About 60 percent of OneMain's loans are so-called renewals -- a trend one analyst called "default masking" because borrowers may be able to refinance before they run into trouble paying back their current balance.

Yeah so basically the Banks have found that if you tailor services to the disadvantaged, it only takes a couple bucks to buy state legislatures to pass laws making it perfect legal to screw them over.  And it's the perfect crime, because this is America, and Americans think of poverty as some sort of moral failing, so there will be no rush to protect or stand up for the poor.  Comparing companies like OneMain to loan sharks may be unfair to loan sharks.

If this is at all acceptable in free-market capitalism or whatever you want to call this system we live under, then we are monsters.

Posted at 10:21 AM

October 17, 2014

It was a bit of a surprise to see a trend piece in Sam Sifton's NYT Dining section concerning the popularity of chicken wings — I had no idea!  I've had the Chongqing chicken wings at Mission Chinese and (on multiple occasions) the fish sauce wings at Pok Pok, both of which are delicious, but I didn't know that they were popping up on menus like kale salads did two years ago.

So hurray for all that.  Chicken wings are on of the most effective vehicles to deliver flavor in the form of sauce/seasoning, given the amount of surface area as compared to the amount of protein.  Basically every bite is an explosion, without copious amounts of meat to chew through.  Plus also eating with your fingers zooms you back to childhood.  It's just fun, no mystery to that.

However!  I feel that the article did omit a very crucial fact about chicken wings: they are a relatively recent invention.  Time was, in America, they were either served with the whole bird or discarded.  And the mythological birthplace of the chicken wing is the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, NY, where a cook there in the 60s was mistakenly shipped chicken wings instead of chicken backs and necks for soup, and then decided to fry them as a handout to the bar regulars.

So I say that you can't talk about chicken wings without talking about Buffalo wings.

And, as maybe a point for future research, check out (while the archives are still free) this 1980 Calvin Trillin piece from the New Yorker, which hints that maybe the Anchor Bar story is possibly apocryphal at worst or exaggerated at best.

Posted at 10:12 AM

October 16, 2014

So #GamerGate, as it is known, made the front page of the NYT.  Well then.

The controversy is, as usual, really complicated and insignificant in many ways — this is a good explainer, as is the NYT piece — but what it boils down to is a bunch of privileged dudes being unforgivably monstrous to woman, using the anonymity of the Internet as a shield.  As usual.

But in the case it's not the bros being dicks, or even the Silicon V/Alley Objectivists, but rather nerds.  And this is personally troubling to me (i.e., even more troubling than usual) because I myself was born and raised a nerd.  Dad is a hunter and was hoping for a little buddy to go out and sit in a treestand with him, but nope!  He got a bookish fool who was generally picked on for his first thirteen years.  Programming in Basic?  D&D?  Monty Python?  Check, check, check.  And of course my pals were the same way.  And we eventually coalesced into whatever sorts of grown-ups we turned into, whatever, but you know what we never ever did?  Anonymously threaten a woman to the point of her going into hiding.

Excuse me.

Well there's a lot out there that's been written and an awful lot of it is really good, so I just want to isolate this one little thing, possibly the proximate cause.  So some fellow, presumably a self-identified gamer, wrote was is intended as a sort of a please stop the madness piece, an exhortation to fellow travelers to stop being fucking sexist assholes.  A commendable intention.  But, in the same breath, there's this section:

Over the last decade, that's changed. Comic book adaptations are the safest bet in Hollywood. Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones have made fantasy something anyone can enjoy without embarrassment. Perhaps most importantly, nerds now have money, power, and status. The biggest, fastest-growing companies in the world are run and staffed by us, and mainstream culture has shifted from mocking us to respecting us.

Startups are sexy. We've won.

Actually, commendable young man, this is not only not the case, but this is the root of the problem.  Life?  Not a game.  There was no one oppressing you.  And this paranoid fantasy that our world is some sort of race between you and your affinity group and the jocks or the bros (dare I say girls?) or whoever else it was that you were terrified/jealous of, and the attendant triumphalism because holy shit you have a job is what enables the sad embarrassments that are your pals to criminally harass women and threaten mass murder in the name of fucking ethics.

The world is not the problem.  Your self-regard is the problem.  Startups are irrelevant.

You've lost.

Right then!  And if you loyal readers wanna get really thinky about the whole thing, I recommend this by Kyle Wagner.

Posted at 11:30 AM

October 15, 2014

From the start, let me be clear that I am referring to American and European efforts to combat the creeping menace of Ebola, and not Western Africa — Western Africa is an entirely different situation, from the horrorshow of Sierra Leone, where they've basically given up, to Nigeria, which has largely contained the outbreak.

