Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Preview of The Big Short by Michael Lewis

I remember a few years ago, before the economic bubble burst, when everybody became an expert on real-estate. People I knew quit their jobs as clerks & forklift drivers to become mortgage brokers, appraisers, and real-estate agents, eager to join an exploding industry. A couple of buddies of mine even started a business in "house-flipping," which is buying an undervalued house (usually at auction), quickly fixing it up, and putting it back on the market at an inflated price.

I also remember constantly hearing what became a truism for these people: "You always want to buy more house than you need." And the underlying assumption here -- that the real-estate market, like the stock market, was only ever going to rise -- was symptomatic of the bubble we were living in. Thankfully, this was advice I ignored (not through wisdom, I admit, but because I was no position to buy a house at all).

However, I know far too many people who bought more house than they could afford or who used the over-inflated market to turn what equity they had in their homes into ready cash. Now, some have lost those homes, doing damage to both their credit and their lifestyles. Others have refinanced to the point that they are now paying for mortgages that are substantially higher than the worth of their homes. As of this writing, the state of Nevada has the nation's highest rate of foreclosure, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

In 2008, the bubble burst, leading to the worldwide recession we are currently mired in. The U.S. economy is still shedding jobs, and, even though Wall Street has received substantial help from the federal government, the rest of us remain financially depressed.

How did this happen?

Michael Lewis, a writer of great talent & insight, has written The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine as a kind of explanation, telling the story of how a small group of people, as early as 2005, recognized the coming financial crisis and managed to get rich because of it.

As of now, I have not actually read Lewis's book, although I am a fan of his previous books, which include Liar's Poker and Moneyball and The Blind Side (which, yes, became the movie that got Sandra Bullock her Oscar). But I am writing about the book because, in the past week or so, I have seen & heard Michael Lewis appear on several shows, and what he has said on those shows has really gotten me thinking.

For instance, over the past several years, I have heard many explanations of how the world got into the financial mess it's currently in, but Mr. Lewis said it best when he was talking to The Motley Fool podcast on March 24:
"The nutshell answer is Wall Street created a credit-laundering machine without completely understanding what it was doing. So all these people in America needed to borrow money. Given the opportunity to borrow money, they welcomed it. They didn't think twice about it. And the lenders lent them money, and they were very risky loans, of course. And Wall Street went about disguising the risk of these loans, and, in the end, they disguised the risk even from themselves. It's a long and complicated tale how they did it, but that's the nutshell."
This explanation jibes with my own anecdotal experience. In about 2006, an acquaintance of mine got a mortgage on a house without supplying any proof of income or credit. He just signed a statement that, yes, he had a job and a bank account. Presto, he bought a house (or, to be more accurate, he took out a mortgage). He joked that it took more paperwork for him to donate blood.

Now, as we live in the shambles created by the bursting of the financial bubble, there is a completely naturally groundswell of anger at those who are perceived to have swindled us. I have been in conversations where prison terms were proposed for the "Wall Street crooks who got us into this mess!" Remember, these remarks come from people who have lost jobs and/or equity, but Michael Lewis has been quick to point out that the mistakes that caused the recession don't really rise to the level of criminality. This is what he said to the PBS Newshour:
"This is less a story about systematic criminality than it is a story of systematic misperception. You had these facts in the financial world, and you could arrange them into different kinds of pictures. And the financial system arranged them into a pretty picture, but it was a false picture. And the question is why it did that. And it did that because there were incentives not to see the world as it was. I mean, people were being paid a lot of money to ignore some pretty basic simple things that were right under their noses."
Mr. Lewis has hit upon a basic fact of human nature that most people acknowledge is true about everyone except themselves -- a truth about all of us that we would be best served to keep in mind whenever we open our mouths. It's a truth that explains every financial bubble from the Dutch Tulip Craze of 1620 to the Dot-Com Bubble that ended in 2000 to the current mess we're in. Again, I quote Michael Lewis, this time from the March 16, 2010, episode of Fresh Air:
"This is why I think this is a story about human perception as much as anything else: I think people see what they're incentivized to see."
So, we can blame Wall Street all we want for the current recession, but the fact is that almost none of us was complaining when easy credit made us all feel like financial moguls. We were "incentivized" to see that housing prices and the stock market were only ever going to rise. The Big Short tells the story of the few people who saw easy credit for the trap it was.

The scary thing is that, as of now, we have done almost nothing to prevent another, similar recession from happening not only again but soon. There are scattered rumblings in the news that the state of commercial real-estate is much worse than anything that has happened in residential properties, which makes me wonder if another TARP will be needed once the extent of the toxicity of those assets comes to light. After all, it took over a year for investigators to parse the misdealings that undid Lehman Brothers. (And now, according to the New York Times, the SEC is inquiring about similar practices at other firms. As Robert Reich says in a blog post entitled, "Fraud On The Street," "Where on earth has the SEC been?") 

Interestingly, in interviews with both Terry Gross of Fresh Air and Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, Michael Lewis has had to defend the moral stature of the people he writes about in The Big Short. Both Ms. Gross and Mr. Stewart seemed to imply that the practice of short-selling securities (and, specifically, the practice of buying credit default swaps) is inherently destructive, perhaps reacting to the common perception that such instruments "bet against" the success of the financial market.

Mr. Lewis countered those implications by asserting the instructional value of instruments like credit default swaps, as he said on The Daily Show:
 "The people in Wall Street firms actually forgot that they'd rigged the market. And the people who bet against these things are important because they create the only incentive in the system to bring bad news into the system."
"Bad news" is valuable, especially when good news proves to be just so much hot air. And the bearers of the bad news in The Big Short are such an interesting gallery of characters that I really cannot wait to dive into the book itself. As Mr. Lewis told the NPR show Wait Wait Don't Tell Me:
"There was this collection of oddballs and misfits who had bet on the collapse of the financial markets, and those are the main characters of this book. They had a view that was at variance with the entire financial system, and, if you want to have variant views, it helps to be variant."
Being one myself, I am a sucker for variant characters, especially ones whose outsider viewpoints made them millions of dollars while the rest of us stood around, wondering what the hell happened.

