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Ninety-Four

November 5, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s number week here at Ron’s View. Two days ago, I wrote about Eleven. In this post, I’m giving 94 special billing, as you see. Why? Because today my father turned 94.

You know how you can buy birthday cards for all the multiples of 10 up to 90? (Or maybe 100. I never looked for one of them). And you can buy birthday cards for all the smaller brithdays, 1 through, I don’t know, 10 for sure, maybe 12 or 15 or 18? Well, if I had Mr. Hall‘s ear, here’s what I’d suggest. They should view the scale from 0 to 100 as symmetric about 50 and produce cards in the upper reaches that mirror the ones lower down. As an example, since there are cards for 5-year-olds, there should be cards for 95-year-olds. If there are cards for every age from 1 to 12, there should be cards for every age from 88 to 99. Don’t you think?

I’ll be keeping an eye out for that 95 card for next year. Happy Birthday, Dad.

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Categories: Business, Family

Mountaintop Removal Mining

April 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Dan Barry had a superb piece in today’s NYT about Lindytown, West Virginia, whose residents have been bought out by a coal-mining subsidiary of Massey Energy. With the mountaintop mining operation taking place above the town, buying the town out may have been cheaper and easier than dealing with resident complaints and claims.

The article explains that after a mountain is removed (literally removed) to mine its coal, the land must be restored. Typically, this is done by placing the remains into an adjacent valley, then planting over it all. Barry describes the typical result,

an out-of-context clot of land that rises hundreds of feet in the air — “a valley fill,” [environmental advocate Maria Gunnoe] says, that has been “hydroseeded” with fast-growing, non-native plants to replace the area’s lost natural growth: its ginseng root, its goldenseal, it hickory and oak, maple and poplar, black cherry and sassafras.

“And it will never be back,” she says.

Ms. Gunnoe has a point. James Burger, a professor emeritus of forestry and soil science at Virginia Tech University, said the valley fill process often sends the original topsoil to the bottom and crushed rock from deeper in the ground to the top. With the topography and soil properties altered, Dr. Burger says, native plants and trees do not grow as well.

“You have hundreds of species of flora and fauna that have acclimated to the native, undisturbed conditions over the millennia,” he says. “And now you’re inverting the geologic profile.”

Coincidentally, zunguzungu had a post yesterday on mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan). He describes the annual floods he was accustomed to during his West Virginia childhood and notes that

[f]looding has been getting worse and worse in the last decade or so, and as more and more of the dense network of Southern Appalachia’s creeks and streams — that once absorbed excess rainflow — have been transformed into post- mountaintop removal hellscapes, people whose campaign coffers aren’t filled with coal and industry donations have started to question whether there’s a relationship between increasingly regular and destructive flooding and the kind of environmental devastation necessitated by MTR mining …

After they’ve flattened the land, they are required by law to “reclaim” the land, but at best, “reclamation” means a micro-layer of just enough top soil to support some sparse grass … . And this means that where there once was lush vegetation and crooked streambeds soaking up rainfall, you now have rocky basins that channel it down into the floodplain where people live.

zunguzungu’s post is worth a look, at the least, for its photos, one of which is at the top. And be sure to read Barry’s article.

Categories: Business, Environment

Academic Accountability, Texas Style

October 24, 2010 Leave a comment

The Wall Street Journal expanded their Saturday arts and culture coverage earlier in the month, splitting the old weekend section in two. Review has a vastly-enlarged pullout books section plus coverage of science, commerce, politics, language, technology, art, and ideas. Off Duty treats food and wine, travel, fashion and design. Yesterday’s Review section led off with a two-page cover story on measuring accountability of faculty members at public universities. Texas is leading the way.

Carol Johnson took the podium of a lecture hall one recent morning to walk 79 students enrolled in an introductory biology course through diffusion, osmosis and the phospholipid bilayer of cell membranes.

A senior lecturer, Ms. Johnson has taught this class for years. Only recently, though, have administrators sought to quantify whether she is giving the taxpayers of Texas their money’s worth.

Chester Dunning, a history professor, has won several teaching awards. According to a report by the chancellor, he also loses money for the university, though his department is in the black overall.

A 265-page spreadsheet, released last month by the chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, amounted to a profit-and-loss statement for each faculty member, weighing annual salary against students taught, tuition generated, and research grants obtained.

