May 2004
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Month May 2004

My brother in a World Series of Poker tournament

Fun link — my brother Scott recently played in a no-limit Hold ‘Em event in the World Series of Poker, and wrote about his experiences playing against the pros. He’s a good player, and hopefully on his way to semi-pro status. Growing up, when he regularly took all our money in family poker games, I always knew he was destined to be a card sharp…

Dinner at Petrus

Since I’m headed back to the U.S. tomorrow after a week of business, I had one last meal in London. The rest of my team was otherwise engaged (or on a plane), so I dined solo. Surprisingly, I was able to book an early table at Petrus in the Berkeley Hotel, Hyde’s Park Corner.

For about the first half-hour I was the only diner in the restaurant, which has about 20 tables. Service was exquisite, on the classical model with about 15 staff circulating constantly, handling every small detail. After a glass of Laurent-Perrier rose champagne, I was served canapes. These consisted of four small items — chicken liver mousse on puff pastry, crisps with anchovy and tomato puree baked inside, fried parmesan cheese balls with truffle oil, and a whipped fish mousse with chips of truffle.

The wine list was pretty amazing (thus far I hadn’t really been impressed with restaurant wine lists in London), although most of the wines I recognized, or regularly collect, were steeply priced. Since I was alone, I settled on a half bottle of AOC Gevrey-Chambertin, from the Humbert Freres. Good, but nothing special.

Around this time, the amuse bouche was served — a vodka glass of gazpacho blended with chunks of mango and pineapple. Incredible.

My first course was the nightly special — braised oxtail ravioli on a bed of caramelized onions and pickles (actual thinly sliced pickles), surrounded with oxtail reduction. This was a lovely dish, and went well with the Burgundy. It was large, however, so I was starting to feel a bit full. At this point, I was quite glad I’d rejected the six course tasting menu.

The main dish was “tournedos” of Poulet de Bresse stuffed with rosemary and thyme, served with a light cream reduction sauce (with a hint of vinegar, I think), and cubes of root vegetable and foie gras. This was truly superb. Essentially, the dish was a ballotine of the chicken mixed with the herbs, browned after being poached (I suspect), and sliced to resemble “tournedos.” Brilliant.

By the end of the main course I was hoping I could end things gracefully, being completely stuffed. Indeed, I walked around the Hotel Berkeley a bit before the next onslaught. Starting off the next round was the “pre-dessert” (I’m not kidding). A small glass dish held a rhubarb compote topped with a lemon creme and nuts. This was served with beignets, piping hot from the oven, and fresh lemon curd for dipping.

Naturally, I’d already ordered “dessert” before they tricked me into “pre-dessert”, after playing hard-to-get with the staffer who ran the cheese cart (four feet of different cheeses, several dozen in all). The “main” dessert was a light vacherin of strawberry sorbet laced with a light (vanilla?) ice, topped with strawberry slices and bolstered for structural integrity by bars of meringue. This was served with a glass of 1999 Royal Tokaji Aszu 5 puttonyos. A lovely wine and good combination.

At this point I’m quite full and happy, and thinking of a way to get out of seeing the “Bon-Bon Cart.” This post-dessert menace has been lurking in the corner for the entire meal, taunting me in my peripheral vision. Ultimately, for “post-dessert” I was talked into a chocolate dipped sablet, and before she left the table, the staffer slipped a piece of fudge brittle onto the plate. Have I mentioned the staff is pure evil?

Over coffee, hoping to contemplate the bill in all of its exchange-rate glory, I was overwhelmed by the post-post-dessert, a dish of freshly baked madeleines. And as if this wasn’t enough, I had to fend off the “Bon-Bon Cart” staffer who drifted by to see if I was ready for “something else.” Something else? Perhaps a defibrillator? If you’re keeping count, that’s 4 dessert courses, not including the “something else” I managed to fend off, or the brave (or stout) souls who include a go at the cheese cart.