As soon as I finish The Big Short, I'll let you know how it is. I have high hopes.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Three Days Of The Condor

I just finished watching the wonderful movie, Three Days Of The Condor, which was released in 1975 but is still as fresh & relevant as anything out in the multiplexes of today. Matt Damon's Bourne Trilogy comes to mind as similar in terms of entertainment, although Three Days Of The Condor is less frenetic and certainly less fraught with flagrant implausibilities.

Directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, this espionage thriller pits Redford's CIA bookworm against trained assassins in a byzantine plot where accident & coincidence play as large a role as tradecraft & pluck. Dunaway plays a young photographer who unwittingly gets dragged into this nightmare. Max Von Sydow & Cliff Robertson round out the cast.

The mid-70's tech & Dave Grusin's jazzy score firmly place this movie in its era, but what causes real pangs of nostalgia are the shots of the late, lamented World Trade Center, especially the scenes in which Cliff Robertson's character holds meetings in his WTC corner office, where the windows look out over the Manhattan skyline.

Spy movies always tax my disbelief, but Three Days Of The Condor manages to remain credible in its depiction of an intelligence community rife with bureaucratic firewalls and opportunistic rivals. The CIA's own response to the initial "wet-work" that kicks off the movie is, to me, appropriately governmental. Even the obligatory relationship between Redford's & Dunaway's characters is handled with just the right touch, although Pollack's use of cutaways to her character's putative artwork struck me as inadvertently hilarious.

Espionage is about secrets, and when the secrets of Three Days Of The Condor are revealed, they actually pay off in a way that doesn't insult the audience's intelligence. Moreover, the ramifications of those secrets, as delivered by Cliff Robertson, sound as if they could have been uttered by current officials of the Central Intelligence Agency. Redford's character's wide-eyed idealism has been sorely tested by this point, but it doesn't break, and the movie concludes with a pitch-perfect note of uncertainty. As an audience, we have been paid off without having been pandered to.

directed by Sydney Pollack
starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max Von Sydow and Cliff Robertson

Thursday, March 25, 2010

My Thoughts On Government (and Health Care)

Let me just begin by stating that the next few paragraphs are going to be scary...for both of us. The only reassurance I can offer is that, if you read through to the end, I promise we can remain friends.

I am not a card-carrying member of any political party. Nor are my politics of the militant fringe variety. In fact, ideologies make me queasy. I have lived long enough, traveled broadly enough, & read widely enough to know that there's no such thing as an iron-clad ideological system that allows for every contingency. (Thank you, Kurt Godel!) After all, even the 10 Commandments need interpretation. In fact, whenever someone starts spouting an ideology near me, I am reminded of an epigrammatical little poem from The Jesus Incident by Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom: "Dig your stubborn heels/Firm into dirt./And where is the dirt going?"

Before the zealously faithful of all stripes among you get vertigo from the previous paragraph, let me also assure you that I am neither a nihilist nor a complete relativist. I do believe in ground rules. No man is an island, and we really do have to work together to get anything worthwhile done. So here, in no particular order, are some of my personal social priorities: Public safety is important, as is free speech. Individual rights are paramount, and a basic education is a necessity. Capitalism is a better economic system than its alternatives, but it must be regulated to prevent predatory monopolies & to ensure fairness of opportunity.

I also know that every power gets abused, often for the worst of reasons. This goes for governments, corporations, churches, and book clubs. No matter what group of people you're talking about, what passes for power within that group will get misused, sooner or later. But gathering into groups is essential. As I said before, we need each other. And rules are the foundation of any group -- rules that are widely-known and consistently applied.

I could go on. But I won't. My own preconceptions really aren't the point.

What has spurred the disclosures above is the level of public vitriol I've been hearing over the subject of health care and the legislation that has just passed the House of Representatives on a party-line vote. If I hear another slippery-slope prognostication about the consequences of this legislation, my eyes may roll all the way out of my head. Let me just add this little note to the din on either side of the public debate: I am confident this legislation will neither destroy this country nor save it, but I do feel that the problem it addresses (the state of our national health-care system) is in dire need of some kind of solution.

When confronting national issues, I prefer government solutions that are concrete, practical, and evidence-based, but I also recognize that governance is as much art as science -- and that mistakes are the necessary cost of any eventual success, however provisional. Again, there is no perfect system for navigating through these dilemmas. The best we can hope for is a kind of self-correcting competence in our governments. After all, the strongest law, beside those of physics, is the law of unintended consequences. (See both Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics for ample evidence of the pervasive power of the law of unintended consequences.)

And here's where my own viewpoint gets too weird for most people: I recognize that I am probably wrong. But most of us are. Our preconceptions, even the relatively anodyne personal ones I listed above, inevitably hamstring us at some point. For instance, on abortion, does my belief in the rights of individual self-determination & expression posit primary importance on the mother or the fetus? In other words, when having to choose between the welfare of the fetus and the welfare of the mother, who comes first? My own answer to this question changes almost every time I think about it.

On the subject of health care, comparisons to other countries indicate that our nation's health-care system needs to change. We spend too much on ineffective care that is unfairly distributed. The evidence for the truth of this is strong, as is the evidence that countries can effectively construct fair & effective health-care systems without stifling medical innovation or draining their national coffers. (See T.R. Reid's The Healing of America for a convincing first-person exploration of this comparison between the U.S. and the rest of the world.)

My own doubts about the health-care legislation recently signed by the President (doubts buoyed by my not having read its two-thousand-plus pages & by my belief in the strength of the law of unintended consequences) are outweighed by the evidence that something needs to be done about the health-care system in this country.

In the end, whenever I am confronted by a complex issue that excites competing interests into active conflict, I tend to split the difference. I recognize the importance of ideologies in forming a framework for group success, but I also see how such ideologies can blind their adherents and hinder concrete progress, however incremental. In terms of governance, the middle ground is usually the most fertile. But it is also the most-contested.

An old boss of mine, whenever a staff meeting debate had reached an impasse, used to shout, "Do something! Even if it's wrong!" And, one way or another, the issue of the debate would get solved, and we would move on. Politicians are in a similar position, having to weigh the competing interests on all sides of a given issue, including their own. However, unlike a poll quoted on the most recent Freakonomics podcast, I do not hold politicians in less esteem than accused murderers. While I concede that there are many anecdotal accounts of loathsome behavior among politicians, I honestly don't think that, as a group, they are any more corrupted or corruptible than the rest of us. I have seen low-level supervisors get just as drunk with power as long-serving, cronyist Congresspeople.

