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October 31, 2007

Eating "The Best Sandwich in the World"

After a quick day and a half in Barcelona over the weekend, I'm now in Paris and starting to catch up on my trip blogging.

Last week, I blogged about the Barcelona restaurant Viena, where New York Times food critic Mark Bittman had eaten what he called "the best sandwich in the world". While there, I had to try it, so I made a trip to La Rambla to visit Viena for a flauta d'ibéric d.o. jabugo.


So how was it? It wasn't the best sandwich I've ever had -- but it was very good. What was impressive was how simple it was: a bread roll that was nearly perfect, with a crunchy, almost crackling shell and soft interior; crushed tomatoes; possibly a bit of olive oil (or oil in which the tomatoes might have been packed); and of course, the salt-cured Iberian pork, sliced as thinly as possible. Highly recommended (even if I still prefer the sandwich I had at Barndiva last year).

As you might expect, Viena is making the most of their glowing review:

Viena Quotes Bittman

October 26, 2007

Off to Barcelona and Paris

I'm off for a week's vacation in Europe -- a quick 36 hours in Barcelona, then a week in Paris. For those of you in the Southeast, from which I departed today, enjoy the much-needed rain (it was deluge-like all day).

I'll report back here on the sandwiches and foie gras in Barcelona, and on the fireplaces and home-cooked meals in Paris.

"Our Great Strength Is Our Ideals"

During the confirmation hearing for Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey I blogged about yesterday, John Hutson, former Rear Admiral and Judge Advocate General of the US Navy, testified, not in opposition, but to "highlight some of the concerns" he had. During his remarks, he made the case for upholding our principles in a time of war better than I ever could:

[I]n [the global war on terror], the enemy cannot defeat us militarily. They don't have the lift, they don't have the command and control, communications. They don't have the weapons systems. They can't defeat us militarily.

Winning for the enemy is to cause us to change, to bring us down to his level, to cause us to be something different than what we have been.

Our great strength, the support of human rights and the rule of law. Thomas Paine said that, The cause of America is the cause of all mankind. The great more recent geopolitical commentator Bono said that, America isn't just a country, it's an idea.

We are engaged in an asymmetric war. And in an asymmetric war, the strategy is to pit your strength against the enemy's weakness, unlike World War II, for example, where it was often strength against strength.

Our great strength is our ideals. Thomas Paine and Bono had it right.

The enemy is abjectly devoid of ideals. So the enemy can't defeat us -- certainly can't defeat us militarily, but we can commit national suicide by disarming ourselves of our ideals.

October 25, 2007

A Fundamental Question

In his confirmation hearings this week (transcript here), Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey was asked the following:

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT): [W]here Congress has clearly legislated in an area, as we've done in the area of surveillance with the FISA law, something we've amended repeatedly at the request of various administrations, if somebody -- if it's been legislated and stated very clearly what must be done, if you operate outside of that, whether it's with a presidential authorization or anything else, wouldn't that be illegal?

Michael Mukasey: That would have to depend on whether what goes outside the statute nonetheless lies within the authority of the president to defend the country.

This one single question-and-answer is of monumental importance. It's a fundamental question for our country -- perhaps the single most important question raised by the actions of the Bush administration.

What Mukasey is saying is, in essence, if the President does something in order to defend the country, it's not illegal. This is the position of the Bush Administration and many of its supporters. What they're saying is, as I understand it, "War threatens the the nation. The president's most solemn obligation is to preserve the safety and security of the nation. This obligation overrides any and all other considerations."

I see it differently. I like to think I'm in good company. In Thoughts on Government, John Adams wrote:

[T]here is no good government but what is republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so; because the very definition of a republic is 'an empire of laws, and not of men.'
It seems to me that what Bush supporters are saying is, in effect, "Yes, of course we should be an empire of laws and not of men. But war threatens the existence of our nation. No president would say, 'I'm allowing the nation to fall because I'm required to obey a certain law.' So we must give the president the ability to do whatever is needed to defend our nation, even if it breaks a law."

The important thing to note here is that Adams wrote those words above in 1776, just months before signing the Declaration of Independence. He and his fellow signers were about to commit what the British government viewed as an act of treason, punishable by death. They were about to found a country that was certainly going to have to fight for its very survival (which it did). He would have been far more within his rights than are we today to claim some sort of executive privilege in time of war. And yet he didn't. He plainly said -- in the face of war -- that if our country was to be a republic, it had to be "an empire of laws, and not of men".

So that one answer from Mukasey is fundamental to the question of what kind of nation we want to be. We need to have this debate as a country, hopefully over the course of the current election campaign. I truly hope the answer is that we do want to be an empire of laws at all times -- not just when it's convenient or safe for us.

