Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Acai berries

I'm a fruit juice fanatic.

In fact, I drink only small amounts of plain water everyday. In decreasing quantities, I drink fruit juice, soy or grain (rice, oat, etc.) milk, and then water. I almost never drink coffee or tea.

Now, while I quite like the taste of the new, locally promoted Peelfresh Powerberries juice, I'm not a big fan for the addition of acai berries.

2 reasons why: here and here.

I like the product, but I'll probably won't drink too much of it.


Income and career choices

As a corollary to my most recent rant, here's a few news stories that were fortuitously published within a few days of each other.

Amherst Grads Shun Wall Street, Save World as $45,500 Teachers, partly due to wilted Wall Street prospects. Funny, for all those high-sounding ideals, if finance jobs were plentiful and sign-on bonuses were de riguer, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't hear about Amherst graduates going “My experience in finance just wasn’t as satisfying.”. And now that many people can't afford to spend as much as they used to because of the recession, hankering for material goods and conspicuous consumption are suddenly so gauche.

Citigroup is said to be raising pay, while despite recession, demand for skilled labor is high. For all the demand for skilled welders and petroleum geotechnical engineers (petroleum engineers!), who actually do something productive and useful, the pay for these two kinds of jobs is still lower than bankers who, with pay increases, will make about as much this year as last year. 

A geotechnical engineer's job, or a critical care nurse's job, is not as hard as a banker's, nor does it require as much training. 

It's waaay harder, requires much more training, and lives are actually at stake. And yet, at $65,000 a year, or $100,000 a year, it's a fraction of what a banker rakes in.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The invitation redux

Perhaps it was inevitable that some of my friends who read my previous rant did not see it the way I intended. One who actually attended the party was concerned enough to send me a personal message in defense of Draycott (that shall be the pseudonym I will use for the hitherto mentioned inviter in my previous post). 

This post is to set the record straight. That rant I wrote was NOT about Draycott. I thought I had made it clear enough, but apparently not. The rant was really ruminations about the negative effects of a too-large, too systemically important banking and finance industry that has an incentive and rewards structure that is dangerously flawed. I'm not the only one writing on this; there are literally thousands of articles out there talking about this.

Lastly, and this is something I normally do not disclose  (tricks of the trade, y'know). The little anecdote about Draycott, and the title "The invitation", was my hook for the post. Or "snapper"device, as William Safire puts it. If you want a more detailed description, read this, point #5 to be specific.

So, again, to my friends who actually know who Draycott is, the post was never about him. Get that? 

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Urban Farming, a Bit Closer to the Sun"

From The New York Times
Published: June 16, 2009

THIS summer, Tony Tomelden hopes to be making bloody marys at the Pug in Washington, D.C., with tomatoes and chilies grown above the bar, thanks to the city’s incentives for green roofs. 

Mr. Tomelden, the Pug’s principal owner, says he’s planting a garden to take advantage of tax subsidies the city offers in his neighborhood if he covers his roof with plants. 

“If I can do something in my corner for the environment, that seemed a reasonable thing to do,” he said. “Plus I can save money on the tomatoes.”

There won’t be bloody marys at P.S. 6 on New York’s Upper East Side, but one-third of its roof will be planted with vegetables and herbs next spring for the cafeteria. The school is using about $950,000 in city funds that it has put aside, and parents and alumni are providing almost a half-million dollars more. 

“For the children, it’s exciting when you grow something edible,” said the school’s principal, Lauren Fontana. 

Aeries are cropping up on America’s skylines, filled with the promise of juicy tomatoes, tiny Alpine strawberries and the heady perfume of basil and lavender. High above the noise and grime of urban streets, gardeners are raising fruits and vegetables. Some are simply finding the joys of backyard gardens several stories up, others are doing it for the environment and some because they know local food sells well. 

City dwellers have long cultivated pots of tomatoes on top of their buildings. But farming in the sky is a fairly recent development in the green roof movement, in which owners have been encouraged to replace blacktop with plants, often just carpets of succulents, to cut down on storm runoff, insulate buildings and moderate urban heat. 

