December 18, 2014

Reading Uncertainly: ‘Flash Boys’ by Michael Lewis

Flash_BoysWhat on earth is “the stock market?” It is something in which I have participated for almost 60 years, first as a most modest buyer of stocks, then through the investments of growing pension and profit-sharing funds, and finally, today, trying to stretch my dwindling IRA to cover our modest expenses as my wife and I enter our eightieth years. Throughout this time I’ve maintained a trust that the “market system” is reasonably fair.

Michael Lewis pops that balloon. In his mesmerizing story of high frequency trading on the world’s stock markets, but especially in the U. S., we learn that customers are “prey,” that “people are getting screwed because they can’t imagine a microsecond” (a millionth of a second), that “moral inertia” is the dominant trait, and that “ the entire history of Wall Street was the story of scandals.”

And yet, what the so-called high-speed traders were (and are) doing is “riskless, larcenous, and legal.”  The story seems to be the result of “human nature and the power of incentives,” plus the incredible complexity of today’s markets, a complexity whose outcomes are totally unpredictable — witness the recent series of “flash sales” in which markets drop precipitously and then recover, all within moments.

And how do the brokers, banks and traders respond, other than in their natural, self-admiring language?  They have learned the “art of torturing data” to try and persuade their customers they are entirely honest!  Lewis’s conclusion … “the stock market at bottom is rigged!”

But where on earth can we safely invest our funds?  My mattress is already stuffed!

Felix Kloman

Felix Kloman


About the author:
 Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer.  He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008).  A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history.  But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings.  His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Letter from Paris: Chinese Make Increasing Inroads into France

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

china-franceChinese president Xi Jiping , wearing oversize headphones, appeared on the cover of the French weekly Nouvel Obs on Dec. 4.  “Are they spying on us?” asked the magazine.

The same week, huge parabolic antennae showed up on the roof of an inconspicuous building four miles from Paris.

Some people found the picture rather amusing and did not take this disclosure too seriously.  But not everybody.  In fact, the way China is making inroads into the French economy is somewhat disturbing for many.

This week, the International Monetary Fund announced that China surpassed the US as the largest economy in the world.  The sheer size of this sub-continent, which represents over one fifth of the world population, is rather frightening for a small country like France.  The economic strategy of China starts with the creation of partnerships with foreign companies, then a growing participation in their capital, and finally their acquisition.  It is by absorbing the ideas, the know-how and the technology of older countries, that China was able to race to the number one slot.  French officials and heads of private companies facilitate China’s grand design.

Economic relationships between the two countries have existed for years, but what is new is its accelerating pace.  In 2007, China had no high-speed trains.  Then it turned to France (Alstom), Germany (Siemens) and Japan ( Shinkansen) to obtain the transfer of their technologies.  Today China has the longest fast train network in the world.

In 1992, Donfeng Motor Corporation and Peugeot-Citroen, the leading carmaker in France entered in a joint venture and started manufacturing cars in China.

In March 2014, China Donfeng became an equal share holder of Peugeot-Citroen, thereby bringing to an end the 200-year-old family dynasty.

France sold the idea of Club Med and the Shanghai-based Fosun company is currently fighting to win a bid for its acquisition.

For the French, it feels like selling the family jewels when they see their prestigious wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy, along with their chateaux, being bought by the Chinese.

But the most unsettling development so far just took place on Dec. 4.  Emmanuel Macron, Minister of the Economy, signed an agreement with a Chinese consortium granting it 49.99 percent of the capital of the Toulouse airport.

It is a disastrous business move by the French government.  Toulouse is the country’s fourth largest airport.  Extensive work has just been completed at a high cost.  The airport has been a money-making undertaking, so why sell it for a dismal 308 million – the price of one Airbus?

The answer is simple: France is under extraordinary pressure from Brussels to lower its deficit.  It needs money.

The new giant facility will handle 20 million passengers a year, multiplying by five the number of Chinese tourists visiting France, with direct flights to several Chinese provinces.  Anybody, who has ever been to the “pink city” (pink is the color of the stone) on the banks of the Garonne with its quaint historical districts, will feel shocked by this decision.

Besides, Toulouse is the European capital of aeronautics as well as an important center of nuclear and spatial research.  A large Chinese presence in the neighborhood understandably makes some people nervous.

