Friday, February 29, 2008

South Beach

Pizza Rustica - 2 stars
3 locations
Miami Beach, FL

La Provence - 1 star
1627 Collins Ave
Miami Beach, FL

Front Porch Cafe - 1 star
1418 Ocean Dr
Miami Beach, FL

I was lying on my beach chair, not ten feet from a woman talking loudly on her cell phone. She was talking about an article in the New York Post about a "device" that you could plug into a cell phone to retrieve its deleted text messages (no big surprise, since in any reusable memory information is not actually overwritten when you mark it for deletion). But she emphasized that "I never text you, and you never text me," so they were safe. Then they talked about this and that and getting together before saying "I love you" (in the way you say it to your lover, not your mother). Pause. Then her kids and her husband walked up from the water and sat down with her.

It wasn't just that she announced to me, the unknown stranger, that she was having an affair. It was that she did it while worrying about someone reading her undeleted text messages and finding out she was having an affair. But we're here to talk about food, not other people's affairs.

Pizza Rustica has made a reputation for itself as the go-to place for late-night casual eating while pausing between trendy clubs in South Beach. What was I doing clubbing in South Beach, you may ask? Actually, I was getting three take-out pizzas to eat with my family and my sister's family in our hotel suites, which is much easier than taking three girls ages 1, 2, and 4 out to a restaurant. But whatever the setting, the pizza was delicious. In the storefront they sell those rectangular slices with a too-thick, spongy crust - described locally as "Tuscan style" or "Roman style" and called "Sicilian" in New England where I live, although I saw nothing of the sort in Tuscany or in Rome - but the take-out pizzas are round with a nice thin crust. We got a margherita, a rustica, and an arugula, all of which were good both for dinner and the next morning for breakfast and lunch. They might have trouble in New York or Berkeley, but for Miami they do just fine.

Although South Beach has some very good restaurants, in my mind it's like Las Vegas - the good restaurants are more expensive than they should be, and there are plenty of expensive but mediocre ones as well. But all in all we had a reasonable eating time. Besides Pizza Rustica, we had breakfast at the Front Porch Cafe on the same block as our hotel, where you can look out at the park and the sand dune that shields the beach beyond, and where I had a perfectly good breakfast burrito with home fries. The last day we had lunch at La Provence, on an unpromising stretch of Collins Ave. My tomato-mozzarella-basil sandwich was under-heated and devoid of character, but the apricot and raspberry tarts were a decent facsimile of the French variety, and their "rustique baguette" was surprisingly good, with a hearty crust yet soft and fluffy inside.

My trips to South Beach itself nicely illustrate the three ages of my working life. I first came in September 2000 for Ariba's user group conference, right at the peak of our bubble (when my unvested options were worth over $3 million on paper), and spent the entire time working - on what, I can barely remember, although I know there was PowerPoint involved. I don't have any memory of being outside, although I must have been, because I stayed in the Loews Hotel and the conference was in the convention center. I think I may have looked out and seen the beach from a distance, but I'm not sure.

My second visit was in December 2004 with my wife, my sister, her husband, and their one-year-old daughter. We went to the beach, ate at nice restaurants, visited Little Havana, looked for manatees, and generally had a nice time.

This time, of course, we had our own daughter, which meant that our days were a combination of the beach, the playground, the pool, the other playground, and the other other playground, we spent the entire time within half a mile of our hotel, and take-out pizza was as good as the food got. (At the playgrounds, by the way, we English-speaking Americans were a distinct minority, trailing the Russians, who were everywhere, the Spanish-speaking Americans, and probably the French as well. That's what happens when your currency is worthless but you have nice beaches.) But this time was by far my favorite trip. Holding my daughter in my arms as we bobbed in the ocean, or seeing her bounce up and down with excitement as we approached the playground, I wished I could just stay there forever.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Now Is the Time

Those one or two people who use an RSS aggregator to read my blog may have noticed a post I made in favor of John Edwards a few days before Iowa. I pulled that post from the site a few minutes later, having decided not to put a political endorsement on a blog that has a link from a couple internal web pages at my company. Which is, of course, another example of Democrats obeying scruples that Republicans simply don't have: for example, Stanley O'Neal, when he was CEO of Merrill (before being exposed as an unimaginably incompetent fool who had no idea how his company was losing tens of billions of dollars in businesses that he boasted about building), pressured more than a hundred Merrill executives into donating $2,000 each to the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign in 2004.

But anyway, screw that.

