Tuesday, December 26, 2006

First Turkey

This year, we offered to host Christmas dinner for my family (twelve of us in all with cousins, niece and nephew), which by our family tradition is more or less a Thanksgiving meal encore, featuring a roast turkey. We'd never cooked a turkey before, so were a bit nervous about such a large culinary undertaking with so many ways to go wrong. Fortunately, I'm happy to report that the combination of techniques and advice that we employed in cooking the big bird turned out very successfully.

Part of the trepidation is that advice on cooking a turkey can vary so widely, and it seems that almost no one does it the same way. Being the engineer that I am, I combed the Internet searching for advice, at least trying to get a handle on cooking times. General rules of thumb ranged from 12 minutes per pound to 20 minutes per pound, and specific recipes gave total cooking times anywhere from two and a half hours to four and a half hours. So many variables: size of the bird, oven temperature, brined or not, stuffed or not, breast up or breast down (or turning part way) and more. I finally decided we should aim to get the bird in the oven around noon, aiming for a six o'clock dinner, and hope for the best. I figured if it finished early, it couldn't hurt to just let it rest a bit longer, wrapped in foil to stay warm.

Most sources agreed in recommending brining, the technique where the bird is soaked in a salt-water brine before cooking, causing it to retain moisture and flavor. We were familiar with this concept from cooking more quotidian-sized chicken, and knew it to be a good idea. But sticking chicken pieces in brine in a ziploc bag in the fridge is one thing. Figuring out how to do that on an 18-pound turkey would have presented a more formidable logistics problem. Fortunately, we were also familiar with a shortcut on the chicken: if you buy kosher chicken, it saves you a step, because part of the koshering process includes brining, so kosher chicken is essentially pre-brined. Thus, I was delighted when I discovered that I could order a kosher turkey at my local Gelson's market. That was a no-brainer. Ordering a fresh bird also seemed a good choice, avoiding the nightmare stories about defrosting frozen ones.

Trussing was a bit of an adventure. We both understood the goal, and we'd both seen it done on TV or in pictures. Putting it into practice was a bit more perplexing. We had the bird breast up on the rack, and I knew we wanted the wings tied behind its back, tucked under as much as possible, but couldn't see how or why the trussing of the wings should connect to the trussing of the legs. George, however, was adamant that it should all be done with one long piece of string, because that's what Martha Stewart does. This was also complicated by the stuffing of the bird, which obviously needed to happen before the legs were trussed, and we also agreed that we didn't want to turn the bird over once it was stuffed. Wrestling the bird around had become a bit trickier, as we had rubbed butter all over it. But somehow we got the wing trusses in place, then stuffed the bird, and then pulled the same string inside the thighs to take in the legs.

Finally, we got the bird in the oven around 12:30. Many sites had recommended that the bird should go in legs first. Obviously those people are cooking much smaller birds or have much larger ovens, because the notion of putting this bird in our oven any way other than sideways was a non-starter. Our oven is reasonably sized, but we still needed to use the absolute lowest oven rack, and the bird, comfortably nestled (we decided on breast up, no turning) in its roasting pan and V-rack, had only a couple inches margin on all four sides of the pan. I also opted to use the convection mode in our oven, which those sources that discussed convection seemed to recommend. (The air flowing around the bird more evenly browns the skin.) And I split the difference of conflicting advice on temperature and went for 350.

There was also conflicting advice about leaving the bird exposed, versus tenting it in foil, or exposing it only at the beginning or the end. I went with our neighbor's advice of leaving it exposed for the first 30-40 minutes to get the skin golden, and then tenting it the rest of the time, which made sense to me. (Exposing it at the end of the cooking time seemed perilous, since it was so wildly uncertain when exactly the end would be.) We did indeed develop a nice color on the skin after 30-40 minutes (perhaps influenced by the butter we had slathered on the skin just before trussing), so we removed the bird, basted it, added a loose foil tent, and also deployed my mother's innovation at that point: covering the bird in strips of bacon. The bacon acts as a time-release automatic baster, so we didn't disturb the bird for any additional basting after that. (Of course the notion of putting bacon on a kosher bird was amusingly eclectic.) I think Martha puts butter all over the inside of the tenting foil -- the bacon serves the same purpose but releases more slowly. After about an hour, we checked it, and the skin looked like it was getting darker, so we decided to wrap the foil a bit more closely around the top and side of the bird.

I started checking the bird for temperature after two and a half hours of cooking. The thigh was around 160. I decided to cut the temp back at that point to 325. Pretty much every source agreed that the real way to know when you're done is by taking the actual temperature inside the bird with a quick-read thermometer. Most agreed on using the thigh as the best gauge, and getting it to 180. We got there after another two hours (for a total of four and a half hours cook time). The breast, which I checked at the end, was 170, as it should be. The center of the stuffing was only 150, a bit cooler than recommended, but since I knew I'd be boiling it, I didn't worry about that. Happily, all of the elements combined somehow, and we ended up with a very juicy and flavorful turkey.

For the stuffing, I improvised on the basic Stove Top mix (which is what we've always used in our family). My husband is allergic to bread, so we didn't want to put bread in the bird. Instead, I finely chopped a couple onions, four celery stalks, and a couple carrots, and mixed them with some fresh herbs I'd gathered from our garden (a sprig of rosemary, some thyme, and a lot of black sage), and lightly sauteed it, to where the vegs were just starting to get soft. We stuffed the bird with most of that veg mixture.

I reserved a small portion of the vegs, and put them in a sauce pan with the turkey neck (apparently the only innard that comes with a kosher bird), covered in water, and boiled that all afternoon to get a quart or so of turkey stock. When we got close to dinner time, I got 3 cups of the stock to a boil, with a stick of butter, and then added the veggies taken out of the turkey (boiling them for 5-10 minutes to make sure they were safe), and then dumped in the Stove Top seasoned bread crumbs. This was very easy (and believe me, easy is good during the last frantic half-hour pulling together a holiday dinner), and got rave reviews.

I also used the stock in making our gravy. I finely chopped three portobello mushrooms and an onion, and braised that in some of the stock. Then when the turkey came out of the oven, I poured the pan drippings out, and then deglazed the roasting pan. I had never deglazed before, but it merely meant placing the pan on the stove (across two burners), pouring in some white wine, and using a wooden spoon to scrape off the black bits of pan drippings that had stuck to the bottom. After a hasty phone call for reassurance from Mom, I poured the deglazed black bits into the gravy, where they dissolved and created a rich flavor. I then built the gravy up, pouring in a bit of stock, and then adding a bit of flour (I used potato flour, to keep it gluten-free), and repeating. I also added a bit of cream, as the gravy was pretty dark from the pan drippings. It had good flavor but (George will be stunned to hear me say this, cause I never say this) I should have added some salt.

So all in all, I'm pleased to report that our first endeavor with roasting a big bird was a success. And we've got the leftovers in the fridge, and I've got the carcass boiling on the stove to make some stock for turkey soup!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Iraq Study Group to America: It's Up To You, Frankly

The findings of the Iraq Study Group, presented today, revealed no surprises or silver bullets. Its general ideas -- shift more responsibility to the Iraqis, shift the mission focus to training, and engage in comprehensive diplomacy across the region including Iran and Syria -- are all ideas that have been urged by others before. I think what is truly significant about the Group is not its findings, but the process and the bipartisan imprimatur that this group gives to those particular ideas. The Group recognized that the challenge was not only sectarian divides in Iraq, but partisan divides here at home. The process of a group of widely-respected bipartisan leaders forging a consensus plan allows an opening for partisans of either side to gracefully put their partisan views aside and unite as Americans behind this best bipartisan advice.

I think the most interesting question of the press conference this morning was when Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times asked the Group, "What do you intend to do from now on to help President Bush embrace the wisdom of all of your recommendations?" Leon Panetta gave a very thoughtful answer explaining that the essential ingredient to any possible success is to unify our country behind a course of action. Justice O'Connor then added this: "It really is out of our hands, having done what we did. It's up to you, frankly. You are the people who speak to the American people. You're there interpreting this and talking to America. And I hope that the American people will feel that if they are behind something in broad terms that we'll be better off." Senator Simpson then added some observations about how there are too many "100-percenters" in America today who are unwilling to compromise, but compromise and consensus is the only way forward. They obviously all felt strongly about this, as I think it was the only question on which so many Group members wanted to add something. It was then that I realized that was the true value of this Group. Not a new silver bullet idea that no one had thought of before. But a consensus and an opportunity for all of us to get behind it. Now, as Justice O'Connor said, it's up to us.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Taking Ethics Seriously

In this era where "congressional ethics" has practically become an oxymoron, I'm somewhat encouraged to read that Speaker-elect Pelosi seems to be taking it somewhat seriously that Democrats should try to hold up an ethical standard, such as not allowing congressmen to serve in key leadership positions if they are under an ethical cloud. The example du jour being Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL), a former federal judge who was impeached for sentence peddling (and subsequent cover-up). He has been a senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, but Pelosi declined to give him the chairmanship. This follows up on a commitment to ethics made earlier this year, when Pelosi removed Rep. William Jefferson (LA) from the House Ways & Means Committee after strong evidence of bribery turned up in his freezer. In both cases, the Congressional Black Caucus complained loudly, but they miss the point. These men were not removed from positions of responsibility because they are black. They were removed because they are crooked. If the fools in these Representatives' districts want to send a crook to Congress, that is their right. And those Representatives, being duly elected, are entitled to speak on the floor of Congress, and to vote. But they are most certainly not entitled to any special responsibilities, such as committee chairmanships, and such responsibilities should not be given to them.