A survey by Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, which represents companies that create green roofs, found the number of projects its members had worked on in the United States grew by more than 35 percent last year. In total, the green roofs installed last year cover 6 million to 10 million square feet, the group said.

Steven Peck, its president, said he had no figures for how many of the projects involved fruits and vegetables, but interest is growing. “When we had a session on urban agriculture,” he said of a meeting of the group in Atlanta last month, “it was standing room only.” Mr. Peck said the association is forming a committee on rooftop agriculture.

Tax incentives have accelerated the plantings of green roofs, particularly in Chicago, which has encouraged green roofs for almost a decade. The Chicago chef Rick Bayless uses tomatoes and chilies he grows atop his restaurant Frontera Grill to make Rooftop Salsa.

New York State has subsidies both for roofs with succulents spread out over a thin layer of soil and for edible plants covering a smaller area. A proposed amendment to New York City’s tax abatement for some roof projects would include green roofs. Most roof gardeners aren’t in it for the money, though.

After her Lower East Side co-op refurbished the 1,000-square-foot roof of its six-floor walk-up, Paula Crossfield persuaded fellow board members to spend $3,000 to put a 400-square-foot garden on it. They built planters and paved part of the roof so people can walk easily among the plantings. 

Ms. Crossfield, managing editor of the Civil Eats blog, about sustainable agriculture, is paying for the seeds and will do the harvesting, sharing the bounty with her neighbors. (She and her husband live on the top floor.) 

In the process, she estimates she carried up 500 of the 1,500 pounds of soil they bought and put in planters.

“My decision to start a garden is an extension of my work,” Ms. Crossfield said. “Growing my own food helps me understand better what I write about: how food gets to our table, the difficulties it entails.” It’s not all about agricultural policy, she added.

“The bottom line,” she said, “is that I harbor a secret desire to be a farmer, and my way of doing that is to use what I have, which is a roof.”

Two weeks ago Ms. Crossfield transplanted seedlings from her apartment onto the roof: golden zucchini, oakleaf lettuce, brussels sprouts, butternut squash, watermelon, rainbow chard, cucumbers, nasturtiums, calendula, sunflowers, amaranth greens, tomatoes and herbs. 

In San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, Maya Donelson has filled planter boxes with vegetables on a 900-square-foot patch of roof at the Glide Memorial Church. For the last two years she has managed the Graze the Roof Project at the church’s Glide Center, a neighborhood social service provider. 

The food goes to the center’s volunteers and children in the neighborhood who work in the garden one day a week and learn to cook what they grow.

“I’ve never had one kid who hasn’t wanted to get his hands dirty,” said Ms. Donelson, who studied architecture and environmental design. “They are willing to try anything if they see it growing and pull it out of the ground. We juiced the purple carrots and the kids drank that.”

Sustainable South Bronx, a nonprofit environmental organization, said it will help Alfred E. Smith High School plant a roof garden and has helped a company in Hunts Point put strawberry plants on its roof. (The owner likes strawberries, an official of the group said.)

One of the more ambitious projects is a 6,000-square-foot roof farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which will grow food for local restaurants and shops.

Ben Flanner, a transplanted Wisconsinite who’s running it, said he became fascinated with organic agriculture and was set to take an internship on a rural farm but then had a change of heart.

“I wanted to farm but I didn’t want to leave the city,” he said.

Mr. Flanner was lucky to find an environmentally aware company — Broadway Stages, a stage and lighting company — that wanted a green roof on one of its buildings. It paid to prepare the roof for planting and agreed to let him grow food on it. Mr. Flanner and his partner, Annie Novak, did the planting and will be able to keep all the profits from their organic vegetables.

“People are knocking on my door to buy the stuff,” he said. Andrew Tarlow, a partner in four nearby restaurants, including Marlow & Sons, has agreed to buy anything Mr. Flanner grows.