Sure, an elected government will attract the kind of people who are attracted to power, just as the medical profession will attract people who are attracted to medicine. But we need politicians as much as we need doctors. Who else are we going to elect? And, honestly, most of them are competent most of the time. It's true: they sit in endless meetings and engage in endless rounds of discussion & negotiation that result in imperfect results. That's politics, folks. That's how the process works. The best way to innoculate the political process from corruption is to pay attention & participate as much as you can.

Have you ever sat through a government meeting? In my experience, both in attending local government meetings and in watching lots of C-Span, expressed ideologies tend to get in the way. These meetings, from the local school board to the U.S. Senate, are about concrete pieces of legislation & regulation, and negotiations about these pieces can be mind-numbingly detailed. And, yes, ideologies are inescapable, but their articulation, usually in the form of demonizing the opposing side, just gums up the works. The sausage-making process of governance is ugly & tedious enough. Histrionics just slow things down. There's just no need to yell "Baby Killer!" across the House floor.

Most of the people I know who have strong opinions about political issues would not have the patience or skill to represent a constituency, even if it was one that fully-agreed with them ideologically. The tedium of actual governance would make them run, screaming, from the chamber. A paraphrase of Vonnegut comes to mind: "Everybody wants to build, but nobody wants to do maintenance."

It is in the nature of representative government that most issues will get decided in ways that any particular individual won't agree with. There are too many of us, and we are too different from each other to ever expect any single issue to be resolved to the one-hundred-percent satisfaction of any single person. (This is called "diversity" and it's a good, if inconvenient, aspect of our civilization.) Compromise is essential, and, I think, a good check against extremism of all stripes. The fact that everybody hates the new health-care legislation, to my mind, speaks to its strengths. I prefer a kind of managerial, consensus-building competence in my politicians over adherence to any party line, which is why I'm a registered "Independent."

Personally, I am what John Keats coined as "negatively-capable," meaning that I don't have to resolve my doubts before getting to work. I can use doubt itself as a useful tool for finding workable truths. And I prefer politicians who act likewise. Such politicians, however, would probably sound too wishy-washy in today's polarized political climate to ever get elected.

The reason I find this blog entry so scary is that I know & love people who occupy every strata of the political spectrum. From religious conservatives to liberal secularists, I'm related to them all. And I fear that articulating my own position, even as tenuously as I have, will alienate them. But I also believe in free speech, and I know that the surest way to protect a right is to exercise it.

I certainly hope that, having read this far, you can understand my position on the issue of health care. I'm in the middle, and, whatever political party or ideology you belong to, I hope we can still be friends.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Perfect PB&J (thanks, Bellagio!)

The Bellagio Hotel & Casino opened in October of 1998, and, a month or so after that, the Princess & I decided to check it out.

I remember being duly impressed with the conservatory's botanical displays, the Dale Chihuly glass sculptures above the registration lobby, the art gallery (which would later feature the collection of comedian Steve Martin), and, of course, the fountains in the lagoon. But what made the most lasting impression on both the Princess & me was what we got at the snack bar.

After about an hour of jostling with the crowds of fellow gawkers, we found a small snack bar near the rear of the casino and decided to give it a try, since every restaurant seemed to have a waiting line. Normally, we would have avoided the least-busiest eatery as a sign of its relative quality (or lack thereof), but we were hungry & impatient.

It was set up like the typical casino snack bar, with a large posted menu replete with burgers, sandwiches, and salads, though in keeping with the Bellagio's lushness & detail, the place was softly lit and lined with plush booths. I ordered a basket of chicken fingers & fries, but the princess went a different route (as she is still wont to do), spying, in a corner of the menu, something I had never heard anyone order from any restaurant ever in my life.

What she ordered was a Peanut-Butter & Jelly sandwich. Even the counter girl seemed taken aback by this, turning around as if to make sure it was actually on the menu board. I chuckled, and the Princess looked at me and shrugged, saying, "It sounds good to me right now." (In our years together since, I have grown used to this phrase and its accompanying shrug.)

We paid (and I remember being appalled at the $9 that the PB&J cost) and took a seat in one of the booths facing the snack bar itself, where we watched a cook in a tall chef's hat working furiously.

After about 10 minutes, the cook put a small box up and the counter girl brought it to us. It was my order, the chicken fingers & fries, delicately arranged in a specially-decorated cardboard box, with the fingers splayed around a small container of bleu-cheese dressing (no lowbrow ranch at the Bellagio!) and the fries stood on-end in a golden sheaf of deep-fried, salty crunchiness.

With apologies to the Princess (and after surrendering a few fries), I tucked in. I remember the fingers as having a certain peppery bite to them, as if the batter had been exotically seasoned. And the chunky, pungent bleu-cheese dressing was their perfect complement. I enjoyed them so much that it wasn't until I'd finished that I noticed that the Princess was still waiting for her order.

I walked up to the counter and the cook, who was still doing a lot of moving around, looked up and waved at me. "I'm working on it," he said. "I'll bring it out to you."

I went back to our booth and sat, not having to say anything since the Princess had seen & heard everything.

"What could be taking so long?" the Princess asked. "It's only a sandwich."

"Maybe no one's ever ordered it before, so he didn't know where they keep the peanut butter," I replied.

"Very funny."

Within a few minutes, the cook came out from the behind the counter and approached our booth, holding a box that looked identical to the one that my order had come in. With an apology for the wait, he laid the box down in front of the Princess and retreated.

This is what we beheld: a large, thick sandwich had been diagonally-halved, with both triangular sections arranged around a small container of whipping cream (the real stuff, not Reddi-Wip). Each fat half had a thin, even layer of peanut butter accompanied by an even thinner layer of grape jelly. And the bread, which formed the bulk of the sandwich, wasn't bread at all -- it was buttery pound-cake that had been grilled to form a carmelized, firm crust on the outsides of the sandwich.

It was so rich & delicious that the Princess, as famished as she was, could only eat one half. I dutifully attacked the other half, but the fingers & fries had done their damage. I managed only a few heavenly bites before conceding defeat. It seemed such a waste to throw away such a sublime creation that we actually lounged for a while in order to scrounge up the requisite appetite to finish those last few bites.