The meal was incredible. It ranks among the great restaurant experiences, in my view. I’m sure London has other, comparable experiences, but Marcus Wareing’s newly constituted Petrus in Knightsbridge is simply brilliant.

Amazing…

The “war on terror” keeps producing some amazing news. Like this item, from the current issue of U.S. News and World Report:

It was the lead item on the government’s daily threat matrix one day last April. Don Emilio Fulci described by an FBI tipster as a reclusive but evil millionaire, had formed a terrorist group that was planning chemical attacks against London and Washington, D.C. That day even FBI director Robert Mueller was briefed on the Fulci matter. But as the day went on without incident, a White House staffer had a brainstorm: He Googled Fulci. His findings: Fulci is the crime boss in the popular video game Headhunter. “Stand down,” came the order from embarrassed national security types.

Wow. I don’t even know what to say.

Blogs, Journalism, and Democracy: George Packer’s Misunderstanding

George Packer’s article in Mother Jones, “The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged,” is a fascinating commentary on political blogging by a professional print journalist. Packer confesses to being fascinated by and “addicted” to political blogs.

Yet the overall tone of his article is disapproving, and his fascination the fascination of someone who can’t take their eyes off a horrifying scene. Packer claims that since blogs are numerous and “easy to consume” this makes them “addictive — that is, both pleasurable and destructive.” Yes, he thinks political blogs are destructive. The volume of blogging and the speed of update means that “far more is written than needs to be said about any one thing.”

Reading further, one starts to understand Packer’s real issue — blogs encroach on the territory of traditional print “opinion” journalism. And this, one gets the feeling, is territory that Packer holds dear. He goes on to discuss how blogs simply don’t measure up as opinion journalism, essentially because they lack many of the professional characteristics we expect in print journalism.

All of which may be true, if you accept the premise that political blogs are really journalism — either by intent or in the result. Of course, as blogging has received attention in this campaign, there are plainly some “professional” blogs and bloggers. Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit, now is the “front page” blog for the Washington Monthly. Packer rightly credits Drum’s work in probing the national guard records earlier this year — Kevin did analyze the public record much more deeply than “professionals” working the story. But these are the exception, not the rule. Ranging from my not-widely-read blog to giants in the political blogging community like Atrios, most bloggers are doing something different. Far from being “bad for democracy” (as the lurid lead-in on WBUR radio’s website says) , we are engaging in democracy, in its most elemental form.

In a nation with 300+ million individuals, it’s no longer simple for each of us to connect directly with other voters, except within our personal circle. The ability of the population to engage in a real dialogue about politics is drastically reduced in the days since Madison, Hamilton and John Jay took their constitutional case directly to the people in the Federalist Papers. Most people in this country do not personally know their senators, congresspeople, or even their state representatives. Our “views” are heard, if at all, in the form of opinion polls. Reasoning, argumentation, and deliberation are gone from the process, above the most local of levels. Political deliberation, as an essential civic act, has given way to “broadcast” politics where parties and candidates use one-way media to repeatedly blast their message in the hopes that we’ll choose message/candidate/issue A over B in the voting booth.

And I would contend that with the lack of two-way discussion and deliberation, we’ve lost something. We’ve lost the ability to bring a community into accord on the facts and options surrounding complex issues. And nearly all of the issues facing us are complex. Consequently, voters listen to small snippets of news, or advertisements, or speeches, and decide what and whom to support. As a result, our options and positions must be simple enough to gain support without extensive deliberation. And as a direct result, we cannot give politicans the support needed to tackle complex issues (such as civil rights, war, or social security) with realistically deep solutions. Anything that helps us break this destructive cycle is welcome, in my view.

I’m not sure of the motivations of my fellow bloggers, but I know that I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience of blogging this election. It gives me several benefits and pleasures. First, the act of writing helps me work through the complex issues and codify my thinking. Second, the social aspect of blogging (in terms of trackbacks and cross-references) creates something like a community in which we are confronted by those who don’t always agree with us. True, blogs tend to organize into self-reinforcing groups — perjoratively called “echo chambers” — but this is equally true of any ideologically oriented media. And it’s true that sometimes disagreement devolves into “comment flames,” but it’s equally true that complexities get discussed and understood.

