Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Economics of Voting with your Pocketbooks

Recently, the Economist published two articles that argued that recent trends in Fairtrade products, organic food, and locally-grown produce not only are not good for poor farmers, but also are detrimental to the environment ("Voting with your Trolley," and "Good Food" in the December 9th-15th 2006 print edition. Page numbers in the following blog entry refer to this issue unless otherwise noted.) The article was also discussed in Dan Mitchell's "What's Online" column on the New York Times website, December 16th, 2006. As a number of blogs have pointed out, some features of the argument were remarkably lacking in evidence, and there may be some reasons to doubt its truth (For the latter, see usfoodpolicy.blogspot.com).

But even though you can argue that it wasn't a particularly good argument in some respects, it did raise a number of important issues that seem worth addressing, and indeed, it may have been worth publishing for the quality of the discussions in the blogosphere alone.

Some of the arguments the Economist offers certainly seem worth thinking about. In particular, I found the arguments that seemed right out of Adam Smith were quite interesting, and certainly raise a number of important questions. It is not surprising that the Economist would adopt such a perspective, since, after all, the magazine is crucially linked to that eighteenth-century writer. A fundamental idea in Smith's work, and indeed of much of our current economic theory is that when prices go up unnaturally, they have a tendency to go down again. That is, if there is a lot of money to be made in the sale of a certain commodity, then more people will want to move stock into that market. But when more people move stock into a market, they have to be more competitive, which will cause the participants in that market to lower the price to it's "natural price" - to use some of Smith's jargon - or perhaps even below that value. I suppose there are at least two possible consequences to this action. In the first case, the price will fall, and more farmers will be poorer in just the way the Economist suggests. In the second case, even if the price were kept at a constant level, e.g. remain fixed, it seems that negative consequences could follow. Since in this case the price could not be lowered, there is nothing a seller could do to further encourage purchases. And given the limited shelf life of coffee before it's processed, it will have to be sold or the money invested in it will be counted as a loss. But since an investor will want to avoid this situation in the future, the consequence may be that they will produce a smaller crop the following year, hire less labor, or even fire some of those employees that they have. So the workers also would suffer.
It is a fairly solid argument, although it is predicated on the idea that the market has reached a saturation point. In order to determine whether this is true we need to have a clear conception of what the market in fact is. Fairtrade coffee works by adding a small premium to the current price of coffee when it is produced in a certain way. Thus it is certainly linked to the price of non-Fairtrade coffee. But you can argue that it is a mistake to subsume both into the same category. I find it interesting that most of the articles I've read on this subject, including the two in the Economist article seem to presume that Fairtrade coffee is the same product as non-Fairtrade coffee. In one sense, this is obviously true, since the only distinction is through the process by which the coffee is produced, and consequently there often is no discernable difference in the product itself (The Economist article makes a passing aside on page 74 to the decrease in quality of the coffee that is sold as Fairtrade, but offers no evidence for this, and I know from experience that this is not inevitably the case, as my local coffee shop demonstrates every day). As evidence for treating both coffees as the same product, the Economist article makes a passing reference to Tim Harford's book The Undercover Economist, and the Economist observes that the "basic problem" is that "too much coffee is being produced in the first place." (p.74) It strikes me, however, that part of the Fairtrade movement is predicated on convincing customers that there actually is a difference in the product. If people are not interested in 'purchasing coffee,' but 'purchasing Fairtrade coffee,' then there is not only an incentive for more people to put their stock into Fairtrade coffee, but also an incentive for current producers to take their stock out of non-Fairtrade coffee. Thus while the overall market comprised of Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade coffee may be reaching a saturation point, or perhaps even a super-saturation point, the Fairtrade coffee market can still offer tremendous possibilities for growth. Fairtrade is thus a tricky thing to model because it not only encourages an increase in supply of a certain product, but the advertising campaign aims to change the nature of the market in a fundamental way.

But regardless, there are a number of further objections to Fairtrade coffee. For one thing there is the issue of whether the movement should only focus on cooperatives and not the larger plantations that may even have more egregious hiring practices. (p.74) In fact, so far as this prevents the expansion of the market, it could reach the problem of a saturated market mentioned above. Further, there is the question whether the money is actually going to go to the poor farmers who are the intended beneficiaries of the Fairtrade movement. And indeed, it seems imperative that the public know precisely what the premium is that is going to the farmers, and how it is distributed once it reaches them.

These are all things that should be taken into account in evaluating the success of the Fairtrade movement. At present, it is worth noting that there is a lot of controversy over whether the Fairtrade organizations are succeeding in their mission, and the Economist article is only one of the more recent critical voices. One problem is that the actual financial data that would affirm or fail to validate the organization's claims does not seem to be freely available. As I say, we not only want to know what percentage of the premium is actually going to the producers, but also how this money is distributed once it gets there. The Internet seems an ideal place for this information to be distributed, although it is true that it might be a rather large undertaking. Yet, it seems that having this information available online might not only assuage doubts in an organization's effectiveness, but also open up the possibility for a whole new level of transparency within the markets it aims to improve. For ultimately this is the strongest weapon that we have against unethical companies, and nothing protects an unethical business more - be it farm or factory - than a lack of transparency.

In the meantime, I’m going to be spending a bit more time with Adam Smith this week.    

