Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Well, it happened again. I fell in love. It only took 5 minutes. I'm now head over heels.
Unfortunately, it's a book.

I was hacking away deep in the jungle that is yet another novel when I picked up my new obsession. After a few pages I immediately abandoned my failed expedition through the lands of fiction - Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential had me. I bought it a while ago and I did try to read it once but I started in middle (nasty habit) and quickly lost interest when I started another book before fully committing myself to it (nastier habit, which I just perpetuated). Now, I read it whenever I can; on the commute, on the way to a friend's house, at lunch, late at night when I should be sleeping. The other day I made the mistake of placing the book on my desk at work. It was torture; the temptation too great - I really wanted to read it. The book beckoned...
"Not now, they'll see us!" I thought. I had to put in a drawer.
Or what about when I brought it out to a pub on Friday night? I could squeeze in at least 15 minutes of reading time on the subway before I reached my destination, I figured. I had to stash it in a friend's purse when I got there and explain why I brought a book out with me on a Friday night.

I know, I know... "A book by and about a cook? That sounds sleep inducing." But you're wrong. It's actually one of the wildest and most entertaining books I've ever had the privilege to read.
Don't believe me? Here's an excerpt (from a chapter describing the first time Bourdain and his friends get to run a New York kitchen):
We were high all the time, sneaking off to the walk-in at every opportunity to 'conceptualize'. Hardly a decision was made without drugs. Pot, quaaludes, cocaine, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms soaked in honey and used to sweeten tea, Seconal, Tuinal, speed, codeine and, increasingly, heroin, which we'd send a Spanish-speaking busboy over to Alphabet City to get. We worked long hours and took considerable pride in our efforts - the drugs, we thought, having little effect on the end-product. That was what the whole life we were in was about, we believed: to work through the drugs, the fatigue, the lack of sleep, the pain, to show no visible effects. We might be tripping out on blotter acid, sleepless for three days and halfway through a bottle of Stoli, but we were professionals, goddammit!
See, not exactly the Julia Child biography (but it does have good recipe ideas inside).

There are plenty of reviews of Kitchen Confidential available online, so I won't delve into the details; this is more of a personal slant. Suffice to say boy falls in love with food, boy gets kitchen job, boy drops out of college and goes to chef school, boy moves to New York, works in a collection of restaurants of varying quality (most go bankrupt), boy becomes drug addict, gets clean, redeems himself with chef job at Les Halles.
Also, there's a chapter about dick jokes and a couple more about his right hand men in the kitchen (men so badly behaved it's a miracle they are not in jail or dead). Some of events and people that populate the book are so outlandish that it's difficult not to think that the author went James Frey on us; embellishing for our entertainment.

I found the cook as rock star and the kitchen as insane asylum to be irresistible lures. It helps too, that Bourdain is a francophile with an appreciation for bandes-dessinés. Reading the book, for me, is like hanging out with a kindred spirit. Anyone who refers to vegans as a "Hezbollah-like splinter faction" of vegetarians is clearly my kind of guy.

And like Bourdain, I've always been fascinated by cooking from an early age. Lebanese food was my first love; those childhood Sunday afternoon lunches at my grandmother's were the highlight of my week. I can still taste those dishes; warak einab (stuffed grape leaves), coossa ma dibis remayhn (meat stuffed zucchini with pomegranate syrup), shish-barak (meat wrapped in dough and cooked in yogurt). Crowding around that dining room table with my extended family on Sundays was my atheist church.
Some of my best food experiences also happened in Lebanon even after I started living in Canada. That calf's brain, warm and spread on bread with sliver of garlic. Or the first time I had cracked open a fresh sea urchin and scooped up the succulent, salty, bright orange roe. All the food too weird or too dangerous to be served in Canada is one the things I look forward to when I get off the plane in Beirut.

The cooking, while interesting, was not what I enjoyed the most. It was the Bourdain's descriptions of another favorite hobby of mine that really kept me turning the pages: general debauchery. As I get older my nocturnal activities have grown more tame and the majority of the miscreants have been culled from my stable of friends. Things are slowing down; like an aging power-pitcher, I'm losing my fastball (but don't be fooled, like Schilling I can still get the outs). That's why I had so much fun to living vicariously through the documented misdeeds of others in Kitchen Confidential, however unbelievable. Which leads to the coincidence that occurred on Friday night and why I now believe all the tall tales Bourdain recounts in the book.

