Tuesday, December 30, 2008

No fiesta

It's a good thing I know how to make tamales. Sad news on the culinary front: Two of my favorite Mexican restaurants in Billings, Lolita's and Mamacita's, are closing.

Mamamcita's had an especially warm place in my heart (and belly). The basic Mamacita's combo plate (taco, tamale, enchilada, chili verde, rice, beans, tortilla, served with two sauces, one red and one green) was the best in town and one of the best I have ever had. As in all great Mexican combos, you couldn't take away any part without damaging the whole. It was the concert of flavors, all enhanced by the delicious sauces, that made the special so special.

Mitigating news: The Corral, recently opened on Southgate Drive, has pretty darn good Mexican food and now serves Mexican breakfasts on weekends. In my most-quoted line of prose (quoted only by me, so far as I know, but quoted often), I once wrote that all human endeavors are flawed, with the possible exceptions of Shakespeare's 73rd sonnet and the migas plate at Dos Hermanos restaurant in Bryan, Texas. No migas at the Corral, but good food.

Further mitigation news: The other night we tried out Cafe Italia, Mike Schaer's new venture into Italian cooking. Nice atmosphere, excellent food, not too pricey. Another success for a guy who never seems to make any mistakes downtown. Of course, he is a loyal Outpost advertiser, so you may think I am biased, and I am. But I'm also right.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Irrational warming

In my post below on Bill Cunningham's irrational arguments about global warming, a commenter responds, "Maybe he's been listening to all those liberals who claim that every example of an extreme weather event -- hurricanes, floods, drougts etc. -- are evidence of global warming, as though they never happened before before they came up with their theories."

This points to a different sort of rational error -- one that most scientists (if not all liberals) have been fairly scrupulous about avoiding, at least so far as I can tell. The deal is that some global warming scenarios forecast an increase in extreme weather events. The catch is that no one can say for sure what caused any one event.

Suppose, for example, that I have a .300 hitter in the middle of my lineup, and you have a .250 hitter. Over the course of a hundred trips to the plate, my hitter will get about five more hits than yours will. That's not a lot of hits, and nobody can tell which five hits they are going to be. They might be meaningless pop singles in the late innings of lopsided games, or they might be screaming liners with the score tied and the bases loaded.

But despite the fact that nobody can identify which hits make my hitter better than yours, everybody agrees that, other things being equal, or at least random, a lineup of .300 hitters will beat a lineup of .250 hitters every single season.

The global warming theory works the same way. We may never be able to blame any specific weather event on global warming, but that doesn't mean the threat isn't real. And if you don't buy that, then I have a .250 hitter I would like to trade you.

Tamale day

We acted out my favorite holiday tradition on Sunday: a long afternoon of preparing, building and steaming tamales for an evening meal that couldn't be beat. Tamales and Christmas just go together, not just because they are a welcome change of pace from the usual holiday fare but also because it helps to have a load of family around to assist in the labor-intensive parts of the operation.

We started by baking the pork with onion and bay leaves for 90 minutes or so the night before. Sunday afternoon, we browned the meat with flour and then simmered it with chili powder, cumin, oregano and broth for 40 minutes or so. Meanwhile, I mixed up the masa with oil, water, chili powder and salt, and we soaked the corn shucks in water to soften and clean them.

Tamale assembly is the sociable part of the ritual, a pleasant pastime of spreading masa on a shuck, ladling meat onto the masa and then rolling the whole mess into a cylinder, folding it over to keep it together. We sit around the table to do this, comparing notes on various assembly methods and rooting out the largest shucks. Then, 90 minutes of steaming while various side dishes are prepared - rice, beans, hurricane gravy. Finally, good ol' eating, accompanied by Bayern Doppelbock.

After taking on a full complement of tamales, my daughter and I dashed off to see "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." When we got back home, the house still smelled of cumin and onions. Mmmmm. So we polished off a couple of cold tamales before heading to bed.

That's my idea of a holiday.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Friday talk radio update

Dave Rye was at it again today, saying that liberals think they are smarter than everybody else. Funny thing was, I had just been thinking about how stupid conservatives are. Well, not conservatives in general, or conservatism as a political philosophy, but one particular conservative.

That person is Billy Cunningham, who has a nationally syndicated talk show on Sunday nights. Last weekend, he was using the cold spell as an argument that global warming is a hoax. With every call he took from around this great country, he was asking, So how's global warming in Wisconsin (or Tampa, or Chicago or Idaho). At one point, he said that the cold weather was the final refutation of the global warming theory.