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Montaigne and Lake Michigan

Img_1441The holiday season is here, and I've decided to do something curious, to turn my blog into a book. No, I didn't land a contract from a big publisher, or come to think of my work so highly that I think everyone should read it. But then these have never been my aims in writing this blog. I admit that I've never been entirely clear about what my aim actually is. It's true that when I first started this blog I had all the usual reasons: I wanted to share my adventures with my extended friends and family, I wanted to explore my own thoughts, I wanted others to see the pictures I had taken. But at a certain point in this process you realize that there's a bit more to blogging than that. And no, I'm not necessarily referring to a latent prima donna complex, or some innate desire for quiet people to become extroverts. For me, the fact of the matter is that a blog is a form of media like no other. There's no other form of communication that so readily incorporates text, pictures, and sound, that is so conducive to interpersonal communication, and yet preserves the deeply personal nature of journal writing. It has very little precedent. Like the advent of printing, we're embarking on a brand new type of literary work.

Micheleyquemdemontaigne_1Well, it occurs to me that although the format may be new, it's not entirely without precedent. For instance, the personal journal or diary definitely figures in its development. And yet, the transition from self-communication to communicating to the world is not insignificant. In fact, if I had to find a precedent for blogging, I'd probably instead point to a single work first published in 1580: Michel de Montaigne's Essais. Now Montaigne scholars may role in their graves at the suggestion, but there are many reasons to think of Montaigne as the first blogger.

Img_1172Superficially, this can be defended from the standpoint of content. Probably no person had ever written for the public with the personal style and breadth of Montaigne until the advent of blogging. Not only did Montaigne write about philosophical topics, and interesting facts about education and social mores, but he also wrote about such uncouth subjects as indigestion and the best time to use the toilet. And one characteristic of bloggers - although perhaps not of this blogger - is the openness to such unusual themes. Further, the style of writing that Montaigne developed, mixing serious philosophical subjects with witty asides also finds many parallels among the more successful bloggers. Finally, the manner in which Montaigne approached his writing also draws many modern parallels. He claimed to have written down everything as it occurred to him, and he claimed never to have struck out a passage that had been sincerely written, even if that would reveal contradictions and errors in his own views. What Montaigne has thus given is a true picture of himself, and many of today's bloggers have similar aspirations.

Img_1430But from a more philosophical standpoint, too, it seems that Montaigne dealt with many of the same philosophical puzzles that loom in the background of blogging life. For, most bloggers are caught in the same position that Montaigne was: writing deeply personal things, but recognizing that a larger impersonal audience would be reading those thoughts. Much of Montaigne's unique style seems to have developed from a mixture of these two conflicting forces: the force to be true to oneself, and the force to present this self to the world.

Img_1380But perhaps this is not the best way to describe what's going on either in Montaigne or in a blog. For this way of speaking seems to suggest that we have a self that is independent of the world around us. But who we are is defined by that world. It's thus not the case that our personalities are so fixed. In fact, perhaps a better way of describing what's going on when we embark on a project like a blog is that we are fostering new aspects of our personalities, aspects that we may not have been aware of beforehand. Although I've gestured towards this fact in an early blog, perhaps it's worth going into this in a bit more detail again. I think it should be fairly obvious that we act differently around different people. Even if we're not aware of it, the ways that we respond to our father or mother are very different from the ways that we might respond to our auto-mechanic or boss. Each of these people stands in different relations to us, and who we are is in part how we respond to those different relationships. In each case there's some give-and-take, so to speak: the way we respond to those people determines the way that they respond to us, which in turn helps redefine the way we respond to them. And this obviously happens at the most individual level too. And there are many complexities. For instance, some people may always have bad interactions with their auto-mechanic, and the mood that this experience puts them in might cause these same people to act differently later to their husband or wife. Or we might meet someone who gives us a new way of looking at the world, and it might permeate all our relationships, such as when someone has the calling to become a priest or a monk. I mention this since I know a few people who have done this, and had to break up with their girlfriends as a consequence. There's a tough alteration.

Img_1335I personally like this dynamic way of looking at ourselves. Maybe an analogy might be useful. It's as if each of us are cities being built in a particular place. Now there are limitations that nature imposes upon us, our underlying psychology, if you will. In the analogy we might think of this as the topography of the landscape. If there's a mountain in the middle of the city, we may build around it, we may try to tunnel through it, but we have to deal with it somehow. Similarly lakes will require bridges, and so on. We probably cannot alter some features of our psychology, but we can find ways of working through them, or overcoming them. And we each have individual limitations imposed upon us by the talents we have, or the peculiar set of natural abilities that we develop. In the analogy we might think of this as the limitations of our township, perhaps a lake or an impossible to pass mountain pass. If we now take this analogy as our basis, one way of looking at doing something new like writing a blog is that it is like building a new neighborhood in our city. Yes, it will be confined by our underlying psychology, it will have the same limitations that we have, and so on, but it is something new, and it has new challenges: new contracts have to be negotiated, new decisions and allocations need to be made. And although it may seem like a isolated appendage, the whole structure of the city may change in response to the addition: the traffic patterns may alter, some parts of the city may become neglected, other parts may suddenly seem very important.

Img_1341So when Montaigne wrote his Essais, it wasn't just that he was merely presenting his preexisting self to the world. Rather he was developing a new self, a new facet of his personality, and it's this newly constructed self that he was showing to the world. In a similar manner, I think I am - and indeed all bloggers are - building a new self through this exercise. Of course, this isn't limited to blogging, almost any activity does this, but there are different decisions that have to be made when one blogs. For instance, there are parts of myself that I've chosen not to share with the world in this blog: for the most part I don't name people or discuss the many small problems and pleasures that I might experience from day to day. Perhaps someday I will be more open to this sort of thing, but at the moment it doesn't seem a natural part of this facet of my personality. If one is a psychological reductionist, you might explain the fact that I don't discuss things like when I use the toilet, or the moments when I might manifest a latent Oedipus complex, as so many attempts to misrepresent my true nature. That is, often in the psychological literature there is the thought that our underlying desires and emotions are our "true self" and so far as we try to appear different from this universalized set of features and relationships we are somehow not being true to ourselves. But this is to mistake the landscape for the city. It's true that the landscape will always be there, but it's only one part of who we are, and we don't even need to understand it as the most important part. To be "true to yourself" is to build a representation of who you are that you can accept and embrace.

