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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   December 19, 2014
Hey Hellman's, prepare to get *disrupted*.  / Photo by Mike Mozart.

• In the San Francisco Business Times, a man who starts a company in Silicon Valley to make a vegan sandwich spread and receives funding from Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin is referred to as a “Mayo disruptor.”

• A woman in Illinois is trying to trademark Eric Garner’s dying words, “I Can’t Breathe,” so she can sell T-shirts, The Smoking Gun reported this week. She “claims she’s not applying for the trademark to make money, but wouldn’t provide any other explanation for her actions,” writes New York‘s Jessica Roy.

• Today in Billionaires: one interesting side-effect of the sudden drop of the Russian ruble is that twenty billionaires there together lost $10 billion in two days.

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Sandwich, Inc.

Robert Appelbaum   December 18, 2014
A classic British pre-packaged sand-wedge. / Photo by Leo Gomez.

The noble British sandwich, the snack of earls, the midday dinner of office workers, the after-school treat of hungry munchkins creeping home from their classes, was the subject of furor in Northamptonshire, England the other week. The outcry wasn’t over the sandwiches themselves, nor was it about the joy of eating them, but about who’s making them—and for how much, under what conditions—in the post-crash world of low-wage labor.

The sandwich is absolutely ubiquitous in Britain. I am not talking about hamburgers, po’boys, hoagies, Croques Monsieur or other such greasy and guilty delights. I am talking about what has become the most popular version in the UK, what the trade refers to as “sand-wedges”: seemly squares of soft-crusted bread filled with a protein like chicken or tuna, big wet smears of mayonnaise, and maybe a garnish of lettuce or watercress leaves. The sandwiches are sliced diagonally, packed in cellophane, one wedge atop the other, their insides displayed as if a form of heraldry (colors are very important), and then put on sale in the cooler of a grocery store, café, or kiosk. These noble commodities are what Brits predominantly eat for lunch and midday snacks—over a billion of them are consumed each year.

Of course, the British claim to have invented the sandwich: it was an Earl wot did it. But the sand-wedge, as it appears in its current form, only dates back to 1979, having been invented by accident by the major retailer and food purveyor Marks & Spencer. Sandwiches until then were made fresh, at home or in a food shop, just like in the U.S. Now they would be pre-made, pre-packaged, and lined up on shelves, ready to be snatched up with a soft drink and a packet of crisps, paid for, and, often within a few minutes, out on the sidewalk, consumed.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   December 18, 2014
Photo by Alex Brown

• Current events, summarized. (Via Jody Avirgan.)

• We hear about plagiarism in journalism a lot, but what about plagiarism in grant applications for education funds? One Nevada organization copied and pasted its “research” from a Brookings Institution report, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

• Today in Shudder: a “cabal” of Harvard alums are invading Congress…even more so than usual.

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Good Politics, Bad Policy: Our Disastrous War on Drugs

Glen Olives   December 17, 2014
A sheriff in California overseeing the dumping of bootleg booze during the Prohibition era. / Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Recently Mexico’s largest newspaper El Universal declared the global War on Drugs un fracaso total–a total failure. Well, I guess they should know: America’s forty-plus-year tough-love drug enforcement strategy, and Mexico’s willingness to be co-opted into putting the screws to the drug cartels, has resulted in the murder of 120,000 people and the disappearance of another 25,000 from Mexico, just since 2006. That’s much more than the number of combatant casualties in the decades-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

Meanwhile, not only are drugs both cheaper and more potent than they have ever been in the U.S., the overall rate of drug use has remained essentially unchanged since Nixon’s War on Drugs began in 1971, despite taxpayers having spent more than a trillion dollars on the effort so far.

The greatest tragedy of all is that we should have known better.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   December 17, 2014
Nice one, Gov. Perry. / Photo by Ed Schipul.

• Happy Hannukah, everyone. For your pleasure: “Texas Gov. Rick Perry may not be dancing with rabbis this Hanukkah season, but the Lone Star State’s outgoing chief is still looking to find common ground with the Chosen,” reports CNN. “Perry released a statement on the first night of Hanukkah comparing the plight of the Maccabees—Jewish rebels who fought back the Seleucid Empire in the second century B.C.—to that of American tea partiers under British rule.”

