November 27, 2014

Talking Transportation: Promises Still Not Kept

Someone once said:  “Judge me by my actions, not my words.”  So let’s do just that, comparing recent rhetoric to reality when it comes to Metro-North.

EXPANDED SERVICE:     During the election campaign much was made of a promised expansion of off-peak train service, growing from one train an hour to two.  But when the new timetable came out Nov. 9, riders found that the 14 newly added weekday trains don’t stop at five stations:  Southport, Greens Farms, East Norwalk, Rowayton and Noroton Heights.

Despite pleas from the CT Commuter Rail Council, the Connecticut Department of Transportation chose to skip those stations to save 10 minutes’ running time between New Haven and Grand Central Station.  There was never an expectation that the new trains would be semi-express, just a promise of expanded service.  What happened?

ADEQUATE SEATING:     Though we now have more rail cars than ever before, thanks to delivery of the new M8s, many trains still don’t have seats for every passenger.  The railroad’s own “Passenger Pledge” promises every effort to provide adequate seating, and Metro-North’s statistics claim that 99.6% of all trains have enough cars.   So why the standees?

ON TIME PERFORMANCE:         Yes, safety should always come first.  But October saw only 86.7% of trains arrive “on time” (defined as up to six minutes late).  In the morning rush hour, On Time Performance was only 82%.  And this is despite three timetable changes since the spring, lengthening scheduled running times to reflect new Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) speed restrictions.  They keep moving the ‘target’ and still can’t get a bulls-eye.

SAFETY:       After taking its lickings from the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, Metro-North has proclaimed it’s a new day at the railroad, that a new “culture of safety” is ingrained in its employees.  But in early November, a collision was avoided by seconds after track crews erected bridge plates in front of an oncoming train at Noroton Heights.  And there have been at least three incidents of conductors opening train doors that were off the platform where commuters could have fallen and been injured.

RELIABLE SERVICE:        The new M8 cars are performing well.  But diesel push-pull service on the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines has been unreliable.  September saw several locomotive fires and break-downs, stranding passengers or forcing “bustitutions” (bus substitutions).

COURTEOUS EMPLOYEES:      Most Metro-North staff do a great job under often-times difficult circumstances.  But there are clearly some employees who either hate their jobs, their customers or both.  Hardly a week goes by without The Commuter Action Group hearing complaints about surly conductors snapping at passengers.  Yet it’s hard to complain because these staffers violate railroad rules requiring them always to wear their name badges.

It’s been a year since a sleepy engineer drove a train off the tracks in the Bronx, killing four and injuring 70.  As Metro-North President Joe Giulietti himself acknowledged, the railroad has lost the trust of its customers.  Rebuilding goodwill, like the infrastructure, will take years.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

 

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 23 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Letter From Paris: The Dangers of Drones

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

Something strange happened lately in the skies of France:  drones were spotted over several nuclear plants, including one dangerously close to Paris in Nogent sur Seine.  A few days later more drones flew over nuclear complexes.  A wave of anxiety gripped the public opinion.  Who was manipulating those machines?  Was the country under threat?

Greenpeace was immediately suspected of being the one to operate the unmanned contraptions.  As a pro-environmental watchdog this international association has a history of peaceful action against nuclear power.  In 2012, a paraglider had landed on a nuclear installation to prove that the installation was not well protected.  In July 2013, 29 activists broke into Tricastin nuclear plant, in southern France.  Yannick Rousselet, head of the anti-nuclear Greenpeace campaign, vehemently denied any involvement this time in a television interview.

If Greenpeace had nothing to do with it, the question remained, who did?  A few days later, three individuals suspected of operating the drones, were arrested.  So, for now, the fear is defused.  But it was a wake-up call of a potential danger.

The most advanced drone technologies are found in Israel and the US.  To obtain current and accurate information, I interviewed a French engineer who used to work with a German company manufacturing drones.  He told me that 10 years ago, all of them were built for military use, mostly for reconnaissance and surveillance.  They included the HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance), MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance), tactical drones and portable drones for use in ground combat.  The Israeli Watchkeeper with sensors and camera can fire missiles and bombs from sometimes thousands of miles away.  Today drones have become a necessity in wars taking place in huge territories such as Mali.

France is at the cutting-edge of research but lacks funds to develop its ideas.  As an example, Dassault designed the NEURON and produced one model, whereas the American PREDATOR, built in 2010, has already flown one million hours.

European countries are catching up with drone technology.  On Nov. 5 of this year, François Hollande and David Cameron attended the signing of an agreement between Dassault Aviation and BAE Systems (British Aerospace and Marconi Electronics Systems) for a new generation of drones.  Germany and Italy will be part of the project in the future.

miniature-drone

Today civilian drones exist in all sizes and degrees of complexity.  Drones called “Insects” (see photo above) are so small that they can be held in the palm of the hand.  The  Chinese DJI Fantom flies like an helicopter with quadrotors,  carries a remote camera and is very popular with the general public.  Drones have become invaluable at times of natural disasters to test the strength of bridges, in mapping, archaeology and multiple other uses.

But they can be dangerous, for example, causing the crash of commercial airplanes by entering the reactors.  When a drone fell less than six feet from Angela Merkel during her political campaign in Sept. 2013, people realized that a drone was anything but a toy.

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan


About the author:
 Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Talking Transportation: Commuters Have Clout

The recent elections have shown Hartford an important fact:  the 120,000 daily riders of Metro-North have political power.

The Commuter Action Group, of which I am founder, endorsed only five candidates for election and they were all winners.  (Trust me, there were many others seeking our endorsement, but they didn’t have the track-records (pun intended) to warrant our support.)

Those we backed have long supported mass transit. They have fought for more funding and understand their commuting constituents’ frustrations.   All we did was remind voting commuters who were their real friends in Hartford versus those who were just paying lip-service to the issue during a campaign.

While I have disagreed with him in the past (and will probably do so again), Governor Malloy was an easy choice.  His opponent was just the latest dilettante billionaire to be chosen by the GOP (remember Linda McMahon’s two runs for office costing $97 million?), by-passing experience political veterans.  Tom Foley was just clueless, saying such things as “we spend too much on mass transit” and surrounding himself with “yes-men” advisors.  Even his fellow Republicans on the ballot couldn’t talk sense into him.

What would give Foley or McMahon, neither of whom have ever been elected to anything, the idea that their track records as CEO’s would qualify them for the job of Governor?   A CEO can snap his fingers and say “do this or you’re fired”, but a Governor has to deal with a legislature, and in Foley’s case, it would have been of the opposing party.  Good luck with that.

Trust me … I am not a fan of one-party rule.  With their huge majority and deep pockets I think the Democrats in this state have become abusive bullies.

So why does the GOP keep choosing these kinds of candidates, aside from the fact that they can bankroll their own campaigns?  What a shame that veteran State Senator John McKinney didn’t get a chance to run against Malloy. McKinney was very strong on transportation issues. That would have been an interesting race.  Maybe in 2018?