But what I'm taking away from the slow march of this story across the front page (other than our paranoid morbid ability to freak out) is that it's not the Ebola that's so scary, but rather our collective incompetence.

By my count, there have been three infections outside of Africa: one in Spain, and (now) two in Dallas.  And the really really alarming thing is that all three infections are health care professionals that were treating Ebola patients who contracted the virus in western Africa.  This is not to say that Ebola is some supervillain virus that outsmarted the authorities.  No.  This is to say that the authorities, very specifically Texas Presbyterian in Dallas, are clumsy oafs who mucked this up pretty well.  I mean, fer crying out loud, the most recent infection was on a freaking commercial flight the day before they were diagnosed.  Technically they were not symptomatic on the flight so there should be little concern, but are there grown-ups in charge at Texas Presbyterian (which also sent the first victim home the first time he tried to admit himself.

And it's not just poor performance on the job that's making Ebola (which really should not be scaring us at all) more and more of an actual threat each day.  More complicating is that we as a people are so freaking stupid that we will hamper any response to Ebola with superstition and fear and plain old American ignorance.  Take this paragraph from a story on hospital preparations referring to what Emory University Hospital had to deal with when the first two patients were transported back in August:

As doctors and nurses there worked to keep desperately ill patients alive in August, the county threatened to disconnect Emory from sewer lines if Ebola wastes went down the drain. The company that hauled medical trash to the incinerator refused to take anything used on an Ebola patient unless it was sterilized first. Couriers would not drive the patients' blood samples a few blocks away for testing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And pizza places would not deliver to staff members in any part of the hospital.

I'm personally not frightened by Ebola, don't think it's going to be a long-term problem here in the States, etc., but I'm very concerned about our abilities in the event an actual pandemic did hit here.

We've met the enemy and it is us.

Posted at 9:46 AM

October 13, 2014

Here is your diversion for this sorta kinda holiday morning, and one that most of us are spending at work — the Bronx's leading cultural ambassador, the estimable Baron Ambrosia takes his promotional skills to New Jersey.  In order to bring attention to the efforts of the people of Camden, NJ, the Baron (a/k/a Justin Fornal), along with his pop and La Bruja, swam the Cooper River, a tributary to the Delaware.
In his own fashion, Mr. Fornal was taking no chances: To protect his skin, he had covered himself in coconut oil; to protect his gut, he took Pepto-Bismol tablets for a few days before the swim. Afterward, he gargled with hydrogen peroxide. It was not an athletic-caliber act. "I'm not an endurance swimmer," Mr. Fornal said, a fact borne out when he stopped, midroute, for shots of whiskey. But he did have a trainer, in the form of Melle Mel, the Bronx hip-hop pioneer. They did calisthenics, once a week, in the park by Yankee Stadium. The coaching was mostly "just keeping him mentally focused," Melle Mel said, especially on surviving mysterious waters. Though he did not prescribe it, "a couple shots of whiskey would do wonders for your physical and mental endurance, I can tell you that by experience," he added.

First off, good looking out for the Baron.  It's good that we have this gentlemen cheerleading parts of the world that resemble the Brooklyn part of Brooklyn not at all.

And second, dude, how lucky would you be to get assigned to write about the Baron?  Dang.

Posted at 10:00 AM

October 10, 2014

So it was early August, and I was haunting the Greenmarket on the way to work, as one does, and I noticed that a stall still had strawberries.  That was strange, I thought — a bit late in the season for that?  But they were little tiny guys, like the kind my aunt used to grow in West Virgina summers decades ago.

I went for it, thinking myself lucky to have the last strawberries of the season.  And lemme tellya, they tasted as good as any strawberry I've had.  As in, they actually tasted like strawberries and not something crossbred to grow real big and fat and durable enough to last the trip from California.

But as the summer passed, I noticed that this same stall kept offering these strawberries.  I went for it again.  And they were as delicious as the first pint I bought.

So what the hell is up with those strawberries?  I'm getting them from a farmer's market and not a Gristede's, so there is some sort of authenticity implicit in the goods proffered.  They couldn't possibly be selling out-of-season strawberries?  Wouldn't that bring the wrath of the commingled hipstervores of the greater metropolitan area?

And then last week I noticed that other stalls were offering these freaking strawberries, which has me wondering where the camera was.  It was October.  Strawberries are gone by the end of June.  The strawberries were starting to fuck with my head, as we used to say.

