Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Muppets: Bohemian Rhapsody

My travels and the holidays haven't left me time to write down my recent profound thoughts. So instead, here's an interlude especially for my fellow Baby Boomers who grew up with Queen and have raised kids on the Muppets (with a wry ending for us technology users). Go to YouTube to watch it in HD!

Happy Holidays!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fresh Pumpkin Pie


It's National Pumpkin Pie Day, so to celebrate, I made my first fresh pumpkin pie! Thanks to the information at PickYourOwn.org, I learned the difference between pie pumpkins and carving pumpkins and found one of the former at my local Whole Foods. Since they were selling for $2.50 each, I picked the biggest one they had, weighing in at 4.15 pounds, which worked out to 60¢/pound - significantly cheaper than usually recommended alternative butternut or acorn squashes in the supermarket.

As directed in the detailed, illustrated, step-by-step instructions by PickYourOwn, I cut the pumpkin in half (using a heavy Chinese cleaver), cut off the stem, and scooped out the seeds and stringy insides. I steamed each half on a steamer basket, covered, in my tall stockpot (on high heat for 15 minutes, then lower heat for another 10 minutes). The skin came right off in one piece.

Rather than roll out whole graham crackers, I bought a box of graham cracker crumbs and made a graham cracker pie crust with the crumbs, adding sugar and butter as per the box's instructions (mixing the ingredients in my food processor). I spread the fairly loose mixture into a pie pan and pressed it into the pan using a matching pie pan on top, then baked the empty crust for 8 minutes as instructed to make it golden brown.

I cut the pumpkin flesh into big chunks and used my stick blender to puree it. I ended up with almost 6 cups of pumpkin puree. It was quite thick - not at all watery.

Trying for the freshest flavors, I hand-ground whole cloves, allspice berries, and fresh ginger using a mortar and pestle and mixed together the PickYourOwn recipe's ingredients. I ladled the pie mixture into the pie shell, to within 1/4" of the top and loosely covered the edge of the crust with strips of aluminum foil, crimped over the edge of the pie pan. I baked it as instructed using my convection oven at 425° for 15 minutes, then 350° for another 45 minutes.

The doneness testing knife came out clean, so I removed the pie from the oven and let it cool while I ate dinner.

Not wanting to scratch my new pie pan, I cut the pie with a plastic spatula. When I licked the spatula clean, though I was horrified! It didn't taste quite right. I realized that in my multi-processing effort to cook an eggplant parmigiana for dinner while preparing the pie, I had neglected to add the honey to the pie filling!

Resigned to discard my failure and cook another pie tomorrow, I finished eating my eggplant then tried the slice of pie I had previously cut. To my surprise, it tasted quite good. It wasn't the classically sweet pumpkin pie I was used to, but I thought that my Mom would actually prefer it to the normal sweet version, since she doesn't care for sweet desserts. The crust was yummy; the pie mixture had soaked into the crumbly crust, giving it a nicely toothy texture.

So I'll wait a couple of days before using the excess pumpkin mixture and some of the remaining puree to make another pie - this time, hopefully, remembering to add honey to see how sweet it turns out. Meanwhile, I can guiltlessly devour the rest of my under-sweet pie knowing I'm benefiting from the anti-oxidant virtues of the superfood pumpkin, with less sugar! I'll freeze the leftover pumpkin puree - and go buy another pie pumpkin, cook, puree, and freeze it, since it's been very hard to locate canned pumpkin.

Here's PickYourOwn's ingredients, cut down by about 1/3 to reduce the amount of excess pie filling for a 9" pie:

Pumpkin Pie Filling

2/3 cup sugar - or 2/3 cup Splenda, or 1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (another superfood!)
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
3 large eggs
2 cups cooked pumpkin puree
1 can (12oz) of evaporated milk (I used the nonfat version)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Slow Food: Hairy Melon


Inspired by a delectable Slow Food evening at Saturday night's IWFS-Columbus dinner hosted by Jack & Vivian Davis, and having enjoyed Julie & Julia, yesterday I tackled the challenge of preparing a dish with Chinese hairy melons grown by Roger & Sherran Blair.

Slow Food is a movement I learned about in my Barolo, Italy vacation with the Blairs 2 years ago. The movement was founded in nearby Bra in 1986 in reaction to the opening of the McDonalds hamburgers there. During our week in Piedmont, we savored our dinners and 4-hour dining experiences and came back looking for the opportunity for more.

The Slow Food philosophy: "We believe that everyone has a fundamental right to pleasure and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that make this pleasure possible. Our movement is founded upon this concept of eco-gastronomy – a recognition of the strong connections between plate and planet. "

It's a philosophy akin to that espoused by Michael Pollan in his books In Defense of Food and The Omnivor's Dilemma. I should write a blog on those books, but until then, I'll just note that I was impressed his pragmatic, non-preachy observations and conclusions. Advancing the careful and aware production, preparation, and consumption of real food - in contrast to the highly-processed stuff we all buy today - Pollan has convinced me to change my old eating habits, and he has influenced my thinking about the food industry.

Meanwhile, back to the hairy melons. Every spring, I give Roger & Sherran packets of Chinese vegetable seeds to try in their garden - veggies that they don't find in the local markets. It's always an adventure to see what comes up. The first product this year from these seeds has been two large hairy melons (mo gua in Chinese). A few years ago, they took that year's hairy melon crop to Wing's Chinese restaurant and Kenny had them stir fried with pork for us. Sherran & Roger invited me to dinner and asked how to cook the melons without pork, for dinner in their Kosher home. I picked up the melons on Sunday morning and volunteered to cook them after consulting my collection of Chinese cookbooks.

Most of the recipes I found for hairy melons - or "fuzzy melons" as they're also known - were for soup (like wintermelon soup). Alas, soup wouldn't fit into the dinner menu. In Kim Chee Lee's Chinese Cooking, I found a simple recipe for Stir-Fried Fuzzy Melons, but was afraid the taste would be too delicate to accompany the grilled steaks on the menu. On the next page of the cookbook is a recipe for Abalone Mushrooms and Green Vegetables in Oyster Sauce. It sounded like the delicious dish that Mom and I often order at Central Seafood in Hartsdale, NY. Mom has been excited about the health benefits of eating a variety of mushrooms (and we were delighted with a Braised Mushroom dish at a dinner Ray Chen invited us to at the new Three Ocean Restaurant in NYC's Chinatown last week). Since fuzzy melon takes up the taste of the sauce it's prepared with, I thought combining the recipes would work well.

I drove over to the New Asian Supermarket (which has the best selection of Chinese produce I've found in Columbus), and bought fresh King and Shitake mushrooms and baby Shanghai bok choy. I also found some Mushroom Stir-Fry sauce to substitute for Oyster Sauce (trying to keep Kosher - oyster-flavored sauce is made from oyster extract).

As this was a first-time preparation for me, I tested my approach with a little of the ingredients and tweaked the combined recipe. Since the recipe cooks so quickly, I decided to prepare all the ingredients at home and take them to the Blairs to cook just before dinner.

The dish was a big hit. The melon was tender, but not mushy, and as expected, took up the flavor of the sauce. The King mushroom slices were nicely chewy and contrasted with the tender Shitake mushrooms. The green Shanghai bok choy provided another textural and color accent. The entire dish tasted umami! And it was so guiltless, healthwise. The seven of us happily ate almost the entire double recipe (some of us had three or four servings!).

The actual cooking time was less than 15 minutes, but the preparation was quite time-consuming (about 3 hours for twice the below recipe, but that included the trial run). Though the mushrooms, bok choy, and sauces were not from local sources, the preparation was certainly in the spirit of Slow Food, celebrating the home-grown melon as an experience to be savored, lovingly prepared for and enjoyed with good friends.

As in cooking Julia Child's recipes, I've found that spending hours carefully preparing a dish or a meal for family and friends, then savoring it with them, can and should be a tremendously enjoyable experience. At times, it can even be sublime.


Stir-Fried Hairy Melons, Mushrooms, & Shanghai Bok Choy in Mushroom Sauce

INGREDIENTS (for 4-6 side-dish servings)

1 large hairy melon (football-sized)
1 knob ginger, peeled and julienned
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 lb baby Shanghai bok choy
½ lb fresh Shitake mushrooms
½ lb fresh King mushrooms
2 T cornstarch
peanut oil, for cooking
1 T sesame oil

Seasoning Sauce:
¼ c soy sauce
¼ c mushroom stir-fry sauce
¼ c sugar

PREPARATION

Peel the hairy melon. Scoop out & discard the seeds and inner membranes. (If smaller melons are used – like zucchini - the seeds are tender and don’t need to be removed.)
Slice vertically into quarters.
Cut across into1/8” thick slices, using a mandolin, if available, to ensure uniform thickness.

