Thursday, May 29, 2008

Time to Get a Mac?

Today is my wife and my ninth wedding anniversary. (I think that's correct; I know it's not "my wife's and my," because together we only have one anniversary, and calling it just "my" wedding anniversary feels wrong.) Most of our presents to each other these days have to do with our children, so I wanted to make a very simple slideshow/movie of our daughter, showing how she grew up over the last 20 months. I know you can just put all the images in one directory and use any number of techniques to display them as a slideshow, but I wanted one file so it would be easy to move around, and maybe even convert to 3gpp2 to play on a cell phone. I used Picasa to pick the photos and edit them, but I didn't like Picasa's create movie feature. I did a quick search on the web, and Windows Movie Maker seemed to be the simplest way to do it, and besides I already had it on my computer and I've used it before for basic tasks.

So I launched Movie Maker, imported my pictures, and put them in order on the storyboard. But I wanted transitions from picture to picture - not hard cuts - and my transitions palette was empty. I looked in the help files, but they all assumed the transitions were there, and there was no information on how to import transitions. So I Googled the problem, and found a number of web pages, of which the most useful was this one. Apparently, a lot of people have had this problem, going back almost three years, but there is still no fix from Microsoft; the Microsoft support page on the issue just pointed people at the link above I had already found.

One problem is that Movie Maker, like Internet Explorer, is "part of Windows." So you can't just uninstall it and reinstall it. It doesn't even show up as a "Windows component" in the add/remove programs control panel. The only way to reinstall it is to find the right INF file in a Windows directory and reinstall from there ... but to do that you need to have a set of Windows XP SP2 disks, or the files from your upgrade, and I couldn't find either. (I believe that computer already had SP2 when I bought it.)

Another problem is that the transitions are not stored as, say, FILES IN A DIRECTORY CALLED "TRANSITIONS," which would be the logical way to do things. So you can't find that directory and look inside it to see if your transitions are there, or copy in the files from some other source. Instead, the transitions are stored as a set of ... wait for it ... registry keys!?! Luckily, one helpful person had taken the commands you need to insert the right keys and put them together in a REG file (like a batch file, but for registry changes). So I ran the REG file, restarted Movie Maker, and my transitions were still missing. Following some advice in the forum, I retried it after turning my security software off (and disabling my Internet connection just in case), but that didn't work, either.

Then I read further down the thread, and it turns out that you can put the necessary keys in registry, but the next time you start Movie Maker, it somehow deletes the keys! I opened up my own registry using Registry Editor and confirmed that that was in fact happening on my machine. The fix for this is to manually open the appropriate registry key folders and edit the permissions so your own user account cannot delete them. This eventually did solve the problem, but it is the first time I have ever manually edited the registry, and it is something that you are generally are never, never supposed to do unless you know exactly what you are doing.

Now, I am reasonably adept at using a computer. I can reformat a hard disk and reinstall Windows, I can add more memory, my home desktop is a dual-boot Ubuntu/Windows machine, I do lightweight programming in my company's scripting language, I can do a little SQL in a pinch, I know my way around a raw HTML page, ... I'm no developer, but the fact that it took me an hour to get Microsoft's basic movie editing program to behave properly in order to make the world's simplest movie is ridiculous.

Like many people, I'm sure, I've had my eye on the MacBook Air for a few months now, especially the $3,000 solid-state version. Unfortunately (or fortunately), though, I'm also very good at not buying things that I don't actually need. But I'm sure in iLife my home movie would have been a snap, and it probably would have ended up looking better, too.

