Starry Wisdom

Entropic Words from Neilathotep

Saturday, May 30, 2009

On Food and You

On Wednesday (May 27, 2009) I was lucky enough to be able to see a preview performance of the film Food, Inc. at the Metreon. It was actually a Yelp event, probably the best one I’ve been to. In addition to a preview of the movie, the filmmaker Robert Kenner, and Michael Pollan (well known for his food journalism as of late) were on hand for a Q and A after the screening.

Since I’ve been interested in the topic of this film for a long time (at least a decade if not more), and have read several major books on the subject (Pollan’s, as well as another contributor to the film, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation), and I just saw Pollan speak at at a Long Now seminar just a few weeks prior, I didn’t really learn anything new during the movie. However, it was interesting to see things I already knew reinforced by the motion picture medium. The movie is a wonderful survey of the issues related to food health and safety that are in large part a product of the colossal agribusiness system in the United States. There are many origins for the problems we have now, including the “Farm Bill”, particularly how it evolved over the last few decades of the twentieth century; the “fast food” lifestyle of the population of the United States; and, most disturbingly, the vast curtain that’s been drawn across the populations eye’s by agribusiness and their friends in the government.

Time is ripe for change in many areas, and we shouldn’t overlook our ‘food’ policy. There is a draft food safety bill currently in congress which addresses many issues of food safety that are cause for concern, but it is far from perfect. Of particular concern to me is that it seems to favor big business by the yearly fee structure, as well as the traceability requirements (particularly the interoperability clause in the bill. Now, paper or an excel spreadsheet should be interoperable, but…). $1000 a year per facility is nothing for big business, but for a small operation it’s a lot of money. True, there is an exemption for farms that sell directly to consumers and restaurants, but there are plenty of small producers who would be adversely affected. I don’t have the full picture of the economics, and I know that funding any changes is important, but this method is particularly regressive. Some sort of sliding scale based on revenue would be a better idea (or perhaps a corporate tax increase? there’s always hoping). There is also a call out to put in a requirement for facilities to self-test for pathogens and report positive results, which seems like a good idea, but not a panacea.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know exactly what this bill should do or how it should be changed to be most effective and fair. I did read this interesting blog post that argues that smaller is better, and in a lot of ways that makes sense at many levels (except the top, but frankly, feck them). Now, a small food producer is not necessarily safer than a large food producer, BUT any negative outcome of their production would be contained. And smaller generally means more local, which means savings in carbon output (but, well, this is a complex issue since the majority of carbon used in farming is in the growing of the crops, not in the transportation – and anyway, exploiting the various seasons across the country makes sense. Just because I live in CA and can get fresh produce year round from local farms doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t export our food to the rest of the country).

We’re used to some things in this country. Super cheap junk food, cheap meat, and expensive vegetables. This leads to a particularly awful, unhealthy, and ecologically unsound diet. A little bit of change in the way americans eat (and the way our food is provided), could have vast implications in our health, and environment. It’s a very tangled web, and I could probably talk or write about this for hours and still be making almost no sense to anyone who is new to the issues. But the important thing I want to do is get people thinking, because thinking about these issues brings up some inconvenient truths. And I can’t see a better way to get this into the mainstream than Kenner’s movie. I urge everyone to see it, and to suggest it to everyone they know. I also urge you to contact your congresspeople and urge them to give us a useful and sane food safety bill – something that’s been needed for a long time.

posted by neil at 1:56 pm
under food,politics,rambling  

Sunday, May 24, 2009


I had people over yesterday, and one of the things I provided to eat was hummus. In general, I think it’s a great party food because almost everyone likes it (and I don’t think I want anyone who doesn’t like it at my place!), it’s healthy, and it’s actually pretty easy to make. Here is the recipe I used, which I think I grabbed from Cook’s Illustrated, but I am too lazy to go look that up, and I already had it pasted in to my email for some reason.