Cut the King mushrooms across into thin slices (about 1/16” thick).
Remove the stems from the Shitake mushrooms. Wash to remove dirt.

Blanch the bok choy and Shitake mushrooms separately in boiling salted water for 1 minute.
Drain & put into ice water to cool. Drain again. (This process preserves the color of the vegetables.)

Mix together the soy sauce, mushroom stir-fry sauce, and sugar.

Mix corn starch in 3 T cold water.

COOKING

Heat oil in deep fry pan, pot, or wok over high heat.
Stir-fry melon slices. Stir fry for 1-2 minutes, until the slices start to cook. Remove melon from pot.
Stir-fry ginger and garlic. Stir-fry until garlic starts to brown.
Add melon back to pot. Stir and cover to steam 2 minutes. (Add a little water, if needed.)
Add mushrooms, stir-fry, cover to cook 1 minute.
Add bok choy, stir-fry.
Add seasoning sauce (use more or less, to taste). Stir and bring to a boil. Add water or chicken stock, if needed, to make enough liquid for sauce.
Stir in cornstarch mixture to thicken the sauce.
Stir in sesame oil and serve.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Julie & Julia

Though it differed from what I expected, I thoroughly enjoyed the new movie Julie & Julia. I was psyched for it, having just cooked a big dish of garden fresh Chinese Long Beans for my friends Roger & Sherran on Sunday. Following a week's worth of media hype about the movie and the glowing reviews for Meryl Streep (and less praise for Amy Adams), I went out on Monday for a premium-priced showing ($9 vs. $7 regular price in Columbus, OH) of the film.

With my home theater system and over 900 DVDs, I don't go out for movies very often. I usually wait 6 months, buy a used DVD, and get the same audio/visual theater experience (10' projection image and 7.1 sound from a 2800 watt A/V receiver and a 2500 watt subwoofer), in the comfort (Ekornes Stressless chairs), and convenience (fresh-popped corn with known additives from flavorings and a wide selection of legal beverages - my wine cellar abuts my home theater), of home - at 1/3 the cost for me, plus no additional charge for guests. However, the foodie in me was allured to catch Julie & Julia now.

I grew up inspired by Julia Child on PBS. Her whimsical demeanor delightfully deflated the starched stuffiness of the French cuisine mystique. Combined with my father's genes and his own love for food and cooking, Julia's TV presence reinforced my expectations that cooking should be fun and the resulting food would be delicious.

Writer/director Nora Ephron has woven together two memoirs - Julia Child's story of her cooking and cookbook-writing beginnings in France, and Julie Powell's year of cooking and blogging her way through Julia's cookbook - to provide a delightful comparison and contrast of their lives. At the start of their stories, Julie is actually a better cook than was Julia. But Julia's life was certainly more glamorous and intriguing, with her living the leisure life of an American diplomat's wife in France, settling into a luxurious Parisian apartment, while Julie and her magazine-writing husband have just upgraded to a 900 square-foot apartment above a NYC Queens pizzeria. Julia's need to occupy herself leads her from hat-making classes, to bridge lessons, and finally to cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu. Julie needs a release from her 9-to-5 phone-bank job helping NYC's 911 victims, so commits herself to cook every one of Julia Child's 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year and blog daily about her experience. Both husbands are lovingly supportive, through their own trials, as are their friends. The development of these very different yet similar stories, intertwining 8+ years of Julia's life and 1 year of Julie's, carried me along, savoring every scene.

Meryl Streep's portrayal is absolutely marvelous. I've experienced two memorable portrayals by an actress of a celebrity. I recall being mesmerized by Zoe Caldwell's portrayal of Maria Callas in Master Class on Broadway in 1995. It took all of 30 seconds for Ms. Caldwell to have me believe she was Maria Callas - another notable personality from my high school years - on stage, right in front of me, conducting a master class with aspiring opera singers. Ms. Streep never had me believing she was Julia Child, but her absolute mastery of her craft had me admiring, for the entire 2 hours and 5 minutes, how well she could invoke my fond memories of Julia without ever having me feel she was presenting a caricature of her. And somehow, through the magic of film and the film maker, she always came across as the full 6' 2" that Julia Child was, instead of Meryl Streep's own 5' 6", hence never breaking the spell.

I must confess that in the 1980s, I really didn't like Meryl Streep as an actress, despite friends who swooned over her performances. Several years ago, however, I found my opinions completely reversed over the Metropolitan Opera tenor, Richard Leech. For over a decade, I had seen him perform the role of Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly - and I really didn't care for him. Then I saw Mr. Leech perform as Romeo in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette - and I realized that what made me dislike him all those years was that he portrayed the role of his character so well, he had me believing he was the despicable Pinkerton! In that same sense, Meryl Streep conveyed Julia Child, as she did all the characters that I didn't like in her earlier films.

While the critics seemed to share my adoration of Ms. Streep's acting prowess, they were less kind to Amy Adams. I don't know her work (I've seen a couple of movies she's been in but don't really recall her), and came to expect little after the reviews of Julie & Julia. Well, I was pleasantly surprised. Since I don't know Julie Powell, Ms. Adams had different challenges portraying her to me. It's hard to say why Julie wasn't as clearly defined or nuanced as Julia. Was it the character (by her own definition, not the goddess on a pedestal that Julia Child is as Julie's muse), the book, the screenplay/direction, or acting? It's hard to blame Ms. Adams; she may have played the part perfectly. Certainly, Ms. Adams quickly had me feeling she was Julie and got me sympathetic for her.

But to my real surprise, this wasn't really a film about food. There aren't any salivation-generating scenes of irresistibly alluring dishes. Even Julie's year-long intimidation of her known need to eventually tackle de-boning a duck was laughable to me, given the fact that my father taught me to de-bone not by slitting the skin down the center, as Julia instructs, but to remove the bones through the duck's vent to retain the skin's shape and minimize the stitching required to enclose the stuffing.

Julia's story is initially about learning to cook, but then moves to her years of working with the original authors of the would-be first English-language French cookbook and the re-writes needed to get the magnum opus published for the American housewife audience. Julie's story is about her self-imposed need to get through preparing Julia's 524 recipes in 365 days and the affect this quest has on her life and marriage. There are nice insights into the impacts and changes of the times - from the McCarthyism of the 1950s to an unknown's blogging of today leading to fame and presumed fortune.

More, it's about two individuals persisting to fulfill their dreams - of maintaining their happy marriages and of completing their self-assigned challenges. In this era in which so many of us require immediate gratification of our desires, Julie's commitment of a year to complete her task may seem to be a lot. Yet the underlying contrast with Julia's 8-year work on her cookbook - and celebration of her $250 advance from a publisher - shows how much times have changed.

Julia Child's efforts made her an icon. Julie Powell's efforts made her a movie character. It was an enjoyable movie - one that I look forward to seeing again when I buy the used DVD for my collection.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Chinese Long Beans


I gave my friends Roger & Sherran a pack of Chinese Long Bean seeds in the spring. Today, we got to try the grown beans from their garden.

Also known as Yardlong Beans, these are a staple in Chinese markets. They are also great fun for kids - I tell them they're "Jack and the Bean Stalk" beans because of their unusual length. Fresh from the garden, they were more tender than those from the store because we picked them fresh at only about 18" long. Rather than searching my Chinese cookbook collection for a recipe, I found one online by famed restaurateur/chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten (he's been serving Chinese food for decades in his NYC restaurant Vong). I modified his recipe somewhat, since Pop taught me to blanch Chinese long beans in oil to cook through their tough skin.

The result was delicious! The beans had a much meatier taste and texture than American green beans. The onions and red bell pepper added an umami savoriness that plain stir-fried beans don't have.

Since I knew I'd be using a small pot of oil to blanch the beans, I used the oil first to puff up a batch of instant sizzling rice cakes that we had as an appetizer with a fresh tomato and mozzarella salad. The beans were a delicious accompaniment to the perfectly grilled marinated chicken breasts Roger prepared. Watermelon closed out the tasty, healthy meal. Yum!