DeWayne Wickham opines in USA Today that Hastings committed his crime long ago, has paid his penance, and should be given a break. I don't think so. If Hastings' crime had been one arising from hard circumstances or even been another sort of crime, I could imagine the possibility of rehabilitation. But Hastings' crimes go straight to the issue of ethics. The man took money as a judge to sell a lenient sentence, and then perjured himself to cover it up. Hastings and his defenders like to point out that he was acquitted of bribery, which is true, but only because he lied on the stand. Which is what lead to his subsequent impeachment. I am probably one of the few Americans alive today willing to imagine that a child molester might possibly become rehabilitated, but even so, it would be imprudent at best to put him in a position of responsibility for, say, a children's choir. Asking for an allegedly rehabilitated Hastings to be put in charge of a Congressional committee would be equivalent to putting an allegedely rehabilitated child molester in charge of the boys' swim team.

Monday, November 27, 2006

FILM: Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette film posterI'm late to the party to praise Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, but as with life at Versailles, more is more. Expectations were high after Lost In Translation, but Coppola's talent for realizing places and moods, sensations and sensibilities, certainly translated from Tokyo jetlag to Versailles excess. The film presents a vivid portrait of a woman more complicated than the standard charicature of her, set against the rich visualization of the intricacies and intrigues of Bourbon court social life, and the sartorial and culinary extravagances of the time. Kirsten Dunst is outstanding as the intimidated young pricess who transforms into a remarkable and confident woman, and Jason Schwartzman carries off the hesitant and ill-at-ease Louis XVI perfectly. The Marie Antionette we get to know through this film is much more interesting and sympathetic than her infamous "let them eat cake" reputation, and more accurate (according to historical biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, whose novel provided the source for the film). And the film is a visual feast, with much of it having been shot on location at Versailles, with royal reams of couture and cuisine. (The Devil Wears Prada now has serious competition for the Best Costume Oscar.) The soundtrack, an eclectic mix of baroque opera with modern rock, complimented the film perfectly, providing a decadent texture as well as a good listen.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Fishers of Fishermen

Sometimes the world can be transformed just by one person making an impression on another. Last June, seeing a documentary film and having dinner with Jean-Michael Cousteau and a National Geographic marine biologist, President Bush became so inspired that he took action to create the world's largest marine preserve, a new national monument comprising 84 million acres along the northwestern Hawaiian islands. Earlier this year, Walmart announced a commitment to sustainable fisheries, pledging to switch to wild-caught seafood from certified sustainable fisheries. Walmart was making a business decision based on a long-term view of sustainable supply, but the input and impetus for the decision came from a personal relationship developed between Peter Seligmann, co-founder of Conservation International, and Walmart Chairman Rob Walton over the course of scuba diving vacations.

Of course not everyone can take in a film with the President of the United States, or go scuba diving with the Chairman of Walmart. But the most successful sustainable fisheries program, that in Alaska, has only come about because fishermen at an individual level have become convinced that their best future lays in cooperating in a sustainable stewardship program. We as consumers can encourage this type of transformation by being responsible consumers, and buying and eating only sustainably harvested fish. And by encouraging our friends to do the same. Learn more here.

Jonathan Chait Thinks Out of the Box

Jonathan Chait surveys the options for responding to Iraq, and in seeking the least worst of a bad lot, comes up with a creative solution: put Saddam back in power.

The disadvantages of reinstalling Hussein are obvious, but consider some of the upside. He would not allow the country to be dominated by Iran, which is the United States' major regional enemy, a sponsor of terrorism and an instigator of warfare between Lebanon and Israel. Hussein was extremely difficult to deal with before the war, in large part because he apparently believed that he could defeat any U.S. invasion if it came to that. Now he knows he can't. And he'd probably be amenable because his alternative is death by hanging.

I know why restoring a brutal tyrant to power is a bad idea. Somebody explain to me why it's worse than all the others.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Left Or Right, Liberal And Conservative

As I have grown older, I have had increasing difficulty in locating myself on the traditional "left-right" spectrum for characterizing political philosophies and attitudes. In my college years, I identified with the liberal left, being strongly in favor of personal freedom and being highly suspicious of the Moral Majority (which rose to ascendancy at that time). But as I've grown older, I've become more aware of my own dissonances with the left. I see labor unions as having largely outlived their useful contribution to society, and I think government action is often not the best answer. And to my surprise, I find myself agreeing with my aunt (self-described as "to the right of Attila the Hun") once in a while. Though she's definitely much further out in right-wing talk radio-land for my tastes, we do find some common ground in people like Larry Elder and Shelby Steele. On the other hand, I'm a staunch subscriber/listener to the allegedly left-wing plot known as NPR. Among other things, I listen to a radio show called "Left, Right, and Center", and I find myself agreeing with each of the four commentators (there's also a "progressive independent" to add a new dimension) at various times (although I agree with the Left one the least).

It's quite possible there has been a rightward shift in my thinking as I have aged, but even so, I think the one-dimensional left-right system is wholly inadequate. I'm much more intrigued by the various attempts to plot politics on a two-dimensional landscape. Popular versions of these two-dimensional systems typically plot a social axis (from completely deregulating sex and drugs on one end, to having the government in your bedroom on the other) and an independent economic axis (from free market to government-controlled economy). The first time I saw this was taking the "World's Smallest Political Quiz", which asks 10 quick agree/maybe/disagree questions, and plots you on such a two-dimensional political map. It's kind of quick-and-dirty, and I don't always plot exactly the same, but I tend to be a libertarian with centrist leanings. You can see my score at right. This quiz is sponsored by a group called the Advocates for Self-Government, whose goals include promoting libertarian ideals and awareness, and changing the dominant but inadequate one-dimensional left-right model of politics. They claim that 5 million people have taken their quiz, and 35% of them score as libertarians. Their theory is that many people have libertarian ideals to some extent, but don't think of themselves as libertarians. I think this is probably true for two reasons. One, touted by the Advocates, is that libertarianism doesn't neatly fit in the left-right paradigm which is how most people think, so many aren't even aware of it as an option. Another reason (not put forward by the Advocates) is that the Libertarian Party in practice tends to put up a lot of crackpots for election, and even many people who recognize themselves as "small-l" libertarian in philosophy eschew the capital-L Libertarian Party. I think the quiz is roughly accurate, in that I do find much more resonance with libertarian philosophy than with either the Left or the Right. And I also like that the way they've oriented their quadrants, libertarianism is neither left nor right, but "upword".

A more sophisticated (and less American-centric) two-dimensional map can be found at The Political Compass, whose quiz is not the smallest (it's six web pages of questions) but still only takes about 10 minutes. Their map is essentially the same, but rotated 135 degrees, and with different labels on the axes. In this assessment, I turn out to be in the libertarian quadrant (the green dot in the lower left), with a "social latitude" of -4.87 (on a 10-point scale, with positive being authoritarian) and an "economic longitude" of 1.13 (with positive being free market). Interestingly, they have plotted a number of world leaders, and most of the western world ends up in the "northeast" (free-market-oriented statists), except for the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, who end up east but slightly south of the equator. Practically all US politics is in the "northeast", as are the New Labour and Conservatives in the UK, but they also get the Liberal Democrats in the southeast, the Greens in the southwest, and the British Nationals in the northwest. Me, I'm in the same quadrant as Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, but with communitarian sympathies pulling me closer to the "prime meridian" (beyond which lay Gandhi and the Dalai Lama).

An earlier and more philosophical variant on the two-dimensional political landscape is called the Pournelle Chart, where the axes are "statism" (confidence in centralized government) and "rationalism" (confidence in planned solutions to social problems). The "statism" axis can plotted neatly on maps like The Political Compass, but the "rationalism" axis is a different dimension with no clear correspondent on the other maps. Pournelle labels the poles of "rationalism" as "reason enthroned" and "irrational", although as the Wikipedia article notes, "irrational" is not meant in a pejorative sense. As I understand it, better labels for the poles might be "idealist" and "sceptic". I've not seen any accompanying quiz that plots people on the Pournelle Chart, and I'm less certain where I'd land here. I'm probably somewhat west of center on the "statism" scale, and conflicted on the "rationalism" scale. Idealism runs deep in me, but I've grown to appreciate pragmatism more as I've aged, and I think I'd be relatively equatorial (probably somewhat north or south on different issues). Interestingly, Pournelle locates "various libertarians" in his northwest quadrant. However, most of the "small-l" libertarians I know and respect would be fairly west and fairly south, where Pournelle has put "classical anarchists" and the "American Counter-Culture". Indeed, one such libertarian I know and respect calls himself a "minarchist", and several of them feel the pull of the classical conservative Burke (whom Pournelle puts at the far south, but neither east nor west).