Friday night, post-pub, after retrieving my book from it's purse prison:

I was on the subway, riding home, when I overheard a girl engaged in an animated discussion with two Japanese proto-punks and I, in my infinite wisdom, chimed in. Thirty seconds later I was getting off the subway at a station that wasn't mine and following three people I didn't know to God knows where. The trio turned out to be cooks at Flow, and I, surprised by the apparent serendipity of the moment and spurred on by Kitchen Confidential, was tagging along on whatever late night unwinding these kitchen workers had planned. I soon found myself in a stranger's dark and smoky living room, swallowed up in a mushy futon, drinking pilfered eau de vie, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and listening to several lengthy treatises delivered by people of questionable sanity. The finer points of pharmaceutical drug abuse, why shoplifting isn't stealing is you really need it, how dumpster diving (aka freeganism) is great way to procure fresh produce, how much GHB it takes to reander someone unconscious - the topics discussed and behavior described varied between the odd, the worrying and the outright criminal. Later I, unwisely, tried to read a passage of the book to one cook (maybe she'd find it/me funny?) but she quickly cut me off - "The only thing I read is the funnies." (I'm going to assume she skips over Doonesbury ... and who under 60 still calls comics funnies?). She then went ahead to display ADHD behavior straight out of a textbook. And as she told endless stories with no point or conclusion, switching topics without warning and at full speed, I realized Bourdain wasn't embellishing - these people are nuts. When he calls his line cooks "a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths" he is not exaggerating.

The next night I went to a concert. After the show we ended up at a boisterous after-party in a 2 story studio on Queen west (see, like Schilling, I'm still effective). The party was populated by Latin Americans, mostly from Columbia and Argentina, the music was a disjointed mix of house and cumbia and the drinks ($5 a pop) were strong enough to strip paint. The party was fun but the atmosphere was vaguely threatening (as it usually is when people start arguing loudly in a language you barely understand), most the people there were high on more than one drug, and I almost got myself into trouble when I conversed with the wrong girl (her boyfriend was, to put it charitably, unimpressed). That being said, it was still more normal than hanging with those three cooks. Even though we were just sitting around, those three line cooks had more intrinsic menace than a whole room of drunk, posturing Latin men.

And since this entry seems to have no rhyme or reason... two simple recipes everyone should have in their repertoire and that are usually made incorrectly:

Bolognese sauce (a modified version of Mario Battali's):
Handful chopped pancetta.
Some hot pepper flakes.
A big onion, chopped.
Same volume as chopped onion of chopped carrots and chopped celery.
Few cloves of garlic.
1/2 pound of ground beef (medium)
1/2 pound of ground pork
1 cup of white wine
1 cup of milk (full fat)
2 - 3 cups of chicken broth (make it yourself if you can, it makes a big difference)
2 Tablespoons of tomato paste or preferably some Pomi (boxed pureed tomatoes)
2 bay leaves
Lots of thyme (fresh is better)
Olive oil

Fry pancetta and flakes with oil, add carrots, celery, onions and garlic. Fry until softened (don;t brown them). Add meat. When meat is cooked add wine. When dry add milk. When dry again, add stock, tomato paste and bay leaves. Simmer for at least 1 hour, preferably 2. When done, finish with fresh thyme and olive oil.

4 large tomatoes, stemmed and seeded.
two handfuls of white bread (crusts cut off)
Garlic (2 to 5 cloves, depends how much you like garlic)
Handful of parsley
1 shot glass sherry wine vinegar (can use other types, but balsamic should be a last resort)
1 normal cucumber or half an English one, peeled
1 red pepper (seeded, skin it if you want, but it's a pain in the ass)
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 cup olive oil
A good blender

Soak the bread in water for a couple of minutes, squeeze out the water. Blend everything (pulse the bread a little first) except the olive oil until smooth. Slowly pour in the olive oil as the blender is mixing (your goal is to emulsify the oil). The soup should be a peach colour when you're done. Serve alone or with croûtons, chopped boiled egg, chopped cucumbers, etc.