Chinese Long Beans with Cracked Black Pepper
Recipe by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, modified by Rod Chu

2 cups peanut oil

1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 small onion, thinly sliced
2 pounds Chinese long beans, washed and thoroughly towel dried, cut into 3-inch lengths
1 medium red bell pepper, peeled (see note) cut into 1/3-inch dice
4 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Heat the peanut oil in a small saucepan to 375°. Blanch the beans in the hot oil, a handful at a time, until they begin to blister (30-60 seconds). Drain and set aside each batch while blanching the rest of the beans.

Saute the onion in 1 T oil over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add red pepper and stir-fry to soften the pepper, about 1 minute. Add the long beans and stir-fry until the beans are slightly softened and browned in spots, about 3 minutes. Add the sugar and stir to coat. Add the water, cover and cook over moderately low heat until the water has evaporated and the beans are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the soy sauce and cracked pepper and cook for 1 minute. Adjust sugar and soy sauce to taste. Transfer to a platter and serve.

Next time, I'll try adding a couple of cloves of minced garlic.

NOTE: Peeling bell peppers

There are two basic methods for removing the tough outer membrane from bell peppers. The classic method is to roast the peppers over a gas flame, searing the skin until it's black in spots. I used a long handled barbecue fork to hold the whole pepper, skewered through the stem end, over the flame of Sherran's industrial range burner. However, I found the skin rather tedious to remove when seared this way. (I recall another tip was to put the seared whole pepper into a paper bag to rest to loosen the skin; I didn't have a bag handy nor the time to try this time.)

The easier method I've used is from Thomas Keller's (of The French Laundry and Per Se restaurant fame) recipe for Ratatouille, from the movie: Heat oven to 450°. Halve, seed and de-vein the bell pepper. Place pepper halves on a foil-lined sheet, cut side down. Roast until skin loosens, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest until cool enough to handle. Peel and dice. This works well for doing multiple peppers, since they can all be done at once. However, I didn't want to heat up the oven for just one pepper this time.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Comments on "Critical Thinking about Economics"

My friend K.S. and my Mom left thoughtful comments on my prior blog on "Critical Thinking about Economics." I started replying in as comments, but found my replies were getting rather long, so here's a new blog instead.

First, K.S. suggests that shocking events like 9-11 and the economic meltdown are required to enable Americans to accept changes that they wouldn't have otherwise, even though critical thinking might have unveiled the desirability of such changes. While I agree that shock makes such changes more popularly acceptable, there are other ways to change opinion. Most importantly: Leadership. Whether such leadership is charismatic or visionary, the kind of leadership that can change public opinion goes beyond what Bergen Evans observed in 1954: "For the most part, our leaders are merely following out front: They do but marshal us the way that we are going."

On this 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's moon landing, we're reminded of a young American president who led us to do things we wouldn't have otherwise. One might observe that Pres. Kennedy's vision was built on the shock of the Russians beating America into space. Maybe so. Or maybe Kennedy led us in a chosen new direction; he could just as easily have led us into ignoring Russian scientific advances and have Americans continue to focus inwardly, cutting taxes instead of investing in creating an entire generation of scientists, thinkers, and innovators.

Mom noted the challenge of having the masses understand vision and future greatness. She further noted that to counter greed, families and schools must develop ethical behavior and character in their kids. I totally agree. As I noted, developing critical thinking abilities and dispositions in more Americans is one way to increase openness to new visions and the possibilities of the future. And focusing on the development of virtuous character traits is so sorely needed in this country and world.

In his recent book Five Minds for the Future, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner wrote of the vital importance today of educating our kids not only in the academic disciplines, but also so they can synthesize (connect) information, create new ideas, respect the ideas of others, and behave ethically - beyond self-interest - to improve the quality of life for all.

We all see the impact of the lack of such ethical understanding and behavior in the excesses of greed in our society today. Our families, communities, and schools share the responsibility for this failure. I believe we can and must change this situation and each of us has the opportunity to improve the character of kids, ourselves, and our neighbors within our own communities. Like Ronald Reagan's "thousand points of light," by working on character development one community at a time, we can create a brighter America. The City of Pleasanton, California is a wonderful example of a community that is accomplishing this objective.

Finally, K.S. cited a Guardian article in which experts explained the current financial crisis to Queen Elizabeth. He asked for my comments on that article.

I agree with the points reported in the article. I think the underlying problem goes deeper, however, than the lack of jurisdiction, failure to understand collective risks of the system, the "psychology of denial," and personal incentives that differ from society's interests.

The basic question they didn't address is: What is the purpose of financial markets, from society's perspective? In business school, I was taught that the financial markets provide capital for investment, and ultimately, the purpose of investment is to create wealth.

Even while taking the course on stock markets, however, it seemed to me that the stock market is an inefficient means of providing investment capital. While IPOs provide initial capital for company formation, the continued trading of the stock doesn't provide any additional capital to that company for investment. Trading of already issued stock is merely gambling that the company will pay off more in dividends or the share price will appreciate. But that appreciation is based on gambling that someone will pay more for those shares, expecting more in dividends or capital appreciation. I also learned a term describing a principle in this secondary trading: "The greater fool theory." It's a theory that's hundreds of years old, going at least as far back as the Dutch tulip bubble of 1624, in which speculators bid up prices of single tulip bulbs to today's equivalent of $100,000 before the bubble burst.

Of course, continued trading of a stock can provide additional capital to a company that issues more stock or trade in their own already issued shares. But fundamentally, how much of the money that is traded in stock ultimately ends up as capital usable by companies to create wealth versus money that is just bet on future share prices? With all the concern about legalizing casino gambling, we seem to be oblivious to the fact that the stock market has made gambling legal and socially acceptable - even admired - for centuries!

We have accepted significant changes in the financial markets during the past few decades - notably the creation of increasingly exotic derivatives and increasing deregulation of the markets - during a period of unprecedentedly long market expansion. These changes have helped a relative few make fortunes in personal income for awhile. But these changes haven't created much inherent wealth or wealth-creating investment. Rather, they've created a huge casino enabling a few to make fortunes on other peoples' money and risk.

These changes have worked to lull the world into complacency and also to ignore fundamental truths and lessons of the past. For example, a basic economics lesson is that a company that is too big to fail - a monopoly - needs to be highly regulated in order to protect society's interests.

My answer to Queen Elizabeth's question "How come nobody could foresee it?" is that many people could and did foresee the economic crisis. However, most of us just didn't like the pronouncements of the critical-thinking, ethical Cassandras. Instead, we hoped the easy money would continue to come along with the easy answers. Well, most of us are paying for that misplaced hope.

The current economic meltdown is providing "a teachable moment." Will we learn or will we continue to keep our heads in the sand? I guess the answer will depend on our families, teachers, and the leaders we elect.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Critical Thinking about Economics


I was delighted when the Ohio Board of Regents hired me as Chancellor to help them and the state "think out-of-the-box." That's what my education and management consulting career had trained me to do. So I've been especially pleased when I find others who do so and help others stretch their thinking.

Dan Ariely's book Predictably Irrational introduced me to a new field - behavioral economics - and it challenged my previous thinking.

The only economics courses I took in college were in my MBA curriculum. While taking those courses - which I enjoyed - I thought I would have enjoyed taking economics as my undergraduate major (instead of the mathematics and physics which I took), and I have advised others interested in studying business as an undergraduate major to major in economics instead. With my math background, I quickly understood the economics principles from the models on which they were built. My understanding of the simple principles of supply and demand and economic efficiency became the basis for my self-described moniker of "free-marketeer."

From Prof. Ariely's book - and then a couple of sessions by Cornell University professors in Ithaca last year for the Trustee/Council Annual Meeting entitled "Why Trial Judges Make Mistakes" and "Using Psychology to Create a Better Economics" - I learned that the economics models that have been developed to describe decision making are perhaps too simplistic to reflect decisions that are actually made.

The notion that models don't perfectly predict performance isn't surprising to me. All models necessarily simplify the real world and hence must be produce somewhat inaccurate depictions of reality. The research done by Prof. Ariely at Duke and Profs. Jeffrey Rachlinski, Thomas Gilovich, and Edward O'Donoghue at Cornell, though, leads to real questions on how useful many of the fundamental economic theories are in depicting the real world, since their research shows that people behave so differently from what those basic theories predict.

