Friday, April 30, 2010

Thank goodness there's always an election somewhere in the world

We all know that it’s a hotly contested election that really gets The Pickle motivated, so I thought I’d take the opportunity of an unusually exciting campaign in the UK to get Pickle Nation up to my ankle-deep understanding of what to look for next week. Based heavily on a brain-picking conversation with my brit friends Max and Sophie, at least one of whom is a political reporter, as well as close attention to the Times, and my serendipitous watching of yesterday’s 3rd and final debate between the three major party candidates – Gordon Brown for Labour, David Cameron for the Conservatives, and Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats – here’s how I handicap it.

First and foremost, Gordon Brown has the Mark of Cain on his forehead. This much is clear. It takes about 8 words of listening to Nick Clegg to understand what all the fuss is about – he makes me feel like the dad in “An Education.” His core message seems to be the right one: Hey all you people who wish it was viable to vote Lib Dem? This is your chance. He’s right. It’s also hard to argue that David Cameron and the Tories aren’t up to the challenge of governing; you may not like what they stand for, but Brown’s distasteful fear-mongering about how it’s risky to go with anyone other than the party in power does more to undermine that case against Clegg – the Lib Dems actually might not know how it all works – than to infect Cameron. You know how I hate to pile on, and I think Gordon Brown might be an excellent prime minister, but how can you not want to take a break from that guy?

Second, as it has been explained to me, just based on how each party’s voters are distributed, the Conservatives will win more seats than their share of the national vote, Labour will win about the same seats as their share, and the Lib Dems will be under-represented. So if they all get the same share of the national popular vote, no one will have an outright majority, but the Tories will have the most seats. It seems clear that Tories are going to get the most votes nationwide, and there is some possibility that they will get an outright majority, though my sense is that it’s a slim chance. I would also bet that the Lib Dems will get the second most votes (though that’s up in the air), but probably win fewer seats than Labour.

If the Conservatives get an outright majority, we’re done: David Cameron is the PM. It will be interesting to see what happens after that – how coalitions shift, now that the Lib Dems have proven a healthy measure of viability – but I’m badly out of my depth there.

If the Conservatives don’t get an outright majority this is where it gets interesting. Two things you have to know. First, Labour, as the party in power, is constitutionally entitled to the first chance at forming a government. Second, what the Liberal Democrats really want – need, in fact – is for the UK to switch from a system of single-member districts to one of proportional representation, so that Britain’s left-leaning majority will no longer have to countenance a Conservative government as the price of voting their conscience by voting Lib Dem. This is also the nightmare scenario for the Conservatives, who would be badly frozen out for a very long time if the process were to be changed in that way.

This will be Labour’s price of power, if, as is looking increasingly likely, they are roughly tied with or behind the Lib Dems in the final result. Labour will have to offer a national referendum on election reform to bring the Lib Dems into a governing coalition. But the question for Clegg is this: after telling British voters that the power is in their hands, what would it mean to hand the premiership back to Gordon Brown by political fiat after the country votes to throw him out? Would they be better off claiming “will of the people” to deny Labour another run, and trying to build on this cycle’s success for next time?

As far as I can tell, that’s the drama. Stand by for an update after a bunch of British people set me straight…

Friday, April 23, 2010

Who Needs Liberries?

This morning I woke up with the intention to visit the recently constructed Silverlake branch of the LA public library. Well, intention frustrated: there's a big fat lock on the door. For a moment, I thought "Arbor Day already?" but no - as of last week, the city's libraries are open only for half-days on Fridays owing to our gaping budget shortfall.

Obviously, we need to cut things from the budget. No-brainers, like laying off some but not all of the city-employed calligraphers, are few and far between, and they're fairly niggling cuts. Our city calligraphy budget was only a million dollars per year. There are also no-brainers, or near-no-brainers, on the other side of the necessity spectrum - yesterday, Mayor Villaraigosa affirmed his commitment not to cut non-civilian police or fire personnel.

But where on this spectrum do libraries lie? I think I'm not alone when I say closer to calligraphers than firemen - but just barely. Access to libraries does seem to be one of those luxurious civil rights, but a right nonetheless, and important for democracy, especially now that public libraries are increasingly becoming internet access providers for the most disadvantaged members of our society (and more especially because public libraries are often the first stop in a job search, and who needs them more during an economic downturn).