A friend once told me that "if you're not a liberal in your 20's, you have no heart, but if you're not a conservative in your 40's, you have no brain". At the time I didn't believe him, but I was in my 20's then. Now I'm in my 40's and it's seeming more credible. I do think it helps to be a certain age to appreciate Burke's pragmatism regarding human nature and his scepticism of sweeping idealistic reforms. (Burke is, like fine whisky and cigars, a taste I thought I would never acquire, until I did.) But my appreciation for conservative philosophy has not diminished in any way my appreciation for liberal philosophy. One of the revelations of breaking out of the one-dimensional political thinking is the discovery that communism is not the opposite of fascism, rather they are orthogonal. Similarly, conservative is not the opposite of liberal, and in fact at this point in history, it is perfectly reasonable to be both liberal and conservative. I must point out here that I mean "liberal" in the classical sense (think Jefferson, Madison, Locke, and Mill) and I mean "conservative" in the classical sense (think Burke and Hume), which are often far from the way these terms have been abused in current American discourse (where "liberal" is the straw-man target of Ann Coulter's polemic performance art, and "conservative" is mindlessly equated with Republican pork programs and Christianist agendas). Insofar as a conservative attitude means a reluctance to make sweeping changes to proven social institutions, and since we Americans now have a two century track record of a constitutional republic based on liberal principles that has served us well, it seems to me perfectly reasonable to say that I am both a liberal and a conservative. Perhaps I have a heart and a brain after all.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Witch Hunts of Our Time

The election results gave us much to be happy about, but there were a few disappointments. One notable one was the passage of Prop 83 in California, by very large margins. Sex offenders are already listed on public registries, Scarlet Letter style, for the rest of their lives, and prohibited from living too close to schools. With the passage of Prop 83, the expanded restrictions on where they can live effectively exile them from most cities altogether. And even as they're living out their lives in trailers in the Mohave desert, the state will continue to track them all by GPS. Even the ones that are 75 years old, and have served their full sentence for a crime committed decades ago.

With all due respect to the real victims of sex offenders, the punitive hyper-reaction of our society to sex offenses has turned it into the witch hunts of our time. The topic stirs a primal fear -- the threat of harm to our children -- which induces hysteria, and all hope of rational analysis and proportionate reaction flies out the window. The phenomenon is not new. I saw the witch hunts first-hand in the 1980s when I lived near Manhattan Beach, where the McMartin family was being practically pilloried for accusations of sexual abuse in the preschool they operated, charges that turned out to be totally baseless. But the flames of hysteria spread like fire in the California hills when the dry Santa Ana winds are blowing, and an innocent family and their preschool was utterly ruined by it.

I also saw this first hand a few years ago when a friend was accused and convicted of a ridiculously bogus child molestation charge, for which he served several years in prison. It's a long story, but suffice it to say that the alleged incident occurred in a completely open and public place, in plain view of many people, and was not corroborated by anyone including the boy's mother who was sitting right next to her son and interacting with my friend when the "molestation" supposedly occurred. Unfortunately, when the charge is a sex offense against a minor, hysteria trumps rationality, and any defendant is guilty until proven innocent (and still guilty even then). For this clearly bogus charge, a five year prison sentence was handed down, which of course is only the beginning. Thanks to the latest manifestation of sexual abuse hysteria -- the Draconian exile-the-sex-offenders voter initiatives -- my friend will pay for this non-crime for the rest of his life.

With these anecdotal experiences, I do not mean to suggest that sexual abuse and its victims do not exist, or that these are not serious crimes. But I do mean to suggest that our society has a heightened sensitivity to these issues, bordering on hysteria, which prevents dispassionate rational consideration of the issue, and leads to completely disproportionate reactions. Case in point: we saw several Congressional scandals this season, mostly involving bribery and influence-peddling, which ought to stir outrage and bring Congressmen down in a rational country. In America, not so much. William "cold cash" Jefferson, caught on tape and with $150,000 in cash in his freezer, is being sent back to the Washington gravy train for another ride. However, Bob Foley sends lewd and inappropriate text messages to some of his pages, and that brings the House down. Again, not saying what Foley did wasn't reprehensible. But the comparative reaction to Foley vs. Jefferson, Ney, and their ilk is completely unhinged.

As California jumped on the sex-offender-demonization wagon this week, I submit that the voters voted out of ignorance and primal fear. Did anyone bother to ask whether the uniquely punitive measures were proportionate? (Is it reasonable to treat a sex offender as worse than a murderer?) Even more pointedly, is there any evidence to suggest that the punitive measures enacted would have any practical effect on incidence of sex offenses, or on recidivism rates? (There isn't.) Those things would have mattered to anyone considering the issue rationally. But where sex offenses are concerned, rationality gives way to irrational fear. Shame on the 71% of California voters who approved this spiteful initiative. (One can hope it gets overturned in the courts - it is already being challenged.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Intervention Accomplished

Like so many Americans, I stayed up late last night watching the results come in, and was delighted to see the rising tide of change. Andrew Sullivan had been saying for a while now that this wasn't an election, it was an intervention. And indeed it was. My faith is restored in Americans to respond appropriately when the pendulum swings too far in any direction. I had been a bit worried. While we'd been hearing about the rock-bottom approval ratings of Congress, I had also heard a poll measuring people's approval of their own Congressmember, and that was in the 60s. But last night, all politics was not local. I was amazed and encouraged at how many people looked past the local, and voted for change even if they liked their own Congressmember.

While it is tempting with such a wave of euphoria to raise the "Mission Accomplished" banner, it would be as premature now as it was when President Bush proclaimed it on the aircraft carrier. The election was only the beginning. Now that the Democrats have control, let's see what they can do. We've heard very little about a Democratic agenda, but rumors of one are starting to emerge. In expected-Speaker Pelosi's speech today, she articulated raising the minimum wage, enacting recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, and fixing Medicare to allow government negotiation of drug prices. According to pundit Jonathan Chait (who seemed to be the only person who knew that the Democrats had an agenda), the agenda also includes cutting the interest rate on student loans, relaxing limitations on federal funding of stem cell research, and imposing "pay-as-you-go" budget rules. It was encouraging to see both Pelosi and Bush being magnanimous in their statements today, and it was very welcome news to hear that Rumsfeld has already been given his orders. Amidst the obligatory bipartisan platitudes about working together, there was at least some hint that they may actually find some common ground (like a guest worker program, for example).

So the Republicans fumbled, and the Democrats recovered the ball. Let's see if they can actually move it forward. They would do well to keep in mind the sage observation of Senator Coburn, reflecting on the Republican wreckage: "One of the great paradoxes in politics is that governing to maintain power is the surest way to lose it."

Friday, November 03, 2006

Let's Party Like It's 1994?

There is much anticipation about the possibility of an anti-Republican tidal wive in next week's election that takes away GOP control of the House and maybe the Senate too. Comparisons are being drawn to 1994, also a midterm election, when the GOP swept into power ending years of Democratic control of Congress. But if such a sweep occurs (and I hope it does), I hope it's clear to everyone that it's not a Democratic sweep, but rather an anti-Republican one. It is truly a sorry state of affairs that even at this time of extreme GOP vulnerability, the Democrats are offering nothing, other than "we're not Republicans".

Granted, some will argue that in terms of election strategy, it is in the Democrats' interest to make it a "referendum election" (i.e., voting based on approval/disapproval of the present administration), while Karl Rove would like to make it a "choice election" (i.e., deciding between the two parties). But when the opposition has nothing better to say than "look how horrible they are, and we're not them", and the party in power has nothing better to offer than throwing up scary straw men and saying "imagine how much worse they would be", that in itself belies an agreement by both parties that the administration is doing a lousy job. Notice that you don't find many Republicans asking us whether we're better off now than we were four years ago. The real problem for the Republicans is that it's getting harder and harder to imagine how much worse it could be than it already is.