Because we are non-partisan, the Commuter Action Group also endorsed three Republicans … State Senator Toni Boucher and State Rep’s Gail Lavielle and Tony Hwang, as well as Democrat Jonathan Steinberg.  They were all winners, not because of our endorsement but because we helped remind commuters they have been strong allies in Hartford.

What did we ask for our endorsement?  Only a single pledge:  that, if elected, they would promise to do something never done before… to caucus, Republicans and Democrats together, with fellow lawmakers from electoral districts representing commuters.

It was amazing for me to learn that doesn’t happen… that R’s and D’s from Fairfield County never get together to present a united front against up-state lawmakers’ attempts to cut funding for our trains.  Well, it will happen now!

Back in the dark days of February when the Commuter Action Group was formed, I reminded Hartford lawmakers that if they didn’t come to the rescue of our trains, that commuters would “remember in November” who their friends were.  And clearly they did.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


Editor’s Note:
Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 23 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Tunisian Election Outcome Offers Remarkable Example to Countries Dealing With Terrorism, Violence

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

Map_of_tunisiaTunisia did it again!  This small country in North Africa was the one to start the Arab Spring in December 2010.  On Oct. 26 of this year, the parliamentary elections marked the return to some degree of normalcy after a difficult period of assassinations and violence.

The latest elections revealed a “collective intelligence,” to use the words of a French political scientist – the result of a well established civil society.  Instead of a single party hijacking the political scene, the people voted for several parties.  The liberal party Nidaa Taures won with 38 percent of the votes.  In order to reach a majority of 109 seats in the parliament, it is willing to form a coalition – quite unusual in this part of the world.

The Islamist party Ennahda secured second place with only 28 percent of the votes and 69 seats — or 16 seats less than in the previous election.  Wisely it  conceded defeat.  How to explain the resistance of the population to the Ennahda program?

The answer lies for a large part in the key role played by women.  They spearheaded the resistance against the strict enforcement of the Sharia or moral code, which limits their rights in many areas: inheritance, divorce, veil and regulations on clothing, custody of children, adultery sanctioned by stoning or “honor killing,” right to travel, right to open a bank account, and access to higher education, etc.

In the text of the constitution approved in January 2014,  Ennahda had reluctantly agreed to replace the expression “complementarity of men and women” by “equality for all.”  A journalist had the nerve to make the following extraordinary comment, “This was a small victory for a few Tunisian feminists”.

Tunisian_flagThe “Personal Status Code,” which was installed by president Habib Bourguiba in 1956,  had given empowerment to Tunisian women, thus making them the most emancipated in the Arab world.  This revolution was at the center of his program in order to model his country on Kemal Ataturk’s vision of a secular  and modern country.  Incidentally, it is interesting to note that both Turkey and Tunisia have almost identical flags.  Bourguiba is said to have remarked at one time, “… the veil – that odious rag.”

Tunisia can be considered to-day as a bulwark between a dangerously chaotic Libya and an Algeria unable to control terrorism (on Oct.14, a  Frenchman visiting the rugged mountainous area south of Algiers, in order to train young Algerians to become mountain guides, was taken hostage and  beheaded two days later.)   In other words, Tunis is of great importance not only as a model of democratic process coexisting with a moderate Islam but also, one hopes, as an oasis of stability for the whole area.

Nicole Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter from Paris: Picasso in Paris – A New Museum Opens

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

After five years of over-budget restoration, the Picasso museum in Paris reopened on Oct. 25.  It was worth the wait — the new museum is spectacular.

I decided – like the rest of Paris, it seemed – to go to the opening.  The logistics to handle the thousands of visitors passing through the magnificent courtyard of the XVII century Hotel Salé  (thus nicknamed because the owner was a salt tax collector) in the Marais was the best I have ever seen in France.

The renovation has doubled the exhibition space.  The museum gives a feeling of openness thanks to the series of rooms opening onto the garden; wide thresholds and corridors facilitate the flow of visitors.  The classical architecture – grand stairs, loggia with arched windows and baroque haut-reliefs – coexist with modern minimalism.

The walls are stark white, allowing the creations of Picasso to literally explode.  The lighting of weathered bronze and white resin is imaginative, but discreet.  The upper level, which houses the private collection of the artist, was carved out from the original attic.  The enormous wooden beams constitute a stunning setting for Cezanne, Matisse, “Le Douanier” Rousseau (a nickname given to Rousseau related to his occupation as a toll collector), or artifacts from the South Pacific.  The exhibit spans the long life (1881-1973) of the artist.

At an early age in Malaga and la Corogne, Pablo Picasso showed his precocious talent.  His supportive father — an art teacher — acknowledging the genius of his son, put down his paint brushes in 1895 and never painted again.  In the first room of the museum, the portrait of “L’homme à la casquette” reveals  the virtuosity of the 14-year old.

picassomuseum-1

A self portrait, 1901, showing a middle-aged man (although Picasso himself is only 20) belongs to his “Blue Period.”  A gaunt, almost emaciated acrobat  (1905) with elongated hands and sad eyes is part of the circus world which fascinated Picasso.  In 1906, he begins working on the Demoiselles d’Avignon.  Gertrude Stein, foresaw the importance of what was to be one the major works of the 20th century and bought most of the preparatory sketches of the unknown young artist.  The painting hangs today at MoMA in New York City.

A voyage to Italy in the early 1920s inspired Picasso to return to the classicism of ancient Rome.  In La Course, painted 1922 in surprisingly small dimensions, two gargantuan women run on the beach, their  heads touching the clouds.

Women – whether wives or mistresses – are his sources of inspiration:  Fernande, Olga, Dora Maar, Marie Therese, Françoise, Jacqueline – each of them represents a new start.  Picasso reinvents himself continuously and keeps experimenting with new techniques and media.

There is a recurrent theme of violence in his depictions of bullfights, wars and erotic scenes.  He deconstructs his models and reassembles them in a shamble of distorted strokes which have become his trademark.  Les Amoureux, 1918, is the most irreverent and humorous example.

Picasso’s sculptures – made of crude recycled material and always full of humor – are interspersed with the paintings, which gives the visit a lighter angle. In September 2015, an exhibit on “Picasso the sculptor” will take place at MoMA.

Nicole Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Talking Transportation: Free Parking Isn’t Free

America’s obsession with automobiles is not only creating gridlock and ruining the quality of our air, but it’s eating up our land and sending real estate costs upward.  Because, once we drive our cars off the crowded highways, we assume it’s our constitutional right to find “free parking”.