This Peanut-Butter & Jelly sandwich was worth the wait, and the Princess & I made a point of going back up to the counter to let the cook know it. He was a tall, gracious African-American who laughed when we related how flabbergasted we were that a PB&J should take so long to make, only to be handed a creation that was the culinary highlight of our weekend.

Back at our respective offices, the Princess & I couldn't shut up about the PB&J we got at the Bellagio. Our coworkers must have thought that sandwich had been made with cocaine.

Sadly, a few months later, we went back for another sandwich, but the snack bar was gone, replaced by another restaurant.

Last year, when I had a chance to meet celebrity chef Jeff Henderson, who made his bones at the Bellagio, I asked him about the snack bar & its amazing PB&J, but he had no idea what I was talking about.

Might it all have been...a mirage?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ping Pang Pong Restaurant in The Gold Coast Hotel & Casino

It's hard to believe, but the best dim sum in Las Vegas is NOT found in our burgeoning (and otherwise excellent) China Town district stretching along Spring Mountain Road. Instead, truly "world-class" dim sum is to be found in the Ping Pang Pong Restaurant in the Gold Coast Hotel & Casino.


From your basic steamed buns & fried rice to more esoteric fare like chicken feet & jellyfish, Ping Pang Pong serves it all.

If you don't want to believe me, listen to the esteemed John Curtas when he took food writer Steven A. Shaw (author of Asian Dining Rules) there and had this to say about it in a piece that appeared on both his website and on KNPR. (The "world-class" quote above comes from Mr. Shaw via Mr. Curtas.)

Situated in the back of the western half of the Gold Coast, it nevertheless has built a reputation for authentic, tasty dim sum, so the lunch crowd is uniformly large. I recommend coming here when you have at least an hour to spend on your midday meal. Dim Sum may be Chinese fast food, but the price of Ping Pang Pong's excellence is crowds.

A note on the authenticity of Ping Pang Pong's cuisine: On several visits, I have been the most caucasian customer seated, and I'm half-filipino. Which brings me to another point: none of the waitstaff here seems to have a firm handle on English, so, although the service has always been excellent, ordering always seems to involve lots of gestures and nodding.

I have a kind of method to my own dim sum madness: I sit down, order some tea (or a beer), and wait for the carts to roll by. And, even if the dessert cart comes first, I start pointing to things that look good. One of my favorite desserts-as-appetizers are sesame balls filled with red bean paste. Another favorite appetizer: a steamed bun filled with a single, spicy Cantonese sausage. But I'm not finicky about what comes first. The point of a dim sum lunch is to enjoy as many different tastes as you can before you're completely topped off. Before long, I typically have as many as a dozen different dishes crowded onto my table.

As the helpful cart-pushers place each dish on your table, they mark your check with a stamp or a pen, indicating how many dishes you ordered & what "class" those dishes belong to. As far as I've been able to determine, the least expensive dishes run about 2 dollars while the most expensive run about 5 dollars. Because I am such a pig (ordering not only my favorites, but also anything I've never seen before), my bill is usually about 30 bucks, but you can have a nice, filling lunch for half of that.

The aforementioned jellyfish is light & vinegary, a little crunchy & slightly fishy, perfectly complemented with a splash of chili sauce, and I use it as a palette cleanser between courses. They also do a wonderful little bowl of sausage & egg fried rice. (One of the few dishes -- like the perfectly-fried chicken wings -- that my diehard midwestern Princess feels brave enough to eat.) Unlike most westerners, I am comfortable with the texture of gelatinous food, and Ping Pang Pong offers an incredible serving of spicy beef tendon, slow-cooked with onions and sprinkled with chili flakes.

Other highlights include:

* The rice-noodle rolls, where the gooey white noodles are wrapped around a filling like beef or a crunchy pastry and the whole thing gets bathed in a brothy sauce. The overall texture of the dish is a flavorful jelly filled with bits of chewiness -- again, not a combination one finds in the average American eatery.

* The steamed-chicken & glutinous rice wrapped in a leaf, where the wrap (a lotus leaf? a banana leaf?) effectively stews the mixture of chicken & rice into soupy goodness that's best addressed with a spoon.

* Char-siu ribs, the red spare-ribs that are sweet & chewy awesomeness. I go at these with my bare hands and generally leave the restaurant with a fair amount of the meat still stuck between my teeth.

* Steamed meatballs, either ground beef or pork, mixed with some bits of veggie and wrapped with a thin skin of egg, these are stick-to-your-ribs meaty & delicately spongy, and they absolutely scream for generous dollops of chili sauce.

I could go on, but you get the point. In a city that built the lowbrow end of its culinary reputation on the all-you-can-eat buffet, the dim sum lunch at Ping Pang Pong Restaurant offers a sublime alternative: a cornucopia of flavors at a very reasonable price. And the buffet rolls past your table, instead of you having to get up and walk to it. Talk about convenience.

Anytime you feel like braving the wilds of the Gold Coast to get to dim sum heaven, I'd be happy to meet you there.

Lunch featuring Dim Sum 10am-3pm

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (& Peter Yates)

I begin with an admission: I saw the movie first, when I was in college. And when I saw it, I fell in love. So now I show it to friends of mine as a kind of test -- as in, if they don't like the movie we can still be friends, but they better not ask me for a favor. If they like the movie, then we're family. It's crazy, I know.

Then, after college, I read the book, which changed me even more. Because as good as the movie still is, the book is even better. And, weirdly enough, the difference between them favors the book. But that's like comparing the best meal you ever had with the best sex. The appetites they satisfy may coincide, but they're not identical. And life is a whole lot better with both of them in it.

Published in 1972, The Friends of Eddie Coyle was the debut novel by George V. Higgins, a master of crime fiction whose craftsmanship, in my experience, has been challenged only by Elmore Leonard. With a minimum of scene-setting, Higgins creates an entire underworld through dialogue and interaction, the way Shakespeare did.