So there's clearly rumblings of dissatisfaction. But this is so not 1994. That year, the centerpiece of the campaign that swept the GOP into power was not "we're not Democrats". It was the Contract with America, a positive vision and substantive program of policy. Flash forward 12 years to the present. With the GOP in a shambles, if the Democratic party had any vision at all to offer, any compelling proposals, they would shine like the shining city on the hill in contrast to the Republican wreckage. But where is the Democratic equivalent of Dick Armey or Newt Gingrich? Where is the Democratic contract? Nowhere. "We're not Republicans." Pathetic.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Prop 87 Flunks Econ 101

Proposition 87 claims to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by developing alternative energy technologies, and proposes to fund this research with a tax on in-state oil drillers that is forbidden to be passed on to consumers. This proposal defies basic economics. First, we have this ridiculous statute that forbids any attempt "to gouge consumers by using the assessment as a pretext to materially raise the price of oil, gasoline, or diesel fuel." (Yes, it really says that. See Sec. 18, 42004(c)). Basic laws of economics dictate that there is a relationship between costs of production (including raw materials, labor, etc), revenues (i.e. prices for goods sold), and profits. Regulating one aspect of the equation is like squeezing a balloon - compensatory effects will be distributed elsewhere. Putting a tax on one component of production costs will have effects in terms of upward pressure on prices as well as downward pressure on other component costs of production (e.g., labor). Thinking that it will simply come out of profit is naïve. Profit is the air in the balloon. If you reduce that, incentive to undertake the enterprise risk is reduced, the whole balloon deflates. Legislating that costs have no effect on prices is not unlike legislating that water must flow uphill.

Then there's the brilliant bit about reducing our dependence on foreign oil by levying a tax that applies only to domestic oil. Given that oil extracted in California competes in a global market with oil extracted outside of California, the expected effect of putting a tax only on California oil would be to discourage domestic production and increase the demand for foreign oil. Kind of like a protectionist tariff, but totally backwards. Neat. If that works, maybe we can try reducing pollution by taxing low-emission vehicles.

I'm all for reducing our dependence on oil, and encouraging alternative energy sources. There's a simple though painful way to do so, and that's to put a significant tax on gas at the pump. Pain-free "solutions" like Prop 87 that seem too good to be true are. (And shame on Bill Clinton, who ought to know better, for selling this economic snake oil.)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Prop 90: A Reluctant NO On This Mixed Bag

Proposition 90 is a great example of why the initiative process is a poor tool for policy-making. On its surface, Prop 90 is a response to the horrendous US Supreme Court decision in Kelo vs. New London, which eviscerated constitutional limits on government's eminent domain power. In short, SCOTUS said that a city or state could take property from one private party and give it to another for the flimsiest of "public benefit" excuses. That was a travesty, and part of Prop 90 would make reasonable amendments to the state constitution to prevent such outrages from occurring in California.

Had the authors of Prop 90 stopped there, it would have been a no-brainer. Unfortunately, they didn't. Under cover of a "Kelo correction" amendment, they also slipped in a radical new proposal that would require governments to compensate property owners for any hypothetical economic damages caused by any new government laws or regulations. As one example, if my city enacted a new zoning rule that prohibited structures in my residential neighborhood from exceeding 2 stories in height (where no such restriction existed before), even though my neighborhood is entirely one and two-story houses, I could claim damages since my right to knock down my house and build a 27-story office building has been taken away, and I could sue the city for the hypothetical value of the 27-story office building that I can no longer build.

Personally, I think it's an intriguing idea with strong libertarian appeal, going straight to philosophical beliefs about fundamental property rights. But there is no doubt that the impact to all levels of government will be sweeping, and that this radical change will have unforeseeable, unintended, and likely undesirable consequences. Oregon is the only place such a thing has been tried, and it's really too early to tell how it's going there (though see here and here for some perspectives). This idea needs to be explored more thoughtfully and openly, not slipped in under the radar.

What's worse, the language in this particular proposition is broad, apparently applying to any governmental action (not just land-use-related regulations) and to any tangible or intangible property (not just real estate), and leaves many questions open to interpretation. (See a good neutral discussion here.) Enacting this as an initiative constitutional amendment is the worst possible way to take on such an experiment. Later, when consequences are better understood, and inevitable corrections are needed, this will be embedded in the Constitution where it can't be fixed without another initiative constitutional amendment. That's a foolish way to conduct a radical policy experiment.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Trading Freedom For Security

Listening to the radio while driving home this evening, I caught a quote that really struck me:
You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I'd like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There's only an up or down. Up: man's old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.
Hearing this, how could I not think of warrantless wiretapping, the suspension of habeas corpus, and other such trades of freedom for security that our present administration has sold us. A bit further in the same speech, the speaker warily quoted a Senator who said that the President "must 'be freed,' so that he 'can do for us' what he knows 'is best.'" That Senator was concerned that the President was "'hobbled in his task by the restrictions of power imposed on him by this antiquated document [the Constitution].'" The speaker was clearly alarmed by the expansive power sought by the President's ambitious programs, and completely skeptical of an Administration that says "just trust us to make the decisions about what's best for you".

Expressing such ideas today gets you labeled a soft-headed leftist at best, and probably unpatriotic and anti-American. But that speech was made in 1964, and the speaker was that well-known anti-American leftist Ronald Reagan, stumping for Barry Goldwater.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Which Party Has A Plan?

In a press conference this morning, President Bush said "I think the coming election is a referendum on these two things: which party has got the plan that will enable our economy to continue to grow, and which party has a plan to protect the American people."

Fair enough. Let's first consider which party has got the plan that will enable our economy to continue to grow. We can judge the Republican plan on their record, since they control the House, the Senate, and the Presidency. While the Republicans disparage the Democrats as big spenders, it's hard to imagine how anyone could outdo today's GOP in spending. A recent Heritage Foundation analysis warned that the Senate was on track to bust FY 2007 discretionary spending caps by $32 billion. (Makes me wonder what happened to the "discretion" in the discretionary spending.) Congressional earmarks ("pork") are at an all-time high. Agriculture, which is booming and in no need of help, is getting even bigger subsidies. Essential federal departments like Health, Labor, and Education are getting their budgets increased. (And you thought the GOP wanted to eliminate the Dept of Education?) And under the Republicans, entitlement spending commitments have been increased beyond any Democrat's wildest dreams. We don't know what the Democrat's economic plan is, or if they even have one, but it couldn't possibly be worse than the Republican plan.

So on to the President's second question: which party has a plan to protect the American people? Like the plan we didn't have for cleaning up Iraq after sacking Saddam? (The President couldn't even stay the course on "stay the course".) Or like the plan we don't have for preventing Iran from going nuclear? Or like the plan we don't have for dealing with the already-nuclear psychotic despot in North Korea? Or the plan we don't have for securing our ports or our borders? The President was rather brash to even use the word "plan" in connection with national security. And we're supposed to trust our President's judgment when he obstinately refuses to stop backing the singular most incompetent Secretary of Defense this country has ever seen? (If there's one "course" that should not be "stayed" as we are "adapting our tactics", it is Rumsfeld.) Once again, the Democrats are a big unknown, and may or may not have any ideas, but one thing we can see for sure is that the Republicans don't have a plan.

Thanks, Mr. President for clarifying the decision to be made on November 7. If it's a referendum on which party has a plan to enable our economy to grow and to keep us safe, then we clearly cannot be voting Republican.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

LA Times Held For Ransom?

This week, the Los Angeles Times debuted a new layout design for the newspaper. I use the term "design" loosely. When I first beheld this typographical travesty, I thought I was looking at a ransom note. You know, where the kidnapper cobbles together a message by cutting out letters from a newspaper in aLL diFfeRent foNts. Instead of articles neatly arranged on a front page, there were various headlines competing for attention with a mix of LARGE and bold, serif and sans-serif, in a garish jumble with colors and photos. It's true that our society has changed to demand greater quantities of information in more complex composition (witness our TV screens these days with messages scrolling along the bottom, translucent logos in the corner, and superimposed animated pop-up ads), but that doesn't mean that style is dead. The "new" LA Times looks like the result of a desktop publishing amateur who's just discovered fonts and colors, and run amok with them.

We've heard about the staff cuts at the paper recently. Perhaps the new management thinks it can sack professional layout designers and replace them with a hack intern who knows his way around Adobe PageMaker? Then it dawned on me. Maybe it really is a ransom note. From the staff to the corporate overlords, with a horrified public looking on. The demand: don't cut the staff to the bone, to where professional quality is harmed. And the threat: that our city will never see a nationally-respected newspaper again.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Extreme Home Makeover: Waiting Edition

Extreme Home MakeoverSeveral weeks ago, my officemate got a notice at her house that Extreme Makeover: Home Edition might be doing their thing on a house up her street. The letter was expressly non-commital (your neighbor *may* have been chosen) so as not to give away the surprise, but it warned that her street may be blocked off and filled with construction crews for a week. Well, it turns out her neighbor was indeed chosen, and the Extreme Home crew were coming to Redondo Beach. It's been very fun having this happen so close to the office, and getting the daily updates. They literally work round the clock putting a whole new house together in less than a week, and it's a great feat of logistics to make it happen. They do unusual things like preassemble large sections of the roof in a staging area, and then lift them into place with a crane. I stopped by several days into the construction just to check things out. The street was closed to cars, but you could walk in and look from across the street. There was a small crowd there most of the time, checking out the progress and hoping to catch a glimpse of somebody. I got to see Paige, the blonde who always wears the pink toolbelt, walk by.