For decades, city planners and zoning regulations have shared with Detroit in an unspoken conspiracy to deliver on that dream.  Consider the following:

According to the industry standard-setting Institute of Transportation Engineers, there are 266 types of businesses, which should be zoned to require a minimum amount of parking.  Quoting from the ITE “bible,” religious convents must have one parking space for every 10 nuns in residence.  Hello?  The residents aren’t going anywhere!  Why do they need parking?  Shouldn’t the convents be allowed to find better use for their land?

Or consider hotels.  Why are parking regulations based on requiring enough parking for the few nights each year when the hotel is sold out, rather than the majority of nights when occupancy is 50% or less?  Would we require a movie theater to require parking for an every-seat-filled blockbuster when its more typical offerings fill far fewer seats?

Just drive up Rte. 1 and see for yourself.  Due to zoning regulations, many shopping malls devote 60 percent of their land to parking and only 40 percent to buildings.  Imagine what that does to the cost of what they sell.

Desperate to attract folks back to their decaying downtowns, some cities are putting more land into parking than to all other land uses combined.  A Buffalo NY City Council member commented a few years ago:  “There will be lots of places to park.  There just won’t be a whole lot to do there.”

In fact, the cities that have done the best jobs of economic revitalization aren’t the ones that provided the most parking … they’re the ones that provided the least.  The vitality of towns and cities requires people … walking the streets, going into shops and interacting … not scurrying from car to shop to car to home.

In his new book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” UCLA’s Donald Shoup recounts the following tale of two cities:

Both San Francisco and Los Angeles opened new concert halls in recent years.  The one in LA included a $10 million, six-story parking garage for 2,100 cars.  In San Francisco, there was no parking built … saving the developers millions.  After each concert, the LA crowd heads for their cars and drives away.  But in San Francisco, patrons leave the hall, walk the streets and spend money in local restaurants, bars and bookstores.  Guess which city has benefited most from its new arts center?

Why are we slaves to zoning rules that assume all humans come with four tires rather than two legs?  Why do we waste precious land on often-empty parking spots instead of badly needed affordable housing?

Clearly, our transportation planners need to work much more closely with economic developers to rethink what it is that we really need in our cities and towns.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years.  He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Letter From Paris: Tragic Death of Christophe de Margerie, CEO of Total, Stuns France    

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

On the night of Monday, Oct. 20 , the visibility was poor at the Vnukovo  airport.  The control tower had given clearance to the Falcon private jet to take off.   A few seconds after leaving the ground, the pilot saw a snowplow on the runway but was unable to avoid it.  The landing gear caught the roof of the vehicle, flipped over and crashed a few yards away.  There was just one passenger on board – Christophe de Margerie, CEO of  the world’s fourth largest oil producer.

The late Christophe de Margerie.

The late Christophe de Margerie.

The news hit France like a bomb.   At Total’s headquarters in the district of La Defense employees were stunned.  The country reacted as if a chief of state had died.  Tributes poured in from everywhere.

Total has a capital ranking second in the CAC 40 (the ‘Cotation Assistée en Continu’ is a benchmark French stock market index) and employs more than 100,000 people in 130 countries.  It is hard to believe therefore why such a company – the jewel of  the French economy –  should have so many detractors in France.  The day after the accident, the conservative daily Le Figaro published an article entitled, “The man who wanted the French to make peace with Total”.   That man, Christophe de Margerie, was a charismatic  and jovial person, full of warmth, direct but tough .

De Margerie came from an aristocratic family that could be described as representative of, ‘vieille France.’  Family members occupied prominent positions in the world of high finance, diplomacy (his cousin was ambassador to the US) and the arts.  He was the grandson of Pierre Taittinger, the founder of a champagne empire.  Several of his relatives own and live in an elegant apartment building tucked away in a garden, behind massive walls and a monumental gate, right at the heart of the Faubourg St Germain.

He joined Total about 40 years ago and was named CEO in 2007.  In 1995, he became the head of Middle East Total, which explains his particular interest for that part of the world.  The Jubail giant refinery inaugurated in 2013  by Total and Saudi Arabia, is but one example.

The main criticisms against the company concern its huge benefits, which do not profit the French economy because the company pays practically no taxes in France.  The ‘marée noire’ (black tide) caused by the oil spill off the coast of Brittany in 1999 has not been forgotten.  In 2010,the decision to close the Dunkirk refinery and the associated firing of more than 1,000 workers outraged the opinion.  Finally, de Margerie’s policy of creating joint ventures with Russian companies Loukoi, Novatek or Gazprom and his rejection of the sanctions enforced by the West have isolated him.

De Margerie wanted to project a positive image and show his concern for the environment by encouraging renewable energy.  In recent years, signs of transformation of the company had been noticeable, particularly in the reduction and higher selectivity of investments.  The question now is whether de Margerie’s successors, Thierry Desmarets as chairman and Patrick Pouyanné as CEO, will bring changes to the company’s strategy or maintain the course.

Nicole Logan

Nicole Logan

About the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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“A Letter From Paris” is Back! Amidst Economic Depression, Two Nobel Prizes for France Lift the Communal Spirit    

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

We are delighted to welcome back Nicole Logan, who has returned to Paris for the winter from her summer home in Essex.  She writes our weekly, “Letter from Paris,” which gives a unique insight into France and the French.  Today she writes about the depressing state of the French economy and contrasts it to the tremendous excitement that winning two Nobel Prizes has brought to the country.

It is the time of year when financial laws are voted on and budgets submitted.  The 2015 budget represents a triple hurdle for France since the country is under scrutiny from the European Union (EU) Commission in Brussels headed now by Jean Claude Yuncker from Luxemburg; the Eurogroup (made up of the ministers of finances from the 18 members of the euro zone) and led by Jeroen Dijsselbloem from the Netherlands; and finally by the European Council, presided over by Herman Van Rompuy from Belgium.

Will France meet the criteria set in the 1992 Maestrich Treaty, namely an annual deficit of less than 3 percent and a public debt no more than 60 percent of that GDP?   It is most unlikely, since the latest figures stand at a 4.3 percent deficit.  François Hollande is criticized for not having used the two years respite, granted in 2013, to undertake structural reforms.  Instead, he has limited his action to carry out an austerity program by steadily increasing taxes on the most vulnerable individuals like retirees, wage earners or small entrepreneurs.

So to-day the French government is scrambling for ways to reduce its expenses by 21 billion Euros.  Three sudden measures have shocked public opinion:  closing of the Val de Grace hospital, an historical institution in Paris, the military base of Chalon, and the oldest air base of France in Dijon.  More savings are on the table but promise to provoke violent confrontation since they are all considered as untouchable taboos.

Given the fact France’s economy is the second of Europe, the widespread opinion is that it cannot be allowed to fail.  Imposing sanctions of 0.02 percent would make it even more impossible for the country to pull out of a recession with dire consequences for the rest of the continent.  Behind the scenes, the new French Minister of Economy Emmanuel Macron and his German counterpart are at work on the elaboration of a common investment policy.