But one of the farmers actually put a name on these spooky immortal fruit: Tristar Strawberries.  So I went to the, ahem, public library and found that they are a strain developed, quite recently, from a wild strain to be both everbearing and day-neutral, which means that the flowering of the berry is not dependent on season.

So the good news these little suckers will be available pretty much from spring to fall, which is super good news considering how good they taste.  The bad news is that we are still trapped in a world of the inevitable degradation of all things.  But at least we get more strawberries.

Posted at 10:08 AM

October 8, 2014

A bit of news is buried in the op-ed page today.

As detailed by Edward Zahniser, a member of the advisory board of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, the Cuomo Administration has quietly been pushing for a 200 acre pit mine in the middle of the Adirondacks.

How did this happen?  Zahniser lays it out, but basically through a lot of arm-twisting in Albany plus a very vaguely worded referendum that was on the ballot last year:

Last year, 53 percent of New York voters approved a constitutional amendment -- proposal No. 5 on the ballot -- that allows (but doesn't require) the state to trade those 200 acres to a mining company, NYCO Minerals, for lands that "are equal to or greater than the value" of those wilderness acres.

The intended plot is near Jay Mountain, which is on the eastern side of the Adirondacks, about halfway between Plattsburgh and Ticonderoga.  It's really pretty up there.  In fact, it's so pretty, that Gov. Cuomo like to take other elected officials up there for some canoeing or hiking, just to demonstrate his affinity for New York State's natural treasures.

Which is exactly why he is a cold calculating bastard unworthy of our vote.

Exactly what did NYCO Mining give you for this, Governor Cuomo?

As a son of the state of West Virginia, where the practice of knocking the tops off mountains and shoving them into streams and valleys is commonplace, this is especially dispiriting, as I would not like to see my adopted home state turn into a stinking alien landscape like the despoiled parts of WV.

Hey, let's all write in Zephyr Teachout for governor on November 4, whaddaya say?

Posted at 10:30 AM

October 2, 2014

So I was reading this profile on one of the putative leaders of the democracy movement currently sitting in the streets of Hong Kong, a kid named Joshua Wong, seventeen years young, when a paragraph clicked something in my head:
Mr. Wong, who is just shy of his 18th birthday, when he will gain the right to drink alcohol, is a veteran of theatrical protest politics. While in high school, at age 14, he and a classmate formed a youth group, Scholarism, to fight the "patriotic education" plan proposed by Beijing's handpicked leader in Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying.

Fighting the patriotic education...  That is reminding me of something.  Oh wait, that's right, it reminds me of this:

Hundreds of Colorado high school students have walked out of class in the past two weeks to protest proposed changes to the Advanced Placement history curriculum.

The firestorm of protest was sparked by a resolution in August from Jefferson County school board member Julie Williams. When she heard that conservatives across the country were upset about the new AP history curriculum, she proposed a committee to review the district's courses.

The resolution stated that AP history classes should promote "patriotism and ... the benefits of the free-enterprise system" and should not "encourage or condone civil disorder."

See now, it would be possible to infer from the correlation of the two facts that the type of conservatives who like to load up the school board so that they can manipulate the information taught to students have a lot more in common with the People's Republic of China than they do with the Hong Kong protesters.

But it would probably hurt feelings to do so.  We'll leave it for a meaner day.

But damn, kids are getting it done these days.  When I was their age, I was much more concerned with Monty Python than I was protesting.

Posted at 2:31 PM

October 1, 2014

I guess I'm supposed to be caring about the Secret Service and its incompetence and get all yelly and mad like I'm in a House subcommittee, but i just can't muster it.  (Though the context of the outrage is a bit... confusing, as people who hate the president rush to condemn those that endanger the president, or something like that?)

No, instead, for the past five or six days, I have been obsessed with the comings and goings of a very very minor literary contretemps involving a certain frustrated book critic and his public crack up, which consisted of a slow motion campaign of misogyny and harassment with a big heaping of self-pity on the side.  Honestly.  Hours spent hunting down Twitter feeds and piecing together narratives.

It's a big sticky mess.  To get the gist of it, read my pal Elon Green's take on it in the Toast.

A morbid thing to be fascinated with, to be sure, but I had my slight dealings with Public Crack Up as well and let's just say that nothing about it makes me surprised by recent events.

Okay, enough with the rubbernecking already.  Let's hope for the ultimate well-being of all parties involved and go back to being jerks to public figures.

Posted at 10:14 AM

September 29, 2014

Okay let's jump on this meme before it becomes recognized shorthand.