If you are a Republican, now is the time to stop reading. If you are a Democrat, now is the time to give money to Barack Obama.

I won't go into all the reasons I think Obama would be a better President than Hillary Clinton. The fact is that a vast majority of Democrats think either one would be a fine president. But ...

Barack Obama has the best chance of beating John McCain. Besides all the usual arguments - lower negatives and higher positives than Clinton, better ability to connect with people, Clinton's unique ability to unify the Republican party and get the Republican base to the polls - the surveys are clear and consistent: Obama always beats McCain, Clinton always loses.

We need a candidate now, or Obama and Clinton will tear each other apart all the way until the convention, while McCain raises money and appeases the conservative base. Obama is clearly the choice of the people, with 11 consecutive primary wins, including this week's 17-point win in Wisconsin - the type of heavily-white, old-manufacturing state where Clinton should do well. Our best hope is for Obama to deliver a knockout blow by sweeping all of the March 4 states. Anything less and Clinton will probably fight it out to the end. And to do that, he needs your money now when he's deciding how many television ads to buy in Ohio and Texas.

Barack Obama is our best chance at a presidential win in November, a landslide in the Congressional elections, and a better future for our country. I just made my second $500 contribution to his campaign. If you are planning to contribute anything at all in this election cycle, now is the time.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Yes, I have a Ph.D. in history. Not only in history, but in French intellectual history. And not only French intellectual history, but avant-garde cultural movements in France in the 1950s and 1960s. Existentialism? people sometimes ask. No - some people after the existentialists, who were much less interesting and even less important.

For a while I was actually embarrassed by this. My biography on my company's web site, for example, used to say just that I had a Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley - on the assumption that readers would assume I got the degree in CS, or EE, or something more relevant to what I do for a living. (This was a calculated ruse, since of the three doctorates on the founding team, one was in history, one in philosophy, and one, I think, in psychology.) I think I was embarrassed by having studied something so esoteric that it turned out not only to be useless in the usual sense of the term, but useless to me, in that it was not a topic of even enough academic interest (and the phrase "academic interest" already means that something has little relevance) to land me a decent academic job.

But I'm not embarrassed any more, whether due to age, or maturity, or having more or less succeeded in career #3. Looking back, not only did I have a lot of good "life experiences" (lived in Berkeley, went on strike, learned how to throw a dinner party, lived in Paris, ate at lots of great places, lived in Berlin when it was still rough around the edges, traveled throughout southern Italy), but I had the academic experience as well, the one where you immerse yourself deeply in a specific topic until thinking and writing about it becomes second nature. And I know it must have been second nature at the time, because now that I have been out of that world for more than ten years it seems like a distant planet to me.

I'm on this topic because this is the first full week this year that I'm not flying anywhere, so I'm at home, and I'm reading The House in the Garden: The Bakunin Family and the Romance of Russian Idealism, by the path-breaking Russian historian John Randolph - a work of history so specialized that if you type "The House in the Garden" into Amazon it will show up on the 3rd page of the results, and its current ranking in books is 974,644. Why am I reading this book? Because John was a friend of mine in graduate school, and he actually should have introduced me to my wife (because his mother worked with her before she came to Berkeley), but we met independently. I have an occasional habit of buying books and CDs by friends of mine (a number of whom are professional classical musicians, but that's another story), although I haven't invested in the medieval historians yetbecause their books cost over $80 a pop. (Sorry Jay and Jason, I'm waiting for you to sell out and write your popular books.)

Anyway, The House in the Garden is a beautiful example of the historian's art: it takes a miniature as its subject (in this case, the actual house that the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin grew up in - there, now John will be mad at me for having reduced Mikhail Bakunin to "the anarchist"), examines it and the people who lived there in loving detail, and shows how it either exemplifies or is influenced by the larger historical trends of its time. And that is only a crude description of the portrait painted and the arguments made by the book.

Unlike the vast majority of what I read, it is also a book I have to read slowly, because I'm re not reading it just to get information and move on (what information could the non-specialist possibly need about some the philosophical inclinations of early-nineteenth-century Russian noblemen); I'm reading it to re-immerse myself in that world of ideas that I left when I entered the business world. And like with my friend Peter's book about Franz Rosenzweig, it takes effort to re-enter that world and suspend not disbelief, but the feeling that I could be doing something more productive with my time. If I spend enough time with the book, I can get back to the feeling that ideas, and their history, are crucially important and valuable in and of themselves, which is a feeling I had for most of the 1990s. And clearly they are at least as important as most of what most people spend most of their time doing.