The title character is a small-time criminal, brokering gun deals and doing odd jobs in the Boston area. He's a middle-aged failure, having never achieved any kind of power or financial security, and he's desperate to provide for his wife & kids while a facing an impending jail sentence. The crux of his problem is he's got to decide whether to betray his contacts in order to get a lighter sentence or vigorously work those same contacts to score enough cash to tide his family over while he's incarcerated. Over the course of the novel, we listen as Eddie, whose long & rough history makes him more than a little cynical, talks to people and gets talked about, all the while moving towards an inevitable, but not entirely deserved, fate.

With The Friends of Eddie Coyle, George V. Higgins burst onto the literary scene fully-formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. It was a level of achievement he sustained through more than two dozen subsequent books.

A year later, in 1973, the movie came out, directed by Peter Yates (who also did another personal favorite, Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen). With the legendary Robert Mitchum cast as Eddie Coyle, Yates stays close to Higgins's novel, keeping his surfaces grimy and his actors naturalistic.

Given the lyrical nature of the source material, it would be easy for these actors (among them, the great Peter Boyle as Dillon) to lapse into sing-song recitations, like community-theater Shakespeareans. But, led by Mitchum, they don't. These aren't speaking parts for actors to project; they're people making their points as they negotiate a world that requires both wits & luck for survival.

Other critics (like Roger Ebert) have hailed Robert Mitchum's performance as Eddie Coyle as the highlight of a long & distinguished career, and I agree with them. Never have Mitchum's shaggy-dog looks and low-voltage delivery been so suited to a role. Eddie Coyle is a worn & weary soul who knows his limitations & his place in the world. But he's still an operator, making what moves he can before his opportunities all dry up. As Coyle, Mitchum conveys more with a raised eyebrow and a muttered phrase than a lesser actor could by clawing at the scenery and screaming.

So why do I think the book is so much better than the movie? Well, it has to do with the "literalness" of cinema, where everything must be actualized on screen. Instead of using a single sentence to set a scene, a movie has to create the entire scene on screen, from the furniture to the wardrobes, and this adds a layer of lushness & detail that the book can do without. And so, in the movie, our eye can wander and we can get distracted by the actuality of unimportant trivia, like the cut of someone's shirt or the musicality of the soundtrack. The movie even spends a lot of screen time on the mechanics of a bank robbery that is actually peripheral to Eddie's problems. And all of this can mire the movie in its period & milieu.

This equation doesn't always favor the book. For example, look at Francis Ford Coppola's version of The Godfather versus Mario Puzo's original book. Talk about converting lead into gold.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, however, preserves what is timeless about the story: the characters and their interactions. In this way, the novel is more economical than the movie. In fact, by focusing almost exclusively on dialog, the book highlights these conversations so that their voices engage our imaginations, which in turn engage our sympathies.

And that, my friends, is what all the best stories do.

by George V. Higgins
published by John MacRae Books

directed by Peter Yates
starring Robert Mitchum & Peter Boyle

Monday, March 15, 2010

El Sombrero Cafe

Located on Main Street just a couple of blocks north of Charleston Boulevard, in what I've heard a second-rate TV celebrity refer to as "the sketchiest neigborhood," El Sombrero Cafe is a bonafide Las Vegas institution, with a provenance that goes back to 1950. Across the street is the always-interesting Gambler's General Store, and just down the block sits the Opportunity Village Thrift Store and The Attic.

El Sombrero Cafe is a little place, with only about a dozen tables & booths wedged into a single dining room accessed through a door that's actually smaller than the one on the front of my own home. On today's visit, the place was so busy that the Princess & I had to be seated at the staff table, the TV-tray-sized table at the back of the dining room near the kitchen door, where the waitresses usually keep the stacks of menus & pitchers of water & soft drinks. No one seemed to mind the handwritten sign on the door stating that their credit-card machine was down and they could only accept cash.

This is normal, as the El Sombrero Cafe does the majority of its business nowadays with the noontime lunch crowd from the downtown legal district. I would recommend coming here after 1 o'clock to avoid the rush. Full disclosure: I have never been here for dinner. The "sketchy" neighborhood encourages daylight visits. In fact, I don't think this place is open at night.

I have previously written about the merits of comfort food. And El Sombrero Cafe represents one of the best comfort food bargains in Las Vegas. The Princess has declared it her favorite place for feeding her craving for the simple burrito (i.e., meat, lettuce & cheese bundled in a tortilla). I prefer the combo plates that are available for about $10.

The food is here is uniformly delicious and shows what can be done when simple recipes are executed with real expertise and care. For example, my taco was generously filled with perfectly-cooked spicy ground beef (properly drained of fat so that the shell stays crunchy), the shredded lettuce was fresh and crisp, and the grated cheese was creamy and tasty -- not that processed crap I've been served at lesser eateries.

And the service at El Sombrero Cafe is also uniformly excellent. Two waitresses glide through crowded dining room, keeping drinks filled and refilling chip bowls so that everyone can keep gorging on their delicious salsas. Adding to the homey atmosphere is the fact that, every time I've been here, people are constantly waving & saying hello to each other from table to table. (Anecdote: at the table next to ours, a newly-paroled former local politician was sharing prison stories with some lawyer buddies, and I shamelessly eavesdropped all through my lunch.)

While the fixtures here are bareboned, the walls are festooned with celebrity pictures, and one can spend their waiting time checking out all the signed portraits. These are not mere decoration. Their sheer number bespeaks the landmark status of El Sombrero Cafe. Above our little table hung a photo of Kenny Rogers, standing in the kitchen with the chef and a busboy, with a scrawled inscription extolling his love of the place.

Our total bill for 2 lunch plates, soft-drinks, and an endless amount of chips & salsa: $26 plus tip. A bargain, considering the quality, the atmosphere, and the entertainment.

Lest you think that my opinion of this place is entirely idiosyncratic (and the evidence of the always-crowded lunch hour isn't enough), John Curtas's excellent review of El Sombrero Cafe can be found here.

To round out a perfect lunchtime visit to downtown, head over to Luv-it Custard for dessert -- unless, that is, you haven't already stuffed yourself with El Sombrero Cafe's excellent sopapillas.

El Sombrero Cafe
807 South Main Street
(702) 382-9234

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Local Power

I have lived in the Las Vegas valley since 1985, which pretty much makes me an honorary native. But even more-established natives seem plagued by a persistent myth: that Las Vegas gets its power from Hoover Dam.