The colour you're after is on the left.
If you've ever seen gazpacho that wasn't that colour, it wasn't gazpacho.

And a quit tidbit about learning to cook.
Learning that creating good food was not magic and that I, even I, could do it was has been and till one of my great joys. All it took was many idle hours, no one to cook for me, copious amounts of green, and the Food Network. I never actually cooked anything that I saw, but watching some smooth-talking, bloated, self-satisfied publicity hound whip up a meal in 22 minutes coupled with the munchies provided me with enough motivation to walk into the kitchen and try to make something. Since then I've become a quite competent cook; definitely still an amateur, not close to the speed or precision of needed in a professional kitchen, but confident enough to feed family and friends well without too much stress.
It wasn't easy though. Along the road to competency, there were many hapless attempts and failed experiments due to inexperience and over-reaching. Other frustrations were brought on when an urge for adventure out-grew my tolerance for manual labor.
I still vividly remember an ill advised calamari fry with my roommate (another food lover) that ended well past midnight. We spent hours cleaning, washing, cutting, breading and then frying a box of squid the size of a small desktop commuter. Not exactly a clean job; I ended up covered in squid guts and hot oil. We then stayed up late drinking beer and eating so much squid that I though tentacles would sprout out of my urethra.
Or last fall, I committed myself to feeding 8 people with fresh, hand-made ravioli. If I had any idea how long it takes to make and roll out (by hand, with a rolling pin) enough dough for 100 ravioli, I would never have tendered the invitation. After that experience, whenever I see old Italian widows wandering through my neighborhood, with their black clothes, golden crucifixes and unsteady gaits, I'm tempted to kiss the rings of these high priestesses of pasta.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Banana-less Republic

Lebanon is living a deranged version of Groundhog Day as two rival political groups fight for control of the presidency. Meetings are held, gabbers gab, and everyday the headlines are the same. What no one notices is that while the two groups fight to get their man in the lead role in the play, the producer is running out of money, the theater is on fire and no tickets have been sold. That's why I hate writing about the place now. It's just too depressing.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

When I last lived in Lebanon, my aunt and I would meet once or twice a week or so and go down to the Corniche for a walk along the seaside, a berd'aan (orange juice) and the occasional pistachio ice cream.
She has a doctorate in Middle East history and knows Lebanon intimately (she's lived there from birth and never left during the war).
Our conversations were often political, and when they were no country's politics were more discussed than Lebanon's. As two (we think) reasonable people we were often bewildered by what passed as acceptable behavior from our politicians.
A line that that I often repeated was that "Lebanon is like a banana republic without any bananas." I always drew a laugh, but it's a lot less funny right now.

It's a country with a population of medium sized metropolis and with an area akin to some American and Canadian national parks. Running the place is not exactly the most difficult logistical challenge governance has to offer. That being said Lebanon teeters on the edge of self-annihilation.

Lebanese national debt tops 50 billion dollars. I'm going to write that in full, along with population and GDP, so you get the full picture (the zeroes bring to life).
50,000,000,000 $
4 ,000,000
That means that each man, woman and child owes approximately 12,500$ but makes less than half of that year. That's not even the worst part. The worst part is that most of that debt is owed in at interest rates in the neighborhood of 20% and in American dollars. And, just as a topper, the government is still running annual deficits in the billions of dollars. So, the debt will continue to grow, and become more and more difficult to service every fiscal year. No country on Earth faces such a macroeconomic problem. Without foreign assistance Lebanon would already be in default.

But wait... there's more. The country's infrastructure is crumbling. Population density is almost 350 per square km (putting Lebanon in the top twenty densest nations) but much of the infrastructure was built before the civil war and is simply not equipped to deal with the extra input. Sewage is dumped out of an overloaded system directly into the sea. The electricity grid, powered by some of the most economically inefficient generating systems in the world, lurches along, Frankenstein-like, somehow still delivering electricity - but for how long? Garbage is brunt as there is no room for it. Tap water isn't potable. One third of the population lives below the poverty line. And those are just some of the problems... education and health haven't even been mentioned.

