Monday, March 24, 2014

Boots on the WHAT? Am I the only person who remembers what Russia IS?

I have watched with my jaw agape as people have discussed our options regarding Ukraine over the last few weeks. Republicans, predictably, are saying that this is only happening because Obama is not "tough" enough. From the other side of the aisle, we get this amusing but naive article from The Onion, mocking us for meekly watching Putin's actions.

The readers of the Onion are at least probably young enough to have been born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But everyone else lived through the same Cold War that I did. So for those too young to remember or those who somehow blocked out the last 50 years of the 20th Century, let me remind you of some simple realities.

When people start saying they don't want "boots on the ground," they are implying that there are some other military options besides all-out war. Drones, cruise missiles, whatever. This is the delusion of an empire that's gone too far. For some reason no one has been explicit about this simple fact: there are no military options regarding Russia. Period.

Russia is not Iraq or Syria. They're not even Iran or North Korea, countries we could at least theoretically invade and conquer, if only at the expense of a bloody invasion that would kill tens of thousands of Americans and devastate our economy, to say nothing of the innocents that would be slaughtered in those countries.

Russia is one of the few countries, if not the only one, that could quite literally wipe America off the map.

At the time of the end of the Soviet Union, Russia had tens of thousands of nuclear "devices" (i.e. missiles and bombs) pointed at our country on a hair-trigger. It's safe to say there are a lot fewer now, and they're not pointing at us (yet). According to Wikipedia they had "only" 2,700 in 2009. This is enough to turn every community in America larger than Moscow, Idaho into a smoking nuclear crater.

Of course we'd destroy them right back. If that makes you feel any better, you'd get along great with this guy:


So, you respond, what are you saying? Just lay back and do nothing?

For practical purposes, yes.

Of course we'll do something. When you can't use military force, the other option is sanctions. We have tried this with Russia before, when they invaded Afghanistan. They didn't work then and they won't work now because we can't get Europe on board.

We can't currently get Europe on board because they are utterly dependent on Russia for Energy. People have pushed Obama to speed up American natural gas exports to Europe. But even if we ramped up this effort enormously, we couldn't come close to matching the 40% of natural gas that Europe currently gets from Russia. And it wouldn't happen for a few years, which would be cold comfort to European leaders watching their citizens riot at their energy bills doubling or tripling.

It's easy to publish funny articles. But unless you have a serious suggestion about what we should do about this, (and vague suggestions about "getting tough" aren't serious), then maybe you should just shut the hell up.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Sheep Among the Wolves: Pierce Brown's Red Rising

If I'd known the plot of Red Rising  I never would have bought it. I'd have called it a knockoff of countless YA post-apocalyptic novels flooding the market and screens right now. The protagonist is 16 years old, and the core of the story is sexy teenagers running around killing each other. Even the marketing of the book compares the protagonist, Darrow, to both Katniss and Ender. (1)

But I don't think anyone would call this book YA. To begin with, though the hero is no older than many YA protagonists, he is no kid. At the beginning of the book he is married and has a job, a real one. He's a Helldiver, basically a badass miner who scrambles around next to a burning hot drill digging helium 3 out of the crust of Mars. He's one of a group of pioneers who are preparing the planet for the coming settlers from Earth, or so he's told. But they aren't treated like heroes, but more like dirt on the bottom of a hypercapitalist caste-driven oligarchy's shoes. Basically, Darrow is a science-fiction version of the narrator of Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons."

Also, the book is exceptionally brutal, even compared to the new string of YA/PA novels out now. The core of the plot is an intramural game of capture the flag with a body count that makes the Hunger Games look like a rounding error, but it's not just a numbers game. It's that the kids playing (and aside from Darrow, they're most certainly kids) act exactly as badly as you'd expect from a bunch of teenagers given weapons, a single-minded objective and absolutely no restraint from adults. There is plenty of torture and mutilation, and though it's always "offscreen" and never glorified or titillating, there is rape. I read my son the whole Hunger Games trilogy, only skipping the most horrible parts at the end of Mockingjay. But though he's several years older than when I read him those books, I wouldn't think of reading (or letting him read) this book at the age he is now.

Most interestingly this series toys with being political in a way that other YA/PA novels don't. Specifically, it is a challenge to the sort of implied classist meritocracy that's the basis of today's neoliberal economy, and the idea that everyone who's sitting on top is sitting there because they are the toughest, smartest, hardest-working people who've been shifted to the place they deserve by our educational and economic filters.