Img_1476And in the end, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Montaigne's writing is how rich and interesting a representation he made. He managed to leave behind something that tells a lot about who he was. A desire to leave been part of him behind was probably part of his motivation, as he alludes to explicitly in his "To the Reader." I suppose that ultimately I too share his desire to leave something of myself behind. And what could be more natural? This thought is at least as old as Aristotle, who claims that human beings have an innate desire to strive toward the immortality they cannot have as mortal beings. We either do this through sexual reproduction, a way of leaving an image of ourselves behind, or as I might add, by putting our words down on paper or some other medium. Actually, if you think of it, these two ways of striving towards immorality are not independent, but each relies on the other in a significant way: in order for our words to be read in the future we need future generations, and in order for these future generations to understand who we were we have to tell them. It occurs to me that one of the reasons why I know so little about the daily lives of my ancestors is that they lacked the second of these two components. They obtained one half of what it means to have human immortality, but unlike Montaigne's family, there was no means for them to tell me about themselves. How fortunate to have an ancestor like Montaigne!

Img_1374Now that I think about it, perhaps it's possible that future generations will have to deal with the opposite difficulty from this dearth of information I'm describing. Perhaps with all the blogs, recordings, pictures, videos, and so on that we have today, future generations will have information overload, and the quest for them will be to find a way of piecing the pieces together, or they'll just throw their hands up in the air and choose to ignore us completely. But since so little remains from my ancestors, and I experience that as an unfortunate loss, I can certainly be excused for leaving a little bit more of myself behind. So, with this caveat, I don't feel guilty for any self-indulgence I have granted myself in writing this blog, or in turning it into a book through blurg.com for my family and friends, even if it's not as significant as the tome a lone Frenchman from the seventeenth century has left us. This blog is still a piece of who I am, and for this reason it seems important for me to leave it behind. And I still have one advantage over that Frenchman: I have photographs.

Img_1233Well, after this set of thoughts, I should say that my intention is to end my book of recollections of 2006 with photographs, so my blogyear will end in this way as well. Living in my new apartment, with a fantastic view of the lake, I've been privy to some remarkable sights over the past few months. It's true that some friends have been able to share in some of these moments, but no one has been able to appreciate all the changes that I've seen, or the different images that have been conveyed by means of water, light, and sky. I think the most remarkable thing about my view is the fact that it changes so often. It's not just that no two sunrises are identical, or that the 2 PM today looks slightly different from the 2 PM yesterday. But these small differences are also parts of a much larger progressions that is always on parade before my windows. I hope that the accompanying photographs can convey some important parts of this parade.

Img_1180But even though a picture is worth a thousand words, it's worth taking a few words to describe the variety that I take to be apparent in these photographs. For starters, since my apartment faces due east over the lake, the sunrises are absolutely spectacular, and I've even moved my bed near the windows so I never have to miss one. And I value the moonrises - perhaps because of their less common nature - even higher. And then there are odd moments in the day, such as the time when a low western sun happens to reflect off the adjacent building and casts my entire hallway in a deep yellow glow. And there are the changes of the season, from the summer when the lake is nearly covered with sailboats as far as you can see, to the autumn, when only a few boats venture out in the stiff breezes, to the winter when the lake is completely empty save for the occasional white crest of a wave. There was even a remarkable few days when the water must have been close to the air temperature, and swirls of mist raced across the surface of the water towards the rising sun. And then there are the changes that are the result of Chicago's variable weather patterns. For instance, on clear sunny days you can see as far as Michigan City. On other days low and repressive clouds remove the light of day, such as the afternoon when all the tornado sirens in downtown Chicago went off. Sometimes there has been a soft, light gossamer mist that covered all the tops of the nearby buildings, and which draped across the pier like a piece of fabric.Img_1403Sometimes, when a storm is passing far out on the lake, you have an unobstructed view of the lightning and passing rains. And the moon at night is truly spectacular, especially when there are enough clouds to cast moving shadows down on the water. Although perhaps the most amazing view that I've seen is one morning when I didn't see anything.Img_1395The fog was so thick everything was hidden: the lights on the pier, the building across the way, the boats, the lighthouse, everything. The only thing I could see that morning was a plain untextured whiteness. Anyway, you can look at the accompanying photographs if you would like to experience a little more of my view. They may not have been parts of who you are, but they can be now.

Hmm, that leads me to ponder another great advantage of sharing our lives with others: the ability to enrich their lives. This need not be seen as an altruistic process, since we gain advantages from it as well, but there are certainly altruistic components. Whether these altruistic components are accepted for what they are or whether they are seen is a sort of intellectual colonization project perhaps ultimately depends on the whims of chance.

And it is a whim of chance that led me to combine Montaigne and pictures of Lake Michigan in this final post of my 2005-2006 series. But after thinking through the line of reasoning above, perhaps it's a fortuitous combination, and perhaps it reveals something about the facet of my personality that I am building through this blog. Although the reasons why I say this may have to be deferred to another post, I'll leave that last observation for my reader to judge.

Happy holidays!Img_1526

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Common English Words

DictionaryMovies have become such an important part of our culture that many common English words actually derive from the names of important directors. The following list defines some of the more important of these words.

bergmanian — (adj) Characterized by a state of depression and despair, often accompanied by a bleak and uncompromising outlook. "After our fight, she decided to go all bergmanian on me."

chaplin — (n) To do something so well you become a cultural icon. "He was the chaplin of his time."