The fact is, Sin City & its environs get their juice from a variety of sources. In the main, our power comes from a group of power-generating stations like the one I drove past today:

This is the Edward W. Clark Generating Station, which was established in 1955, when it was surrounded by desert & was designed to address the energy needs of 100,000 residents. My, how times have changed! Nowadays it's hemmed in by neighborhoods and the U.S. 95 freeway and is home to dozens of generators, ranging across several generations of technology. An interesting article about the history & capacity of this station can be found here in PowerMag magazine. A map of other such facilities (circa 2006) can be found here.

So, it turns out that Hoover Dam energizes Los Angeles, while we Las Vegans rely on not-so-old-fashioned gasoline-powered turbines.

This may not be particularly interesting or revelatory. But I think it's important to know where the electricity you're using comes from. In Las Vegas, it's gasoline, not the Colorado River.

In an area that's blessed with an abundance of sunshine & wind, this seems wrong. I can only hope that technology & market forces can come together to start creating power that is truly renewable. Only then will Las Vegas become a sustainable community instead of a century-long mirage in the desert.

One sign of hope is the UNLV/CER Solar Site, located just north of the UNLV campus, alongside Flamingo Road, which features an array of impressive-looking projects that aim to get us further along towards the goal of sustainable energy.

Wherever the breakthroughs come from, let's hope they come soon.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Un Prophete by Jacques Audiard

The best works of art take established forms and, like catching lightning in a bottle, magically transcend them. Un Prophete is such a work: a gritty crime-drama that out-Scorseses Scorsese himself, without falling prey to any of the American auteur's bombastic indulgences. This is a motion picture that richly deserves its Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination.

Director Jacques Audiard has crafted an amazing movie, telling the story of a young man's progress through the ranks of criminality as he serves out a sentence for assaulting a police officer. We meet Malik as he enters the prison for the first time, and it's clear he's a wide-eyed nobody, more a danger to himself than to anyone else. Within moments, the denizens of the prison have sized him up and decided what to do with him.

This is what makes Un Prophete a worthwhile story: it's more than a prison picture. It's the story of how a young man, trapped by circumstance and his own ignorance, gradually becomes an agent of his own fate. While we may -- and indeed we must -- disagree with some of the choices Malik makes, we must also applaud his developing ability to make them.

Un Prophete is a masterpiece of economy, not wasting a single second of its over-2-hour run-time, and Audiard crowds the screen with telling detail and pitch-perfect performances. Absent are the expositional stretches of dialog or voice-over that are used to cover up the gaps in lesser works. Even when the emotional drama is at its peak, one never gets a sense of actors engaging in histrionics. This is realism that is all-too-real. In fact, Malik's first assignment for the gangster who eventually becomes his tutor is palpably disturbing (and, in a way that smacks of genius, actually resonates throughout the entire movie).

In press articles about this movie, I have read that the director found his lead actor after they shared a car-ride, and, I must say, Audiard's choice of Tahar Rahim is inspired. Rahim inhabits the character of Malik so authentically and with such subtlety that it's hard to believe the same actor played both the opening and closing scenes. The arc of Malik's transformation -- from patsy to confidant to beyond -- stretches so far and moves so fast that it's a testament to Tahar Rahim that he pulls it off.

One of the dangers of the crime-drama genre is in romanticism -- in forgetting that crimes have real costs, that criminals are largely detestable, and that violence is rarely beautiful. Un Prophete steers clear of any trace of romanticism, and yet it remains entertaining. Director Jacques Audiard even manages to make Malik's dreams seem realistic. One of my favorite blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments comes when Malik has to deal with the airport screeners as he takes his first-ever plane ride. These bits of mastery are sprinkled throughout and are so rewarding that even when Audiard relies on stock tropes (such as a shot of Malik sleeping with a baby in his arms), I approved.

I have to mention a pet peeve here. I generally detest dubbed movies, except for cheesy Asian martial-arts flicks. I would much rather read subtitles and preserve as much of the actor's original intonations and expressions as possible, especially since the best actors use more than words to communicate. Luckily, the version of Un Prophete that I watched was subtitled.

See this movie. Sure, it's a prison picture, but, in the same way that The Godfather is a gangster flick, Un Prophete is so much more.

directed by Jacques Audiard
starring Tahar Rahim & Niels Arestrup

Reality Hunger by David Shields

I keep a commonplace book. It's actually a file on my laptop made of quotes -- bits & pieces of text that I've found that, for whatever reason, I have felt compelled to keep and occasionally revisit. It's full of found words: epigrams, poems, lyrics, offhand remarks, paragraphs taken out of larger essays, jokes. Every once in a while, when I am feeling a bit lost or I just feel like browsing, I will dip into it, and -- as often as not -- what I read there will get my tired synapses firing, and I am invigorated.

When I picked up David Shields's new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, I got a similar feeling. Made up of 618 numbered pieces of text -- some very short, some longer -- this book seems to build an argument for a new artistic movement, one that takes our contemporary society -- filled with packaged forms of "reality" -- into account.

It kind of succeeds.

Now, as a rule, manifestos make me crazy. Making rules about art is tricky. As soon as an artistic rule is stated, along comes an artist who violates that rule...and still manages to make great art. To paraphrase what a writer once told me, "Once it becomes artistically possible to do something, it becomes just as artistic to NOT do it." And vice versa.

The numbered texts in Reality Hunger are preoccupied with the themes of reality and artistic creation. What is real? What is art? And what is the relationship between the two? These are not new questions. Nor are they answerable in any final, definitive way. Yet, for over 200 pages, this book attempts to grapple with them. Why?

Years ago, the writer Philip Roth complained about the frustration he felt when the daily headlines seemed to trump anything his imagination could come up with. This has not seemed to slow him down. And, I think, the same sort of frustration inspired Mr. Shields to produce Reality Hunger.

It's important to note that David Shields is an accomplished fiction writer. So he's not just some well-read theorist. He's a foot-soldier in wars of art, having battled to both create art and market it. And, as a veteran of those wars, he is familiar with the paradox of the necessity of asking unanswerable questions.

This is not to say that this book is a waste of time. Far from it. Its 618 parts are thought-provoking (and are followed by an appendix that is equally provocative) in the way my own commonplace book is. Or a Zen koan. And, once one has read their way past the 618th part of Reality Hunger, one's mind has been exercised enough to recognize the part that imagination and passion play in our dealings with the world around us.

