advice from a fake consultant

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Friday, December 28, 2007

On Pakistan's Future, Or, Practical Ideas From Benazir

There are many who will eloquently eulogize and expertly analyze in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s death; and my suspicion is that you have already seen some of those who are far more capable than I weighing in on the event.

It’s my job to venture farther offer a view that you might not get by reading elsewhere, and that’s where we are headed today: into a conversation that offers practical, although sometimes controversial, advice from Mrs. Bhutto herself...and then suggests the events of the past 36 hours present an unexpected opportunity, if we can grab it.

Of course, this whole line of thought is extraordinarily risky—but with great risk can come great reward.

And with all that in mind, let’s get to work.

Benazir Bhutto announced her intent to return to Pakistan in September; and at that time she laid out specific ideas for her Government in a presentation at the Mideast Institute which will be central to our discussion.

But first, a geography and cultural primer:

The western portions of Pakistan (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the Northwest Frontier Province, and Balochistan) are the sections of the country that today present the greatest security risk. The Pashtun tribes residing in this exceptionally mountainous area have forever travelled around the region; and in fact they have moved back and forth across what is today the de facto Afghanistan/Pakistan border for many, many generations before such a border ever existed.

Important in our short history is the story of how that border came to be...and then how it expired...and how there is legally no border even to this day.

Before there was a Pakistan there was British India; and at the midpoint of the 19th Century a security buffer was created between India’s Pashtun-dominated northwest border regions (and the regions of Afghanistan that lie beyond) and the Punjabi-dominated India to the south.

That 1849 arrangement was augmented by a border deal the British were able to broker between the (Pashtun) Amir Abdur Rahman Khan of Afghanistan and the Colonial Administration in India that created the Durand Line (named after Colonial India’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Mortimer Durand) in 1893. Two years of effort followed to actually delineate the Line.

The Afghan Pashtuns were guaranteed control of the region surrounding Kabul as a part of the deal; and the British (and the Pakistani Government, later) have made efforts to keep compliant leaders running Afghanistan. Each party also agreed not to “exercise interference” in the affairs of the Pashtuns inside the other’s borders. (A history of Pakistan “exercising interference” inside Afghanistan for a variety of reasons quickly followed.)

Of course, Turcoman tribes in the northern regions of Afghanistan (remember the Northern Alliance?), uncooperative Pashtuns to the south, and Persians to the west have all at various times resisted these efforts to impose outside control—and the legacy of those battles has continued to this day. (Hamid Karzai cannot currently expand his control beyond the Kabul region any more effectively than the Amir could...and neither could the Russians.)

All of this opposition meant that despite the efforts of the British and the Pakistanis there has never been an Afghan Government that officially certified the agreement—and since the 100-year term of the agreement ended in 1996, with no follow-on agreement in sight...this means there is today no legal border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In recent decades the Pakistani government had adopted a policy of allowing the Tribal Areas near-total autonomy, which lasted until 2001.

This had had at least six effects:

--As a result of their regional autonomy and tribal system of government, local residents do not participate in local or national elections and do not have access to non-tribally administered courts, schools or other social services. There is also the attendant disconnection from the concept of their citizenship as Pakistanis.

--There has been virtually no economic or infrastructure development in the region (Mrs. Bhutto wanted us to know that 60% of Pakistanis live on less than $2 a day); which has kept well occupied the steady supply of unemployable males who have served as soldiers for the various Governments and the opposing tribalist, nationalist, or theocratic movements in the region.

--This lack of development and the artificial partitioning of “Pashtunistan” caused by the Durand Line has also created resentment on the part of the Pashtuns against the Punjabi elites that ruled first Punjabi India and now Pakistan—and the Pashtunis and Westerners that cooperate with them today in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

--This resentment has found common ground with the resentment felt by Afghan Pashtuns who are the backbone of the Taliban...who support the establishment of “Pashtunistan” within newly drawn borders that include areas of Western Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan...which has allowed the Al Qaeda movement to gain sympathy among Pashtuns in Western Pakistan as well.

--Talibani and Al Qaeda interests have formed an “Islamic Emirate of Waziristan” that has officially gained control of larger and larger portions of Western the point where it is now questionable whether the Pakistani Army can regain control through the force of arms, even if it really wants to.

--As Pakistan’s Army has made efforts to reestablish control in the region since 2001 attacks on Pakistani Army troops by “Pashtunistani” forces have increased in number and ferocity. Mrs. Bhutto suggests this is because the Army is, on the one hand, upsetting the new “extremist” power structure; and on the other hand there is more and more a perception that the Army under Mr. Musharraf’s command represents Punjabi interests against the interests of Pashtuns.

We must also consider another issue before we can move to an action plan: who had the most to gain from Mrs. Bhutto’s death...and who might have done it?

Mr. Musharraf has much to gain from Mrs. Bhutto’s death...maybe.

--It is possible he could use the chaos following her death to further delay any election, either in January, or later, after opposition parties signal they are more willing to participate.

--It is also possible that he could make an arrangement with Army representatives that cements their role in the next Government and marginalizes the opposition further.

--It is also not impossible to conceive of a situation where Mr. Musharraf either tacitly or explicitly made a deal with the very same Pashtuns that are rising in Western Pakistan: eliminate an opposition rival in exchange for some period of freedom from Pashtuni/Punjabi civil war.

I tend to discount all three of these scenarios, however: there is extreme pressure on Mr. Musharraf to keep to the current election schedule (this may change with the decision by opposition parties to not participate in January), the Army seems less willing to continue to support Mr. Musharraf than they have been in the past; and making a deal with the Pashtuns would likely also lead to civil war...with the Army and most Punjabis on one side, and the Pashtuns and Mr. Musharraf’s remaining supporters on the other—a situation even worse for Mr. Musharraf than today’s.

Talaban and Al Qaeda forces have much to gain from Mrs. Bhutto’s death as well:

--Her death could help to create conditions that force the Pakistani Government to negotiate further with the Pashtunistanis...creating a better deal than the Durand Line partitioning ever was.

--The assassination will presumably cause the Pakistani Army and civil authorities to think twice before involving itself further in the “Emirate of Waziristan”; which is also a “prestige” issue for the leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda movements.

--The added prestige improves recruiting and fundraising...inside Pakistan and worldwide. It also reinforces the “inevitability” issue.

--Continuing instability might lead to Government overreach in an effort to clamp down on civil rights in more onerous ways—which should, ironically, help the very forces attempting to clamp down on those same civil rights through the imposition of Shari‘a Law in the territories they control.

Finally, what about the Army?
Will they stick with Mr. Musharraf, seek to install another “civilian” leader—or stage another coup?

The Army has ruled the country for much of the past 40 years, but they seem unhappy with the state of government today...despite the fact that a General has been at the helm of the civil administration for the past 8 years.

The Army is also facing an internal crisis: some of its forces have “defected” to the Talibani forces; and some members of the Pakistani Army have questionable loyalties. The question of divided loyalty (the State or the Taliban?) is even greater in the ISI (the Internal Security Service of Pakistan)—and of course all of this relates to the ability of Pakistan to maintain “command and control” over their nuclear forces.

At this exact moment, these are all what Donald Rumsfeld would refer to as “known unknowns”...but we will offer some speculation as we go along.

Keeping all this in mind, let’s consider some of Mrs. Bhutto’s ideas from that September presentation:

--Mrs. Bhutto wanted Mr. Musharraf to leave office, turning power over to a temporary National Unity Government who would be empowered to hold an election to choose its replacement, but Mr. Musharraf was not willing to make that commitment.

--By one means or another, Mrs. Bhutto wanted the “outsted” Supreme Court Justices returned to the bench.

--She had suggested that Pakistan work on the “four E’s”: education, employment, environment, and energy. She again reminded us of the fact that most Pakistanis are still quite poor—60% living on less than $2 a day.

--The need to reestablish a professional, neutral military—which she suggested needs to start with de-politicizing the military forces.

--She felt that the border dispute needed to be resolved in such a way as to resolve the Pashtun concerns regarding arbitrary boundaries established for political reasons.

--Additionally, she recommended that the Tribal Areas be brought into the national infrastructure...which means creating hospitals, and secular schools, and jobs, and independent courts all outside of the tribal systems—and on an even more basic level, the creation of water resources, which Mrs. Bhutto reports is one of the greatest barriers to local economic development.

One source of jobs that you might not expect: cleaning up cities. Mrs. Bhutto pointed out that cities in her country are filled with mosquitoes and rats and trash; and that many of the unemployed could be put to work in a manner that would immediately improve the quality of life.

And now, at last, we get to the very out-of-the box part of the discussion: what can the United States do to influence events in a positive way?

Before I answer that question, a caveat: none of this will be a “quick fix”, all of it is intended for the long term; and some of it will require us to reconsider many of our thoughts regarding who we will or will not talk to as a nation—or as part of a community of nations.