Now, it doesn't matter what your position is on global warming; you have to know that this is utter nonsense. Global warming does not repeal weather. Even Billy Cunningham probably would agree that if we reached a point where we no longer had snow or freezing weather in North America, then it probably would be time to start worrying. In reality, of course, it would be far too late to start worrying.

Cunningham claims to have a law degree and to have been a successful businessman. Surely he must have enough brain cells to know that he was spouting bilge. If I were to call him next summer, when Montana is sweltering in the 90s, and tell him the heat proves that global warming is a problem, he would immediately shoot down that dumb argument. Yet he never once gave an indication that he was kidding or exaggerating about cold weather, and not one of his listeners called him on it.

So if this is what conservatives think, then they are indeed stupid. Which is close to the point that Susan Jacoby makes in The Age of American Unreason. I have a number of problems with the arguments she makes about fundamentalism and junk science, and may write something about all of that when I have finished the book.

But arguments such as the one Cunningham was making remind me of an argument I have had with myself. To me, for example, it seems obvious that when I am home alone, the telephone is far more likely to ring when I am in the bathroom than otherwise. I have piles of anecdotal evidence for this, and every instinct tells me it is true.

Yet there is a scientific skeptic within me who points out that I never notice when the phone doesn't ring but become irritated when it does, so my perceptions may be skewed. And that my theory fails to include a mechanism that might explain why my phone is more likely to ring when I am in the bathroom.

If I really want to establish that the phone is more likely to ring when I am in the bathroom, I should keep records of when I am in the bathroom and when the phone rings and see if there is any statistical correlation. And if I want to be sure, I should probably bring in an outside investigator with no interest in the outcome -- and perhaps not even any knowledge of the purpose of the study -- to do an independent investigation.

But you know what? I don't really want to know if it's true. I'm happy believing that it is true, and if that makes me a bit irrational, fine. I just have to remember to carry the phone along when I go to the bathroom.

And Billy Cunningham doesn't really want to know if global warming is true. He's happy with whatever evidence points his way and blithely dismisses evidence of any other kind.

The difference is that I know I am being irrational about a matter of no consequence. He is being irrational about a matter that could have extraordinarily grave consequences. So yes, I am smarter than that.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hung with new rope

With a short weekly calendar, an early deadline and a small news hole, I breezed through production day at the Outpost -- a mere 18 1/2 hours. And that included time to write a column on the demise of newspapers (it should be up on the web in a few hours).

And it just now occurred to me that I forgot to include my snapper ending on the column, so I will put it here:

To some extent, newspapers are killing themselves and don't even seem to know it. The new issue of American Journalism Review has an article about two married journalists with a combined 50 years of experience who were recently laid off by the Missoulian. Pamela J. Podger writes about she and her husband, John Cramer, were both laid off just nine months after moving to Missoula from the Roanoke Times.

"We've always been frugal -- we bought our little fixer-upper house on craigslist and are doing most of the work ourselves," she writes.

Craigslist is, of course, the wildly successful free online classified ad service that contributed to a 17 percent decline in classified ad revenues at Lee Enterprises during the quarter that ended June 29. And Lee Enterprises is, of course, the owner of the Missoulian.

UPDATE: Here's the link.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

New literary journal

Some local folks (or folks with local connections) have started a new online journal. I've added a link at right.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Lee in the dumps

Lee Enterprises may be headed for default.

Thursday talk radio update

Long, brutal day. Up by 5:30 a.m., home at 8:30 p.m. The snowy roads weren't so bad, except for the occasional slip, and even the 5 degree cold wasn't so bad, except for loading the early-morning papers. But the combination of it all -- the cold, the dark, the roads, the immensely crowded streets -- made for a tough, miserable day. I sometimes wonder if people would be more inclined to pick up The Outpost if they knew what we go through to get it out there for them. Perhaps not.

Even the radio guys seemed restrained by the weather. Hannity sort of perfunctorily beat up on Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers some more -- a habit he apparently is unable to shake. I flipped over to Limbaugh for a moment during a commercial break and he was arguing that bums should be unionized. This is the sort of material that gave Limbaugh his reputation for having a sense of humor. I could endure only a sentence of it.

Everybody else seemed fairly rational. In fact, three issues came up that I hadn’t thought much about before, and I sorted out my position on all three. It seemed like a vaguely productive way to spend a long, miserable day.

Issue one: Should Caroline Kennedy be appointed to the U.S. Senate?

Initial reaction: Who cares?

Conclusion: Nope. Her resume is too thin. She ought at least to win an election or two first.

Issue two: Should Rick Warren be allowed to give the invocation at Obama’s inauguration?

Initial reaction: Who cares? It’s just a prayer.