(1) coppolate — (vb) To make something unusually grand and showy. "He could have made it a small, private affair, but he decided to coppolate the event instead."
(2) coppolate — (vb) To make something unusually small and introspective. "He could have coppolated [see previous definition] the event, but decided to coppolate it instead."

felliny — (n) A state of absurdity or surreal bewilderment. "When the priest told us to be sure to fill the evening with lots of sex and alcohol, we were overcome by the felliny of it all."

jacksonize — (vb) (1) To remove all nuance and subtlety from a script. "This script has been thoroughly jacksonized." (2) To go for the most obvious cinematic tricks whenever possible. "He could have done something original, but he decided to jacksonize the scene instead."

jarmusch — (n) A moment that captures the randomness of everyday life, as in "It's impossible for me to explain what happened, since it was a complete jarmusch."

kieslowskate — (vb) To render deep and depressing by means of unusually fantastic cinematography. "Love seemed such a happy and uplifting emotion until the film thoroughly kieslowskated it."

kurasawa — (n) A classic, model, best of it's kind. "It was the kurasawa of sports cars."

lucalate— (vb) To add an unusual number of special effects. "The film would not have been so good if the director didn't lucalate it."

mehtazian — (adj) Characterized by excessive controversy or an extreme polarization of opinions. "After the activist's lecture there was a mehtazian reaction from the crowd."

miyazakia — (n) A profound or sublime state of being, often used with the explicit phrase, "a state of." "Upon seeing the Sistine Chapel, we found ourselves in a state of miyazakia."

spielbergify — (vb) To do something in an especially obvious or predictable way so everyone gets it. "The teacher decided the point was so important that even though most students understood it immediately, she spent twenty more minutes spielbergifying it."

tarantinish — (adj) (1) Made unusually trendy or compelling by an effective use of music. "The commercial was so tarantinish, I couldn't help but buy the product." (2) Made especially dramatic or discomforting by the use of violence or disturbing imagery. "The commercial was so tarantinish, I could hardly watch it."

tarkovskia — (n) A state in which just about anything can seem beautiful and sublime because of a preceding period of impossibly long and depressing ennui, often used with the explicit phrase, "a state of." "We were in such a state of tarkovskia that we thought that bell-making was the most incredible thing ever done."

Saturday, September 16, 2006

New Apartment!

ThenewneighborhoodSo, it's finally happened. After several months of searching, after quite a few setbacks from university housing, from the Chicago housing market, and two weeks of absolute craziness, I have moved into a new apartment. And today is the first day that I've managed to conquer enough of the unpacking that my apartment actually looks reasonably under control. I still have about 20 big boxes of books to unpack, bookshelves to buy, and tons of stuff to sort through, but for now I have a new home.

I suppose moving is rather routine for many people, but for me it's a bit of a dramatic event. I've only lived at two other addresses in Chicago - both run by the university housing office - and although I was only at the first for a year, I've been at the second address for most of a decade. In fact, I was informed about a year ago that I was the longest continuous resident in that building of 70 units. I'm not entirely sure why I've stayed there so long, although I have a tendency to settle into a place. And it did have a lot of things going for it. It was right near a grocery store, within a mile of campus, it had plenty of windows facing three different directions, great cross ventilation, one of the most wonderful trees just outside the living room windows, the sound of crickets at night while I slept, and great afternoon sunlight that would drift in through the western windows and settle on the sofa for perfect afternoon naps. But the place wasn't all that great. For one thing, the ceiling was falling apart, the furniture was broken even before I moved in and the university refused to replace the broken items, there were worries of asbestos, and I thought the apartment might be giving me a strange chronic cough. So I decided it was time to look for a new place.

The search lasted several months, in the course of which I consulted a half dozen different services, walked into two dozen different buildings, looked at just about every apartment building I could want to live in - which I actually find to be sort of fun, must be my inner architect/interior designer - before I found the perfect apartment building. And even then there were quite a few hassles. The upshot of it all was that it took about three weeks for me to find out whether or not I got the apartment I applied for, giving me only two weeks to pack up everything (while working full time), and then my previous landlord wouldn't let me stay in my apartment until the new apartment was available, so I had to do this annoying double move: once into a storage unit, and once out of the storage unit into my new apartment. That was really annoying, since I had to pay for moving twice, and a storage unit,Homeawayfromhome and I also had to find a place to stay. Fortunately, one of my dissertation committee members called out of the blue and told me that she needed someone to look after her apartment and car. That was fantastic, since not only did I have a place to stay for most of the week, but I also had a car to use to do annoying things like purchase boxes, and to move those last annoying items after I returned the truck. I then worried about whether I could afford the place, but then out of the blue the research firm offered me a raise and appointed me to be the senior corporate and market analyst. And finally, my friends Katie and Paul offered me a place to stay for the remaining few days, and to cook me food. Actually, Katie and Paul really come across as the heroes of this whole move, helping me on both days to move tons and tons of boxes. The move really would have been impossible without them. Likewise for my friend Brian who drove me all over the place and moved boxes on the first day.

Let me just say what moving is.Movingout At least four times in the course of the two weeks I was packing boxes, and preparing everything, the people around me used the identical phrase: moving is a bitch. It really is the perfect way of describing it. Moving initially seems like such a wonderful companion, it promises you a new future, a new beginning, wonderful changes and possibilities.Movedout But then, when it's 3 AM and you have to move another 20 boxes out of your apartment in the next two hours, and tip toe them up to your professor's apartment without disturbing the neighbors so you can fill the car up again, and you have a list of all the hundreds of things you need to do, and you are worried about returning the truck on time, and where the hell you put those important papers, you finally realize what sort of a thing you've committed yourself to, and the only thing you can do is wish that the whole process will be over with. Yes, moving is a bitch.