--Pakistani history has been one of periods of military control followed by periods of...military control; suggesting we will need to remain engaged with the Pakistani military—and in fact all that military aid we have been providing might help open a door.

At the moment we are beginning to engage with leadership in the Pakistani Army other than the recently “retired” General Musharraf...and we ought to offer to increase our training relationships with the Pashtun and Punjabi members of the officer corps, then work our way down the chain of rank.

Rather than offering additional weapons as a first gesture, I propose we offer facilities such as barracks, hospitals and even family housing for the professional military throughout the entire country...along with some of the security enhancements that might be required to help protect the facilities against the Talibani attacks that will surely follow.

--Bill Richardson has suggested that we “pull the rug” from underneath Mr. Musharraf by withdrawing our support and trying to force his resignation; but instead why not just encourage the Army to form a temporary National Unity Government, leading to relatively free and fair elections...and in a gesture of goodwill, restore the Justices back to the Supreme Court? If it’s done publicly, we could offer Mr. Musharraf the chance to join the process and to look much better in the light of history...and if it’s done quietly, we might find a way to offer Mr. Musharraf a lovely home and future somewhere warm and wealthy.

All of this, if done well, could allow the Army to disengage from Mr. Musharraf without appearing to have done so under US influence. It could also allow the Army to be perceived as the defenders of democracy and the middle class...always a good thing. The best potential outcome would be elections supervised by the military but accepted as fairly run by Pakistanis and outsiders—because such an outcome might help to reduce the military’s image as a “corrupted” element of society.

--There are questions regarding Pakistani nuclear security. It is possible to secure storage facilities using US SOF and air assets to a fairly high degree, assuming the facilities are built in a manner that is defendable...and assuming the Pakistani forces on the site can be trusted. We can also seek the assistance of the IAEA and other UN and NATO assets, and the odds are fairly good that we will get the assistance we seek. All of this can be done in a fairly quiet and low-key manner if we have the cooperation of the Pakistani commanders. Rumors suggest such a process has been negotiated and may already be in place.

The same applies to the delivery systems—assuming we have accurate baseline numbers on erector/launchers, warheads, “loose” fissile material, and missiles currently deployed.

--We have to find a way to create some process of engagement between Islamist Pashtuns and those who support a secular government; and one way to do this might be to support efforts of the Pakistani military and civil administrations to create the infrastructure Mrs. Bhutto wanted to develop in Western Pakistan.

There are several reasons this makes sense: secular schools help us by reducing the role of Madrasa schools that are today teaching an anti-American message to kids, clinics and hospitals help us by teaching Pashtuns that America is not always the Great Satan, new jobs reduce the available supply of soldiers...and all of this helps to create a Pakistani association with the Pashtuns who until now have felt ignored by the central government...except when it comes time to “round up the usual suspects”.

An even more effective way to jump start the association with Pakistan: create local councils and allow local residents to elect their own leadership...and allow participation in national elections as well. Whatever we might do to help this process occur could reverberate to our advantage down the road.

And of course, all of this creates an opposing influence against Taliban and Al Qaeda interests, which is also potentially to our advantage...assuming that we don’t run the thing in such a way as to create even more resentment than exists at the moment.

Of course, all of this requires us to converse with those same Taliban leaders, which creates opportunities for intelligence gathering and the finding of common ground—or as we call it in the US, “networking”.

I’ll end today’s conversation with a theme I’ve presented many times: that the biggest threat to “Islamist extremism”...the thing that keeps Osama Bin Laden up late at the idea of a reasonably content and prosperous middle class that feels they have more to gain by going to work then there is to gain by blowing up workplaces—and themselves.

And believe it or not, this most powerfully sad event might just be the catalyst that allows a variety of positive events to take hold that could leave Pakistan in a better place than it is today...and us as well.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

On Christmas And Philosophy, Or, Who Would Jesus Torture?

Here we are in the depths of the Holidays and we have been offered Seasons Greetings by many of the candidates, Republican and Democratic.

Certain of our Republican friends have been particularly anxious to draw our attention to the close personal connections they share with Jesus Christ, their Lord and personal Savior—and the airwaves of Iowa were full of the reminders, at least until 12:01 AM December 26th.

Certain of our Republican friends are also most anxious to remind us that they would not hesitate to apply “enhanced interrogation” techniques to those who, in their minds, deserve this special attention.

Which is how we get to our post-Christmas conversation: do Jesus Christ and the United States Army share similar values regarding torture—and do the Bush Administration and the Republican candidates share a set of opposite values?

And of course, the other question: which group might be right—and why?

So let’s start by reviewing the philosophical positions that the two sides seem to occupy:

The Bush Administration, as is well known, has taken the position that “enhanced interrogation” is a permissible practice. They have also accepted the proposition that “torture” is not permissible under US law.

They are at present unable to define certain methods of interrogation as “torture” or not torture. The Attorney General will be getting back to the President on this question just as soon as he is able, we are told.

Some Members of Congress have suggested these enhanced methods of interrogation are really no more than enhanced swimming lessons.

Some have also advanced the proposition that the President is allowed to offer the final determination regarding the legality of any action taken by the President.

It is further reported that certain tapes which no longer exist prove the efficacy of the certain methods that are not currently considered torture—at least in the minds of those who now offer their recollection of what was on those tapes.

The Republican candidates (with the notable exception of John McCain) have not only embraced the Administration’s positions on these issues, they’ve publicly suggested we build more Guantanamo-like facilities…and even bring in Jack Bauer, if at all possible.

As you might expect, Jesus Christ has a different perspective:

…Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

--Jesus Christ, as recorded in the King James Bible (Matthew 25:40)

What you might not expect is that the United States Army shares the same philosophical real estate as the man Christians recognize as God’s only Son…and followers of Islam recognize as one of God’s Prophets.

5-54. Compliance with laws and regulations, including proper treatment of detainees, is a matter of command responsibility. Commanders have an affirmative duty to ensure their subordinates are not mistreating detainees or their property. HCT leaders must effectively supervise their subordinate collectors during all interrogation operations. Supervisors must ensure that each HUMINT collector has properly completed an interrogation plan and sound collection strategy, and fully understands the intelligence requirements he is seeking to satisfy prior to beginning an interrogation. NCOs and WOs should regularly participate in interrogations with their subordinates to ensure that the highest standards of conduct are maintained. Interrogation supervisors should also monitor interrogations by video, where video monitoring is available…

5-55. Non-DOD agencies may on occasion request permission to conduct interrogations in Army facilities. These requests must be approved by the JTF commander or, if there is no JTF commander, the theater commander or appropriate higher level official. The interrogation activity commander will assign a trained and certified interrogator to escort non-DOD interrogators to observe their interrogation operations. The non-DOD personnel will sign for any detainee they want to question from the MPs, following the same established procedures that DOD personnel must follow. In all instances, interrogations or debriefings conducted by non-DOD agencies will be observed by DOD personnel. In all instances, non-DOD agencies must observe the same standards for the conduct of interrogation operations and treatment of detainees as do Army personnel. All personnel who observe or become aware of violations of Army interrogation operation standards will report the infractions immediately to the commander. The personnel who become aware of mistreatment of detainees will report the infractions immediately and suspend the access of non-DOD personnel to the facility until the matter has been referred to higher headquarters. Non-DOD personnel conducting interrogation operations in an Army facility must sign a statement acknowledging receipt of these rules, and agree to follow them prior to conducting any interrogation operations. Non-DOD personnel working in DOD interrogation facilities have no authority over Army interrogators. Army interrogators (active duty, civilian, or contractor employees) will only use DOD-approved interrogation approaches and techniques.

--Army Field Manual 2-22.3 (FM 34-52) Human Intelligence Collector Operations (Pp. 90-91)

30 retired Generals and Admirals also disagree with the Administration’s position:

In this instance, the relevant rule-the law-has long been clear: Waterboarding detainees amounts to illegal torture in all circumstances. To suggest otherwise-or even to give credence to such a suggestion-represents an affront to the law and to the core values of our nation. (emphasis is from the original source)

--General's Letter to Senator Patrick Leahy, November 2, 2007

The Administration tells us that they have had great success with their “enhanced” methods, but even General Petraeus disagrees with the Administration in that regard:

“Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows they are frequently neither useful nor necessary. Certainly, extreme physical action may make someone “talk;” however, what the individual says may be of questionable value…”

--Letter from General Petraeus to all personnel serving in Multi-National Force, Iraq, May 10, 2007

So now that we know how the two sides feel—what do we do?

The most persuasive arguments I have heard so far from the Administration and its acolytes for the new policies suggest:

--That we will be confronted by the specter of a nuclear bomb, or something similar; and the only way to quickly obtain the information that will save large numbers of Americans is to interrogate the captured terrorist in “enhanced” ways.