(An op-ed in The New York Times has a similar but better-informed take on this issue.)

October 21, 2007

The Best Sandwich in the World?

A week from today, I'll be in Barcelona with my girlfriend -- a quick 36-hour stop on our way to a week in Paris.

A few days ago, I was skimming through an episode of Mark Bittman's series The Best Recipes in the World (after his book of the same name) and noticed he headed for Barcelona. He visted a restaurant on La Rambla called Café Viena, where he ordered a flauta d'ibéric d.o. jabugo -- a salt-cured ham sandwich that he pronounced the best in the world. Not the best ham sandwich, but the best sandwich, period. Here it is in its porcine glory from his review in The New York Times:

The Best Sandwich in the World?
I'm not qualified to say whether it's the best sandwich in the world. No one is, including Bittman. But I'll report back if it's the best sandwich I've ever had. It will have tough competition: last year, I had a barbecue short rib sandwich at Barndiva in Healdsburg, CA that I immediately pronounced the best sandwich of my life. We'll see.

October 14, 2007

Exercise and Fitness Update

Back in June, I blogged about my decision to begin exercising every single day. Over four months have gone by, and the time seems right for an update.

I did end up missing a day in July, after 18 weeks straight of exercise. I didn't mean to -- I was traveling, was tired from lack of sleep, and thought at the time that I had walked enough that day to count. When I thought about it a few days later, I realized that the walking hadn't been nearly enough, so I counted the day as a miss. I've missed two more days since then. Both were deliberate -- days on which I felt bad for some reason and didn't feel up to powering through it. In each case, I felt much better the next day and resume my normal workout schedule, so I assume I made the right decision both times. That makes three days off in the last 31 weeks. I'm averaging just under an hour of exercise every day (59 minutes per day, to be exact, since I began). So how is it going?

The good news is that my physical condition continues to improve. My resting heart rate keeps falling, and it's taking more and more effort to get my heart rate up during exercise. I can tell from playing soccer that I'm faster than I was at the beginning of the year. And I'm fairly sure I'm stronger than I've ever been, based on how much I can lift now.

But perhaps the best news is that -- as I noted in my previous entry -- exercise is now a way of life for me. It's what I do, every day. The two days I deliberately took off were difficult decisions for me. I agonized over each of them. And there have been many more days that I felt low for one reason or another but never considered skipping exercise.

On the negative side, while I was losing about a pound a week through late July, I've plateaued and haven't lost any weight since then. I can tell from my clothes that I'm continuing to lose inches -- in fact, I have a large stack of too-large clothes in the back of my car, waiting to be dropped off at the Goodwill store later today. But that's a slow process, and I have weight yet to lose, so I have to get on track. I've been doing research on my own, and talked with the nutritionist at my gym, and have a multi-point plan that I'm starting to implement:

  • Interval training. I had settled into a routine of 60 minutes or so on the elliptical, always set to level 18 (out of 25). The problem is that as my aerobic fitness increased, my heart rate went down. I had metabolic tests done at the gym and found that my body is now accustomed to working efficiently when my heart rate is at 70-80 percent of maximum. This means I need to spend time with my heart rate at 80-85 percent of maximum, which in turn means interval training. I started a couple of weeks ago and can definitely see the difference when I'm on the elliptical machine.
  • More weight training. I've been good about lifting weights at least twice a week, but I need to be more consistent about lifting at least three times a week. There's abundant evidence that weight training in combination with cardiovascular training is the best way to become (or stay) fit. This has been difficult due to my travel schedule, but I think I'm on track now.
  • Better nutrition. I've been careful about how much I eat, but not necessarily about what I eat. I'm not a junk food junkie, but I'm definitely a quick food junkie. I enjoy cooking for other people, but not for myself alone. As a result, far too often I've come home from work and had cereal (healthy organic cereal, but cereal just the same) for dinner. Or a few energy bars, or a protein shake. Not good. I haven't made the jump to cooking for myself yet, but what I have done is started buying healthier ready-made frozen entrees from Trader Joe's, so there's always something in the freezer that's healthy, balanced, and can be ready in a few minutes. I'm also making a point of eating more salads, as well as servings of fruits and vegetables. This is coming along.
I'm also considering lowering the amount of calories I allow myself each day, but I have a trip to Paris coming up in a couple of weeks, and so I think I'm going to wait until after that to do so. (Though I will be hitting the gym while there -- there looks to be a beautiful facility just a few blocks from the apartment in which I'll be staying.)