Note: this can easily be doubled

Restaurant Style Hummus

3 tablespoons juice from 1 to 2 lemons
1/4 cup water
6 tablespoons tahini stirred well
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
plus extra for drizzling
1 (14 ounce) can chickpeas, drained or rinsed
1 small garlic clove, minced or pressed (about 1/2 teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
pinch cayenne
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro or parsley leaves

  1. Combine lemon juice and water in small bowl or measuring cup. Whisk together tahini and 2 tablespoons oil in second small bowl or measuring cup. Set aside 2 tablespoons chickpeas for garnish.
  2. Process remaining chickpeas, garlic, salt, cumin, and cayenne in food processor until almost fully ground, about 15 seconds. Scrape down bowl with rubber spatula. With machine running add lemon juice-water mixture in a steady stream through feed tube. Scrape down bowl and continue to process for 1 minute. With machine running, add oil-tahini mixture in steady stream through feed tube; continue to process until hummus is smooth and creamy, about 15 seconds. Scrape down bowl as needed.
  3. Transfer hummus to serving bowl, sprinkle reserved chickpeas and cilantro/parsley over surface, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand until flavors meld, at least 30 minutes. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.
posted by neil at 12:34 pm
under cooking  

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Star Trek

I saw Star Trek (2009) twice – once with my parents while I was in Chicago (on IMAX), and then again when I got back to San Francisco with Mackenzie (35mm). It was worth seeing twice, honestly. Which means I’m already saying I like the movie before I start talking about it.

So, without any spoilers, I will just say that J.J. Abrams hit a home run with this movie. It’s far from perfect – if you spend enough time thinking about the story, you’ll get a bit disgruntled, but then again, it’s Star Trek – meaning it’s supposed to be entertaining and one hopes that any literary deficiencies in the movie would not get in the way of that. And this movie succeeds in spades in that regard. The casting is quite good, with the actors capturing the essence and feeling of the roles they are replaying – oh and the villain is good too. And cool special effects.

Yes, I liked it. 7 out of 8.1 rabbit turds.

posted by neil at 10:01 pm
under movie review  

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Outcome

So, I failed in my quest to babble about all six ballot props, but you can rest assured that 1E was as misguided as the rest of them. I guess the populace wasn’t really hearing it either, since the results of the election were pretty pathetic (source: Secretary of State’s Web Site):

outcome Proposition Title Yes Votes % No Votes %
N 1A “Rainy Day” Budget Stabilization Fund 1,334,724 34.1% 2,569,677 65.9%
N 1B Education Funding. Payment Plan. 1,460,630 37.4% 2,435,276 62.6%
N 1C Lottery Modernization Act 1,376,145 35.4% 2,507,236 64.6%
N 1D Children’s Services Funding 1,331,624 34.3% 2,550,562 65.7%
N 1E Mental Health Funding 1,299,638 33.6% 2,563,412 66.4%
Y 1F Elected Officials Salaries 2,874,524 73.9% 1,016,557 26.1%

The only thing that passed is the “useless anyway you look at it” Proposition 1F. But really as a whole, you can see this election as a referendum on the Legislature. They aren’t doing what we are electing them to do, and I hope that people remember this at the next general election and vote them out. In the meanwhile, maybe they’ll do their job. This goes double for the GOP members who have to learn that occasionally one must “disagree and commit”.

posted by neil at 10:46 am
under 2009 special election,politics  

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Proposition 1D – kid’s can’t vote

This proposition is pretty much everything I abhor about the proposition system. 10 years ago, Proposition 10 was passed, which created a tobacco tax to fund early childhood development programs. Now, only a bit more than 10 years later, the legislature is telling the electorate it wants to raid this fund, clearing out the current savings, as well as using current revenue for general fund purposes. Of course, it is claimed that the money will be used to help fund children;

Proposition 1D Protects Children’s Services Funding. Helps Balance State Budget
Temporarily provides greater flexibility in funding to preserve health and human services for young children while helping balance the state budget in a difficult economy.

But if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.

The budget is broken, and it needs to be fixed, but robbing Peter to pay Paul isn’t the way to do it. The state needs new sources of revenue (not just new ways of shifting spending), and this can only be accomplished with new taxes – oh which the legislature is doing, but underhandedly, since they don’t require voter approval, but imposed in a very unfair way. With income and sales taxes as the most profitable revenue sources, the budget is going to always be doomed to follow whatever fate consumers are feeling. Without a strong corporate and in particular corporate real estate tax base, there is no real solution.