But now that I've gone through it, I can say it definitely has worked out. I have a fantastic apartment. It's arguably in the best part of the city, right next to the bike path that will take me the eight miles down to the university without any traffic, with a bus that will take me right to the university - stopping right in front of the building doorway. ChicagolocksIt's in the same building as my favorite grocery store and café, one of the best wine markets in Chicago, and the new Delacosta restaurant and club. It's right across the street from the best new movie theaterin the city, and on the waterfront. It's also high up: almost the 40th floor, with a spectacular view. It's almost too good a view to imagine. I think that Katie described it best when she put down a box and said something like, "Holy Mary mother of Jesus." I mean it looks out over the lake with the endlessly changing shadows of the clouds on the water, with a view of the locks that let boats into the Chicago River, a beach to the north, a harbor to the south, and what I think is the best part: a view of the two main lighthouses of the Chicago harbor (I'm rather fond of lighthouses, having grown up with one across the bay in Provincetown).




And at night, with Navy Pier lit up and the fireworks launching nearby, it's pretty tough to beat. It's also big for a studio/convertible, with a large kitchen, and a library (well it's just a nook behind the kitchen, but it's going to be the library). And there's a washer/dryer in the unit, which for me is just about the most amazing thing. Plus the building has bike storage, a deck on the 16th floor with gas grills, an indoor swimming pool, sauna and steam room. In fact, it's such a nice building, that I've been told oftentimes movie stars stay here when there filming in Chicago.




So those of you that are in different cities, there's a new place for you to come and stay . . . although I should add that although there's parking in the building, it is sort of expensive, and you'll probably want to wait a bit, since I still only have the futon that Sheila gave me. Hallway3I hope to get a real bed in the near future, although the futon actually is really comfy, Livingroom1and it is nice to sleep in front of the windows and next to the stereo. Actually, speaking about the futon: Sheila, much of my furniture in the living room is from your old apartment, so you may feel right at home here! Actually, I should probably add that there is a thin possibility that I won't be living in this apartment for the whole year. Kitchen1Yes, paradise has fine print. The only reason I can afford this place is that there is a rider on the lease that if the apartment sells, Livingroom02I'll have to move out within the year, and possibly as soon as a month afterwards. Considerations such as this even make me wonder how much it would cost to buy the place, but since I may be out of Chicago in as soon as a year, I suppose that doesn't make too much sense even if it turned out possible. But it's really a great apartment.

Mooninhydepark3But of course, there will be things I'll miss from Hyde Park. Yes, it's an insular community that really tests one's willpower after five years, but it's a quiet place, with plenty of trees, perfect places to go running, plenty of places to eat breakfast, great used bookstores, the fantastic Seminary Co-Op Bookstore, arguably the best single shot espresso in Chicago (see my posting on espresso), and a beautiful park along the water. In fact, on one of the last nights that I was in Hyde Park I went for a bike ride along the water, and there was a beautiful full moon overhead, it was completely quiet, except for the lapping of the water, and the lights from the building on the point cast a soft glow over the water. A spectacular scene, and it was a nice farewell from my old neighborhood. And of course, I haven't left the neighborhood. I still will be spending most of my time down there at the U of C, and at the research company I work for. Fortunately, these places are only a short bike ride away, and biking along the lake is a fantastic commute.

Anyway, a new beginning in Chicago. And I firmly believe in the importance of geographical location. Terroir, if you will. And just as a bottle of wine can reveal important aspects of the place it is from, I think we all carry parts of our terroirs with us. This goes beyond our accents, and the information we actively learn about from the world around us, but it can be detected in even the most insignificant aspects of our personalities and lifestyles. I have no idea how I will change now that I've moved out of my old apartment, and into an entirely different part of the city, but the hope is that now with a change of viewpoint, it will be so much to the better, that I can finally get that darn dissertation done!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Notes From My Summer Vacation

Well, it's been a long time since I'm posted something on this blog. I have meant to post something for weeks now, so I thought I'd at least share some thoughts about my summer vacation, so you all know what's up with me.

I had the good fortune to be in six different places this summer: New York, Philadelphia, Vermont, New Hampshire, the Massachusetts Coast, and Chicago. Even though I've made multiple trips to some of these places, it makes sense to group the adventures by geographical location.

New York

In the beginning of the summer I was offered free tickets to see Anna Bartos and the Ensemble Alma perform in New York City, and so I decided to fly in for the occasion. Anna is a classical singer, and has a particular penchant for singing Spanish classical music. The concert was enjoyable, and the musicians, including Anna, were all very good. I particularly remember some of Anna's last few songs, and an especially moving rendition of Villa-Lobos on a solo guitar.

17boch_thumbOther highlights in New York include going to the Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro. It's one of the few highlights in that part of downtown to me, and if you haven't gone you should check it out sometime. Artisanal is a wine bar with well over a hundred of different bottles of wine by the class, and a cheese shop with incredibly select cheeses from throughout the world. Although the three of us only ended up buying about three glasses of wine per person, we lucked out with a really great bartender who had a passion for finding the perfect bottles of wine for each of us - so in the course of the night we probably tasted over 20 different bottles of wine in our little three-hour expedition. And the cheeses there were also remarkable, and since the cheese counter is right next to the wine bar, you and your wine glass can make hourly pilgrimages from the bar to the cheeses and back again. I think we sampled about ten different cheeses, but by far the most remarkable cheese was a cheddar from Cabot Creamery in Vermont. I consider myself to be a cheddar aficionado, not the least because Vermont has two of the best cheddar producers in the world: Cabot Creamery and the Graftron Village Cheese Company. And they're both within driving distance of my hometown. Hence, I've had almost every sort of Cabot cheddar imaginable, but even I never even heard about the variety of Cabot cheddar they had at this cheese shop. It was a clothbound cheddar of which only perhaps 60 wheels have been made, and unusually enough, they were not aged at Cabot, but were shipped off to Jasper Hill Farm to be aged in a small cave in the Northeast Kingdom. The taste was quite unusual: a good cheddar with heavyEerieny notes of Parmigiano-Reggiano flavor. (As a side note when many people are depressed and need a pick-up they go and get a bottle of wine, when I want a little pick-me up I end up going for cheese, in particular a Parmigiano-Reggiano that is produced only from the rare red cows of northern Italy: Parmigiano-Reggiano della vacca rosa. Definitely worth trying at some point if you haven't, although at it's current price you might want to settle for the smallest of slivers. I should add that when we left the restaurant, there was an eerie light in the city . . .

