Friday, February 29, 2008

Best Episode of The Wire EVER

Phew, exhale. Breath again. Remove crap from pants. What the hell just happened?!?!?!?!?!

I don't really know where to begin. I think I just watched the best episode of television ever. The Wire, Season Five, Episode 59. I'm not a television critic; I don't have the ability to dissect a TV show into its constituent parts. I had a conversation about the Oscars the other day and it went something like this: I feel like I can watch a movie and be able to discern relative quality of only a couple of the specialties it takes to create a motion picture. For instance, take acting. I believe it's possible to separate good and bad. Cinematography is another example of a specialty I feel comfortable talking about - the use of backdrops, locations, sets, etc. Think No Country for Old Men. The use of camera angles, colors, locations, etc. gave a feel of authenticity and added tremendously to the film.

On the flip side of the coin is directing. I have a much harder time comparing the relative merits of movie direction. I lack the toolset and vocabulary and only "know it when I see it." It's kind of like eating food: you can tell what most of the parts are and whether they're good. Who doesn't like chips, cheese, and salsa? Good directing makes those parts come together like a heavenly plate of Loteria nachos.

Well the latest episode of The Wire was like that plate of nachos after eating nothing but rice and beans for a year. The performances were fantastic - drug dealers that come off as sympathetic, police officers that are loathsome, and drug addicts searching for redemption. The writing is incredible even if the overarching storyline of this season is a little out in left field. And the cinematography makes the city of Baltimore an integral castmember. But those descriptions fail to encompass just how riveting the episode was and why TV and movies can be so powerful.

Unfortunately The Wire is about to end - only one more episode left. But there's hope. A David Simon show in New Orleans? Yes please.

A couple links about economics and what real gangters think (it's a multi-part series).

** UPDATE (11/22/2009)
I have a new rant about this post.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

British Nachos? More like British Crappos

Language is an incredibly interesting concept that I do not claim to understand one whit of. I looked up comparative linguistics on Wikipedia and the article verified my basic concepts of langauge - it can be used to study history, geography, and culture. Unfortunately it did not give me any additional insight into a linguistic curiosity I have been attempting to learn more about. It did make me really want to use the word lexicon in game of Scrabble.

As I am wont to do, I was perusing the internet the other day. I looked up "organic nachos" in Google and came across this site. It took me several minutes of reading before I realized that I was reading a blog from England (the spelling of 'colours' gave it away), and that he wasn't really talking about the kind of nachos that I am accustomed to.

I came to the following realization: In England, because chips are fries, then British nachos are the equivalent of American chips. WTF?!?!?!?!?! A truly egregious and insulting error, I wanted to find out just how pervasive this mislabeling was. I found a snack food company that sells "organic nachos". I also found an encyclopedia entry, dictionary definition, and a couple Wikipedia articles on French Fried Potatoes and Potato Crisps (which appear to be the bastardized version of American chips). I also found a couple of blogs from a temporary expat and a traveler in search of a taste of home.

This gets more interesting within the context of nacho history. In a border town in Texas (long a source of Mexican-American irritation), a Mexican nickname is ascribed to a dish that we would now say was "inspired by traditional Mexican cuisine". The shit proved to be delicious and spread like the proverbial wildfire. Spread so far that it went back across the Atlantic. Once back across the pond, there was a vacuum in the snack product hierarchy and a name was needed to describe a tasty snack. Fortunately the key ingredient of nachos are tortilla chips, which would now bear a new moniker. When did this first happen? Where the expats not savvy or strong enough to set the record straight? Where they too obliterated from Guinness and Bass that the couldn't tell the difference? So many questions and very few resources to investigate this history. Fortunately my trip to London will provide me ample opportunity to research this vast gulf in human knowledge and perhaps correct England's woefully unrefined lexicon.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Real estate rant

One the many subjects that interests me is real estate. I am fascinated by the geography of how people congregate in areas, the way those areas change over time, and the value we ascribe to them. There are elements of sociology, history, race, greed, corruption, and all the wonderful emotions that make up good drama.

I am also interested in economics. Not in the supply-and-demand sense that we all learned in high school, but in the Freakonomics sense of how markets react to people and the unintended consequences of market intervention (I also read Jim Jubak on MSN and particularly liked his explanation of what the hell is going on with the credit market).