Because the kids that are fighting to the death in the bloody play-war Darrow is engaged in are not the Reds, the bottom rung of the color-coded caste system to which Darrow is born. They are all from the top-ranking Gold class, and they are the top one percent of that class, those aspiring to be the Peerless Scarred, the creme de la creme that rule everyone.

The fact that Darrow is a "sheep in wolf's clothing among the wolves," a Red mole in the Gold camp with the intention of destroying them, is not a spoiler; it's revealed in the prologue. There Darrow hears a Gold warn about the dangers of "Demokracy" and the lie that everyone is equal. The Golds rule everyone else because they're the most powerful and most ruthless. And the Golds themselves will be ruled by the best of the Golds, which will include some of the students he's speaking to -- those that survive.

"But I am no Gold," says Darrow. "I am a Red...He is wrong. None of them will survive."

Darrow is, in some ways, the weakest element of the book. He is very nearly a Mary Sue; at the beginning of the book he's already the toughest, smartest and bravest of the Reds, and in the process of being turned into a Gold he's made even tougher and smarter. His "flaws" are exactly the sort of flaws that make a hero seem more heroic: he's too brave, to righteous, too defiant of false authority.

The complication that allows him to be interesting are based on the dangers of sleeping with the enemy, literally in some cases. Because in penetrating the Gold society Darrow learns that as badly as the Golds treat the Reds, in some ways they treat their own children worse. And though the Golds as a class are horrific, as individual people they are as good and bad as any other people are. He can't help but form bonds and romances with the Golds he was sent to overthrow, and his relationships with them are strained by his memory of where he came from.

This is especially true as he confronts the unfairness of the system that the aspiring Gold children are faced with. The purpose of the play war the kids are put into is to sort out the weakest of their children and turn those that survive into bloody-minded opportunistic killers just like their parents are. There is a psychotic evil logic to this, an antidote to the dangers of falling into decadence that constantly threatens the Golds; indeed, most Golds do fall into decadence and are known as "pixies."

But part of the point of the book is that even such a deadly efficient meritocracy will never overcome the fact that the people in power just can't help but put a finger on the scale. Sometimes it's to favor their own family or political faction, and sometimes it's just to show that they can.

This is demonstrated before Darrow makes his color transition. Early in the book an award of food and luxuries his mining family won fair and square for their work is blatantly taken from them just to prove that the Reds can't really change anything, only the beginning of the cruel injustices we see inflicted on the Reds. The first few chapters, where the vicious inequalities the Reds live under are made explicit, are by far the most engaging part of the book. They also make a promise that the book hasn't yet fulfilled, but might yet in the sequel: the potential to be a truly revolutionary piece of speculative fiction.

By a "revolutionary" piece of spec-fic I don't mean something that revolutionizes speculative fiction. This is an admirable goal but not a rare one; someone wins this prize every five or ten years and then things slip back to how they were. I mean something much rarer and more frightening: a piece of speculative fiction that makes people want to have a revolution.

The closest books I've seen to achieving that goal are China Mieville's "Iron Council" and Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother." Both are in their own way dangerous, but neither quite had the audience to make the difference that they could have, though "Little Brother" still might if it's ever turned into a movie. Both are better books than Red Rising, but a revolutionary book might not be the best written.

Part of the reason that goal is never achieved is that the revolution promised in the beginning of the book doesn't come by the end; this is, after all, the beginning of a trilogy. The next book will be a good sign of where Pierce Brown wants to take this. He could make it into an entertaining thrill ride for Hunger Games fans to graduate into when they're a little too old for the limits on YA, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Or he could make it into something really dangerous.

1. Of course, Ender's Game was never marketed as YA either, but it probably would have been if it had come out now.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Hipster Halal" or the millenia-old quest to identify the foods of good and evil

I was reading a popular website -- doesn't matter which -- with yet another article about how wheat-based foods are toxic and how everyone should stop eating them. It had a lot of links, of course, but when I clicked through each link it went to a page about people with celiac disease in particular. Celiac disease is real, and some people have very good reasons for not eating wheat at all. Furthermore, most of us eat too much carbs in general and maybe too much wheat specifically, and would benefit from a more diverse diet.