The roof cost $6,000 to prepare, according to Lisa Goode, who with her husband, Chris, owns Goode Green, a company that designs edible roof gardens. There are at least 1,000 seedlings planted in 16 beds, each about 60 feet long.

“A smaller roof would cost more per square foot,” she said. Mr. Flanner’s costs for the garden itself were less than $2,000, but Ms. Goode said it will take more than one roof for him to make a living.

“This is sort of a pilot to see if it can become a viable business model because he isn’t going to make any money from this,” she said. “If we can get the owner to do more roofs, he can then make a profit.”

Not long ago, edible rooftop gardeners were less likely to be thinking about sustainable food systems or the environment.

Lee Utterbach wanted to recapture summers on his grandmother’s farm. But there was no land around his house in the Mission district of San Francisco. So when he bought the building where he lives and runs a photo equipment rental shop, he turned the roof into a vegetable and flower garden. Since the roof slopes, all the planting was done along its perimeter. Some of it, like the rosemary, is so well established, it hangs over the front of the building.

Reaching the roof means a trip through the kitchen window, then up an incline. A small ladder takes visitors to his wife’s greenhouse and a hot tub, a deck , a composting toilet and the future guest room. In one area that his wife, Aly, describes as his “man cave,” Mr. Utterbach watches his 17-inch TV screen from a comfortable chair.

“I was probably eight or nine years ahead of the curve when I built this,” he said. “I just enjoy watering plants and digging in the soil.”

Peter Bergold, a neuroscientist who teaches at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn, was also inspired by the past. Memories of the first asparagus and carrots he ate from a garden years before led him to start growing produce on the roof of his landmarked brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, six or seven years ago.

“That was my epiphany,” he said of the sweetness he was trying to recapture. “I assumed asparagus grew with a rubber band around them.”

Environmental awareness came slowly. “One of the things that got me interested,” he said, “was that between global warming and the thermal bubble of cities you can start things much earlier so you have a much longer growing season.”

Another benefit gardeners get from planting well above the ground is that they face fewer pests.

But roof gardeners also have to think about winds that can knock over tender vines. And while concentrated heat on top of city buildings can help tomatoes ripen, it also means more frequent watering, even if irrigation requires lugging watering cans up stairs.

Though rooftop gardens go back at least to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the modern green roof movement has made its way here from Europe, where for years government policies have encouraged or required green roofs.

The government benefits take into account the fact that gardening on the roof requires much more preparation than gardening on terra firma.

First, it must be determined whether the roof can support the weight of the soil, the plants and the water. It may need to be retrofitted. Barring that, gardeners can place planters around the perimeter, which is generally its strongest part.

The containers can be almost anything: ready-made planters; boxes made of reclaimed wood, old milk cartons, children’s wading pools. A screen at the bottom holds in a lightweight substance, like packing peanuts for bulk, topped with a barrier fabric so the soil can’t go through. Potting soil, mixed with ingredients to lighten it, is put on top.

When gardens are planted directly on the roof, a waterproof membrane is laid down first, followed by insulation and a root barrier. (A guide to roof gardening is available at

All this work can be off-putting for landlords. Five years ago, Ms. Crossfield said, the owner of an apartment building on Sixth Avenue in the West Village told one of his tenants to get rid of a garden she had planted.

“He told the woman to take it off the roof,” she said, “because he didn’t see any benefit in it.”

That’s not so likely these days.

“Several years ago you might have seen a certain amount of resistance,” said Miquela Craytor, executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, “but now people are coming to us saying they want one.”

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Procrastination, and the spirit moves...

I haven't blogged as much in the last several months weeks as I did when I first started blogging. Part of this has to do with the fact that between work and running, and all the other things I do, there's precious little time to blog.

OK, I have to admit that it's also due to blogging fatigue. There are only so many interesting...or at least I hope are interesting, things I can say, and I'm actually fairly reticent in person, so there haven't been very many posts recently. Which reminds me, to Grace who commented on a previous post, I've written a brief reply. 

But when the spirit moves me, then I do blog. 