In case you haven't heard, we're currently in a housing crisis, which is wrapped up in a credit crisis. There are talks of bailouts, cash infusions, tax breaks, and other plans to right our course (i.e. market intervention). One particularly irritating plan that looks like it is going into effect is that the conformal loan limit is going to be raised. The conformal loan limit basically sets the level of mortgage that the federal government will purchase. Anything above and the loan is called Jumbo, and sits on the open market. Anything lower the federal government will purchase, thereby lowering the interest rate and making everyone feel safe.

So why would that irritate me? Well, for one, there has been a crazy run-up in real estate prices, especially in Southern California where I live. People have been given loans and bought houses that were not justified by their incomes. Much of this was speculation, people thought that prices would always go higher so there was no danger in stretching now, they could sell later for more. People that already owned homes did this as well through refinancing. Well this couldn't go on forever and once prices started to go down (as adjustable rates started resetting and people couldn't afford their payments and had to sell for less than what they bought for), more and more people realized they needed to get out. The psychology of the thing is that if people owe more than they think their house is worth, they're more likely to sell or be foreclosed upon. Once started, the cycle is viscious. People sell for lower prices, values of houses decrease, people start getting foreclosed, values decrease even more, etc.

The thing about a foreclosure is that if it's a conforming loan, the cost is eaten by the government, spread among the 300 million americans, and people don't get as hurt. Well, for the nonconforming loans that were sold as debt instruments the situation is sticky. Those are still owned by banks and they also want a government bailout. The government also wants to bail out people who bought too much and are in over their head.

Why does this piss me off? Because I could have bought any time over the last 3 years but didn't because the econmics didn't work. Now I have to finance (through my taxes) a bailout of either people who bought foolishly or the banks who loaned foolishly, or both. Now I'm not a free-market at all costs conservative. I believe in government social programs for those who can't take care of themselves. But I am against bailing out people who made conscious bad decisions, greedy corporations, or the millionarie CEO's that are crying because they won't be getting yachts for Christmas this year.

I was even irritated enough to post on the LA Land real estate blog on the Times website:

"How's this for a conspiracy: new larger conforming loan limits allow people to refi their large mortgages, the 'bad' mortgages owned by banks and investors are paid off, and the new mortgages are backed by Uncle Sam. When people have trouble paying those new conforming mortgages who's in trouble? Not the banks, who would be off the hook, but you and I, John Q. Taxpayer."

So what's the solution? I don't know - move to Canada? With global warming Vancouver could be the next Los Angeles. Either way I can't complain too much, I do live (rent) near the beach after all. In any event it is a learning opportunity and maybe I'll be able to take advantage of some government subsidies to write more about things that matter, like nachos.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Peruvian Organic Bananas Have Infiltrated My Life

Two themes have cropped up starting with the last post: stealing ideas from All Kinds of Yum and organic food. While I am a junkie of AKOY I am not really an organic die-hard although there are really good reasons to support organic food. My current philosophy is that if I see an organic version of food I usually buy and it isn't too much more expensive than the regular version I'll buy it (I have similar easy to follow policies regarding plastic bags, recycling, carpooling, and other forms of activism). It's the lazy fat white man's way to partially save the world without really trying (or really saving the world).

But AKOY's post about organic banana farms is totally awesome and has me rethinking my lackadaisical policies in one important respect: I'm nearly willing to buy only organic bananas from Dole. This seemingly arbitrary decision is based in large part upon Dole's masterful method of marketing its organic bananas. Each bunch of organic bananas has a tag that lists the farm the banana was grown on and country of origin. You then surf to Dole's organic website, input the farm number, and up pops details about the farm, including pictures, other crops grown, location, and the organic certification credentials.

For example, my farm (number 998) is located in Tumbes, Peru, only grows bananas, and was certified BCS Oko Garantie for both European (ECC) and US (USDA) markets. Plus there are five pictures of the farm and farmers and a link to Google Earth (which is untested since I still live in the 20th century). But seriously, how cool is that? And for those who want to be in the green-loving, pit-hair-cultivating, tech-savvy, enviro-geek crowd, there's even a blog that Dole set up that is a sort of clearinghouse of green ideas. They also have nice blog colors.

View Larger Map

Friday, February 15, 2008

Organic Stuff Is Good

Originally I wrote this for All Kinds Of Yum and decided to retread it here. Double Credit - Sweet!

Being a friend of Tannaz means reading about food. Sometimes I try to give her suggestions about articles to write, mostly because I want her to cook for me. But she threw me for a loop when I told her about Blog Action Day.