Ms. Johnson came out very much in the black; in the period analyzed—fiscal year 2009—she netted the public university $279,617. Some of her colleagues weren’t nearly so profitable. Newly hired assistant professor Charles Criscione, for instance, spent much of the year setting up a lab to research parasite genetics and ended up $45,305 in the red.

This is extraordinary, attaching a dollar amount to each faculty member in order to measure the member’s worth. As noted in the next sentence, faculty members called the sheet “misleading, simplistic and crass.” That sounds about right. Yet, as further discussed in the article, there has for years been a growing insistence by state legislators and other constituencies that public universities account for their productivity, in parallel with shrinkage of support for state universities, as measured either in real dollars or, more dramatically, in percentage of state expenditures.

Any effort at numerical measurement of faculty worth is inevitably going to be misleading and simplistic. On the teaching side, how does one measure a faculty member’s impact on students in the long term? Student teaching evaluations have many failings, but at the least, they are short term, not allowing students to look back and recognize the strength or weakness of a course based on how it helped them with later courses, careers, or well lived lives. In the context of a major research university such as mine, it is tempting to measure research productivity in terms of grant funds received. This has some value, but it has the weakness of putting the cart before the horse. Measuring research by the funds generated is like measuring a restaurant by how expensive its food is. Well, that may not be the best analogy, but the underlying point is that you can’t measure quality by cost alone. I don’t deny that some attempt must be made to measure quality. A single number isn’t likely to do it though.

In any case, if one were to measure research quality by grant funds, one would have to take into account disciplinary norms, and university administrators do exactly that. Which is fine for subjects with significant research funding, such as physical and biological sciences. At the other extreme, how does one measure the quality and impact of creative work in arts and humanities? Some people won’t have a problem answering this: to them, it’s a waste, not worth support from state (or federal) governments. I would happily argue against this view, but not here. Instead, let me conclude with the closing paragraphs of the WSJ article.

The concept of a productivity spreadsheet came from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that Gov. Rick Perry invited to a state university summit in May 2008. The group suggested several reforms with a common theme: Let taxpayers see what’s going on at every public institution—and let them decide what’s worth subsidizing.

Bill Peacock, a vice president at the foundation, acknowledges that this approach could mean a radical reshaping of academia, with far more emphasis on filling students with practical information and less on intellectual pursuits, especially in the liberal arts.

That’s OK by him. “Taxpayers of the state of Texas,” Mr. Peacock says, should decide whether “they should be spending two years paying the salary of an English professor so he can write a book of poetry simply to add to the prestige of the university or the body of literature out there.”

When the choice is put that bluntly, Chester Dunning, a history professor at Texas A&M, wonders if he’d pass muster. Mr. Dunning teaches two classes a semester and has won several teaching awards. His salary of about $90,000 a year also covers the time he spends researching Russian literature and history. His most recent book argues that Alexander Pushkin’s drama “Boris Godunov” was a comedy, not a tragedy.

Mr. Dunning says his scholarly work animates his teaching and inspires his students. “But if you want me to explain why a grocery clerk in Texas should pay taxes for me to write those books, I can’t give you an answer,” he says.

His eyes sweep his cramped office, lined with books. Then Mr. Dunning finds his answer. “We’ve only got 5,000 years of recorded human history,” he says, “and I think we need every precious bit of it.”

Categories: Business, Education

We Tried to Obey

June 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Two Mondays ago, Steve Jobs opened the annual Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference in San Francisco with his keynote address introducing iPhone 4. I followed it live through the efforts of live bloggers such as Engadget’s Joshua Topolsky. This was the subject of my short post Our Master Speaks, written as I followed along.

Later in the day, Apple’s website had news of the new iPhone. Pre-orders would be taken starting June 15, with delivery at home or pick-up at Apple Stores on June 24. I put it on my calendar.

Tuesday, like so many others, I went to the site to order my new phone. In fact, we were going to get new phones all around — for me, Gail, and Joel. We have the second generation iPhone and all were eligible to upgrade to the fourth generation at the base cost. (If you haven’t been under contract with AT&T long enough, you need to pay extra for the new phone.) I was thus among the hundreds of thousands (millions?) who experienced the meltdown of the AT&T servers. I tried repeatedly at first, then intermittently, then not until late that night, but could never complete an order. By the time I tried the next day, delivery wasn’t promised until mid July. Even then, after adding my phone to the cart, I met with a failed server when trying to add a second phone. I haven’t gone back to try since. Way too frustrating.