So what, in the end, does Reality Hunger accomplish? I think it is a masterful exercise in exploring the current relationship between reality, art, and commerce. And I think it succeeds in arguing for the primacy of art. Art, the book finally admits, is what we make as we react to reality. Whether we label it fiction, non-fiction, reality television, or an essay, is immaterial. It's the exercise that makes us strong.

by David Shields
published by Alfred A. Knopf

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Beat The Reaper by Josh Bazell

I am a sucker for genre entertainment, especially the kind that appeals to immature males: cop shows, comic books, action movies, science-fiction anything. The more lowbrow it is, the more likely I am to spend some valuable lifespan taking it in. Beyond the comforts of the familiar (and a certain amount of childish wish-fulfillment), the pleasures of genre come down to this: variations on a theme. In other words, part of the pleasure is to see how the conventions of a genre are used (or not) by a given artist in a particular work to create an interesting experience.

In science-fiction, there's all that glittering gadgetry and technological extrapolation. In action movies, there are the explosive set-pieces and the corny dialog, the whiz-bang editing of the choreographed violence. In comic books, the colors and costumes aren't just decoration. They're integral parts of the pleasure.

And there, at the dark, spinning center of my idio-aesthetic, lies the crime novel. I can rarely put one down once I pick it up. This is not to say I like them all. In fact, I rarely do. It's just that, for whatever reason, they go down so easily. I can usually sandwich a couple such pulpy paperbacks between any serious books I'm trying to ingest.

This would explain why I keep reading Michael Connelly & Joseph Wambaugh, even though I can't say that I really enjoy their books. It's just that they're competent craftsman in ways that James Patterson is not.

But then I pick up Josh Bazell's Beat The Reaper. It opens with, "So I'm on my way to work and I stop to watch a pigeon fight a rat in the snow, and some fuckhead tries to mug me!" Now here's an auspicious beginning for a piece of pulp. There's the first-person narration, the in-media-res kickstart, the gritty detail, and the end-of-the-sentence twist. Talk about variations on a theme!

And so we meet Peter Brown, an intern at Manhattan Catholic hospital who, in the course of a single shift, will have to defend himself against the secrets of his past as they literally rise up to kill him. Bazell's set-up is brilliant: the phantasmagoric happenings at the hospital are a perfect backdrop to the asides and reminiscences that Peter tosses up as he navigates Manhattan Catholic's maze.

The story moves quickly, and alternating chapters concern Peter's past and present until they meet in a climactic confrontation that has to be read to be believed, involving the most original self-defense weapon I've ever encountered. While grappling with the life-and-death dilemmas of his patients, Peter has some mortality complications of his own. There's even a surprising amount of historical context, lifting the stakes above the run-of-the-mill mafia revenge tale. (How many American crime thrillers involve a visit to modern-day Auschwitz?)

For those of you who are familiar with the trappings of the crime-novel genre, Beat The Reaper offers the full gamut: the flawed hero with a dark past, the intricate plot involving the seedy underbelly of society, the self-aware & sarcastic narrative tone, and large, dripping helpings of violence. But the author manages to concoct a whole that is more than the sum of its well-worn parts. Beat The Reaper is genuinely entertaining, largely because Peter Brown is a fully-realized, engaging character (who, despite fighting for both his career & his life, nevertheless finds the time to inform us of what a tongue-stud really says about a woman).

About the footnotes: other reviewers have pointed out that Bazell's narration contains footnotes, which they attack as a structural weakness. But I disagree. These footnotes, none of which are very long, actually help to flesh out the character of Peter, allowing him to share some of the esoteric knowledge he has picked up during his unique upbringing (like why -- and how -- doctors always know how old you are, even if you lie to them). After all, like anyone who makes it through medical school, Peter is justly proud of who he has become. And, it turns out, Peter has taken an especially roundabout way to his medical degree.

The realistic detail that underpins Beat The Reaper (some of which is anatomically disturbing) comes from the author's own experience. It turns out that Josh Bazell is a doctor who earned his M.D. from Columbia. But that knowledge is only window-dressing. Despite his academic achievements, Beat The Reaper reveals Bazell's true identity: he's actually an amazingly entertaining storyteller.

by Josh Bazell
published by Little, Brown and Company

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Hurt Locker versus Avatar

Since I have now watched The Hurt Locker several times, and, in the wake of its success at the 2010 Academy Awards, I started to write a review of this incredible movie. But then I read what Kenneth Turan wrote about it in the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Turan is a MUCH better reviewer than I am, and I agree with nearly every word he's written about The Hurt Locker.

So read his review here.

I even agree with the venerable (and venerated) Roger Ebert in his original assessment of The Hurt Locker, and Mr. Ebert now seems prescient (back in July of 2009) in calling this movie an early contender for an Oscar.

I will only add this point: I agree with the Academy that this is a better movie than James Cameron's Avatar -- but that's like saying apples are better than oranges. I only mean that I liked The Hurt Locker more than I enjoyed Avatar.

But some apples really are better than some oranges.

Yes, I know that Avatar is an unprecedented special-effects extravaganza, but so was Star Wars Episode IV and, for that matter, Final Fantasy - The Spirits Within. But, ultimately, story and characterization outlast the latest bells & whistles (which almost never age well). An example: Rod Taylor starring in George Pal's The Time Machine came out in the same year as Jack Lemmon & Shirley MacLaine starring in Billy Wilder's The Apartment -- and I defy you to say that the former is a "better" movie than the latter, despite The Time Machine being "technologically" more advanced, such as being filmed in Metrocolor versus the black-and-white photography of The Apartment. Face it: Lemmon & MacLaine starred in what I've heard the director Jason Reitman (in an interview with Kevin Pollak), say is "the most perfect comedy ever made." And (again) IT WAS IN BLACK-AND-WHITE.

So. The Hurt Locker beats Avatar. This is artistic justice.

Comfort Food

We all enjoy comfort foods. These are foods that we eat, that sustain us, but that lie beyond aesthetic judgement. Some are culturally bound, like Australians and their Vegemite (or worse, the Brits and their Marmite), but most seem idiosyncratic. Based on my own unscientific survey, comfort foods derive their identity largely because of their nostalgic associations. In other words, when I've asked why someone prefers a certain comfort food, the most common answer is, "It's what I ate as a kid."