--That we allow enhanced interrogation methods to be used upon “terrorist” subjects that are already permitted in the criminal justice system. This argument considers that techniques such as “good cop, bad cop” are intended to be intimidating, which is banned behavior under the Army Field Manual guidelines. The extension of this argument is “if we allow intimidation for purse snatchers, why not for terrorists?”

Adherents of this position do not necessarily support waterboarding as an allowed practice, but might support methods such as sleep deprivation or the application of loud music for extended periods at high volumes.

The Army and Jesus offer their own arguments:

--The first is that there are benefits to occupying the moral high ground. In the case of Jesus, the decision to occupy the moral high ground has led an enormous number of people to follow His teachings—even in times when the Christian churches have not deployed military forces.

The Army feels occupying the high ground protects their own troops who might fall into enemy hands, just for starters.

--There is also a “force multiplier” effect when America rejects torture. Opposition troops who know they will be treated well are far more likely to surrender to US forces than those who know they will be subjected to torture. Less fighting means we have fewer troops exposed to combat, and more American troops live to fight another day—and there are fewer limbs lost in the bargain, as well.

--They also seem to feel that in a counter-insurgency war where the other forces use the news of American atrocities as a recruiting tool the fewer atrocities the better.

--There is also the question of efficiency. The Administration points to the example of the captured terrorist who knows where the bomb is hidden, but professional interrogators point to empathy and assimilation (and even bribery) as far more effective tools.

Part of that has to do with history.

Defectors have been a rich and highly valued source of information for military and civilian agencies for at least the past half-century, and they were an important factor in how we won the Cold War. Defectors are unlikely to be attracted to a nation perceived as willing to torture—and defectors are a gift that keeps on giving, as opposed to the terrorist you torture once and “throw away”.

The same goes for “flipping” insiders. The probability that someone will be willing to remain within an organization we want to penetrate and provide us information for months, or even years, is much higher if we are recognized as the nation that values human rights above all others.

Neither of these considerations factor into the “Jack Bauer” scenario; but the amount of information gained by occupying the higher ground is like a warehouse of treasure, compared to the possibility of obtaining that one truthful answer at the exact moment you need it that torture is alleged to provide.

(By the way, have we pointed out that none of the individuals suspected of having been interrogated in “special” ways is actually supposed to have known anything about any nuclear weapons?)

Part of it has to do with human response to pain.

The application of pain seems to be effective in getting people to give answers, but not necessarily the truth. John McCain tells us he gave the names of the starting lineup for the Green Bay Packers when the North Vietnamese were torturing him for the names of his shipmates.

Imagine breaking down the door after torturing the only person who can tell you where the bomb is, looking for the woman the terrorist swears can tell you all you need to know: Pascale Machaalani.

Imagine your surprise when you find out she’s no terrorist at all; but instead a singer with an album title that translates into English as “The Biggest Lie In My Life” (“Akbar Kidba Bi Hayati”). That she’s not even actually on the North American continent at the moment…and that your terrorist not only resisted your interrogation, but had a focused sense of irony.

The need for efficient intelligence collection is one of the things that have led us, time and time again, to reaffirm America’s commitment to that higher road—and it’s why the military is today trying to keep us on that path.

So that should be enough discussion to generate the kind of Christmas dinner conversation that makes a family gathering even better than it was before…and with that in mind, let’s sum it all up:

--The Administration and most of the Republican Presidential candidates support interrogation techniques that have not been previously authorized, the right of the other Branches to interfere in that decision-making process has been challenged, and the supporters allege that “enhanced interrogation” yields useable, actionable intelligence.

--The United States Army and Jesus Christ support a completely different approach: one in which torture is not only not allowed, but openly discredited for it’s lack of utility and morality…an approach that considers the respect of human dignity and the consideration of human rights as effective tools for developing the morality of those who might follow on a Savior’s path—and an effective tool for intelligence gathering, as well.

In this Christmas season, as snow falls outside, I’m with Jesus and the Army.
How about you?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

On Watching A Campaign Train Derail, Or, I Just Love Hillary’s Problems

As the Democrats have raced toward the first primary contests, I have to a great extent kept to other tasks in my writing. It has been my wont to let the events develop; and to a large extent there has been almost no editorial writing in this space regarding the Democratic nominees.

That ends here.

From the beginning I have distrusted Hillary, I don’t like how she’s running her campaign, and it’s my belief that she represents exactly what we shouldn’t be voting for.

And now, in what may be the best holiday present yet, everything I dislike about her is becoming part of the public record.

So what is it about the Senator that bothers me so much?

How about she seems incapable of giving a straight answer to any question?
How about she’ll say anything, no matter what, to gain the nomination?
How about she’ll do anything, no matter what, to gain the nomination?
How about in the recent personal attacks on Obama, she’s proving it?

"We need to put forth a positive agenda for America."

--Hillary Clinton, Novenber 16th, 2007.

For readers not keeping track, those close to Hillary want us to know that Obama "attended a Madrasa”, will be dogged by drug use issues, and my personal favorite, is an opportunist "Who began running for President as soon as he arrived in the United States Senate"…as opposed to Clinton, who, if I recall correctly, waited until her fourth or fifth term as a Senator to run.

The candidate herself has maintained an air of “plausible deniability”; choosing not to answer questions regarding the assertions made by those close friends.

Of course, there are those who would suggest that these actions emanating from her campaign are not valid criteria by which to measure her as a candidate—that these are personal attacks, not a discussion of “policy” issues; and therefore they remain beyond our examination.

A ridiculous argument, indeed.

At the heart of the American mindset is the idea that Government is not to be trusted--and those who seek high office, even less so; at least until they can prove they deserve our trust.

“Voters will have to judge us, and that’s what I welcome…”

--Hillary Clinton on the “Today Show”; December 17, 2007

Recent events (and you can probably think of a few without my help) suggest that trust matters even more today than ever before.

With all due respect, the Clinton history does not inspire my trust:

--Tons of corporate PAC money (more than any candidate of either party) is flooding into her campaign.

--Millions more from undisclosed sources is going to support the Clinton Presidential library.

--In the face of this (with an Administration currently in power who has made reverence to donor interests a religion even bigger than…well, religion) we are told that there is no connection between library donations to the former President and this Presidential campaign, no reason to disclose the donor’s names—and no possibility that the effect of all these donations will be to sway this candidate into acting just like the current corporatist Administration.

--A candidate who tells us she will cover all Americans in her healthcare plan—by requiring the uninsured to purchase insurance…who tells us she will not negotiate...and she will negotiate with Iranian leaders without preconditions; and a candidate who believes Mr. Bush when he tells us voting to declare the Iranian Army a terrorist organization is not a precursor to war.

--A candidate who would apparently rather seek the assistance of President Bush the Elder than President Jimmy Carter in her efforts to promote world peace.

The agent of change, we’re told.

Over and over again she comes up wrong on so many issues—the Iraq war, the restoration of the Constitution, the need to change the Military Commissions Act, and on and on and on.

Oh, and let’s not forget that Hillary’s friends are concerned about the dirt Republicans might sling at Obama…try, if you can, to visualize a cloud of flying mud slightly larger than a spherical Gobi Desert and you might have a conception of how much will be flung at her by those same Republicans.

Now I will acknowledge that a candidate who is slipping in the polls, as Hillary is, must begin to confront her opponent…and you’ll notice that I did not fault Mr. Clinton’s attacks on Obama’s experience. Frankly, I disagree with elements of his statement; that said, I can easily see this as a reasonable argument to raise regarding an opponent.

But the Madrasa stuff, and all that goes with it…it really stinks of desperation; her unwillingness to attack personally makes a real statement about her own integrity; and the illogical nature of her denials regarding all that corporate money suggests a “politics as usual” attitude that we need to toss out--not re-elect.

There are those who will vehemently disagree with the tone and tenor of this discussion.
They will be quick to point out that the “politics of personal destruction” will damage all the candidates.

My response: sorry, folks, but the Hussein and cocaine train has already left the station; and those who sow shall reap.

I’d also tell them that a candidate who doesn’t respect her own opponents (or the power of her own ideas above the power of personal attack) is not likely to be the kind of President that will respect opposing nations who don’t support her views—and haven’t we had enough of that already?

With that in mind, I’m glad her campaign is “coming off the rails”…and I can’t wait to see what form of self-destruction her desperation leads her to next.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

On Taking Requests, Or, The “Power’s Out Emergency Cookbook”

Just a couple days ago we discussed some practical tips for making extended power outages much more bearable; and in response to the story reader (and also writer, as it turns out) Halcyon commented that I should write an emergency cookbook.

Seeing how the weather from the American Midwest is arriving on the East Coast’s front door this morning….well, let’s just say that it might be a good time to take a request.

So here’s what we’re going to do: I will go through my fridge and freezer, just as though my power had just gone out; and we’ll have a practical conversation about not just eating—but eating well.

Oh, and just for fun---quotes from the movies I’m watching as I write.

