Archive for February, 2011

Recipe: Thai-Hungarian beef stew

I improvised this on a whim yesterday, craving something hearty and also needing to use up a tub of Thai yellow curry paste. Having made quasi-authentic goulash in the past, I tossed in some hot paprika also. I expected a train wreck, but ended up surprisingly good – my hunch is that pretty much anything with beef broth, tomato paste, and salt is going to be tasty and forgiving of any variations in ingredients or procedures.

Recipe after the jump.


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Being Queer at Harvard

My old professor Tim McCarthy is quoted at length in this excellent piece on coming out and LGBT life at Harvard. The article is rare among Crimson writing for its degree of introspection on the mindset of the typical Harvard student. For me, this was the money quote:

Harvard is a very tolerant place, [McCarthy] agrees, but it also prizes a degree of confidence in people. “When you’ve always got to be a success, well, identity is far more complicated than that,” McCarthy says. “Among queer people, there can be a feeling that coming out entails a kind of vulnerability—and that’s potentially destabilizing in their lives, especially where people are so afraid of being vulnerable.” Everything at Harvard is competitive and exclusive, McCarthy opines, even his public service spring break trip. Students tend to move towards archetypes to find support and acceptance in certain communities. “Harvard is a place where we have a parade of façades,” says the lecturer. “I spent a lot of time here as an undergrad building up those façades, but I think we’re more interesting and complicated and worthy of love if we cast them aside.”

If you’re at all interested in LGBT issues, I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

Unions for the 21st century

This month’s Mother Jones has a piece by Kevin Drum grappling with what the middle class will have to protect its interests if unions become a thing of the past. I’ve only skimmed it, but have been thinking more about labor issues after a conversation with a friend today about why you don’t see much unionization of corporate America, where there are lots and lots of middle-class, rank-and-file employees.

I think to start to tackle the white-collar labor problem, you have to first understand what old American industrial management was really like. For me, it wasn’t until I did some reading about my local auto plant that this sunk in. The management of the Big 3 automakers, and I assume most other industries, almost literally saw their employees as machines, brainless beasts of burden who couldn’t do much more in life than what their employer asked of them. Management functioned as their overlords in ways that went beyond mere corporate hierarchy; managers ate in separate cafeterias and did as much as they could to hermetically seal themselves off from the brutes on the factory floor. This is why Toyota was so effective when it started manufacturing in the US in the early 1980s despite insisting on weaker unions. It turned out that simply treating workers like human beings went a long way toward earning worker loyalty. Even if you didn’t give them the explicit protections of a union contract, if you managed truly benevolently, your workers would be happier and do better jobs for you.

America’s transition to a service-led economy has had decidedly mixed results for labor. On the one hand, for all its flaws, much of the modern service sector seems a step up in terms of human dignity in comparison to industrial manufacturing. But embedded in this improvement is a hole card for management: because your average white-collar private sector worker often gets to perform a diverse variety of tasks and isn’t physically, socially and intellectually estranged from his or her management, it’s much easier to walk all over them economically if management feels like doing so. Any future attempts to level the playing field for private sector workers need to first figure out how to negotiate the less overtly adversarial and dehumanizing style that defines modern management.


Department of Empty Threats

On the ongoing labor fight in Wisconsin, here’s Roger Bybee:

The opposition party has, likewise, tried to force the Democrats hand. Furious with Miller and the other Democrats, Republican state Senators have threatened to rapidly pass a number of bills to which the Democrats object — the quorum requirement of 20 applies only to budgetary matters — including the most restrictive voter ID law in the nation.

The GOP already has a majority in the Wisconsin State Senate by a margin of 17 to 14. In other words, it could pass these bills anytime it wanted to regardless of how irritated Wisconsin Republicans were at their Democratic counterparts. Yet we’re supposed to believe that we live in some alternate universe where the reason they don’t pass these bills anyway is that they value being cordial, rather than that they recognize the bills’ potential for lots of political blowback, or that the threat of passing them serves as a useful bargaining chip.

EDIT: I’m assuming that the GOP caucus is already relatively united here, that is, that at least 15 of the 17 GOP state senators are already inclined to vote to pass these bills. If they are more divided, that complicates things somewhat since it’s possible you’d see these crazy bills pass with 9 votes to 8 without the Democrats present, but they’d fail with 9 votes against 22 if the Democrats showed up.