I recall back in August during the initial conflagration of Ferguson, MO, that a number of parties opined that non-whites in Ferguson were not as good citizens because they "rented" and therefor moved around a lot. : At the time, I thought to myself, "Wut?"

And in an article this morning on the racial disparities between populations and government, there is this:

The chief operating officer of Conyers, David Spann, a veteran city employee who is white, said that many of the city's minority newcomers have, like Ms. Francis, found homes in a local rental market that has exploded in part because of the foreclosure crisis. The city's homeownership rate is 38 percent, compared with a 66 percent rate for Georgia as a whole. "When you have rental people, this is nothing against them, but they're not as involved in the community," Mr. Spann said.

I don't know if there's an awful lot to unpack here.  Seemingly, the act of renting one's residence instead of being one of the fortunate who own their residence is the last refuge of the dog-whistles since the really offensive dog-whistles have been partially exposed as just plain racist.  Lazy, criminal, welfare mom, fast food employee, I'm sure I'm missing a few.  Basically, the racists are self-aware enough to know that they can't say what they're thinking out loud and have to couch the language in some metaphor plausible enough that the racists start to believe it themselves.

So now it's the "rental people" coming into formerly respectable neighborhoods, eating fried chicken/tortillas, playing boom boxes and generally lowering property values in general.  We see what you did there.

And accordingly, it is our job to argue back with THAT'S JUST RACIST enough until the racists realize that they can't get away with blaming renters anymore and then move onto, I dunno, people who listen to radio stations with HOT in their station IDs.

And besides, I know a lot of you homeowners, and all but one or two of you are not as much owning as you are renting your home from the bank.

Posted at 10:18 AM

September 26, 2014

Kinda threw my back out a bit and then had a big massage yesterday, during which I swear I was tripping, and now this morning I'm a big meatbag full of toxins looking for the exit sign.  To wit: whee.

But I did find this specific paragraph from a story about lionfish invading the waters of Florida equivalently trippy:

There is little likelihood of extinction. When one dies, gazillions more take their place. Female lionfish are built for spawning; they each release two million eggs a year. By the time scientists here sorted all this out, their numbers were headed toward infinity.

It starts out with the flinty taste of THAT IS NOT A WORD YOU ARE THE NEW YORK TIMES COME ON over "gazillion," which evaporates into the dazed contemplation of an infinity of lionfish.

And while we are all familiar with geometric progressions, let me assure the more easily-spooked of you (lionfish are some ugly fish, yo) that nature generally abhors infinity and does its best to make it not so.

And let's make it a two-fer for invasive species stories: this bit on the efforts to combat mile-a-minute in Connecticut is well worth your time.  Damn you unintended consequences!

Posted at 9:51 AM

September 23, 2014

Try to guess when these paragraphs were published:
At Chatham Industrial Supply, a hardware store here, its owner, Richard Kernodle, grumbled recently about what he called the "liberal artists" who have moved to this city of 8,100 -- opening galleries, throwing pottery and generally bringing the kind of lifestyle and politics one might expect 45 minutes away in the progressive college town of Chapel Hill.

Mr. Kernodle, 56, said that some of the newcomers wanted to paint murals on downtown buildings without securing the proper permits. They want gay rights taught in the schools. And he has heard a rumor that some of them tend their gardens in the nude.

You are correct: 1977.

No wait sorry that's from this morning!

It's from a story about the impossible, impossible state of North Carolina, existing both as a vibrant purple state with voters who are sane people and as one of the most dastardly laboratories of bad democracy in the country (behind Kansas and Wisconsin, I guess?)

So if you were one of those types in 1977 who were convinced that all the straights would eventually age themselves out of the demographics (i.e., die without replenishing), now might be a good time to look up "smdh" in an Internet dictionary.

Posted at 10:25 AM

September 19, 2014

Well that was a whirlwind twenty-four hours spent obsessing about another nation's government.  But the voters have spoken, and it's nae all the way.  (Though Prime Minister Cameron's remarks on the issue are not so much victory lap as hints at a very different, decentralized United Kingdom.  Interesting.)

And even though the story's done and the rabbit didn't die, I did receive a bit of correspondence from an old pal in London, a learned man who wishes to remain anonymous, which I quote in full:

Alan Cummings' comments are about spot-on.

And the Scots are in a position to do something about it. Labour voters who fear they'll not be represented by the toffs in Westminster are very likely to opt for a solution where they CAN vote a government in.

If the Scots leave, it will only exacerbate similar feelings in the north of England, where Tory deindustrialisation has destroyed communities.