Otherwise, I spend a lot of time procrastinating. Which I am doing now. Heh.

As for what exactly I've been procrastinating with, well there's a blog post right there. Which you are reading now. Heh. Anyways, if you're in the mood for a little procrastination yourself...

I've been spending stupid amounts of time on mini-games like Desktop Tower Defense and the like. I think I'm a sucker for any game that optimizes a design process. Sure brings out the engineer in me.

I've also started playing Travian again. It's just so perfect for playing in the office because it takes so long and requires minimal attention. Shhh, don't tell anyone in office!

Oh, and I've been binge-ing out on tango music, go figure. The classic Por Una Cabeza by Carlos Gardel, Astor Pizzaola's Libertango, and the post-modern Asi se Baila el Tango. You have to watch the last one. That scene is smokin'...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The invitation

Warning: This post is a rant. It has the veneer of civilized and reasoned discourse, but it is at heart a rant. And I am honest enough to admit that it is a stinking, envy-soaked, so dyed-in-the-green-it's-environmentally-friendly rant. More disclaimers to follow.

And as for those people reading this blog who know who I'm referring to, please be discreet. Thanks!

So I received an invitation for this weekend to attend a barbeque house party at a friend's place. Now, I won't actually be attending and the reason is that I have a Father's Day family dinner this weekend. It's important for me to state this upfront as you will soon see. I would otherwise attend this little shindig at my friend's place.

When the email invitation arrived, one glance at it was enough to arouse a seething cauldron of somewhat uncharitable feelings.

First, let me say that I have nothing but good things to say about this friend. He's kind, generous and an all round nice guy. In fact, I bunked in with him one time I was in New York when we were still students (he attended Columbia). So this isn't really about him.

So what got my ire up?

It was the address on the invitation. He stays in one of the toniest districts on the island. You can check out the price of an apartment in his condo right here. Bear in mind that he's my age (not yet 30). But clearly he's doing much better than me (and just about 99% of the people I know). It could be family money, although I seriously doubt it as I have been to his parents' place and it is less lavish. It certainly seems like it is his own (and his wife's) apartment.

Why is he doing so well? Well, probably because he's a banker. He works for Credit Suisse. He did some time on Wall Street and the City dealing in something credit related (I do not know for sure if it was CDS's) and now he's back in Singapore.

The point is...doesn't it seem just the teensiest bit inequitable that bankers can earn literally millions of dollars just by "pushing" money around?

Now I am far from being a card-carrying member of the kill-the-banksters, pitchfork-wielding crowd, but it is obvious that the finance industry has destroyed far more value in the last 2 years than it has created in the previous decade. 

Here, I have to reiterate again that it is nothing personal against my friend. It is with banking in general.

I don't think people begrudge the vast wealth of people like Bill Gates, Sergey Brin or Larry Page for the enormous value that their creations (Microsoft and Google) have given the world. But it's a rare uninterested (in the financial sense) person who does not question why bankers and financiers are so heavily rewarded when their societal contributions are manifestly less valuable (or even destructive as we have seen in the past year). What makes it even more odious is how arrogant financiers are in general (my friend above excepted of course). See how Fred Goodwin is quoted in this article. "Hard work, focus, discipline...". Right.

Even if you accept the argument that finance plays an important role in imposing discipline on capital allocation, which in fact I do, much has been written on how large the finance economy has grown in relation to the real economy, and the costs such a large financial sector exacts on all of us, notwithstanding arguments to the contrary.

How do grossly overpaid bankers and financiers affect you and me?

The first most obvious effect is on inflation. Starkly high income inequality causes the prices of goods to be bid up, affecting all of us. This includes what we normally consider goods, as well as such "goods" as a college education and work-life balance. Having a group of very prominent people in society who work crazy hours tends to have some kind of effect on working hours for all white-collar workers.The economist Robert H. Frank has written extensively on phenomena related to this.