The other link I see is to the book Grain Brain by David Perlmutter, which is full of claims that wheat causes heart attacks, ADHD, Alzheimers, and probably spontaneous human combustion as well. Perlmutter's book has lots of citations from peer-reviewed papers, but as was noted in an article in The Atlantic, the studies in these papers are very small with the most tenuous of correlations.

I do find it a bit odd that a food that has been a central staple of hundreds of cultures over the last several thousands of years has suddenly been classified as a poison. If wheat is as bad as people are saying it is, it's amazing that Renaissance Europe was even able to get out of bed in the morning, let alone conquer half the world. Now if someone wanted to argue that wheat turns you into a genocidal imperialist psychopath, that would be supported by history at least.

Nevertheless, I'm in no way qualified to evaluate these claims. Maybe Perlmutter has finally stumbled across the one nutritional golden bullet after so many others have only claimed to. So why am I doubtful? I'm not equipped with anything but a healthy sense of skepticism and several thousand years of evidence of superseded attempts to divide the entire dietary world into Good Foods and Bad Foods.

The first recorded attempt to do this, as far as I know, is in the Jewish holy book of the Torah. In addition to all the other impacts this book has had on the world, it was also one of the first diet books. The Torah was very specific about what food should and should not be eaten, and how it should be eaten. (Muslim Halal dietary rules are very similar, less restrictive in some areas and more in others.)

From what I've read there's a lot of dispute about how much of Kosher rules are for health reasons and how many of them are cultural. For example, the story of Noah specifically lists the rule "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk," apparently the origin of the meat/dairy separation in Kosher, and I've read that this was a delicacy of an enemy tribe. But there is no doubt that many of the foods forbidden in Kosher, such as shellfish and pork, would have been common origins of food poisoning in those days. Probably Isrealite tribesmen weren't so concerned about keeping their abs tight as we are, and more concerned about inexplicable death from tainted meat.

Kosher might be the first written instance of what I'd call a "binary diet," or a "Good Food/Bad Food" diet. The nice thing about a binary diet is that you don't have to think about what you're eating overall. You just look at a particular food and say, "Is this good or bad? If it's good, I'll eat it, if not I won't."

The new wheat taboo is really a subset of the Paleo Diet, which began as the idea that we'd eat what our paleolithic ancestors ate. If you don't think Paleo is a binary diet, consider this popular flowchart about what aspiring culinary cavemen should and shouldn't eat:

Paleo people will leap to the diet's defense, and say it's not that simple. When people point out that no one really has any idea what Paleolithic people ate, that they didn't probably all eat the same thing anyway, that only a small subset of them were hunting mammoths, and that people have evolved since paleo times anyway, they will say that it's not really about what people ate in paleolithic time, just that some foods are bad for you and some are good.

But if you look at the list it's pretty arbitrary. Why are peanuts terrible but cashews are fine? Sweet potatoes are great but potatoes will make you fat? "Corn is a grain, knucklehead," the chart tells us, but neolithic people have been eating maize in Central America for 10,000 years; meanwhile the Etruscans only engineered broccoli from cabbage a couple thousand years ago. What do all these forbidden foods have in common? At least the Atkins people or the vegans have a common basis to describe foods you shouldn't eat.

So again, what do grains, potatoes, peanuts and vegetable oil all have in common? Here's a suggestion: they are all really cheap and available to any schmuck that goes to a regular grocery store that doesn't sell buckwheat out of bins or have a large selection of hemp oils. What a coincidence that so many of the foods that regular people happen to eat happen to be terrible poisons.

This isn't even meant to be an attack on the Paleo Diet in particular. A lot of Paleo's suggestions, like a higher protein content, are probably a good idea ,and people who eat Paleo eat better than people who don't really think about their diet at all. In truth, most people that eat any diet probably eat better than people that don't think about their diet at all.

But the arbitrariness of the Paleo binary and its inclination away from common and popular foods makes me feel that Paleo is the new "Hipster Halal," or Kosher for Cool Kids, a shibboleth for those in the know to set themselves apart from ordinary schmoes. It's not just hippy-dippy people either; Paleo is super popular with tech types, as can be seen by the number of Boing Boing posts about Paleo. This goes with a certain set of libertarians, as a perfect complement to their beloved Crossfit workouts.

Because a diet, to feel exciting, has to be dramatic. If you release a diet book that just says, "keep your calories down, don't eat so much sugar, and exercise more," it's going to have an Amazon rank of 10,000. But if you say "Everything you eat is totally wrong! Eat completely different stuff instead!" then people will buy your book and follow it for three weeks before they give up.