The reduction in hours is slim and doesn't seem to be a serious threat to democracy. But technology is changing the role of public libraries more than this temporary budget crisis will, and as this role shifts permanently from "warehouse of information that everybody needs" to "access point to information for people who don't have access at home," it seems like there will be more pressure to limit public funds spent on libraries.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Boston Taco Crawl, 4.10.10

Winging my way across the country from Massachusetts (where I used to marvel at how angry - really angry - my Texan friend in college used to get at the Border Cafe's salsa, until I lived in Texas myself) to California (easy to find good Mexican food), I thought I'd take the opportunity to write-up the results of this past Saturday's Boston Taco Crawl, an event that had some beautiful beginner's luck, featuring bikes, sun, beer, and at least three tacos that were delicious by any standard, but on which we (me, Stacy, Annie, and Carter made all the stops; four others made some of the stops) will shortly improve.

The first stop - and the unanimous winner, even controlling for hunger - was Taqueria Cancun, right by the Maverick stop on the blue line (the bikes waited patiently by city hall). Carne Asada. It was simple - just beef, cilantro, onions, and a little self-administered salsa - probably no other taco we ate had as few ingredients. This was where we were first introduced to Carter's taco rubric, featuring the question, "When you smell this taco, how badly do you NEED to eat it." Badly. Points for serving cans of Tecate. I actually got a little shorted on meat, but that did not seem to be the universal experience.

Taco number two was just efing terrible. For years, I've been hearing about the burrito lady in the gas station on Cambridge Street by the Charles MGH T stop. Certainly going to the back of a gas station convenience store is a promising start, and since they didn't sell beer, we innovated our way to a winning setting, eating tacos and putting down a 6-pack, creatively hidden by mittens/cozies, on a couple of benches by the water. Unfortunately, Annie has the best review of our Carnitas: "At best, a vehicle for beer; at worst, a cat food sandwich." Stay away.

Taco number three, after the longest bike ride of the day, led to civil strife for the first and only time. Taco Loco, in Sullivan Square, is a place to which I would go back - everything looks delicious. For me, though, the steak in our steak tacos just played too small a role. This was the opposite approach to Taqueria Cancun - this taco was a massive mixture of wet ingredients. Tasty ingredients, though, and while Stacy and I were underwhelmed by the featuring of so much guac and sour cream, Carter and Annie really enjoyed it. We also threw in some plantains on the side, which were delicious.

Fourth was the by now well renowned Tacos Lupita, at the wedge of Elm and Somerville in Somerville. These people do a mean Al Pastor. Stacy was appropriately focused on the density of taste in those pink, crispy bits of pork. Also, like Taqueria Cancun, a spare taco, with delicious salsa, especially the green one. Stacy says she’ll ask for no tomatoes next time. She’s not wrong.

Next up was a late-breaking addition, which was on the list as "The one to the left of the Independent in Union Square," as described by my friend Allison the night before - she raved about it. It was later revealed to be El Potro (no relation). Orders were split between fish and steak, and both were fantastic - I think the fish actually got the slight edge. With a different horse painted on every chair, it was a very colorful setting. Even more beer points than Taqueria Cancun, because though they didn't serve beer, they let us bring it in, and by that point we were ready to be waited on. Carter ate two, which, at this point in the crawl, was impressive. I ate half of Annie's.

Finally, after almost 6 hours, we reached Olecito, an old favorite. This is the little taco stand cousin of Ole, in Inman. I've long been partial - whenever I'm in that area around a meal time, I stop in for a Carnitas and a Shrimp. Here, at the end of a long day, we sat at the little table they provide in the driveway, drinking another beer, and despite our fullness, managing to enjoy this neat trick they pull off - the sauce is incredibly buttery, and just makes the Shrimp taco so rich and meaty and tasty. Carter thought we could get margaritas there, and had been talking about it since probably 4 pm, so I think he left a little bitter.

Plenty of ground to explore for next time - more East Boston, Dorchester, and from Fenway to points west...