But I'm not rich enough to afford an apartment at Le Arc at the Draycott you say, unlike my friend above. Perhaps, but most of us will probably buy homes one of these days, and the price of land anywhere on this land-scarce island (like say at Draycott road) will have an impact on the price of land where we do buy our homes.

Ditto that for the higher rent on Orchard Road, which translates into higher prices for goods and services.

And because wealthier folk invariably consume more upscale goods and services, and can afford to pay for them, naturally the vendors that service them will gravitate to locations of greater convenience, pushing out the shops that most of us patronize to the suburbs. New York City is a great (and ironic) example of this. The concentration of wealth in Manhattan means that many of the people who work in Manhattan providing essential city services cannot actually afford to live there. This includes: sanitation workers, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and government workers. There is just something so intrinsically wrong with that. We are starting to see this in Singapore in an ever widening ring centered on the CBD.

Beyond the effects on inflation, the presence of overpaid bankers has other pernicious effects. Like how the financial sector has been siphoning off talent that would otherwise have gone on to careers more productive in their output to society. Instead of being enticed into "pushing" money around, bright young people could actually be doing useful things. The irony is that the high cost of living, and the massive costs of a debt-financed college education, influenced by income inequality brought on at least in part by an oversized finanical sector, compel young people to actually seek out the most highly remunerative careers they can ... in finance. This is peripherally addressed in the books Strapped and The Trap.

And even for those who have chosen to work in other careers, the inevitable comparisons with bankers arise. Nassim Nicholas Taleb recounts a story in The Black Swan about how an otherwise wealthy lawyer has an unhappy wife because they stay in a condo filled with much more highly remunerated hedge fund managers. Perhaps that is why bankers are mostly friends with other bankers and very rich folk. No one else cares to associate with them; the juxtaposition is just too uncomfortable.

The resentment can be especially sharp if one does not consider oneself the inferior in talent or hard work to a banker. Such as I discovered when I received an invitation this week.

Friday, June 5, 2009

"Next Test: Value of $125,000-a-Year Teachers"

This is just so uplifting it deserves to be read.


From The New York Times
Published: June 4, 2009

So what kind of teachers could a school get if it paid them $125,000 a year?

An accomplished violist who infuses her music lessons with the neuroscience of why one needs to practice, and creatively worded instructions like, “Pass the melody gently, as if it were a bowl of Jell-O!”

A self-described “explorer” from Arizona who spent three decades honing her craft at public, private, urban and rural schools.

Two with Ivy League degrees. And Joe Carbone, a phys ed teacher, who has the most unusual résumé of the bunch, having worked as Kobe Bryant’s personal trainer.

“Developed Kobe from 185 lbs. to 225 lbs. of pure muscle over eight years,” it reads.

They are members of an eight-teacher dream team, lured to an innovative charter school that will open in Washington Heights in September with salaries that would make most teachers drop their chalk and swoon; $125,000 is nearly twice as much as the average New York City public school teacher earns, and about two and a half times as much as the national average for teacher salaries. They also will be eligible for bonuses, based on schoolwide performance, of up to $25,000 in the second year.

The school, called the Equity Project, is premised on the theory that excellent teachers — and not revolutionary technology, talented principals or small class size — are the critical ingredient for success. Experts hope it could offer a window into some of the most pressing and elusive questions in education: Is a collection of superb teachers enough to make a great school? Are six-figure salaries the way to get them? And just what makes a teacher great?

The school’s founder, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, 32, a Yale graduate who founded a test prep company, has been grappling with just these issues. Over the past 15 months he conducted a nationwide search that was almost the American Idol of education — minus the popular vote, but complete with hometown visits (Mr. Vanderhoek crisscrossed the country to observe the top 35 applicants in their natural habitats) and misty-eyed fans (like the principal who got so emotional recommending Casey Ash that, Mr. Vanderhoek recalled, she was “basically crying on the phone with me, saying what a treasure he was.”)

Mr. Ash, 33, who teaches at an elementary school on the outskirts of Raleigh, N.C., will take the social studies slot.