My father tells me that his mother would make him onion sandwiches when he woke up with a late-night craving, adding that he credits its narcotic powers to the placebo effect. "What else would an onion sandwich be good for?" he adds. "It certainly wasn't that it tasted good." My mother is known to heat a bowlful of rice onto which she splashes some soy sauce whenever she feels a little peckish. A girl I know likes ham sandwiches made with white bread and butter. It's what she eats when she can't decide what to eat, and, she swears, it always satisfies.

Each of us has that inner menu that we order from when the need arises. For me, when I'm at home, it's peanut-butter sandwiches or ramen noodles or eggs with toast. When I'm out, it's pancakes or fried rice or an old-fashioned diner cheeseburger (the kind that's a large, flat patty fried up on a griddle, with toasted buns & single slices of cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion -- not those nasty approximations you get from the fast-food chains). Strangely, these choices seem not to come from my childhood; they come from my long career as an undergraduate, when my menu choices were determined by my circumstances as a hardscrabble college student.

Now it would be wrong to eat food that you don't enjoy (unless you're talking about taking a bite of something new to see if you'll like it). But people who gulp down a combo from the drive-thru with no enjoyment mystify me. This was something I witnessed a lot when I was a infantryman in the workaday wars: people swallowing chunks of crap just so they could quickly waddle back to their workspaces. Eating something just to ingest some nutrients and calories, to me, reduces life to a mere existence. We may as well be robots, switching out our batteries when they run out of charge.

But my point is this: not every meal needs to be a quest for the culinary sublime. And it's no waste of time to reach for the tried-and-true. Sometimes we need to wallow in some mindless (but not soulless) comfort more than we need to test our gastronomic aesthetics. The food you eat may not be worthy of a Michelin star, but, if it excites those happy, warm fuzzies inside, then I say eat yourself silly.

I'll take a hot, buttered short-stack and a tall glass of cold milk. Anytime. Day or night.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Korean Honey Pig BBQ

We end up here -- in a little restaurant tucked into the corner of strip mall at Spring Mountain & Decatur -- on the suggestion of local food critic John Curtas, whose website is a must-read for all Las Vegas area foodies.

The name of the place is "Korean Honey Pig BBQ," which I find absolutely irresistible in a way that I'm sure I'm supposed to be ashamed about.

The 3 of us (Brother Juanito, Don & I) get seated at a small table, the middle of which is taken up by a "panchan," which is essentially a large metal convex cooking surface with a small lip around its edge to keep the food from falling off. Again, following Mr. Curtas's excellent advice, we order the "Honey Pig" package for 3 (total price: $59.99), which comes with a bottle of "soju," a drink which the waitress explains is "Korean vodka".

The waitress brings our bottle, turns a tableside knob to heat up our panchan, and, in the time it takes us to pour a round of soju, she starts to pile on the goodness:

Within minutes, slabs of beef and pork begin to sizzle as piles of kim-chi and bean-sprouts simmer & steam. Is there a better aroma than that of grilled meats? Small bowls of pickled cucumbers & seaweed, mushrooms, and some kind of slaw are brought as appetizers as we soak in a fragrant cloud of browning awesomeness. The waitress reappears, this time with a pair of tongs in one hand and a pair of scissors in another, and, in mere moments (the time it takes for us to swig another round of soju), our panchan looks like this:

We tuck in with gusto. And the flavors are incredible. In a single chopstickful, I manage to wedge a chunk of hot, carmelized pork with a strand of spicy, vinegary kim-chi, and the contrast of flavors makes my tastebuds quiver with delight. Then I try a chunk of barbecued beef coupled with an al-dente-but-sweet piece of onion, followed by a wad of hot bean-sprouts. Again, the flavors are staggeringly pleasurable. Once my eyes roll back into place so I can focus them again, I take another swig of soju and keep eating.

Between the 3 of us (not one of whom weighs less than 200 pounds), the panchan is nearly cleared of food when the waitress brings yet more bounty: a pile of octopus that she expertly slices and places at the top-center of the panchan, warning us that "it's not ready yet!"

At this point, I am swooning with such paroxysms of gastronomic delight that I forget to snap a picture of this last protein course. It, too, smells amazing as it fries. When the waitress nods to us that it is ready to eat, the 3 of us devour it like rabid dogs. The chewy octopus had been wonderfully marinated so that it is perfectly complemented by just the right amount of acidic, biting chili sauce.

But that isn't the end of it! When the waitress (for purposes of this narration, I have conflated 3 or 4 different employees into a single character) notices that we are done with our mains, she turns off the heat and piles a mixture of rice and veggies onto the panchan for a final course -- a little something to stave off the meat comas we are in danger of succumbing to:

The rice sizzles slowly, and I remember more advice from the sagely John Curtas, which I will now quote from his excellent website:

"If you’re patient, the rice will attain that crispy, browned underside that the Spanish call soccarat (when it sticks to the paella pan). Tossed with whatever meat, vegetables or seafood are left on the pan, it becomes something like the ultimate fried rice."

I cannot stress enough the importance of following the advice of professionals. We do, and are duly rewarded. When the bill comes, it's for $59.99 and tax, a paltry sum for a meal that stuffed 3 fully-grown men and included a small bottle of vodka.

Then comes the surreal climax of the night. As we enjoy the last few bites of this last course of our meal, I turn around in my chair to survey the room. And who do I light upon? The one-and-only John Curtas HIMSELF, seated a couple of tables away, enjoying a meal with 2 guests.

We are awestruck, and, after settling up, as Don makes a quick pit-stop, Brother Juan & I approach Mr. Curtas and offer a thanks for the recommendation. He is gracious and very kind, even snapping a picture of us, which I have cribbed below:

Mr. Curtas is the smartly-dressed man on the left. Brother Juan is the nicely-bearded man on the right. I am the dumbstruck fatboy in the middle.

Thank you, Mr. Curtas, for the recommendation and the warm greeting when we interrupted your meal. Thank you, Korean Honey Pig BBQ, for the incredible culinary experience. We will be back.

Korean Honey Pig BBQ
4725 Spring Mountain Road
(702) 876-8308