This issue is not one of mere "academic" interest. The world has experienced an economic meltdown that has affected hundreds of millions of people - a meltdown that, at its core, was enabled by notions based on those basic economic theories. Alan Greenspan, for example, has testified that his lifetime of free-market thinking and economic policies were based on the mistaken belief that financial institutions would do what was necessary to protect their shareholders and institutions.

For over 20 years, I have questioned whether CEOs really would act in the long-term interests of their companies and shareholders. While I was certainly trained in my MBA studies to act with such interests, I remember first questioning that objective the year Michael Eisner earned what I recall was $104 million in his first year as CEO at Disney. I asked if any CEO who could make more money in one year than he or his heirs could ever spend in their lifetimes would be concerned about the future earnings, let alone survival, of their institutions. Wall Street earnings and bonuses have since made that $104 million look like chicken feed.

I cite the difference between Greenspan's and my thinking not to in any way to suggest that I'm smarter than he is. Rather, I do so to note the crucial importance of challenging old thinking. Trillions of dollars in net worth have evaporated because a basic old thought wasn't sufficiently challenged by those with the authority - and responsibility - to do so.

Developing "critical thinking" in its students is the professed objective of virtually every college and university in America. How these institutions accomplish this objective is a largely unexplored mystery. Certainly, some students have mastered the required disciplinary knowledge to think deeply about questions and are able to synthesize their knowledge to apply it to questions other than those they have studied. But how has their education systematically developed these abilities? Further, to be applied in the appropriate situations, critical thinking must also be a personal disposition, for unless a Greenspan challenges his own thinking, the mere possession of the knowledge and the ability to think critically will be woefully wasted.

As demonstrated by this new work in behavioral economics, one way academe gets its scholars and students to think out-of-the-disciplinary-box is to encourage interdisciplinary studies - in this case, the interaction of psychology and economics. Looking between the cracks in organizations has been a fundamental strategy I learned in my management consulting career. However, such exploration is a very unnatural act in academe, in which scholars' academic careers have been built on being experts in precisely small fields within single academic disciplines. As it's been said, a Ph.D. learns more and more about less and less. Then gaining tenure has required a slavish dedication to one's chosen discipline, if only as an act of career self-interest (for if you don't gain tenure in one institution, you'll need to look to your colleagues in your discipline to help you secure a position in another institution to try again).

So how do we actually get students to develop the knowledge, ability, and disposition to think critically? As I've noted, this is a crucially important question and it is one that transcends individual academic disciplines. The answer must not be sloughed off with simplistic replies like "Well, that's what liberal education is all about." After all, our current economic and political situation is one that has been developed by public officials, leaders, and voters who are largely products of that liberal education system.

We need to do better. Challenging our old ways of thinking is a way to start.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Veggie U's 2009 Food & Wine Celebration

More than 30 chefs from 10 states prepared tastes of their food and 10 wineries and purveyors kept supporters of Veggie U's fundraising Food & Wine Celebration in Milan, OH very happy last Saturday, 7/18/09. I joined several of my International Wine and Food Society - Columbus Branch members to partake in this event this year. We chartered a mini-bus to do the 2-hour drive for us, letting us all taste as much wine as we wished. (Milan is in farm country near Lake Erie, halfway between Cleveland and Toledo.)

The event supports Veggie U, which provides a 5-week interactive curriculum for fourth-grade and special needs children throughout the U.S. to learn about healthy food and eating. It's part of the Slow Food movement in the U.S. I first learned of Slow Food in my 2007 trip to Barolo, Italy (it was started in nearby Bra in Piedmont). With my friends Roger & Sherran Blair, we luxuriated in a week of Slow Food dinners there, savoring carefully prepared meals each night in our typical 8:30 pm to midnight dinners. As suggested by the name, the Slow Food movement was started in reaction to the opening of the first McDonald's burger joint in Bra in the 1970s.

The 2009 Food & Wine Celebration was wonderful! I've had the pleasure of (over)eating at many such fundraising events over the decades. This was one of the most impressive, in terms of quality of food & wine presented. The chefs prepared most of the food on site and each taste was presented beautifully. The program provided diversions from eating and drinking, with cooking demonstrations, presentations on wine and food pairing, garden tours, and an Iron Chef-like cook-off judged by Food Channel personalities.

Since pictures are worth thousands of words, I'll let my photos do the talking. I've posted 160+ photos from the event on my smugmug photo website in the gallery 2009/07/18 Veggie-U Food & Wine Celebration. There, you can see many of the dishes offered and the chefs who did the cooking right on the spot. Warning: The photos might make you very hungry (or at least salivate)!

Hearty thanks to Sherran Blair for organizing the trip for us! It was definitely "worth the trip!"

Monday, July 6, 2009

Love of Eating and Cooking: Pop's Cold Sesame Noodles


My father developed my foodie tendencies and from them, my love for cooking. From Pop, I learned to love to cook for my love to eat! Alas, I don't prepare fancy, home cooked dinners much anymore - and never got up to Pop's standard of preparing gourmet Chinese cuisine - but I still enjoy preparing specialty dishes for gourmet cocktail parties, picnics, and dinners at friends' homes. Having grown up with so many happy memories of home cooked meals, it's been wonderful to recreate these dishes - some that I haven't had for decades.

I usually carry around a camera to catch pictures of dishes I've eaten and enjoyed sharing them in my holiday letters and more recently online. The pictures help me remember the wonderful meals I've had and let me recommend specific dishes and restaurants.

My friend Kaity Tong's blog has inspired me to go further and share the recipes of my favorite dishes. I've enjoyed reading her stories about her mother's recipes and salivated in anticipation of trying them out.

I recently learned how important it is to share recipes, even amongst family members. While visiting my sister, I found she didn't know Pop's recipe for cold sesame noodles; she had been using Mom's recipe. While I love my Mom, she's not the great cook that Pop was! The simple cold sesame noodle recipe proves this.

So here's the first of what I plan to be a series sharing the recipes I use - recipes I've collected from watching Pop cook (and taking measurements as he did, since he never had to measure anything), to others I've collected from the Internet. I've tweaked these recipes along the way (with great hubris, in some cases, daring to modify recipes by chefs as legendary as Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame), to make them what I think is clearer and more foolproof. While those modifications make the recipes longer and look more imposing, I've found they help me avoid mistakes that I've made in trying to follow the original recipes. Enjoy!

Norton Chu's Cold Sesame Noodles

1 lb dried noodles or thin spaghetti
2 T sesame oil

SAUCE:
¼ c sesame paste (tahini) or peanut butter - or both
¼ c sesame oil
1 T sugar
¼ c soy sauce
¼ c Worchestershire sauce

OPTIONAL TOPPINGS:
1 peeled, julienned cucumber
2 c shredded chicken
1 c dried shredded pork
2 T toasted sesame seeds

1. Cook noodles in salted water until tender, but still slightly firm.

2. Drain and rinse cooked noodles in cold water to stop cooking.

3. If serving immediately, chill noodles in ice water. Drain well.

4. Toss noodles in sesame oil. Chill in refrigerator.

5. Put sesame paste and/or peanut butter in mixing bowl.

6. Stir in sesame oil to make a smooth paste.

7. Slowly stir in sugar, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, making a smooth sauce. Chill.

8. Toss chilled noodles in sauce, thoroughly coating the noodles.

9. Serve with optional toppings.


NOTES:

This recipe is so quick and easy, it makes a terrific snack even just for one serving, after cutting down the proportions.

I prefer the texture of plain white Chinese noodles, available in Asian grocery stores in 5 pound boxes. Spaghetti also works well, though.

In addition to adding flavor, the sesame paste and peanut butter act as binders. Mixed with the watery soy and Worcestershire, the resulting sauce clings to the noodles and prevent the ingredients from dripping onto diners' clothing.

If you use the long English cucumbers, you can julienne the skin too. It adds an interesting textural difference (a little tougher, but still tender), and beautiful color.

Using a mandolin makes easy work of julienning long strips of cucumber that make a wonderful presentation (they look like green noodles).

The optional toppings add interesting textural and visual contrast to the noodles, but for a snack, the noodles don't need any toppings.

This dish works very well for tailgating. The ingredients are less prone to spoiling, so they keep well in a cooler for an after-game snack while waiting for the traffic to clear out.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

My $863 Refrigerator Repair


Four weeks ago, I found that the ice dispenser of my refrigerator had run out of ice. Here's my long story, but you can cut to the end for my conclusions from this experience.