Ideological Coherency and Informed Polities

One thing that’s always struck me about Europe is that average Europeans seem to have a very good understanding of what they’re voting for in elections. If you want welfare state expansion, you vote for the Socialists or Social Democrats or whatever they call themselves in your country, and if you want more pro-business policies, you vote for the Conservatives or Christian Democrats or whatever.

This doesn’t hold in America, I think, where lots of the population seems to have more-or-less liberal substantive views when you dig into the details, despite the oft-quoted figure that 40% also self-identify as conservative. Yet that same America voted for George W. Bush twice, bought into the “compassionate conservative” lie, at least to an extent, and didn’t seem to understand the full impact of his policies. It’s almost as if people have no idea what they are really voting for; elections are won and lost on meaningless personal trivia (and whatever the unemployment rate is) rather than a policy track record. This is how a GOP that has moved away from the right and into the gamma quadrant has managed to still stay competitive.

Why are we so much, well, dumber? I think some of it has to do with the quirky history of American politics in the last 150 years, where the parties were ideologically mixed and thus “bipartisanship” was often easy enough to achieve with many pieces of legislation. This made voting in elections from at least 1865 on basically a crapshoot, since it was much more difficult to point to a specific outcome and say “that wouldn’t have happened if I’d only voted for the Republican.” If bad stuff happened, incumbent Congressmen and Senators could always credibly blame things on the president, or on the fact that their favored ad hoc coalitions were outnumbered on whatever issue it was. Everything about the sausage-making was murky, and both parties liked it that way – it made it much easier to maneuver. Whereas in Europe, a parliamentary, winner-take-all legislature and fewer veto points led to accountability – you knew that Margaret Thatcher was going to fight against organized labor if she won, and there would be definite consequences of a vote for the Tories, if not for your own day-to-day life, definitely for people close to you.

Maybe there’s something to the idea that Americans are just not as intelligent as their European counterparts. But maybe we understand less about ideologies because in the past, that kind of knowledge was mostly worthless anyway.


Fun Facts about Bahrain

Since Bahrain is in the news this week, I’ve been reading up a bit about this small Gulf island kingdom. Don’t have much intelligent to say, so here are a few facts:

  • Bahrain is not a big place. We’re talking about 1.2 million people, which is roughly the population of San Francisco and Oakland put together. Given that, a protest of about ten thousand people is far from trivial.
  • Like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Bahrain is a majority (~66%) Shia Islam population governed by a Sunni autocracy. I hadn’t realized that Shia were this populous so far south in the Gulf,  but it makes sense (next door in Qatar, however, Shia are only 30% of the population).  And the Khobar Towers truck bombing in 1996 in neighboring Dhahran, Saudi Arabia was initially blamed by the Saudis on Shia Saudi separatists, though that may have been more of an ass-covering maneuver than an honest reflection of internal conflict in Saudi Arabia. Bottom line, Iraq is not the only Gulf state with these kinds of sectarian cleavages.

Tuesday Irish citizenship blogging

In the course of this guest post at Crooked Timber, on the upcoming Irish parliamentary elections, Niam Hardiman notes that Sinn Fein candidate Gerry Adams “seems to know very little about politics and policy in the Republic [of Ireland],” which makes sense because, after all, Adams isn’t from the Republic of Ireland, he’s from Northern Ireland and thus a Brit. But wait a minute! If Gerry Adams is a British citizen, how on earth is he able to run for office in Ireland in the first place?

As usual, it’s wikipedia to the rescue:

As part of the United Kingdom, people from Northern Ireland are British citizens. They are also entitled to Irish citizenship by birth which is covered in the 1998 Belfast Agreementbetween the British and Irish governments, which, provides that: it is the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly [the two governments] confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.

As a result of the Agreement, the Constitution of Ireland[34] was amended so that people born in Northern Ireland are entitled to be Irish citizens on the same basis as people from any other part of the island of Ireland.

In fact, it looks like even non-Northern Irish British citizens can vote in Dáil Éireann elections, as long as they live in the Republic of Ireland. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.