No doubt the next disaster will occur next week when the successful first-round orderers get their phones and try to get them working on the AT&T network. Maybe waiting isn’t such a bad idea.

I tried. Really.

Categories: Business, Computing

Nocera Returns

April 17, 2010 Leave a comment

The NYT business columnist Joe Nocera has been on a book-writing leave since last Halloween, when he wrote a piece about four topics he wished he could explore at greater length. I must have missed the piece — it would have appeared on the day that we traveled all day by train from Grenoble to Venice, changing in Chambéry and Turin — but I knew of the leave because he announced it as well on his blog.

I set up a twitter account fifteen months ago, sent three tweets out (despite having no followers), and promptly forgot about it until a few days ago, when I decided I should follow someone other than just Glenn Greenwald, whose tweets I hadn’t actually been reading. I added a couple of people to my follower list, then forgot about it again until this morning, when I decided to be more systematic about finding people to follow. Among the candidates, I thought of that NYT business columnist who disappeared last fall. What’s his name? Five minutes later, I picked up today’s NYT. Out of lingering Saturday habit, I looked at the front of the business section for his column, and there he was! Joe Nocera That was a surprise. He is indeed back, with a column on synthetic C.D.O.’s and the SEC’s charge yesterday that Goldman Sachs was involved in securities fraud.

I’m glad Nocera has returned to active duty. As for twitter, perhaps more on that later. I tweeted a few minutes ago for the first time since the day I signed up for my account. Just before writing this post, I tried to link my twitter and wordpress accounts so that each time I publish a post, an accompanying tweet will appear. Let’s see if it works.

Categories: Business, Journalism

More on Real Deli

October 7, 2009 Leave a comment

pastrami

[Richard Perry, New York Times]

A month ago, when I was back in New York, I wrote about Ben’s, a deli that started on Long Island but now has additional locations in Queens, Manhattan, and even Boca. As I wrote then, it’s not the greatest, but it’s sure better than anything around here. Today, Joan Nathan has a piece in the food section of the NYT on the lost art of Jewish deli food and the steady disappearance of the delis themselves. Sad reading.

Nathan opens her article by introducing the Brummers.

Hobby’s Delicatessen & Restaurant in downtown Newark may have lost much of its more traditional clientele over the years, but it has held on to tradition. The corned beef and the tongue are cured for 14 days in stainless steel bins in the basement. The salamis hanging on the wall look as if they’ve been drying there, their flavor intensifying, since the Brummer family bought the place in 1962.

Samuel Brummer and his sons, Michael and Marc, even make their own matzo ball soup and potato pancakes.
But in Newark, as in so many cities, holding on has been tough for delis.

“In 1945, there were 12 delis in Newark,” said Samuel Brummer, 86. “Now we are only two.”

Read the article, but also I recommend watching the accompanying video, in which Brummer father and sons talk about the business.

Nathan’s article also introduces us to Save the Deli blogger David Sax*, who observes that “the best delis have a master cutter, not a slicing machine. When you steam a piece of meat for a long time, as with a good piece of pastrami once it has been cured and smoked, it will tear apart if it isn’t cut by hand.” Marc Singer of Irving’s [no relation] Delicatessen in Livingston, New Jersey, adds that “Hebrew National pastramis are a round cut intended for machine slicing at the local deli.”

This got me to thinking of how special Hebrew National once was, before it became part of ConAgra Foods and lost its identity. (See here for its self-provided history.) Growing up on Long Island, I didn’t know there was any kind of salami besides Hebrew National. We would always have the yard-long ones at home. At least I remember them as being about a yard long. Thirty inches at least. My father was in the food business, and Sonny, one of the salesmen in the company, would stop by the Hebrew National plant every week or two to pick up supplies on his way home from the city. Out on the Island, he would make another stop, at our house, appearing at the kitchen door with a box holding our share: a salami or two, maybe a tongue, and a line of franks all curled up like a snake. For years I had the mistaken impression that Sonny was a Hebrew National employee. The idea that Hebrew National delivered straight to our home didn’t yet strike me as odd.