My ice maker had stopped making ice once last year, so I went through my records and recalled the answer the helpful Kitchen Aid customer service people gave me. I tried the old solution to no avail - still no ice. Then I realized that though the refrigerator side was okay, my freezer had warmed up from its normal -5° to +30°!

I called the Kitchen Aid 800 number and was quickly told I needed a service call. They said Capital City Appliance Service in Columbus was my locally authorized service provider. I called them and they arranged a service visit for the next day. My service guy, Mike, told me I had a slow leak somewhere in the system. He recharged the freon, saying that would get my freezer cooling normally again, and said he'd need to return with a dye injector which would show where in the hundreds of feet of cooling system piping the leak was. He said that since my refrigerator (a 36" side-by-side built-in) was 11 years old, parts were still covered by Kitchen Aid's 12-year warranty, but I'd have to pay for labor (confirming what Kitchen Aid customer service told me over the phone). I paid $177 for that first visit for his hour's time plus the freon.

The next day, I got a call from Mike's office. A woman there told me it would cost me $800 for my refrigerator repair. I asked how much time it would take and she said it would be about 3 hours. Well, since parts were covered, I asked if that meant I would be paying almost $200 per hour for labor (given the charge for freon). After getting inadequate explanations to my questions about the seemingly unreasonable charge, I asked her to schedule the next service, but told her that I'd shop for a new refrigerator to consider replacing rather than repairing it and would call her back the next day.

I went to my local Home Depot and Lowe's hardware stores and saw regular refrigerators that might fit in my space, but no built-ins. (I was also surprised in this economy how hard it was to find anyone to ask for help on such a high-priced item!) I realized that with regular refrigerators, I would't be able to have custom cabinet panels on the doors, so it would't look good in my kitchen. I then went to the Great Indoors store and there found built-ins and sales help. Instead of the $1500-2500 for regular side-by-side refrigerators, a new Kitchen Aid built-in would cost over $5000 (confirming my recollection of what I paid for it when I bought it for my new house 11 years ago). In the context of $5000, an $800 repair didn't seem too bad.

I called Capital City back and after getting the same woman who couldn't explain why I was paying so much for labor, I asked to speak with a service manager. He explained they were required to charge according to a schedule of national standard service charges for types of repair. Further, I'd have to pay for a 2nd entire recharge of freon since federal regulations didn't permit them to reuse the freon they just put into my refrigerator until it had been cleaned. Before calling Capital City back, I had checked Angie's List and called Kitchen Aid again to see what alternatives I had, but found that although Capital City had many customers who were unhappy with their service, the alternative service company's ratings were even worse. So, I was stuck.

The service manager told me he advises customers to consider repair vs. replacement cost and expected refrigerator life. If the repair is more than 1/2 the replacement cost, he suggests buying a new one. He also told me that the expected life of a regular refrigerator is 10-12 years, but that of a built-in is 20 years, so my 11-year old unit still had plenty of life left. He said the work had a 90 day warranty and the parts warranty would run out with the 12-year warranty of my unit. When I expressed concern that inadequate repair of a slow leak may not show up until after the 90 day warranty had expired, he assured me that they would consider such instances on a case-by-case basis. I thanked him for his patience and explanations and told him to go ahead with the repair.

From there, things went smoothly. Mike came back to put in the dye injector (with a service charge of $77.55), and 3 weeks later, after the parts came in and my schedule permitted, found the expected slow leak. He replaced the parts, taking the predicted 3 hours. Mike had originally told me to empty my freezer, since everything would thaw during the repair. So in the intervening weeks, I've been trying to eat up my frozen foods (they had survived the few days of warming from -5° to +30°). I hadn't thought that all I needed to do was to put the frozen food into cooler chests during the repair, but I realized this once Mike came for the final repair.

So that's the story. My freezer's running fine again (so far) - I have ice! Mike confirmed that the leak wasn't anything I had caused; it was in a sealed part of the freezer. I was charged $785 for the final repair, less $122.60 I paid for the initial visit, so my total cost was $862.55 for 5 hours of labor and freon.

CONCLUSIONS

Most significantly, I've learned that I really don't need to keep much in my freezer. Fortunately, my side-by-size refrigerator doesn't hold all that much as it is, and one freezer bin is filled with coffee beans (since I've stopped drinking coffee, drinking tea instead). So I'll continue to eat up my frozen food and be more aware of what I put in there (which should be mainly for last-minute entertaining). I should also invite more friends over for coffee!

I'm concerned that the federal government and industry have created a situation where customers are stuck with unreasonable charges. I can understand regulators wanting to ensure that freon is properly recycled for reuse. But why can't we have our own freon put back into our own refrigerators? Also, while diagnostic-based charges may help prevent unscrupulous overcharging for repairs, what assurance do customers have against unreasonable "standard" charges? These may be examples of unintended consequences of government policies (far preferable to being examples of government-industry collusion to bilk customers); I'll have more to say about unintended consequences in a future blog.

Still, I'm happy that here in Columbus, I continue to be able to find service people who can help promptly and courteously (and, hopefully, competently).

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Photo Editing Software: Photoshop & Lightroom


My friend K.S. Liu blogged on his experience with Adobe's Photoshop and Lightroom software. His blog is in Chinese (which I read using Google Translate), and I offered him my comments on the 2 programs. I'm repeating my comments here in my own blog (with some additions) for anyone interested.

Adobe offers several programs under the Photoshop name. Their most comprehensive product, which started as Photoshop, is now known as CS (for "Creative Suite"), now in version 4 (CS4). It's aimed at professional photographers. At the other end, the most elementary product is called Elements (now in version 7) and provides some basic photo editing tools for casual picture takers with tools much easier to use than those in CS.

I learned to use the old Photoshop (and now CS - I have the previous version, CS3) and it had become my photo editing program of choice. I tried Elements years ago (it was quite inexpensive - sometimes bundled for free with other stuff), but it just didn't have all the tools I needed to touch up my photos to my satisfaction.
My niece's husband, Gian, introduced me to Lightroom several months ago (now in version 2: LR2), and I've become a huge fan.

Once you learn them, CS and LR are very powerful. Alas, both CS and LR require some study before you can use them effectively, though LR, being simpler, takes less study. (I like Scott Kelby's books, but some may not like his CS approach which focuses on memorizing keyboard shortcuts and doesn't tell you how to access the commands via the menus).


LR provides a "left-to-right, top-to-bottom" workflow that helps me quickly edit the hundreds of photos I take at an event. The tools work very well with a touchpad or mouse. It lets me correct a photo and then apply the same correction to all the other photos I've taken under the same conditions, thus saving lots of time. I find I can now get the photos done quickly enough that I'll get them done the same evening and onto my smugmug and facebook webpages for everyone to enjoy.


I still use CS for about 5% of my photos requiring specific touch-ups that I can't do with LR tools. However, CS really requires a pen tablet to work efficiently; using a mouse with CS is quite tedious. I like my IBM ThinkPad PC for this work, where I can select areas directly with a pen on the screen. LR and CS are well integrated - they send the photo to and from each other, keeping a smooth workflow.

Photoshop Creative Suite (CS4) is quite expensive - about $700 at retail. Lightroom (LR2) is about $300. They're available with big academic discounts, if you know someone connected with a school or university. Because they're so expensive, they're also pirated (but reportedly riddled with viruses). Also, Photoshop has gotten more diligent about checking valid registrations before allowing downloads of patches to their programs (though such patches aren't frequent or required). I'm happy, though, to pay for software that works well - as these products do, and I've bought LR licences for family and friends.

The only thing the Photoshop programs don't do well is making panoramic photos. I still use my old Panorama Maker program on my PC to stitch together my panoramic photos (the older version, no longer offered, is better than the one they currently have, since it lets me align adjoining photos manually when the program hasn't matched them properly). For those really interested in panoramic photos, look into Gigapan. K.S. did and bought it, creating some beautiful and amazingly detailed photos (alas, zooming into the detail is provided only on online).


Since I usually take 100s photos at an event, editing my photos is a lot of work. But it's worth all the work to be able to share the photos with family and friends. A picture, as Confucius said, is worth 10,000 words (not the mere 1,000 words many misquote him for), so I get say a lot with all my photos!