Another highlight of New York were the 4th of July Fireworks. I spent the 4th hanging out at a barbecue in Brooklyn with my sister, her boyfriend and some friends. It was fun, but the real hightlight was watching the fireworks from the rooftop. Just see the photos:


Oh, and visiting my friend Zarya at her favorite bar in the upper West side, I had the first Mojito I have ever had in my life that I actually enjoyed. I don't know what went wrong with the Mojitoes I've had before this point, but they were all quite awful. But after our bartender spent 45 minutes making us a suitable beverage (no exaggeration, it was a little excessive - he said he was out of mint, so I'm guessing we just had to wait for him to plant some), I finally had a Mojito worth ordering.Mojito1 And after our compliments, our bartender decided to make us each another round. He got quicker, but it still took 20 minutes!

Other highlights of New York were seeing the new Morgan Library. I liked the open spaces that Renzo Piano, one of my favorite architects, designed. They are a nice way of preserving the old rooms of the museum, but providing modern open spaces. The biggest highlight of the museum for me was seeing the musical scores in one of the upper rooms. Centralpark_1There, at the end of the room I saw a musical score that really did move me: a selection from one of Bach's cantatas written in his own hand. I don't know what it's about seeing a musician's original score, but to me it's like seeing a painting in person: one can just imagine the motions that the painter used to place each stroke on the paper, and it somehow makes one feel closer somehow to the painting. Perhaps it's a little bit of fantasy to think that one can divine something about the music from merely seeing the actual score - which, after all, Bach may have just been recopying in utter boredom - but as irrational as it may be, part of me thinks I can learn something from it. I also got to spend some time with my mother in Central Park. My sister's apartment is almost right on the park - and what's more the prettiest part of the park. - so it is easy to wander out there, especially on a beautiful summer day.

New York is still the city I feel most comfortable in.Lamarea

Oh, and I almost forgot, I went to a concert at the Blue Note with Marta Topferova. She has a really neat bossa nova sound. And it turns out that when I spoke with her afterwards, we discovered that we actually went to college together. A very funny coincidence. Anyway, she's definitely worth listening to if you haven't. Especially her album La Marea.


Well, I didn't get to see much of Philadelphia, because I had a flight that was supposed to arrive in La Guardia at 1 PM, and I had to manage to catch a train to Philly by 3:30 PM, and somewhere in between I had to make it to the upper west side to drop off some stuff and my sister's apartment, of which I technically did not have a key. Seemed a rather risky plan on a tight timetable. But then throw into the mix the fact that my plane was an hour late, and it begins to verge on the impossible. So what was my journey? I woke up early in the morning, caught a bus, that took me to a train, that took me to a plane, that took me to a cab, that took me to a subway, that took me to a train station, that took me to a commuter train station, that took me to a car that brought me to my destination. Rad1A very long day of travel to spend merely one night at my friend Rad and Sue's apartment. But since my friend Sheila was there, as well as Kathryn and Dave, it seemed worthwhile. And wow, the rain in Philadelphia when I arrived: it had rained so hard that to cross through the tunnel from one side of the train station to the other I had to wade through an river that made it over the top of my shoes. But when I arrived there were plenty of friends, fantastic Indian food, and of course, several round of that most addictive four-person card game, Rook. It was fun to see Rad and Sue's two children again. They're terribly cute. Although I suppose little Rad might choose a better word to describe himself, so I'll let you choose your own adjective for him, and just show a photo.


I also got to spend time in my hometown in Vermont. It had been a long time since I was in Vermont in the summertime, and it really is beautiful. On the first trip to Vermont I was only there for a few days, but I still got to go to many of my favorite old haunts like Cooper Hill. Cooperhill_1And the top of my hill:Myhill_1

On the second trip I was only there for two to three days, but I still got to spend a day with my mother next to lake Whitingham.Lake1It's one of her favorite places to relax, and it really does have spectacular scenery. It occurred to me that if I lived in Vermont I'd probably be making far less money than I would living in a place like New York or Chicago, and I wouldn't have all the nightlife and museums to visit. But in Vermont one's job benefits would include, clean air, beautiful summer days with the wind going through the trees, bright blue lakes surrounded by mountains, and genuine peace and quiet.Vermont1Working in the State of Vermont comes with a pretty good package of benefits if you ask me.