The Equity Project will open with 120 fifth graders chosen this spring in a lottery that gave preference to children from the neighborhood and to low academic performers; most students are from low-income Hispanic families. It will grow to 480 children in Grades 5 to 8, with 28 teachers.

The school received 600 applications. Mr. Vanderhoek interviewed 100 in person.

Along the way, Mr. Vanderhoek, who taught at a middle school in Washington Heights before founding Manhattan GMAT, learned a few lessons.

One was that a golden résumé and a well-run classroom are two different things. “There are people who it’s like, wow, they look great on paper, but the kids don’t respect them,” Mr. Vanderhoek said.

The eight winning candidates, he said, have some common traits, like a high “engagement factor,” as measured by the portion of a given time frame during which students seem so focused that they almost forget they are in class. They were expert at redirecting potential troublemakers, a crucial skill for middle school teachers. And they possessed a contagious enthusiasm — which Rhena Jasey, 30, Harvard Class of 2001, who has been teaching at a school in Maplewood, N.J., conveyed by introducing a math lesson with, “Oh, this is the fun part because I looooooove math!” Says Mr. Vanderhoek: “You couldn’t help but get excited.” Hired.

Teachers said the rigorous selection process was more gratifying than grueling.

“It’s so refreshing that somebody comes to a teacher and says, ‘Show me what you know,’ ” said Oscar Quintero, who goes by Pepe and will teach special education. “This is the first time in 30 years of teaching that anybody has been really interested in what I do.”

The school will use only public money for everything but its building. It is close to signing a lease for private space on 181st Street, to be covered by a combination of public school financing, a charter school grant and what Mr. Vanderhoek described as a “small amount” of private donations (he ultimately hopes to raise enough private money to build a permanent space).

To make ends meet, teachers will hold responsibilities usually shouldered by other staff members, like assistant principals (there will be none). There will be no deans, substitute teachers (except for extended leaves) or teacher coaches. Teachers will work longer hours and more days, and have 30 pupils, about 6 more than the typical New York City fifth-grade class.

The principal, Mr. Vanderhoek, will earn just $90,000. Teachers will not have the same retirement benefits as members of the city’s teachers’ union. And they can be fired at will.

That did not scare Mr. Quintero, who is in his 60s and is moving from Florida; Heather Wardwell, 37, who is leaving East Greenwich High School, in Rhode Island, after a decade, to teach Latin; or Judith LeFevre, 54, the Arizona teacher who earned about $40,000 as recently as two years ago.

Ms. LeFevre, who will teach science, wrote via e-mail that the school was “an experiment of sorts, in which I’m one of the subjects.” She added, “This could be unsettling were it not for the excitement of working with a team of master teachers, all of whom are motivated to help every student succeed, with no excuses and no blame.”

Her other teammates: Damion Frye, 32, who teaches English at Montclair High School in New Jersey, has a master’s degree from Brown University and is pursuing his doctorate at Columbia’s Teachers College, and Gina M. Galassi, 40, who teaches music at Kingston High School in Ulster County, N.Y.

Mr. Carbone, 44, spent four years as head strength and conditioning coach for the Los Angeles Lakers. He left for a quieter life in Spring Valley, N.Y., last year, after overhearing one of his three sons say, “I want to play basketball, but my dad hasn’t taught me yet.”

Whatever the magic formula for a great school or teacher may be, Mr. Vanderhoek has come to believe that there is an essential ingredient to the search for such teachers: Time spent in that teacher’s classroom, watching students learn. Then again, his team has yet to hit the court.

“I have tremendous confidence that the staff is going to be excellent,” he said. “But we will see.”

Monday, June 1, 2009

Book List Refreshed!

I have removed:

Against the Gods by Peter L. Bernstein
The Misbehavior of Financial Markets by Benoit Mandelbrot
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
Beef by Andrew Rimas and Evan Fraser

I have added:

Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich
Making the Foreign Serve China (truly fresh perspective!) by Anne-Marie Brady
Discover your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowen
The Way We Think by Gilles Fauconnier