My Orchids

I've been lucky growing plants my whole life - at least with those that need watering only once a month. So imagine my delight when my orchid plants re-bloomed this year!



My story begins a few years ago, when Mom came to New Albany for a visit. To help brighten up her room, I bought a blooming orchid plant at Home Depot. It had a nice stalk with about 8 blossoms, which lasted not only the 2 weeks of her visit, but on for another 4 months! The little tag on the plant said it was the easiest type of orchid to grow: phalaenopsis or "moth" orchid. I spoke to neighbors who had similar orchids, and they confirmed that they re-bloom every year. I didn't know how to care for them and cut off the blossom stalk after the blossoms fell off - only to see when visiting friends that I should have left the bare stem there. I dunked the plant into water when it had dried out (once every 1-2 weeks) and bought orchid plant food to add to the water every month or so. Sure enough, several months later, I was rewarded with a new, short flowering stalk and a couple of blossoms.

I became more adventuresome and bought another couple of phalaenopsis at Whole Foods (which, I found, has very good prices on orchids in November and December). I also bought a few bare-rooted orchid plants at the Franklin Park Conservatory's orchid sale after their orchid show for a few dollars each. I don't have any bright growing places for plants in my house and only a couple of ficus benjamina and a ponytail palm which have thrived through my benign neglect (my watering scheme is to drown them once a month, whether they need it or not). Well, my orchids weren't as tolerant.

I transplanted the orchids when I saw (through their clear plastic pots) that the pots were growing algae. I gave them new bark/peat medium in their transparent plastic pots. I put them in a plastic tray with pebbles on the bottom, which I would water to help provide a little humidity. Also, seeing how happy they were when they came back after being plant-sat at Tally & Midge's home during a couple of my multi-week trips away from home, I finallly put them among other plants (a braided Chinese money plant, and a Jerusalem cherry - from a cutting from a plant originally raised by Thomas Jefferson!). I think I over-watered them last fall and a few of the plants died.

The good news is that one phalaenopsis and a more difficult to grow odontoglossum are now re-blooming! I had even killed off a new bulb of the odontoglossum, but it has bounced back and has given me a spray of 5 buds, 3 now open with a delightful rose-like scent.

I've learned to dunk them in water only once every 6-8 weeks and not to let their pot bottoms get too wet from standing in the water around the pebbles. I think they also like being in with the bigger green plants. The sun from my north facing kitchen window appears to be enough (the money tree and Jerusalem cherry appear to be quite happy and are growing much taller and bushier). While the temperature varied widely during the winter (I turned down the thermostat to 50° when I was away on trips; while I was home, it would get up to the low 70s), the plants all survived.

My orchids: Testaments to the tenacity and beauty of life!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Collective Nouns ("Terms of Venery")


My friend Kaity Tong's blog (Are YOU Smarter Than a Sixth Grader?) got me to look deeper into collective nouns. We all know that we refer to a group of fish as a "school" and a group of elephants as a "herd." Well, what do you call a group of crows? Kaity's 6th grader knew: it's "a murder of crows."

Where did such terms come from - and why are they needed?

Intrigued, I immediately Googled "collective nouns" and found numerous listings. I eventually found a reference to James Lipton's book An Exaltation of Larks and quickly borrowed a copy from my local library (as a user, I can attest that the Columbus Metropolitan Library has earned its rating as #1 public library system in the U.S.). In this wonderful book, Lipton describes his research into these terms and provides almost 1200 of them - the most definitive list I've come across - with some of their origins.

Lipton advocates calling such descriptors of groups of things "terms of venery," noting that "collective nouns" would be a misnomer, confusing them with words such as "majority" (and committee, team, family, etc.). He justifies "venery" from its etymology signifying "the hunt" and this is where such descriptors originated in the English language: from books of the 1400s, The Egerton Manuscript (1450) and The Book of St. Albans (1486), that provided the earliest surviving lists of these terms and these related primarily to game animals, though also to people and 15th century life. He also described the 15th century as a period in which the English language exploded with new words, providing a new descriptive richness to the language.

Some terms have become so idiomatic, they don't sound like collective nouns. A litter of pups. A month of Sundays. A mountain of debt. A hill of beans. A head of steam. A can of worms. A baptism of fire. An embarrassment of riches.

So that's where these terms came from. Why were they needed? Why isn't "group" enough of a modifier to describe any collection of objects? Since most of these terms of venery are unique to their objects, aren't they superfluous?

Alas, here Lipton provides less information (and my Google search provided nothing more). He cites Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1906) suggesting "for every collection of beasts ... there is their own private name so that none may be confused with another." Closer to the period of their origin, in the 1400s, inventing terms of venery had become a somewhat of a game and of social commentary. (A rascal of boys. A gaggle of women. A pontificality of prelates. A blast of hunters. A drift of fishermen.) Not knowing the correct term was an indication of ones lack of education and breeding. (What would you think of someone who referred to "a school of elephants?")

Lipton himself advocates use of such terms to retain the beauty and richness of the English language - the essence of poetry. Terms of venery illuminate the object to which they refer - they "add something to the equation." Lipton points out that Shakespere's The Comedy of Errors is a group term, as is "a sea of troubles" (Hamlet, Act III, Sc. 1). He notes "the poet came up with a more imaginative term" and cites a couple of dozen other terms in publications from the Bible to New York Magazine in which authors have continued to play the Game of Venery. (George Plimpton: An om of Buddhists. Neil Simon: A mews of cathouses. Kurt Vonnegut: A phalanx of flashers. And the unattributed: An obstinacy of buffaloes. A tower of giraffes. A pomp of Pekingese. A wobble of bicycles. A dawdling of waiters. A mass of Bostonians. A spread of Texans. An upyours of New Yorkers.)

It is these newer, unfamiliar venerial terms that trouble me. While they are clever, I have difficulty envisioning them becoming so popular that they will eventually become a natural part of speech. And this brings me back to my "why" question. While Lipton decries - as do I - the dumbing down of Americans and the loss of English literacy, given the losing battles of over grammar, usage, and spelling, will the public suffer the need to memorize further peculariarities of the English language for the sake of advancing the poetry of the language?

To go further, into territory only obliquely mentioned in Lipton's book: How extensively do other languages employ terms of venery?

In the very little Chinese I learned as a child, I recall that there are such terms in the Chinese language. These "modifiers" typically accompany the noun and often refer to quantity or measure. There's a generic modifier ("ge"), but use of a modifier specific to the noun is far preferred. My mother cautioned me that to use "ge" instead of the specific modifier is a sign of lack of education. As an American-born Chinese, learning Chinese was tough enough without having to learn a gaggle of modifying terms! Perhaps that's why I gave up studying Chinese (much to my later regret).

So there's an answer parallel with the English "why" question: to indicate degree of education. But the Chinese language has a much more fundamental reason for having such modifiers. Because Chinese is a largely monosylabic language, so many Chinese words sound like other Chinese words with completely different meanings (homonyms). Using modifiers helps distinguish among the many objects that would otherwise sound like other objects. As in the rest of the Chinese language, the context in which a word appears with other words helps the listener interpret what is being said. Hence, there's a very good reason why the Chinese language needs terms of venery.

But in English, words for objects don't often sound like other such words, so avoiding confusion isn't a good justification for adding complexity to the language. At this point, I can only speculate as to other reasons. English, as a relatively young language, may have borrowed the use of modifiers such as terms of venery from other languages. Lipton acknowledges such borrowing in his book, citing examples of words borrowed from the French. Going deeper then, how widely do Latin and Greek (the basis of most English words) and other world languages (from which the English may have borrowed) use terms of venery? I have no idea, but I now have a new topic of discussion for future cocktail parties in which I might find myself in the company of a babel of foreign language scholars. Hoorah!


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jules Alexander & Tiger Woods


I had the pleasure of meeting Jules Alexander last Sunday at K.S. & Gina Liu's lunch and home at the Trump National Golf Course in Briarcliff Manor, NY. Jules recently published his book Tiger Woods in Black & White, a large format volume of his photos of the renowned golfer which he has taken over the past 9 years.

I got to learn about Jules and his book talking over lunch at the Trump Clubhouse. He had published an earlier book of photos of the legendary golfer Ben Hogan in 1994 from photos he took 45 years earlier. He self-funded the preparation of both these books, following the golfers around on tour. Wanting to do the Tiger Woods book in black & white, he couldn't find a publisher to fund his expenses for the book - they wanted color photos. When it was done and they saw how beautiful it was, they wanted to publish it.