“Survival kit contents check…one .45 caliber automatic…one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills…$100 in rubles, $100 in gold…one issue of prophylactics, 3 lipsticks, 3 pairs of nylon stockings…shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”

--Slim Pickens to his crew in Dr. Strangelove (1964)

First thing, we need to think about what will defrost first.

For us, it’s the small frozen items: the tamales, the egg rolls, the mini tacos, and the lumpia—and the White Castles (I love those little burgers!). Also the frozen vegetables.

So here’s our first lunch: Let’s put the tamales in the handy baking dish first. OK, now, is there a bottle of salsa dying in the fridge? Either toss it in, or mix it with a tomato product—we have some cans of chopped tomato in the pantry….you probably do too. Any frozen corn? Toss that in, too. Any handy onion, garlic, or even a lime? Any or all of those are excellent.

At our house, the primary power out cooking tool is a Weber grill and charcoal. Now we touched on this last time, but let’s be clear. The way to load coals in your grill is to load them along one edge of the grill. You do not want to put them in the middle. Put lighter fluid on only one end of the “row” of coals, and after they’re lit, the coals will burn from one end to the other in a nicely controlled process that offers nice even heat and won’t crack your ceramic baking dishes.

So while you’re cooking the “tamale surprise”, use the space remaining on the grill (don’t waste coal!) to cook some of the other small, loose stuff. For example, we’d be laying out eggrolls or whatever small snack food you have (pizza rolls, fish sticks, any of that kind of thing…), the theory being that you can have a small snack on hand that can be stored outside, cooked but cool. (You have 2 hours to lower the temperature of cooked food to below 45 F. and be safe; and the small things will cool with in ½ hour or less if it’s good and cold outside. (Remember, if it’s below 45 F., the world is your refrigerator.)

Now we need to think ahead to dinner. We should be pulling something large for tonight….and something else for tomorrow. The idea here is we can put a large piece of meat in a liquid, even if it’s mostly frozen, and by cooking it slowly we can sort of “force defrost” and turn the large item into something like a stew or pot roast—or coq au vin (one should enjoy one’s deprivations, after all). Tomorrow, we’ll use the defrosted large item as a traditionally grilled item, or we’ll cut it up.

All this grill work is a great time to bring in the kids. There’s no better way to keep the kids busy than to let them help….so perhaps they can help turn the eggrolls and watch the small items. Keeps ‘em warmer, too. Plus you get to have a conversation about fire safety….and foodborne illness, too.

45 minutes or so have gone by, and if you have any shredded cheese (“Kids? Wanna help?”), this would be the time to toss it on. We’ll be done in 15 minutes or so.

Here’s some thoughts:

First, use the paper plates and plastic to the extent you can. I know it’s not green, but honestly, the fewer dishes the better. The grill can be used to boil water for dishwashing, and it can be mixed with a little cold water in the sink to “stretch” it (besides, water over 140 F. can burn your hands---be careful!).

Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dimitri? Why do you think I'm calling you? Just to say hello? Of course I like to speak to you. Of course I like to say hello. Not now, but any time, Dimitri. I'm just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened. It's a friendly call. Of course it's a friendly call. Listen, if it wasn't probably wouldn't have even got it.

--Peter Sellers, as the US President, to the unseen Russian Premier in Dr. Strangelove (1964)

At this point, a word about frozen meals. They are very useable, assuming they can be repackaged. And they can. Into the baking dish they may go….and they can obviously be combined in new ways—the rice package of one dinner matching with the chicken of another, sauces tossed akimbo. Well….just go crazy.

Now back to tonight

I found the chunks of beef I froze not too long ago, a bag of mini bell peppers (fresh, not frozen), celery, onion, and a couple bags of ripple-cut carrots. There are potatoes, too.

Sounds like pot roast to me.

The trick to a great pot roast is letting the meat cook for an extended period of time (the connective tissue in tougher meats requires that time for the meat to become more tender), browning the meat at the beginning of the process, and developing a good sauce.

“What were you when you came here five years ago? A little college girl from a School of Journalism! I took a little doll-faced hick—“

“You wouldn't have taken me if I hadn't been doll-faced!”

“Why should I? I thought it would be a novelty to have a face around here a man could look at without shuddering.”

--Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday” (1940)

Put the pan (cast iron Dutch oven, perchance?) on the grill, and drop in a bit of oil. After the pan has heated up, toss in the meat and let it brown. (Helpful tip: rub some tomato paste on the meat to create a nice sugary brown “flavor builder”.) Add water to the pot, cover, put the cover on the grill, and let the meat simmer slowly. The coals will run out before you’re done, so remove the pot, add some coals touching the end of the other coals, there on the edge….and the fire will continue burning. Add potatoes about an hour before you’re done, carrots half an hour or so later. You can add onion (cut it in nice big chunks) and celery—but I’m going to hold back the bell peppers for later.

Put the top on the grill, and go read a book for awhile.

This should take 3 hours or so to cook, depending on the cut and size of the meat. Do not boil the contents, just let them simmer. Adjust the heat applied to the dish by moving it closer to or farther from the edge of the grill with the coals.

“I'm sorry, Roy, it's too late.”

“Just like that, huh? This country's going to the dogs! It used to be when you bought a politician, the son of a bitch stayed bought.”

-- Joe Flaherty and Jack Warden in “Used Cars” (1980)

Tomorrow we would find a way to use the defrosted large meat….right now I have some chicken breasts and pork loin in the freezer; so let’s use the pork.

I have kidney beans in the pantry, and you might have some more tomato stuff….and if you have some paprika, maybe some seasoning salt, some garlic, a bit of black pepper….maybe even some Worcestershire sauce. So just like last night, a bit of oil in the pot, brown the cubed pork, then toss in the tomato stuff and the seasonings (got any basil, oregano, or thyme? All the better….) and the kidney beans. If you are willing to give up a glass of red wine for the sake of science, this would be a great time to add it. Near the end of the cooking time (this will be much shorter than the beef; potentially an hour or less) I would be tossing in my split mini peppers.

So that’s how emergency cooking works.
Be creative, be aware of what’s in the house, use fuel wisely.…and get completely out-of-the-box with your sense of what goes together.

But most of all: have fun.
Remember when you used to say the worst day fishing was better than the best day working?

Well, today, you’re fishing.

Author's note: Just in case the power does go might want to print this.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

On Mae West, Or, The Second Annual Disaster Planning Story

So you’re sitting at home, riding out the big storm, and the next thing you know the power goes out.

It’s not just you, either. Tens of thousands of your neighbors are out as well, and you immediately know power won’t be restored for days.

This can be an utter disaster...or not that big a deal...depending on the things you did before the storm.

Because I’m watching Mae West movies as I write this, we have today a most unusual story: serious tips that can help improve the disaster experience greatly; and Mae West’s snappiest quotes to add just a spoonful of sugar to the medicine those tips represent.

“I’ve changed my mind.”
“Yeah, does it work better?”

--Mae West and Edward Arnold, in “I’m No Angel” (1933)

First things first: your friendly Department of Homeland Security tells you to be ready for three days of isolation-and I’m here to tell you that three days is nowhere nearly enough.

Be prepared for at least seven days.

Don’t believe me?
Check this out:

--The BBC reported 350,000 or more were without water for up to 14 days in the UK following flooding in July of ’07.

--Over 100,000 of the 600,000 households knocked off the power grid in St. Louis were still dark a week later after storms a year earlier.

--Residents of Eastern Maine learn to survive blackouts caused by events as disparate as high winds, ice storms-and even squirrels. In January 1998 power was out “for weeks” in parts of the State.

“Young lady, are you showing your contempt for this court?”
“No, I’m doing my best to hide it.”

--Mae West to Addison Richards in “My Little Chickadee” (1940)

A growing number of us are deciding that the generator is the perfect solution for disasters, but there I’m here today to offer other options.


Consider that in the worst of power outages, the gasoline your generator requires might not be available-gas stations also need power. Some states have tried to address this, notably Florida, but there is little consistency to the effort.

Then there’s the cost.

The larger propane-fueled generators consume about .9 gallon of propane per hour at half load, and propane is currently priced at $2.46/gallon. That’s about $50/day for electricity.

Gasoline generators?

This Briggs and Stratton 11hp, 6000 running watts unit is fairly typical: 13 hour running time at half load. That’s somewhere around $40 a day.

If your generator’s providing more than half load, it’s more expensive.

And don’t forget...if the power fails, the ATMs do too.
Getting cash to pay for that fuel may be a problem.

“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds”
“Goodness had nothin’ to do with it, dearie.”

--Mae West to Patricia Farley in “Night After Night

So how do we replace the lost services if we have no generator?

Let’s start with heat:

Kerosene heaters are an effective option when the power goes out. When it’s in the 20s-and even lower-one of these heaters can keep three rooms very cozy for about $10 a day. Put up a blanket and close off the hall, bring in the sleeping bags, and it’s “campout in the family room” time.