Until I see a real effort of compromise from the state GOP, I’m not going to take anything of this sort seriously.

posted by neil at 4:49 pm
under Uncategorized  

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Proposition 1F (aka the feel-good Amendment)

I’m going to go out of order here and post about 1F before doing 1D and 1E in the next day or two.

Here is the text of 1F from the ballot:

Proposition 1F. Elected Officials’ Salaries. Prevents Pay Increases During Budget Deficit Years — State of California (Legislative Constitutional Amendment – Majority Approval Required)
Encourages balanced state budgets by preventing elected Members of the Legislature and statewide constitutional officers, including the Governor, from receiving pay raises in years when the state is running a deficit. Directs the Director of Finance to determine whether a given year is a deficit year. Prevents the Citizens Compensation Commission from increasing elected officials’ salaries in years when the state Special Fund for Economic Uncertainties is in the negative by an amount equal to or greater than one percent of the General Fund. Fiscal Impact: Minor state savings related to elected state officials’ salaries in some cases when the state is expected to end the year with a budget deficit.

I guess I can’t really argue with this in substance. There is nothing wrong with the Legislature not getting raises in deficit years, but this is also a brain dead amendment which we shouldn’t need. Putting this on the ballot is to let the electorate pat themselves son the back and make them feel like they did something good – although, as Chris Rock says, you don’t give people credit for not doing what their not supposed to do.

It seems that there is a pretty good chance that this is the only measure that will pass. And well, I don’t really care either way on it. It’s not going to really fix anything, but it won’t hurt either. So yea, let’s all feel-good!

posted by neil at 2:55 pm
under 2009 special election,politics  

Monday, May 11, 2009

Proposition 1C – The Lottery Fiasco

From what I can tell, the Lottery in California is considered to be a failure. It passed in 1984 (Prop 37) as a way to raise more money for education without raising taxes, but the general sentiment is that it hasn’t been particular effective. And because of this, the legislature now wants to bet that it will be successful in the future, and borrow against this future success. Oh, and and the same time, the limitation towards only spending the proceeds towards education is going to go away. Instead the legislature would need to appropriate general fund revenues equal to the 2009-2009 lottery year (adjusted for inflation, student counts, etc) per perpetuity. So, a bumper crop of lottery would mean nary for education.

The real purpose of this bill is to allow deficit spending (a violation of the current balanced budget amendment passed in Prop 58). Borrowing agains the future to pay the present is clearly the proper solution to any sort of budget. Never mind that future revenues are unpredictable. Never mind that the reason the lottery likely passed in the first place was that it was designed to fund ONLY education. It’s just “slight of math” to look impressive and do nothing of true value.

posted by neil at 10:09 pm
under 2009 special election,politics  

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Propositions 1A and 1B

Warning – ranty post below.

Originally I planned to write an entry for each of the six ballot propositions, and explore them separately, but there is no separating 1B from 1A (for reasons tobeexplained below) so I am going to treat them as a package.

First of all, let’s look at the two measures as they appear on the ballot:

Proposition 1A. State Budget. Changes California Budget Process. Limits State Spending. Increases “Rainy Day” Budget Stabilization Fund — State of California (Legislative Constitutional Amendment – Majority Approval Required)
Changes the budget process. Could limit future deficits and spending by increasing the size of the state “rainy day” fund and requiring above-average revenues to be deposited into it, for use during economic downturns and other purposes.

Proposition 1B. Education Funding. Payment Plan — State of California (Legislative Constitutional Amendment – Majority Approval Required)
Requires supplemental payments to local school districts and community colleges to address recent budget cuts.