Conclusion: Could be another shrewd move on Obama’s part. I think he knows that history is on his side on the gay marriage issue. In 30 or 40 years, my guess is that people will look back on this dispute the same way we look back now on the dispute over interracial marriage: Some people still don’t like it, but it’s really not the government’s business.

The left may be annoyed, but where else is it going to go? Meanwhile, Obama is looking at Warren’s positions on poverty and social justice and thinking, I can work with this guy. Pretty much, I suspect, the way he looked at Jeremiah Wright.

Issue three: A guy named his kid “Adolph Hitler” and tried to have that inscribed on the kid’s birthday cake. Shoprite refused; Wal-Mart said OK. Who was right?

Initial reaction: Who cares? Shoprite is under no obligation to sell cakes it doesn’t want to sell. And the right to give your kid a screwy name doesn’t put the buyer in a protected class, the way he would be if, for instance, Shoprite wouldn’t sell him a cake because he was black or because he was celebrating a Jewish holiday. And Wal-Mart is just trying to make a buck, which is what Wal-Mart’s DNA tells it to do.

Conclusion: The one person in this whole mess who we all agree did nothing wrong is the kid. And he has a dismal life before him. Not only does he have a terrible name, but his parents are apparently loons. And his sister, whose name is Aryan Nation, probably won’t be much help. He will have a lot of tough years ahead of him, and now Shoprite is refusing to decorate his birthday cake because it doesn’t like his name. How cruel is that?

The host – a fill-in for O’Reilly – defended Shoprite, saying that it didn’t want to “mainstream” the father’s behavior. I’m not even sure what that means. The implication appears to be that, unless cake decorators in retail outlets around the nation take a stand, parents everywhere will rush to name their kids after great villains in history. I’ve got news for you, pal: Any parent who names his kid after Hitler has problems a whole lot bigger than finding a cake decorator.

One side note: Apparently the father has in the past tried to get swastikas placed on a cake, and Shoprite refused that, too. Too bad, in a way. The swastika is an ancient and appealing symbol that deserves a far better fate than to be an instant reminder of the Third Reich. When we were kids, our most lurid World War II drawings were mostly an excuse to draw lots of swastikas, not because we were Nazi sympathizers but because we just thought swastikas looked cool, as have many people in many cultures over many generations.

I’m sure the swastika will never be rehabilitated in my lifetime, and probably not in my grandkids’, but it is nice to imagine that memories of Hitler will someday fade so far into the past that the swastika makes a comeback. Just not at some kid’s expense.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tuesday talk radio update

I swear, I just heard Dave Rye say, "Liberals are more moral than the rest of us, at least in their own minds." Liberals also think they are smarter than conservatives, he went on.

Do liberals actually think that? I thought one of the tenets of liberalism was that people have considerable freedom to set their own moral codes. Pretty hard to believe that and at the same time believe that whatever moral code one person chooses is all that much better than anyone else's.

If what Dave says is typical of how conservatives think, then I guess I would concede that he's right about his second point.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Torture and optimism

Many on the web have noted the remarkable contrast between the attention paid to the Illinois governor's legal problems and the Senate committee report implicating top Bush administration officials in war crimes. The first is almost comically inept; the second is profoundly disturbing. Guess which one makes the news?

So when Cal Thomas worries about American loss of optimism, I have two reactions:

1. I'm not so sure that optimism has waned, at least not in Montana. For now, at least, it seems to me that worry about the plunging economy is almost entirely offset by relief over declining gasoline prices. That won't last, probably, but I have noticed much despair yet, have you?

2. To the extent that Americans are becoming less optimistic, Bush's dismal record on torture may be at least in part to blame. Not that people are going around in sackcloth and ashes over it, but down inside we know that we did something terribly, terribly wrong. If it leads to our comeuppance in the world, we will, regrettably, have earned it.

Higher education

Remember back in November when, after a trying and lengthy campaign, you voted for Errol Galt of Martinsdale, Thelma Baker of Missoula, and John Brenden of Scobey? Slip your mind? Those are Montana's delegates to the Electoral College. They are meeting today in Helena, casting their ballots for John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Book issue

If you haven't been over to look at the Outpost's Christmas book issue, then get to it.

Thursday talk radio update

Glenn Beck went on again about the Fairness Doctrine for longer than I could stand, but at least he did add something unusual to the argument: a scintilla of evidence.

It wasn't entirely clear from Beck's account whether the mayor of Toledo actually wanted the Fairness Doctrine restored -- what he said on radio was that he wanted Congress to look at the "fairness principle" -- but the newspaper account seems pretty clear. So there is at least one high-ranking official in a mid-sized American city who thinks the Fairness Doctrine is a good idea. As Toledo goes, so goes the nation.