Even if the vote goes in favour of the union, the debate across Britain may well grow, although that's just the view of this optimistic lefty.

In reality, UK politics is adrift as the political class has become a profession in its own right, with the Camerons, Cleggs and Milibands emerging straight from college into party duty and election.

There was a time when the seats of the Commons were filled by Doctors; Teachers; Lawyers; Industrialists; Trade Unionists and Loose radicals who had all worked for a living. In fact, those elected up until I reached my adult years were the product of the war.

One of my favourite quotes of all time was that of Labour Chancellor Denis Healey, who was asked about his time in the darkest hours of the seventies, when he had to devalue sterling and take the begging bowl to the world bank. The interviewer asked about the stress levels he must have faced. Healey, never known to self-doubt, scoffed at the suggestion. "Stress?" he barked "Stress? You're talking to the beach commander at Anzio!"

Scotland is not anti-English, but anti-Westminster. The people of Scotland do not feel they are represented, and they are reacting in a perfectly rational way.

And now we've all learned a little something about our friendly neighbors across the pond.  And maybe it's unfair of me to single out the Tories; it seems that the entire political class is to blame.

Now go wait in line for an iPhone or Talk Like a Pirate or whatever it is you people do to while away the endless stream of days.

Posted at 10:01 AM

September 18, 2014

There's a really interesting thing about today's vote for Scottish independence (or, alternately, the preservation of the United Kingdom).  Well, two interesting things, the first being that I'm kind of not sure how I'd vote, which is odd for me?  Then again, I'm not exactly a Scot either.

But the actually interesting thing about this is that, from what I've read, it seems that the primary motivation for the Scots that want to be free of the UK (aside from that urge for "independence" that Americans assume is genetic) is an utter loathing of the Tories.  I can't really link every thing I've read that leads me to this conclusion, but start with today's op-ed from Alan Cumming.

This is not about hating the English. It is about democracy and self-determination. Scotland is weary of being ruled by governments it did not vote for. The Conservative Party has virtually no democratic mandate in Scotland, yet too often, Scotland has been ruled by a draconian Tory government from London...

Sixteen years on, the differences between the basic tenets of Scotland and those of its southern neighbors are palpable: Unlike the rest of Britain, Scots still enjoy free higher education and free medical prescriptions. Even as parts of the National Health Service south of the border have been dismantled or privatized, Scotland's is still intact and prized. There is an exceptional commitment to the arts, too -- most visibly with the formation of the National Theater of Scotland.

Yes, this is about self-determination, but it is also totally political.  Everything that the Conservatives stand for — dismantling of public services, privatization, austerity, free-market fundamentalism — are things that are loathed in Scotland.  This is an ideological conflict, and, if it goes through (and I think I'm starting to lean Yes?), a big old slap in the face of Chicago school neoliberalism.

And there is something quite jarring seeing the Tory government of David Cameron, knowing full well that their mere existence fuels the independence movement, bending over backwards to potentially grant Scotland some very non-Tory concessions should they vote no.  I mean, wouldn't a committed ideologue stand fast to principle?  It's almost like that time in the late 80s when the world began to agree that yes, pro wrestling is fake.  The Tories are breaking kayfabe, implicitly admitting that their policies are cynical ploys to redistribute wealth upwards.

Well, I guess we'll know by dinner time, right?

Posted at 10:01 AM

September 16, 2014

If I had all the time in the world (spoiler alert: I don't have all the time in the world, I would snuggle myself up into a nice economic-justice beat like Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, who constantly writing about the kinds of stuff that I wish I was writing about.  For example, this short piece on one of Nolan's favorite targets, hedge funds:
The people who will continue to defend hedge funds are either A) People who have something to gain, such as hedge fund employees; B) People who have themselves invested in hedge funds, and are holding out hope that they will be the ones to beat the odds and strike it rich, much like lottery players hold out hope of finding the unlikely winning ticket; or C) People who do not know what they're talking about.

Yes, like that.

It's a small item, concerning CALPERS, the largest pension fund in America, who has decided to pull all of its investments from hedge funds, on account of hedge funds being a not-so-intricate scam designed to extract equity from the economy and consolidate it in the hands of a couple people who don't even pay proper taxes on it.  I.e., CALPERS decided that their investments would no longer be dumb money.

And it's not a long piece, but Nolan hammers away, and seeing his headlines interspersed with some of the other TMZ-chasing that you'll see on Gawker gives you hope that some of these issues (hedge funds, Walmart's treatment of employees, etc.) are penetrating the Zeitgeist.

Posted at 12:28 PM