Oh, and if you want to see the movie, and your email can handle 25 MB attachments, let me know.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Even the Airport Food Is Better

Tomokazu - 2 stars
SFO, United concourse

Fung Lum - 1 star
SFO, United concourse

If you read this blog, you may already realize that I love California, or at least the part of it around San Francisco. The weather is like paradise, the food is unmatched, the flowers smell better in the night air, and even the airport food is better. The United section of Terminal 3 has a food court that has five restaurants that are better than anything you can find in most restaurants, all of which are branches of small local chains that first established themselves in the real world (not in airports). The Mexican omelet at Andalé is my favorite airport breakfast in the world, Boudin has better fresh sandwiches than you can find most places, and I have a weakness for the pasta at Firewood. When I landed on Tuesday night I was actually looking forward to dinner in the airport (there would be no good choices in or around my discount hotel), and I got a bowl of veggie udon at Tomokazu, where they also have fresh sushi and good wakame, the green seaweed salad with sesame oil you find in Japanese restaurants. The udon was more Californian than authentic, filled with broccoli, green beans, red peppers, mushrooms, seaweed, zucchini, and very thick, almost square, chewy noodles, but all the fresh vegetables are good for you and the broth was good. On the way out on Friday I had lunch at Fung Lum, which has not only the usual airport-Chinese selection, but also various kinds of dim sum. The spring rolls were mediocre, more roll than filling, but the sautéed vegetables were fresher than usual, and the noodles were not the usual slightly sickening greasy mass you see in most airports. (Travel karma note: On the flight from Dulles to SFO I gave up an aisle seat for a middle seat - the middle of five seats in the central section of a 777 - so that a husband and wife could sit together. On the return flight I got an upgrade - which virtually never happens, now that I'm only Premier Executive and not 1K.)

I was visiting the office for our quarterly company meeting and management team meetings, which comprised an afternoon and a morning of debating a long list of topics with my eleven colleagues, five of whom I have been working with for over five years. The meetings themselves can be challenging: there are too many people who want to talk at once, too many good ideas we won't have time to implement, too few concrete action items (as we say in the business world). But they remind me how lucky I am to work with people who are so smart, so rational, so able to analyze problems and break them into their key issues. I used to work at McKinsey, probably one of the two most prestigious places to work in the business world (after Goldman Sachs), and the discussions there were clichéd, abstract, and just plain slow by comparison.

In the middle of the festival of meetings, we were supposed to go out to dinner at a nice restaurant, but we canceled that and ordered pizza in instead. The original plan was to eat the pizza in the Wii room and play video games, but that part got lost somewhere. We sat around a table in a corner conference room as the sun set and ate pizza (Amici's in San Mateo, 2 stars) and talked about our company and how we could make it an even more unique and special place. It was work, but it also felt like a comfortable dinner party with some of my best friends.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Chicken Blogwich at Home

Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food - 2 stars

I spent all of last whole week at home - for the fourth time out of nineteen weeks so far this year, which really isn't all that bad. So instead of eating fake Mexican food in airport restaurants, I've been cooking. Or "cooking" might be a more appropriate way to put it, as any new parent probably knows. After a day in the basement office, with a dog to walk and a daughter to play with, there is rarely time for a three-course meal. On top of that, I'm a vegetarian, and we think our daughter may be allergic to eggs and may have celiac (an intolerance for gluten, which is part of wheat among other things), which severely limits the available options.

The sad thing is that I actually love to cook. I started cooking one summer during college when I lived at home but my mother was away, but I really learned when I lived in Berkeley. When people ask me why Berkeley graduate students in the humanities take so long to get their Ph.D.'s, I always say, "Because the food is so good." You are short on money but long on time, the fresh produce is the best I have ever seen (including in France), and you are surrounded by the inspiration of countless good restaurants. Perhaps most importantly, cooking and throwing dinner parties is one way of declaring that there are more important things in life than getting a real job and making lots of money, and thereby pushing back the dark thoughts telling you that you should have gotten a real job to make lots of money.

When I'm in a cooking rut, sometimes I buy a new cookbook. Now, cookbooks have gotten all out of control in the last fifteen years, with every celebrity chef pumping out beautiful volumes with lusciously photographed food porn and touching anecdotes accompanying every recipe. I'm a comparative minimalist when it comes to cookbooks; I only own about fifteen, and in my lifetime I've bought fewer than ten myself, typically of the "classic" variety, like Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking or The Professional Chef from the Culinary Institute of America. But sometimes a new cookbook is the way to find some new ideas, and more importantly to remind yourself of the little things that make cooking such a pleasure.