You see, this was a one-way facet of our relationship, and I was happy to continue in that vein, but this time she asked if I wanted to be her second guest blogger. Realizing that saying no was tantamount to self-induced exile from Persia (in the cuisine sense at least), I set about trying to figure out an appropriate post. The conclusion is a short list of reasons why there is such a big fuss over local organic farming. This post is by no means inclusive -- if anyone has more specific info, or differing opinions, I would be very interested in hearing about it.

I think there are a lot of misconceptions about organic farming, both local and far, but there are a few simple reasons why it is such an attractive alternative to our current food system:

Close Food vs. Far Food

Transportation costs. This is a fairly easy one, just think of the salad you ate today: was the lettuce grown in a huge corporate farm in Salinas or a small farm in Corona? The distance between these to locations is roughly 350 miles. It is not hard to imagine further distances, especially when food is imported to (and from) other countries. Transportation uses energy, which contributes to air pollution and other bad ecological problems.

Locally adapted varieties. Most corporate farms use the same varieties that maximize yields. Losing local varieties decreases genetic diversity, which could result in losing important beneficial traits between varieties. From a taste perspective, this means the homogenization of fruits and vegetables (imagine if there were only one kind of apple?).

Organic vs. Non-organic

Pesticides. Organic farming, especially polyculture, reduces the needs for pesticides. Also, there is the energy cost to produce the pesticides (especially nitrogen, which must go through an intense heating process).

Sustainable Agriculture. Organic farming usually implies (although this is not universally true) more sustainable agriculture practices. Farms and soil are better taken care of in order to decrease the effects of soil erosion, and degradation of soil health. One popular method of sustainable agriculture is to rotate different crops; planting crops for sale on the market and other crops that naturally replenish nutrients in the soil. Polyculture takes it another step forward by planting complementary crops at the same time.

Farming Techniques. Another exciting benefit of small organic farms is that they are able to experiment with farming techniques on a smaller scale that might not be feasible on a larger farm. Polyculture is one example, but other methods include planting more trees to increase soil stability and shade, and to provide a habitat for birds.


A major reason that people do not consume as much local organic produce is that the prevailing wisdom is that is much more expensive than “regular” produce. In a sense this is true; if your local supermarkets stocks organics they are typically about 10% more expensive than the same non-organic varieties. Farm subsidies artificially keep our food costs down, and until the subsidies are the same for the small farmer as they are for the large, then it will be harder for local organics to achieve the same price performance.

So what’s the takeaway? Our food system is not built for everyone to start buying 100% organic food at their local Farmer’s Market. But the next time you’re at Ralphs or Whole Foods, notice that they have a lot of organic options. The more you buy, the more they sell, and more will be available in the future. And if you’re at a Farmer’s Market, you don’t have to insist on organic. By supporting local farmers you are helping decrease the energy cost of agriculture. The best of both worlds is buying local organic produce. But you know what’s even better? Getting Tannaz to cook it for you.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Loteria and Stick and Stein

The past week was dominated by anonymous nacho loving. On Friday, All Kinds of Yum and I went to Loteria Grill at the Farmer’s market. AKOY sent me a chat earlier in the day expressing how cold our Los Angeles was and only nachos could save her. She was right, it was cold and rainy and windy and not at all like we remember from the Best Summer Ever of years past. The only way to break the doldrums was by totally stuffing ourselves with vegetarian nachos, a carnitas taco for me, and followed by a delicious banana-strawberry-nutella crepe from the stand next door. I tried to take a picture except the camera immediately disintegrated, leaving only the pale imprint on these poor eyes. The nachos were everything I love – lots of jack cheese, melted in the oven, covered with black beans and green salsa. The full-size order comes on a huge plate. We did not measure the semi-major and semi-minor axes of the oval and cannot give you an exact area but it was about the size of a football field. The only gripe was that they could have left the plate in for just a smidge longer to melt all the cheese.

Upping the ante, on Tuesday I ventured to the Stick and Stein in El Segundo accompanied by my faithful sister and two college seniors (one being my cousin). I played coy with my sister, contemplating a salad, but when the server came I threw down the chicken-nacho gauntlet. Fortunately my cousin’s friend doesn’t like all the stuff so the triumvirate went to town on a plate full of chips, cheese, beans, chicken, guacamole, jalapenos, sour cream, tomatoes, olives, and salsa. It was a full frontal assault that left my mouth on fire, fingers sticky, and belly full (and the schooners of Bud Light helped put out any remaining fires). To put it another way, Success!

If the nachos from Loteria evoke thoughts of a simple yet beautiful day spent drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, then the Stick was like going to see a demolition derby at the Menard County Fair. Each has its place, and that place is my stomach.