Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Late Local Edition

The local newspaper is dying in America, and with it, the local news, informing people of what's going on with local government, crime, and business.

Five minutes late, Darrell Todd Maurina sweeps into a meeting room and plugs in his laptop computer. He places a Wi-Fi hotspot on the table and turns on a digital recorder. The earplug in his left ear is attached to a police scanner in his pants pocket.

He wears a tie; Maurina insists upon professionalism.

He is the press — in its entirety.

Maurina, who posts his work to Facebook, is the only person who has come to the Pulaski County courthouse to tell residents what their commissioners are up to, the only one who will report on their deliberations — specifically, their discussions about how to satisfy the Federal Emergency Management Agency so it will pay to repair a road inundated during a 2013 flood.

Last September, Waynesville became a statistic. With the shutdown of its newspaper, the Daily Guide, this town of 5,200 people in central Missouri’s Ozark hills joined more than 1,400 other cities and towns across the U.S. to lose a newspaper over the past 15 years, according to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by the University of North Carolina.

Blame revenue siphoned by online competition, cost-cutting ownership, a death spiral in quality, sheer disinterest among readers or reasons peculiar to given locales for that development. While national outlets worry about a president who calls the press an enemy of the people, many Americans no longer have someone watching the city council for them, chronicling the soccer exploits of their children or reporting on the kindly neighbor who died of cancer.

Local journalism is dying in plain sight

In another ten years, I figure there won't be a local newspaper for any American city of fewer than 100,000 people.  If you're close enough to a larger city, you might get a few blurbs daily about the suburb you're in, but nobody will be covering the place unless the Mayor drives a tank through city hall or something.

But increasingly, Americans don't care.  Most of us can't even name the Mayor of where we live, and just vote for them because they've been in office for a couple decades. And the city council or county commission?  Forget it.

Who's going to keep your local politicians in line and accountable?

The Drums Of War, Con't

Now that former Reagan/Bush-era war criminal Elliott Abrams has settled into his role as Trump's special envoy to Venezuela, the march towards US military action in Caracas can begin in earnest.  For now, the talk is of economic sanctions and negotiated solutions, which won't last too much longer. 

There are no signs that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is open to negotiations to end the political impasse with opposition leader Juan Guaido, Washington’s envoy for Venezuela said.

Elliott Abrams, who served in the administrations of both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, said any negotiated solution would need to be reached among Venezuelans, and that the United States could help by lifting or easing U.S. sanctions and travel restrictions once Maduro agreed to go.

Abrams, however, played down any possibility that the Venezuelan president was ready to talk about his exit. “From everything we have seen, Maduro’s tactic is to stay put,” Abrams said in an interview on Friday.

Some 56 countries have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s interim head of state, but Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China as well as control of state institutions including the military.

Abrams has met with Russian representatives to the United States about Moscow’s support for Maduro. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier this month, after a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that Moscow was ready to take part in bilateral talks on Venezuela.

“The Russians are not happy with Maduro for all the obvious reasons,” Abrams said. “In a couple of conversations I have been told they have given advice to Maduro and he doesn’t take it.”

“They continue to support him and there is no indication that I have seen that they are telling him it’s time to bring this to an end,” he said, adding: “There could come a point where the Russians reach a conclusion that the regime is really unsalvageable.”

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The reality is that Maduro owes the Russians more than $17 billion and they want that money back, or they will leave him to the tender graces of their pet American thug.  The wild card here is the Chinese however.  They are backing Maduro for now, for their own reasons...but mostly they invested in Venezuelan oil under Chavez and want their payoff too.

Even as Venezuela’s political crisis entered its latest stage last month, a combination of calculations continued to drive China’s reluctance to join calls for political change — or even to openly acknowledge that the China-Venezuela relationship is in troubled waters. China’s official response to U.S. and other international recognition of Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader has emphasized China’s long-standing noninterference foreign policy principle.

And it’s likely that China continues to hope its financial and diplomatic support for Venezuela ultimately will pave the way for future oil-based trade and investment opportunities. By sitting on the fence as the United States and Russia trade barbs over the future of Venezuela’s political leadership, China may be hoping that its efforts to appear a pragmatic partner to Caracas will pay off with greater future access to Venezuela’s oil reserves. For China to portray its long financial and political support for Chávez and Maduro as purely practical rather than also ideological will probably be easier said than done in a country as polarized as Venezuela.

Should Beijing's pragmatism mean that Maduro needs to be out of the picture, I'm betting China will look the other way too, especially if it means the US does all the heavy lifting to put Guaido in place.

Meanwhile the NY Times finally noticed that the Trump regime's claim that Maduro forces burned a humanitarian aid convoy was complete bullshit.

The narrative seemed to fit Venezuela’s authoritarian rule: Security forces, on the order of President Nicolás Maduro, had torched a convoy of humanitarian aid as millions in his country were suffering from illness and hunger.

Vice President Mike Pence wrote that “the tyrant in Caracas danced”as his henchmen “burned food & medicine.” The State Department released a video saying Mr. Maduro had ordered the trucks burned. And Venezuela’s opposition held up the images of the burning aid, reproduced on dozens of news sites and television screens throughout Latin America, as evidence of Mr. Maduro’s cruelty.

But there is a problem: The opposition itself, not Mr. Maduro’s men, appears to have set the cargo alight accidentally.

Unpublished footage obtained by The New York Times and previously released tapes — including footage released by the Colombian government, which has blamed Mr. Maduro for the fire — allowed for a reconstruction of the incident. It suggests that a Molotov cocktail thrown by an antigovernment protester was the most likely trigger for the blaze

At one point, a homemade bomb made from a bottle is hurled toward the police, who were blocking a bridge connecting Colombia and Venezuela to prevent the aid trucks from getting through.