If most political blogging were intended as journalism, it would fail along just the lines that Packer outlines. But if political blogging is a more complex phenomenon, part informational, part the building of like-minded community groups that cross-cut traditional voting boundaries, and part deliberative discussion, then Packer is missing the point entirely.

Blogging won’t have a completely transformative effect on this election, but nor will it be inconsequential. What bloggers have done in this election is use a simple technology to provide a deliberative, discussion-oriented addition (not just alternative) to the one-way “broadcast” media that dominate the landscape of democracy. To me, that’s not destructive, that’s healthy.

If you wonder how healthy, ask yourself this question:

If Madison, Jefferson, and Patrick Henry could put in a guest appearance today, would they be encouraged or horrified at the “broadcast” nature of political debate? Would they be encouraged or horrified at the prospect of tools which allow a nation of many millions to speak directly with each other in civic debate and deliberation?

Random Notes from London

I’m in London for a couple of days on business, and haven’t had time to write anything substantial. I do, however, really love this city. During some down time today, I wandered through Westminster Abbey, and lit a candle near the graves of Darwin and Issac Newton. The architecture is just incredible — the arches, the stained glass, the old wood, and the graves in the floor that are so old that the inscriptions are unreadable. I have to admit, the whole thing gave me a lump in the throat.

Gin and tonics are better here, because the tonic is real “Indian tonic” instead of the overly sweet stuff we get in America. People smoke everywhere, although they do seem to be getting better at segregating it for the benefit of non-smokers. But they really gotta work on breakfast — in my world, scrambled eggs shouldn’t have so much liquid they need a bowl.

Fortunately, good coffee seems to have invaded as well. So I’ll live.

And the Economist has a bookstore on Regent’s Street.

Will Rumsfeld resign?

The scandal over prisoner abuses in Iraq is well documented and I’m not going to comment other than to acknowledge the moral, ethical, and strategic damage this has done. Those interested in a fuller discussion should read Kevin Drum or Josh Marshall for running news and commentary.

I do find the growing controversy over Rumsfeld interesting. Widespread speculation that he’s finished is off the mark. Unless he resigns voluntarily (which is unlikely), he’s not going to be fired. As a cabinet officer, the Secretary of Defence requires Senate confirmation upon appointment. This means that firing Rumsfeld will create a confirmation hearing circus just as election season kicks into high gear. Confirmation hearings aren’t going to be fast — opponents of the Administration’s policies and the war in general will see to that — and will at least overlap with the Conventions this summer. If not longer — if you were a Senate Democrat, wouldn’t you try to make sure the hearings lasted until Labor Day?

In order to gain a “quick” and trouble-free confirmation, the Administration would have to appoint a Sec Def from outside administration and republican circles. But even then, doing so would be a signal of past mistakes and an admission of weakness. And there’s no guarantee that Senate Democrats wouldn’t use the occasion to drive further damage to the President’s approval ratings. In fact, you can pretty much count on that.

I can’t imagine — regardless of who is nominated — that the confirmation process won’t become (a) a bully pulpit for opponents of the Administration during a key period during the election campaign, and (b) a situation where even supporters of the Administration will have to distance themselves in order not to screw up their own re-election campaigns. Which means that confirmation would be a bloody, messy fight which would hurt nearly everyone on the Republican side. Not to mention further polarize Democrats and Republicans as independents and undecideds figure out which side is worse.

Much as Democrats might want that fight, it’s not going to happen, and it could be dangerous even to folks who think they’ve got the high ground. My prediction — The White House isn’t going to risk it. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t wait to see Rummy and the whole gang turning the key in their U-Hauls next January, but I think we’ll have to clean house all at once in November. There aren’t going to be any early Christmas presents this year.