Who doesn’t have one of those Weber grills out in the yard? Get a couple of bags of charcoal now and put ‘em away, because you can cook everything in the fridge and freezer on a Weber.

I have personally made cornbread, corned beef and cabbage, and even meatloaf during times of no power-just make darn good and sure you do not ever do this indoors....or out in the garage.

As for the food: frozen food will survive for a day or two-maybe even three-if the door is kept closed; but if it’s constantly below 40 F. (4 C.)....well, the world is your refrigerator. You just load up a cooler, and all is good.


Here’s where your car’s ability to charge things will come in handy. Use rechargeable things (iPod, portable DVD player, CD player); throw ‘em in the car as you go about your daily business, and recharge like crazy.

As a backup, go out right this minute and buy all the AA and D batteries you can lay your hands’ll need them.

“Where is that man, that.…that officer?”
“Why he left….he had to leave sometime.”
“Oh, you sent him away?”
“No….he left under his own power.”

--Mae West and Jack La Rue in “Go West Young Man” (1936)

Of course, if all else’ll be doing some reading.
This logically brings us to how will you provide...


Two basic choices are available: the old-fashioned oil lamp, and the newfangled battery operated lamp. For reasons of fire safety, I prefer battery, and we have a lovely “camping lantern” with two fluorescent lamps (the thing requires eight D batteries, however), and numerous smaller LED lamps.

However, just this weekend, at Costco, I purchased the handheld millions of candlepower rechargeable lamp (it reports 20 hours of operation per charge); and I am here to tell you that the thing is not only extremely bright, but at a range of three feet or less, it makes an excellent personal heater.

That said, beware of rechargeable. You can only charge so much in a car in a day, and you need backups. If power is out for more than a few days, it may be time for oil lamps. (Just so you know, the larger the bottle of lamp oil you buy the cheaper....and there is a significant difference in price here, so look for large bottles or cans.)

Two more pieces of advice:

--You might want to leave a trickle of water flowing from your outside faucets...or head to the hardware store and get insulating covers, and if power fails you might want to do the same indoors (all of this is intended to keep from freezing your plumbing and splitting a pipe somewhere).

--It’s going to be easier to keep everyone warm if everyone has clothes for cold weather. Consider hitting the thrift shops now and getting yourself and the kids snow and ski clothing that you can keep in the attic until you need it. I have two ski coveralls, purchased at thrift shops in the middle of summer, for which I was truly grateful last December when we lost power for a week.

Bad weather is coming, and if you do some of this today it will make life so very much better if the power should vanish for a few days. And you’ll save a ton of money, too.

Best of luck; be ready, and most important of all-have some fun with it.
It’s not: “Damn, the power’s out!”
Instead, think of it as “camping out in the living room”.

To complete the effect, you can even go outside and make s'mores on the grill over the charcoal.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

On Living in Nature, Or, All The Weather Seems To Come Here

It is reported that 2/3 of the world’s population have never seen snow-and there are times when I wish I belonged to that group.

There is great variety to be found in the accursed stuff, however, which is why the Yup’ik, in their wanderings around Southwestern Alaska, express the conditions of the snow that surrounds them in so many different ways.

For a writer who lives in the world of the Yup’ik (or for that matter, anywhere along the North American Pacific coast south to more or less Coos Bay, Oregon), there’s also a great similarity between the storms that mark daily existence and the writing process itself.

If you’ve never seen snow...or the flooding that can follow a storm...if you’re all too familiar...or if you just wondered what the heck a lexeme’s conversation is for you.

For all of this to make sense, we better begin by setting the stage.

Today’s conversation, as we said, takes place along the Pacific Coast of North America. The coastline is paralleled by multiple mountain ranges: the Coast Ranges of Oregon, Washington’s Olympics, the Cascades (which bisect Oregon and Washington), the giant wrinkle in the Earth that is Vancouver Island, the fantastically complicated Pacific and Kitimat Ranges of British Columbia, and the equally fjord- and forest-studded Boundary Ranges that bring the reader into Alaska. It even reaches out to the Canadian Rockies and the headwaters of the Columbia, Yukon, Copper, and Frasier Rivers.

To paint a simple picture, much of the land in this region consists of either forested mountains upon which enormous amounts of water fall, or the lowlands through which the runoff from those mountains must flow. Around here, anything under 3000 feet (1000 meters for my world readers) doesn’t hardly count, and many peaks go well above 10,000 feet.

Trees can grow more than 300 feet (100 meters) tall.

The reason so much water falls here is because we are the first land encountered by nearly every storm moving east across the Pacific, thanks to the jet stream, which can either scoop up the warm and highly saturated Western Pacific air and transport it north from the tropics right at us (the “Pineapple Express”); or run the air north past the Aleutian Islands and from there south at us, creating...well, creating some miserable and awful weather.

The kind only a Norwegian could love.

How much water are we talking about? The National Park Service reports that parts of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula receive 140 to 167 inches of rain annually (that’s 350 to 425cm...). Forks, Washington (it’s located right at the most northwestern spot in the State) has averaged 118 inches (300cm) of rain the past 20 years-and reported over 160 inches twice in those two decades.

It’s not like Florida rain, either. Many days, it rains half an inch or less...but the sky is often gray, and there’s often a mist or drizzle (think Scotland or New Zealand or Peru). How many days? NOAA tells us that residents of Juneau, Alaska can expect an average of 223 rainy days a year (see p. 45), 193 days in Astoria, Oregon (the mouth of the Columbia River), or 208 days in Quillayute, Washington; as compared to a mere 120 days in Mobile, Alabama, the American city widely described as our rainiest.

As for Vancouver Island and the British Columbia coast?
Surfers there require a wetsuit-just for the rain.

(Quick joke-if Noah lived here, he’d say to God: “40 days...that’s not really much of a threat, you know...”)

The basic explanation for all of this is that these moisture-laden storms come blowing in off the Pacific, and the clouds are too wet and heavy to climb over the mountains-until they dump enough water to get past...then they hit the next mountains, and the process repeats...until the coast becomes a giant holding facility full of retained water. And then, depending on the temperature, you have either a giant snowpack-or the floods begin.

(Just so you know: the most snow ever around here in 12 months?
1140 inches (that is not a typo; it’s 2895cm) at Mt. Baker, Washington during the 1998-99 season.)

Sometimes we get both rain and snow.
Like the last few days.

As we touched upon a moment ago, there are many kinds of rain: the mist, the on-and-off drizzle, soupy fog, your basic downpour...and all of them can be complicated by the addition of wind, and changes in temperature. (Warm rain is an entirely different animal than cold rain, and it is hard to find weather much more miserable than windblown rain at just above freezing-unless you live on permafrost...and especially after you’ve had it every day for the past, oh, let’s say...55 days.)

And in this part of the world, it’s not uncommon to have all of this weather on the same day...with occasional sunbreaks during the rest of the week. (This week’s Port Alberni, BC, weather forecast illustrates the point nicely.)

Which brings us back to the Yup’ik and lexemes.
Lexemes, you say?

... Roughly, a lexeme can be thought of as an independent vocabulary item or dictionary entry. It's different from a word since a lexeme can give rise to more than one distinctly inflected word. Thus English has a single lexeme speak which gives rise to inflected forms like speaks, spoke, and spoken.
--Anthony Woodbury, Counting Eskimo words for snow: A citizen's guide

As there are many forms of rain, there are also many forms of snow; and the Yup’ik have 15 lexemes for snow and its various forms. Just as with writing, storms have a “story arc” that creates a progression of rains and snows (and the occasional “ice fog”, an especially nasty weather that turns roads into skating rinks)...and that’s really where this story is going.

The story always begins with the warnings: the actual National Weather Service and Department of Transportation alerts, and the local news, preparing us for (stealing from “The Daily Show”) The Storm Of The Century Of The Week.

And that’s what we got on Thursday: “Look out, this is gonna be a big one!”

I worked all night Thursday and as I checked the weather there was really nothing. I went to bed to gray skies and a “bare and wet” landscape.

As I awoke Friday afternoon I looked out the window and...

...snow was everywhere!

Not so deep yet (maybe 4 inches...10cm), but the big flakes were falling rapidly.
Suddenly it was 6 inches-and it’s time to make some decisions about shoveling.

There are two reasons why shoveling matters:

--If a lot of snow falls, the compression and accumulated moisture can turn the fluffy, powdery snow into “concrete”, making the process at least twice as difficult.

--If the compressed and uncleared snow refreezes, it will form a virtually impossible to remove crust of ice-making walking and driving way too exciting (amazing video-don’t miss this!) for my taste.

By now the snowflakes are alternating between larger and smaller-with the smaller flakes falling faster...but the fallen snow is still light and fluffy (powder!), so at that point, the shoveling began. It’s about 28 degrees F. (-2 C.).