So my new purchase is The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse and, according to many, of California cuisine. I loved Chez Panisse when I lived in Berkeley, although the last two times I went recently I was disappointed. And although her books tend to be overly precious, they are surprisingly useful for a home kitchen chef within limited time and limited access to fancy ingredients. The Art of Simple Food is organized a bit as a how-to book, with chapters on many foundational techniques and components (sauces, salads, sautéing, simmering, grilling, etc.), and it appealed with knowing precision to my culinary aesthetic (shared by many yuppies today, I know): I would rather do something small and simple, perfectly, than something big and ambitious, imperfectly. It's an ideal that I sacrifice every day - I know how to substitute canned beans for dried and frozen vegetables for fresh, I usually do my prep work on a just-in-time basis, and I can cook perfectly good dinners without measuring a thing. But I still wish for the time to quietly prepare everything just the right way.

Since getting the cookbook, I've made broccoli with lemon and garlic butter, a rice pilaf with tomatoes, green beans with a vinaigrette, sweet potatoes with lime juice, and a Greek salad, and everything was good. More importantly, the book reminded me to take the time to do everything carefully and to enjoy the simple process of peeling, washing, slicing, salting, and so on. Because enjoying the things you have to do anyway is another step further on the path to happiness.

Greek salad, in progress

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Paris Saint-Germain

One of the things I acquired during my travels a long time ago was a love of European soccer. I suppose that going to soccer games was part of my general desire at the time to fit in with what real Parisians did. The first game I went to was a Champions' Cup match between the Paris team, Paris Saint-Germain, or PSG (European team names are not plurals, like New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox, but the names of the organizations themselves, like Arsenal Football Club or Futbol Club Barcelona), and either Bayern Munchen or a Hungarian team from a town called, I think, Vac. The cheapest tickets were (and are) the ones in the virages ("bleachers" is probably the best translation) at either end of the field. At the Parc des Princes, PSG's stadium, the two ends are called Auteuil and Boulogne, and when the salesperson asked which one I wanted, I said "Boulogne," not caring. This was actually a bad idea, since Boulogne is known for having the more "ultra" fans, including the skinheads; the Boulogne Boys club was recently banned for displaying a racist banner during a recent match. The virages are anarchic zones semi-policed by the fan clubs themselves; the main role of the police is to protect the rest of the spectators from the people in the virages. Luckily for me, PSG won handily, everyone was happy, and I got home safely.

I went to four matches that year in Paris, and I was hooked. Although you can only see part of the field well from the cheap seats, you can see the game much better than on TV, and the atmosphere is like nothing in the United States, even at a second-tier club like PSG (more on that later), with the flares, the smoke bombs, the riot police, the chanted insults, and the constant singing (mostly to classical tunes, like Radames's aria from Aida, or the bullfighter's aria from Carmen, strangely enough), which can feel like an enormous wall of raw sound.

Although I have not been back to the Parc des Princes since - they always seem to be playing away from home when I am in Paris, and the one time I thought I could see them I had to postpone my trip because of my dog's illness - I've tried to follow PSG from afar. This can be difficult, because most easily-available television coverage here is of the English Premiership and the Champions League (which PSG is almost invariably not part of), but thanks to trips to Paris and Internet video I've been able to watch most of their matches this spring, climaxing in last night's match against Sochaux, which was perhaps their most important match in the last 35 years.

To understand why, you first need to understand the structure of European soccer leagues. Each country has a hierarchy of divisions, from top (elite professionals) to bottom (amateurs): Serie A, B, and C in Italy; Premiership, League Championship, League One, and League Two in England; and so on. For obvious reasons, clubs in higher divisions bring in more money and can afford to buy better players. (The role of money is even more transparent in European soccer than in North American sports, for reasons I won't get into.) And each year, under rules that vary slightly from country to country, the top teams in each division are promoted to the next-higher division, and the bottom teams are relegated to the next-lower division. (The top teams in the top division, get to play in the Europe-wide Champions League the next season, which is the ultimate moneymaker because of its lucrative television contract.)