One more potential change for me is to introduce more variation into my cardiovascular workouts. With the hot, humid summer we had here in North Carolina, bicycling dropped off my list. That left me with one soccer game each week and six days of elliptical training. I haven't seen any studies showing the effect of more or less variation in workouts, but my hunch is that more variation must be a good thing, if for no other reason that it leads to working more and different muscle groups, rather than the same well-trained muscle groups over and over again. The weather is beautiful here now, so I'm going to go back to bicycling once a week, and I'd like to take up swimming once a week as well. I'm also considering running again -- my knee isn't great, but after months of self-guided therapy (based on current research papers), it's doing better, and I think I might just be up to a run once a week.

In the end, I'm as convinced as ever that exercising every day is a good thing. At least it has been for me.

October 13, 2007

"The Sheer Wasted Opportunity of It All"

I think Thomas Friedman does the best job I've yet seen of predicting how future historians will judge Bush's presidency:

"No matter what happens, sooner or later character in leadership is revealed," said David Rothkopf, author of the upcoming "Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making." "Gore lost the election and had to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He took the initiative to get the country and the world to focus on a common threat -- climate change. Bush won the election and for the first year really didn't know what to do with it. When, on 9/11, we and the world were suddenly faced with a common threat -- terrorism and Al Qaeda -- the whole world was ready to line up behind him, but time and again he just divided us at home and abroad."

Indeed, Mr. Bush, rather than taking all that unity and using it to rebuild America for the 21st century, took all that unity and used it to push the narrow agenda of his "base." He used all that unity to take a far-right agenda on taxes and social issues that was going nowhere on 9/10 and drive it into a 9/12 world.

Never has so much national unity -- which could have been used to develop a real energy policy, reverse our coming Social Security deficit, assemble a lasting coalition to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq, maybe even get a national health care program -- been used to build so little. That is what historians will note most about Mr. Bush's tenure -- the sheer wasted opportunity of it all.

Yes, Iraq was always going to be hugely difficult, but the potential payoff of erecting a decent, democratizing government in the heart of the Arab world was also enormous. Yet Mr. Bush, in his signature issue, never mobilized the country, never punished incompetence, never made the bad guys "fight all of us," as Bill Maher put it, by at least pushing through a real energy policy to reduce the resources of the very people we were fighting. He thought he could change the world with 50.1 percent of the country, and he couldn't.

"That is what historians will note most about Mr. Bush's tenure -- the sheer wasted opportunity of it all." Sounds spot-on to me. Think of what could have been accomplished had Bush been a better man. It's sad. And it's not just the wasted opportunity of national unity, but the fact that Bush's policies have so polarized the country and the world. When he leaves office, he will leave the US in a far worse position than he found it.

Our nation is divided, our reputation around the world is at rock-bottom, we're running massive deficits, we've spent nearly half a trillion dollars on a war that has degenerated into an ethnic and religious civil conflict, we've lost nearly 4,000 soldiers representing the best of our country, at least 75,000 Iraqi civilians have died, our actions have "substantially strengthened bin Laden's network"... and Al Qaeda's original expenditures to set all this in motion were half a million dollars and the lives of 19 of its men. Who got the better of whom?

Am I Missing Something?

I was waiting for the tram from the Main Terminal to the North Terminal at Sea-Tac recently and found myself standing behind someone I had to snap a photo of:

Seen at SEA

This guy was a bodybuilder who looked to be in his mid- to late-forties. Fine, good for him. He was balding on top, with longish hair nonetheless. Not the style choice I'd make if I were going bald, but okay.

But then there were the shorts. Though this picture doesn't do them justice, they were straining around his thighs and so were pretty much skin-tight as a result. From a distance, it looked like he was wearing a thigh-length wet suit bottom.

And then there was the inevitable, the inescapable, the ever-present fanny pack (held in the hand because, presumably, he had just come through security). Once and for all, can someone tell me what bodybuilders carry in those things? Am I missing something?

October 11, 2007

"...The Action of Cowards and Slaves"

From a blog entry by Andrew Sullivan on torture:

There are some things worse than avoiding all casualties in warfare. One of those things is abandoning the core meaning of what a country and a civilization stand for. If America does not stand against the torture of individuals seized without due process by an unchecked executive power, then American stands for nothing. In fact, if this standard had applied two centuries ago, America would not exist at all. The president takes an oath not to prevent any American life from being lost in wartime, but to protect and defend the Constitution which is the sole guarantor of such liberty. Churchill upheld that rule, even as London was reduced to rubble and hundreds of thousands of mother's children were lost. Washington made it a central hallmark of the meaning of his new republic. To destroy the constitution, the rule of law, and habeas corpus and to legalize torture in the false hope of saving lives is the action of those who do not understand freedom and who do not understand America. It is the action of cowards and slaves.
Sullivan concludes by asking of those who support the use of torture and the suspension of habeus corpus,
What part of "Live Free Or Die" do these people not understand?