There’s about 300 square feet to be cleared, 6 inches deep (15cm), and lots more falling, even as I shovel. Well, to be accurate, I’m pushing the snow at this point, because it’s still light and easy to move.

My current snow shovel is my favorite ever: about a foot wide (30cm), thick, plastic (aluminum shovels always seem to bend at the corners or the rivets fail-I hate that), and able to easily slide, even full of the heaviest snow. The less you lift the better in this job, so sliding the full shovel as much as possible is a good thing. Of course, at some point you still have to lift the snow to remove it, but as of now that’s not a big problem.

After half an hour or so a good third of the work is done; and it’s time for a break. The snow is still powdery, and it’s changing from big, fluffy flakes to an icier, more granular flake. Not an ice pellet...but instead more like the difference between sorbet and granite. Still 26-28 degrees F.

Only the snow is still falling, and there’s a covering over the “cleared” driveway.

For those who have never been to the snow, there’s a process of jacket removal that must be observed.

Did some work inside-and now there’s 8 inches on the ground...including almost 2 inches over the “cleared area”. But it’s still fluffy, so the reclearing goes very fast...but the rest of the driveway now has 8 inches to remove, and the snow is turning into tiny ice pellets, then back to small flakes, then back to large, for more or less the next 3 to 4 hours. At this point, about ¾ inch per hour (almost 2cm) is falling.

The next portion of the driveway’s snow is not as light as the first area; the compression having its effect and moisture accumulating in the snowmass...but it’s still not too bad, because it’s not yet raining.

After another hour it’s time for another break...and I’m just past 50%.
It’s medium heavy snow, and now it’s hard work.

I’ve been listening to an old-school country playlist as I work; and the falling snow makes a great counterpoint to Kitty Wells and Merle Travis...but the last song is the new school “Texas” from Willie Nelson, so it’s break time.

There’s 9 inches now, according to my handy ruler stuck in the snow on the barbrque. It’s no longer so granular, as the weather has begun to warm-and the snow is now heavy to lift. The last 10 feet or so are the hardest, as mixed rain and snow are falling.

By the time the snow is cleared, a foot has fallen (30cm), but the rain is picking up...and by the time I’m writing this (24 hours after the shoveling ended)-and the temperature has risen 20 degrees to the 40s F., and it was over 50 degrees F. (10 C.) during the afternoon.

The wind has become huge...with gusts above 100 mph (160 km) reported in multiple locations. It never stopped blowing all night, and it’s still blowing as the sun comes up.

And the rain never stopped-in fact, near legendary amounts (almost 14”-that’s 35 cm-in Bremerton, Washington for example) have fallen in the last 48 hours wreaking havoc over the area-all rivers in the Western Washington are threatening to flood or have already, the Governor of Oregon has declared an emergency (and road closures have virtually cut the Oregon Coast off from any access to the interior), and I have just heard Washington’s Governor has done the same.

I-5, the main north-south highway running from Vancouver, BC to Tijuana, Mexico (connecting Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego) is under an estimated 8 to 9 feet (3 meters) of water; and will not be passable for a currently unknown length of time. The water is 5 feet above any previous record.

The only available detours are so circuitous that the trip from Seattle to Portland (normally 160 miles one way) is now 275 miles longer-requiring a trip to Yakima, and making a one way trip over 400 miles (640 km).

Roads are literally falling off hillsides. (Click on the "Slideshow" link.)

Helicopters have been performing rescues since yesterday.

One of our favorite restaurants, the Ranch House BBQ, located outside Olympia, Washington has been destroyed, we have just been told (click on the “Mudslide Destroys Olympia Restaurant” link).

Our godson (the one who did not join the military) and his parents live in an exceptionally hard-hit area, Gray's Harbor County, who are at this moment some of the 80,000 without power-and the projections are that it will remain that way for them for at least a week. They are right at the Pacific coast, and there are so many downed trees that there’s going to be enough free firewood for at least two cold winters, for those lucky enough to grab it up.

It is an amazing story, but I’m going to stop at this point, do some actual newsgathering, and see what I can report as the day develops.

I’ll leave you with this thought: when we began we discussed the similarity between the arc of the storm and the arc of the story...and there could not be a better example of that than the story that is arcing before us even as we speak.

Stay tuned...and if I have useful updates I’ll post them here.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

On Media And Money, Or, Thoughts for Striking Writers

There is no doubt the landscape is forever changing for those who wish to create and distribute “new media”-and for those who wish to profit from that creation.

In a scene reminiscent of the breakup of the Hollywood studio system, the “old media” gatekeepers are falling by the wayside…and the economic changes that have rocked the worlds of film exhibition, newspapers, network television, and the music industry in turn have now descended upon Hollywood’s content creation community in the form of the Writer’s Guild of America strike.

What’s the strike about, what sort of solutions might emerge…and what if the ubiquity of digital content distribution makes it impossible to earn money with the current economic model? Those are the subjects we’ll look at today.

Here’s the “why” in a nutshell:

Writers for television and film are employed by producers, and the Writer’s Guild represents (and negotiates for) those writers.

When distributors of content show a particular program, a payment is made to the producers, who then distribute some portion of that money to some of the persons involved in the show’s production-most notably, actors, writers, and directors. Those monies are called residuals.

But there are exceptions-and one of those is the Internet.

As of today, writers do not receive payments for programming distributed online.

There are two ways online distribution can make money: companies like Netflix (or the current TV networks themselves-here’s Fox and NBC/Universal’s joint effort) charge to view content delivered by download and a portion of that revenue is paid to producers; or the media is shown on an ad ad-supported service not unlike atomfilms or YouTube.

In that second model, there is no clear rule on how, or if, a producer will be paid for the showings-some media is being shown with no payment, and some deals are presumably being made that involve the distribution of ad revenue…and presumably there will be many more.

Anyone who has seen the demise of VHS and the rise of DVD (and today’s efforts to move us to Blu-Ray and HDDVD) knows that Internet distribution will eventually become the distribution method of choice…until some other media replaces that.

And thus the strike.

Writers feel the only hope they have to get paid in the future is to derive income from the distribution method of the future.

But what if the fate of the music business is the future of all media?

Courtney Love eloquently explains (with detailed math) exactly why signing a contract with a record company, recording albums, and touring is a career that pays more or less the same as working at Wal-Mart. Or, as she puts it: “sharecropping”.

As a result, for artists the real money in music has become the revenues those artists retain from their live performances…and the alternative methods artists and distributors have discovered to sell their media. It’s not just iTunes, either; ringtones have become a major new source of revenue, as Thomas Dolby and Nokia well know. Games, too.

And then there’s Jill Sobule and the QiGO key. Sobule is selling the keys at her concerts, and the keys provide access to a downloadable version of the same concert that she makes available in a few days at her web site. (By the way, she’s also providing a free download of her excellent live show from Joe’s Pub in NYC last July for anyone who is interested as a means of encouraging you to purchase a ticket for a future show.)

As for the record companies: just like cell phone airtime, there is less and less revenue in the thing, despite the fact that use of the commodity has exploded. (Something’s being played on all those new MP3 players, after all.)

So how does all this relate to the writer’s strike?

Well, consider this: if the money in music is in the live performance, and the media has become a near-valueless commodity item; and film and TV producers are hoping to hoping to earn a living by selling media, and have no outlet for live performance…well, basically, in an iTunes and YouTube world, what’s the future of writers, or producers, or any major visual programming company, anyway?

Is it possible that eventually the only media “stars” who really achieve great fortune are those who can parlay a “brand identity” into lifestyle products…and that the real “new media” may turn out to be a conglomeration of Jimmy Buffet, Jay-Z, High School Musical, Starbucks, and The Simpsons-and the next mega-intergalactic garage band or comedy animator or Jackass imitator with perfect fashion sense that finds their way through the clutter of iTunes?

In the end, it may turn out that distribution of the derivative rights is the only battle worth fighting-especially in a world where writers risk becoming wage-workers for producers of programming fighting for attention and decreasing revenues in an ever-fragmenting market…that occasionally yields a new cultural icon in which the writer/owners can all catch a wave of profit and finally, in that most Hollywood of clichés, ride their newfound wealth off into the proverbial sunset.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

On A Different Thanksgiving Dinner, Or, The Cranberry And Sweet Potato Reconsidered

The American Thanksgiving Day holiday rapidly approaches, and in homes across this land we will be treated to the sights and smells of the holiday feast.

In millions of homes we will also celebrate with sound.

What sound is that, you ask?
Why, of course, the slurping sound of cranberry sauce sliding out of the can in all its quivering, cylindrical glory.

For some, this is the sound of happiness, but for others it’s a sound to be tolerated at best-and we come before you today to offer easy and fun alternatives…not just for your cranberry consideration, but also for those most humble-and most delicious-of tubers: yams and sweet potatoes.