How is it possible that after 60 years of independence we have still not figured out how to rule ourselves semi-competently? China and India have populations made up of a variety of ethnic groups and surpass 1 billion and manage to self-govern. Vietnam's population is 87 million, has survived a devastating civil war and now boasts a surging economy. Meanwhile tiny Lebanon cannot even organize itself in a rudimentary manner.

Honestly, I'm tired of it. Lebanon is a basket case. It's a prize barely worth fighting for, yet our politicians fight over it like mangy dogs struggling over a carcass. I'd like to call such behavior irresponsible but I don't think the word fully encompasses the moral depravity of their actions. The real danger in Lebanon is not falling into one sphere of influence or another but that the country will collapse into an unlivable giant ghetto.

We don't need resistance or pride or freedom. At the end of the day all three and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee. What Lebanon needs is a modicum of competency and sanity. It's not our place to be the flag bearer for Islam or liberal democracy. We are a tiny country with gigantic problems. Let's try and solve those first. They'll be plenty of time for fighting and foreign affairs later. Use all the clichés you want - now or never, the last chance, crunch time, etc - if we don't get our act together soon, the whole edifice of state will come crashing down on our heads and we won't be able to dig ourselves out.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Frontline Rules

Frontline, to me, has gone beyond being a great show, it's become an institution. When I hear those first few bars with their string and the brass staccati, I get goosebumps. It's the only show that I'm currently watching by myself (I watch a couple of other shows but those are with friends and more of a social event).

On the Frontline website you can watch new programs as soon as they come out as well as 61 archived episodes.

There are two episodes that demand to be watched:

Tank Man: The story of Tiananmen Square and its role in shaping the economic reform of China

I was still a child when the protest were staged and then crushed, but the memory has stuck with me and led to intense curiosity about that time in 1989. I still remember the day when I first watched this online. I was absolutely hypnotized. The events surrounding Tiananmen Square are crammed with such extremes of human behavior, it's dizzying. I have never been more proud of humanity than when I saw Chinese protesters confront the the fisrt divisions of the Chinese army not with guns, or Molotov cocktail or even anger but with reason and compassion. They turned back armed men sent their to kill them, if necessary, with nothing but their minds and hearts.
I have never been more ashamed of humanity, though, than when another division of troops, more hard-line this time, came a few days later and shot and killed people whose only crime was asking for the rights of free speech and assembly. A section where unarmed protesters were shot at but refused to retreat, resulting in volley after volley of gunfire forced me to pause the show, sit in the dark, and regroup before I could continue.
The last third of the documentary, dealing with the economic liberalization of China, while lacking in drama, is still equally compelling.

If you want to know what's happening in Burma right now, watch this episode... I imagine it the Burmese military is not behaving much differently than their Chinese counterparts.

The Persuaders: exploring the cultures of marketing and advertising in America

Not quite as weighty but still fascinating. It's worth watching just observe to Clotaire Rapaille in action. A French psychiatrist who lives in the a Versailles-like mansion located in American suburbia, he is what would happen if Dr. Strangelove climbed out of his wheelchair and walked into the boardrooms of Madison avenue.

There's also the hilariously absurd story of Song, an airline with an advertising campaign so clever that consumers could not figure out what it was Song did or sold.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Flower Lamps, Turtle-Necked Dancers and the Awkward Segue Game

Thursday night was art night. I had two invitations from two different friends to two different art exhibitions.
The first I attended was a traditional gallery showing where friend A (a Dutch, mutton-chopped, beret wearing Luddite - and yes, he is as eccentric as he sounds) was exhibiting some lamps he made (pictured on the left at another gallery).

I like his lamps; bright metallic and glass flowers growing out of junk computers and other assorted electronics. Most of the other work on display were classical still life paintings (look, a pomegranate!). One painting could only be described as a close-up of a gaping, swollen anus.

After that, I jumped on the subway, rode it across town to the Tranzac for Sensory Lab for (according to the poster) a night of art, dance and music where friend B (tech-savvy PhotoShop master, illustrator, film editor and Ottawa transplant) was the film curator and print designer. He showed me how he made the poster. I'm not a good enough writer to describe the technical aspects of its design interestingly but rest assured, it's awesome.