So I thought it would be fun to check out the "big reveal", and be there to yell "Move that bus!". We had heard it was going to happen around 2pm today, though we also had heard they were behind schedule. And we'd heard they expected a big crowd and due to limited space, you'd want to get there hours in advance. Well, I couldn’t spring loose from work until 2:30pm, but I figured I just go over there to see if I could get in. I parked a couple of blocks away and tried walking in the bottom of the street, but that was closed off even to pedestrians and I was told to walk around to the top of the street. A 10-minute walk later, and I'd come around the top, and realized it wasn't too late, people were still streaming in. As you got anywhere near the house, there was already quite a crowd sandwiched on the one side of the street between barricades on the street and barricades trying to keep us off of the neighbors' lawns. (I think all of the neighbors in the immediate vicinity were promised new landscaping, since many of them offered their yards as staging areas, and got fairly trashed.) I was able to get a spot about two houses down. The big Extreme bus was parked perfectly blocking our view of the house, and on the other side of the street, a couple hundred volunteers in official blue T-shirts and hard-hats were mostly milling around. And the crowd of spectators was estimated by the local news at 2000. Sure felt like it from all the jostling. We barely had room to raise our hands.

The chosen family is a husband and wife with a baby daughter, both of them LAPD Gang Unit, and the wife had got shot in pursuit of a gang-banger and is now paralyzed from the chest down. Hers was a big story in the local community when it happened earlier this year, and so the community was thrilled to see this family get repaid for their sacrifice in this way. And of course the LAPD turned out in large numbers. (I later heard that Chief Bratton was there too, though I didn't see him.) The uniformed officers lined both sides of the street making an impressive entrance route. And at some point, the big bus pulled away, and they decided instead to use a big black LAPD Bomb Squad truck to hide the house. Fortunately, after the bus pulled away, we had a relatively clear view of the house.

We kept hearing rumors that the family was coming home at 4pm, and then 4:30pm. We got excited at one point when we saw a limo up the street start to come down our way, but then we realized they were just practicing camera shots. We got to watch as the limo pulled up in front of the truck, and Ty Pennington opened up the limo door. And then closed the door again, the limo backed up, and then did it all over again. Countless times, the policemen got called to attention, but then nothing happened. One of the production guys lead the crowd in practicing the "move that bus!" shout, and giving big cheers. (I think they filmed all that for stock footage of cheering crowds to be spliced in later.) At 5pm, somebody who seemed to be in charge told the crowd that the limo had just taken off to get the family, and they'd be here in 15-20 minutes. Then at 5:20pm, we were told they be there in 20 minutes. At some point, Ty came running up and down the street just to wave to everybody, and all the girls screamed and swooned. (Well, some of them may have been close to swooning anyway, as we'd been standing there for hours.)

We thought they would want to film the big reveal while they had sunlight nicely illuminating the west-facing house. It was dark by the time the family finally arrived around 6:15pm, but they had enough flood lights to make it look like daytime. And when the family got out of the limo, we couldn't really see anything from where I was, with all the other people in the way. A woman with a couple young daughters had been standing near me, and I let one of the girls climb up on my shoulders so at least she could see, and we could get a bit of a play-by-play. Eventually, we got to shout our line -- "Move that bus!" (even though it was a truck) -- and the truck pulled away to much cheering. I'm sure the family's reaction was all very dramatic, but I won't get to see that until the show airs (Nov 26).

So was it worth it to stand in a crowd for 4 hours (the last 30 minutes with a 7-year-old on my shoulders), just to catch a sidelong glimpse of TV in the making? Somehow, even though the view will be much better just watching it on TV, it was fun just to be a small part of the experience. And of course, to get to shout 100 times: "Move that bus!"

Monday, October 16, 2006

FILM: The Queen

Having just seen Her Royal Highness in person last month, we found Dame Helen Mirren's performance as The Queen to be especially phenomenal. On the heels of an acclaimed portrayal of Elizabeth I, Mirren has now veritably transformed into the virgin queen's namesake ERII. The film spins an intriguing behind-the-scenes tale of the clash of traditional British "stiff upper lip" values with the modern response to the death of Princess Diana, as newly elected PM Tony Blair delicately coaxes the out-of-touch monarch into a necessary break with tradition. While the film certainly has its bias (it's impossible to resist the tidal wave of emotion following Diana), what gives it its interest and its complexity is where it gives glimpses of insight into the Queen's point of view, and shows her some sympathy. We get to see a Queen whose instincts and breeding have served her well for decades get slapped by the realization that she no longer knows her subjects as well as she thought. And we get to see a thoughtful illustration of a woman whose whole life has been incredible luxury but also unrelenting duty dictated by tradition. Michael Sheen was also superb as the young Tony Blair, a bit flustered by his first meetings with HRH, but gingerly urging her to what he knew to be the right course. Blair comes off smelling like a rose, with his adept political instincts tempered by an idealism brought into focus by contrast with his antimonarchist wife and his cynical staff. That alchemy makes him a brilliant bridge between tradition and modernity, embracing the latter while respecting the former. Prince Charles comes off sympathetically, with a heart if not a spine, while Prince Philip gets no sympathy, coming off as a cantankerous and short-sighted old codger. The characters of the Queen Mother and Cherie Blair both added interesting dimension to the story. The splicing in of actual footage from the public events was used to good effect to make the story feel more real. And the inside glimpses of royal family life, along with the breathtaking scenery on the Balmoral estate worked to underscore the isolation of the royals. (Having just been in Royal Deeside, we especially appreciated the scenery of that breathtaking countryside, and we also recognized a number of the sites - like Castle Fraser, which in real life is not exactly adjacent to Balmoral.) This engaging drama was a surprisingly welcome respite to the "October doldrums", typically a seasonal dearth of any good films.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

STAGE: Doubt

Saturday afternoon, I had the pleasure of seeing Doubt, the Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning drama by John Patrick Shanley. Friends had raved about it when it was here in Pasadena over a year ago, and of course it was very well received in New York. I can only pile on the accolades, and say I'm grateful that the whole original cast and production came back to Los Angeles for a victory lap. Shanley's play is galvanic, theatre at its best. It's an hour and a half with no intermission, which is just as it should be, since the intensity of the play builds up and doesn't let you go. Cherry Jones deserves her Tony for her portrayal of that rock of certainty, Sister Aloysius, rigid in her traditional ways, a "block of ice" (as Father Flynn describes her), but prepared to march to hell for what she believes is doing the right thing. Chris McGarry is flawless as Father Flynn, shifting seamlessly between apparent guilt and innocent victimhood with a finesse that left us wondering at the end. He's the pivotal character that engenders suspicion without certainty, the aim of Shanley's masterful script. Adriane Lenox (who also won a Tony) is powerful in her role as the mother of the student, initially demure but belying an inner strength that shows breathtakingly by the end of her scene. Lisa Joyce rounds out the excellent cast with her idealistic novice, wanting to have faith in everyone and learning that she can't. If you have any chance to see this play, don't hesitate. Go.

As a postscript, I couldn't help but think about Sister Aloysius as I was reading about Jeff Trandahl, the Clerk of the House of Representatives who was responsible for the congressional page program, apparently tried repeatedly to stop Foley's misbehavior, and eventually resigned. A "strict disciplinarian" too.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

No Excuses, Taking Responsibility

All sorts of typical Washington double-speak coming out in the wake of the Foley page scandal. Foley's attorney has insisted that "Mark offers no excuses", yet he's done nothing but offer excuses. Not traditional excuses, of course, but the great excuse of our time: self-pathologizing. Despite clenching shut the closet door for years, now Foley admits to being gay. (As if that's an excuse for being creepy.) And he's also come out as a victim of sexual abuse as a child. (Amazing the timing of those recovered memories.) And of course there's the drinking problem. Self-confessed alcoholism has become the get-out-of-blame-free card de jour. Just ask Mel "I don't hate Jews, it was the whisky talking" Gibson. Sorry, Mr. Foley, but these pathetic ploys to transform disgust into sympathy are rather transparent (not to mention an insult to self-respecting gays, child abuse victims, and genuine self-acknowledged alcoholics).

And then there's the GOP leadership, topped by Dennis Hastert, who accepts full responsibility. Just not the blame. His latest excuse (they've been evolving) is that he only became aware of the most explicit IMs last Friday. So, the ones he heard about a couple of years ago were merely, what, exactly? This is sort of like saying "Back when, I only saw some smoke coming out from under the door. But I didn't realize the whole room was on fire until somebody else opened the door and showed me." There are really only two possibilities here. The leadership saw the "smoke" coming out from under the (closet) door, opened the door, saw the fire, closed the door again, and prayed it would just stay contained. Or they saw the smoke, and looked the other way, not even bothering to open the door. One is only marginally worse than the other. At this point, the most charitable thing one could possibly believe about Hastert is that he's an incompetent manager who missed clear danger signs that should have been followed up on. And even that most charitable assumption is reason enough to step down. (Kudos to Tony Blankley and the Washington Times for holding the high line against their own party on this one.)