So who hasn’t passed those bags of whole cranberries and thought “what do they do with those?”

To find out, you’ll need to grab a bag or two of berries (a small bag is good for 2-6 people…but if someone really likes the cranberry sauce, grab an extra bag), sugar (plain old white is okay, Demerara or raw sugar is better, cane juice works great as well, but the darkest sugars might be avoided…and you’ll need an amount more or less equal to the amount of berries), orange juice (only a few ounces, so you may already have it in the house), a bit of red wine (cabernet and merlot and shiraz are fine, port is better…and we’ll have lots left over to drink), and a bit of ginger root.

(If you can find “young ginger”, all the better; but any ginger root will do in a pinch. Grab a medium root. Powdered ginger? Not so much. Candied ginger? An intriguing possibility that I’ve never tried…but one that could be quite good.)

Now let’s talk preparation: the hardest part of this recipe is prepping the ginger…and that’s quite easy. All we have to do is dice it into tiny pieces. First, cut off a “bulb” of the root. Now take a thin-bladed knife and peel off the “skin”, exposing the yummy interior. Trim the excess off to create a “cubish rectangle” shape.

Now here’s the cool part: Make several parallel cuts almost, but not completely through, the ginger. Now roll it over clockwise (or counter…I’m easy) 90 degrees, and repeat the process of slicing the ginger. When you’re through, you should be holding on to one piece of ginger with many parallel slices and one end which is unsliced.

Now all we have to do is hold onto the unsliced end while cutting across the slices we’ve made (cross-cutting, if you will)…and we’ll have tiny little cubes of ginger (hint: this also works great for anything else you need to dice…especially onions). If this does not work out perfectly…who cares? This is supposed to be fun, and if you choose to chop your ginger into minute slivers with a chain saw it will eventually work out OK, so no worries.

(Helpful hint: If any of this is stressful…we have wine…and this recipe will require only about a glass or so. Need I say more?)

The last step in prep is to wash the berries.

The entire preparation process now complete, let’s make cranberry sauce:

Grab a saucepan, and apply more or less medium high heat, When the pan has heated, toss in a splash of oil and the ginger, and allow it to sauté just a bit. Do not allow the ginger to change color to brown or it will become bitter.

As soon as the ginger begins to change to a less raw look toss in those berries and darn near all the sugar. This is not an exact science, so we are holding back a bit of the sugar for now. If it turns out the sauce is not sweet enough we can add a bit later as we taste. Add a bit of orange juice now as well. More or less 3 ounces (or 90 ml for my world readers) per pound (500g) should do nicely…but a little more can’t hurt.

You’ll begin to notice the berries “breaking down” and becoming “saucelike” over the next few minutes-and if you trust them around the stove, keeping the sauce well stirred is a great job for the child cooks in the family who want to help. It is mildly hazardous (risk of burn), however, and you want to be careful that no one’s going to dump the sauce on themselves, or use a finger for tasting, as it will be quite hot. (The correct first aid: cool the affected area rapidly…and dipping that finger in a bowl of ice water is quite effective.)

The entire cooking process takes about 30-45 minutes (did you have one glass of wine or two…that usually makes the difference), and as you taste, add the wine (more or less the same amount as the orange juice you added earlier) and a bit more sugar if you wish.

The sauce can be served cold or warm (make it a day ahead to save work on the big day), and it will thicken up as it cools.

Now let’s talk about my friend the tuber.

We have two choices for your consideration today: a variation of the traditional mashed and covered with marshmallows sweet potatoes (mmmmm!), and a more avant-garde interpretation that still ties to times past.

(Helpful hint: the alternative version is sautéed on the stove, and if oven space is at a premium-what with the large meats and pies and bread and all-this could be a huge advantage compared to the traditional method.)

Sweet potatoes, yams, either one is gonna be fine for this-I‘m using Red Garnet yams, but there’s no need to be all high-faloutin’ about the thing. Pretty much any extra-sugary root will do-except beets, of course. (If you can roughly “match” the potatoes, they will all bake at about the same time.)

For the traditional preparation you’ll need exactly what you expect in addition to the sweet potatoes: those tiny marshmallows. But here’s where we flip it up…grab a bag of shredded coconut, and a bottle of ginger ale.

For the avant-garde version, we’ll need a bag of frozen corn, some onions (more or less an onion for every three of four potatoes. I use sweet onions like a Vidalia or Walla Walla for this…but red Italian or Maui Sweets offer potential I’ve not yet investigated), a bunch of green onions, and raw pumpkin seeds.

If you really love the cranberries dried cranberries are a great addition to this recipe as well.

Bake and peel the chosen produce, and if you’re going with the avant-garde recipe, dice (1” dice is about right…any smaller and you may end up with mashed potatoes) the potatoes and chill them in advance.

We’re also going to roast off the pumpkin seeds now: rub a sheet pan with oil (any common oil will do except extra virgin olive oil), lay out the seeds (one thin layer only!), and sort of rub them around so that they are lightly coated with the oil. Sprinkle the seeds with a bit of paprika and salt (fine grain sea salt is best, the big rough stuff…not so much. Table salt is okay, too). This is another great “kid job”; but ensure they don’t overdo on the oil.

Toss the pan in a 275 degree (135 Celsius) oven, and be patient…and give the seeds a stirring around every so often. You’ll see them start to brown up nicely in more or less 45 minutes, and they can also be held overnight. They won’t need refrigeration.

(I used to do this at 350 degrees (175 Celsius), but I got tired of burning seeds…the lower temperature takes longer, but the results are great.)

So now it’s the next day, and all you have to do is sauté the whole thing together: the diced potato, your freshly diced sweet onion, the pumpkin seed, the corn, the cranberries…let it all work for a few minutes, lay it out on a platter, and top with the green onion. There’s great color in the dish, the mix of textures in the potato and seeds and corn is interesting, and it does not have to be done in the oven.

All good stuff. (And remember, the key to good sauté is to start with a hot pan, and don’t overcrowd the food. The idea is to brown, not to steam…and that’s the outcome in an overcrowded pan. Better to sauté twice with small batches than to “steam” once.)

Sweet potato traditionalists…now it’s your turn.

Spread the coconut out on a dry sheet pan (it can be in a thick layer…we’ll be stirring, and coconut is more cooperative than pumpkin seeds in this regard) and bake the pan at 275 degrees (135 Celsius). This takes about 45 minutes to an hour (or more, if there’s lots of coconut), and requires the occasional stirring of the pan’s contents.

You’ll see the color change…when it’s nicely golden, pull out the pan and hold the coconut overnight. It won’t need refrigeration…and it’s dandy to munch on, so make a bit extra for yourself. It can get stale, so keep it in a covered jar or your favorite Tupperware-ish container. (Another handy hint: it’s also great on salads and vegetables and curries, and you might find yourself making little jars of toasted coconut all year long, and using it almost like a spice.)

Bake and peel (yes, I said peel. Leave the peels in the mashed potatoes.), and, while they’re still hot, mash the sweet potatoes. Anyone who’s ever mashed a potato knows a liquid is helpful at this point in the process-and that’s where the ginger ale comes in. (A side note: there are a lot of recipes that add brown sugar or butter at this point in the process. I don’t, but adding more flavors can’t hurt, and Thanksgiving is already the unofficial Cardiac Day, so if you’re inclined, bring on the butter, I suppose.)

Add enough of everything to bring the mixture to the consistency you’re looking for, stir in the coconut, and load the baking dish.

This is another one of those jobs that can be done the day before, and the infusion of ginger and coconut flavors (as with so many foods) is more noticeable the next day.

Everyone knows what happens next: kids steal half the marshmallows, the other half get put on the sweet potatoes, and parents have to fight later to get the same kids to eat the potatoes under the marshmallows at the dinner table.

And hopefully, great fun is had by all.

So that’s our holiday story: we offer some new ways of looking at old foods, and we do it in a way that leaves an extra glass of wine available to the cook.

As for my family…this will be the first Thanksgiving since our godson left for Kuwait, and I expect that to be a major part of our next conversation.

And as for all of you…enjoy your holiday (or try on an American habit for the first time…), and we’ll see you back here in a few days.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

On Balance, Or, Running A Business-And A Government

Todays will be the first of a series of stories in which we will explore an unusual Government, the Port of Seattle. This municipal corporation is the Nation’s first to be charged with operating a port facility in the public interest; and the challenges of aligning the interests of the Port’s customers and the interests of the owners (the voters of King County, Washington) will be the focus of the conversation.

It is a complex story that describes a Government in change, a Government affected by new patterns of voting, and a Government that is involved in creating regional transportation solutions while fighting a history that has engendered considerable public distrust.

We don’t today know where the story will end, because the outcome is yet a work in progress; but we will hopefully create a conversation that revolves around what Government can or can’t do for us, and how it sometimes gets done.