Two Nobel prizes have just been awarded to French nationals. This unexpected news has definitely lifted the spirits here.

Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano received the prize for Literature, following in the footsteps of Camus, Sartre and Gide.  Several of his many novels take place during the German Occupation of France. One of them inspired Louis Malle for his outstanding 1974 film Lacombe Lucien.

The Nobel prize for Economics is particularly interesting because it rewards  not only an individual, but also an institution.  Jean Tirone, born in 1953 and a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique, holds a PhD from MIT.  In 2007, he founded  the Toulouse School of Economics (note that this name is in English), inspired  from an American model.  It is today one of the world’s 10 most important centers for economic research.

Tirone belongs to the school of economists using a rigorous scientific and mathematical approach.  His research is centered on the regulation of free market economy.  Tirone’s nomination follows the phenomenal success of Thomas Piketty ‘s ” Capital in the Twenty First Century” published in 2013.

Nicole Logan

Nicole Logan

About the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Talking Transportation: Five Terrible Ideas for Solving Traffic Congestion

The fall campaign has brought a welcome discussion of the state’s transportation woes, especially getting mass transit back into a state of good repair.  But gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley says he thinks the real issue isn’t the trains and buses but highway congestion.  Yet, he offers no solutions, saying only “we’ll figure it out.”  Really?

Tom, if there were easy answers, they’d have been implemented by now.  Look … this is really a matter of supply and demand: too much demand (highway traffic) and not enough supply (spaces on those roads).   I think the solution is in managing the demand.  But Foley says it’s a “supply side” issue.

So here are a few of the crazier ideas for fixing traffic that I hope he does not embrace:

  1. DOUBLE-DECK I-95: Seriously, this was once proposed.  Can you imagine the decades of construction and billions in cost, with “upper level” roads having to soar hundreds of feet over existing bridges.
  2. ALLOW TRUCKS ON THE MERRIT PARKWAY: There are two words to explain why this can’t happen:  low bridges.
  3. BAN TRUCKS FROM I-95: Trucks are high-occupancy vehicles delivering goods to the stores that you, in your single-occupancy vehicle, drive to so you can shop.  No trucks, no goods, no shopping.
  4. DRIVE IN THE EMERGENCY BREAK-DOWN LANE: This was Governor Rowland’s idea and he even wasted a million dollars studying it.  But if you think of that far right-hand lane instead as the “emergency rescue lane,” you’ll see why this doesn’t make sense.  This plan would also require re-striping traffic lanes to a narrower width, making driving more dangerous.
  5. WIDENING I-95 TO FOUR LANES: Again, billions in cost and decades of construction.  And if you build it, they will come.  Traffic will expand to fill available space.  Then what, a fifth lane?

I think there are better ideas for managing congestion, some of them already being implemented:

OPERATIONAL LANES:   Adding a fourth lane from on-ramps to off-ramps gives traffic a better chance of merging on and off the highway without blocking the through-lanes.

WIDENING CHOKE-POINTS: For example, the exit 14-15 mess in Norwalk.  But this one small construction project, discussed since 2002, has been under construction for four or five years and it’s still not done!

MANAGE DEMAND WITH TOLLS: Tolls are coming, as I’ve predicted before.  And with time-of-day pricing they’ll not only raise badly needed funds but also mitigate demand.  Those who absolutely must drive at peak hours will pay for the privilege and get a faster ride as those who can wait will defer their trip.  We have peak and off-peak fares on Metro-North, so why not on highways.

ADD A ZIPPER LANE: Sure, this may require highway widening, but just one lane that’s reversible depending on demand, a system that’s long been in effect on the Tappan Zee Bridge.

As I say, there are no simple solutions to highway congestion.  So when any candidate says he or she has one, be skeptical.  It’s easy to identify the problems.  But fixing them will always be expensive.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 23 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

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Nibbles: Super Squash Soup Warms The Heart

It was a bit of an iffy week, with some weather including rain, heat (mid-seventies in October!) and a pretty cold evening when I thought I might take the soft and comfy throws into the living for the cats and me.

Each of the days, while my friend Nancy was vacationing in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, I fed her feral cats. She had packed up eight enormous plastic bins of dry cat food and left me a quart-sized bottle for fresh water. Each early afternoon, I would change my shoes for sneakers and walk a path down a hill and into the woods, rife with poison ivy, to the little den she fashioned with one of those plastic igloos and a large green trash can set on its side to hold the food and water.

I am a city girl so for decades I thought poison ivy was a maple leaf (three points on a leaf) for three leaves, so I guess I am not allergic to the little devils though my husband knew exactly what they looked at and was very sensitive. On the other hand, I did get scraped by some twigs and wound up with a few infected sores which are fine, now.

Doug and I were never leaf-peepers. We grew up in upstate New York and together we lived in New England. We never thought it important to drive hours to Vermont or New Hampshire when we saw gorgeous colors up and down I-95 and in our own backyard. But my good friend Kirsten McKamy and her adorable partner, Charles, invited me to have lunch at his 1750 cape in Storrs, Conn.

It took about an hour from my condo on the shoreline to Storrs and I must say that the foliage was spectacular. His magnificently restored house sat in seven acres, at least two of which were mowed. The vivid green of the lawn, the enormous maples and oaks and the big pond across the road turned my quiet Sunday into quite a picture.

Even better was the food: an herb “cake,” squash soup and two desserts, Kirsten’s pear tart and my apple cake. I will serve that soup the next time I have friends for dinner. Then again, maybe sooner.

Roasted Kabocha Squash Soup with Pancetta and Sage

From Epicurious

Roasted kabocha squash soup with pancetta and sage

Roasted kabocha squash soup with pancetta and sage

Yield: 8 servings (about 11 cups)

1 4-pound kabocha squash, halved and seeded

1 cup vegetable oil

20 whole fresh sage leaves plus 1 and one-half teaspoon chopped fresh sage

One-quarter pound sliced pancetta, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

3 and one-half cups chicken broth

3 and one-half cups water

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Dollops of crème fraiche (optional)

Roast squash: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roast squash, cut sides down, in an oiled roasting pan in middle of oven until tender, about an hour. When cool enough to handle, scrape flesh from skin.

While the squash is roasting, heat vegetable oil in a deep small saucepan until it registered 365 degrees on a deep-felt thermometer. Fry sage leaves in 3 bathes until crisp, 3 to 5 seconds. Transfer leaves with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.

Cook pancetta and make soup: Cook pancetta in a 4-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring, until brown Transfer pancetta with slotted spoon to power towels to drain.

Add olive oil to pancetta fat remaining in pot, then cook onion, stirring, until softened. Stir in garlic and chopped sage and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add squash, broth and water and simmer 20 minutes to blend flavors.

Puree soup in batches in a blender, transferring to a bowl. (Use caution when blending hot liquids.) Return soup to pot and reheat. If necessary, thin to desired consistency with water. Stir in vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.