If you haven't been keeping up with comments to my last post on this topic, you should scroll down a bit and take a look. Mark Tokarski, in particular, has some thoughtful things to say.

I have to admit that, given right-wing radio hosts' relentlessly wrong approach to just about everything in recent years, their shrill opposition to the Fairness Doctrine is beginning to make me think that maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea. One particular annoyance is the repeated insistence by Beck, Hannity, etc., that restoring the Fairness Doctrine would silence my voice.

How's that? I have absolutely no voice in right-wing radio. Limbaugh openly acknowledges that the calls he takes are specifically designed to reinforce his points. Beck is too clownish to handle a serious call. Savage is insane. Hannity will take calls from people who hold opposing views, but he repeatedly cuts them off, mocks them and distorts their arguments. The only power I have over any of those shows is to simply not listen to them in hopes that sagging ratings will drive them away. I don't think that's exactly what the founding fathers had in mind.

I still think that restoring any sort of Fairness Doctrine with strict equal-time provisions would be a bad idea. But I don't see what's wrong with being able to go to the FCC at license renewal time and arguing that KBLG and KBUL, by flooding the airwaves with conservative talk with virtually no alternative voices, aren't serving the public interest. And that Billings would be better served if the FCC would award those licenses instead to, for example, me.

Meth on ice

Do those scary Montana Meth Project ads really work? Maybe not.

UPDATE: OK, so I'm behind the curve again. Intelligent Discontent already has several posts on this topic.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The spam of the day ...

... starts this way: "I am Ming Yang,i have an obscured busines suggestion for you."

Thursday talk radio update

Hannity kept reminding me that jobs are created by private enterprise and all government does is get in the way. Government is the problem, not the solution, he was saying.

No doubt that is why Somalia, with practically no government at all, is thriving.

Reviving the Fairness Doctrine

Alleged liberal efforts to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine continue to get play on talk radio. The Media Research Center has launched a campaign against it, and now George Will, of all people, weighs in.

All very interesting stuff, except for the fact that no serious effort to revive the doctrine appears to exist. Even the Media Research Center's case that liberals are out to revive the doctrine appears awfully weak. Note that the most compelling piece of evidence (the lede paragraph) turns out in the end to be totally erroneous. The rest of the argument draws on quotes that are old, ambiguous (Schumer is simply being factually accurate when he says that some of the same people who oppose government involvement in political speech want the government to limit other types of speech), or come from people who aren't exactly cutting-edge political figures.

It's easy to dismiss this stuff from right-wing radio, which was soundly repudiated at every turn by voters and hopes to at least gain a win in a battle against no detectable opponent. But Will usually comes from the sensible side. Does he know of a push to reinstate the doctrine that isn't obvious anywhere else? And if so, why didn't he use a paragraph or two of his column to tell us what that evidence is?

UPDATE: For the short version of this discussion, go here.

Monday, December 01, 2008

A test of principles

In response to my distaste for early-morning Black Friday shopping, a commenter asks whether I would turn down on principle an ad from a retailer proclaiming an early-morning sale. The major chain retailers who specialize in such sales rarely advertise with local independents like us, but if they did, my answer would be, "Of course we'll take the ad." Just because I'm trying to talk the world into being a certain way doesn't mean I want to stop other people from trying to talk the world into being some other way. And they are welcome to pay me to get their message out.

A sterner test of principles came just last week. As reported here earlier, Town Pump has contracted with Lee Enterprises to control distribution of free publications in its stores. That contract, which went into effect today, is too rich for our blood, so you will no longer find the Outpost in any Town Pump locations.

As noted in the earlier post, Town Pump's decision does not mean that it won't continue to try to get free publicity from The Outpost for its various events. Just last week, in the very first issue that didn't go to Town Pump stores, we had a news release from the company about its charitable efforts.

Nice deal for the Town Pump people. We donate free space in the newspaper so they can tout their own generosity, then they expect us to pay them to distribute that free publicity in their stores. When I first heard that Town Pump had cut a deal with Lee, I thought, I will have to think long and hard before I ever run another free news release for Town Pump.

And I did think long and hard. But I ran it, even though the Town Pump customers it would most likely influence won't see it, at least not at the Town Pump. If any principle underlies this outfit, it's that advertising considerations don't influence news considerations. For the editor in me, that's an easy call. But the publisher in me raised holy hell.

Still, the editor did the right thing. So turn the temperature in Hell down a degree for me, will you?