We’ll start with some history, and today we’ll start to introduce the important staff and the Port Commissioners as best we can-but as I said, some of this is still a bit of a mystery.

So let’s start with that history...

Seattle is a city that is defined by its relationship with maritime commerce: the 1896 Klondike gold rush brought the city into the 20th Century, fishing and shipbuilding have waxed and waned over time, and the evolution to container shipping has had its impact.

In an effort to take control of that relationship, the local citizenry voted in 1911 to create what the Port reports was:

“...the first autonomous municipal corporation specifically tasked to develop harbor and port facilities to encourage commerce.”

The proximity of Seattle to the Pacific and the rich fishing grounds of Alaska caused the Port to open Fisherman’s Terminal in 1912 (and for my Brit friends, true cod fish and chips right off the boat that were to die for were served at the Terminal’s tavern for many years...mmmm, sooo good!). The Seaport Division began to open commercial facilities to supplement their operations in 1915; and in 1949 Seattle Tacoma International Airport (SeaTac) entered into the Port’s purview with the creation of the Aviation Division.

More recent history has seen the port open public marinas, cruise ship terminals, a grain shipping terminal (Eastern Washington is a giant farm, producing crops as diverse as wheat, onions, apples, hops, and grapes that produce some of the finest wines found anywhere), and a conference center.

Changes in the way the Port does business has also created the need to manage relationships with tenants, lessees, customers and other stakeholders in new ways; and in the newest chapter of its history the Port is proposing to embark on a reorganization that will create a new Real Estate Division for that purpose.

A fourth Division (Corporate, Professional, and Technical Services) is also proposed, and its name offers a pretty good idea of its functions.

There are at least two other histories of the Port that should be considered: the recent history and near future of the Port’s capital plan, and the highly contentious history that surrounds the Port’s relationship with the other stakeholders.

Let’s start with the easy one first: let’s follow the money.

For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll be working from the proposed 2008 Port of Seattle Budget...which, as the lawyers say, will be herein referred to as “the 2008 Budget”.

More or less $3 billion is in the capital budget for the period 2007-2012 (table III-1 of the Budget), and $619 million of that is proposed for the 2008 Budget-the Aviation Division spending just over 55% of that, the Seaport and proposed Real Estate Division each spending about 20% of the total.

A series of capital improvements are underway at the Airport that include terminal upgrades, a baggage handling system upgrade, and the construction of a third runway-which has been the source of a great deal of tension between the Port and the local residents who live in the flight path. (Issues relating to the baggage handling system pose a problem of lesser intensity.)

The Lora Lake controversy, as the troubles with the local residents have come to be known, is a topic we’ll explore further...but for now, back to the money.

The Seaport is also investing in its real estate holdings, and about $25 million is projected for container and cruise ship terminal improvements, and another $6.5 million for security and “Green Port Initiative” improvements in the upcoming year.

In a move similar to the Alameda Corridor project in Southern California, the Port of Seattle, King County, State of Washington and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway are involved in a process that is intended to dramatically increase the amount of freight that can transit the Pacific Northwest by train by raising the height of the railroad tunnel that bores through the granite of the Cascade Mountains at Stampede Pass; thus allowing “double-stacked” container trains to transit the mountains at that point.

Land swaps and cash payments by the various parties will create a rail right-of-way that also supplements a series of hiking trails, creating a recreational and commercial asset.

This action, far from the port’s terminals, will allow the Port to move far more cargo...and as the current capacity of the existing rail lines has nearly been reached, this is a project of great importance to the Port’s future.

The Port is allocating $103 million to this project in the 2008 Budget, and it is the largest of the Real Estate Division’s projects by far-all other spending by the Division totals $12 million. (The discussion of whether this $12 million is being invested in projects that remove jobs from Union jurisdiction is the current iteration of another long-running controversy that we will discuss further as well...but not today.)

The Port is allocating $40 million to debt service for previous Seaport improvements.

Balanced alongside those expenses are projected combined 2008 operating revenues of $476 million and expenses of $306 million; of which $42 million will be allocated to paying off the capital improvements.

The Port also has the ability to levy taxes. The King County Assessor collects those taxes based on the value of property in the County and the percentage of the “levy” on those values that voters have authorized.

Some of the expenses we discussed above will be paid from current tax levies, and some from general obligation bonds, which are funded from future income.

Income from tax collections is projected to be $78 million in the 2008 Budget (not all of 2007’s budget will be spent, so there’s also $23 million carrying over from last year)...and the question of whether the Port should be collecting property taxes while making an operating profit is also controversial...but also a discussion for another day.

(Just for the record, the Port anticipates employing a bit over 1700 “FTEs” in the Budget.)

That’s hardly a complete picture of the Budget, but it gives us place to begin the discussion.

Let us now return to the Lora Lake controversy.

Rather than reciting the history of the project myself, I’m going to invite a surprise guest: Port of Seattle Commissioner Lloyd Hara (who was kind enough to answer my questions last night even though he was throwing a party at the time...thanks, Commissioner!), who sent the following description of the problems in an email from August 22nd of this year that presents an excellent example of how it can be very tough for an elected official to balance the competing interests of a variety of stakeholders:

“I came into office believing the great Third Runway disputes were finally settled - but this smoldering legacy erupted into a political firestorm when time came to demolish the Lora Lake Apartments.

The Commission (3-2, I voted with the majority) decided to demolish the units, per our year 2000 agreement with the City of Burien and King County. King County Housing Authority filed suit and got a stay to block demolition. It's now a no win situation, where any outcome could end up in lawsuits brought by King County or Burien. We are reviewing our options.

Background: In 1999, under FAA mandate to clear all residential units in the Runway Protection Zone, the Port purchased Lora Lake Apartments. As Third Runway litigation delayed construction, the Port found itself holding usable property that could be occupied in the interim.

We could have had these units managed privately (underlined in original) for market rate rents, and then demolished without controversy, but all parties felt it would serve the greater social good to have KCHA manage them as public housing.

Housing advocates questioned the wisdom of operating public housing so close to the airport, but the Port, City of Burien and KCHA signed an agreement for the Housing Authority to operate them. All parties agreed they would be vacated (underlined in original) and demolished at the end of this five year term (later extended to seven).

With demolition deadlines approaching, KCHA orchestrated a political campaign and mobilized interest groups to agitate for preserving Lora Lake. (KCHA informed us of their new posture only when vacate notices went to tenants in March of 2007.) This left everyone scrambling for last-minute solutions.

When the Commission learned of KCHA's intent to breach the agreement, we decided to honor Burien's wishes on the matter. Burien then chose to proceed with demolition, and we concurred. Then, as time ran short and political pressure mounted, two Commissioners up for re-election switched their position and opposed demolition. I came under pressure to join this faction.

I have worked hard to restore public trust and improve the Port's public accountability, and my personal trust was on the line with Burien. I weighed all the facts, and decided that it was very important to keep our agreements. We have similar agreements with other cities around SeaTac, and dishonoring the Burien agreement would invite other lawsuits on all sides. [See Tay Yoshitani's op-ed.]

Criticize my vote if you will, but I have built a career upon trust and do not feel that this issue merits breaking that trust. I am also disappointed in KCHA's breach of faith, housing activists theatrical string-pulling ("lamentations" and lock-ins), and my colleagues enthusiasm for political football.

I look forward to working our way through this mess, and it may be possible to preserve some housing in the process.”

(to the extent possible, emphasis is presented as in the original email)

To close out today’s conversation, a few words about the changing of the players:

Recent events, which are numerous and “spicy” enough to warrant their own story (perhaps even two), have created a feeling that change is warranted at the Port. Alec Fisken and Lloyd Hara’s elections to the Port Commission were the first of those changes.

The Port’s former CEO, Mic Dinsmore, has recently “left the building”, and he was replaced by the abovementioned Tay Yoshitani.

Our final topic for tonight’s story is related to the changes in how we vote.

Two of the five Port Commissioners stood for election this November 6th, but because many voters now use absentee ballots (voting by mail) the results of those elections are not yet known.

Two of the candidates are considered reformists, two are not (these are non-partisan positions); and the results are so close as of this writing that a mandatory recount is entirely possible.

At this point, today’s summary:

Seattle’s residents, conscious of their maritime tradition, took it upon themselves to own their own Port...and that Port has evolved to include an Airport, to be involved in freight mobility on a regional level, and to engage in real estate development.

There are major capital improvement projects underway funded by operating profits and tax collection.

There are so many contentious issues to be resolved that we aren’t even bothering to list them all today, but they are of sufficient severity that the Port has a new CEO-and of the five Commissioners one’s a reform Commissioner, and the two Commissioner’s elections that were held this year are currently too close to call.

And we saw an example of an elected official facing a series of bad choices that took a tough vote-and then took the time to explain why.

Next time: we introduce more of the stakeholders...which will inevitably lead to more discussion of controversy...and, if we’re lucky, some discussion of compromise and progress.