But the rag used to light the Molotov cocktail separates from the bottle, flying toward the aid truck instead.

Half a minute later, that truck is in flames.

The same protester can be seen 20 minutes earlier, in a different video, hitting another truck with a Molotov cocktail, without setting it on fire.

Ask yourselves why the Trump regime wants regime change in Caracas so badly, and why they are trying to do everything in their power to have a ready-made excuse to send in US troops to do it.

Sunday Long Read: Crimes Of Taste

While you're recovering today from Daylight Savings Time, our Sunday Long Read this week from food critic John Birdsall will help you deal with your favorite guilty comfort food pleasure, the one that nobody else would touch with a ten foot pole.  Turns out it's okay, and that America has a real problem with "taste shaming" because hey, foodies are class snobs and a lot of us grew up eating porkchops and applesauce because it was what we could afford.

It’s Tuesday, loyalty card double-stamp night at my neighborhood sushi place in Oakland. It’s the kind of spot where the sweaty owner in a headband and his kid assistant slur “irasshaimase!”—welcome!—in tandem when you push open the chime-tinkling door, no matter how harried they look. It’s a place that gives customers what they want: inside-out dragon rolls, seven-dollar glasses of Chardonnay poured nearly to the rim, the NBA on a TV cantilevered high in the corner, and pale, shaggy-battered shrimp tempura as meaty as a kitten’s flexed hind legs.

At the next table, beneath a Mondrian wall grid of squares and rectangles filled with primary colors (cool in the ’90s, washed out now), two women are most of the way through a dinner that has sprawled across several plates. One is talking about her daughter’s skeevy boyfriend. She clutches her phone, which is scrolled to an Instagram pic that busts him with another woman, I guess, and turns it to show her companion, who makes an O-mouth gesture of shock.

Her friend has the last piece of salmon nigiri clenched between slivery, pale wood chopsticks and is dangling it above a sauce dish, which, though shallow, shows a hefty volume of soy sauce cloudy with wasabi. I watch as the friend, focused on dispensing sympathetic outrage, lowers the rice end of her nigiri into the slurry, swabs the dish with it, rotates her wrist so the salmon tile faces down (its free ends, the parts ungripped by chopsticks, flop lazily sauceward), and gives it even more swipes through the soy mixture. The thing she raises to her mouth appears soaked, like a shore bird after an oil spill. She chews and goes right on talking, looking unaware that she has just done something heinous, violating the integrity of a small, rectangular piece of orange-pink flesh striped with dental-tape strands of connective tissue. The former food critic in me winces. This is a crime against taste.

Crimes against taste aren’t prosecutable, of course, but they are clear offenses. By drowning a nice, fresh hunk of raw salmon in soy-wasabi slurry, my table neighbor was guilty of a kind of murder. She’d killed whatever subtlety was in that fish (the faint tang of raw flesh and the mineral richness of fat). Did she even know what she obliterated in that toxic wash of salt and heat? (And for sure, in a modest sushi place like this, there wasn’t a speck of wasabi rhizome in her pea-green paste—only tinted mustard-seed powder. It’s cheaper than real wasabi, hotter, and, for the thing being dipped, an even deadlier poison for ruining flavor.)

But who can say what’s “better”? Do crimes against food need to be policed? Who plays cop? And should anyone, even a professional restaurant critic, dictate the terms of another’s pleasure? Yelp and Instagram have remade food into a realm of boundless relativism, where extracting a thread of universal, objective truth about what’s delicious and what’s gross can be as hard as piercing an algorithm’s code—unless “universal” and “objective” are themselves the problem.

Some days my Instagram serves up a scroll of atrocities: cake-topped #freakshakes, Bloody Marys bristling with bacon swizzles and sliders on skewers, Luther Burgers with glazed doughnuts stunting for the bun, brownie-batter “hummus,” glitter-scurfed pink-and-blue unicorn Frappuccinos, and activated charcoal soft-serve so black and glossy it resembles roof-patch polymer. Social media is a major enabler of crimes against taste (their visual representations anyway; see the new popularity of “dark cuisine,” or hei an liao li—fantastical, thrillingly transgressive dishes trending on Chinese social media), but it is, after all, only food porn.

Let’s pause to consider the definition of “crime,” or at least to say what it is not. There are plenty of dishes that appear brutal, bizarre, or disgusting through the lens of culture. My introduction to Filipino food was the murky bowl of dinuguan (a stew of mixed pork innards in a sauce of vinegar and blood) my future mother-in-law served me for breakfast one morning nearly 30 years ago. As I slurped politely, I gazed longingly at the box of Cheerios on top of the fridge. If I’d stopped there, rejected a cuisine I didn’t understand and that seemed intent on assault (especially so early in the morning), my brush with the food of the Philippines might have gone down in dinner-party stories as a tale of staring down evil in a bowl and living to talk about it, or at least of shuddering in the face of grossness. Thanks to love for my husband-to-be, I suppose, I persisted. I came to see beauty in a bowl of blood and offal stew—the way a handful of economical cuts from a butcher’s market stall can transcend utility, honor an animal gone to slaughter by elevating its twistiest parts, and express an immigrant’s longing for a place on the other side of the world. A dish that looks, smells, and tastes like a crime can merely be misunderstood, evidence of an accusing prosecutor’s failure at grasping meaning or context.

There's no accounting for taste, which is why I always chuckle at people who say ketchup should be reserved solely for kids who haven't reached driving age yet, or that grits are trash food for trash people.

What did food ever do to you that made you hate other people eating it?
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