Now age 83, Jules has been taking pictures for over 70 years. He told me stories of his studios in NYC and I was pleased that I knew where his favorite studio was: In the Beaux Arts building across from Bryant Park (I've passed it many times while shopping in the area), with its north-facing windows providing wonderful light. We also chatted about both our experiences working with the Ansel Adams studio and learning of his techniques.

Jules' photos of Tiger were taken without prior arrangement or permission. He operated as a freelance journalist, so he was permitted to be inside the ropes. He'd set himself in position at a hole and await the golfers. He showed me a photo he took of Tiger where he had earlier positioned Gina so she would be clearly visible in the crowd in the photo he took. Jules works without an assistant, lugging all his equipment around himself (now, a digital Nikon D3 with a 200mm telephoto and 1.4x telextender), since the assistant wouldn't be allowed to work inside the ropes with him, so he has to have his equipment with him anyway.

I was delighted that I got to help Jules print out some large 13x19" prints on K.S.'s home printer. We had to transfer images from Jules' MacBook Pro (same model as mine) to K.S.'s desktop Mac and PC computers to print with his large Epson printer. K.S. hadn't used the printer for some time, so we had to play with the setup of both desktop computers. We eventually got the Mac to work with the printer, using Photoshop to adjust the photos. It took about 3 hours for the 3 of us to get this all figured out (while Mom, Gina, and others of K.S.'s and Gina's family patiently waited). We wasted a few sheets of Jules' large pro paper (at $5/sheet), but we eventually got the prints done. We finally quit after the Epson ran out of ink.

Jules was especially happy to have gotten a print out of the photo he took of two beautiful girls he took the week earlier so he could present it to the girls' mother.


I'm glad I was of some assistance. Jules' photos are spectacular! I'm honored that he autographed the copy of his book that K.S. gave me, plus one of the new large Tiger prints that he's going to include in his next book.

K.S. also gave me a print of one of his own photos of a wonderful leopard that hangs in his computer workroom.


What wonderful treasures to remind me of two very talented photographers - one professional, one amateur - and a delightful afternoon together!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why Study the Arts?

We must ensure that fine and performing arts are an integral part of everyone's education. That's the proposition advanced by two national commissions on the Arts in Education on which I've served - one sponsored by the Education Commission of the States, and the other, by the College Board.

In this era of severe "reductionism" - of taking everything down to its presumed basics and single-mindedly focusing on the most important of these - education in the arts has suffered. Yet there is so little that many non-arts educators and education policy makers really understand about the importance of arts education.

Art education is about far more than learning to draw or play a musical instrument. Numerous research studies have found that kids who are engaged in arts courses do better in their other courses - including the "all important" mathematics and English language arts - than those who are not. But more, arts education develops abilities that aren't addressed in the "core" academic subjects. An 11-minute video prepared by the Arts Education Partnership for its 10th Anniversary in 2005 offers some observations by knowledgeable educators and policy makers on this importance (I'm honored to appear a few times):

video

So why study the arts? Continuing on the hierarchy of learning lists that I started in Why Study Algebra? and Why Study History?, education in the performing arts develops students' abilities in coordination, teamwork and harmony, and interpretation. The fine arts develop abilities in depiction, dealing with differences, creativity, and emotion. Or, as a professor at the Columbus College of Art and Design once suggested to me, the arts teach us about our soul. And for those who no longer pursue the experiential education of creating art, we can certainly benefit from the personal enrichment and enjoyment of appreciating it.

These are vitally important abilities and understandings in this 21st century. Of course, some may be developed through other educational means. But they probably cannot be developed so readily in students so early in their studies through other disciplines.

A demonstration of these propositions is presented in the achievements of TED Prize winner Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of "El Sistema," a youth orchestra education system that has transformed hundreds of thousands of kids' lives in Venezuela. Just watch and listen for a few moments and you'll be inspired by the virtuosity of poor and middle class kids there in this arts program, in a recent TED broadcast:



As Sr. Abreu states in his TED Prize address: "In its essence, the orchestra and choir are much more than artistic structures; they are examples of schools and of social life, because to sing and to play together means to intimately coexist toward perfection and excellence, following a strict discipline of organization and coordination in order to seek the harmonic interdependence of voices and instruments. That's how they build a spirit of solidarity and fraternity among them, develop their self-esteem, and foster ethical and aesthetical values related to the music in all its sense. This is why music is immensely important in the awakening of sensibility, the forging of values, and in the training of youngsters to teach other kids." His further observations on the effect of his "El Sistema" music education program "in the personal/social circle, in the family circle, and in the community" are well worth contemplating as we seek to reform education in our own country.

Learning to come together with our differences: Isn't that an educational objective we should insist that everyone achieves? Let's be sure to start with all our kids - and also to remediate ourselves.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Dinner at Bouley

What a thrill to be told that one of the great names in food is "in the kitchen tonight, cooking"! That was one of the treats my NYC foodie friends, Tom & Patricia, had for me at dinner a week ago in David Bouley's eponymous restaurant.

The "new" Bouley opened at 163 Duane St., around the corner from his former site several months ago. Tom & Pat have been Bouley fans from his start and wanted me to try his new digs. The restaurant is strikingly uptown beautiful! A big shift from the lovely, country home atmosphere of the former locale to a similarly elegant, yet more formal, high-ceilinged environment in the new.

We were greeted by George, the Maître d' whom my hosts have known for 20+ years. He apologized that he didn't have a table in the main front room available for us at the moment, but could seat us in the smaller, low-ceilinged back room: the Winter Garden. He showed us to the prime table in the center of the far wall where we would command a view of the room - and everyone would see us. We were happy with the table and settled in; we declined George's offer to move us to the main room a few minutes later.

A hospitable captain took our drink orders, but we were dismayed about 5 minutes later when instead of bringing our drinks, a second captain plunked down our amuse-bouches and blurted out something unintelligible in an affected, accented French. Pat objected that we had yet to be served our cocktails and weren't ready to start eating. This captain was oblivious to her complaints. I asked him to repeat what he had said; he again blurted out something none of us could understand. When I asked him to say it again so we could understand, he condescendingly said something that I could make out as the 3 ingredients of the little dish and he strutted away.

Our original captain came by within attention distance a minute later and Pat summoned him to ask where out drinks were, again complaining that we had been served inappropriately. He apologized and gently informed us that he had checked and that the drinks would be up shortly. George then came by and again asked if we'd like a table out front. Pat said we liked this back room, but would move if we could get more proper attention at the other table. George assured her that we'd be taken care of at either table, so we stayed. From then on, the evening was wonderful.

Tom ordered a Hendrick's gin on the rocks. I'm normally not a martini drinker, but recalling that my niece's husband recommended Hendrick's, I tried a very dry Hendrick's martini. It was quite delicious! A wonderful taste, much lighter on the juniper flavor (and now, reading about it on the Internet, I see it's scented with cucumbers and rose petals), and it didn't leave me feeling woozy, as most martinis do.

We ordered the 6 course Tasting Menu ($95), deciding the 8 course Chef's Tasting Menu ($150) was simply too much food. Four of the 6 courses had choices, and we ordered so we could sample all the offered dishes. The pleasant captain happily accommodated Pat's request to substitute the foie gras course from the Chef's Tasting Menu for the Maine Day Boat Lobster on our menu, given her shellfish allergy. When I asked if I could keep a copy of the menu, the captain readily agreed and graciously asked if I would like David Bouley to autograph it, since he was here this evening cooking. What a treat and a great souvenir!

Bouley's breads continue to be wonderful and it's tempting to fill up on them. (Pat asked for a doggie bag with their signature little apple rolls. She was given a coat check tag for the rolls, which would be waiting for her as we left - the same, discrete service of doggie bags that Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester provides.) Each course was beautifully presented and served nicely. Each lived up to the presentation, being quite delicious and stimulating for our jaded New York palates. The food went very nicely with the magnificent bottles of white and red Burgundy wines Tom had ordered. (The white was a nice Chassagne Montrachet, but I can't recall the wonderful red, which was new to me.)

George sent over a gift course of uni (sea urchin) en gelee. We each got a slice of a mini-pâté, with two layers of uni between 3 thick layers of aspic. An interesting and beautiful concept, but I thought the aspic overly muted the wonderful flavor of the sea urchin.