On that trip I also got to have a fantastic free meal at the Inn at Sawmill Farm.Sawmillfarm1I've probably mentioned this before, but my little town of 600 people in the hills of Vermont had the distinction of having two of the best wine cellars in the country: the Inn at Sawmill Farm and the Hermitage. The latter closed a few years ago, and sold off much of its cellar, but the former is still there. No longer a Raleigh and Châteaux resort it still is a Dirona restaurant with a Wine Spectator Grand Award wine cellar, and good professionally prepared meals. I suppose in the course of my time in Vermont, my whole family has worked there. I was a waiter, a holiday coat checker, a breakfast prep chef (e.g. I did the morning fruit, etc.), and had the odd jobs such as stringing up the Christmas lights around the property, and even taking architectural photographs of a part of the inn (the only time I've ever been professionally employed as an architectural photographer). My sister did gardening, made a fortune checking coats for New Year's, and did many other odd jobs, my father was a chef there, and my mother has done everything from taking care of the rooms and public spaces, to flower arranging, to making tomato juice, to making jam, to sewing the curtains and helping refurbish the rooms. For about twenty years my family has been associated with that inn. That was a bit of a digression, but it all is building up to the fact that as a treat to my mother for all the work she's put into the place, we had a free dinner and free wine while I was in town. I have mixed feelings about some of the Sawmill Farm's dishes, but I have to say that that night my roasted loin of lamb was cooked perfectly (I've fallen so far from my vegetarian days!), and the Chateau Chasse-Spleen (I think it was a '95) was good, with just enough of the terroir that one looks for from a restaurant that specializes in rare French wines.

New Hampshire

And on the same trip that I went to Vermont, I also went to New Hampshire to see my friends Alex and Suzanne get married. Their wedding was on Friday at 5 PM. I had a flight that morning from O'Hare at a quarter to 8 AM. Everything should have worked out wonderfully, except that I missed my flight. Why did I miss my flight? Well, I had not anticipated that there would be so many people there that Friday morning. Actually, I have never seen the place so crowded in my life, and I've flown the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day, and those busy weeks before the Christmas holiday. Anyway, apparently most of the flights the previous day were cancelled due to passing thunderstorms. Anyway, since my ticket was earned from frequent flier miles, I sort of was stuck waiting for the next flight with an available seat to my destination. And after an hour of completely maddening exchanges with United's customer service, I decided to wait for the next plane. I don't want to go into all the details, but one of these maddening conversations went like this:

"I want to talk with someone about seeing if I can get a ticket on another plane to somewhere on the East Coast," said in a calm and curious tone.

"Were we responsible for missing your flight?"

"Well, no, I hadn't planned on there being . . ."

"Then you have defaulted on your part of the contract!," said in a screaming and accusatory tone. "You have failed to live up to your bargain, we owe you nothing! . . . What are you still doing standing here," said in response to my mystified and confused pause, "Why are you still standing in line!"

"Um, I can't get past this person in front of me . . . "

"Excuse me madam, step aside, this man is leaving . . . why aren't you leaving!!"

UafriendlyskiesI actually wasn't leaving since I was a little confused. I hadn't expected a customer service representative to respond to an innocent question with not only no help whatsoever, but a completely belligerent and accusatory tone. There was a time when companies were supposed to be nice to their customers, whatever the circumstances. I suppose I just stood there in disbelief for the moment - and really, it was only a moment since she was getting mad that I was standing there for less than five seconds, rather than leaving immediately. Maybe it was an effective strategy for dealing with me, since I was so caught up in disbelief that I didn't even have a reply, and just walked away. If I had my wits about me I would have yelled at her until the police arrived (which actually happened with someone else later in the day). Oh, and I have to share one other customer service interaction a half hour before. I was on a phone with an agent, while standing at a computerized kiosk, and our conversation ended like this:

"So, what you're telling me is that the ticket that I purchased is completely worthless, and there's nothing I can do with it, so I need to buy a whole new ticket for $500.00 to travel to my friend's wedding."


"And, so it's pointless for me to be standing here at a United machine to try to get on another flight."

"You need to buy a new ticket."

"So, this machine that I'm standing at now, should not be telling me that I can possibly get on the 11 AM flight to Manchester, NH? It should not be telling me I've been added to a waiting-list for free. And wait, it shouldn't not be printing me a ticket while I talk with you on the phone this very minute! Are you trying to tell me that none of this should be happening??!!. . . I think you need to be giving out better information. This has been a completely infuriating and useless telephone call."

It was infuriating to be told to spend $500.00 to go to a wedding, and not to be told that I could actually still use my ticket to get on a waiting-list. I don't know what was wrong with the agent I was speaking with. It's true that she had a heavy Indian accent, and so I might have misunderstood her at one part or another in the conversation. At one point she had to repeat the number "40,000" five times before I understood the number (e.g. and it was important: how many more frequent flier miles I had to spend to fly out that day - as a footnote I add that I didn't have to use any!). I didn't understand her when she was saying the number, which is odd since I'm actually unusually good at understanding Indian accents since I've studied Sanskrit, many of my friends are from India, and some have heavy accents. But even with all that she was at times completely indecipherable. Although I can see why United might want to use agents like her for normal English business transactions, I can't understand why a company would assign people like her to deal with complicated transactions with travelers who are extremely angry from the start. You think that at a certain point in our twenty-minute conversation they would have transferred me to someone who could speak to me with at least a comforting and natural intonation. I mean, speaking in a recognizably comforting tone may not be important in most circumstances, but when you're furious, it's essential to completing a good transaction.

Anyway, so I got on the next flight's waiting list, but given the crowds of people at the airport that was full, and so I got put on the next plane, and the next plane, and the next plane, and finally TWELVE hours later, after having missed the wedding ceremony, the dinner afterwards, and most of the party, I got on the last plane form O'Hare to my destination. And I could tell tales for hours of what I, and the band of about eight or nine other Manchester-bound travelers who were in the same boat (we certainly were not in the same plane!), went through. Some highlights: one of us decided to take the anger route to get on a plane, and yelled for 45 minutes to see if he could change something, and finally had to be taken away by the police. Another one of us made it through most of the day, and then just fell apart at hour eleven and had what can best be described as a nervous breakdown as she leaned against a wall and had an almost surreal conversation with the ticket agent. And then there were those wonderful moments at hour eleven and a half when some members of our group finally had their names called for seats. Far from being jealous and mad like we all might have been ten hours earlier, we actually seemed to develop enough of a connection for one another that we were actually quite happy to hear other people's names being called, since it not only meant that they got relief from their suffering, but that the rest of us might be ever closer to getting to our destinations. What a surreal experience.