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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Simple, Real Food: A Favorite New Year’s Eve Feast

Coconut shrimp and pineapple dipping sauce

Coconut shrimp with pineapple dipping sauce

The holidays are upon us and winter is now in full swing. Time for entertaining and planning what to make for New Year’s. I for one, do not love New Year’s Eve (does anyone over a certain age?) but my husband and I often make a gourmet meal and have a really good bottle of champagne (Veuve Clicquot, anyone?) and enjoy a quiet, cozy evening at home.

I have many entertaining menus up my sleeve and focus heavily on appetizers as they are so creative and fun to eat.

Here is a sample of one such menu that is sure to make your guests or maybe just your significant other happy.

This recipe can be cut in half as well as frozen, both the shrimp and the sauce freeze well.  If you  decide to make this ahead and freeze the shrimp, do not defrost, simply drop them into the hot oil.

Coconut Shrimp with Pineapple Dipping Sauce

Serves 12

Ingredients

1 cup flour

3/4 tsp. salt

1 tsp. cayenne

3 to 4 egg whites, lightly beaten

2 1/4 cups unsweetened coconut

1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, peeled, de-veined, butter-flied

2 cups vegetable oil, for frying

Dipping sauce:

1/4 cup canned pineapple, drained

1 scallion, white part only, thinly sliced

2 Tb. apricot preserves

1/4 cup cilantro leaves

1 Tb. lime juice

1/2 jalapeno, chopped

Salt

Procedure

1. Combine the flour, salt and cayenne on a flat baking sheet. Place the egg whites and coconut on two separate baking sheets. Dredge the shrimp in the flour mixture, then the whites, then in the coconut. Press the coconut onto the shrimp. Chill for at least an hour.

2. Heat the oven to 200. In a medium saucepan heat the oil until moderately hot but not smoking. Working in batches, fry the shrimp until golden about 2 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Transfer to a baking sheet and keep warm in the oven.

3. In a processor combine the pineapple, scallions, apricot preserves, cilantro, lime juice, jalapeno and salt to taste. Process until blended and taste, adjust seasoning.

4. Serve the shrimp on a platter with the sauce in a small serving dish.

 

Burrata on Crostini with Caramelized Shallots and Bacon

Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

¼ cup olive oil

1 cup thinly sliced shallots

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

1 Tb. brown sugar

1 baguette

12 slices applewood- smoked bacon

1½ pounds burrata, sliced into 12 slices

extra virgin olive oil

parsley, chiffonade

Fresh pepper

Procedure

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the shallots and sauté for about 5 minutes stirring often. Add the balsamic and brown sugar and simmer the shallots until the bottom of the pan is dry about 6 minutes. Set aside.
  2. Heat the oven to 400. Slice the bread into ¼ inch slices and place on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and rub with the garlic clove. Toast for about 8 to 10 minutes until golden.
  3. Cook the bacon on a rack on a baking sheet in the oven until down but not crisp about 15 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Cut in half.
  4. Place a slice of burrata on each crostini, then a piece of bacon and then a spoonful of the shallots. Drizzle with the extra virgin oil and then grind some pepper over each one before serving, garnish with parsley chiffonade.

 

Pan-Roasted Duck Breasts with Port Wine and Balsamic Glaze

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1/2 whole duck breast per person

Salt, pepper

2 shallots, diced

4 garlic cloves, minced

½ cup Tawny port

1 cup chicken stock

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

1 Tb. honey

Procedure

  1. Heat the oven to 450.
  2. Score the fat on the duck and season the meat side with salt and pepper. Heat a medium cast iron or stainless steel skillet over medium high heat. Sear the duck skin side down until golden brown about 5 minutes. Place the duck on a rack fat side up in a roasting pan and roast in the oven for 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and cover to keep warm. Reserve the fat from the roasting pan.
  3. Heat a medium skillet and add 2 Tb. of the duck fat to the pan. Sauté the shallots and garlic for about 3 minutes. Add the wine to the pan and de-glaze, reduce the port to half and add the stock, reduce to about 2/3 cup. Add the vinegar and honey and cook until thickened. Season with salt and pepper and taste for seasoning. Remove from the heat.
  4. Slice the duck breast and arrange on a plate pour the sauce over and serve.
  • Chicken breasts can be used in place of the duck.