There may not be many people who will buy John's book, but part of me envies him all the same for his ability to immerse himself in his field to the point where it is as natural as breathing. Academic research is hard work, and depressing at times, and knowing that few people will read your work doesn't make it easier. But in this case, I believe this book got him tenure the University of Illinois. And we should all be so fortunate.

Monday, February 11, 2008


I recently flew home from Florida - Miami Beach in particular - where it was 85 degrees and sunny today, the air so perfectly warm and slightly heavy in the air it feels like you are suspended in it. At the company we visited, there was a Lamborghini parked in one of the reserved spaces just in front of the door, and after lunch we had to navigate around a Rolls in the restaurant parking lot. But that's not what I'm going to write about.

On the plane, I finished The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, the latest bestselling book about (to simplify vastly) food and where it comes from - think of it as a more philosophical version of Fast Food Nation, the book that inoculated me against eating at McDonald's. In the last section of this book - just before describing how he went hunting and shot a pig - Pollan discusses vegetarianism, and comes to a decidedly murky conclusion. After reviewing in detail the arguments for animal rights, and the evils of the meat-production industry, he seems to say that there are two possible responses: to look away (and ignore where meat comes from) or to be a vegetarian. But after several more pages he ends up arguing, or more accurately implying, that the most moral stance is to eat meat, but in full consciousness of what you are doing. As I said, it's pretty murky.

But enough about him; let's talk about me. I just ate at two restaurants where the practical drawbacks of being a vegetarian are hard to ignore: Chili's (which was my choice, but it was late and I was hungry and it was there), where the black bean burger with steamed vegetables is the only vegetarian entrée on the entire menu, and Hunter's, a very nice restaurant in North Miami Beach overlooking the water, where I had an undistinguished house salad (iceberg lettuce, crunchy julienned carrots, corn, big tomato wedges, creamy vinaigrette (?!)) and a dish of brown rice and black beans. And remember, last week I ate an omelet at a nice French restaurant on the Ile St. Louis in Paris because it was the only vegetarian main course.

People ask me occasionally why I am a vegetarian, especially since I just became one. (Although I haven't eaten mammals in several years, or birds in two years, I only stopped eating seafood a couple months ago - and my close friends know that there is one enormous loophole in my vegetarianism.) If you're not interested in this whole question and find vegetarians humorless and self-righteous, stop reading here.

There are many reasons to be a vegetarian, but none are all that compelling. I don't do it for my health; although it is good to eat fruits and vegetables, in my case being a vegetarian means that I eat a lot of carbohydrates and probably don't get enough protein. (If you could condense Pollan's advice on the subject of health into a sentence, I think it would be "eat as un-processed food as possible.")

On average, not eating meat is better for the environment than eating meat: first, modern factory meat production is far more polluting than growing vegetables (think enormous swamps of pig shit washing into rivers and lakes); and second, it takes something like ten calories of grains to produce one calorie of meat, so by eating meat you are indirectly consuming an enormous amount of grain, whose production is also extremely polluting (think lakes of nitrogen-rich fertilizer washing into the Gulf of Mexico and suffocating sea life for thousands of square miles). And because farming today consumes enormous amounts of fossil fuels (as Pollan says, where once we ate solar energy transformed into food by plants, now most of the energy we eat comes from fossil fuels), one of the surest and easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint is to reduce your meat consumption. But this is not a conclusive argument; from an environmental perspective, it is probably better to eat a cow that grazed on grass on a sustainable farm than to eat, like I did in National Airport, a burrito with rice, beans, squash, and guacamole wrapped in a flour tortilla, every ingredient of which came from a factory farm.

Then there are the moral arguments, of which I think there are basically two. The first is that the production of meat causes intense suffering to millions if not billions of animals at every moment of every day. This is basically an inarguable fact, and I'll spare the details for those who eat meat. This is essentially a utilitarian argument that says that by eating meat you are causing suffering to animals, many of which are every bit as conscious, intelligent, and loving as my dog. But this is not an invincible argument. First, it leaves open the option of eating cows that graze happily on a diet of mixed grasses. (There are far fewer of these cows than you might think, though; most of the politically correct meat you see at Whole Foods comes from a factory farm, just not quite as brutal a farm as the meat at Safeway.) Second, it leaves open the option of eating animals that are not as conscious, intelligent, and loving as my dog - some kinds of shellfish come to mind. Third, one could quibble about consistency - what about leather shoes? what about eating soybeans from farms that were cleared out of the Amazon rainforest, destroying habitats for thousands of endangered species? Fourth, you could go down the interminable rathole of what would happen to these domesticated species if humans stopped eating them; most of them would vanish from the face of the earth. To which I would say, better that than to spend your lifetime... wait, I said I would spare the details. On balance, though, I think these are weak counter-arguments; even if you aren't a vegetarian, it remains a fact that by eating less factory-produced meat you are reducing suffering among intelligent animals.