I'm not telling you what to eat. It doesn't hurt anyone if you stop eating wheat, certainly not me. And if you can afford it, Paleo is at least as good a way to eat as any other. But I'd suggest that before you turn your diet upside down based on a book you just read, do a little more research. Are there extensive studies showing that people who eat this way live longer and are healthier? Also, can you realistically maintain this diet for the rest of your life? Could a smaller change make just as much difference? It's not as sexy, but it might actually work.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

No one else is going to say it, so I will: f*@k House of Cards.

I'm not saying it's a bad show; quite to the contrary, and that's part of the problem. It's well-written and well-acted, mostly, though it could do without the fourth-wall breaking monologues. But we enjoy it when we watch it. And it's that enjoyment that leads us to buy into the working and middle-class' irrelevance in politics today. 

It's not entirely realistic, since Frank Underwood does things that no one could actually do, such as somehow counting on the entire opposing Republican minority of the House plus the Congressional Black Caucus to support a Speaker of the House coup just so he can get an educational bill on the floor. But I've never placed a huge emphasis on "realism" in storytelling, and it's plenty believable enough to allow me to suspend my disbelief. 

So why does the show make me sick when I watch it?

Frank Underwood is a classic contemporary cable anti-hero; he's certainly no worse a person than Tony Soprano, Don Draper or Walter White, all of whose shows I enjoy. I was happy to watch the SAMCRO gang in Sons of Anarchy use a California community as their shooting gallery. So what's the difference?

I think the scene that pushed me to where I couldn't watch the show anymore was when Underwood threw a party for his wife (sorry, it's too late at night for me to look up the names of everyone I can't remember) in front of a hotel that had canceled his reservation because of union trouble. 

The teacher's unions are furious because Underwood blatantly lied to them in negotiations about the education bill then turned around and tried to take away their right to collectively bargain (1), as well as increase support for charter schools and performance evaluations based on tests. Frank's wife was having a charity ball at a hotel and the union there supported the teachers and made the hotel cancel the reservation. Frank illegally hosts the ball in the hotel's front courtyard, and gets away with it since the police commissioner's invited.

Desperate, the teacher union guy throws together a protest. For some reason he can't get real teachers to protest, but he is able to get a bunch of teamsters (2).  

The sexy rich and powerful people at the charity ball ignore the protesters for awhile. Zoe, the smokin'-hot blogger that Frank is banging, asks them a few pointless questions for a moment before she decides to go inside the party where all the interesting people are. 

And then Underwood and his wife come outside with ribs from his favorite inner-city barbecue place and a keg of beer and hands it out to the teamsters, all of whom immediately cheer him and disperse. The teacher's union is defeated and looks like idiots, and Frank has his victory. 

I know that the show is just a portrait of Washington's corruption. I know Frank is not supposed to represent the way things ought to be, but the way they are. But it's also asking us to buy into it a certain degree, and laugh at the way that people like Frank Underwood are pulling the strings of everyone around him.

Watching the show I'm reminded a bit of the West Wing; like that show it shares the attitude that the people in the halls of power are the only ones that really know how to do anything and everyone else is just deluded and dupes, none more than the downtrodden who try to fight for their rights. But at least TWW had some ideals the characters aspired to, even if they were Aaron Sorkin's twisted centrist bullshit. 

So yeah, Tony Soprano twisted and screwed people over, Walter White twisted and screwed people over, and Frank Underwood twists and screws people over. The difference is that I follow politics a lot, and I know that the kind of person Underwood represents is not too different in reality. And the people he is screwing over is us. 

The middle and working class, who can be bought off with a keg of beer and some tasty ribs, that is you and me. And I know damn well that the people who work in Washington mostly do see us that way. But I fear that by laughing along with it, we're accepting that. Over the last thirty years the middle and working class has entirely given up that we can make any difference in the way our country is run. And the only people that are mad enough to even try to do anything (like the Tea Party) tend to be mad at entirely the wrong people. 

Am I saying you should stop watching it? I don't know. All I know is that I can't watch it anymore. There was a time when people made shows where working and middle-class people fought against those in power and won. Maybe we're too cynical to accept that anymore. Maybe that's entirely the problem. 

1 I'm not even sure how the US Department of Education could do that, but it's beside the point.

2 Honestly I wish modern unions had a fraction of the unity they display here