 

Arugula, Endive Salad with Simple Vinaigrette

Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

1 bunch arugula, washed and spun dry

1 head endive, julienne

2 cups mixed greens

1 lemon, juiced or vinegar of your choice

1 Tb. Dijon mustard

3 Tb. chopped mint

1/3 to 1/2 cup virgin olive oil

Salt, pepper

Procedure

1. Combine the arugula, endive and greens in a large bowl and toss.

2. Combine the lemon, Dijon and mint in a small bowl and whisk add the oil slowly while whisking, season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Toss some of the dressing with the greens and reserve any leftover for another salad.

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: The Toughest Job in Transportation

Who do you think has the toughest job in transportation?  Airline pilots?  Long-haul truck drivers?  Metro-North conductors?    To my thinking, the toughest job is being an airport TSA agent.

Forget the recent furor over revised Transportation Security Administration rules soon to allow small knives in carry-on luggage.  The plastic knives the flight attendants distribute in snack-packs in-flight are already sharp enough to slit a throat.  By not worrying about every pen-knife and nail clipper, TSA agents should have more time to concentrate on truly lethal weapons.

A far bigger threat to aviation security is liquid explosives and non-metal knives.  Ceramic knives are undetectable on magnetometers, which is why the TSA brought in those full-body scanners we love so much.

But I think a bigger threat to aviation safety is the public’s anger at the TSA agents who are just doing their job.  After a thorough TSA screening at an airport last month I saw an angry passenger literally curse at the agent.  That passenger wasn’t pulled aside and given a retaliatory body cavity search. To her credit the agent kept her cool and didn’t even get into a verbal fight.  Could you be so thick-skinned?

It’s been 13 years since 9/11.  Have we forgotten what can happen when determined, armed terrorists take over a plane?  The TSA screens 1.8 million passengers a day.  If just one of those fliers got an undetected weapon onto a plane and blew it up, imagine the uproar.

Remember the holy triad of service:  fast, good and cheap.  You can achieve any two of those, but not all three.  Clearly, the top priority is “good” security.  So in this era of sequestration, we’re unlikely to see quality compromised for speed or lower cost.

If you want to fly, put up and shut up:  put up with the long lines while the agents do their jobs properly to keep you safe and keep your mouth shut.

What do all these TSA inspections do, aside from create long lines and frustrated fliers?  They turn up an amazing amount of weapons.  The TSA’s weekly blog makes for fascinating reading.

In one recent week alone the TSA intercepted 32 firearms, 27 of them loaded, and 10 stun guns.  There were clips of ammo, brass knuckles and (no surprise) sheer stupidity:  a passenger flying out of San Juan told the ticket agent that her bag contained a bomb and she was going to blow up the plane.  After an inspection by the TSA, her bag didn’t have a bomb.  But as a result of her threat, the ticket counter, checkpoint and terminal were closed for nearly an hour, inconveniencing thousands.  And there were, as the TSA blog put it, “consequences” for the flier.

Holiday travel is stressful enough without compounding things by arguing with those just trying to keep you safe.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

 

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of 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 UK and Europe: Divided, We Stand Together … for the Moment

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

France and the rest of Europe look at the United Kingdom with some envy: the UK is currently enjoying a three percent growth in its economy, unemployment as low as six percent, a paired down number of civil servants and the dynamism of the City as a world financial center.  No wonder young entrepreneurs and students are flocking to Britain from the continent.

This week the spotlight was on Prime Minister David Cameron.  On Nov. 28, he gave a resounding speech to an industrial audience in the West Midlands.  The main thrust of his message was to stress the inability of his country to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees and job seekers.  He announced that, if reelected in May 2015, he will renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU).  In the case of refusal, he would organize a referendum on “Brexit” (the colloquial expression for British exit).

To control immigration, his demands include the expulsion of  immigrants still jobless six months after their arrival in England and a four year waiting period for new immigrants before they can receive benefits, tax  credits or social housing .

David Cameron’s position in regards to the surge of immigration should not be singled out. An increasing flow of migrants is taking place around the world, from Australia  to America.  In Europe, the phenomenon is compounded because of several circumstances: sub- Sahara persons fleeing for political or economic reasons, refugees escaping the Middle East military conflicts and finally, the recent surge of migrants from Eastern to Western Europe (228,000 this year — the highest number ever registered.)

According to the “Schengen Zone Agreement”, Rumania and Bulgaria, which joined the European Union in 2007, had to wait until Jan. 1, 2014, to enjoy full rights to travel and apply for work within the Schengen space.  This explains the spectacular increase in the number of immigrants from those countries to England during the past nine months – increases respectively of 468 percent of Rumanians and 205 percent of Bulgarians.  Government corruption, hard to integrate “Romas” and a lagging economy in both those countries explain why other EU members are reluctant to open the flood gates too soon.  This week David Cameron sent a special message to the Polish Prime Minister, Ewa Kopacz, to reassure that his demands would not apply to job seekers from her country.