Serve sprinkled with pancetta and fried sage leaves. If you like, dollop spoonsful onto soup.

Cooks’ note: you can make soup 3 days in advance and chill, covered.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Old Ways’ by Robert Macfarlane

the_old_ways_robert_macfarlane_206x320What a refreshing and stimulating view of the practice of walking, “as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape; paths as offering not only means of traversing space, but also ways of feeling, being and knowing.”

First suggested by our schoolteacher son, Robert Macfarlane’s mesmerizing and lyrical stories of his walks along the English Downs, sailing and hiking in Scotland, plus other walks in Palestine, Spain and Tibet are a paean to movement, observation, thought and imagination.  As he says, “paths connect. This is their first duty and their chief reason for being.”  They then become a “labyrinth of victory,” of personal freedom. “Walking is a means of personal myth-making.”

I agree completely!

Walking, especially solo treks, can restore serenity and sanity, curiosity and calm.  Macfarlane’s words reminded me of my hiking England’s South Downs and its Way in 1978, during an autumn sabbatical in West Sussex, from Cocking and Graffham, where we were living for four months, around Bigham Hill and on to Arundel, where a pub and a pint rewarded my effort.  I also recall with fondness my many treks on the “public footpaths” of England, on the “wanderwegs” of Germany and the Appenzell of Switzerland, around Sydney Harbor in Australia, the Milford Track in New Zealand and, closer to home, in the Nehantic State Forest of Lyme, Conn.

And his words pulled back into memory Jonathan Raban’s ‘Coasting,’ his story of sailing counterclockwise around the British Isles, and Paul Theroux’s ‘A Kingdom By The Sea,’ his clockwise walk around England, both in 1982 (the two travelers met by chance in a pub on their respective journeys and had little to say to each other!)

Macfarlane’s remarkable memory and descriptions of his travels become almost Joycean at times.  Here is his sailing departure from Stornoway Harbor:

“ . . . hints of oil, hints of hooley.  Sounds of boatslip, reek of diesel. Broad Boy’s (the boat he travelled on) wake through the harbor – a tugged line through the fuel slicks on the water’s surface, our keel slurring petrol-rainbows.  Light quibbling on the swell . . . . Seals . . . their blubbery backs looking like the puffed-up anoraks of murder victims.”

Strangely, though, Macfarlane never mentions or quotes Baudelaire and his famous flaneur, another exponent of the joy of setting one foot in front of the other, without worry of time and course.

He concludes with a lovely Spanish palindrome: “La ruta nos aporto otro paso natural” (The path provides the next step.)  The “old ways” are indeed “rights of way and rites of way.”

Editor’s Note: Robert Macfarlane’s ‘The Old Ways’ is published by Penguin Books, New York 2012.

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Talking Transportation: No Blue Ribbons for Metro-North

The long awaited MTA “Blue Ribbon Panel” of experts has issued its report on Metro-North and its sister railroads, and it isn’t pretty.

Their 50 page report confirms much of what we already knew:  that the railroad placed too much emphasis on “on time performance” instead of safety … that there were serious repair issues unattended to for months … and that there has been an enormous “brain drain” of experienced railroad employees who have opted for retirement after 30 years.

All of those problems could have been prevented if MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast had been doing his job, which he wasn’t.  That is surprising, given his almost 40 years in the industry.  Remember, he was selected as Chairman by Governor Cuomo (just a month before the Bridgeport crash) after successfully turning around the NYC subway system.  And he had also spent years at the LIRR.

But the Blue Ribbon Panel was especially critical of Prendergast for running his three railroads (MNRR, LIRR, NY Subways) as silos, not communicating with each other on best practices.  If the NYC subways had a cool parts-inventory system, MNRR never knew about it.  The “safety culture” at the LIRR may have been great, but it was never shared with MNRR.

But the Panel says the problems were far deeper than just that:

TENSION:

The Panel said there is a “tension” between the railroad workers, who maintain the tracks and signals, and their colleagues, who run the trains over them.  The track workers aren’t given enough time to do their job.  To paraphrase Lincoln:  “A house (or railroad) divided cannot stand”.

TOOLS:

Compared to the LIRR and NYC subway, Metro-North is in the dark ages of technology.  Track inspection reports are still done on paper.  We don’t have state-of-the-art track inspection cars or autonomous bridge monitoring systems.  Much of the maintenance work is done manually instead of using machines.

TIDINESS:

The panel even suggests the railroad clean up all the scrap and debris along the tracks to prevent tripping hazards.

TOP-DOWN:

Did they have to suggest this: “Periodically have management walk with track inspectors to reinforce (the crucial nature of this work)”?

TIME:

The Panel suggests MTA re-open union contracts to do track and signal maintenance work overnight when there’s lots of time and fewer trains.  (Japan’s Shinkansen high speed rail has gone 50 years without a track fatality thanks to inspections of every mile of tracks every night).

TRANSPARENCY:

After years of denying there were any safety problems, the recent derailments and deaths have forced MNRR to face its neglect of safety.  The Panel also suggests increased “customer engagement” on this topic with town halls, media oppotunities and direct customer communications.

So, kudos to the Panel of industry experts and thank you for a year of hard work.  Now it’s up to the MTA and Metro-North to take the list of 29 recommendations to heart and make our trains on-time and safe.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 23 years. He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Simple, Real Food: The Flavors of Jamaica

I lived in Jamaica for a few months back in the early nineties having always had a fantasy about living Caribbean style.  I moved to Negril and opened a Jamaican restaurant at a yoga retreat in town.  It was a short-lived experiment due to Hurricane Gilbert, which wiped out the entire island and I returned to NYC to start over once again.

Lately the weather here has reminded me of the warm winters they have on the islands and memories of that delicious Jamaican food has had me cooking dishes such as jerk chicken, curried goat and coconut rice.  Great for entertaining, this satisfying spicy and soulful cuisine is perfect for outdoor living.

With several weeks left of wonderful weather hopefully, I hope you get to try some of these dishes.  In case you don’t have time for cooking, my favorite hole-in-the-wall spot for Jamaican food in the area is Patty Palace in Middletown.  It is a family-run business and has really good jerk chicken and curried goat.

Jerk Chicken

Serves 6

Ingredients

jerk-chicken
2 tsp. allspice
2 Tb. chopped thyme
1/2 tsp. cayenne
1 tsp. pepper
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 ½ tsp. salt
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 one inch piece ginger, chopped
½ tsp. cinnamon
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Juice of 3 limes
2 scotch bonnet peppers, chopped
6 scallions, chopped
4 pounds chicken thighs


Procedure

1. Combine the marinade ingredients in a processor and blend to form a paste. Make a number of shallow slits on the chicken and rub all over. Marinate for at least two hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

3. Heat the oven to 450. Place the chicken on two baking sheets and roast for 30 to 35 minutes rotating the pan once.*

5. Increase the oven to broil and broil the chicken for 2 to 3 minutes until golden. Or light a grill and grill until browned and crispy. Serve on a large platter with steamed coconut rice.