Now, something important that does not come across from these is that 1B can only be enacted if 1A also passes. The relevant text in 1B, for the record:

Measure Linked to Proposition 1A. The funding mechanism for making the supplemental payments established in this measure is provided in Proposition 1A, also on this ballot. That measure establishes a Supplemental Education Payment Account and requires the state to annually deposit 1.5 percent of General Fund revenues into the account, beginning in 2011–12. These funds would be put into the account annually until the entire $9.3 billion in supplemental payments had been provided. If Proposition 1A is not approved by the voters, the provisions of this measure would not go into effect, and there would be no obligation to make $9.3 billion in supplemental payments. situation. Method of Paying Maintenance Factor Also Unclear. The second issue relates to how the maintenance factor (from previous years) is paid in a Test 1 year. One interpretation is that maintenance factor payments are to be made on top of the Test 1 level. A second interpretation is that maintenance factor payments are to be made on top of the Test 2 level. Because the Test 1 level is expected to be significantly higher than the Test 2 level in 2009–10, the first interpretation could result in a significantly higher minimum guarantee in 2009–10.

Basically, this is candy thrown at the teacher’s union to get them to support 1A, which is really not in the citizens’ true interest to support. As things are now, the budget is full of obscure formulas amended to the constitution by previous voter propositions (including 98, and 13). 1A uses a linear regression to determine the historic trends that would contribute to this new “rainy day fund”, which is not inherently bad, but it is math that is above what most people care to understand. It also is full of ifs and maybes, and new taxes (which I mentioned before – increased sales tax and personal income tax – while at the same time corporate income tax is being cut). I am not inherently against new taxes, of course, but the places where the taxes are added and where they are cut seem to be misguided, and are only there because the Republican minority only cares about Big Business, as opposed to the Democratic majority who care about Big Business and the common citizen (a small but important difference).

Anyway, here’s the thing – legislators are elected to do a job. The job description includes creating the state budget. They fail at their job, and they expect the people who elected them to come save them. That’s just ludicrous. They think that having the budget 100% codified in the state constitution will protect their interests – and maybe it would protect some GOP interests, but it’s not the way you run a state. You can’t codify any situation, and it seems like all this work is to prevent a problem that already happened, without dealing with the possibilities of other problems. It’s a so-called “band-aid’ solution – cover up the wound, pretend it has gone away, and meanwhile the state bleeds out.

In my work experience I’ve heard a phrase “disagree and commit” this is something one might do when they realize that the majority is against them in a situation, they want to make it known that they are against what is going on, but that they will commit to doing what the majority is for to the best of their ability. If the minority of the state legislature had a microgram of honor or respectability in them they would do this very thing in order to pass a budget – then they could say “I told you so” if and when it failed, and then get big gains in the next election. Of course they know that’s not going to happen because most of the state does not believe in their policies, but because of Prop 13, they can throw a childish hissy fit and shoehorn their way in.

I want to be clear, I’m all for giving money to education, and I respect the idea of prop 1B (if not the means that would get the end) but this is a case where I firmly believe the means do not justify the end. The only way to fix education and the budget over all is with real reform – probably repealing all the budget related amendments and amending the Constitution to make ballot prop amendments much harder to initiate and pass. I firmly believe the populists who created the California ballot initiative system had the best interest of the population in heart, but were rather shortsighted and did not see how easily it could be exploited.

Another argument against these overall is that the amendments that we already have aren’t even being properly followed. 1B is basically a “catch-up” proposition for the twenty year old Prop 98, which mandated K-14 spending which just didn’t happen. Why should we believe that anything else that is codified in the constitution will happen (well that’s not in Prop 13, which clearly does happen).

Basically, since I don’t believe in 1A at all, that also means that I am against 1B, although I am not strongly against it. It’s all shell games though, and the best way to win those is not to play.

posted by neil at 2:43 pm
under 2009 special election,politics  

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Today’s Earworm

Note – videos linked may not be 100% SFW.

The Mighty Boosh is a UK comedy duo composed of Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding. They’ve had three tv series (seasons) of the most surreal, crazy, and amusing show. In the latest season, which they are showing on Adult Swim, they have a few very catchy songs. In particular, the main song from the first episode, “Eels Up Inside Ya” has been in my head all day. Unfortunately embedding is disabled on the version from the show, but here is a live version. Please enjoy:

Also, as bonus, an interview with them on Jonathan Ross a few years ago. This is made more amusing by the fact that John Barrowman is seen on the couch with their backup Shaman and Gorilla about 7:30 into the video:

posted by neil at 10:22 pm
under Media  

Powered by WordPress