On Nov. 25, the Pope, speaking in the EU Parliament in Strasbourg,  admonished the Europeans for being too egoistic and urged them to coordinate their immigration policies.  The Mediterranean, he said, should not become a cemetery.  Stressing human dignity, the Pope puts immigration at the center of his message.  The choice of Lampeduza as his first trip out of Rome was symbolic.

David Cameron is under pressure from the Euro-skeptics  and the conservative UKIP (UK Independence Party).  It is clear he is ready to moderate his demands since he does not want to sever links with the EU.  The desire to negotiate is also strong on the other side of the English Channel.

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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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Average is Over’ by Tyler Cowan

Average_is_Over_by_Tyler_CowanTired of vapid novels featuring uninteresting characters that cannot manage in this complex world of ours? Then try Tyler Cowan’s, Average Is Over, (Dutton, New York 2013), which has the sub-title, Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, to give you a jolt of reality! I read it earlier this year.

Cowan gives us a fresh, both pessimistic and optimistic, view of our future, using frequent analogies to the game of chess in this engaging book. We appear to live in a current situation of diminished job opportunities with low wages for most and extremely high wages for the few.

As Cowan states, “It’s becoming increasingly clear that mechanized intelligence can solve a rapidly expanding repertoire of problems,” but at the cost of growing unemployment. And the larger question is “can mechanized intelligence” help us solve the problem of supporting our population of 7.2 billion, possible increasing to 10 billion by 2050? We already recognize the scarcity of “quality land and natural resources, intellectual property, or good ideas about what should be produced, and quality labor with unique skills.” But are we actually “overloaded with information,” stunting our ability to deal with the future?

Cowan writes a wide-ranging challenge to our futures, pointing out that, “Risk taking in humans . . . tends to bring out sweat and emotion.” It also stimulates both fear and hope, as those involved in risk management can confirm. Four of his chapters warrant serious attention.

Chapter 5, Our Freestyle Future, confirms the radical changes in the availability and quality of information. He notes the “most frequently consulted ‘doctor’ in the U.S. today is Google!” Cowan concludes that “human-computer teams are the best,” that “the person working the smart machine doesn’t have to be an expert in the task at hand,” and that “knowing one’s own limits is more important than it used to be.”

Chapter 6, Why Intuition Isn’t Helping You Get a Job, suggests we should “be skeptical of the elegant and intuitive theory,” and that “we should revel in messiness.” I particularly like that latter admonition, given the clutter in my own office. He also warns “the advances of genius machines (IBM’s Watson, for example – my comment) come in an uneven and staggered fashion.”

Chapter 9, The New Geography, confirms that “outsourcing” has always been a practice. It goes in all directions. And “immigration is vital to the future economic vitality of the United States.” After all, we are all foreigners … save for the few remaining native Americans. But can we, globally, manage increasingly free movement of our species?

Perhaps his most challenging chapter is 10, Relearning Education, in which he challenges almost all the current models. MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Courses) create an entirely “new world of competitive education, based on interaction with machine intelligence.” Cowan predicts the future of education will be underwritten by the following concepts: online education will be extremely cheap; it will be more flexible; there will be major profits from teaching innovations; and, finally, it will allow much more precise measurement of learning.”

Our “human instructors” will be “much more important for motivation, psychology, and teaching pacing” than in the past. They will become “a mix of exemplars and nags and missionaries.” With three of our children and their spouses involved in education, this chapter has special pertinence.

There is nothing, my friends, nothing quite so stimulating as a complete challenge to old convictions!

Felix Kloman

Felix Kloman

About the author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer.  He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008).  A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history.  But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings.
His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Letter from Paris: Gambling on Impressionism

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

One could describe the exhibit as intimate.  Only 80 paintings hang in the small rooms of the Musée du Luxembourg, some of them never seen before.  The style is familiar. the colors are soft, the scenes are peaceful — we are in the Impressionists’ world to meet old friends: Monet, Manet, Degas, Sisley, Pissarro, Eugene Boudin, Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt.

poster for Musee_de_luxembourg_ExhibitThe title of the exhibit is, “Paul Durand-Ruel. The Impressionist Gamble – Manet, Monet, Renoir,”  and it tells the endearing story of the first art dealer in history … and also one of the most influential.