  • If you grill the chicken – grill for 40 to 50 minutes over low heat covered, turning occasionally.
  • You also skewer the chicken and then grill as an appetizer

Jamaican Style Curried Goat

Serves 10

Ingredients

Marinade:

3 pounds goat meat, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, leg of lamb can be used instead
1/2 cup white vinegar
5 scallions, coarsely chopped
Juice of 2 limes
1 to 2 scotch bonnet peppers, seeded, minced
1 tsp. allspice
1 Tb. black pepper
4 Tb. Madras curry powder
1 Tb. kosher salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 Tb. Madras curry powder
3 large cloves garlic, minced

Procedure

1. Combine the meat, vinegar, scallions, lime juice, peppers, allspice, pepper, 4 Tb. curry, and salt in a large bowl and marinate at least two hours or overnight.

2. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven and sauté the remaining 2 Tb. curry for 10 seconds. Add the garlic and cook another 20 seconds. Add the goat meat mixture and mix well. Cover and cook over medium low heat until the meat is tender about 2 hours. Add a little water or chicken broth if the pan is drying out. Taste and adjust seasoning and serve over rice.

Coconut Rice

Serves 8

Ingredients

2 Tb. vegetable oil
1 Tb. minced ginger
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups long grain white rice
1 can unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 tsp. salt
Fresh pepper
4 scallions, minced
1/3 cup sweetened coconut, toasted in a dry skillet until golden
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

Procedure

1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add the ginger and onions and cook over medium heat 4 minutes. Add rice and cook 2 minutes, stirring. Add the coconut milk, and water to equal 3 cups, salt and pepper. Increase the heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook about 10 minutes. Allow rice to sit, covered for about 5 minutes.

2. Fluff rice and garnish with scallions, coconut and cilantro before serving.

Amanda Cushman

Amanda Cushman

Editor’s Note: Amanda Cushman of Simple Real Food Inc., is a culinary educator who has cooked professionally for over 30 years.  She has taught corporate team building classes for over 15 years for a variety of Fortune 500 companies including Yahoo, Nike and Google.  She began her food career in the eighties and worked with Martha Stewart and Glorious Foods before becoming a recipe developer for Food and Wine magazine as well as Ladies Home Journal.  Having lived all over the United States including Boston, NYC, Miami and Los Angeles, she has recently returned to her home state of Connecticut where she continues to teach in private homes as well as write for local publications. 

Amanda teaches weekly classes at White Gate Farm and Homeworks and is also available for private classes.  Her cookbook; Simple Real Food can be ordered at Amazon as well as through her website www.amandacooks.com 

For more information, click here to visit her website.

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Talking Transportation: Why a Another Fare Hike Seems Inevitable

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but chances are we will see another fare hike on Metro-North in the coming months.

Not that any elected official would endorse such a plan (at least not before the November elections), but once again Connecticut is not totally in control of its financial destiny when it comes to our trains.

True, fare increases in Connecticut must be initiated by the state regardless of what New York does to its riders, but the financial numbers speak for themselves.

We are tied to New York’s operations by an antiquated contract going back 30 years. The cost of running “our” trains is born by both Connecticut and New York, and those costs are soaring from $70 million a year to $110 million thanks to remedial track work and expected contract settlements (with four years of retroactive pay hikes).

How will Connecticut make up this $40 million deficit? There are only three choices: raise fares, cut service or find that money elsewhere. The latter two choices are either undesirable or impossible, leaving the prospect (necessity?) of fare increases.

After a year of slower, unreliable and often-disrupted service, it’s hard to explain to commuters they should be paying more… especially in an election year. So when the rumored necessity of a fare hike was floated last week, Governor Malloy expressed outrage and bewilderment.

But our governor and his Department of Transportation (DOT) knew darn well this was coming. They’re the ones who pushed Metro-North for badly needed track work after derailments and deaths. Who did they think would pay for that? And one wonders… does Connecticut’s DOT ever audit Metro-North’s ever-increasing budgets and bills to our state?

Fares in Connecticut are already the highest in the US because our subsidy of those fares is the lowest. Upstate lawmakers who dominate our legislature loathe the idea of subsidizing fat-cat investment bankers’ trips to their high-paying jobs in New York City. But they have no trouble taxing their incomes, do they?

Fairfield County residents represent 26 percent of our state’s population but pay 40 percent of its taxes. Legislators made us subsidize Adriaen’s Landing ($770 million) in Hartford and the UConn football stadium ($90+ million), neither of which we are ever likely to use. So why can’t they keep residing in Fairfield County affordable by keeping Metro-North safe, on-time and affordable.

Since 2012 we’ve already had 12 percent fare hikes, thanks in part to Governor Malloy using rail fares to balance his budget (a move I called that more of a tax on commuters than anything else.)

The good news is that a fare increase in Connecticut requires 90 days notice and public hearings. And with the November elections just weeks away, no right-minded politician will pull that trigger.

Mind you, it was now-GOP nominee Tom Foley who recently told reporters he thought we in Connecticut spend too much subsidizing mass transit, so who knows? It should be an interesting campaign season and my hope is that Metro-North will be a much debated topic.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 23 years. He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Dear Cammy: Making Up is Hard to Do

Dear Cammy,

My friends and I got into a fight then we made up.  But now all they do is ignore me and tell me that I’m wrong.  I really need help.  What should I do?

Lonely and Alone


Dear Lonely and Alone,

I’m sorry to here that you’re friends and you got into a fight.  One thing that I do know from experience is that getting over a fight is never easy.  Looking over your situation, it looks like you still have some unresolved things in your case.  Try sitting down with them and talking to them about how you feel and let them know that you are upset at what they are saying.  Let them speak and hear their feelings and thoughts over this fight.

If all is resolved go out and make memories.  I figure memories are the quickest way to bring people together.

If things are not resolved, I think that it is time to think about a new group of friends.  If people are not treating you right and making you feel bad or uncomfortable, then those people are not your friends.  I hope this helps and best of luck!

Cammy

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Talking Transportation: To Vermont, By Train

The Vermont landscape always draws visitors.

The beautiful Vermont landscape always draws visitors.

Like many, I love Vermont.  But I’m not crazy about getting there.

From my home to Burlington VT is about 300 miles.  By car, that’s at least five hours and about $50 in gas each way.  Flying may seem quicker, but with the airport drive, it’s not much better and about $150 each way.  But there’s another alternative: Amtrak.

There are actually three trains a day that will take you to (or close to) Vermont:

THE VERMONTER:

Your best choice, this train runs daily from Washington DC to St Albans VT, coming through Stamford at about noontime each day.  It also stops in Bridgeport and New Haven before heading up the Connecticut River Valley to Vermont stops in Brattleboro, Windsor, Montpelier, Waterbury (Stowe) and Essex Junction (Burlington), to name but a few.