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Proposition 83A - For Our Children's Safety

Here in California, we have a Proposition 83 on our upcoming ballot that will restrict registered sex offenders from living within 2000 feet of any school or park, and requires lifetime GPS monitoring of them. I think in light of recent events, we need to modify the proposition. My amended Proposition 83A would stipulate that all current and former priests and Congressmen would be required to list their residences in a public registry, would be prohibited from living within 2000 feet of any school or park, and would also have lifetime GPS monitoring. I think we have a right to know if a former Congressman or priest is living in our neighborhood and might come in contact with children. Congressmen and priests are known risks, and we should have law enforcement monitoring them on GPS at all times. We just can't take reckless chances. We must do it for the safety of our children.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Artful Dodges

I can't remember the last time I've laughed out loud listening to the news, but last week was exceptional. Listening to Hugo Chavez sabotaging his own bid for a seat on the UN Security Council with his "Bush is the Devil and I can still smell the sulphur" performance was amusing enough. But then on Friday, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan comes out with the most astonishingly shameless evasion at a joint press conference with President Bush. When asked point blank to confirm rumors that the US had threatened Pakistan in the wake of 9/11 ("join our War on Terror, or else we'll bomb you back to the Stone Age"), Musharraf parried saying he was "honor-bound" by a book deal with Simon & Schuster not to disclose information from his soon-to-be published memoir. "Buy the book, is what he's saying," translated Bush, who was laughing as hard as everybody at the press conference (after they'd picked their jaws up off the floor). At least that was an honest if bald evasion. When the same question was put to President Bush, he dodged, saying that the first he'd heard of the rumor was when he read it in the paper the day before. Come on. We all know (and Bush has admitted as much) that the President doesn't read the newspapers.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Power To The People?

Proclaiming their intention to return power "to the people", the Thai Army has staged a coup to depose democratically elected Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra. I'm not at all familiar with Thai politics, and am trying to reconcile the information I've heard. On the one hand, I've heard that Taksin was elected several times and by very large margins, so is very popular. On the other hand, the bloodless coup has been supported by the king and has been welcomed by many Thai people (as well as the Thai financial markets). Some reports are that Taksin, while popular, had become increasingly autocratic and was abusing the government system, packing the courts and politicizing the Senate, and going around the constitutional checks when it suited him. (Hmm, we in America wouldn't know anything about that.) The Army promises to make constitutional reforms and return the country to elections by next year. Could it be that the path to better democracy in Thailand is through a military coup? Strange but possible, I suppose. Meanwhile, Taksin seems to be responding quite graciously, voicing plans to "take a deserved rest" in London and pursue development and charitable work.

Quite the opposite tack is being taken by Andrés Manuel López-Obrador, the defeated Mexican presidential candidate who refuses to concede the election, despite final rulings against him by the nation's top electoral court. Instead, his supporters have staged large protest actions gridlocking parts of Mexico City, insisting against the settled facts that he didn't lose the election after all. (Hmm, we in America wouldn't know anything about that either.) Of course the difference here is that Al Gore graciously and timely conceded, while López-Obrador continues to rally his supporters, and has vowed to set up a "parallel government". He too claims to be "for the people". Apparently, even if it means the dismantling of Mexican democracy in order to install an unelected populist government. Meanwhile, President-elect Felipe Calderón has his work cut out for him.

Nobody ever said democracy was easy.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

World Circus

This week, the United Nations has sunk even deeper into the theatre of the absurd. First, we got President Bush pretending to address the world but really addressing the November elections. Then we got President Ahmadinejad of Iran contrasting his country's "peaceful" and "transparent" nuclear actions with the menacing and unaccountable actions of the US and the UK. Finally, we got the spectacle of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez literally (and repeatedly) calling President Bush the Devil. These leaders were too busy talking past each other, but didn't bother to talk with each other.

The very name United Nations has become a self-contradiction, made doubly oxymoronic when combined with the word "resolution". It has become standard operating procedure for the Security Council to pass "resolutions" threatening future consequences that are never followed up on. Many have raised questions about the composition of the Security Council, whose five permanent members reflect 60-year-old reality more than the present day. I've become inclined to agree that it's time for France to go. I stuck by the French when they were unwilling to join the "coalition of the willing" in invading Iraq. I pointedly bought French wine as our Congress was embarrassingly renaming their "freedom fries". However last month, when the French co-brokered a deal to address the Lebanon crisis, but then balked at putting any boots on the ground, to my mind that should have been an automatic disqualifier of permanent seat status. They should stand aside and let another country more relevant to 21st century leadership step forward, say India or Japan or even Germany. Meanwhile, Venezuela's bid to get a Council seat was hardly served by the childish theatrics of its melodramatic President.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Tort of Willful Ignorance

There ought to be a tort of willful ignorance. It made my blood boil to read in the LA Times about some obtuse woman who is HIV-positive, but refuses to believe the virus is deadly, and passed on the fatal virus to her baby daughter. When the baby girl came down with AIDS-related pneumonia last year, the mother refused realistic treatment, sought out a quack doctor who shared her quack views, and claims to be puzzled as to why her daughter died. The Times reports that she "is founder of Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives, a nonprofit that challenges 'common assumptions' about AIDS. Her group's website and toll-free hotline cater to expectant HIV-positive mothers who shun AIDS medications, want to breast-feed their babies and seek to meet others of like mind." In other words, it's not enough that she's killed her own daughter, but she wants to help other willful ignoramuses do the same. Though I'm loath to resurrect Oliver Wendell Holmes on this issue, maybe some people do deserve to be sterilized.

Friday, September 01, 2006

TRAVEL: Aberdeenshire Roots, Part 2

FINZEAN, Scotland -- In researching my 4x-great-grandparents, who lived in the parish of Birse, I had been in correspondence with a woman named Eileen Bailey, who is the archivist for the Birse Community Trust. She had been quite helpful in locating information about my ancestors, and we had been in email contact for a couple of years now, so I wanted to go visit the Trust and meet Eileen in person. So this morning, we set off across the river and into the parish of Birse, up to the top of Corsedarder Hill, where there is an ancient standing stone as well as awesome views over Finzean and the valley of the Feugh. It was to Finzean (pronounced the Gaelic way, like "fingan") we were headed, on the other side of the hill, where the Trust has its offices in the old schoolhouse. Preserving local history is just one aspect of the Trust's work. The Trust has worked to preserve the local cultural and natural heritage, and has diverse projects, including managing woodlands and operating a traditional saw mill, turning mill, and bucket mill.

Eileen was warm and delightful, and had a charming thick Scottish brogue (which kept my ear working hard to catch every word). She gave us a tour of the Trust office and the archives (kept in a smaller building in back once known as the "soup kitchen" where the students were fed when it was a school), and gave me a number of items of historical interest including a vintage photo of Finzean House, where my 4x-great-grandparents had lived.

Finzean was (and continues to be) a large estate held by the Farquharson family for 16 generations now. In the 1790s, an aging Farquharson laird ("Archibald the elder") had married a young girl named Christian Spring (the sister of my 4x-great-grandmother), had a son to carry on his line ("Archibald the younger"), and then died, leaving a very young widow and a 3-year-old laird. My 4x-great-grandparents, Robert Sherrat and Isobel Spring, who had just married the same year that the laird died, moved to Finzean House to help out. Robert became the overseer of the Finzean estate (at that time, 16,000 acres in two parishes) for the next dozen years until the young laird came of age. During that time, 1797 until around 1810, the widowed Christian together with Robert and Isobel all lived at Finzean House and raised their children there. After the laird grew up, his mother remained at the house some years longer, but my 4x-great-grandparents moved to a nearby farm on the estate called Tillyfruskie, where they lived until Robert died in 1818. By then, their oldest daughter Christian (named after her aunt) had married a local boy named Robert Catanach, and they lived on a farm called Woodend, higher up the Feugh valley toward the Forest of Birse (also part of the Finzean estate). When Robert Sherrat died, his widow Isobel and her unmarried children all moved in to Woodend with the Catanachs.

All of those places still existed today in some form, as well as the Birse kirk, where Robert and Isobel had baptized all of their children, and where Christian had married the laird, baptized their son, and was buried. Eileen made a couple of phone calls and arranged some visits for me. The Birse kirk still existed, no longer used for worship, but used as a community hall, and Eileen arranged for us to meet up with a woman who had the key. Finzean House was still inhabited by a Farquharson laird, and Eileen located the laird's wife in a meeting at the estate's new Farm Shop, so she sent us down the road to catch her when she came out of the meeting. Earlier this year, the estate had opened the Farm Shop (part of creating local opportunities), which offers a delicious array of local meat and produce, and other local products (such as Duncan's of Deeside shortbread, the most melt-in-your-mouth-like-butter shortbread made in a factory at Woodend, one of the places my ancestors lived). While we were waiting for Catriona Farquharson to come out of her meeting, I discovered that the charming young woman behind the counter with the warm smile was also a Farquharson, Kate, married to the Finzean laird's younger brother Andrew. I had explained our interest in Finzean House, and asked her where she lived. Oh, we just live in a simple farm house, she replied. Which turned out to be Tillyfruskie, another place my family had lived! I asked her if she would mind if we stopped by later that day, and she said that we would be very welcome.