The artwork is stunning: in “Le Pont à Villeneuve -la-Garenne,”  Sisley creates the fluidity of the water by using multicolor brush strokes and in Renoir’s dance scenes, 1883, couples twirl around happily, women’s eyes bright, their ruffled dresses contrasting with the dark suits of their older escorts.   “Liseuse” by Monet  shows a young woman sitting on the grass, enveloped by vegetation, spots of light dots her pink dress and in “Le Foyer de la Dance,” Degas’ dancers warm up, others are stretching, while, in the foreground, a little old lady, slouching in a chair is reading a newspaper.  Nearby another painting is identical, except for the empty chair — the little old lady is gone.

The story behind the artwork is equally fascinating.  Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) became an art dealer by accident.   Attracted to a military career, he entered Saint Cyr (equivalent of West Point) but  renounced for medical reasons.  He was struck by the paintings of Eugene Delacroix exhibited at the 1855  Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair). He became fascinated by the artists who were refused access to the official Salon of the Academy of Fine Arts because of their innovative techniques.

In 1871, Paul met Monet and Pissarro in London where they had taken refuge from the Franco-Prussian war.  After his return to Paris, he visited Manet in his studio, liked his work so much that he bought 23 of his paintings at one go.  The Luxembourg exhibit includes two of Manet ‘s major works:  “Clair de Lune at Boulogne” and “Le Combat du Kearsage et de l’Alabama”.

Left alone after the his wife’s death, he turned his art dealership into a family business with his five children.  He opened galleries in London, Brussels, New York and later, Berlin.

In 1874, a group of young artists – who were given, at that time, the collective term of ‘Impressionists’ – showed their work for the first time together in the studio of   photographer Nadar.

Durand-Ruel fought to help the artists, both morally and financially, and became their friend. He borrowed money to purchase their paintings. He offered his living room on Rue de Rome to a penniless Monet and lent him money to move to Giverny. Years later, when he was rich and famous, Monet wrote, “We would have starved to death without Paul. ”

In 1886, the American Art Association invited him to organize an exhibit in New York.  It was a success and became the first official recognition of the Impressionists.

One cannot help compare the story of such a life to the speculation around art today and to the giant art fairs (like Art Basel) when  intermediaries are commissioned by owners with deep pockets.

The exhibition at the Musée de Luxembourg continues through Feb. 8, 2015.

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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Letter from Paris: New European Union Commission Leadership Faces Rocky Road

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

On Nov. 1, following the mandate of Manual Barroso (2009-2014) from Portugal, the 12th Commission of the European Union (EU) moved into its headquarters at the Berlaymont  in Brussels.

The selection process of the Commission – the key institution of the EU and a formidable machine employing 25,000 persons – has greatly changed since its beginnings in 1951.  The mandate was shortened from nine years to five ;  whereas the president of the Commission used to be designated by the Council of Ministers (equivalent to the present European Council), he (or she) )  is now elected by the Parliament.  A major turn in the composition of the Commission took place in 2004 with the addition of 10 new members from Central and Eastern Europe.  The present rule assigning one commissioner per country creates an odd situation: Malta, with a population of 400,000, has the same representation as Germany with a population of 82 millions.

Jean-Claude Juncker from Luxemburg, a member of the European People’s Party, was elected by the Parliament with 422 votes out of 751 as the new president of the Commission.  Angela Merkel strongly supported him.  Linguistically and culturally he stands half way between France and Germany – a real asset for the most important official of the EU.

Upon his return from the G20 summit meeting in Brisbane, Australia, in mid November, Juncker had to face the “Luxleaks” crisis exposed by the press.  Forty international newspapers, including Le Monde, the Guardian and the Suddentsche Zeitung, investigated the tax breaks granted by Luxemburg to 340 multinationals, like Google, Apple or Amazon.  Yuncker’s critics said that, while he was serving as prime minister and minister of finances, Luxemburg became the leading tax haven of Europe.  To put an end to these practices, the “rulings” – holding companies and other devices used for tax “optimization” – were suspended.  As the new president of the Commission, Yuncker reaffirmed his commitment to fight tax evasion.

The post of commissioner of economy and budget was given to Pierre Moscovici, the former French minister of economy. The choice seems ironic since France almost flunked the rule imposed by the Pact of Stability and Growth requiring a deficit of 3 percent of the GDP (France’s deficit has reached 4.4 percent)

The new High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs is Federica Mogherini , 41,  a diplomat with an impressive record.  Her intention to improve relations with Russia was not appreciated by some of the Eastern European countries.