The second moral argument is that it's just wrong to eat animals, no matter how happily they were raised. I can't say why, because arguments from principle invariably depend on your principles, but the easiest way to argue this is to compare it to cannibalism. Most people believe on principle that it's wrong to eat other people. I believe that at some point in the future we will believe the same thing about animals, because we will no longer be able to justify the distinction we draw between ourselves and all other species. The more we learn about dolphins, whales, chimpanzees, bonobos, dogs, and pigs, the more they seem like us.

But ultimately I'm not sure I could defend that position, either, against a determined and sufficiently sophist opponent. In the end, I don't eat meat because it's something that I can do. To be honest, it's simpler and easier than wondering how happy the cow was each time I order a hamburger; it's easier than wondering if a flounder has feelings (not sure), or if a scallop has feelings (I doubt it); it's easier than having to come up with flimsy reasons why my dog is different from my food. And finally, it makes me happy to be doing something.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Last Time ...

I'm in Paris again.

Like the last couple times I've come here, I can't t help but wonder: "Is this the last time I will come to Paris?" Part of it is being 38 years old and right about the middle of my life expectancy; for no rational reason, having less time to live than I've already had reminds me that I will not do everything I would like to do, nor will I do anything unlimited number of times.

I am actually quite fine with this. From my perspective, I've already had three fulfilling careers (music, academics, business), even if they weren't all as successful as I might have liked. (I recently read The Last Tycoons, a breezy book about the investment bank Lazard, which mentioned some banker who made tens of millions of dollars and is now getting a Ph.D. in history; "done that," I thought.) And I don't have what is these days called a "bucket list;" if I were to learn I had six months to live, I would spend most of it at home with my wife, my daughter, and my dog, with maybe a few trips to see a few close friends.

But it is a fact that there will be a last time that I visit Paris, and for all I know this could be it. Our European teams are getting bigger and more experienced, to the point where they will need fewer visits from founders like me; with a child, our vacations now are more likely to be at beaches in Florida or Delaware than in Europe; and it gets harder and harder to spend time away from my daughter. When I'm home, one game she likes is when I pick her up so she can look at the family photos in the hallway. If I say "Where's Daddy?" she points at my picture and then points to me (actually, she sticks her finger in my neck) with a big smile. My wife emailed me to say that now when she points at my picture she puts up her hands in her sign for "Where?"

If this was my last trip, it was, unfortunately, probably the worst few days of eating I've ever had in Paris. Part of this is due to being a vegetarian - when you subtract fish, there are virtually no main courses you can eat in a French restaurant - and part of it was staying in an area with many tourist hotels (we were next to the Hard Rock Cafe, of all places) and hence many mediocre restaurants, but mostly it was due to having just too much work to do. We had two days of meetings with a potential and very large French customer, and I had to present and demonstrate to them for most of those two days - in French. And on top of that I spent two hours late Tuesday night - before preparing for Wednesday's presentation - explaining our business to our finance team. So speed, not quality, was the key culinary requirement.

Somehow I managed to avoid eating a single good croissant au beurre in five days (I had one decent one and two mediocre ones), a single piece of pain Poilane, or a single spectacular fruit tart (one good, two mediocre). On Sunday I took a walk with Alex and Sigrid, and we stopped by Cacao et Chocolat for hot chocolate and Pierre Herme for macarons, which were not as sublime as I remembered them, and on my last night Jay and I went to Le Tastevin, a nice restaurant on the main street of the Ile St. Louis where I had two scoops of Berthillon sorbet - green apple and cassis (black currant) - which, despite being freezer-burned, did have the intense concentration of fruit found nowhere else in the world. (I also split a bottle of wine with Jay and had two whiskeys in his apartment afterward, which, after the last time we got together, I guess makes us drinking buddies.)

But I did get to stroll one more time through the Luxembourg Gardens, which I remember from my first trip back in 1991, and from when I used to live on the Left Bank, and watch the kids playing with their boats in the central fountain - only now the boats are all remote-controlled, not the miniature sailboats you used to see. So if it was my last trip - which I doubt - I can live with that.