After the unfortunate service of the amuse-bouche, the dinner courses were well paced and nicely served. We noted that the other tables in our room had turned over three times during our dinner. When we started our 3-hour long dinner, most of the other tables in Winter Garden room (and a few in the main dining room) were filled with fairly young Japanese patrons. Tom explained that the Japanese liked to eat early, typically booking 6 p.m. reservations. Perhaps this explained the arrogant captain's initial treatment of us: He may have thought we were Japanese and wanted to rush us through our dinner.

We were presented dessert menus and given free choice, instead of being restricted to the 3 dessert choices on our Tasting Menu. Tom wisely signaled that we would leave the choice up to the chef and would like to be surprised. Out came 3 luscious desserts, including the Chocolate Frivolous dessert from the Chef's Tasting Menu, plus another gift, a 4th dessert that was the most notable dish of the evening: the best crème brûlée any of us have ever had! Its texture was absolutely silky and the flavor was delicate yet sublimely delicious. Even the burnt sugar crust was perfectly crunchy yet ethereally thin. Although all the other dishes were intriguing and yummy, the simple crème brûlée was utterly perfect.

Despite our initial treatment, Pat seemed to be happier with our evening than the one she had a couple of weeks before with other friends, when they almost starved, with long waits between each of the 3 courses in their meal.

Tom & Pat insisted that I inspect the restroom, and I happily obliged. They are downstairs off a magnificently vaulted hall that Tom said had been imported from Europe. The hall also leads to the large private dining room (at which a few individual tables were still being served, at 11 p.m.). I loved the vessel sinks, and even the red-flocked wallpaper wasn't kitchy, as it usually is.

With the unevenness of the service, I can understand why the NY Times gave them only 3 stars, down from the 4 earned by the original Bouley. The wonderful cocktails and wines plus the tips tripled the $95 per person food cost - about normal for high-end NYC restaurants.

It was a wonderfully memorable evening out with good - and very generous - friends.

Here are some of the photos I took of the restaurant, menu, food, and friends. Alas, I had my camera on the wrong focus setting, so many of the pictures aren't as clear as they should be. But they'll give you an idea of our delightful experience.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why Study History?

In this time of concern for getting a good job after graduation, can there be any less useful college major than history? (Alas, "this time" has been around for generations.) My exposure to history majors at Cornell profoundly disavowed me of this opinion decades ago.

One of my good friends in my Cornell MBA program, Bill, had been a history major at Cornell College ("the other Cornell," as he was proud to say.) We had very good times together in our two years in Ithaca and I wasn't surprised that Bill did well after graduation, ending up working for a Chicago bank. He moved into managing bonds, and has been responsible for investing bond funds worth billions of dollars. "What did history have to do with the bond market?" I wondered. At reunions, I discussed this question with Bill and learned that in studying history, Bill had developed the ability and skill of reading voraciously, analyzing masses of data, and projecting likely outcomes, given past experiences. Bill's success in business demonstrates the wisdom of the George Santayana aphorism "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Indeed, in this troubling time of dealing with the excesses of the sub-prime mortgage debacle, some of us ask how this is any different from the past debacles of derivatives, savings and loan deregulation, and junk bonds. Perhaps those who studied history concluded they could repeat the financial killings some had made in those markets by just changing the details of the type of investment, hoping that government regulators hadn't studied enough history to see parallels and the inevitable consequences.

Another revelation on what the study of history really is about came during the inauguration activities for Cornell University's then-new president, Hunter Rawlings, who is a classicist. One of the inaugural sessions I attended was entitled "What is a Classicist?" In that session classicists were described as scholars specializing in ancient Greek and Roman history. But contrary to my impression that historians merely memorized dates and facts about past eras, I learned that the study of history is about discovering what actually happened in the past. The session painted a picture for me of historians being Sherlock Holmes-type characters, piecing together disparate hints and clues to form hypotheses to fill in the blanks. As a Sherlock Holmes fan - and today, loving the TV series House, MD for his ability to do the same in the medical field - had I been taught history beyond the boring rote memorization of dates and facts, I may have become fascinated by history and pursued its study. [On making this observation at the Rawlings inaugural, someone recommended a little novel to me: Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. It's a wonderful history mystery!]

Of course, history courses in our school curriculum are there to develop memorization abilities in students. But just as the purpose of math courses go beyond enabling students merely to "do math" (see my blog "Why Study Algebra"), history courses go further to teach students about relationships and consequences - what happened because a combination of events, decisions, or circumstances occurred. Ultimately, history teaches its students about beliefs of people in their age and environment.

Having been such a poor student of history, I can now relate to the importance that we all develop the skills related to the higher order study of history. There are other ways to develop these skills. But it's important that we recognize that because of our own lack of success in studying certain subjects in our typical education curricula, we may keep setting ourselves up for the recurrence of major problems in our own history.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Renée Fleming at the Opera Club


What an absolutely delightful evening we had with Renée Fleming at the Metropolitan Opera Club on March 19th! Renée was the honored guest artist for cocktails and dinner at our Club (on the Dress Circle level at the Met). She was tremendously gracious and generous with her time, mingling and warmly chatting with members and our guests and agreeing to our photo requests. While it's hard not to fawn over a performer of Renée's accomplishment, she made us each feel very comfortable to be with her.

The magic of the evening continued after dinner, when Renée spoke to us about her career and life in an interview format conducted by Sarah Billinghurst, Assistant Artistic Director of the Met, and took our questions before we broke for the evening's performance of Cavaleria Rusticana & Pagliacci. I took some notes of Renée's comments that gave us wonderful insights into the life of one of the world's greatest opera stars.

My first note was of Renée's recollection of a chat she had after singing to a small audience several years ago. Someone came up to her after her performance and told her: "You have an amazing voice! You should take some lessons!" With that bit of self-deprecating humor, Renée - the child of voice teacher parents, with voice degrees from SUNY Potsdam and Julliard -­ noted that the general public doesn't understand the difference in education required to sing on American Idol vs. at the Metropolitan Opera.

She has sung 51 roles in opera, and would still love to do a Strauss, Wagner, and world premiere opera role. As a lyric soprano, she has a broad range and could sing in any language.

Renée recalled that she learned something after giving birth to one of her children: that women who have just had a baby have no memory. Alas, she didn't know that at the time and was very frustrated with her inability just then to learn a new role.

She believes firmly in maintaining the health of the voice; the voice is such a fragile instrument. Renée noted that unlike many other singers, her voice has not "gained weight" over the years (just as Plácido Domingo's also has not).

Sarah mentioned that 1 1/2 million viewers around the world have watched the Metropolitan Opera HDTV broadcasts at their local movie theaters, dramatically expanding the numbers of those who have had the opportunity to see and hear Renée perform.

As to how many years Renée might continue to perform in operatic roles, she replied she doesn't have a particular target, but will take it one year a time. This year, of course, has been a remarkable one for Renée at the Met, featuring her on Opening Night and in Thaïs, Rusalka, and the 125th Anniversary Gala.

Renée finds that the Met, acoustically from the stage, is her most comfortable house. Despite its size [I believe it's the largest opera house in the world today, with just under 4000 seats], Renée says when she just sings well, it carries; she doesn't worry about her voice filling the house.

She noted that she learned a lesson early in her career about singing with ease. She found a piece she sung from Rusalka (in the Czech language of her family heritage) was almost "too easy" to sing. It took a while for her to recognize that it was easy because the piece was a good fit for her voice - an important lesson for singers: They need to audition with pieces that fit!

In working with conductors, she looks to be inspired by a conductor - one who encourages her to take risks. The conductor makes or breaks a performance - especially if the conducting is poorly paced. She can't take tyrants, but has had the good fortune of working at length in this house and city she loves [and, I daresay, loves her!].

Renée continues to share her gifts and knowledge by offering master classes to singers and discovering and encouraging young talent. Among those discoveries is Shenyang, a bass baritone she heard in a master class she conducted in Shanghai. She introduced him to the Met's Young Artist Program where he as been developing while attending Julliard. Shenyang will have his Met premiere on April 13th as Masetto in Don Giovanni.

Now that Renée's Met season is over, she will be taking one of her daughters to visit colleges. I've sent Renée my blog piece on Getting Admitted to a Good College. I hope she and her daughter find it helpful! Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing the pictures the photographer took of Renée and me and using it in my holiday letter!