The other thing you need to understand is that PSG is one of the most embarrassing clubs in the world to support, even leaving aside the occasional right-wing fans. Imagine the New York Yankees - largest city, big budget, widely hated - with a lousy record. In most countries, the big-budget teams win over and over; in England, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool finish in the top four every year, and no other team has finished first since 1995. In France, PSG is supposed to be part of the elite club, and in most years they have the payroll to match - Ronaldinho, who a few years ago was considered the best player in the world, played at PSG before moving to Barcelona - but their record is mediocre at best, without a league championship since 1994 (the year I lived there, I might add). And this year, for the second year in a row, PSG was struggling desperately against relegation, and the financial catastrophe that would mean.

For most of the last two months PSG was 18th out of 20 teams in a league where the bottom three teams are relegated, thanks to a string of late-game defensive breakdowns. Only because the 16th- and 17th-placed teams were equally inept did PSG have any hope at all, and by virtue of a draw at home against St.-Etienne last week, they even climbed into 16th place, one point ahead of Toulouse and Lens; but because of cumulative goal difference, PSG would lose a tiebreaker against either club. So if PSG lost and both other clubs drew, or if PSG drew and both of them won, we were sunk.

The pressure in match like this is much higher than in, say, a cup final, because if relegation can literally kill a team. Without the income of playing in the top division, you can't field a very good team, and with only three teams out of twenty promoted each year, there's no reason to believe you'll ever make it back, especially for a generally dysfunctional club like PSG. So it was a relief when Amaré Diané drilled in shot for PSG in the first half, and Toulouse was tied by Valenciennes, and after 65 minutes Lens fell behind to Bordeaux. But over the next ten minutes everything started to fall apart. First Lens tied Bordeaux, then PSG gave up a goal to Sochaux on a corner kick, and then Toulouse took the lead in their match, and at that point a goal by Lens (against Bordeaux) or by Sochaux (against PSG) would have put my team in the second division, and our defense was looking more and more desperate.

But then, with less than eight minutes left, Diané had the ball in the penalty box, got hit hard by a defender with the goalie rushing out, and somehow bumped the ball with his right foot, between the defender's legs and just past the goalie, the ball rolling slowly, slowly, interminably slowly while the goalie switched directions and raced back toward the goal line, just a split-second too late. It was a pretty pathetic goal, but it counted, and the defense hung on to the end, and finally PSG was still in the top division. So when I do go back to Paris, I can still hope to see my team again.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Save Our Taco Trucks

dell'anima - 2 stars
38 8th Ave, New York, NY

Spice Market - 2 stars
403 W 13th St, New York, NY

A food pushcart - 0 stars
W 28th St, New York, NY

Those who do not have their finger perpetually on the pulse of the Zeitgeist may not realize the epic cultural battle going on today. Actually, I didn't realize it either until my friend Viviane called attention to it on her Facebook page: the epic battle for the taco truck being waged in Los Angeles, which was featured in a New York Times article a few days ago and even made NPR's Morning Edition yesterday. NPR played it as a battle between restaurant-owning Mexicans and taco truck-owning Mexicans, but Viviane explained that it was a generational thing - a first generation of now-established immigrants (who own restaurants) trying to use their organizations and political power to beat back a newer generation of less-established immigrants (who own taco trucks, and eat at taco trucks because they don't have much money).

My only horse in this race is that I used to really like tacos and I really like eating cheap food from street vendors. I didn't discover what for me is a "real" taco until we founded my company on the fringe of Menlo Park between 101 and the bay, which is basically East Palo Alto, where the taquerias have Mexican music in the jukeboxes and the tacos are just slightly charred beef, onions, cilantro, hot sauce, and lime juice on a small, round corn tortilla. Those tacos, along with New York City pushcart hot dogs (with ketchup and onions) and McDonald's hamburgers, are probably the thing I miss most about being a vegetarian.