The event featured short films, dance, musical acts and some other more nebulous artistic endeavors (I'll save you trouble vicariously living through those by omitting them).

Interpretative dance... I've tried and I don't get it. The only way I can sit through it quietly is to let my mind wander or to view it from a completely anthropological perspective, and therefore reduce the participants to analogs for chimps at a zoo ("I wonder what that one's doing? Oh... he's picking lice off this thigh."). All the reaching, head in the hands and running circles is to me, a little ridiculous. Yearning, an emotion rooted in stillness and introspection, is very difficult to get across through motion. I'm sure there's something I'm missing but for me the whole art form doesn't compute. Whatever, personal opinion. (This is more my style - no yearning here. I wonder if any other possible pandemics have dances named after them?)

The best musical act featured at Sensory Lab was Chinawoman, a local female singer/songwriter with an unfathomably deep voice.
Her live performance isn't nearly as dour as her recorded work (which makes Cat Power sound like the Venga Boys). Live, there were even a few stretches that were (dare I say it?) fun and light-hearted. In sum, an enjoyable set. The musical highlight was an upbeat Russian folk song she played as a finale. The crowd approved, clapping to beat... I was tempted to order cold vodka shots for our group to complete the experience but the the song ended before I could follow through on that ill-fated idea.

Another moment stood out too, but for entirely different reasons. After her song "Party Girl," a quirky song performed with a smirk and a hint of playfulness (and with lyrics that repeat the words Party Girl about 60 times throughout) she addressed the audience and deadpanned:
"That last song was called 'Party Girl.' (pause) And now for my next song 'I Kiss the Hand of my Destroyer.'"
This immediately led to our table breaking the record for most knowing glances in a two-minute span while she earnestly belted out a ditty that, I can only imagine, was inspired by some awful event that involved an-ex boyfriend and was quickly followed by a deep depression. We are still not sure whether Chinawoman meant the segue to be as funny as it was but we were in no doubt that is was indeed hilarious, intentional or not.

Any way, the next day, the "Awkward Segue" game was born. It's easy - basically mad libs via email. Someone starts and then everyone tries to top each other. For example:

"Sugarplum, Sugarplum, Sugarplum, Sugarplum, Sugarplum...
Thank you. That last song was song was called 'Sugarplum'. And now for my next song, 'The Razor Blade Feels Cold against my Wrist.'"


"Sweetness and light, sweetness and light, sweetness and light, sweetness and light...
Thank you. That last song was song was called 'Sweetness and light'. And now for my next song,
'You Cheated on me with my Sister when I was Pregnant.'"

Or how about this: "Day at the Beach" and "I Swallowed 80 Sleeping Pills in a Motel Room and had my Stomach Pumped." The possibilities are endless. So play along at home.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Movie Review - Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case

In today's Russia a man yells "Aux barricades!" and the mob replies with all the enthusiasm of a herd of cud-chewing cows.

I like my Russian intellectuals iconoclastic and Andrei Nekrasov fits the bill; a savage, greasy gaggle of keratin that passes for a hairdo, a scarf slung haphazardly around his neck, brow in a perpetual furrow, eyes that suggest relentless insomnia and a demeanour that alternates between despair and effervescence - the man is a pleasure to watch and listen to. He has produced a first person advocacy documentary of the highest caliber. It's passionate, outrageous and riveting. Through the prism of the Litvinenko poisoning filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov tells the story of post-communist Russia and the role the FSB (the Russian secret service and successor to the KGB) has had in shaping it.
This is the movie Michael Moore would have made if he was (a) Russian and (b) talented.

Film rests on three pillars - Nekrasov's personality, charm and energy, the great archival footage he has amassed and the intense interviews (the ones with Litvinenko and now deceased journalist Anna Politkovskaya standout more then the others). All of them are interesting to watch but they also give a glimpse of larger trends in modern Russia.