Tibor Navracsics, a former minister with the ultra conservative Hungarian government was to become commissioner of culture, but his nomination was voted down by the Parliament.

It is a tumultuous time for the new team of the EU.  In the guidelines he presented to the plenary session of the Parliament in July 2014, Jean-Claude Yuncker set his priorities as follows: a plan of public and private investment of 300 billion over three years to stimulate the economy, harmonizing budgetary policies of the member states and coping with the explosive surge of refugees.

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: 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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Reading Uncertainly? The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Narrow Road to the Deep NorthRichard Flanagan, an Australian writer born in Tasmania, whose father survived labor for the Japanese in the Second World War, has written a compelling, mesmerizing and thoroughly memorable novel of that period.  And it is the 2014 Man Booker Prize winner!

The Aussies in the story are led by Dorrigo Evans while his physician officer tries to save his troops from starvation, disease and beatings as they attempt to build a rail line for the Japanese through the jungle from Siam to Burma.  They are controlled by a few Japanese, consumed with love for their country, their emperor and for the poet Matsuo Basho, whose most famous work is the title for the book.

You will remember the names: Darky Gardner, Rabbitt Hendricks, Rooster MacNeice, Wat Cooney, Gallipoli von Kessler, Jimmy Bigelow and their captors,  Colonel Shira Kota, Major Tenji Nakamura, Lieutenant Fukihara and The Goanna, Corporal Aki Tomokawa.  Flanagan follows many of them, plus Evans, in shifts of perspectives and time, from present to past, with uncanny ability to maintain our interest and understanding.  But did any of them really understand what they experienced?

It is a story of obedience and disobedience. The Aussies (and many of us from the West) are intuitively and culturally critical of authority: when an order is issued, their (our) first instinct is to ask “Why?”  The Japanese, and many Eastern cultures, in contrast, are taught to revere “authority.”  Their reply to an order is an immediate “Yes!”  Flanagan explores this natural friction, one that seems to continue even after the war.

Dorrigo Evans’ inability to connect with family and friends after the war is explained with these words:

“It did not fit within the new age of conformity that was coming in all things, even emotions, and it baffled him how some people now touched each other excessively and talked about their problems as though naming life in some ways described its mysteries or denied its chaos. He felt the withering of something, the way risk was increasingly evaluated and, as much as possible, eliminated, replaced with a bland new world where the viewing of food preparation would be felt more moving than the reading of poetry; more excitement would come from paying for a soup made out of foraged grass.”

Evans goes on: “Adversity brings out the best in us  . . .  It’s everyday living that does us in.”  And he gives us the perfect conclusion to this novel: “A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book.  A great book compels you to reread your soul.”  The Narrow Road to the Deep North comes close to “the elegant mystery of poetry.”

And it is the poetry, the haiku, of Matsuo Basho that intrigues both Evans and his Japanese captors.  So that inevitably led me to his The Narrow Road to the Deep North (in Japanese: oku no hoso-michi) his story of a 1689 walk from Edo (now Tokyo) north along the east coast of Japan, then northwest through the mountains, and finally southwest by the Japan Sea.  In it are some of the poet’s most memorable haiku. Consider these:

Furuike ya  Old pond

Kawisu tobikomu  Frog jumps in

Mizu no oto  Sound of water

Flanagan incorporates Basho with a line late in his novel: “ . . .  the fish fell into the sound of water.”

Natsugusa ya  Summer grasses

Tsuwamono  domo ga  All  that remains

Yume no ito  Of mighty warriors’ dreams

And Flanagan’s final sentence: “Of imperial dreams and dead men , all that remained was long grass.”  I suspect I may well have missed other allusions to the poet’s famous haiku.

And for a more recent view of Basho’s walk, try Lesley Downer’s story of retracing his steps in the early 1980s.

A novel to read, reread and think on.  Rightio, mates!

Editor’s Notes: Book details are as follows:
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2014
Matsuo Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, Penguin Classics, Baltimore 1966
Lesley Downer, On the Narrow Road, Summit Books, New York 1989

Felix Kloman

Felix Kloman

About the author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer.  He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008).  A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history.  But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings.
His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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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.

Felix Kloman

Felix Kloman

About the author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer.  He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008).  A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history.  But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings.
His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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