It’s not the fastest run (Stamford to Essex Junction is 8 hours), but it’s certainly beautiful and relaxing.  A frustrating reverse move at Palmer, Mass., will be eliminated this fall with new tracks, shaving an hour off the run.

The Amfleet seats in coach are comfy.  There’s also business class seating (for a premium).  The AmFood is tasty.  The crew is great … and there’s even free wifi.  Despite the many stops, the train hits 80 mph in many stretches on smooth, welded rails.

Remember:  Amtrak runs in any kind of weather, so if you’re thinking of skiing this winter when there’s a blizzard and its 20 below zero, the train will get you there when airports and highways are closed.

THE ETHAN ALLEN EXPRESS:

If you’re heading to Rutland, Vt., this is your train.  Originating at NY’s Penn Station mid-afternoon, this train bypasses Connecticut and shoots up the Hudson Valley, arriving in Rutland just before 9 p.m. with stops in Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and Castleton, Vt.  Best strategy here is to catch this train at Croton-Harmon (in Westchester County) where there’s plenty of paid parking available.  The hope is that the Ethan Allen may be extended from Rutland north to Burlington in the coming years.

Same kind of Amfleet cars, coach and business, AmCafé and free wifi.

THE ADIRONDACK:

This daily train from NY’s Penn Station to Montreal doesn’t go through Vermont, but it gets you close … if you don’t mind a ferry boat ride.  Leaving NYC at 8:15 a.m., you detrain at Port Kent, N.Y., on the western shore of Lake Champlain about 2:30 p.m., walk about 100 yards down to the dock and catch the ferry to downtown Burlington.

Same kind of seating, wifi, etc., but on this train you’re traveling with a much more international crowd of Quebecois.  Poutine anyone?

Thanks to state subsidies and increasing ridership, fares on all of these Amtrak are very affordable:  on The Vermonter, Stamford to Burlington (booked in advance) is just $55 one way ($47 for seniors and kids are half-price.)

So if you’re planning a vacation in The Green Mountain state, remember that getting there can be half the fun if you leave the driving to Amtrak … the “green” way to travel.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 23 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

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Simple, Real Food: Organic or Not, That is the Question

We all are aware of the issues about pesticide use, GMO’s and the whole idea of sustainable food production but with so much information, it’s overwhelming to figure out what is best for you and your family.

I for one, do organic produce, wild fish and organic poultry and here are the reasons why I think it is something to consider.

For one thing eating organic means you are ingesting fewer pesticides. A recent study out of the United Kingdom reported that organic produce boasted up to 40 percent higher levels of some nutrients (including vitamin C, zinc and iron) than its conventional counterparts. Additionally, a 2003 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that organically grown berries and corn contained 58 percent more polyphenols—antioxidants that help prevent cardiovascular disease—and up to 52 percent higher levels of vitamin C than those conventionally grown.

Recent research by that study’s lead author, Alyson Mitchell, Ph.D., an associate professor of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis, pinpoints a potential mechanism to explain why organic techniques may sometimes yield superior produce.

It’s a difference in soil fertility, says Mitchell: “With organic methods, the nitrogen present in composted soil is released slowly and therefore plants grow at a normal rate, with their nutrients in balance. Vegetables fertilized with conventional fertilizers grow very rapidly and allocate less energy to develop nutrients.” Buying conventional produce from local farmers also has benefits. Nutrient values in produce peak at prime ripeness, just after harvest. As a general rule, the less produce has to travel, the fresher and more nutrient-rich it remains.

We know that organic produce up to now at least is far more expensive and I hope there will come a time when there will be no other choice so the prices will come down but for now it may be unattainable for some to afford. If this is the case there is a list called the “dirty dozen”, these are fruits and vegetables that are heavily sprayed and most contaminated. If you can choose organic for these items you will be doing your health a favor;

Apples

Celery

Strawberries

Peaches

Spinach

Nectarines

Grapes

Sweet Bell Peppers

Potatoes

Blueberries

Lettuce

Kale

I also recommend eating wild fish especially salmon, which, in its farm-raised form, is high in contaminants, has double the saturated fat as wild and dyes added to make the flesh the orange color we are all used to. They are kept in tight quarters and fed soy to increase their weight and the nutritional value is far less. Wild salmon, although more expensive is worth the extra bucks, with more calcium, iron, potassium and half the calories.

Try these delicious recipes for your summer entertaining and remember to read labels and buy local.

Seared salmon with balsamic orange sauce

Seared salmon with balsamic orange sauce

Seared Salmon with Balsamic Orange Sauce

Serves 4

Ingredients

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

2 Tb. mirin

1 shallot, minced

1 Tb. orange zest

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 Tb. olive oil

4 wild salmon fillets, 5 oz. each, skin removed

1 Tb. chopped mint

1 Tb. chopped basil

1 Tb. chopped Italian parsley

Procedure

  1. Combine the juice, vinegar, mirin, shallot and zest in a small saucepan; bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook 5 minutes until reduced to about ½ a cup. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  2. Heat a large skillet over med-hi heat and add the olive oil. Sear the salmon for 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Turn and sear another 5 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter. Add the herbs to the sauce and pour the sauce over the fish. Serve warm with rice or mashed potatoes.

Kale Quinoa Patties

Serves 5

Ingredients

2 ½ cups cooked organic quinoa, cooled

3 large eggs. beaten

½ cup grated parmesan

½ cup scallions, minced

2 Tb. olive oil, plus more for sauteeing

4 cups organic kale, veins removed, chopped

1 tsp. sea salt

½ onion, finely diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

¾ cup bread crumbs

Procedure

  1. Combine the quinoa, eggs, cheese, scallions and salt in a medium bowl.
  2. Heat the 2 Tb. of the olive oil in a large skillet and sauté the onions and garlic for about 3 minutes. Add the kale and cook until soft and bight green. Transfer the kale mixture to the bowl with the quinoa and add the salt and breadcrumbs.
  3. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the skillet and heat the pan. Form the patties and add to the oil. Sauté until browned on each side about 10 minutes. Drain on a paper towel and serve.
Amanda Cushman

Amanda Cushman

Editor’s Note: Amanda Cushman of Simple Real Food Inc., is a culinary educator who has cooked professionally for over 30 years.  She has taught corporate team building classes for over 15 years for a variety of Fortune 500 companies including Yahoo, Nike and Google.  She began her food career in the eighties and worked with Martha Stewart and Glorious Foods before becoming a recipe developer for Food and Wine magazine as well as Ladies Home Journal.  Having lived all over the United States including Boston, NYC, Miami and Los Angeles, she has recently returned to her home state of Connecticut where she continues to teach in private homes as well as write for local publications. 