Finzean HouseMeanwhile, Catriona Farquharson had emerged from her meeting, and we introduced ourselves to her and explained our connection and interest in Finzean House, and asked if we could come up and have a look around. She asked how long we were in town, and I said this was our only free day. As I said this, I regretted not making better arrangements in advance, realizing that we were imposing ourselves on a private family home at half past ten in the morning with no notice whatsoever. But she graciously invited us to follow her home and have a look around the gardens and the outside of the house. She had children at home waiting for breakfast and probably still in pajamas, so she apologized for not being able to invite us inside. (There we were, perfect strangers, rudely inviting ourselves over to her house without notice or introduction, and she's apologizing to us for not inviting us in! I can only hope I'd be as gracious in similar circumstances. But that's the sort of kindness we were met with all around Deeside.)
We got into our cars and followed her a short ways up the road and then a longer ways down a dirt-and-gravel track until we came upon Finzean House. Beyond a wrought iron gate and a holly hedge lay the two-story estate house, looking freshly restored to its Victorian style, with an overall dusty rose colored plaster and blue-grey trim, featuring three prominent gables with decorative exposed beams and corbelling under the box windows. Several chimneys and both gabled and shed dormer windows added interest to its form. The house was set on a gradual slope, and the surrounding gardens and lawns were terraced, framed by a low stone wall and trimmed hedges.

Finzean ViewIt is unclear the precise relationship between this present-day house and the one my ancestors lived in. The house fell into disrepair in the mid 1800s, when there were a couple of "absentee lairds", before it was reinhabited and fixed up again in the late Victorian period. Much of it was destroyed in a 1954 fire, and then rebuilt, and in recent years the present Farquharsons have done much restoration work to bring it back to its Victorian form. The present form, while freshly renovated, remains faithful to the Victorian form. (The vintage photo that Eileen Bailey gave me showed a Finzean House with the same chimneys and gables.) Parts of the formal garden, particularly the holly hedge, are said to date back to Francis Farquharson, the 5th laird of Finzean, who did much to improve the estate in the mid 1700s. The Finzean estate is fairly intact as it was in my 4x-great-grandparents' time. While the Lumphanan lands have been sold off, the Farquharson family still has nearly 8000 acres of farmland, moors, and forest in Birse. It was a thrill to be in this place where my ancestors had lived.

It was also great to see the remarkable tradition of stewardship in the present Farquharson family for preserving the rural character and way of life in Birse parish. They have realized that to preserve it, they must make it sustainable by developing local businesses and housing, providing opportunities for the children of the parish to stay rather than being forced to move into the city. In addition to setting up the Farm Shop this year, the Estate has sold housing sites at greatly reduced prices to enable and encourage young families to stay in the area.

Birse KirkAfter appreciating the gardens and snapping some photos, we headed back over the hill to find the old Birse kirk, where Eileen had arranged for us to meet a Mrs. Dinnie who would open it for us. After missing a turn and doubling back, we found the place and the kindly Mrs. Dinnie patiently waiting. The church is a simple stone rectangle with a sloped roof and a small steeple, little changed on the outside since the present church was built in 1779 (and on a site where a church has stood for many centuries before that). Mrs. Dinnie was very nice and took us on a little tour on the inside. On entering the narthex, one immediately is drawn to the side, where a tall stone is displayed. Called the Crusader Stone, it stands six feet tall and the carved symbols of cross and sword can still be made out. It was discovered when the foundation of the current church was being dug out in 1779, and it is estimated to be from the 12th century.

As we entered the main part of the sanctuary, there was an aisle down the center length of the rectangle leading to the altar and pulpit, with wood pews on either side, a typical church layout as we're used to. Though Mrs. Dinnie explained to us that in my ancestors' time, the layout was perpendicular to how it is now. The pulpit had been in the middle of the long side wall, and the pews were arranged parallel to the long walls, and facing what today we consider the right side wall. Toward the back of that arrangement (i.e., the modern left side) was a prominent gallery pew where the laird and his family sat. This gallery pew was emblazoned with a Farquharson family crest, which is preserved in a plaque on the left wall today. On the right wall, near where the old pulpit would have been, is a plaque commemorating the Rev. George Smith and his father Rev. Joseph Smith, who served the parish 74 years between them. It was Rev. Joseph Smith who baptized all the children of my 4x-great-grandparents, and who married my 5x-great-aunt Christian to Archibald Farquharson. Those who have family history in the area owe a special debt of gratitude to Rev. Smith, who was especially fastidious in his record-keeping, including making lists of all the inhabitants of his parish every few years (a boon to genealogists, and something not replicated in any of the other parishes around).

Christian Spring stoneAfter soaking up the history of the church interior, we went back outside to the kirkyard where there were a few graves I wanted to find. This time, I did have a map of the kirkyard, but I also knew I wouldn't need it. The Farquharson enclosure is the most prominent stone in the yard. There were the graves of several of the Finzean lairds, including Archibald Farquharson the younger (my 1st cousin 5x removed), and my 5x-great-aunt Christian Spring, the widow of Archibald the elder. It was awesome to see in stone the link between my family and the Farquharsons (a connection that had been passed down in my family with much romantic distortion, and that took me a while to discover the facts of). I also wandered around the kirkyard and found other familiar names on the stones, such as Shaw Catanach, the father-in-law of my 4x-great-aunt Christian Sherrat. Mrs. Dinnie was intrigued by that, as her husband had some connection to the Catanachs, and the farm they lived on had once been a Catanach farm.

Tillyfruskie farmWe then dashed back to Aboyne to meet our other traveling companions for an afternoon on the Castle Trail. Later, as the sun was getting low, they indulged me in a bit more family history exploration, and we paid a call to Tillyfruskie, the farm where 5x-great-grandpa Robert had spent his last ten years, and whose current resident we'd met at the farm shop. I had a very detailed map of the area that showed every farm, but the road from Banchory to Finzean was all farms, and at some point it just become a matter of looking for the third farmhouse after the last fork in the road. The farmhouse was set back a good ways from the road, in a stand of trees at the foot of a small hill, behind a large field of barley. The rows were still evident where the barley had recently been mowed, and the setting sun cast a golden glow on the round bales of barley straw in the field.

Tillyfruskie houseAs we pulled up around the back of the stone farmhouse, we could see into an enclosed backyard through an iron gate where a little girl and younger brother were playing. "Is your Mum or Dad home?" I called to the girl. She smiled shyly and went inside, and presently a man a few years younger than me came out. "You must be Andrew Farquharson," I said, introducing myself. "Yes, Kate said you'd be coming by." He was very friendly, and told us about the house and the farm. He grows barley and raises beef cattle, the barley being sold to the distilleries for whisky, and the straw used for bedding the cattle. Andrew oversees the family estate, as did my 5x-great-grandfather. I asked if he knew whether this would have been the same house as stood back in the 1810s, and he pointed out an upper cornerstone with the date 1733 carved in it! They'd changed a fair amount on the inside, and converted what used to be an adjacent barn into a nice large kitchen and family room, and connected it to the rest of the house. But the basic structure remained, stone walls a good two feet thick is as it has been for a few centuries! Kate showed up shortly, and they showed us around the house and we had a nice visit with this warm friendly family. It was so amazing to actually see and walk in this place I had read about in musty old records, to find the same house still there, and the estate lands still being farmed much as they were six generations and two centuries ago.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

TRAVEL: Aberdeenshire Roots

LUMPHANAN, Scotland -- The amazing thing about the Aberdeenshire countryside is how much is unchanged from two hundred years ago. Sure there are cars and electricity, and some adaptation to a tourist economy. But there are still a lot of farms and country estates. What made this particularly clear to me was the research I've done on my own family history, one branch of which comes from this area. I have learned a lot about my 4x-great-grandparents Robert Sherrat and Isobel Spring, where they lived, how many children they baptized, and so on, and through that research I have a pretty good knowledge of the various farms and estates that existed in the parishes of Birse and Lumphanan in the period 1790-1830. Back in that time, there certainly weren't any street addresses, so people were merely identified by the name of their farm and the name of the parish, and that was sufficient to locate anyone. I was pleased and surprised to discover that of all the farms my family lived on, all of them still exist, at least in some form, and can still be found on high-detail present-day maps. So being that I was here, and had a car, it would have been inexcusable not to drive out to these places and see what I would find there.