Well, I finally did get to New Hampshire on the day of the wedding, and fifteen minutes before midnight, when the party was supposed to end, I was able to walk into the dance hall, and make it for the last dance. Lucie1And almost everyone I knew, including the bride and groom were still there. And it was a joy to hear my friend Sheila yell my name as I walked in, and to see the happy faces on my friends and the bride and groom: the contrast between being with friends on such a happy occasion and my preceding day spent with strangers was so acute, that those few minutes at the wedding seemed to make it all worthwhile. And plus, I got to see the bride and the groom in their wedding attire, I got to take part in the brunch the following day, and hang out with Rad and Sue and their kids afterwards.


Img_0955And then there was my drive along the Massachusetts Coast. A rather nice day, I should say, and I was glad that Anna had the time to join me. The spur for the trip was my desire to see the sea again (I grew up in a bedroom less than ten feet from the Atlantic, and I miss it in the Midwest). The trip was all the more fun because Anna had never seen the open ocean before. We drove out to Gloucester, then along cape Ann to Rockport. Stonehenge1In the course of the day, we got to see great sites, like the Stonehenge of northern Massachusetts (which is in a Halibut Point park - an old quarry that has been converted into a particularly beautiful park), the sexiest fisherwoman I've ever seen,Fisherwoman, and I got to have a decent fish sandwich later that evening.


Finally, all the rest of the time this summer I spent in Chicago. And if I haven't said it enough, Chicago is a fantastic place to be in the summertime. Not only can one ride along the entire shoreline on a bike, but there are an endless series of free concerts and events to go to.

My friend Rachel come to town for one week during the summer. She had such a good time she even extended it another week. It was also an occasion for me to buy a second bike. Yes, that's right, from now on if anyone comes to visit there is a guest bike in a fiery magenta red.Guestbike

We did all of my favorite things while she was in town, such as riding along the lake at night (Thanks Elina for introducing me to this), eating good food in Greektown, going to a concert in Millennium Park, and so on. But one of the more remarkable events was our kite-flying adventure on Northerly Island. I thought I had found the perfect kite-flying locale on Northerly Island, and so I had Rachel bring her kite. She also brought at least a thousand foot line of string, and we spent the afternoon trying to get the kite to stay up in the air. At first, it was rather desperate. It was hard to get it aloft for more than 20 seconds. But then, while Rachel went to get some beverages for us, I got it to stay up, and began releasing line. By the time that Rachel came back, I had 2/3s of the line out, and then Rachel took over for a while, and low and behold, we put that kite up so high that all the string was let out.1000footkiteA thousand feet up - so high in fact it took like a half an hour to reel it in again. And if you don't think that's such an accomplishment, consider what happened: In the middle of flying the kite, a police cruiser rushed out to the far end of the island where we were flying the kite. Since cars aren't allowed on the island, and we were the only people there, it was quite remarkable. Such a thing has never happened before while I've been out there. But then the cruiser pulled up right behind us, and stopped ten feet away. The officer then took out a pad, began writing something down on it, and then left without saying a word. Yes, it's true: we flew a kite so far up in the sky, that they sent a cruiser out to investigate. That's a serious accomplishment. Fortunately, he decided that we were not a threat to the safety of the city and let us stay.

Other great things in Chicago. A fabulous Fado concert with Mariza in which I got to sit under my umbrella and watch the show in the rain, while everyone else tried to run for any available cover. Protectmebean_1

A concert with Goran Bregovic in which not only was Millennium Park more crowded that it has ever been, but people were even being disobedient and dancing in the aisles. And two women in the audience count as the best house dancers I have ever seen in my life. But the guy who really stole the show was Bregovic's protégé, Alan Ademovic. I hope they record more albums together. Bregovic's most recent album is "Tales from Weddings and Funerals," and they played with the "we're just a wedding band" motif throughout the evening, despite the fact that he can apparently attract crowds in Europe of over a 100,000. If you want to hear a good song, check out his MySpace page.

There was also the Battleship Potemkin with a full orchestra,Potemkinan endless series of other concerts every three or four days, a tall ship celebration,Tallship1

Tallship2a red hot chili peppers concert, Manasi and Ajay's wedding,Manasiajay and all in all it was a fabulous time to be in Chicago.

Well, enough about my summer vacation, this has been a tome, but I had a few hours tonight to think back over my trips and experiences the last two and a half months. That is one of the great pleasures of doing fun things: the time to reminisce afterwards. In a way that's all this e-mail has been, pleasant reminiscing.

But many things to look forward to. One thing that is looming on the horizon is my potential move to downtown. Yes, everyone, it's still on, and we're coming oh so close to the deadline and I still haven't found a place. But the good news is that I have applied for one place downtown. It's not the most ideal arrangement - the lease has a provision so that when the condo is sold, I have 30 days to move out - but it is in one of the best buildings in the city, practically on top of the Fox & Obel - the best gourmet food store and café in Chicago - and it is on the 39th floor overlooking the lake. I can afford the place because of that annoying 30 day move-out provision that discourages other people from living there. It could be very annoying to have to find another place in the middle of the winter, but the real estate agent there assured me there is a pretty good chance of finding another apartment in the same building. I shall keep you all posted. The good news is that although the apartment is just a convertible, it has two distinct living areas and so once I buy a new bed, it will be very easy for guests to come and stay!! But first I need to get the place. All may be decided tomorrow . . .