My childhood summers were spent at camp in the Berkshires, close to the Massachusetts-New York state line near West Stockbridge. When my parents came to visit, they would bring a Hebrew National salami. Maybe they brought three, one for each of us. I would share mine with my fellow campers and it would disappear pretty quickly. Camp food wasn’t the greatest. The salami sustained me. (Well, what was great at camp was the corn from the adjacent cornfields. Once a week it would be picked in the morning and we’d eat it at lunch. Just corn. Lots of it. Best corn I ever ate. I learned that corn and salami make for a complete diet, when supplemented by cookies and milk.)

In recent years, I’ve come to find Hebrew National salami a little on the sweet side. I wonder if it always was. What I’d really like to eat right now is some of Hobby’s 14-day-cured corned beef. Too bad I won’t be getting to Newark in the near future.

*I need to give credit to my cousin John for pointing out Sax’s blog in an email this morning before I stumbled on it in my own reading of the NYT.

Categories: Business, Culture, Food, Restaurants

Kit Kat and Cadbury

September 17, 2009 Leave a comment

cadfinger

My favorite treat in my childhood was a Kit Kat bar. Thank god for Rowntree’s. Indeed, it’s the Kit Kat that introduced me to the city of York, which I made it a point to visit on the first Saturday of my five-week stay in Leeds in the summer of 1977. (Well, okay, not because of Rowntree’s, which by then was Rowntree Mackintosh, but because York is such a beautiful, historic city, with its Roman and Viking heritage.)

Calamity struck in 1969, when Rowntree licensed Hershey to produce Kit Kat bars in the US. Sigh. They’re okay, but the chocolate simply isn’t as good. When Nestlé bought Rowntree in 1988, they were stuck with the licensing agreement — see the wikipedia article on Kit Kat and its references — so here in the US we continue to be consigned to a life with mediocre Kit Kat bars.

Yet, there is an alternative. We need only drive over the border to Canada. Or bring some back if we find ourselves in the UK. We have yet to make a special trip just for this purpose, but if we find ourselves abroad, we don’t pass up the opportunity. Indeed, last April, on Gail’s return from Scotland, she bought me some Kit Kats at Heathrow. Bless her.

And then there’s Cadbury chocolate, another sad story, and one that just happens to be in the news in the wake of Kraft’s failed bid last week to take Cadbury over. Once again, Hershey is the culprit. The Wall Street Journal’s front page feature article on Monday told the sad story of Cadbury chocolate lovers forced to subsist here in the US on Hershey’s bland substitute for the real thing. “Hershey has been making Cadbury bars in the U.S. for 21 years. Under a 1988 agreement, the company has the rights to manufacture and distribute Cadbury brands including Dairy Milk, Fruit & Nut and Caramello in the U.S.”

I love the Dairy Milk. The woman described in the opening of the WSJ feature aptly captures my own feelings.

When Gayle Green has a craving for chocolate, she piles her two children into her car and drives 45 minutes to the British Pantry store in Aldie, Va., where she stocks up on Cadbury chocolates imported from the U.K.

“I know — it’s sick, right?” says the 40-year-old social media director for a wedding Web site.

Ms. Greene could buy American-made Cadbury bars at a grocery store just a few minutes from her house in Woodbridge, Va. But since getting her first taste of British chocolate on a high-school trip to the U.K., she wants nothing to do with the stuff made in the U.S. “Oh, it’s so yuck,” she says. “You might as well eat a Hershey bar.”

But my deepest Cadbury love is Cadbury Fingers. They are so small and light, one can easily eat a whole package without even realizing it. A few years ago our friend Cynthia returned from Vancouver with two packages of them just for me. The only problem was, Gail and I had just started phase 1 of the South Beach Diet, to last for two weeks. No cookies or chocolate. Absolutely none. What to do? I decided I would allow myself two fingers a day. Not a whole package. Not three. Just two. No point letting them get old. And that’s what I did. I remain proud of the discipline that I displayed, and I still lost weight.

I believe Cadbury Fingers would be an excellent addition to the South Beach Diet. If only we had ready access to them.

Categories: Business, Food