In one memorable vignette, Nekrasov tries and fails to find a copy of the Novaya Gazeta, an independent opposition newspaper, among the numerous newsstands that surround the central square in St. Petersburg. All he came up with is mountains of Russian Maxim and FHM. He does run into a fellow cynic, an old and almost toothless man. The old man is holding a book about Russian history. Nekrasov comments that's it's a very good book. To which the old man replies "You know what this book is? It's bullshit." Nekrasov, confused, insists that the book is worth reading. The old man clarifies "You know why this book is bullshit? Because it's interesting and in this country anything that's interesting is called 'bullshit.'" And with that he stumbles off, looking for what looks like the 6th or 7th vodka of the morning.

Nekrasov also includes an astonishing segment from a town-hall style show that aired on NTV (the last independent TV station, since shut down by the Kremlin) after a showing of his film about the war in Chechnya. The film was highly controversial as it graphically depicted the civilian toll of the war on the Chechen people. When the crowd is asked to comment on the film a middle-aged man is the first to volunteer. He states his name and occupation (he's a professor of political science at a Moscow university) and goes on to comment, matter of factly, that killing Chechen children is OK because "they will grow up to be terrorists." As the host and some of the audience stare on in stunned silence he goes on to reassert his point. (I would love to sit in on that guys classes... I can only guess what his views on the Khmer Rouge or Stalin are, but I'm sure they'd just as enlightened as his views on Chechnya.)

Litvinenko appears throughout the film, in excerpts from several interviews, some with Nekrasov, others with Russian journalists and in an excerpt from a famous press conference where he led a group of dissident FSB agents, who refused illegal orders, in exposing corruption inside the bureau. With Nekrasov, Litvinenko explains the system used for bribing, corrupting and then owning judges by the FSB. A judge is first asked to return a guilty verdict in a case with marginal evidence in exchange for money, or a better assignment or a better flat. Later, the judge is shown a document accusing him of bribery. An FSB agent explains to the judge that since he's a friend of the service he won't need to worry about it and tears up the document in front of the judge. The judge is now trapped, he can either continue to accept bribes in exchange for greater and greater perversions of justice or he can refuse the bribes and be charged with corruption (and be tried in front of another corrupt judge). It's just one way the FSB slowly choked the fight out of the Russian system. Litvinenko describes other ways too but his main claim underpinning his narrative is that near the end of Yeltsin's presidency, the FSB staged a silent coup and took control over the main levers of power. Not a very controversial claim, Putin himself was a KGB and FSB member since high school, but it's something that's rarely talked about in the press and never spoken about publicly in Russia.

The portrait of Russian society that emerges is of a place that has traded freedom and morals in exchange for order imposed with brutal, corrupt force and that the country seems content with the bargain although unaware of the bargain's full consequences. Incorporation of Western culture may be visible throughout Russia but the non-commercial aspects, (debate, questioning of authority, civil society) are clearly having a harder time catching on.

The most eye-popping aspect of the movie are the harsh accusations leveled at the FSB and Putin. The evidence for some of these charges barely rise above the level of conjecture but others are backed with official documents.

Here's a sampling:

- FSB bombing Moscow and blaming Chechen terrorists in order to justify the war and then the inevitable harsher security measures that come with conflict.

- FSB staging an attack against it's own military in downtown Grozny, Chechnya.

- FSB and the Russian military selling Russian arms and even Russian soldiers, who were used as slave labor, to Chechen leaders.

- Putin and his cronies siphoning millions from the fund set up to buy food for poor St. Petersburg residents during his stint as mayor (this charge has documents to back it up).

- FSB killing journalists critical of them and government policies (Anna Politskaya, interviewed in the film before being gunned down in an elevator, being the most famous example).

- FSB ordering the murders of political opponents of the Kremlin (in an interview Litvinenko alleges he was ordered to kill
Boris Berezovsky. This is later corroborated by by some colleagues of his.).

Nekrasov admits when he doesn't have the goods to back all these accusations but he also makes it clear that if the evidence was out there, the FSB keeps it very well hidden.
At the end of the film, though, one is left in no doubt about two things: first, that the FSB killed Litvinenko and that, second, he was a decent man. It was the end of a long struggle that started with him exposing corruption and ended with his poisoning by an ex-FSB agent in a London hotel (the accused assassin is also interviewed for the film and even has the gall to offer his guest tea). I was left with the impression that true liberal democrats have four possible roles in Russia, powerless mutes, exiles, prisoners or martyrs and that the dividing lines between those roles can be very thin.