Amanda teaches weekly classes at White Gate Farm and Homeworks and is also available for private classes.  Her cookbook; Simple Real Food can be ordered at Amazon as well as through her website www.amandacooks.com 

For more information, click here to visit her website.

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“Talking Transportation: Is It Safe To Ride Metro-North?

logoIt has been seven months since a drowsy engineer drove a speeding Metro-North train off the tracks at Spuyten Duyvil, killing four and injuring 59.

Months earlier a derailment and collision near Bridgeport sent 70 to the hospital. Ever since, the railroad has promised that improving safety is its top priority.  So does that mean the railroad is now “safe”?

Aside from taking the word of management, how are we to know?  Just because we haven’t had another accident doesn’t mean the railroad is safe.  Nobody suspected it was unsafe until those two accidents last year showed us just how dangerous our daily commute had become.

In April this year The Commuter Action Group surveyed 642 commuters and asked them, “Do you feel safe riding Metro-North?” and 56% said yes, 15% said no and 29% said they “weren’t sure”. Neither am I, but I ride those trains regularly, hoping for the best.  And so far, so good.

I take the railroad at its word when it says safety is its top priority, but I have no way of telling it that’s true.  As Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” Waiting on a station platform, how can the average commuter look at the tracks, the overhead wires or signals and know that Metro-North is safe?  We can’t even see the engineers because they hide in their control booth behind jerry-rigged cardboard curtains ‘lest riders should watch them at work. Here’s what we do know.

The trains are running slower (on-time performance was only 79% in May).  And last week we also learned that an entire class of conductor trainees had been dismissed because they were caught cheating on a safety exam.  Good for the MTA for catching and disciplining them.  But the worry is whether this kind of cheating has been going on for years.

Reassuring?  The only way to be sure that Metro-North is safe is better federal oversight by the FRA, the Federal Railroad Administration.  That agency still hasn’t issued its final report on the May 2013 derailment… and only fined the railroad $5,000 following a Metro-North trainee’s mistake, which killed one of their own track foremen.

As US Senator Richard Blumenthal put it, “The watchdogs were asleep.  The FRA has been lax and sluggish.” That’s why commuters should be reassured that Senator Blumenthal will soon introduce a bill to give the FRA some real teeth:  increasing civil penalties for railroad mistakes, strengthening railroad oversight, mandating new safety gear, introduction of a fatigue management plan for personnel, requiring anonymous reporting systems for whistle-blowers, installation of cameras, alerters and redundant safety systems for track workers.

Further, the bill would also require stronger safety standards for crude oil rail-tankers, the “pipelines on wheels” carrying crude oil and petroleum products on US railroads. The only thing missing?  Mandatory transparency.  I’d hope that the FRA would be required to explain its oversight and reassure all railroad riders of their safety in a simple, understandable manner.

That would make me feel safe.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 23 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Nibbles: Chicken and Wine with Capers Perfect for Boules Bash

Inn-607x401When Linnea [Rufo – the owner of and executive chef at the Bee & Thistle in Old Lyme] and I talked about what she would make for her boules party, she thought about Lasagna Bolognese.  This can be made ahead of time and baked just before dinner time, usually around 7 pm.  A big salad (we usually have somewhere around 45 people for dinner), maybe Charlie van Over’s bread. I would do a bar dessert while Linnea would get ice cream and fruit.

A couple of weeks later, we talked again. I said I would make the Bolognese sauce and the salad, too, if she would like.  “No, I’m not doing lasagna. I’m going to do chicken in wine with capers.”  The Bee & Thistle doesn’t even have a walk-in freezer and here she is choosing chicken with wine and capers, and she wanted to play boules, too. I thought she was nuts.

It turns out she wasn’t crazy. She had done most of the work ahead of time and the final roasting would take place in a big, big oven (it is a restaurant, after all) along with roasted zucchini. Everything was delicious and I, who can’t find a word for how boring zucchini is to me, loved this zucchini. Here are her recipes:

Chicken and Wine with Capers

From Linnea Rufo, executive chef of Bee & Thistle inn

Yield: serves 6

6 very large skinless boneless chicken breasts

Flour, salt and pepper to taste, for dredging

2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup of a nice white wine

1 large chopped shallot

2 cups low-salt chicken stock

One-half cup fresh lemon juice

1 cup capers, rinsed

One-half cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Garnish:

3 large lemons, halved (optional)

Cut each chicken breast horizontally so each opens like a book.

Chicken with white wine and capers

Chicken and wine with capers

Heat oil in a large high-sided skillet or a small roasting pan. Dredge the chicken in the flour, salt and pepper mixture, shaking excess and sear chicken until brown on each side. Do this in batches so you don’t cook them to the point where they will steam. If you are serving later, cool chicken and wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until just before dinner.

Before ready to serve, in the same skillet with all the browned pieces, heat and deglaze with shallots and wine. Add stock and lemon juice. Place chicken pieces in the broth and roast until chicken is done. Add capers and cook another few minutes. Place chicken and sauce in a platter and sauce with the juice. Sprinkle with parsley.

Optional: If garnishing, place half lemons on a grill until brown and serve each on top of each chicken.

Roasted Zucchini

Also from Linnea Rufo

Here is a zucchini that is truly memorable. And easy to make. So if a neighbor rang your doorbell and ran away and you open the door and see 10 pounds of zucchini, call him and thank him.

Small zucchini

Fresh chives

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Wash and dry the zucchini. Cut the bottoms and tops off, cut them into thin strips and place in a large bowl. Mince the chives and add to the zucchini. Top with olive oil and salt and pepper, to taste. With your hands (or with a big spoon), toss together. Leave them to macerate on the counter for a few minutes or in an hour or so. Set the oven at 350 degrees. But the mixture in a baking sheet and roast for 15 to 20 minutes, tossing once or twice during the roasting. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

headshot_LeeAbout the author: Lee White (left) has been writing about restaurants and cooking since 1976 and has been extensively published in the Worcester (Mass.) Magazine, The Day, Norwich Bulletin, and Hartford Courant.  She currently writes Nibbles and a cooking column called A La Carte for LymeLine.com and the Shore Publishing newspapers, and Elan, a quarterly magazine, all of which are now owned by The Day. 

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Dear Cammy: Advice for a Picky Eater

Dear Cammy,

I am a very picky eater.  Whenever I go to my friend’s house, there are times that I do not like the food that is being served.  I don’t want to eat the food, but I also don’t want to be rude to their parents.  What should I do?

Miss Picky

 

Dear Miss Picky,

That is always an awkward situation.  You’re not alone on this, many people are picky eaters also.  If you can try a little piece, do so.  If not, decline in the most polite way possible.  Try coming up with an excuse such as, “No thanks, I had a big lunch.”  You don’t have to eat what is served, but always remember your manners.

Good luck,

Cammy

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