Viviane also told me that there are now taco trucks in Manhattan, which when I lived there was much more Puerto Rican, Dominican, and even Cuban than Mexican. And sure enough, I passed a taco truck on 28th St. this morning leaving my hotel. But sadly enough, there was nothing I could eat there. Instead, I did the next best thing; I got a falafel sandwich from another pushcart, also on 28th St., but it was, sadly, not very good - the falafel was dry and uninteresting, the bread too soft and bland, the fillings limited to uninspired lettuce and tomato - nothing like the falafel masterpieces of the Marais in Paris, and not even as good as the falafel place in my town, which is owned and run by Latinos. I'm sure if I had ordered the chicken kebabs, or a hot dog, it would have gotten at least 2 stars.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the New York taco truck is the New York trendy specialty cocktail, which can cost as much as a meal for four at the aforementioned truck and which was the theme of the previous evening. Viviane and I started out with sidecars and three kinds of bruschetta (chickpeas, avocados, and ricotta - I liked the avocados the best, but they were all good, and the bread itself was close to perfect) at dell'anima, and took a stroll over to Spice Market for dinner, in what is affectionately known as the meat-packing district but should really be known as The Most Self-Consciously Trendy Block in the World, following my friend Marcus's rule that any superlative relative to New York applies, by extension, to the whole world. I had a ginger margarita (like a margarita, but with a stinging layer of ginger that lingered in the aftertaste) and she had a kumquat mojito (a little sweet, and in my opinion not as good as a classic mojito, which is one of my favorite cocktails) in the lush "orientalist post-colonial" atmosphere - her description, but she is a professor who has studied these things. Oh, and we had food, too, which was good, but Spice Market (by the way, the 42nd-best restaurant in New York according to New York Magazine), like Jean-Georges Vongerichten's other restaurants, is a place where it pays to eat animals.

In the early 1990s before I actually lived in Manhattan, I always wanted to live in the West Village, but unfortunately as I've made more money the price of actually living in the West Village has increased proportionately, so I've finally resigned myself to being a country mouse. But even though we have safe streets and small-town values out here in rural America, it's pretty hard to find a good cocktail.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Center of the World

Cafe Spice - 1 star
Grand Central Station

Two Boots - 2 stars
Grand Central Station

Today I passed through Ground Zero for the first time since it became Ground Zero. I looked at it once in early 2002, when there were still crowds of people lined up against all the fences and pictures of victims plastered to those fences, but this was the first time I was actually down in the pit itself. Because, you see, the World Trade Center sat on top of a major station for short-haul trains to and from New Jersey, and even though it appears that absolutely no work has been done on whatever will someday occupy the site, the train station does work. Although there are literally millions of people for whom passing through this station is no big deal, for me it was a little eerie. Imagine a typical train or subway station buried thirty feet underground; then take away everything on top of that station, so you have just the framework of the tracks and the station, surrounded by thirty-foot-high concrete walls, on top of which you can see the surrounding streets. That's what it's like.

I was coming back from a meeting in the waterfront skyscrapers of Jersey City, just across the river from where the World Trade Center once stood, and on my way to Grand Central for train back to my parents' house in Chappaqua. Once some researcher posed the following question: You have to meet a friend in New York City on a given day, but you don't know when or where. Where should you go? The most common answer, by a wide margin, was the information desk in the center of Grand Central Station (the one with the little analog clock on top of it), at noon.

For a long time, Grand Central has been the metaphorical center of the city (and by extension, as Marcus would say, the world). Now after the major renovations of the 1990s, it's also a great place to get a quick lunch, with multiple sit-down restaurants and a food court with something like twenty places where you can grab a bite in the ethnic variety of your choice, their lines of waiting businesspeople snaking past each other in some elaborate abstract design.

For lunch, I had a vegetarian combo from Cafe Spice, including a vegetable curry and another dish of potatoes with peas, which was not particularly distinguished but which I would happily eat again. And before catching my train home I couldn't resist getting a slice of pizza from Two Boots, even though I wasn't hungry and I had a huge home-cooked dinner ahead of me. Two Boots is quintessentially New York pizza - which is to say it's not as good as the pizza in Naples or New Haven, but it reminds me of growing up. The crust is thin, but without body - not the chewiness of real Neapolitan pizza, nor the blackened surface produced by the coal-fired ovens in New Haven. Confronted with the tomato sauce and cheese, the crust just ... gives up, which is why most New Yorkers fold their pizza in half (the long way) before eating it. But still, there are few things more comforting, especially since I no longer eat the hot dogs from the pushcarts (one of the few things I really, really miss now that I no longer eat animals).T