The movie's not out yet - but it will be soon (I hope) - so when it does, it's definitely worth a gander (even if I just spoiled half of it).

Here's the closest thing I could find to a clip: it's in French, a TV interview is mixed in and it doesn't give you any kind of reasonable facsimile of what the film is like, and all in all, it's fairly useless. But hey, I'm doing this for fun, so standards are pretty low here.

Monday, October 08, 2007


It's not Paris or Vienna (understatement) but every now and then Toronto surprises you.

Even if it's in that dreary, industrial, L.A. river kind of way.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Mercenaries - An Unregulated Free Market

As the controversy around Blackwater and other private military companies (hold on, isn't that the definition of mercenary?) has started to die down I'm reminded of an anecdote I read in Rajiv Chandrasekaran's excellent Imperial Life in the Emerald City.
(A great book. Funny, tragic, serious and easy to read. I remember pounding it out in a few days last Christmas. Well worth the effort.)

You can find it in its entirety on pages 142-146, I'll summarize it here.

It starts off with a portrait of Ben Thomas, an ex-Navy SEAL who was struggling to make ends meet as a mix martial art fighter in Florida. On a friend's recommendation he applied to work for Custer Battles, a mercenary group hired to to protect the Baghdad airport. They promised high pay, top of the line equipment and important work.

Please check out the C.B. website. Absurdity on a a remarkable scale (combined with horrid web design). Here's a direct quote: "Iraq is a nation and marketplace wrought with challenges, obstacles, and malevolent actors. However, Iraq offers contractors, traders, entrepreneurs as well as multi-national enterprises an unprecedented market opportunity. The ability to identify, quantify, and mitigate this myriad of risks allows successful organizations to transform risk into opportunity."
Well then, sign me up! Anyway...

Well it turns out that Custer Battles may have misled Mr. Thomas. He soon found himself poorly equipped and picking up seized Iraqi weapons for "recycling" (he suspected the company just sold them off on the black market). One day the inevitable happened, his team was ambushed. Thomas found himself pinned under their S.U.V. being fired at from multiple directions. He spotted one of his attackers, squeezed off one shot, hitting the Iraqi in the hip. The others insurgents scattered. After a moment, Thomas and his co-workers went in to take a closer look at the Iraqi he had just shot.
According to Thomas, "[the victim's] guts were spewed out like someone has uncoiled him and spread him out."
Now a bullet to the hip doesn't usually do this. Frequently, with proper medical care, a bullet to the hip is quite survivable. But this was not a normal bullet. Thomas was using a super-charged soft-point bullet (extra gun powder without a full metal jacket). These softer bullets do not hold their shape when they enter flesh but instead mushroom creating large and horrific exit wounds. The U.S. military forbids the use of these bullets. Doing so could result in a court-martial.
But Ben Thomas isn't covered by military regulations. He isn't covered by Iraqi law either (thanks to this Iraqi law put into place by American administrator L. Paul Bremer). And until today, Ben Thomas wasn't covered by American law.

That's why when the military ordered U.S. mercenaries to stop using non-standard ammunition the order was ignored. They couldn't make them. These mercenaries were a law unto themselves.
"Out here, there are no rules," Thomas said. "You do whatever you have to do to protect yourself."

Now that's just one story and a fairly tame one at that. There are thousands more that are a thousand times worse. The documentary No End in Sight (referred to in an earlier post) contains a video made by the employee of one these companies firing a hail of bullets at every every car that come to close to his convoy. No warning, just death... and all tastefully accompanied by the Elvis classic "Mystery Train." (see below)

This is a dirty war and Blackwater et al. are the dirtiest thing the Americans bring to it. Throughout history rich countries have used mercenaries when their own troops are either too few or are considered too valuable for a certain task. And throughout history mercenaries has always been more ruthless and less disciplined than the army they support. (Too bad no one in the White House seems to be a revolutionary war buff.) For the most part, nations have discovered mercenaries to be a high cost, low reward stop gap. In the U.S. the cost is money, in Iraq it's people.