October 10, 2007

Fiscal Irresponsibility

From Thomas Friedman's latest column:

Every so often a quote comes out of the Bush administration that leaves you asking: Am I crazy or are they? I had one of those moments last week when Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, was asked about a proposal by some Congressional Democrats to levy a surtax to pay for the Iraq war, and she responded, "We've always known that Democrats seem to revert to type, and they are willing to raise taxes on just about anything."

Yes, those silly Democrats. They'll raise taxes for anything, even -- get this -- to pay for a war!

And if we did raise taxes to pay for our war to bring a measure of democracy to the Arab world, "does anyone seriously believe that the Democrats are going to end these new taxes that they're asking the American people to pay at a time when it's not necessary to pay them?" added Ms. Perino. "I just think it's completely fiscally irresponsible."

Friends, we are through the looking glass. It is now "fiscally irresponsible" to want to pay for a war with a tax.

The Bush administration and the Republican party have abandoned any and all pretense of fiscal responsibility. The problem is that, notwithstanding the proposed surtax mentioned above, Congressional Democrats aren't stepping up to the plate to do the job. Like their Republican counterparts, they're only too happy to saddle future generations with debt to pay for new programs today -- programs they believe will help them curry favor with constituents and be re-elected.

How are we going to escape this cycle?

October 07, 2007

Airlines and Congestion Pricing

This article from The Washington Post says something that needs to be said about the US airline system:

Thirty years ago, Alfred Kahn, then-head of the Civil Aeronautics Board in the Carter administration, used this analogy in a speech to the airline industry:

Suppose all meat from a cow was sold at a uniform price per pound: tenderloin, sirloin, ground chuck, soup bones. Demand for choice steak cuts would soar, even as overpriced hamburger rotted on store shelves.

And to meet this new demand for steak, huge swaths of the country would have to be converted to cattle ranching and growing cattle feed, crowding out other uses for that land.

Kahn's message: If you misprice things, you prevent markets from matching supply and demand and wind up misallocating scarce resources. And what is true for hamburgers and land, he argued, also applies to the limited space at and near airports during peak hours.

Kahn recommended that the price paid by airlines for airport and air space in peak periods be high enough so that it not only brought demand in line with supply, but gave officials the money and incentive to add runways or air traffic control capacity whenever the price paid for peak hours exceeded the cost of adding capacity.

This concept of "marginal cost pricing" ought to be familiar to anyone who has taken a basic college course in economics. But what is so astonishing is that 30 years after Kahn laid out his case, a decade after it was proposed by the Clinton administration, six months after it was officially embraced by the Bush administration, and in the midst of a consumer revolt over flight delays and cancellations, "congestion pricing" is no closer to reality...

In a letter last week to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, James May, the president of the Air Transport Association, said the industry was opposed to any policy aiming to "artificially" constrain demand.

Perhaps it doesn't occur to May that a system that charges the same price for steak and hamburger is the artificial one, by creating artificial demand.

We need to do something about delays in the air traffic system. In August, just 72 percent of flights were on time. For the typical traveler on a two-segment trip, they had only a 51.8 percent chance of both their flights being on time. For a traveler on a round trip of four segments, they had only a 26.9 percent chance of all four flights. Think of it: in the summer of this year -- of 2007! -- only one in four travelers using a hub-and-spoke airline had all their flights arrive on time.

October 05, 2007

Obama and the Flag Pin

In Iowa, Barack Obama was asked why he doesn't wear a flag pin on his lapel (coverage here and here). His response?

Somebody noticed I wasn't wearing a flag lapel pin and I told folks, well you know what? I haven't probably worn that pin in a very long time. I wore it right after 9/11. But after a while, you start noticing people wearing a lapel pin, but not acting very patriotic. Not voting to provide veterans with resources that they need. Not voting to make sure that disability payments were coming out on time.

My attitude is that I'm less concerned about what you're wearing on your lapel than what's in your heart. And you show your patriotism by how you treat your fellow Americans, especially those who served. You show your patriotism by being true to our values and our ideals and that's what we have to lead with is our values and our ideals.

I'm amazed that any serious candidate for the presidency would say this, and delighted that the candidate who said it is Obama. It would be far, far easier to just wear the lapel pin and avoid any potential controversy. I'm sure that's what any $200-an-hour political consultant would say. "Why do something that could come back to bite you? Just wear the pin."

I've long said that a fundamental problem with politics is that the skills necessary to get elected have little or nothing to do with the skills necessary to govern. Obama may or may not become our next President, but in a world that rewarded intelligence, thoughtfulness, and honesty, he'd be a shoo-in.