Our first foray into my family history was to look in the Lumphanan kirkyard to find the grave of Mary Sherrat. (She was the daughter of Robert and Isobel, and the one who keep the family line going in Scotland, while other siblings emigrated to Canada.) After a morning of whisky-tasting and an afternoon touring Castle Fraser, we followed increasingly narrow country roads to get us across to Lumphanan. After finding the church (which we could see up on a hill, but had a little trouble figuring out how to get to it), we wandered among the graves, arranged along terraced berms in the steeply sloping kirkyard around the side and back of the church. Alas, we could not find Mary anywhere. I know the stone is there, but unfortunately, I was not as organized as I should have been, and didn't have a map of the kirkyard (one is available from the good folks at the Aberdeen & Northeast Scotland Family History Society) identifying the stone. Shame on me. None the less, it was still neat to see this kirkyard and this small village which looks quite untouched by time.

As we headed home, I had one other stop in mind, which turned out to be much more rewarding. Isobel's sister Christian had married an aging laird who owned 8000 acres in Birse parish, and an equal amount in Lumphanan. Later in life, when she was a widow and her son the new laird was grown, she was given a place called Auchinhove Cottage to live out her years. (She lived at Auchinhove Cottage from 1823 until her death in 1849 at age 80.) Christian's niece Mary Sherrat (whose grave we couldn't find) lived with her or very nearby during that time, and Auchinhove was farmed by Mary's son Robert Cromar as late as 1901.

Auchinhove gateI knew from present-day maps that there was still some place called Auchinhove, and it was on our way back to Aboyne, albeit along a small country road. Just where the map said it would be, I was delighted to find a gate with a wooden sign on it saying "Auchenhove". (The spelling has wavered between an 'e' and an 'i' in the second syllable, but when doing genealogy you learn not to be overly distinguishing about spelling). The gate was open, so we followed a dirt and gravel driveway a small distance until we came upon Auchenhove Cottage, an old 2-story stone house a good bit larger than we Americans would expect to find called a "cottage". We pulled up around back where there was a place to park, and I walked around front and gingerly knocked on the door. After a couple of knocks, a woman answered the door and I asked if this was Auchinhove Cottage, and explained that my 5x-great-aunt had lived here 170 years ago. She was quite nice and we chatted for a bit. She explained that she was a relative newcomer, moved up here from England a few years ago. She didn't think the present house was as old as my aunt's time, but was probably later Victorian. She also told us that while she had only been here a few years, the older couple that she bought the place from had lived on it for a very long time, and they had retired to the smaller "gardener's cottage" of the estate, just a couple minutes away. She made a quick phone call for us, and told us that Mrs. Allen would be expecting us. (In chatting, we also discovered among other things that she worked as a docent at Crathes Castle, and sure enough we ran into her there the next day.)

Auchinhove CottageWe hopped in the car and went partway back out the drive to where it forked, and then followed that back to the single-story Gardener's Cottage and found Mrs. Allen. She did know a good bit about the history of the place, and knew that Auchinhove had been the "dower house" for the widow of a Finzean laird. While Auchinhove had once been a farm of some size, over the years it had been divided up and sold off, and the main house now has just a few acres, no longer a farm. But the most exciting thing was this: She said that the first woman was mistaken about the age of the house, and that it was still the same "dower house", although it had had some additions and alterations as most houses of that age do. So we had indeed seen the house that my 5x-great-aunt had lived in. It is so amazing to have studied my family history on paper (and microfilm and web pages), and then to actually see the very house lived in by my ancestors of six generations ago.

TRAVEL: The Whisky Pilgrimage

ABERLOUR, Scotland --- One of the essential pilgrimages in Scotland is to follow the whisky trail, to visit a distillery or two, learn how the "water of life" is made, and to taste a "wee dram". On the strong recommendation of my friend Antony, who had visited many of Scotland's distilleries, we decided to take a tour at Aberlour. It was not a malt I was familiar with, but in contrast to the more well-known distilleries on the "official" Whisky Trail that take in busloads of tourists, tours of Aberlour are limited to ten people (by appointment) and are much more personal. The village of Aberlour (which is Gaelic for "mouth of the chattering brook") sits where the Lour burn comes down from Ben Rinnes into the River Spey. The Spey is well-known to whisky lovers, -- many of Scotland's great malts come from the Speyside -- and as we climbed into the mountains on a small winding road, we passed through towns whose names (Dufftown, Craigellachie) were familiar to me from seeing them on bottles. At Craigellachie, we came upon the Spey and turned south along the river to Aberlour, with the Spey flowing in a deep ravine below the road. Across the river, I could see Easter Ellchies, home of Macallan, one of my favorites.

At the distillery, we met our guide, Wendy, a smart transplanted English woman, who had a clear knowledge of and appreciation for whisky, as well as a delightfully puckish attitude. ("Well, you didn't hear this from me, but…" became a refrain with her.) After giving us an overview of the history of whisky-making in Scotland, she lead us through the distillery, vividly punctuating the process with looks and tastes of the intermediate process. All whisky begins from dried malted barley, that is, barley grain that has been watered and begun to sprout, and then is dried over a fire. A whisky's character begins with the barley and even more significantly, with the amount of peat used in the fire to dry it. The peat contributes an earthy, smoky flavor. While the Speyside whiskies are generally lighter on peat, the whisky from the western islands tends to be much more smoky. Wendy showed us three samples of toasted barley malt that we could feel, smell, and taste. One was Aberlour's, and the other two, provided for an interesting comparison, were peaty Islay malts (Ardbeg and Laphraoig, if I recall). The barley malt tasted like toasted whole-grain bread, and you could clearly taste the smoky effect of the peat. (We didn't actually get to see the malting process itself, as very very few distilleries still do their own malting these days.)

The next stop was the grinder, where the dried barley malt (consisting of grains slightly larger than rice) is ground up into grist. This is accomplished by a large marvelous machine built many decades ago and looking like something out of the engine room of Jules Verne's Nautilus. The grist is then put into a huge vat called a "mash tun", where it is mixed with heated water from the nearby mountain spring, and slowly stirred into a thin porridge. The hot water dissolves the starch from the barley grist into a sweet liquid called "wort". We tasted some wort, and it is essentially a barley tea, vaguely brownish and with a sweet cereal taste. The wort is drained into another huge vat called a "washback", where yeast is added and the wort is kept at the right warmth to encourage fermentation. We got to stick our head into a washback and got knocked out by the alcoholic fumes and the pungent yeasty aroma. Wendy lowered a small container into the vat and pulled up a sample for us to try. It tasted like a malt liquor or rudimentary beer (which is essentially what it is at this point).

Stills at AberlourWe then moved into the still room, distillation being the next step in the process. The wash is transferred into a still, a very large copper kettle, vaguely pear-shaped with an elongated neck. Apparently, while stills take this general form everywhere, each distillery has its own distinctive design for the exact height and shape of its stills. The wash is brought to the right heat such that the alcohol vaporises but the liquid doesn't, and only the "worthiest" alcohol vapors rise the full height of the still's neck and into the condenser on the other side. The liquor passes through two different stills, and even from the second distillation, only the "heart" (the middle part of a batch) is taken, as the first part is too strong and the last part is too weak. The Scottish distilleries all feature something called a "spirit safe" in their still room, which is a padlocked glass case where the outflow from the still is diverted into one of two captures, depending on whether it is the "heart" or the other parts. (This quaint arrangement with the padlock comes from tax laws, so that they only pay taxes on the finished product quantity, rather than on all of the alcohol that flows out of the still.)

We came to a warehouse to see the final step, maturation in barrel casks. While the steps up to this point have only taken a week or two, the whisky now must be allowed to mature for a bare minimum of three years and more often ten or more. The whisky is matured in oak casks typically used previously for Bourbon, sherry, or port. (Bourbon casks are particularly plentiful, as Kentucky law requires Bourbon to be matured in new casks, creating a steady supply of used Bourbon casks.) The cask itself will impart flavor and color to the whisky as it ages.

Our final stop was the tasting room, where Wendy guided us through tasting six different samples, both neat and with water. (She explained how sometimes adding water can open up the oils, enhancing the flavor.) Aberlour uses a mix of Bourbon and sherry casks in its whiskies. We tasted whisky directly from each kind of cask, and we also tasted a range of Aberlour whiskies that blended the two kinds, including their 10 and 15-year expressions, and a distiller's edition that was double-casked. The blending can really add a nice complexity to the spirit. While I preferred the sherry cask to the Bourbon cask in the single-cask whisky, I found I preferred the 10-year old Aberlour (which has a higher proportion of Bourbon-cask to sherry-cask in it) to the 15-year old. The final highlight is that we were offered the opportunity to fill our own bottle of straight-from-the-cask whisky, serial-numbered and labeled on the spot. Of course we jumped at that chance, and now we have a bottle of 14-year sherry-cask-strength whisky that we shall greatly enjoy!