• Does anyone else smell a macademia-nut conspiracy?

• Today in Oh Really: “Cat cafes are well established in Japan, where there are also owl cafes and penguin bars,” reports the New York Times.

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Agreeing to Disagree on Torture

Jeff Sparrow   December 16, 2014
Caricature of Dick Cheney by Belltown Messenger

Reflecting on his brutal interrogation by the Gestapo, the Austrian essayist Jean Améry described torture as a psychic annihilation, an experience that obliterated the social world.

In his book At the Mind’s Limits, he argued that humans took for granted an assumption that assistance of others would always be available; this is the same expectation that the Nazis deliberately shattered. With “the first blow from a policeman’s fist, against which there can be no defense and which no helping hand will ward off, a part of our life ends and it can never again be revived.”

Torture, for Améry, produced an estrangement from the world that could never be overcome. It was something beyond human communication. “The pain was what it was,” he wrote. “Beyond that there is nothing to say.”

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   December 16, 2014
Photo by David Goehring

• Our fair city is in the running to host the Olympics in 2024, and not everyone is excited about it. “The average pricetag for hosting a Summer Olympics is $15 billion,” according to the No Boston Olympics group. “That’s more than what the Commonwealth of Massachusetts collects annually in income taxes. The International Olympic Committee requires a public official from each bidding city to ‘guarantee’ the Games, meaning Massachusetts taxpayers would be on the hook as costs go over the initial budget, as they have in every modern Olympic Games.”

• Some of the silliest-sounding headlines don’t even sound so silly anymore, and that makes us sad. Via Fortune: “Who will win the content recommendation war?”

• The Washington Times writes on a study that supposedly shows that a minimum wage hike in the past killed jobs and hurt low-wage workers. The evidence: “Jeffrey Clemens and Michael Wither of the University of California at San Diego looked at the job market effects of an increase in the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 between July 2007 and July 2009, concluding that ‘the estimated effects on employment, income and income growth are negative’ over both the short and medium term.” Yes, $5.15 an hour is definitely the better option here. We could all live on that, right?

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Working Woes at the Strand, Illustrated

Tim Peters   December 15, 2014
Photo by Alan Turkus.

As Borders, B. Dalton, and many other big chain bookstores get kicked out the door by Amazon, a few privately-owned outposts still provide a respite for book-lovers who like to both browse in brick-and-mortar shops and support local businesses. Some of the best-known independent bookstores continue to thrive despite their financial pressures—stores like Powell’s in Portland, City Lights in San Francisco, The Last Bookstore in L.A., BookPeople in Austin, Faulkner House in New Orleans, Quimby’s in Chicago, and Busboys and Poets in Washington D.C.. And New York is home to the self-described “18 miles of books” stacked inside Strand Books.

Strand Books (or, as it’s colloquially called, “The Strand”) was established by Ben Bass on Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue in 1927, just one among the almost fifty other bookstores that at that time made up “Book Row.” Ben’s son Fred took over the store in 1956 and moved it to its current location at East 12th street and Broadway. Fred’s daughter Nancy, who is now co-owner, married Democratic senator Ron Wyden in 2005. Last year, Wyden received a 90 percent lifetime ranking from the AFL-CIO for his pro-labor voting record. The Strand’s employees are organized; they joined the UAW Local 2179 in 1976.

If the above description might make it sound like the Strand is a non-oppressive and easy place to work, Greg Farrell’s slim new graphic novel On the Books: A Graphic Tale of Working Woes at NYC’s Strand Bookstore (Microcosm Publishing, 128 pages, $11.95) challenges you to revise that opinion. On the Books tells the true story of the contract dispute between the Strand and its more than 150 unionized employees, one that stretched from September 2011 (just as Occupy Wall Street was beginning, coincidentally) to June 2012. If you may have thought you were keeping your hands clean as a consumer by shopping at an indy bookstore like the Strand, it’ll make you think twice.

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